Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Y'all look alike to me

Will Smith has claimed that an older couple mistook him for Barack Obama. I'm not kidding. I hope that he was. I suspect most Americans would agree that the two men look nothing like each other. Then again, the article makes a noble effort to find a photo pair that highlights their similarities:

Though an isolated incident, this kind of story always feeds the common perception that a substantial amount of white people think all black guys look the same--or, in this case, all black guys with ears that stick out.

The popular explanation is that people are more sensitive to differences within their own race. I'm not so sure. I think it has to do with exposure. The more you're around people of another race, the better you are at noticing the features that distinguish individuals.

Maurice Berger's book White Lies contains an essay by African American artist Renee Cox, who complains that white people often mistake her for Whoopi Goldberg, even though their only common feature is their braids. According to Cox, "I wouldn't be running down the street screaming...'Oh, that's Marilyn Monroe,' just because she's a blonde." Maybe not, but somebody recently wrote a letter to Parade Magazine claiming that Jenny McCarthy and Chelsea Handler "look like twins." Parade showed the following picture to compare:

I don't know about you, but judging from this photo I don't think the two women look even remotely alike. I guess some people think all white girls look the same.

The fact is that many people are just plain rotten at telling people of any race apart. The average person, when asked to describe someone, will usually talk in the broadest, most general terms. "She's a blonde." "He's tall, dark, and handsome." "She's got a big nose." My father was once talking to a friend at an Orthodox Jewish wedding and asked him to describe someone he'd seen. The friend said, without a trace of irony, "He's the guy with the beard and the dark suit."

I, a white guy, have had plenty of experiences where other whites have confused me for someone else. Whites may make these kinds of mistakes more often with blacks than with other whites, but it's a matter of degree. We needn't jump to the conclusion that it's always due to race.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A virtue worth defending

Previously, I mentioned James Carville's notorious "Judas" remark. ("Mr. Richardson's endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic.") A commenter named Jimmy got on my case for dismissing the remark, and I would like to clarify my views. I first thought Carville's remark deserved only ridicule, but now I believe it's a good starting point for a larger discussion.

I've never heard anyone defend Carville's remark before. Other members of the Clinton team backed away from it, probably figuring that for a campaign that has presented its candidate as the experienced Washington insider and policy wonk, fire-and-brimstone imagery might give the wrong impression. Obama supporters were predictably unimpressed, and as for Republicans...well, they could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle from afar, content at the comparatively dignified fight happening on the Republican side, like Huckabee seeming to insinuate that Romney was a shade away from Devil worshipper.

Carville, however, wrote an entire op-ed defending his remark, and the column must set some kind of record for its utter absence of anything remotely resembling a logical argument. He went on and on about the importance of loyalty, but he didn't bother to define the concept, nor did he explain why calling the wife of your former boss the second-best candidate in the race is a prime example of disloyalty, much less why it merits comparison to a Biblical villain. His column could be summed up in two short sentences: "It's an old-politics thing. You wouldn't understand."

As it stands, Carville's definition of "loyalty" is as vague and slippery as Bush's definition of "the enemy." Just because you worked for a president doesn't chain you to him for life. And what's even more ridiculous is the idea you're also chained to his wife. That's what was so unsettling about Carville's logic: it reinforced many people's uneasy feeling that Bill Clinton was seeking a third term.

Judas's real crime wasn't disloyalty; it was aiding and abetting murder. I struggle to understand how that applies to the current election. "Murdering" a candidacy--which Richardson's endorsement was far too late to do--isn't a crime but a civic duty, one we practice every time we go to the polls. Of course, the term "murder" is absurd in this context. Hillary didn't have a "right" to the nomination the way people have a right to life. No candidate does. Being nominated isn't a right but a privilege. What is a right, and an absolute one at that, is the right of all citizens in a democracy to choose any candidate they please. The notion that anyone "owes" anyone a vote or an endorsement is fundamentally undemocratic.

I can predict one possible response. "Get real. Richardson wasn't honestly expressing his preferences. He was kissing up to the Obama team, perhaps anticipating a vp slot or some cabinet position." I would disagree, but I'm not interested in debating the point, which would be impossible to prove one way or the other. What's clear is that Carville implied that Richardson's preferences were irrelevant. Hillary could be the most dreadful candidate imaginable and Richardson would still be obligated to endorse her (or to endorse no one), according to Carville's way of looking at things.

Of course, if we accept that logic, how can we be sure even Carville likes the Clintons? Maybe he secretly despises them but feels obligated to continue supporting them. That's what happens from this brand of "loyalty": you can no longer tell who your real friends are. How ironic.

Loyalty has never been an absolute virtue that trumps all else. (Compare, for example, the loyalty of the Nazis who claimed to be just following orders, with the disloyalty of the Founders who waged war against the country that nurtured them.) The loyalty that deserves our admiration is the kind tempered by honesty and integrity. A friend who never criticizes you, who never says what he thinks of you, who just blindly follows you wherever you go, is no friend at all.

A lot of people who were once big supporters of Bill Clinton now believe that Obama is the best candidate to bring America forward. These people haven't necessarily changed their minds about the Clintons; they have simply moved on, as our nation must always do. Carville is entitled to disagree. We can respect his beliefs without calling him names--and that, not his twisted understanding of "loyalty," is a virtue worth defending.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Musical rorschach

One of the paradoxes of contemporary popular music is that lyrics are both necessary and irrelevant. I can't remember the last time an instrumental piece made the charts, and yet most listeners pay little attention to a song's lyrics. It's no wonder that when they do, they usually get it wrong. I'm not talking about "mondegreens" or misheard lyrics--a fun topic in itself. I'm talking about misunderstanding a song's message.

Somebody on a lyrics discussion page suggested that Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was about Freddie Mercury contracting AIDS. The person seemed unaware that the song came out in 1975, long before anyone knew what AIDS was. I suspect the person first heard the song through Wayne's World in 1992 and assumed it was brand-new. Another person suggested the song was about Mercury's bisexuality. That interpretation is harder to disprove, but it still doesn't fit.

Why assume this mock opera is autobiographical? The opening lines could hardly be clearer: "Mama, I just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead." The song is about a man who killed someone and is pleading for mercy. I guess some people are just so attuned to interpreting songs metaphorically they don't even consider the plain meaning.

One thing I've noticed on these lyrics sites is that for every song, there is at least one person who thinks it's about drugs. And why not? If people can interpret an innocent children's ditty like "Puff the Magic Dragon" as a pothead anthem, they can do it with any song. On the other hand, I found people denying that Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is about smoking pot. (That's the one where he sings, "Everybody must get stoned." If you think he means death by stoning, you're on crack.)

Some interpretations are so obviously wrong you wonder if the people who came up with them were paying the slightest attention. One example that comes to mind concerns one of Nirvana's strangest songs, "Rape Me." According to (where all the information is user-submitted), "Kurt Cobain wanted to make a strong statement in support of women and against violence toward them.... A guy rapes a girl. He ends up in jail and is raped there."

I've seen this explanation going around the Internet for years, even though it doesn't make the least bit of sense. While I'm not sure what the song is about, the lyrics make no mention of women or jails or really any context to the "rape" being described. Frankly, I don't think the song is even about rape. It sounds more like some kind of sadomasochistic desire, assuming it's to be taken literally at all.

Curiously enough, there is a song from around the same period that is clearly about a man who rapes a woman then ends up getting raped in prison. The song, Sublime's "Date Rape," uses straightforward storytelling, leaving no doubt what's happening. Maybe somebody mixed the two songs up.

I have heard people claim that Cobain himself gave the rape-as-poetic-justice explanation for his own song, but that could be an urban legend on par with the one about Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." The latter has many variations, but the commonest is that Collins was singing about a brother who drowned. Rolling Stone has listed this belief as one of the top 25 urban legends of rock music, alongside "Paul is dead" and "Mama Cass died eating a ham sandwich." It's so widespread it even made its way into Eminem's song "Stan."

According to Collins, who had no brother who drowned, the song expressed his feelings after a divorce. The source of the urban legend is the line, "If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand." The funny thing is, even if you ignore the rest of the lyrics, that line doesn't sound like it's talking about literal drowning. I'm amazed how many people accepted the false interpretation when the evidence against it was staring them in the face.

In some cases, the feel of the music can mislead. That may help explain why so many people incorrectly thought "Born in the USA" was a patriotic anthem rather than a bitter criticism of our country. The song has such an upbeat, energetic groove it's easy to gloss over what the verses are saying. But really, what did people think Springsteen meant with lines like "Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man"? Did anyone seriously believe he was celebrating the slaughter of Asian people?

I often suspect that a large portion of the public is unable to understand irony. I was shocked when I learned that Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" was widely perceived as anti-Catholic. Sure, the song's narrator, a young man trying to seduce a nice Catholic girl, complains about her religion's restrictions. But I never assumed that Joel himself was endorsing that attitude. Part of the song's humor stems from the narrator's failure to veil his true intentions, which we realize are cruder than he wants to reveal. It is a song about sexual frustration, not a critique of Catholicism or any other religion.

Still, I can understand why listeners tend to assume that a song speaks in the songwriter's voice. That is the standard convention in popular music. Making a distinction between the songwriter and the narrator isn't always convincing.

Take the controversial 1992 record "Cop Killer." In a widely circulated essay, the sociologists Mark Hamm and Jeff Ferrell defended the song by asking why no one ever complained about the Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit "I Shot the Sheriff." Well, I would think the answer should be obvious to anyone who knows the difference between swearing you acted in self-defense and boasting about committing premeditated murder. Nevertheless, defenders of "Cop Killer" argue that if you think the song is advocating what the narrator is boasting about, you simply don't get it. My response is, guilty as charged.

I've observed that many people who fall back on the "irony" defense don't understand what the word means. You can't even depend on Alanis Morrissette, who thinks irony is what happens when it rains on your wedding day. (As the comedian Ed Byrne put it, that would be ironic only if you were marrying a weatherman and he set the wedding date.) If a songwriter as gifted as Morrissette can't get the concept straight, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I'll tell you what's ironic. When people think a song is about drugs, it isn't, and when they don't think it's about drugs, it is. When people interpret a song metaphorically, it is literal, and when they interpret it literally, it is ironic, and when a song is titled "Ironic," it is anything but.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The pursuit of weird happiness

It seems like in every discussion about gay rights, opponents raise the specter of sex with youngsters, siblings, sheep, goats, dogs, corpses, and just about every other forbidden--and sometimes not-so-forbidden--union. As Justice Scalia wrote in his dissenting opinion to Lawrence v. Texas, "State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise...called into question by today's decision." Imagine that: if we're soft on homosexuality, next thing you know they'll be allowing masturbation.

Commentators usually call this type of reasoning a slippery slope, but it is more of a reductio ad absurdum. The difference is subtle but important. With a slippery slope, you're opposing a policy on the grounds that it will lead to worse policies--regardless of logical connection. With reductio ad absurdum, you're attempting to expose the flaw in an argument by showing that its logic leads in unacceptable directions. The classic example is the cliché response to peer pressure: "If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?"

People often use reductio ad absurdum to hide the weaknesses of their own arguments. It's pretty easy, with the help of a little self-delusion, to shut your mind to nuanced distinctions. Then all you have to do is tell your opponent, "If you hold X, you might as well hold Y." While he's busy explaining why he doesn't hold Y, he doesn't notice that you've shifted the discussion away from X.

Over at DovBear's blog, I recently had a debate with a fellow who calls himself Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka. He reiterated an argument he made two years ago in which he suggested that the philosophy of consent underlying gay rights could be used to justify sex between men and cows. His point was that we never demand consent from cows for anything else we do to them. If we can turn them into burgers without their consent, why shouldn't we be allowed to have sex with them?

LWY fails to understand that consent has a particular significance with regard to sex acts, which doesn't apply to other types of acts. By their nature, unwanted sexual experiences are highly traumatic. The notion that there's something inconsistent about opposing cruelty to animals while condoning slaughter of animals is an argument I would expect from a PETA member, not a Bible-believing Jew.

I'm astounded by LWY's suggestion that the law against raping a cow is entirely for the human's benefit, not the cow's. (It brings to mind Lord Macaulay's statement, "The Puritan hated bearbaiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.") This certainly is not the common view in our legal system, where bestiality is typically classed under "animal abuse." While that may differ in some ways from the traditional perspective, that just goes to show that our society has over time shown an increasing concern for the treatment of animals, even if it is still far from perfect.

Notice how far this discussion has drifted from its original topic. In that whole time, LWY didn't offer even one justification for his position on gay rights. All he did was make an egregiously poor analogy, but because it concerned treatment of animals, an area of public policy that is controversial and by no means perfectly consistent, he was able to keep the discussion pointed away from himself.

I've repeatedly encountered this sort of evasive attitude from critics of gay rights. Instead of explaining their own point of view, they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to catch defenders in an inconsistency regarding other sexual deviances. What's especially surprising is that they tend to jump on the least relevant examples, where there is clearly a victim.

Ironically, LWY dismissed the importance of incest, a much better example to create the sort of reductio ad absurdum he was trying to establish. Let's say an adult brother and sister become lovers. Let's say they're not going to have kids: they use birth control, or one of them is infertile, or the woman is past menopause. Their affair would still be illegal in most places. Yet it is a purely victimless act between consenting adults, and so, by the standard argument in support of gay rights, it should be allowed.

What would happen if we did allow it? We might then have to make provisions to ensure that incestuous lovers never have children. Further, we would have to deal with the competing argument that they have a right to have kids, even ones who will likely have genetic defects. And I haven't even mentioned the marriage issue. This is all a big can of worms to open up in the name of consistency (according to Wikipedia, this form of incest is extremely rare), but it is something our society might have to face, if we are to remain committed to the principle that people have the right to pursue their own happiness as long as it doesn't hurt others.

Some gay rights activists, of course, would object to this example on the grounds that incest is "sick" and "disgusting." That's what critics of gay rights want the defenders to concede, that there are certain acts that just fall outside the bounds of civilized behavior, even if they seem to harm no one. But it's unlikely that this example will persuade anyone to abandon a belief in gay rights. This reductio ad absurdum at best reveals an inconsistency in the views of some advocates, but it doesn't come close to dismantling the philosophy behind gay rights.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and yours is wrong

In the season finale of Boston Legal, a show I've never seen before, a judge files a motion to have the town of Concord, Massachusetts secede from the Union. Alan Shore (James Spader) argues for the defense. Denny Crane (William Shatner) takes the opposing side. Their arguments get so heated (at one point Alan tells Denny to "just shut up") it threatens their friendship.

The case centers on questions we've all encountered over the past several years. Has Bush put our country on a road to tyranny unlike any previous president? Do we face a uniquely dangerous enemy that justifies Bush's actions? Is attacking the president wise in a time of war? Can dissent be patriotic?

Denny privately tells Alan why the case bothers him so much. His explanation is so heartfelt we realize their differences go beyond mere politics. Whereas Alan views the case as an intellectual exercise, for Denny it runs much deeper.
Denny: Something I thought you understood but you clearly don't understand: for people of my generation, being an American is personal.

Alan: I realize....

Denny: No, you don't. You don't. In your life, growing up, you just took for granted that America would always be. Why not? It's a superpower, strongest country in the world. In my lifetime, with Hitler trying to take over the world and having the means to do so, we went to bed scared at night that America would end. Imagine that feeling. The tragedy for me here is, you have no idea how deeply offended I am by the idea of a town wanting to secede...which means you don't know me, Alan. Not really. Our friendship has all the depth of a jigger of scotch.
I wondered why the show wanted to explore how two people of very different political persuasions navigate a friendship with each other. Some in the audience will relate to the situation, others will marvel that the feat is even possible. I'm sure there are Americans who go through life without ever having a close relationship with someone with a different political outlook. How frequent this is, I don't know. It sure doesn't describe me, a lifelong liberal from a conservative community, Orthodox Jews.

I think that political diversity among friends is healthy. It helps prevent people from dehumanizing the other side. Let's say your friend seems like the most decent and reasonable guy you know until he starts talking about politics, and suddenly he sounds to you like an ogre with asinine ideas. You may never come to respect his opinions, but at least you realize that a person you respect can hold them.

Political differences mean a lot to some people. Sean Hannity actually runs a dating site for conservatives. I can't judge that choice--after all, some people cannot understand my decision to date only Jews--but it still seems odd to me.

One couple who'd agree is James Carville and Mary Matalin, who not only belong to different parties but have worked for opposing candidates. They claim not to talk politics at home, though sometimes you wonder at his motivations. When Bill Richardson, a former member of the Clinton Administration, endorsed Obama instead of Hillary, Carville said, "Mr. Richardson's endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic." Carville subsequently wrote an entire op-ed piece defending this idiotic remark, but nowhere in the column did he explain what we all wanted to know: if Richardson is Judas, then who's Christ? Bill or Hillary? Or is that Billary? I must have missed the rule which states that political loyalty must be extended to the person's spouse--unless, of course, your name is Carville.

The last person you'd think of as a poster child for inter-political romance, Ann Coulter, has had a series of them. You begin to wonder about her statement that liberals have "joyless sex." Either she's no selfish hedonist, or we've been right in suspecting that her venomous persona is some kind of act, though if so, I have no idea what it means. Ask her suitors.

I have little patience for villain-style politics because I see most issues as complex. I didn't always feel that way. As a kid, I perceived my own views as nothing more than common sense. But I gradually discovered that views I considered indefensible turned out to be quite defensible once I listened to the other side. This happened to me over and over again. That's why I'm amazed at the number of people who maintain a black-and-white outlook into their old age.

Not that I'm a moderate. I opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and I'm annoyed by politicians from both parties who started criticizing the war only after it became fashionable to do so. At the same time, I understand why good and reasonable people were led to support it. The decision to take out Saddam is not something I can just dismiss as evil, no matter how unjustified I believe it was.

On the other hand, I may be guilty of over-intellectualizing. I don't have loved ones stationed in Iraq. I haven't been personally screwed by Bush's policies. Thus, it's a bit too easy for me to think of the debates as an intellectual exercise rather than something serious that impacts lives.