Monday, December 27, 2010


When it comes to same-sex marriage, President Obama is almost as transparently cynical as Mitt Romney is on most other issues. Recently he admitted that his feelings on the topic were "evolving." If so, they are evolving toward the point where he started. Back in 1996, when Obama was running for the Illinois state senate, he affirmed in a questionnaire, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

The New Republic has provided a helpful timeline chronicling his gradual move away from this position. He eventually embraced "civil unions," the term for policies that grant gay couples at least some of the benefits that married couples receive without calling the unions "marriages." Explaining his stance in 2004, he framed it as a strategic choice: "What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed.... I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name." But in 2008 he stated, "I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage," though he opposed the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage, calling it "unnecessary."

I find it hard to believe he was for gay marriage in '96 and later sincerely changed his mind. That might happen to someone who underwent a religious conversion and became more socially conservative. But Obama's conversion happened in the '80s, and it involved the UCC, one of the more gay-friendly denominations of American Christianity. (The UCC officially endorsed gay marriage in 2005.) The likelier explanation is that he calculated that his original position would hamper his political ambitions.

I'm not sure he was wrong. Up to now, no serious presidential contender has openly supported gay marriage, not even the supposedly progressive Howard Dean. In the 2008 election, Obama was already fighting claims that he was outside the mainstream. Open support could have easily sunk his candidacy before it got off the ground, getting him written off as another Kucinich-type flake. But now, with more and more states legalizing the practice, and with polls showing increasing support for it among the public at large, Obama probably fears being on the wrong side of history at a pivotal moment.

Other Democrats face a similar dilemma. Joe Biden recently agreed with Obama on having "evolving" views on the topic (how convenient!) and suggested gay marriage was inevitable. That's about as close to an endorsement as I ever would have imagined. But it makes sense given his history. During the 2008 vice presidential debate, he said, "We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do." But when the moderator Gwen Ifill asked him directly "Do you support gay marriage?" he replied, "No. [Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage," but he added that people of all faiths have the right to define the relationships as they please.

Presumably, Biden's statement that he supports benefits for "couples in a same-sex marriage" was a slip of the tongue, and he meant to say simply "same-sex couples." But it's a revealing slip, highlighting the semantic nature of the issue. Throughout the last decade, the phrase "civil unions" has provided cover for politicians who don't want to appear too radical but who also don't want to seem draconian in denying couples things like visitation rights. (SNL's version of the debate has Biden saying he would "absolutely not" support same-sex marriage, but that "they should be allowed to visit one another in the hospital, and in a lot of ways that's just as good if not better.") This balancing act has been especially painful to watch in the case of Dick Cheney, whose views have apparently been affected by his having a lesbian daughter. He declined to endorse Bush's Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but he avoided saying anything more about his personal views than that the matter should be left to the states and that "Freedom means freedom for everybody."

All these capitulations have an unfortunate side effect: they make it easy for people to overlook the difference between pols who nominally oppose gay marriage and pols who crusade against it. Just this year, in response to the uproar over his anti-gay remarks, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino took a more conciliatory tone, pointing out that "I have the same position on [the marriage] issue as President Barrack [sic] Obama." But somehow I have trouble imagining Obama ever expressing his position the way Paladino did earlier:
If you elect me as your next governor, you can depend on me to protect and defend your family from those who seek to tear down our values and bankrupt our citizens. And yes, I will veto all legislation that mocks our sacred institution of marriage and family. I will veto any gay marriage or civil union bill that comes to my desk. Yes I'm angry. Real angry at the way our politically correct elites are mistreating our innocent children, and I want to protect them and give them a real future in America, the greatest country on God's green Earth.
The fact is, the kind of fiery talk that depicts gay marriage as a threat to our civilization comes mostly from Republicans. Democrats who claim to oppose gay marriage rarely explain their position clearly, much less engage in sky-is-falling rhetoric. Their strategy is basically one of damage control, trying to expand the practical rights of gay people while avoiding turning off too many social conservatives. But as the veil slips, it'll be interesting to watch who comes out on what side in the end.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The story of my political formation

The fact that I came of age during the Clinton years had an important effect on my political outlook. The first presidential election I paid any attention to was 1992, when I was 15, and although I naturally rooted for Clinton because my liberal parents did, my observations were mostly superficial. I actually don't remember the 1994 Republican takeover. It just wasn't on my radar at the time. But a year later, as I was beginning college, the government shutdown had an immediate impact on my family. My father was a federal employee, as was our next-door neighbor, a single black woman with a teenage son. It didn't help things that one of my brothers had recently passed away.

For the first time, I got a very direct glimpse of the effect that politics could have on everyday lives. It was no longer just a funny game I saw on TV, featuring colorful personalities in fancy suits. I also began to have my first informed judgment on a political figure, in this case a Congressional leader by the name of Newt Gingrich, who provided me with my first taste of what it was like to deeply loathe a politician.

I also was beginning to discover the phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh, as well as Christian Coalition figures such as Falwell, Robertson, and Reed. I personally encountered people who insisted with a straight face that the president was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug addict. These people, who included a few of my parents' friends, typically spoke of liberals as if describing a distinct species of insect. Arguing with them was usually an exercise in futility, for they had a barrage of "facts" they had picked up from talk radio, which they listened to far more often than I had time to listen to anything.

These experiences left a powerful impression on me, because I couldn't help noticing that the contemporary American right was apparently run by complete lunatics and charlatans. The maligned liberals, on the other hand, were mostly represented for me by thoughtful milquetoasts like Michael Kinsley. Maybe it wasn't fair that I got such a terrible first impression of conservatives, who I know include many reasonable individuals. I was well aware that the left had its share of clowns, such as Al Sharpton, but they didn't seem to matter a whole lot. There was a notable imbalance in the political spectrum that belied the cliche evenhandedness so many pundits found seductive.

I sometimes got the sense that even the conservative intelligentsia were simply playing the good cop to Limbaugh's bad cop, saying the same stuff in gentler language. A 1995 article I read by William F. Buckley took Clinton to task for his attacks on Limbaugh. Buckley conceded that Limbaugh "induces hatred" and that "if I were a liberal, I would hate him," but he went on to suggest that FDR and Truman did the same sort of thing to the other side. Not a word about Limbaugh's lies or conspiracy theories. This from the 20th century's greatest conservative intellectual.

I made these observations long before I gave any serious thought to budgets, taxes, health care, trade, and so on. While certain causes like environmentalism and gay rights were no-brainers to me from the start, I was initially tempted in a more rightward direction on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and school vouchers. But the disintegration of any sane right-wing establishment was formative for me, and I would watch the problem grow ever worse as the years passed.

Everything that's happening now looks to me like the logical end result of what was happening in the '90s. A very moderate Democratic president presiding over an economic boom is clobbered by conservatives as some kind of left-wing hippie and nearly hounded from office for sexual lapses of no consequence to anyone but his own family. A Republican enters the White House under highly questionable circumstances and in the course of eight years leaves the country in two hapless wars one of which he started for no good reason, unprecedented debt, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. The disaster of the Bush years is so breathtaking I almost distrust my own judgment on the matter. Maybe I'm falling prey to the same kind of partisan hatred that characterized Clinton's adversaries. But no matter how I look at it, I can't escape the conclusion that Bush truly is one of the worst presidents in history. And it's amazing to watch the conservative establishment today attempt to make us all forget that just a few short years ago they practically worshiped the man.

When it comes to the right, the most visible difference between the 1990s and today is the rise of Fox News. Yes, it did begin in 1996, but it didn't become a force to be reckoned with until the Bush years. The first sign came with the election itself, when a reporter who just happened to be Bush's first cousin called the election for Bush, and all the other news networks--the legitimate ones, that is--followed suit. This set the tone for the Florida post-election fiasco that would follow.

Fox has grown steadily worse. Before, it was a right-leaning network that pretended to be fair and balanced. Now it's just a TV version of talk radio, a calculated, large-scale attempt to brainwash its viewers through the use of misleading propaganda, outright lies, and conspiracy-mongering, nonstop 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. It is nothing more than the right's Pravda. And it still has an astonishing influence on the mainstream networks, the ones we're supposed to believe are "liberal-biased."

So it was all set when the godfather of this mode of politics, Rush Limbaugh, said he hopes Obama fails, and not a single Republican in power had the strength to distance himself from Limbaugh, not without quickly reversing himself and groveling at Limbaugh's feet for forgiveness. This is what's truly new about the right wing: there is now no separation at all between the propagandists of right-wing media and the Republicans holding public office.

And somehow, the things said against Obama and other Democrats are worse than during the Clinton years. Back then, the attacks were merely nasty. Now, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Republican politicians and commentators are stoking insurrection. The tone of conservative hatred today isn't just hysterical, but contains not-very-subtle appeals to violence: talks of Second Amendment remedies, drawing crosshairs on Congressional maps with the slogan "Don't retreat--reload," explicitly defending violent overthrow of the government. The rhetoric is increasingly apocalyptic, and the very name of the opposition movement--"Tea Party"--deliberately alludes to the events leading up to the American Revolution. What's scariest about all this is that the Clinton years gave us Timothy McVeigh; who knows what's coming up now. And something will, make no mistake, because the tea-partiers will invariably be disappointed when the officials they have elected fail to stop Obama's agenda. And they don't strike me as the sorts of people to take disappointment by packing their bags and walking home.

That's why there's a lot more to the current political situation than rooting for teams. I don't mean to suggest that the past was one long Golden Age–I know my parents' generation alone went through Vietnam and Watergate–but I feel in my bones that there's something uniquely disturbing about what's happening now, even under the first president in my life I've had any enthusiasm for.
This post is based on a comment I wrote on Emily Hauser's blog last week. She suggested that I post it to my blog. I expanded on a few sections and edited the wording here and there, but it's more or less the same.
Cross-posted to Daily Kos.

Monday, November 01, 2010

With friends like these

cross-posted at DovBear's blog

It appears that John Boehner is planning to campaign for Rich Iott, the Nazi-impersonating congressional candidate.

It's important to understand how offensive this is: the problem is not that Iott participated in historical reenactments, which are perfectly legitimate, or even that he dressed as a bad guy. The problem is that the whole reenactment is invested with significant historical revisionism that views these SS officers admiringly and makes only the vaguest references to the crimes they committed. The website contains a disclaimer disavowing support for either neo-Nazis or the original Nazis and condemning "the atrocities which made them infamous." What it does not do is make any mention of the Holocaust, Jews, or even genocide.

This approach to the war is Holocaust minimization, a soft form of denial that doesn't engage in any outright conspiracy-mongering about a Holocaust "hoax," but nonetheless describes World War II in a way that greatly downplays the crimes of the Nazis in an effort to make the two sides seem somehow equivalent. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Iott argued that we shouldn't judge these officers because they were doing what they thought was right, that the SS unit he was reenacting had never been charged with war crimes (in fact, one member was recently charged with the murder of 58 Jews), and that "Horrible things...happened on both sides." If you think Iott makes a single mention of the Holocaust during this interview (other than a bare statement that he doesn't deny it), I've got a tea-bag to sell you.

After the refreshing disavowal of Iott by Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, I find Boehner's decision to stick by this guy pretty sickening. It brings to mind another story recently about the Emergency Committee for Israel, a lobbying organization that is supposedly devoted to getting pro-Israel candidates elected ("pro-Israel" in the most hawkish, right-wing sense) but in practice seems more interested simply in getting Republicans elected:
If ECI genuinely cared about electing pro-Israel members of Congress, it would launch big money campaigns against Tea Party candidates, such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the source said.

Toomey, for instance, has twice voted against foreign aid packages, which are widely viewed as principal pro-Israel litmus tests, as they include large amounts of financial assistance for the Jewish state. (According to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Toomey said that he "feels Israel no longer needs economic aid, and should simply receive military assistance.")

Pollak, however, defended Toomey, noting that he voted against foreign aid not out of hostility toward Israel, but "as a matter of larger fiscal principles. He has never shown a particular animosity toward Israel -- far from it."
In short, vote Republican because the Republicans are better for Israel, but vote Republican even when they aren't better for Israel. If that confuses you, don't worry about it, just vote Republican.

What we need to understand is that a lot of the Israel talk by Republicans is not done for the sake of Jews. It is for the consumption of Christian Zionists who vastly outnumber their Jewish counterparts and who aren't necessarily even "pro-Jewish," as can be seen from Pat Robertson's bizarre views.

Or, to paraphrase James Baker, we don't vote for Republicans anyway, so we might as well go be fruitful and multiply.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A compendium of politically incorrect views

People talk about political correctness so often you'd think there'd be a simple, consistent definition of the concept. All we know for certain is that it's bad for something to be PC, and that individuals who violate PC standards are being unjustly persecuted. Or at least that's what everyone who invokes this phrase seems to think. But what does the phrase mean?

That's what I've set out to determine. I'm not looking in any dictionaries or on Wikipedia. Instead, I've collected a sampling of quotes from various sources that use this expression, and from them I've attempted to discern its larger meaning.

Let's start with Regnery's Politically Incorrect Guide series. Among the many PI truths you will learn from these books is that the Civil War was not about slavery, that the robber barons benefited the U.S. more than any government program ever did, that the medieval Islamic world didn't contribute greatly to science, that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, and that hunters are "America's real environmentalists."

Having been written by different people, the guides do not always jibe with one another. In a rare moment of factual correctness, Clint Johnson's Politically Incorrect Guide to the South lists rock 'n' roll as one of the great products of that region. But Jonathan Leaf's Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties (whose author seems to have drifted into the PC debate a few decades too late) describes rock music as an artistic void with little talent.

In the view of some conservatives, PC is the cause of all our problems. According to Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams, "Political correctness is going to kill us. Political correctness led to 9/11, political correctness led to Barack Hussein Obama. Political correctness is a societal HIV." No one is immune to infection, not even, apparently, his own supporters. He wrote, in reply to one of several commenters at his site who criticized his controversial Lincoln letter, "you are crippled--mentally and emotionally--by political correctness."

Still, I suspect even Williams would be surprised at how the phrase has been used outside the United States. "It would be sad," wrote British journalist Peter Millar on the doomed libel suit of Holocaust "revisionist" David Irving, "if we allowed political correctness to condemn Irving for thinking (or even saying) the unsayable."

So now Holocaust denial is merely "not PC." It therefore shouldn't surprise us that other unsavory views have found their way into this category. Consider a notorious moment from Robert Novak's 1995 interview with Sen. Jesse Helms:
CALLER: Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct to say these days, but I just think that you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you've done to help keep down the niggers.

NOVAK: Oh, dear.

HELMS: Whoops. [looks at camera] Well, thank you, I think.

[both laugh nervously]

NOVAK: That was the bad word. That was politically incorrect. Can you--we really don't condone that kind of language, do we?

HELMS: No, no, no.

NOVAK: Absolutely.

HELMS: No. My father didn't condone it. When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don't think I've used it ever since.

NOVAK: And you had--

HELMS: Mark Twain used it.

NOVAK: And you had--you had--you had African Americans on your staff a long time ago, didn't you? As I remember.

HELMS: Oh yes. I hired several.
Notice that neither Novak nor Helms addressed the caller's stated views. Only his language seemed to put them on edge, his use of a "politically incorrect" word. Somehow I get the sense that young Helms would not have been spanked for wishing to "keep down the blacks."

But it isn't just conservatives who talk about PC. In his unflattering review of the live-action version of Mr. Magoo, Roger Ebert wrote:
There is one laugh in the movie. It comes after the action is over, in the form of a foolish, politically correct disclaimer stating that the film "is not intended as an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight."
Though I haven't seen the movie, I agree that trying to avoid offending the nearsighted in a Mr. Magoo film is indeed an example of PC run amok. But I wasn't sure I followed Ebert's reasoning in another instance of his use of the phrase:
The beat goes on with Ron Howard's The Missing, a clunky Western that tries so hard to be Politically Correct that although young women are kidnapped by Indians to be sold into prostitution in Mexico, they are never molested by their captors.
This is interesting. In an age of revisionist Westerns like Dances with Wolves that paint a sympathetic portrait of Indians, Ebert thinks one in which they boil white men alive and sell white girls into slavery is PC because they don't behave quite as savagely as we might expect. Got it.

Then there is the 1991 New York Times review of the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases, a handbook which the reviewer attributes to "the disease of political correctness." While some of the book's advice is arguably a little excessive--it instructs journalists to say homemaker instead of housewife, to avoid the noun Jew in favor of Jewish person, and never to describe a black person as "articulate"--it also includes things we take for granted now, such as the term Asian to replace Oriental. I even once saw a documentary in which a young skinhead was bashing a race he called Asians. When you have neo-Nazis nonchalantly saying Asian, I think it's safe to say it has advanced from PC terminology to common speech.

That's actually the case with a lot of the terms that were once derided as PC. Few people today blink at Native American, Latino, diversity, homophobia, substance abuse, and vegan--all of which appear as entries in 1992's tongue-in-cheek Official Politically Correct Dictionary alongside such items as sobriety-deprived for "drunk" and terminally inconvenienced for "dead."

The most striking use of the phrase "PC" I can remember came in a blog discussion I was reading some years ago. A commenter referred to a particular author as an idiot. The blogger said he agreed with the commenter's criticism but added that there was no need to engage in ad hominem attacks. The commenter retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC." The discussion had nothing to do with politics. To the commenter, "PC" simply meant being polite to avoid offending someone.

Based on all these examples, I am forced to draw the following conclusions about the phrase "PC":

1. It is absolutely meaningless.

The amount of things the "PC" label has been mockingly applied to is truly diverse. It can mean the often amusing excesses of the academic left, in particular the weird coinages. Or it can mean perfectly mainstream ideas such as the notion that the Civil War had something to do with slavery or that the Holocaust did in fact occur. It can mean trying to avoid offending the nearsighted, or it can mean neglecting to call someone you disagree with an idiot. Since there's no set standard for when sensitivity goes too far, the phrase is a free-for-all that usually says more about the person using it than it does about whatever the person is talking about.

2. It fosters the idea that sensitivity is a sin.

In practice, the phrase has become an excuse for boorish, inconsiderate behavior. People invoke it as a lazy way of trying to imply that no one has a right to be offended, without having to justify their position. It fosters the idea that words don't matter, that they can't harm anyone, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a joyless schoolmarm out to control everyone's speech.

3. It blurs the line between taboo language and taboo opinions.

Being un-PC sometimes refers to a questionable choice of words, even when no one objects to the point of view being expressed. At other times it refers to just the reverse--a controversial viewpoint expressed without any objectionable language. As a consequence of this ambiguity, the phrase distracts attention from the content of people's speech and makes all offending statements sound like mere violations of decorum. You can see that clearly in Helms and Novak's inadequate response to the racist caller.

4. Anyone who uses the phrase is, by definition, a hypocrite.

When people label a statement PC, they are effectively trying to shut down debate and eject the statement from the conversation by making it sound unworthy of serious discussion. Thus, the term does exactly what it is allegedly fighting against. This becomes particularly noticeable when those who claim to be battling PC propaganda are in fact promoting right-wing propaganda, but it is inherent in the phrase itself.

5. It is sometimes hard to resist using.

I've used it myself on occasion, and I no doubt will use it again. Let's face it, we live in a culture where lots of people take umbrage at things they shouldn't. The pushback against racism, sexism, and all the other isms has had a stifling effect on our discourse, down to the jokes we tell. But I realize that's a biased statement, and I can offer no precise standard for when it is or isn't justified to be offended. I just know it when I see it, whether or not that's okay with any of you cerebrally challenged hunks of processed animal carcasses.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Take me to your leader

If there is one scientific topic that provokes strong opinions in the absence of any direct knowledge whatsoever, it is life on other planets. Some scientists feel certain Earth is the only place in the universe where life resides; others insist the question is not whether life exists in other places, but where. You will find sane, rational people with full command of the facts coming out on either side of this debate.

I lean toward the second possibility. The notion that in the entire universe, the only planet with living things just happens to be the only one we've ever seen up close, seems a stretch to me. But I admit I have no proof. It's just a hunch.

"Just a hunch" is the best we can do when it comes to these arguments, which never stand up to logical scrutiny. Some scientists point to evidence that life arose on Earth quite soon after the planet's initial formation (say, only several hundred million years), and if it can happen that quickly, it must have happened in other parts of the universe. The problem with this argument (aside from a rather fluid definition of "quickly") is that we still don't know how life arose here, or even whether it did--one theory holds that it came from Mars via meteorite. If we don't know what happened to cause life to exist, then we have no way of knowing whether it could have happened elsewhere.

Other scientists believe the origin of life on Earth was a rare, freakish occurrence in the universe's history, because it depended on a huge number of factors in combination, including Earth's exact composition, temperature, rotation, orbit, and so on. If any one of these factors had been slightly different, so the argument goes, life on Earth either would not have started or would have perished long before it had a chance to evolve into more complex creatures like ourselves.

The answer to this objection is twofold. First, extraterrestrial life could differ from Earth life in ways we have trouble imagining. Second, the universe is just really big. What scientists call the observable universe, or the portion we have the capacity to detect because the light has had enough time to reach us since the beginning, is estimated to have over one hundred billion galaxies. Our own galaxy alone, which remains virtually unexplored, contains hundreds of billions of stars. However unlikely the conditions necessary for life may seem, there is a great deal of space out there for those conditions to be repeated.

In the movie Contact, a scientist played by Jodie Foster argues that there must be life beyond Earth, for otherwise there would be "an awful waste of space." You could interpret this statement different ways. For religious believers, the question is why God would have created all those countless galaxies when only one planet of one star would be inhabited. Perhaps it is so that people in the future will have places to go after Earth is used up or on the brink of destruction. Still, that's an awful lot of space....

A more secular version of the same argument might go something like this: In the vastness of outer space, our solar system is a mere speck in a sea of galaxies that all look more or less like ours. Given the relative uniformity of everything from afar, our default assumption should be that the basic conditions of our vicinity are not unique. This reasoning might not convince those of us who suspect the origin of life was miraculous, but it ought to be good enough for those of a more secular mindset.

One comparison is instructive. Most people have long assumed that there are planets beyond our solar system. Yet until the 1990s, with the discovery of a star that wobbled (suggesting it was being orbited by a large object), there was no concrete evidence that any of these so-called extrasolar planets existed. For all scientists knew, our sun could have been the only star in the entire universe that harbored planets. That possibility runs contrary to intuition for much the same reason the idea that we are alone does. It proved to be incorrect, and I suspect the second idea will also.

Some people will say, "Okay, maybe there's life in other places. Perhaps things on the level of bacteria or even plants have sprouted elsewhere in the universe. But intelligent life? Advanced civilizations? How likely is that?" Skeptical scientists point to some discouraging facts. Although bacteria appear fairly early in the Earth's fossil record, there was nothing but bacteria for the next three billion years--complex, multicellular life doesn't appear until the last billion. Furthermore, current scientific consensus holds that an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and if not for that fortuitous event, brainy mammals would never have come to dominate the planet.

Science fiction movies always assume that alien life must look more or less similar to us. In the real world there are creatures as weird as sea anemones living right here on Earth, but movie aliens invariably have a more standard appearance. Take the recent Avatar. In that film, a crew of Earthlings is investigating the exotic life forms that we're supposed to believe evolved independently in an entirely different solar system. And just how exotic are these creatures? Other than their possessing tails, blue skin, a ten-foot stature, and a few other odd features, they basically look human, sound human, and act human, right down to the mating rituals. The movie's plot is sort of an amped-up Dances with Wolves, only instead of a white man becoming part of a tribe of Lakota Sioux Indians, it has a white man becoming part of a tribe of giant alien smurfs.

I shouldn't make fun. The director, James Cameron, has said he intended the film as "science fantasy" rather than science fiction, and that they'd first designed the aliens as less human-looking before worrying it would turn off audiences. At least the film is a touch more plausible than a lot of older sci-fi like Star Trek, where aliens are shown as humans with pointy ears or ridged skin. But it's striking that more recent flicks like Independence Day and Signs continue to fall back on the most worn cliches about extraterrestrials, depicting them all as green and warty and malevolent.

The most versatile aliens depicted on screen are still probably those in Star Wars. I never fully appreciated that fact until I read Jeanne Cavelos's The Science of Star Wars (1999). Herself an astrophysicist (who also wrote The Science of The X-Files), Cavelos makes a noble effort to find scientific basis for all the major components of the series, including the ships, the weapons, the planets, the aliens, the droids, and even the Force. She doesn't always succeed--but she does explore much of the current research on subjects ranging from A.I. to quantum mechanics. (For a broader discussion about how far along we are toward inventing the technologies of science fiction, I highly recommend the 2008 book Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku, one of my favorite science writers, and one of the scientists Cavelos interviews.) Her chapter on aliens begins with the following observation about the films: "Almost anywhere you go in 'a galaxy far, far away,' alien life is there. You'll either land in it, step on it, or get eaten by it.... Even in environments as inhospitable as Tatooine, Hoth, or an asteroid, life finds a way to survive."

Of course Star Wars has always been one of the more unabashedly unscientific sci-fi franchises. There are serious difficulties in explaining certain things such as how all the creatures breathe comfortably no matter what planet they're on, which seems unlikely unless they're using some sort of technological aid we never see. Cavelos points out that planetary atmospheres may be unique like fingerprints, which would mean that no life form from one planet can breathe naturally on another. Avatar gets this detail right, having the human explorers only able to breathe with gas masks or in air-tight buildings or inside their Avatar bodies.

Still, the sheer diversity of the aliens in Star Wars is impressive, especially compared to earlier films. As Dr. Kaku explains, "the aliens don't look like us anymore. They tried to have aliens with different architectures. In that sense, Star Wars is more realistic than some of the stuff I've seen." And yet many of these aliens are simply analogues of Earth animals: dogs (Wookiees), slugs (Hutts), pigs (Gamorreans), bats (mynocks), and buffalo (banthas). Some of the organisms even look identical to what's on Earth, as in Endor's redwoods or Dagobah's snakes. Most of the invented creatures are humanoid, and those that aren't, like Jabba, are still anthropomorphic. How likely is it that aliens would look that similar to what we see around us?

The book quotes one scientist who argues that most of the visible features that humans possess, such as five-digit hands, are intrinsically efficient characteristics that evolution would tend to produce even on other planets, similar to the way aquatic mammals like dolphins acquired a fish form. Most scientists disagree. As Dr. Jack Cohen puts it, "Finding another planet with our kind of dinosaurs or people is more unlikely than finding a remote Pacific island on which the natives speak perfect German."

Science fiction literature has had the opportunity to envision alien life more broadly than the movies do. Strange life forms appear in hard sci-fi novels such as Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg, which speculates about what the intelligent inhabitants of a neutron star would look like. Part of the reason why movies aren't as daring is budgetary constraints. Commercial films have the most resources for showing aliens. The problem, as James Cameron tells us, is that mass audiences aren't interested in seeing anything truly weird.

Life as we understand it can mean different things, from simple bacteria to advanced civilizations. But since our only frame of reference is what we see around us, we have trouble visualizing aliens without comparing them to familiar creatures. If aliens exist, they might be more bizarre than anything we've ever thought of, much less seen. We can't possibly be certain what lies beyond our immediate knowledge.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Scheming, grasping liberals

Linked to at DovBear's Blog

It isn't news when Rush Limbaugh says something offensive, but it is intriguing when he shows an ironic lack of self-reflection.

He wondered, in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, if Jews were having second thoughts about their support for Obama. "To some people, 'banker' is a code word for Jewish," Limbaugh said, "and guess who Obama is assaulting? He's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there's starting to be some buyer's remorse there."

In other words, Limbaugh thinks Jews are automatically inclined to perceive an ethnic insult in criticisms of an institution or profession that anti-Semites identify as "Jewish."

Curious, then, that he doesn't apply the same logic to conservative assaults on Hollywood, which often sound quite similar to attacks by neo-Nazis and their ilk. To test the parallels, I collected a series of quotes from Limbaugh and from Stormfront, the Internet's leading white-supremacist website. Any occurrences of the word "Jew" in the latter, I either removed or replaced with the word "liberal." I then shuffled up the five quotes. Try to see if you can determine which are the Limbaugh ones and which the Stormfront ones. I myself would have been unable to do so.

1. "White people, too, are debasing their own culture with some of the rotgut that shows up on TV, some of the rotgut that shows up in Hollywood movies and so forth. Who's running all this? It's liberals! Liberals run Hollywood."

2. "McCarthyism is actually correctly accusing someone of communism, identifying a communist, right? That's what it was. People that hated McCarthy were the commies that were identified."

3. "Ted Turner marries Hanoi Jane Fonda, tries to go Hollywood, push Hollywood-type liberal politics and it just doesn't work."

4. "You recall, and there have been countless movies about this and books, all the liberals in Hollywood spent decades trying to convince the American public and countless congressional hearings, committees, that they weren't in bed with the communists.... now they're embracing communists as a badge of honor."

5. "Imus made the comment about a group, not an individual, just like NRA members are called gun nuts, paranoid whack jobs and other highly insulting terms by the liberal-controlled media."

(Here are the answers: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

You get the point. If you have ever perused Stormfront (a lovely experience, I can tell you), you will find that a great deal of what is said there sounds remarkably, eerily similar to things said by Limbaugh, by other conservative talk-radio commentators, and by their millions of listeners. Both crowds attack liberals, socialists, and communists, usually treating the three categories as interchangeable. Both think Hollywood and the media are "run" by left-wing subversives. Both assail welfare, affirmative action, feminism, multiculturalism, gun control, global warming science, and amnesty for illegal aliens. Both consider themselves at war with "elites." Both embrace conspiracy theories, and both see President Obama as an anti-white radical.

Of course, there are also substantial differences between the dittoheads and the Goebbelheads. Limbaugh is strongly pro-Israel and supports the Iraq War, neither exactly a popular stance among white nationalists (who hate Bush almost as much as they hate Obama). He has never explicitly embraced biological racism; he rationalizes his attacks on blacks and other minorities by saying he is only against the way liberal institutions coddle them. I don't believe he is an anti-Semite, and I disagree with the ADL that his remarks about Obama and the banks were "borderline anti-Semitic." His argument was that Jews might perceive attacks on bankers as veiled bigotry because anti-Semites talk that way, not that the banking industry is actually "Jew-controlled."

I just find it fascinating that he would make such an inference, apparently blind to the fact that his very own career is built on a style of demagoguery closely resembling that of some intensely anti-Semitic groups. He spends day upon day vilifying and demonizing many of the same institutions and organizations as the white-power folks do--Hollywood, the media, the government, the ACLU, the Ivy Leaguers--only he doesn't go around describing his targets as Jewish or Zionist, even though many of them do in fact include a disproportionate number of Jews. But as soon as someone utters a word of complaint about the ways of Wall Street, in swoops Mr. Limbaugh to protect us Yids against the slander. It's nice to know someone cares.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why ethnic labels matter

One time as I was waiting in the hall for a class, I began a conversation with a woman sitting nearby, and when she asked me what I was taking, I said, "Hebrew." She then inquired, without a hint of irony, "Why do you need to take Hebrew if you are a Hebrew?"

I was struck dumb. It wasn't just her ignorance of the fact that most American Jews are less than fluent in the Hebrew language, it was her referring to me as a "Hebrew." I hadn't encountered that nomenclature before, and if I'd ever expected to, it would have been from a small-town dweller in Alabama or some such place, not from a fellow student at U. of Maryland!

Was I offended? Not really. While I'm suspicious about the sorts of ideas that might accompany her terminological illiteracy, this use of the word "Hebrew" was once considered perfectly respectable--like, oh, back in the nineteenth century. As British historian Paul Johnson notes:
From about the second century BC, when it was so used by Ben Sira, 'Hebrew' was applied to the language of the Bible, and to all subsequent works written in this language. As such it gradually lost its pejorative overtone, so that both to Jews themselves and to sympathetic gentiles, it sometimes seemed preferable to 'Jew' as a racial term. In the nineteenth century, for example, it was much used by the Reform movement in the United States, so that we get such institutions as the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
A quick search on Google News, which has a mammoth historical archive of newspaper articles, turns up numerous instances of this usage between 1875 and 1915. For example, one 1913 article from The New York Times reports, "More than 500 Hebrews crowded Clinton Hall last night and took part in an enthusiastic honor of Nahum Sokelew, the Zionist, and editor of the best-known Jewish newspaper in Russia." To this day there are statutes on the book that refer to things like "Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements." But in the common language this sort of phraseology sounds ignorant, if not anti-Semitic, to most people. That it once was standard usage has been all but forgotten.

If you keep up with current events, you may already have suspected where this post was leading. Two apparently coincidental news items recently have sparked a debate in the media and blogosphere about the use of outdated racial/ethnic terminology. In one, the census forms for 2010 included "Negro" as an option for racial identification, because some older blacks still prefer the term. In another, a 2008 quote by Sen. Harry Reid was uncovered in which he had stated that the country was ready for a black president, especially one who was "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

If Reid had said "black" instead of "Negro," would his statement still be objectionable? Depends who you ask. (I personally think no.) But most commentators agree that there's something exceedingly strange about hearing the word "Negro" used in earnest, and not in a historical context, by the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

Unlike "Hebrew," which few if any individuals alive today remember as an accepted term for a Jewish person, "Negro" fell out of fashion only about 40 years ago. Martin Luther King used the word several times in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and Bobby Kennedy used it when he suggested--with considerable foresight, as it turns out--that the U.S. would elect a black president in the next 40 years. People of Reid's generation (b. 1939) had to expunge the word from their vocabulary when they were well into adulthood. Can younger people like me (b. 1977) understand what that's like? Why, yes we can. That's exactly what happened with the word "Oriental" when I was growing up.

Anyone should be able to understand why terms like these persist in the margins of society for decades after having been purged from mainstream discourse. Apart from the fact that old speech habits die hard, the changes usually seem a little arbitrary on the surface. Why is "Hebrew" more demeaning than "Jew"? Why is the Spanish word for "black" worse than the English word? Partly it may be their closeness to a slur ("Hebe," "nigger," etc.), but the real reason is probably that it is just a way of marking a shift in public attitude. Therefore, any person who continues using a linguistic casualty of this type gives the impression of not having fully absorbed the social developments that left it behind.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

I molt therefore I am

"They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation."
-- Nicolas Fontaine, 1650

I once visited an oceanarium hoping I'd get the chance to hold a live lobster in my hands. It turned out the place wouldn't let us--something about contaminating them, I think. I did get to hold a horseshoe crab, a starfish, and a sea cucumber, all alive. The lobsters, however, we could only observe in their enclosures, snapping their claws, waving their antennae.

Our guide was eager to debunk the popular notion that lobsters scream when they are cooked alive. That is impossible, he told us, first because lobsters have no vocal cords, and second because they have no brains.

That didn't sound right to me. First of all, of course lobsters don't have vocal cords, but then neither do birds, and birds certainly emit a shrill noise when in extreme distress. I suppose he meant lobsters don't vocalize, period. Fair enough. Then what is the high-pitched sound heard when a lobster is placed in a boiling pot? He didn't say, but later I found out that many sources explain it as steam escaping from the animal's carapace.

A much bigger stretch was his second claim. I knew that not all animals have brains. We even got to see a confrontation between two such creatures. Someone placed a starfish into a tank with a mussel, an animal that looked sort of like a three-dimensional Pac-Man. As soon as the starfish hit the water, the previously sedentary mussel rocketed toward the other end of the tank, its shell bobbing open and closed with each stroke. We were told it was trying to escape because the starfish is a natural predator. It wasn't "afraid" of the starfish. As a type of clam, a mussel has no brain and therefore can have no emotion. But it did nonetheless possess survival reflexes.

The problem was that everything I knew about lobsters, insects, and other arthropods suggested they did have some sort of brain. I had done several reports in college on honeybees, who have the most complex system of communication in the animal world, involving a "dance" that conveys the location of nectar to other members of the hive. They know the dance instinctively, but it seems unlikely that any brainless creature could process that level of information.

It wasn't until a while later that I found the decisive refutation for what our guide had said. I was in my university's library when I wandered into the biology section and decided, on a whim, to check a book on crustacean anatomy. The book unhesitatingly described these animals as possessing a brain. In fact, the brain of arthropods is fairly advanced for invertebrates, surpassed only by that of cephalopod mollusks--squids and octopuses, the only invertebrates that appear to possess intelligence.

As noted zoologist Donald Griffin stated, "Experimenters have demonstrated that the central nervous systems of crustaceans, insects, and cephalopods organize and modulate information in ways that are quite comparable in complexity and precision to those of vertebrate brains" (qtd. in George Page's Inside the Animal Mind, p. 167).

Okay, so they have brains. Or at least something we can call a brain. But that leaves open a more crucial question: Do they have any consciousness? When injured, do they experience pain? Remarkably, many scientists insist the answer is no. A 2005 study funded by the Norwegian government received wide publicity, which claimed it merely bolstered an existing scientific consensus that these animals feel no pain:
[A]nimals with simple nervous systems, like lobsters, snails and worms, do not have the ability to process emotional information and therefore do not experience suffering, say most researchers.... "When you drop a lobster in boiling water, or put a fishhook through a worm, those stimuli cause those muscles to contract," Stevens said. "We describe that as pain because of the motor response, which is nothing more than neurons that have been stimulated."
Or, in the words of the Terminator, "The data could be called pain."

I guess that settles it, huh? Not quite. A more recent investigation paints a rather different picture:
[Robert] Elwood, along with Stuart Barr and Lynsey Patterson, outline seven reasons, with supportive findings, they believe crustaceans suffer.

For one thing, they argue, crustaceans possess "a suitable central nervous system and receptors." They learn to avoid a negative stimulus after a potentially painful experience. They also engage in protective reactions, such as limping and rubbing, after being hurt.
Other scientists remain unconvinced. As one puts it, "You could argue the shrimp is simply trying to clean the antenna rather than showing a pain response."

Well, of course you could argue. An alien scientist studying humans could argue that humans do not experience pain. They cry, scream, and sweat when they're injured simply because those are adaptive behaviors for getting help or scaring away predators (or whatever). If you're intent on denying an organism's inner experience, you can explain away any behavior you see. Much of what drives this skepticism, however, is scientists' unwillingness to expand their idea of what an invertebrate nervous system can do.

Proving that lobsters suffer when boiled would probably have legal consequences. They would be subject to laws prohibiting cruelty to animals (they already are in some places), and chefs might be required to kill them or stun them before boiling them. (There is even now an electrocution device for that purpose called CrustaStun.) Since there's a big worldwide seafood industry and many people consider lobsters incredibly tasty, it's no wonder discussions of this nature tend to provoke angry, knee-jerk reactions.

What do religious Jews, who don't eat lobster, think about this issue? Most don't get involved at all. We already have our own problems dealing with groups that seek to ban kosher slaughter. But the teachings of our religion do shed light on this topic. While allowing the killing of animals for food and other human-related purposes, Judaism places great value on their proper treatment. There are a range of laws about taking good care of one's livestock or pets, including feeding them on time and not overburdening them. Many rabbis prohibit hunting for sport, and none encourage it. The ritual slaughter of mammals and birds attempts to make their death quick and painless.

These rules have given Judaism a better record on animal welfare than Christianity, but they have important limitations. They allow a Jew to harm an animal for a legitimate human purpose (for example, ridding a rat infestation), and some Jews have interpreted this stipulation broadly enough to justify some pretty brutal practices. The ugliest example in recent memory concerned the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant (later shut down after the fallout from another controversy, involving mistreatment of employees). Undercover videos released by PETA showed cows apparently walking around for several minutes after their necks had been cut. Defenders insisted the animals were like chickens with their head cut off, acting on reflex but feeling no pain.

Kosher supervisors finally agreed to change the plant's practices, and later it received a positive review from an inspection by leading animal-welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin. But one of their controversial practices that remained in effect was turning animals upside-down before killing them, which is authorized by Israeli rabbis but not practiced by any other kosher slaughterhouses in America.

Judaism teaches that non-Jews should observe the Noachide commandments, which include an injunction not to eat an animal while it is still alive, usually interpreted as a general statement against cruelty to animals. But the obligation is narrower than it is for Jews, and might not apply to a marine invertebrate anyway.

The important point in all this, however, is that Judaism always intended the principle of compassion for animals to go beyond the letter of the law. As Rabbi Natan Slifkin explains in his book Man and Beast:
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was once approached by a calf fleeing in terror from the butcher. But Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi did not take pity on it. He said, "Go; for this is what you were made for!" As a result of this he suffered pain for many years. His atonement came when his maid discovered a rat's nest in the house and was about to sweep it away; Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi told her to leave it alone.

Now it is undeniably true that the calf's purpose in life was indeed to be eaten. That was what it was bred for. This is neither wrong nor cruel; on the contrary, it assures the success of the species (cows will never become extinct) and the elevation of this animal. Yet nevertheless it was this event that brought punishment to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. For treatment of animals is not meant to be determined on a purely legal level. The purpose of the mitzvah of kindness to animals is to inculcate one in the trait of compassion. That cows are destined to be eaten is irrelevant. When faced with a dewy-eyed, bleating, tender calf, one's mercies should be aroused. Likewise, although there is every reason to dispose of rats, it is admirable if one feels sympathy for the poor little things and cannot bring oneself to do so.

There are other limitations in one's actions toward animals. Although a human need justifies causing pain to animals, it only justifies it insofar as it is required. Where different options are available, one should choose the less painful option. (pp. 194-5)
The prime consideration in Judaism is not what the animal is experiencing but what type of person you become in the way you treat it. People who are unaffected by seeing an animal suffer are likely to lack empathy in general. So even if the lobster's nervous system is too simple for the creature to experience pain, just the appearance that it does ought to give us pause. Whether the practice of boiling lobsters alive continues or not, there's something seriously wrong when people have desensitized themselves to the point they consider the process as casual as chopping fruit.