Saturday, April 26, 2008

Defecating the Candidate's Qualities (While Dancing)

From a story on the WMAZ-TV website today, re Georgia senatorial candidate Rand Knight:

"Knight supporter, Beth Perera says "I think it is important for people to have a face to face encounter with the candidates otherwise it is just a list of names on a ballet and people can't defecate any special qualities about a candidate unless they actually meet them, talk to them, ask them questions."

(Thank you, mother-in-law

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Expelled" Makes Ben Stein the Michael Moore of the Right

Michael Moore makes great propaganda films. They start with some good grievances, ask some tough questions, then throw in a lot of other stuff, including ambushes and cheap shots, to give the impression of adding weight to the argument. They are fun to watch. They have been so successful that they lead to an interesting insight: documentaries are the medium of the left in the way that talk radio is the medium of the right.

Ben Stein has offered a rightish propaganda doc in the Michael Moore mold. "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" starts with a just grievance. Several respectable scientists had their careers ruined for even suggesting that Intelligent Design was worth considering as a scientific issue. He interviews the aggrieved scientists, talks to a few of the people who ruined their careers, and makes a plea for actual free speech and scientific openmindedness in the academy. This is a worthwhile cause, and Stein does a competent, though not excellent, job in explaining the issues and exposing the guilty.

However, Stein then drifts off to muddled examination of the connections between Darwinism and eugenics, even Nazism. He has a running metaphor that political correctness in the scientific establishment concerning Darwinism is like the Berlin Wall erected by brutal totalitarians. This is all unnecessary and distracting from his main point.

I am glad that the issue of academic political correctness has been raised, and partly exposed in this case. This is a scandal that could do with a good airing -- starting with centrists becoming aware that there is a scandal here.

And I hope that this film means that there will be more conservative documentaries at least as competent as Michael Moore's liberal ones. That will level the playing field, and bring delight to doc nerds like me.

My further hope, though, is that the quality of political documentaries rises all around.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eat Breakfast, Have Boys

Fiona Matthews of the University of Exeter is the lead author of a tantalizing new study showing that mothers who eat more and eat better around conception are more likely to have boys. The mother's diet does not change the sex of developing embryos, but does seem to affect whether male embryos implant and develop.

Eating breakfast cereal seemed to be one of the stand-out correlates of having more boys. There has been a steady drop in the number of boys born in industrialized countries, which correlates with more women skipping breakfast and eating low-calorie diets.

This study is based on correlations. No one knows exactly why it works. I expect this finding will be kicked around a dozen times by contradictory follow-up studies. This is as it should be -- that is how science advances.

In the meantime, moms who want a son should stock up on oatmeal.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nazi Saboteurs as a Precedent for Gitmo

In 1942 we caught 8 Nazi saboteurs landing on U.S. soil to blow things up. The leader of the group turned himself in and gave away the whole show. They were all quickly tried before a military tribunal. Six were executed and one who helped betray the group was given life. The leader, who came to the FBI and dumped $84,000 on the assistant director's desk to finally get his attention, was given 30 years.

Two things strike me as important about this case for our current war on terror.

First, the saboteur turned himself in because he was confident he would not be tortured.

Second, the spies were given timely trials with real counsel.

I think their sentences were proportionate. At their trial, all eight said they were forced into the mission by the Nazis, and never intended to go through with their mission. However, in the brief time before they were caught, six of them did nothing but spend their mission money on high living. They were executed.

The two who agreed to betray the mission differed in how quickly they acted. The one who dithered got life, later commuted to deportation. The one who actually made repeated efforts to contact the FBI got 30 years, also later commuted to deportation. I think he might have been given more recognition for his efforts to mitigate, especially after the war.

The mission failed so utterly that Hitler decided to stop a planned sabotage attack.

J. Edgar Hoover, not surprisingly, covered up the fact that the spies had turned themselves in, and had to keep coming back and insisting that they were really spies in order to get the bureau to listen.

What does this have to do with our war on terror? The 9/11 attackers spent the weeks before the attack in wild living at bin Laden's expense. Perhaps if they had been assured that they would not be tortured or executed, one of them might have betrayed the group. That is very hard to unravel now, especially since the Bush administration's commitment to torture was not clear at that time.

Now, though, it is clear that the current administration tortures and defends torture, as well as suspending habeas corpus, denying counsel, and endlessly delaying trials. This discourages would-be enemy agents from turning themselves in. We would do much better to apply American standards of justice to our enemies precisely because they would not do the same to us. We can win hearts and minds, win the clash of civilizations, and prevent future 9/11s by being the best Americans we can -- not the worst.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Courtship is a Proper Model of the Dialectic

In one of my periodic attempts to understand Hegel, I came across the most memorable of his several attempts to explain what he means by the dialectic. He says that the relation of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is like that of bud, blossom, and fruit. This is a gripping visual image, especially now in the blooming spring.

Every analogy has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of this image is that it helps show how the synthesis preserves the essence of the stage that came before, while utterly transcending its form. Moreover, it is clear how each succeeding stage requires the destruction of the previous one. The weakness of this image, though, is that bud and blossom are not antithetical; the blossom is not generated by the negation of the bud.

I think a great deal about marriage and children, especially now in the blooming spring when I teach my family life class. It occurred to me in talking to a student that we have before us a much better analogy for the dialectic: the courtship of a man and a woman which brings forth a baby. Now, a men and woman are not opposites, but complements. And courtship much better captures the back and forth and back and forth of how a dialectical opposition gets worked out in history -- much better than the image of a sudden, violent Revolution does.

And there is no model of synthesis better than a baby.

Now, the birth of a baby does not annihilate the parents. This may be a way in which the analogy actually illuminates the original notion. When we apply the dialect as an abstract idea, we act as if the thesis and antithesis were annihilated in the generation of the synthesis. In fact, though, among intellectuals the thesis and antithesis never really die, even if the main narrative of history has moved on with the synthesis.

In a larger sense, though, the child does end the parents' existence; they cease to be fully separate beings. The essence of the parents is sublated (a world that is not better English than the German word it is supposed to translate) into the child. The child carries forward the combined, complementary essences of the parents, now transformed into a new thing.

And this new thing seeks, and usually finds, its complement in the next courtship.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Almost-a-Bishop Wins in Paraguay

Fernando Lugo, a Catholic "bishop of the poor," has beaten the ruling party candidate in Paraguay. This is a bigger deal than it sounds: the Colorado Party has ruled for 60 years. They worked with one of the worst Latin American dictators ever (which is saying a great deal), then succeeded him when democracy finally was established.

Priests are forbidden to hold political office by the Catholic Church, so Lugo renounced his church office in order to run. The church rejects his resignation. I expect they will leave that issue alone while he tries to fix a corrupt government and a deeply skewed economy.

I wish him, and Paraguay, well. I hope he doesn't feel obliged to be completely anti-American.