Thursday, September 30, 2004

But I can tell you one thing, you're no Cicero.

For the last week or so, the press has been reporting on the back-and-forth between the Kerry and Bush campaigns. No, they're not spinning and counter-spinning some issue, or trying to make a dubious rumor seem credible or absurd. Instead, each campaign is trying to make the other's candidate look like the better debater. At first, this seems like a silly tactic, but then we remember the 2000 presidential debates. In those debates, Gore lost not because Bush did anything to win, but because he simply didn't screw up. The "Bush is an idiot" meme was already running rampant, and by avoiding doing anything to make him look like the idiot many were beginning to think he was, Bush won by default. Of course, Gore didn't help his own cause when he showed his frustration with Bush's banality, by making odd noises and interrupting Bush. Still, Bush said nothing and did nothing to show that he was the better candidate. He simply sat back and watched while Gore, who was supposed to be the intelligent candidate with strong debate skills, failed to meet the higher expectations.

What this reveals about the nature of televised presidential debates these days is that they really have no substance, and that even if they did, it probably wouldn't matter. Jason Kuznicki gets it right when he says that the debates are "entirely bloodless, but then he goes astray when he writes:

And that's the problem. We look to debates to tell us about the character of the candidates, to give us a glimpse inside their heads. And what we get is more of the same recycled soundbites that we can already get by listening to their stump speeches.

Jason's "we" must refer to some group other than the general public. It's probably true that most people who haven't already decided which of the two candidates they prefer look to debates to get a better idea of their character, but I'm not sure those people feel like they're not getting a "glimpse inside their heads." Most of these people are not at all interested in a substantive debate on the issues. It's unlikely they would understand such a debate anyway. What they are looking for is their own version of a presidential appearance and manner. Seeing the two candidates side by side, so that they can make an easy comparison, makes the debates an easy source of just this kind of information. It's been that way since debates began to be televised. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate, Nixon lost, not because his arguments were defeated by Kennedy's, but because Kennedy was a confident, handsome young man. In other words, Kennedy won because he was more photogenic, and played to the camera better than Nixon. Nixon looked awkward and uncomfortable, and many took that to be the glimpse of what's inside his head, or the indication of his character, that they were looking for. It didn't matter what he said, or what Kennedy said. It only mattered that he did, or did not, look presidential when he said it.

The reason that presidential debates have become meaningless infomercials, and that both Kerry and Bush are trying so hard to make the other look like the better debater, is that the campaigns, and the networks broadcasting the debates, are giving the viewers what they want -- live campaign ads. All the pre-debate maneuvering and in-debate scripted soundbites are just good marketing. After all, that's what campaigning is these days. If the candidates actually spent an hour or two mired in detailed discussions of the issues, no one would watch. CSPAN would be the only network to broadcast the debates, and a few intellectual bloggers would comment on them, with those on the right believing Bush had won in a route, and those on the left thinking Kerry had blown Bush out of the water. Undecided and wavering voters, the only people the campaigns care about by September, would read the page 7 headlines about the debates in their local paper, and judge the candidates by their pre-recorded ads.

The problem, then, is not that the debates are bloodless. The problem is that bloodless debates are what people want. Sure, most people like a little blood now and then. There's a whole segment of the population that would love to see presidential debates that resembled pre-fight WWF shouting matches, but if blood's going to be drawn, it has to be in the done in the form of short, memorable quips, such as, ""I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" Can you imagine if Benson had said, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, your social policies deviate from Kennedy's in several important ways, including..." followed by a lengthy discussion of the differences between Kennedy's policies Quayle's? No one would even remember Benson had been in a debate*.

* Do you remember the context of Benson's remark? Chances are you don't, and I will bet you that the average person who does remember this remark, doesn't remember the context. Quayle had claimed that he was as experienced as Kennedy was when he was elected. The point, however, is that the context doesn't matter. The quip, the soundbite, is what people remember. It was a burn, and you don't even need the context to see that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Democracy: Reason "Left Behind"

This morning, I looked( up the "Rapture Index" because Bill Moyer (by way of Brian Leiter) told me to. After a brief -- very brief -- period of fascination, my mood quickly turned to one of all-encompassing horror as I realized the implications of Moyer's comments. Here is what Moyer said:

How do we explain the possibility that a close election in November could turn on several million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index?

If, after reading that and realizing that it is true, you are not horrified, then you obviously haven't clicked the Rapture Index link. Swing states like Florida and West Virginia are hotbeads of that sort of doomsday-cult fundamentalism, as are many of the states that Bush will win with little effort. And they don't just influence elections; they influence policy. Think I'm wrong? Read what Moyer says about it. Here's an extended passage:

According to this narrative, Jesus will return to earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its 'biblical lands;' when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the Messiah returns to earth. The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True believers 'will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow.'
I’m not making this up. We’ve reported on these people for our weekly broadcast on PBS, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you that they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why they have staged confrontations at the old temple site in Jerusalem. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the 9th chapter of the Book of Revelations where four angels 'which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of men.’ As the British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, for these people, the Middle East is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a biblical scenario, a matter of personal belief. A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed; if there’s a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels.

"One estimate puts these people at about 15 percent of the electorate. Most are likely to vote Republican; they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support. He knows who they are and what they want. When the president asked Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks out of Jenin in 2002, more than one hundred thousand angry Christian fundamentalists barraged the White House with e-mails, and Mr. Bush never mentioned the matter again. Not coincidentally, the administration recently put itself solidly behind Ariel Sharon’s expansions of settlements on the West Banks. In George Monbiot’s analysis, the president stands to lose fewer votes by encouraging Israeli expansion into the West Bank than he stands to lose by restraining it. 'He would be mad to listen to these people, but he would also be mad not to.

So I read the Moyer's speech, looked up what he told me to, and after my heart stopped pounding, and I finished a short but relatively fruitful web search for deserted island property, I began to think about democracy. This isn't always easy to do critically. The sublimity of democracy is deeply implanted in the minds of American children from an early age. So deeply, and firmly, that it is difficult for many of us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a democratic system, especially the weaknesses. Yet there are weaknesses, and I think the fact that doomsday-cult Christians are able to have such influence on both electoral politics and even foriegn policy illustrate some of them quite well.

From within the democratic perspective, there are no rational arguments for preventing groups like Left Behind readers from voting in accordance with their world-view. They have as much a right to vote the way they want to as you or I do. Yet, outside of their world-view, there is no rational argument for the belief that their influence in elections makes this country a better one, or that their influence on policy is a good thing1. In fact, it has the potential to be a very, very bad thing. Francois Marie Arouet once described the relationship between belief in absurdities and the commission of atrocities. The fundamentalist influence on Bush's Middle East policy is a case in point.

But when I considered the fact that such ignorant people can have so much influence in a contemporary democratic system, I began to think about the even bigger problem with democracy. I remembered Churchill's famous remark about the best argument against democracy being a five minute conversation with the average voter. His quip is even more appropriate today, in a world when national and international policies are so complex, with so much to know, and so few who know any of it. As Churchill's contempory John Simon put it, "Democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is blissfully ignorant."

The results of the ignorance of the majority is that those who are in power, and who have the public ear, can and do work very hard to manipulate the public into taking their sides on issues about which the people know very little about. Rapture Index followers can think that a U.S. policy in Israel, or anywhere else in the Middle East, based on the Book of Revelations is a good thing because they know so very little about the situation in the Middle East -- just what the Rapture Index, and other sources, especially clergy, tell them is relevant to apocolyptic prophecy. Republicans can gain evangelical votes by equating stem cell research with abortion, and then siding against it, because so few evangelicals know anything about stem cell research. As Frank Dane said, "Get all the fools on your side and you can be elected to anything."

This is where clever framing becomes important. The general public doesn't care about the details of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the science of stem cell research. They just want to know how these things are relevant to their own lives, and their core beliefs. By highlighting a few key facts, and presenting them in a certain way, politicians or political group can win a lot of votes without any demonstration of how their policies will actually result in a better state of affairs. Real rational arguments have no place here, but reason can win out if reason dictates which facts the people want, and which they are given. Unfortunately, some people are hopeless. Their belief in absurdities renders them dead to the world of reason. This is the biggest problem with democracy, an Enlightenment ideal that lets the unenlightened enact their ideals: if you allow everyone to vote, then everyone can vote.

Now, back to looking up deserted island property. If crazy fundamentalists continue to influence American politics, I may be looking to escape soon.

1 I don't mean to imply that there are any rational arguments for this belief within the Christian fundamentalist's world-view, either. There's nothing rational about their world-view!

Monday, September 27, 2004

Montaigne from the Grave

Michael Gilleland noticed that Montaigne wrote about blogging five hundred years ago, when he said,

We dignify our stupidities when we put them in print.

What Michael doesn't realize is that Montaigne also wrote about this blog. Here is what he had to say about it:

No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately.

Athens of the South

Is it just me, or is Nashville the last place one would expect a life-sized replica of the Parthenon, complete with statue of Athena inside? Yet, here it is, in all its glory, smack dab in the middle of Centennial Park in downtown Nashville.  Posted by Hello

From: Bush To: World Re: Sudan

"I'm sorry, but we're too busy cleaning up the mess we made in a country in which we already had people on the ground to provent widespread human rights violations. We don't have the troops, or the cajones, to stop the genocide in the Sudan. Please try again when someone else is in the Oval Office. - Georgie"

No, Bush didn't really say this, but that's been the gist of his answer to calls like this one from John Kerry:

John Kerry, at the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans, in a speech hardly mentioned in the media except notably by Stanley Crouch in the September 13 Daily News, "got a standing ovation by calling on President Bush to take leadership in 'the immediate deployment of an effective international force to disarm militia and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur.'"

Still, as Jeanne of Body and Soul points out, some have managed to blame Kerry for our lack of effort in the Sudan, as David Brooks seemed to do when he wrote:

Confronted with the murder of 50,000 in Sudan, we eschewed all that nasty old unilateralism, all that hegemonic, imperialist, go-it-alone, neocon, empire, coalition-of-the-coerced stuff. Our response to this crisis would be so exquisitely multilateral, meticulously consultative, collegially cooperative and ally-friendly that it would make John Kerry swoon and a million editorialists nod in sage approval.

And so we Americans mustered our outrage at the massacres in Darfur and went to the United Nations. And calls were issued and exhortations were made and platitudes spread like béarnaise. The great hum of diplomacy signaled that the global community was whirring into action.

Meanwhile helicopter gunships were strafing children in Darfur.

Jeane replies to Brooks with this:

Assuming John Kerry has not taken over the presidency before being elected (and done the opposite of what he has said he believes should be done), I guess we -- including Brooks -- have to acknowledge that it is none other than Fearless Leader who has wimped out on stopping genocide in Darfur. One might ask why, if this issue is really important to David Brooks, he is so strongly supporting the man who has failed to act. One might also ask if Brooks has noticed that it isn't really wimpiness, or a sudden, uncharacteristic commitment to multilateralism that has caused Bush's failure to act, but rather the fact that we have no troops to spare.

Like Jeane, I am usually reluctant to advocate military intervention, but also like Jeane, I see no real alternative in Darfur at this point. Without someone on the ground to make sure that humanitarian aide reaches refugees, while preventing further violence, I see no reason to think that the situation there will get any better. However, I'm not convinced that the lack of troops is the only reason we're not intervening. The number of troops required would probably be pretty small, but I think that Bush, like Clinton before him, sees images of the Sudan, with a scrolling marquee underneath that reads "Public Relations Disaster," everytime he's confronted with the idea of military intervention on the behalf of black Africans. I don't think it's unfair to call this racism. The disaster in the Sudan in 1993 seems to have shaped the establishment's perception of intervention in sub-Saharan Africa exclusively, without affecting its view of intervention in Europe or the Arab world.

This situation also highlights the political tragedy that is the United Nations. Without U.S. initiative, none of the other Security Council countries seem willing to advocate military intervention. Why? Are the militaries of France and non-S.C. countries like Germany really overextended as well? Are they afraid that if they take the initiative, the U.S. won't follow, and they will be forced to foot the bill on their own? Is that really a valid reason for not intervening? I hate the perception, that many in the U.S. have of our country as the police force of the world, and if the rhetoric from France, Germany, and other nations leading up to the Iraq war is any indication, the rest of the world hates it as well. Yet, when the other member countries of the United Nations fail to act in situations like this, it starts to look like despite their protests, this is how they view us as well.

Lakoff's View of Metaphors

In my last post on Lakoff, I mentioned that the aspect of his framing theory that I found the least useful for his political aims, and perhaps even detrimental to them, is his conceptual metaphor theory. I'm afraid that my reasons for finding this part of his framework unpalatable might not make sense to people whose only exposure to Lakoff's work has come through reading his political writings. While Lakoff has only recently become popular among liberal intellectuals, including those in the blogosophere, because of these writings, the theoretical paradigm from which his work on framing is derived is the product of more than twenty years of linguistic and pscholinguistic research by Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and others (most notably Mark Turner and Raymond Gibbs). Within this paradigm, the use of the word "metaphor" diverges in important ways from the everyday use of the word, and even from the use of the word in literary theories and contemporary theories of political discourse. While Lakoff summarizes conceptual metaphor theory in the first few chapters of Moral Politics, it's possible that many people who have not read his previous works on conceptual metaphors do not completely understand what Lakoff means when he says that our concepts are metaphorical. So, I thought it might be productive if I talked a little about conceptual metaphor theory, and what the word "metaphor" means to Lakoff and his colleagues.

The conceptual metaphor theory of cognition was first detailed by Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. There they define metaphor in the following way:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. (p. 5)

This seems fairly normal, but the definition is built around a controversial thesis, namely that our conceptual systems are themselves metaphorical. Here is how they put it:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish--a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. (p. 3)

They explain this view further with the following:

To give you some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

Your claims are INDEFENSIBLE.
His criticisms were RIGHT ON TARGET.
I DEMOLISHED his argument.
I've never WON an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, SHOOT!
If you use that STRATEGY, he'll WIPE YOU OUT.
He SHOT DOWN all of my arguments.

It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his position and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument -- attack, defense, counterattack, etc. -- reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. (p. 4)

The book, and much of their subsequent work, is full of examples like the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor, such as UNCERTAINTY IS UP, UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING, ANGER IS HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER, and LOVE IS A JOURNEY (see here for an extended list of conceptual metaphors). In fact, the primary (some would say only) evidence for their theory is the everyday use of statements that fit into these sorts of metaphorical expressions.

A second aspect of Lakoff's theory of conceptual metaphors is that the metaphors themselves are embodied. In other words, our concepts are built metaphorically from direct bodily experience. Embodied experiences that are repeated in our everyday experience (e.g., moving upwards) create what Lakoff calls "image schemas," which can then be used to structure less embodied experiences. Concrete, embodied experiences are therefore the least metaphorical, because they are built from direct experience, while more abstract concepts are structured metaphorically through mappings to more direct bodily experiences. UNCERTAINTY, a fairly abstract concept, is metaphorically structured by the bodily experience of "upwardness," and UNDERSTANDING, another abstract concept, from the bodily experience of seeing. Some concepts (e.g., LOVE) receive their structure from other concepts (e.g., JOURNEY) that are themselves structured metaphorically, from the image schemas of still more concrete (embodied) experiences.

There are several criticisms of this view, all of which together, in my mind, render it indefensible. The first, articulated by Greg Murphy1, notes that Lakoff and Johnson's almost exclusive reliance on linguistic evidence is both equivocal and circular (a common criticism of linguistic evidence in general). Is our speech metaphorical because our concepts are, our concepts metaphorical because our speech is, or is there some mediating factor? Lakoff and Johnson's analysis cannot distinguish between these possibilities. While there is some psycholinguistic evidence that our use and understanding of metaphors, idioms, and other types of figurative speech is connected to our conceptual structures, there is little or no empirical evidence that these concepts are, themselves, metaphorical. For Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphor to carry any weight, nonlinguistic evidence is needed. Twenty years into the conceptual metaphor project, it's hard to believe that this sort of evidence is forthcoming.

A second criticism, also from Murphy, argues that "structural similarity" between conceptual domains can account for the linguistic data without recourse to metaphor. Arguments are like wars in certain important ways, and this similarity, along with economical constraints on cognitive and linguistic structures, can explain the use of similar expressions in talking about the two domains. Nothing about the use of the expressions implies deep metaphorical relations between the two domains in our everyday representations of them. In essence, it appears that Lakoff and Johnson are doing what some refer to as "linguistic anthropology." Perhaps the terms used to describe arguments (or war) were once borrowed from the domain of war (or arguments), and thus used metaphorically. However, these once metaphorical terms have become lexacalized within the domain of arguments, and carry little or no connection to their former domain when used in the newer one. Once again, nothing in the linguistic evidence argues against this interpretation.

Murphy also faults conceptual metaphor theory for failing to explain the seemingly arbitrary choice of metaphors in everyday speech. Why do we use some experiences to metaphorically structure concepts, and not others which also bear structural similarity to the target concept? For instance, arguments could also be compared to journeys. Why aren't they? The reply to this criticism from the conceptual metaphor camp is usually that the direction of the metaphors, from more embodied to less embodied concepts, is important in determining what conceptual mappings are chosen. Thus seeing is used to structure our concept of understanding because seeing is a more embodied experience than that of understanding. This reply fails for many reasons, some of which I'll mention in a bit. For now, suffice it to say that the linguistic evidence alone fails to account for the particular metaphors that we find in everyday speech.

A final criticism from Murphy notes that many of the metaphors we use to describe the same concepts in everyday speech are inconsistent with each other. Is love a journey, or is it an opponent? Perhaps it is insanity, or a valuable commodity? Lakoff and Johnson observe that we use each of these metaphors in everyday speech, but Murphy shows that these metaphors often result in inconsistencies that would create concepts of love that contradict each other. This is perhaps Murphy's weakest criticism, as we now understand that concepts are not monolithic, static entities, of a single nature (see here for an argument against the "Natural Kind" view of concepts which views them as a single sort of fairly static representation). However, it does serve to further illustrate the arbitrariness of conceptual metaphor theory. It appears that the reason we have so many ways of talking about love is that, throughout the history of talking about love, people have used many different metaphors. Some of these metaphors have caught on, while others have not. The ones that have caught on have in turn become literal ways of talking about love, or dead metaphors, and the once metaphorical phrases have lost their connections to their original domains.

Two further criticisms not mentioned by Murphy are worth noting. The first involves the role of embodiment in conceptual metaphors, a role that is required for the theory to work (e.g., to explain the seemingly arbitrary choices of metaphors). In short, there is little evidence for this role. Obviously, we are embodied agents, and all of our conceptual representations are influenced by this embodiment, but there is no evidence that this influence is metaphorical, or that the relationships between concepts move in a single direction (from more embodied to less so). In fact, Lakoff's own example, from page 4 of Metaphors We Live By illustrates a conceptual relation that goes in the other direction! How many of us have direct, embodied experience of war? Very few of us, I would imagine. Still, the first and most prominent example used by Lakoff involves the concept ARGUMENT being structured by the concept WAR. I have a great deal of bodily experience with arguments, and none with war, yet I still talk about winning arguments, argument strategies, and defensive and offensive tactics in arguments. How can Lakoff argue that my concept of argument is structured through more direct, embodied experience of war, if I have none? Based on Lakoff's own analysis, I should never be able to learn this structuring of ARGUMENT, without the necessary bodily experience.

The last, and perhaps most important criticism of conceptual metaphor theory, particularly from the perspective of political theorists and practitioners who would want to use the theory to better frame political concepts, is that there it offers very little in the form of mechanisms. How are concepts mapped onto each other? How is structure from one concept carried to another? How are inferences from these structures made? How are these structures represented? Lakoff's theory offers no answers to these questions. Sure, he provides plenty of linguistic examples of the types of mappings (metaphorical, metonymical, polysemic, etc.), and even the types of inferences made, but no description of how any of this occurs. If we want to come up with new frames, and thus new mappings, we are going to need to have some idea of how these things occur. Without it, we are opening ourselves up to the kinds of problems that I mentioned in my last post on Lakoff.

1 Murphy, G. 1996. "On metaphorical representation", Cognition 60: 173-204.

Further Resources on Conceptual Metaphor and Related Theories

Lakoff on Conceptual Metaphor

Conceptual Metaphor

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff

Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language
by Mark Turner

The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner

The Poetics of Mind : Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding by Raymond Gibbs Jr.

Mappings in Thought and Language by Gilles Fauconnier

Unless you're really interested in doing research on Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory, I would recommend skipping all but Mappings in Thought and Language and The Poetics of Mind. Philosophy in the Flesh is particularly bad, and philosophers who read it, especially those familiar with the last 100 years of continental philosophy, will probably find it downright offensive.

Sensory Overload

I spent the weekend in a relative battleground state, Tennessee. I say relative, because it looks more and more like Bush will win it going away, but still, it's no Texas. The constant influx of campaign information, primarily in the form of bumper stickers and lawn signs, made it virtually impossible for me to blog (that, and very little internet access). It also reminded me that there are benefits to living in an uncontested state. Since I spent most of my time in one of the richest counties in the country, Bush signs were everywhere. It was disheartening.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Six Year Olds in Line: An Observation

Sitting here at lunch, I suddenly realized that I have been so caught up in posting about "serious" stuff that I han't written a single thing about me personally (unless you count my taste in poetry, a clear picture of which is gradually emerging here). I don't mean to imply that any of the 15 people who somehow end up here everyday have any desire to read about my personal life, but this is my blog, and I feel like I should talk about me sometimes. So, here goes.

This morning I took my oldest son, who is in first grade, to school early so that we could have breakfast in the cafeteria (something he really enjoys), and so I could talk to his teacher before there were 15 six year olds in her room. When we got to the cafeteria, I quickly learned that the first wave of buses arrive about 20 minutes before we usually get there, and that the bus riders flock to the cafeteria in one big group. This meant that my son and I found ourselves at the back of a long line that snaked its way across half of the cafeteria. My first thought was, there is no way we are going to be able to get breakfast, eat it, and still have time for me to talk to his teacher. The line looked at least 30 minutes long. But to my surprise, we had our food and were searching for seats in just under 5 minutes. I was amazed. How on earth did a line that long, and one composed of 4-8 year olds (the school is Pre-K through 6th, but almost all of the kids eating breakfast in the mornings are from the first few grades), move that fast?

Now I consider myself an expert on length-to-time ratios in lines. I stand in lines daily, usually more than once. My grocery store has lines 24 hours a day (trust me, I've been at the back of the line, way back in one of the aisles, at 3 am). Adult lines are incredibly slow. If I had been stuck in line as long as the one I stood in this morning at the elementary school, and it had been composed of adults, I would have been able to read The Sorrows of Young Werther in its entirety. How on earth did a line full of a bunch of rowdy elementary school kids, many of whom have an incredibly difficult time deciding what they want for breakfast once they get to the front of the line, move that fast?

It's probably true that all sorts of things slow us adults up in lines. We've got credit card receipts to sign, checks to write (ugh!), and people to hit on. But believe me, 4, 5, and 6 year olds have all sorts of things going on when they are in line, too, and a 4 year old on her own, trying to reach up to grab a tray, figure out what she needs to give the lady at the register, and avoid being stepped on by giant 7 year olds is just as bad as any 95 year old check writer with no valid ID. So how on Earth did the line move that fast? The only explanation I can think of is that elementary school students are just better at lines than we adults are. I think we should study their methods closely, so that next time I spend 30 minutes in line holding a 24 pack of Coke and a half gallon of milk, I can take everyone aside and instruct them on how to do lines more efficiently. Or maybe we should have 6 year olds monitoring the lines, making sure that we remain firmly focused on the goal -- to get through the line as quickly as possible.

Understanding Frames with an Eye Toward Using Them Better

George Lakoff, the liberal blogosphere's new hero, analyzes all discourse, and political discourse in particular, using the concept of frames. Frames, for Lakoff, are metaphors that serve to structure our experience and understanding of the complex world around us. They are metaphorical, under Lakoff's view because they take structure from less complex, or more concrete experiences (e.g., paying membership dues), and carry that structure over to a new domain (e.g., taxation)1. Frames not only aid us in structuring our own experience, but rhetorically, they can work to influence how others structure their experience. Thus, skillful use of frames can cause others to share your view of particular phenomena. Lakoff uses the taxation example a great deal to illustrate this fact, and the ways in which competing views attempt to frame the debate with a structure that is favorable to their own positions. For example, George W. Bush, in the 2000 campaign, and often since, has talked about alleviating the tax burden on the American people. Framing taxation as a burden, and as something to be alleviated, tends to cause people to see it as a highly negative thing, and therefore when Bush is on the side of doing the alleviating, or getting rid of some taxes, they will view his position favorably. One of the ways in which liberals should frame taxation is through an analogy (I tried, I really tried, to type metaphor, but I couldn't bring myself to do it -- see footnote 1) to paying dues for services rendered. The government provides all sorts of vital services, from police and fire services, to maintaining roads, giving money to our children's schools, and funding scientific research that makes our lives better in the long run. We, as members of the society, benefit from these services, and therefore should pay for them. Lakoff believes that framing taxation this way will cause people to see it in a more positive light2, and therefore be less likely to thinking raising taxes (or rescinding tax breaks) is a bad thing.

The idea that language, analogy, and metaphor structure experience is certainly not new. Philosophers have known this for 2400 years, and with the linguistic turn in the 20th century, more and more emphasis has been put on the role of these things in shaping our experience. Even the concept of frames is not new to Lakoff. In various disciplines, frames have been called by different names (e.g., narratives, schemas or schemata, scripts, themes, mental models, and my favorites, Thematic Organizing Packets and Memory Organizing Packets, or TOPS and MOPS), but for the most part, the basic idea is the same: we have structured representations which we use to interpret, understand, and organize experience. Framing analysis, especially of political discourse, has been particularly prominent in sociology for the last 30 years.

In 1974, Erving Goffman published Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, a detailed account of how to use the concept of frames to understand human thought and interactions. It wasn't very popular at first, but is now one of the most cited texts in the sociology literature. Here is Goffman's definition of frames:

I assume that definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events […] and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements as I am able to identify.

Since then, the concept of frames, and frame analysis, has undergone several major revisions within sociology, and there are currently several different competing theories, but again, the basic idea is the same. Here is a later definition:

Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters.3

And an even more recent definition, which places more emphasis on the construction of frames:

To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.4

This last definition is the most similar to Lakoff's, because, as in Lakoff's now popular works, it focuses on the creation and use of frames to structure reality and to promote one's structure in the minds of others. In fact, the only thing left out of this definition, that one would find in Lakoff's writing, is the concepts of "metaphor" and "metaphorical structuring."

As you've probably guessed by now, I prefer the metaphor-less view of framing. That is not to say that I don't think we use metaphors, analogies, counterfactuals, and all sorts of other types of mappings as structuring elements in thought and discourse. It's obvious that we do. However, I think that Lakoff's reliance on conceptual metaphors detracts from the utility of his framing analysis. I feel this way for a few reasons, the primary one being that to really learn how to use frames properly, we have to understand how people actually map the structure of a frame onto experience. How is it that people map the structure of the dues paying frame, or the burden frame, onto taxation? Conceptual metaphor theory tells us little about this, and what it does tell us is wrong in important ways. We're not running around with a complex web of metaphors (in Lakoff's sense) in our heads; we're running around with a bunch of structured representations, some of which stand on their own, and some of which rely heavily on other structured representations. When we have novel experiences, we use the most relevant structures (as judged by the available cues) to aid us in structuring them. When we have representations of certain concepts (e.g., taxation) which is fairly impoverished, we can use richer concepts to structure that concept, and more importantly, we can cause other people to use the concepts we want to structure that concept. Afterwards, conceptual connections between the two may be less necessary, and the increased structure of the once impoverished concept may allow us to notice new structures and possible frames (for example, after borrowing the structure of dues paying to frame taxation, we might notice that the two domains involve different types of consent, and we might also notice that unlike most dues, income taxes use a sliding-scale fee structure).

Why is all this detail important? Because when we're coming up with frames, we need to keep several things in mind. The first is the sort of structure our audience already have for the relevant concept? If conservatives have been telling people that taxation is a burden to be alleviated, then we need to build our frame so that when mapping it onto the already present structure, it will help people to understand taxation from our perspective. This requires understanding how two relational structures map onto each other, something that cognitive scientists have been studying for a few decades, and which is simply not captured in conceptual metaphor theory. We also need to pay close attention to the types of inferences that our frames license. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot with our own frames. For instance, when people start thinking about instances in which they pay for services, they might begin to think about the fact that in those cases, they chose the services and willingly consented to pay for them. However, with taxation, consent is different, and people might begin to think of it as coerced consent. We don't want our taxation frame creating a whole new generation of anti-tax libertarians, do we? Finally, we need to be well aware of the ways in which our own frame might be modified by our opposition. Republicans could easily use the dues paying frame to highlight the fact that the services the government is giving are pathetic (look at all those potholes! and look at all those people who went to government-run schools and can't even spell "pothole!" are these the services we are paying so much of our hard-earned money for?). Once again, understanding the ways in which structures are mapped onto each other and how we make inferences from these mappings is important here. Unfortunately, Lakoff's theory gives us little insight into these things.

So, I'm ending on a mostly negative note: Lakoff's concepts of frames is mostly an old one, and the parts that are new to Lakoff, namely the conceptual metaphor parts, should be thrown out. Lakoff has done liberals a great service by writing approachable books on frame analysis, aimed directly at American politics, and us in particular. However, instead of just reading Lakoff's smooth-reading books, liberal intellectuals should take their newfound knowledge seriously, and actually do the work to learn how to frame their views more effectively. Maybe in the future, I'll describe the theory of frames (though in this theory, they're called schemas) that I think we should use.

1 I hate to be pedantic (no I don't), but in most cases, particularly when we're talking about the frames themselves, it's better to call them analogies. Metaphors are more like truncated analogies, and "metaphor" really describes the everyday use of these analogies. For instance, "Taxation is like paying dues, because..." followed by an explanation of why the two are alike, is analogy, while stating, "we must pay our dues to help this great nation," in a speech about taxation, would be metaphor.

2 Lakoff discusses a few reasons why people who use this frame to think about taxation should view it as a good thing (up to a point). For instance, most of us, as products of capitalism, feel like we should pay for goods, and we also have a strong sense of reciprocity.

3 From
The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left by Todd Gitlin

4 From Entman, Robert M. 1993. "Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm." Journal of Communication 43 (4): 51-8.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Lakoff in the Blogospohere

I don't usually read The Daily Kos, but I'm well aware of that blogs influence in the liberal region of the blogosphere, and the fact that Kos himself is fast becoming a serious player in the Democratic party. So, when Kos highly recommends a book by George Lakoff, calling it "the best book of this cycle," and linking to the Rockridge Institute, I know Lakoff and his ideas have arrived in the blogosophere. In fact, I've seen him all over, lately, from several posts at Fair Shot to Language Log's frequent mentions of his work (not surprising, since Lakoff is a linguist). This is a good thing, because Lakoff's ideas are insightful and important, especially for liberals. However, I can't help but wonder why it's taken so long for these ideas to be noticed by mainstream liberals. They're certainly not new (the study of rhetoric goes back to Plato and Aristotle, for Christ's sake!), even to Lakoff, who was writing on framing and political discourse back in 1992. The only thing new to the political discussion (though not to Lakoff) is the conceptual metaphor perspective, which is the weakest aspect of his work. I think you can just throw it out entirely, and keep his discussion of frames.

Who can possibly explain the fact that mainstream liberals have been so slow to jump on the rhetoric bandwagon? I certainly can't. It makes no sense to me. The people who've been studying rhetoric over the last few decades have, by and large, been liberals, as have the philosophers (postmodernists, pragmatists, etc.) who've been talking about this stuff since the 60s (from Foucault1 to Rorty). Lakoff's view of frames is not very different from the core insights of both the liberals studying theories of rhetoric or the philosophers talking about the role of language in thought. For some reason, it took a linguist who is, by any standard, still at the fringe of his field (cognitive science) to convince us that language, labels, and discourse are important, even more important than reasoned argumentation. Is this because mainstream liberals have still been wedded to their Enlightenment ideals? Is it because Lakoff's just a better writer of material for lay people? Is it because Lakoff explicitly ties it in to American politics (so does Baudrillard, but for most, he's all but unreadable)? Whatever the reason, I have two hopes. The first is that Lakoff's newfound popularity will lead mainstream liberal intellectuals to start taking rhetoric seriously, and delve into all of the insights rhetorical theorists have had over the last few decades. The second is that at the same time people take Lakoff's view of frames, and the gap between the skillful use of frames by conservatives and the poor use of them by liberals, seriously, they don't try to use Lakoff's own theory of cognition to implement the ideas and bridge the framing gap. That would simply be counterproductive.

1 I know, I know, Foucault isn't a liberal, and his critical of liberalism. But if you get rid of his fatalism, you can treat him as a liberal, and even if he's not a liberal, he's still influenced many liberal academics.

Is Interstate 66 the Yellowbrick Road?

This is a really cool comparison of the 1896 presidential election and Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. I don't know if I buy it, but it's still interesting. I really like this part:

I’d love to hear your ideas on how today’s personalities fit into the Wizard of Oz.

Here are my choices:

  • The Wizard: George W. Bush (obvious choice)

  • The Cowardly Lion: John Kerry (again, the obvious choice)

  • The Scarecrow: Can I vote for Bush twice? No? OK, I'll say these are the hawkish neocons.

  • The Tinman: Big business, currently benefitting from the Scarecrow's war.

  • The Wicked Witch of the East: This is a toughy. I'm going to go with physicians, who are firmly on the side of the Republicans, and who maliciously keep our insurance costs high, while desperately trying to lower their own.

  • The Wicked Witch of the West: John Aschroft, bringer of social conservativism.

  • The Flying Monkeys: Religious conservatives. I realize this fits better with the movie version than the book, but hey, none of my analogies fit very well anyway.

  • Dorothy: Joe Schmoe American, who views Bush (the Wizard) as a savior despite the fact that his policies serve neither his economic interests nor his social concerns.

  • Toto: Undecided voters. You'd have to be as dumb as a small dog to be undecided at this point, and it's looking more and more like they're going to blindly follow Dorothy.

  • (Link shamelessly stolen from Lawyers, Guns, and Money)

    The Third Party Dilemma

    I have always had a mixed view of third parties. My own political views are well to the left of the Democratic party, and therefore poorly represented in the American two-party system. Still, the pragmatist in me recognizes that my ideas are even less well represented by Republicans, and the best, nay the only way to keep them out of power is to elect Democrats. So, I like the idea of third parties, but I almost always vote Democrat. It's much easier to do so when all of the even remotely viable third party candidates are thoroughly unimpressive. This election year, for instance, the two most visible third party candidates are Ralph Nader and Michael Badnarik. Nader is self-involved and intellectually incapable (recall the Salon interview?), and while I agree with some of his positions, I'm not convinced that he really believes in them. Badnarik is just plain loco. Then there's the fact that, while third party candidates have influenced the outcomes of a few elections over the past (Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992, George Wallace in 1968, and Robert LaFollette in 1924), only one has received more votes than one of the candidates from the two major parties (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912), and he still lost by a double digit margin. So, in a sense, the only role of third parties in national elections within the current two-party system is to draw votes from one of the major party candidates. Perhaps this indicates dissatisfaction with one of the two parties, but I'm not sure that's always the case. It certainly doesn't create change in that party (Wilson was already a progressive in 1912, Perot didn't draw Republicans to the middle, and if Nader has caused any changes in the Democratic party, I haven't seen them).

    After laying all of that out, I'm still ambivalent about third parties within the current system. Perhaps the answer lies in changing the system so that third parties have more of a chance in national elections (in local elections, party labels are often just there to capitalize on brand name recognition -- call yourself a Republican, and you've already got 40-60% of the vote). To be honest, though, I have no idea how to go about enacting the necessary changes. Over at Crooked Timber, there is a good discussion on what might do the trick, with reforming ballot access rules being the primary suggestion. Ballot access has clearly been a problem for Nader, but even if he were on the ballot in every state, it's still highly unlikely that he would receive more than 4% of the popular vote. One commentator has an interesting suggestion. He writes:

    The better way to get real, viable alternative parties is through fusion. New York State has fusion, where a candidate can run as a Democrat and as a Liberal party endorsee. Because of that, New York has several parties whose endorsement swings close elections. Giuliani originally became mayor in large part because the Liberal Party endorsed him. Dyed in the wool Democrats couldn’t actually vote for a Republican, but how bad could a Liberal candidate be? Similarly, Pataki won the governor with the endorsement of the Conservatives.

    I'm not very familiar with New York state politics, but my suspicion is that while the motivation to get endorsements from third parties, in addition to one of the major parties, might make candidates move a little to the left or the right of the major party's center, it will do little to break up the two-party system in a meaningful way and allow truly ideologically different candidates to have any chance, particularly at the national level.

    So what are we to do? Continued dominance by the two majority parties will never allow for political diversity at the federal level, and will probably continue to give us uninspiring third party candidates like Nader and Badnarik. Why would a highly competent Socialist, Green, or Libertarian run for national office when he or she can probably do more good through activism? Yet, there are no obvious ways to break up the two party system (even at its periphery), and as a result, even those of us who find both of the major parties offensive will likely vote for one of their candidates, just to keep the other one out of office. We're forced, out of practical necessity, to be part of the problem. It's pretty damn frustrating. Sometimes I wish I was apathetic instead of ambivalent.

    Monday, September 20, 2004

    Terence, this is stupid stuff

    That's all I have to say about the Killian Memo nonsense. I don't care whether they're forged or not, as I find Bush's National Guard service irrelevant in the face of his massive failures during his four years in office. All of the attention, from both lefty and righty bloggers, strikes me as absurd. I also don't care about Dan Rather. Seriously, how many people with an ounce of intelligence really look to network news anchors for quality journalism these days? So, instead of writing post after post on the memos, Rather, and Bush's national guard service, I'm going to post something completely unrelated (or is it?) to all of that: the last stanza of the Housman Poem from which I stole the title of this post, just because I love it, and reading such poetry distracts me from all of this election-year nonsense. Hopefully it will provide a moment of respite for you, too.

    There was a king reigned in the East:
    There, when kings will sit to feast,
    They get their fill before they think
    With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
    He gathered all the springs to birth
    From the many-venomed earth;
    First a little, thence to more,
    He sampled all her killing store;
    And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
    Sate the king when healths went round.
    They put arsenic in his meat
    And stared aghast to watch him eat;
    They poured strychnine in his cup
    And shook to see him drink it up:
    They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
    Them it was their poison hurt.
    —I tell the tale that I heard told.
    Mithridates, he died old.

    Sunday, September 19, 2004

    I Love Me Some Perceptual Illusions.

    I really do. From American Research Group, Inc.Posted by Hello

    Dr. Laura, 13th Century Counselor

    Until today, I'd never really read World O'Crap, probably because the title sounded so cynical (that's a joke), but after reading this post, I think I'm going to read it often. It's about Laura Schlessinger's new book, Woman Power. Of the book's topic, Elizabeth Farrah of WorldNetDaily, the world's second most prominent purveyor of nonsense (after Tech Central Station), has this to say:

    Do you think terrorists have threatened our way of life? They are but a mere puff of wind beside the forces of darkness that have compromised our marriages.

    Leading Mrs. Farrah to make this bold statement about the book itself:

    You have too many unread titles in stacks or on a list? Nothing you have – save your Bible – is more important a read.

    Never has an endorsement so intended to make me read a book so inspired me not to read it!

    What does the book say that makes it so important? In short, women should pay more (positive) attention to their husbands. As Dr. Laura herself puts it:

    This goes along with part of my thesis, that men are simple—not simpletons—but simple in their needs—i.e., not complex. They need appreciation, approval, and affection from their woman; and when they get that, they will, as I’ve said many times on my radio program, swim through shark-infested water to bring us lemonade.

    Women wield more power in man-woman relationships. Men are born of women, raised by women, and come to women for their bonding and mating. Throughout their whole lives, women are central to men’s emotional well-being. I don’t think we can come up with one story about a man committing suicide over the breakup with a golf buddy.

    What should women do, then, to make their men happy, and thereby make their marriages work?

    Just a look of the eye, the tone of a voice, the touch of a hand.
    Simple. A few minutes each day . . . tops.

    Yes, it's just that simple! World O' Crap summarizes Dr. Laura's point brilliantly, with the following:

    So, ladies, look at him with admiration, talk to him like you do the dog, and then give him a handjob. Quick, easy, and then he'll bring you that lemonade.


    For my own part, I've always been amazed at people like Dr. Laura (and the majority of religious conservatives in this country) who hold the view that there is a formula (presumably a linear one, with all of the variables restricted to numbers under 5, so that they're easy to add and subtract) for making men happy, and another for making women happy, and if you simply follow the correct formula (depending on the gender of your significant other), everything will work out just fine. Each time I read an expression of this view, I have an almost overwhelming desire to spend a few hours explaining Central Limit Theorem to the person expressing it. Just explaining the concept of variation might do the trick. You see, while men and women are to some extent products of their biological makeup, when it comes to personalities and what they can and need to give and take in relationships, they are quite complex (certainly they are complex in the mathematical sense that is relevant to CLT). They are the products of many independent and not-so independent variables, many of which pare pretty random. Sure, as with most things, your best guess is the mean (though it's quite clear that the Dr. Laura's of the world have no idea what the actual mean is), but you will quickly find that no one's personality is the mean personality, and will have to figure out how each individual deviates from that mean if you want to relate to that person successfully.

    What will the practical results of the sort of advice that Dr. Laura and her ilk give to so many couples be? Well, if the divorce rates for evangelical Christians (which are higher than any other religious group in America, save the Jewish, and including atheists and agnostics), who are the people who are fed this crap the most, and who take it most to heart, are any indication, the results won't be the ones Dr. Laura seems to be hoping for. More often than not, approaching someone using an abstract formula spells disaster for the relationship. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the words, "I know what men want," while they might sound good at first, are the worst a woman can say to a man at the start of a relationship. The thing is, I'm not "men," I'm a "man," and my idiosyncrasies don't fit into any generalized formula very easily. I also know from personal experience that more often than not, the same is true in the reverse. God help the woman whose significant other tells her that he or she knows what women want. Unless that woman is Dr. Laura, and her significant other has read her book.

    Saturday, September 18, 2004

    The Moral Relativism Frame

    Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the blogosphere's most overrated blogs, sparks a discussion on moral relativism and liberalism with this post. When reading this discussion, the first thing to do is ignore the philosophical points. Volokh's philosophical statements are interesting and true, but ultimately irrelevant, for the reasons that I will discuss in a moment, and Matthew Yglesias' display an ignorance of ethical theories that one would not expect from someone who recently received a degree in philosophy from Harvard, so there's really no point in paying attention to this part of the debate (which means you can ignore entirely the contribution at Crooked Timber, which is almost completely devoted to Yglesias' dilettantish philosophical digression). Instead, as Kevin Drum notes, the real issue is the "common sense" view of moral relativism, and why so many conservatives (and even some liberals) associated it with liberalsm.

    So what is the common sense concept of "moral relativism?" Most believe moral relativism to be the position that all moral values are equally valuable, or that all ethical views are equally valuable. The type of relativism most likely to be discussed by non-philosophers is cultural relativism, in which (according to the common sense view of moral relativism) the ethical systems of all cultures are equally valuable. The question raised by Volokh's post is whether these labels apply to liberals. The answer, of course, is that these labels (with their "common sense" meanings) don't really apply to anyone. There is no one who believes, and certainly no one who acts on the belief, that all moral values are equally valuable. That's just silly, and probably humanly impossible. It is true, as Volokh says, that both liberals and conservatives are always situationalists to some degree (though often in the guise of a deontological ethics where the morally-relevant concepts, e.g. the concept of murder, are defined in such a way that they mask the situationalist aspects the ethical system), but situationalists are not necessarily relativists. Liberals aren't cultural relativists, either. While cultural relativism is very popular in anthropology, even there it does not hold that all ethical systems are equally valuable. Instead, it is a methodological stance that involves approaching all cultures from an objective, non-evaluative standpoint when describing them scientifically. The truth is that in many cases, liberals are as far from moral relativism, and cultural relativism in particular, as one can be, believing as they do in things like universal human rights, and universal concepts of cruelty (a point that Volokh notes in his original post, but which isn't mentioned in any of the responses).

    So why are liberals shackled with the "moral relativist" label? I think there are several reasons. The primary reason, however, is framing. Conservatives believe in strict moral principles (though they don't always act on those beliefs). One way to villify their opponents is to cast them as people who are morally corrupt, and from the conservative perspective, one way to be morally corrupt is not to recognize the conservative moral system as the one true, empirically verifiable, absolute, and perhaps divinely inspired moral system. This also explains the view of liberals as atheists (rather than the other way around, as Yglesias suggests). While the vast majority of liberals in the United States are Christians, it is rhetorically expedient for conservatives to frame them as secularists, or even atheists, because it implies a lack of moral integrity. If the one true and absolute moral system is divinely inspired, and you don't believe in the divine, how can you be truly moral? You can't, of course.

    While it should be obvious that liberals are not "common sense" moral relativists, liberals rarely do anything to counter the perception that they are are. Tolerance is a concept central to contemporary liberalism, but liberals rarely express it very well. Tolerance is never the view that all cultural practices should be treated as equal. Liberals would not be liberals if they believed that the exploitation and marginalization of women in Arab cultures, or other forms of cruelty justified through religious or cultural institutions, are moral. However, this is the view that conservatives attribute to them, and one rarely hears liberals attempting to debunk this misrepresentation. This is yet another example of conservatives being master framers, and liberals being lost in the rhetorical sea. In an almost ironic sense, then, it's the conservatives who've embraced the world-view most like relativism (see here), and have used it to frame liberals as relativists. Liberals, because of their more anti-relativistic world-view, have had a hard time countering the conservative framing.

    Friday, September 17, 2004

    The Stalking Continues

    Tell me this isn't a little bit creepy. I hope Paul's got a lock on his garbage.

    For the Linguists in the Audience

    Posted by Hello

    From a tear in the fabric of spacetime. There are more "silly linguistics flyers" to be found there, including one with the caption, "END ANTI-TRACE DISCRIMINATION!" Now I know why I took all those linguistics courses - so I could laugh at these.

    Why Timothy Lambert is My Favorite Blogger or Why John Lott is My Least Favorite Blogger

    Once again, Timothy Lambert puts John Lott on blast. How many times does Lott have to be beaten down before he just gives it up? Probably as many times as it takes to get people to stop paying and quoting him.

    In this episode of the John Lott speaks, and removes all doubt of his foolishness, Lott jumps on the recently published crime statistics for New South Wales. On his blog, Lott reports:

    With a reported 34 percent increase in armed robberies in Sydney during just the last 12 months, some have been driven to try and stop the attacks. (I don’t have the numbers handy at the moment, but armed robberies have been going up dramatically for the last six or so years in Australia.)

    Sounds bad for Australia's gun regulations, doesn't it? At least until you actually look at the data, as Lambert does. Lambert finds that Lott has cherry picked one data point out of more than two hundred. He writes:

    Now if, hypothetically, you were out to show that crime had increased here because of the 1996 gun laws you would be faced with a problem. Normally with sixteen crime categories you can find one that increased and you can then run with that. But there weren’t any significant increases this time. What to do, what to do?
    Fortunately the crime statistics are broken down into region and subregion. If you scroll down in the report you find a table giving the crime categories for each part of Sydney. Fourteen rows and sixteen columns means that there are 224 cells in the table. The table is a sea of negative numbers. Crime is down everywhere and in every category. But wait! There is one, just one, positive number in the whole table: Robbery with a firearm increased by 34% in inner Sydney, from 123 to 165.

    So, not only has crime gone down in Sydney (and Australia as a whole), but contrary to the way Lott describes the data, armed robberies have actually gone down there as well. The sad thing is, Lott will probably get away with this instance of blatant disingenuousness among pro-gun conservatives. What a world.

    Thursday, September 16, 2004

    Karl Rove the Feminist Bankteller

    Paperweight's Fair Shot has two posts (Part I and Part II on the Age of "Post-Reason Politics." According to Paperweight, this age is characterized by the following outlook:

    1. Act as if there are no facts. There are simply things that people say or believe, and other things that other people say or believe.
    2. Act as if there is no causation. There are simply things that people do and other things that happen. There is no connection.

    Paperweight notes that this view of our age is consistent with the political writings of George Lakoff, in which he describes the use of "framing," and argues that all political discourse is built around a system of metaphors, or frames1. Paperweight believes that while many in the general public will be swayed by truth, many others won't. Of the latter, he writes:

    [They] will continue to rely on heuristics, on shortcuts, on faith... [They] are easily manipulated by people, like Rove, Atwater, and their colleagues in the right-wing noise machine. The irony, of course, is that the manipulators are not themselves imprisoned by heuristics or their own manipulations. They understand exactly what they're doing, how to use all of the levers of power that they're wrenching out of the hands of the people, and exactly how they'll benefit.

    In the second post, Paperweight offers an explanation for this new age of politics. He writes:

    So, why is this possible, this wholesale contemporary rejection of the fundamental lessons about facts and causation, so hard-won over the last few centuries? I think it's because as a species, we've outstripped our ability to comprehend our world. Humans evolved to survive in small communities where the primary threats were physical, and almost everything that happened could be divided into two categories: simple physical problems that could be solved by heuristics (e.g. the intuitive Newtonian physics of throwing a spear) or complicated happenings that were relegated to the category of the supernatural (e.g., illness or pretty much any non-obvious causal connection). Social interactions were likewise based on heuristics, at least in part. That was modified by living in small communities, where you saw everyone over and over again, so that you could correct your misimpressions. It's hard, if you live in a small community, to outlive a reputation as a liar or a cheat, or a witch, if so accused.

    He goes on to expand on this in some detail. I think it's safe to say that this explanation is less than parsimonious, and may be empirically questionable as well. For one, it's a good bet that humans outstripped our ability to comprehend the world as soon as we started forming large communities, cultures, and societies. Even ancient physics, to say nothing of Newtonian physics, aren't really very intuitive. Our "folk physics" is actually quite inconsistent with both. Throughout the history of human culture, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people in any given society continued to rely on heuristics, faith, etc., to make decisions. It's simply the way our mind works, as people like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown over and over again. This is Lakoff's point as well. Even though a select few have been able to overcome superstitions, and to reason effectively inspite of their innate tendency to use suboptimal/irrational heuristics, most of us go through life clinging to these. Furthermore, even the most enlightened among us are bound by our world-view, and subject to the limiting effects of the confirmation bias, as the history of even post-Enlightenment science has shown over and over again.

    The irony, then, is not that the Enlightenment has produced a world so complex that people have to fall back on heuristics, faith, and irrational beliefs to make decisions. They have always done this, even in the height of the Enlightenment. Instead, the irony is that scientific techniques born of the Enlightenment have taught us enough about the ways in which humans make decisions that there are now more and more among the select few who have learned to take advantage of these facts about the human mind. Furthermore, the Enlightenment has done an excellent job of allowing larger and larger segments of the population to participate in the political process. Instead of politics being the domain of educated, land-owning white males, anyone over 18 who hasn't been convicted of a felony can vote. This means that the largest segment of the population, the individuals who have not been as radically transformed by Enlightenment knowledge as the select few, now have a powerful political voice. Thus, the select few have a vested interest in learning how to manipulate this voice.

    Unfortunately, it is conservatives who have learned to manipulate this voice the most effectively. As Paperweight and George Lakoff both note, it is the Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters of the world (to say nothing of the Ann Coulters and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, who are both products of manipulation, and excellent practitioners of it) who are now excelling at using lies and clever misrepresentations of the facts to manipulate large segments of the population to vote against their own interests. Liberals, for better or worse, still demonstrate the Enlightenment commitment to truth, at least in practice. This may be because they haven't learned the lessons about human decision making that conservatives have, or it may be because liberals really are more committed to Enlightenment principles. The cynic in me suspects the former is the case. Regardless, the question for liberals today is, how do we overcome the more developed conservative ability to deceptively frame political discussions in ways that are beneficial to their own interests? Clearly, liberals must develop a better understanding of how people make decisions. How they use that understanding is likely to generate a great deal of debate among those involved in liberal politics. Do we manipulate people with lies and deceit, as conservatives are doing so successfully today, or do we learn to use this understanding in combination with the facts to frame the political discussion in ways that are both consistent with our ideology and politically expedient2?

    CORRECTION: Paperweight is in fact Paperwight! I had read it "Paperweight" every time. You've gotta love the role of top-down processes and expectations on language perception.

    1 Contrary to Paperweight's assertion, Lakoff's view of frames still involves the existence of empirical facts (Lakoff even uses such to justify his liberalism). However, the way these facts are used to form a coherent world-view, and interpreted within that world view, is dependent on the use of a system of frames.
    2 This latter route is the one that Lakoff wants us to take. He and the other researchers at the Rockridge Institute are committed to findingg ways to do this within the perspective of contemporary liberalism, and to teaching liberal politicians how to use this knowledge effectively.

    Duuuude, you are soooo guilty.


    New Yorkers dreading jury duty take note: it's OK to be drunk on booze or high on pot or cocaine while doing your civic duty.

    So said a New York judge Wednesday, who refused to set aside the verdict on a retired city firefighter convicted of swiping souvenirs from Ground Zero, citing the U.S. Supreme Court to back her ruling.

    But you can't fall asleep!

    Wednesday, September 15, 2004

    Krugman's Got Two Stalkers, Not Just One

    Given my love of blog wars, I must admit that I'm sorry I missed the whole Donald Luskin stalker controversy. It occurred before I began reading blogs. I am sure that I would have loved to watch it play out. Fortunately, Luskin is still stalking1 Krugman with the same fervor and blind ignorance that led to the "stalking" controversy in the first place. Luskin's no longer alone in his stalking, either. Now, Kieth Burgess-Jackson has taken up his position outside of Krugman's bathroom window, and donned his binoculars. Burgess-Jackson's stalking hasn't reached Luskin's levels, yet, but a reader of his blog cannot go more than a day or two without discovering a vitriolic post about Krugman. When there are so many critics of Bush, and since Krugman is largely ignored by the general public, one can only wonder at Luskin and Burgess Jackson's obsession with him. It's for this reason that I think the "stalking" label is appropriate - this is clearly personal. What Krugman might have done to these two mediocre intellectuals, I do not know, but it must have been something really, really bad.

    I might hesitate to call the fixation on Krugman of these two rhetorically-challenged bloggers "stalking," if their criticisms were at all substantial, but they rarely if ever are. More often than not, they consist of personal attacks on Krugman, and snide remarks about one of his remarks. For example, in a recent post, Luskin's entire critique of a Krugman article consists of the following:

    Hey, why not suggest that Kerry claim he would have arrested Mohammed Atta on Septemer 10, 2001?

    This post, which is much longer, making its lack of substance even more impressive, is another of my favorites. In it, Luskin describes Krugman as "America's most dangerous liberal pundit." This hyperbole is so patently absurd, one automatically believes that it is meant ironically, but the rest of the post, and Luskin's blog in general, make it clear that it's not.

    Here is a post on Krugman by Burgess-Jackson, in its entirety:

    Paul Krugman's hysteria becomes more pronounced with each passing day. He is beside himself with frustration and rage that the American people don't see what he sees: that President Bush is endangering them rather than making them safer. See here. If John Kerry takes Krugman's advice, Kerry will suffer Michael Dukakis's fate. But deep down, Krugman won't mind. It will give him four more years to do what he does best: spew hatred.

    Project much, Keith? Who knew that in addition to being the world's most juvenile philosopher, Burgess-Jackson is also a psychoanalyst? If only this were Keith's worst effort. At least here he does not show a complete ignorance of economics, as he does when he asks, "By the way, who cares about the budget deficit?" in the following post:
    Paul Krugman calling someone dishonest is precious. See here. He is the most intellectually dishonest person I have known in my forty-seven years. By the way, who cares about the budget deficit? Somebody give me a reason to care. If we keep taxes to a minimum, as President Bush is doing, it will force us to think clearly about what's important. Nothing focused my mind and disciplined my expenditures during law and graduate school more than poverty.

    Ah yes, a personal anecdote. There's no better criticism of economic commentary than one person's experience! Precious.

    If you think these posts might be unrepresentative of the two stalkers' comments on Krugman, you need only read their blogs for a few days to see that you are wrong. There's no attempt at substantive critiques; and little effort to criticize what Krugman actually says (and when there is, it usually consists of the sort of sardonic comments quoted from the Luskin posts). So, whatever Luskin and his lawyers think, the stalker label looks pretty appropriate to me. If their posts were motivated by anything more than an irrational Krugman fetish, one would expect substantive critiques of Krugman's anti-Bush articles. You'll find little if any of this.

    1 The use of the label "stalker" on the internet has a long history (long relative to the age of the internet itself). Anyone who has used inernet forums or chatrooms is familiar with this use. It's a derogatory label used not to indicate the sort of stalking that might get someone arrested, but an unhealthy and irrational fixation by one internet user on another. If Luskin, Burgess-Jackson, and Krugman were all posters on some internet forum, and Luskin and B-G posted the same sorts of attacks with the same frequency, there is no doubt that other users would call them "Krugman's stalkers."

    Forget Abu Ghraib, The Real War Crimes Were in Afghanistan

    I think it's a sad indictment of American politics when the Bush administration can create an atmosphere in which it is impossible for an opposition candidate to criticize the American military. The reason is that if Americans were aware of what has gone on under Bush's watch, very few would be inclined to vote for him. In particular, I think it's sad that this has received no attention whatsoever from Kerry, or Democrats in general. For me, the fact that Americans oversaw, and then covered up the mass murder of perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoners of war, some by suffocation in rail cars! makes me sick, and I would never vote for a president who hasn't done something about it. Joe Carter asks, "What would make me vote for Kerry?" I would hope that awareness of this would make any ethically sound conservative do so.

    Russia's "Domestic Matter"

    When the White House describes Putin's recent move toward a more powerful central government, though not surprising given his speech following the North Ossetia tragedy, has the potential to be tragic for the Russian people, and perhaps even dangerous for the United States. A powerful central Russian government with its hands on all of those nukes can quickly create another arms race. Furthermore, the U.S. hasn't been particularly good to Russia over the last four years (for instance, with our withdraw from the anti-proliferation treaty), causing resentment among the Russian people and government. Yet the Bush administration's response has been apathetic at best, referring to Putin's actions as "a domestic matter for the Russian people." I think Robert Kagan is right, then, to question whether Bush's commitment to democracy really exists. He says:

    Failure to take sides with democratic forces in Russia will cast doubt on Bush's commitment to worldwide democracy. A White House official commented to the New York Times that Putin's actions are "a domestic matter for the Russian people." Really? If so, then the same holds for all other peoples whose rights are taken away by tyrants. If the Bush administration holds to that line, then those hostile to democracy in the Middle East will point to the glaring U.S. double standard; those who favor democracy in the Middle East will be discredited. That will be a severe blow to what Bush regards as a central element of his war on terrorism.

    Why, if we can intervene militarily to build a democracy in an at most mildly (if at all) dangerous Iraq, can we not at least protest loudly about a huge turn away from democracy in a potentially very dangerous Russia? I think it's likely that Bush feels like he is stuck between Scylla and Charybdis on this one. On the one hand, he has a looming nuclear threat in Russia, while on the other, he has Russia's necessary support in the "war on terrorism." Protesting against Putin's power grab will likely anger Putin, and make him less supportive of future U.S. actions against terrorism. He will have leverage, too, arguing that the U.S. criticized him for doing what he saw as necessary to stem the tide of terrorism in his own country, so why should he support the U.S.'s actions against terrorism in the middle east (or elsewhere)? So Bush and his advisors have a difficult decision to make. Do we take seriously the view that the worldwide promotion of democracy is the best way to combat terrorism, or do we take the position that I think many in the administration already feel is the correct one, namely that fighting terrorism sometimes requires drastic, anti-democratic steps (e.g., the Patriot Act, "enemy combatants," etc.)?

    If the Bush administration's policies toward other dictatorships, like those in the former Soviet states in Central Asia, is any indication, they have already chosen the latter. Sadly, this is the same sort of "ends justify the means" mentality that helped to create the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention the rest of the Middle East) in the first place, under Reagan. It's not clear to me that conservatives have ever learned that getting into bed with anti-democratic leaders because it is temporarily expedient to do so can create long term problems. I'm not even sure that they care. It may be up to the Russian people to stem the tide of dangerous anti-democratic moves by Putin's government, and given the unprecedented assaults on civil rights and democracy that the American people have allowed the Bush administration to commit, there's little reason to hope that the Russian people, hurt and angered by several terrorist attacks and an even greater threat of continued terrorism, will do any better.

    UPDATE: More and better comments on this here.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2004

    Blogs and the Intellect of the American Public

    I'm no genius, and would never pretend to be. I would never claim to produce profound insights in the comments on this blog. Nor would I hope, much less expect my comments to influence the minds of anyone else. I blog simply to express some of the things that I am thinking at the moment. For these reasons, and many more, I never expect this blog to be widely read. Yet, I can only gasp with amazement when I read some of the blogs that are. Take, for example, two of the most widely-read blogs in the blogosophere, Atrios and Instapundit. The two represent the extremes of partisan punditry - Atrios being blindly pro-Democrat, and Instapundit blindly pro-Republican (despite Reynold's laughable assertion that he is a "non-partisan libertarian"1). I cannot for the life of me think of any good reason why these two blogs should be read by anyone.

    The one possible good reason for reading these blogs is that they do a fairly good job of presenting stories that many of us may not have read in the mainstream media, and which those with similar political bents will find interesting. However, their commentary on these stories is rarely, if ever, interesting or insightful. In fact, they tend to be sloppy and, more often than not, downright silly. For an example from Atrios, take this recent post on a Washington Post story. In it, Atrios writes:

    So, it’s pretty much the case that we went into Fallujah because some warbloggers got excited about the video of the desecration of the dead civilian contractors.

    This statement sparked heated discussion at Crooked Timber, with many commentors defending Atrios' position. However, even if this sentence contains a kernel of truth(though not an original one), his wording is at best hyperbolic, and at worst careless. It's unlikely that the Bush administration's actions in Fallujah were directly influenced by "warbloggers" at all, and while bloggers do have some (currently minimal, but certainly growing) influence on public perception, the mainstream media's presentation of the events leading up to military action in Fallujah were certainly no better. Pictures of the defiled bodies of dead Americans will incite outrage, no matter what, and Bush has consistently shown himself to be easily swayed by public opionion (do the patients' bill of rights, the Department of Homeland Security, the 9/11 commission, and the Federal Marriage Amendment ring a bell?).

    Reynold's, better known as Instapundit, is no better. His constant assertions that the media has, and will continue to blatantly support John Kerry (see here for a recent example, in an article at Tech Central Station, the world's foremost source of uninformed opinions) indicate a profound disconnect from reality. So, too, does his belief that, for all intents and purposes, Bush and Kerry have the same position on gay marriage, with the only difference being Bush's support for the doomed FMA. As Scott Lemieux observes, this is almost nonsensical. He writes:

    Even if this were an accurate characterization, the argument is ridiculous on its face. Apart from having diametrically opposed positions on the central relevant issue, their position is exactly the same! Similarly, Barry Bonds and I have similar baseball skills, except that he is the best player in major league history and I can't hit a 50 MPH fastball. But other than that, our baseball abilities are exactly the same.

    Why, if their commentary is unoriginal, uninsightful, and often sloppy or downright delusional, are these blogs and others like them read? It is not for a lack of interesting and insightful blogs. There are plenty (personally, I like the ones in my "blogroll"). Yet the readership of these blogs is usually substantially lower than that of blogs like Atrios and Instapundit. The only explanation I can think for this fact is that people prefer delusional and hyperbolic rants that are consistent with their own beliefs to objective reporting and insightful opinion. I think this says a lot about the American public, and why we so easily get stuck with a president like George Bush, and cannot come up with a challenger better than John Kerry. I wish I had any hope that things were likely to change.

    1 As Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns, and Money notes, Reynold's unflinching support for President Bush, whose increases in government spending rival FDR's, and whose statist, anti-civil rights policies have led true libertarians to support a lunatic like Michael Badnerik, makes the claim that he is a "libertarian" seem patently absurd.