Friday, October 29, 2004

John Kerry for President (1.2):
The Case Against Bush, Part 2--The Florida Recount
and What it Revealed

I’ve long intended to write something semi-substantial about the election debacle of 2000, but never managed to write more than fragments. I’ve wanted to write about it in part because it was one of the political turning points of my own life, and in part because I think that, despite the massive amount of ink that has been spilled over it, too little has actually been said.

I’m certainly not the most qualified person to write about it, but I’m not the least qualified, either. From November 8th 2000 until December 18th, I basically did nothing but read newspapers, watch the news, and surf the ‘net for information on the recount. I slept a little, but not much, and teaching takes up about nine hours per week. So that left a lot of time for me to try to absorb information about what was going on. I've read Bush v. Gore and analyzed some of the arguments in some depth, and have continued to think about the relevant issues for almost four years now.

Let me start by saying that I was a lukewarm Gore supporter, and that I did work for the Charlottesville Democrats at a very low level—working the phone banks, mostly. But I was torn about my decision, and every night I drove down to Democratic headquarters I had the same heated argument with myself about whether I was making a mistake. If McCain had won the Republican nomination, there is a good—but not quite 50%—chance that I would have voted and worked for him.

After the election, however, my position began to change. After about a week of almost non-stop observation of the election deadlock, something extremely unpleasant slowly began to dawn on me. There was something very different about the ways the two sides were conducting themselves. By nature and by training, I’m the sort of person who second-, third-, and fourth-guesses most of his judgments. At first I surmised that it was simply my (relatively weak) pro-Gore bias manifesting itself. But the evidence mounted. And mounted. The Republicans were, to say the very least, playing hardball. The Democrats were, to say the very least, not.

Now, a few Democrats had made some terribly injudicious comments soon after the election, and the Gore campaign’s initial reactions were purely strategic rather than principled. But the Democrats--presumably under the direction of Gore--quickly fell into line and began acting, more or less, like civilized members of a liberal democracy. Not so the Republicans. Their rhetoric, initially perhaps somewhat less vituperative than that of the Democrats, quickly pegged the invective meter. Gore was a sore loser. Gore was a cheater. Gore was trying to steal the election… In the face of the patently obvious fact that we simply had no idea who had won the election, the Republicans labeled Gore a sore loser—which, of course, presupposed that he had lost. And because he asked that the votes actually be counted, they accused him of trying to steal what, for all we knew, was rightfully his. The irrationality and immorality of it all made me feel physically sick more than once. It was hard for me to believe that this was happening in the United States.

Gore urged his supporters to stay home, pointing out that the campaign was over, that it was time for us to come together as Americans and make a rational and dispassionate decision about who had won. Republicans urged their supporters to protest, and sent interns to Florida to disrupt the recount, along with an “electronic command post” to control the mayhem. Veiled threats were made. At least one official was assaulted. To this day I still can’t believe that Republicans printed those absurd and disrespectful “Sore Loserman” signs. The Republicans clearly considered the battle over the recount simply to be a political campaign conducted by other means.

The Democrats’ main argument was, in short: every vote should be counted. The Republicans’ main argument was, in short: give us the f*cking Presidency. Now.

I watched this develop with growing horror, frustration and anger.

Many of the essential elements of this repugnant spectacle were on display in microcosm when James Baker and Warren Christopher appeared—separately but on the same day—on Meet the Press.

Christopher’s arguments were modest and reasonable. As always, his tone was measured and dispassionate. He stuck to the facts. He looked and sounded like what he was—a man struggling with great and weighty issues. He was clearly a statesman, not a salesman.

Baker was a different story entirely. His tone was dogmatic and derisive; he oozed contempt for anyone with the temerity to deny the indubitability of Bush’s right to power. His arguments were weak, his methods sophistical. Over and over he asserted that the votes had already been counted—and recounted, and recounted again. Over and over he asserted that Gore would ask for recount after recount until he got the result he wanted. Over and over he asserted that any manual recount must be flawed, that such recounts were purely “subjective,” that they involved attempts to “divine” the intent of the voter.

But none of these assertions were true.

As had already become clear, all experts on punch-card machines acknowledged that a machine count was expected to have about a 2% error rate. Machine counts are approximations, to be relied upon only in those cases in which the margin of victory is relatively large. For more accurate counts required by smaller margins of victory, it was always intended that more accurate manual recounts would be used. The margin of victory in this race was too small to be accurately detected by the available machinery. That is to say that many of the votes—votes that would make a difference in such a close election—had never been counted at all. Gore was in no way requesting that the votes be recounted until he won; he was asking that they all be counted at least once.

The word ‘divine,’ of course, had been carefully chosen by the Bush campaign in preference to the more accurate ‘discern.’ The term was used repeatedly by Republican operatives, in conjunction with allusions to Johnny Carson’s old “Great Carnak” schtick, and along with pictures of a slightly cross-eyed vote-counter in Florida staring earnestly and intently at a punch card. We were being intentionally manipulated. A conclusion about a matter of vital national importance was being hawked like a can of Coke, with catch phrases, and with ridicule for those who weren’t buying.

But there was, in fact, no divination involved. The task in question was not notably more subjective than any of millions of other perceptual tasks performed by humans every day. Mechanics must determine whether aircraft parts exhibit excessive wear. Doctors must determine whether patients appear healthy, whether children are developing normally, whether this blotch on Smith’s skin is sufficiently or insufficiently symmetrical, whether or not a bump near a pin-prick counts as a welt. In laboratories scientists must determine whether solutions have turned opaque, whether needles read 0.002 or 0.003, whether a specimen is appropriate for inclusion in a control group. All of these tasks require some degree of human judgment, but none of them is reasonably described as entirely (or excessively) “subjective.” Human life—and even science itself—is in large part a matter of human beings making judgments about the objective though often partially-occluded facts about an objective and partially fuzzy world. If determining whether a chad is hanging or dented is subjective, then everything—including science—is subjective. Furthermore, if these things are subjective, then the decision to program the machines to one level of sensitivity rather than another is subjective. When the going gets tough, the crafty go Postmodern—and Baker might as well have been wearing a black beret and quoting Derrida.

Things do not change appreciably when it is human intentions that are to be discerned. Every day we make countless judgments about the intentions of others. Turn signals indicate intentions to turn, upraised hands indicate intentions to ask questions or make comments, certain well-known actions indicate a desire to catch one’s attention. Some behaviors indicate an intention to do harm. Judges, police officers, military personnel, statesmen, and ordinary citizens make life and death decisions every day as a result of judgments about the intentions of others. Although sometimes difficult it is something we are quite good at. Primarily because almost all of those Homo Sapiens who weren’t good at it died off long ago.

To help my students think in situations like this, I often urge them to use the “life-or-death test." In this case, it would go a little something like this:

Suppose that somehow the fate of the Earth depended on correctly ascertaining the outcome of the Florida vote in 2000. Suppose, just to get the point clear in your head, that aliens had decided to blow up the Earth if we got the recount wrong. And suppose you were in charge of determining how to handle the situation. On the one hand, you have the experts informing you that the machines have a 1-2% inaccuracy rate, and you know that the margin of victory in this case is far, far below that threshold. You also know that humans are eminently capable of performing the relevant perceptual and judgmental tasks, and capable of doing them better than machines. You know that the task will not be easy, and that there will be some borderline cases—dents so small that no one will be able to judge whether it is or is not a vote. But you also know that most cases will not be like that at all. In most cases it will be perfectly clear who the voter intended to vote for, and in the unclear cases humans will more reliably produce right answers than machines will. In short, you know what the voting machine experts told us back in 2000—that humans are more reliable tabulators of punch-card ballots than are machines.

Now, with the fate of the Earth riding on your decision, would you decide to stick with the machine counts or recount by hand?

That’s what I thought.

And if democracy really mattered to the members of Bush’s 2000 campaign, that’s what they would have decided, too.

Another way to settle cases like this is by looking at “prior commitments.” In the heat of the moment, people’s judgments about what is fair and unfair are too often mangled by their desires. Our judgments in a cool hour, when we have nothing directly at stake, are often much more reliable. And, of course, Bush himself had signed into law a bill in Texas that required manual recounts in such cases, indicating that he himself acknowledged their superiority. The Bush camp responded to this by arguing that the case was different in Florida because no standards were established in the Florida law. That’s wrong, however. All of the standards employed in Florida recounts were reasonable standards, and all would produce more accurate counts than the machines produced, so the fact that the methods differed was irrelevant. Using different reasonable standards of recounting is no more unfair than using different reasonable types of voting machines, so long as all the methods in question are at least as accurate as machine counts.

So, did the Bush camp steal the election? I don’t know, and probably neither do you. Is it theft to take something that may or may not already belong to you? Suppose there is a valuable book, bought and sold back and forth between your ancestors and mine over the course of generations. Suppose we lose track of who actually owns the book, but that we have a box containing all bills of sale for the book over the years. Some of the papers are cryptic and difficult to read, but most are perfectly legible. It is clear that our only hope for determining the actual ownership of the book is to carefully reconstruct the book’s sales history. It may be yours, it may be mine, but we won’t really know until we read through all the papers. But driven by raw greed, one day I simply decide to take the book, ownership be damned. Suppose we later discover that the actual history of the sales is incomplete, and ownership cannot be conclusively determined.

Did I steal the book?

I’m not sure. But I am sure that I would, under those circumstances, have shown myself to be a thief.

And I’m sure that you shouldn’t trust me around your books.

Bush and his cohort revealed something significant and horrifying about themselves during the recount debacle of 2000--they showed that they were willing to seize power even with insufficient evidence that they deserved it. Subsequent actual counting of the ballots—something deemed by the Bush camp to be too costly, time-consuming, and unimportant to undertake before appointing a president—showed that Gore probably won. If we’re lucky, it was too close to call. If we’re not lucky, then we allowed an unelected band of thugs to seize power in the world’s greatest democracy.

We don’t know whether the Bush camp stole the election, but what we do know is that they clearly exhibited a willingness to do so. They expended all their energies on seizing power, and almost no energy to determine who had actually won. In fact, they actively worked to prevent recounts that would have told us who did win. Such people, I believe, are unfit to lead this country.

Conservatives complain when liberals bring up these past electoral shenanigans, but they are relevant to more recent events. Many people were surprised by the contempt shown by the Bush administration for allies and Americans who failed to support the invasion of Iraq. Their surprise came as a surprise to me, because the actions of the Bush team in 2000 had already exhibited the relevant characteristics so clearly. In both cases they jumped to a conclusion that they preferred based on inadequate evidence. In both cases they even distorted and sought to suppress evidence that contradicted their preferred conclusion. In both cases they were astonishingly dogmatic about their preferred conclusion, and, in essence, accused anyone who disagreed with them of being an idiot or a criminal. Iraq was, logically speaking, just a replay of the recount debacle of 2000.

In a way the disaster that has been the Bush administration might—but probably won’t—ultimately be a good thing for this country. Without it, Americans might have allowed themselves to believe that the recount of 2000 turned out alright. Although the race was so close that either Bush or Gore might reasonably have been declared the winner, that is not the point. The point is that America allowed itself to be bullied and railroaded into accepting a leader. That would be appalling even if that leader had turned out to be a good one. Unfortunately, even now the lesson seems not to have been driven home in a sufficiently hard way for about 45% of the population. Of those people, one can only wonder what on Earth Bush would have to do to demonstrate his unfitness for office.

These reflections are also relevant because we stand on the verge of another election debacle. Both sides are lawyered up and itching for a fight. Whatever good will between the parties that managed to survive the 2000 recount has subsequently been squandered by the Bush administration’s policy of pushing it’s agenda by hook or by crook, loyal opposition and allies and world opinion and facts and evidence and the “reality-based community” be damned.

As you have by now ascertained—or divined, as the Bush camp might put it—I will not be voting for George W. Bush this time, either.

But this time there is no doubt in my mind that I am making the right decision.
Bush's Wire
Does This Tinfoil Make Me Look Fat?

Via Kos, one finds this at

Oct. 29, 2004 George W. Bush tried to laugh off the bulge. "I don't know what that is," he said on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, referring to the infamous protrusion beneath his jacket during the presidential debates. "I'm embarrassed to say it's a poorly tailored shirt."

Dr. Robert M. Nelson, however, was not laughing. He knew the president was not telling the truth. And Nelson is neither conspiracy theorist nor midnight blogger. He's a senior research scientist for NASA and for Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and an international authority on image analysis. Currently he's engrossed in analyzing digital photos of Saturn's moon Titan, determining its shape, whether it contains craters or canyons.

For the past week, while at home, using his own computers, and off the clock at Caltech and NASA, Nelson has been analyzing images of the president's back during the debates. A professional physicist and photo analyst for more than 30 years, he speaks earnestly and thoughtfully about his subject. "I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate," he says. "This is not about a bad suit. And there's no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt."

There's more, and I'd read it were I you. (Note that the article, by way of establishing Dr. Nelson's credibility, is careful to point out that he is "not a blogger." That's funny for several conflicting reasons...)

Look, I don't know what to think about this, but one thing's for sure:

Bush and Rove and co. are not above pulling a deception of this kind. I don't know whether Bush did or did not wear a "wire" in this debate, but if you could boil my reasons for voting against him down to two points they might very well be:

(i) He needs to wear a wire because he's neither intelligent nor knowledgeable enough for the job
(ii) He's dishonest enough to do it if he thought he could get away with it.

I used to think that this wire stuff was crazy. But that now strikes me as a silly thing to think. Bush has lied to us in far more profound ways than this. So there is no reason to think that he'd be above pulling this pathetic deception. He clearly has no respect for the autonomy of the electorate, so I see no reason to think that he wouldn't do something of this kind.

And it's the fact that he's not above doing it that makes him unfit for office.

If he did do it, all that proves (ab esse ad posse) is that he would do it--which is something most of us on the liberal end of the 'Sphere have known all along.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Barry Seltzer, Idiot, Tries to Kill Republicans as "Political Expression"

This psycho apparently tried to run over Katherine Harris and some other Republicans, saying "I was exercising my political expression." Verbal expression is apparently not Mr. Seltzer's strong suit, either.

Nice going, Barry. Way to undermine political civility AND make the good guys look bad at the same time. A twofer! Your mother must be very, very proud.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Bush's "New Freedom Commission on Mental Health" Proposes Psychological Screening for All Americans???

Um, this is from the Washington Times, so I suppose we can't get too freaked out about it until it's confirmed by an actual news source...

If it were true, of course, it would be utter lunacy.

Hmmm...but perhaps pointing out the craziness of this plan is one of those things for which the "New Freedom" commission will have one hauled off to the funny Rehabilitation Center...

(Thanks to AJC for the heads-up on this.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

350 TONS of Super-High Explosive Missing in Iraq

Well that's just great.

THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY (that's 3-5-0) TONS (thats TONS) of RDX and HMX under IAEA seal were stolen in the first few days of the occupation.

And the DoD has been keeping this secret.

These are bad, bad, bad state-of-the-art explosives. This has got to be a lot of what's killing our boys over there. And it's enough to keep killing them for a long, long time.

It's also enough stuff to blow up lots and lots of very, very large things.

Oh, and it's also used for detonating nukes.

This is very, very bad news.

My god, what next?
John Kerry for President 1.1

Part 1: The Case Against Bush

This is the first in a series of posts in which I state and briefly discuss my reasons for endorsing John Kerry for President of the United States and voting against George W. Bush. First I will discuss my reasons for voting against Bush. I will discuss these reasons in roughly decreasing order of what I take to be their importance. Currently I anticipate discussing the problem of polarization (below), the conduct of the war against Islamofascism, the role of truth and reason in a democracy, the election of 2000 and the penumbra of issues surrounding it, ruthlessness and demagoguery, Mr. Bush’s character, and the problem of plutocracy in America. I believe that the anti-Bush case alone constitutes sufficient grounds for voting for Mr. Kerry, but I will then offer a positive case for Mr. Kerry as well.

1.1. The problem of polarization

I am inclined to think—though am far from certain—that the most pressing problem facing us is that of polarization. This should not be construed as proof that I am insufficiently serious about the war against Islamofascism. On the contrary, it is a sign of how seriously I take the problem of polarization. Politics should be the art of compromise when such compromise is practicable and morally permissible, and the strength of the liberal democracies of the West lies, in great part, in their ability to build just polities on an overlapping consensus among their populations.

President Bush has been the most polarizing American president of (the conscious part) of my lifetime. He ran as “a uniter not a divider,” but this was one of many untruths he would tell during the campaign and his first term in office. Having failed to win the popular vote, Bush had at least some obligation to govern from somewhere near the center, but he has made no effort to do so. He has in four years managed to alienate most of the world and almost all of our foreign allies, most of the Democratic party and a fair part of his own. As it stands, most of the world (civilized and uncivilized) now stands loosely united against a hard core of conservative ideologues in the Republican party, backed by voters who are in large part misinformed about the policies of the candidate they support. Now, sometimes a small minority is right and the large majority is wrong, but it is more often the other way around. Consequently, a minimally wise man will double check his reasoning when he finds himself in disagreement with most everyone else, including men far wiser than himself. Mr. Bush and his cohort have refused, however, to even consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Such dogmatism and contempt for the opinions of others is not only irrational in itself (the subject of a future installment in this series), but a further cause of polarization.

Domestic political polarization is not an unwelcome by-product of Mr. Bush’s policies, it is a conscious strategy employed to cripple the political process. Mindful of Grover Norquist’s comparison of bipartisanship to date rape, the Republican leadership has actively worked to seize complete control in Washington, refusing to allow Democrats to read crucial legislation before it comes to a vote, refusing to grant them rooms in which to hold their committee meetings, and instituting the vile “K-street project” to enhance the power of Republican lobbyists and decrease that of Democratic ones. All in Washington now recognize that the tone there is worse than it has been in modern memory.

And finally we must remember the Administration’s strategy of demonizing not only our enemies in war but the loyal opposition at home as well. Many of those we currently fight are, as President Bush has put, evildoers. But many are misguided, misled by bad men into doing bad things. And some are, in fact, good men reacting exactly the way you and I would react if our families were killed by a foreign army. The belief on the extreme right that our own policies have in no way helped to create our current predicament is no more rational than is the belief on the extreme left that Osama bin Laden is simply misunderstood. We can recognize that many of our enemies are monsters without viewing them all as raving demons.

At home, those of us who merely suggest what I have suggested above are labeled unpatriotic—demonized, that is, in a different way. Even mild, informed, rational dissent—that most American of activities—has been characterized by the Administration as un-American. To be anti-Bush is to be anti-American; to be against the war is to be against the troops which is to be anti-American. To be for the war but critical of our strategy is to be anti-war which is to be against the troops which is to be anti-American. According to this administration, to disagree with its policies in any way is to be anti-American. But, of course, one of the few things that can make an American truly anti-American is to believe that dissent is anti-American. Of all the administration’s polarizing policies, this is perhaps the most despicable.

Polarization saps our strength by encouraging us to fight each other rather than our common enemies. It creates strife where once none existed, preventing us from directing our energies toward positive ends. Even worse, it drains the reservoir of trust and good will that makes civil dialog and peaceful democratic government possible. Powerful elements of the Republican leadership, aided by their allies in the right-wing media, have for more than a decade now engaged in a concerted campaign to convince conservatives that centrists and liberals are evil, traitorous, and possibly insane. Nothing in my lifetime has weakened us as a nation more than this. The 9/11 attacks, though infinitely more brutal and heart-wrenching, did far less damage to us as a nation. Those attacks were like a painful physical wound to our nation, a wound that would heal with time, and perhaps even make us stronger as a result. The right’s campaign of polarization via deception and demonization is like a wound to our public soul. If this strategy succeeds and is taken to its logical extreme, then someday in the future people will speak of chaos and despair in the former United States as we speak of it in the former Yugoslavia. Such polarization cannot be stopped after it reaches a tipping point, and the power-greedy among us who exploit it as a strategy show that they are willing to flirt with the destruction of our democracy in order to achieve their political ends. This trend towards polarization must be stopped soon if it is to be stopped at all. It must, I say, be stopped now.

For these reasons and others, I conclude that the administration of George W. Bush has been disastrous, and that he and his administration are unfit to lead our country. I will not, I cannot vote for him.

I encourage you, in the strongest possible terms, to vote for Mr. Kerry.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Villains and Kooks for W

Yesterday I saw over at Blogcritics that the poor, deluded wingers have sunk to putting pro-W words in the mouths of heroes (of fact and fiction). This strikes me as rather loopy to say the least, but I thought it would be rather more fun, more accurate (or at least more plausible), and rather less pathetic to make up some pro-W quotes that could plausibly be attributed to real and fictional kooks and villains. I don't have any of my non-philosophy books here in my office right now, so I can't produce any. But, hey, I'm the big idea guy on this one... You guys can take care of the details.

I can think of some kooks and villains who would be ardent Bush supporters, however:
(Note: the list is slanted heavily toward the'd be kinda creepy to put anti-Bush words in the mouth of, e.g. bin Laden or Hitler... Some more temporally distant figures are suggested, tho...)

The Mouth of Sauron (the real--by which I mean fictional--one, not Scotty McC. (the fake one))
T. D. Lysenko
Boris Badanov
Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu &co.
Captain Ahab
Mojo JoJo
Mike Kryzyewski and/or Bobby Knight
Big Brother
Dr. Evil
Dr. Zin (of Johnny Quest fame)
Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Smith (of Lost in Space fame)
Ghengis Khan
The Terminator (who may secretly be W's debate coach, come to think of it...)
The Riddler, the Penguin, & co.
Attila the Hun
Jack D. Ripper
Mr. Potter (It's a Wonderful Life)
Vlad the Impaler
Lex Luthor
Darth Vader
Paul De Mann
The Sheriff of Nottingham
Mr. Burns

Well, you get the idea. Fortunately The Onion has started us off. Here's one of the world's great villains for W.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Barnes, Bloor Bad

I'm currently reading a very, very, very bad paper. A paper so very, very, very bad that I just had to tell you about it. I've read this paper before, but I assigned it to my students because it is famous and influential, and it is by famous and influential people, and it expresses a famous and influential view in one of its purest forms. This paper is by Barry Barnes and David Bloor. This paper is called "Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge." It is in a well-known and otherwise respectable anthology titled Rationality and Relativism, ed. Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes.

This paper is shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

This paper has one of the highest FPP (fallacy per paragraph) ratings of any I've ever read. This includes Paul Feyerabend's aptly-titled Farewell to Reason.

That is saying something.

Philosophy is hard, and most of what philosophers write is probably bunk and I realize this and so it usually doesn't provoke this kind of response in me. Barnes and Bloor are not philosophers, they are sociologists, but that's o.k., too. If sociologists can write good philosophy, then more power to them, I say. But, you know how bad sociology done by philosophers is? Well, philosophy done by sociologists is at least that bad, on average.

It's not the extreme, unutterable badness of this paper that is really getting to me, it's that B&B demonstrate that they aren't even competent to address the questions they are addressing. They usually haven't the foggiest understanding of the arguments and positions they are discussing. They are, in short, bullshitting. There is approximately one sound argument in this paper. That is a disgrace. People read this paper. This paper effects people's thinking. My god, don't these guys recognize that they have obligations to at least try to be honest and minimally competent?

The other thing that is annoying me is that the paper is peppered with snide, condescending comments about philosphers and other louts who believe in truth and reason. Now, talking out of your ass about things you don't understand is a defect, and being snide in a scholarly paper is a defect, but the thing that is really getting to me about this paper is the combination of incompetence and incivility. It''s breathtaking.

I'm not going to start shredding the arguments here--though I might later on. I'm just complaining.

Gosh, there certainly are a terrible lot of charlatans in academia! It's enough to depress a less inherently cheery fellow than myself...

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Suskind's Bush Aide is Not a Relativist

[This post was languishing, almost-but-not-quite done, on my machine when Dalai reported, below, that Kevin Drum had already made a similar point. I haven't looked at Drum's post, but will now that this one is finished. That guy beats me to the punch with some regularity, curse him... On the other hand, I guess this is his actual j-o-b now...]

The Blogosphere’s been abuzz about Suskind’s “Without a Doubt.” Many people, including me, have suggested that the Bush aide quoted in the piece was expressing a version of alethic or epistemic relativism or some such view. Even as I wrote my short post on this subject, I already doubted that it was true, but, foolishly, elected to put the post up anyway. I wrote in haste and I was wrong. Here’s why:

Suskind wrote:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

What did the aide mean? I’ll be you large amounts of money that he didn’t mean anything very precise at all. Few people who speak like this have a very clear idea of what they are trying to say. For example, very few people believe in a clear and carefully thought-out way that reality is dependent on our representations of it (our beliefs about it, claims about it, etc.). Most people who say seemingly relativistic things like this hold some vague and/or ambiguous, half-understood thesis. For example, leftists who argue that moral obligations are culturally relative really have little idea what they are saying; they are usually just trying, in a vague and stumbling way, to urge people to respect other cultures. Again: it’s not that such people have a clear thesis in mind but express it unclearly, it’s that they don’t have a clear thesis in mind.

But more to the point: “We create our own reality” could mean at least two different things. First, it could mean something philosophically interesting though rather obviously false—roughly that our thoughts about reality directly alter the nature of non-mental parts of reality. (Thoughts can apparently affect reality, of course, but only by directing the movements of our physical bodies, which can then alter other parts of the physical world, and that’s clearly not a relevant phenomenon here.) But the aid almost certainly does not believe that the actual, physical nature of the world depends on our representations of it. That is, it is highly unlikely that he is some strange kind of relativist or anti-realist. He is also probably not a Kantian transcendental idealist, nor a subjective idealist who, like Berkeley, thinks that the world is composed entirely of mental phenomena.

So, to the extent that he means anything identifiable, what does he mean? Probably something like this:

You people are basically in the grip of the academic, scientific mentality. You’re thinkers. You want to know ‘is A true?’ ‘is it reasonable to believe that B?’ ‘What conclusions can we draw from C?’ But we are doers. We want to act. We want to bring it about that X, make Y so, change the world so that Z. While you’re wondering whether such-and-such is true, we’re making thus-and-so the case. While you are pondering the world, we are changing it.

(This reminds me, incidentally, of Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Maybe the Bushies are Marxists...)

Now, it is good to be both a thinker and a doer, and one can err by moving too far in either direction. The thing is to know when and how to think and when and what to do. To think when action is called for or act when thinking is called for is a defect. The aide in question probably thinks that anti-war folks wanted to keep thinking past the point of diminishing cognitive returns.

The aide--as we now know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt--is wrong. More thinking and less action would have revealed to us that our reasons for acting were insufficiently good. The problem in Iraq was, in fact, too much action and too little thought. There was no imminent (immediate, looming, real and relevant, etc.) threat. It was not a time that called for quick action, it was a time that called for collecting and analyzing data.

The above is very rough of course. It wasn’t so much that there was an insufficient amount of thought by the administration—it was, rather, that the quality of their thought was so poor. Instead of honestly inquiring into the matter of possible WMDs in Iraq, they sought to make their case like lawyers. That is, they acted in a sophistical manner. They argued like hired dialectical guns, their conclusion already in place. They tweaked and twisted and kneaded and nipped and tucked evidence to conform to a conclusion they had already irrevocably accepted, and ignored any evidence that didn’t fit. They did not genuinely reason at all, they simply argued. Half the problem was that they acted when they should have been reasoning; the other half was that they pretended to reason instead of really reasoning.

With regard to Iraq, there was plenty of time to think, and the administration did not utilize it. Worse, they did not really think at all, they engaged in sham reasoning, selling us a bill of goods as if they were common hucksters. They seek to portray their own foolhardy and thoughtless actions as decisive; they seek to portray those who correctly counseled thoughtfulness and prudence as ditherers, cowards, bumbling intellectuals. These are the actions of fools. Or villains. Or foolish villains.

So, no, Bush’s aide is probably not a relativist, and probably neither is Bush. Almost no one is really a relativist. What they are is foolish ideologues with no respect for reason, evidence, or honest inquiry.

That is, they aren’t relativists, they are a different breed of idiot entirely.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Hackworth Speaks

We should listen. I'm obviously not qualified to determine whether all of these ideas are right, but many of them are interesting and at least some of them are right.

(via Canis Major)

Monday, October 18, 2004

Suskind's "Without a Doubt"

If you haven't read Ron Suskind's article "Without a Doubt" in Sunday's NYT magazine, then do it soon. Trust me, you absolutely positively do not want to miss this.

Much of what's in there is new, but much is consistent with hypotheses that many people have already been floating about what makes W tick.

Most interesting to me is confirmation that we really are dealing with a kind of relativist or postmodernist administration. Since the article is primarily about Bush's theism, you might find that odd, but many common versions of theism are just versions of subjectivism writ large. As Suskind discovers, you and I, dear reader, are thought of as enemies of the administration because we are "reality-based." That is, we worry about the facts and the evidence. Bush and co. do not. They apparently govern via some combination of faith, Bush's "instinct," and some quasi-relativist beliefs about the maleability of reality.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

More on this later.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Company Strikes Back

From Tom Cleaver I get this extremely interesting piece from the News.Telegraph, "The CIA 'Old Guard' Goes to War With Bush." Seems that some in the CIA are, oddly enough, getting a little ticked off at being scapegoated by the Bushies for all the Iraq screw-ups. And they are, God bless 'em, fighting back.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Sunday Sophistry: Kerry, Terrorism and Nuisances
Marc Racicot Channels the Spirit of Jacques Derrida

Just when you think they can't stoop any lower, the Bush camp up and surprises you. CNN reports that Kerry recently said the following in an interview in the NYT Magazine:

''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a a former law enforcement person,I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''

A perfectly sensible thing to say, of course. In fact, consonant with some things Bush himself has said. But the Bushies, perhaps taking a cue from those "Bible Code" folks, long ago discovered that if you take the words someone says and rearrange them...well, you can win elections!

Marc Racicot, a man not known for a superabundance of intellectual honor, claims that Kerry said that:

"...the war on terrorism is like a nuisance. He equated it to prostitution and gambling, a nuisance activity. You know, quite frankly, I just don't think he has the right view of the world. It's a pre-9/11 view of the world."

CNN also reports that:

Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie on CBS' "Face the Nation," used similar language."Terrorism is not a law enforcement matter, as John Kerry repeatedly says. Terrorist activities are not like gambling. Terrorist activities are not like prostitution. And this demonstrates a disconcerting pre-September 11 mindset that will not make our country safer. And that is what we see relative to winning the war on terror and relative to Iraq."

Of course it does no good to argue with these people because none of them believe what they are saying. One would have to be dimwitted in the extreme--far more dimwitted even than Gillespie or Racicot--to interpret Kerry's words as they allegedly do. Or you'd have to have an exceptionally tenuous grasp of the English language. This is obvious and intentional distortion. Lying, that is. Lying about what Kerry said, and about the clear intent of his words. But just for the sheer pleasure of it, let's treat the talking point in question as if it were to be taken seriously.

If Kerry thought that the war against terrorism were a nuisance, then he would not say that we need to get back to a place where they're a nuisance. See, if he thought they were a nuisance now, that wouldn't make a lick of sense.

It's almost too obvious to explain, but here goes: Kerry is saying--as Bush has said--that it is unreasonable to expect to eradicate terrorism completely. Like prostitution and gambling, it will always be around; the only reasonable goal with regard to any of these crimes is to make them rare. To undertake to eliminate them completely is quixotic. So, in this respect, terrorism is like gambling and prostitution. But there is nothing in anything that Kerry said to suggest that he believes the absurd proposition that terrorism is no more dangerous than gambling or prostitution--nothing to suggest that he thinks that it is currently a mere nuisance.

I suppose if Kerry had said that he wanted to reduce pollution to 1975 levels Racicot and Gillespie would accuse him of thinking that it was 1975...

The thing about these people is--as they demonstrate again and again--they are willing to undermine the very rational presuppositions that make democratic government possible. This is--as I have often pointed out--the Postmodern presidency, in which truth takes a back seat to ideology and reason to mere persuasion. First the administration's positions on global warming, stem cells, etc. made it seem that they were channeling the spirit of T. D. Lysenko. But now, perhaps, it is the recently-deceased Jacques Derrida: anything can mean anything, actual words and clear intent be damned.

[Hey, whence this outbreak of Republican Francophilia, anyhow?]
U.S. Marines: Hating America, Sapping Our Resolve

As the WaPo reports today, those liberal weenie girly-men, the U.S. Marines, obviously hate America and can't be trusted to conduct a successful War on Terror(tm).

Their doubts about the rationality of our cause in Iraq and their denegration of our Iraqi allies clearly make them unfit to die for the irrational cause and unreliable allies aforementioned.

But fear not: soon I'm sure the Administration will begin leaking rumors about suspicious aspects of their private lives...
Ivins Contra W

I cut off my Mother Jones subscription way back in grad school after a particularly dopey issue with the cover title "Women's Bodies, Men's Missiles." The story was a Caldicott-esque Freudian screed about how everybody would hold hands and sing "We Are the World" if only men weren't so neurotic about the size of their...missiles. Nudge, nudge; wink, wink. Get it? Missiles? Pretty clever, huh?

Since I think that Freudian psychology is mostly pseudo-science and since--phallogocentrist that I am--I oppose proposing pseudo-scientific answers to serious problems, that article was the last straw for me. MJ was already irritating me with it's crack-brained lefty gibberish, so I washed my hands of them and have rarely looked their way since.

However--and as you may have noticed by now--I am frequently wrong about things. Beth-the-Sociologist (or "Dr. Hottie" as we like to refer to her here at the Institute) sent me the following link to Molly Ivins's "The Uncompassionate Conservative" from the November/December 2003 MJ.

As Joe Bob would say, check it out.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Dick Cheney, Big Fat Liar…er…Sophist

Dick Cheney, as we all know, is a big fat liar. But he frequently eschews direct lies in favor of subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—deception that falls short of lying. The idea, of course, is to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability in case he's called on it.

Last night, as we all know, Edwards challenged Cheney about his lies concerning links between Saddam and al Qaeda. People are freaking out because Cheney responded by saying that he has never asserted a link between Saddam and 9/11. Seems like an outright lie, but it may not be since he distorted Edward’s point by switching the topic from al Qaeda to 9/11. Now, I don’t know whether or not he’s ever asserted a connection between Saddam and 9/11 per se, but that’s irrelevant. Cheney fabricated a link between Saddam and al Qaeda in order to convince people that Saddam was linked to 9/11, and even if he never came right out and asserted that link it’s clear that’s what he was trying to get people to believe. It's certainly what I thought he was saying.

This is the kind of slippery sophism we should expect from Darth Cheney by now. Imagine the outrage on the right if evidence came to light of an operational relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda, but in response Kerry said “well, but Saddam wasn’t linked to 9/11.” Such sophistry would never be tolerated, and it should not be tolerated from Cheney, either.

I’ve got more to say about this, but no time now. I’m sure others have noticed this, but I just had to get it off my chest.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The “Global Test”
John Kerry, Game-Theoretical Semantics and Thomas Jefferson, Liberal Weenie

So, of course there’s a big dust-up about the following:

Kerry said in the debate that the United States had the right to take preemptive action abroad if it "passes the global test, where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

The Bush camp is putting the worst possible spin on this, as usual. The well-known rule of discourse (reflected in game-theoretical semantics) is that if Person A says something vague or ambiguous and Person B doesn’t understand it, then Person B is free to ask for clarification—but it is Person A’s right/responsibility to do the clarifying, not Person B’s.

So, for example, if you ask me who I was on the phone with and I say “nobody,” you could, if you were so inclined, ask me whether I meant that (a) I was on the phone with someone whose identity I didn’t care to disclose or that (b) I wasn’t on the phone with anyone at all (that is, that I was just talking to a dead line). But you would not get to choose one of these interpretations for yourself. And you surely are not entitled to arbitrarily choose one interpretation and then go around telling people that’s what I meant.

That is, if I say something that is unclear, then it’s my right/responsibility to explain what I mean. You do not get to choose the worst or weirdest interpretation and then claim that that’s what I said/meant. As Peirce points out, all human communication this side of pure number theory is rife with vagueness. We live with it all the time, it’s essential for communicating about most things, and we all—when we are being civil to each other—know how to deal with it: we ask utterers to clarify their utterances.

Kerry’s utterance is open to several perfectly reasonable interpretations, and I can’t imagine any sensible person giving it the interpretation the Bushies are proposing. It is simply not reasonable to interpret Kerry’s words as meaning that we were going to ask for France’s permission before we undertook to defend ourselves. Kerry himself has made his intentions about this very clear. The fact that the Bush campaign has once again stooped to new lows in contemporary American political discourse shows how (a) dishonest, (b) ruthless, and (c) desperate they’ve become.

What Kerry said reminded me immediately of the following lines, lines that have come to mind many times since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq began:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

A decent respect for the opinions of mankind does require that we make our reasons public and guarantee that they are cogent, as Mr. Jefferson and the Founders recognized. The Bush administration has demonstrated nothing but contempt for these principles, as they have demonstrated contempt for democracy by distorting Kerry’s position on the question. Fearful that they will lose the election if the public understands Kerry’s real positions, they have undertaken yet another propaganda campaign to distort the facts and make the better argument seem the worse.

If Jefferson were alive today, he’d be outraged.

In response the Bush camp would, no doubt, point out that he fathered black children and spent an awful lot of time in France...

Monday, October 04, 2004

Breaking News: W is for Weenie

Some research conducted here at the institute indicates that W has--and we are not making this up--a favorite tailor. This fellow apparently made W's Thursday-go-ta-asswhuppin' suit for goin' to last Thursday's...well...asswhuppin'.

But get this: his tailor is--and I must emphasize that we are not making this up:

Georges de Paris

O.k., now I want you to imagine what the buzz would be like if Kerry had that tailor. Johnny Quest asserts that that would be the end of his run for the Presidency...