Archive for ‘politics’


Denotation and the SCOTUS

So Fuckface von Clownstick has nominated a person for the Supreme Court, to replace ol’ Tony Scalia.

Much of the discussion of this in the world will be about how utterly hypocritical it is of the Republicans to suggest that there is an obligation for the Democrats to not obstruct the confirmation process, given that just the other day they declared it a positive civic duty to obstruct the conformation of Merrick Garland, and that is quite a valid discussion.  But I’m not up to doing any of that here.

Looking into this Gorsuch person a bit, though, I find that (as well as not being Merrick Garland) he is an “originalist” just like ol’ Tony, and perhaps even moreso (if that’s possible). This inspires me to reach into the archives and reprint here, lightly edited for venue, my ancient piece on why “originalist” is a bad name.

By way of introduction, it’s a bad name because everyone believes that it’s the Constitution’s original meaning that’s important; the division is between those who think the original denotation is important, and those who think it’s the original connotation.  (Where “connotation” is used in its technical Philosophy of Language sense, not its informal “fuzzy subjective meaning” sense.)

The problem with the denotationist position can I think be highlighted by a very small thought experiment: the denotationist is obliged to hold that if we were to hold a Constitutional Convention today, and replace the entire text of the document with an exact copy of itself, the resulting document would be very different than the current one, and a very different set of things would be allowed and prohibited and so on.

And that seems just silly. (Menard’s example notwithstanding.)

But anyway, here is the original post, in the context of Scalia and 2005 rather than Gorsuch and 2017, but Truth is Timeless.


One of the cool things that Audible does is make certain ‘public interest’ type audio programs available for free. I don’t know if they do this out the goodness of their heart or their ad budget, or if someone pays them to do it, but it’s cool anyway.

One of the free things they have is a talk that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave on the subject of Constitutional Interpretation, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last March. (Due to Audible’s bizarre site design I can’t figure out how to give you a pointer to it that will work, but if you search on “Scalia” you’ll probably find it. Although it’s free, I dunno if you can get it if you don’t have an Audible account.)

I’m a bit more than halfway through it, and it’s interesting. I’ve previously expressed the opinion that J. Scalia is a fascist theocratic loon, and I’ve teased him for his defense of state laws against masturbation in his Lawrence dissent; what I’ve heard so far doesn’t make me any more comfortable having him on the high court, but it does give me some additional insight into his character and legal thinking.

Scalia doesn’t like to be called a “strict constructionist”; he prefers “originalist”. His idea is that the words of the Constitution meant something when they were adopted, and that it’s that meaning that we must follow today. And when he says “meaning” he isn’t thinking of the general meaning or connotation of the words; he’s thinking of the very specific denotation of the words: the exact specifics of what they were thought to mean at the time.

So since when the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 no one thought that “equal protection” included the right of women to vote, it required a further amendment to give them that right. Scalia says that nowadays we would have done it on 14th amendment grounds instead, and he clearly thinks that that’s a bad thing.

[2017 Note: In fact even back in 1868, lots of people thought that “equal protection” did in fact include the right of women to vote; something that rather heavily undermines Scalia’s point. The fact that when talking about this stuff he apparently never mentioned Minor v. Happersett or the various controversies and demonstrations around it, was one more thing that lowered my opinion of his intellectual integrity.]

Since “originalist” doesn’t strike me as a neutral term (when was the last time you saw “unoriginal” used as a compliment?), let me refer to Scalia’s position as “denotationist”; the words of the Constitution (or any other law) must be interpreted as having the same denotation, as picking out the same parts of the world, as they had when adopted.

(At the extreme denotationist position, if the Constitution had said that the number of Justices on the Supreme Court should be equal to the number of planets around the Sun, then the proper number of Justices would be seven, since that’s what people thought the words denoted at the time. I’m not suggesting that Scalia would actually carry the idea this far, although it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.)

So what’s the alternative to denotationalism? In this lecture Scalia claims that the only alternative is to consider the Constitution not a legal document at all, but just sort of an “exhortation”. He claims that he’s asked all sorts of people at law schools what principle they propose in place of his, and none have had an answer.

This strikes me as baffling, since the answer is so obvious. Rather than interpreting the words of the Constitution according to what they meant when adopted, we should interpret them according to what they mean now. If we’ve discovered since 1789 that there are really nine planets, or since 1868 that equal protection does mean the ability to vote regardless of gender, then that’s what the Constitution should be read as saying.

(Jim points out a possible circularity here, so let me say explicitly that the view I’m outlining here isn’t the tautological “the Constitution means today whatever it means today”; I mean something more like “the words in the Constitution mean today whatever the same words mean outside the Constitution today”. Modulo politically irrelevant typographical shifts and so on.)

I’d like to call this alternate view “connotational”, in contrast to Scalia’s denotationalism. And it seems to me highly unlikely that no one has ever suggested it to Scalia, or that he wouldn’t have thought of it himself for that matter. Scalia seems to have an enormous blind spot where differing opinions are concerned; not only does he disagree with non-denotational views of Constitutional interpretation, he doesn’t even see those views. At one point in the speech he says that he would have decided a certain case in a certain way based on the original meaning (“meaning”) of some words in the Constitution, whereas the court actually decided the other way, “based on — well, I don’t know what!”

He’s obviously a smart guy, but apparently there’s a filter between the part of his mind that is sharp enough to understand arguments on both sides of an issue and the part that consciously notices those arguments. (Jim points out that Scalia wouldn’t be the only one with this problem.)

Another possibility is that Scalia is simply a propagandist, and that pretending that the other side has no argument at all is just a rhetorical device that he likes to use. That’d be a pity.

So anyway. The denotationist view says that when the Constitution uses phrases like “due process” or “equal protection” or “freedom of speech”, we should consider those phrases to be convenient shorthands for whatever set of things people thought they meant when the words were adopted. If it wouldn’t make the Constitution implausibly long, we could replace each one with a list of all the things that people at that time thought the words referred to.

The connotationist view, on the other hand, says that “due process” means the processes that are due, the proceedings that are appropriate, and if our opinion about what is appropriate has changed since 1798, it’s our current opinions that count. Similarly, “equal protection” means protection that is equal, and if people in 1868 didn’t notice that disenfranchising half the country didn’t constitute equal protection, so much the worse for them; our current government should be guided by our current understanding.

(Now in practical terms it’s nice that we have the 19th amendment there making it explicit; but I do think that a 14th amendment case for female suffrage should in principle have had a very good chance of success.)

So Scalia’s basic theory isn’t particularly inconsistent or anything; I just strongly disagree with it. His inability to acknowledge the very existence of alternative theories is a flaw, and not one that makes me fond of him.

What else? Scalia’s theory leads him to say some odd (or at least odd to me) things about the Constitution’s role in protecting minorities. At one point he says that protecting minorities from the whim of the majority is one of the most important things that the Constitution does. But because he’s a denotationist he sees it as protecting only those particular minorities that the Framers would have wanted to protect (or that the adopters of later amendments would have). So Catholics, for instance, are protected (hem, hem), but not people who want to make love to people of the same gender.

(Sidenote: Scalia always refers to male-male sex as “homosexual sodomy”; a little subliminal reminder that the Lord has destroyed whole cities over the issue; ref “theocratic” supra.)

The equal protection clause can’t allow people of the same gender to marry, because when the clause was adopted people didn’t think it meant that. A connotationist can say that we’ve decided since then that equal protection really does mean that; but Scalia doesn’t even consider that as a possibility. It’s not simply wrong, it’s just not on his radar at all.

If we want to provide equal protection or due process or freedom of speech outside the original denotation of those terms, he says, what we have to do is persuade our fellow citizens to enact the appropriate legislation or Constitutional amendments. Which is to say, if we want to protect a minority that wasn’t popular back in 1789, we have to persuade the majority to play nice. Which of course seems completely wrong to me, given the whole “Constitution protecting the rights of minorities” thing.

The Framers were large-minded folks; I think that when they said “due process” or “freedom of speech”, they didn’t just mean the things that those words meant in the 18th century, but that they meant whatever those words might turn out to mean as the species matured.

Hm, I’ll bet we might even be able to find some writing of the Framers that say that! I wonder what Scalia would do then…


And that’s that reprint from 2005; May 16th, 2005 specifically. There were at least a couple more weblog entries on this general subject, based on reader comments and other events of the day and so on, but that’s enough for now for here.

Maybe I should find some of Gorsuch’s writing, and see if he’s usefully interpreted as a denotationist (with an inability to even conceive of connotationism) like Scalia, or if he’s different in some interesting way.

But probably I’ll just get caught up in von Clownstick’s steady assault on the very idea of democracy, instead…



I went to the Women’s March on NYC, and it was amazing!  Some stories and pictures and thoughts here.

(First off, I know there aren’t solely positive things related to the march; there’s the “where was all this enthusiasm on voting day?” thought, and the “where were all these people at the Black Lives Matter marches?” thought, and the “don’t be so smug about how peaceful it all was; it’s mostly because so many of the marchers were white!” thought, and those all have merit, but I don’t have anything deep to say about them, and I’m mostly going to talk just about my experience here, and not try to draw any Big Conclusions.  Overall I think it was great, to whatever extent there are problematic ties.)

Here are a bazillion photos (and some videos!) that I took, in a Google Photos Album thing that I hope that link lets you get to and all.

I drove to Croton-Harmon and took Metro North in, as I always do. (The little boy was at work, img_20170121_094108and M is not good with crowds, and the little daughter bizarrely lives in Manhattan now, so it was just me travelling.)

The station had various small groups of women and other people, wearing lots of pink and examining the train schedules and carrying signs. One woman was still knitting a Pussy Hat out of screaming pink yarn; I don’t know if she expected to get it done on the train ride or not!

Saturday morning trains into the City are usually pretty empty, but this one (the 9:45 express, I think it was) was about 10 minutes late, and when it did arrive it was already pretty much packed.  Most of the people were on the way to the March, and when a new pussy-hatted group passed by in the aisle, already-seated marchers would cheer.

I ended up riding in the vestibule between cars (which is always, non-ironically, fun), and even that was packed!

Here we areimg_20170121_104838 arriving at Grand Central; lots of us! Can’t see the entire crowdstream because of the awesome Pussy Bites Back sign, but hey, it’s an awesome sign.

Pussy in its various forms and meanings was definitely a Big Theme of the march.  Lots of cat images (and hats), quite a few uterus images, and a significant (though smaller) number of vagina images, pretty much all of which made me happy.  (Keeping in mind, at the same time, that not all people, or even all women, have cats, or uteruses, or vaginas.)

One of the chants (and I’ll say more about the chants, I’m sure) that I think I heard only once, was a nice simple call-and-response of “Pussy!” “Power!” “Pussy!” “Power!”, led by a woman standing on some piece of civic infrastructure by the side of the march; after the chant ended (with the usual loud Wooting), I heard the male person standing up there with her say “That was great!”.

I went out of Grand Central (see the album linked above for some photos from there; it wasn’t as packed because people were arriving and then as quickly streaming off toward various gathering places for the march, but the crowd was still impressive), and turned East on 42nd Street, intending to head for 46th and 2nd, where the DSA was supposed to be meeting up.

On the way I realized that with my “Resist.” tee shirt covered by my scarf and flannel overshirt and hoodie I wasn’t very visible as a marcher, and I wanted to be (should have planned farther ahead and commissioned my own ping pussy hat from M!).  And Lo and Behold there were enterprising NYC street vendors selling Hello Kitty ear muffs in bright pastel colors, so I got one. Admire my tiny-eyed revolutionary look!
Laugh if you will :) but I got many compliments on these earmuffs throughout the day.

I made my way toward 46th and 2nd as the crowd gradually thickened, and only when I was very close did I realize that (a) it mattered a whole lot which of the four corners of that intersection they’d intended, and (b) I was not actually going to be able to find the DSA area, if any, as it was getting impossible to move.


In fact it was pretty much almost impossible to move for over an hour, and no one knew quite what was going on, but it was still very convivial and positive. One older woman felt light-headed and sat down on the sidewalk, and we around her carefully made sure that she was not stepped on by the crowd, and that when she tried to get up but still felt bad, someone summoned a dayglo-vested march volunteer, who was able to push a path though the crowd to get her to somewhere more comfortable to sit.

Now and then a snake of people intent on moving in some particular direction or other for some reason would pass through near me, and sometimes I would move a few spaces by joining the tail-end of the train.  I had a vague notion of heading up toward 48th Street, where it might be less crowded, and looking for the Quakers who were supposedly meeting there, or even skirting the crowd and looking for the Buddhists on 39th, but it was becoming clear that that was unlikely to be feasible.

Also now and then someone would pull themselves up onto the little footing two or three feet off the ground offered by a nearby lamp-post, and announce that they couldn’t see anything in particular happening from up there, either.

In retrospect, I think what was going on was that people were speaking and stuff over at the rally area on I dunno maybe 47th between 1st and 2nd, but only a few thousand people could actually here them, and us over at the intersection on 2nd could hear only occasional cheering, which we always hoped was the march starting, but probably wasn’t.

Eventually I followed enough little trains of people to reach a clearer place (whew!) and breath a bit, and climb up onto a a wide place in a wall and get a better view of where I’d been.  Here is that intersection, from I think 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd (but closer to 2nd), looking at the 47th Street and 2nd Avenue intersection shortly before, or maybe shortly after, the marching proper began:


There is a small marching band perhaps off the edge of the picture to the right, and the rally and speeches and stuff are happening out of sight in the distance center left.

While trapped in the waiting crowd I saw the only thing at all resembling a counter-protest that dayimg_20170121_141643.  You can’t really see it in this picture very well, and I’m too lazy to do any post-processing to make it easier :) but if you move your eye up the center of the three columns of windows on the brown building-face slightly to the left of center there, you’ll see a small bright dot which is an American flag draped out an apartment window, and if you enlarge the picture or squint hard, you may see on the upper part of the window a little blue sign with something white on it.

We theorized down in the crowd there that it might be a Trump sign.  The people in that apartment would stick their heads out occasionally, and the crowd below would all whoop.  Of course we also all whooped whenever anyone stuck their head out any other window and someone noticed, and any time we heard a vehicle honk somewhere, and any time we heard cheering coming from the rally area, so it was a low bar.  :) As counter-protests go, anyway, it was very mild and polite.  As far as we could tell from the ground anyway.

I strolled down 47th to 3rd Avenue, enjoying the ability to like swing my arms, and discovered that that part of 3rd Avenue was closed as well, I guess because people bored with waiting had been marching along it, and the NYPD was just trying to reopen it.  I found a little sandwich place that wasn’t jammed with hungry marchers, and got myself a sandwich and juice for lunch and a little coffee for after, and sat in a little park and ate.

Somewhere in there I’d picked up an abandoned NYCLU “Dissent is Patriotic” sign (typical of my to have a meta-sign about the protest itself rather than about specific things we were protesting!) and someone had offered me a rainbow-heart sticker which I’d stuck on, so here is my picnic.


When I’d finished eating and strolled back toward the intersection, it looked like people were actually moving!  So I got myself into the crowd, and in probably less than another hour :) the various streams of people coming together had merged into one, and we were actually marching!  At a detectable pace!

There is a picture of me actually marching.  I don’t know who the img_20170121_144916young woman next to me, or pretty much anyone in any of these pictures, is, but we were all marching together, which was excellent.

We marched (in the sense of walking very slowly while carrying signs and now and then chanting and whooping) down 2nd Avenue, from 47th Street to 42nd street.  This took awhile!

There were lots of great signs, and great chants. There were some great little kids in a restaurant with big glass windows on the second floor of some building, who put up supportive signs facing out their window at us.

We chanted “Black Lives Matter”, and “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go”, and “Show me what Democracy looks like!” / “This is what Democracy looks like!” (my favorite call-and-response, I think, great rhythm to it), and this wonderful one where the women would do “My body, my choice!” and the men would respond “Her body, her choice!”, and the Soprano / Tenor sort of alternation was really moving.

(Late in the march the possibly-inebriated folks with the “Trump hates puppies” signs tried to get a “Trump hates puppies” chant going, but it didn’t really take.)

The turn onto 42nd was slow; I suspect there was another stream of people entering from East on 42nd or South on 2nd. But the view on 42nd Street was amazing.  I didn’t capture a great picture of it, but all of 42nd from 2nd to 5th was wall-to-wall marchers, and it was a Thing.


That gives some idea: the bridge just visible in the distance center is the Park Avenue “viaduct” right at Grand Central, and the march stretches to it, and beyond into the vanishing distance to Fifth. Pretty amazing!

Here is the march passing under the bridge quite some time later. The bridge itself was lined with people cheering at the march, holding up signs and hanging banners in support, and so on.


And then we continued, and continued, and continued. :)

Under the bridge, past Vanderbilt, across Madison, and to 5th Avenue, where we turned North toward the Fortress of Evil — ehrm, that is, Trump Tower.



img_20170121_165525img_20170121_171544I was getting pretty tired by this time, and it turns out it’s harder to walk really slowly than to walk at an ordinary pace.

Interestingly, as we went up 5th, there were barricades between the marchers in the street and the onlookers and random other folks on the sidewalks (including the much-photographed “sync up our periods” lady above), and the sidewalks were comparatively uncrowded. The barricades paused at the intersections, and had openings here and there between intersections. (I don’t think this was true on 42nd street, where there were a few pointless-looking barricades just scattered here and there, and the march was pretty much wall-to-wall.)

So on 5th, if one got sufficiently tired of walking slowly in the gathering dusk, one could slip off of the street onto the sidewalk at a pause or break in the barricades, and walk along at a faster pace for a big (still carrying one’s sign, wearing one’s earmuffs, whooping, etc), and then slip back into the march a short-block later.

That was nice!

Somewhere in there, maybe 46th Street or so on the way up 5th Avenue, the police came in and held back the marchers a few feet ahead of me, and stretched blue tape across the street.  (Big black smiling cop sidestepped back and forth on the other side of the tape, making the point that while he couldn’t actually stop us if we insisted on continuing to walk, he would in a friendly way try to; or something.)

It turned out they were doing this because some people in cars wanted to cross the road!

Ha ha ha, can you imagine?

The blue tape let maybe a few dozen cards and trucks and buses go by, some of them taking pictures out the window, and we whooped at them. A marcher near me claimed that at least one was a taxi with at least one passenger in it, and we speculated how long they’d been sitting there trying to cross 5th, with the meter running. Silly autos!

After not very long at all really, they took the tape away again and we whooped and marched quickly up the several yards to where the rest of the march had advanced to in the interim.

And then at 54th Street there was a guy with a megaphone (video📹) thanking us for coming out and saying that this is what Democracy is all about, and also telling us that 5th Avenue was blocked off at 55th Street, and this was therefore the end of the march, and we were not going to get to Trump Tower tonight, so we should go away now, or if we really wanted to we could go up one more block and then go away.

He was wearing an EMS jacket and a hat with a logo, and there were some people with march volunteer vests by him.  When I stopped megaphoning I asked him who he was,  and he said he was just a regular guy with a megaphone, and I asked if he was EMS, and he said he was with some neighborhood ambulance (I think?) service, and just one of the volunteers tonight.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if NYPD hadn’t asked him, directly or indirectly, to be there doing that, so that they wouldn’t have to.)

Pretty much everybody wanted to continue, so we got up to 55th Street, where the stream was splitting east and west and people were grumbling somewhat and looking past the police barricades in the direction of the Tower.  The chant turned into a very rousing version of “Welcome to your first day, we won’t go away, welcome to your first day, we won’t go away” (more video📹).

However, we were nice, and didn’t make trouble for the police, and the march more or less ended there, at a row of march volunteers (directly in contact with the marchers) and a barricade, and a row of police (not so much directly in contact with the marchers), police cars, and another barricade, and so on.


Here is a symbolic picture of a single Guardian of Order, making sure that ordinary citizens cannot get too close to the seat of power of the person they are protesting:


(Of course said person was probably not around his NYC stronghold anyway, being busy off in Washington DC disgracing himself utterly.)

I went and stood by the outer barricade next to the rightmost volunteer for awhile, watching the people and taking pictures and chanting and whooping, vaguely speculating about how it would go if the crowd decided to go to Trump Tower after all, and helpfully helping open and close the opening in the barricade that the police were using to let authorized people in and out of the outer security layer.

Eventually I stopped doing that, and walked East a bit along 55th Street, looking at the amazing variety of signs that people had left leaning against the barricades and spread out on the street.  So much wit and passion and creativity! There is talk of someone making like a coffeetable book of photos of signs, proceeds to benefit Planned Parenthood or something; I hope that comes to be. Here are just a few of mine; more in the album linked above.

Soooo many!

I wandered back to 5th Avenue itself, and the tail of the march had arrived and left, and there was a row of shiny NYPC motorcycles slowly coming up.  The police started clearing people from the intersection, and I slipped over to the West side of it, to see what was up over there. They moved barricades around some, amid a bit confusion about exactly what they were doing and who ought to be moved where and stuff. (I asked one NYPD if we were supposed to be like going somewhere else instead, and he just smiled and shrugged.)

Eventually they moved everyone out of 5th Avenue and reopened that and cars started flowing again, to much whooping (video📹). Then they urged everyone on 42nd near 5th to get onto the sidewalks, and started putting up new barricades stuff. Eventually half a dozen of them walked along 42nd toward 6th, side by side, each holding a barricade at waist level, to sort of push back anyone still in the street. It was more an expression of intent rather than an actual pushing, though, since there weren’t very many people in the street anyway, and it would have been trivial to just get into the sidewalk as they went by and then step into the street again (at least one person did, to no obvious effect).

A smallish number of people were still standing on the corner, chanting away, including one rather manic young white guy with a buzzcut who was jumping up and down and pumping his fist in a worrying manner, and a person next to him in a Guy Fawkes mask (the only mask I recall seeing in the march). But neither of them proved to be obviously agents provocateurs or Black Bloc folks, at least not while I was there.

So we chanted “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.!” for awhile (video📹, with me doing just the “No Trump!” part because hoarse by that time), and they moved barricades more so that we could stand in a little area on the edge of the street and walking people could walk on the sidewalk.  42nd Street got fully reopened at some point in there.

I asked another NYPD officer if things were now back to about how they usually were, or if this was still post-march stuff.

“We’ll have to see,” he said, roughly, “it’s just Day One!”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s true, but hasn’t the sidewalk been blocked off and stuff near Trump Tower for awhile now?”

“Yeah,” he said, “but nothing like this,” nodding generally toward the still-chanting people.

So that was interesting.

Eventually I decided that was sort of over, so I went out of the barricaded area and walked around. Nearby was the only property damage I saw all night:


Not at all clear it happened during the March, though; them bus signs are always getting broken off by one thing and another.

Next I wandered over to 42nd and 6th or somewhere, and got a Ham and Cheese and Egg crepe and some water for dinner from a cart guy.

And that’s pretty much the end of the March story for this posting.

img_20170121_224658I texted the little daughter and we had some coffee and dessert, and eventually a sleepy me headed back home on ol’ Metro North.

It was a great time, and I’m glad that I went.

One march, even one day of marches enormous enough to really annoy Certain Thin-Skinned Narcissists, won’t solve our problems by any means (and boy do we have problems omg don’t get me started), but I am somewhat hopeful that it will give people a taste of activism, and a feeling of hope, and ideas about solidarity and involvement, and that as a result things will not be as bad as they would have been otherwise.

And for me personally, being in the City, being with literally hundreds of thousands of like-minded people in the City, expressing support for liberty, equality, justice, love, and all that sort of good thing, and expressing opposition to lies, oppression, sexism, racism, hatred, inequality, and like that, was a really, really good time.




Nothing happens when you’re offended; except when it does

I’m afraid I’m going to be political again; comes of hanging out in social media too much in a U.S. election season.

The other day on the Face Book, someone posted some version of this:

along with a little essay about political correctness, and how trigger warnings are censorship, and how kids these days are so thin-skinned that no one can say anything anymore, and so on.

I posted a comment disagreeing, and got (and this is very unusual for me) two different people that I like and respect texting me privately in the Face Book (which I always forget is even a thing) expressing surprise at my opinion.

I’ve been thinking about how to write down my thoughts on these subjects for some time, but without actually doing it. So I thought maybe I’d start with just the basic message of the video clip itself: that when you’re offended, it doesn’t mean anything, and nothing happens.

To first order, I agree with this. The mere fact that I’m offended by something doesn’t in itself mean anything.

But depending on why I’m offended, it may be a sign of something that is meaningful.

The implication of “when you’re offended, nothing happens”, and a thing that the comic up there says more or less right out, is that if someone’s offended, they should just suck it up, sit down, and shut up about it.

But that’s wrong. Words mean things. Words build things up, and wear things down. Structural oppression exists, and words are part of the structure. Sitting down and shutting up does not help us get to a more just society.

If enough people are offended by casual references to some stereotypical negative property of some oppressed group, and refuse to sit down and shut up, and other people stop making those references as often, a little bit of the structure of that oppression has been lifted.

If I’m offended because some comedian punches down for laughs, and I give that comedian poor reviews and recommend that people avoid him, maybe he, or his colleagues, will look for laughs somewhere else.

Or if I’m offended because people are no longer deferring to me because I belong to some privileged group, or because structural oppression that favors me is being questioned, and I complain about that, I both tend to look like an idiot, and to shed light on the privilege and oppression that I’m upset about losing, and even that helps us along toward justice.

If I’m offended because someone said “shit” instead of “poo”, well, probably I should sit down and shut up about it.  :)

So it depends. But also it matters.

Because sometimes, even often, people take offense because of the way they are impacted by injustices in society.

And that’s not nothing.

Maybe sometime in the future: Trigger Warnings, Why the Kids are Alright, and so on.


Also, I’m a progressive

We covered religion the other year, and I’ve been thinking about (and even writing a little about) politics, so now I will try to define myself politically here. To some extent I’m making this up as I go along, so I reserve the right to say next week “I just realized that what I said in paragraph 12 was completely wrong”, but until I say that you can assume it’s accurate. :)

I’m a progressive (I might write “Progressive” if that wasn’t a heavily-advertised insurance company or whatever). Which, for me, means that I believe most basically:

  1. The current distribution of wealth and power in society is currently significantly, and undesirably, unfair,
  2. That unfairness favors (and disfavors) pretty much the same people it always has; in most of the West, that’s people who are more (or less) similar to a tall healthy straight white protestant man from a rich family, with conventionally handsome features and a deep (but not too deep) voice, and so on,
  3. That there is a significant role for the government in reducing the level of that unfairness.

Point (1) differentiates me from people who think that the current distribution actually is fair, or that whether or not it’s fair doesn’t matter (or even that unfair is good). Certain capitalists perhaps most obviously.

Point (2) differentiates me from people who think that the distribution is unfair, but that it’s unfair in favor of women, minorities, etc. Certain Tea Party types, “Men’s Rights Advocates”, and so on.

And Point (3) differentiates me from people who think that, even if there is an unfair distribution, it’s the government’s fault, and if only we had less government, or no government, or government stayed out of the redistribution business, things would get better. Some libertarians (and Libertarians), minarchists, anarchists, voluntaryists, and so on.

I was once a member of that latter group to some extent, as I’ve at least hinted at before, but have yet to see a convincing argument that we can actually get to a better place without significant government involvement, lovely as it might be if we could, and as problematic as government involvement pretty much invariably is.

And here are some ideas, in no particular order but just as they occur to me, that the three basic things imply for me, not in the sense of logical implication, but in the sense of “also this too”.

privilegePrivilege is a thing. If you haven’t run into the term before, here’s a good introduction (not that I necessarily agree with everything it says, but it’s a good statement of the concept). In each sense in which a characteristic of mine is one that society tends to favor, I’m privileged. I have white privilege, male privilege, upper-middle-class privilege. I don’t have right-handed privilege, or mental-health privilege (although I do have “generally functional mental health” privilege; it’s a subtle thing I might talk about someday too).

For me a big thing about privilege is that if a person has it in a characteristic, then the way that society favors that characteristic (and disfavors the opposite) is likely to be relatively invisible to them. When a white person says “well, I don’t see much racism in society these days”, that’s white privilege, and a response of “check your privilege” is entirely appropriate (at least in content; in tone it may or may not be the best way to get them to think about it better).

People who dislike the concept of privilege tend to dislike it because they see it, or claim that they see it, as a claim that white people have no problems, or that every man has more power in society than any woman, or various other false claims.

(I remember once unfollowing someone somewhere who generally posted wise things, but then one day went on a long rant about how they would instantly block anyone who used the term “privilege”, because we all have our own problems. Which was such a misunderstanding, and had so much anger behind it, that I didn’t really want to be there anymore, or to put the energy into trying to help, since presumably he would have instantly blocked me if I had).

Feminism is good. I’m either a feminist or a feminist ally, depending on whether you think males can be feminists. (I’m perfectly happy with either label, and demanding that women include me in the category without having actually lived as a women would be male privilege talking; see above.)

Being a feminist follows almost immediately from (1) and (2) above; if there’s an undesirably unfair distribution of power that favors men, it would be good to make it fairer, by directing more to women. Because of (3) I’m not, say, an anarcha-feminist, at least not in the practical sense: while it might be greatly helpful to women if we had a society entirely based on voluntary associations, no one has shown me how a society like that would actually be sustainable if actual humans were allowed in.

So I’m a feminist who believes in, say, non-discrimination laws.

Radicalism. I call myself a progressive, rather than a radical. This is for basically Beatles reasons (interpreting the lyrics non-ironically); revolutions are dangerous and nasty and often end up with some new-but-still-awful regime in place, and we’re getting better all the time, little by little, slow but sure, and so on.

I also realize that this may be for instance my upper-middle-class privilege talking, and that had I lived a harder life, I might well have different feelings about radicals and the desirability of revolution, and where I myself should be putting my energy.

The size of government. As I noted somewhere at some time, but can’t be bothered to find, questions of the size of government, which are so important to small-government folks like most libertarians, are relatively uninteresting to me. Within relatively wide margins, the question isn’t “does this proposal involve increasing or decreasing the size of the government?”; it’s “does this proposal make the distribution of power in society more, or less, fair?” and/or “does this tend to empower the powerless, or the already-powerful?”.

The American Political Parties. Eew. I am not a registered member of either one. As everyone in the UK and Europe knows, the US has no major left-wing party; we just have a center-right party, the Democrats, and a hard-right (and this year total loony) party, the Republicans. The hard right is pretty much the opposite of progressive; they believe that the current distribution of power and wealth is good, that if anything it’s women and minorities and the poor and so on who get unfair advantages, that it’s really the interests of the powerful that matter, and that government should stay out of the economy as much as possible.

The center-right is a bit more reasonable, and think that while the interests of business always come first, it is in fact often in the true interests of business that individual people have some rights, are not completely impoverished, are generally happy, and so on.

So I do tend to vote for Democratic candidates; but I’m not a member of their party. The last party I actually belonged to was the Libertarians; see above.

(I think Bernie Sanders is in fact a progressive, and that’s a good thing. That the Democratic Party would let him campaign for their nomination for President is good, too; I don’t think they’ll let him win it, though.)

Occupy. Heck, yeah! I think the Occupy movement was, and is, a good thing. I resist the suggestion that they failed; as far as I can see they did a great service in turning the narrative away from the Tea Party’s “The government should spend less money!” which implicitly urged just giving the government to the most powerful, and toward the issue of Income Inequality, which is a much more progressive thing to talk about (and which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and finally even Hillary Clinton are continuing to talk about, and which is resonating with lots of people in a cheering way).

And that’s it for now, I think. It’s good to get this written down, as it was with the religion stuff.

Happy Socially Just Solstice to all!  :)




Demographic substitution does not preserve truth

When I was in kid-school, a Social Studies teacher pointed out to us that there was no entry in the index of our textbook for “Women’s history” or “Women” in general.

I flipped through it and raised my hand, and said that hey, there was nothing for “Men’s history” or “Men”, either!

This is because I was a smug little shit who didn’t have the first clue how the world actually works.

(I like to think that this is a bit less true now.)

The teacher more or less adored me just because I was smart and (usually) well-behaved, and rather than giving me the smack-down I really needed, she (I vaguely recall) just said something like “It’s not the same thing”.

Which is entirely correct.

It’s easy to see why we might expect statements about one group to have the same status (truth, objectionability, etc.) as the same statements applied to another group.  In many contexts, there is basic fairness involved.  “Women should be able to participate in government” and “Men should be able to participate in government” are both true.  “Men should not be jerks” and also “Women should not be jerks”.  Or simple fact: “Most white people have toes”, and “Most people of color have toes”.

On the other hand, a few moments of thought reveals lots of statements for which this doesn’t work.  “Most pregnant people are women” is true; but “Most pregnant people are men” is false.  “Until comparatively recently, the law considered women to be essentially property” is true; but “Until comparatively recently, the law considered men to be essentially property” is false.  “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se” is pretty clearly true, but “Western society grants extensive privilege to disabled women per se” is implausible at best.

So far these examples are all of “ought” statements that survive under demographic substitution, and some “is” statements that don’t.  But in any plausible morality, situated “ought” statements are implied by “is” statements about their situation; their context.

A very strong case could be made, for instance, that “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se”, and “Mainstream study of history has been from a heavily male-oriented perspective” are both true, and that as a result “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about women in the index of this history textbook” can be true, while “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about men in the index of this history textbook” is silly (because, as I vaguely recall my Social Studies teacher pointing out, the whole book is about that).

More significantly (and I imagine more controversially, although perhaps not among y’all weblog readers), there are sets of “is” statements that don’t survive demographic substitution, from which we can conclude that for instance “Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is true, whereas “Men, white people, and straight people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is not. Or in shorter words, Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power.

And I am happy to have written that down, because I’ve had the argument rattling around inchoate in my head for some years.

Now there are a significant number of people posting things on the Internet who would claim that that the concluding sentence, that Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power, is just obviously false, and unfair, and sexist / racist, and so on. Some of them are, I imagine, smug little shits who don’t have the first clue how the world actually works; some others are just doing a good imitation.  To avoid the argument that we would use to get to the conclusion, they would either deny some of the initial “is” statements (denying that there is currently structural oppression of women or people of color, for instance), or deny in one way or the other that those statements imply the conclusion.

Or, perhaps more commonly, they would just repeat that the concluding sentence is sexist / racist, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, because fairness, and so on.  Because, that is, demographic substitution ought to preserve the truth of “ought” statements, and saying that it doesn’t is sexist / racist / etc.

What finally pushed me over the edge to write this down was some Twitter discussion of this rather baffling story on the often-odious “Breitbart” site, by the often-odious Milo somebody.  It’s still not clear to me what the intent of the story is, aside from a general suspicion that it’s supposed to be humorous in some way (I do like the part where someone asks what direction they’re driving, and someone else looks at the GPS and says “up”; that’s funny!).  But at least some of the Milo supporters in the Twitter thread that I foolishly walked into, thought that it was obviously a parody of feminist claims that various aspects of technology are gendered against women.

The argument would be, I guess, something like “I have written this piece claiming that an aspect of technology is anti-male, and the piece is silly; therefore other pieces, claiming that other aspects of techhnology are anti-female, are also silly.”  Or, perhaps more charitably, “See how silly this claim that a technology is anti-male is; claims that technologies are anti-female are similar to it, and are just as silly!”.

And this brought to mind some sort of claim like “It’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of women, because it’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of men, and demographic substitution preserves silliness!”.

But (whatever other additional things might or might not be going on in the case), demographic substitution doesn’t preserve silliness.  Or various other properties.

So there we are!


Before I forget

  • As I mentioned, I did that Zen thing the other week, and it was great, and I haven’t gotten around to writing any more about it, but at least I have that unordered list.
  • One additional thing on that: what I asked Ryushin Sensei at dokusan was “Why can’t we see out of each other’s eyes?”. We had some good talking about why that is.
  • I’ve been to Greece! Rhodes, Greece, in particular. That was great also. Here is a Faceface thing where I mention it, and there are a bunch of related pictures (with some narrative, even!) in the Insta-gram (you’ll probably have to scroll down to a greater or lesser amount to encounter them, or you could maybe jump in here say).  We passed through London (England) on the way out and back, also, so I have all them stamps in my passport-thing.
  • Relatedly, I have now been parasailing! It turns out to involve no skill whatever, and to be surprisingly peaceful!
  • Speaking of The Face Book, I have posted various things there!
  • I think I have decided not to do NaNoWriMo this year, but I have just discovered this wonderful thing (and also posted it to Facebook): National Novel Generation Month. Here is my statement of intent; I can definitely write a program to generate a 50,000-word novel sometime this month. What fun!
  • The Twitter is full of wild enigmatic things; one of them (Two Headlines) is done by the same person who thought up NaNoGenMo (and who does all sorts of cool stuff); another, MEDDLING HETERO FOOL aka direlog_ebooks, is just a mystery.
  • The Republican Party won lots of elections yesterday, as I (or my Second Life secret identity) predicted; here’s hoping this results in the obvious progressive victories two years from now.
  • I apparently have a Moto 360 now! It is a sort of a watch! Or a smallish watch-shaped secondary I/O device for one’s phone! I can’t think of anything much that it’s actually useful for, but that’s what I would have said about smartphones not too long ago and now I use mine all the time, so Ya Never Know.
  • And I’m sure lots of all various other stuff that I should try not to forget, but right now I am going to go off and think about automatic novel generators; be good!

Greece v Galloway: well that’s annoying!

subtle coercive pressuresYou can tell I’ve been busy because I failed to notice this last month:

Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court. — Greece v Galloway

Basically the Supremes were given the chance to say that sectarian prayer (“we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross”), or even prayer in general (“blah blah blah God blah blah”), is out of place in government contexts since some of the salient citizens could obviously feel excluded; and they did something close to the opposite, on the amusing and infuriating assumption that this stuff “unites” us in our “common effort”.

There is good coverage of this on Friendly Atheist and very good analysis on ScotusBlog.

Justice Kagan gets it just right in this bit of dissent:

Contrary to the majority’s apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not “part of our expressive idiom” or “part of our heritage and tradition,” assuming the word “our” refers to all Americans.

but also disappointingly does exactly the same thing herself in writing

None of this means that Greece’s town hall must be religion- or prayer-free. “[W]e are a religious people,” Marsh observed.

Not assuming that the word “we” refers to all Americans, eh, Justice Kagan? Hem hem!

The conservative Justices are saying, as conservative Justices tend to, “people like us have no problem with this, and people who aren’t like us don’t really matter much.”

And that’s always bad.

But it’s sad that, as ScotusBlog notes, even the dissenters seem to assume that government prayer is just fine, and the only thing that might make anyone feel unacceptably excluded is if it’s the wrong kind of prayer.



Does anyone actually _believe_ Chris Christie?

Many more beautiful things have been happening, but I’ve been paying a little attention to politics (ewww), and this thought just keeps bubbling up.

I mean, I can imagine (if not agree with) supporting Christie because “blah blah hardball rough and tumble blah blah blah realistic blah blah what New Jersey needs”; but does anyone with functioning organs of judgement actually believe that he didn’t know about the whole Bridge thing, and that it didn’t happen with his at least tacit approval, if not by his direct orders?

O RLY?To me it is overwhelmingly obvious that at the very very least, if a scandal hadn’t arisen about it, he would have known with certainty, after the fact, that it was his troops that caused the pain to Fort Lee, and he would have approved and been proud of it, and it would have been part of an overall strategy that he would consider his.

I think it’s also reasonably likely that he directly ordered it to happen.

There are various intermediate possibilities. He could have hinted strongly; there could have been brainstorming sessions that began “although of course we’d never do anything like that, let’s just think about what kind of problems particular mayors might find themselves having if less scrupulous people than us were in control” and ended “now remember this was all purely hypothetical, heh-heh, heh-heh”. His staff could have very subtly mentioned certain possible events in his presence and he could have smiled and nodded in ambiguous ways, and so on.

But given how humans are, I’ll bet that, if we had the Full Videotape, there would be a very very smoky gun to be found.

(And so there’s this followon interesting question about all the various aides he’s been throwing under the bus, having his flunkies write stupidly mean and blatantly sexist stories about, and so on: do they continue not speaking up out of fear (he has something on them, or just generally is known to be a bad person to cross) or greed (when it all blows over they will be on his team again and back in power), or both, given that unrequited loyalty is a pretty weak motivator?)

Oh and while we’re on the subject of saying one thing and meaning another :) I have to admit that while I am a lifelong Peacenik and all, I think it would be jolly good if there just happened by a complete coincidence to be a major large-scale joint Ukraine-NATO military exercise going on right now, that just happened to be based on a scenario around defending Ukraine against, say, an invasion from some country in the general location of let’s say where Russia happens to be.

I mean, really…


But it’s not that simple

On Twitter I follow a few rational-seeming right-wing types, to try to avoid the echo-chamber effect, and yesterday one of them posted about the big kerfuffle where MSNBC implied that the Right Wing might not like interracial marriage, saying how offensive it was and all.

I replied, as one does, saying that, um well, isn’t disliking interracial marriage sort of a Right Wing thing, after all? One of the other people in the thread gasped at how horribly offensive I was being, and we went back and forth a little with me trying to suggest that certain attitudes about race really are, as a matter of historical fact, associated with certain political factions, and they (from my point of view) ducked and weaved a little and then got quiet. I was really impressed, though, with how thoroughly the person seemed to live in a world where interracial marriage (and maybe even same-sex marriage) weren’t a right-left issue at all, and right wing racism was just an offensive myth.

In trying to decide whether to follow this person also, I looked at their earlier “tweets” (and ultimately decided not to follow them), one of which was something that reminded me strongly of the kind of thing that I might have posted like 25 years ago myself, if posting was something people did then, back when I still identified as Libertarian.

And since I seem to be never getting around to that Grand Unified Why I Am Not A Libertarian Anymore posting, I thought I’d at least post about this.

The “tweet” in question was an image, one of those “image that is basically just text” images that social media so loves. It said:

The Rich Man, the Poor Man, and the Politician
A Tale of Income Inequality

There is a rich man and a poor man.
The rich man makes $1000 a day.
The poor man makes $10 a day.
The difference in their income is $1000 – $10 = $990 a day.

The rich man builds a factory.
Now the rich man makes $2000 a day.
He gives the poor man a job at the factory.
Now the poor man makes $100 a day.
The difference in their income is $2000 – $100 = $1900 a day.

A politician decides the “income gap” has grown too large.
He taxes the rich man $1000 a day, gives it to the poor man.
The rich man can no longer afford to run the factory.
He closes the factory. The poor man loses his job.

Everything is as it was before.
And the politician takes credit for “closing the income gap”.

This is a cute Just So story, very typical of, maybe even a little more complex than, the average Libertarian Just So story.

But, like all of them, it leaves out so much that it ends up pretty much completely irrelevant to reality.

These people really need to read “The Jungle” or something.

But short of that, here’s a slightly more realistic version of the story.

The Rich Man, the Poor Man, and the Politician
A Tale of Inequality

There is a rich man and a poor man.
The rich man makes $1000 a day.
The poor man makes $10 a day.
The difference in their income is $1000 – $10 = $990 a day.

The rich man builds a factory.
Now the rich man makes $20,000 a day.
He gives the poor man a job at the factory.
Now the poor man makes $100 a day.
The difference in their income is $20000 – $100 = $19900 a day.

The rich man’s factory pollutes the air that the poor man breathes.
The products the factory produces are poorly-made.
The poor man’s working conditions are dangerous and unhealthy.
The health insurance the poor man buys from the rich man’s insurance company
will drop him on a technicality if he gets sick.
Once he’s too old to work, he will have nothing.
Taking into account actual quality of life and not just money,
The difference in their income is $20,000 – $5 = 19,995 a day.

A politician decides there is too much “inequality”.
He taxes the rich man $8,000 a day, and the government uses that:
To enforce laws on clean air, product safety, and working conditions.
Not to mention Obamacare. :)
To provide the poor man with Social Security.
And to prevent unfair labor practices.
The poor man joins the union and his pay rises to $200 a day.
The rich man can still afford to run the factory;
after all he’s still making $11,800 a day.
Taking into account actual quality of life and not just money,
The difference in their income is $11,800 – $200 = 11,600 a day.

Which is still quite a lot, but
the politician can take some credit for “reducing inequality”.
And things are generally fairer and cleaner.

Sadly that second one won’t really fit on a Twitter placard…


Thank you, Pete

My one hope is that the guitar’s going to be mightier than the bomb.
–Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger – Singer, Songwriter, Activist – Dies at 94


A Moment Of Pete: When Pete Seeger Murdered HUAC, Just Like A Communist



Dear NPR, WNYC, etc…

Please stop the obsessive coverage of and people who have to change insurance plans! Yes, these are small newsworthy items, the problems at the web site will delay how soon some people can sign up for the ACA, and some people really did have insurance plans so bad (effectively, fraudulent) that they’re now illegal or otherwise unavailable.

But you’ve covered those stories already. Multiple times. There is lots more going on in the world, and even just in the U.S., than that. The idea that these are Major Stories that need to be covered again day after day, in long painful detail, is basically a Republican talking point. Just by repeating them over and over, you give the listener an inaccurate impression of how important they really are. The website will be fixed, people will get over no longer being able to buy into really bad deals on insurance, and in the meantime there is much more going on that you could be using the time to cover instead.

Thanks for your consideration!
David M. Chess
a constant listener (mostly commute-time)

I’m sure they will immediately act upon my wise advice! At least if they read their email and/or web forms. Or I can just listen to my iTunes library until they finally get tired of the story…


Of Reprehensible Persons

rep·re·hen·si·ble (\ˌre-pri-ˈhen(t)-sə-bəl\)
Deserving rebuke or censure; blameworthy.

Just to give rebuke where rebuke is due. And/or to vent a little. :)

Anthony Weiner is a walking punchline, and should Just Go Away. If an oppresivist Republican was doing this I’d love it :) but Weiner is just hurting the Progressive side every time he (or his organization) opens its mouth. If he were a uniquely effective force on the side of good (see below) I would be more conflicted, but apparently he isn’t. (I am a bit of an Alex Pareene fan, I admit.)

On the other hand, Eliot Spitzer has been one of the few people in power willing and able to get all up in Wall Street’s face and at least threaten to bring some justice to the thoroughly entrenched criminals there. Which makes it sort of a pity that he’s an entitled oppresivist hypocrite who is willing, even eager, to prosecute people for things that he happily does in secret himself.

So what to do about Spitzer? It’s likely that he goes after Big Finance mostly because that’s his schtick, that’s the side he’s chosen as a path to fame and power, and not so much because he really believes deep down in justice, but still. I think I would be happiest if he apologized to the universe, declared his support for the legalization and effective regulation of sex work, gave his personal fortune to the Sex Workers Project or somebody, and went back to challenging Wall Street.

Given that that’s unlikely, unfortunately, I think it’d be best if Spitzer would Just Go Away also; we’ll have to find someone to fight Big Dollars who isn’t such a jerk.

Speaking of Wall Street, employees and management of Glass, Lewis & Co., as well as the owners of a nearby food truck, are obnoxious jerks. It is nice to see this going viral. Go and enjoy and contribute to the big Twitter flame-out before they notice and delete it.

(I’m amused by the lonely Twitter voice from an alternate universe shouting about how tips are only for exceptional service, and no one should ever be upset not to get one. That may be true on Planet Nebulon, but in New York City a tip of 15% or so means normal ordinary service, an amount above that is a compliment, and leaving no tip at all means that either (a) you forgot, (b) the service was so bad you had strong grounds for a civil or criminal case against the server and their entire family, or (c) as in this case, you are a total douchenozzle. It might be reasonable to wish this was not true, but… it is!)

Okay. Less controversially perhaps, the people (“people”) at “Project A.W.O.L.” are disgusting scammers. Given the numbers of people in the pictures on their horrible Facebook page, I’m surprised there isn’t more on the net debunking them; but maybe the pictures are all fake, and it’s mostly just a couple of douchenozzles spamming weblog comment pages.

I discovered this because one of the things they do (as well as putting up obviously fraudulent web pages), is Like and Follow random WordPress weblogs (I expect there’s software that does this for you?), and they’ve done that on this very weblog here. It’s a relatively typical Ponzi / Pyramid scheme (not exactly the same thing, I know; I think this has aspects of both), in which they convince some number of gullible people to pay them some amount of money per month for “secrets” and “tips” to “get rich online” and “make money with your blog”, whereas in fact the only Secret Technique they have is to convince some number of gullible people to pay you some amount of money per month for…


And there are all these different nearly-identical weblogs and scam pages and Exclusive Limited-Time Offers and things, and since all each one does is take money from people for enabling them to spread exactly the same scam further, you get a big rotting squelchy mess of stinking fraud and self-deception.

For instance, upon running across this awful thing on the weblog of an otherwise apparently well-meaning author who just wants to flog her self-published book on GoodReads, you have to wonder. Is she part of the scam? Or just a victim, fooled into reposting their stuff? (The two do sort of blur together of course; one of the things that makes the squelchy mess so foul.)

(I was able to find a smallish amount of actual information about the mess; see for instance Project AWOL is a scam, which leads to some other good material about the mess. And in fact even the scammer community seems to think that Project AWOL is a bit much. “Empower Network” seems to be a scam-enablement company that goes to some effort to skirt the letter of the law, and apparently they suspect that Project AWOL’s fraudulent promises of wealth might get them in trouble. It’s noteworthy the amount of frothing from perp-victims occurs in the comments on the various anti-scam posts, insisting that everyone is making tons of money and it’s not a scam at all; uh-huh.)

So that’s that. Ick!

Another scam I wandered into somewhere; the horrible and/or amusing “Power 4 Patriots” site and video, which is noteworthy mostly as an example of skillful Tea Party button pushing, where scary statements and images (Obama’s electricity monopoly!), sometimes entirely incompatible with each other, are used to try to sell plans for making your own homemade solar panels and wind turbines, which will magically protect you and your family against all possible disasters. It’s easy to just laugh at this, it’s so obviously pathetic, but we are not the target audience; this stuff is designed to appeal to people of limited reasoning and analytical skills, and often limited money, in order to scam them out of some of that money in exchange for stuff that will most likely help them not at all.

And that’s evil.

What else? There’s basically the entire Republican party and most of the Democratic party, of course, but that’s old news, and kind of generic. Let’s pick specifically on the reprehensible Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), who used a hearing to scold some nuns for not doing enough for the poor, and expecting the government to do anything at all. Words fail.

(And I admit I am rather a fan of Wonkette also, monetized and snarky as she/they/it is…)

So as not to end on just all these notes of negativity, we will point out in closing that while the Daily Mail is of course reprehensible in most aspects, Amanda (Fucking) Palmer totally rocks. :)


What a lot of things

So a ridiculous number of things have been happening! And I have been too busy (digging big soothing pointless caverns in Minecraft, for instance) to research them and write down Wise Things. I will therefore just Briefly Note them.

There is no more right to remain silent unless you first say some legalistic magic words, thanks to the horrifying decision in Salinas v. Texas, which expands on the prior horrifying decision in Berghuis v. Thompkins. (Source)

The Voting Rights Act has been gutted of one of its more vital pieces (the piece that says that places with a history of vote suppression have to get changes to their voting systems pre-cleared by the DoJ) in Shelby County v. Holder, on the theory that even though that part of the Act has been used many times recently, and voter suppression has seen a big upswing in popularity recently, we don’t need it anymore. Or as this guy puts it:

…it is the opinion of the Court’s majority that the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act worked so well that to continue enforcement under the existing scheme is unconstitutional.

In the ideal world this would not be a big deal, as Congress could just update the formula to determine which jurisdictions have to get the pre-clearance. But given that Congress is currently incapable of doing anything significant, that will probably not happen, and we will be left in this situation (same source):

While preserving the purpose and the intent of the momentous civil rights law—as set forth in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) which proclaims that no American can be denied the right to vote based on their race or gender­—the Court struck down the sole method of enforcing the intent of the law.

As well as finding that the federal government can’t meddle so directly with certain state and local voting systems in order to prevent discrimination, SCOTUS also found that the federal government can’t ignore certain state laws in order to further discrimination. Which is to say, DOMA is dead (finally!).

The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

That’s Kennedy, for the majority, in United States v. Windsor.

I really need to read these decisions, see who was on which side, why DOMA went down to the 5th rather than the 14th, etc. Attentive readers will note that I myself would tend to support Federal power in the Voting Rights Act, while being against it in DOMA, because for me the important question is not “does this give more or less power to Federal or State governments?”, but rather “does this tend to protect the less powerful from the more powerful?”.

That is probably the thing that makes me a Lefty. :)

SCOTUS also brought back same-sex marriage in California, but on a relatively narrow technicality, so while that’s yay it’s not quite as interesting. At least that’s my impression so far (the actual technical finding is that just because you are the proposer of a ballot initiative, if that initiative is overturned by the courts and the government decides not to appeal, you don’t have standing to appeal it yourself just because of having proposed it in the first place).

NPR has annotated versions of both same-sex-marriage decisions, for your reading and analysis pleasure.

(And remind everyone to say “same-sex marriage”, not “gay marriage”! Bisexuals get to marry people of the same sex, too. Heck, even asexuals and straight people can if they want to! It’s all about Teh Freedoms!)

In non-SCOTUS news, Facebook had a bit of an embarrassment when first they accidentally leaked tons of data about millions of people, and then it turned out that lots of it was data that the people hadn’t even given them. Ooops! It was data harvested from the contact lists and address books and cellphones of “friends” (and “friends” of “friends”, and…) and squirreled away in FB’s vast subterranean vaults.

So basically, if you’ve ever given anyone any information about yourself, chances are that Facebook has it now.

Which you were probably already assuming, but this rather drives the point home. Along with the fact that whatever data they have, they may accidentally release to anyone you can think of in the future.

The xkcd comic “Time” is still going. There are various clever widgets around the Web to let you explore it, view it in time scales shorter than weeks, etc. I like this one.

Relatedly, here is a game in which you can take only one step per day. It is slow! I have moved a few steps to the right so far!

And also perhaps relatedly, I am rather plateaued on Lumosity (up in the “you are extremely awesome” range, natch, but still). I hope they add some more games or something soon.

Second Life, on the other hand, is still going strong, and I am still spending many hours a week there, building buildings, writing scripts, going to art shows, sailing sailboats, and so on. In fact it is having its Tenth Birthday right around now (see Community Celebration page), frequent rumors of its death to the contrary notwithstanding.

And that is all that springs immediately to mind! Now I will try to find time to read at least the most significant of the decisions above, and maybe come back eventually and write another post heaping scorn upon Scalia or something. :)


The expectation of privacy

So yes it’s good to have an open discussion of just how much stuff the government (and private parties) should be able to know and remember about us, and if as Edward Snowden claims the NSA has been lying to Congress about stuff that would be bad and it should stop.

But can we not (and I’m talking to you, U.S. Congress) pretend that we had no idea that this was all going on at all, or that it’s something that the current administration invented?

Congress created and authorized the FISA court in 1978, and gave it extra additional power in 2008; the Supreme Court found in 1979 (Smith v. Maryland) that we have no expectation of privacy in, and so no warrant is even necessary to record, phone numbers that people dial, and by extension other “envelope” and “metadata” information about communications (i.e. everything but the content itself).

(a) Application of the Fourth Amendment depends on whether the person invoking its protection can claim a “legitimate expectation of privacy” that has been invaded by government action. This inquiry normally embraces two questions: first, whether the individual has exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy; and second, whether his expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 . Pp. 739-741.

(b) Petitioner in all probability entertained no actual expectation of privacy in the phone numbers he dialed, and even if he did, his expectation was not “legitimate.” First, it is doubtful that telephone users in general have any expectation of privacy regarding the numbers they dial, since they typically know that they must convey phone numbers to the telephone company and that the company has facilities for recording this information and does in fact record it for various legitimate business purposes. And petitioner did not demonstrate an expectation of privacy merely by using his home phone rather than some other phone, since his conduct, although perhaps calculated to keep the contents of his conversation private, was not calculated to preserve the privacy of the number he dialed. Second, even if petitioner did harbor some subjective expectation of privacy, this expectation was not one that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable.” When petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the phone company and “exposed” that information to its equipment in the normal course of business, he assumed the risk that the company would reveal the information [442 U.S. 735, 736] to the police, cf. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 . Pp. 741-746.

A few people in Congress and the wider political arena have been worrying about this for some time, and to them I gladly grant the chance to say “I told you so”. But for the rest, who are suddenly grabbing the limelight by pretending this is a Brand New Bad Thing that has just happened and they are decrying, I cry foul. You knew about this, you did nothing about this, in many cases you made this possible and encouraged it. So don’t pretend now that you are a brave opponent…




I’ve gotten a few “wtf dude?” reactions to yesterday’s post, on Facebook and directly. Basically I noticed that most of Bloomberg’s defense of Stop and Frisk (“it makes the city safer”, “we do it according to how much crime there is, not the race of the residents”) didn’t refer to the actual civil rights violations at all, and could be used almost word-for-word to defend (say) Stop and Punch, or Stop and Kill.

So there we are.

(He does claim, not very convincingly, that it is only done when there is reasonable suspicion that there is some crime going on. Sadly that also doesn’t differentiate it from killing.)

Gah! But anyway, here are another 750 words.

A set of steps leads up from the water’s edge to the house. All around, the swamp is noisy and fragrant in the night. She turned the key. He ate the last of the peaches, sitting alone looking at nothing.

Sitting in the back of the flat-bottomed boat, watching her pole through the salt-grass and between the silty hummocks with practiced strokes, I saw the house for the first time just at sunset. It was, and is, a sprawling chaotic structure, growing over the years in a comfortable haphazard way, concerned mostly with not sinking into the saturated ground, but also with accommodating the varied and equally fragrant waves of inhabitants.

He is tall and bearded, she is small and compact, with large breasts and a round bottom. They both wear flannel shirts and blue jeans.

I took with me only a string-bag full of oranges.

She has used him, he realized; used him as a foil, a wedge, a handy tool to extract from the world around her one more victory, one more step up the ladder that she thought would lead her to wherever it was she was going.

I am a creature of narrative, Yolanda, just as you are a creature of vision and image. Where else but here could we possibly have met?

Someone opened the front door and came in. From the sound, whoever it was just stood there for a long time, after closing the door again, shifting from foot to foot, perhaps reading the limericks on the wall.

Of the ten doors opening from that hallway, only two were unlocked. Of the ones that were locked, there were keys to only three. Entering the others would require a fire-axe, or perhaps a ladder against the outside wall, up to a broken window.

Jacob is here. He has brought his new wife. In the evenings they sit with the rest of us after dinner for a few minutes, saying little. Then they exchange a look and go upstairs to their bedroom. Herman rolls his eyes.

The tempo of her life changed every eighteen months, when her son finished a tour of duty and came home to rest and recover. This had been going on, it seemed to her, since the beginning of time.

“What do you want?” she asked. But there was no answer.

By the end of the summer, my calves were strong and well-defined from going up those steps. I held the wooden stake in my hand like a club and looked out over the water, waiting for the ferry to appear around the headland. What mistakes we make, I thought, when we try to change things.

By the time I had the fire burning well, the yard was full of the sound of a hundred children singing the song about Anansi the Spider. Just as the sun set, they all tried to get through the doors at once, clattering and laughing and cuffing each other.

“There was a time,” the old woman said, “when no one here believed in the undead. But that was a long time ago.”

As I pushed the right earpiece of my glasses back onto its broken stud, hoping the red candle wax would hold a little longer this time, one of the nosepieces cracked and fell off into my lap. I really should have made that telephone call sooner.

Bert and the Doctor decided to hike up to the top of the mountain behind the apartment building, and do the mushrooms there. They would lie on their backs on the rocks, they decided on the way up, and get high under the open sky. Bert didn’t always like mushroom highs, but they were better than no high at all, and they could afford them. Also the Doctor was a big fan; he said the mushrooms put them in touch with deeper parts of reality.

There is a box half-buried in silt at the bottom of the lake. The wood, soft and rotten, let the water in long ago. The papers that were in the box have entirely dissolved and their fibers and molecules drifted out to be part of the lake water. The two gems, an amethyst and a star sapphire, are coated with fine mud, and thoroughly in darkness. The last person that had ever seen the box before it sank to the lake bottom died fifteen years ago. That is how time works; gradually everything sinks and is forgotten, to make room for more things to rise, and for awhile to be remembered.


Stop-and-Kill Policy ‘Saves Lives,’ Mayor Tells Black Congregation

from the New York Times

As criticism of the Police Department’s so-called stop-and-kill policy grows louder, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took to the pulpit before a black congregation in Brooklyn on Sunday to make his most forceful and nuanced defense of the practice yet, arguing that it had helped make New York the safest big city in the country, while acknowledging that the police needed to treat those whom they killed with greater respect.

“We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “At the same time, we owe it to New Yorkers to ensure that killings are properly conducted and carried out in a respectful way.”

Although the mayor has defended street executions frequently in recent months, usually in response to questions from reporters at news conferences, Sunday was the first time he gave a full speech on the topic.

Coming a week before a planned march to protest the policy, and just days after a group of minority lawmakers visited the Justice Department in Washington to call for an investigation of it, the speech was clearly an effort to address some of the criticism. The church where the mayor spoke, the First Baptist Full Gospel Church of Brownsville, is in a neighborhood where both the level of crime and the number of street executions are among the highest in the city.

In the city as a whole, the police stopped people and killed them 684,330 times last year, a 600 percent increase from Mr. Bloomberg’s first year in office. Eighty-seven percent of those executed were black or Latino, and the vast majority were young men, which has led some minority leaders to denounce the policy as a form of racial profiling.

Mr. Bloomberg said Sunday that racial profiling was banned by the Police Department, and that “we will not tolerate it.” He added, however, that the city would not “deny reality” in order to kill different groups according to their relative proportions in the population. (He used the examples of men versus women and young versus old people, rather than white versus black or Hispanic.)

“If we killed people based on census numbers, we would kill many fewer criminals, recover many fewer weapons and allow many more violent crimes to take place,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

“We will not do that,” he added. “We will not bury our heads in the sand.”


Senator changes views after son comes out as corporation


Senator Glassman’s son, an oil company

(Reuters) – Senator Bob Glassman became the most prominent Democratic lawmaker to back corporate rights when he reversed his opposition to corporate personhood on Friday, two years after he discovered his son is a major oil company.

In a newspaper opinion piece on Friday, shortly before the Supreme Court is to hear arguments in two key cases on the issue, the New York senator said he now supports full political power for corporations.

“I have come to believe that if a corporation is prepared to make a business commitment to employ teams of lobbyists in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to influence legislation,” Glassman wrote in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

“That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a Congressman, and more recently as a Senator, I opposed political rights for corporations. Then, something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.”

Glassman’s 21-year-old son, Conoco Phillips, told the senator and his wife in February 2011 that he was a major multinational energy corporation and had been “since he could remember.”

The lawmaker’s revelation makes him the only sitting Democratic senator to publicly support full corporate personhood, and one of the most prominent so far of a growing number of Democrats to publicly oppose their party on the issue.

In a series of interviews and an op-ed article published in The New York Times, Mr. Glassman, at times nervously wringing his hands, said that he did not want his son, who had a revenue of nearly 6.5 billion dollars in 2012, treated any differently because of his corporate status.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people, including corporations, to do, to make donations, take part in the political process, and even vote,” he told CNN. “That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is a legal entity with a market cap of $72B.”

His position drew a cool response from some quarters and puts him at odds with his party’s leaders in Congress, who have long looked at him as a faithful progressive and loyal ally. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid said Friday that while Mr. Reid “respects” Mr. Glassman’s position, “the majority leader continues to believe that corporate control of government should not be openly acknowledged.”


Seth MacFarlane, Worst Oscar Host Ever

Seth MacFarlane, Worst Oscar Host Ever(Well, it’s the obvious headline.)

So last night M mentioned that the Oscars Pre-Game Show was on, saying jokingly that we should be watching it, and I said “Yeah, let’s!”, expecting it to be sort of fun vapid sparkling pop-culture nothingness.

Imagine my surprise.

There’s sometimes a fine and funny and challenging line between being a jerk and parodying jerkiness. Seth MacFarlane was nowhere near that line last night; he was way, way out on the “being a jerk” side.

Parody and satire are great when used against the powerful, or turned inward on ourselves. But I think it’s all too common that someone will think “hey, this stuff is great and gets laffs, but if I use it against the powerful or the audience I might get in trouble, and I’m sure not going to use it on myself, so I’ll just use it on women or minorities or people with funny accents or something”. And that’s the nasty territory that we were in last night.

And somehow the worst thing about the “jokes” marginalizing women, sexualizing a little girl (who was right there in the audience ffs), trivializing eating disorders and abusive relationships, poking fun at people with funny accents, and so on, is that they weren’t funny.

I don’t think I’ll ever look at the talking dog and the baby with the English accent the same way again. (That is this same guy, right?) If nothing else, I’ll have my hegemonic-analysis goggles on…



Who’s the wiseacre that thought it would be funny to sprinkle powdered diamond all over the car and driveway during the night? I mean, it’s pretty and all, but it took forever to sweep up. Sometimes felt like I should be using a shovel — hey, wait a minute!

I’m collecting transitive verbs that can be used only reflexively. So far the only one I’ve got is the neologism (well, it’s a neologism for some of us) “bootstrap”. (“Finally, the Internet has bootstrapped itself to sentience.”)

It can also be used intransitively, with the reflexive object implied (“Man, that spent a long time bootstrapping”). I’d expect this is probably true of any verb in this category; given that there’s only one possible object, it’d naturally become optional to spell it out.

Bonus points for a reflexive-only transitive verb that can’t be used intransitively, of course! We are nothing if not generous with points!

In WoW news, either Panda Tanks are way overpowered, or the game is just dead-easy up to at least level 70 these days. Or both.

Probably both.

Can’t spell crazy without R-AZ!

I am reading the webcomic Questionable Content from start to finish (that link points to the first one; don’t worry, the art and typeface both improve pretty rapidly). It’s very good, in a “wow I’m not really into soap operas and all, but this is great” sort of way. All friendly and geeky and snarkily heartwarming and stuff, with the occasional digression into why the advent of human-level AI hasn’t made much of a difference in the world (yet?). Also lots of cute girls in a pulchritudinous but almost entirely SFW way.

And on the other hand I have already read start-to-finish, and am eagerly hoping for more, the never SFW in the slightest webcomic oglaf. Dripping with sex an’ laffs!

Speaking of laffs, you may have heard that there are Amusing Videos on the internet! Here is one that I found!

Is that not amusing? In at least one of his other ones, he makes his cat dance on the video. Couldn’t do that with our cat; she’d rip your face clean off…



Dumplings, Dastards, and Drivel

(Before I decided that the dumplings really belonged in here, I was considering titles like “Douchebags and Bullshit”, which is somewhat coarse, or “Rotters and Rubbish”, which wasn’t bad.)

So this year we made 203 New Year’s Dumplings. The little daughter having come home special for the ceremonies, and the little boy being home from school between terms, we were four healthy adults, and the leftovers of that 203 didn’t even last through the end of January Second.

(See prior New Year’s post for prior history of dumplings.)

Here is my New Year card over on the Secret Second Life weblog. The sentiments apply to all Real Life friends too also. :)

On dastards (cads, bounders, douchenozzles, arseholes), see quite a few of the comments to this Asher Wolf posting on why she left the CryptoParty movement that she founded or co-founded, and how the hacker community contains too much, and too much tolerance of, sexism and misogyny and general nastiness.

Many of the comments are supportive, but many are also just facepalmingly awful. (I posted what I thought was a satire of that kind of comment, and despite my having tried to make it obviously absurd, it was enough like the run of actual negative comments that I had to put in a followup saying that it was intended as satire, because people were responding to it as though it, well, wasn’t.) And the evil-density in the twitter comments was even higher (if harder to link to).

I understand why people come in and carefully and condescendingly explain how she is all wrong, and bad things happen to everyone, and it’s not misogyny, and rape hardly every happens, and things like that; they are just blind to their various degrees of privilege, and are shoring up the bulwarks of the protective walls they have up around their egos.

Pretty standard human stuff.

I less understand why people come in and say that someone “needs to shave her pits”, or says that some particular person attacking her is “way hotter” than someone else is. I mean, wut? How is that even remotely relevant to anything?

Either (1) this is actually the way that they think, (2) they are just rather nastily trolling, or (3) talking about the way they “think” is a bit of an overstatement, and they are basically being Eliza machines in this instance.

Also pretty standard human stuff, I suppose, as are the strings of obscenities and the attacks on her website; I just don’t understand it as much, and it makes me (even) sadder.

And on drivel (or rubbish, or bullshit), I am reading Belief or Nonbelief, and while I’m not done with it (despite how short it is), I cannot keep myself from fulminating, or at least weblogging, about it. It’s a series of public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who is a Cardinal (a Hat Cardinal, not a Wings Cardinal, obviously).

Eco is sort of The Semiotics Guy, so he is all into signs and how and what they signify (if at all), and so on, so it’s not too surprising that he can wander up big ethereal staircases of language until he gets so far above the concrete that his words not only fail to signify anything material, but fail to signify even any identifiable concepts. And of course Martini is an intelligent person in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and spending most of his thought-time in environments as far from real life as possible is probably one of the few ways it’s possible to be one of those for very long and stay sane.

Hilarity ensues.

The first bit is about hope and life and ideas of the end of the world and stuff; it was written somewhere in the late 90’s. Eco, referring to the last book of the New Testament, writes

Revelation can be read as a promise, but also an announcement of an end, and thus gets rewritten at every step, even by those who never read it, as we await 2000.

Say what? People who have never read the book are constantly rewriting it? Squinting at the whole paragraph really hard, what he means is something like “people are always thinking about how the world might end, and Revelation talks about trumpets and hailstorms and stuff, but nowadays we think more in terms of acid rain, nuclear waste, global warming, and stuff”.

It does sound cooler and less obvious if you talk about the constant rewriting of a book by people who have never read it, but that way of talking has the disadvantage of being incoherent and/or wrong.

Here’s another great passage:

In this way, each one of us flirts with the specter of the apocalypse, exorcising it; the more one unconsciously fears it the more one exorcises, projecting it onto the screen in the form of bloody spectacle, hoping in this way to render it unreal. But the power of specter lies precisely in its unreality.

Yowza! We unconsciously fear the end of the world, so we flirt with it by projecting it (“hey baby, ever been… projected?”) onto the screen (does that mean “we imagine”? or “we make movies about” or…?) in the form of bloody spectacle (we imagine global warming as bloody spectacle? could well be true of the movie version, I spose) in order to (unconsciously, still?) render it unreal (because things on the screen are unreal I guess), but in vain because (as our unconscious is apparently not clever enough to recognize) making it unreal just makes it more powerful.

And the sentence just before it is about “irresponsible consumerism”, which is somehow linked to all that other stuff.

There’s probably some unpacking of this that is actually making a coherent truth-claim that might perhaps be falsifiable, but in essence I think it’s more like poetry; a bunch of words piled on each other not to make some coherent truth-claim, but for some more diaphanous aesthetic reason.

The very next paragraph deserves copying down here also (perhaps only because I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing):

I’d be willing to bet that the notion of the end of time is more common today in the secular world than in the Christian. The Christian world makes it the object of meditation, but acts as if it may be projected into a dimension not measured by calendars. The secular world pretends to ignore the end of time, but is fundamentally obsessed by it. This is not a paradox, but a repetition of what transpired in the first thousand years of history.

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring (as I think he is doing here, but really who can tell) to the years 1-1000 CE as “the first thousand years of history”, it’s hard to say what most of these words might plausibly mean.

Just how common is “the notion of the end of time” in “the secular world”? He has presumably said “the end of time” rather than “the end of the world” for some reason, but I don’t know what it could be. “The end of time” is a notion that barely makes any sense at all in “the secular world” (since time is not something that can end, absent something really weird and non-secular happening), much less being extremely common. The dimension that is “measured by calendars” is time; I’m not sure what it means to say that the Christian world acts as if the end of time occurs in (or “may be projected into”) something besides time. Is he saying that most Christians think of the Apocalypse is a metaphor for something moral or aesthetic, rather than something that will actually take place at some point? That is most likely true, but as far as I know the Official Story of the “Christian world” is that it’s going to happen (for some value of “it”) at some actual time, perhaps any day now.

Maybe he’s just saying “your typical actual Christian person doesn’t actually believe that the world is going to end, or at least doesn’t act that way, whereas your typical secular person worries alot about global warming”. But he sure says it funny if so.

Here’s another character-string, that I don’t think I’ll even try to tease a meaning out of (although the first few words seem like a real screamer, in the “obviously false unless it means something different than it seems to” sense):

Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself. There is, nonetheless, an originally Christian vision of history wherever the signpost of Hope on this road is followed.

On rereading, I’m suspecting more and more that Eco, that wag, is using some prose generator here. (Secular historicism has understood that God reconstitutes himself? Orly?)

Cardinal Martini’s response to this first burst of words isn’t quite up to this standard, but he does use a huge number of words to basically say “oh, well, Christians don’t really have to worry about the end of the world because God is going to take care of them, after all, so naturally the secular types are the ones who obsess about it”.

He does, though, note that

History has always been seen most clearly as a journey toward something beyond itself and not immanent… this vision does not extenuate but solidifies the meaning of contingent events into an ethical locus in which the metahistorical future of the human adventure is determined.

which is getting there.

(And which, once one spends a few minutes picking it apart, turns out to box up considerable volumes of likely-false assumptions inside words and passive-voice constructs like “always” and “most clearly”, “been seen” and “is determined”, which are just the post-graduate version of sprinkling one’s Internet postings with “clearly”, “obviously”, and “certainly”.)

(And for that matter uses a quaintly archaic sense of “extenuate”. Hm, is this a translation, or is the English the original?)

In the next exchange (and the only other one I’ve finished reading), Eco turns the discussion toward the meaning and beginning of life, and the question of abortion, not so much as to get closer to real concrete questions as to show that even on a subject like this he can mostly avoid them.

Here is Eco:

When the banner of Life is waved, it can’t but move the spirit — especially of nonbelievers, however “pietistic” their atheism, because for those who do not believe in anything supernatural the idea of Life, the feeling of Life, provides the only value, the only source of a possible ethical system.

which is bullshit in both common senses: it’s false, and it’s not clear that it’s actually concerned at all with true and false, but just wants to sound good.

(The quotes around “pietistic” in reference to atheism are rather bizarre, as it suggests that “pietistic atheism” is a term that someone else has used, and that Eco himself is using referentially, although he has shame-quote-level reservations about it. But in fact the term “pietistic atheism” is actually pretty rare, so… I dunno.)

And of course just “waving the banner of Life” doesn’t necessarily move the spirit; some people’s spirits are (quite healthily) resistant to being moved by the waving of any banners, and there are all sorts of sources of possible ethical systems besides “the idea of Life, the feeling of Life”.

And so on and so on.

Eco then makes the very good point that a key question is exactly when a human life begins, that we don’t have a really good answer to it, and that it seems like a question that we may never have a really good answer to, even though it’s so important. (I like him saying this, because in my own analysis of the whole abortion issue, these facts are at the core of why it’s so hard.)

The Cardinal responds by subtly taking issue with Eco’s emphasis on “Life”, saying of course that it’s really all about God, and “the life of a person called upon to participate in the life of God himself.”

“Participate” is a great word there, like when the news says that a person is “linked to” some terrorist group. The postmodern “informed by” is another one. They all let you sort of draw a narrative line between two things without actually making any truth-claim that might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea what it actually means to “participate in the life of God himself” for Cardinal Martini, and I’m not convinced that he really does, either. At the high cloudy levels that he’s talking, “participate” is all that’s needed.

Moving on to just when there starts to be “a concrete life that I can label human”, Martini uses some more “obviously” words:

But we all know that we have … a clearer sense of genetic determination starting from a point that, at least in theory, can be identified. From conception, in fact, a new being is born.

There ya go! “We all know” that “in fact” a new being is born at conception.

Here “new” means as distinct from the two elements that united to form it.

This may be a nice definition of “new”, but the more important term is “being”. When someone ingests a couple pieces of food and they start to dissolve in the stomach, there may be some point at which they squish together and there is a “new” food-glob which is distinct from either the hotdog or the bun, but there’s no “new being” here to worry about, unless and until the relevant molecules make their way into a developing fetus which is (say) eventually born.

So he’s doing an end-run to try to slip “identity begins at the moment of conception” (something that the Church has believed for only a small fraction of its history, as Eco mentions and Martini ignores) into the discussion as though it was something we now know as a fact.

Okay, that’s par for the course. :)

Here is some more novel and amorphous stuff, on the topic of why the product of conception matters, and why we should protect it:

Beyond these scientific and philosophical matters lies the fact that whatsoever is open to so great a destiny — being called by name by God himself — is worthy of enormous respect from the beginning.

Why is that? Is there anything that God himself can’t call by name? Does God have names for people in a way that he doesn’t have names for animals, or fruit, or dust-motes? This is a piece of Catholic doctrine, or something, that I wasn’t aware of. Why would being called by name by God, as opposed to any other aspect of a putative relationship to God, be the thing in particular that makes a person “worthy of enormous respect from the beginning”?

If it turned out that God also had names for individual rocks, would we be morally obliged to make sure that any rock that begins to split off the side of a mountain does in fact split off, and to have “enormous respect” for it from that point on? Why or why not?

And yes, the question seems absurd. But it’s directly implied by the Cardinal’s words, so I will refer him to you on that issue.

We are talking about real responsibility toward that which is produced by a great and personal love, responsibility toward “someone”. Being called upon and loved, this someone already has a face, and is the object of affection and attention.

I think we are still talking about a just-fertilized egg here. The great and personal love must be God’s (since, sadly, not every instance of conception involves great or personal human love), as must be the affection and attention (since, this early in the game, no human is aware that anything exists to lavish affection and attention on).

But the someone already has a face? What could that mean? A fertilized egg most definitely does not have a face; it is too small. Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it’s not clear for what. Does he mean that he thinks the look of the face of the eventual person (if any) resulting from the fertilization is already determined, by the genetics of the sperm and egg? That’s probably not true, certainly not before the gametes are all done fusing (when exactly is “the moment of conception” at this level of detail, anyway?). And why “face” rather than “form” or for that matter foot-size? Are those less important, or is it all just some metaphor and “face” sounds better?

The next sentence is:

Every violation of this need of affection and attention can only result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

How did we get from the fertilized egg’s being the object of affection and attention (from God), to a need for affection and attention? In fact the fertilized egg, at this point, doesn’t have any need for affection and attention, unless there’s some religious claim here that it needs it from God. But presumably nothing could violate God’s affection and attention. (I’m not sure what if anything it means to “violate” a “need”.)

The claim being made here seems to be that from the moment of conception there is a new being that as a need for affection and attention, and any failure to provide for that need will result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

But that’s false. Something like half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise spontaneously aborted very early (and so presumably their needs aren’t being provided for?), and no one who isn’t God ever knows they existed. No conflict, no profound suffering, no painful rending.

The obvious counter here is that the good Cardinal didn’t mean that. And that’s likely true, but then we’re just left wondering exactly what he did mean.

The end of this letter doesn’t help much, except to suggest that it’s all about faces again.

There is a splendid metaphor that reveals in lay terms something common to both Catholics and laymen, that of the “face”. Levinas spoke of it movingly as an irrefutable instance. I would rather cite the words, almost a testament, of Italo Mancini in one of his last books, Tornino i volti [Back to the Faces]: “Living in, loving, and sanctifying our world wasn’t granted us by some impersonal theory of being, or by the facts of history, or by natural phenomena, but by the existence of those uncanny centers of otherness — the faces, faces to look at, to honor, to cherish.”

Which, I think, is nice, even profound, as poetry, but as any sort of discussion of a subject falls rather flatly short of, well, of meaning anything.

Living in our world was granted us by the existence of faces? You don’t say!