Monday, April 30, 2007

Good news from the Vatican

Oh, and bad news, too

As reported last night in the newest episode of Family Guy, Vatican scientists have determined that the Devil is no longer the world's greatest threat to salvation. Sounds like good news, no? The bright cloud has a dark lining, however, and some kicked-back cowboy reporters have the scoop. The Vatican has discovered the Super Devil!



Hell on wheels! This is not good. A taller and more mobile Adversary is a tough development for the forces of niceness. Who will save us now?

Well, how about man's best friend? While the Griffins are hiding out in Texas, Brian goes out to buy some booze and receives a complimentary handgun from the clerk (“It's a state law”). Although initially offended by the firearm, Brian blasts off a few rounds into the sky and finds that he rather likes it. Too bad for the Super Devil and his flying motorcycle; it turns out to be the wrong time to be zooming by overhead.

Now I get those “Dog is my co-pilot” bumper stickers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The smart-mouth student

A chip off the same block

My nieces and nephews span a range from nearly 30 years old to approximately zero years old. The eldest nephew is drudging away at his Ph.D. dissertation and the next eldest has settled down with spouse and job. The younger of the two did not go as far in his academic career as the older, but his college days achieved pinnacles of their own. They just weren't of an academic nature. Although he may have been tempted to exaggerate his classroom escapades when he told me about them, I believe that his sense of honor would not let him stray too far. Allow me to recount one of the more notorious episodes of his collegiate years. For purposes of the narrative, it will be useful to refer to him by a name, so let's call him “Mike Chamberlain,” a suitably euphonious alias.

Mike was taking an English class in his freshman or sophomore year. It might have been American lit or perhaps composition. Mike was still living at home in those days and the college was the local community college, its faculty dominated by professors with master's degrees (as is generally the case with California community colleges). Mike's English professor, however, had earned a doctorate and made sure the students addressed him as “Dr. C” instead of “Mr. C,” as they would otherwise have been wont to do. If you can't make a point of your academic attainments at a college, then where else could you do it? Mike didn't mind that at all, although he was put off just a bit by his professor's tendency to throw his intellectual weight around. Some pedantry is fine in its place, but Mike does not respond well to bullying.

Dr. C was leading the class in a discussion of Faulker's “A Rose for Emily.” If you don't know it (and I don't), be advised that the Rose of the title is a woman who loses both her fiancé and her mind. She makes the best of it by keeping her fiancé's dead body in the attic. Sounds like a good read, doesn't it? Just gruesome enough for college students. Mike's professor was trying to underscore the central theme of Faulker's short story (or, at least, what Dr. C perceived to be the central theme): “It's a tale of narcolepsy.”

My nephew's eyebrows are very mobile. They went up a mile at Dr. C's statement. The professor noticed.

“Do you have a question, Mr. Chamberlain?”

“No, sir. I do not have a question.”

“It is often said that those who do not have any questions must have all the answers.”

According to Mike, this is Dr. C's favorite aphorism. It is, indeed, often said—at least in Dr. C's classes.

The students were mostly inert, so Dr. C tried again to stimulate their interest.

“Do you understand what I mean when I say the theme of Faulkner's story is narcolepsy?”

Mike stifled a laugh, but not completely successfully. His professor's eyes were immediately on him again.

“Do you have a question, Mr. Chamberlain?”

“No, sir. Really, I don't.”

“It is often said that those who do not have any questions must have all the answers. Are you perhaps confused by my use of advanced vocabulary?”

“Uh, no, sir. Since I have all the answers, Dr. C, my answer is that you appear to be confused by your use of advanced vocabulary.”

Dr. C was startled, but probably only a little. Mike is a quick wit who often blurts things out at the least provocation (it's a family trait shared by one of his favorite uncles), so the professor was most likely inured to it. Nevertheless, Mike's riposte had to be irritating.

Excuse me?”

Mike was ready. “The vocabulary word you are searching for so unsuccessfully is necrophilia. The word you are actually using is narcolepsy. That's a medical condition that involves falling asleep abruptly and uncontrollably, much like the students in this class.”

Depending on Mike's mood when he tells this story, it ends either with Dr. C maundering on and scrambling to recover (“Oh. Yes. Good point. Necrophilia. That's what I meant to say.”) or with Mike's classmates boosting him up on their shoulders and parading him triumphantly about the classroom. Frankly, I see no reason that both endings could not have occurred simultaneously.

Thank goodness my nephew has never enrolled in any of my classes.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Judgment at Baghdad

I guess practice doesn't make perfect

KQED in San Francisco broadcast Judgment at Nuremberg this evening. I had never seen the whole thing before. (Werner Klemperer's chilling performance as an unrepentant Nazi is retroactively and unfortunately reduced by recollections of his later role as television's Colonel Klink.) At one point, the American prosecutor, Colonel Tad Lawson (played by Richard Widmark), is frustrated and angry over courtroom theatrics and the political pressure being applied to him. After a bout of drinking, he bursts out with a remarkable observation:
You know, there's one thing about Americans. We're not cut out to be occupiers. We're new at it, and we're not very good at it.
Well, Colonel, we may not be so new at it now, but we're still not very good at it. This could be one of the consequences of having idiots plan an invasion. When Plan A (“greeted as liberators”) fails, Plan B is nowhere to be found. Unless you consider fumbling around while American troops and Iraqis continue to die constitutes a “plan.”

Cell phones kill!

I wish

Earlier this month, Reuters and other news services reported that a virus panic is rampant among Pakistani cell phone users. With the speed of an urban legend, shrill warnings about a lethal cell phone virus are sprinting from one cell user to the next throughout Pakistan. Can the rest of the world be far behind?

While cell phone viruses are real and will probably pose a genuine threat (or at least make a nuisance of themselves) in the future, the Pakistani virus is supposed to be dangerous to the user, not the phone. It will kill you!

Yes, I know. Hilarious, isn't it? This is how Kim Barker reported it in the Chicago Tribune:
The virus would not hurt the phone. Instead, in a scene out of a horror movie, it would kill the recipient. Immediately.

Plz ignore calls frm 0A9-888888 or with screen with dancing snake & changing colours its a deadly virus and in some regions of Pakistan death are being reported,” began one message.

Another said: “it's a virus to kill a person. Plz it's not a joke it's damn serious virous.”
As stupid as it may sound, people are nevertheless taking the “damn serious virous” seriously. Major newspapers and phone companies in Pakistan are strenuously denying the story, which thrives on a plethora of “friend of a friend” rumors, since it seems that everyone in Pakistan is now only three or four degrees of separation away from someone who died horribly at the hands of a cell phone text message.

The problem is especially acute in a place like Pakistan, which is ahead of the United States in the adoption of cell phone technology. (Although one wonders whether “ahead” is the right word in this context.) More from Kim Barker:
For Pakistanis who treat cell phones as a necessary appendage, this was serious. People talk on cell phones while watching a movie in the theater, while walking on a treadmill at the gym.
Perhaps Pakistanis aren't too far ahead of Americans in making cell phones a necessary appendage. My students use them constantly, grudgingly turning them off at the start of each class and immediately reactivating them the moment class is over. People chatter into them while driving their cars, dining in restaurants, and standing on street corners. Surely movie theaters, music halls, and opera houses cannot be far behind.

Can we get that user-fatal cell phone virus story going in this country, too, please?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The woman at the well plays along

Borrowing a page from Mother Angelica

The Eternal Word Television Network ensures that we will never lack for reruns of its founder's homespun homilies. While formal preaching in the Roman Catholic Church is the exclusive province of ordained menfolk, Mother Angelica was a feisty catechist who never lacked an opinion on any point of Catholic theology and practice—even to the point of once denouncing Cardinal Roger Mahoney of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. (That was one of the few times Church discipline forced her to back down, albeit extremely reluctantly.)

Although Mother Angelica is now an ailing octogenarian, her video and audio recordings can still be seen and heard regularly on EWTN-affiliated television and radio stations. Folksy and unaffected—but very opinionated—Mother Angelica likes to let her imagination take flight during her little talks, casually speculating on minor details that are not explicit in the Biblical texts on which she expounds. She conjures up little domestic details about the Holy Family (that's Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for all you secularists out there) or suggests bits of undocumented back-story for overly familiar parables. In her talk about chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Mother Angelica suggests that the woman at the well was drawing water at an untimely hour because she was an outcast within her Samaritan community.
And the women never went to the well at noon time. Say, why not? Well, they didn't. The women only went around six o'clock. And they would gather and they would gossip. You see, this woman wasn't leading the right kind of life and she didn't want to be with these other women. And probably she had tried and they had so humiliated her and spoke very poorly to her that she decided, “I'm going at noon.”
These details aren't in the Bible and Mother Angelica isn't quite old enough to know the water-drawing routines of the era from personal experience, but it all adds a measure of extra-scriptural color. That's Angelica at work. Here's the actual text of the pertinent verses from John 4:
4Now he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

7When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8(His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

13Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
That's the bare Biblical account of Jesus's encounter with the woman at the well. As we saw, Mother Angelica adds her own embellishments. How might the story turn out if embellished by another? The plain text is compatible with multiple perspectives, some of them at odds with Angelica's pious version or the mainstream accounts of other exegetes. For example, what if the woman at the well were to have given her own first-person account? It might very well have turned out like this, entirely consistent with John 4:
My Encounter at the Well

by A Samaritan Woman
(as told to Zeno the Stoic)


It was a day like any other when I picked up my water jug and headed out to Jacob's well. On the way there, I passed a group of scruffy itinerants walking into town, no doubt in search of provisions. They had the look of mendicants and it seemed likely that they had just come from drinking their fill at the well. I silently gave thanks that they were not loitering at the well, for I know their kind, Jewish preachers full of peculiar dogma they are all too willing to share and full of demands on the common folk for food, water, and shelter. I expected to draw my water in peace.

It was not to be. One of their number had remained behind, resting next to Jacob's well. As I attached my jug to the rope at the well to lower it into the water, the reclining Jew said, “Will you give me a drink?”

It was a startling request, so I answered him sharply: “You are a Jew and I am a woman of Samaria. How can you ask me for anything?”

His reply confirmed my suspicion that he and his companions were itinerant preachers. He acted as if I were obligated to serve him: “If you knew the gift of God and who is asking you for water, you would have asked him for water in return and he would have given you living water.”

Despite the obscurity of his remarks, the Jew was mild in his manner and I found myself smiling. “You, sir, have neither bucket nor jug with which to draw water, living or otherwise. Jacob's well is deep. If you cannot draw water for yourself, how are you to provide me or anyone else with living water? Perhaps you are greater than father Jacob, who dug this well with his own hands and drank from it himself, along with his many sons and his great flocks?”

The ragged preacher smiled back and said, “Everyone who drinks from father Jacob's well will thirst again, but those who drink my living water will never thirst.”

I sniffed at him and lowered my jug into the well. “Yes, I see. I know the water whereof you speak. It can be gathered from adders and scorpions and certain plants. Those who partake of it never thirst again. I would not have this deadly water.”

The Jew did not take offense, but laughed. “I do not speak of such,” he said. “The living water I give becomes a spring of water of eternal life.”

Clearly the man was mad—or religion-besotted, which is much the same—but he seemed harmless enough. I pulled up my jug and let him sip from it. As he drank, I said, “Sir, why don't you give me your living water? Then I won't get thirsty again. I can spare myself all these trips to draw water. Maybe you should drink some yourself, so you wouldn't have to sit next to wells and ask strangers for a drink.”

He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled again. “Go home and fetch your husband. Come back and I will give you both living water.”

I admit that I found his suggestion irksome. What would he say if he knew that my worthless husband was lying drunk on his pallet at home? Was he hoping to find out whether I even had a husband?

Some of the Jewish preacher's companions were returning from Sychar, carrying the crusts of bread and rinds of cheese that were the fruits of their foraging. One ill-favored man clutched a wine jug, which I presume they had had to purchase. I was eager to get away, now that the talkative Jew had an audience for his bantering with me. I decided to test him.

“I cannot do as you say and bring my husband to you. I have no husband.”

He leveled a severe gaze at me and declaimed, “You are right when you say you have no husband. You have actually had five husbands. The one who lives with you now is not your spouse, so what you have just said is most true.”

His companions had sly grins on their faces and I saw one nudge a neighbor with his elbow. No doubt they would soon be telling everyone about their leader's preternatural insight into the lives of strangers. No doubt the tale would grow in the telling. I gave the Jew a small smile and saw a flicker of doubt cross his face. Perhaps he was afraid I would gainsay his oracular pronouncement, but I knew better than to do so. I, a woman alone among strange men, would be safer if I played along and nourished their pride.

“You are a prophet indeed, sir,” I replied, with no hint of mockery in my voice. The grins on his companion's faces broadened. Nevertheless, I would risk a subtle riposte. “You know, O prophet, that our fathers worshiped on this mountain, this land where father Jacob made this well for us, but you Jews claim that we must worship in Jerusalem. Must I travel so far if I wish to pray?”

The preacher was equal to my challenge, and his eyes twinkled with appreciation as he intoned his reply and enthralled his traveling companions: “Believe me, O woman, when I tell you that a new time is coming—a time when you will not worship the Father here on this mountain nor in the city of Jerusalem. Samaritans worship in ignorance while we Jews worship in knowledge, for salvation comes from us. Yet that new time is coming. Indeed, it has now come. All true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, as the Father ordains.”

He was getting repetitive, which is a manner I have seen in preachers before as they seek to draw in their listeners and hold them rapt. When he finally concluded his homily, I hefted my water jug and gave him one final offering, speaking clearly in the hearing of his disciples.

“I know that you Jews say a Messiah is coming. When he comes to us, he will be able to explain everything. Perhaps he will explain things much as you do.”

The Jewish prophet concealed his delight at my teasing remarks and schooled his features to assume a profoundly serene aspect. He calmly said, “I who speak to you am he.”

As his companions goggled at his frank admission to a strange woman, I swiftly left them and made my way back to town. My worthless husband was stirring, and I confess that I wasted some of my hard-won water by splashing it on him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My student weaves a tangled web

And drops more than a stitch!

The passing of the drop deadline always occasions an emergency or two. The more amusing examples consist of students who really screw up the simple business of dropping a class. These poor people suddenly realize that they're going to get F's in the classes they've been neglecting if they don't bail out before the deadline. We teachers haven't seen them in several days or even weeks, but suddenly they're back on campus and want to talk to you. They come to classes where they've long been strangers and ask you what to do, so you give them instructions on how to withdraw from the class.

Some of them follow through, but a few manage to dither about and don't file their drop requests. Their names remain on the roster, doomed to get F's to average into their GPAs. Funny thing: Had they stayed away, those students would have been dropped by me anyway for nonattendance. I always purge the class rolls on the eve of the drop deadline. But by showing up during the week leading up to drop day, they are back in attendance and have assumed the responsibility to drop themselves.

The poor things can't even drop a class correctly. If they did it via the school's website, they could drop without ever setting foot on campus or seeing an instructor.

One of my undropped students caught me after class the week after the drop deadline to plead her case, citing special circumstances. Her counselor, she said, had just told her that the class was not required for her major, although he had previously told her that it was. She was horrified that he had not told her sooner, because she would have dropped before the deadline had she known.

I commiserated with my student and suggested she meet with her counselor again to examine the possibility of filing a petition for a late withdrawal. After all, if the counselor had misinformed her, he should be willing to help her make it right. My student was hesitant.

“When I met with the counselor,” she explained, “he told me that the only thing we could do now would be if you gave me an incomplete.”

That was a head-scratcher. Could her counselor be that dim?

“A counselor should never tell a student something like that. An incomplete grade cannot be given to a student unless he or she is doing passing work at the time of the emergency withdrawal from class. Did you tell him your current grade?” She nodded. I didn't feel it necessary to press the matter as to whether she had informed the counselor that it had become mathematically impossible for her to pass the class. Her F was most secure.

“You see,” I continued, “a grade of incomplete is like saving a game that you plan to finish later. But our class is a game you're losing, so an incomplete makes no sense. You don't want to pick up where you left off, in a deep hole. You want to start over again with a clean slate. Or, in this case, you just want to drop it because you don't need it.”

She seemed to understand.

“So I need a special drop petition from my counselor?”

“That's right. Go back to the counseling office, see your counselor again—or ask for a new one, if that would make you feel better—and get the paperwork started. Since it's after the formal drop deadline, a petition is your only option.”

There was a long pause. She was racking her brain for something and not finding it. Finally, she asked me a question:

“Could you tell me where the counseling office is?”

Oh. The counseling office where she had allegedly been given bad advice by her counselor that morning? How soon they forget!

Another pause as I regarded her with a carefully bland expression. Then I gave her directions (the counseling center was right near where we were standing, just one building over). She thanked me quickly and bustled off.

I still don't know if she had any idea how completely she gave herself away.

Paul Harvey attacks President Bush

Even Eisenhower is not spared

I was scanning the AM radio dial on my way from lunch and hit the local broadcast of Paul Harvey's news program (or, as he accurately describes it himself, “news and comment”). I've always found Harvey much too complacent concerning Republican high crimes and misdemeanors, so I seldom listen to him. This time, however, he caught my attention:
Partly personal: Once upon another war, when Eisenhower needed bodies with which to hit the beaches of Normandy, he wiped out the Air Force cadets—and wanna-be flyboys were overnight foot soldiers. Well, that backfired. Fliers caught in that crossfire never forgot. And here we go again! Twenty thousand of our airmen have been reassigned—trained fliers reassigned—put in jobs for which they were not trained: guarding prisoners, and driving trucks, and typing. Our Air Force's present top general, Michael Moseley, is frustrated. He is angry. As he should be.
Although Harvey, a World War II Air Force veteran, does not actually name the person responsible for the situation he decries, we all know that it is the commander-in-chief who is to blame. The broadcaster has on occasion been a little more direct, as when he specifically took issue with President Nixon over the Vietnam War. At that time, he said, “Mr. President, I love you, but you're wrong.” It sounds as if Harvey is ready to dust off that quote and use it again.

Today's complaint sounds familiar, doesn't it? John Murtha has been denouncing the Bush administration's insistence on shorting U.S. troops on training, equipment, and R&R. The president uses the nation's troops like toy soldiers, as if they have no human needs and can be discarded when playtime is over. Unfortunately, our puffed-up commander-in-chief has yet to grow tired of his bloody war games.

The rest of the country is growing tired. Is tired. The people of the United States and the people of Iraq agree that it is time for the military occupation of Iraq to end. Bush begs to differ, but has no solution of his own other than “staying the course” and continuing to push exhausted and under-equipped troops into the meat-grinder of a civil war.

Two years ago, Bush awarded Paul Harvey the American Medal of Freedom. Today he may be regretting that.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The perfect student

One who will do anything!

The days are dwindling down to a precious few. Some students have finally noticed. (It's about time!) The ones who have been planning to “catch up” and do some studying “later” are realizing that “later” has arrived. Many of them check to see if they still have time to drop the classes they've been neglecting. Others opt for desperate measures: They contact their teacher.

A colleague recently received the following frantic e-mail, which I present just as the student wrote it (except for rendering it anonymous):
Dear Professor,

My name is Mary Jane Doe, and I attend your M/W Intro to Stats class. At this point in the sememster I know my grade is not where it needs to be. I need this class for my GE and tranfer agreement. Is there anything I can do to bring up my grade to a passing C? I know I have done poorly on the test and my attendence has not been steller. But, sir please I will do anything and everything I can to pass your class. Please give me guidance on how to proceed from here. Thank you for your time. If you could help me in anyway I will be forever in your debt.

Sincerely,

Mary Jane Doe

Ah, yes. Another one of those students who “will do anything and everything” to pass the class. Whatever could she mean by that? We know she doesn't mean actually coming to class or doing assignments. Perhaps she would like some nice extra credit?

Seeing the possibility of one of those teachable moments, my colleague seized his opportunity and sprang into action. He wrote back:
Hello Mary Jane,

In light of your current class average, it is highly unlikely that you will pass this course. I recommend that you drop the class and retake statistics next semester.

Professor ABC

He told me later that he was richly rewarded for his efforts: She wised up and dropped the class. Perhaps she'll enroll in one of his sections next fall, in which case he can remind her that she's willing to do “anything” to get a passing grade. I know him. He'll give her a syllabus and point to the homework assignments. If she does them for a change, then her otherwise wasted current semester will not have been entirely in vain.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

No Damned Parking!

The use of reading skills in our society

As an extremely superior individual, I am naturally irritated that I am not exempt from all of the petty little rules that apply to the population at large. Not being a sociopath, however, I understand that it would be disruptive if I were to insist on the privileges that should be my natural due. Imagine, therefore, how irked I become when less sensitive (and undoubtedly less qualified) people casually arrogate to themselves this superior status—and then act on it.

Yesterday I was drove to the drug store to pick up a prescription. I followed a large van into the parking lot. Other vehicles were behind me. The van drove slowly down the lane in front of the drug store. And stopped. Right in the lane. The curb was painted red and clearly marked “Fire Lane. Do Not Block.” I knew right away what was going on (the driver was dropping off someone who would dash inside and take “just a second”), but I did not swing around the van. I sat there, willing the driver to wake up and move. (Yeah, like that really works.) She finally noticed that she had a caravan behind her and stuck her hand out the driver's side window, motioning me to pass her. I ignored her for a while. She got exasperated and motioned more peremptorily. I ignored her a little while longer before I finally pulled out and squeezed past, scowling as I did. If I had not had other vehicles behind me, I daresay I would have been inclined to sit there, crowding the van and perhaps even honking my horn a few times until she discerned my moral superiority.

But we superior people take into account the feelings and convenience of others. I mean the folks behind me, not the self-important fool in the van. Oh, but next time—!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The King of Id is dead

Long live the king?

Brant Parker is gone now. He was half the brains behind The Wizard of Id, which he created in partnership with Johnny Hart. Parker had already turned the job of drawing the comic strip over to his son and was living in retirement in Lynchburg, Virginia. Reports said he was 86 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He died just over a week after the passing of Hart, who was still hard at work when he passed away at his drawing desk.

At the Creators Syndicate website, the Wizard of Id page carries the following announcement:
To our editors and readers: Please note that there will be no disruption of service for “The Wizard of Id” comic strip. Jeff Parker has been the artist and co-writer for the past 10 years and will continue his work with the strip.

He was privileged to work under the tutelage of his father, beloved cartoonist Brant Parker, for 10 years before Brant's retirement in 1997. Jeff Parker and the Hart family look forward to continuing a longtime tradition of comic excellence. Thank you for your continued support of “The Wizard of Id.”
For some reason, I am not reassured.

A good day for paranoia

Carefully contextualized

Yesterday I witnessed an amusing confluence of right-wing angst. In the early morning, Lee Rodgers and Melanie Morgan of KSFO commiserated over the their exposure to the baleful eye (or is it ear?) of Media Matters for America. In rather subdued tones, they groused over the attention that Media Matters gives to their broadcasts, recording each word and reporting Rodgers and Morgan's more egregious statements on the Media Matters website. They were casting anxious looks over their shoulders, furious at the way that self-anointed media watchdogs were taking their comments “out of context.”

That turned out to be the meme of the day. Later, on the same radio station, Rush Limbaugh decried the way that Media Matters monitored his broadcasts and then took his remarks “out of context.” (Is Karl Rove still faxing daily talking points to Fox News and other right-wing media outlets?) One wonders, of course, just how much context is necessary to properly construe Morgan's remark that “We've got a bull's-eye painted on [Pelosi's] big, wide laughing eyes” or Limbaugh's thoughtful conclusion that the Virginia Tech mass murderer “had to be a liberal.” Both Morgan and Limbaugh also continued to flog the false notion that Media Matters is funded by the wealth of George Soros, one of their favorite bogeymen from the left.

It was deeply satisfying to listen to Rodgers, Morgan, and Limbaugh trying to deal with the fact that they are being held responsible for their words. Ever since the Spocko incident a few months ago, Rodgers and Morgan have been—if not exactly subdued—noticeably anxious and preoccupied with pre-emptive ass-covering. They know they can no longer simply deny having said the things they spout on the air (those words are no longer evaporating into the ether), so they intermittently wring their hands, abruptly check themselves on the verge of launching into a full-throated spate of hate speech, and mewl about “free speech” and “context.” How nuanced they are now!

To do them justice, I should not dismiss their concerns as being nothing more than paranoia. As someone once said, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.” Rodgers and Morgan are right to be worried. It's not a matter of free speech. They have the right to climb up on their soapbox any old time they want and rant to their hearts' content. I, for one, would prefer that it be an actual soapbox, perhaps turned upside-down on a street corner in San Francisco's famous Tenderloin district. Appreciative listeners and passers-by could toss them pennies.

You see, freedom of speech has nothing to do with guaranteeing that Rodgers and Morgan continue to enjoy a platform on a five-thousand-watt radio station that blankets northern California. KSFO is a commercial undertaking and is therefore subject to the market forces that its talk-show hosts purport to idolize. If their right-wing rants chase away advertisers and listeners, that's just too bad. Whining about “context” is just making excuses. In the meantime, the Media Matters dossiers on Rodgers and Morgan and Limbaugh just keep getting longer and longer and longer. You'd think they would be pleased that people are listening so closely, hanging on their every word.

We shouldn't be under any illusion that the monitoring of right-wing hate media is likely to drive any of its major exponents into penury. Rodgers is doing well enough to cut back his work week at KSFO to four days. Morgan hawks her book (a sliming of Cindy Sheehan) and uses her radio platform to promote Move America Forward, her vehicle for nonstop fundraising and publicizing the “good news” from Iraq.

Limbaugh continues to be the behemoth of talk radio, even if his ratings have ebbed from their earlier peaks. His acolytes seem capable of forgiving him for anything. Drug abuse? Well, that's understandable for someone in such a high-stress job. Multiple marriages and dalliances? Be reasonable: how can marriage survive when Rush has to work so hard? And do as he says, not as he does. Caught at an airport customs checkpoint on his way back from a visit to the Dominican Republic with a Viagra prescription not in his own name? Okay, everyone needs a little recreation. And we already dismissed any concerns about drugs, right?

We don't have to worry about Rush's survival, even as he moves into his declining years under the burden of constant observation and the specter of continuing difficulties with drug dependencies. His future is secure. One day soon an attractive young thing will look across the room at a GOP fundraiser and what will she see? An anxious, half-deaf, OxyContin-perfused multi-millionaire who has trouble getting it up.

Priceless.


Update

Media Matters has posted a partial transcript of Limbaugh's remarks on April 20. Here's a pertinent excerpt:
Media Matters, whatever—that website, the front organization for the Clinton campaign, bought and paid for by George Soros and the Clinton people. Media Matters for America, which takes everything that we say here out of context and puts it up there
Go check it out and decide for yourself how “out of context” Limbaugh is being taken.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The truth about global warming

Just kidding!

Whenever D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries decides to explain science to its congregants, you know you're in for as much fantasy as you'd be likely to find at a science fiction convention. Despite Kennedy's prolonged illness, his minions continue to mine his video archives for material with which to entertain the viewers of The Coral Ridge Hour, the ministry's hour-long weekly television program. Having already announced the death and defeat of evolution (more than once, actually), Coral Ridge has moved on to concerns about global warming and climate change—or, as they are more likely to characterize it, environmental extremism. And God doesn't like that.

The weekend of April 14 saw the debut of a Coral Ridge Hour program devoted to debunking the idea of anthropogenic global warming. It included a pitch by D. James Kennedy himself, speaking in a previously recorded sermon from the pulpit of his Fort Lauderdale church. Kennedy's segment was bracketed by pitches encouraging people to send money to receive a booklet titled Overheated and a video titled Global Warming: The Science and the Solutions. Bits of the video were featured throughout the Coral Ridge Hour program.

I recorded The Coral Ridge Hour and transcribed the introduction at the beginning of the program as well as the extended commercial for the booklet and video that purport to debunk global warming. As you'll see, even extremists like the good folks affiliated with Dr. Kennedy have abandoned any pretense of pretending that global warming is not occurring. They concentrate their fire instead on the notion that human activity has anything to do with it. The supposed experts in the program also suggest that global warming might be good for us. Perhaps it's all part of God's plan.
The Coral Ridge Hour

Broadcast April 14-15, 2007

D. James Kennedy: It's tragic that there are so many that are so hopeless and whose lives are filled with despair. They say there seems to be no future for the earth itself. We're destroying the ozone layer. We're melting the ice in the poles. We've got global warming. But the truth is that people become hopeless because of unbelief.

What is Global Warming?

Narrator: Are they warning signs of an approaching man-made catastrophe or the results of a natural weather cycle running its course? The debate over global warming is heating up, but what's the truth? Our answers could cost billions of dollars and millions of lives, so we must become informed on this critical issue.

That's why Dr. Kennedy wants you to have the new booklet entitled Overheated. It's adapted from an enlightening Truths that Transform discussion between Dr. Kennedy and Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary and expert on global warming. You'll receive Overheated when you call or write with a gift of any amount to this ministry. You'll also receive a special Coral Ridge Hour report entitled Global Warming: The Science and the Solutions. The video, available in VHS or DVD, is your along with the new booklet Overheated when you send a gift of any amount to Coral Ridge Ministries, Box 40, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33302.
I don't have my copy of the booklet and DVD yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. I sent my extremely modest “gift of any amount” a few days ago. (Modesty is a virtue, you know.)
Narrator: It's the subject of news reports and headlines and even an Oscar-winning documentary. It appears that global warming has become the hottest topic around.

Dr. John Christy, Director, Earth System Science Center (University of Alabama, Huntsville): Global warming is a popular phenomenon now because of the expressions of disaster that tend to come along with the story. And if you can show a story that has big icebergs falling off and drought and deaths or thousands of animals and so on, well, that's going to get the media's attention certainly—and people's attention.

Narrator: But with all the doomsday scenarios, what do scientists really know about global warming?

Christy: The simple answer on “What is global warming?” is to say that the earth's temperature has risen in the past 150 years. We've been able to measure that with thermometers.
Although Dr. Christy was identified on the screen as the director of the Earth System Science Center, The Coral Ridge Hour neglected to inform its viewers that the center is located at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. An oversight? I don't know. It's not as though this affiliation is something that needs to be concealed lest is discredit Christy's research center. The University of Alabama is a real school and not an example of institutionalized wackiness like Bob Jones University. I suspect, however, that the Coral Ridge video editors chose to omit the UA affiliation from Christy's identity lest people get the impression that their panel of contrarian scientists had no breadth. As it just so happens, the very next scientist to appear on the program is Dr. Christy's University of Alabama colleague, Dr. Roy Spencer. In Spencer's case, the UA affiliation was clearly stated on the screen, but the casual viewer had no way of knowing that Coral Ridge's experts were two peas from the same pod.
Dr. Roy W. Spencer, University of Alabama, Huntsville: There isn't anybody I know that doesn't agree we are unusually warm right now.

Narrator: But that's where the agreement among scientists ends.

Christy: Once you understand that the temperature is rising, the question is, well, why, and that is where a number of issues come to bear—and opinions—because we cannot know for certain.

Narrator: The most widely publicized theory and the view presented in Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth is that greenhouse gases are largely to blame for the warming.

Christy: Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb energy in a certain part of the spectrum that keeps thermal or heat energy in the atmosphere. I think the simplest way to think about this is that if you were in a desert at night, you find that it gets very cold. If you're in the southeastern United States—say, Florida or Oklahoma somewhere—you'll find that the night-time temperatures in the summer stay warm. Well, water vapor—or humidity—is a greenhouse gas that keeps the heat in and doesn't allow it to escape at night.

Spencer: Sunlight comes in and warms the earth, but what most people don't realize is that, for all of that sunlight coming in, there has to be an equal amount of infrared heat energy going back out into outer space. Now the climate modelers claim that there's this fragile balance between the incoming sunlight and the outgoing infrared, and that when we add the CO2, we're upsetting that delicate balance.

Narrator: CO2, or carbon dioxide, is the greenhouse gas that grabs most of the headlines.

Spencer: They make it sound like it's the radiation balance that determines what the temperature of the earth is, but I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think that it's the sunlight coming in that determines how warm things are going to get. Weather creates a greenhouse effect—which is mostly water vapor and clouds—and, in other words, the weather has control over the greenhouse effect. And, if we add CO2, I think the weather is going to change slightly in order to reduce the warming from that extra CO2.

Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, Knox Theological Seminary: The great question is how much, if at all, does that account for the warming that we have seen in recent years, and the best scientific evidence that I see indicates that it is a very tiny proportion of the total cause, if in fact it can even be viewed as a part of the cause at all.
A bit of inconvenient truth is missing from this Coral Ridge program. While Beisner heaps disdain on the notion that humans could be contributing significantly to climate change, Christy is on record as saying “It is scientifically inconceivable that after changing forests into cities, turning millions of acres into irrigated farmland, putting massive quantities of soot and dust into the air, and putting extra greenhouse gases into the air, that the natural course of climate has not changed in some way.” Of course, one can't be absolutely certain, so it is this aspect of Christy's remarks they prefer to quote immediately after Beisner's dismissive remarks. You'll note that Christy doesn't actually endorse Beisner's view; he merely notes that people are still disagreeing about the details.
Christy: We can't look out and develop an instrument that says, “This tells me why the temperature is changing.” Some people think all that you see in terms of global warming is caused by humans and the greenhouse gases we emit because of energy production. Others say it's completely naturally induced—like changes in the solar input from the sun, or various ways in which the weather fluctuates due to natural changes in the ocean circulation, or wind systems, and so on like that.

Narrator: The bottom line is that, contrary to popular reports, not all scientists agree that global warming is man-made.
Although Christy does, at least to a significant degree. Spencer, on the other hand, is rather more accommodating. That is, until he starts flogging the notion of proper credentials.
Spencer: I would say that the mainstream view of global warming is, yes, we are unusually warm right now and most of it is probably due to mankind. Now you'll hear that there's a consensus of scientists that believe this. It turns out that there are very few scientists who know enough about the whole problem to actually be able to cast judgment on this. So if you hear that a thousand scientists agree that global warming is due to mankind, chances are only ten of that thousand actually know enough about the problem to cast any judgment on the issue at all.
This was my favorite part of the program. While Spencer and Christy both have actual credentials as scientists, even if they do stand outside the mainstream, what other “experts” appear in Coral Ridge's program? Dr. Beisner, promoted by Kennedy's organization as an expert on global warming, is a professor at Knox Theological Seminary—D. James Kennedy's very own seminary, part of his Coral Ridge empire. Beisner has no science degrees, so Spencer would undoubtedly consider him eminently unqualified to preach on the nature of global warming. As noted on Beisner's own website:
Beisner is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion and Philosophy; of International College with an M.A. in Society with a Specialization in Economic Ethics, both magna cum laude; and of the University of St. Andrews, in St. Andrews, Scotland, with a Ph.D. in Scottish History.
Beisner is an expert all right—on Scottish history. In terms of climatology, he is a layman.
Narrator: Aside from the causes of warming, the effects of global warming are also up for debate.

Spencer: As far as Al Gore's movie goes, An Inconvenient Truth, I think there was a lot of misrepresentation and half-truths in that movie. He showed a lot of dramatic footage of different things going on, you know, ice crashing off of glaciers into the ocean and droughts and floods and, of course, what he didn't mention was everything he showed in the movie happens naturally.

Christy: You know, in science, as Lord Kelvin said, “All science is numbers.” And so, when I hear people talk about polar bears, I say, “Well, let's be scientific about them. Let's actually count the polar bears.” And it turns out the polar bear population has grown by a factor of over three in the last forty years.
Just how scientific are Dr. Christy's numbers for the polar bear population? They're actually very speculative. For someone who counsels caution in drawing conclusions about the nature of global warming, Christy is very quick to accept as reliable estimates of polar bear population that naturalists consider highly doubtful. Well, one can't be expert in everything!
Narrator: Some experts say the record-setting 2005 hurricane season is evidence for global warming, but not all agree.

Spencer: There's a lot of uncertainty over whether hurricanes are either more frequent or more intense. Certainly 2005 was a record year for hurricane hits in the United States. That was pretty amazing. But then you remember that 2006 was a flop, basically. It was below normal. And it turns out that since we only have good hurricane data—as far as how many hurricanes are out there in the Atlantic—since we've had weather satellites back in the 1970s, that we really don't know how many there were before then with much confidence.

Narrator: But what about the future? News reports claim global warming is the number one threat to our future survival as a planet, saying that ice caps could melt, submerging entire cities under the ocean.

Beisner: For example, on sea-level rise, where people have—particularly because of Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth—they have these pictures in mind of sea level rising 20, 40, 60 feet. Something like that. Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates sea-level rise through the entire 21st century at probably not more than a total of 16 inches in the entire century.
Beisner lays it on pretty thick, doesn't he? Gore cited a 20-foot rise in sea level as the consequence of melting the southern ice cap, should global warming continue unchecked. There is a lot of frozen water in Antarctica. The IPCC report confirmed that the southern ice could raise the oceans by as much as 7 meters, in agreement with Gore's statement. It's a warning, rather than a simple prediction. The folks who accuse Gore of hyping worst-case scenarios are pretty stuck on worst-case scenarios themselves, aren't they?

It's time for another expert with sterling credentials when it comes to global warming and the environment. This time it's a Dominionist theologian. Dr. Spencer must be pretty tweaked at the poseurs who were presented right alongside him as experts like himself.
Dr. Richard Land, author, The Earth is the Lord's: Whether the oceans are going to rise 2.5 feet over the next hundred years, or whether they're going to rise 20 feet—which is the model that Al Gore uses for his Inconvenient Truth, his “crockumentary” that won an Oscar—I mean, is a doomsday scenario that there's absolutely no scientific evidence for. No reputable scientist is talking about a 20-foot increase in the oceans.

Narrator: Some experts say we should take aggressive action to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, not only to protect the environment itself, but also to save people living in poverty. Others say the opposite is true.

Spencer: We have at least one million Africans dying each year because of lack of access to electricity. We have Africans dying by the hundreds of thousands, mostly children, because we've got poor people burning wood and dung in huts, which cause respiratory illnesses, which kill mostly children. Meanwhile, these people can't have electricity because environmentalists that don't even live in Africa put pressure on their governments and don't let them build hydroelectric dams that could give them electricity and save their lives. So basically what's happening is we are sacrificing the poor at the altar of radical environmentalism.

Narrator: Even if scientists don't have all the answers, Christians should be concerned about global warming, but they should be concerned about their approach to the issue.

Beisner: I think there are some very significant risks to evangelicals getting involved with this without really knowing the science or the economics well. The first and most important risk, the one that I care about the most, is that they might unwittingly endorse a policy that is very destructive to the poorest people in this world, the most vulnerable people. Those people desperately need abundant and cheap energy to drive the economic development that will lift them out of absolute poverty.

Land: In Genesis chapter 2, Adam was put into the garden to keep it and to till it. To keep it means to guard it and to protect it. To till it means to cause it to bring forth its fruit, to develop it. For what purpose? For human good.

Spencer: Well, from the biblical standpoint, I think we are called to be good stewards of the environment, right? And that's where Christians, you know, understandably get involved in environmentalism. Of course, what does good stewardship mean? I mean, it's clear that humans come first, but at the same time we shouldn't be destroying the environment wantonly. So there's a gray area, and people have to decide, you know, how far you go to protect the environment.

Land: I think we need to, in our evangelical Christian churches, to do a far better job than we have of helping people to understand what a biblical earth-keeping ethic is. What creation-care really means and what our responsibilities are in terms of creation-care, and part of that being to understand that human beings come first in God's creation, not last. And they're not irrelevant and they're not considered the enemies of God's creation.
Actually, Dr. Land, some people are the enemies of what you call God's creation. I think you and I would disagree, however, on who they are.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

You are getting sleepy!

A spiral approach to math

The quiz topic was Maclaurin polynomials and the reaction of one of my students was utter blankness. He had no idea. He was lagging behind and hadn't gotten to that section yet. Some students in this predicament begin writing apologetic essays containing various excuses about the sorry state of their lives. Not this boy! He resorted to mesmerism.


No, it didn't work. He did, however, do much better on the second quiz on Maclaurin polynomials. So I guess one of us got through.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Xtian ComiX

As funny as ever!

Answers in Genesis is busy putting the finishing touches on the Fred Flintstone Hall of Fame, perhaps better known as their Creation Museum, and generating publicity for its grand opening in May. You'll recall that this is the museum that miraculously puts northern Kentucky within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population. (Of course, it's not as though numbers are AiG's strong suit.)

The latest issue of Answers Update (Vol. 14, Issue 4) devotes a lot of its space to promoting the Creation Museum and commenting on coverage in the secular media of its forthcoming opening. It also contains a new installment of CreationWise, a comic strip that proves once again that the Johnny Hart's B.C. style of moribund humor lingers on.


In the creationist universe, “millions of years” is automatically side-splittingly funny. (That's why the artist drew in “Ha!” several times, so that we would understand.) Imagine the hilarity if “billions” had been cited instead!

Speaking of millions of years, Christians must be wary of this concept. As the CreationWise strip below shows us (click on it for a larger view), the Christian who walks through the door marked “Millions of years” will be assaulted and devoured by some kind of cephalopod. (Do you think PZ Myers might be hiding behind that door?) And then the pages of Genesis are expelled from the portal. Now there's a happy ending for you! (I suspect my interpretation is not the one intended by the cartoonist.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A framework for peace

Oh, I so hate it when you fight!

The ongoing spat between Chris Mooney and PZ Myers (plus so many others!) gives me a profound sense of déjà vu. Just where and when did I hear all of this before? It seems so very familiar! Hmm... (If this were a vlog instead of a blog, I would now have to cue the wavy special effects that indicate a flash back.)

It's 1989 and one of my friends is deeply conflicted about a book he just read. A pair of writers named Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen penned After the Ball to present their program for the advancement of gay rights. K&M explain everything in terms of—if you'll excuse the expression—framing the debate. They offer section titles like Pushing the Wrong Buttons: Senseless Attempts to Derail the Engine of Prejudice and espouse a public relations campaign predicated on keeping the nellies mostly out of sight:
To date, most public acts by the gay community have accomplished self-expression without communication (at least, without communication to the general public). These acts, ranging from modes of dress to mass demonstrations, have typically been enacted for the sake of self-affirmation, an effort to cast off shame by standing tall in the crowd and crowing, ‘I gotta be me: either accept me as I am, or to hell with you.’ (To say this in a spectacular way, as you know, certain gay men, who would not otherwise be caught dead out of doors without their Brooks Brothers sack suits, metamorphose into bespangled drag queens one day each year and sashay through town in gay pride marches.) It may be psychologically liberating and therefore healthy for some individuals to do things of this sort. But, you must always remember, what is healthy for the individual isn't necessarily healthy for his community. Don't mistake these acts of self-expression for public outreach.

Genuine public outreach requires careful communication.
My deeply conflicted friend thought that, on the one hand, K&M might be right; on the other, he felt they were being dismissive of brave people who had cast their “bodies upon the gears” of the odious machinery of oppression. As a so-called “straight-acting” gay man who had fled to California from the South, my friend and colleague was K&M's ideal emissary to the general public, someone who could persuasively say, “See, I'm polite and harmless and just like you!” He was conscious, however, that K&M were failing to recognize that the drag queens of Stonewall were the shock troops that opened up a breach, a breach through which the button-down preppies had poured. Would straight people be as eager to reach accommodation with the bland face of the gay community if they weren't also anxiously looking over their shoulders at the other face—the one with rouged cheeks, Dynel wigs, and false eyelashes the size of tarantulas?

Today we have Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet earnestly counseling irreligious scientists to submerge their nonbelief in the interests of the greater good. M&N think that the out-and-proud atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers ought to contemplate a little more quality time in the faith closet, promoting the cause of science without all that distracting emphasis on its fundamental materialism and—dare I say it?—atheism. Well, okay, how about non-theism? Is that better and less confrontational? And we've got all those nice religious scientists who use methodological naturalism in their labs while genuflecting toward a deity in their personal lives. Shouldn't we be nicer to these guys who have reconciled reason and woo?

M&N appear to think it would be nice to be more like Francis Collins and less like Richard Dawkins.


Does it work?

Kirk & Madsen began their book with the claim that the gay revolution had failed (and they used just those words). They were writing twenty years after the Stonewall riots and declared, “We should have done far better.” Another eighteen years have gone by. Did the gay community take their advice? Have gay rights advanced since the publication of K&M's manifesto? I think the answers are (a) to a degree and (b) oh, my, yes! However, post hoc is not the same thing as propter hoc, is it? Today there is the Human Rights Campaign, K&M's After the Ball made incarnate. But we also still have drag queens in entertainment and Dykes on Bikes still rev up to kick off every year's gay pride event in San Francisco.

Perhaps today's successes have been a consequence of a mixed strategy rather than the undiluted K&M prescription. Imagine that.

Framing Dawkins

Since Richard Dawkins is a prominently featured bête noire in Mooney & Nisbet's call for friendly-to-the-faithful framing, it makes me wonder whether they recognize what he actually does. On the one hand, Dawkins attacks the notion of deity, all guns blazing, in The God Delusion. He is an “out” atheist who is taking no prisoners. On the other hand, Dawkins is the author of The Ancestor's Tale, a wonderful reverse genealogy of life on Earth. You can search the pages of this book for god-sniping and you won't find any. Apart from a few brief and non-combative references, God doesn't appear in The Ancestor's Tale. Dawkins is entirely capable of producing beautiful books about science that splendidly fit the bill offered by M&N. So, do they think that's all he should do?

That is the clear implication of their thesis. M&N say, “We agree with Dawkins about evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.” In reality, however, Dawkins did exactly that—explain evolution—in The Ancestor's Tale. M&N effectively disqualify Dawkins as an explainer and promoter of science because he won't shut up about his atheism and his willingness to argue in its defense.

I wholeheartedly agree that science needs writers who make its nature and beauty and achievements accessible to a wider audience, but I shy away from M&N's implication that sacred cows are to be coddled in the meantime. I think their argument boils down to a simple plea for scientists to play nicely and avoid giving offense. One should not give offense gratuitously—that's just plain impolite—but science is inherently offensive to a big chunk of society. As PZ said, “Knowledge is a threat to beliefs held in ignorance.” We should do the best we can to promote science to the greater public, but M&N are making a mistake when they devote so much of their argument to lamenting bold writers like Dawkins. They should consider dosing themselves with their own prescribed restraint.

There is a role for the bold frontal assault as well as for the nuanced diplomatic initiative. While Dawkins hurls his thunderbolts at gods and idols, Mooney is welcome to sidle up to the frightened faithful and whisper in their ears: “Sorry about my buddy Richard. He's sometimes like that. He's awfully good at science, you know, and it really ticks him off when folks get it all mixed up. Say, are you a flat-earther? No? Good, I didn't think so. Young-earth creationist? Oh, dear. That's a shame. Say, I could introduce you to some nice Christian and Jewish and Muslim scientists who see no conflict between billions of years and their religious faith. Isn't that interesting? Let's slip away from here and go talk to them.”

Yes, it sounds like bland pap, suitable for infants, but a lot of people are toddlers when it comes to science. M&N seem to think spoon-feeding is called for and they probably have a point. Let them go ahead and do it. I'm sure it won't hurt, since so many people in the general public have weak digestive systems when it comes to the implications of modern science. M&N can feed them. They'll need help, I'm sure, and perhaps some scientists and science writers will follow their lead. Fine. But other science promoters have more robust approaches, and it won't help if we keep telling Richard Dawkins to pipe down whenever he is true to his own beliefs.

The current dust-up does appear to be just a bit of disagreement among friends and allies. It's about choice of tactics in the service of a clear strategy to get more people understanding something about science. I don't think anyone has inflicted any mortal wounds and I expect the scars will heal up nicely. It is, however, a serious and important discussion, which is why so many people have weighed in on it. We live in an age of science and technology that is populated by astonishingly ignorant people.

We must try to teach them.

J'accusative!

I'll finish this off with a gentle poke at Chris Mooney, professional writer, who includes these two phrases in a recent blog post: “there has been a great need for Nisbet and I to expand upon our arguments” and “Moran's slamming of Nisbet and I kind of reminds me.” I fear that Chris is objectively impaired.

Carnival of the Liberals

It's time for #36!

I find it quite intriguing that the 36th installment of the Carnival of the Liberals has been posted at Truth in Politics by Little Miss Know It All. Since when does my sister have a blog? Perhaps it's a case of mistaken identity. Anyway, go check it out and make sure you haven't missed Halfway There's two stellar contributions, Fun with presidential signing statements and What's so great about recess? Check out all the contributions to CotL #36!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

All dollars are created equal

But they don't stay that way

When I see a penny on the ground, I usually pick it up. Force of habit? I'm not sure. As money, a penny is essentially worthless these days. A penny in your pocket probably creates more wear and tear on your clothes than it could possibly pay for. My young nephew, however, pounces on pennies with utter delight. Pennies in his pocket are a source of great pleasure, at least as playthings if not as legal tender. In that sense, at least, value is quite relative.

What about dollars? Hard-nosed realists would probably explain to us (quite patiently, no doubt, although perhaps with a touch of exasperation), that a dollar is a dollar. Subjective valuations are just a myth. Am I not a mathematician who should appreciate the tautology that a dollar is a dollar?

Actually, no. I agree that every dollar generated by the U.S. Mint is equal to a dollar, but a dollar released into the big, wide world is subject to dramatic variations in valuation—all based on context. A dollar bill in my pocket is worth quite a bit more than a dollar bill in the pocket of Bill Gates (although I doubt that Bill makes a practice of carrying dollar bills around).

To many, I'm sure, this will sound like blatantly relativistic nonsense. To them I would respond by humbly pointing to a book that most of them seem to take quite seriously as a source (or even the source) of wisdom:
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
Go argue with Jesus, why don't you?

Or perhaps you would rather dispute with Lazarus.

I mean David Lazarus, of course, the San Francisco Chronicle business section columnist who recently turned his attention to the notion of a flat tax. In his April 11, 2007, installment, titled The flat tax: It's simple, alluring, Lazarus skeptically examines the notion that the flat tax is the epitome of fairness. If one taxes every dollar at exactly the same rate, how can that be anything but fair?

Well, tell that to the widow in the temple. As a little thought experiment, suppose that the poor widow's income is exactly at subsistence level. (We can quibble about how one makes this “exact,” but you get the idea.) If you tax her income, if you take anything away from her, she is now grimly doomed to be below subsistence level. Unless Elijah comes strolling along and blesses the widow's cruet of oil and barrel of meal (1 Kings 17), she's now condemned to starve.

Unfair! Not even the most adamant supporter of a flat tax would insist on taxing every dollar. Yes, I admit that this is true. Remember Steve Forbes, who was going to be swept into the White House on his flat-tax platform? His flat-tax proposal would have exempted the first $36,000 of income from his 17% income tax. Ah, yes, even Forbes was willing to treat dollars differently, depending on the taxpayer's level of income. Already a tiny element of progressivism is creeping in. Perhaps things aren't as simple as they seemed.

Lazarus reports that the Hoover Institution's Alvin Rabushka (a senior fellow at that Stanford redoubt of irreconcilable Republicanism) has published an updated edition of The Flat Tax (with co-author Robert Hall) that proposes a 19% tax rate coupled with a $25,500 exemption per family of four. Deep in his heart, however, Rabushka admits to Lazarus that he wants more:
But the figures are flexible, depending on how much money we want the government to raise. When I pressed Rabushka on his ideal formulation, he said he favors a 17 percent tax rate and a $40,000 exemption for a family of four.

“In my view, government is too big,” he said. “I want to cut it down.”
Yes, that's the customary motive of the right-wing exponents of the flat tax: Set the rate below the revenue-neutral level so that you starve the greedy federal monster. Sounds cool, like something out of a Grover Norquist wet dream (“I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”). Let's put a single knob on the income tax system so that we can dial it down, percentage point by percentage point, till Washington is sufficiently emaciated to qualify for a mercy killing. As C. Montgomery Burns might say, “Excellent!”

Proponents of the flat tax may market it to anti-government groups as a way of reining in the federal colossus, but to the citizenry at large they prefer to emphasize its simplicity. As Forbes was wont to say, “The flat tax would be simple. You could fill it out on a postcard.”

But this conflation of flat and simple is false. Sure, a flat tax is a simple tax, but a simple tax need not be flat. The implication does not go both ways. Lazarus notes that there's a lot of room to reform the federal income tax system:
“Simplification is a different issue from flat or progressive,” said Ed McCaffery, dean of the University of Southern California law school and author of “Fair Not Flat: How to Make the Tax System Better and Simpler.”

“We need a progressive but much simpler alternative,” he said.

In 2005, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, teamed up to sponsor what they called the “Fair, Flat Tax Act.” Among other things, it would condense the 1040 form to a single page and offer just three tax brackets—15 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent.

Something along these lines may be the most politically feasible solution to our tax woes.
The Wyden-Emanuel proposal is flat the way the current system is flat: the rate does not change within each bracket. Yet it is certainly drastically simpler than what we're doing now, even as it retains progressivism.

Why do conservatives hate progressivism so much? Although it's easy to attack progressive tax systems as “unfair” because they treat dollars differently depending on context (which I've already argued is a bogus issue), the real animus against graduated rates lies in their impact on the plutocrats who run the Republican Party. The flat tax would shift the bulk of the tax burden toward lower income taxpayers (despite the fig leaf of the family of four exemption, whatever its level might be). From the Lazarus column:
Under current law, tax brackets range from 10 percent for lower-income households to 35 percent for those bringing in some serious coin.

“A 17 percent or 19 percent flat tax certainly would be a massive tax cut for high-income people,” said Eric Toder, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington.

“Simpler? Yes,” he said. “But a flat tax would be inconsistent with the preferences of the American people. By and large, people—not all people, but many people—prefer a progressive system. We have increasing inequality in society. There's no reason to make it worse.”
As Toder observes, “not all people” prefer a progressive system—the millionaires and billionaires certainly don't care for it—but the sense of fairness that goes right back to scripture makes it clear that there are circumstances where the dollar in one person's pocket is quite different from the dollar in someone else's.

As a former government bureaucrat, I am less inclined than most people to parrot the line that smaller government is automatically better government. (We've seen during the Bush administration that neglect of government responsibilities results in suffering and tragedy in the nation.) But I have no objection to judicious trimming and pruning. Would Alvin Rabushka like to chop away at the federal government? Oh, yes! Well, Alvin, think about the Wyden-Emanuel proposal. If real tax simplification were enacted, and the 1040 form reduced to a single page, think of how much smaller the Internal Revenue Service could be!

I do, however, worry a little about how the unemployment rolls would swell with former H&R Block tax preparers and civil service CPAs.