Monday, October 31, 2005

Another revitalization plan for Democrats

The column Dems Can Revitalize Party gives a new plan for rebuilding the electoral fortunes of Democrats. The author deserves credit for outlining a slate of policy proposals to accomplish this goal instead of assuming that the Democratic Party's problems are all essentially a matter of "framing". Unfortunately, this slate of proposals is flawed and in some cases mutually contradictory, and would most likely torpedo the Democratic Party if adopted in full. The author's first point touches on a perpetual Vacuum Energy topic:
First and probably most important, Democrats must restore and articulate the idea that there is a common good and that it entails a commonwealth. That is to say, we all benefit when those who have prospered acknowledge that in addition to their hard work, they have benefited from public investments as well as from their origins and luck. The rich are not entitled, therefore, not to contribute to the common good. This understanding involves repeal of the Bush administration's tax breaks for the richest Americans and a willingness by legislators to forswear pork.
Most of this is just smokescreen for the bald assertion that the current Bush administration's tax breaks should be repealed (with a hat tip to the recently revived anti-pork fad). If you look carefully, you'll see the false assumption made by liberals that one can only contribute to the public good by contributing to an action of government. Conveniently ignored is that fact that the average law-abiding citizen contributes to the public good simply by engaging in his or her ordinary, honest commerce and self-improvement. The author continues with:
Second, Democrats must insist on mandatory public financing for elections. There are two reasons for such a policy: So that rich corporations and individuals cannot hijack the democratic process, buying candidates who are therefore indebted and will serve their interests; and so that public servants do not have to be wealthy or in the pockets of the wealthy to run for office.
The author makes a glaring contradiction with the first point here. The reason the author gives for raising taxes on the rich is that public expenditures for the common good make people indebted to goverment, and thus obligate them to repay the government for its investment. But the author asserts the exact opposite reason for public financing of election campaigns: government financing of an election campaign -- a government expenditure presumably made on behalf of the common good -- frees the recipient from indebtedness of any kind.

Aside from being a new program for revitalization, these proposals are more or less standard Democratic Party beliefs with some standard anti-Bush proposals tacked on. But the real death blow to the Democratic party would be inflicted by one of the later proposals:
Democrats must move swiftly to design and press for the adoption of a national, single-payer health care system that is not beholden to health insurance or drug companies. There is plenty of experience among industrialized countries to help us do this and plenty of evidence that Americans would support such a system, which would reduce health care costs and make health care available to all. Lawmakers would have to be clear that certain kinds of rationing would be required.
I'm not sure if the author realizes how difficult this is going to be. Democratic Presidents since Woodrow Willson have been unsuccessfully trying to enact some kind of national single-payer health care system. FDR at the height of the New Deal could not do it. LBJ at the height of the Great Society could not do it. President Clinton could not do it and what he did try to do almost destroyed his Presidency. A national, single-payer health care system is the closest thing there is to a "kiss of death" from Democrats.

The rest of the article is basically the same mixture of anti-Bush proposals we've been hearing for the past five years along with standard Democratic boilerplate we've been hearing for the past five decades.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Cultural Tinkering

Slashdot has a recently posted thread discussing the tinkering of cultural history. The examples given are the edits made to feature films by their directors (with George Lucas' changes to the Star Wars saga being a case in point) as well as the practice of publishing posthumous novels.

Obviously this kind of thing has been going on for much longer than the twentieth century. The biblical book of Revelations, for example, contains a dire curse invoked against anyone who introduces changes when rewriting the book. The Byzantine Empire was wracked by violence and persecutions over and over again whenever the orthodox Christian doctrines were called into question by sufficiently influential proponents of reinterpreted doctrines. As both seventh century Christian monks and twentieth century publishers of comic books could testify, making radical changes to the existing storyline is a good recipe for producing a bitter schism.

The cause célèbre of the anti-Lucas heretics is the notorius "Greedo shoots first" edit to the original Star Wars Episode IV. The Country Pundit has a good summary of the controversy, which also mentions the critical flaw introduced by the edit: Han shooting Greedo first is a more natural reaction of self-defense than is Han waiting for Greedo to shoot and miss before returning fire.

From a more expansive point of view, another critical flaw with this edit is that it contradicts a cultural trend of the twentieth century to depict heroes and villians as more similar to each other by purposefully, and painfully obviously, distinguishing Han Solo from his criminal associates. That is not to say that a director cannot do such a thing; a similar and much more successfully handled distinguishing of hero and criminal counterparts occurs in the recent movie "Batman Begins", for example. The mistake is that Han Solo's forbearance from violence is too strong in the new version, thus making Han Solo more akin to the cliched "Christian Hero" (see my post The pertinent Pertinax for a discussion).

In hindsight, one suspects that it was precisely this effect that Lucas had in mind. Re-editing Han Solo into a hithertoo unsuspected "diamond in the rough" gives a certain fairytale character to Solo's romance with Princess Leia that small children (i.e. the primary end users of those billions of dollars worth of Star Wars merchandise) could appreciate.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The next stop is...

California. But not until early December, so no blogging hiatus quite yet.

Constitution? What Constitution?

Judge Janice Law wrote a brief recap of the use of foreign law by the Supreme Court in adjudicating cases. I think she gets the conservative consensus pretty well (author's italics):
Scalia, who has the timing of a professional comic, spoofed his colleagues. To paraphrase: They think we [conservatives] are country bumpkins who just fell off a turnip truck. "Au contraire!" he deadpanned in perfect French, joining his audience in raucous laughter.
Of course, the real surprise is not that the activist justices are resorting to foreign laws in their reasoning, but that they haven't resorted to such documents as the "The Charter of the United Federation of Planets". After all, practically every country in the world has aired "Star Trek" by now, a fact which must be telling us something. And one would think that liberals could get a lot of mileage by grounding their foreign policy views on the prime directive.

In reality, resorting to foreign law to decide domestic cases is really an act of desperation by the liberal faction on the Supreme Court. Activist Supreme Court justices seem reluctant to dictate legislation overtly, instead preferring to arrive at their preferred outcomes for cases through the usual process of adjudication. But sometimes the decision that these justices would prefer to adopt just cannot be logically reached through any kind of orthodox legal reasoning. Since something, no matter how ridiculous, must be used as a cover story, judicial activism has always been associated with a certain intentionally sloppy reasoning. The most notorius example is probably the "emanations and penumbras" of the Roe v. Wade decision.

The use of foreign laws in adjudicating domestic court cases is thus a symptom that the usual techniques of justifying an activist ruling (see "The Tempting of America" by Judge Bork, for example) are beginning to fail.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Smiling happy Evil, holding hands.

This is just plain wrong: two teen girls with their own white supremicist hate-rock group. Aside from the obvious evil of celebrating Hitler-esque race warfare, the implication of Prussian Blue is that the White Supremicist movement has finally managed to adapt to the new reality of America's media culture. The growing preception of the mainstream media is that young, photogenic, white women are absolutely irresistable candidates for nation-wide, hyper-obsessive media attention. The article itself can barely hold out for a single sentence before comparing them to the Olsen twins, even though the comparison is largely ridiculous (it's pretty hard to avoid a "fun-loving, squeaky-clean image" when you make your acting debut at age 2). These two young women are really victims or sacrifices of a fundamentally inhuman movement and shouldn't be treated like they're celebrities.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Those useless high school classes

An student article in the Daily Iowan discusses the useless knowledge taught in high schools (hat tip: Evolutionblog). The author's point is that:
A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.
I suppose that everyone has certain aspects of their educational background that they feel to have been a waste of time. This alone is a fact of life and not an indictment of the American high school system. And of course there is no such thing as useless knowledge. But it is possible that knowledge of certain things can be relatively unimportant in furthering one's ambitions, although I'm certain that buiding a system of mass education that can be all things to all people is going to be much more difficult than the author seems to believe.

To some extent, high-school teachers already try to take this criticism into account. The ideal of the liberal education, for example, is not that you, the individual, should be taught only those things that you need to know to be a reliable cog in the machinery of society. Instead, this ideal is that the individual should be taught the skills and knowledge to allow him or her to freely advance his or her ambitions in any field of endeavor. At the very least, high school cirricula are at least going to try to expose students to enough common knowledge to enable them to have intelligent conversations without looking like idiots.

The coolest blog ever

And no, it's not mine. Here's an excerpt from The Bleat that really made my day (author's boldface):
Yes, I bought a Powerball ticket. And then I ate it. It’s much more interesting than just buying one and waiting to see if you win; now you hope, intensely, that you lose.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

More on Conservatism

Evolutionblog has been ranting lately about the dearth of conservative academics and the the phoniness of conservatives. Addressing another aspect of conservatism, David Frum discusses lessons for liberals that can be inferred from the success of the conservative movement.

Evolutionblog's conclusion about conservative academics is that "conservatives are far more interested in [striking] a martyr's pose than in making a decent argument for their views." A more plausible explanation than the assumption that conservative academics all possess identical personality flaws is actually fairly straightfoward. One point to keep in mind is that many intellectuals that have been adopted by conservatives as being representative of conservatism don't consider themselves to be conservatives. Another point is that conservatism and the conservative movement, in their modern forms, barely existed roughly 40 years ago. In the '50s and '60s, liberalism was the predominent political ideology, so it's not suprising that many more liberals than conservatives would have been hired since that time to populate academic departments today. The dearth of conservative academics might simply be due to a dearth of conservatives, although from a comparison of today with the 1950s, it might be that there is presently an abundance of conservative academics.

Evolutionblog's second post seems closer to mark. It seems pretty clear to me that the tactic of suicide bombing does involve a motivation of altruism in the non-judgemental, scientific sense. I'm not convinced that this is altruism for the non-combatant/civilian population at large instead of altruism on behalf of a group, but suicide terror attack is quite obviously a propaganda statement in addition to being an attack upon an enemy. For example, is there a more decisive refutation of the American Daschle Doctrine (i.e. if only one person is killed because of the use of force, then that use of force was a failure) than a terror attack in which the whole point is that one person is practically guarenteed to be killed by the use of force?

Kevin Drum's article is another example of that mode of liberal discourse that seems to be saying "Conservatism is evil. Why can't liberals be more like conservatives?" His argument seems to be that conservatism has prospered despite being opposed to majority views of Americans by concentrating on liberal extremists, therefore, liberalism can prosper by focusing on the views of conservative extremists.

As usual, things are not that simple. Modern-day conservatism has not only opposed the extreme Left but has tried to oppose extremists from the Right as well. The National Review is a famous magazine and a cornerstone of conservatism because it defined conservatism in a way that would exclude Randism as well as the "precious bodily fluids" crowd. The conservative/paleo-conservative fracture is another example of a principled conservative movement policing its own ranks. The proposal that liberalism should conduct a purge of its own extremists is one that has been advanced before, and obviously something like this view sank Howard Dean's 2004 Presidential Campaign. But whether liberalism can effectively criticise its own extremists in the future is still an open question given the steadily increasing influence and fund-raising ability of the extreme liberal Left.

The best advice that I've heard for rebuilding the Democratic Party and liberalism has come from Bill Bradley, who argued in the New York Times that the Democratic Party's misfortunes are essentially a management problem. Liberalism needs to focus less on an increasingly calcified propaganda approach to its problems and to focus more on the management process of developing a realistic policy platform.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More on Intelligent Design

Two more responses to yesterday's article "Why Intelligent Design is Going to Win" have been published. The first is "The Invention of Design" and the second is "Creationism Is Evolving... It Has No Choice". Both are worth reading.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Post #200: Will Intelligent Design win?

On of the reasons that I love Tech Central Station is that they have a recurring interest in adressing the popular interest in Intelligent Design and evolutionary theories. Today they have two articles on the subject and this post will be devoted to discussing "Why Intelligent Design is Going to Win?" while saving a discussion of "Descent of Man in Dover" for a later date.

The arguments here are organized under five summary statements. The first is that:
ID will win because it's a religion-friendly, conservative-friendly, red-state kind of theory, and no one will lose money betting on the success of red-state theories in the next fifty to one hundred years.
This section reads almost like an extended apology for the ID movement: of course ID will be brought to schools around the nation by sheer force, but it won't really hurt anyone and you'll still be able to believe what you like and maybe the sciences will end up being better off in the long run.

In a different context, this section is what might be called a "target-rich" environment since some of the classic errors of ID supporters pop up here. The author illustrates how ID proponents extend intelligent design from biological theory to general principle of physics without evidence when he writes that "ID might make biology and the natural sciences more appealing to believers who might otherwise find science to be too far removed from God's presence." The author also asserts that "The God of Moses and Jesus didn't leave fingerprints at this scene, but it's His MO all the way." This is the classic logical error of ID proponents who assume that God is the intelligent designer even though ID theories purport to make no such claim. The author also seems to ignore the fact that the truth or falsity of a theory may have an effect on its success. For example, if ID theories are false, then how could they possibly be friendly to any serious political movement? For the conservative movement to assert discredited scientific theories as if they were true is a recipe for political suicide in the long run, not for success.

Unfortunately, section one is about as good as the argument gets. The argument of section two is that "ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers." Think about this for a second. The pro-Darwin crowd have been rapidly advancing the frontiers of knowledge for decades, while the ID proponents are spending all of their time essentially trying to explain why things that we know exist shouldn't exist. Obviously it's not the pro-Darwin crowd that's acting like losers here.

Part three is even worse when it states that "ID will win because it can be reconciled with any advance that takes place in biology, whereas Darwinism cannot yield even an inch of ground to ID." If we define a scientific theory as one that can, in principle, be falsified, then this is just the bare statement that ID theories are not scientific theories.

Part four's assertion is that "ID will win because it can piggyback on the growth of information theory, which will attract the best minds in the world over the next fifty years." One would expect the exact opposite assertion that information theory will help further discredit ID, since any insight that information theory would provide into biology would only undercut the non-existence proofs being generated by the ID movement.

The final section's assertion is that "ID will win because ID assumes that man will find design in life -- and, as the mind of man is hard-wired to detect design, man will likely find what he seeks." In other words, even if ID is false, human beings are just stupid enough to believe in it anyway.