Friday, August 26, 2005

The Vioxx Moment

Many years ago, I heard a British Psychoanalyst (whose last name was, I believe, "Lang") give a talk in which he noted that the side effects of a drug are not its side effects, but its effects. The only distinction between the two is that the effects are intentional and the side effects are not. Obviously, use of the term "side" is meant to minimize the importance of such effects. And, in many cases, it is true that fewer people are afflicted by the unintentional effects of a drug than are benefited by the intentional effects. And, in some cases, an unintentional effect will prove to be beneficial.

Nevertheless, there are cases in which the unintentional effects of taking a drug will be lethal. This is true, for instance, of taking Vioxx over an extended period of time, which is the normal way a drug like this is taken by those who suffer from arthritis. Vioxx has been taken off the market because one of the unintentional effects of long term use of Vioxx is to increase the potential for heart disease. The first jury decision resulted in a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and an award of $253 million. Merck faces somewhere between 4,000 to 5,000 similar suits.

The word "side" when it occurs in the term "side effect" constitutes an instance of a weasel word, a notion discussed in an earlier blog. There is another equivalent weasel word that the U. S. military (and probably all other militaries) use and that is the word "collateral," as in the phrase "collateral damage." When the U. S. military launches a Cruise missile at a military target positioned in a civilian area (say a television or radio station the enemy might use to its advantage) it may sometimes damage or destroy nearby homes and kill and/or wound some of the people living in them. This damage to noncombatants and their homes is called "collateral damage" by way of trying to distract us from looking closely at this damage and these deaths. In this respect it is linguistically just like "side effect." Like the unintended deaths caused by long-term use of Vioxx, this damage to civilian property and these civilian deaths were not caused intentionally. Does that make them okay?

In discussions I have had in other contexts, I have learned that what seems to distinguish terrorists from soldiers is that the civilian deaths caused by terrorists are often caused intentionally while those caused by soldiers are usually caused unintentionally. Apparently, this distinction is decisive for people who support the actions of the US military in Iraq. It seems that collateral damage, including collateral deaths) are somehow okay -- they are justified by the fact that they were caused unintentionally.

Interestingly, the US government did not let Merck off the hook because the deaths Vioxx caused were caused unintentionally. So, why do we let Bush and the US military he controls off the hook when the sometimes substantial numbers of civilian deaths are caused unintentionally. Those who wish to let the Bush off the hook seem to think that collateral damage is inevitable in war and if the cause is just, the civilian deaths are justified as well. "War is hell," we say from the comfort of our homes (which are not being bombed.)

I don't mean to be beating up on the U. S. Military. It is my understanding that there are protocols that must be run through before the U.S. Military would attack a military target in a civilian area. However, there must come a time -- we might call it "The Vioxx Moment" when we say that "enough is enough" and simply stop the killing. In the case of the current Iraq war, we have, in my view, reached The Vioxx Moment. It is a war founded on a set of lies or mistakes -- Saddam has WMD (mistake -- almost everyone believed he had at least chemical weapons); Saddam was aiding terrorists who are harming or will harm Americans (lie -- ask the CIA); Saddam was trying to buy nuclear materials from Niger (very intentional lie); Saddam was a danger to his neighbors (lie -- the destruction of his army in the first war and the two "no fly" zones precluded that), etc. This fact -- the fact that the American people were deliberately misled -- must surely up the ante for those who believe "we must stay the course," a phrase that has assumed mythic stature in America, it seems.

Right now the reported civilian deaths in Iraq appear to run between 23601 and 26719. Add to that the the fact that the U.S. military has suffered nearly 1900 deaths and the coalition as a whole has lost over 2000 men and women. Almost as distressing are the very large number of people who are injured, sometimes disastrously so since they must live with lost limbs and eyes and the like for many years. By now there have been 14,021 injured according to official figures. It is estimated that many more have been injured than this.

In my opinion it is time to leave. "That would lead to chaos," Bush and his neocon friends would tell us. The fact is that no matter what we do, Iraq is going to settle down into a very long struggle between the three main factions. My prediction before the war was that the Kurds would ultimately use their quite large militia to take and hold their traditional areas including much or all of the northern oil fields and the Shiites will do much the same in the southern area. The Sunnis will fight to gain as much control over as large an area as they can. They have ruled Iraq for a long time and will settle for nothing less. It would be lovely if a genuine democracy of some sort could be created in Iraq but it ain't gonna happen.

In any event, let us be as clear as possible on this point. "Collateral deaths" are real deaths. The persons involved are no less dead for being unintentionally killed. A sufficient number of deaths have occurred to warrant the conclusion that we have reached The Vioxx Moment.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Linguistic Insanity in Politics

I ran across a "right wing" blog a day or so ago titled "ANOTHER SWING AND A MISS BY THE LEFT." In this man's mind, the opposition to Bush is restricted to left wingers. He opens his 9/19 blog with

They’ve been after George Bush almost since day one. He was “The Accidental President,” “The Smirking Chimp,” “Bushitler,” and worse. They whined like 12 year old girls when Bush used their weak stance on national security against them in the mid term elections of 2002 as a club to beat them soundly.
There are two aspects to this blog of interest. He, like other conservative bloggists, loves to smear any opposition to Bush and his supporters by referring to them as "left wingers," as if there were no centerist opposition to Bush (there has to be since there are only about five or six left wingers left in the entire country whom anyone listens to and Bush is reaching historic lows in polls where people are asked to evaluate of his presidency and that would not be possible without centrist opposition. And, there is also left-leaning centrist opposition and liberal opposition to go along with left wing opposition." I heard this morning on the Stepahanie Miller show some conservative opponent to Bush and all he stands for.

Right wingers seem unable to deal with rational discussion of Bush's lies used to soften opposition to the war in Iraq and rational discussion of Bush's incomprehensible failure to recognize that he needed a post-"victory" plan for the reconstruction of Iraq and rational discussion of Bush's failure to anticipate that Muslims would soon tire of occupation by Americans and would quickly mobilize to try to drive the US and its handful of allies out. Any college student with a modicum of understanding of the Arab world could have predicted this opposition, but not the President or Rove or Rummy, etc. So, they simply label the opposition as "left wing" as if that constitutes a sufficient defense against criticism of Bush's failures as a President.

The fact is that there is a continuum of political positions on each issue and any given intelligent and reflective person (i. e., someone other than a liberal or conservative ideologue) is likely to end up at different points on the continuum on different issues -- a little left on one, further left on another, a little right on the next, etc. That is what reflective thought does to a person.

It is a sign of ideologues, and this is as true of those to the left, as it is of right wingers, that they use language as if it were a weapon. Hence, terms like "liberal," "conservative," "left wing," and "right wing," are fired at people as if using them constituted an actual argument.

The other thing that interested me was the sexist claim that "[Leftists] whined like 12 year old girls." Who reading this blog is surprised that a right-winger might choose to use the phrase "whined like 12 year old girls" rather than "whined like 12 year old boys." This sexist way of thinking doesn't surprise me. In my experience right wingers, are instinctively sexist, racist, and ethnocentric. Which is to say, they don't much like people different from them.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

More on the NCAA and School Nicknames

The ReviewJournal.com weighs in with a story titled

EDITORIAL: Political correctness run amok
and opens its editorial with the following rather ridiculous claim.
The unchecked spread of political correctness at the nation's university campuses has overrun the NCAA.
I love the precision of thinking of this web site. "Amok" can only be used of discrete entities (Dictionary.com offers up examples of people and plans running amok.) that are moving about in some frenzied way, as if there might be a new kind of Cylon (see the new Battleship Galactica), an artificial intelligence device created by universities, which has become a scourge devastating the US by ridding us of all "politically incorrect" linguistic references. "Unchecked" is an odd term to use. This suggests that conservatives, who, by and large, are the ones who oppose efforts by universities and others to rid American political and social life of disparaging references to minorities and women in public discourse, should mount an army of "Right(wing) thinking people" to do battle with the PC Cylons and "check" (stop) their terrible actions.. Is it the premise of these warriors against political correctness that civil conduct among people of different ethnicities or races or genders, etc., in public is Anti-American or in some other similar way defective?

In a August 13 blog at we find a blog titled "The Modern-day Red Indian Scare."
The use of "Indian" names by sporting teams clearly implies admiration of the strength, determination and bravery of the Indians concerned, so how can it be in any way demeaning to American Indians? Sporting teams don't call themselves "The Powderpuffs", "The Poofters" or "The Weaklings" do they? They want to convey by the name they use how admirable and formidable they are. So such names are in fact a great and generous tribute to the heroism and strength that America's native people showed in defense of their original way of life. How the sick minds of the Left can see it any other way continues to be beyond me.
Before commenting on the claim that these terms are positive in the way our blogger suggests, let me say that it is hard to take seriously anyone who thinks it is reasonable to speak of Amerindians as "Red Indian". Historically, the two most oppressed people in the United States, Amerindians and African-Americans, have been referred to by color words derived from their skin color. We have "red Indian" (our wild and wooly blogger) and "Redmen" (St Johns's in the recent past before this university decided to adopt a more civil nickname) and "Redskin" (The Washington Redskins of the NFL) and "blacks" for American Indians. There is, in a way, little more demeaning than referring to a group of people by an aspect of their physical make up. "Redskin" and "Redmen" are the Amerindian equivalent of "cunt" for women. However, American Blacks seem to be okay with the word, by and large. Probably because it is an improvement on "nigger" or "Negro" (which also means "black.")

Let this "sick mind of the Left" consider an alternative interpretation to the use of Indian names to our Blogger's notion that these names are used by universities by way of honoring Amerindians. The problem with this view is that sports teams, generally, like to use words like "Lions" (Detroit NFL team, think "man-eating") or "Tiger" (Detroit MLB team, think "man-eating" again), "Predators"(Nashville NHL team, scary enough for an Governor Arnold movie), "Raiders" Oakland NFL team, think "bloodthirsty, rapacious") and "Buccaneers" (consider the Tampa Bay (NFL) logo provided above), and so on and so forth. It is the dangerousness and hostility of an entity, whether animal (Michigan Wolverines -- NCAA) or natural event (Miami Hurricanes -- NCAA) or or kind of human (American Indians) that has made them attractive to sports teams.

I argued in my previous blog that it must be left up to the people affected to say whether a word or phrase referring to them is demeaning. After the Florida State Seminoles put up their dukes in defense of their use of "Seminole" on the grounds that the Seminole tribe approved. Immediately after, some self-appointed representative of the Oklahoma branch of that tribe (remember the Trail of Tears) say they didn't approve, the tribe itself spoke up saying they did approve. Based on my criterion, the NCAA is going to have to back off since the people affected have spoken up on the issue. I don't know whether there are any living members of the Illinois tribe to object to or approve the University of Illinois' use of "Illini" but if there are it is up to them, not the NCAA, to say whether this fine university (where my father, two uncles, a pseudo-uncle, and my wife got degrees and I taught before becoming a Buckeye (harmless nut unless you eat it) should lose its team name. While I was at Illinois, the only action involving a reference to the Illinois tribe was a half-time dance put on by a person wearing a beautiful Indian headdress and clothes. The dance might have been a war dance, but it could have been some other sort of dance.

Florida State doesn't totally get off the hook. Their pseudo-Seminole (I imagine) rides into the stadium before games on a horse and throws a spear into the ground at mid-field. That is a hostile act. As is the tomahawk chop that fans do. Interestingly, the name "Seminole" was applied to this tribe, formerly known as "Creeks," by others (Hispanic Whites?). I cite this interesting site on the Seminoles where it is said that "The term "Seminole" is a derivative of "cimarron" which means "wild men" in Spanish." Its pretty clear that Florida State has the "wild men" image of Indians in mind as they do their tomahawk chop. Maybe they can drop their spear throwing and tomahawk chopping (fortunately no tomahawks are actually employed) to appease the NCAA.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

Political Correctness -- A test case

Yesterday, I caught a wire story that is in our morning papers today that was quite startling -- the NCAA has decided to ban any use of a set of Amerindian names and logos by teams playing in NCAA sanctioned events starting in 2006. The NY Times writes

Starting in February, any school with a nickname or logo considered racially or ethnically ''hostile'' or ''abusive'' by the NCAA would be prohibited from using them in postseason events. Mascots will not be allowed to perform at tournament games, and band members and cheerleaders will also be barred from using American Indians on their uniforms beginning in 2008.
Specifically, the names banned are
Braves,Indians,Chippewas, Seminoles, Utes, Redmen, Illini, Choctaws, Fighting Siouxx, Savages
This ruling has been met with considerable anger and anguish by the universities affected and their alumni and fans.

Over the years, such universities as Stanford, Miami of Ohio, Marquette, and others have voluntarily rid themselves of such nicknames, which, of course, upset the Alumni at the time. Its as if the university was taking something valuable away from their college experience though it is hard to say what it is.

We have here a clear case of what is referred to as "political correctness" to debate. What we may not do is simply label this as an instance of political correctness and think we are done with our critique. That would be as stupid as labeling a proposed Congressional bill as liberal or as conservative thereby condemning it to failure without actually debating its merits.

Some of these nicknames are clearly problematic. "Redmen, "Fighting Siouxx, and Savages (if it is somehow made clear that the reference is to Amerindians). It seems that there are no "Redskins" in college any more except, of course, for the Washington pro football team. "Redmen' and "Redskins" are transparently offensive, as is "Savages." The "Fighting Illini" and "Fighting Siouxx" might reasonably be regarded as an offensive way of referring to Amerindians, focusing on their hostile side as they do, as is the Tomahawk Chop used by the Florida State Seminoles.

Florida State University alleges that the Seminole Indians left in Florida approve of their use of the name "Seminoles" and naturally are offended that the NCAA would think it knows better about its offensiveness than the Seminoles themselves. The University of Illinois has someone dressed as an Indian Chief (with a beautiful head dress) who does a dance of some sort and during the five years I taught there, I always saw this as a respectful demonstration little different from the sorts of dances that actual Indians put on themselves. But that is the rub. If a member of the Illini tribe came to games and did that dance one might feel differently about it than if some white kid dresses up as an Indian and does it.

The question that goes to the heart of this issue is: "Who gets to decide what is and is not offensive to Amerindians?" When White men and women have declared that an Amerindian reference is or is not offensive, a smile comes to my face. That is like leaving it up to White men and women to decide whether "nigger" is offensive. In this case, White people (at least those of a nonracist disposition) have deferred to African Americans. White people have also deferred to African Americans in regard to the use of "Negro." Why, then, do White people feel that they don't have to defer to American Indians in regard to whether or not a reference to them is offensive? The issue is identical.

White men who are WASPS of a heterosexual nature simply do not get a vote on the question whether or not a reference to women or African Americans or Amerindians is offensive, the reason being that we have no experience of this sort of discriminatory practice. How do you insult those who have long been at the top of the social pyramid for being at the top? During the Good Old Days, African Americans coined "Honkey" to refer to people like me. I'm am terribly sorry to report that I felt nothing. My response was less feeling bad than feeling amused. Indeed, the closest I have come to feeling insulted by a reference to the group of which I am a member was when a couple of gay friends told me that they called people like me "breeders." I felt a little bit dehumanized for a split second and then I laughed. This is what I meant by saying that heterosexual WASPS have no experience of how it feels to be put down by a racial or ethnic slur. You just can't insult me by calling me "White" (which is not to say I don't feel ashamed at what White people have done to others over the centuries). Ergo we don't get a vote.

I feel pretty secure in the belief that my Ohio State Buckeyes will get to keep the reference to "Buckeyes" since currently at least there is no nut special interest group though some will surely think that the special interest group that persuaded the NCAA to make this move is nutty. My high school sports teams were called the "Enid Plainsmen." When I first recalled this name in the context of thinking about the question of the offensiveness of names refering to Amerindians, my memory was that it referred to white settlers in the Great Plains of the Midwest. Someone remarked that they would have thought it referred to Amerindians who roamed the Great Plains. Now, I ask whether this name would be offensive as applied to White settlers in the Great Plains? My answer would be, "No." Wouldn't it have to be the same if it referred to the Amerindians of the Great Plains? It seems that it if it is not offensive in the one case it should not be offensive in the second so long as we are talking only about the names rather than corresponding logos and mascots. But, then, I, being a heterosexual WASP don't get a vote as to its potential offensiveness to Amerindians as I said.

My private feeling is that the NCAA, as it always does, has used a bludgeon where a scalpel would be a better tool. If the Seminole Indians take pride in Florida State University chosing to use their tribal name how is it the the NCAA should overide their feelings. On the other hand, FSU ought to lose the "tomahawk chop" they used during the chanting they do.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Political Correctness

The United Nations passed a resolution urging all nations to take measures designed to eradicate racially discriminatory practices in member states in 1963 which was entered "into force" in 1965.

States Parties condemn all propaganda and all organisations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in any form, and undertake to adopt immediate and positive measures designed to eradicate all incitement to, or act of, such discrimination...
Various suggested actions follow.

Somehow this escaped me, possibly because it has been so ineffectual. Since it was agreed to and signed off on we have had "ethic cleansing" all over the globe and there are no signs that this is likely to stop. The UN is sadly ineffectual in effecting change in the world.

In some nations efforts have been made to create a category of "hate crimes" and in some, efforts have been made to make "racial villification" itself a crime. Some countries that have moved forward on such measure are those of the largely White nations of the British Commonwealth such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Austrialia, and New Zealand according to a Murdoch University (Australia) web site I recently stumbled across.

In the United States, the Second Amendment has trumped efforts to make the verbal expression of racial hatred illegal. And, we continue to experience an apparently endless cultural war between those that would like to see a little civility in our interactions with each other and those who don't want to give up their "right" or the "right" of others to verbally abuse women, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, and whomever else it is that they find worthy of displays of hostility.

Google "political correctness" and what you find is site after site that attacks it. What these nitwits do is lump everything that has been done to protect minorities under the rubric "political correctness" and attack that concept. Interestingly, no one has, to my knowledge, ever defended the kind of concept of "political correctness" that that these overpoliticized nitwits attack.

So, we find such things as efforts to stop public displays of hatred or a lack of respect for others being lumped together under "political correctness" with racial/ethnic profiling by police. The problem with this concept of "political correctness" is it is wildly defective cognitively -- there is no principled basis for determining what is and what is not an example of political correctness. What we get instead is lists of things that in some way or another involve the protection of minorities. What makes it an incoherent concept is that it doesn't weed out things almost no one supports (racially or ethnically motivated genocide) from such things as racial/ethnic profiling or expressing racial or ethnic hatred verball, something which some do and others do not support.

The net result is that when someone ofers up a legimate social reform that libertarians and conservatives hate, the first pejoritive term out of their mouths will be "political correctness." They seem to think that simply labeling it is sufficient to argue against it or is, at least, an effective first step in attacking it. You don't find anyone defending it since there is, as Gertrud Stein might say, there is no "it" to it.

Laws that make certain crimes hate crimes or laws that make the verbal abuse of minorities illegal have nothing whatever to do with the efforts of police to characterize suspicious people. If one of the criteria that alert police to the possibility somone is an IRA killer is that he "has a strong Irish accent," I am down with that since if you are looking for IRA bombers, you don't want to waste time with people who speak Spanish to each other. The key is that the profile not consist of criteria that are so broad as to include everyone or most everyone in a given class -- all Irish people, for instance. The same is true of the use of "ethnic profiling" among those trying to stop terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists. So long as it does not include everyone who has dark skin and who speaks Arabic, but, rather, focuses on a variety of properties a Muslim terrorist might exhibit I see no problem with it. Cops have been using profiles of that sort forever. The problem is that it has too often been used in ways that do include everyone in a given class -- say all Black men driving BMWs in a White neighborhood late at night. However, that sort of use of profiling doesn't help the cops a bit in their effort to catch criminals. The last web site I cited as being one attacking political correctness has a sensible discussion of how racial profiling can be used to help identify Muslim terrorists can be carried out so that it does not impact every Muslim. The problem with his position is that I know of no sensible Liberal who has ever said that the police and others trying to protect the population should not use profiling in just the way he suggests. In short he is attacking the political correctness straw man. But then that is the way of Conservatives.

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