Thursday, September 28, 2006

Chomsky and Chavez

It appears that a Hugo Chavez endorsement of a book carries the same weight as an endorsement by Oprah. As you may know, Chavez made reference to Chomsky's 2003 book,"Hegemony or Survival" in his UN speech recently. My understanding is that the book went to the top of Amazon.com's best seller list back in 2003, dropped down significantly, but on being mentioned by President Chavez of Venezuela shot back up to the top. In that speech, Chavez also called President Bush "the devil" and held up the book and suggested that people may want to read it. Since then, Chomsky's publisher has printed 50,000 copies according to the N. Y. Times. Maybe Chomsky can get the leader of Iran to do the same thing when sales decline.

The subtitle of the book is "America's Quest for Global Dominance," which illustrates Chomsky's disposition to overstate what he can prove. Let me be perfectly honest: I am not now nor am I ever going to read this book so you may want to dismiss what I have to say about the title of this book, or, rather, the subtitle. The term "hegemony" is arguably not overly dramatic since it can be interpreted, say, as "hegemony over the Middle East" or over some other subset of the globe but "global" has, well, global reach. If Chomsky thinks that even our very misguided and error-prone Administration actually has the ambition to dominate the globe then he either doesn't understand the phrase "global dominance" or he is tying to hype his sales by using overly dramatic language.

Surely Chomsky does not think that Bush is stupid enough to think we can dominate China. The big problem we are going to have with China is stopping them from dominating us economically. I will be dead by that time but a lot of you will live to see this happen, I fear, unless we shape up our school systems and generate a lot more well educated scientists, engineers, etc. and start working on rebuilding our domestic manufacturing base.

My most recent experiences of Chomsky were in a long TV interview and a New Yorker magazine article based on interviews with him, among other things. In both one hears/reads extravagant language being used by Chomsky of a sort I began hearing when a student at MIT in the mid-1960's. Usually, one can interpret his more extravagant claims so they actually sound plausible but you lose the drama.

In my blog, Terrorism, I noted that he had claimed (as I recalled) that America was the greatest terrorist nation in the world. That, of course, is an incendiary claim. But we may be sure that he doesn't mean by "terrorist" what most people do. Most people say that an action is terrorist if it deliberately targets civilians. Does anyone really think that the US deliberately tries to kill civilians wherever it drops bombs or fires off Tomahawk missiles? I didn't think you did. However, the US does terrify the living crap out of people (in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, most recently) where it uses such weapons and also does sometimes inadvertently kill civilians. Chomsky seems to mean by "a terrorist nation/group" as one that scares the living crap out of noncombatants and sometimes kills them inadvertently. On this understanding it would be hard to disagree with him. But, if he is saying that the U. S. is just like Al Queda but uses better uniforms, he is a fool. And he isn't that.

Chavez didn't tell us whether he meant the "d" in "devil" to be capitalized. He was, after all talking not writing. The New York times used a lower case "d" in its report on book sales. With the "d" capitalized the claim would definitely be much too religious in tone for me to accept. I think I shall also balk at the less explicitly religious interpretation suggested by a small "d." That is too metaphorical for me to take seriously. I am, however, studying a claim by an old colleague of mine that Bush is "evil." I am wondering if that claim can be defended. I think though that we have here just another case of leftist rhetoric as a surrogate for argument. Please don't think I don't think that right-wingers don't do the same thing. Of course they do. That's the only way an extreme position can be maintained.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Is the War on Terror a War?

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The linguistic inverse of this, applying it to the topic of today and every day, is that if you see and call a problem a criminal one, you will tend to prefer tools appropriate to solving crimes. If you see the problem as being a military problem, you will tend to prefer military tools. Unfortunately, George Bush et al have decided to characterize terrorists as making war on us and that the appropriate response would be to make war on them. So, Bush declared a war on terrorism.

The word "war" is as misused as any in the English language. We have declared wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on child abuse, and wars on various diseases such as wars on cancer, wars on diabetes, etc. And, of course, now we have Bush's declaration of a war on terrorism.

I know how much declaring a war on drugs, poverty, violence against and women and children have gone. In word, they have gone nowhere. How declaring wars on diseases helps out in conquering these things I cannot say but since all of us suffer diseases or know those who have, this, at least, impacts all of us. Bush has tried to terrify the American people into personalizing terrorism -- characterizing terrorist attacks as something that can happen to you and me. That, of course, is so much statistical nonsense. The odds that any one of us will be the victim of a terrorist attack is surely less than the odds that any one of us will be the victim of a violent crime. Bush wants us to be afraid because that lets him exploit the old Republican saw that Democrats are "soft on X" where "X" is the current enemy. As I pointed out in another blog, Democrats have started most of our big wars, which is a fact which is fatal to the theory that Democrats are soft on the enemies of the United States. What they are not is soft-headed enough to buy Bush's war rhetoric.

What I am concerned about is how conceiving of our engagement with terrorists as a "war" may affect the success of our efforts to suppress terrorism because it can matter what we call things. Language does not determine thought but it influences it and calling this engagement a war will heighten the public's fears, as I noted, which has a dual political effect. One effect is that it makes the public more receptive to our taking overt military action because war quintessentially involves military action. Another effect is that it helps out the political fortunes of those in power. It is no accident that Bush is littering the country with sound waves trumpeting his leadership in the war on terror during the run up to the November election.

The Allied attack on Afghanistan was a military attack and seems to have been very effective in destroying the Al Queda training centers, in killing or capturing large numbers of Al Queda members, in taking power out of the hands of the Taliban, and in disrupting the activities of Al Queda's leadership. This victory may turn out to be a hollow one. For one thing, the war in Afghanistan is hotting up with the Taliban making a bit of a come back. And, of course, no one we know seems to know where Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are. Moreover, Muslim terrorists have no lack of leaders. We kill one. Another pops up. The really unfortunate thing is that when we use military tools in fighting terrorists there is normally a lot of collateral damage, namely the killing of noncombatants. Nothing could be better calculated to cause the family and friends of those killed to want some revenge. Not all will join up with the terrorists, but some clearly do since the supply of terrorists seems inexhaustible. According to my morning Paper, President Musharraf of Pakistan says that is what is going on thanks to our war in Iraq. Whether it is the war itself or Bush's inept prosecution of the war, specifically in the area of post-war planning, I can't say. But there are lots of terrorist groups fighting in Iraq against us and the government we created. Check out this Wikipedia entry on insurgency groups and an IndyMedia UK link from that page, which also provides an inventory of insurgency groups operating in Iraq. I am very concerned about the fate of the men and women Bush has put in the way of danger there.

Which brings me to the issue at hand. When the Bush Administration decided to go to war with Iraq, one of its many fabricated arguments to the American people was that tossing Saddam out and installing a democratic government was part of the war on terror. Whether Bush himself was stupid enough to believe this I don't know but he is smart enough to know that he could count on the American people being gullible enough to buy it, at least initially. I don't mean to put down the people -- Bush and his friends were fear mongering us into accepting all sorts of things including the Patriot Act.

There is another way to view our engagement with terrorists and this is to see it as a crime problem. We saw the bombing of the Murray Federal Building a crime problem and it was solved using conventional methods for solving crimes. The first attack on the WTC was similarly viewed and was also solved. And, through the use of normal police tools apparently -- the use of informants, surveillance, wire-tapping, etc. -- the British police managed to nab a number of alleged terrorists and abort a potentially quite serious terrorist attack, this time involving a large number of planes that would have been blown up over the Atlantic thereby giving authorities little or no physical evidence to work with in ferreting out the culprits.

Our response to the destruction of the WTC and some adjacent buildings was seen as presenting a problem wanting a military solution. So Dubya invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. In fact, the destruction of the WTC was not in principle any different from the apparent planned attack that the Brits seem to have foiled. It makes little difference whether hijacked planes fly into buildings or the buildings are bombed from below or planes are bombed and fall into the Atlantic. They are the same kind of crime -- mass murder accomplished through massive vandalistic attacks.

Had we seen the engagement with terrorists as a crime problem from the beginning, we would likely have operated in a very different way. What we did was start two wars and we are now propping up two governments, neither of which has any chance of surviving once we leave. Arguably the instruments of war were required to deal with the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan for they had bombable training camps there and were located there. Don't think that destroying the training camps and storage facilities Al Queda had in Afghanistan means the end to such things. There are a lot of Muslim countries where such facilities can be placed.

Apparently, the use of military tools in Afghanistan crippled both the Taliban and Al Queda with the result that the Mullah Omar and Ossama Bin Laden were forced to go into hiding. Since then, terrorist attacks have been performed by locals against local targets. This was true in London and Madrid, as well as in Bali. In any event, I would argue that we are much better off now to define our engagement with terrorists as a crime problem not a military problem though occasional special forces type attacks may be needed to wipe out new training centers or kill specific bad guys located in foreign countries. But, it is very important that when we kill bad guys we minimize the killing of noncombatants. Right now we are killing too many in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Iraq.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Olmec Slab

I discovered that Ohio State University has an e-journal subscription to Science that allowed me to read the article I referred to in my blog The Oldest Evidence of Writing in the Americas and so I was able to get a look at a representation of the "scribbling" on the slab that was discovered. It seems much more likely to be an instance of a linguistic text of some sort than of some artistic rendering or other sort of scribbling. What sort of text it might be is not so easy to say.

One of the characteristics of a linguistic system is that the sign-meaning relationship is arbitrary. We don't know what the symbols on this slab mean individually or collectively nor, what if any relationship exists between these symbols and words or phrases of some spoken language. The authors note certain similarities in these symbols to symbols used in later writing systems but offer no real correlation between this manner of writing and later ones.

However, it is much more likely to be a linguistic text of some sort than some artistic rendering of some type -- say line drawings of animals and plants and foods. There are several reasons for saying this. First, while some of the symbols are clearly iconic, some seem clearly not to be. A circle with an "X" in the middle is not iconic for any naturally occurring thing that I can think of (note ) . In more modern times it has been used to represent the eyes of drunk persons in cartoons. Notice that these two significances are basically arbitrary. Possibly it was as arbitrary in the Olmec culture. Even odder to my eye is .

I had formed my own idea what certain of the symbols might depict and while my views were sometimes like the those of the authors more often they were not. They were guided by a knowledge of other writing systems so my ideas were purer (i. e., more ignorant). Nevertheless, I am on a bit firmer linguistic ground talking about whether this looks like a text. I am convinced it is.

The symbols occurring in this text are arranged fairly closely together and in a more or less linear fashion as would be characteristic of a linguistic text. And, there seem clearly to be groupings of symbols. At the top of the slab, we find this string: . There seem to be three groupings here. Note that there is a bigger space between the groupings than between the symbols that form a grouping. Moreover, the middle grouping is set a bit lower than the first, which provides a second reason to claim that we are dealing with two groups of three symbols. Don't ask why the third group has a staggered pair for I have a lunatic reason for that that I want to keep to myself to avoid extreme embarrassment. The authors of the article note that the symbol on the left, a representation of some sort of insect, always starts sequences (but there are only three). I noted that a lady bug figure always occurs in a group with the insect thing (but there are only two). As the authors note, no sensible statistical claims can be made. Still, I am convinced that the groupings are real.

There is no telling what sort of text this is. It could be horizontally arrayed lists of things of varying significance. If I had to bet, I would bet on this hypothesis. If true, we could be talking about linguistic symbols being used but not to form sentences or even phrases. That wouldn't make the text less linguistic. Your grocery list constitutes a use of language. The fact that it is written on stone (scribblings on wood would almost certainly not have survived in the environment in which the slab was found) suggests that the writing was of some real importance to the writer.

There are at least three classes of symbol types. There are symbols that seem relatively iconic. They remind me of ants, lady bugs, jelly fish, pineapples, fish, some sort of flower, etc. Then comes a real oddity -- four sort of geometric symbols, three of which are rectangular, having internal markings, and one that is that circle with an x in the middle. Interestingly an "X" shows up in another circle that looks like a scoop of ice cream sitting on a sugar cone. There is another set of symbols that seems even less iconic than the first and are not particularly geometric (the third one in group two above, perhaps).

What these people have found is genuinely interesting and one hopes it spurs increased scouring of the area for other slabs of writing. As the authors note, it can be hoped that those who find these slabs would be archaeologists, not road builders. Sadly, throughout history, farmers, who clear stone circles not knowing that that is what they are to plant crops, persons who rob graves for the treasures within, and simple vandals have cost us a great deal of evidence of the history of humans around the world. I know I have not contributed anything to our knowledge of the world but I did say I was going to track the article down and this proves I am a man of my word and, at least, you get a peek at the language, assuming that is what we have here.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Oldest Evidence of Writing in the Americas

While working in Scotland in 1970, my wife and I drove around hunting evidence of Celtic artifacts and stone circles -- circles must have had some sort of magical significance -- and visited every old castle we could find. At the end of this period, we drove through England visiting Stonehenge (also circular) at a time when one could actually walk through it and the Avery Stone circle, a very impressive structure to say the least. Meanwhile we knew little or nothing about the ancient civilizations of the New World.

Interestingly, we Americans seem to get more excited by the remains of ancient civilizations in Europe or North Africa than we do those in America. This notion first occurred to me as my wife and I went through some of the ancient Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula. We saw things there that were much more interesting than anything we saw in Scotland and England. Stonehenge was said to have had astronomical significance. The same is true of the main temple at Chichén Itzá and I believe at pyramids and temples at numerous other Mayan as well as Aztecan sites. Anyone who thinks that Europe and North Africa had the only interesting ancient civilizations is fooling himself.

On that trip to the Yucatan, we drove to the ancient city of Cobá, which even now, as then, is barely restored. This city had a huge pyramid. Whether it was as large as those in Egypt I don't know but it cannot be less impressive. And the Mayans seem to have built more of them. We climbed to the top of the highest one at Cobá and found ourselves looking over the tree tops of the forest for a very long distance. One other myth was dispelled on that trip. The Mayans didn't disappear. Their civilization did. They are still there.

Not only did it occur to me that we Anglos have too little respect for the civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, we have too little respect for older civilizations per se. I'm sure many if not most "civilized" persons today think that we are somehow smarter than ancient peoples, to say nothing of those who lived back in human prehistory. I suspect this is false. If you wonder why the "superior" Western civilizations were able to wipe out the civilizations in the Western Hemisphere you should read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It will disabuse you of the idea that Westerners were able to do that because they were smarter and thus able to develop better weapons than the native populations had. I think many "civilized" people believe we are more intelligent than contemporary "primitive" people that can still be found in various places in the world. Diamond makes the argument that contemporary medicine and the ready availability of food, at least among highly civilized people, has allowed such "advanced" people to keep alive persons of limited intelligence that would die if living in more primative circumstances (assuming that the survival of the fittest includes the intellectually fittest). Thus it may be that our gene pool has allowed us on average to become of lower intelligence than are "primitive" people.

A few days ago, my morning paper (I feel every time I make reference to the daily paper to start off a blog that I am channeling Mort Sahl) had a short piece on the discovery of a 3,000 year old slab discovered in Mexico that appears to have writing on it. Mexican scientists who have studied it say it has 62 distinct signs, some of which are repeated. These scientists claim that the writing system is reminiscent of the Olmec civilization.

What intrigued me about this Western Rosetta Stone was this passage in the Columbus Dispatch:
The researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders."
The original article appears in the current issue of Science. Unfortunately I have yet been unable to track down the article except in a pay-per-view way but I will somehow get a copy of it and report further.

What does it mean to say that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language" or the "presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders." Actually, this last bit is a bit garbled. Syntax is about word order among other things so the conjunction of "syntax" and "language-dependant word orders" wouldn't be two things, as implied by "and." Word order would be evidence of sytax. They should have said simply that there was evidence of word order. This is what I want to check out since it is not so easy to determine that there is language-like word order in a set of strings of symbos.

What I would like to see is evidence of sentences. Contemplate how you would recognize the end of each of the sentences in strings of marks you find on some stone slab on a trip into the wilds of Mexico. Your mind should boggle at this.

One might think that a sentence of English must have a verb so one must hunt for signs that seem to be verb like. Good luck. What these Mexican scientists have found would seem to be evidence of a writing system of some sort even if it doesn't consist of sentences. When one orders a set of things from a company that sells on-line it might come in a box and will often contain a receipt that might have no sentences on it at all -- just the name and address of the company and yours as well and a list of the items in the box. That requires a writing system.

It ought to be possible to tell whether the slab is like a receipt -- lots of things like that have been discovered from older periods -- or is a genuine text of some sort. Good luck in translating it however. As the authors apparently say, it would be nice to have more data. Still, it is interesting to discover additional evidence of sophisticated cultures in this hemisphere before even the Mayan civilization if only so we can get over our hemispheric inferiority complex Humans cane to this hemisphere later than they left Africa and went North and East in the Eastern Hemisphere but they created some impressive civilizations which we White people did our best to destroy. I strongly suggest visiting some of them. It will be good for you.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On the Importance of Grammar

Clearly were it not for the fact that languages have grammars beyond simple linear arrays of words, they could not be learned nearly as easily as they are and we could not express thoughts of any complexity at all. As for the first point, children acquire enough of their native languages to go to school quite early in life (though anyone teaching K-6 will tell you that you need to keep your sentences very simple early on in grade school) and virtually all of the syntactic constructions of their native languages (other than, perhaps, a few literary bells and whistles) by the time they are 12. They do that without explicit instruction. Indeed, few parents know enough about the structure of their languages to say anything substantive or even helpful. Fortunately they don't need to.

In my morning paper there was a story on a ten year-old Somali native who has been in the U.S. about a month, who had two years of English in Somalia before coming here. He professed being confused by the Language Arts lesson on "compound words and short vowels." This human interest story is a worthy one in part because the suburban Columbus school system being featured is not only helping recent immigrant children make the transition required to be successful in school, it is also helping their parents with their language skills and with an understanding of the school system. Between the two, I can assure you, the most important of these two activities -- helping the kids and helping their parents -- the most important linguistically is helping the parents. Since this kid came here when he was 10 already knowing some of the language, there is a good chance he will learn to speak English like a native speaker.

The least important thing the school system is doing is teaching kids "Language Arts" if that means telling kids about English grammar, as this possibly misleading news story suggests. Not knowing for sure what educationists mean by this term, I went to Wikipedia where I learned that "Language arts refers to the class of art forms, including novels, poetry, songs and others, that focus on the creation of art works which are primarily language based." That is what I was hoping language arts would be about but this gives me pause to wonder what the teacher was doing teaching "compound words and short vowels." And this brings me to the important distinction between knowing the grammar of a language and knowing about the grammar of a language. All native speakers of a language know the grammars of their languages, albeit implicitly or tacitly. Few native speakers of a language will know about the grammars of their languages.

Many years ago, I had some 10-12 U. S. Air Force Academy foreign language teachers in a graduate level introduction to linguistics course, smart students all. I asked them what they focus on when teaching languages and they said that they spend no time at all in teaching them anything about the grammars of the languages they teach or even try to correct the grammar of their utterances in general. Instead, their focus is in developing their ability to speak and understand the language. This was a refreshing thing to learn. No more meat and bones in language instruction -- just meat.

I am going to opine that the vast majority of the people of this world know virtually nothing about their languages though they will all, of course, know how to use and understand them. Knowing about a language is something that linguists are interested in. It is not something that speakers need to concern themselves with. What about language instruction, not for children who will normally not need it, but for adults?

In the case of the Air Force Academy, as I just noted, grammar is ignored. It is ignored for the most part in most conversation-oriented language instruction courses whether this is a computer learning course of the sort Rosetta Stone and other companies produce or a language immersion course.

There are tricky parts of languages where the temptation to teach a little grammar arises and this is with the conjugations of irregular verbs, most especially the conjugations of be. When I was in graduate school, a colleague told me, when I asked how it was so easy for him to get up and ruining with new languages so quickly, that he didn't memorize verb conjugations per se, but combinations of subjects, the verbs, direct objects and where relevant indirect objects for all the irregular verbs he imagined he would want to know. The Rosetta Stone puts one through drills of this sort using pictures to provide appropriate contexts of use.

One thing is for sure and this is that while teachers shouldn't teach their students about the languages they are learning, they themselves need to understand grammar well enough to organize lessons in a useful way. I remember telling a college Italian teacher about this fancy new theory of English syntax that Noam Chomsky had created that involved the assumption that there exist a set of basic sentence types called "kernel" sentences in any language and we learn the syntactic rules for forming them as well as a set of transformations (also syntactic rules) that altered them by changing word order and/or inserting or deleting elements from them and by inserting kernel sentences inside other kernel sentences to form complex and compound sentences. She replied that there was nothing new in that notion. I was a bit deflated since I was leaving where we both were for Cambridge, Mass., to study under Chomsky.

In fact, language teachers seem to organize their teaching efforts around what they know about the grammars of languages. But why would our immigrant Somali child need to know about compound words and short vowels? Were they learning how to write poetry? The Somali immigrant needs to know lots of compound words and words with short vowels but the native speakers of English in his class already know lots of these sorts of words so why do they need instruction about these things? I know there are people out their who are pulling their hair out by the roots at my heresies (language heresies coming in a close third to religious and political heresies). "Surely," they are thinking, "the optimal way to teach kids who cannot write grammatical English is to teach them grammar." Nay, not so.

Years ago, I read of a study that contrasted the improvement in writing, including both the writing of grammatical sentences and of sentences that were stylistically good, of two groups of students. One group got no feedback from teachers as to their mistakes. The other got feedback -- corrections of sentences with non-standard grammar and bad style. Both groups improved with the latter improving the most, not surprisingly. For years, our daughter took her papers to her mother (good choice) for corrections of this sort. She got small doses of grammar instruction along with the corrections. So, if she wrote something like Walking back home yesterday, a tree nearly fell on my head, her mother might have explained that she had used a dangling participle (grammatical notion), the subject (grammatical notion) of which was unclear and suggest changing it into something like As I was walking back home yesterday a tree nearly fell on my head. The point of this exercise is that grammar instruction should accompany writing since "good grammar" is critically important in writing (if you want to get or keep a good job) and it provides a very useful context for instruction. The kid knows what he/she meant to say by something he/she wrote and when you give the correction and explain why the suggested linguistic form conveys that meaning better, there is a much better chance the lesson will be learned. So, you Language Arts teachers out there, stop teaching kids grammar and have them write until their fingers are cramped. Unfortunately this will give you a lot of reading and correcting and explaining to do but that's what you are (not) paid (enough) to do.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Thinking in Similes

It is a fundamental human failing that people seem to think that likening one thing T to another P will somehow explain or account for properties of P, such is the power of the simile. The most annoying use of this mode of "explanation" occurs in sports when one finds sports talking heads saying things like, "Joe Jones reminds me of Bill Bones." About 99.99 per cent of the time, the race of Joe Jones will be the same as the race of Bill Bones. On Saturday night, if you listen to the Ohio State vs. Texas football game, you will hear that Ohio State QB Troy Smith reminds someone of former Texas QB Vince Young but then they will go on to say that Vince was a better runner than Troy but not as good a passer. Of course, they are both Black. Ohio State fans will rest their hopes on the truth of this simile for that allows them to think that Troy will lead their team to victory.

I am drawn to blog on this because an old reliable, Victor Davis Hanson, has decided to criticize the critics of the Bush Administration's claim that Islamic extremists are Islamic fascists. The first time I heard Bush refer to "Islamic Fascism" I did a mental double take -- "Say what?" I said to myself. It is clear, of course, that Bush and Hanson want to tar Islamic fundamentalists with a Nazi brush. This is designed, I gather, to cause us to think that Islamic Extremists are not only as bad as they have proved themselves to be but also are as bad as Hitler, and, as Hanson would have it, of Italy's Mussolini and Japan's Tojo. That makes them double plus bad.

Hanson tosses al-Qaida (is there some official spelling of this name?), the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist groups together in the same Islamic fascist salad. Iran's President is added to the mix but as we all know, he is The Talker in Iran, not The Decider. And he also tosses in the Wahhabis, whose setting up of fundamentalist schools in various Muslim countries is funded by Bush's good friends, the Saudis. One wonders how the Bali terrorists that bombed a tourist hotel containing a lot of Australians got left out of this mix.

Hanson's list of properties shared by Islamic bad guys and WWII era fascists consists of their being authoritarian, their being anti-democratic, the fact that "Mein Kampf" sells well under the title "Jihadi," their brooking no dissent, their being whiners (I'm not kidding), their being anti-Semitic, their revering a past mythic period of greatness,

The fact is that all I need to know about Muslim extremists is that they bombed two American embassies in neighboring countries in Africa without regard for who would be dying, bombed a Marine barracks in Beirut, which Marines were peace keepers, not war makers, hijacked various planes in an attempt to kill whomever they could in New York City and Washington, bombed transportation systems in London and Madrid, a hotel in Bali, various buildings in India, and so on and so forth. I would add the terrorist attacks against Israel but that's a different sort of situation.

Against "Liberal" European complaints against Bush's use of the term "Islamic fascism" as being misleading (Euros being, of course, the actual experts on what is and is not fascism), Hanson sayss:
In contrast, the fuzzy "war on terror" is the real inexact usage. The United States has never fought against an enemy’s tools, such as German submarines or the Soviet KGB, but only against those who employ them.
Uh, Victor, Bush cointed the term "war on terror" in this or very similar language.

Adding to this litany of crimes against humanity that the killers are also fascists sounds like a linguistic ploy by someone who is losing an argument and wants to up the rhetoric a bit to increase the fear factor. And that is precisely what it is. George Bush is going about the country talking to very safe audiences like American Legion groups drumming up support for his war on terrorism -- whoops, war on Islamic fascism. He's doing this because he knows that if the American people put Democrats in power in the House and Senate the first thing they will do is impeach him. That is, at least, the first thing they ought to do for he has indeed committed high crimes and treason by acting in ways he had to know were unconstitutional (both a high crime and treason), lying to the American people as to why we should go to war in Iraq, thereby putting us in an illegal war (War Crime), caused Americans to use extra-legal methods of questioning captured combatants (War Crime) etc. He was the first to use the phrase "Islamic fascism" in my hearing though he isn't clever enough to have created it. His boy, Hanson, is out pushing this idiotic simile to a degree that it is an auto-reductio argument. The point is to escalate the fear of the American people to get them not to vote for Bush's real enemies, the Democrats.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Female Brain Lady

In a prior blog, I likened the hypotheses of the Female Brain Lady, Louann Brizendine, about asymmetries in the structures of male and female brains to those of Deborah Tannen in
regard to asymmetries in male and female ways of interacting verbally. It became immediately clear that her anatomical claims of differences in male and female brains are not subject to the same criticism as Tannen's, for the latter's claims have a purely sociological basis and are subject to the criticism that many differences in verbal behavior between males and females have more to do with power and status than gender. It is because of this that one can much more reasonably claim that differences in male and female verbal behavior lie along a continuum rather than being somehow bipolar in nature.

The problem with the Brain Lady's discussions in her book, The Female Brain, derive from two things, the first being that when she attributes behavioral differences between males and females to brain dimorphism, her work, in the words of abagail in a comment on my earlier blog, is "so freakin reductionist it makes me cringe." The second problem is that some of the behavioral differences between males and females she attributes to differences in brain structure are most likely false to begin with.

One of the claims the Brain Lady made -- don't ask me to remember or even understand the hormonal process that causes this -- is that the speech centers of women are larger than those of men. There is support for this claim in the literature. In the Archives of Neurology, for instance there is reference to an article titled "Language-associated cortical regions are proportionally larger in the female brain." This study was predicated on an effort to find anatomical support for the claim that there is "significant sexual dimorphism in verbal ability." What this study of brains fixed in formaldehyde found was that "females have proportionally larger Wernicke and Broca language-associated regions compared with males." This anatomical claim is also supported by other research. The Wernicke and Broca areas have long been known, of course, to be associated with language.

I have turned the Brain Lady's book back into the library and cannot recheck the facts but she does make the following claims:
1. Men's brains are larger than those of females.
2. The neural capacity and complexity of female brains is equal to that of male brains.
We conclude from this that size makes no difference. Yet, the Brain Lady (I don't mean this phrase as a sign of disrespect) claims that differences between males and females in verbal capacity is due to the proportionally larger sizes of the language areas of the brain in females. So, in this case, size does make a difference? The article just cited suggests the same, but employs the weasel word "could" by way of weakening the claim. Perhaps the Brain Lady asserted a weaker version of the claim than I attributed to her. I just don't recall but I don't think she did.

However, we have a bit of a puzzle here. If the different brain sizes of typical males and females does not itself have any cognitive consequences, why should the different sizes of the Wernike and Broca areas of typical men and women have any linguistic consequences? This possibility is not discussed by the Brain Lady. In fact, the premise that females have greater verbal ability than males is anything but established as an indisputable or significant fact. In a 1992 study by Alan Feingold of Yale, it is claimed that the differences are that females score better on grammar and spelling and perceptual speed tests but there are no substantive differences between the genders in regard to general verbal ability or in regard to other cognitive abilities. Moreover he claims that the historical trend is toward fewer differences.

In even earlier research (1989), Marcia C. Lynn and Janet S. Hyde argue in their paper "Gender, Mathematics, and Science," claim that administers of the SAT take the view that there are no substantive differences between males and females in verbal ability. In questions that have to do with aesthetic matters, females perform better thn males, but in questions involving science and practical matters, males do better. So, the Brain Lady's work is not only mindlessly reductionist, the differences in verbal ability of males and females she attributes to brain differences are so negligible as not to require explanation of any kind. Let me end this discussion with the unintentionally comedic view of Diane F. Halpern and Mary L. LaMay that any differences that exist can be explained best by a "psychobiosocial model." That, of course, covers all of the bases.

The Brain Lady also claim
3. Women use more words than men.
I am not sure where she gets this claim from but the sociolinguistic literature, such as the work of Tannen and others, supports the thesis that in mixed gender conversations, males tend to dominate. So, the facts go against the Brain Lady insofar as mixed gender conversations are concerned. But, if women use more words than men in same gender conversations, who cares?

One of the ways that one might try to show that females have greater verbal ability than males would be that they have larger vocabularies. I ask all of you to design some experiment that might show this. One thing we can be sure won't work would be to have males and females simply list all the words they know. How else might one show this? We might come up with texts for males and females to read and ask them to mark all words that they don't know. One problem with this would be that people would probably lie. Who wants to admit they don't know what "phenomenology" means? Another problem would involve selection of texts. Would we choose articles from fashion magazines or articles from Popular Science or some auto magazine?

Perhaps the nadir of the Brain Lady's reductionist thinking is her suggesting that some male violence against females may be due to the fact that males get frustrated by the greater verbal dexterity of women when they engage in verbal fights. I can think of a few other reasons for this. Males tend to be more violent than women in most contexts, both physically and verbally so why would we be surprised that they are more violent toward women than women are toward men. Men are more likely in my opinion, to come home drunk than are females. The results can be ugly. I go for a psychobiosocial account of this. That way I can't be wrong. Of course, the Brain Lady regularly suggests that there are social influences on all behavior but doesn't attempt to show how that might be true.

The silliest claim that the Brain Lady makes is that men think about sex every 57 seconds while females think about it only a couple of times a day. It is, of course, literally false as a claim about the frequency with which males think about sex. I am sure that in the time I was writing about verbal ability in the above sentences I didn't once think about sex. So the only way I can think of for it to be true is that males average out as thinking about sex every 57 seconds. That, I can believe. All it would take is for a male to read Playboy magazine for 16.8 minutes each day for him to average out as thinking about sex every 57 seconds. As an average, her claim isn't particularly remarkable.

Possibly the Brain Lady has some scholarly reference to bolster her various claims but she uses no end-note numbers to signal what claims are attributable to other writers. Only after finishing the book did I discovered that the book had end-notes but these are linked to specific phrases occurring in the text on specific pages. I suspect this was done to make the text less intimidating to the average reader. End-notes and footnotes scare people off for they signal that they have picked up a dry, scholarly text. I would like suggestions as to how in hell one can efficiently keep track of the references in a book structured like this. Is the idea that one should look at the phrases for each page reference in the end-note section before reading that page and hope that one remembers the phrases well enough to recognize them when one sees them? Fat chance.

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The Language of Appeasement

My last post dealt with Rummy's claim that Iraq War critics are appeasers, specifically they are appeasing "vicious extremists." In today's Guardian, a significantly left of center English publication which I often read, presents a perfect example of an argument for caution in our approach to Iran that sounds like the sort of "appeasement" argument that Conservatives might cite to say that Liberals are soft on terrorism. The issue concerns whether or not the U.S. will go ballistic, pun intended, against Iran for thumbing its nose at UN resolution 1696 which insisted that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium of the sort that could give Iran the wherewith all to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel once took out an Iraqi nuclear reactor by bombing it on June 7, 1981.
An undisclosed number of F-15 interceptors and F-16 fighter bombers destroyed the Osirak reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad, on the orders of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
It is no accident that Begin would have taken unilateral action in this matter because he was, in a way, the quintessential Jewish Warrior. I would say "Israeli Warrior" were it not for the fact that he got his start earlier than the date Israel came into being So there is precedent for taking unilateral action against a Muslim state though not necessarily one we should follow.

John Williams of the Guardian claims that Hizbullah's success has bolstered the confidence of the Iranian government. He might have added that the support of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez for Iran's right to develop nuclear power further adds to Iran's mojo, for Venezuela, like Iran, is an oil power. Chavez has chosen to send less oil to the USA so that he can send more to China and India. He might want to watch his step for the US has gone to war south of our border for a lot less.

Williams predicts that Iran will divide the Security Council due to its "traditional cunning in negotiation." This would lead to "the end of any hope of a negotiated solution brokered by the international community." Without Russia and China, the international community cannot act effectively. At this point, Williams says the next step is that "President Bush concludes that the UN and all who argue for negotiation, conciliation, engagement and international consensus have been proved hopelessly wrong: America must act militarily before Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state." We have been here before. Bush created a "coalition of the willing" that invaded Iraq when he decided that the UN wasn't serious about forcing Iraq to get rid of its WMD. [Actually, I believe that Bush was always going to invade Iraq no matter what.] That would, as it turns out, have been pretty difficult thing to do since he had already gotten rid of them. Why the fool, Saddam Hussein, just didn't give UN inspectors full access to his country I will never understand. Apparently he thought it would be better to see his country destroyed and him personally being arrested and tried on murder charges. Hitler took the same position but mooted the murder charge.

Williams then takes a the position of an appeaser par excellence when he says
the heroic approach to this potential catastrophe is patiently and tediously to persuade and cajole America and Iran into talking, delaying, arguing, disputing - in other words, not fighting. Even if we can't get them to agree, the tedium of diplomacy might at least go on until new attitudes and leadership emerge.
The appeaser talks and gives ground; talks some more and gives more ground; then talks some more and gives still more ground ad nauseum infinitum.

There is no mention of the use of force of some sort as a part of the process. Instead, one talks and concedes, as I suggested was true of the classic appeaser. Williams claims
The regime in Tehran, of which the president is only one element, is complex and capable of acting very effectively against our interests. We should be giving Iran incentives to act reasonably, however perversely the regime responds to generous offers like the one to give all necessary support to its civil nuclear programme. We must not lose patience.
What more can the international community offer to Iran but to help it in any way needed to ensure it has a plentiful supply of nuclear power. Any other concessions and one begins to border on genuine appeasement in the worst sense of the term.

I was for talking Saddam to death to avoid an invasion of Iraq. I was sure that we could safely do so since he seemed to be relatively harmless. As it turns out he was the quintessential paper tiger -- no WMD, not much of an air force, and an army that had not recovered from the first Gulf War. But who knew about the WMD? Everyone believed he had chemical weapons. The USA gave such weapons to him during the Iran war and in his report to the UN detailing how he had gotten rid of all WMD no mention of the destruction of these chemical weapons was made. Ergo, everyone was entitled to believe he still had them.

So, the question is whether we can safely engage in an endless process of talking more and possibly giving more with Iran. I do not have the answer to that question. I share Mr. Williams' fear that we are on the brink of something that could be very bad. And we all know to what extent Bush is capable of "Cowboying Up."

Some time back, The New Yorker had an article which, if memory serves, said that the Bush Administrationion was ready and willing to attack Iran's nuclear sites but that our military and/or our intelligence services told him that they weren't sure of their location, including especially the underground facility that is understood to exist, and had no confidence in the success of any air strike on known sites. Nothing would be worse that a monster attack on supposed Iranian nuclear sites that failed.

Nevertheless if you ever want to read a classic liberal/leftist appeasement statement, Williams has provided one. I don't know how accurate the New Yorker's story about Bush's thinking about attacking Iran or its stating what the military's and/or intelligence agencies' advice to Bush was about such attacks. I have it on good authority that similar cautionary tales were told to Rummy, Cheney, and Bush by the same people in regard to going to war against Iraq. Bush et al ignored that advice and one high ranking General was given his walking papers. They might ignore such advice again despite the current disaster in Iraq. I have a very bad feeling about this -- about Bush's going proactive in a military way to force Iran to do what the UN has said it wants and about his not going proactive in a military way. If Iran gets nukes the world will be a more dangerous place. But the fact is, or so I believe, Bush can't engage Iran or any other formidable nation so long as we have a large army in Iraq for it too might be vulnerable to an Iranian attack. It will take Bush most of the rest of his term to get our army out of Iraq leaving precious little time to move on Iran.

I await the wisdom of the readers. I have none to offer as to the correct course of action but appeasement rankles.

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