Friday, March 28, 2008

Freedom of Expression vs Social Responsibility

A Right Wing Dutch politician has made a film that is perceived as anti-Islamic and some Islamic countries have responded as one might predict. Unlike Christianity, Islam brooks no criticism, even from those outside the religion. I have no religious dog in this fight but I do have a dog in the fight for freedom of expression.

What chaps my butt is that the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations has also condemned the film. According to the BBC News web site, "The film sets verses from the Koran against a background of violent images from terror attacks." The Secretary General says, according to this web site,
"I condemn, in the strongest terms, the airing of Geert Wilders' offensively anti-Islamic film," Mr Ban said in a statement.

"The right of free expression is not at stake here," he added. "Freedom must always be accompanied by social responsibility."

Unfortunately, while the notion "free expression" is very clear in meaning -- it means (entails) that you and I may say or write any damn thing we like. There is a substantive problem with the Secretary General's notion of "social responsibility." The problem is that there is no internationally accepted set of standards of social responsibility.

Local communities like to pretend that they have standards of social responsibility. They pretend, for instance, that the community is agreed that certain representations are obscene. Photographs of naked women, if artfully done, might be seen as art and therefore as not appealing to our prurient interests. In another photograph, women might be shown engaging in sexual acts with each other. A museum that tried to put that on the walls might be forced to take it down. I happened to be in Cincinnati, Ohio during the time the infamous Mapplethorpe exhibit was on display. It contained photographs of naked men and of a crucifix, perhaps one with Christ on it, in a glass of urine. I have no doubt that these depictions violated the standards of social propriety in Cincinnati. Had it been on display at the Wexner Center at The Ohio State University I suspect it might not have been so controversial.

The idea there are local standards of propriety or social responsible behavior, while a bit of a fiction, does have some value. It allows us to (try to) keep certain materials out of the hands of very young children, for instance. What I very much doubt is that there are international standards of propriety or social responsible behavior. I, for one, am not a bit offended by this right wing Dutchman's film, as described. I am offended, however, by some of the Islamist's responses. An Al-Qaeda linked web site calls for his death and for increased attacks on Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan. I recently watched the Dutch movie, Brothers, and was not offended by the depiction of the extraordinarily brutal Al-Qaeda/Talliban actions toward two Dutch prisoners held n Afghanistan. I suspect that many Muslims would have been angry about this sort of depiction.

The reality is that there are very few international social mores that would be agreed to by the international community as a whole. There seems to be fairly universal distaste for incest within the nuclear family (father-daughter, for instance). There are not many other sexual mores that are universal condemned. And, people generally don't agree as to what sorts of criticism of a religion are acceptable. Perhaps the fact that there is no established church in the US is why we don't get very worked up about criticism of religions because implicit in having so many different religions and sects within our religions is that there is disagreement about basic principles.

I suspect this is the only thing I would agree to among the various beliefs of our Dutch Right Winger, but I do agree that there is nothing at all wrong with juxtaposing images of Islamic violence and passages of the Koran, the reason being simply that those who engage in this violence maintain that they do what they do in defense of their religion. I believe that our Secretary General must be an idiot. He is telling us that saying "Don't say 'P'" doesn't restrict what we can say. Claiming an exception to freedom of expression based on certain social values is ridiculous. As the Secretary General, he in some sense speaks for all of us. I don't want him to be speaking for me if this is the sort of thing he has to say.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lipo This and Lipo That

The product "Lipozene" is being advertised on television these days as a -- you should be able to guess -- a weight loss product. It is one of huge number of weight/fat loss products that uses the morpheme "lipo," which means "fat." As it turns out, Googling "lipo*" brings up a wealth of such products. We are greeted with products that involve injection of a drug into fat deposits (Lipo-Dissolve), application of a cream to the thighs (Reviva Lipo Zyme Thigh Cream), a spray (Now Foods B 12 Lipo Spray) that is applied to foods, a gel (LIPO SCULPT GEL TOPICAL FAT LOSS 8 OZ BODY DEFINING) that, like the cream, is applied to the body. a combo cream and massaging tool (Lipo Reduction Anti-Cellulite Cream & Body Shaping Massager) for the price of $142, as well as a host of pills, caplets, etc.

You will be happy to know that if you buy the combo cream and massager, you will get "discrete shipping." This reminded me when I read it that when I was in junior high school (grades 7-9) I succumbed to a print entreaty to purchase a "spot reducer," which turned out to be a round electrical massager that, of course, did nothing at all except jiggle fat deposits. It too promised discrete shipping. I hid the product in a discrete location in the house and someone discretely lifted it for their own use.

These products all exploit the term "liposuction" by way of suggesting that there is an easier way to go than to have a doctor suck out fat from your bod, a disgusting sounding procedurey. Of this wealth of products, there seems to be one reasonably substantive product, the injectable Lipo-Dissolve, which, it seems, is awaiting FDA approva, something none of the others claim. A process like this has apparently been used for some time in Europe but the US requires more verification of the effectiveness of a drug or procedure before it is approved. I would wait until the FDA says that the procedure works.

I trust that none of you has fallen prey to the unscrupulous makers and advertisers and sellers of these products. Actually, I shouldn't be so optimistic because, at least in the US, we have stores that teem with pills and powders and liquids that when ingested are supposed to provide some health benefit. Someone is clearly buying these products.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ferraro's Stupid Counterfactual

Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to appear on a Presidential ticket, has infamously said
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
What makes this counterfactual stupid is that, as David Lewis demonstrated in his book, Counterfactuals, one cannot, in attempting to determine the truth of a counterfactual ("If P, then Q", where "P" is false) simply alter the world in the single respect specified by the antecedent ("P" in our example) and see whether "Q" is true or not.

In point of fact, if you changed Obama into a White man, then he certainly wouldn't be in his current position because this is a state of affairs that began back when he, as a Black man, ran for the state assembly of Illinois. Its my understanding that he ran for that position while living in a predominantly Black legislative district. So, if you turned him into a White man, you will have put him in the very difficult position of winning a seat in a Black district against, presumably, a Black opponent. Now that could happen but it isn't likely. So, you would have to move him from that area to a White area. Of course, it would matter which area he was in. If you happened to make him Polish, you wouldn't want to put him in an Irish area or Italian area. As one can readily see, this way lies madness.

Scientists use counterfactuals in empirical research by controlling all of the parameters affecting the outcome of an event but for one, which they vary. In their hands, counterfactuals do not do harm. They are okay in the hands of other people trained in their use such as logicians, for instance, but shouldn't be used by the average, educated, even highly educated, person. This is specialist stuff. So, I hereby direct you not to make claims like, "If Hitler hadn't been born, Germany wouldn't have turned fascist." Or, "If I were better looking, Mary wouldn't have divorced me." You get the idea. Maybe the best rule is "NEVER USE A COUNTERFACTUAL." Nothing good can come from doing so.

One thing that pisses me off every time I hear it is when some White Middle-Class American Protestant male background makes some disparaging remark about the government providing support for poor Blacks or Hispanics or Appalachian Whites saying that they worked for what they have and these other people ought to have to do so too. I was born to White middle-class parents who did suffer economic setbacks, but my mother had an MA degree from Columbia and my father a BA from the University of Illinois. Already, I had one truly fundamental advantage over many of my peers -- all my life it was a given that I would go to college. And, indeed, I and my three siblings all got degrees from universities.

But I had another advantage, namely a rich uncle who said that if I could get into Rice University, I could stay for free at his home in Houston (one long block from River Oaks, the classiest neighborhood in Houston at the time. I got in, and my degree from Rice helped me get into MIT. I could go on and on specifying major advantages I had, some of which I had to work hard to exploit, but which wouldn't have been available to 95% (wild guess) of the American people. Oh, yes, we can add to my advantages that I was born in late 30's in the United States, rather than in Russia.

Ferraro had become addle pated. She needs to be ignored by everyone. One of the funniest aspects of this is that twice she tried to win a Senate seat but failed both times. Obama tried once and succeeded and he succeed in a state that is predominately White.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Who are the White Ethnic Voters?

MSNBC political pundits are, as I write, refering to a class of voters in Ohio and other states, as Ethnic White voters. What in hell are Ethnic White Voters? On the MSNBC web site, it notes that exit polls suggest that "white, blue collar and older voters" are trending toward Clinton whereas African Americans are voting for Obama. In short, for the most part, Whites go for Clinton and Blacks for Obama. These are, of course, overlapping descriptive terms since a single person could be white, blue collar, and old.

I already knew that America is a racist country with Blacks being every bit as racist if not more racist than Whites. The difference in this election is I suspect that a greater percentage of Whites are voting for Obama than would be true of Blacks in regard to Clinton. These Whites would, of course, be liberals. This tendency is magnified by Obama's seeming to be the more liberal candidate. The more extreme liberals would be anti-Clinton since Bill moved the party toward the center when he was President, which accounts both for his getting elected and the successes he had as President. Much to the chagrin of Republicans, Clinton stole some of their most basic tenets -- free trade, balanced budgets (forget that Reagan and W have been pro-deficit -- Reagan was a Reagan conservative (no taxes for the rich) and W is a neocon, a very different kind of rat), and the like. So, now you know why White liberals don't like Hilary. She isn't noticeably liberal (any more).

But that brings me back to the intriguing concept of the Ethnic White. There was a time when I saw Italian Americans and Irish Americans as classic cases of Ethnic Whites -- Whites who maintain their ethnic identity. I don't think that this is what the pundits on MSNBC have in mind exactly.

These pundits also speak of Working Class Whites. At this point, I am massively confused. Are Working Class Whites the same as Ethnic Whites or different? Historically, Ethnic Whites did tend to hold blue collar jobs back when such jobs existed. I think that these MSNBC pundits are using "Ethnic White" to refer to what are sometimes called "Red Necks." Nowhere in these discussions is there any reference to "Whites who continue to be fairly racist" but we all know that there are still plenty of them around -- indeed, they abound in Ohio. As I write this, I am no longer watching the political coverage because there is a competing Ohio State basketball game to watch so I don't know how Ohio will go. I am betting we can expect our Ethnic Whites to make the difference for Hillary. There is an irony here -- no President has been as pro-Black as Bill Clinton but now, assuming I haven't totally misread the situation, the historic White racists are voting for Hillary. That's okay by me since gobs of Black racists are voting for Obama.

I hope I have been reasonably coherent. It is hard to compose prose and watch a basketball game at the same time.

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