Friday, April 28, 2006

God, Time, Matter, Energy, Causation, and the Universe

Humans have no trouble imagining an indefinitely extended future. In fact, we have a name for it, We call it "eternity." We do have problems imagining an indefinitely extended past. Combined with that apparent limitation of our imagination is our naive assumption that the events we experience have identifiable beginnings. These two facts conspire to lead us to believe that not just life, but the universe itself must have had a beginning.

I claimed that our belief that the events we experience have identifiable beginnings is naive. Let me show why it is naive with a simple example. John, who smoked all of his adult life, dies of lung cancer. That is our final event-state. What was the initial state that started off the sequence of events that resulted in his death? There was no single initial state. There were a multiplicity of them, not all of which are we likely to be able to identify. There is one chain of events having to do with the emergence of the tobacco plant on earth. Another with its being recognized as pleasurable to chew or smoke. Another had to do with the chain of events that led John to take up smoking and another to account for his ability to resist every effort others made to encourage him to quit. Another had to do with the environmental factors that combined with John's smoking to increase the probability that he would get lung cancer. Then there are the genetic factors. Had John had a different mother or father he might not have been as vulnerable to the harmful ingredients in tobacco or the harmful elements of his environment. So we have to build into our model, how John's mother and father managed to come together. There was no initial state that set in motion the chain of events leading to John's death from lung cancer. There were a multiplicity of initial states for these event-chains. In fact each of our event-chains is very likely a set of event-chains.

We are going to have to get rid of our idea that the event-states we experience have beginnings. They have a multiplicity of beginnings and some of these will go very far back in time. You may say that most of these are unimportant in accounting for John's death or any other event but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. We are simply choosing to ignore them. Once one recognizes this fact, one is well on the way to jettisoning the idea that the universe had a beginning. Why must it have had a beginning? Why couldn't it have always been here? That is, in fact, much less difficult to imagine than the idea that some all-powerful God created matter and energy from nothing and set off a chain of events that resulted in the creation of the universe and, giving a nod to those who believe in a personal God, has hung around to meddle in human affairs (as is required in the idea that God answers prayers).

When our daughter was five or six, she asked whether we believed in God. I told her that her mom and I didn't but that it would be up to her to decide whether or not she would. She then asked why people believe in God. I replied with the first cause argument noting that people wondered where the earth and stars came from and believed that God created them. She then asked, "Where did God come from?"

A five or six year old, albeit a smart, unbrainwashed one (we never discussed religion with her), is able to refute the first cause argument (we might call it the "God Argument") for the existence of the universe. It takes an adult to conjure up the silly idea that God created the universe.

The problem here is that we have to imagine a God that exists somehow at some nonmaterial level of existence but who had the power to create matter of many types and energy of many types, mash all of this stuff together into, a very, very, very tiny ball that is so densely compressed that the forces that are trying to escape overwhelm the forces that are trying to keep the ball together and so explodes (Big Bang!) and matter and energy start scattering everywhere. God, having created this material plane of existence from his immaterial plane, then either retreats and watches or hangs around and meddles with things from time to time. You can revise this paragraph to go along with your alternative to the Big Bang theory of the origin of this particular universe. Nothing will change in re God.

Note well, that there has to have been a time when there was only one level of existence, namely a nonmaterial level or we don't really need to posit a God. This was the point of my daughter's implicit counter-argument. In my opinion, it is much easier to imagine that the universe has always existed than to imagine that there was a time when matter and energy didn't exist and some God, living, so to speak, at some nonmaterial level of existence, created matter and energy. I can imagine my daughter asking, "What did he create matter and energy out of?"

Religious sorts might reply that I suffer from the defect of a limited human type imagination and thus cannot understand the mysteries of God's creation of the universe. Only a bona fide nitwit would reply in such a fashion.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anselm's Argument for the Existence of God

Some of you will have noticed that I am very hostile to fundamentalist Christians. There is a good reason. I went to a fundamentalist Baptist church that gave me "fire and brimstone" riffs at a young age and this caused me to have trouble going to sleep because i worried that those I loved might not be really saved and might therefore go to hell where they would burn for all eternity. Any group of people who scares the hell out of any little kid should be sent to Gitmo.

Of course, I didn't know that human beings burn fairly quickly -- many of us after all are cremated after death -- and so, if hell means being submitted to fire and brimstone, it cannot be eternal since one will burn up quickly. I realized that I actually didn't know what brimstone is so, I did a word search and discovered that it is an old word for sulfur. Sulphur gas would probably asphyxiate one. So, one might not be conscious by the time one started burning. Oh right, I forgot. It would be my soul that would burn in hell. How the hell does a soul burn? Clearly, this is all a load of crap.

While I was a philosophy student, I read some of St. Anselm's writings. I loved his analysis of time which concluded with the observation that "time hath no space," i. e., time is infinitely divisible. He gets full marks for this observation about time.

St. Anselm is more famous for his argument for the existence of God. His argument is broken down at a Trinity University web site, as follows:
1. God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived. (definition of "God")
2. If someone understands the concept of God (i.e. the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived) then God "exists in the understanding" of that person. (definition of "exists in the understanding")
3. It is greater to exist in reality than in the understanding alone. (More precisely: if x exists in the understanding but not in reality, and y is exactly like x except that y also exists in reality, then y is greater than x.)
4. The fool understands the concept of God (= the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived).
5. Therefore (from 2 and 4) God exists in the understanding of the fool.
6. Suppose for the sake of argument that God exists only in the understanding of the fool (i.e. not in reality as well). (This assumption will form the basis of a reductio ad absurdum.)
7. Then we could conceive of something exactly like what exists in the fool's understanding except that it also exists in reality.
8. The entity that we conceived in 7 would be greater than the entity that exists only in the fool's understanding (by 3)
9. But in that case what the fool conceived was not after all something than which nothing greater can be conceived (after all, we've just conceived of something greater).
10. So we have a contradiction! (Between 5 and 9)
11. So the assumption we made in 6 must be mistaken (since it led to a contradiction).
12. So God exists in reality. (6 was the assumption that God does not exist in reality; since 6 is mistaken, God does exist in reality.)
I had totally forgotten about the role fools played in his argument. Maybe it goes back to the notion, "even a fool knows that," which is often used as an argument clincher (by fools). The Trinity site notes that it is a very strange argument. Surely it is. That is why I have always liked it. This guy may have been the first to "think outside the box."

I cite this argument because there is a deeply fatal flaw that is of linguistic interest. The first premise -- the definition of God -- is "God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived." In it we find the comparative "greater" and the problem with it is that adjectives, including compared adjectives, are normally relativized to some reference class.

Note, for instance, the statements, "Mastiffs are large," and "The Empire State Building is large." However, should we fly up in the sky over New York city, one might be able to see the Empire State Building long after one has ceased to be able to see a Mastiff standing right next to it. Implicit in the statement, "Mastiffs are large," is the argument "for a dog." In short, while "large" looks like a simple predicate like "is blue," it is in fact a complex relational predicate taking two arguments, one of which refers to the thing the property is being predicated of and the other referring to the reference class.

So, we come to Anselm's argument. He uses the comparative "greater" in his definition of God. In fact, in the "original" (I am using a translation), he says "We believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived." Lets go back to the more simple predicate from which "greater than" derives, namely "great." It is possible to assert both that "Einstein was great" and that "Tiger Woods is great." Now, Tiger went to Stanford so he is a pretty smart dude but he is not about to provide novel solutions to any very complex physics problems. Nor would Einstein be able to win the Masters golf tournament four times. So, the apparently simple predicate "great" contains an implicit reference class of its own. To make them explicit, we might say, "Einstein was great as a physicist" and "Tiger Woods is great as a golfer."

So, what about God. Anselm says he is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. So, in logical terms we have the proposition that
For all x: x is a conceivable being, God is greater than x.
We have here a restricted universal quantifier "x" but we also have an implicit reference class. Let's make it explicit.
For some/all y and for all x: x is a conceivable being, God is greater than x at y/as a y.
We have a choice as to whether our variable "y" is existentially or universally quantified. So, is God greater than any conceivable being at all things or is it just that He is greater than any conceivable being at some things? The notion that God is omnipotent suggests it is a universal quantifier. Of the set of conceivable beings, God is greater than all at all things. That would include being greater at such things as
being a creator of universes
being a lover of all things
being a dirty, rotten bastard
I vote for the last for I follow the line of argument in Archibald McLeish's play, "J.B." according to which, "If God is good, he is not God; if God is God, he is not good." I didn't realize that David Hume is responsible for a similar argument until I ran across this religious website. Hume's position was that:
If the evil in the world is intended by God he is not good. If it violates his intentions he is not almighty. God can't be both almighty and good.
I love how this site answers the argument. At a key point it is stated:
The main problem with this argument is a lack of understanding of the reason for the creation of the universe. The universe was not created to be good. God created the universe as a temporary testing site for creatures to choose to love Him or reject Him.
This makes God into an early day Joseph Mengele. Ain't life grand.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Great "Net Carbs" Scam

The other day, a Bacardi Rum TV ad, passed before me claiming that it had "no carbs" and "no sugar." Bacardi must think we are nitwits, so besotted with booze, that we don't have enough brain cells left to recognize that "no carbs" entails "no sugar." The clear implication of the TV ad to someone like me who was not paying much attention is that Bacardi rum is calorie free. There might have been a written or oral disclaimer countering that inference but I didn't catch it.

The title link confirms what I have said and goes on to say
Even fans of incredibly popular carb-free programs who choose to drink need not deprive themselves of an occasional cocktail because a BACARDI® Superior Rum and Diet Cola cocktail offers a refreshing solution with no carbs and no sugar. It tastes smooth, light and fantastic - with 0 grams of guilt.
What Badardi rum does have is alcohol and alcohol is not calorie free. At Wilstar's Low Carb Pavilion, it is said
Alcohol cannot be used directly for fuel by the body. Instead, it goes to the liver for processing. There, it is chemically converted to an aldehyde and then to ketone bodies which are used as fuel. Alcohol contains about 6.9 calories per gram.
There is a great irony here -- something that contains primarily alcohol and water is being promoted to the "low carb" crowd. There is another class of products that is running the same scam, namely many of the things you can buy at one of the "low carb" stores in your town. These are the products with low "net carb" numbers. I have before me one of the very tasty Snickers Marathon "Low Carb" energy bars. If you look at the nutrition rating of these bars you discover that this "Low Carb" bar actually has 19 grams of carbohydrates.

So, what are the 16 mystery carbs (19 minus the 3 "net carbs") in my very tasty candy bar? They are sugar alcohols and fiber. The list of ingredients in these bars is neatly covered up by the fold in the wrapper. It lists malitol and sorbitol. Back in the day, sugar alcohols (polyols) like these were used in chewing gum and the wrappers claimed this gum did not contribute to dental caries and those that contained no sugars were relatively safe for diabetics but these wrappers always made quite clear that these gums were not diet products. Now they are, it seems. What changed?

Nothing changed. What happens to sorbitol in the body is not absolutely clear. In a research study of sorbitol metabolism, it is claimed that less than 3% of 35 grams of orally ingested sorbital is eliminated through the urine. What is important about sorbitol for dieters is that ingestion of 35 grams of sorbitol does not significantly increase blood sugar in normal subjects and that sorbitol provides a significantly smaller increase in blood sugar in diabetic patients than ingestion of sucrose. But what is the bottom line for dieters. At Calorie Control it is claimed that sugar contributes some 4 calories per gram while malitol and sorbitol contribute 2.6 calories per gram. Neither is as sweet as sugar but malitol has the virtue of allowing a reduction of fat in a product since it gives a "creamy texture."

The "net carbs" rating for a candy bar like this reflects a deduction of grams of fiber from the total carbs (which, in the case of my bar, reduces us from 19 to 11 grams). This is a legit reduction. There is one gram of sugar, which takes us down to 10 grams of our sugar alcohols. Since malitol and sorbitol each contribute 2.6 calories per gram, we may assume that these guys contribute 26 calories of the 170 total calories of the bar. So, our three net carbs are due to the sugar. We are back where we began -- polyol carbs don't count as carbs because they are actually alcohols sort of like Bacardi rum. Don't worry, you can't get drunk on Snickers "Low Carb" bars.

The beauty of these polyols is their slow metabolism in the body. This makes them valuable to diabetics and also makes them valuable to those who have gone beyond the induction phase of the Atkins diet because there is said to be a correlation between a rapid metabolism of carbohydrates and a rapid onset of hunger. The whole "glycemic index" and "glycemic load" based diets, originally designed for diabetics are useful to all dieters. It is this that drives the low carb diet machine.

What about booze? The role of booze in weight gain and weight loss seems to depend on whether or not the booze replaces food. Alcohol contributes almost as many calories per gram as fat does so. So these calories are not guilt free for dieters, as the Bacardi people suggest. Moreover, it is well-known that alcohol is metabolized and burned (as ketones) first and this slows down metabolism of stored fat. That's the negative side. The positive side is that consumpiton of alcohol also raises the metabolic rate, which could lead to weight loss provided that the alcohol calories replace food calories. So, the ideal way for someone to drink and lose weight is to replace food with booze and become skinny like the alcoholics that can be found on the streets of our cities. What a plan!

Check out Shapefit and Weight Loss for All for facts about alcohol. At least I hope they are facts.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sleeping with Hamas

Bin Laden seems to have put out a tape broadcast by Al-Jazeera in which he says, in the words of NBC, that "the West's decision to cut aid to the Palestinians proves it is at war with Islam." This "breaking news" story went on to say that OBL claimed that "the blockade which the West is imposing on the government of Hamas proves that there is a Zionist crusader war on Islam."

OBL is engaging in The Big Lie approach to rabble-rousing in saying that the withdrawal of aid to the Palestinians by Western countries is part of some Zionist plot. It plays well, I'm sure, in the Arab world, but just seems foolish, I suspect, to most others, including educated Arabs. There is definitely a cultural war going on, but it is not Zionist inspired. It is inspired by Al Queda and others who know to a moral certainty that western democratic values like freedom of the press and separation of church and state, as well as the materialistic values of the West, are a threat to fundamentalist Muslim values. But the initial European, American, and Israeli reaction to the victory of Hamas strikes me as quite foolish as well.

Some forty or more years ago, while I was teaching at the University of Illinois, Professor Charles Osgood, a psycholinguist, gave me a paper he had written called, "Conservative Words and Radical Sentences in the Semantics of International Politics." Naturally, it has been consigned to some landfill somewhere but I have reserved a book containing the paper and will be getting it very shortly. However, I am too impatient to wait for it before blogging onword.

Back when Charles gave me a copy of this paper, the Cold War was very much in the minds of Americans and others and our government was engaged in negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union on such matters as nuclear test bans and arms reduction. Many Americans felt about entering into treaties with the Soviet Union the way Amerindians must have felt about entering into treaties with the American government for a constant refrain at the time was that we couldn't trust the Soviet Union to abide by any treaty we signed with them.

One of the points Osgood tried to make in this paper, is that the idea that we should negotiate treaties only with countries we trust, is back-assward (not a term Charles would have used). If one made a precondition of any international agreement that we trust the people we are negotiating with, there would be no agreements except, perhaps, for little things like trade agreements. The point of entering into a treaty with an enemy, Osgood said, is that by doing so can one begin to establish a foundation for mutual trust. This was certainly true of the treaties negotiated by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. We did gradually learn to trust each other, at least a little bit.

Israel does not trust Hamas and vice versa. The United States and our European allies, such as they are, do not trust Hamas and vice versa. Nevertheless, the Palestinian people elected sufficient Hamas candidates to give them control of the Palestinian government and they did so because they had more confidence in Hamas to help them than in the PLO or any other Palestinian organization. The withdrawal of financial support from the Palestinian government is guaranteed to have one effect -- it will hurt the Palestinian people, a people that has enjoyed nothing but pain for many decades. It will not hurt Hamas.

Obviously, the correct action for the US and our European allies, and Israel, to take is to provide support to the Palestinian government. The blog One Jerusalem unhappily reports
The United States has lifted its total ban on dealing with Hamas while Israel is "considering contacts." Both are using the excuse of providing humanitarian aid. The fact is that the aid will do less for the people and more for propping up the terrorist regime. Let Hamas, its Arab, Iranian, and Russian allies shoulder the burden of keeping the government standing.
This is the sort of thinking Osgood deplored.

The facts are these. First, Hamas was elected in what appears to have been as fair an election as one could reasonably ask for and we, ostensibly, support those who support democracy. Second, withdrawing financial support for the Palestinian government/people will hurt only the people. Hamas can surely get, as One Jerusalem noted, whatever money it needs from its friends. Third, it is only by working with Hamas that there is any hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and those who have pledged to destroy Israel.

One Jerusalem says
Israel, the United States, and all civilized nations should impose a total cessation in aid. Its not like the Hamas supporting states are without the means of helping their cohorts.
This is the worst idea of all. The correct idea is to reduce the need for Hamas to rely on the bad guys for support in the hope that over time, some sort of rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinian state can emerge. The Cold War took 50 years or so to end. It might take that long for an Israeli-Hamas rapprochement to occur. In the meantime, the US can make it known to Hamas that the ultimate consequence of a serious escalation of violence against the Israeli people is that they will be wiped from the face of the earth. Mutual assured destruction is, perhaps, the most effective instrument for the development of peaceful relations ever invented. In one form or another, it is the source of the Geneva Convention and of the "normalization" of relations between the US and Russia.

So, you ask, "What does this have to do with language?" As Osgood noted, if I still recall what he said, we constantly get hung up on what he called "conservative words," words that pop out automatically in a context such as this and come with a good deal of political baggage. Words like "terrorist" and "propping up" (One Jerusalem) and "Zionist" and "crusader" (OBL) evoke preprogramed reactions in people and as such are inherently conservative. What is wanted is radical sentences, sentences that liberate us from these automatic reactions.
1. Israel should create contacts between its government and the Palestinian government.
2. The US and Europe should provide aid to the Palestinian state.
Israel's creating contacts with the Hamas government does not mean sleeping with them. It means "talking to them." Providing aid to the Palestinian state does not mean supporting or "propping up" Hamas politically. It means supporting the Palestinian people economically. One cannot control all of the consequences of one's actions. Proviing aid to the Palestinian state may help Hamas retain control but it has already earned the trust of the people so its not as if this aid will create something new.

In my personal opinion, the election victory of Hamas is the best thing that could happen because it brings Hamas out in the open. The Brits needed the political arm of the IRA (its public face) to talk to even while hostilities continued between the Brits and the military arm of the IRA. Israel could have a similar sort of situation with Hamas if not now, then perhaps soon.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Spoken vs. Written English

Many years ago, I had a large number of Air Force Academy language teachers in an introductory linguistics course I was teaching and they told me that they had learned that given the limited time they had to teach foreign languages, they decided it would be better to focus entirely on teaching cadets to speak and understand the language, totally ignoring grammar. The principle was simple: it was better that the cadets be able to understand and be understood than to be grammatical given how much time would have to be spent on the latter to achieve any level of success. In foreign language teaching, if successful communication is the goal, then teachers should also eschew a concern with reading and writing the language.

What I have said above will be controversial. But the fact is that children learn to communicate in a language before they learn to read and write it and learning to read and write it takes time and a lot of effort. One of the reasons for this, especially in English or Chinese is the disconnect between speaking and writing. In Chinese, the disconnect is complete as the writing system is logographic. Because of this, speakers of different Chinese languages who are unable to communicate orally, can communicate via the writing system.

In English, the disconnect between speaking and writing is nothing like as complete as in Chinese. We have a very poor "phonetic" (actually "phonemic") system. A phonetic writing system would have a different symbol for each actual sound speakers make. This is not a good thing for, in English, we would have to have different symbols for the vowels in "cat," "cad," and "can." The first is shorter than the second. The third is nasal while the others are not and it is long, like that of "cad." Speakers of English are normally completely unaware that these are three different vowels. As a result we represent them by the same symbols. However, thanks to the fact that the vowels of English underwent massive changes after the writing system had settled down, there is a significant disconnect between how the same vowel letter in related words will be pronounced. The first vowels in "sane" and "sanity," two clearly related words, are pronounced quite differently. This is because of the Great Vowel Shift.

There is a significant disconnect between the principles for writing formal English and the principles that dictate how we talk. In the simplest case, we separate separate words from each other with spaces. If we equate these little spaces with short silences, then how we speak is way different from how we write. In his great Movie, Annie Hall, Woody Allen "an agitated Alvy [Woody Allen] explains to his calm friend Rob (Tony Roberts), that he thinks an acquaintance has made an anti-Semitic remark in a Jew-baiting incident:

You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, 'Did you eat yet or what?' And Tom Christie said, 'No, JEW?' Not 'Did you?'...JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?"

In fact, in casual speech, "Did you eat?" would likely come out "jueet?", that is, as a single sound sequence with no silences separating words and "did you" coming out as a sequence of just two sounds, the first sound in "Jew" and the vowel sound of "sue." The three sounds of "did" are reduced to a single "d" and this "d" is palatalized by the first sound of "you," which is a palatal glide much like the first sound of "yes, giving as its result a sound much like the first consonant of "judge." In short, this "juh" sound replaces "d + y." There are languages that routinely palatalize consonants. English is fond of doing that in casual speech.

Now, you would have to be a mad man to suggest that we write, "Did you eat?" as "jueet." It makes enormous good sense to separate individual words off from each other by spaces in written language for maximum clarity and enormous good sense to run the corresponding sounds together in casual speech by way of making speaking easier. Careful, precise speaking equals very slow speech and none of us have the patience for that.1

So, just focusing on pronunciation, we can see that speech and writing are quite different systems. Speech is primary, of course, since speech came before writing historically (and there are spoken languages today that aren't written) and children learn to talk before they learn to write. This disconnect at the level of pronunciation and writing is so great that if you write a short story in which you try to reveal how your characters actually talk using the English writing system, you will go mad. The only way to do this is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a system many if not most linguists use to write down how people actually talk. If you did that, however, your readers wouldn't be able to read your dialog without learning the IPA as well.

There is also a disconnect between grammatical speech and grammatical writing but here is where right wing grammarians, who usually know nothing whatever about language, intrude their unwanted selves into the discussion by insisting that white middle class matrons, to take just one group, speak "correct English" or "proper English" as if "correct English" is like "correct answer" in an addition problem or "proper English" is like "proper dress." The reality is that people of different regions, different races, different genders, different ages, different social classes, and different language backgrounds (first vs. third generation immigrants, for instance) abide by different grammatical rules and calling one way of talking "good" and another "bad" is purely and simply the result of ignorance and prejudice.

Note well that I am talking about how we talk when I say that there are many "correct" or "good" ways of talking (as many "correct" and "good" ways as there are different ways of talking, as a matter of fact), but how we write English is an entirely different matter. It is of very great importance that everyone learn to write and spell (ugh!) a single kind of English for only if we do that can we hope to communicate with others within the borders of USA, as well as outside. I know that this blog is read by people around the globe. By now, it is entirely possible that at least one person in every country of the world has read at least a paragraph or two of this blog. As of 9:22 a. m. on Saturday, April 22, 2006, people from 15 different countries and a couple from unidentified countries had graced these pages. One can hope these "unknowns" are Chinese people who are thwarting the efforts of their government to censor what they can read on the web. As of that time, only S. America was unrepresented among the major land masses. This obviously would not be possible if I didn't write in something like Standard English. The real icing on this literary cake is that we can all read the English literature (literary, academic, religious, and historical writings as well as many other kinds of literature) of the past, going back as far as Shakespeare (with a little help) and Chaucer (with a fair amount of help). "Beowulf" (1100 AD), about three hundred years before Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," is written in a form of English we can't read. Had we standardized English writing at that time, then we would have almost as great a disconnect between our speaking and writing systems as is the case in Chinese.

1A closely related palatalization process can be found in the pair, "catch it" and "cat shit" and the pair "why choose?" and "white shoes." In both cases the pairs come out more or less the same in casual speech.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

I'm the Decider

In the probably immortal words of President Bush
"I hear the voices, and I read the front page and I know the speculation," the president said. "But I'm the decider, and I decide what's best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."
The locution "I'm the decider" is a very odd. No normal person would ever utter such a thing. The reason is that in the slot of "I am the ___" we would normally expect a noun phrase that serves to complete what is called a "definite description," a locution that identifies someone for the purposes of the conversation at hand. "I am the decider" just doesn't get that done.

If you are still struggling with why people reacted so swiftly to this Bushism (see my blog, George Bush and Mrs. Malaprop), consider a few other linguistic examples
I am the picker. I pick who should be sent to the Senate for confirmation.
I am the chooser. I always choose who we will have over for dinner.
I would have bet good money that no President would ever characterize himself as "the decider." "Commander in Chief," yes. "The Decider in Chief," no.

It seems that the oddity of Bush's locution led many of us older Americans to recall The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album and the song, "I am the Walrus." Sing along with me.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, coo coo ca choo.
Many of us feel we are on a magical mystery tour of Bush's deciding.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kipatrick is at it again

James Kilpatrick has again donned his judge's robe to pronounce on those uses of English he deems perfidious. In my morning Dispatch, he condemned to death the phrase "as of yet," as when used in locutions like "The sun has not risen as of yet." He notes that "as of" is unnecessary and he is quite right about that. The sentence, "The sun has not risen yet" gets across the same point in fewer words. Normally, I like to drub Kilpatrick around the ears for his pretentious offerings but he gets a gold star on this one. The problem is that often when there are two locutions saying the same thing where one does so with more words some secondary meaning is attached. Note that "He killed the mayor" and "He caused the mayor to come to be dead" differ in that the latter suggests the subject might have set the murder in motion without doing the dirty deed himself, whereas the former, while consistent with that, would normally be used when the subject directly killed the mayor. The same defense cannot be made for "as of" as far as I can see.

He also considers the odd couple, "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less." He's happy about having both in the language, claiming that the former expression "acknowledges some degree of concern" even if not much. Normally, when we have two propositions, "P" and "not P," they contradict each other. Construed literally, "I could care less about John" entails that the speaker is capable of caring less than he or she does about John but, for one reason or another, doesn't happen to. This oddity seems to be restricted to "care."

Take another verb of "caring" like "love."
I could love Sally less.
I couldn't love Sally less.
The first of these sentences wouldn't normally be used as a put down but the latter works just as well as a put down as "I couldn't care less." What is true of "love" is true of "like" as well. Kilpatrick has missed the boat here. In my opinion, "I could care less" is the result of some blunder involving just the verb "care" that happened to catch on. I'm not going to condemn it to verbal hell but to suggest that it is some sort of garden variety English as Kilpatrick's "analysis" suggests, strikes me as very unKilpatrickan. He missed a great opportunity here.

What chaps my butt, however, is his return to the condemnation of the use of "they" as a generic singular pronoun, as in the case of a sentence like "When a person orders Chardonnay with roast beef, they should be thrown out of the joint." I have blogged on this before but a defense of "they" is worth repeating. The fact is that grammatically, a singular pronoun must be used -- either "he" or "she" -- in such a case but it won't do to put in "he" and it won't do to put in "she." We mean to be making a unisex claim here, that is to say, a claim applying to both males and females. We are stuck either with "he or she" or "she or he" or the stylistic barbarity "he/she" or "she/he." I think the person who first made the linguistic blunder of using "they" in general claims of this sort, should be give the Nobel Grammar Prize, not to be condemned to occupy whatever level of hell Kilpatrick means to condemn grammar felons to.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Language and the Issue of Illegal Immigrants

In my book on the language of politics, I noted that the language we use to identify things usually presupposes theories of the things. My example was the language used to identify the poor reflecting the political prejudices of the speaker/writer.

In the news now and apropos my last blog, is the issue of illegal immigration. In my morning Dispatch yesterday, this paper being the origin of many of my blogs, there was a piece on the op-ed page by Victor Davis Hanson, whom I had never heard of, on the terms used to describe illegal immigrants that illustrates this phenomenon. The Dispatch site I got his paper from requires registration and I haven't found this particular piece anywhere else. He has numerous other papers on this immigration you could look at, however, which you can access by Goggling "Victor Davis Hanson illegal immigration."

Mr. Hanson is concerned with terms referring to illegal immigrants that are to him misleading. He focuse on:
1. illegal alien This is the term Hanson seems to prefer. He notes that it is not meant to evoke the aliens of science fiction. The problem with this term is that "alien" has extremely negative connotations no matter what Hanson thinks. The term "alien influences," gives you a taste of what I mean by this for alien influences are always deemed bad by the speaker/writer who uses the phrase. What we see here is that Hanson, like so many of those who object to bias, fails to reflect on the biases he brings to the table.

2. undocumented worker Hanson sees this as the "politically correct" version of the first term discussed. Of course, "politically correct" is a term used only by those who wish to bludgeon others linguistically. I don't recall anyone saying or writing that he or she endorses the use of "politically correct language." So, again, Hanson didn't check his biases at the door of this debate, revealing in the process that he prefers negative terms to refer to illegal immigrants. Hanson accurately notes that this term does not suggest that the persons in question are law breakers. As I noted this is correct but it bolsters my position that Hanson wants to use as negative a term as he can for illegal immigrants.

3. illegal immigrant Hanson doesn't discuss this term as an example of acceptable or misleading language though he uses it himself. It is superior to Hanson's favored term illegal alien because "immigrant" does not have any particularly negative connotations except, perhaps, for xenophobes. Hanson notes, interestingly, that there are more legal and illegal immigrants here now -- about 30 million -- than at any time in history.

4. guest workers This is perhaps the most euphemistic term. As he notes, invited guests are rarely asked to wash the dishes of their hosts but many illegal aliens will be employed in people's homes to do this among other things. Hanson would perfer the less euphemistic terms "imported worker" or "contracted worker," but "imported" is lingusitically problematic as we shall see in the next paragraph.

5. imported low-wage worker This is a term Hanson uses to contrast with guest worker, saying it is more accurate. Actually, it immediately suggests to me that such workers would be like olive oil for it is primarily commodities we say are "imported," not people. Others use the term the way Hanson does so it is not a novel expression. He goes on to refer to the work such persons would do as "brutal," which suggests that he must see cotton picking as the paradigm case of the sort of work these people would do in a "guest worker" program.
Hanson also discusses some terms used for advocates of particular programs. Hanson notes that persons who oppose illegal immigration are sometimes referred to as anti-immigrant or anti-immigration, which, of course, would rarely be literally true. We are all immigrants, or children of immigrants, or children of the children of immigrants, and so forth and so on.

Sometimes propponents of "tighter borders" are referred to as nativists Hanson claims. That too would be ridiculous for the only nativists in the United States were the original Amerindians and even they were not native but, rather, came here from somewhere else. He also claims that some opponents of tighter borders are referred to as racists. This too would be inaccurate since most immigrants would not be racially different from persons who are here already. Moreover, such persons may have no problem at all with legal immigrants of the same racial makeup as the illegal ones. Note that in all these cases, Hanson is defending those opposed to illegal immigration against misleading verbal attacks. This, combined with the fact that he prefers terms referring to illegal immigrants that emphasizes that they are law breakers, and seems especially to prefer the quite pejorative term illegal alien over the less pejorative illegal immigrant makes clear that he is hostile to the aspirations of illegal immigrants. In saying this, I have in mind not the ones who will be coming here in the future but those already here.

As with so many American political debates, few people know how to discuss issues in ways that might be productive. We have three problems. The first is whether or not, why, and how to protect our borders so that people who we do not want to come here will not be able to come here. The second is whether or not we want to allow certain people to come into the country legally. The third is what we should do about those who are already here illegally.

In my opinion, the national interest dictates that we must do something to insure that no members of terrorist organizations can slip into the country to cause us harm. Solving that problem will necessarily solve the problem of future illegal immigration. If no member of a terrorist group is able to slip into the country from Mexico by crossing the border into California or New Mexico or Texas or come in on a fraudulent visa or come in in any other way that is illegal, then there should be no illegal immigrants of any type, including terrorists. So, the real debate should concern the second and third questions.

Since most people are not opposed to legal immigration, the real political issuse is what to do about the illegal immigrants who are here. Hanson reveals, perhaps unintentionally, through his "linguistic analysis" that he takes a negative stance toward illegal immigrants who are already here. After all, they are law breakers, as he says.

I applaud Hanson for bringing up the importance of language choices in political debate. However, he is not an innocent here for his own language choices and his criticisms of the language choices of others betrays that he too is biased and is not incapable of using misleading language such as imported low-wage worker.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Time's Loose Use of Political Labels

The sub-head of an April 10th story in Time magazine says of a Presidential hopeful in Mexico:
Leftist front-runner Lopez wants to give his countrymen less reason to cross the border

So, Senor Lopez is a leftist? What in hell does that mean? Does he say, "I am a Leftist." I can't find him doing that. So, we are left to ponder what Time magazine is doing?

The Left in politics arguably extends from the views of left-leaning centrists, though the views of liberals, on through the views of socialists, and then through the views of communists. Of course, this suggests that "leftist" is a scalar property, which is silly. We are talking here of a huge variation of points of view and any given individual who is left of center, generally speaking, may side with liberals on some issues, centrists on others, and conservatives on others. I like, for instance, the conservative notion, abandoned by both Reagan and Bush, of having a balanced budget for me and for the country. Does that make me a conservative? When I was a kid, Republicans used to argue that we can't survive long with unbalanced household budgets and the government can't either. Why did they change? It was a good idea though it took a long time for me to realize it.

Assuming, counterfactually, that "leftness" is a scalar property, Time doesn't tell us where Senor Lopez fits. This is left to us to decide. Time is doing this deliberately, of course, for it allows persons brainwashed into fearing liberals by the legionaires of the political right to imagine the worst. We are also told by Time that Senor Lopez "is the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD)." As Reagan might say, "Here they go again." Is "leftist" the only word Time has for people to the left of center?

This is a long story and I want this to be a shorter blog than usual for I have to engage in some manual labor. So, I will comment on just two elements of the following passage of the Time story. See if you can guess which two.
Yet as much as the struggling campesinos enjoy hearing his lavish social welfare promises, they're more interested in his business plan — specifically, how he hopes to create Mexican jobs that will keep them from having to cross the border to seek work in the U.S. as illegal immigrants. "We no longer want thousands of our young people abandoning their towns and families every day in order to alleviate their hunger and misery on the other side of the border!" López shouts in a high-pitched voice.

I am attracted by the idea that Senor Lopez is offering lavish social welfare programs. The adjective "lavish" evokes in my mind the possibility is that Senor Lopez is offering the poor, which is most of Mexico, of course, a new home with as many rooms as the household needs, chiles and chickens in every pot, and a nice Lamborghini Diablo for every garage, perhaps a red one to go with Senor Lopez's leftist views. (Why do we color Republican states "red"? Are they closet leftists?) The other item is Time's choice of expressions of reported speech. I told you about these things in my blog on journalistic bias. Here we have Time saying "Lopez shouts in a high-pitched voice." You just can't trust men who shout and cerntainly not men who shout in "high-pitched" (at least Time didn't say "shrill") voices. It suggests to me that Lopez might not be manly for he didn't shout with a "deep-pitched" voice. Anyway, most of us don't trust shouters, high-pitched or not.

As for Senor Lopez being leftist, what is he doing proposing to "create Mexican jobs that will keep them from having to cross the border." Time claims that Lopez is leading in the polls "to the chagrin of the Bush Administration." Why "chagrin"? Isn't Bush trying to stop illegals from entering the country? It seems to me that Bush ought to send some excess Republican funds (perhaps left over from Tom Delay's account) to Lopez and stump for him in the Northern areas of Mexico where the people have not seen as much of him.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

On the Danger of Criticizing Our Middle-East Policy

There have always been critics of American foreign policy in the Middle East insofar as it concerns Israel and its neighbors but, for the most part, these criticisms have been easily dismissed because they were made by Palestinians or supporters of the Palestinian people. They were easily ignored by American politicians because there are insufficient numbers of Arabs and Arab supporters to affect elections except perhaps in just a few areas of the country. However, there have long been critics of our Middle-East policy who blame some of our problems in the Middle East on our seemingly unbalanced, one-sided support of Israel but they have tended to be pretty silent. The reason is these people have been afraid to make their views known is that they know that they will be charged with anti-semitism, that supporters of Israel will use intimidation to try to shut them up.

Today, a story by Michael Powell appeared in the "Insight" section of my Columbus Dispatch, headlined "Storm erupts over paper on U.S.-Israel relationship." I believe this is the Michael K. Powell who chaired the FCC and who initiated the big fines of media organizations that offended his personal morality (and who is right wing). I believe that Janet Jackson's exposed breast was one of those cases.

This article starts off saying that
Two prominent academics, a dean at Harvard and a professor at the university of Chicago, have stirred a tempest by writing a paper arguing that the Israel lobby often persuades the United States to set aside its own security to pursue the best interests of Israel.
Naturally, critics have accused them of being anti-Semitic. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz says they "destroyed their professional reputations." This is an interesting statement. It is very hard for an academic to destroy his or her professional reputation simply by writing one paper that contains mistakes. I venture to suggest that every academic who publishes, including Dershowitz, has published something that turned out to be false at least in part. But their reputations were not "destroyed" as a result. So how does the reputation of these two scholars get destroyed by writing this article? Because they are being charged directly or indirectly by being anti-Semitic.

Dershowitz goes on to say that
"we've heard all this before, the talk of powerful Jewish lobbies and the language one hears on Arab and extreme right-wing Web sites."
Here, Dershowitz does not argue against the position taken in the paper these men wrote. Instead, he employs an ad hominem argument that tars this Harvard dean and University of Chicago professor with the same brush used to tar radical Muslims and skinheads. Does this seem fair to you?

I drew attention in a recent blog to an article on the National Review web site which written by Tom Gross who says, "One of the great myths of modern journalism, particularly outside the U.S., is that the New York Times is "pro-Israel." In fact, it would be truer to say that the opposite is the case." Several times in the article he accuses the Times of being anti-Israel and he criticizes Maureen Dowd, a NYTimes columnist, saying "on a visit to Saudi Arabia, Times columnist Maureen Dowd allowed the anti-Semitic slanders of the Saudi deputy education minister to be repeated unchallenged and uncriticized, as if they were fact." Saying someone or some paper is anti-Israel doesn't count as an argument against them. It is simply a verbal ploy designed to "slander" them, to use Grosses term.

I applaud these two scholars for their courage. They had to know that they would be charged with anti-semitism never mind the fact that American foreign policy has been skewed in favor of Israel for decades and we have paid a heavy price for it in lives and money. But I rush to say in defense of myself that I bow to no person -- I can see the slings and arrows headed in the general direction of this blog -- in my concern with genuine anti-semitic behavior. I read a small library of materials on the Holocaust when I was young -- specifically novels, historical accounts, and opinion pieces -- and was horrified. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Copenhagen and was horrified, but also inspired by the courage of the Danish resistance. The name "Baba Yar" is branded across my brain even today though I no longer remember the details of the atrocities committed there. To me, the horror of that time makes it totally irresponsible for anyone to charge anyone with anti-semitism simply to try to shut them up, as Derschowitz and others are clearly trying to do.

Our pro-Israel stance has to a very large degree been forced on us by the failure of our allies to join us in an effort to protect Israel and provide assistance to the Palestinians. We have, for all intents and purposes, been isolated thanks to our cowardly European allies and we have reaped the storm of Arab resentment. I'm not suggesting that any specific anti-American attack was due primarily to our pro-Israel stance. OBL, for instance, had other axes to grind, including our support of oil-rich Arab monarchies. But to suppose that our pro-Israel stance played no role in the hating that led up to the first or second attack on the WTC or the attack on our embassies in Africa or the attack on the Cole is ridiculous. Its part of the anti-American Middle-east stew. But we have to support Israel nevertheless. But we didn't have to support their refusal to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. We did that for Israel when it would have been in our best interests to have helped the Palestinians create their own state. It must have been the right thing to do since Israel has finally "let" it happen. In the same vein, I believe we must pressure Israel to give its Arab citizens equal rights to those its Jewish citizens enjoy and pressure Israel to withdraw entirely from the West Bank areas it has built settlements in, and pressure Israel to be more selective in its attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. Anyone who thinks innocent civilians aren't terrorized or even killed in Gaza and the West Bank by these military actions doesn't know much about what is going on. Their weapons accuracy is no better than ours.

The language people use to silence others can be a very powerful weapon. It is one thing to attack the arguments of someone who suggests our policy toward Israel is wrong and quite another to call him or her an anti-semite. We have seen this sort of verbal ploy over and over in other contexts as when people are said to be racist or homophobic or whatever just to shut them up. If a person cannot make an argument that supports his or her position and discredits an opponent's position, then he or she must do the shutting up.

One of the great ironies of American politics is some of the biggest supporters of Israel are members of the Religious Right Wing, people whom I would have supposed would normally be anti-semitic. Of course, their support is predicated on some of their nuttier religious views, not for authentic political reasons. On the last episode of the Sopranos, Tony, recovering from a gunshot wound, told a visiting hoodlum, who happens to be Jewish, that a Bible thumper (my words) said he supported Israel. The Jewish hoolum said, if I recall correctly, "Just wait."

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bias in News Reporting

When Fox News came out with its claim that it offers "Fair and Balanced" reporting and their star performer, O'Reilly, started calling his show the "No Spin Zone" most of us, probably including Fox employees, had to smile. Everyone knows that Fox is heavily biased in favor of conservative points of view except, of course, those who are on the political right who may regard the reporting on this cable outlet as fair and balanced since it accords with their views of what is going on. It is interesting that Fox has not, so far as I know, claimed that it is objective. It is also interesting that no one else claims to be fair and balanced so arguably we have an instance here of "methinks the lady doth protest too much." The Times tells us that they present "all the news that's fit to print." I'm not clear what that means exactly. I'm not aware of any other such claims but I suspect those I don't know about would be similarly amusing.

I am prompted to blog on bias because my local paper ran an op-ed piece yesterday by Cal Thomas, a regular contributor, titled "The Words are Out: Big Media bias is becoming more and more evident." He may not be responsible for the precise language used in this head but he would surely approve of it. In his piece we find the continuing conservative refrain that the broadcast networks like to employ liberal democrats and they exhibit a liberal bias. He writes, "For people who believe the broadcast networks are biased and employ mostly people who favor liberal Democrats and oppose conservative Republicans" I won't complete his thought since all I care about is the antecedent of his conditional which expresses a proposition it is perfectly clear he believes is true. I have always been puzzled by this point of view since broadcast networks that have news shows and newspapers, for that matter, are owned by giant corporations or rich people, many of whom are conservative (all of the Murdoch media outlets, for instance,). I give you in evidence the conservative bials of news outlets, the Sinclair group which owns a large number of TV stations and which forced its TV stations to run a long anti-Kerry piece during the last Presidential election campaign. Check out what Viacom owns at the Columbia Journalism Review's web site and ask yourself this: Is Viacom a liberal corporation? I would imagine that should CBS be promoting left wing causes Viacom would tell them to stop. What we have here in the claim by Thomas that the networks like to hire Liberal Democrats rather than Conservative Republicans is the Big Lie. If you tell a whopper long enough people will tend to believe it and conservatives have been harping on the anti-conservative, pro-liberal bias they claim exists in the major media for years -- decades, perhaps. Interestingly, Thomas does not name names -- we must accept his point of view on faith.

The last time I remember liberals simlarly squealing like s stuck pig was during the Vietnam War when the content of the news reports about this war were fed to journalists by the military and the Johnson administration. That was before journalists started going out into the field to see what was going on. After a long while, coverage became more independent of the military's preferred point of view. Of course, liberals like to poke a stick in the eyes of people like Rush Limbagh and aura Ingraham.

At the Media Research Center's annual "Dishonor Awards" dinner which Mr. Thomas hosted, the "winners" were announced. "Who were the judges who picked the `winners'?", you ask? Did they include Ted Kennedy or Tom Daschle or Hillary Clinton along with some conservatives. Of course not. They were people like Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Robert Novak and Mary Matalin, people who are merely conservative and others that are very right wing. And who were the winners? Naturally they were anyone who said things favorable to liberal persons (people like Dan Rather who are perceived by the right wing as liberal) or took liberal positions. Notice that the name "Media Research Center" in no way suggests that this organization is of, by, and for the political right. They use the magic word "research" which suggests that this Center is objective in the way that we hope scientists are. Naturally, the Media Research Center has no such lofty goal in mind. It is of, by, and for conservatives, including those on the right wing.

Bias in news reporting can enter in a variety of ways -- the selection of news stories, the selection of sources for these sources, the writing of the stories, and the placement of these stories all play large roles. It is my belief, based on a number of years of thinking and reading about bias dating back to when I started working on my book on the Language of Politics (and political journalism), that what aggravates conservatives the most about news coverage is the selection of the subjects of news stories. Right now, most of the news coming out of Iraq is negative and conservatives don't like hearing or reading negative stories for they imply that their conservative President is not doing a very good job. I suspect they want to read not about American casualties or infighting among those Iraqis charged with coming up with a set of leaders for their new government but about Americans creating schools and hospitals. The negative stories find their way to the front page in just the same way that tornadoes, car crashes, and big fires and floods do -- people are interested in these things. If journalists consistently reported in a way that the people don't like, they will quit reading or listening to the media that present their stories. That's how the free market works.

I did a search for "all the news that's fit to print" and came up with a very long story on the National Review's web site arguing that the New York Times biases its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian against Israel. By and large, coverage of this conflict has been pro-Israeli in this country. Actions by Israel that kill Arabs who are in Gaza and the West Bank and actions by Hamas and Al Fatah and others that result in Israeli deaths are portrayed very differently. The latter are treated as the result of terrorist acts, while the latter are not. This would be a very good story to read carefully to see if you think the Times coverage is biased or is simply "fair and balanced." I have my own ideas but I would be interested in yours.

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