Friday, June 30, 2006

Do US Prosecutors Have a Sense of Humor?

I read in my morning paper that US prosecutors revealed in a hearing designed to get approval for denying bail to one of 7 alleged terrorists arrested on Friday, June 23, 2006 and transferring him to Miami to be with his co-conspirators that the goal of the 7 alleged terrorists was to bomb FBI buildings in 5 major US cities as part of their plan to take over the US government and replace it with an Islamic regime. This is hilarious. I don't think that George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, plus the top Generals of the Army, Air Force, and the Navy -- call them "The Washington Seven" -- could overthrow the US government were they to try. It was also revealed that the alleged ringleader, one Narseal Batiste, conceded that people would probably think he was crazy (Duh!) but he believed that all things are possible with the help of Allah.

I bring this up because for the prosecutors to cite this in their bail and extradition hearing suggests that they don't have any real evidence of a genuine conspiracy to commit terrorist acts of the sort that should worry us. The prosecutors say that they have video evidence that the group swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in March. IMO, the combination of this video combined with whatever else the FBI informant who posed as an al-Qaida operative has to say should be used to commit these seven guys to a mental institution, rather than used to try them for a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. Swearing allegiance to OBL or anyone else is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to prove someone to be an active terrorist.

I have made clear that I am opposed to terrorists bombing anything anywhere, but the problem in this case has always been the timing. The arrests were revealed the day after it was revealed by the New York Times and other papers that George II of the USA had authorized the CIA's spying on international banking interactions involving US and other citizens. Forgive me for indulging in what is for me a rare instance of conspiracy theorizing when I suggest that the arrests were timed to blunt the force of the revelation of a violation of privacy of Americans as they engage in international banking activities which many ordinary people do every business day. What we really have here is a case of US prosecutors suffering an instance of premature ejaculation in support of the conspiracy. I cite the following from the Boston Hearld of June 23 as evidence supporting my conspiracy theory:
Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said in a statement that the investigation was an ongoing operation and that more details would be released today. Local media reported that agents were raiding a warehouse in Miami’s Liberty City section.
“There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area because of these operations,” said Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman in Washington. He declined further comment.
So, there was no great need to arrest these dudes, given that there was an on-going investigation and there was no imminent threat to anyone anywhere. The rush to arrest seems to have benn part a rush to defend the spying on Americans.

One sentence used in the AP story (possibly edited by the Columbus Dispatch) today was quite interesting. It read
The [bombing] plan came from an FBI informant posing as an al-Quaida operative.
This reads as if the FBI agent came up with the idea for the terrorist attack. It will come as to surprise to those familiar with the civil rights movement and anti-war movement in the 60's and 70's that FBI agents might be provocateurs. Whether the FBI guy, who must have been under pressure to come up with something, planted the seed of this bombing plan or the idea that such an action could lead to the overthrow of the US government I don't know. I hope the prosecutors have better evidence than they have so far revealed because any competent defense attorney will suggest such a possibility.

The problem the government has with the war on terror is that if they are successful in preventing attacks we will possibly never hear about it since publicizing the success could reveal methods of investigation the government doesn't want to reveal. One thing the government has done today is reveal to any terrorist cells to be on the look out for moles planted by the CIA or FBI. Maybe they already suspect such a possibility. Now they know it to be a certainty.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Clarence Thomas Speaks!

In late June, The Supremes upheld a Kansas death penalty law allowing requiring the death penalty when jurors are evenly split on the issue. As the Chicago Tribune notes,
The ruling overturns a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found the law violated the 8th Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Supporting Thomas, in addition to Alito, were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
The Tribune noted further that
Justice David Souter, writing for the court's liberals, said the law would lead to death sentences in doubtful cases and "is obtuse by any moral or social measure."
In response, the Christian Science Monitor reports Justice Thomas as stating that
"This court, however, does not sit as a moral authority."
So we have Kennedy, the so-called "liberal" Justice presupposing that the Supremes may make moral decisions and Thomas asserting that they must not.

Over a year ago, according to The Washington Post, Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion of a 5-4 decision outlawing the death penalty for those who are under 18 when they commit a death penalty crime, that
"From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed,"
So, again Kennedy presupposes the correctness of deciding cases based on moral judgments and we have one majority decision saying it is okay for the Supremes to do that and another saying it is not. This, if you will forgive my French, is a bullshit way to run a system of justice.

I suspect that Kennedy does not mean that every case should be so decided. However, the 8th Amendment to the Constitution states
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
This amendment requires the exercise of moral judgments. Now, the decision as to whether an excessive bail has been imposed or an excessive fine may not involve a moral decision. However, the fact is that the courts take into consideration the means of a defendant in assessing bail. Underlying such a action is the principle that it is immoral to set a bail that would be totally beyond the reach of one person but not another when the crimes are the same in all relevant respects. Up to a point, of course. If a defendant has no financial resources, then any bail is excessive and I suspect that for certain crimes, not imposing bail would not be the judge's choice. Fines are established by law and a judge has little discretion in some cases. Where a judge can decide to suspend the fine for a very poor defendant, doing so because the defendant is poor would represent a moral choice.

Turning to the big issue in regard to the 8th Amendment, it is absolutely clear that what is or is not a "cruel" punishment is a moral question. We seem to be finding out that lethal injections may not always be as pain free as has been thought. Should they be disallowed because they cause significant protracted pain, that would represent a moral choice. No American Court would allow the live dissection of a human as the means of administering the death penalty. Why not? Recognizing that give guides to usage, not definitions, the first "meaning" given for "cruel" in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is
disposed to inflict pain or suffering : devoid of humane feelings
Ureka. We have our response to Mr. Thomas. The 8th Amendment demands a moral judgment and therefore the Supremes are, contrary to what Thomas says, the arbiters of morality in some cases and the death penalty is one of them.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Security vs Freedom

Again, the Bush Administration has created a furor over violations of what many take to be a fundamental right and that is not to have one's private interactions monitored by the government. The New York Times writes:
The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, has allowed counterterrorism authorities to gain access to millions of records of transactions routed through Swift [Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication] from individual banks and financial institutions around the world. The data is obtained using broad administrative subpoenas, not court warrants.

Investigators have used the data to do "at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of searches" of people and institutions suspected of having ties to terrorists, Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, told reporters at a briefing on Friday. Officials say the program has proven valuable in a number of foreign and domestic terrorism investigations, and led to the 2003 capture of the most wanted Qaeda fugitive in Southeast Asia, known as Hambali.

Before this was the monitoring of telephone conversations. USA Today wrote just two months ago:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
It is said that NSA officials did not listen to such calls. Duh! There are too many for that. They are looking for patterns of calling and that could include both patterns involving who calls whom and patterns of suspicious language in such calls that would somehow be electronically parsed into nongarbled language [good luck with doing that].

So, what's up with this? Conservatives are very pissed off that the New York Times and a few others went with the recently disclosed story because they see this work of government officials as being critical to the security of the United States. Liberals are pissed off that our government is doing this sort of thing using nonspecific warrants or no warrants at all.

The 9/11 attack was massive in its ramifications. It hit the psyche of the American people very hard. I don't have to elaborate on this to any American. I am certainly not "over it." It hit the US very hard economically and this has ranged from the damage done in New York City, which is the economic center of the US, to the Airlines and many things in between. If we can believe our government, there have been attempted forays into the US from Canada -- Western and Eastern Canada -- by terrorists intent on attacking the US and a recent case of potential terrorism was uncovered in Miami though how serious the threat was is open to question.

There is, then, a fundamental conflict in interests of Americans between personal rights and our security as a nation. Conservatives and others believe that Liberals -- let me call them The Liberal Elite -- are insufficiently concerned with national security. This belief has existed for years and has impacted a number of Presidential elections when Democrats were seen as "soft" on Communism or some other bogey man. Liberals, from The Liberal Elite to left-leaning centrists like me are deeply concerned about these surveillance programs and see them as undermining our democracy in a dangerous way.

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Alter, author of a new book, The Defining Moment : FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, who claimed that at the time of the Hoover-FDR transition, which, of course, was at the height of the Depression (I think this word should have a capitol "D"), Fascism was not particularly negatively perceived and some urged FDR to assume benign dictatorial powers. This came as a real shock to me and I am arranging to get the book to learn more. The part of this that is highly problematic is that with any dictatorship comes a police state. That is the only way the dictator, benign or not, can keep power. The question in my mind is not whether there will be a coup with Bush becoming the first American dictator but whether or not he has created elements of a police state within what is otherwise a Democratic government.

This is not so crazy. Western democracies differ a great deal in the freedoms they have. The Brits have an Official Secrets Act. We do not though we have miniversions of this for those who work for various elements of the government. The French do not offer the same rights our Constitution does. So, it is not far-fetched to suppose that a serious, possibly permanent erosion of the Fourth Amendment is taking place.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Now, this question wouldn't arise were it not for the fact that liberals of all sorts and many centrists don't trust Bush and Cheney one damn bit. This is the crux of the matter. Those who trust Bush are happy with these violations of the Fourth Amendment. Those like me who do not trust Bush are totally opposed to the failure of the Bush administration, in the guise of the CIA (wasn't the CIA supposed to stay out of domestic surveillance?) and the NSA, to observe the cannons of American law -- no surveillance without a search warrant signed by an ordinary judge.

The problem, you see, is Bush. It is the justified lack of trust in Bush, a certified liar, that underlies the concern of many Americans with these programs. I am very strongly opposed to allowing terrorists the freedom to create violence in the US or in Europe or Bali or anywhere else, no less so than any Conservative. But there must be a better way, one that does not violate the Fourth Amendment, specifically, the "probable cause" requirement. The claims by Bush and Cheney that these programs are legal are quite false. They aren't because the Fourth Amendment has not been repealed. Officially.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Cut and Run

In my morning paper, Ellen Goodman has an op-ed piece on the use by Republicans of "cut and run" to slur Democrats by suggesting that they are cowardly for urging creating a timetable for bringing our troops home. It says something about the character of Republicans that this is the best they can do by way of defending our open-ended war in Iraq. Since no American members of Congress are in any personal danger from attacks by insurgents and Shiite and Sunni militias, the question of their cowardice does not arise in a situation like this. If some soldier in Iraq says, "I want to get the hell out of Iraq right now" Bush could call him a "cut and run Marine."

Another pithy expression Bush and his supporters like to use against those who call for us to bring our troops home now is that we need to "stay the course." This, like the other expression, as Goodman notes, is a nautical term. Bush likes these military expressions. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed "War President," which is pretty good considering he took a coward's way out of the Vietnam War. I wonder what his Daddy would have done if the architects of our Vietnam War called up National Guard troops as frequently as his son does. Maybe get him in the Coast Guard?

In what has to be described as a cowardly "fly in and then cut and run" trip to Baghdad in which he did not even tell the Iraqi leader he was coming -- clear proof that he doesn't trust the Democratic Government he has caused to be installed not to leak this info to the insurgents -- Bush said in his radio address
"I traveled to Baghdad to personally show our nation's commitment to a free Iraq, because it is vital for the Iraqi people to know with certainty that America will not abandon them after we have come this far"
according to someone at the Daily Kos. (It is my policy not ever to listen to anything Bush says so I will have to take the writer's word for it. Its one of the things I do for my mental health.) Notice that Bush said "after we have come this far" not "after we have accomplished this much." Nothing has been accomplished in Vietnam (this was a Freudian Slip which I think I will not edit out because it reveals my true feelings about this war) with any lasting value other, I suppose, than deposing and then capturing Saddam.

You say, "Bush has caused a Democratic election to be held." I say, "Hitler came to power thanks to a democratic election." The fact is that the people are in much more danger today than they were under Saddam, especially those living in the two "no fly" zones. The fact is that Saddam was not a threat to his neighbors thanks to the two "no fly" zones and the fact that he had not rebuilt his army, one that we virtually destroyed the first time around. The fact is that Saddam was secular and the most likely outcome of this war will be an Islamic government. And it will be a government that rules brutally if the Shiite militias actions today can be taken as a fair example of what is in store once the Shiites take control of the South (easy) and the Central (not so easy) regions of Iraq. To pacify the West will require a level of brutality Saddam will admire. If smart, they will leave the Kurds and their pesh merga alone. In a story in the Christian Science Monitor, a Kurdish leader is quoted as saying
"Officially, there is no pesh merga, only the Iraqi Army," says Fareed Asasard, director of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Center. "But still, you can see that the pesh merga remain. Maybe in some countries they have succeeded in changing militias into an army, but here, we continue to have pesh merga."
In fact, they will not go away just as Sadr's militia will not go away.

"Stay the course" is world class stupid as a policy no matter how good or bad the policy is. This sort of language is the work of intellectually and morally dishonest people who know that if they were to articulate the facts -- all the facts and nothing but the facts -- in support of their policy they would be forced to change course by getting the hell out of Iraq. About the only argument Bush can use now is that it is better to fight the terrorists in Iraq than here. But, of course, the terrorists wouldn't be in Iraq if we weren't there and so that argument says it is okay to use our soldiers as bait.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Rebranding of God

I read in my morning paper that the Presbyterians have decided to rebrand their product. They will continue to use "Father," "Son," and "The Holy Spirit," of course, but will also allow "Mother," "Child," and "Womb" in order to rid the "triune God" of sexist connotations that have supported the idea that males are superior to females, something which any thinking person knows is false. We also have for those who love mixed categories, "Rock," "Redeemer," and "Friend." Later on in this news story, it is said, the Presbyterians will also allow people to use "Lover," "Beloved," and "Love," which is a little surprising since "lover" has a very clear primary reference to someone engaged in illicit sex. We also have "Creator," Savior," and "Sanctifier," which goes, perhaps, to the triune roles of God. Finally, for those of a royalist bent of brain like the English, "King of Glory," "Prince of Peace," and "Spirit of Love" will be allowed.

What we have here is some people who have gone mad, possibly due to rabble rousing feminists and fuzzy headed liberals whipping the committee that made all these proposals into some sort of creative frenzy. The clearest inference of all this is that Presbyterians have absolutely no idea as to what/who they are worshiping/selling and why. Of course, no other group of Christians do either. The Presbyterians are just more honest.

Our Presbyterian friends suggest that congregations should seek "fresh ways to speak of the mystery of the triune God." This opens up the rebranding of the product they are selling to everyone -- at least all Presbyterians. And, there seem to be no semantic rules that govern the process. Any set of three words or phrases will do the job.

How about, "The Internet," "Google," and "Search Result." I like this because I have found that Google answers all of my questions, which one can think of as prayers for information. Google certainly has a better track record answering my prayers than God ever did. This is a much clearer set of notions than the Presbyterians have. Praise the Internet! We can explain the Biblical names as pretechnological efforts to understand the connectivity of our lives.

Interestingly, they left out "God," "Jesus," and "The Holy Ghost." The term "God" has no sexist connotations so it must surely satisfy angry feminists, and there seems to be no controversy over the gender/sex of Jesus. And I always liked "The Holy Ghost' for it has great appeal to children who seem universally to like ghost stories. It is a way for children to get a picture of just how mysterious all this Christianity stuff is. They also left out "The Lord" and "Christ."

The really amazing thing is that the committee that came up with all this stuff has been working on it since 2000 -- six years. I guess it was some millennium project, updating Christianity for the next 1,000 years. I could have done this all by myself in a few days and I work cheap.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Begging the Question

Normally, as you will know from earlier blogs, I don't get very excited about language changes that upset self-proclaimed "language purists" but there are certain things that get me worked up. One is the loss of the word "irony" and its adjectival form "ironic" due to the fact that half-educated people use this word in cases of coincidences. A baseball announcer might say of someone who made an error in the previous half inning and then, as the first batter up in the next half inning, hits a home run, "Isn't it ironic that he hit his last home run immediately after committing an error." There is nothing ironic about this. It is just an interesting coincidence.

I sympathize a bit with persons who do this since the concept of irony is not an easy one, as checking out the Webster on line dictionary entry will attest. Nevertheless, the people who don't understand the idea could just quit using the word. How about saying "major coincidence" or "very interesting coincidence" and leave "irony" and "ironic" in the mouths of those who know how to use it. The problem, of course, as always, the people who don't understand the concept, don't know that they don't understand it. But they do know that it is an intellectual's word and they want to seem to be smart. Now that's ironic.

Another thing that chafes my butt, is the systematic misuse of the term, "Begging the Question." The way it is used now is equivalent to "raises the question." One Tina Blue cites a nice example from U. S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who is married to Valerie Plame, who said in an interview
"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on [the alleged Niger-Iraq nuclear materials exchange] that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
As in this case, the "question" that is allegedly begged will normally be some question that intrigues.

In fact, begging the question means simply 'assuming what is to be proved'. IAnother web site (ain't the web grand?), called The Nizkor Project, provides the following nice and easy example of begging the question:
Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."
In many cases, begging the question occurs more subtly.
We all agree that we ought not take a person's life except in self defence.
Abortion does not occur out of self defence.
Therefore, abortion is wrong.
This argument has a suppressed premise without which the argument doesn't work and this is something like
An embryo/foetus is a person.
The problem is that the abortion controversy is about whether or not the foetus is a person. I seem to be indebted to Moonlight Sonata for this example.

Easy cases of begging the question like the existence of God case cited above are easily detected and so are easily dismissed. The harder cases are those what have suppressed premises that when brought into the light show that the argument that begs the question. These are the cases that drive me crazy. Unfortunately, thanks to the fact that "begging the question" has lost its original meaning to most people, charging someone with begging the question has lost its force, just as saying that something is ironic means squat any more.

The language changes that matter are those that result in the loss of a distinction -- irony vs interesting coincidence -- or loss of a way of saying something, as in "begging the question." A change in grammar usually has no consequences of interest. Some might say that the loss of subjunctive verb forms, as illustrated by
"If you were to do that, I would give you $1,000."
have no real consequences since those who have lost this form for expressing subjunctive utterances have not lost the ability to express subjunctive (counterfactual) notions Such a person might say,
"If you would do that, I would give you $1,000.
"This latter might grate on some persons nerves, but there is no real loss since the losses that matter are semantic losses, not grammatical losses.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Heaven and Hell

I rarely look at the "Faith & Values" section of the newspaper since it reliably pisses me off because religion pisses me off, reminding me, as it does, of my early religious training, specifically as to the nature of hell (fire and brimstone). Young though I was, I had pretty much figured out that "eternity" was a long time to burn and that scared the wits out of me. Fortunately, I recovered my wits and dismissed religious claims as nonsensical. But, today, for some reason unknown to me, I opened this section and got two gems.

The first gem was Stephen Hawkings saying he was warned off by that world class scholar, Pope John Paul II, from inquiring too closely into the origins of the universe "because that was the moment of creation and the work of God." At least the pope doesn't think creation began 5,000 years ago or however far back fundamentalist Christians think the moment of creation was. However, I think I will leave the origins of the universe in Hawkings' hands, not the Pope's.

Much more fun is the report that an emeritus prof, Jeffrey Burton Russell, from UC Santa Barbara is concerned with U. S. Christians' ways of conceiving heaven and hell, claiming they are "so feeble and vague that it's almost meaningless -- vague 'superstition.'" Uh, Professor Russell, I feel it is my duty to tell you that the concepts of heaven and hell are inevitably vague and meaningless whether conceived of by ordinary people or big time religious scholars.

Let us ask what sort of nouns "heaven" and "hell" are. Are they place names like "New York City?" If so, then they refer to specific regions of .... (you fill in the blank, for I can't). Unfortunately, we are stuck either with locating heaven and hell somewhere in our universe or nowhere. I suppose we could posit the existence of some parallel universe for heaven and hell to exist in but, boys and girls, and men and women, the notion of a parallel universe is a mathematical fiction. Until a given parallel universe can be shown to exert some force on this universe there is no way to prove it exists. So, I think we must conclude that heaven and hell are noplace.

Professor Russell would replace the ordinary man's and woman's view of paradise with the idea that heaven "means being in harmony with God and the Cosmos and your neighbors and being grateful." Hell is not the place where there is nothing but fire and brimstone but is simply "the absence of God, the absence of Heaven." I guarantee that you will not find expressions in English that are a bigger mess than Professor Russell's. Lumping God, the Cosmos, my neighbors, and being grateful in one package constitutes a major category mistake (or set of category mistakes). We have God, who exists nowhere, a Cosmos that embraces everything, my neighbors, who are next door and therefore in the cosmos, and feeling grateful, which does not per se have a location.

This is the problem with religion. We are required to use English or Japanese or Swahili to express our concepts of "God" and "salvation" and "heaven" and "hell" and all the rest but the net result is always something vague and nonempirical. How about just saying, "I am awed by the universe and that evokes feelings in me that are reverential and this makes me want to go to church." If you go any further, you will inevitably get into linguistic trouble.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gender and Sex -- full circle

There was a time when I talked in courses about language and sex meaning to be talking about similarities and differences in how males and females talked. And then feminists beat me about the head and shoulders and said I needed to be using the word "gender," not "sex" when doing this. And now in my morning paper, David Brooks has an article relying on a book Called "Why Gender Makes a Difference" by Dr. Leonard Sax, who though doing no research himself, seems to think that he has read enough and observed enough in treating patients (I hope I have his credentials or lack of same right) to say that there are differences in male and female brains that require that they be taught differently. This use of "gender" brings us full circle back to when I was bullied by feminists into using the word "sex" for things having to do with genitalia and intercourse and sexual preference and that sort of thing and "gender" for something more like social roles. And now Sax is using "gender" to mean "sex."

We definitely need a distinction along the lines that my feminist friends were trying to draw between sex and gender. Genitalia differences do not exactly correlate with behavioral differences. There are aggressive men and aggressive women and passive men and passive women. We fall along continua in many aspects of human behavior with men and women perhaps disproportionately populating one or the other end of a continuum.

Clearly Dr. Sax means to be using male and female "gender" to refer to people with different kinds of genitalia, not different social roles. If he were using the word "gender" and "sex" the way language and gender experts urged then his book would have to be titled "Why Sex Makes a Difference" and that would generate very wrong expectations in the reading public. Interestingly, Brooks notes that in the 1970's gender was perceived as a social construct but "it turns out that it is not a social construct." Actually, all that has happened is that we now, if we follow Sax, with Brook's endorsement, have two words for sex, namely "sex" and "gender," and no word for gender. No actual intellectual progress has been made.

I am one of the legion of academics and others who shudder when physiological differences, specifically genetic differences, are used as explanations for differences in human behavior or used by social engineers who propose to treat people who are physiologically different differently. Brooks takes note that heads can roll when people talk about differences in males and females in this way, citing the experiences with the outgoing president of Harvard. We know how badly things can go wrong when people begin to treat physiologically different people differently (not counting, of course, clearly legitimate cases -- I shall, for instance, never require treatment by a gynecologist). Nazi Germany provided a great number of different sorts of examples of this including restricting the vocations women could pursue predicated on some asinine theory of the proper role for women in a greater Germany. And now our medical doctor wants us to segregate males from females and teach them using different techniques. Dr. Sax takes the view that both sexes/genders can excel in any subject so he avoids the pit that the Harvard president fell into.

The idea that boys and girls should be taught in different schools or different classes will, of course, have the inevitable effect that boys and girls will learn even less about each other than they already do and that isn't good. Already, males and females have trouble enough communicating. Brooks expresses dismay that after all the brain research that has been done "in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways." I am not at all astonished that everyone is ignoring what brain researchers have learned or think they have learned. I will be honest and say I have not looked closely into this research but I will bet good money that inferences as to such cognitive abilities as our ability to learn to read or to do mathematics or physics etc. can be supported by brain research. I am very skeptical of most claims by journalists about research by scientists.

Brooks notes that we could do some good assigning boys books they are interested in and girls books they are interested in. Hell, my mother, a junior high school librarian, did that kid by kid back in the 1950's. It doesn't take brain research to figure out that if you want a kid to learn to like reading then give him or her something to read that they might like.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Effortless Superiority of the Brits

In the sports pages of my daily paper, there was a story on the use of foreign voices on golf broadcasts, headlined "British voices add panache to coverage." One reason for the story is that the Muirfield golf course, named for a British course Jack Nicklaus, the course designer and owner, admired, had more rain on its grounds than golf yesterday and so writers had little golf to cover. But I found it interesting that the American prejudice favoring those with British accents is alive and well though the writer gets this wrong -- it is English accents specifically that we favor.

Years ago, I was asked to evaluate a talk by an Englishman in connection with his application for a position in another department by that department's Chair, who purported to be a linguist. I was stunned. I expected, per my Anglophile prejudice, to hear an urbane, highly intelligent speaker giving an excellent talk but what I got was a guy reading an idiotic paper. I was faced with an instance of genuine cognitive dissonance: Englishman's voice = worthless talk. It just didn't compute.

In fact, as The Economist, a British publication, pointed out in a very interesting story a couple of years ago, American higher education, especially education in graduate schools, is superior to that in Britain and, for that matter, in Europe, both in quality and diversity. The US has every kind of higher education one could want from business schools to junior colleges to community colleges (if different from junior colleges) to four year colleges which are incredibly varied in their nature, to universities offering undergraduate and graduate trining in which one can study anything worth studying and some things that are not, I suspect. And the best schools in the US (Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and CIT, etc). are as good as or better than anything to be found anywhere else. Moreover, as the Brits go through their schooling, it gets increasingly more specialized and does so at a much younger age than here. This is especially true of the Ph.D., which can be earned by someone studying almost exclusively with a single professor. That happens in the US typically only at the tail end of one's Ph. D. training though I suspect there is significant variation here.

Let me illustrate the effects of the British model of doctoral training, as I understand it, with an anecdote. Some years ago our department interviewed a very bright, already published Brit for a position as a psycholinguist. The problem with him was that he didn't have the linguistic training required to teach our introductory graduate survey course, something any of our advanced graduate students could do. How he would have fared teaching general graduate level psych coures I don't know. I have a prejudice favoring breadth in education until the last stages of the Ph.D. Sadly, I fear the US is heading in the direction of increased early specialization.

The article that prompted this blog quotes a CBS producer who said of London born Peter Ousterhouis,
"He brings us the voice of tradition, the voice of knowledge."
I have heard Mr. Ousterhouis a number of times and his accent is the epitome of the sort of accent that Americans feel they should genuflect before. A more popular person is David Feherty, an Irishman, and it is he along with South African and other Commonwealth commentators, I think, that led this article in the direction of British, rather than just English, accents. In fact Americans do not take the Irish or their accent very seriously and Feherty feeds into that with his less than reverential comments. And, in any event, the home of golf is the Royal and Ancient golf course at St. Andrews, Scotland, and so the real "voice of tradition" would be that of a Edinburghian. I would be surprised if 1% of Americans would recognize an educated Edinburgh accent.

Tennis broadcasts too are filled with British accents, including frequently Australian accents. In this case, the poor English who, I believe invented tennis, haven't had a great male or female tennis player in a very long time, whereas the Aussies have had numerous great male tennis players over many years so I am not sure what Englishmen are doing populating American tennis broadcasts. Our soccer broadcasts, not surprisingly, include people with a variety of British accents. This is well-justified. Indeed, I am somewhat dismayed at the prospect that two Americans I have not heard say anything interesting yet will work many of the World Cup broadcasts in the US. (By the way this blog may go dark during the World Cup, partly because of a family reunion and the World Cup. I am a WC junkie in part because I love international competitions.)

Some years ago I read of a effort by American businesses to hire women with English accents to serve as receptionists. Maybe its just me but women with English accents invite the presumption that they are statuesque, very sexy beauties. Naturally, they aren't any more desirable than American women but it is hard to fight the prejudice.

My last comment in this post, a post that is surely as unworthy of me as it is rambling in nature, reflects a discussion I had with an English woman with whom I went to graduate school. (Yes she was very attractive and well-built and smart.) I mentioned to her that I had read a reference to the "effortless superiority of the British," and she relied, "You wouldn't believe how much effort goes into achieving effortless superiority." I think this perception of effortless superiority may go back to a trick I have heard a lot of educated Brits employ which consists of responding to assertions, not with counterarguments, but with put downs like "I wouldn't have thought that" or "You really think so?" -- replies that don't force the speaker to stick his own neck out by defending a position himself. (I'm not getting the wording of these put downs right, I'm sure.)

I know that I have gored a sacred British ox or two and I hope what I have said will not be seen as mean-spirited though it probably is. I am tired of thinking that the Brits disdain us. We can be pushed around these days because we have elected Bush as President twice but the Brits have a Prime Minister who even Bush could dupe.

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