Monday, January 31, 2005

Flag burning IS illegal!

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber writes:
The survey found that one in three high schoolers think the First Amendment “goes too far”; that three quarters believe that flag-burning is illegal; and that 36% of them thought newspapers should get “government approval” before publishing stories in the newspaper.
This is as good a time as any for me to harp on one of my pet issues -- the blatant disregard for sovereign judicial law in the state of Texas. You may remember reading about Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 Supreme Court case that defined flag burning as a kind of speech, subject to first amendment protection. This decision overturned Texas Penal Code §42.09, which read thus:
§42.09. Desecration of Venerated Object (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly desecrates: (1) a public monument; (2) a place of worship or burial; or (3) a state or national flag. (b) For purposes of this section, 'desecrate' means deface, damage, or otherwise physically mistreat in a way that the actor knows will seriously offend one or more persons likely to observe or discover his action. (c) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
The Court wrote:
The government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable, even where our flag is involved. Nor may a State foster its own view of the flag by prohibiting expressive conduct relating to it, since the government may not permit designated symbols to be used to communicate a limited set of messages.
Good decision, if you believe in free expression, like I do. So what's Texas do? The very next legislative session, the Texas Legislature turned around and enacted PenC §42.11, practically on the same page as the law that was struck down:
42.11. Destruction of Flag (a) A person commits an offense if the person intentionally or knowingly damages, defaces, mutilates, or burns the flag of the United States or the State of Texas. (b) In this section, "flag" means an emblem, banner, or other standard or a copy of an emblem, standard, or banner that is an official or commonly recognized depiction of the flag of the United States or of this state and is capable of being flown from a staff of any character or size. The term does not include a representation of a flag on a written or printed document, a periodical, stationery, a painting or photograph, or an article of clothing or jewelry. (c) It is an exception to the application of this section that the act that would otherwise constitute an offense is done in conformity with statutes of the United States or of this state relating to the proper disposal of damaged flags. (d) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
This is just as unconstitutional as the old §42.09, but it's been on the books ever since -- unchallenged, as far as I can tell. I don't know if it's ever enforced, but it's mere presense obviously stifles expression. (After all, 75% of American high school students don't know that flag-burning is protected speech.) This statute represents a blatant disregard for the rule of law. Texas should be ashamed of itself. The Legislature had its will overturned, so it turned around and thumbed its nose at the Supreme Court. The Texas government is holding itself above due process and Constitutional authority. If the Supreme Court can't protect Texans' rights, who can? Every time I go to Houston, which is pretty often, I seriously consider performing a flag-burning. I'd burn the Lone Star Texas flag, in protest of the unconstitutional Texas anti-flag-burning statute. One of these days I'll do it. Odds are good I wouldn't get arrested... but getting arrested could be fun too.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Goodbye, Houston

I'm leaving Houston tomorrow, returning to Providence for the new semester. I'll be back in March. My schedule's about to drastically change -- I go from a standard 40-hour work-week in an office to, well, grad student life. We'll see how that impacts my blogging habits.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Good God, am I going to be busy this semester! I'm going to be out of town for:Yikes! I also have this idea for a paper I'm considering submitting to the UT-Austin grad conference on possible worlds -- an anti-Lewis discussion of 'true in the fiction'. Submissions are due the middle of next month -- I have until then to decide whether I think I'll be too burnt out to try for another conference in April. I'm also auditioning for the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' Yeomen next week. I think I'm insane. Overlap is starting to be an issue, too; I had to decline an invitation to present on dreams at Harvard/MIT, because it's the same time as that Patience. Darn, I was really hoping to get to go to that one, too. Oh yeah, I'm also taking three courses, and TAing for another.

After all, it's science!

If there's anyone out there who still both listens to reason and doesn't think that 'intelligent design' theory is a major threat to American education, I point you to Pat Hayes's post on the Kansas State Board of Education, where they are contemplating an attempt literally to redefine "science" to make it religion count. Supporters of intelligent design on the board suggested that a change be made to the 2005 Science Standards by deleting key phrases. Here's the current version; italic portions are the words that they are considering removing:
"Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena. Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us. Science does so through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument while maintaining strict empirical standards and healthy skepticism."
Yeah. It's pretty closed-minded of us to refuse to recognize as science that which doesn't use observation, experimentation, and logical argument. I take it this is absurd enough that I needn't comment further.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Two quick and fun things worth mentioning

(1) SpongeBob is uneqivocally welcome at the United Church of Christ. Story, with picture, here. Favorite bit:
Joining the animated fray, the United Church of Christ today (Jan. 24) said that Jesus' message of extravagant welcome extends to all, including SpongeBob Squarepants - the cartoon character that has come under fire for allegedly holding hands with a starfish.
(2) President Bush was short on cash last Friday:
Even President Bush himself - champion of the wealthy that he is - comes up a little short sometimes. At Friday's National Prayer Service, Bush was left red-faced when the collection came his way and he didn't have any cash on him, according to Sky News. Dubya declined Vice President Cheney's offer to spot him a bill, and instead asked his dad, ex-Prez George H. W. Bush for a loan. How's that for taking money from the elderly.
Savannah put it best: "You wouldn't think someone could sum up his entire life so neatly in one moment."

Senator Clinton's Roe v. Wade speech

Hillary Clinton said some really sensible things yesterday, quoted in today's New York Times. She talked about finding common ground between liberals who favor the legality of abortion and conservatives who don't. And she's 100% right -- there are some things that all reasonable parties to the debate should agree on:
She called on abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion campaigners to form a broad alliance to support sexual education - including abstinence counseling - family planning, and morning-after emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault as ways to reduce unintended pregnancies. "We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," Mrs. Clinton told the annual conference of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State. "The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."
This is the sort of obvious common ground that I've been losing faith in politicians to identify. It's recognizing the common decency in political opponents that can lead to actual positive change in the world. But impressively, the Senator faces an uphill battle even though everyone agrees with her, because now on believes she agrees with them. Americans, see, don't like compromise. And that's what they think they're seeing here. Ah, Senator Clinton says something that sort of has to do with abortion, which Christian groups agree with. She's caving to political pressure! She's being criticized on both sides. Here's the Right:
"I think she's trying to adopt a values-oriented language, but it lacks substance, at least if you compare it to her record," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council in Washington. "If you look at Senator Clinton's voting record on this issue, it's like Planned Parenthood's condoms - it's defective."
And here's the Left:
"I understood what Senator Clinton meant when she said abortion could be a sad and tragic choice, but we see women express relief more than anything else that they have the freedom to choose," said Martha Stahl, director for public relations and marketing for Northern Adirondack Planned Parenthood. "Mrs. Clinton really seemed to be reaching out here."
Both criticisms miss the point; Ms. Stahl, she's not saying anything about limiting abortion rights. Mr. Perkins, she's not claiming to be pro-life. That's *not* a common-ground. She's talking about something else -- something that *is* a common ground. If you think that it's bad when young women end up in unwanted pregnancies, then that's one issue you agree with the Senator on. And maybe if you'll open your eyes, you'll see it's an issue you agree with the people on the other side of the aisle on.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Curing Homosexuality

This one is sticky, and I'm still not sure what to think about it. The Houston area now has some new billboards from Christian groups, addressing homosexuals. The Houston Chronicle reports:
The advertisements, which depict either a smiling man or woman, bear the message, "I questioned homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover how." The billboards are in promotion of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family's "Love Won Out" conference scheduled for Feb. 19. "The conference is meant to help people understand what causes homosexuality and how to prevent it," said B. Joe Cline, a Galveston resident who organized advertising effort that uses 15 billboards.
FOTF says the conference features former homosexuals, and that it is designed to help homosexuals cure themselves of their homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups, unsurprisingly, are outraged. That's my gut response, too, but I'm not sure it survives reflection. What exactly is the problem with these ads, and does it outweigh free-speech considerations? Here's the (unfortunately context-free) quotation of objection from the Chronicle story:
The billboards, however, have drawn the ire of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Houston. A spokeswoman for the gay advocacy groups denounced the campaign, describing the effort as "lies" and "myths." "For an organization to spend their time and money promoting untruth and lies against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders is a deplorable situation. Our children are perfectly fine the way they are," said Sue Null, an advocacy chairwoman with PFLAG. Null, the mother of a gay son and lesbian daughter, said Focus on the Family's claims are not plausible, especially when it says intense religious pressure can change a person's sexual orientation.
It looks like there are two seperate objections being presented here, but neither of them seems convincing to me as an objection to these billboards. First, consider the statement that "our [gay] children are perfectly fine the way they are". This seems very likely to be true (or anyway, at least as true as it would be for any other children). There's nothing bad about being gay, and the fact that someone is gay certainly doesn't mean that one is psychologically unwell. Focus on the Family is emphatically on record disagreeing with me, here -- but I don't see that disagreement manifesting in the billboards in question. "I questioned homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover how." There's no condemning, or criticizing. There's definitely no brimstone. So the fact that it's ok to be gay isn't really an issue in this debate, as far as I can see. What about the other objection -- that the statement that "change is possible" constitutes "untruths and lies against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders"; the charge that it is "implausible" that "intense religious pressure can change a person's sexual orientation"? Well, this is, of course, an empirical question, and I've never seen evidence for the claim that change is impossible. Indeed, I don't even know what such evidence would look like. There is, however, evidence for the contrary FOTF claim -- they're parading around people who describe themselves as "former homosexuals", and I see no reason not to take them at their word. At any rate, the fact that they describe themselves as former homosexuals provides evidence that they are homosexuals, which is in turn evidence that it is possible for people to change their sexual preferences. Also, it just seems to be perfectly common sense that preferences can change. Not typically by mere choice, but surely things like social pressures influence what sorts of things we prefer. If I may indulge myself in a bit of armchair sociology, I think it's extremely likely that a major reason that there are so many bisexual women in my generation, compared both to bisexual men in my generation and to bisexual women who are older than I, is that it is a good deal more socially acceptable to be a bisexual woman now than it was decades ago, or than it currently is to be a bisexual man. Some people will want to say to this that I am failing to recognize the biological fact that some people are just genetically predisposed to be homosexual. I don't know the scientific literature enough to say with a high credence whether there is such a fact or not, but I don't see that it matters to my point. Just because some people are genetically disposed to be overweight, it doesn't follow that a person who claimed that there was "a way" to lose weight would be uttering untruths and lies against overweight people. Now, there's a perfectly good question lurking that has not been addressed: why would a gay person *want* to become straight? This is the point where gay advocacy groups should be focusing. But instead, they're being sidetracked, lured into fighting on the Religious Right's turf. For some reason, they feel compelled to excuse gay people, when they should just stand up for a valid lifestyle. But this doesn't change the bottom line on this billboard issue. Given that there *are* gay people who wish they weren't gay -- and there surely are at least some -- Focus on the Family is in a position to potentially help them get what they want.

What's a homosexual?

"Homosexual" can be a noun. What does it mean? I always thought that "homosexual" as a noun just referred to a homosexual person. But this passage from a Houston Chronicle article suggests otherwise:
Cline said speakers will include a former homosexual, who is now married with two children, and a former lesbian.
Does "homosexual" sometimes mean "homosexual man"? I'm working on a post on the substance of this story, too. It'll appear shortly.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

James Dobson: "loony religious right freak"

Jeremy Pierce has an excellent post about James Dobson and Focus on the Family, and the recent hullabaloo about Spongebob, which I mentioned Friday. FOTF is often discussed and ridiculed in my blog -- it's nice to hear a Christian take them to task for pretty much the same reasons I do. Jeremy continues with nice some discussion of religion and conservative politics in general. An excerpt:
When Jerry Falwell went off against the Teletubbies, most evangelical Christians I knew laughed at him and thought he was being ridiculous. There's no way he represented the average evangelical in the 1980s, never mind now. Dobson is another story. His organization has been one of the most influential groups in the area they've been specialists in. When it comes to good childrearing practices, they've done a great service to Christians and have had a big impact. That's why this distresses me so much. What's worse is that they're in the process of engineering the defeat of all the people they've worked so hard to get elected. This just makes conservatives look dumb. I know there are many other factors why Clinton won in 1992, not the least being that his opponent wasn't willing to campaign or seriously defend himself against Democrats' charges, assuming another landslide win like the previous two elections. Still, one of the factors, I'm sure, was the loss of political capital among conservatives on social issues, largely due to nuts like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who made two fatal mistakes. First, they equated Christianity with a political agenda that reflects part of the biblical perspective, overemphasizes some of the elements to the detriment of others, and actually contradicts biblical teaching in a few important places. Second, they simply made ludicrous claims about the intentions and effects of certain trends, events, and icons of popular culture, most notably their remarks about Barney and the Teletubbies.
Well worth a read.

Zondervan and Rolling Stone

The Religious Right is up in arms about Rolling Stone's refusal to print an advertisement for Zondervan's new Bible, aimed at young people. The ad in question included this text:
Today it makes sense more than ever. In a world of almost endless media noise and political spin, you wonder where you can find real truth. Well now there's a source that's accurate, clear, and reliable. It's the TNIV -- Today's New International Version of the Bible. It's written in today's language, for today's times -- and it makes more sense than ever.
Rolling Stone had initially sold the ad space to Zondervan, but withdrew it after they saw the ad. Jerry Falwell has this to say:
This controversy comes down to one question: Where is the harm in running the Zondervan ad in a secular publication? I’m not asserting that the editors at Rolling Stone hate religion. Mr. Brownridge proclaimed that he didn't disagree with it. But I am increasingly concerned with this perspective of absolute secularism that prohibits the religious community from participating in the free flow of cultural ideas. I doubt if Rolling Stone would have seen a mass exodus among its subscriber base if it had approved the Zondervan ad. And I doubt if the publication’s editors even feared such a response. It appears that they simply did not want a religious message — and particularly one from an evangelical perspective — to be in their publication. While the editors say they "are not in the business of publishing advertising for religious messages," this still stinks of censorship. So what does one find at Rolling Stone? A search of the publication's website reveals political content (President Bush’s Social Security policy is a "con"), music themes (singer Gwen Stefani appears on the home page posing in a bra) and plenty of rock and roll excess (including a "big pimpin'" interview with jeweler Chris Aire).
Unsurprisingly, I am endlessly amused by the Rev. Falwell's description of Rolling Stone's features, and also of The Onion:
Thankfully, other secular outlets — including The Onion (hardly a bastion of conservative religious values),, VH-1 and America Online — have accepted the Zondervan ad. I commend each of them for operating under a policy of openness to religious expression.
More surprisingly, perhaps, I agree with absolutely everything that Jerry Falwell has to say about this issue. Secular means non-religious, not anti-religious. And I don't see anything particularly offensive in the ad in question. USA Today's story suggests that the objection had to do with the ad's use of the word 'truth', but does not offer a quote to that effect. Anyway, 'truth' is a pretty innocent word. Zondervan shouldn't exercise religious censorship, and there's no good reason not to print that ad.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Interdisciplinary Dreaming Conference

I've just recevied word that my paper on dreams and imagination and Cartesian skepticism has been accepted for presentation at the 22nd Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, this June in Berkeley. I often wish I had more contact with academics outside philosophy in areas that relate to philosophical areas I'm working in; I guess this is my chance. I know the literature on the philosophy of dreaming pretty well, and I'm presenting a good paper that I'm comfortable with. But I know very little about dreaming from a psychologist's point of view -- the prospect of presenting my material at this conference is exciting and frightening and intimidating and fun. Now, to see if I can get the department or the grad school to fund my summer trip to California... UPDATE: a version of the paper in question is here. I expect I'll change things around a little bit, to design it for an audience of mostly non-philosophers.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


It's a busy day at work today, so here's just a brief list of the things I found interesting, which I would have blogged about if I had more time:
  • A New York Times column about how homosexual policy is a national security concern.
  • Also from NYT: why the Religious Right hates Spongebob Squarepants, and the insidious plot to make kids respect homosexuals.
  • The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas really cares about its children a lot. But not a lot to actually use the money the federal government allocates for health insurance for them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Sex" outside marriage

I think it's neat the way some conservative pundits discuss gay "marriage". The idea is that marriage is, by definition, a sacred bond between a man and a women. When people argue that we should have "gay marriage", according to these pundits, we are committing a conceptual confusion. In honor of this insight, I'm going to adopt a stricter meaning of "sex". Sex, by definition, is a sacred, God-sanctioned act between husband and wife, and is by definition aimed at the sacred, God-sanctioned end of procreation. Sure, people sometimes go through physical motions similar to those involved in genuine sex, and they go around saying, "we're having sex", but they're really just deluding themselves into a conceptual confusion. They're not having sex, they're just having "sex". "Gay sex" is as self-contradictory as "gay marriage". So is "pre-marital sex". The most that we unweds can do is to lewdly and lasciviously associate with one another.

Thou shalt not lewdly and lasciviously associate

File this one in the I thought people who warned us about things like this were just being unreasonably pessimistic alarmists file. In seven states, it is illegal for men and women who are romantically involved but unwed to live together. What's more, the law is at least sometimes enforced. Here's one version of the law, from the website of the North Carolina state legislature:
§14‑184. Fornication and adultery. If any man and woman, not being married to each other, shall lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together, they shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor: Provided, that the admissions or confessions of one shall not be received in evidence against the other.
And this isn't one of those awful never-enforced laws; it is actively being used to discriminate against unmarried people, and to pressure them to get married. For example:
In his court in Charlotte, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn III is known for routinely asking defendants, no matter what their charge, whether they are living with unmarried partners. If the answer is yes, Horn insists that they agree to change their situation — by marrying or moving — before he will release them from the courtroom.
And the law is very much alive and well. I read a court case today (Browning v. Helff, 136 N.C.App. 420 (2000)) about a mother who used it to strip her ex-husband of visitation rights for their two children. Two years after they seperated, another woman moved in with the father.
The children are aware that defendant and Karen Barone share a bedroom and the children may have seen them in bed together once or twice. Karen Barone is a good friend to the children and is involved in every part of their lives. Plaintiff admitted that it was possible that the five year-old child's statements, as reported by plaintiff in court, had been influenced by his visit with the preacher. When asked whether the children had a good relationship with defendant, plaintiff replied, "As far as I know." The children are doing well in school and have adjusted to the separation and divorce of their parents.
Nevertheless, the trial court found that
a substantial change of circumstances had occurred since the entry of the Memorandum. Specifically, plaintiff contended she had discovered that defendant "resides with a person of the opposite gender to whom he is not related by blood or marriage[,]" and that "[t]he minor children should not be exposed to the Defendant's cohabitation with a person of the opposite sex during periods of visitation."*
Maybe we should get the Family Research Council on the line; I'm sure they'd use their extensive political capital to protect families from this unjust law. *Happily, the decision I cite reversed the trial court's decision, finding that although the defendent was acting illegally by living with a woman while unmarried, there was no evidence that this was harming the children.

The New York Times and Pornography

The Boston Herald reports that the New York Times is "poised to slip into bed with a Swedish pornography distributor." NYT is looking at some sort of close business relationship with Modern Times Group, a Swedish broadcasting company that includes a station which airs pornographic material late at night. I don't really want to get into a discussion about how evil pornography is or is not, or whether it's inappropriate for NYT to affiliate with a company associated with it. But look what Focus on the Family says about this:
...Daniel Weiss, media and sexuality analyst at Focus on the Family, said the newspaper's message is coming through loud and clear. "If The New York Times is going to choose to befriend a company that distributes pornography, they're letting it be known that they have no problem with this," Weiss said. He added, however, that the Justice Department may be partly to blame. "Unfortunately, we're seeing more and more mainstream companies associating themselves with pornography rather than disassociating themselves with pornography," he noted. "That really goes back to the Department of Justice not prosecuting this as the illegal material it is."
Prosecuting it? I don't know whether the material in question is illegal in Scandanavia, or even whether it would be illegal in the United States. But assuming charitably that it would be, Sweden is just does not, by any stretch of the imagination, fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Justice. Does Focus on the Family *really* mean to advocate prosecution by the U.S. federal government for material that it deems offensive, broadcast on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

An open letter...

To the young man driving the white four-door car northbound on Montrose near downtown Houston Tuesday early evening: Driving a car, for most Americans, especially in a place like Houston, can feel very much like a simple part of a routine. You probably do it every day, and barely think about it any more. You should think about it. Watch the roads -- watch the other cars. Driving can be dangerous, and a brief lapse of concentration at the wrong time can be disasterous. You had a lapse of concentration this afternoon. That happens; I understand. And you got unlucky, this time. Your lapse in concentration overlapped my friend's, Shari's. You hit our car pretty hard. You were going about 25 m.p.h., maybe? We were pretty shaken up, but as far as we can tell, our bodies are pretty much undamaged. I can't say the same for the car, of course, but then, you must've seen that for yourself. I hope you weren't hurt. I guess you couldn't have been hurt too badly; you were obviously healthy enough to turn east on Bomar and disappear as quickly as you could. I wish you'd stuck around -- it would increase my confidence in the rule of law, and make me more trusting of my fellow man-on-the-streets. These are things that would improve my life. Plus, it was lonely waiting for the police officer by ourselves. Why did you leave? Maybe you were drunk? Or in possession of drugs? No insurance? A high stakes game, that. You're lucky you got away. We told the police officer everything we could about you, but it wasn't very much -- one digit of the licence plate, and a color and brief description of your car, and of you. I'm pretty sure you got away with this, and that makes me rather annoyed with myself. A quicker thinker would've memorized and/or snapped a photo of your licence plate. My chest hurts, driver. And Shari's leg is bruised. And both of us have been painfully reminded of how dangerous the world is. And Shari's car is damaged a not-insignificant amount. I just thought you should know.

The Decline of Public Morals!

Liberal subversive activist anti-Jesus French-loving liberal family-hating activist liberal judges have declared that the state of Virginia may not keep its ban on unmarried "sex"! Tony Perkins sez: "This is another example of judicial activism, in which black-robed justices overturn long-held public policy at the stroke of a pen." What anti-American, anti-democratic, pro-Democratic, anti-cute puppies policy usurpings will the courts come up with next?

Religious Tolerance

Here's a fun premise: Christians are more tolerant of non-Christians than non-Christians are.
People who do not believe in the Christian faith ought to be thankful that this is a Christian country," Mr. [Tom] Minnery [vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family] said. "Christianity is voluntary. No Christian can force anybody to accept the Christian faith. "Christians, above all, recognize freedom of conscience. They realize some will turn away," he said. "Therefore, a country governed by Christian principles is a country that guards religious freedom religiously."
Clear as day. Obviously, lots of Christians are tolerant and understanding and loving and wonderful. Equally obviously, lots are not. And the history of Western Civilization raises some questions for Minnery's claim that "no Christian can force anybody to accept the Christian faith" -- it seems clear, at least, that some Christians can try. On the whole, are Christians more likely than non-Christians to be tolerant of non-Christians? That seems somewhat unlikely. On the whole, is a Christian government more likely to protect the religious freedoms of non-Christians than a secular one? That also seems unlikely.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

John Paul is a Kantian

"Our position against the use of human embryos is rooted as much in reason as it is in faith," according to the Rev. Frank Pavone, who heads the Catholic pro-life group Priests for Life. "What the pope is saying is that reason itself tells us that, just as you can't use a human person by enslaving him or her, neither can you use a much smaller, younger human person for the purposes of research." (link)

President Bush and Faith

The Washington Times has a feature on the role of religion in President Bush's life. The President was about as articulate as usual, but I think I understood a couple of pretty ridiculous suggestions anyway. Some quotations:
"I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you're not equally as patriotic if you're not a religious person," Mr. Bush said. "I've never said that. I've never acted like that. I think that's just the way it is."
This would be really funny if that's what he really meant to say. "I'm not saying, nor have I ever said, that p. Also: p." But probably there's another more cumbersome, more charitable interpretation available. But for this one, I think the absurd reading is the only one available:
"This is a country that is a value-based country," he said. "Whether they voted for you or not, there's a lot of values in this country, for which I'm real proud."
Yeah... it doesn't matter whether they're good values or not; as long as there are values, this is a great country. I'm pretty sure terrorists have 'values' in this sense, too -- and they probably hold them a lot more strongly than most Americans hold thiers.

Infant Mortality as a National Security Issue

God, lots of interesting stuff to write about today. First: Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times today about the U.S. infant mortality rate. Apparently, it's been rising; Kristof dramatically points out that it's now higher than Cuba's. He considers this to be unacceptable, and so do I: the fact that other countries are so much better than we are in that respect is evidence that we could also be better, and therefore we should. But I find some of Kristof's rhetoric surprising. I think he may be taking things a little too far. He writes:
If we had a rate as good as Singapore's, we would save 18,900 babies each year. Or to put it another way, our policy failures in Iraq may be killing Americans at a rate of about 800 a year, but our health care failures at home are resulting in incomparably more deaths - of infants. And their mothers, because women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth in America than in Europe. Of course, deaths in maternity wards occur one by one, and don't generate the national attention, grief and alarm of an explosion in Falluja or a tsunami in Sri Lanka. But they are far more frequent: every day, on average, 77 babies die in the U.S. and one woman dies in childbirth. Bolstering public health isn't as dramatic as spending $300 million for a single F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet, but it can be a far more efficient way of protecting Americans.
Apparently Kristof thinks that 'protecting Americans' means something like 'minimizing the number of deaths of Americans'. But I just don't see why this should be so. Isn't it worse for an adult to be killed than it is for an infant to die of natural causes? If you have the resources to either (1) save the life of an American soldier who has been injured in combat or (2) prevent two infants from dying of natural causes within their first year, shouldn't you pick the former? Infant mortality is bad. When a young child dies, it is a tragedy. But I think it's a mistake to spin this as a national security issue.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Save money; buy used

The Marketplace is great for used books; I buy a good portion of my textbooks there, and I sell there too. But I think that this just might be a case of extending a good idea too far.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Utterly shocking rhetoric

Missouri Representative Cynthia Davis last month:
It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go. I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back.
Apparently, she was quoted in the New York Times at the time, but I missed it. I read it today on Salon.

Friday, January 07, 2005

American Tsunami Relief

CNN reports that 70% of Americans report having prayed for tsunami victims, and 44% report having donated money. 44% is a smaller number than I'd like to see, of course, but it's a larger number than I'd've expected. Almost half of Americans donated money? That really is heartening news, if it's true. It reflects that on the whole, we're more compassionate than I'd been under the impression we were. I'm not sure it's true, though. This is the sort of thing I'd expect survey respondants to over-report (like voting). Anyway, if you can, give.

Secret Service bans crosses?

WorldNetDaily reports:
A Christian group is accusing the U.S. Secret Service of religious discrimination and censorship for issuing a memo that bans Christian crosses from the presidential inauguration parade later this month. Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Defense Coalition, contends the Secret Service has "trampled the First Amendment and crushed religious freedom in the public square." "Simply put, it is religious bigotry and censorship," he said. "It is even more troubling when one realizes that it is only Christian symbols that have been excluded from the inauguration parade."
Confused? I was. Read on:
Tom Mazur, spokesman for the Secret Service, told WorldNetDaily the prohibition is simply a security matter that has nothing to do with the religious nature of the cross. "The reference to the cross is strictly in regard to structure, certainly not the symbol," he said. "There is no prohibition based on content, only structure or materials that could be used in a potentially harmful or threatening manner." ... The Secret Service memo says, in part:
With respect to signs and placards, the Secret Service would ask that these items be limited to items made of cardboard, poster board or cloth and have dimensions no greater than three feet in width, twenty feet in length and one-quarter inch thickness. As noted above, we are asking that supports for signs and placards be prohibited as these items may be used as a means of concealing weapons or as weapons themselves." Additionally, the prohibition on structures includes props, folding chairs, bicycles, displays such as puppets papier mache objects, coffins, crates, crosses, theaters, cages and statues.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

80-20 and Civil Liberties for Muslims

I'm finding myself more and more in agreement with certain Kantian ideas in ethics. I think I'm on board, for instance, with the moral significance of the motivation for a particular action. Kant famously discusses two shopkeepers -- one who treats his customers fairly because he believes that doing so is the best way to get repeat business, and one who treats his customers fairly because it is just the right thing to do. Only the latter is acting out of morality. That much is pretty uncontroversial, I think; the tricky part comes when we get to the shopkeeper who treats his customers fairly because it makes him happy to see them happy. That's a trickier question, both in ethics and in Kant interpretation. I'll set it aside. Bad motivations are bad, but good actions are good, even when they arise from bad motivations. A lot of people are criticizing our President for what they take to be a politically-motivated change in tone toward aid for tsunami victims; it's easy to go overboard with that, and forget how important that aid is. Bad motive or not, now is not the time to oppose aid -- including any particular good aid programs, whatever their motivations. But sometimes, bad motives even mess up the judgment or decision. I got an email this morning from 80-20, an Asian-American interests PAC. They cited this AP story about how 44% of American favor restricting Muslims' rights, which was carried in most newspapers last month. Now, outrage is the appropriate response to such a fact about our nation's population. But 80-20 doesn't talk about Muslims' rights, or justice, or freedom of religion, or utility maximization, or any of the dozen appropriate grounds for outrage it could have chosen from. Instead, they say this:
If our compatriots are that alarmed by the terrorists who don't have nuclear weapons and collectively do NOT represent a sovereign power, what if one day the US and China or N. Korea are in conflict? We must urgently find a way to make sure that AsAms don't have our rights curtailed in that unthinkable eventuality. GETTING A GOOD ASAM SUPREME COURT JUSTICE is one subtle way.
Then they go on to ask for money. I've remarked before how silly -- and offensive -- I think it is to assume that someone will favor certain policies based only on his race. I still think that. But this is much worse. Our priority should be ensuring that Asian-Americans' rights are protected? We should care about American Muslims only because if they're treated badly, we might eventually be treated badly? When peoples' rights are being violated, that comprises a reason to oppose what's going on. It doesn't matter what race they are. And it certainly doesn't matter what race I am. 80-20 is trying to turn persecution of Muslims into an issue about Asian-American rights. The position seems to be summarizable thus: "Muslims are being treated unfairly. We must take immediate action to ensure that we are treated better than they are." And I find that more than a little bit disgusting.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Birth Control and Promiscuity

The Washington Post carries a story about the 'morning-after pill', Plan B.
Providing women with easy access to the emergency contraceptive Plan B did not lead them to engage in more risky sexual behavior, a study of more than 2,000 California women has concluded. The study did find that women given a supply to keep at home were more than 1 1/2 times as likely to use the drug after unprotected sex as those who had to pick it up at a clinic or pharmacy. The findings led the study authors to conclude that easy access to Plan B, also called the morning-after pill, could reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies while posing no apparent risk to women. The study contradicts a key claim made by opponents of easier access to Plan B at a time when the Food and Drug Administration is preparing to decide on a second application to allow nonprescription sales of the drug.
Well, I guess that now the Religious Right will recognize the empirical fact that access to birth control does not actually lead to dangerous promescuity. I expect James Dobson to endorse FDA approval of Plan B any minute now.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Alberto Gonzales and Torture

Subject: Say No to Torture Dear friend, I hate to start the New Year with bad news, but the Senate is about to consider Alberto Gonzales' nomination to become Attorney General, replacing John Ashcroft. Gonzales is the White House counsel notorious for opening the door to torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons. Senators should view the Gonzales nomination very skeptically, given this radical history. As part of the upcoming hearings, we can call on Senators to ask Gonzales to unequivocally renounce torture as an instrument of American policy. Join me in asking Gonzales and Senators to prohibit torture by clicking here: Thanks.
It's just a petition, but it won't hurt.

Belief without Proof

The New York Times has an interesting feature today -- they asked a bunch of scientists the philosophically interesting question, "what do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The responses are interesting to read (although the first one seems to completely miss the point of the question). Predictably, the scientists generally failed to recognize the apparent unprovability of some of our most basic beliefs -- the stuff that makes up the extreme skeptic scenarios. No one professed to a belief in an external world, despite lack of proof, although Joseph LeDoux does mention one skeptical challenge:
For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less other animals.
The one that really shocked me was Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at UC-Irvine, who is apparently some kind of neo-Berkelean Idealist. I didn't know people like that existed. Hoffman says:
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being. The world of our daily experience - the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds - is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm. Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits. Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival. If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we should not be surprised that, despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant of minds, there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness, no theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be, or cause, conscious experience.
The name 'Hoffman' is somewhat familiar, and I have this idea that maybe I should've already know about him, but I didn't. The other response I wanted to draw attention to: Robert Sapolsky thinks that non-proof implies non-justification:
Mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an unjustifiable belief, namely that there is no god(s) or such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined of the right persuasion mean by that word). ... I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only can, but should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to not believe without requiring proof. Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is no god. Some might view this as a potential public health problem, given the number of people who would then run damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage of folks running amok thanks to their belief. So that wouldn't be a problem and, all things considered, such a proof would be a relief - many physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.
This seems to be just inconsistent. He says that justification requires proof, and that he's unwilling to believe without proof, but then he goes on to admit that there's no proof against the existence of gods and souls.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Fiction Course!

My fiction course has been approved for Spring 2006! I am very excited. EDIT: My fiction course has been moved to Fall 2005! I am still very excited.