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Monday, July 28, 2008

My Dear Aunt Sallie

When people hear my arguments, such as they are, about how our individual votes don't matter, many of them probably think I am advocating something similar to the following view, taken from a thread on the Volock Conspiracy blog:

Elections are dog and pony shows to make the masses feel appreciated. That the intelligensia still seems to care makes me wonder how they became the intelligensia? Obama may win. McCain may win. Life in the USA is going to look indistinguishable under either administration. Idiot bureaucrats making decisions they don't understand. Increasing taxes, regulation, destructive wars, and a devaluing dollar. The process has continued unabated since the 30s.

Do yourselves a favor and a) don't vote and b) don't waste precious time on what is nothing more than a soap opera.
Such is not my view at all. My argument is not disdain for the "masses." It is disdain for the proposition that any individual makes his or her voice "heard" by casting a ballot. I admit that I have a lot of qualms about what I call "majoritarianism," or, by my definition, the belief that the majority is right simply because it is a majority. I also believe, albeit with little evidence, that when people become part of large crowds, they often lose the ability to think for themselves (I do not except myself from this claim). But I do not disdain the "masses" as such.

Moreover, I make no claim that it doesn't matter at all whether the winner of November's race is Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama. My argument is that whoever wins will be institutionally constrained and will not effect nearly as much change as his supporters hope. (I hold the same to be true if, by some accident, Ralph Nader or Bob Barr actually won the presidency.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Specter of Voter "Apathy"

Quite a few months ago, a friend explained to me that my attitude toward voting--that each individual's vote doesn't matter much, even if it's counted--was "dangerous" and showed I "don't understand how politics works." His argument was that my point of view plays into "conservatives'" hands because conservatives win elections by convincing people to stay home on the grounds that a single vote doesn't matter.

His argument seems to run afoul of the Karl Rove style of politics. One aspect of Rove's strategy was to put hot-button cultural issues (like gay marriage) on the ballot so convince people who might be inclined to vote for Mr. Bush but who might be inclined to stay home extra motivation to come to the polls.

I would not be surprised if the Democrats, who my friend champions, almost to the point of fanaticism, try to prevent such "cultural issues" initiatives from appearing on the ballot in part because they know (or believe) that these initiatives will encourage more conservatives to come to the polls.

In other words, whatever the other faults of my position on voting might have, my friend's particular argument needs a lot more evidence.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Idolatry of Struggle

I have had some "radical" friends, usually of a radical Marxist bent, tell me that life is one of constant struggle against the Power (usually, but I suppose not necessarily, "capitalism," which I have a hard time at any rate defining) . They say that ideally, all our actions should be directed to realizing "social justice." The art we patronize should advance "the cause," the poetry we write must have political purpose, the songs we listen too must not be reactionary, but "progressive."

Along with this frame of mind is an interpretive school of thought, epitomized, for example, by historians Tera Hunter, George Lipsitz, and Robin D. G. Kelley, that celebrates "working-class culture" as a continual act of resistance against the strictures of capitalism. I do not say here and now that such scholars claim that all aspects of working-class culture involve a struggle against the power, although some of their works , at the very least, imply that.

This insistence on life as a perpetual struggle (for "social justice" or, what is also a popular term, "survival" because "survival itself is a political act), whether it comes from the "gramsci-ite" scholars, Trotskyites, or even early 20th century anarcho-syndicalists, suffers from at least one major flaw. Most people, or at least many people, don't want to have to constantly struggle. They don't want to be on guard all the time. They want space and they want leisure. (True, scholars like Hunter claim that "leisure" time, because it's out of reach of the bosses' work time, is a "space" of resistance, whether the resistors see it that way or not. But isn't this stretching the issue a bit?)

True, the social justice radical might tell me, but in our present, oppressive system, people don't have that choice. Maybe, although I have my doubts; still, I think they want the choice.

The anarcho-syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World inveighed against the practice of unions establishing collective bargaining contracts because the contractual obligations, if observed, hindered workers from engaging in class-solidarity through general strikes and sympathy strikes. Still, a contract, if observed by both sides, provides some breathing space to relax.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

C. S. Lewis and Theocracy

Here are some of C. S. Lewis's thoughts on theocracy, taken from The World's Last Night and other Essays (p.40):

"Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives. Let the shoemaker stick to his last. Thus the Renaissance doctrine of Divine Right is for me a corruption of monarchy; Rousseau's General Will, of democracy; racial mysticisms, of nationality. And Theocracy, I admit and even insist, is the worst corruption of all."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The New Millennium

As the end of the disastrous Bush presidency approaches, some of his opponents anticipate what they see as the coming of a new president who will put an end to Bush's evil deeds and establish a new era of prosperity, respect for civil rights and world peace.....a new heaven and a new earth, or at least a new Washington, D.C.

Lest we be too complacent, I posit that Mr. Obama, if he wins the presidency, will not be much of an improvement on Mr. Bush. Yes, I like Obama, and he'd be some improvement. If I weren't voting for a third party candidate, I'd vote for him in November. I hope he wins.

But he is a man as any a man ever was, with his own virtues and vices. And if he wins, he'll assume an office institutionally bound to certain pathways. He'll be the head of a vast bureaucracy--the executive branch--over which he'll exercise important, but limited and by no means absolute, control. As the one responsible for America's foreign policy, he'll, sooner or later, be thinking in terms of raison d'etat and protecting "American interests" abroad. He'll make claims of executive privilege vis-a-vis Congress and, most likely, will not voluntarily abrogate Mr. Bush's arrogations of power to the presidency.

The person who occupies the presidency has much power for good and ill. A president can decide, effectively, to take the country to war, to issue executive orders with a wide impact on governance and of course to veto, sign and promote bills. But those who anticipate a new millennium shouldn't forget that the presidency bears the weight and the burden of its history.

Rock, Paper, Scissors....SCAM!

Many of you (if there are actually any readers) are familiar with the "rock, paper, scissors" game for making trivial decisions when there's a disagreement between two people. That game, I argue, is based on a faulty premise:

1: Scissors cut paper, so scissors win over paper.
2: Rocks crush scissors, so rocks win over scissors.
3: Paper can cover a rock, so paper wins over rock.

Paper covers rock? In the first two scenarios, the losing item is destroyed--the scissors shear the paper into two pieces, the rock crushes the scissors to bits--but paper "covers up" the rock?????

I fail to see how being covered by a piece of paper is all that traumatic a defeat, or how simply covering a rock with a piece of paper establishes supremacy over the rock. While I probably would not like to be covered up by a piece of paper (oh...the indignity!), I'd much prefer an unsolicited paper covering to being cut in two or smashed to bits.

Housing Finance Reform

My suggestion for the first step that needs to be taken to reform the housing/mortgage industry:

Change the names of "Freddie Mac" and "Fannie Mae" to something different. I mean, come 'on....these are serious organizations. These names seem more like the names of cartoon characters than financial institutions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Case against Mr. Obama

Here's a good argument against Mr. Obama's bid for the presidency that probably won't be used:

The last time we elected someone with so little experience in foreign policy, the U.S. ended up in a disastrous war in the Middle East.

Might Makes Right

It is often asserted that "the majority is always right," or, by those of a more reflective bent, "the majority is usually right."

Now, there are good reasons for positing that the will of the majority should be followed in some instances, maybe even most day-to-day instances. But I deny that it follows that the majority therefore is "right." One might as well say that the strong are right because they are strong and be done with pretensions of "democracy" altogether.

I Voted for Kerry

Yes, I confess I voted for John Kerry in 2004.

And I regret it.

Of course, I voted in Chicago, so if I had voted for anyone else, my ballot, if it had been counted at all, would in great probability have been counted as a "Kerry" vote anyway. (One secret for those of you who believe that voting is important: if you vote in Chicago, register as a Democrat to avoid any "accidents" happening to your ballot....doing so won't ensure your vote will be counted if you cast it for the wrong person, but at least your ballot will not be presumptively suspect to the poll watchers in the pay of the Daley-Stroger machine.) Still, corruption or no corruption, Chicagoans' veneration of the Democratic party and Chicago's stranglehold on the rest of Illinois would have probably ensured Kerry would take this state's (22?) electoral votes.

Kerry was the first Democrat I voted for for president. In 2000, I voted for Nader and in 1996 I voted for Dole. I didn't register in time to vote in 1992 (I turned 18 about a week before that election) but at the time my mindset was such as to vote for Bush Sr.

For voting for Kerry, all I got was the satisfaction of knowing I had marked a name on a ballot that several other thousand in this state marked. And my ballot made absolutely no difference in the outcome of the election.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"You Can't Take It With You"

People often say "you can't take it with you." I think it depends on the situation.

For example, yesterday I was at the grocery store and bought some food. The cashier put the food in a plastic bag. Guess what? When I went home, I took the bag with me.

A similar thing happens when I go to work. I like to bring my backpack, so I take it with me.

Now obviously, if I had a car, I wouldn't be able to take it with me inside a building, unless the building had very big doors or walls weak enough that I could drive through.

So, before you accept such aphorisms uncritically, think of some counterexamples.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"What if everybody felt that way?"

When I tell people that a major reason I vote for third party candidates is that I don't believe my vote really matters, they often respond with "Well, what if everybody felt that way." I don't know about "everybody," but I'm willing to wager that a significant number, perhaps even a majority, feel "that way." (And by the way, since we live in a "democracy," the majority is supposedly always right.)

Of course, what these people most likely mean is "what if everybody felt that way and acted on that feeling [presumably by not voting]." Although the rate of voter turnout is probably higher 'lo these past few years than, say, twenty years ago (I don't know, but that's my impression), something probably pretty close to a majority of people eligible to vote do not vote, so I'm not sure that a lot of people don't act on that feeling.

Still, the point is not that there are not a lot of apathetic, disaffected people out there--I think they'd be willing to concede that--but that voting matters and we must make our voices "heard." Okay, so, in a large contest (say, a presidential election, any statewide election, or city-wide election in a large or even medium-sized city), my one vote, out of several thousands cast, is going to make my voice heard.

So, to take a made up number, let's say that I vote for Mr. Obama, and he wins over Mr. McCain in Illinois this November, and the final tally is 371,852 to 302,501. (Let's also assume that every vote cast is counted, something highly unlikely, even if it weren't for Illinois's rampant corruption, because there are bound to be anomalies in the vote count.) My "voice" is heard loud and clear. Mr. Obama, instead of winning by a vote of 371,851, will have won by a vote of 371,852.

Now, there is the highly improbable, but still possible, situation wherein a candidate wins by one vote. In that case (again, assuming all votes are counted as cast), then yes, my vote would have an effect on the outcome. So, back to the Illinois example, let's say the vote turns out to be 371,857 (Obama) to 371,856 (McCain) , and that I vote for Mr. Obama. (Let's also assume that the automatic recount is done and the exact same result carries over.) On the surface, it appears that my vote matters. Yes, Virginia, I guess it does. Still, it only matters because 371,856 other people voted as I did. In order for my vote to matter, hundreds of thousands of people have to agree with me. I need to be on the side of the pro-Obama cheerleaders in order for my voice to be heard.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Supreme Court: Partisanship over Ideology

An oft-asserted claim is that the U.S. Supreme Court is ideological split between liberal or "leftist" (which appears to mean just "very liberal") and conservative factions, with Mr. Kennedy holding the balance (and before him, it was Ms. O'Connor). In other words, justices Souter, Stevens, Breyer, and Ginsburg are presumed to vote "liberal" while justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito are presumed to vote "conservative."

My hypothesis is that this split is not ideological, but partisan. The liberal judges vote along the lines approved by the Democratic party (yes, I know Stevens and Souter were appointed by Republicans) while the conservatives vote along the lines approved by the Republican party. I believe this is true at least regarding the "hot button" issues of gun rights, rights of the accused, takings, the president's war powers, affirmative action and abortion (and maybe not so much on other issues).

I realize I need evidence to support this claim. However, consider the recent gun rights decision of D.C. v Heller. The "liberals" voted against striking down a D.C. gun control law and the "conservatives" voted for striking it down, with Mr. Kennedy voting with the conservatives. The "liberal" justices are much more likely to strike down laws that challenge the first, fourth and fifth amendments (except when it comes to takings....see the Kelo decision of a few years ago), and the "conservatives" are much more likely to sustain such laws. Yet these are all "rights" guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Of course, when it comes to the second amendment, there is much linguistic confusion as to what that amendment actually guarantees. Still, if one reads Justice Stevens's dissent in Heller, even he acknowledges that gun ownership is an individual right (he might have been doing this as a tactic to sow the seeds of future qualifications on Heller).

I suspect that when future gun control cases come up that involve state laws (the D.C. law was technically a federal law), we will see "liberal" justices, who normally favor "incorporating" the Bill of Rights to apply to the states, will vote against such incorporation while the "conservative" justices will vote for such incorporation even though they generally dislike "incorporating" the bill of rights to apply to the states.

My hypothesis, then, is that at least on the controversial issues, the justices vote for constituencies and not for ideological preference.

Shout-Out to Afternoon Cookie

I'd like to introduce my readers, if I have any, to another blogsite. It is afternooncookie, and run by a friend of mine. I'm sure I won't agree with everything he says, but I think people should check it out. I read the two most recent posts, and they're quite good.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The False Debate: Sexual Orientation and "Choice"

One discussion that came up often when Colorado's Amendment 2--the anti-gay rights amendment--was up for consideration in 1992 was the debate over whether people "choose" to be gay. One still hears echoes of that debate (although it seems to me less salient than it was in the '90s) in respect to the prospect of same sex marriage laws. The debate is a false one that does not represent the real agenda of either side of the issue.

The debate goes like this: pro-gay rights advocates insist that no one "chooses" to be gay while anti-gay rights advocates insist that people "choose" to be gay. A variant of the pro-gay rights argument is that no one would choose to be gay because of the stigma, etc., attached to being gay. A variant of the anti-gay rights argument is the notion that homosexuality can be "cured."

Now, let's assume that incontrovertible proof emerged that people are, indeed, born gay. That being gay is an immutable trait just as skin color or biological sex is (I'll bracket the obvious counter-examples to immutability, such as sex-change operations). Let's also assume that anti-gay righters accepted this evidence as valid and conclusive (yes, I am positing a hypothetical). That doesn't answer their objection that homosexuality is immoral; that only underscores the degree to which preference is unavoidable.

Now, let's assume that incontrovertible proof emerges that people do, at some point, make choices that pre-dispose them to "become" gay, or let's assume that a discovery is made about a pill that can be taken one time to "cure" homosexuality. Such a proof would not answer their objection that discrimination is unfair and unjust.

For the record, while, as a speculative and philosophical proposition, I have my doubts about the assertion that absolutely no choice or act of will affects a person's orientation, I believe that if someone can find happiness with a person of the same sex, then homosexuality is a positive good. Homologously, I believe the state has no business sanctioning discrimination against gays.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gollum and the Sin of Pride

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the ring is the worst sin of all....the sin of pride. And Gollum represents what pride can do to someone. It can take a peaceful, hobbit-like creature and make him into a hideous, self-loathing hermit with a bifurcated personality.

Then again, no. Nor pride nor the ring did this to Gollum, he did it to himself. He let the ring do it. The ring was so powerful that no being, even Frodo, could resist it (witness Frodo's attempt at the end to appropriate the ring for himself; witness also the fact he never recovered from his tenure as ring bearer).

Gollum is an example of pride. Pride is normally defined (i.e., when it is defined as a vice and not something to be, well, proud of, like good grades.....I once got a "Pride Scholarship") as inordinate self-love. Why do I characterize Gollum's pride as self-loathing?

Because "love" is the wrong word for what pride represents. It represents self-worship, and self-worship, when the self is not a fit object to be worshiped, becomes self-imprisonment, or worship of a fetish, in this case, the self. He imprisons himself with himself and hates himself for it.

Gollum was so enthralled with his "precious" that he structured his whole life around it, retreated to the dark recesses of "Middle Earth" to be alone with it, and saw himself as another, different from himself. He saw himself as the ring, and he worshiped the ring. Such was the meaning of Tolkien's choice to write Gollum's internal dialogue/monologue with "we" instead of "I" as the subject.

Gollum, when we meet him in The Hobbit and when we see him in the later works, is in Hell. He is caught up in his own cycle of self-worship and self-hatred.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When Ad Hominems Are Valid

Ever accused someone of hypocrisy when that someone argued for a position you disagreed with? Well, you might be guilty of an "ad hominem," which is Latin for "[attack] on the person [making the argument]."

In my college introduction to logic course, we learned that ad hominems are irrelevant to the issue at hand. So, for example, if a professor who is wearing a leather jacket presents his argument about how we shouldn't be cruel to animals, the fact that he has purchased an article of clothing he didn't need (which, presumably, was made in a process cruel to the cow), it is irrelevant to point out the fact that that professor is a hypocrite. I.e., it is irrelevant to that professor's argument that we shouldn't be cruel to animals. If indeed we shouldn't be cruel, then his hypocrisy is no excuse to that argument.

So far, so good. But isn't the charge of hypocrisy relevant to some point? Maybe the fact that the professor is a hypocrite speaks to the feasibility and believability of all our protestations to the high ideals he claims to believe in.

Let's say that a moralist preaches up and down that adultery is bad and yet is found to be guilty of adultery. Adultery may be bad or not bad regardless of that moralist's peccadilloes. But his hypocrisy does speak to the very human difficulty in living up to that ideal.

Ad hominems are relevant, usually, to some argument. But they are fallacious when used to misdirect the argument in question.

"We" Invaded Iraq

It is common to say, as a shorthand phrase, that "we" did this or "we" did that when we're talking about some action of the United States. It is, of course, a part of idiomatic, conversational English to speak in this way. So, for example, when John Elway and several other members of the Denver Broncos won the NFL about ten years ago, people in my hometown (Denver....duh) were wont to say "we won the Superbowl!"

But this way of speaking is dangerous when we talk about military actions. I, certainly, never risked my life or had my life taken from me during the invasion of and subsequent "anti-insurgency" mission in Iraq. So, it is quite inappropriate for me to say that "we" invaded Iraq when it was quite the task and accomplishment of the U.S. armed forces. A friend of mine said a few months ago that speaking that way ("we") is part of living in a "democracy." Of course, she didn't explain what she meant by democracy, but apparently she meant that since our (again...the "we" language!....even I can't escape it) leaders are popularly elected, their decisions and the actions of those who carry out those decisions are common property. This isn't an unreasonable take on the whole matter, but I happen to disagree with it. I have not lifted a finger in armed service to this country, and while that fact may or may not be a reason to criticize me, I refuse to compound the issue by saying "we" carried out a military order when "I" never once risked my life for that cause.

Of course, the idiom of using "we" is so common, I may trip up every once in a while and slip into "we" language. I apologize ahead of time.

P.S.: At least one other person, Paul Campos, a law professor at CU who writes op-ed pieces the Rocky Mountain News, has made similar comments long before I ever thought of blogging them. So I do need to give credit where credit is due.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

C. S. Lewis and Hell

I have read elsewhere (and I don't have the time or inclination to look up the source) that C. S. Lewis supposedly believes that hell is "a state of mind." This assertion, at least in the location where I read it, was written by a self-professed evangelical Christian who wanted to discredit what he saw as his co-religionists' misplaced praise of Lewis.

While I do believe their praise is misplaced because he did not really espouse the causes or the outlook that many evangelicals claim to believe in (he once wrote....I believe it was in "Mere Christianity"....that even though he believed homosexuality is a sin, he had no right to judge homosexuals because he, not being one, was not himself subject to the temptations and virtues of being gay, not exactly the official, DOCTOR Dobson sanctioned stance), this person had it wrong about Lewis's conception of hell, at least if his work "The Great Divorce" is any indication.

In that story--I hesitate to say "allegory," because Lewis had a very precise definition of allegory and claimed that none of his writings, save for "Pilgrim's Regress" (unread by me) was properly "allegorical"--the narrator has a dream where he visits hell. He finds it is full of people who cannot live with each: they reside in isolation: no neighborhoods, no community. Each claims, more or less, to be self-sufficient and each is prey to blaming others for his or her problems. (In one scene, the narrator is on a bus in hell and a stranger tries to force him (the narrator) to read his (the stranger's) poetry.....quite humbling food for thought given my own poetic aspirations.) To top it all off, the people in hell either don't know they are in hell, or they vaguely realize it but find it so much more interesting than they imagine heaven to be. The story goes on when the narrator and a few of hell's inhabitants take an excursion to heaven, where everyone is much larger, much more "complete" and much stronger than the shadowy people from hell. Indeed, heaven is so much more "real" that it hurts the hellites even to walk upon the ground (as it might hurt one to walk barefoot along a gravelly road).

To me, this story suggests Lewis believed that hell is a state of being and not merely a state of mind. (In his other writings--I believe in "Mere Christianity"--he also says that hell is the principle of death counterposed to the principle of life, i.e., heaven. In other words, by focusing on what I see as Lewis's notion of hell as a state of being, I acknowledge that I am bracketing what for him was probably the more important distinction of eternal life versus eternal death, a distinction I'm not sure I believe in, since I don't know if I believe in eternal life.) The state of being is one of pride, or extreme introversion and egocentrism, the belief that the universe revolves around oneself (as, in the Christian scheme of the world, the universe revolves around God). In other words, the essential sin that lands people in hell is their choice to try to make themselves the center of the universe, to make themselves "as God."

How many evangelicals would fully buy into this notion of hell? Maybe a lot; maybe a majority. But I do wonder whether the DOCTOR Dobsons of the world would. They have, and I stand to be corrected, set up a universe that revolves around themselves.

Monday, July 7, 2008

When Bloggers are Bigots

I have made a point in the last two blogs about what I interpreted as the bigoted comments of Too Clever by Half. I stand by my assertion that those posts (and many other of Too Clever's posts) use bigoted language and deserve to be criticized on those grounds.

However, I should say that I know Too Clever by Half personally and he is definitely not a bigot (except in the sense that we all, from time to time, assume airs of superiority and intolerance toward those who disagree with us....see this prior post on my blog for an example of my own bigotry), and to the extent my previous posts suggested that he was one, I retract that suggestion and apologize.