Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Off the dime at last

Finally I was moved to write my first-ever correspondence to my Congressman:

Dear Congressman Sessions:

I am dismayed at the continuing revelations of excesses, mistakes, and deceptions of the American people that the Bush Administration has committed in pursuit of its stated goal of keeping us safe from terrorism. My understanding of what the United States is supposed to represent, a free nation of laws and not men, where you are free to associate with others and be secure in your person from government search and seizure, is completely at odds with the actions of this Administration. As my representative to Congress, I urge you to express in the strongest possible terms that such activities and behaviors are not compatible with American ideals. We may disagree on fiscal policies or the appropriateness of legislating morality; but when it comes to the fundamental rights of all Americans as set down by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, there can be no partisan issue. We are talking about the philosophical basis of our nation, truths we hold to be self-evident; and if we do not stand up and defend those ideals when they are injured, regardless of the party affiliation of the infringer or infringed, then we set at nought all our nation represents. And then we are truly lost. Please don't let that happen to this great nation. Speak up for us.

Thank you.

Rob Woodard

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tom Tomorrow On Point As Usual

(Click the title...)

Exactly right. That's the level of "discourse" we have in this country.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Philosophy: The View from the Right

So I have this friend who's a diehard Conservative Republican, and he had this to say about me and Liberals:
if a really good guy like you can be taking this stance at a time of national tragedy, then my incredibly negative view of the political left wing is NOT NEGATIVE ENOUGH. Your side of the political spectrum is even less moral, less decent, less rational, less intellectually honest and more sinister than even I previously thought. And I wonder how that can be? I love this country and what it stands for, and I really wonder how it's possible that a large segment of the American population can have such a horribly negative view of their own nation.

That's a pretty sweeping indictment. But I find it all too believable that he would say this; Conservatives look at Liberals like they are some kind of Martians, with strange ideas and viewpoints that Conservatives just can't fathom. We seem to be utterly irrational to them; and I must say, the feeling is mutual. So let's go over these points, and hopefully a Conservative will come along and educate me on what their position is, how it differs from the Liberal one and why their position is better.

1. Liberals are less moral than Conservatives. That implies that there is some standard of morality out there, some objective moral truth we can measure Liberals against and find them wanting in relation to Conservatives. But what is it? Is it compassion for our fellow man? I don't think you can argue that Liberals are not compassionate. Do we have no code of conduct, no standard of behavior in polite society? I think Liberals are as well-behaved as anyone; we don't advocate lighting farts or going around naked everywhere or public drunkeness. Is it really that we have less morality than Conservatives? Or is it rather that we have a different morality? That we don't kowtow to rules laid out in a book written by Jewish shepherds two thousand years ago, that we base our morality on utilitarian reason?

2. Liberals are less decent than Conservatives. Well, I already mentioned compassion. Liberals have no shortage of human decency; in fact, the accusation has long been that we have too much decency. That we're suckers for any cause that claims discrimination, that we'll increase taxes at the drop of a hat if some interest group comes begging. So how are we less decent than Conservatives, who espouse "individual responsibility" above all else? An example: If you lose your job and are unemployed, under Conservative rules you get a certain amount of time with assistance; but after that, you're on your own, and if you weren't able to get a job that's your tough luck. Is that decency?

3. Liberals are less rational than Conservatives. I believe that Liberals invented the "think tank," where experts debate and help develop policy. Most members of these "think tanks" are considered experts in their field; many are university professors. Are they all irrational crackpots? Am I? What irrational ideas am I espousing? And am I so one-sided in my advocacy that I reject all opposing viewpoints out of hand? Are Liberals in general that way? What constitutes "rationality", if not using science and reason to support your positions?

4. Liberals are less intellectually honest than Conservatives. What this seems to imply is that Liberals are hypocritical; we advocate one set of policies in public but in private we enact something else. Or that we are self-delusional, advocating policies that are so utterly opposed to immutable human nature as to be ridiculously impractical. For the first, if we are hypocritical then we have good company. We did not propose Clean Water and Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives that enabled corporations to pollute more and overuse our natural resources. We did not reject all scientific evidence that humans have affected the global climate (and even if not, that the climate is nevertheless changing) and refuse to even try to help slow down this change, with the excuse that it would just be too economically hurtful to the richest nation on the planet. All the while encouraging our citizens to consume more and more fossil fuels in ever more wasteful ways. For the second, we did not advocate codifying into law that the legal benefits and privileges of marriage could not be conferred on same-sex partners in committed relationships. We did not advocate preventing women from having the ultimate say on the uses of their own bodies and reproductive processes. We did not advocate invading foreign lands and forcing our system of government on them. So please educate me on how Liberals are more intellectually dishonest than Conservatives.

5. Liberals are more sinister than Conservatives. One definition of sinister [m-w.com] is "singularly evil or productive of evil." I assume that is what is being referenced ("of, relating to, or situated to the left or on the left side of something" doesn't carry as much weight somehow). The definition of evil [m-w.com] includes: "morally reprehensible"; "causing harm"; and "marked by misfortune". Well, we certainly seem to be marked by misfortune :) but I think the other two are what was meant. So that being the case, the accusation is that Liberalism in and of itself is morally reprehensible and/or causes harm. We talked about morality back in point 1; finding something "morally reprehensible" depends in large part (if not absolutely) on what your concept of morality is. And it's easy to accuse something of "causing harm", but I have to ask just what that harm is? Do we harm the poor by advocating giving them welfare? Do we harm the elderly by advocating giving them Social Security and Medicare? Do we harm national security by insisting on military action only as a last resort after careful examination of the evidence and consultation with our allies? Do we harm the public by advocating that the operations of government be disclosed as fully as possible? Is all of this symptomatic of a philosophy of evil, of a powerful elite trying to impose its will on the general public through unaccountable procedures, obfuscation, corruption and even outright deception?

I don't deny that there are politicians out there who claim to be Liberals and yet pursue these very power games. But the Liberal philosophy does not stand for that, and Conservatives should come up with better arguments than "you Liberals are as corrupt as anyone". Liberals may be corrupt, as they and Conservatives have been shown to be throughout history; but we don't discard Conservatism as a philosophy because it has some corrupt adherents, and the same consideration should be extended to Liberalism.

So, here I stand, mind open, waiting to be educated on the evils of Liberalism. Who will take on the task?

Oh, and on the subject of loving this country and what it stands for, I take a backseat to no one. It has been positively heartbreaking to me to watch the great ideals that this country used to (and should still) stand for corrupted and piddled away in the name of economic development and corporate profits. This country is supposed to be a beacon of freedom and democracy, an example to the world. Instead, we curtail our freedoms in the name of security; we discount international law and cooperation when it doesn't suit our purpose; we selectively apply standards of human rights depending on our enemies of the moment; we allow exploitation of foreign labor for our own economic benefit and to the detriment of our own citizens; we pursue unsustainable fiscal policies and bankrupt our children's future for temporary luxury of the few; and on and on. I don't have a negative view of our nation. I'd rather live here than anywhere else on Earth. I DO have a negative view of our current leadership, which seems bent on destroying what has been built over generations with their dreams of empire and wealth. I DO have a negative view of religious fundamentalism, which is opposed to science and reason and wishes to turn back the clock to the 11th century when their power was absolute. I will fight these hydras rhetorically with all the strength I have to muster, and to the extent that I find them in my own nation, I will fight them with doubled effort. I love my country and see it as a powerful force for good in the world, and I will not allow it to be used to spread darkness and despair. See, I can be just as romantic as they are.

Another New Orleans rant

You know, I don't blame the President a lot for what he's doing right now. It looked bad when he took two days to decide to cut short his vacation (which he shouldn't have been on anyway) because of the disaster, but he did go back to Washington and presumably started kicking some butts to get things moving. A day late and a dollar short for a lot of people, though. The critical mistakes were made earlier.

Fact: the Clinton Administration doesn't get off scot-free on this. They didn't fight for funding for shoring up the levees in the 90's, though after 1994 it is doubtful they could have gotten anything passed in the Congress anyway. But here's another fact: Clinton's director of FEMA was a professional emergency manager who completely rehabilitated the agency, turning it from a "sorry bunch of bureaucratic jackasses" (to quote Sen. Fritz Hollings) into a streamlined, responsive organization that drew praise from local disaster officials around the nation. Ironically, this appointment occurred after hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida and brought attention to FEMA's shortcomings.

Bush's first director of FEMA was a professional politician, who had worked on the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and became W.'s chief of staff in Texas. He ran the 2000 campaign and was rewarded with the FEMA post. He resigned in 2003 when FEMA was put under the Department of Homeland Security. The new FEMA director was a professional lawyer before taking his new job, with limited experience in emergency management.

Some leadership! Leadership includes getting the best-qualified people to run your agencies. We can argue about whether Rumsfeld pursues the right strategies or whether Rice is the best ambassador for our country; but they are undeniably qualified for their positions. The Bush FEMA directors have been political operatives and buddies, not emergency preparedness experts. And to the extent that they are planning for things, their superiors at the Department of Homeland Security are focused on terrorism, not domestic natural disasters. So it's not altogether surprising that FEMA falls flat on its face when a real disaster occurs.

Leadership is also being prepared ahead of time for events. We've had five years of the Bush administration having control of all the levers of power; if they were going to do something for New Orleans, they had ample time. There were several warnings put before them over the last years of what could happen if New Orleans sustained a direct hit; yet they were no more inclined to spend money on the region than the Clinton administration had been. In fact, money was shunted away from the Corps of Engineers to help finance the Iraq quagmire. It might seem like Monday-morning quarterbacking; but the fact is, it is their job to plan for these things and have responses prepared. If there was any such plan, I see little evidence of it. Instead it's all shock and surprise and spur-of-the-moment reaction.

So now supplies and troops are finally starting to show up. But the disaster is still unfolding, and it won't end until order is restored and cleanup begins. Then we will count the cost of our leaders ignoring expert advice and choosing political expediency over the welfare of the people.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Answering the Unanswerable

Left Blogistan is aflame with Cindy Sheehan and her vigil outside the President's ranch. All she wants is for the President to give her an answer to the question: "what noble cause did my son die for?"

Except that's not really the question, is it?

I mean, come on. We're all adults here, right? There's a thousand answers to that question. Take your pick. Oil. Power. Corruption. Distraction from domestic issues. Some combination of those.

No, the real question here is, "why did we, the American people, elect someone like you who would surround himself with sycophants and ideologues? Men and women who would advise you to embark on this fool's errand and sacrifice my son's (and 2000+ others') life for (as it's becoming more and more apparent) nothing?"

That's the question that Cindy Sheehan is really asking, though even she may not know it. It's not surprising to me that the President refuses to answer it. After all, he's the one who got elected.

It's an obvious non-starter. Whatever answer he gives, it's going to be cast in a bad light. And as prone as he is to public speaking mishaps, I think it's probably best that he not meet with Sheehan. I can just imagine his fumbling reply to her question. For myself, I think he truly believed what his advisers were telling him. I don't know the President well enough to say that he purposely went into a cabinet meeting and on his own initiative said "guys, we're going to get Saddam and I don't care how you do it, make it happen." Without proof, I'm not going to subscribe to the pleasing narrative that the Vice President asked him to do it so he could shuffle some business towards his old company.

No, I don't think we can blame the administration, any more than you can blame the scorpion for doing what's in its nature. We have only ourselves to blame for this. We, the American people, elected these people as our government with full knowledge of their ideologies and at least tacit approval of them. In fact, we approved of them so much that we elected them twice. We returned majorities in Congress in support of their policies, and it's likely that we'll do so again.

So there's my answer to Cindy Sheehan, which she will never get from this President. Your son died because the people we elected believed that invading Iraq and ordering its society as we wished was the right thing to do. In my opinion, we made a mistake. But in the majority of Americans' opinions, we did not.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Unintelligent Design

I posted this on David Brin's blog earlier today...but since it's been forever since I posted here, I thought I'd just paste it in...

This whole "Intelligent Design" thing is a smokescreen to get Creationism back on the table. Remember that Creationism's full name was "Scientific Creationism" when it first came out. Then it turned out that it wasn't so scientific after all, as scientific inquiry poked hole after hole in it, until finally no one outside of the radical religious community promotes it as science anymore. So Plan B is to redefine science to include being able to do thought experiments on your theory, not just being able to prove things with repeatable evidence. And really, what that means is that Philosophy is science too, so philosophers should be put on the same playing field as scientists: anything a philosopher can prove rhetorically (OK, be charitable, through logic) is just as valid as anything a scientist can prove in a lab. After all, they both get Ph.D.s, right? Heh.

String theorists should be ecstatic; if Intelligent Design is science, then there will no longer be any objections to String Theory as being empirically unprovable. But for those of us who love science, it's hard to swallow. Jacare pointed out his discomfort with the "God of the gaps" theory; well, Jacare, ID is exactly that. ID postulates that once science reaches a point of "irreducible complexity", i.e. something whose complexity cannot be explained by science, that complexity must be attributed to an Intelligent Designer. A.K.A. God, but you might have a hard time pinning ID proponents down on that (Diane Rehm had an ID panel on her show this morning, and it was a laugh riot listening to the ID guy squirm and twist trying to avoid saying that the Intelligent Designer was in fact God; Diane kept after him a couple of times but was too sweet to pin him to the wall). They know that as soon as the Intelligent Designer is named God, they're back to trying to teach God in school and that's not going to fly. So they won't call it God; I was itching to call up and ask if the ID guy felt that perhaps it was space aliens who brought single-celled life to earth. After all, if the Intelligent Designer isn't God, it has to be someone, right? (That's the logical, scientific question to ask!) Maybe Stan Lee was right, and it was the Celestials! ROFL.

No, Intelligent Design serves no purpose. It will waste a lot of time as actual scientists are forced to drop what they are doing and shoot this one down just like they did Scientific Creationism. The theory of evolution will not be enhanced by this, as no new scientific evidence will be revealed. Indeed, I think Evolution is largely complete; once the single-celled life gets there, evolution takes hold. Evolution does not try to explain what happens before then or how the single-celled life comes to be, and trying to stretch it to cover that is a mistake. ID guys seize on that as evidence: "see, evolution can't explain how single-celled life comes to be, and if a theory can be shown false in any respect the entire theory must be wrong, therefore evolution is wrong." That isn't science, it's rhetoric, and it misses the point anyway, but people have to be shown how that argument is misdirected. That takes time, time better spent doing science rather than rhetoric; but now we'll have to do it, because thanks to the Enlightenment the religious nutjobs have to have some sort of scientific basis for their faith nowadays (or something that is accepted as scientific, even if it really isn't). It's just another battle in the war between ignorance and reason.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Desperately Seeking Dean

As a lifelong Democrat I almost completely disagree with Lee Cullum's analysis this morning of the election of Howard Dean as DNC Chairman. Mrs. Cullum appears to proceed from the misguided (if conventional) idea that the only function of political parties is to get candidates elected, and the only candidates who will get elected must pander to "centrist" values. This unfortunate view leads her to question the election of Dr. Dean, who she characterizes as "comic" and typecast as a hotheaded Northeastern Liberal. I would point out that if anything it was her colleagues in the media who accomplished this typecasting, seizing on one campaign event (which was in itself perfectly innocuous) and endlessly repeating it as though it were an obvious disqualification for office and advocating swinging support towards the establishment candidate John Kerry. Howard Dean single-handedly brought to life a lackluster Democratic field in 2003; his energy and willingness to take controversial public stands against the administration fired a grass-roots movement that swept him from obscurity to within hours of staking his claim on the nomination. His marginalization by an (unspoken) alliance of mainstream media and establishment Democrats stands as a low point in the political history of this nation. I firmly believe that Dr. Dean would have won the election and would now be President if the party leadership had stood by him.

Getting back to her piece, Mrs. Cullum is also misguided in believing that either Martin Frost or Ron Kirk would have made a better chairman than Dr. Dean. I respect Mr. Frost and supported him in his race against Pete Sessions. The fact however is that Mr. Frost did not possess the public speaking skill (I would say "charisma") to energize Dallas Democrats to support him enthusiastically enough to defeat similarly snoozeworthy incumbent Republican Pete Sessions. Yes, the new 32nd Congressional district was gerrymandered in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a Democrat to win, but I believe that a sufficiently compelling candidate could have defeated Sessions. Mr. Frost was not that man; and since the DNC chairman is the public face of the party, and we need an energetic person who is able to convincingly and persuasively articulate what the party represents, Mr. Frost is not the man for that job either. Former mayor Ron Kirk is not nationally well-known enough to have had much chance of being elected to the national chairmanship, though I don't doubt he might have been an effective one (at least as effective as Frost might have been, if not moreso).

The overall tone of the piece is especially troubling to me. Statements such as "Howard Dean's stance as an anti-war activist...is not the answer to winning elections in a country gravely concerned about security" and "It's too late now for Dr. Dean to scamper back to the center, where Democrats must run if they expect to win" indicate her advocating total capitulation to the Neoconservatives. Mrs. Cullum apparently thinks that only a Democratic Party that is perceived as "Republican-Lite" has any chance of national success. While this may be true as far as it goes, it is a sorry commentary on the American civil discourse Mrs. Cullum appears to believe we should be having. Party politics should not be a race to the center; it should be an open and honest discussion of differing approaches to the issues of the day. Cultivating political monoculture is a curious stance for a political commentator to take; if all candidates agreed on the issues, there would be no point in having media commentators like Mrs. Cullum (and no point in having elections). Mrs. Cullum should instead be encouraging the rise to prominence of leaders with strongly-held alternative views; leaders like Dr. Dean.

Finally, I must take issue with Mrs. Cullum's opinion that the election of an opinionated Liberal inevitably consigns the Democratic Party to doom and defeat for as long as Dr. Dean is chairman. Rather than allowing the current success of the Conservative movement to drag the Democratic Party towards the center (thus making it more and more like the Republican Party!), Democrats like Dr. Dean are trying to help the Democratic Party stand up for the the good Liberal ideals it has traditionally stood for. There is endless moaning in the media about how the two parties are becoming indistinguishable from each other, how politicians are (or should be) reluctant to take controversial positions because of the need to curry "swing voters", and how elections are about choosing "the lesser of two evils". Well, here is a DNC chairman who is unafraid to take on the Neo-Conservatives and Republicans; not with partisan acrimony and dirty tricks, but with superior organization and persuasive policy initiatives. I believe that the election of Dr. Dean is exactly what the Democratic Party needs in this time of Republican ascendancy. I will do all I can to help him, here in Texas and throughout the nation, and I believe in the end Mrs. Cullum will be forced to admit that his becoming DNC chairman represented a new beginning for the party, and the end of Democratic soul-searching after the losses of 2000 and 2004.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

David Brin on Modernism

One of my favorite authors, David Brin, has been posting an essay on Modernism over on his blog Contrary Brin. Definitely worth reading. In one section, he castigates the Left (i.e. Liberals) for a multitude of self-defeating elitist actions:
"On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury. [snip]...along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement."
I don't doubt that this may be true. When you think of Liberalism, the image the Conservatives want you to have is of tree-hugging environmental activists, hippies, draft dodgers, and atheist (or even, gasp, pagan) fanatics who want to go back to living in caves. Certainly they have been successful in pushing this image; it's part of what has made "liberal" such a derisive word and anathema to politicians.

I think it's important to keep in mind that all political movements have their fringe elements. Even Conservatives are afflicted with "neo-cons", the Religious Right, and Rush Limbaugh. Fringe elements represent the energy generated by the core values of the movement; something your movement stands for (or says it stands for) has sufficiently inspired someone that they make it their mission in life to see it come to pass. Thus, I don't consider fringe groups to be in and of themselves a bad thing; they are the almost inevitable consequence of a powerful idea.

The danger comes when the tail starts wagging the dog. If the fringe groups' energy and zeal overwhelm the more rational core of the movement, you've got a problem. And it's all too easy for this to happen; the natural tendency of most of us is tolerance for differing views and reluctance to take action (especially in restraint of someone with whom we actually see ourselves in partial agreement). It's easier to let the more vehement people who have the drive to do that sort of thing run our political organization. We have our own business to attend to.

The challenge (as I see it) facing "mainstream" Liberals today is to take back the image of our movement from the fringe groups who have come to define it. Yes, we opposed the draft; but we are not in favor of abolishing the military, for we recognize that it is still necessary to defend ourselves from others. Yes, we want to protect the environment; but not to the extent of preventing all exploitation of resources. Yes, we want to remove religious dogmatism from our public discourse; but this does not mean abolition of religion. We have to demonstrate to undecided people that Liberalism is the movement of personal freedom and that society should be the engine enabling that freedom; while Conservatism is the movement of paternalistic restriction and curtailment of choice. If we can do that, I think we can salvage Liberalism.