Sunday, February 29, 2004

Jorge Louis Borges quotes:

This was the first time Remington rifles were used in the Argentine, and it tickles my fancy to think that the firm that shaves me every morning bears the same name as the one that killed my grandfather.
-- In Autobiographical essay

In the critic's vocabulary, the word "precursor" is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotations of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.
--In Kafka and his Precursors

Any time something is written against me, I not only share the sentiment but feel I could do the job far better myself. Perhaps I should advise would-be enemies to send me their grievances beforehand, with full assurance that they will receive my every aid and support. I have
even secretly longed to write, under a pen name, a merciless tirade against myself.
-- Autobiographical essay

The original is unfaithful to the translation.
-- On Henley's translation of Beckford's Vathek, 1943

Saturday, February 28, 2004

On Human Irrationality. The risk of a small meteor hitting the earth is pretty small, but the effects could be devastating. Gregg Easterbrook writes:

In 1908, an object 250 feet across hit Tunguska, Siberia, flattening trees for 1,000 square miles and detonating with a force estimated at 10 megatons, or 700 times the power of the Hiroshima blast. Had the Tunguska rock hit Moscow or Tokyo, those cities would have been seared out of existence. In 1490, an estimated 10,000 people were killed when a mid-sized meteorite hit China. In the year 535, a series of mid-sized meteorite strikes around the globe kicked enough dust and debris into the atmosphere to cause several years of cruel winters, helping push Europe into the Dark Ages. Ten thousand years ago, just as modern Homo sapiens were making the first attempts at controlled agriculture, something enormous struck the Argentine Pampas, obliterating a significant chunk of the South American ecology with a force thought to be 18,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb...

A few weeks ago, researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics briefly believed that an asteroid packing the power of a one-megaton nuclear bomb was days away from striking North America. They turned out to be wrong, needless to say. Had they been right and the president informed that a killer rock from space was approaching, when he asked what could be done, he would have been told, "Sir, we can do absolutely nothing."

Easterbrook proposes that NASA make the prevention of asteriod collisions part of its mission. He argues that NASA has nothing to do anyway and ends up inventing missions for itself in the form of the International Space Station and the Moon-based Mars mission initiative.

He has a good point. But, of course, this will never happen. If we were rational creatures, we'd multiply the probability of an asteroid collision by the expected devastation to decide whether a proposal like this would be worthwhile; but, as it happens, we tend to simply disregard low-probability possibilities.

Evolution still has some work to do.

Darrell Hamamoto, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, has written for years about the exclusion of Asian Americans for mainstream American culture. After years of criticizing the stereotypes of Asian men as sexless and Asian women as submissive, Hamamoto decided to make porn movies to illustrate his points.

Now thats what I call research.

(link via

Noted feminist author Naomi Wolf achieved some public notoriety during the 2000 presidential campaign; reportedly, she was paid $15,000 per month to advise Al Gore how to improve his public image. She produced several memos for Gore's campaign, one of which counseled that Gore is a "'beta male' who needs to take on the 'alpha male' in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog."


After the magnitude of her fee was leaked to the press, the Gore campaign cut her salary to $5,000 a month.

Naomi Wolf is back in the news: in a recent New York article, she accuses Yale professor Harold Bloom of
sexual harrasment.

She describes Bloom's action as "banal, human, and destructive"; an "act of sexual encroachment", a "transgression"; after the incident, she began "spiralling downards," she "lost faith in her work"; the whole ordeal was a "wound" she's been carrying around for 20 years.

So what exactly did Bloom do?

Bloom and Wolf had dinner during which Bloom got drunk and put his hand on Wolf's knee. Wolf lurched away and Bloom left.

My first reaction was, thats it?

It was inappropriate, thats for sure. But Wolf interlaces her story with other stories of genuine sexual assault, which is despicable. By conflating her experience of rejecting an overture made by her professor with accounts of actual rape, Wolf does a disservice to every woman that has been raped.

Double standards at work: Jane Galt asks a legitemate question: what would you think of a man who claimed that a woman putting a hand on his knee was a open wound he has been carrying around for twenty years?

By the way: Erin O'Connor has been documenting the way campus sexual harassment policies conflate rape with far lesser crimes for a while now.

As anyone who has read this weblog knows, I sometimes give in to the temptation of including massively long excerpts in my entries. I'm going to yield to this temptation right now by including an excerpt on modern liberalism written by the Unabomber himself.

In June of 1995, the Unabomber sent a 35,000 word manuscript to the New York Times. He promised to personally desist from terrorism if his manuscript was published in a '"respectable" newspaper such as the Times or the Washington Post; if they refused, he would continue making bombs and killing people. The Times and the Post later published the manuscript in its entirety.

The manuscript is available here.

It does not read like the rants of a crazy man; if anything, it seems thought-provoking. I personally think it should be required reading for everyone.

The manuscript begins with an attack on modern liberals which I'd like to reproduce below, without endorsement.

9. The two psychological tendencies that underlie modern leftism we
call "feelings of inferiority" and "oversocialization." Feelings of
inferiority are characteristic of modern leftism as a whole, while
oversocialization is characteristic only of a certain segment of
modern leftism; but this segment is highly influential.


10. By "feelings of inferiority" we mean not only inferiority feelings
in the strictest sense but a whole spectrum of related traits: low
self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies,
defeatism, guilt, self-hatred, etc. We argue that modern leftists tend
to have such feelings (possibly more or less repressed) and that these
feelings are decisive in determining the direction of modern leftism.

11. When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said
about him (or about groups with whom he identifies) we conclude that
he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is
pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong
to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are
hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms
"negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an
Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory
connotation. "Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents
of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been
attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal
rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and
insist on its replacement by "animal companion." Leftist
anthropologists go to great lengths to avoid saying anything about
primitive peoples that could conceivably be interpreted as negative.
They want to replace the word "primitive" by "nonliterate." They seem
almost paranoid about anything that might suggest that any primitive
culture is inferior to our own. (We do not mean to imply that
primitive cultures ARE inferior to ours. We merely point out the
hypersensitivity of leftish anthropologists.)

12. Those who are most sensitive about "politically incorrect"
terminology are not the average black ghetto-dweller, Asian immigrant,
abused woman or disabled person, but a minority of activists, many of
whom do not even belong to any "oppressed" group but come from
privileged strata of society. Political correctness has its stronghold
among university professors, who have secure employment with
comfortable salaries, and the majority of whom are heterosexual, white
males from middle-class families.

13. Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of
groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American
Indians), repellent (homosexuals), or otherwise inferior. The leftists
themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit
it to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely
because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with
their problems. (We do not suggest that women, Indians, etc., ARE
inferior; we are only making a point about leftist psychology).

14. Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as
strong as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women
may NOT be as strong and as capable as men.

15. Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong,
good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western
civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The
reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not
correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West
because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so
forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in
primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he
GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points
out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in
Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the
leftist's real motive for hating America and the West. He hates
America and the West because they are strong and successful.

16. Words like "self-confidence," "self-reliance," "initiative",
"enterprise," "optimism," etc. play little role in the liberal and
leftist vocabulary. The leftist is anti-individualistic,
pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone's needs for them,
take care of them. He is not the sort of person who has an inner sense
of confidence in his own ability to solve his own problems and satisfy
his own needs. The leftist is antagonistic to the concept of
competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser.

17. Art forms that appeal to modern leftist intellectuals tend to
focus on sordidness, defeat and despair, or else they take an
orgiastic tone, throwing off rational control as if there were no hope
of accomplishing anything through rational calculation and all that
was left was to immerse oneself in the sensations of the moment.

18. Modern leftist philosophers tend to dismiss reason, science,
objective reality and to insist that everything is culturally
relative. It is true that one can ask serious questions about the
foundations of scientific knowledge and about how, if at all, the
concept of objective reality can be defined. But it is obvious that
modern leftist philosophers are not simply cool-headed logicians
systematically analyzing the foundations of knowledge. They are deeply
involved emotionally in their attack on truth and reality. They attack
these concepts because of their own psychological needs. For one
thing, their attack is an outlet for hostility, and, to the extent
that it is successful, it satisfies the drive for power. More
importantly, the leftist hates science and rationality because they
classify certain beliefs as true (i.e., successful, superior) and
other beliefs as false (i.e. failed, inferior). The leftist's feelings
of inferiority run so deep that he cannot tolerate any classification
of some things as successful or superior and other things as failed or
inferior. This also underlies the rejection by many leftists of the
concept of mental illness and of the utility of IQ tests. Leftists are
antagonistic to genetic explanations of human abilities or behavior
because such explanations tend to make some persons appear superior or
inferior to others. Leftists prefer to give society the credit or
blame for an individual's ability or lack of it. Thus if a person is
"inferior" it is not his fault, but society's, because he has not been
brought up properly.

19. The leftist is not typically the kind of person whose feelings of
inferiority make him a braggart, an egotist, a bully, a self-promoter,
a ruthless competitor. This kind of person has not wholly lost faith
in himself. He has a deficit in his sense of power and self-worth, but
he can still conceive of himself as having the capacity to be strong,
and his efforts to make himself strong produce his unpleasant
behavior. [1] But the leftist is too far gone for that. His feelings
of inferiority are so ingrained that he cannot conceive of himself as
individually strong and valuable. Hence the collectivism of the
leftist. He can feel strong only as a member of a large organization
or a mass movement with which he identifies himself.

20. Notice the masochistic tendency of leftist tactics. Leftists
protest by lying down in front of vehicles, they intentionally provoke
police or racists to abuse them, etc. These tactics may often be
effective, but many leftists use them not as a means to an end but
because they PREFER masochistic tactics. Self-hatred is a leftist

21. Leftists may claim that their activism is motivated by compassion
or by moral principle, and moral principle does play a role for the
leftist of the oversocialized type. But compassion and moral principle
cannot be the main motives for leftist activism. Hostility is too
prominent a component of leftist behavior; so is the drive for power.
Moreover, much leftist behavior is not rationally calculated to be of
benefit to the people whom the leftists claim to be trying to help.
For example, if one believes that affirmative action is good for black
people, does it make sense to demand affirmative action in hostile or
dogmatic terms? Obviously it would be more productive to take a
diplomatic and conciliatory approach that would make at least verbal
and symbolic concessions to white people who think that affirmative
action discriminates against them. But leftist activists do not take
such an approach because it would not satisfy their emotional needs.
Helping black people is not their real goal. Instead, race problems
serve as an excuse for them to express their own hostility and
frustrated need for power. In doing so they actually harm black
people, because the activists' hostile attitude toward the white
majority tends to intensify race hatred.

22. If our society had no social problems at all, the leftists would
have to INVENT problems in order to provide themselves with an excuse
for making a fuss.

23. We emphasize that the foregoing does not pretend to be an accurate
description of everyone who might be considered a leftist. It is only
a rough indication of a general tendency of leftism.

Update: The Atlantic Monthly confirms what I've known
for a long time -- the Unabomber would do well on the new SAT.

Here is one developement in modern art I can actually get excited about.

NYU Sociologist Dalton Conley is about to publish a new book detailing some findings on intergenerational mobility. The main conclusion:

...differences between families explain only 25 percent of the nation's income inequality; the remaining 75 percent is explained by differences between siblings. More typical of the United States than President Bush and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, he suggests, are the White House's previous tenant, Bill Clinton, and his half-brother, Roger, a college dropout, onetime cocaine dealer and failed musician. Or, for that matter, Jimmy Carter and his ne'er-do-well brother, Billy

(link via

Everyone who is even remotely interested in math and science should read this article -- its a prizewinner for best mathematical exposition to a non-mathematical audience. I find it especially nice because I am always trying to explain math in layman's terms and it gives me pleasure to see this done well.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Americans have gotten more cynical: The Living Room Candidate project contains a collection of old campaign commercials, ranging from 1952 to 2000. The commercials of '52 and '56 are especially interesting: I was struck by the Eisenhower 'Taxi Driver' commercial of '56 (the very first one in list of Republican ads of '56 if you click on the above link). Here is a rough transcript I made of some excerpts from the ad:

[a man and a dog slowly walk towards the camera]

Come on prince!

[the man leans over and pets the dog]

Come on, you little mutt!

[he stops and reclines against a lamp post]

[romantic music starts]

I've been drivin a taxi here in Washington for quite a few years. Every day, I pass this corner a dozen times and never
even notice it. But every night, when Prince takes me out for my evening walk, I always stop when I reach this particular spot and
look over there at that house.

[camera cuts over to a shot of the White House]

There you see the lighted windows. A neighbor of mine lives there; yep, Dwight D. Eisenhower. A man with the most important job in the
world today. What do you suppose he is thinkin about over there, right now, at this very minute? Maybe things thousands of miles away from here...

[camera cuts to a series of pictures: soldiers marching in a file, barbed wire, helicopters landing, battleships sailing, followed by a shots of mao tse-tung giving a speech]

Anywhere in the world, wherever some crisis is startin to threaten everybody's future -- Egypt, Formosa, East Berlin -- theres a dozen places where real trouble can break out -- thats why we all depend on Ike so much. He can stand up to Khruschev and those fellas... he's a big man. He's used to handling big problems.

[camera switches to pictures of factories: workers entering a building, glass smelting, furnaces burning, assembly lines at work]

Or maybe he's thinkin about the folks who work every day in factories and offices or drive taxis. Of course mine isn't one of the big jobs in the world, but its important to me. And I got a feelin its important to him. I think he knows all about people like me who work for a living. After all, he was born in a small town. His family was no richer n'mine. He never had no money given to him. Everythings hes had he had to work for. Hes a family man too. He knows the problems of raisin a family and trying to give them the things they need.

Yeah, he might be thinking about a lot of things...

[energetic music cuts in]

Or are we gonna to stay strong?

[camera shows tanks charging forward and planes taking off an aircraft carrier]

The way i see it, theres a problem that absolutely calls for a man with Ike's background as a military leader. He knows what it takes to give us the strength we must have to stay free.

[romantic music cuts in again]

[camera goes back to the man in the lamppost]

Yes, behind those lighted windows is the kind of man history only favors a nation with once in a long, long time. A man dedicated as few men ever are to high principles and human good. A man whose whole life has been given to his country's service; thats why tonight, while I'm thinking of him, I got a feeling hes thinking of me -- and my future, and my familys future.

[man turns to face the camera directly for the first time]

In times like these, so full of perils of peroblems, i'll be honest with you. I need him. Don't you?

[turns to the dog] Come on, Prince. Come on boy.

[walks out of view of the camera]

That last line about needing Ike is particularly difficult to stomach. Interesting how cynical we are now -- such a commercial would never be aired today -- and how naive we used to be.

A fascinating article in the New York Times details the recurrent attempts of authors to post anonymous reviews of their own books on (link via

Saturday, February 14, 2004

1988 Redux: It seems that the Republican leadership has decided the key to winning the presidency is attacking John Kerry as weak on defense. From Friday's New York Times:

Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been giving speeches around the country detailing Mr. Kerry's votes on military and intelligence programs, including his 1984 opposition to the missile defense program promoted by Ronald Reagan and his 1991 Senate vote opposing the use of force in Iraq.

One Republican ... who is running for statewide office in Nevada, said he attended a meeting where officials from the Bush re-election campaign urged Republican candidates not to talk about [Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War]. "Basically, they're saying don't bring up veterans' issues and don't bring up Vietnam; our surrogates will take care of it" said the candidate, Ed Gobel.

Today's New York Times follows up:

In a White House that resists analogies between Mr. Bush and his father, [Bush strategist] Mr. Dowd scoffed at the notion that Mr. Bush would run against Mr. Kerry the way his father ran against his Massachusetts opponent in 1988, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

"...compared to John Kerry, Mike Dukakis is mainstream. Michael Dukakis was a governor who balanced a budget. I don't remember Michael Dukakis ever advocating defense cuts, and I don't remember Michael Dukakis ever advocating against cuts in taxes."

He doesn't remember Dukakis advocating defense cuts?

Let's review what happenned in 1988. Dukakis was an (initially) attractive candidate who at one point in the campaign led Bush in the polls by as many as 17 points. Yet Bush ran a brilliant campaign which painted Dukakis as a Northeastern liberal who is too far from the political mainstream to effectively represent America. GOP ads stressed the rampant crime in Massachusetts, the "revolving-door prisons," and, most importantly, Dukakis' opposition to many cold war defense projects. The most remembered Bush commercial is the infamous tank ad --- which can be viewed here (click on 'select a video format') -- that showed Dukakis posturing in a tank while overlaying a list of defense projects Dukakis opposed onto the screen. The list, incidentally, was inaccurate and contained proposals Dukakis supported. The ad, nevertheless, reasonated with the voters; Dukakis never managed to explain it away.

The tank ad later came to symbolize the campaign as a whole: a publicly inept move by Dukakis skilfully used by the Bush campaign to reinforce the impression that Dukakis is just too out of touch.

This is why it's downright hilarious to hear GOP strategist Matthew Dowd claim he doesn't remember Dukakis advocating defense cuts. Its clear from the Gillespie/Dowd quotes that the Bush team is planning 1988 redux: Kerry is to be attacked as a Northeastern liberal who cannot be trusted on national security and cannot understand the concerns of the common man.

Will it work? Your own Detached Observer does not think so. The main event of the last year -- the one the voters are going to remember -- is the failure to find WMD's in Iraq. Attacking Kerry as weak on national security will only serve to reinforce the Democratic claim that Bush took the nation to war under false pretences. Bush is better off changing the subject.

Friday, February 13, 2004

This is going to be one of those links-only posts. Here are some articles available online that you may find worth reading:

-- Helena Echlin's engrossing account of graduate study at Yale: How Yale Strangles English.

-- Thought Reform 101, a deeply disturbing article by Alan Kors on the Orwellian practices of today's college administrators.

-- Norman Geras explores sexual etiquette.

-- According to Virginia Postrel, the reason we are so fat has something to do with economic progress. Artilces like this are the reason I feel I missed my calling in economics.

-- Daniel Drezner on why concerns about economic inequality are misplaced.

-- An interesting profile of Hugh Hefner in the Washington Post.

-- An interesting profile of John Ashcroft in the Manchester Guardian.

-- Advice on how to beat your wife in the London Telegraph.

-- An ESP experiment by University of Wisconsin physics professor Cliff Pickover.

-- Princeton math professor Jordan Ellenberg on Congress' growing polarization.

-- I've always had a soft spot for Darth Vader. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one.

-- An article on prejudices in small Louisiana towns in the context of the Blanco-Jindal gubernatorial election.

-- It just goes to show you, looks just aren't that important.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

It's interesting how people in newly liberated societies -- Iraq now or Eastern Europe in the early 90's -- tend to place economic well-being above fundamental freedoms. The following is from an Iraq correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, interviewing a bookseller on a busy Baghdad street (link via Daniel Drezner):

"Freedom is good and not good," Nowfal grumbled, hunching his shoulders against a cold wind. "The good thing is that now you can express yourself. You can read whatever you want. But the bad thing is competition. There are a lot more bookstores, a lot more people selling books, and prices have gone down."

A few other veteran booksellers shared his dismay, recalling the days during Saddam Hussein's regime when they got high prices for forbidden books about politics or Shiite Islamic topics.

"Now you have bad people," complained Hussan al Fadhli, a seller of maps, among them a large, colorful 1990 chart that showed Kuwait as an Iraqi province. Bad people, he explained with a scowl, are merchants who do not respect each other and offer price cuts to customers....

From Yahoo's Notable Quotes:

Perhaps the genitals have not been named before in such a straightforward and open manner in works of mass media and art in China.

-- Zhang Baoquan, head of a real estate investment firm that owns the Beijing Today Gallery, after a production of the controversial women's rights play "The Vagina Monologues" was canceled in the Chinese capital.

Listening to some conservative Republicans, it seems as if there's absolutely nothing that can't be blamed, one way or another, on the eight years of Clinton-Gore. With this in mind, I should not have been surprised to stumble upon this. How can these guys keep a straight face?

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

On Meet the Press on Sunday, the President engaged in the following repartee with Tim Russert:

RUSSERT: But your base conservatives--listen to Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation,
Cato Institute--they're all saying you're the biggest spender in American history.

BUSH: Well, they're wrong.

RUSSERT: Mr. President...

BUSH: If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.

As Andrew Sullivan documents in this column, this statement is patently false. In fact, spending has skyrocketed under Bush; this is especially disheartening given that spending growth was under control in the Clinton administration.

What is ironic about all this is that its coming from the man who promised to restore integrity to the White House. Instead, we get a series of misleading statements about the U.S. fiscal situation -- not to mention the WMD flap.

If conservatives were outraged at Clinton for lying about his sex life, why aren't they outraged at Bush? Isn't lying about the budget -- and perhaps even about the reasons for going to war -- a tad bit worse than lying about the interns you frolic with?

There is one thing I intensely dislike about the Democratic primaries: Al Sharpton's presence. Sharpton made a career of fiery racist demagoguery -- from defending alleged rape victim Tawana Brawley, whose story was later proven to be a hoax --to inciting crowds to anti-Jewish violence.

Yet in the Democratic primary debates, Sharpton is treated as a legitimate candidate. Worse, he is usually the center of attention; he is loud, he is bombastic, and he is not given to the verbose, evasive style of the other Democratic candidates. He sets the tenor of the debates. A casual viewer tuning in would immediately notice Sharpton's extremism, not the careful moderation of (most) of the other Democratic candidates.

Peter Beinart writes on Sharpton in last week's issue of The New Republic:

Midway through last Thursday's Democratic debate in New Hampshire, co-moderator Peter Jennings decided to have a little fun with Al Sharpton. The reverend wants to be treated as a serious presidential candidate--even though he has never held elective office, has visited New Hampshire only four times (twice for debates), and has offered no real policy proposals. So Jennings decided to play along. If "you have the opportunity to nominate someone to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, what kind of person would you consider for the job?" the ABC News anchor asked. "You can name someone in particular, if you have someone in mind. And maybe just take a minute or so to give us a little bit about your views on monetary policy."

If anything, Jennings's curveball succeeded too well. Sharpton, confusing monetary policy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), responded with a broadside against "the IMF and the policies that are emanating there." To make matters worse, Fox's Brit Hume followed up a few minutes later with a question about how President Sharpton would handle Iran. The reverend's answer this time was only slightly more coherent. "I would support the U.N. to try to bring about some kind of stabilized order there," explained Sharpton...

Is he confusing Iran with Iraq?

I have previously discussed the interviews Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly gave to Terry Gross on
NPR's Fresh Air. Franken and O'Reilly and political opponents who frequently take cheap shots at each other; while Gross was very aggressive and hostile with O'Reilly, she let Franken have a pretty easy ride. The interviews are available in Real Audio format here and here. NPR came under some criticism following the interviews and ended up issuing an apology of sorts. Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's official ombudsman, wrote that the listeners were not well served by this interview.

I'm glad someone at NPR has the good sense to say so. But the Dvorkin piece, which begins in an honest and objective manner, soon degenerates into anti-O'Reilly invective. Dvorkin, in a number of asides, criticizes O'Reilly aggressive interview style and approvingly quotes the following letter from a listener:

I was astonished that you had Fox's Bill O'Reilly on. I have never been able to tolerate more than a few moments of his programs...all his on-air shouting is unsupportable. That being said, I really think you were baiting him...These louts and loudmouths deserve being embarrassed in public, I guess. But to hear you do it is somewhat unsettling. I would expect that if YOU ever went on his program, he'd do something similar to you. I guess what I'm saying is that I expect them to be that way and am generally glad that you aren't.

Does NPR's apology-of-sorts really need to include so many cheap shots at O'Reilly?

More importantly, it misses the point. The O'Reilly Factor on Fox gives its viewers controversial opinions. Fresh Air on NPR sounds like news.

Tune in to Fresh Air and at the top of the hour you will be treated to 15-20 minutes of news; this is followed by longer news-style reports, general interest items, and interviews. I might tune into Fresh Air and by the time the O'Reilly interview comes on, I might be under the illusion that I'm listening to an impartial news broadcast.

O'Reilly, on the other hand, is upfront about his biases. When you tune into his show, you don't expect to hear a balanced portrayal of the world's events; no, you see opinions, you see multiple hosts insulting each other, you see O'Reilly making the case for causes he agrees with and criticizing causes he doesn't. O'Reilly makes no pretense of being impartial.

This is why you can't apply the same standard to O'Reilly and Terry Gross. No, there is nothing inherently wrong with being tough on some people and easy on others; but if you do this, you are not in the business of delivering news. NPR just doesn't seem to understand that.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Hull is most animated by those aspects of campaigning that can be quantified and formulated. "Politics is very unpredictable," he told me. "More so than blackjack." I asked if he could really write an algorithm to help win the election. His face lit up and his press secretary winced. "Sure!" he replied. He reached for my notebook and began scribbling as he spoke: "You'd create a persuasion model based on canvassing that says 'the probability of voting for Hull is ...' plus some variable on ethnicity ... with a positive coefficient on age, a negative coefficient on wealth, and that gives us an equation...' Sure enough, a lengthy equation unfolded across the page that to my untrained eye looked like part of the human genetic code:

Probability = 1/(1+exp(-1 x (-3.9659056 + (General Election Weight x 1.92380219) + (Re-expressed Population Density x 0.00007547) + (Re-expressed Age x 0.01947370) + (Total Primaries Voted x -0.60288595+(% Neighborhood Ethnicity x -0.00717530))))

Hull looked pleased. "Thats the kind of innovation I will bring to problems in the United States Senate."

-- From Joshua Green's profile of Bill Hull, a Democratic candidate running for a Senate seat, in the January/February issue of the Atlantic Monthly .

In the last post I criticized Peter Singer's new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization. The book does, however, make one trenchant observation I have not seen elsewhere: the events of September 11 are historically similar to the assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on the eve of World War I.

Singer writes: Despite the clear evidence of the involvement of Serbian officials in the crime -- evidence that, historians agree, was substantially accurate -- the ultimatum Austria-Hungary presented was widely condemned in Russia, France, Britain, and the United States. "The most formidable political document I have ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent," the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, called it. The American Legion's official history ... used less diplomatic language referring to the ultimatum as a "vicious document of unproven accusation and tyrannical demand." Many historians studying the origins of the First World War have condemned the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum as demanding more than one sovereign nation may properly ask of another. They have added that the Austro-Hungarian refusal to negotiate after the Serbian government accepted many, but not all, of its demands, is further evidence that Austra-Hungary, together with its backer Germany, wanted an excuse to declare war on Serbia...

Now consider the American response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The demands made of the Taliban by the Bush administration in 2001 were scarcely less stringent than those made by Austria-Hungary in 1914. (The main difference is that the Austra-Hungarians insisted on the suppression of hostile nationalist propaganda. Freedom of speech was not so widely regarded, then, as a human right) ... Yet the U.S. demands, far from being condemned as a mere pretext for aggressive war, were endorsed as reasonable and justifiable by a wide-ranging coalition of nations. When President Bush said, in speeches and press conferences after September 11, that he would not draw a distinction between terrorists and regimes that harbor terrorists, no ambassadors, foreign ministers, of United Nations representatives denounced this "vicious" doctrine or a "tyrannical" demand on other sovereign nations. The Security Council broadly endorsed it, in its resolution of September 28, 2001. It seems that world leaders now accept that every nation has an obligation to every other nation of the world to suppress activities within its borders that might lead to terrorist attacks carried out in other countries, and that it is reasonable to go to war with a nation that does not do so. If Kaisers Franz Joseph I and Wilhelm II could see this, they might feel that, since 1914, the world has come round to their view.

Monday, February 02, 2004

I have great respect for Peter Singer. Singer is a professor at Princeton University who has generated much controversy with the pro-infanticide positions he has taken in many of his works. During my sophomore year in college, I read Singer's Practical Ethics -- a book about ethical reasoning from a Utilitarian perspective aimed at the general public. I thought the conclusions reached were intriguing; I appreciated the logical nature of Singer'swriting. I never sympathized with his critics -- they seemed to lack the intellectual gravitas to take him on.

Recently, I picked up Singer's new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization. It is a foray into economics and political science -- and after his previous works, it is a disappointing experience. Perhaps personal ethical problems like abortion and euthanasia can be handled through Singer's abstract approach; but Singer becomes hopelessly unrealistic when he tries to approach pragmatic issues.

For example, Singer writes ... the Clinton-Gore administration made it very clear that it was not prepared to risk the life of a single American in order to reduce the number of civilian casualties. In the context of the debate whether to intervene in Bosnia to stop "ethnic cleansing" operations directed against Bosnian Moslems, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quoted with approval the remark of the nineteenth-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, that all the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single one of his soldiers. Bismarck, however, was not thinking of intervening in the Balkans to stop crimes against humanity. As Chancellor of Imperial Germany, he assumed that his country followed its national interest. To use his remark today as an argument against humanitarian intervention is to return to nineteenth-century power politics, ignoring both the bloody wars that style of politics brought about...and the efforts to ... find a better foundation for peace and the prevention of crimes against humanity

Singer proceeds to approvingly quote Timothy Garton Ash: It is a perverted moral code that will allow a million innocent civilians of another race to be made destitute because you are not prepared to risk the life of a single professional soldier of your own .

First, I am obliged to point out that Colin Powell was not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Kosovo war as Singer implies. Powell resigned from the Joint Chiefs in September of 1993; the Kosovo campaign took place in 1999.

It is difficult to know what to make of Singer's argument. Clinton's decision to avoid deploying ground troops was not driven by ethical considerations; it was driven by simple pragmatism. The American people would not support an operation which sacrifices American lives for humanitarian reasons; Clinton found this out in Somalia. Faced with a choice between an air war and no war at all, Clinton correctly chose an air war.

It Singer means to address the attitude of the American people, rather than the choice made by the elected officials, then its difficult to view his diatribe as anything except a refrain aimed at human nature. After all, this is not an American trait; every culture is the same way. I doubt many Kosovars would be willing to risk their lives in a risky venture to stop an American civil war for purely humanitarian reasons.

And if it is a refrain against human nature, I feel it is a waste of my time. Yes, people are selfish; did I really need to pay $21.95 for Singer's book to learn that?

More on Franken and O'Reilly: Al Franken's new book, mentioned in the previous post, makes some criticisms of the popular Fox News host Bill O'Reilly: O'Reilly lied about past awards his shows have received, O'Reilly is a bully, O'Reilly is incapable of taking a joke. O'Reilly published a book soon after Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them came out; his book is called Who's Looking Out For You?

Both Franken and O'Reilly appeared on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross to promote their books. O'Reilly ended up walking out of the interview claiming a double standard was used: while he was peppered with tough questions, Franken was not asked anything controversial. Gross denied any bias on NPR's part.

Lets compare the questions, shall we?

To Franken :

Q: How did you come up with the title [of your book]?
Q: You wrote a couple of things about O'Reilly....I'm going to
ask you to choose one of these things [and tell about it].
Q: Read some sections of your letter [to Attorney General John Ashcroft] about abstinence.
Q: What do you think of Arnold Schwarznegger's [1970's
Q: Do you feel like you've gone from being a comic and satirist
to ... being a lot more in politics that you would have
liked to be?

To O'Reilly :

Q: Why did you sue Al Franken?
Q: You were interviewing the son of a man killed in the world
trade invited him to tell his point of view
on your show and then you kept telling him to shut up.
How much of that is theater and showmanship?
Q: You are basically calling [Janet Maslin, a New York Times
book reviewer] a character assassin who was
unleashed on you by the Times!
Q: How did you make the mistake of registering Republican?
[O'Reilly has publicly claimed he did not know he was a
registered Republican]
Q: Do you think it might have a chilling effect on book
reviewers to know that if they give you a bad review, you
will be mocking them on your show?

Sometimes its difficult to deny conservative claims of liberal media bias.

I recently read the hilarious Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken. The book is a criticism of conservative pundits, ranging from Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg to the cast of Fox News. In many ways, the book is a sequel to Franken's earlier Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot which attacked the right wing talk show host. Franken is a talented comedian and reading his books is a real pleasure.

That's not to say that I am convinced by everything Franken has to say. Franken would have you believe that his books are satirical, ridiculing the dialogue that permeates the political spectrum. Example: when Franken got into a heated argument with Sean Hannity (who used to work for Rush Limbaugh), he claimed that his ad hominem attack on Limbaugh was justified because it is a ridicule of the kind of attacks that Limbaugh himself makes.

The same argument has been used to shield Franken from criticism of Lies. For example, during an NPR interview Fox News host Bill O'Reilly got into the following exchange with NPR's Terry Gross:

O'Reilly: Why [were you not as tough on Al Franken as you are on me] ?
Terry Gross: Well, Al Franken had written a book of political satire...

The implication is that Franken, as a satirist, should not be subjected to the same rigorous standard. But Franken's books are not works of political satire. They are real -- albeit humorous -- criticisms of Republican methods and ideas. The books do indeed have parts that are genuinly satirical; but these parts make up only a small percentage of the total text. Mainly, the books are full of serious criticisms: Ann Coulter lies, Bernard Goldberg is a disgruntled ex-employee, O'Reilly is a bully who cannot take criticism, the Bush administration squandered the post-9/11 good will.

Yet when someone accuses Franken of going over the top, the response is You just don't get it. Its satire. I can't help but feel its a cheap rhetorical device designed to avoid criticism.