Archive for September 2010

Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.

September 28, 2010

Much amusement is being had over the story about how little believers know about their own religions (and less about anyone else’s) compared with atheists and agnostics.*

Here’s my  favorite line in the New York Times piece on the Pew study various blocs’ knowledge:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” [American Atheists president] Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing.

I’d just like to point out to you that Albert Einstein, who did not quite call himself an atheist, made a similar point more than sixty years ago.  In his “Autobiographical Notes” (he described as  “something like an obituary,” Einstein remembered his approach to and then rejection of revealed religion — a journey accomplished by the time he was twelve years old.

In telling how he banished himself from what he called “the religious paradise of youth,” Einstein recalled his brief exposure to traditional Judaism, mandated by the Bavarian educational system that in the late nineteenth century required that all students undergo formal religious training.  Here’s how that experience played out, at least in the remembrance of that child-Einstein’s 68 year-old heir:

Even when I was a fairly precocious young man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.  Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase….As a first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.  Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity…

And it was an appreciation of traditional religion, not the rather loose God-in-nature talk of his later life.   His sister, among others, reported that Einstein absorbed both the formal outward signs of Jewish observance — cajoling his parents into forgoing pork, for example — and an inner emotional commitment that manifested itself, briefly, in spontaneous expression like composing religious songs on his way to school. And then it all…

…found an abrupt ending at the age of twelve.  Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively frantic [orgy of ]** of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies…

That reaction, which Einstein reports initially seemed tragic (“a crushing blow” is the phrase he used — in German, niederschmetternder Eindruck) grew less as he discovered the consolation, the reward of scientific inquiry.  He wrote, in one of the most beautiful scientific credos I know,

“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation [italics added].

Note, contra Silverman’s natty soundbite, it wasn’t just handing Einstein a Bible that made an impact, it was Einstein’s capacity to compare that text with experience.  Which is what I think Silverman was trying to say.

Just two more things:

First, three cheers for science writing!  It got Big Al off the schneid,so it must be worth doing, right?  Or so we here at MIT Science Writing do avow.

Second:  science, the investigation of “this huge world,…which stands before us like a great eternal riddle,” is liberating. Or, to use the word that describes what I feel when I encounter an intricate elegance or a grand idea, it exalts.

Which, for all the social value that I believe writing about science does indeed have, is really why I do this job.

*And Jews and Mormons, though I have to pause before touting the quality of Jewish religious education if the numbers on those who can correctly identify the faith professed by Maimonides are to be believed.

**the translator’s interjection, not mine.

Images: August Allebé “The Butterflies,” 1871

Gerard Dou, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” c. 1665

Sunday Post — The Horror, The Horror: Mr. Spock, Bilbo Baggins, and the Worst Song Ever Recorded

September 26, 2010

Unwatchable.

Leonard Nimoy, singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.”

Once you watch it, no amount of bleach will wipe your mind clean.

Your brain will explode.

Grotesque.

You have been warned.

Sunday Post on Crypto, Trust, and Political Action on the Web — Outsourced to David P. Reed

September 26, 2010

I’m a lurker (mostly) on a listserv for MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media (C4), which pops up some fascinating discussions about news, social networking, and political life on and through the web.

Recently, there was a flurry of posts on the announcement from the Haystack that work on the system designed to encrypt and obscure the source of internet communications in Iran had halted.

That announcement was followed by the effective end of the project, which had aimed at providing political dissidents secure ways to communicate.

That sequence of events led to considerable back and forth among the C4 community, in part looking at the perennial problem of hype in the tech/software world outpacing reality.

The more significant strand to the convesation (it seemed to me) focused on something else: the underlying issue of whether or not it is possible to produce a genuinely secure set-up that could enable the kind of sunlight the Iranian dissidents sought (and needed) and their supporters outside Iran hoped to provide.

That’s something of obvious (again, to me) importance, especially in the context of the broad privacy-for-connection trade-off we are all committing ourselves to these days.

In that vein, MIT (and much elsewhere besides) computer scientist  David Reed weighed in with the crucial observation, which he kindly gave me permission to post below.

The shorter, just to get you going: computer/information security depends on two factors: the technical/technological and the human.  The strength or lack thereof of one factor does not alter the qualities of the other.  Therefore, no technological approach to information security (on which, in the Iranian case and many besides, lives depend) can provide genuine safety.

Key quote (from David’s conclusion):

Here’s the problem, then: we can’t even *talk about* the technology clearly, because we want to impute properties of perfection, goodness, morality, etc. to it.

And now to the whole thing:

Poking around a bit more on the [Haystack] controversy, let me suggest that it has roots back to anon.fi (the original “Swedish” anonymous remailer).  I (not so publicly) questioned crypto-activist friends promoting anon.fi at the time regarding their promotion of use of that service, given that their was no way they could *personally* assure us that anon.fi was not a trap placed carefully by one or more government or quasi-government agencies.

The response I got was that it was based on public key crypto, and the guy operating it was a “good guy”.

In other words – the crypto (which was undoubtedly strong, and open source) and the “goodness” of the guy were given equal weight, and both had to be working to ensure privacy of communications.  Despite most of these friends, who were well-known political activists, never having met this guy personally!

Here’s the problem, as I mentioned in part in my invited talk at USENIX Security this year:

Humans are prone to the “fallacy of composition”.  That is, there are certain properties of systems that don’t pass from the parts to the whole.  (the parts may all have X, but the system as a whole does not, OR the system as a whole can have X, when none of the parts have X).  Yet it is common for the brain to reason: “because one or more of the parts have X, the whole has X”.

Security is a set of qualities that are not composable.  They just aren’t.

We buy into the fallacy of composition because we (Hilary Clinton, the press, …) want to believe that we can fix a problem merely by using some wonderful “part” – in this case Haystack.

So where I’m going with this is that perhaps before we start trying to find “blame” in this hype-fest, we start by asking the question:
is it possible for someone to supply “security” in the form of an Internet service OF ANY KIND (open source or not, tested or not) that meets the goals?

Because security is not composable, the answer is NO.

So why are we beating up Haystack?  It can’t do the job, and one can tell just by looking at it from the outside – recognizing that any such system entails the fallacy of composition in many, many ways.

Is Tor better?  Not really.  If it had been reported like Haystack, it probably would have been “exposed” in the same way to have weaknesses that are honestly expressed by its own developers.  Would the developers have succumbed to the temptation to provide the “money quotes” supporting the hype?

What if Tor had been used by Iranian dissidents?   Given the weaknesses, surely they were putting their lives at risk due to its weaknesses, just as if Haystack were used.

I’d suggest that there is very little light, and a lot of heat, in the blogosphere and the press about this technology-centric view of political action.

There’s something broken in a world where someone can say with a straight face the phrase “liberation technology”!   Technology cannot be measured in that dimension in general, and if we are talking about the “fallacy of composition”, it applies hugely to the dimension of “liberty” (which has become a right-wing word) or “liberation” (the left-wing word).

Here’s the problem, then: we can’t even *talk about* the technology clearly, because we want to impute properties of perfection, goodness, morality, etc. to it.

To put all this another way, there is an old spook joke about secrecy and security:

How can you tell if a secret is safe?  If only two people know it…

…And one of them is dead.

My thanks to David for his willingness to share these thoughts to an audience beyond the C4 gang.

Image:  Henri Regnault, “The Spy,” 1880.

David Brooks is Always Wrong Too: Why Does Brooks (And The Republicans) Hate Contracts So Much?

September 24, 2010

DougJ over at Balloon Juice highlights this latest bit of sleight of hand from that genial con, David Brooks:

Financiers send the world into recession and don’t seem to suffer. Neighbors take on huge mortgages and then just walk away when they go underwater.

Now, I’ll have more to say about this column, as it is yet one more textbook case of bad faith, ignorance and, I’d wager, deliberate, useful error. (There’s a nastier term for that, but people of Mr. Brooks delicate constitution tend to faint when Anglo-Saxonisms slip into the discussion, so I’ll let y’all fill in the gaps.)

But here I just want to say something that seems to me so obvious that I hadn’t bothered to point it out yet.  That is, the difference between the two poles of this false dichotomy lies not just in the kinds of disparities Doug points out:  financiers who get rich by destroying the fabric of civilization are not quite the same as individual home-owners.*

Rather, or additionally the nature of the act committed by a financier betting the firm (but not his compensation — see Michael Lewis’s The Big Short for blood-pressure raising details if you are interested) is fundamentally unlike that performed by a mortgage borrower dropping her or his keys.

The financier has obligations — fiduciary ones to investors, and social ones that derive from the claim that finance plays an essential role in building a prosperous society — the argument used to justify outsize compensation and the rest.  There are legal ones too:  no fraud, no insider dealing and the rest.  This raft of requirements add up to a duty of care that our robber barons clearly failed to meet over the last few years.  They broke the social compact, and they continue to do so, IMHO.

Home owners, mortgage holders, by contrast, have a very specific set of obligations, defined in a contract.  Failure to perform their commitments under that contract carry specified, limited consequences, known and agreed to by both sides.

Anyone whose bought a house knows this very well; dealing with all this is why a closing takes a couple of hours, 975 signatures (I made that number up) and so on.  You learn that you are bound to pay the mortgage as scheduled, pay your taxes (when not escrowed), keep insurance on the property and so on.  If you choose or are compelled to cease to do so, the lender has certain rights, of which the chief is to seize the property on which it holds the mortgage.

That is: you don’t pay, they get your house.  That’s not a moral failing (unless the lender defrauded you, of course — or you lied to your bank); that’s a contract.  You can pay or not, and different outcomes, spelled out, result from either of those actions.

It’s a contract!  We love contracts, property rights, the rule of law — don’t we?

No we don’t.

Not if “we” happen to be conservative, especially if we slip into the skin of a faux “values” arbiter, or a glibertarian.  Contracts have two sides — but Brooks, and folks like Megan McCardle, who predictably wrote similarly breathlessly about the bad behavior of folks exercising their rights under perfectly clear (standard!) contracts a while back, only recognize that part of the contract that benefits the approved parties, the rich, the powerful, the institutional.

Surrendering a house that you cannot pay for may reflect all kinds of things about you personally:  everything from your status as one of millions of collaterally damaged folks undone by global financial disaster and global economic shifts to your actions as a lying scumsucker of a social climber taking advantage of easy money to live high for a few years.  (In which case more than ever, caveat lender.)

No where along that spectrum though, is that behavior anything but perfectly acceptable under the long-held practices of a contract-ruled social and economic system.  That’s a little different from what the banksters did:  stack up a huge pile of dry wood (the financial system, overleveraged through derivatives created for no economic purpose), add gasoline (an insurance scheme that had no actual solvent counterparties guaranteeing loss payouts) and then stand around flipping glowing butts at the pile just to see what would happen.

That Brooks refuses to see the difference between individuals acting as their legal constraints permit them, and those who thus played chicken with the entire global banking system is a measure of his mind.  To me, it says that he is a shill, a hack, a dishonest broker.  YMMV.

*Demonized here as deluded climbers — the “huge mortgage” trope.  If you actually start digging into the numbers that’s bullshit, as one might guess considering (a) the source and (b) the fatuous blanket quality of the statement.  This is a Brooks tell, how you know that he is a propagandist, and not an original thinker.  I’m still tracking down precise data, but a place to start to get a handle on mortgage size and delinquency would be this HUD report to Congress on the root causes of the foreclosure crisis.  A key point there:  it was house price appreciation, not the magnitude of the price of a given home, that seems to have driven the bus when it comes to the collapse of the bubble and the foreclosure crisis.  Brooks is doing a shifty bit here, that is, blaming individual moral failings instead of the much more complex and society-wide issue of why prices rose so unsustainably.  That has obvious policy implications, which is the point: Brooks plays a clever game, and it takes some digging to get past the easy and plausible generalizations with which he masks his real aim.

Marty Peretz is a Disgrace — To Civilized Company and to the Tradition He Purports to uphold.

September 23, 2010

Warning: no science, not much politics (directly) and some religion (even Bible!) below.  Enter at your own pleasure.

Even with my prior post, I am disgracefully late in weighing in on the ugly case of Marty Peretz.  I felt, as James Fallows originally did, that the appropriate response for civilized people was obvious, had been made, and needed no further comment.

Plus, I was just saddened by Peretz’s disgusting statement that prompted this latest examination of one of the worst people in American public life.  When he writes “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to other Muslims.’ This is a statement of fact, not value.”…what more is there to say?

This is, or ought to be, unforgivable speech, by which I mean not that Peretz doesn’t have the right to dispense it, but that a healthy society would condemn it so swiftly and so thoroughly that there could be no ambiguity about what we as a culture and a polity think.

All this is by now familiar to those who have chased Peretz’s malign vision through the blogs these last couple of weeks.  What strikes me now is the complete cluelessness — and worse, moral degeneracy — of Peretz’s attempts to place that vision in the context of Jewish religious practice.

Peretz has now made, by my count, two attempts to apologize.  The first was, let us say gently, less than persuasive. Not only did Peretz there reaffirm his conviction that Muslim life is, as a matter fact, of lower value than yours or mine, but as James Fallows notes, did not even seem able to take responsibility for the sins he did acknowledge. (See the remarks at the end of the linked post.)

That was pathetic.  Peretz’s second attempt was more interesting, and in the end, more infuriating, at least to me, with its cloaking of religious unction, and a fundamental misunderstanding (to put the best possible light on the matter) of the actual demands of the Jewish tradition.

Here’s what he said:

This is the eve of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Introspection is the order of the day. The Jewish tradition divides sin into two categories, sins against God and sins against man, and insists that God can forgive the former but not the latter, because only the sinned against have the power to absolve the sin. This is why the asking of forgiveness is an act of supreme importance in this season. I myself have much to ask forgiveness for, and much of this asking will be done in private, as is appropriate. But there are sins that are committed in public, and in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters. I do not console myself that many other Americans at this moment are committing the same transgressions, against others. I allowed emotion to run way ahead of reason, and feelings to trample arguments. For this I am sorry.

This sounds good, sort of, better at least than Peretz’s prior attempt.

But as he instructs his readers about the demands Jewish tradition places on its heirs, he makes a cardinal error or two. (Couldn’t resist that one.)

For one:  Peretz is correct that the asking of forgiveness is an essential act in the atonement required of Jews at this season.  But doing so, of course, requires an accurate understanding of the wrong committed.  Peretz asserts that his problem was one of language, of the words chosen out of emotion rather than reason.

It was that, of course, and more:  rating lives cheap is not simply mean; it is dangerous.  An apology for such a statement, at least as I see it, can’t confine itself to the “sticks and stones…” formula of saying one should have found better words to express oneself (or even that one should have thought better thoughts before consuming one’s Bruno Magli’s).

Rather, it has to encompass that actual jeopardy in which it puts real people.

That is:  Peretz didn’t just say he thought Muslims were hateful, bad as that would be as a blanket statement. Instead he flirted with declaring open season on a billion and half human beings.

But even had he gone to what the actual meaning is of his “wild” language (nice euphemism there, doncha think?) Peretz still failed to achieve the atonement to which he so piously aspired.

Why?

Because Judaism is a religion of works, not faith.  See, e.g. Micah.  All that is required to lead a good life is to…

…do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.  (Micah 6, v.9, in the King James translation)*

That is:  act well in the world, from within in a defined moral or ethical perspective (the justice/mercy dichotomy that recurs a lot in  Jewish writings, especially those connected with the Day of Atonement).

In that context, Peretz’s “atonement” is hollow, ineffectual, because he did not include all the required acts.  He apologized; he used a formula in words. He did not, and has not yet to my knowledge, gone the next, necessary step:  making good the damage done.

Don’t take my word for it, of course.  I am not a halachic Jew (far from it) and I am no religious scholar.  But the texts here are pretty clear.

For example  here’s one summary of Jewish traditional thought on repentence:

Repentance was the indispensable condition for all the various means of atonement. Repentance must unquestionably accompany a guilt or sin-offering (Lev. v. 5; Maimonides, “Yad,” Teshubah, i. 1). Penitent confession was a requisite for expiation through capital or corporal punishment (Sanh. vi. 2; Maimonides,ib.). “The Day of Atonement absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person be secured” (Yoma viii. 9). Hence the custom of terminating on the eve of the fastday all feuds and disputes (Yoma 87a; Maimonides,ib.ii.9et seq.)

Unpacking that:  repentence, regret, acknowledgement of the sin are all necessary. They are not sufficient.  A guilt offering (in the days of sacrifice), or, ever since the seventy first year of the common era,  the pardon of the offended persons, an acknowledgement of adequate redress, is required to make the combination of thought (repentence) and deed (the acts required to secure pardon) sufficient to secure atonement.

Peretz knows this.  Hell, if he goes to Yom Kippur services he hears it at least once a year in the most solemn of Jewish settings, when the time comes to read this passage from the Book of Isaiah:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.  (Isiah 58, v. 5-8, King James version.)

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not remind Peretz of just a little bit of scripture that bears directly on both his recent gaffes (remembering that a gaffe in his circles is the unintended revelation of what you really think) and on the spirit of the Day of Atonoment that he invoked. Isaiah is a rich and complicated book, and for all the furor and violence in some of the prophecy, there is a very clear view of a divinity not simply concerned with being the totem of a single people.  Therefore, it seems on point to remind Peretz of this passage:

be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance. (Isiah, 19, v. 23-25.)

Trust me.  For most of Isaiah, and most of Jewish scripture and traditional memory, Egypt and Assyria are not exactly personae gratae.  But here it is:  Egypt and Assyria and Israel, linked in the prophet’s testimony by the most intimate of bonds.

Peretz seems to have missed that part in Sunday school.

Enough.  This is, in some sense, insider baseball.  In any event, I’m not a person of faith; I’m not observant, and I’m certainly no scholar of Jewish texts and practice.  But if Peretz wishes to place his acts in the context of the tradition he and I share, then it seems to me that its worth checking the sources.

And having done so, here’s the bottom line:  Peretz’s talk of the requirements of atonement is a blind.  It is a distraction, a way to suggest that after all, he’s not such a bad guy, and that he has done what is required to repair the damage he has done.

He has not.

I wish him all success in his efforts to make things right with his divine judge.  As he notes, that’s a private conversation.

Beyond the bounds of that relationship, I hope that I commit no wrong to him or anyone when I say that this world, the one in which we all live and words are weapons, would be better served if he just shut up.**

*I use the King James version and not translations from Jewish sources because, it is such a mighty instrument.  The English language is a glorious noise, and one of its greatest sources is that rolling play of words and rhythm that is the King James Bible.  I can’t help it, but I love its sound more than that of the more accurate and more modern ones.  So there.

**And, yeah, I mean getting his paws off TNR. Pace Sully and the rest, I am not among those who think the discourse or journalism would suffer if TNR got quiet.  The reverse, rather, IMHO.

Images:  Vincent Van Gogh, “A Pair of Shoes” 1887.

Benjamin West, “Isaiah’s lips annointed with fire” before 1820.

Premature Friday Stuff Post on The Latest Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us

September 23, 2010

Journalism Barbie.

See Amanda Hess for commentary, Xeni Jardin for pile-on snark, and a tip 0′ da chapeau to twitter feeds frinMIT SciWrite alumna @EmilyAnthes, @JenLucPiquant and @alexwitze for the heads up.

Why We Don’t Have A Better Press Corps: Howie Kurtz, Helen Thomas, and Marty Peretz edition

September 21, 2010

I’m preparing a belated longer post on Marty Peretz latest self revelation as a man no civil society should acknowledge.

But for now, I just want to post w/out much comment the last graf from today’s Guardian article on objections emerging at Harvard to the notion of accepting the donatino that would create an academic chair named in Peretz’s honor. Chris McGreal, a Guardian Washington correspondent asked the correct question:  given the storm that blew away Helen Thomas’s career over her nasty and foolish comment about Jews going home to Germany and Poland, why wasn’t the American media roasting Peretz for his much more grotesque claims — as in his statement that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to other Muslims,” and that “this is a statement of fact and not value.”

That question is, of course even more pointed when you realize, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, that Peretz is vicious and broad sprectrum bigot who has been spewing this crap for decades.  Most important from my point of view, is that he has been doing so from his position as owner of an influential opinion magazine, which means that Peretz’s contemptible behavior has significant potential impact on real people’s lives.  Again, see TNC for a taste of the kind of journalism Peretz presided over, and its implications for actual human experience.*

So why not?  Let’s turn to the man who may well be the top arbiter of the Fifth Estate’s behavior within the inner circle of Washington Village media.  Here’s The Guardian’s reporting on Mr. Howard (“he playing dead”) Kurtz’s reaction to Peretz’s outbursts:

Howard Kurtz, the media editor of the Washington Post, was among those journalists critical of Thomas, suggesting that she should “go home” to Lebanon and that she is a heroine to Hezbollah. Asked why the mainstream media has largely ignored Peretz’s views over the years, Kurtz replied: “I’m afraid I just haven’t focused on the subject.”

Graham Greene in Our Man in Havana caught the essence of what’s going on here in a passing conversation between Jim Wormwold — a vacuum-cleaner salesman pretending ineptly to be a spy — and Captain Segura, the Cuban policeman who suspects him of potentially fatal fecklessness.  Late one evening, Segura educates Wormwold on the ways of the real world:  there are those who are members of the tortureable class — Greene had a gift for the diamond-cut phrase — and those who aren’t.

Peretz is such an untouchable, and he trades on his membership in the in group which protects even its brutes, the non-torturable elites for whom actual damage is always someone else’s problem.  Kurtz’s studied and careful assertion of meticulously nurtured ignorance is just how its done:  get used to it, folks.  TheVillage protects its own.

Peretz is beyond shame at this point in his life, I feel pretty sure, though I still believe that the proper response of anyone or institution that wishes to be thought civilized is to shame and shun him.

But I’m a fool and I still hold out hope against all evidence that a media that once aspired to”comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable might yet find a way to express outrage at the thought of justifying the murder of innocents. (If that seems strong, ask yourself what “Muslim life is cheap” actually means.)

I should know better by now.

Which is why Mr. Kurtz cannot bring Marty Peretz into sharp focus.  And that is all ye need to know about why our democracy is in such trouble.

To channel Brad Deling (sic…! heh.) Why, oh why can’t we have…hell just a clear eyed press corps.

*All of which is to say, no sympathy here for notions that, as Sullivan has argued, we should give Peretz a pass for his contemptible and cowardly attempts to relegate 1.5 billion people to the role of the expendable other, just because he published some of his favorite Harvard students writing “edgy” stuff, nor for Jack Shafer’s “that’s just Marty being Marty” apologetic.  Jack argues that if we choose to contemn Peretz for his, in essence, incitements to violence now and over a decades-long career, “let’s make ourselves uncomfortable by also acknowledging his contribution to journalism and thought.”

When your contributions to journalism includes the trifecta of a completely fabricated attack on black New Yorkers in the notorious Glass taxi piece, (see TNC above); the credulous and quantitatively illiterate pimping of the attack on people of African descent the world round represented by The Bell Curve, and the actually deadly destructive coverage of the Clinton health care reform, I’m afraid I can’t feel uncomfortable at the thought that public discourse and America itself would have been better off if Marty Peretz had not completed his one true success in life:  marrying enough money to indulge his vainglorious proprietorship of TNR.

Image: Hieronymous Bosch, “Table of the Mortal Sins (Hell),” 1500-1525.

Friday Stuff: xkcd to the rescue

September 17, 2010

As I contemplate the contemplation of last year and next, with papers due by sundown tomorrow, no extensions, this old xkcd ‘toon struck me just right:

Happy Friday, all, and to those thus embarked, an easy fast.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: On So Many Axes It’s Hard To No Where To Start/Outsourced Edition.

September 17, 2010

Yes, this will be largely outsourced, but just to get everyone in the mood let me quote from the introduction to Andrew Bacevich’s important new book Washington Rules (about which I’ve been blogging a bit this week).

That introduction channels (and explicitly cites) Henry Adams on the subject of education, which in both men’s tellings tends to begin only when one discovers the capacity to break free of the fetters forged through years of imbibing truths too obvious to be examined.

As Bacevich quotes Adams, “Nothing is so astonishing in education as the amount of ignorance accumulates in the form of inert facts.”

That revelation prompted this next reflection.  I want to emphasize that the identification of it with Megan McArdle is all mine — Bacevich bears no responsibility for that specific connection.  But as I read his couple of sentences describing those who attempt to get ahead within the Washington establishment by showing existing powers how perfectly you can recite your lessons, it seemed to me to describe McArdle to a tee.

Bacevich writes that:

Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes.  It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Bacevich is a better man than I am: he writes to warn, to educate.

I don’t, at least not here.

I think Megan McArdle is past instruction.  She has made her petty-Faustian deal with the the little Lucifers of DC, and it is my bet that when the bill comes due, it will be far too late for any education to have effect.

Which leads me to today’s update in the Always Wrong™ chronicles.  This one belongs almost entirely to Susan of Texas, the stalwart at The Hunting of the Snark who has more stamina than I will ever have in documenting the case study in the death of American journalism that is the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic (sic!). (h/t TBogg).

Basically, McArdle links to a post citing an anonymous source accusing HHS Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration of silencing a critic — a health insurance company — through the threat of regulatory retaliation.

Astute readers would (and did in McArdle’s comment thread) smell the obvious rat.  McArdle has long since demonstrated that she will say anything, no matter how risible, to defend her required position that the health care bill is an abomination (i.e. required by her overlords. See “promissary notes,” above).

So it comes as no surprise that she would leap at the attempt to advance the radical right-meme that government regulation = government jackboots at the door of innocent corporate citizens.  But given the convenience with which this post supports the pre-existing narrative, those who are familiar with her work know that one’s must needs check each claim.

Which her commenters do, admirably, and which Susan O’T meticulously chronicles. Go read Susan’s work — it’s fun.  Here I’ll just give you the short form, and one thought (all I got left on a busy Friday morning.)

Shorter:  McArdle takes another writer’s claims based on a “vetted” anonymous tip that a health insurance company has been silenced by a “gag order” issued by the  government.  Turns out (a) the “threat” was a widely publicized letter Secretary Sebelius sent to the head of the health insurance lobbying organization saying, in effect, that as the law requires, that insurers will be subject to regulatory review of potentially unjustified premium increases, and if that review returns confirmation, sanctions will follow.  To which she added the warning that falsely claiming that the new health care law drove the increases would not turn an unjustified increase into a justified one.

Now, you might not like it when a regulator in your business says the regulations apply to you, but McArdle had a great deal of difficulty explaining to her comment thread how this was a gag order — and in particular how this bore, at all, on her imputation that the administration was trying to suppress political speech (“dissent” in her grubby appropriation of a word whose associations with the to-her foreign concept of courage she seeks to steal).  Basically, she just made that bit up.

Actually, McArdle more or less told her readers right up front that she was doing so.  Susan noted that McArdle’s discussion of the so-called gag order began with this phrase:  “Whatever the facts….”

My FSM!  She might as well have taken out an ad in Variety to shout that this was all bullsh*t.

I’m sure no one reading this will be surprised to learn that the facts aren’t with her.

The health insurer in question, when finally contacted by the initial poster denied the existence of the gag order.  That blogger excused his error by saying that it seemed likely to him that the adminstration might threaten someone, and that if they had, and succeeded, the gag order would have prevented the company from telling him so. Sic.

McArdle ultimately updated her post to reflect this fact, after being contacted directly by the company in question.  She added this remark:

I shouldn’t have linked the HCSC situation to Sebelius’ letter, which I’ve been meaning to write about for days; I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t, for which I apologize.

Uhhh…”I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t?”

Is is it just me or is she telling us here that she is functionally illiterate?

How many other things can those words mean than the one we all assumed she was talking about: that someone with power uttered a command to someone else to shut up?

Of course, this is really just word salad, the one dish I know that McArdle knows how to whip up.

Her problem was that she committed a fundamental journalistic sin in a journalistic setting.  She got something big wrong, and even admits, within the body of the piece, that she didn’t even try to get it right.

Remember: McArdle accused the Obama administration of doing something very bad that it did not do.   She used words like “creepy” and  “thuggish” to describe this alleged exercise of totalitarian power.  There is nothing here that turns on a misunderstanding of the phrase “gag order.”

Instead what you see McArdle doing is to mask this great sin with a lessor one: I’m sorry, dude, but I just didn’t understand the vocabulary.  And the dog ate my homework.  And I was kinda right anyway.

To put it another way:  honest folk don’t have to make such excuses.

Last (hell of a shorter–ed.):  Whatever else happens, remember that Megan McArdle is not a journalist.  She is a shill.  A journalist would, affirmatively, actually report on claims before publishing them.

They’d ask. They would, at a minimum, read something as brief as a letter with some attention and care.

(Again, I’m just gobsmacked by that “I took the words…to mean” line.  Bluntly — if you can’t read declarative sentences in plain English with reasonable comprehension, then journalism is the wrong trade for you.)

Negatively, of course, “journalists” who routinely get basic facts in their stories wrong get fired.

If The Atlantic were even vaguely serious about its own reputation as an elite journal, it would react to the damage that McArdle daily does to the reputation of that publication and all who publish there, even those who are truly excellent writers and thinkers (thinking of you, James Fallows and TNC).

Again, there’s a simpler way to put it:  someone who can write — and not quail at pressing the upload button — the phrase, “whatever the facts”…

…is unworthy of your trust.

Image:  “Chiron instructs young Achilles,” fresco from Herculaneum.

Pope Blames Atheism For Holocaust

September 16, 2010

Really.  He did, right up there on his hind legs in front of the Queen and England and all.

Here’s the Guardian’s excerpt of the relevant remarks:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live,” he said.

“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious people who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society …”

I’ll still attempt to be slightly cagey about my own place in the unbeliever-believer-crazed religious fanatic spectrum (remember, I said “slightly”), but as I sit here near the end of the Days of Awe, reflecting on who among my friends, colleagues and acquaintences I need to ask forgiveness for what acts committed over the last year, and thinking about what I wish to think about tomorrow at the beginning of the Day of Atonement, I can be clear about this:

For this Pope — anyone, really, but especially this ex-Hitler youth Pope — to tell me or anyone that the problem of evil can be explained away by blaming those who do not believe, is an abomination.

That’s high-falutin.  Let me try again in more simple language.

Asserting that the Holocaust is in essence the punishment unbelievers bring on the world is a variation on the blame-the-victim strand in writing on this evil.

Ben Zion-Gold, the rabbi who married my wife and me, is a Holocaust survivor.  He lost his entire family in the camps.  He has spoken about the viciousness of this line of explanation, and of the destructiveness of it to any claim for the value of revealed religion.  No god worth believing in can be imagined to use the faithful instrumentally, as lives that must on occasion be snuffed out, no matter what their individual worth, to serve the greater good.

Bluntly, I’d say Christian Europe has a great deal of introspection yet too do on the entanglement between religious commitment and the Holocaust (and much else besides.)

The Pope is correct that a few priests and other ministers resisted Nazi demands.  He omits other, less convenient facts. And in the end, the point remains:  it wasn’t atheists that set the Holocaust in motion, nor atheists who devastated Rwanda, nor pagans who massacred my own country’s native Americans, nor … you get the idea.

It was Germans, it was Rwandans, it was devout colonial Protestants (first, in my home area of Massachusetts) and so on.  Individual agents, many of them by their own lights wholly religious people, have over history committed crime after crime after crime.

If you want to say that the intellectual context in which they lived mattered to their crimes, if the ideas that animated them helped drive their actions, well and good.  But then a measure, just a tithe, even, of intellectual honesty would note the Christian strains in the context of so many mass killings, including the Holocaust.

Please note, in this argument, I am explicitly not doing what Pope Benedict has done:  it was not aggressive Christianity that caused the Holocaust, any more than did “extremist atheists” (whatever that vacuous phrase might mean).

Hitler and his circle set it in motion, thousands of Germans, many of them Christians, some of them not, and many more allies and collaborators, executed it, and millions across Europe passively enabled it — and unless we confront the specifics of how each of those levels of engagement emerged, operated, and convinced itself of the tolerability of the actions involved, then we are left undefended against any repetition.

In that context, Pope Benedict’s vicious nonsense on this matter only deepens that vulnerability.  (I.e., rooting out “atheism” is not, IMHO, going to reduce the risk of the next genocide.  It is far more likely to be the occasion for it.)

Enough.  To put it as plainly as I can:

When the Pope tries to use the sufferings and death of millions (of Jews!) to advance his claims of Christian truth, then he is himself committing an act of moral viciousness.

The Jews of Europe, and the gay men and women, the gypsies, the Slavs and all the rest murdered by the Nazis did not die so that Joseph Ratzinger could try to shift the focus of moral attention from what actually happened — including the entanglement of religious believers in the Nazi program — to what he wishes we would believe happened.

Instrumentality again: those deaths, no one’s death, should be morally available as an means to advance some other program.

Joseph Ratzinger should be ashamed of himself.


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