Thursday, October 13, 2016


The expression "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is wrongly attributed to Walt Disney, but it does encapsulate a very real part of his outlook, and of the American outlook more generally, and it must be admitted that when used in moderation, this perspective can have wonderful results. The proper understanding of this expression is as a hyperbole intended to free us from the shackles of stupefying habit.  It becomes a serious problem, though, when it is taken as a simple, unvarnished truth.

For one thing, it is clearly impossible for it to be true for everyone, because one person's dreams often contradict another person's dreams.  Jeb Bush dreamed of winning the US presidency in this year's election, for example, but he could not do it because enough other people had different dreams.  Likewise, some things are simply physically impossible.  The character Superman is after all the embodiment of the dreams of his creators and developers, but most of what he does is absolute nonsense.

It is a good thing that "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is false.   For one thing, it is good that our dreams are not limited to the things we can do -- "a man's reach should exceed his grasp."  Much more importantly, though, anyone who is able to look at himself at least somewhat honestly knows that absolute power would corrupt him absolutely, destroying his character, making him an enormous threat to others, and ultimately making him miserable.  This has been treated many times in fiction -- notably in the Star Trek episodes "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Charlie X", the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", and even the Ring of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

Although we are not actually omnipotent -- and that is a good thing -- there remain two possibilities for those who cling to the idea that "if you can dream it, you can do it":  we can either prefer to live in a world of "pure imagination" in preference to reality, or we can reject the existence reality altogether and claim that we are compelled to construct our own "realities".  The latter approach has grown in popularity and seems to be the unquestioned metaphysical position of the millennial generation.  It is completely ubiquitous in society today; it is even the current metaphysical framework of our legal system, as exemplified by the "sweet mystery of life" passage of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.  America seems destined to be destroyed not by the bang of Armageddon, but by the whimper of Weirdmageddon.

This situation is not unique -- after all, it is just another version of the Serpent's ancient lie that "you will be like God", in this case creating our own "realities" -- but it is exceptional.  In another age, the fact that reality is better than unreality was considered so obvious and important that it motivated the center of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.  (The fact that even most believers in God think the Ontological Argument is flawed does not negate the importance earlier generations placed on reality.)

Astonishingly, a good commentary on all this, and the origin of the term "Weirdmageddon", can be found in the cartoon Gravity Falls, which was produced by none other than the Walt Disney corporation.  Before I go any further, there are spoilers ahead.

The main antagonist of the cartoon is a strange "demon" named Bill Cypher.  The first time in the show's narrative he is summoned, he exits saying, "Remember:  Reality is an illusion -- the universe is a hologram -- buy gold -- bye!"  His whole motivation is a rejection of reality in favor of what he considers fun.  If that means that "[he's] got some children [he] need[s] to make into corpses", well, so be it.  He really is the perfect representation of the Zeitgeist.  The fact that "he" appears on the one dollar bill makes the correspondence all the better.

In order to defeat him, the main characters had to give up their pride and selfishness, which after all are the origins of this war against reality.  Even more dramatically, Mable Pines is captured by Bill Cypher and placed in "a world of pure imagination" apparently suited to her tastes -- though in reality, it is made up of disgusting and malevolent worms that remain disguised until the illusions they create are confronted.  Her twin brother Dipper goes in after her to find his own hopes falsely offered to him, including the opportunity for romance with Wendy, the girl with whom he is infatuated.  He sees through the deception and rejects it.  In the end, both twins have to explicitly accept that the real world, with all its flaws, is better than an "ideal" world of imagination and illusion.  

Gravity Falls would have been an entertaining program even without its relevance, but it turns out to be astonishingly on target, much more so than Walt Disney Inc. can have really wanted or realized, though I have to suspect it was somewhere in the back of the mind of Alex Hirsch, its creator.  I have to credit him with deliberate irony in having Disney pay for and distribute a cartoon that celebrates reality over the lies that the corporation cherishes so much.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A.D./B.C. or C.E./B.C.E.?

It is becoming increasingly common to find dates that have for centuries been described as, for example, "A.D. 1776" or "44 B.C." are now being described as "1776 C.E." or "44 B.C.E.".  Does this new usage demonstrate a greater sensitivity and a more careful, academic approach?

No.  To be perfectly blunt, it is neither more nor less than an anti-Christian bias self-righteously masquerading as intellectualism. 

That is a serious charge, but the facts back it up.  Advocates of the new terminology say that the older terminology is offensive to those who do not accept Christianity.  However,
  1. These same people make no attempt to rename the months of the year, many of which are named after Greco-Roman gods.  How is it that Christianity gives toxic offense, but not Greco-Roman paganism?
  2. The same is true of days of the week:  in English, they are named after Germanic gods.  Again, the people who find Christ offensive seem to think Thor and Wotan are perfectly acceptable. 
  3. Pay close attention to how foreign words and names are pronounced by the "C.E." crowd.  You will find that they go to great lengths to give the native pronunciations, or at least what they think are the native pronunciations.  They often over-correct for Anglicization, but they want it to be obvious that they are so solicitous for cultural sensitivity towards speakers of Arabic, or Hindi, or Japanese, or Mandarin Chinese.  They would not dream of behaving like a European colonialist and appropriating someone else's cultural artifact and then obscuring its origins.  With a few exceptions, that is -- because that is exactly what they are doing when they take the A.D./B.C. calendar system, which is a cultural artifact of Christianity, then try to obscure its Christian origins.  This inconsistency is part of what makes this not merely anti-Christian, but also pseudo-intellectual.
  4. The other thing that makes it only pseudo-intellectual is the contrast with the metric system that is used in all modern science.
    • For one thing, when the French Revolutionaries decided that every vestige of the French monarchy was offensive, they did not simply rename the toise the metre, rename the pinte the litre, and rename the denier scruple the gram.  They developed a completely new system that was intended to be both practical and as nearly universal as possible.  So, for example, the meter was defined to be one millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator, the liter was defined to be one thousandth of a cubic meter, and the gram was defined to be one thousandth of the mass of a liter of water.  Because these units do not show favoritism or hostility to any people or culture, they have been universally adopted in the sciences.
    • As more and more precise measurements have become necessary, the metric units has been slightly altered so that they are defined in terms of experiments that yield consistent values at higher precision.  For example, the second is now defined not by the rotation of the earth, but from the frequency of light emitted by a particular transition in cesium atoms, resulting in more precise and accurate measurement of time.

Deodar section

At least the last two points can be fixed.  If it is decided to move away from the A.D./B.C. system for academic work, my suggestion would be to set year zero to A.D. 775, when intense solar storms left a distinctive mark in carbon-14 dating.  It has been suggested that this event could be used to calibrate tree ring dates from around the world, leading to much more precise dating of events in the ancient world.  This also has the advantage of corresponding to a world-wide physical event, so it is independent of culture and religion.  Also, for simplicity of calculations the years before A.D. 775 should be given negative numbers.  If this system were named the way SI (metric) units are named, it might be named after Andrew E. Douglass, the "father of dendrochronology".  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bad Journalism in CBS Coverage of Donald Trump (2)

Here is a second example, which was actually published the day before the item which drew my previous comment:  "Donald Trump faces new backlash over pitch to black voters".  The problem here is slightly less egregious:  the term "backlash" is misleading.  In fact, the only "backlash" CBS News reports is from Hillary Clinton herself, and since both candidates are bashing and lashing each other as much as they can, this is not the surprise reaction that "backlash" might imply; to me at least, "backlash" implies something of a backfired plan.  A much better example of backlash would be the reaction to Trump's verbal war with the Khan family, which led to groups like the VFW condemning Trump. It's hard to escape the conclusion that CBS News is willing to twist any story they can to portray Trump in a bad light, journalistic integrity be damned.

I understand that they have a class bias against Trump voters, which they take out on Trump himself, but still, there are subtler ways of acting on that bias.

The actual response by Clinton is also worth noting.  All she is quoted as having tweeted was, 
This is so ignorant it’s staggering.
A response like this is typical from left-wingers when they are really unable to give a rational argument against a position, but they still want not only to oppose it, but to pretend they have the intellectual high ground.  (The right has its own version, which is usually a condescending, "I will pray for you.")  But the customer in Monty Python's "Argument Sketch" was right:
An argument isn't just contradiction. ... An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
All Clinton was able to give was a pretentious contradiction. This is extremely disappointing.  The front-runner in the US presidential election should be able to do better than a mere "Nuh-uh!!"

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bad Journalism in CBS Coverage of Donald Trump

I am not a fan of Donald Trump, and both he and Hillary Clinton are too seriously flawed to receive my vote.  That said, bad journalism is still bad journalism, and today's example comes from

Under the headline "Philippines's brash President Rodrigo Duterte threatens to quit the United Nations" we find
President Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed the “Filipino Donald Trump,” pointed to the haunting image of a bloodied child being pulled from the rubble of a missile-struck building in the Syrian city of Aleppo to note the inability of the U.S. and the U.N. to stop such deadly conflicts, complaining that he comes under fire for the killings of criminals.
There is nothing in the story that actually links Duterte to Trump, we are just told that he has been "dubbed" the Filipino Trump.  We are not told who did the dubbing.  However, there is a link, reproduced above, which leads to the May 10 story "Filipino 'Donald Trump' president-elect shows his soft side".  This story also has nothing to do with Trump, his only mention (aside from the title) being here:
The brash Duterte, who has been compared to U.S. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, has threatened to close down Congress and form a revolutionary government if legislators stonewall his government.
Again we are not told who has made the comparison, our only hint (if it is one) being the link to "Commentary: Who might be Trump's VP?" by Will Rahn, the managing editor for politics at CBSNews' digital division.  That commentary, though, makes no mention of Duterte.  CBS News never actually attributes the comparison to anyone, but instead leaves the implication that comparison originated in off-the-record conversations about politics by their own managing editor. 

This is atrocious journalism.  If the comparison had been made by one of Duterte's domestic opponents, it might have been newsworthy; if it had been made by the State Department under Obama or the Clinton campaign, it might also have been worth including.  If it comes from a conversation around the water cooler at the offices of CBS News it is, at most, something to mention in a clearly-labeled commentary or editorial.  It is not worth mentioning at all if it remains unattributed, for two reasons:
  1. it makes it impossible for us to judge the objectivity and credibility of the source, and
  2. it makes it unclear whether the comparison was intended to create an impression of Duterte or to create an impression of Trump.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Why Are We So Polarized?

I've just come across an excellent blog post by Rod Dreher (whom I recommend in general) entitled "Inside The Head Of Trump Voters".  His post is in turn a commentary on a very interesting speech given by Jonathan Haidt to the American Psychological Association.  Haidt has some key insights into the nature of political polarization in the West in general, and America in particular, together with how it has developed over the course of the past few decades -- and he has the statistics to back up his assertions.  The trends are alarming, as anyone even vaguely aware of the last few election cycles will have already guessed.

That's not to say the talk is without problems.  Perhaps the most obvious one is that when Haidt says that the country needs two parties -- one of "reform and progress" (which he identifies as a sort of idealized Democratic Party) and the other of "order and stability" (an idealized Republican Party) -- he restricts the "allowable" options for the country to those possibilities that lie between the status quo of 2016 and the most extreme fantasies of the Left.  There is no room in his schema for the many people who think the status quo of 2016 is already toxic and that the Democrats would only make things worse.  Not only would this exclude millions of people from the process, it would not be possible to go back to undo a mistake, much less to pursue an alternative goal that has never been realized in history but that is not in the direction that Obama and Clinton want to take us.  It would be like insisting that a car must have both an accelerator and a brake, but forgetting about the steering wheel.  I suspect this omission was unconscious; as the statistics and response of the crowd make clear, Haidt spends most of his time in the company of committed Democrats.

Aside from that omission -- the result of a major blind spot -- he tries to be "neutral" in his treatment of the two parties.  Oddly enough, this is also a flaw, because it leads him to completely ignore the competing truth claims.  Haidt must know that many people consider the Civil War to be a necessary price to pay to obtain the good of freedom for the slaves, and that many people consider the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be a necessary price to prevent even more casualties on both sides; he probably believes both these ideas himself.  Granted that the political tensions of today are unpleasant, we still need to know whether they are a necessary price for some greater good -- and we need to know what that greater good might be.

And the fact is that the period of increased antagonism that Haidt chronicles corresponds exactly to the period in which the "party of reform and progress" has "progressed" into uncharted moral waters.  Can it just be a coincidence that the worst polarization in American history since the Civil War begins with the legalization of abortion and culminates precisely with the unprecedented claim that two persons of the same sex can have a real marriage with each other?  Haidt is talking about moral psychology -- his term.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to investigate a link between dramatic changes in moral psychology and dramatic changes in morality when the two happen simultaneously?

Now Haidt would probably say that the laws about abortion and marriage are merely symbolic, but the idea that they don't actually affect the lives of many people is demonstrably false -- as is agreed by those on both sides of the issue.  Regardless, and in spite of the fact that I feel very strongly about these issues, the conflict over both these and many other issues is a consequence of a larger and more fundamental cultural conflict over the question whether or not there is a fixed answer to what it means to be human.  If the answer is yes, then we must abide by that fixed answer, and if the answer is no, then someone -- each individual?  the general population?  elected politicians?  judges?  academia? -- must choose an answer on an ongoing basis.  

It is hard to overstate how much rides on the answer to this question.  If there is no real right or wrong, then "right" ultimately becomes a servile euphemism for the will of the powerful.  Our world dissolves into a nightmare of Nietzsche and H. G. Wells; already we see something straight out of The Island of Doctor Moreau. This is something that transcends the traditional division between Right and Left; during the French Revolution, the Royalists believed that the king was "the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil," and the Revolutionaries believed in the Rights of Man, but they each thought that they were defending ideas that were objectively true.

I don't think many people put all this together, but they sense it, and many of them don't like it one bit.  That is why the changes have lead to such antagonism.  Something fundamental and important is at stake, and both sides know it.  A few awkward moments at family gatherings is not too high a price to pay.

One last thing:  The recent change has all been in one direction, as the Democrats have adhered with increasing fidelity to the idea that human nature is only a fiction and the Republicans have largely moved to take the same positions Democrats held ten or twenty years ago.  This again leaves those who are happy with neither the current position of the Democratic Party nor the position of the Democratic Party two decades ago frustrated and excluded from the debate.  On the other side, it gives proponents of the Democratic Party's worldview the sense that they are on the cusp of a conclusive triumph; they smell blood in the water and want to press their advantage to the maximum.

So yes, there are notable omissions, but it would be a mistake to undervalue Haidt's speech.  No sane person wants these political tensions to spill over into violence, and the statistics Haidt shows are truly alarming.  I have to wonder what similar statistics would have shown on the eve of the American, French, or Russian Revolution.  His advice for toning down the conflict is good, though I don't think it is sufficient to prevent what seems to be a looming crisis.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why Not Try Americans at Guantanamo Bay?

The top story at this morning bears the title, "Donald Trump suggests trying Americans at Guantanamo Bay."  It is a headline intended to shock the reader -- after all, since the administration of George W. Bush it has been American policy that most of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to actions taken by the federal government in its overseas territories like Guantanamo Bay.  [Don't worry, though:  the part that makes the American president commander-in-chief of the American military applies everywhere and at all times, and unlike the Bill of Rights, there is never any talk of balancing this against any other consideration.]  This ends up meaning that "detainees", an Orwellian term if ever there was one, have no status and no rights whatsoever; they are essentially considered non-human, which is very different from how we treat even convicted criminals, let alone prisoners of war.  Guantanamo Bay has become America's oubliette, the place in which we throw people to forget about them.  This has been eased somewhat by the judicial branch, but only over the objections of the other two branches of American government.  

So it is actually quite easy to see why Americans would be shocked at the idea of U.S. citizens being subjected to such treatment by the American government.  The real question is why more Americans aren't shocked that the U.S. government is allowed to do this to anyone.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Scotts Ferry / Dead Lakes People

In my earlier post about James Richards, I thought about including the fact that Scotts Ferry, which is only about twenty miles from the Richards blockhouse, was founded by an American Indian named Jacob Scott and for many years was largely an Indian settlement.  However, it seems that only a few families had moved to that spot by 1849, which is when James Richards died, so this provides little evidence of him peacefully coexisting with Indians after the massacres.  It might seem a little surprising to have Indians move into the area so soon after a war fought over the Removal Act, but the difference seems to be that the newcomers did not try to maintain their own laws and political independence.

Honestly, this whole dimension of the story of Scotts Ferry came as a complete surprise to me.  My parents were married in the Methodist church at Scotts Ferry, and the churchyard is full of my relatives, including my grandfather and grandmother on my mom's side, but I never heard a whisper about the town being founded by an Indian.  Nor was there anything about this in any of the Florida history classes I took as a schoolboy -- classes that, in retrospect, were remarkably lacking in the sort of local information that might have made them "come alive".

The reason appears to be that none of my elders knew that Scotts Ferry was founded by an Indian.  The Jim Crow laws had tended to isolate the different racial communities from each other, and about the time those laws disappeared, the Indians largely dispersed to other parts of the country.  There was a real risk of this chapter of history being lost.

Fortunately, Christopher Scott Sewell and Steven Pony Hill have collected a good portion of this history into The Indians of North Florida: From Carolina to Florida, the Story of the Survival of a Distinct American Indian Community.  My only complaint is that the book suffers from some of the same problems as certain of the historical books of the Bible; lists of unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names can interrupt the flow and distract the reader from the main point of the story.  It is definitely important to preserve the names, but I wonder if some reorganization of the material might have kept a tighter focus that would leave readers wanting to know all the details.  Perhaps some information should have been moved to an appendix or end notes.  Fortunately, the authors have also put up a web page dealing specifically with the history of Scotts Ferry, and gives a much more succinct picture.

As is so often the case with history, it is not a pretty picture, showing the inexcusable discrimination that was entrenched in laws and attitudes and that had much more serious consequences than determining where one sat on a bus or what water fountain one used.  I've known for a long time that there never really was a golden age and that the New Jerusalem will only descend from Heaven at the end of time, but I can't help still being disappointed to discover again and again that we humans have always been a pretty sorry lot.