Zompist's Rant Page : 2004

More occasional saying-things-about-stuff. Yikes, I had twice as much to say in 2002 as in 2003. Maybe I'll write about that. Sometime.

Rants for 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

11 Dec 2004: The mything link
I just struggled through Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. I had heard great things about Campbell-- apparently he's very telegenic-- but the book was really a disappointment (though the last hundred pages worked great as a soporific).

On the plus side, his retellings of myths are entertaining; and I did learn a few things. I like his idea that religion and children's play both make use of the "as if" principle: act as if the wooden block is a witch, or as if the rite will summon a god, and the accompanying experience may become strikingly real. And I'm fascinated by the report that hunting cultures exalt individual visions, while agricultural communities prefer normative priestly rites that build the community.

The problem is that Campbell insists on seeing links which may or may not be there. He wants to reconstruct ancient mythology by comparison, much as linguists reconstruct proto-languages; but it takes very little for him to see a resemblance.

He makes a big deal of snakes, for instance, as they appear in everything from Genesis to Greek myth to Polynesia (where they become eels). But do primitive men really need to borrow the idea that a snake is frightening? (Monkeys seem to have an instinctual fear of snakes.)

He says that Chinese art of a certain period shows elements "derived directly from the West", and gives as an example "the hero subduing beasts". Well, what else are they supposed to subdue, plants? Or again, he suggests that the pyramids of the Maya and the Egyptians are similar, without considering how many basic shapes were available to a primitive people who wanted to create something massive.

I wish Campbell had tried to invent his own mythology, just to see how hard or easy it is to be original. Some of the elements he analyzes for resemblances-- sun and moon, male and female, powerful predators, naked goddesses, the sacrifice of animals or people, resurrection-- are pretty much the raw material of story; I think you'd be hard put to tell compelling stories of gods and origins without these elements-- at least to premodern people. Moderns have too many sources of excitement. In early environments, what would you use to symbolize power more than the local predator, or the sun? What greater mysteries were there than birth and death?

All too often, Campbell doesn't attempt even to justify his resemblances; he just resorts to flat assertion (of the four or five elements: "The systems differ, yet they are derived from the same root.") or frank bullying ("Yet do we doubt that the sense of the two experiences is the same?"). Almost any contradiction can be blithely passed over: e.g. he tells us that a "boar sacrifice, symbolically, is equivalent to the sacrifice of the maiden," even bringing it to our attention that the boar is a male. With rules this lax, what sort of sacrifice can't he declare equivalent to any other?

He strongly suggests (p. 205) that the Polynesians not only didn't stop at Easter Island but settled South America. For this he has to push the Polynesians back as far as they can go (he likes a figure of 1500 BC) and South American agriculture as far forward as possible (he likes 1000 BC). More sober observers have the Polynesians reaching their full extent by 440 AD (McEvedy) and date South American agriculture to 4000 BC (Alden Mason).The bigger problem, however, is linguistic: the Austronesian languages have remained very obviously related, despite their astonishing range of longtude, from Madagascar to Polynesia, and they are entirely unrelated to any South American language family. And South American languages are way too diverse to have developed in just 3000 years.

Even more spectacularly, he interprets the burial sites of Neanderthals as being continuous with the rituals of the Ainu-- a jump of half the world and at least 40,000 years.

I'm not trying to disprove (or even disbelieve) any particular theories of contact. But extreme diffusionist theories strike me as incredible, because they contradict the many known historical cases where different people came up with the same idea-- Leibniz and Newton inventing the calculus, for instance, or Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga working out renormalization in quantum mechanics.

Even more than this, to believe that any similarity must be a borrowing strikes me as an insult to human creativity-- or as frank racism, especially as the usual diffusionist story seems to require that the Old World teach the New. Isn't it a few centuries too late to be holding that the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas weren't bright enough to come up with the major ideas of civilization without instruction from wandering Old Worlders?

4 Nov 2004: Follow-ups
Nope, looks like it didn't work. (And spinn voted, though he doesn't think it mattered.)

I'm not looking forward to more Bush, but I take comfort in a somewhat Leninist reflection: the far right is its own worst enemy. Kerry would have had a very unenviable job, being the grown-up after four years of irresponsibility. At least to a little extent, Bush will be the one in charge as the country starts paying for his mistakes.

Reflections for liberals: Don't overindulge the paranoia; we're still a democracy, and we weren't robbed, just beaten. The best revenge is winning next time, and there's a very good though somewhat old-fashioned strategy for that: getting more votes. The Democrats have a good message that appeals to 49% of the population. They need one that appeals to 5% more. Better candidates would help: you gotta admit, both Gore and Kerry were stiffs. But getting that extra 5% will require a disproportionate amount of reinvention and rethinking. Ted Rall is, to my mind, more on the right track here than Michael Moore. That is, instead of just attacking Bush-- nice idea, but obviously not an election-winner-- we need solid proposals aimed squarely at the middle class.

Reflections for conservatives: Be happy, but not too much so. Here's something to reflect on: increases in the popular vote in second-term presidential elections since 1900.

1916 Wilson +7.4%
1936 Roosevelt +3.4%
1956 Eisenhower +2.2%
1972 Nixon +17.3%
1984 Reagan +8.0%
1996 Clinton +6.3%
2004 Bush +3.1%
That's a pretty subpar second-term boost; and the absolute percentage (51%) is not exactly a historical mandate either. Even more sobering, let's look at what happened to the winning party in each of these cases in the next election:
1920 Cox -15.1%
1940 Roosevelt -6.1%
1960 Nixon -7.8%
1976 Ford -12.7%
1988 Bush -5.4%
2000 Gore -0.9%
2008 ?? ??
In other words: though we're not quite as quick to do it as the French, Americans tend to punish political success. Win two terms, and your only hope in the next election is that the other side nominates a complete maroon.

Don't count on us choosing Hillary; we're much more likely to take William Saletan's good advice and choose John Edwards.

1 Nov 2004: Your chance to slap Bush in the nose with a rolled-up newspaper
Well put:

But while [Bush] claims to be a love-your-enemies Christian and a keep-the-government-off-my-back Republican, he and his administration have repeatedly led the country into actions that are neither what Jesus nor the Economist would do. --Paul Boutin at Slate
The Economist in fact endorses Kerry. Nice rag, the Economist; reading it makes an American feel he actually lives on a planet.

And Mickey Kaus redeems himself with a very pointed metaphor:

I'm continually amazed that bloggers, of all people, don't appreciate the way intensely motivated individuals, operating without centralized state (or any other) control, can be empowered by new technology to do us tremendous harm. To put it in mundane current blogospheric terms, when it comes to preventing future attacks, the terrorists will more and more come to resemble bloggers in their pajamas and America will come to resemble CBS. That's not a position we should be comfortable in. (Yes, it may be hard for small groups of non-state bloggers to develop nuclear weapons. But it might not be hard to acquire nuclear weapons. And bioweapons may well be developable by alarmingly small groups.)

If all Kerry does is lower the hatred level while making the best of Iraq (and continuing to pursue Al Qaeda) he will have done his job.

I've worried a lot that the Democrats made a big mistake this year nominating a nonentity. But perhaps it was a canny move; running a nonentity means that the election is more or less a referendum on George Bush. And in many ways that's as it should be. He's destroyed our finances, imperilled Social Security, lost jobs, lessened the rule of law, decreased our security from terrorism, cheapened political discourse, and spectacularly bungled the most important attempt to reshape world affairs in a generation. Less important than "Bush or Kerry?" is the question "Does this record deserve to be rewarded?"

Well, tomorrow we'll see if it worked.

23 Oct 2004: Mini-rantage

6 Oct 2004: iTry iTunes
After a few days switching between my Age of Empires II and music disks, I realized that my Mac, with 38G free, was virtually pleading with me, with big liquid eyes, to load all my CDs into iTunes. Doing so has two other advantages: I can skip the songs that suck (e.g. most of Björk); and I can play them randomized.

For your edification and amusement, here's the last 10 songs I've been listening to.

Now if only I could get my records on here.

25 Sep 2004: Liberals fighting back
In today's depressing political climate, I'm heartened by two books. One is Homegrown Democrat, by Garrison Keillor. If I were George Bush, this book would worry me. When Garrison Keillor is mad at you, you're in trouble. It's like earning a sharp reprimand from Mr. Rogers.

Keillor is eloquent on the old-style, Christian decency that underlies the Democratic Party; his book is an excellent answer to those malicious hotheads who smear liberalism as against "family values". As he puts it:

[Minnesota] was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You're Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have-- a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. ...Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that's why they shot them-- those are not Minnesotans.
The other book is Wake up... You're Liberal! by Ted Rall. From Rall's fiery reputation I expected him to be an unrepentant Red, but in fact his biggest advice to Democrats is to back proposals that solidly benefit the middle class. His suggested wish list: universal health care, raising the minimum wage (and indexing it to inflation), reining in college tuition, mandating vacation time for all workers, attacking price fixing, pulling back on globalization, federalizing education funding, and criminalizing spam.

I don't know if I'd come up with the same list, but I think he's on to something. Liberalism won great victories in the New Deal and the civil rights movement, and while it was in power America surged forward in prosperity for everyone, rich and poor alike... but the electorate's question is always "What have you done for me lately?" We can choose from about three basic strategies:

  1. Move to the right to play catchup with the Bushites. A dangerous game: the right is better at being right-wing than Democrats are, and the strategy risks turning off everyone who actually wants to live in a progressive country.

  2. Be vaguely oppositional till Bush has bankrupted the government, impoverished the middle class, and restored the conditions of the 1910s. Then traditional liberalism can get back to work restoring our lost liberties and prosperity. I know too much about Latin American history to sign on to this one: minoritarian oligarchies can hang on to power for centuries.

  3. Counter-attack with programs aimed at the majority of Americans. Rall's method. Of course, it would generate a lot of noise from the consies: you tax-and-spend liberals! But it would turn their own tactics against them; let's put Republicans in the position of voting against health care and for spam.
Curiously, though Rall is generally angrier, Keillor rants better.
Republicans have perfectly nice manners, normal hair, pleasant smiles, good deodorants, but when it comes down to cases, you do not want them to be monitoring your oxygen flow: they will set it to the minimum required to sustain basic brain function, and then they will recite a little prayer for you. They are a party that is all about perceptions, the Christian party that conceals enormous glittering malice and is led by brilliant bandits who are dividing and conquering the sweet land I grew up in. I don't accept this.

We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. This is a year for passion.

14 Aug 2004: Sadr but not wiser
George Bush was never very good at explaining why he wanted to go to war against Saddam Hussein-- Blair was better at that-- but what he has completely failed to do is explain why we're at war with Muqtada al-Sadr.

Does al-Sadr have the nukes and plagues that Hussein didn't? Is he invading his neighbors? Is he torturing Iraqi citizens? How did this two-bit firebrand nobody in the world had heard of a year ago become an enemy of America?

He's wanted on suspicion of murdering an ayatollah, of course. In other words, he's a thug; and with his little army he has aspirations to being a local warlord. But why isn't this a local criminal matter, beneath the attention of a superpower?

Wars generate dark ironies; one is that Iraqi nationalists are now called "anti-Iraqi forces". Fox News might paint the struggle as against terrorism; but what we're really facing in Iraq-- and Afghanistan-- is warlordism. Fallujah, for instance, is a hotbed of potential warlords, where no one is anyone if they don't have an armed gang of hotheads at their command.

Bush's war seems to be on automatic pilot. We don't feel we can leave until we've "restored order"; yet our very presence guarantees disorder. On the other hand, leaving would just give the incipient warlords leave to move against each other.

Some people maintain that our only hope in the Mideast is to instill democracies there, starting with Iraq. Abstractly, they may be right. But abstractions and hope mean nothing without realism and planning, and these seem to be of no interest to the Bush team. The goal is too muddied, for one thing: the aim is simultaneously to produce a popular state, a reliable ally, and a profitable vassal. Pick one, perhaps; you can't have all three. And you can't get anywhere wearing blinders. It's time to stop pretending that the mission is "accomplished", or that appointing Iyad Allawi prime minister brought "freedom" to Iraq, or that you can bring democracy to people by shooting at them.

Iraq is not Vietnam; but it isn't WWII Germany or Japan either. To Americans, the two-month blitz that won Baghdad was a spectacular demonstration of US power; indeed, I hoped at first that our technological superiority might begin to make dictatorship untenable. But the very speed of the takeover may be our undoing. Germany and Japan surrendered after long years of fighting; they knew that they were well and truly beaten. All too many Iraqis obviously feel that the struggle has only begun.

We have to ask, of course, whether a President Kerry would do any better. He's not a crusader like Bush-- but that's all to the good. Bush would forge ahead full steam on his three contradictory courses; one can only despair at what damage he could commit in another four years. Kerry, by all accounts, believes in conciliation and the rule of law, and I trust in that far more than the Republicans' alternating currents of macho aggression and otherworldly idealism. As with the economy, we need above all to have a grown-up in charge. And Kerry is the only one in the race.

29 Jul 2004: How to lose your comparative advantage
The New Yorker must read this page-- the issue that arrived last night has a fascinating article on outsourcing, by John Cassidy. As a summary:

The usual economic argument for free trade is based on 'comparative advantage'; I won't explain it here, but the gist is that countries will do well if they concentrate on what they're best at-- even if 'best' isn't absolute. Outsourcing is said to benefit the country as a whole, because companies and consumers benefit from the lower prices.

This conventional wisdom is now being challenged by some economists. It's certainly wrong on the micro level: regions depressed by outsourcing don't necessarily recover at all; workers who do find new jobs take an average 13% pay cut; undercut suppliers go out of business. And the long-term effect of a sharp international wage differential is very likely going to be lower wages in the richer nations.

Outsourcing can be overemphasized. Back in the 1990s, I didn't think it was a huge problem, not because I wasn't affected, but because unemployment was reaching lows not seen for a generation. Job loss seemed like something of a bogus issue when more people were working than ever before.

It doesn't seem quite so benign during a recession or jobless recovery. A current estimate is that we're losing 100,000 jobs a year to outsourcing-- a fraction of the job creation numbers (112,000 in June), but a significant one. And it's growing; some estimates put it at over half a million jobs a year by 2010.

Of course, outsourcing makes people yelp louder now that it's hitting higher-paid industries like IT. I understand the schadenfreude as wealthier workers hit misfortune; but come on, the loss of high-paying jobs is pretty clearly a bad thing for the country. And it points to a deeper problem.

19th century Marxism expected that firms would grow till they had maximized production, then experience a crisis. This didn't happen, at least in the US, Europe, and Japan-- we've gotten richer and richer with (on the historical level) mere blips of setbacks.

This isn't some sort of universal economic tendency; countries can and do experience permanent crashes and slides into poverty. The usual answer is that Western economies have evaded the Marxist prediction by continually inventing new ways to grow: new industries, new ways of doing things.

To maintain a high-wage economy, then, we have to continue to be the world's productivity leader. But just as other nations learned manufacturing and then knowledge-based work, they're learning productivity and innovation. Cassidy points out that the percentage of American articles in top physics journals has declined from 61% to 29% in the last two decades; while since 1969, the U.S. high school completion rate has declined from 77% to 72.5%. Are we headed in the right direction?

27 Jul 2004: Why Bushonomics matters
One reason I'm taking politics a little more personally these days: it's affecting my working life more than ever.

I picked programming as a career because I thought it'd be interesting and well paid-- and it was, till the mid '90s. Since the '80s I think the business class in this country have waged a long-term war against the middle class, attempting to beat back our expectations about salary, career path, hours, job security, benefits. Stressed-out workers are cheap and docile, unlikely to vote assistance to those worse off, and easily riled up on cultural grounds. The information sector held out longer than most, but it's not holding out much longer.

All this is why I'm immune to most conservative and libertarian appeals: you want my life to suck, and the lives of everyone I know as well, just so absurdly rich people can have even more money? Wha-a-a-at? (And don't tell me that the executives take risks or build the organization. I respect the guy who built this organization a lot, but he's gone. He was forced out; the execs didn't like him because he wouldn't tell them what they wanted to hear.)

You won't find this talked about much during the election, and frankly a President Kerry would have an uphill battle facing down these trends. But the Republicans, starting with Ronald Reagan, have dedicated themselves to encouraging the trend, giving business everything it wants, and opposing every protection and benefit workers and their families have. And they'll continue to do so, as long as they can throw out enough side issues to distract the electorate from what's happening.

24 Jul 2004: Uncomfortable resonances
Jonathon Kwitny's 1984 book Endless Enemies is on my desk, and idly browsing through it, I came across some passages that now, twenty years later, have an unwelcome irony.

This hostility was not expected by the soldiers who poured south out of the Soviet Union...The Russians apparently believed that Afghans would receive them as protectors and liberators. Soviet officers wandered into Afghan cities as their men did, in search of recreation, but found instead quick death or narrow escape.

Even after the popular hostility became so evident that the Soviets had to retreat to camp and hunker down, they continued to delude themselves. Who can accept being hated by everybody? Who can accept that everything his leaders have said is wrong? They rationalized that the opposition was coming from a minority of Afghans, who were merely extraordinarily active.

...The tiny band of native Afghan communists had kept their own, similar delusion alive even long after their coup d'etat of April 1978 had fallen under widening siege.

...Probably no one in the Kremlin had guessed how big a commitment it would take to subdue this little country, if indeed it could be subdued at all. With another can of worms open in Poland, the whole Soviet military apparatus was in danger of being tied down. From all evidence, it had been a giant miscalculation.

Oh, well, that happened to the Russians; nothing to learn there. But there's also this poignant comment:
Another theory you can hear is that Afghans have always reacted unpleasantly to foreigners. This is said to account for the fierceness of their attacks on Soviets. But an American reporter traveling outside Kabul in 1980 couldn't ride a bus without being offered oranges, candy, bread, or whatever else was handy, by fellow passengers. He couldn't walk down a street without shopkeepers bidding him in for pots of tea. Strangers constantly offered friendly greetings.
Why are things different today? There are many reasons, and by no means are all of them the fault of the Americans. But Kwitny's case against adventurism is full of lessons for today, not least because the embarrassment of the Soviets in Afghanistan that he describes led directly to 9/11 and the Iraq war. We gave in to the temptation to meddle, to stir up trouble for the Soviets; creating a jihadist army seemed like a good way to do it. And those jihadists ended up killing more Americans than the Soviets ever managed to.

17 Jun 2004: Gidget and Gaza
I have a free subscription to the World Jewish Digest-- a reward for having a Jewish-sounding name. It's often interesting, though it can be very parochial... though you can learn interesting stuff from other people's parochialism. For instance, Gidget, the original California surfer girl, was Jewish. Who knew?

Unsurprisingly, they have a lot of articles, and a fairly wide range of opinions, on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.. They bring up some points or issues that I haven't seen addressed in non-Jewish sources, for instance:

On the other hand, there's an awful lot of hand-wringing along the lines of "Why does everyone hate Israel, it's an outpost of civilization and these people aren't interested in peace and we're just victims of terrorism exactly like 9/11." Well, no. The US, at the time of 9/11, wasn't trying to rule and colonize a swath of Arab land and intermittently lobbing missiles and tanks at it. Stop doing that, Israel, and you might see attitudes change.

Of course, the Palestinians have done no better. With Oslo, they had the chance to get their own state, develop an economy, even have peaceful, unwalled borders with Israel. They squandered the opportunity, opting instead for permanent confrontation, a policy which presumably plays well in the immediate political situation, but condemns the Palestinians to more decades of impotence and impoverishment.

Well, this is getting depressing. Back to ethnic tidbits: apparently most of the hummus sold in this country sucks. They say the brand with the authentic Middle Eastern flavor is Sabra's.

6 May 2004: Throwing the game away
What were they thinking?

OK, I say that about Iraq a lot. But I don't think this is just another bad week; this may well be the week where Bush lost Iraq, and perhaps the Presidency.

There's a train-wreck fascination to William Saletan's piece in Slate juxtaposing, in chronological order, reports on the torture of Iraqi prisoners with blithe assurances from Bush and Rumsfeld that there are no more "rape rooms and torture chambers" in Iraq. And the excuses have plumbed new lows-- e.g Rumsfeld attempting to claim that what took place is "technically different from torture", or explanations that the guards were "not adequately trained." As Phil Carter says, "You don't need to know the rules under the Geneva Convention, and you don't have to be a lawyer, to know that it's wrong to shove a chem light into a detainee's rectum and take a picture of it."

The problem isn't just liberals clinging to outmoded notions such as human decency. On the narrowest front, there's a very good reason armies are well advised to follow conventions on the rules of war: the other side takes prisoners too. I was gobsmacked to read in someone's blog that "the 'outrage' from the 'Arab Street' is a bit much". Think two seconds about what American reaction would be if Islamist guerrillas published pictures of naked American prisoners in sexually humiliating poses. I don't think we'd be hearing about "fraternity hazings" then; we'd be mounting tank attacks.

The bigger problem is that the torture is going to discredit American ambitions in the entire Arab world. About the only justification left for the war is the humanitarian one: get rid of a torturing dictator and bring democracy. It does not look good, to put it mildly, when the torture continues, and it will only make the next question more obvious: where's the democracy?

Did the neocons ever mean what they said about democracy in the Middle East? Or was it like Richard Nixon's description of the U.S.-installed dictatorship in Guatemala as it began a 30-year reign of terror against its own people: "This is the first instance in history where a Communist government has been replaced by a free one." One has to wonder, when Bush tries to reassure Arabs by reminding them that "trained torturers were not brought to justice under [Hussein's] regime." Does it even occur to him that Iraqis might consider that justice is not done when crimes against Iraqis on Iraqi soil are desultorily investigated by the same occupying army which committed them? Does it occur to him that Iraqis might not believe that the investigation is "full" and "transparent" when the story has to be blasted open by media gadflies? Or when the Secretary of Defense doesn't bother to read the 50-page report on the investigation?

Here's a news flash for the apologists: Enemies don't judge you by your words or by your noble goals, but by your actions. We don't judge the Islamists by their dream of a strong, moral, peaceful Islamic state, but by their murders of innocents. The Arab street won't judge us by neocon visions of a Thatcherite republic on the Tigris; it will judge us by whether we're holding elections, rebuilding what we've blown up, and leaving when the elected government asks us to. And that's the best case. Right now, you can be sure they're judging us by the actions at Abu Ghraib.

The situation isn't necessarily unrescuable. Robert Wright offers a plan; Thomas Friedman has another. John Kerry even has some ideas. But will Bush take any of this advice? Well, he didn't get where he is today by listening to good advice.

21 Apr 2004: Go, divided government!
An interesting article from a Cato Institute fellow points out that the best curb on government spending is divided government. In the post-WWII period, total federal spending grew fastest under Kennedy and Johnson (4.8% annually), Democrats with a Democratic Congress, and under Bush (4.4%), a Republican with a Republican Congress. In domestic spending Bush takes the lead with an 8.2% annual increase.

Total spending grew slowest under Eisenhower (0.4%-- Republican President, Democratic Congress) and Clinton (0.9%-- Democratic President, Republican Congress).

A president and legislature of the same party try to help each other out-- generally by funnelling money to their friends. If they're of the opposite parties, they check each other.

So if you're for limited government, vote Kerry.

16 Mar 2004: Vote early and often!
I really hope that Democrats haven't concentrated on electability to such an extent that they select someone unelectable. It's the Illinois primary today, and I'm rather disturbed that there's no real choice any more.

The primary season isn't the time for uniting the party, it's the time for getting familiar with the candidates and choosing the best one. Is it such a hot idea to jump on one candidate before we know much about him, and to allow six months instead of three for the Bush campaign to attack?

24 Feb 2004: Here comes the bride... Here comes the other bride
Oh, those "judicial activists". I don't recall Bush complaining about judicial activists declaring him President; but he's all in a tizzy over them possibly maybe bringing us gay marriage.

This issue is like an onion; to understand it we have to peel it back layer by layer.

1. Why do we need a constitutional amendment-- the first since Prohibition (and what a fine idea that was) to restrict people's rights? No state can force another to recognize gay marriages; there's a federal law against that. That law is not even being challenged; if it were, it'd be decided by the Supreme Court-- which is under the Republicans' thumb.

2. The issue, however, is the perfect sop to throw to the religious right-- and my undercover agent (hi, Harry) tells me that they are extremely agitated over this. (Bottom line: they feel that once you countenance indecency like that, God will punish you. This is very likely the meaning of the "serious consequences" in Bush's speech.) It's great politics: Bush gets the credit with his base whether it passes or not-- without descending into actual oppression; you can't really take away a right that people don't yet have.

3. But why has the religious right convinced itself that this is the bottom line-- that the creator of the universe doesn't care about feeding the hungry, shrugs at the worship of Mammon, countenances hypocrisy and adultery, but draws the line at two men playing tonsil hockey?

The quick answer is "Because it's in the Bible." However, that's not really an answer. For one thing, it's not; there's not one word about gay marriage in the Bible. There's not one word of Jesus about gays or lesbians. The denunciations of Isaiah and Jeremiah pass them over. Ezekiel 16:49 does mention the sin of Sodom-- but it's not sodomy; it's ignoring the needy. There's not one word anywhere, in fact, about lesbians (the closest is Rom. 1:26, which talks about women acting parà fúsin 'against nature', which could mean many things).

Only someone already obsessed with the subject could read the Bible and believe that homosexuality was an overwhelming concern of the writers, or of God. Yes, it's mentioned in Leviticus and in 1 Corinthians-- so is adultery, which is mentioned first and with the same penalties. But we don't find Christians urging death for adulterers, or wanting to build monuments to vigilante killers of adulterers, or writing constitutional amendments to deny them rights.

It's also not because homosexuality is unnatural; as Bruce Bagemihl has documented, homosexual behavior has been observed in over 450 species of animals.

And it's not that gay marriage somehow threatens straight marriage. Any harm that's been done to the institution of marriage has been done by straights. Gays can't hurt it; they weren't allowed in. No one's going to be any less married, or any less happily married, if gays and lesbians they don't even know are allowed to enjoy the tax benefits of marriage.

4. So what is it? My best guess is that it's a combination of two things. First, our culture's historical condemnation of homosexuality. Cultural taboos can certainly feel powerful and universal, but they're not. Western culture thinks it's wrong for men to have sex with men just as it thinks it's wrong to eat dogs. Other cultures have thought differently, and ultimately we'll probably get over it, just as we've gotten over the idea that women are corrupting lesser creatures, or that human beings can be owned.

The other component: homosexuality is the one sin that 95% of the population can easily pass up. Though too many Christians have forgotten Jesus's command "Do not judge, lest you be judged", they can't quite read Paul's collection of sinners-- "fornicators, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, swindlers"-- without some worry that it might apply to them, or someone they know... except when it comes to homosexuals. Those, the vast majority can easily reject-- and thus single out for special condemnation.

When C.S. Lewis was asked why he spent little time addressing homosexuality and gambling, he explained that it was because those were the sins that he himself wasn't tempted to. That's true spiritual wisdom, fully responding to Jesus's warning that our standard of judgment will be applied to us. Those who follow Jesus ignore this teaching at their peril. Concern yourselves with your own sins; that will give you plenty to keep busy with.

Note: two rants today. Keep reading...

24 Feb 2004: The revolutionary power and the orcs
I've been reading The Great Unraveling, and Paul Krugman sheds a lot of light on the nature of the Republicans-- and why people don't seem to realize what they're doing. The problem is that they're a revolutionary power, along the lines of France after its Revolution, or the 20th century totalitarian regimes. Among the characteristics of a revolutionary power:

In this light we can make sense of Republican acts like sending paid thugs to disrupt the Florida vote count, or columnists attacking a man whose limbs were blown off in Vietnam as "unpatriotic", or a White House aide explaining that it's his job to lie to the press, or even the recent consie criticism of Orrin Hatch for daring to investigate political operatives' filching of Democratic strategy documents. To the people in power, the rest of us are just orcs. You don't worry about being fair to orcs; you don't worry about breaking the law to oppose them. Orcs are there to be destroyed.

If they're liars, how do we know what they're really after? Fortunately they really don't take much care to hide. Analysts used to discount Yasir Arafat's comments in English by noticing what he told his own people in Arabic; the same tactic suffices with consies. As Krugman advises: to see what the Republicans want to do, look at what they said they'd do before they were in power-- before they had to sell their policies to the public. And their allies are generally still spilling the beans right in the open, in blogs and think tanks. (Left-wing revolutionary powers often have a thing for secrecy; right-wing ones don't bother.)

10 Feb 2004: Throw the bums out
This is a bit long, but I've heard complaints (really!) that I haven't written enough rants lately, so let's roll with it.

One bit of good news: Kerry and Bush seem to be head-to-head in current polls. So a Bush victory isn't inevitable.

Why would Bush winning be a bad thing? Here's a handy-dandy summary.

  1. He's a liar. Or if he believes his own lies, so much the worse.

    The primary example, of course, is Iraq's missing WMD. The administration is going to try hard to get the CIA to take this fall. But it's not the CIA that took out the hedges and caveats from its reports. As Nicholas Kristof reports:

    Lt. Col. Dale Davis, a former Marine counterintelligence officer now at the Virginia Military Institute, says he hears from his former intelligence colleagues that top officials "cherry-picked the intel for the most damning, and often least reliable, tidbits and produced alarming conclusions the 45-minute chemical attack scenario, the African uranium and the Al Qaeda connection. The C.I.A. never supported these assertions."
    Read Bush's 2003 state of the union address-- is there a single hint of the analysts' doubts?

    Wars are messy things, never started for just one reason; but Bush's major reason for war was a statement on Iraqi weapons capability that was completely wrong. It's a valid question why our intelligence services didn't seem to know what was going on in Iraq; but that question is too narrow. Why did Bush inflate modest claims from intelligence into strong claims made before the nation?

    Lately, the administration has resorted to simple rewriting of history in order to justify its Iraq policy. As Paul Krugman reports,

    Recently Mr. Bush said that war had been justified because Saddam "did not let us in." And this claim was repeated by Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: "Why on earth didn't [Saddam] let the inspectors in and avoid the war?"

    It's not just Iraq. Nicholas Kristof mentions the following promise from the 2000 election: "My plan is to take a portion of the projected surplus, a little over $1 trillion of the $4 trillion surplus, and give it to the people who pay the bills." After getting elected thanks to such promises of moderation, he instead threw the whole surplus away and created half-trillion-dollar deficits. (No, he doesn't get off the hook because of 9/11 and the recession. The recession was predictable, and the tax cuts and spending increases continued after 9/11.)

    Paul Krugman is a good source on the ongoing duplicity of the Bush administration-- e.g. misrepresenting how much of Bush's tax cuts went to the rich. The NYT doesn't keep many of his old columns available online, but many are now available on dead trees as The Great Unraveling.

    Just today, Timothy Noah in Slate pointed out another big lie: according to Bush, "in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined." In Clinton's last year, discretionary spending rose 3%, not 15%; and under Bush it hasn't declined; it's risen every single year, a total of 31% since he took office.

  2. His irresponsible deficit spending will cost you thousands.

    It's frankly beyond me how anyone can justify the federal government spending half a trillion dollars every year that it doesn't have. It's absurd and insane, and either someone will have to fix it, as Bill Clinton had to fix the mess that Ronald Reagan left, or irresponsible politicians will resort to printing money to inflate it away.

    Some people are so blinded by the words "tax cut" that nothing else matters. However, reality has a way of catching up to you even if you prefer fantasyland. The Brookings Institute has a good page on the cost of increasing deficits. Some highlights:

    You can't overspend forever. Bush is handing a big suicide bomb to his successors-- and to us and our children.

    It's not politically acceptable to crow about handing the nation's wealth to the already rich, so Bush has to pretend that the tax cuts will generate jobs. There are better ways to achieve that; but in any case, it's not working. Since the official beginning of the recovery in November 2001, employment has actually fallen by 0.5%, while the working-age population has risen 2.4%.

  3. His know-nothing mishandling of the war on terror will get Americans killed.

    I've talked about this several times; as an executive summary:

  4. The war on terror is being used to justify creeping totalitarianism.

    Republicans out of power constantly complain about encroaching government; Republicans in power add to it-- preferably in the context of long-term conflicts (against terrorists, drug users, and now terrorists) that will reliably justify repressive measures for decades on end.

    The party line is apparently simply to deny Lord Acton and assume that power will never corrupt. Meanwhile the administration has attempted to treat a U.S. citizen detained in Chicago as an enemy combattant, and most recently has subpoenaed a university to force it to reveal the membership of antiwar groups. Terrorists, after all, are hard to stop; it's so much easier to harrass uppity citizens.

    Linked to this is the general and increased scurrility Republicans have brought to politics: billionaires financing campaigns to find sexual smears to use against Clinton; attacking a man who'd lost three limbs in Vietnam (Georgia Sen. Max Cleland) as "unpatriotic"; agents preventing blacks from voting; the increasingly routine branding of disagreement with consie doctrine as "treason".

    Partisan viciousness isn't new in American politics, but till Reagan's time we were moving away from it-- as we should. Dirty tricks, plutocracy, thuggery, and over-the-top rudeness are all attacks on democracy and should be resisted by everyone-- particularly at the ballot box.

  5. Libertarians and evangelicals: Bush is just playing with you

    Bush retains enormous popularity with libertarians and evangelicals, who feel that he's their man. He's not.

    Bush's tax cuts are not matched by spending cuts, nor is he reducing the size of government; quite the opposite. Over two terms, Clinton raised non-defense discretionary spending by 10% total. In less than half that time, Bush has raised it by 25%. Bush's open-ended expansion of government powers should also be worrying to libertarians.

    As for evangelicals-- nothing has really changed since I wrote this piece. The Republicans control all three branches of government; have they made any serious moves to ban abortion, reinstitute prayer in schools, or reverse gay rights?

    So what is he for?

  6. The ultimate goal: turning the US into a banana republic

    The biggest transformation in US society since the New Deal has been under way for decades, and most people aren't aware of it. America reached unprecedented levels of prosperity as a middle-class nation-- a nation where the fruits of productivity went to rich and poor alike, and where business prospered precisely because it could sell to a large, well-paid middle class. (Indeed, the domestic market was so big that companies could largely ignore the rest of the world-- which led to trouble when other countries became competitive.)

    This system is under attack. Gains of productivity now go exclusively to the upper class; the middle class struggles to stay where it is, the lower class gets worse off. (Since the last quarter of 2001, real GDP has risen by 7.2%; wages are up 0.6%.) Everything that sustained the middle-class, from unions to job security to government assistance to a minimum wage to the eight-hour day, is being systematically dismantled; all limits to what top management can do are to be lifted, from food and drug laws to corporate liability to accounting standards to caps on compensation.

    The ideal Republican society already exists, in Latin America: low wages for the majority; a super-rich minority controlling all levers of power; a strong military (assisted where necessary by right-wing militias) to crack down on dissent; a weak court system.

    If you're not sure about this, compare your life with the previous generation (if you were born after 1960 or so, otherwise the next). Look at income, hours worked, job security, at what age you could afford a house, how many salaries were required. The earlier era will generally come off better.

    All this is hidden from the average voter by two things:

    Of course, electing Democrats will not in itself halt this trend. But electing Republicans is a vote to continue it.

15 Jan 2004: SUVs R Us
Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting article in the New Yorker last week about the baffling popularity of SUVs. SUVs are extremely lucrative for Detroit-- they're cheaply made and sell at a premium-- but the interesting thing about them is that consumers perceive them to be safe, and experts consider them to be deathtraps. As Gladwell puts it, people seem to be more interested in feeling safe than in being safe.

SUV buyers seem to feel that the safest car to be in is immense-- what can hurt you if you're in a big, heavy car that looks down on all the other drivers? The problem is, SUVs are not very maneuverable, they're too heavy to stop quickly, and the bulk gives the driver a false sense of invulnerability. Gladwell test-drove an SUV and a Porsche on an obstacle course; he was knocking over cones in the monster at 45 mph, passing through easily in the sports car at 55. The smaller car is more responsive-- and feeling closer to the road and more vulnerable, you drive more carefully.

This struck me as a good metaphor for American foreign policy, especially Bush's variety. Consies want big cars and a big foreign policy: muscular, insulated from the world by customs searches and laser-guided missiles, no need for nimble driving or awareness of others on the road... hey, let them watch out for us. And it's going to run into the same problem: feeling safe isn't the same as being safe.

Get me outta here!