kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Monday, February 27, 2006

O'Reilly--The Voice of Reason

There have always been figures in the U.S. who have been a bit hard to explain--people who are prominent, make good (sometimes simply scads of) money, and are, at least in some sense or in some quarters, respected. Those on the Right might point to Michael Moore, I suppose, but then they also seem to think Noam Chomsky is some kind of a dimbulb (usually those who a) haven't read his linguistics, or perhaps even heard of it or b) have such animus toward their ideological foes that they really can't see straight (let's call such a person "David Horowitz.") On the Left, if there is a Left, one might point to Ann Coulter, or Fred Barnes (and I will admit that my list on this side is a whole lot longer). And, of course, for those of us who live on earth, we can all scratch our collective heads over Tom Cruise, or Gallagher.

Bill O'Reilly mystifies me, and I do watch his show now and then (usually when there is no basketball game, no good movie on TCM, and a commercial on The Food Network). I happened to pop by "The Factor" the other night, when Bill was having a little tete-à-tete with Peter Beinart, of The New Republic. (Don't get me started on the fortunes of that magazine, however.) I didn't see the whole segment, but Beinart was explaining why he thought relying on FOX for information was a dubious approach. O'Reilly pointed out that his show was "analysis" (and, just like Dave Barry, I am not making this up). Beinart's response, which I thought a good one, was to suggest that one needed accurate facts in order to do an analysis, and then mentioned a poll that had shown how badly informed FOX viewers were about Iraq.

The weird thing was that O'Reilly had never heard of it. I figure this itself is a fact he should be analysing. This poll was carried out by a group called "THE PIPA/KNOWLEDGE NETWORKS" and was called "Misperceptions, The Media and the Iraq War."

Now if I were to work for an organization that had been similarly trashed, and said trashing had been given wide publicity, I think it fair to expect that I would have heard of it. The question is why O'Reilly hadn't: is he himself relying solely on FOX (and thus becomes another data point of the misinformed), did no one ever mention this at FOX, is he simply clueless, or was he lying? Your guess is as good as mine.

The poll asked 3 basic questions (the details are given at the above link, with another link there outlining the methodology, statistics, etc.):

  • whether the US has found “clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization”
  • whether the US has “found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” since the war had ended
  • how they think “people in the world feel about the US having gone to war with Iraq.”
The quick results?
An analysis of those who were asked all of
the key three perception questions does
reveal a remarkable level of variation in the
presence of misperceptions according to
news source. Standing out in the analysis
are Fox and NPR/PBS--but for opposite
reasons. Fox was the news source whose
viewers had the most misperceptions.
NPR/PBS are notable because their viewers
and listeners consistently held fewer
misperceptions than respondents who
obtained their information from other news

There are those on the Right who insist that Iraq had WMD, and shipped them to Syria right before the American invasion. They may be right, but their claim is, at this point, untestable, and one does have to wonder why a country being invaded would get rid of such things. Perhaps because if Sadaam Hussein had been found with WMD, bad things might happen? His reputation would be ruined? He might be deposed? One might also wonder what else he shipped out, that we may perhaps never discover--the real Maltese Falcon? Maps of Atlantis? Large crates of bladeless knives without handles?
You can read the details at the link above, but the gist is that those who rely solely on FOX for their information have more inaccurate information (you know, "facts") than those who rely on any other single news source. What is really cool is that only FOX viewers do still worse when they also describe themselves as "paying close attention" to the news. So, if this poll is right, those who rely on FOX are relatively misinformed, and those who really pay attention and rely on FOX are really misinformed relative to those who don't. In short, the more one watches FOX, the less one knows.

So, on O'Reilly's very busy and utterly sans-spin Webpage, he has this following riposte to Beinart:

The Factor challenged Beinart to back up the following, which he wrote in The New Republic: "Trying to get information about Iraq by listening to Bill O'Reilly is like trying to get information about the Soviet Union in the 1950's by listening to Joe McCarthy." Beinert defended his statement, saying "most of the time you discuss the war on terror as a partisan issue of liberals versus conservatives. I don't think you provide enough information for Americans to make good analyses as to whether we should get out of Iraq or stay." The Factor was incensed by Beinart's indictment. "Your statement is ridiculous, because our reporting on Iraq has been very tough. The picture that we've given on the war on terror is absolutely accurate, and for you to put that in your magazine is a bunch of crap."

The conclusion here seems pretty clear: at least on the basis of this poll--feel free to check it out and challenge its methodology and/or results--the information on FOX leads to systematic misperceptions about central issues leading to and/or about the war. O'Reilly then takes this misinformation and "analyses" it, and doesn't even know about a relatively well-known poll that indicates a) the picture FOX has given of the war on terror is far from "absolutely accurate," and b) given that, its analysis is at least as suspect. O'Reilly is from the school of logic that saying something is "a bunch of crap" is a winning point. I'm from a different school that tends toward evidence, reasons, and inferences.

Add to that such itty-bitty niceties such as the US flag waving in the upper-left hand corner throughout its broadcasts (in contrast to, say al-Jazeera), and that one of its "stars"--Sean Hannity--appears at a fund raiser for Rick Santorum, and one might really want to step back and ask if it might be a good idea to balance FOX's version of things with an alternate view.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sean Hannity, history policeman

It can't be very easy in America to have the last name Butz, given the level of sophistication of our culture and its humor, and the hangover of prudishness that permeates much of that culture. Thus, Bart Simpson can call Moe's and ask for "Seymour Butz," and it's hilarious. When I was growing up, our neighbor (known simply as "Mr. Butz") was just mean, and stole our baseballs that landed in his yard (my mom took great sport in stealing his tomatoes, in a classic expression of ressentiment). Then there was Earl Butz, Gerald Ford's Secretary of Agriculture, perhaps best known for being fired after making a pretty crude and pretty racist joke (and perhaps not as well remembered for having pleaded guilty in 1981 to evading $74,057 in taxes. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine. All but 30 days of the term was suspended.)

Which brings us to Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering and Holocaust denier. Butz has been doing what is known as "revisionism"--also known, in this context, as denying the Holocaust--for thirty years. I will simply point out two things about his position: it's stupid, and arguing about historical claims is rarely as black and white (epistemologically) as a lot of people seem to think. (And the farther back you go, the harder it gets.)

Holocaust denial is somewhat of a cottage industry on the fringe of the right wing; it has its own journal, relatively prominent figures (specifically David Irving), lots and lots of Web sites, etc.. I don't know anyone who takes this movement seriously, although Irving is a pretty good scholar, wrote what seems to be a respected book on the firebombing of Dresden (weirdly enough, footnoted in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"), and presents his case with standard apparatus and aplomb. He's just wrong, and being wrong in this case generally brings with it an undeniable patina (and often worse) of anti-Semitism.

Which, in turn, brings us to Sean Hannity, of the famous pair (as Al Franken accurately puts it) Hannity and Colmes. Sean has turned his wary and informed eye toward academics, warning parents who watch his show that--to put it a bit bluntly--their children may well end up in college being forced to join al-Qaeda, after becoming homosexual drug addicts who worship Hilary Clinton and hate all things American. (Sean is being helped in this endeavor by having David Horowitz, another expert on academics, five nights in a row on his show. No doubt, being fair and balanced, FOX will provide five consecutive nights for a rebuttal. Or perhaps offer Noam Chomsky a half-hour in prime time to discuss academic freedom. I'll let you know when that gets scheduled; maybe sweeps week?)

Hannity's argument--rather standard for him--is short and sweet, without annoying nuance or detail.

Butz is a teacher.
Butz has a personal webpage he accesses through Northwestern University.
Butz's personal webpage features his Holocaust denial material.
Holocaust denial is wrong.
Butz should be fired.

Some things Hannity might add, were he in the nuance business:

Butz teaches electrical engineering, and there has never been any indication that his political views have ever been introduced into the classroom. Butz explicitly states on his personal webpage "This Web site exists for the purpose of expressing views that are outside the purview of my role as an Electrical Engineering faculty member." Butz is tenured (to teach EE). Butz has been doing this for 30 years, and to suddenly realize it and bring it to our attention as if it is "news" is a bit odd. Northwestern is probably not in the business of editing the personal webpages of its faculty for views and positions (with the obligatory "no matter how noxious") that are allowed and are prohibited.

Hannity's perspicacity sometimes gets run over by his bluster
, in spite of the fact that he thinks he is sufficiently well-informed about history (and, I guess, electrical engineering) to determine who should and shouldn't be teaching such subjects (and what they should be teaching).

The idea seems to be that Hannity believes it is in his purview to determine that if some faculty member says something on a webpage accessed through a university that Hannity determines is wrong, that the faculty member's tenure can be revoked and he or she be fired.

There are a couple of things problematic about this. Either universities simply don't allow its faculty members to have web access through the university for non-academic material, or this is a call for censoring the content of personal webpages. The former would solve the problem, except for those icky cases such as courses in philosophy, history, English--okay, the Humanities--and, well, the natural and the social sciences and business and education and medicine and law and maybe even engineering where the line between "relevant course material" and other ("non-academic") material isn't so easy to draw. The latter seems to be in a bit of a conflict with the idea of the university (so beloved by Cardinal Newman, among others who may well be viewed with affection by Professor Hannity): that the prior determination of what can and cannot be discussed, evaluated, criticized, etc., is antithetical to the very nature of the university.

I'm just guessing, but I have a feeling that some faculty members in the US have personal webpages that discuss religion, politics, love, patriotism, and many other things. If a chemical engineering professor has a personal webpage devoted to the beneficial effects of Roman Catholicism--which may be contested in some quarters--does Hannity want this professor terminated? What about an education professor who argues that race is a determining factor in intelligence (however one chooses to define "race" or "intelligence"?) What about an engineering professor who argues, similarly, that there is a hierarchical structure to race and intelligence? (The last two cases are real; would Hannity have wanted Stanford to fire the inventor of the transistor?)

What Hannity (and Horowitz) seem to forget is that 99% of the professors of this world spend 99% of their time preparing for class, trying to publish, holding office hours, giving presentations, grading, going to meetings, and doing all the other quotidian stuff required of them. We may have time for other things (such as writing a blog), but the vast majority of us don't stay up late at night trying to figure out how to indocrinate our students in order to recruit them to our hate America campaign.

Do we have our own views, and do those views affect what we teach? Almost certainly; last time I checked, most professors were members of homo sapiens. It might help if Hannity (whose own academic career is sufficiently checkered that it is difficult to find out much about it) or Horowitz sat in a classroom and took a course, or even taught a normal kind of course (e.g. an English composition course, or a course on the Introduction to Philosophy), to see what actually occurs.

There are approximately a zillion professors in the U.S.. Some, no doubt, are useless. As soon as Hannity quits going to the doctor, because some physicians are useless, then I'll be happy to take his insights into post-secondary education a bit more seriously.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How Does One Respond to being Offended?

An odd sensation, feeling as if I am failing if I don't do a weekly entry, in spite of the fact that very few, if anyone, actually reads this thing. But I persist. From Onanism to Solipsism?

Well, at least it's not a list.

I try to convince my students reading Plato's "Apology" that it probably isn't fair to find Socrates guilty, and execute him, because he is annoying. Even if he is Annoying. Let's consider the people, and kinds of people, who annoy us (me) (I include myself as a given): lawyers, politicians, religious figures, teachers, entertainers, and people who make too much money; Gallagher, Tom Cruise, Pat Robertson, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bill O'Reilly, Elton John, Lee Greenwood, and thousands more (and, no, I don't know why they are all men.)
I strongly urge that none of these people, or groups, be killed.

There are, of course, people who have been killed because there were those who found them so intolerable, or such a threat, that they had to be eliminated; Socrates, of course, and Jesus; but also Giordano Bruno, and Yitzhak Rabin, and Martin Luther King jr., and Gandhi, and Anwar Sadat, and a whole host of others whose offense was so great that their voices needed to be silenced. Rather they go rather than we hear something we don't wish to hear.

My financial accounting teacher makes us listen to Elton John and Billy Joel while doing work in class; I resist calling for the death of any of the three. (My teacher actually seems like a very nice guy, in spite of his bizarre affection for accounting and his execrable taste in music. I don't know, and don't really care, if Elton or Billy are "nice guys" or not.)

Perhaps we should adopt as a rule "thou shalt not kill." Novel, I know, but even this rule has come under attack, for those who wish to maintain the death penalty like to point out that the Hebrew of this commandment is better translated "thou shalt not murder."

One of the things I respect about the Roman Catholic church is its occasional nod to a "consistent life ethic." I like consistency (well, I do and I don't), and while this raises some rather substantial issues about the fetus, abortion, and the rights of women (all of which I shall ignore), I think the idea is, in general, sound: don't kill. If you don't like someone's view, find another approach than killing that person. If a person commits a heinous crime, punish that person, but don't kill him or her.

This, of course, paints me as some kind of squishy bleeding-heart pacifist. Clearly enough, however, there are cases in which this kind of response simply is naïve--when dealing with mass murderers and genocide, or the imminent threat to one's own life, natural law and most other traditions argue that pacificism isn't an appropriate response, and can indeed be immoral.

This is why I don't do ethics.

The response to the current worry over the Danish cartoons, reprinted by those crazy Norwegians, enraging all pious Muslims to the point that people need to be killed, embassies burned, and entire countries boycotted, seems to me to be relatively easy at one level--namely, that such violence is wrong, and accomplishes nothing. I remember the Iranian clerical fatwa pronounced against Salman Rushdie (this was before he was on "Seinfeld"); death to one who dares write about the Prophet in a way that someone rejects. (I did what I could, by immediately running out and buying The Satanic Verses.)

At the same time, portraying the Prophet is a grave offense, allegedly, qualitatively different in theological terms from anti-Semitic cartoons about Israeli politics.

I say "allegedly" because such portraits have been widely available since, well, about the 13th century:

Go here to see pictures that can get you killed.

My guess on all of this is that many Muslims in the Middle East are pissed off: about the occupation of Palestine, the interminable and repeated violations of Palestinian rights for decades without any indication of change, about the fact that Hamas is described as a terrorist organization while a country can invade and bomb (at times indiscriminately) and occupy another and assert that it has some moral right (if not obligation) to do so (and, on occasion, the maximum leader of the invading country invokes a religious imprimatur to do so), that they live in countries where there is no tradition of democracy but rather one of imposed and sexist hierarchy, and that most of them see relatively few benefits from the astounding wealth their countries have produced (often for foreigners).

I'd be pissed off, too, and multiply it about 10-fold if I were a woman.

I'm starting to think that a question I saw a blogger ask might be the right one: do we want to stay and fight for what is right in the 21st-century, or do we want to go back to the 16th-century, with those whose interpretation of Shar'ia is that of the Taliban?

I also think that there is a tendency on the left (such as it is) to give Muslims more of a break; but how patronizing is it to suggest that because Bush is a war criminal and Israel commits human rights violations, that we don't hold Muslims to the same kind of standard we use to excoriate and condemn Bush, Netanyahu, et al.?

This is not to say we don't have a few problems in our country, where a number of leaders seem to find guidance in their own (idiosyncratic) religious traditions: where some are happy to condemn homosexuals to hell (in their selective interpretation of Leviticus) or at least to the status of second-class citizens, where women really shouldn't be regarded as human beings with the same rights and responsibilities as men, where there is relatively little condemnation of the machinery of death yielded by the Bush administration, and where much more effort is made in preventing the termination of a pregnancy (even within 48 hours) than there is spent on worrying about the post-partum children who live in poverty and fear, besieged from a variety of directions due to no fault of their own.

Finally, my friends on the right like to say that they wish they would hear more condemnation of rioting Muslims than they do (similarly, they wish they would have heard more condemnation of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhist statues from Muslims).

My question is whether we don't hear such information because Muslim clerics and others don't offer such responses, or that we don't hear such information because it isn't carried in the US media, many of us don't read Arabic, and so mostly what we get from the Middle East is the same filtered nonsense that many people in the Middle East rely on?

Mostly, I'm tempted to think that this whole ruckus is one more example of why I tend to side with Enlightenment values, such as freedom of thought and expression--and also freedom of religion (as long as you keep it to yourself, for God's sake)--and worry about those who reject such values as "modernist." Such critics put together in an interesting group the 19th-century Catholic church, Horkheimer and Adorno, and all those trendy types who regard such "freedoms" as phallogocentric bourgeois ideés fixes on the part of those who don't "get" Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In short, what if organized religion isn't the solution, but the problem?

I'm done. Lists are more coherent.