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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Pat Tillman in Perspective

I haven't paid much attention to the Pat Tillman situation. The pious invocations of heroism in the media have been met with sarcastic derision from some, while the casual dismissal of his sacrifice by the likes of Ted Rall have provoked cries of moral outrage from those who like their heroes unsullied by humanity. As is usual in such circumstances, both extremes amount to emotional, visceral responses that leave me bored. Neither side puts much thought into it, and neither hagiography nor demonization appeals to me because people are a mixture of saint and sinner and painting with that wide a brush almost always leaves one with a skewed image of reality. In America, hagiography (the making of saints) is an art form. We romanticize and mythologize everyone from George Washington to Michael Jackson (though that last has had his pedestal yanked out from under him recently) to our own parents. We've done it most obviously with the founding fathers, all of whom have been transformed into plaster saints by the visionless hacks of academic history, whose pallette contains only black and white and they aren't even clever enough to mix the two when they set brush to canvas. The reality of those men is, to a person of intelligence, far more interesting than the "I cannot tell a lie" variety. As it turns out - as it always turns out - Pat Tillman is much the same way.

Gwen Knapp has a report on the memorial service held for Tillman yesterday that shows a much more interesting, multidimensional person than the media has presented on either side. To begin with, how about this shocking statement from a funeral:
Tillman's youngest brother, Rich, wore a rumpled white T-shirt, no jacket, no tie, no collar, and immediately swore into the microphone. He hadn't written anything, he said, and with the starkest honesty, he asked mourners to hold their spiritual bromides.

"Pat isn't with God,'' he said. "He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead.''

What? This didn't happen for God, as well as country? A professional athlete turned soldier, and we're supposed to believe that he'd have no use for piety? Robbed of a cliche, where does that leave us?
We are so accustomed to the pairing of God and country that it just seems like one long word to us now, but Tillman apparently bucked that trend, as he bucked many others. Can you imagine the reaction of those who are so eager to make Tillman into the poster boy for godandcountry patriotism hearing that line? Or how about this tidbit:
His brother-in-law and close friend, Alex Garwood, described how Tillman handled his duties when he became godfather to Garwood's son. He came to the ceremony dressed as a woman. Not as a religious commentary. He was doing a balancing act.

"We had two godfathers, no godmother,'' Garwood explained. And what NFL player turned Army Ranger wouldn't don drag to make that math work?
A pro football player, the essence of male machismo in this nation, in a dress? You gotta love that.

Ms. Knapp asks, "Who the hell was this guy?"

From the sound of what his friends and family said, he seems like a guy I really would have enjoyed knowing. A fascinating blend of the intellectual and the physical. A guy who could stay up all night talking about the world's religions with you one night, then get up the next morning and play a game of barely controlled physical violence. Call it a contradiction if you want, that's okay. He was human. And for the first time, I find myself actually paying attention to him and caring that he died. Because being human, in the end, is a lot more interesting than being a plastic, one dimensional hero.

Ed Brayton | 9:08 AM | | | Permalink

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Carnival of the Vanities

If you're here looking for the Carnival of the Vanities, please go to the new Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Well, it's not new, but for some reason the mailing list had this old blog address on it and the real thing is at the real Dispatches from the Culture Wars page. Thanks.

Ed Brayton | 11:18 AM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The World Series of Poker

The World Series of Poker is going on right now at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Most people are familiar with it from the replays on ESPN, watching Chris Moneymaker win last year. But if you're not a poker player, you probably don't realize that the event that is televised is only the last of 33 separate tournaments played over about 5 weeks. The events run the gamut of different games played, buy-in amounts, and limits, leading up to the Big One, the championship event, which is a $10,000 entry No Limit Holdem tournament. This year they are expecting something on the order of 1400-1600 players in this event, which means a prize pool well into 8 figures and a likely first place prize of at least $3 million, the richest poker tournament in history.

Part of the reason for this huge increase in popularity is the World Poker Tour on television, which has garnered huge ratings. But probably the biggest factor is the growth of online poker and the satellite tournaments they've run to put players into the WSOP final event, and the fact that last year's winner got into the tournament that way, spending $40 to win a seat, then turning it into $2.5 million by winning the whole thing. That has drawn people far and wide who think, "Hey, if he can do it, so can I". And they may well be right. I have not played in the WSOP yet, but I have a bit of history with it over the last few years.

The history of Binion's Horseshoe is an interesting one. It was started decades ago by Benny Binion, an old time gambler and Texas gangster. He turned it into one of the classic Vegas casinos, one of the original downtown gambling saloons, famous for their poker games and for taking any bet regardless of how high the amount. The WSOP began, unofficially, in 1949, when Nick (the Greek) Dandolos challenged Johnny Moss to a heads up poker match for $1 million each, winner take all. Benny Binion provided a venue for it at the Horseshoe, setting up a big tent outside for them to play in public view. The two men played for 5 straight months, stopping only to sleep and eat, until Johnny Moss finally had all the money. In 1970, Benny Binion decided to recreate the event and invited some of the best poker players in the world to take part. Johnny Moss won again, but at the time the title of World Champion was decided by a vote, not by actually winning the tournament. In 1971, it was changed to a "freezeout" format, meaning it was decided with a real elimination tournament, but Moss won yet again. It was thereafter an annual event, and it grew in popularity year by year.

Benny died in 1989 and his son Jack took over the casino. Jack was very popular with the players and employees and the WSOP continued to grow under his watch. Then a battle began for control over the operation between Jack and his sister Becky, which Becky ultimately won a few years ago. Over the last few years, as the WSOP continued to grow exponentially because of the TV exposure and all of the satellite events feeding people into the tournament, Becky proceeded to run the Horseshoe into the ground. Becky Binion Behnen is married Nick Behnen, your garden variety scumbag who is barred from operating a casino, or even working for one, in the state of Nevada. Nonetheless, he played a huge role in destroying what the Horseshoe once was. Reports of his abuse of employees and players were common, including tearing a picture of former WSOP champion Russ Hamilton off the wall with a crowbar in a fit of rage a couple years ago.

In 2001, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. The WSOP announced that they were going to withhold 3% from the prize pool to use as a "toke pool" - a fund that would be divided among the dealers and tournament staff as tips. This was a good idea, but some background is probably required for non-poker players to understand why. Big tournaments like this require a lot of people to run, obviously, and no casino has enough dealers or floor people on hand to handle such an event. So there is a pool of poker dealers and tournament staff that basically floats around the country running big poker tournaments. They have to pay their own way, though, so they have to be assured of making a certain amount of money to make it worthwhile and profitable for them. It's in everyone's best interests to have high quality dealers and staff to run things, so having a pool that would guarantee them a minimum income helps the players as well as the dealers and staff. Relying on the players who finish in the money to leave tips, which most did, was too inconsistent, and those tips are not tax deductible, so it really hurt the winners to do it.

All in all, a toke pool was a great idea for all involved and most of the major tournaments use one now for all these reasons. The problem here was that rumors were flying that Becky was planning to use some of the money to reimburse her everyday hotel staff rather than distribute it all to the dealers and staff, and they were refusing to spell out how much would go to whom (the traditional breakdown was something like 2% to the dealers, 1% to the floor staff and tournament personnel). Word got around and a lot of players were talking about it. Jeff Simpson, a casino beat writer for the Las Vegas Review Journal, did a story on it and cornered a few players at the Horseshoe to get their thoughts on it. Among those quoted was Paul Phillips, a professional poker player from Las Vegas, who told Simpson that the players had been misled on the issue and felt antagonized, which was entirely true. Paul was also at the time a regular participant in the rec.gambling.poker (RGP) usenet newsgroup, which I have long participated in as well.

The day after Simpson's article was published, Paul Phillips was pulled from a game at the Horseshoe by some of Becky's goons security personnel, taken to a back room, photographed and barred from the casino for daring to say what everyone knew was true. Amusingly, her head of security told the newspaper that they barred him because they wanted to "avoid controversy" at the WSOP. And this all happened on the day the tournament started! Brilliant folks, eh? Needless to say, rather than avoiding controversy, it caused more. And adding to this, it was announced that Becky would consider letting him come back if he apologized to her for what he said in the paper. All of this caused quite a furor in the poker world, particularly in the RGP newsgroup. I was one of many, many people who came to Paul's defense and strongly criticized Binion's for their actions.

Ironically, Paul was proven 100% correct by what happened in the following few weeks. Linda Johnson, the founder of Card Player magazine, met with Becky and tried to get Paul unbarred (which was successful, but when he went back they intimidated him some more and he decided it was safer to stay away) and to settle once and for all the question of where the money would be going. Becky allowed Linda to release a statement in RGP that she had approved word for word, which said that every penny of the toke pool would go to the dealers and tournament personnel. She lied. Over the course of that years World Series, Becky shorted the dealers and tournament personnel to the tune of nearly $200,000, which resulted in some of them walking out on her when the tournament ended. She fired the tournament directors and her poker room manager, who was the daughter of the tournament director, as well as a couple of others and it blew up into an even bigger controversy.

In the process of all of this, I received a nasty and incoherent e-mail from Benny Binion Behnen, Becky's son, who was the head of the poker operation at the Horseshoe. He actually challenged me to a poker match, as though that would somehow absolve them of their lies. I'm not sure what his reasoning was, but he was quite irrational. And of course, I was barred from playing at the Horseshoe as well, which was hardly a big deal. I didn't play there anyway. It had long since become a broken down wreck of a casino, filled with the stench of a billion cigarettes and who knows what else. The only reason to go there would be to play in the WSOP, which I wasn't planning to do anyway as long as these scumbags ran the place. 2002 met with more controversy yet, with Becky firing some of the dealers for staging a walkout when they were lied to yet again, and getting sued. She finally ran the place into the ground completely in 2003 and a few months ago, the IRS seized the property for back taxes. Harrah's ended up buying the name and reopening to stage this year's tournament, which has attracted record numbers so far.

Paul Phillips, by the way, has done brilliantly. In the first week of tournaments, he made it to two final tables, finishing 2nd and 4th. He is also one of the leading winners on the World Poker Tour so far, having won $1.1 million with a first place finish at the Bellagio Five Diamond classic in December and another $400,000 or so with a second place finish at the WPT event at the Bicycle casino in L.A. last year. I'm very happy that someone finally ran Becky and her thug family out of the business so that Paul could go back to the World Series, where he is surely among the favorites to win in this year's championship event. Someday soon, I hope to join him at a final table there.

Ed Brayton | 7:11 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, May 03, 2004

This is a test

Testing the w.bloggar software to see how it works with Blogspot.

Ed Brayton | 1:23 PM | | | Permalink

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Dumbing Down Education Again

Is there any limit at all on how far do-gooders are willing to dumb down our educational system in the name of helping students feel good about themselves? I rarely agree with anyone from Fox News on anything, but this opinion piece by Joanne Jacobs is pretty much on the mark. First, it reports on a plan by some California schools to do away with the D grade, with anything below a C- garnering a failing grade. Good idea, I'd say, but some parents aren't too happy:
"I'd rather go to a junior college,'' said Alex Johnson, a junior at Mountain View High who is eyeing Foothill or De Anza community colleges. He says it's unfair that some teachers at his school are widening the range for an F. His dad isn't thrilled either.

"D's are the only thing keeping him from getting F's,'' Alex's dad, Doug Johnson, said. "He's an incredibly bright kid, but he couldn't care less about school.''
Well, Alex's dad, Alex is going to have to work a little harder to make sure he doesn't fail. If he's "incredibly bright", he should only have to turn off his Playstation for another hour or so a day to squeak by. I'm guessing he'll survive. But frankly, it would be amusing to see him using a similar rationalization in the real world while working a job. He's incredibly capable of doing the work, you see, but he doesn't feel like it. And how terribly unfair it is of his boss to not just let him coast along without putting any effort into his job. Another slacker is born, apparently with the full support of his father. Warms the heart, doesn't it?

We can at least take solace in the fact that his principal is a reasonably responsible adult, since his father clearly is not:
Principal Murchison said young people need to learn that sub-standard work is not OK in the real world.

"I'm fixing my kitchen right now,'' Murchison said. "I'm not going to pay a guy $5,000 for 'D work'.''
I must say, I'm a bit shocked at Mr. Murchison's response. Most public school administrators seem to be far more interested in making sure everyone passes because that's typically a major factor in the amount of state funding they receive. This is one of the major causes for the pervasive dumbing down of public school education all over the country, and at all levels. Another is the self-esteem fetish that has developed. Witness the reaction to this idea:
Instead of requiring high school students to pass a graduation exam, Delaware decided to award three levels of diplomas: basic, standard and distinguished. The levels are based on students' performance on state reading, math and writing tests given in 10th grade. Some 52 percent of students are in line for only a basic diploma, 40 percent for standard and only 8 percent for distinguished.
Now while I disagree with the basis they are using for this distinction (basing it upon a single test at a single point in their education is foolish), the reaction to it has instead focused on the mere fact that they are daring to make such distinctions between students:
"Eventually, with a good study, they will find it furthers the aura of separation of these kids when, ultimately, you want them to feel that they are just as good as their counterparts," said Hector Figueroa, education director for the Urban League...

Robert Andrzejewski, head of the Red Clay school district, said the system will not motivate students as legislators insisted it would.

"One of the worst things you can do to kids with low self-esteem, who are often of low-income anyway, is show them failure," he said. "So many of those students have experienced failure in their lives and there comes a point when they decide they have to save face for themselves, and, unfortunately, that may mean they drop out."
This, dear readers, is a recipe for inculcating mediocrity and failure among our youth. If they can't meet the standards, we'll just lower the standards so they'll feel good about themselves. Has it ever occured to these people that in the real world, there is no such desire to make sure everyone feels good about themselves despite their lack of ability or effort? Any business owner who evaluated their employees with more concern for their self-esteem than for their ability or willingness to do the job would quickly find himself out of business. So rather than preparing students for later success, the self-esteem fetishists are intent on insulating them from reality.

Allowing these people anywhere near educational policy is a huge mistake. They are clearly incapable of distinguishing what they wish to be true from what is true. Truth is that which does not change just because you want it to. And no matter how much they may desire to live in Lake Wobegon (where all the students are above average), that's still a fictional place. If you're really worried about self-esteem, then challenge the students. When they work hard to meet that challenge and succeed, their self-esteem will soar. You get self-esteem from accomplishment, not from adults lying to you and telling you you're just as good as those who work harder than you, or are more talented in that area than you are.

In my experience, the quality of education is bad enough for those who are getting good grades. I went to what was allegedly one of the best public schools in the state of Michigan. The one thing that I left with was a sense of the pervasive mediocrity that infused virtually every aspect of that school system. In 4 years of college prep work, I had a total of two really good teachers. Two teachers who actually had passion for the subject they taught and who both inspired and challenged their students. The rest appeared to be just putting in their time waiting for summer vacation. Unfortunately, even for those few really good teachers, the bulk of students generally cared only about making sure they had memorized the right things for the test, with little thought to whether they actually understood the subject. Technical proficency, not real education, was the goal in which the bulk of teachers and students were co-consipirators.

In my high school, there were only two required courses for seniors, government and economics. Government was taught by the basketball coach, economics by the baseball coach. In the government class, we watched a lot of filmstrips and movies. I recall the government teacher/jock in charge not knowing that James Madison had originally opposed a bill of rights and telling me I was wrong when I mentioned it in a class discussion. I also recall having to explain to the econ teacher what an econometric formula was. And this school had, as I recall, the third highest state test scores in the state at the time for public schools. And for crying out loud, this was 19 years ago. It's even worse today. There has to be an end somewhere. At some point, we have to stop this snowball of mediocrity and demand that the schools do their job.

Ed Brayton | 12:41 PM | | | Permalink

Friday, April 30, 2004

Go to This Website Now

Every once in a while, I come across a webpage that makes me wonder how on earth it has managed to escape my notice for so long. Today I found one only because the editor of the page left a comment in response to a post I made on The Panda's Thumb. The site in question, Butterflies and Wheels, is the work of Ophelia Benson, a historian by training, and Jeremy Stangroom, a sociologist. The moment I read there raison d'etre, I knew this was my kind of page:
Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:

1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.
2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).
3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’ (Reply to Social Text Editorial)
If you're not familiar with the Alan Sokal hoax, you should be, and you can read all about it on Sokal's academic page concerning the incident.

The attacks on science come not only from the Religious Right but also from some sectors of the academic left. Those who subordinate reason and logic to their political goals and insist that truth is relative to one's gender, race, sexuality or economic position are not only peddling nonsense, they're peddling dangerous nonsense.

If you are like me and you cringe every time you hear someone invoke Heisenberg's uncertainty principle or the non-locational effects in Quantum Mechanics as a justification for some fashionable hoohah like ESP or whatever crap Deepok Chopra and Shirley MacLaine are shoveling out these days, you're going to love this site.

Ed Brayton | 12:40 PM | | | Permalink

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Fisking a Horrible Pro-ID Article

Anyone who has followed the evolution/creationism issue for any period of time is quite accustomed to seeing articles filled with the most basic factual errors, poor spelling and hackneyed arguments. But this article, written by someone named Brian Cherry in a webmag called the Washington Dispatch, may take the cake. It's bad enough that for a moment, one suspects that it is a parody. Alas, it's not. Mr. Cherry actually wrote it and, presumably, believes it. Unfortunately, he can't even get the most basic facts right, let alone comprehend the larger issues he discusses. Let's begin the fisking.
Who’s your daddy? It is exactly this sort of question that results in slapped faces and restraining orders if the query is made in a bar. When this question was posed to the State School Board of Ohio and framed in the context of human origins it sparked national debates and threats of lawsuits. The board was tasked with making the decision on whether or not students can be presented with an alternative to the theory of evolution. The alternative in question is the theory of intelligent design.
Mistake #1: There is no "theory of intelligent design". At this point, ID is nothing more than a technical-sounding argument from ignorance. William Dembski, the leading ID advocate, defines an argument from ignorance as one that takes the form "Not X, therefore Y". Yet even while denying, in rhetoric, that ID is based upon such an argument, he has created and developed a rather obvious one, the Explanatory Filter (EF). The EF is precisely this form of argument - "If not regularity and if not chance, therefore intelligent design". This is not a theory in a scientific sense, and there is no actual explanatory model in place for ID. There is no model of how such design took place, by whom, or when. There is no actual positive research in favor of ID, there is only sniping at evolutionary theory as an explanation so that they can repeat the argument from ignorance seen above - if evolution doesn't (yet) explain it, it must be ID. Sorry, this isn't a theory.
Despite the fact that a number of reputable scientists support this theory with credible scientific evidence, it didn’t stop proponents of evolution to immediately yell that this is a breach of contemporary view of the second amendment that separates church and state.
Uh, Brian. I'm not sure where you went to school, but did they not teach the difference between the first amendment and the second amendment? I'm guessing your own magazine contains lots of articles about the second amendment, which deals with the right to bear arms and has nothing to do with separation of church and state. Are there no editors for the Washington Dispatch?

Also, science does not deal in reputable scienTISTS, it deals in reputable science. Lots of reputable scientists have lent their name to lots of crackpot ideas, but that doesn't make the ideas they may advocate legitimate scientific explanations, or give them any explanatory power. Nor, as I said above, is there any "credible scientific evidence" for ID. They have dealt only with abstract meta-scientific claims (such as the EF), or with arguments against evolution. No ID advocate has ever even attempted to offer a real testable model from which positive evidence flows. All research merely feeds the argument from ignorance stated above.
The shrill call for a constitutional foul came forth because the theory of intelligent design concludes that we are the products of a higher intelligence. This higher intelligence is never named or given bias towards a particular religion. Supporters of intelligent design simply put forth the evidence without making a presumption on what deity is responsible. That is where the problem lies for evolutionists. Any theory that not only suggests that we are the product of a creation but can also back it up in a credible manner is a threat to them.
Really? Then please explain why such a large percentage of scientists, including evolutionary biologists, are theists? Are they threatened by their own beliefs? Evolution says nothing about the existence of any deities, any more than celestial mechanics does. But there is always a supernatural alternative to be offered to any scientific theory. ID is to evolution what the "angels push the planets around theory" is to classic planetary mechanics. It's a purely supernatural alternative to a very successful explanation.
If we are seeking scientific truth, why would people in the scientific community be afraid of an open dialogue on a theory that can be supported with at least as much evidence as evolution? When you strip away the venire of science the answer becomes clear. By definition evolution is now a religion and any idea that challenges their belief system must be eliminated.
False premise, ridiculous conclusion. If Mr. Cherry can provide us with examples of evidence for ID, as opposed to alleged examples of how evolution doesn't work as an explanation, he will be the first to do so. Hence, it is simply false and absurd to claim that ID is "supported with at least as much evidence" as evolution.
The dictionary defines religion as “A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. This is not really helpful unless you also know how this same dictionary defines the word, religious. Religious is defined by Webster’s as “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”. It is in this meaning of the word religious that we find evolutions true self. Evolution manifests the two most important points that qualify it as a religion. These are a devotion to an ultimate reality (as well as a deity, though they wont admit it), and faith.
Oh goodie, the old "they're religious too" argument. It's quite idiotic, but that doesn't seem to stop our intrepid correspondent. Evolution is not an argument about "ultimate reality". Like all scientific theories, it is an explanation for a specific set of data. Evolution explains, successfully, the present biodiversity on earth, the geographical distribution of that diversity, the patterns of appearance in the palentological record, the nested heirarchies at both the phenotype and genotype levels, and several other facts that are well established and readily observed. It does not explain "ultimate reality", nor does it attempt to. The fact that those who work with it every day reject bad or unsupported "alternatives" to it does not mean that it's a "religion" protecting its "doctrines" or any such hoohah. If Mr. Cherry had even the slightest education in either the philosophy of science or evolutionary biology itself, he would know this.
Those who are dedicated to evolution hide their faith by pretending their belief is deeply rooted in science. When you break down the fossil evidence though, you find some interesting things.
Yes, you find lots of interesting things when studying fossils, something Mr. Cherry has obviously not done, as we shall see. This is where the real fun begins with this article. This is where the article goes from silly to outright stupidity.
Dr. Leaky started much of the uproar when he found his famous missing link, Lucy. In the end his find turned out to be a mosaic of at least two different species of extinct ape.
A brave leap in the dark, followed by a resounding thud as Mr. Cherry lands flat on his face. First, it's "Leakey", not Leaky. Second, no one in the Leakey family (which contains at least three prominent paleontologists) discovered Lucy. Lucy was discovered by Donald Johanson. And the notion that Lucy turned out to be "a mosaic of at least two different species of extinct ape" is pure fiction. Lucy is a 40% complete skeleton of an Australopithecine. No one, Mr. Cherry, has ever claimed it was a mosaic of extinct apes. Not even the dumbest young earth creationist. Congratulations, you've managed to top even Duane Gish on the nonsense scale, and on your first foray into the field. This is truly a rare achievement.
Eugene Dubois was a Dutch scientist and devotee of Charles Darwin. During a dig on the island of Java, he discovered the first fossils of a Pithecanthropus erectus. This find was later nicknamed “Java man”.
So far so good. I'm reasonably sure this is the longest passage in his entire article without an obvious factual error.
Dubois became very protective of his find and only allowed access of the bones to a very small circle of people. After several decades of stonewalling and intense pressure to compare his fossils against finds of extinct mammals that had also been unearthed in Java, Dubois finally admitted that his Pithecanthropus erectus was actually the remains of an ancient Gibbon. In the end all Dubois managed to do was conclusively prove that Gibbons exist.
Well, so much for accuracy. Not a single word of this last passage was true. The notion that Dubois hid his finds from other scientists has long been debunked. Cherry, blissfully ignorant of the actual evidence, can't even seem to copy the nonsense he so obviously stole from the creationists accurately. At issue are two entirely different finds, the Java Man remains found at one site, and the Wadjak skulls found elsewhere. Creationists like Duane Gish and Marvin Lubenow like to claim that Dubois kept the Wadjak skulls a secret because they are clearly more modern than the java man specimens. This is utter nonsense. Dubois published three separate articles on the Wadjak skulls between 1890 and 1892. They also like to claim that both finds were "at the same level", which is again complete nonsense. The Wadjak skulls were found 65 miles away and in cave deposits up in the mountains, while the java man bones were found in flood plain river deposits, obviously far lower. So we have here a distortion of a distortion - creationists make false claims about java man and Brian Cherry repeats them, but can't even get that right and makes them even less accurate in the process. Oh, by the way, Dubois also did not in fact identify java man as a gibbon later in life. He concluded that they were part of a different genus that was related to gibbons. As he noted, the brain size was far too large for a gibbon, or any anthropoid ape, and it was bipedal. By the way, this bit of silliness has been retracted even by the creationists of Answers in Genesis, who list this as one of their arguments that should not be used.
Piltdown man was a complete skull that finally proved the link between man and ape. It had characteristics of both. For fifty years this was the transitional fossil evolutionists threw in the face of anyone who doubted them. Piltdown man was their Rosetta stone.
Completely false. Piltdown man did not fit with the other hominid fossil evidence right from the start, which is exactly why scientists were troubled by it and why they started to examine it in more detail later on. The skull was too modern looking and the jaw too apelike, but this was before there was modern dating methods by which to actually test it. For 50 years, Piltdown man was not the "Rosetta stone" or any kind of triumphal find, but a puzzling anomoly that didn't fit with anything else. But let's be blunt. At this point, would any sane human being believe that Brian Cherry has actually read any of the early 20th century literature concerning Piltdown Man? I didn't think so.
Well it was until somebody took a close look at it and discovered it was the skull of a modern human with an ape’s jaw attached to it. The pranksters had also stained it to make it look old. The crime here is not the prank but the failure of evolutionists to put their discoveries under the standards of scrutiny that they demand from any competing theory. It took fifty years to discover their ultimate evidence was a clumsy fraud.
Again, because there were not originally any solid techniques with which to date the fossil itself. Remember, this was discovered around 1910. It was not until 1949 when scientists, using a recently developed flourine test, could determine definitively that the skull was of recent origin. And anthropologists were in fact quite happy to know it because the specimen simply didn't fit with the rest of the evidence. These are things you learn, Mr. Cherry, when you read something other than creationist webpages.
The entire theory was eventually dealt a sharp blow when the Neandertal man, the only fossil of an ape/human ancestor that was recent enough to extract DNA from came back as not even remotely human.
Wow, it just gets worse. First, no one EVER claimed that Homo neanderthalensis was "an ape/human ancestor". Second, the claim that Neanderthal is "not even remotely human" is, to be blunt, complete garbage. The mtDNA tests determined that the Neanderthals were not direct ancestors to Homo sapiens - that's us, Brian - but were instead an evolutionary cousin, a side branch that died out, either through extinction of interbreeding. But not only are they "remotely human", they ARE human. That's what the "Homo" means at the beginning of their Linnean classification. They are full fledged members of the genus Homo. They always were and they always will be, and the mtDNA studies didn't change that one bit. All they did was settle the previously unanswered question of whether they were directly ancestral to Homo sapiens or part of another lineage within the same genus.
Once the Neandertal was conclusively and scientifically proved to be a species other then human in 1997, the theory of evolution had to be adjusted. The Neandertal’s were a branch from a common ancestor we have. Just like monkeys. Who is this common ancestor? Nobody knows. Where is the fossil? There isn’t one. How do they know there is a common ancestor then? Because they believe that someday someone will find the evidence they are looking for.
I think I just heard another thud. Sorry Brian, we do know the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. It's called Homo erectus. In fact, contrary to your claim that "there isn't one", we have dozens of specimens of Homo erectus.
Evolution, by definition, is a religion. In science fraud is common and hoaxes are just an unfortunate part of the territory.
Common? Is that why you could come up with exactly ONE example of a fraud or hoax for this breathless article, Brian? Nebraska man was simply a misclassification of a weathered tooth given to H.F. Osborn. When scientists went to the site and did an actual dig 2 years later, they found related remains and immediately withdrew the mistaken classification. The only example of a fraud or hoax is Piltdown man, and you've completely distorted the truth about that one as well. And Piltdown man was discovered to be a hoax by scientists in the process of doing science - rechecking the data, using new and more accurate techniques to examine the evidence, and publishing the results. And on the basis of this one distorted claim, you've determined that fraud is common? I'll take ridiculous non sequiturs for $1000, Alex.

The rest of the article is just more conclusionary nonsense based on all of the factual and logical errors he makes above. The punchline to this joke is that the Washington Dispatch bills itself as "an objective source for social and political commentary", yet they published this commentary that is filled with claims that are outright false. Are there no editors at this magazine? Not even to check spelling (the word is veneer, not venire)?

Follow up: Mr. Cherry saw fit to reply to me by e-mail and I just have to put the text of this bizarre, off-point screed that he sent me. Is there anything funnier than when a hack like this guy tries to rescue his credibility with an incoherent rant packed full of misspellings, punctuation errors, random capitalization, ostensible answers to arguments that were never made, and no answers to the arguments that actually were made? This e-mail is being reproduced word for word and letter for letter. To wit:
I read your blog and found it quite funny. You praise science for discovering the wood stain on Piltdown mans, despite the fact it took decades. I have a handy man that could have spotted that in 30 seconds. As far as the rest, just because your progaganda and faith dont support the truth of Dubois and the rest of the evidence doesnt make your version true. Of course like any other religion you are hoping the more often you say things the truer they become.

Your "Transitional fossils" are only evidence if you work backwards from the belief of evolution. No soft tissue samples and no DNA. By your methods you would take the innards of a pig (which are the closest to human in all of the animal world) and declare it a human ancestor before seeing the skelaton or any other part of the pig. Also under your methods the Thylacine would be classified as a dog, if all we had was the skelaton. You start at the conclusion and make the evidence fit your pre determined notion. In other words, everything you wrote was self serving and all your evidence is open to multiple interpretations. You simply choose to call your interpretation a fact.

My article was not written for you and thankfully it has reached its target audience. You are the defender of your religious belief so I dont expect an open mind out of you. Had you actually done your research on ID with an open mind, and put your evidence to the same standard you demand from any other theory you would have more questions about evolution then beligerant rhetoric. Im sure your closed mind and inability to question what your teachers have told you will serve you well in whatever micro managed cubicle or factory line your life takes you. Those who emply such positions hate people with probbing minds. You will fit right in.
Bravissimo, Mr. Cherry. You've outdone yourself. On top of the innumerable factual errors you made in your original article (none of which you bothered to address here, unsurprisingly), you've added more. There was no "wood stain" used on the Piltdown man skull. It was treated first with Chromic acid and then with a solution containing iron and possibly manganese, to try and replicate the absorption of those chemicals from a gravel quarry. It also may have been boiled in an iron sulphate solution. But again, this was 1910. There was no means of detecting those things in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, there were and scientists used them. None of which changes the fact that you were flat wrong when you claimed that this was the "Rosetta stone" and the "ultimate evidence" from anthropology. Every single claim you have made about Piltdown man was false, just like every single claim you made about Java man was false, and every single claim you made about Lucy was false, including even the basics of who discovered it. Not one of the factual criticisms that I offered have you bothered to respond to. And I do love that little dig at my "factory life" at the end. It would, however, be a lot more compelling and amusing if you hadn't misspelled half the words. Where on earth did you learn to write and how did you manage to get the Washington Dispatch to emply (sic) you? Probbing (sic) minds want to know, including those who aren't beligerant (sic). Cherry's response also makes one wonder who on earth the article was written for. Apparently for half wits too ignorant to see beneath the venire (sic) of his progaganda (sic).

Ed Brayton | 12:39 PM | | | Permalink

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The Search for Noah's Ark

Yet again, some intrepid explorers are preparing to trudge up Mt. Ararat to find Noah's Ark:
A joint U.S.-Turkish team of 10 explorers plans to make the arduous trek up Turkey’s tallest mountain, at 17,820 feet (5,430 meters), from July 15 to Aug. 15, subject to the approval of the Turkish government, said Daniel P. McGivern, president of Shamrock—The Trinity Corp. of Honolulu, Hawaii.

The goal: to enter what they believe to be a mammoth structure some 45 feet high, 75 feet wide and up to 450 feet long (14 by 23 by 138 meters) that was exposed in part by last summer’s heat wave in Europe.
I'll make a prediction right now. They won't reach this "object", if it actually exists, but they'll come back with an amazing story (involving Satan or storms or terrorists, or all three) of why they couldn't, and far off pictures that some true believer might interpret as something looking vaguely like a wooden structure of some type. My favorite part of the article is this:
“We are not excavating it. We are not taking any artifacts. We’re going to photograph it and, God willing, you’re all going to see it,” McGivern said.
There are two things that strike me about that phrase. First, the "God willing" part. This gives them a perfect excuse when they don't find it for why it really is there even though they didn't - God was playing hide and seek with it. Second, why wouldn't you bring back artifacts? Is it because, as my friend Jon Woolf pointed out to me, artifacts (i.e. wood samples) are subject to a wide range of scientific tests for authenticity? Photos, on the other hand, are either easily faked, in the age of Photoshop, or sufficently vague that the true believers will continue to buy books and videos on how this is the Real Noah's Arktm but you just couldn't reach it because of {fill in the blank}. Anyone wanna take me up on the bet?

Ed Brayton | 12:39 PM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Can we get rid of this stupid phrase?

Is there a more meaningless cliche than "fabric of our nation"? I can't think of one. It's a perfect little piece of empty rhetoric, repeated ad nauseum without anyone bothering to ask what on earth it means. It just seems to be a phrase that people trot out when they're against something but they can't come up with a tangible, concrete reason why they're against it. So they say that it "destroys the fabric of our nation" and everyone who agrees with them nods in agreement, not having a clue what it actually means but knowing it sounds good. The perfectly pointless rhetorical flourish.

This phrase tends to be used more often by conservatives and the list of things that have been accused of "destroying" this fabric is long - flag burning, abortion, separation of church and state, drugs, divorce, moral relativism, and of course, gay marriage. Sometimes these things are said not to destroy the fabric but merely to "stain" the fabric. You know, you'd think with a nearly $2 trillion budget, we could afford to Scotchguard the fabric of the nation.

Ed Brayton | 12:37 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Religious Fringe, Part 1: Embassy of Heaven

I'm going to start another new feature here, only because this subject fascinates me so much. It will be a series of posts on the subject of fringe religious groups, particularly those in the loonier groups of the religious right wing in the United States. I make no pretense of being fair minded in their regard, I think those who populate such organizations are generally in need of serious psychological help. But still, I'm quite fascinated by the various strains of the fundamentalist mindset in its crazier manifestations. I also make no pretense that such people or groups in any way represent all Christians, or even all fundamentalists. I know far too many brilliant and well educated Christians to put them in the same barrel with the nuts I intend to shine a light on during this series. I do not draw the line between myself and Christians, I draw the line between me and the reasonable Christians and the whackos on the lunatic fringe; I also put the loonies on the non-Christian fringes, like the idiots who tried to get the UN to ban religion worldwide, in the same package. As Eric Hoffer put it, "Though they seem at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet."

The first group I'd like to look at is the Embassy of Heaven Church. I found this group by way of another right wing whacko, Kent Hovind, a creationist con man from Pensacola who is, yet again, in trouble with the government for not paying taxes. Hovind's attorney in this matter is Glen Stoll of Remedies at Law, who also represents the Embassy of Heaven cult. What Hovind shares with the Embassy of Heaven cult is the idea that because they claim to be God's ministers, they are therefore exempt from essentially all manmade laws

The Embassy of Heaven goes so far as to claim that they are citizens of the "Kingdom of God" and that their church is the official embassy from that Kingdom to the earthly governments. They believe that since they are citizens of Heaven and not citizens of the United States, they are exempt from any legal requirements imposed on them by the local, state or federal governments. They even go so far as to issue their own driver's licenses, license plates and passports, which they amusingly present at airports thinking that they are going to be allowed on a plane with them. The three or four hundred Embassy of Heaven members nationwide who have attempted to drive their cars with Embassy license plates, using Embassy driver's licenses, and without car insurance, have often found themselves being arrested. They then refuse to recognize the authority of the courts over them, refuse to post bail or enter a plea, and the courts typically hold them for a few weeks before deciding it's not really worth it, then they let them go. Needless to say, the cult members take this as proof that the world is evil for persecuting them and they have a webpage devoted to jailings of their members around the country.

One of the church members arrested who is listed on that page, John Joe Gray, is now in the 6th year of a standoff with the police in Texas inside his apparently heavily armed compound. Among those in the camp are Gray's daughter and her two children, over whom she does not have custody. The father of the children has begged the FBI, the Texas state police, the local sherrif, the US Marshalls, and anyone else who will listen to do something to get his children back, to at least serve the court order on the family, they have done nothing. Gray has repeatedly threatened the police with violence if they try to come near the compound and the authorities, apparently afraid of another Waco situation, have twiddled their thumbs since 1998.

To give you an idea of just how thwacked this group is, some members of the group, tired of being perpetually hassled by the police, suggested that perhaps they should ask the Supreme Court for an injunction against any action against the cult's members unless they constitute an immediate threat to someone else's life or property. No way, says their leader, who calls himself Paul Revere:
The only function such a document would serve is to pray to Antichrist for relief...

What the Church is really struggling over is authority. We want to have a standing in Christ. We don't want a standing recognized by the world, for what communion has the Kingdom of Light with the Kingdom of Darkness?

The officials of the Church will come into authority because they are acting in His name, in a righteous manner. Everyone will notice who the real Authority is. The real question is, "Who sits on the highest throne?"

We, as Christians, have been given the highest Authority, and we need to act in a Christian manner as we carry out His commands. We must joyfully accept the plundering of our property and meekly suffer, rather than retaliate...

The unbelievers need to take the initiative in making a place for God's elect, lest they be destroyed in their way. We are not called to "plea bargain" with the unbelievers, but to rule the earth and make them His footstool.
Wow. Here's probably my favorite argument they make. Try to top the incomparable idiocy of this reasoning for why the state can't write them tickets while using the roads and highways:
They cannot overcome the fact that we are not using the highways in their state. We are using the highways in the Kingdom of Heaven. Most people do not realize that the same stretch of concrete has multiple jurisdictions. State of Washington claims certain highways as their highways. But the Kingdom of Heaven claims these same highways for their purposes. And no one can deny that claim...

There are many jurisdictions claiming authority over the same highways. For instance, the United States Army has military highways for purposes of defense. The United States Postal Service has post roads for purposes of delivering mail. The state has "highways in this state" for purposes of regulating its drivers, and the Embassy of Heaven has "highways in the Kingdom of Heaven" for purposes of proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom to all nations. All these authorities have "concurrent jurisdiction" over the same physical highways. But those of us claiming the Kingdom of Heaven highways have the paramount claim to the highways because our Father created them and His son commanded us to use them. (See Matthew 28:18-20)

The state and its political subdivisions are stewards for the maintenance of the highways. That does not mean they own the highways. Specific government entities are charged with the maintenance and construction of the highways. To identify the custodian of these highways, they are designated State Highway 22 or County Road 208. It may appear that the state or county owns the highways, but they are merely stewards.

There is one form of stewardship we do not recognize. That is when the state takes dominion over the highways, treating them as their own. They start regulating who can and who cannot use the highways through their licensing programs. They not only regulate their own people, but they regulate anybody who uses "their" highways. When these stewards claim the highways as their own, they have become wicked husbandmen. (See Matthew 21:33-46)

When the sheriff in Washington wondered where the designations were for the Kingdom of Heaven highways, he was expecting that we would have markers on the side of the road. We don't need road signs. Our highways have already been published in the Bible under the Great Commission. Christ said, "Go to all nations." And His command to "Go to all nations," means that all the highways and byways and paths leading up to everybody's doorstep are designated as Kingdom of Heaven highways. Wherever we go, we are on the Kingdom highways.

If we faithfully stay off the highways in the state and remain on the highways in the Kingdom, there is no way we can trespass upon the state. We cannot commit traffic crimes against the state because we are not using their highways. Some jurisdictions are beginning to understand this and are dismissing charges against our ambassadors.

State motor vehicle statutes mean absolutely nothing to us because they only apply to those using highways in the state. They do not write statutes for those using highways in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is outside their jurisdiction. State law enforcement must come onto the highways in the Kingdom of Heaven in order to stop us. And if they cite us with violations of their statutes, they are trespassing. They do not supervise the Kingdom of Heaven highways.
There is no way to reason with such people. There is no way point in even attempting it. This is fanaticism on such a level that using logic to speak to someone who could believe something this stupid is as futile as trying to teach a card trick to a dog.

Ed Brayton | 12:36 PM | | | Permalink

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Backpeddling Racists

John Scalzi, a blogger you really should be reading, has a post on his blog that is both amusing and appalling. It's about the appearance of a racist on his site in the comments, but even more about his ham-handed backtracking he tried to do. It began with this post, wherein he critiques an anti-immigration book. In that post, he included a picture of his adorable daughter Athena, who is partially hispanic, with the caption, "Behold! The Unassimilated Hispanic Menace!". The Drudge Report put up a link to the post and along comes an asshole named Mike, who leaves the following comment:
"Cute little wetback girl. I wonder if she'll grow up to do donkey shows like her whore mother."
To which John Scalzi replied:
"Probably not, Mark. She's not your sister.

Further note to the folks who wish to display their flagrant and abject racist stupidity: Try to have a little more creativity about it, please? If you're going to be a flagrant racist asshole, you need to stand out from all the other flagrant racist assholes out there. Try to exhibit a little style. I know, it'll be difficult, given the general inability of your neurons to fire on a regular pattern. But do make the effort, why don't you."
At which point the asshole in question tried to backtrack:
"Sorry. Didn't realize she was your daughter. My apologies.

I'm outta here! Best wishes!"
But of course, it goes without saying that when his obviously ridiculous apology was not accepted, he was not in fact "outta there", but stuck around to display his racism and stupidity over and over again. All of which reminded me of a story that took place some 17 or 18 years ago, when I was in college with another backpeddling racist.

I was in college and working for a summer at a butcher shop in the back of a large grocery store. One night I'm working with a guy that I didn't know well at all, he was pretty new. He was your basic frat guy/yuppie larvae type, but he seemed okay up to this point. I don't recall his name, so let's call him Flip (in college I used to joke that every frat guy was either Rip, Skip, Flip, Kip or Chip). It was a slow night and we were kind of standing around making small talk, talking about the basketball team and whatnot, when this couple rounds the corner of the first aisle and walks past the meat counter. The man was black and the woman was white, which caused Flip to, well, flip. When the couple got past the meat counter and turned up another aisle, Flip turns to me and says, "Man, that burns me up."

Rather dumbfounded, I said, "What burns you up?"

"That", he said while gesturing toward the aisle the couple had gone down, "Salt and pepper."

Pausing for a moment, I said, "Why does that burn you up?"

He said, "It's just wrong. They're gonna have mutt kids."

At this point, I decided to drop a little bomb on him. I said, "You know, I have a sister who is married to a black man and I have a niece and nephew who are 'mutts'. And they aren't worth any less just because some racist asshole who looks like Hitler's wet dream says so."

At which point, he starts to say, "Oh, I didn't mean...."

I cut him off immediately, saying, "Oh, yes you did. You did mean it. You just didn't know that I wasn't 'safe' to spew your hatred too because I'm a white guy like you and we're all supposed to think alike. In the future, you might want to leave me out of your racist games. I don't play by the rules."

I'm torn on this one. Like Scalzi's racist interloper, mine was just your everyday type of racist. Not a virulent racist who joins the KKK, just the run of the mill kind of racist who thinks that everyone thinks like them. On the one hand, it's amusing to watch them try and backpeddle when they get caught, because this kind of racist is also a social coward. For them, racism is a way of fitting in, a way of bonding with "their people", so when it backfires they backpeddle like an NFL defensive back. On the other hand, the fact that they CAN safely say such things in most cases without running into trouble suggests that they may well be right in their assumption that most people who look like them probably think like them too.

Ed Brayton | 12:35 PM | | | Permalink

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Gambling is Illegal (wink, wink)

From the files of our intrepid vice police comes this story about Baltimore Ravens fullback Corey Fuller. His house in Tallahassee, Florida was raided by 20 - TWENTY - law enforcement officers on Tuesday night. Was he hiding stolen goods? Peddling crack? Storing bodies in his crawlspace? Nope. What was this obvious threat to society doing? Well, he was playing poker with his friends. And for this horrible crime against humanity, he now faces up to 5 years in prison and a $5000 fine.

Color me pissed, and not just because I participate in weekly poker games of this sort (though presumably for lower limits). Under Florida state law, you are allowed to gamble up to 10 dollars on a hand of cards. Other states have similar laws with varying limits and regulations on what you can and can't do. I think it's obviously time for the Florida police to have their budget cut and to lay off a whole lot of officers, if they are so bored that this is what they spend their time doing, preventing friends from getting together and having fun without any harm to anyone else.

It's time to end this hypocrisy that gambling is illegal. It's bullshit and everyone knows it. In my state, we have 19 casinos that operate legally. We have numerous horse racing tracks with legal betting. The state government runs a dozen different types of lotteries. Even the churches get into the act, with charity Vegas nights and weekly bingo games. But I can't get together with my buddies and play a friendly poker game without the threat of a bunch of jackbooted thugs in police uniforms busting into my house.

So what's the difference between our poker games and the casinos and lotteries and horse racing? The government doesn't get a cut, that's the difference. It's all about the government inserting itself, and shaking us down financially, in every conceivable area of our lives. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Sure, as long as they get their cut of the action. Next we'll be hearing about them raiding a 9 year old's lemonade stand to make sure their payroll taxes are up to date, or demanding that we file I-9 documents before we hire the neighbor kid to cut our lawn for $15. And the incredible thing to me is that Americans take it lying down, without a fuss.

It's time we got the government out of the business of regulating consensual and victimless crimes. All it does is corrupt our law enforcement institutions and cost us untold billions of dollars to imprison those who should not be imprisoned, destroying families in the process. The government's purpose for existing is to protect us from one another, not to stamp out the possibility of having fun. I've had it up to my eyelids with a government that thinks it's our nanny and not our servant.

Ed Brayton | 12:34 PM | | | Permalink

In Memoriam: John Maynard Smith

John Maynard Smith, the venerable and brilliant old biologist, has died at the age of 84. A protege of J.B.S. Haldane, Smith was an enormous influence over two entire generations of evolutionary biologists. He also published many popular books for non-scientists on evolutionary theory. Science, and the larger human community, has lost a giant.

Ed Brayton | 12:34 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, April 19, 2004

Book Bytes #2: Mencken on Men and Women

For my second Book Bytes entry, I'm going to continue the male/female theme, but from a more personal level than a political one. This will not be one continuous passage, however, but bits and pieces of various essays that Mencken wrote over many years, and from his 1918 book In Defense of Women. I don't think anyone ever accused Mencken of being a feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but he did have a shrewd eye for human interaction. He observed, for instance, that though it is commonly thought that women were more compassionate and sympathetic than men, they could also be more ruthless and manipulative than men, while men were often far more prone to sentimentality. We are a curious thing, we humans. Anyway, here are the words of HL Mencken - brilliantly phrased, provocative, and sometimes enraging.

~ begin excerpts ~

A man's women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelligence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition. The mark of that so-called intuition is simply a sharp and accurate perception of reality, an habitual immunity to emotional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing clearly between the appearance and the substance. The appearance, in the normal family circle, is a hero, magnifico, a demigod. The substance is a poor mountebank...

This shrewd perception of masculine bombast and make-believe, this acute understanding of man as the eternal tragic comedian, is at the bottom of that compassionate irony which paces under the name of the maternal instinct. A woman wishes to mother a man simply because she sees into his helplessness, his need of an amiable environment, his touching self delusion. That ironical note is not only daily apparent in real life; it sets the whole tone of feminine fiction. The woman novelist, if she be skillful enough to arise out of mere imitation into genuine self-expression, never takes her heroes quite seriously. From the day of George Sand to the day of Selma Lagerlof she has always got into her character study a touch of superior aloofness, of ill-concealed derision. I can't recall a single masculine figure created by a woman who is not, at bottom, a booby.

That is should still be necessary, at this late stage in the senility of the human race to argue that women have a fine and fluent intelligence is surely an eloquent proof of the defective observation, incurable prejudice, and general imbecility of their lords and masters. One finds very few professors of the subject, even among admitted feminists, approaching the fact as obvious; practically all of them think it necessary to bring up a vast mass of evidence to establish what should be an axiom. Even the Franco Englishman, W. L. George, one of the most sharp-witted of the faculty, wastes a whole book up on the demonstration, and then, with a great air of uttering something new, gives it the humourless title of " The Intelligence of Women. " The intelligence of women, forsooth! As well devote a laborious time to the sagacity of serpents, pickpockets, or Holy Church!

Women, in truth, are not only intelligent; they have almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler and more utile forms of intelligence. The thing itself, indeed, might be reasonably described as a special feminine character; there is in it, in more than one of its manifestations, a femaleness as palpable as the femaleness of cruelty, masochism or rouge. Men are strong. Men are brave in physical combat. Men have sentiment. Men are romantic, and love what they conceive to be virtue and beauty. Men incline to faith, hope and charity. Men know how to sweat and endure. Men are amiable and fond. But in so far as they show the true fundamentals of intelligence--in so far as they reveal a capacity for discovering the kernel of eternal verity in the husk of delusion and hallucination and a passion for bringing it forth--to that extent, at least, they are feminine, and still nourished by the milk of their mothers. "Human creatures," says George, borrowing from Weininger, "are never entirely male or entirely female; there are no men, there are no women, but only sexual majorities." Find me an obviously intelligent man, a man free from sentimentality and illusion, a man hard to deceive, a man of the first class, and I'll show you a man with a wide streak of woman in him. Bonaparte had it; Goethe had it; Schopenhauer had it; Bismarck and Lincoln had it; in Shakespeare, if the Freudians are to be believed, it amounted to down right homosexuality. The essential traits and qualities of the male, the hallmarks of the unpolluted masculine, are at the same time the hall-marks of the Schalskopf. The caveman is all muscles and mush. Without a woman to rule him and think for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle: a baby with whiskers, a rabbit with the frame of an aurochs, a feeble and preposterous caricature of God.

It would be an easy matter, indeed, to demonstrate that superior talent in man is practically always accompanied by this feminine flavour--that complete masculinity and stupidity are often indistinguishable. Lest I be misunderstood I hasten to add that I do not mean to say that masculinity contributes nothing to the complex of chemico-physiological reactions which produces what we call talent; all I mean to say is that this complex is impossible without the feminine contribution that it is a product of the interplay of the two elements. In women of genius we see the opposite picture. They are commonly distinctly mannish, and shave as well as shine. Think of George Sand, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth of England, Rosa Bonheur, Teresa Carreo or Cosima Wagner. The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavour. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a bank director. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. Here, as elsewhere in the universe, the best effects are obtained by a mingling of elements. The wholly manly man lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring and secret dreams, and the wholly womanly woman is apt to be too cynical a creature to dream at all.

What men, in their egoism, constantly mistake for a deficiency of intelligence in woman is merely an incapacity for mastering that mass of small intellectual tricks, that complex of petty knowledges, that collection of cerebral rubber stamps, which constitutes the chief mental equipment of the average male. A man thinks that he is more intelligent than his wife because he can add up a column of figures more accurately, and because he understands the imbecile jargon of the stock market, and because he is able to distinguish between the ideas of rival politicians, and because he is privy to the minutiae of some sordid and degrading business or profession, say soap-selling or the law. But these empty talents, of course, are not really signs of a profound intelligence; they are, in fact, merely superficial accomplishments, and their acquirement puts little more strain on the mental powers than a chimpanzee suffers in learning how to catch a penny or scratch a match. The whole bag of tricks of the average business man, or even of the average professional man, is inordinately childish. It takes no more actual sagacity to carry on the everyday hawking and haggling of the world, or to ladle out its normal doses of bad medicine and worse law, than intakes to operate a taxicab or fry a pan of fish. No observant person, indeed, can come into close contact with the general run of business and professional men--I confine myself to those who seem to get on in the world, and exclude the admitted failures--without marvelling at their intellectual lethargy, their incurable ingenuousness, their appalling lack of ordinary sense. The late Charles Francis Adams, a grandson of one American President and a great-grandson of another, after a long lifetime in intimate association with some of the chief business "geniuses" of that paradise of traders and usurers, the United States, reported in his old age that he had never heard a single one of them say anything worth hearing. These were vigorous and masculine men, and in a man's world they were successful men, but intellectually they were all blank cartridges...

A woman, if she hates her husband (and many of them do), can make life so sour and obnoxious to him that even death upon the gallows seems sweet by comparison. This hatred, of course, is often, and perhaps Almost invariably, quite justified. To be the wife of an ordinary man, indeed, is an experience that must be very hard to bear. The hollowness and vanity of the fellow, his petty meanness and stupidity, his puling sentimentality and credulity, his bombastic air of a cock on a dunghill, his anaesthesia to all whispers and summonings of the spirit, above all, his loathsome clumsiness in amour--all these things must revolt any woman above the lowest. To be the object of the oafish affections of such a creature, even when they are honest and profound, cannot be expected to give any genuine joy to a woman of sense and refinement. His performance as a gallant, as Honor de Balzac long ago observed, unescapably suggests a gorilla's efforts to play the violin...

~ end excerpts ~

Ed Brayton | 12:32 PM | | | Permalink

Thursday, April 15, 2004

My Favorite Things: Sportswriter

The third entry on my "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" list is my favorite sportswriter. That honor goes to the legendary Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. The Sports Guy writes for espn.com, as well as for the Jimmy Kimmel show, and he's the funniest sportswriter this side of Bill Scheft. But whereas Scheft writes great one liners about sports, The Sports Guy writes great columns about sports, about his obsession with sports (especially his beloved Boston teams), and about his life. If you've been a longtime reader of his columns, you know all the telltale elements that he uses so skillfully in his storytelling:

The cast of characters: his Dad, who sounds so much like my dad that I think he's got cameras in my parents' house sometimes; his friends - Bish, Sully, J-Bug, Joe House and the other quintessential Bah-ston nicknames; his dog, Dooze; and of course the ever-patient Sports Gal.

The pop culture references: woven throughout his columns are certain recurring references to objects of American popular culture that are Dennis Miller-worthy in that they are both obscure and perfectly on point when he throws them in. These include the movie Hoosiers, TV show The White Shadow, and the king of all obscure movie references, Gymkata. As one of the 14 people who has seen this movie, let me describe it for you...

begin pointless but amusing digression...

The movie stars champion gymnast Kurt Thomas as...champion gymnast Jonathan Cabot. Ah, but he's not just a gymnast, he's also the son of a former secret government operative. And his government calls on him to infiltrate the tiny, yet savage, country of Parmistan, ruled by The Khan, who periodically holds a brutal challenge called only The Game. And naturally, along the way he has to rescue a girl, and he uncovers the hidden barbarism of The Khan, including his Village of Crazies. If this all sounds a lot like Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, well, it is. It's also the kind of movie that has characters with names like Hao and Thorg.

The galactic horribleness of this movie can be summed up in one scene, where our gymnast hero is being pursued by bad guys through a suitably Eastern European looking village. He's running, he's kicking ass, then he's running some more, with dozens of bad guys in pursuit, when suddenly, and inexplicably, he comes across - no, I'm not making this up - a pommel horse. Yes, a concrete pommel horse in the middle of the city square. Because god knows, ancient towns are littered with monuments to gymnastics equipment. Our intrepid hero begins to do a perfect pommel horse spin thingy, complete with scissors kick that knocks out all the bad guys, who for some reason keep running directly at the pommel horse. This is the point at which the movie really loses its credibility. Not because of the pommel horse or the moronic behavior of the bad guys, but because he ended up getting a 5.4 from the Parmistani judge and he deserved much higher.

end pointless but amusing digression

The recurring themes: The Sports Guy has one theme that he uses quite often, which is the running diary. He'll take an event, say the NBA draft or Wrestlemania, and keep a running diary of his thoughts as it goes along. The results are hilarious, especially if it involves one of the many fantasy sports leagues he belongs to and the drafts that they hold for players. As an example, his column on last fall's NBA fantasy draft includes these gems:
4:28: You know how every fantasy draft gets ruined by the cell-phone guy babbling with his partner who didn't show up? And you're rooting for him to choke to death on a Cheeto by Round 8? Well, in our league, Anthony is Cheeto Choker and Joe House is Cell Phone Buddy. Somehow, they won last year's title, although they lost money in the long run (because the winnings were less than Anthony's phone bill for the draft).

Here's my point: This year, House showed up in person. On the bright side, we don't have to endure their annoying cell phone calls. On the flip side, we have to listen to them bitch at one another in person. They're like an old married couple. They just took Jermaine O'Neal eighth (as a forward). And neither seems happy about it.

"Somebody's sleeping on the sofa tonight," I joke. Everyone in the room hates me, and we're not even out of Round 1 yet...

4:33: Kicking off the second round, the Petes take Gilbert Arenas, launching a barrage of "Is this the fourth round already?" jokes. Those never get old...

5:04: I'm starting to like our team. Pining for Michael Redd, we catch a break when Jason Richardson and GP go in front of us. Suddenly I find myself saying, "You know, if Vince comes through this year, we might be in the running." Of course, Lenny Wilkens said these same words last year, and he's mowing his lawn right now...

5:15: Wow, I'm liking our team more and more by the minute. I am now convinced that Vince could average 30 a game. Time to mess with Jon, who has the terrified look of a guy who can't stop himself from picking Lamar Odom. I run through all the standard lines, including "Jon, Lamar Odom's on the phone ... he says he really wants to be on your team," and "Jon, it's Lamar Odom again ... he says he hasn't smoked pot in almost four months, and he just wants another chance."

Finally, Jon whines, "Don't do this to me!"

5:15: Jon takes Odom. Huge laughs. Dad pats me on the shoulder. He's like a proud father. Literally.

5:15: A giggling Lee asks everyone who has ever had Lamar Odom to raise their hands. Six of us oblige. Then he asks how many of us would do it again. None of us raise our hands. Somebody else mentions how Odom is one puff away from his third strike (and a one-year suspension). And somebody else mentions, "Is there an easier place in the country to buy drugs than Miami?"

Needless to say, Jon looks like he's trying to swallow his own tongue...

5:40: Well, it's time. Eighth round ... we need a forward ... we need a token Celtic ... and I need a good plot twist for this column. Dad and I look at each other. After two decades of drafting together, we could practically do this telepathically.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I ask him.

Dad suppresses a smile. "It's the right round for him."

"We'll take Vin Baker," I tell the crowd.

For about 1.2 seconds, it's one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of fantasy sports. Nobody was a bigger Baker critic than me. I wrote entire columns about the guy. He drove me insane. He was the centerpiece of the worst trade in Boston sports history. When I was debating whether or not to move to Los Angeles last year, the thought of watching Baker at the Fleet Center actually made the "Reasons to Leave" section of my "Pro-Con" list (no joke).

As it turned out, Vin says he was drunk every night. Not just some nights ... every night. Now he's sober. And skinny. His legs have some hop again. His deadly fadeaway has magically reappeared from thin air. He isn't just a different guy, he's another guy. The Boston crowd cheers his every move. You can't possibly not root for the guy. Anyway, he needed to be on our team, for the purposes of closure more than anything. And for 1.2 seconds, it feels really good.

And just as Dad and I are slapping hands ...

"Vin and Tonic is off the board!" a delighted George screams.

"Just think," Dave adds, "when he falls off the wagon, it will be like a Double Whammy for you."

"Yeah," House chimes in. "You'll have your NBA season and your fantasy season ruined at the same time!"
Another of The Sports Guy's inventions for which our culture owes him greatly is the Unintentional Comedy Scale, a means of rating those moments that crack you up when they aren't supposed to. In this column, he lists most of the great moments in Unintentional Comedy, going from a low of 65, which includes things like Tim Robbins' horrible pitching in Bull Durham, to Dave Wannstadt's mustache (73), every Val Kilmer scene in "Top Gun." (75), Rudi Huxtable's fu manchu (76 - and ouch), Ray Lewis' Super Bowl XXXV pre-game dance (81), David Hasslehoff running in slow motion (82 - and I think it should be higher), All existing video of "The Magic Hour" (83 - and this is WAY too low. That might be the most painfully funny thing in the history of television), the awkward beach hug between Apollo and Rocky in "Rocky 3" (86), The time Ted Kennedy called McGwire and Sosa, "Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser" (90), Gymkata, of course (94), Sean Connery hollering, "You the man now, dog!" in "Finding Forrester." (95), Mike Tyson saying, "I guess I'll fade into Bolivian" after the Lewis fight (96), and of course, the only events, to this point, that score a perfect 100 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale:
100: Every Dikembe Mutombo interview ... Ozzy Osbourne performing household tasks ... Rickey Henderson's Hall Of Fame induction speech (when it happens) ... David from "Real World New Orleans" singing "Come On Be My Baby Tonight" ... Corey Feldman's performance in "Blown Away" ... Corey Haim's "E! True Hollywood Story" ... the wedding video of Liza Minnelli and David Getz ... Dontae Jones high-fiving Henry Louis Gates during pregame warmups of a Celtics home game.
Another thing that Simmons does really well is reflect on the role of sports in the lives of young men, as he tells you stories from his own life and how sports has provided a bond between his father and him. In this column, for example, he looks back on his childhood and his good fortune at being able to watch Larry Bird in his prime:
When Larry Bird joined the Celtics in 1979, I was just nine years old, dreaming about playing for the hometown team some day. My Dad and I attended just about every game at the Boston Garden. The place was dead. Bird came in and transformed everything, like Swayze waltzing into the Double Deuce and cleaning house in "Road House." He wasn't just great, he changed the way his teammates played. He brought everyone to a higher place. Of the 50 happiest moments of my life, Bird and the Garden were involved in at least a dozen of them...

Ever since I was little, I loved basketball more than just about anything. Randomly, inexplicably, coincidentally, the greatest team basketball player of my lifetime landed on my team, in my formative years, and I had the privilege of watching him, day in and day out, for 13 years. His work ethic and his competitiveness rubbed off on his teammates. He always rose to the occasion when it mattered. His passing was contagious. When you watched him long enough, you started to see the angles he was seeing; instead of reacting to what just happened, you reacted to the play as it was happening. There's McHale cutting to the basket, I see him, get him the ball, there it is ... LAYUP! Bird gave that to us.

So that's what I grew up watching -- basketball played the right way. People looking for the open man. People making the extra pass. People giving their best and rising to the occasion in big moments. Even years later, I can rattle off the classic Bird moments like I'm rattling off moments of my own life. Like the time he sprung for 60 against Atlanta, when the Hawks were high-fiving on the bench. Or the time he dropped 42 on Doctor J in two-and-half quarters, frustrating Doc to the point that they swapped punches at midcourt. Or the famous shootout with Dominique in the '88 playoffs, when they combined for 34 points in the final quarter. I have a hundred of them.
Maybe this strikes me more because The Sports Guy and I are about the same age, and I grew up watching Magic Johnson. And I don't mean just on TV. I grew up in Lansing, on Foster Street, a block from Foster Park, where all the older kids would play their pickup basketball games. Those games would include my older brothers and lots of kids from the neighborhood, but they also included three future NBA players - Magic Johnson, Jay Vincent and Sam Vincent. At 8 years old, I got to watch these guys play, sitting at the edge of the court and chasing down the ball for them when it got kicked off the asphalt court. And when he went to Michigan State, I got to watch Magic play at Jenison Fieldhouse, the old barn that the Spartans played at in those days. Some of my best memories of childhood are going there, how the bleachers would bounce up and down with the cheering crowd, how loud it was. The incredible excitement that Magic brought to the game.

I still have the scrapbook that I made after they won the championship in 1979. I was 11 years old at the time. I'm one of the few people who actually remembers the other starters on that team (Greg Kelser, Jay Vincent, Mike Brkovich and Terry Donnelly) and the sixth man (Ron Charles). I remember every moment of that NCAA final, Bird and Magic battling it out, both putting on amazing performances. Even at 11, I could sense that this wasn't just a basketball game, this was something special.

Other recurring themes for The Sports Guy include rules, as in the rules of sports. When is it acceptable to change your favorite team? And the famous "rules for women watching sports with their boyfriend/husband", which contains some real gems:
1. No PDA. If you're allowed to watch with your boyfriend and his buddies, don't rub his head, don't kiss his neck, don't scratch his back, don't cuddle ... don't do any of that stuff...

2. There isn't a single acceptable situation for the question "Is this game almost over yet?" Not one...

6. Don't belittle our gambling or fantasy football. Comments like "You have a bookie?," or "I can't believe you guys pick players and pretend you're the coach," or, my personal favorite, "You guys need to get a life" are all guaranteed to make us hate you.

7. We're easily bribable, so bring something ... even if it's a bag of chips. If you cook something, even better (Rice Krispies Treats are always a winner)...

9. Know your stuff. The moment you say something like, "Wait, I thought Drew Bledsoe was on the Patriots," you might as well pull a bag over your head. If you're clueless, keep it to rudimentary observations like "That was an unbelievable catch" or "This announcer is annoying." Never say, "Jon Gruden's so cute. He looks just like my old high school boyfriend!" Save that for the next "American Idol."
To make a long post even longer, the bottom line is that The Sports Guy is the best sportswriter working today. I can't even think of a close second. And it's just a bonus that he loves poker and is a Rounders fan. Just read 50 ways to love the NBA draft and the following diary of the 2002 NBA draft. If that doesn't hook you as a permanent Sports Guy fan, you're either one of those people who considers themselves far too sophisticated to enjoy something so banal and pedestrian as competitive sports, or you're so constipated that you've got the Jon Gruden Face going on.

Ed Brayton | 12:30 PM | | | Permalink

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Book Bytes #1: Robert Hughes on American Culture

I'm going to start a new category - Book Bytes. I'm one of those people who reads books with a highlighter or pen and I note passages that I find particularly meaningful/moving/well-written/enraging. I'm also one of those people who returns to books over and over, finding some bit of insight in them the 2nd or 3rd time that I missed the first, or reminding myself of a brilliant idea I'd seen the first time and forgotten. Sometimes the book bytes will be just isolated quotes, sometimes longer passages, and they will probably tend to come in groups, as I read or reread a book. Your comments are encouraged, as I hope they provoke as much thought in you as they obviously did in me if I saw fit to quote them.

The first book from which I will share some excerpts is Culture of Complaint, by Robert Hughes. Hughes is an Australian art critic and in this book he takes dead aim at what he calls America's "twin fetishes of victimhood and redemption". He takes equal delight in skewering Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson on the one hand, and Andrea Dworkin and the therapy cult on the other. This passage is from the book's introductory chapter:

~begin excerpt~

What Herod saw (Ed note: he is referring to a fictional Herod in a W.H. Auden piece) was America in the late 80s and early 90s. A polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism. Like late Rome, unlike the early republic, in its long imperial reach, in the corruption and verbosity of its senators, in its reliance on sacred geese (those feathered ancestors of our own pollsters and spin-doctors) and in its submission to senile, deified emperors controlled by astrologers and extravagant wives. A culture which has replaced gladiatorial games, as a means of pacifying the mob, with hi-tech wars on television that cause immense slaughter and yet leave the Mesopotamian satraps in full power over their wretched subjects.

Unlike Caligula, the emperor does not appoint his horse counsul; he puts him in charge of the environment, or appoints him to the Supreme Court. Mainly it is women who object, for due to the prevalance of mystery-religions the men are off in the woods, affirming their manhood by sniffing one another's armpits and listening to third-rate poets rant about the moist, hairy satyr that lives inside each one of them. Those who crave the returns of the Delphic sibyl get Shirley MacLaine, and a 35,000-year-old Cro Magnon warrior named Ramtha takes up residence inside a blonde housewife on the West Coast, generating millions upon millions of cult dollars in seminars, tapes and books.

Meanwhile, artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicization, and the contest between education and TV - between argument and conviction by spectacle - has been won by television, a medium now more debased in America than ever before. Even its popular arts, once the wonder and delight of the world, have decayed; there was a time, within the memory of some of us, when American popular music was full of exaltation and pain and wit, and appealed to grown-ups. Today, instead of the raw intensity of Muddy Waters or the virile inventiveness of Duke Ellington, we have Michael Jackson, and from George Gershwin and Cole Porter we are down to illiterate spectaculars about cats or the fall of Saigon. The great American form of rock'n'roll has become over-technologized and run through the corporate grinder, until it is 95 percent synthetic...

And then, because the arts confront the sensitive citizen with the difference between good artists, mediocre ones and absolute duffers, and since there are always more of the last two than the first, the arts too must be politicized; so we cobble up critical systems to show that although we know what we meant by the quality of the environment, the idea of "quality" in aesthetic experience is little more than a paternalist fiction designed to make life hard for black, female and homosexual artists, who must henceforth be judged on their ethnicity, gender and medical condition rather than the merits of their work.

As a maudlin reaction against excellence spreads to the arts, the idea of aesthetic discrimination is tarred with the brush of racial or gender discrimination. Few take a stand on this, or point out that in matters of art "elitism" does not mean social injustice or even inaccessibility. The self is now the sacred cow of American culture, self-esteem is sacrosanct, and so we labor to turns arts education into a system in whch no-one can fail. In the same spirit, tennis could be shorn of its elitist overtones: you just get rid of the net.

Since our new-found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American males starts bawling for victim status too. Hence the rise of cult therapies which teach that we are all the victims of our parents: that whatever our folly, venality, or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it, since we come from "dysfunctional families" - and, as John Bradshaw, Melody Beattie and other gurus of the twelve-step program are quick to point out on no evidence whatsoever, 96 percent of American families are dysfunctional. We have been given improper role models, or starved of affection, or beaten, or perhaps subjected to the goatish lusts of Papa; and if we don't think we have, it is only because we have repressed the memory and are therefore in even more urgent need of the quack's latest book.

The number of Americans who were abused as children and hence absolved from all blame for anything they might now do is more or less equal to the number who, a few years ago, had once been Cleopatra or Henry VIII. Thus the ether is now jammed with confessional shows in which a parade of citizens and their role-models, from Latoya Jackson to Roseanne Barr, rise to denounce the sins of their parents, real or imagined. Not to be aware of a miserable childhood is prima facie evidence, in the eyes of Recovery, of "denial" - the assumption being that everyone had one, and is thus a potential source of revenue.The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that personal grievance transcends political utterance, and that th eupward production curve of maudlin narcissism need not intersect with the descending spiral of cultural triviality. Thus the pursuit of the Inner Child has taken over just at the moment when Americans ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is, and how that disregarded oldster got buried under the rubble of pop psychology and specious short-term gratification. We imagine a Tahiti inside ourselves, and seek its prelapsarian inhabitant: everyone his own Noble Savage.

~end excerpt~

Ed Brayton | 12:31 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, April 12, 2004

Fisking Phyllis Schlaffly

The only two sure things in life are death and taxes, the old saying goes. I think by now we can safely add a third certainty - reading a Phyllis Schlafly column will leave you baffled that someone could write such nonsense with a straight face. Her latest column, about the Supreme Court's current pledge of allegiance case, is a potpourri of stupidity from beginning to end. To wit:
A lower federal court threw out Newdow's suit because he does not have custody of his daughter. The Supreme Court could follow suit, or the justices could decide, once and for all, if the words "under God" are enough to change the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance from a patriotic oath into a prayer.
Wrong, Phyllis. The case has nothing to do with whether the pledge is transformed into a "prayer" by the addition of the words "under God". The question is whether it constitutes an endorsement of religion. There are lots of things that the government could mandate that would violate the establishment clause without being prayers.
Before going insane, Friedrich Nietzsche declared, "God is dead." Atheists want the Supreme Court to make it official.
Wrong again, Phyllis. The absence of government endorsement for the existence of God does not equate to a positive statement that "God is dead". Prior to Congress adding the words "under God" to the pledge in 1954, was the pledge declaring God to be dead? Of course not. And removing those words now wouldn't make that declaration either. This is a statement that could be made only by an idiot or a demagogue. Take your pick which I think Phyllis is.
The Supreme Court in 1962 banned prayer from public schools, and now schools are awash in drugs, sex, and violence.
Ah, I love this argument. It's moronic both in premise and conclusion. The premise is flatly false. The Supreme Court did not ban prayer from public schools in 1962. The Supreme Court banned mandatory, government-sponsored prayers in public schools in 1962. Every teacher and every student is entirely free to pray in school so long as they don't disrupt class time to do so. Millions of teachers and students pray in school every day. It is also entirely legal for student bible studies and prayer clubs to use school facilities before and after school to pray to their heart's content, and there are thousands of such clubs around the country. If Phyllis really thinks that the Supreme Court banned prayer from public schools in 1962, I imagine she has a hard time explaining why so many people DO pray in schools on a daily basis.

It's equally stupid to claim that taking mandatory, government-sponsored prayer out of schools led to the schools being "awash in drugs, sex and violence". There is no correlation between violent societies and mandatory religious rituals performed in schools. In fact, the only correlation there is in the western world between religious belief and violent societies is a negative one for Schlafly's purposes. The US is a far more religious nation than any nation in Europe with the exception of Ireland - a far higher percentage believe in God, believe in heaven and hell, and attend church, according to every survey ever done - yet the US has 2-3 times as much violence as any European nation. If you're going to make these quick easy causal statements, you'd be more justified in claiming that religious belief leads to violence (a claim I would also say is false, by the way).
The courageous Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was even removed from office for displaying the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Courthouse.
Wrong again, Phyllis. Are you going for some kind of world record for making false statements? Roy Moore was not removed from office for displaying the ten commandments. Roy Moore was removed from office for publicly refusing to comply with a federal court order in a case that he knew he was going to lose - he'd already lost the same case over a much smaller display when he was a lowly district court judge. Public officials that refuse to follow legal court orders get removed from office, regardless of whether you think he was right or not.

But wait! She actually gets one thing right in this screed! She is correct to point out that the Solicitor General's defense of the pledge as currently written is fundamentally wrong:
Or maybe the court will duck the dilemma by declaring that "under God" has no religious meaning, a ruling that would outrage Americans who are quite sure that God is alive and well.
Of course, she's not smart enough to see that by admitting that the phrase "under God" is an explicitly religious statement, she is making Newdow's case for him. The government has no business, under the first amendment, endorsing specifically religious statements like that. And she's also wrong that this will outrage Americans who support the pledge. I don't think the religious right rank and file cares what the court says about it, as long as the words stay there. Whatever basis is offered for the decision, as long as the decision is viewed as a defeat for atheists (never mind that briefs on behalf of Newdow have been filed by numerous religious organizations, that interrupts a perfectly inspiring good-vs-evil story), Schlafly's followers will cheer it. She ends with this bizarre statement:
God is not so easily defeated in America.
Ah, yes. You see, this case isn't about belief in God, or beliefs about God, or the right to have government endorsement of belief in God, a defeat would be a defeat for God himself! That strikes me as rather odd, though, since logically that would mean that all those other decisions that Phyllis so gleefully rants against were also defeats for God. For an omnipotent being, he sure does get his butt kicked in court a lot.

Ed Brayton | 12:29 PM | | | Permalink

Dispatches from the Culture Wars