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Friday, August 16, 2002

Not Pretty

Okay, enough already. I thought it was mildly cute when pretty young ladies rekindled the midriff exposure fad. Youngsters glorying in their youthful fitness, blah blah blah. But then this low-slung pants thing caught on, and pretty soon I'm learning that the innocent faced thirteen year-old sitting at the adjoining restaurant table has a glittery blue g-string. I didn't need to know that. Her father, on the other hand, does need to know, but my guess is that he is a sorry lump of an excuse for a half-man who doesn't know much else about his daughter either, or else she wouldn't feel the need to dress like a Las Vegas prostitute.

In any event, now the trend in provocative dress has taken a dark turn. I can live surrounded by young underdressed women. It doesn't make my life easier or better, but I can tolerate it without getting overly distracted. What I can't abide, however, is this new trend: women who -- if I'm any judge of horseflesh -- are well past their nubile prime, exposing areas of flesh that, frankly, should only be seen and handled on an autopsy table, by seasoned professionals with great upper body strength and iron stomachs.

An example: I was walking into a large office complex just recently, and ahead of me walked an overweight employee, dressed in gray slacks and a black top that stopped just shy of the top of her pants. The fatty flesh around her waist, which looked painfully pinched by her pants, peaked from underneath her shirt as she walked. Making things worse was that she strutted like someone too cool for school.

I can say without reservation that this is unattractive. Especially after a large lunch.

Even worse is to be in church and find oneself incapable of looking to the left or the right without seeing some teenage girl's underwear sticking out of the back of her pants. I keep expecting lightning to strike either me for seeing it, the girls for having no respect, or their fathers for having no sense. I don't think there are more than a handful of young women in my church -- which is pretty conservative -- who have not at one time or another exposed most of the congregation to their lingerie. This is troubling.

So I'm asking for a truce. Women, I promise to be more attentive to your hair, your sparkling wit, or whatever it is about you that leads to such embarrassing displays, if you promise to quit showing me your underwear, your belly-button rhinestones, and your love handles.

The alternative to a truce, I promise you, won't be pretty. Picture me in a burlap thong and turquoise "Wham" t-shirt, and you get my point.

Not pretty.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Debate, Academy-Style

Yesterday I heard on NPR a debate between two anthropology professors, one at the University of North Carolina, the other at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. They discussed whether anthropologists, who often have valuable knowledge of social customs and beliefs, should assist the U.S. military in its actions against terrorism. The UNC professor, as you might expect, said that anthropologists need not work with the military, because they have already provided useful information in the form of descriptions of how war hurts people. She argued further that the purpose of the military is to kill and to control populations, and implied that respectable academics will have no truck with it.

The professor from the Naval School pointed out that a) the real military is very different from her opponent's caricature; b) the goal of the military is to win quickly with minimal bloodshed, such that assisting them is a net benefit to the populations in question; and, c) these are our guys in a war against people who would kill us all, and common sense dictates that we give those defending us our support.

The NPR interviewer asked what each thought would emerge from the upcoming American Anthropological Association meetings. The Naval School professor said she expected a lot of head-nodding as speakers denounced cooperation with the military. In response the UNC professor insisted there will be real discussion. Who do you think will prove right? Before you answer, consider the fact that towards the end of the debate, the Naval School professor noted that, not being at a university, she was free to continue her research and work without censorship.

Think about that. A scholar cites not being at a university as her protection against censorship. And many of us who have spent significant time in universities would probably agree with her sentiment.

I wasn't going to think about this, because it infuriates me. But today I received in my email box the following exchange (abbreviated to protect confidentiality) from two people on a research list-serv of which I am a member:

Member 1: "We have recently won a contract with the Army to conduct scientific research and knowledge econometric analysis at several commands. . . If you are interested in collaborating with us on a US Army project, please contact me . . ."

Member 2: "I for one have ethical qualms about working for an organization whose stated aim is to kill people--and that performs this task rather often, and for purposes that further the economic degradation of human life all over the world and also contribute to the ecological crisis. As one of the people whose offices were destroyed on September 11, I also object to the fact that they often claim to do this in the names of my murdered building-mates--even though the policies and interests they defend are the same as those they did before that date. How do others feel?"

So, let me tell you why I am now compelled to bring it, as we say in the professional wrestling biz. In the days following September 11th, 2001, a debate emerged in this same research group, between those who favored cooperating with the U.S. government, and those who argued either along the lines of Member 2, or in the mealymouthed tones of people who in their heart of hearts can't condemn the September 11 murderers terrorists because of their hatred of America. This wasn't just an academic exercise -- some people on this list have skills that are in high demand by U.S. military and security branches. Their decisions about whether to cooperate or stonewall could cost lives -- either those of terrorists and their allies, or those of innocent civilians.

What follows are some excerpts from that debate, which was sparked by an article in a national newspaper detailing how people with the skills of this group may be critical in the war on terrorism:

* "The ___ (and other professional scientific organizations) has a code of ethics which specifically prohibits its members from deliberately exposing their subjects to harm. Fingering individuals for assassination or imprisonment on the basis of [our work] is clearly in violation of these policies, and -- in my opinion, at least -- is unbecoming behavior for a social scientist. . . I am as much interested in ending terrorism as anyone else, but I think that we endanger the field when we volunteer to perform studies which will harm our subjects. Social science is the hard-won heritage of all humanity, and I would not place it at risk in the name of political expediency."

* (To the writer of the above quote) "You are a brave man... strong and sobering words."

* "I must say that this article raised some issues in my mind that deserve serious thought. The richest country in the world is about to invade the poorest country. By helping the government attack symptoms aren't we contributing to its unwillingness to face the problems created by our possibly biased Middle East policies? Isn't destroying terrorist networks similar to invading Afghanistan - quick fixes that ignore underlying structural issues?"

* "We should not actively, as academics and professionals, take part in the application or development of . . . methods directly to facilitate the hunting down of terrorists or the impairment of their networks. This violates our "contract" with the public as scientists. . . Further, our work is, and should remain, in the public domain. On the other hand, I would not hesitate to refer vetted counter terrorism experts to publicly available materials. . . As for [the previous comment], I feel it comes close to blaming the victim. Yes, if we don't understand the forces that lead some governments to condone and support terrorism and some people to give up their lives to it, then we can hardly effectively combat terrorism. That does not mean that we ourselves can in any way condone it nor should we justify terrorism in terms of the rationalizations of the down-trodden."

Another writer speculated that giving an interview to a major newspaper about the methods of those on the list is akin to helping the CIA, because the CIA, so far as we know, reads the papers. He also made a veiled reference to nefarious non-university types lurking about the list.

You can understand, of course, why I could only tolerate so much of this nonsense. Thus I laid down some smack:

"I want to make clear that in the comments that follow I am not inviting a debate on the merits of force versus peace seminars as a means of ridding the world of terrorism. If readers oppose cooperation with government agencies due to some personal ethical or ideological position, then so be it. My argument is only with those who want to make an argument that the goals of social science are such that it is wrong for social scientists (as opposed to humans in general) to be involved in issues like national security and anti-terrorism.

With that said, I've thought a while about something else ___ wrote:

'Social science is the hard-won heritage of all humanity, and I would not place it at risk in the name of political expediency.'

I wonder if this hyperbole doesn't transgress the boundaries of reasoned argument, insofar as I question the premise that the social sciences have much credibility to lose. It seems to me that beyond communities of social scientists themselves, the social sciences aren't held in especially high regard. When we list the great advances of Western civilization, there aren't many 20th century professors of anthropology, sociology, political science, or economics on the list of contributors.

Certainly there are people with social science training who have contributed much to society (and equally many who have wrought horrible destruction, e.g., Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, etc.), but I would argue that they do so as a result of applying the tools -- begun as ideas in the minds of theorists -- to the very real, very messy, sometimes very bloody problems of humanity -- precisely the domain that some academicians eschew as beneath their purity. If social science is to have any meaningful heritage, it will be because it lends itself to the solution of real-world problems, not because it remains above the fray for fear of misuse, or of losing some sacred purity of purpose which is in reality not a public purpose at all, but merely a private pursuit of knowledge, publications, and provincial prestige.

I don't intend any of this to question ___'s concern about the misuse of [our methods] in a manner that harms the innocent (or more likely, the not directly guilty), which I believe is valid, given what I know of the strengths (and limitations) of [our methods]. But I think there is more to be gained from applying [our methods] in ways the article mentioned than mere "political expediency." These people will kill again, and some people on this list may have the skills to help stop them. Shame on us if we refrain from helping for fear of losing our academic virginity, or because we are timid, in the seeming safety of our ivory towers, about using force against murderous thugs.

Finally, I want to respond to an assertion by ___:

'We should not actively, as academics and professionals, take part in the application or development of . . . methods directly to facilitate the hunting down of terrorists or the impairment of their networks. This violates our "contract" with the public as scientists.'

I'm curious about the content of this contract. When we justify five-figure per student subsidies from taxpayers, we usually do so in the language of our contributions to societal well-being. I'm quite certain that most members of the U.S. public would quickly defund social scientists who refuse to lend their knowledge to the defense of their fellow citizens.

It is indeed a terrible thing to contribute to another person's death -- this I don't dispute. But let's not pretend that through our inaction we can remain innocent of bloodshed. We are guilty, in my opinion, if we withhold knowledge that can stop terrorists.

This, dear readers, is what one calls "the turd in the punchbowl." Imagine a bunch of shriveled debutantes curling their upper lips at such a discovery at the annual Prune Festival Luncheon, and you'll probably capture the general reaction from the academics who disagreed with me. To be sure, there were a few from the list firmly on my side (or rather, I was on their side), and their responses were eloquent. For example:

"Please explain to me how this isn't blaming the victim: It is wrong to try to disrupt and destroy criminal networks that have killed thousands in cold blood, without warning, without condition, without remorse. At the same time, the RIGHT approach is for the U.S. to change its policies (or at least, look guiltily through them to understand how, by supporting the mujaheddin, we OBVIOUSLY were asking them to kill thousands of our citizens)."

The problem is that, when you press most academics on moral issues, they resort to that last refuge of the scoundrel, the Land of Grey. To wit, this response to the immediately preceding comment:

"Your facetious commentary simply falls into the trap that ___ and others are warning against. ___ doesn't "blame" the US in the way you suggest, by the way _I_ read his comment. The world ain't so black and white.... our outrage, frustration, sadness, and sense of betrayal and violation notwithstanding. Analysis won't be as simple as you make it out to be; any solutions based on anything other than very long term strategic thinking will possibly reproduce the very environments (conditions, if you will) that have spawned the awful tragedy of last Tuesday. We all grieve together over the loss of life, and perhaps even more so, over the loss of our adolescent ontologies."

Those of you who know me understand that grey does not go well with my skin tone, which by this point was bordering on bright red with lovely shades of purple. So I posted the following:

"Interesting commentary by writers who, like myself, are too benighted to see how the issues surrounding last week's attacks aren't so black and white:

'Now that everyone seems to agree that we are at war, it's important to make clear just what that war is about. It is not primarily about Israeli or Palestinian grievances. Some of the most dedicated fanatics-Osama bin Laden, for instance-rarely bother to focus on the Palestinian issue. Despite what our blinkered academic establishment thinks, the war is not about post-colonial resentments either. Colonialism is two or three generations past. The rich nations have spent so heavily on the underdeveloped world that who-did-what-to-whom many decades ago cannot explain what is happening. No, this is a global cultural war, pitting a pan-Islamic movement of fundamentalist extremists against the modern world and its primary cultural engine, America, "the Great Satan."'
(Link here)

'At the heart of the propaganda campaign against the United States is a moral equivalence conflating what is evil with what is merely imperfect. In the Cold War, this tactic took the form of the argument that the United States was just as dictatorial as the Soviet Union because poor Americans were allegedly not "free" from injustice, racism and want. Now that we have entered a new kind of war, this fatuous argument has been recycled: Yes, Islamist maniacs slaughter thousands of innocents ... but think of the psychic pain inflicted on the Middle East by Taco Bell and the Backstreet Boys. Who is to judge which is more inhumane?'
(From Canada's National Post)

'A WHOLE swathe of this country's educated class is unable to distinguish between right and wrong. There is no other possible conclusion. There are apparently thousands of people out there (or maybe hundreds, or maybe it is just a few dozen with exceptionally good media contacts) who think that it is quite acceptable to see the mass murder of innocent people as a "message" that needed to be delivered.'
(From the London Daily Telegraph)"

The next morning, I found this email from the list administrator:

"Please, take these and similar email notes elsewhere. This has nothing to do with [our list]."

Which brings us back to today, and the declaration from a list member that he has no interest in supporting the military. So far he has received an "Amen," and two requests that we not debate the issue. Unable to refrain from tweaking a nose or two, I posted the following:

"Funny, I recall a similar discussion sprang up on this list last year. I was one of the few arguing in favor of academics providing support to the U.S. military. Several of those opposed to cooperation with the military argued that those of us characterizing the terrorists and their sympathizers as evil were painting too black and white a picture. Some time soon after I posted links and excerpts to three articles addressing this point: one explaining what the war is about from the Muslim fundamentalists' point of view, one critiquing the "it's just not black and white" point of view, and one addressing the tepid response of academics to the new wave of patriotism sweeping the U.S.

The next morning ___ sent me an email which read: 'Please, take these and similar email notes elsewhere.'

Can someone provide some parameters for what defines acceptable commentary this time around?"

This is all reminiscent of another list-serv I used to be a member of, one devoted, ostensibly, to a discussion of the intersection of complexity sciences and management. One morning someone made an offhand jab at Christianity, and incorrectly paraphrased a verse. I corrected him by citing a credible (NASB, for those of you interested) translation of the verse. This was followed by a string of rebuttals about the meaning of this and related verses. Each time, I replied by citing the actual verses, and explicating their meaning. It wasn't long before I was lambasted for "foisting religion" on people in a forum where religion had no place.

There's a common thread here: many people to the political left seem to enjoy making little jabs at their favorite targets (Christians, America, free markets, etc.), but are quick to hide behind walls of decorum and appropriateness when challenged. In short, they behave like intellectual cowards. They parade their insipid opinions in front of captive students, toss out their views in safe domains, and scurry like mice when they discover there's a thinking person standing in the corner with a broom in his hand.

And perhaps that's why the Blogosphere is virtually devoid of leftists. And a leftist who provides his real name, an email address, and a "Comments" feature on his page is rarer than reasoned commentary in the journal of the Modern Language Association. Posting opinions and tolerating responses is, it seems, beyond the purview of the average leftist. Once a bastion of free speech and debate, the radical Left has become a self-righteous little tribe of Pharisees. And this is why, thankfully, they are becoming decreasingly relevant in modern political life.

Good riddance.

posted by Woodlief | link | (13) comments

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

A Public Letter to the Quaker Oats Company

Dear Quaker Oats Company;

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try your new Quaker Quick 1-Minute Oats. As one might expect, they felt in my mouth much the way I imagine elephant snot would feel. Why would anyone deliberately eat elephant snot, you ask? Well, exactly.

You see, I didn't set out with the intention of eating this demon barf you call "oatmeal," but the frat boys in your marketing department apparently thought it would be cute to make the package look almost identical to the original Quaker Oats package -- same color scheme, same smiling white Quaker dude on the cover, gleeful, no doubt, that he is dead and buried and immune to your perversion of his healthy wholesome breakfast food. I imagine your marketing people lurk about the breakfast aisle in the grocery store, snickering when they see unsuspecting consumers looking for a good source of fiber pick up this unholy gruel by mistake.

And it seems your little imps have been hard at work, because they've also devised an Aunt Jemima pancake mix that requires only water. Once again, the only way to know you are selecting this wretched powder rather than Aunt Jemima's down home traditional mix is to scrutinize the package carefully for the chirpy "Just Add Water!" exclamation. Let me tell you, my friends, not even Ponce de Leon's Spring of Immortality could bring this stuff to life. Just add water. Right. Just pour it down your gullet dry, and get the painful experience over with. If Aunt Jemima were still around she'd give you all a good old country butt-whuppin with her big butter churn, for soiling her good name with these chewy flesh-colored frisbees.

So let me see if I've got this straight. When the Quaker Oats Company sits around brainstorming how to increase market share, it chooses, rather than expanding consumption among normal people, to pursue people who are too busy to crack a freaking egg when making their pancakes. People who, in order to save four minutes, are willing to eat obliterated oat bits rather than whole oats. People, in short, who get their breakfast in a cup from Starbucks. So no wonder you disguise these twisted inventions -- you must have realized that the only way to sell your evil food-process spawn is to foist it onto trusting consumers of a once fine family of traditional Quaker Oats Company products.

Well, no more, Quaker Oats Company. You can keep your tortured oats and your freakish pancake powder, because this is one customer who is on to your cruel game. Do you know what it's like to look into the face of your heretofore innocent toddler, and to discover a betrayed expression as he lets gray gruel ooze out of the corners of his mouth? "Why, Daddy?" he asked. "Why?"

Can you sleep at night, Quaker Oats Company? I can't. Not anymore.

Thanks to you, Quaker Oats Company, my son now carefully tests everything I cook for him before eating it, as if I were the untrustworthy one. Trust is a hard thing to win back, you know. You have driven a shard into the fabric of my family, Quaker Oats Company. You have done a disservice to the ready-made packaged food industry. What's more, you have done a disservice to America, which is only as strong as our faith in the large faceless automated multi-national corporations that have made us great.

To sum up, I believe that guy from the movie "Back to the Future" best captures my sentiments: Nice going, butt-heads.

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Monday, August 12, 2002

So, What's on Your Bumper?

I saw a bumper sticker this weekend that you've probably seen before:

"If you are against abortion, don't have one."

This brought to mind some alternatives that rely on the same logic:

"If you are against slavery, don't own one."
"If you are against rape, don't do it."
"If you are against concentration camps, don't live in one."

I wrote an op-ed years ago discussing the mentality on display here, which I called "visceral liberalism." It relies on simplistic reasoning in the service of one's tribal instincts: if you don't like gun violence, ban guns. If you feel bad for the poor, raise the minimum wage.

The fact that the world is filled with complexity, and therefore unanticipated consequences, is not a hindrance to the visceral liberal -- unintended consequences represent merely more opportunities to improve the world. It's what annoying business guys in red suspenders call "a win-win."

The culmination of visceral liberalism is the bumper sticker; it's no coincidence that the left has all the best slogans (along with most of the singers and actors -- people who emote rather than think). Of course there is visceral conservatism, and visceral libertarians as well. Despite these potential competitors, however, the left retains a monopoly on the catchy bumper sticker market.

With this in mind, I think we need to develop some bumper stickers that play off the lefty slogans that have proven especially popular. We right-thinking people can't fit our own philosophies into slogans, but we can certainly raise the blood pressure of our ideological antagonists in just a few words (and honestly, isn't that more fun than winning them over?).

Here are some samples of what I've come up with so far:

Meat is Murder, But The Animals Have It Coming

Visualize World Peace Visualize World Domination

Practice Random Acts of Kindness... Practice Random Acts of Violence and Senseless Acts of Cruelty

Celebrate Diversity Celebrate Monotheistic Intolerance

Bikes / Cars: Same Roads, Same Laws Let the Laws of Physics Decide Who Gets the Roads

Subvert the dominant paradigm Dominate the subversive parasite

Property is theft Property may be theft, but I'm packing a loaded .357 and I lust commie blood.

End racism. And while you're at it, make me ten years younger and 40 pounds lighter.

The Right Is Wrong, But They Have The Hottest Chicks

It Will Be A Great Day When Our Schools Get All The Money They Need and The Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale To Buy A Bomber It Will Be A Great Day When The Air Force Bombs Our Schools

Think Globally - Act Locally - Be the Self-Righteous Pedant Everyone Avoids at Parties

And while we're on the subject of bumper stickers, I suppose you've seen the ones many schools hand out to parents, of the "My child is an honor student at . . ." variety. You've probably also seen the response sticker: "My child beat up your honor student." Funny, yes, but if you're like me you have a secret desire to see the car bearing such a sticker get creamed by a semi at the intersection.

Now I'm noticing a new response sticker diffusing among the population, which goes something like this: "ALL children are honored at Fulston Middle School." If you close your eyes and let that sentence kick around in your head, you can conjure up the voice of the person speaking it. So very earnest, so very full of indignant egalitarian righteousness.

Fortunately, though the implied tone of the bumper sticker is irritating, it serves the purpose of truthful advertising. It might as well read: "Fulston Middle School: Where Your Little Darling Will Be Free From Standards."

And that is, ultimately, the beauty of the bumper sticker. No matter what it says, in one way or another it reveals a truth, either about the world, its owner, or both.

posted by Woodlief | link | (71) comments