From California to the New York island, 3

16 03 2016

I’ve half-joked before that political scientists don’t do either love or humor.

Plenty of political scientists are lovely and funny, but in our intellectual approaches to politics, we forget about passion and about the weirdness of political activity itself. Politics is about ‘interests’ and ‘resources’ and ‘distribution’, ‘policy’ and ‘governance’ and, oh yes, ‘power’. Some of us might speak of the ‘common good’ or talk about Aristotle vs. Plato, but in our rush to impose a rational structure across the sprawl of politics, we all seem to forget Hume’s admonishment that reason follows passion.

Yes, we attempt to come to terms with political ardor in terms of cognitive biases or philosophical error—which is fine!—but passion is not merely something to be explained away, but something in and of itself, which may in turn help to explain something (like politics) else—both explananandum and explanans, as it were.

This is a long way round to the point that those of us who study politics should not be surprised by passion, that people pick sides, and that they will defend—with words, with fists, with guns—what their (our) sides.

This isn’t an excuse for violence—for Hera’s sake, does that really need to be said?—but it is a defense of passion itself as a legitimate driver in politics. Unlike Hume, I do think reason may also be a driver, and just as passion may inform reason, so too may reason discipline—if only the expression of—passion.

But reason does not, should not, erase passion. Especially in politics.



Mayan campaign mashup 2012: I ain’t no limburger!

28 10 2012

John Sununu, Romney surrogate and White Man, discerned the only possible reason for Colin Powell to have endorsed Barack Obama:

SUNUNU: You have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or that he’s got a slightly different reason for President Obama.

MORGAN: What reason would that be?

SUNUNU: Well, I think that when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being President of the United States — I applaud Colin for standing with him.

That’s some mighty fine deduction, John—may I call you John? Feel free to call me Absurd—so I hope you don’t mind if I extend your logic.

You’re a white man, right? Thus, by your reasoning—and I want to give you full credit for this calculus, John—according to your logic, the reason you’re voting for Romney is because he’s white.

Wait, there’s more! Clearly, you are a man, as is Mitt Romney, so, again, applying your own logic, you’re voting for Romney because he’s a man. (Since both Barack Obama and Colin Powell are men, I guess this one is a wash.)

I gotta bit of a corker for you, John. I’m a short white bisexual woman voting for a tall black heterosexual man.

What does this mean?!

Okay, sure, I’m a leftist, so perhaps that whiteliberalguilt thing is at play; does this mean you’re voting for Romney out of whiteconservativeguilt?

(And what is whiteconservativeguilt, anyway? Isn’t that just resentment?)

And that I’m a woman—HolyMaryMotherofGod, what do I do with this? I mean, it’s obvious, as I noted above, that you’re voting for Romney because he’s a man, but why oh why would I as a woman vote for a man?

I mean, that’s. . . that’s. . .that’s absurd, isn’t it?

There must be something else going on, right, John? John? Hellooooo. . . ?

Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Which side are you on?

22 10 2012

I have no idea how this debate will play.

Obama seemed strong* to me, Romney less so, but, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Romney supporters thought he won.

And the undecideds?

Oh, do you want to hear another curse-filled rant? No, I am not feeling kindly toward those folks who haven’t decided between Romney and Obama.

Deciding between 3rd-party candidate (conscience) and Romney or Obama (compromise)? Okay. Between voting (principle, ideal) and not voting (resignation)? Okay.**

But between Romney and Obama ? Not okay, because in this case there are clear policy differences between the two candidates, differences which will not change between now and election day. If you don’t know if you want Romney or if you want Obama to be president then you don’t know what you want.

Oh, I’m picking on those poor undecideds, who insist that they’re really high information! Really!

Consider Buzz Bissinger, who’s so, so disappointed in Obama and so, so dispirited by his first debate performance that he’s decided to support Romney:

Buzz: But what has been the Obama policy? It seems it has been to use government to create jobs. I agree with it to some degree, [emph added] like the auto bailout (although GM still owes taxpayers about $50 billion), but government cannot become our major employer. That is not what America is about. And I think fundamentally that is what Obama thinks America is about — government as a social engine.

Jamelle: There’s no evidence anywhere that government is on our way to becoming the major employer. In fact, the economy has lost 600,000 public sector jobs in the last three years. It’s been a huge burden on the recovery, actually.

Buzz: I have absolutely no issue with Obamacare. It was right and it was bold. [emph added] I do think the costs are going to be far more prohibitive than we think. Placing cost containment in the hands of a panel is a joke: It never works.

But didn’t the stimulus and the auto bailout, all funded by the government, create private sector jobs?

Jamelle: They did, but that’s not the same as the government becoming an employer. If I get $100 from the government, buy some stuff, and that allows a business to hire more, those new jobs aren’t “government jobs.”

Buzz: You are splitting hairs. It is the government as the funder with taxpayer money.

. . .

Buzz: Call me a naive idiot, but I think Romney does care about a hundred percent of all Americans. More than Obama. All Obama is doing now is pandering to the middle to win. He does not like the wealthy, even though he has been fairly kind to them tax wise. [emph added] He has created class warfare. The wealthy in this country are not outsiders. They are not pariahs. They are part of the country. He treats them like outcasts.

Okay, unlike your interlocutor, I’ll call you a naive idiot. Especially when you continue to blame the president for the obstructionist policies of the Republicans in Congress and complain that he hasn’t done enough to reach those Republicans while simultaneously complaining that he hasn’t been tough enough.

Oh, and for saying that what really did it was that first debate performance: “I will never forgive Obama’s performance.” [emph added]

Actually, naive idiot [emph added] might be too kind.

And then there’s Scott Adams, who’s turned on the president over the continued war on drugs:

One could argue that the President is just doing his job and enforcing existing Federal laws. That’s the opposite of what he said he would do before he was elected, but lying is obviously not a firing offense for politicians.

Personally, I’d prefer death to spending the final decades of my life in prison. So while President Obama didn’t technically kill a citizen, he is certainly ruining this fellow’s life, and his family’s lives, and the lives of countless other minor drug offenders. And he is doing it to advance his career. If that’s not a firing offense, what the hell is?

Romney is likely to continue the same drug policies as the Obama administration. But he’s enough of a chameleon and a pragmatist that one can’t be sure. And I’m fairly certain he’d want a second term. He might find it “economical” to use federal resources in other ways than attacking California voters. And he is vocal about promoting states’ rights, so he’s got political cover for ignoring dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal.

So while I don’t agree with Romney’s positions on most topics, I’m endorsing him for president starting today. I think we need to set a minimum standard for presidential behavior, and jailing American citizens for political gain simply has to be a firing offense no matter how awesome you might be in other ways.

And the evidence that Romney would be better than Obama on the drug war? He’s a slimier bastard than the president!

I don’t care if these guys are voting for Romney, I really don’t, but when Bissinger claims he’s a high-info voter and Adams waves the rationality flag in support of his support for Romney, I have to wonder if we have the same understanding of the meaning of “high-information” and “reason”.


*Not that I loved everything he had to say (defense spending, drones drones drones) or didn’t say (anything about Mexico, Latin America, the drug war), but I’m not put off by a moderate-liberal Democratic president not veering too far off the America-is-aces path—given our politics, it’s gotta be done.

**Won’t explain tonight why it’s different—maybe because these are more forthrightly mood-affiliation choices as opposed to those which are allegedly about policy. Maybe if the undecideds were more honest about the fact they don’t know what they want and are simply waiting for their pleasure-buttons to be pushed I’d be less frustrated. But probably not.

We might as well try: Dum de dum dum DUM (I)

8 10 2012

Guts are stupid.

Whenever someone says go with your gut or what is your gut telling you, I roll my eyes, or go half-lidded and twist my mouth, or mutter, guts are stupid.

Of course, most of those who advise recourse to our alimentary anatomy speak figuratively, not literally. They’re not really saying Listen to your colon or Ponder your digestive system or Meditate on your viscera; that would be silly.

But it is just as silly to advise people to forgo their reasoning abilities in favor of the so-called wisdom of the body.

Our bodies are not wise.

Yes, they have needs, and we need to pay attention to those needs, but in paying attention the wisdom is located in the attentiveness itself, not the thing to which our attention is drawn. Our bodies send us signals that we may then interpret as pain or pleasure or need, but, again, any wisdom is in the interpretation, not the signal itself.

So, too, may we have physical reactions to people or situations. I’ve been around folks who’ve creeped me out and have chosen to go this way rather that just because, but is this due to my spidey sense, or, again, to attentiveness to the signals I’m getting from those folks or the environment?

I’m quite willing to allow for a role for the subconscious, that is, that there are processes not under my conscious control which detect the presence of murmurings below the surface, but the subconscious is just that, sub-conscious.

It ain’t guts.

I might be particularly biased against gut-checks because my gut is so often wrong—or should I say, when I did listen to my gut I usually made the wrong decision. I am a very reactive person, very VERY reactive, so much so that if I have a strong reaction to something or someone, I make sure NOT to respond to that reaction. No, what I need to do is wait, think, then think some more before making any decisions or judgements. If I let my gut dictate my response, I would often be yelling NO or throwing things out the window or running in the opposite direction.

Am I confusing initial reactions to gut-knowledge? Perhaps, although those who state that our guts can speak are likely confusing guts with experience or habit or the skill gained through practice: when one is used to dealing with routine situations, it is possible to be sensitized to detours from the routine.

But what about those moments of indecision, when consulting one’s entrails is recommended as a suitable method of adjudication likely to lead to reliable results? Well, you probably a) are already leaning toward one side, such that tipping over feels right (or reeling back feels wrong), or b) you honestly don’t know and are simply relieved to have chosen at all.

At which point you might as well have flipped a coin.

If I’m so wrong and you’re so right

5 09 2011

is this all about convincing other people to share our intuitions and if people don’t share such faith (religious or otherwise) convictions on what possible basis would they be convinced by anything we say that builds on them? Is there no obligation to try and have some researched basis for our public opinions?—dmf

No easy questions, eh, d?

I don’t know that there’s any one, good, way to deal both with clashing ontologies and the question of the quality of the opinion. Habermas attempts to do so, as do Guttmann and Thompson and deliberative theorists generally—attempts which tend toward the suppression of fundamental conflicts and an optimism regarding shared language. Focus on a respectful process and practical goals, G&T advise, and use reasons which can make sense across any epistemological or ontological divides. Aim for consensus rather than winning, or rather, see consensus as winning. The point is not just to solve problems, but to deepen democratic discourse generally.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical of the deliberative approach, of the willingness of different sides to agree to a shared approach, and of the desire for mutually-agreed-upon outcomes over a clear win. That said, I think it can work in specific instances, especially those in which participants really do want to solve a problem and where some version of splitting the difference (as in, allocation of funds) is possible.

It does not work on matters where an underlying principle is so closely related to the position that any disagreement on the principle makes impossible any agreement on outcome. The exemplar of this kind of conflict is that over abortion: female autonomy runs up against fetal personhood, such that the right to choose cancels the right to life, and vice versa. There is no splitting this difference, at least as it is currently configured; there are only winners and losers.

These sorts of polarized debates (which can arise for any number of reasons, including hyped-up partisanship) make it very difficult both for us to find a shared language (fetus/baby; undocumented immigrant/illegal alien; etc.) and to agree upon any standards of debate. If I am convinced I am right I won’t agree to any standards which might allow you to win the argument, and will dispute your starting point, reason, evidence, and conclusion.

The abortion debate, however frustrating and exhausting it may be, may nonetheless remain within the confines of democratic debate. We may not be able to resolve the conflict, but in the main (not, necessarily, on the margins), it can at least be contained by such debate.

That’s not always the case.

Consider the political debate over global warming. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity has contributed to increased temperatures. If I think global warming is scam designed by extremist leftist-environmental types, I’m not going to listen to anything you have to offer which might prove me wrong. I’ll bring up the so-called climate-gate and take issue with any inexactness of your evidence, and will offer my own scientists and state that the reason they’re not published in scholarly journals is bias, plain and simple.

I am energized by fierce political argument, but this shit is disturbing. This isn’t simply about two sides disagreeing about the evidence, this is one side outright rejecting the relevance of evidence: it can’t be so it must not be. And if we can’t stand on the same ground on an issue for which there is clearly only one place to stand, then how the hell are we going to have any kind of conversation or debate about what to do about that issue?

In other words, what should be a good and vigorous political debate about what to do in response to a phenomenon (anthropocentric global warming) has been made impossible by one side of that debate declaring, in effect, that its politics don’t allow it to see the preponderance of evidence for that phenomenon. In short, the political commitments of one side has forced it to rule out the existence of the phenomenon itself.

There is no way to deal with this kind of reality-shifting except to defeat it. By any means necessary.

There are other kinds of less dire political debate wherein some notion of reason and evidence is accepted by the various participants. There may be scuffling over evidence or even the sources of evidence but not over the need for evidence itself. In these cases, your question of obligation for a researched basis is mooted insofar as it is beneficial for the participants to have done their homework ahead of time.

In other words, the best way to get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack.

Dealing with reality-shifters, I’m afraid, is largely a negative affair. You have to beat them (metaphorically, of course!) into submission, allowing them no quarter in any debates. You’ll never win them over, but you might be able to win nonetheless by so discrediting them to any larger audience. You trample over the shifters to speak directly to the audience, and smack ’em back down whenever they pop up with an objection. You rely, as ever, on reason and evidence, and offer zero respect for arguments which rely on neither.

However much such a strategy may be in service to a democratic politics, it is not democratic itself; it is, instead, brute, and brutal, politics. It is a ground war, one fought to establish whether the elements necessary to democracy will be encouraged to flourish, or not.

There will always be disagreements over the grounds, the standards, and the desired outcomes of debates; a democratic politics takes for granted the disagreement over desires, accommodates those over standards, but may shatter if it becomes too preoccupied with the grounds.

Whatever other commitments its citizens make, whether some have one foot nestled in heaven and some, dangling over the abyss, the other must be planted on common ground.

I have no opinion about that

4 09 2011

Riddle me this how do we decide how much info/understanding should we have about a topic before we feel justified in having an opinion that is more than a gut hunch? —dmf

I once introduced myself to colleague as someone who “has lunch and opinions”, so I can’t say that it ever occurred to me that I needed to justify the having of an opinion. As far back as I can remember, I have had opinions about something or another, from the superiority of homemade jello pops over store-bought popsicles to the belief that swimming was the summer activity, to the obviousness that racism was stupid and girls were equal to boys, and on and on about cars and music and food and friendship and clothes and alcohol and sex and money and liberty and justice for all.

No, for me, the corker was justifying not having an opinion.

I do, in fact, now qualify my opinions in ways I didn’t when younger, and I do justify not having opinions about a whole range of topics, based on 1) lack of information and 2) lack of interest. “Don’t know/don’t care” is a pretty damned effective gate to conversations which would otherwise drive me off a cliff.

Still, I don’t regret my previous opinion libertinism, and I don’t begrudge anyone else their expressive needs. I learned a lot in spouting off, both in how to put together an argument and in prompting others to take issue with me. I hate hate hate to be wrong, but I hate even more the persistence of error. I could—and can—also be sloppy in my pronunciamentos, so getting smacked (or wanting to avoid getting smacked) for spilling too many words has forced me to steady my tongue.

(There’s the additional question of credentialism and the desire not to want to make a fool of oneself in front of one’s colleagues which may lead to a crippling reticence, i.e., in not challenging a majority view for fear that the mere expression of a minority opinion marks one as untrustworthy—but that’s a separate issue.)

Given my own history, then, I’m more likely to indulge than shut down opinionists, especially if they’re willing to go back and forth on an issue. Shooting the shit can be an highly enjoyable way of passing the time.

What I do narrow my eyes at are those who state their opinions as fact and who substitute their subjective experiences for objective certainty. That you have a right to an opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to trump all other opinions. Oh, and shouting doesn’t make you right. (*Full disclosure: I have shouted. More than once.)

So anyone can have any opinion about anything. If, however, you want that opinion to have any weight with anyone else, you gotta do the work—the (self-)education, the reflection, the reasoning—to convince them. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones got it right when she admonished: Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict.

Educate yourself. Quite so.

Reason will not save us. Or maybe it will.

13 03 2011

Like wiping an eraser across the land: The New York Times allows you to see before and after satellite photos of the devastation in Japan.



The planet does not care about us. Nature does not care about us.

Any care in this world begins and ends with us.


Errol Morris does not understand Thomas Kuhn.

Part of this non-understanding is due to Kuhn; part of this non-understanding is due to Morris.

(I am not the only one who thinks so.)


Judith Warner confuses the consequences of inquiry with inquiry.

Michael Bérubé is not confused, but did he really not understand the implications of epistemological nihilism?

I am not a genius—repeat, I am not a genius—yet even I, as a 2nd or 3rd-year grad student was able to suss out the political dangers of such nihilism.

I wrote a paper for a course on the philosophy of knowledge in which I (budding-but-not-yet-full-epist-nihilist) noted that the slipperiness of fact was a constant problem which must constantly be confronted. That “fact” and “evidence” and “reason” could be used as weapons meant that one must be ready to contest the deployment of such weapons.

This was a problem for me, for awhile: If everything is up for grabs, how can one move?

I solved this particular problem by moving.

Yes, there’s more, much more, involved than this, but this isn’t the place for an explication of my solution. I brought this up simply to signal my recognition that, yes, this is a problem.

I’ll try to dig out the particular paper, but I believe I used an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard is tortured by a Cardassian; his torturer, in an attempt to break him, wants him to say that there are five lights when there are only four. Upon his release, he turns to his torturer and emphasizes that there are, in fact, only four lights.

Later, however, he admits to Counselor Troi that he did see five lights.

Given that people can be coerced into not seeing what is in front of them—that truth as an intersubjective activity means that it is vulnerable to domination—means that truth is subject to political debate.

Upshot:  those of us invested in particular forms of and inquiries into truth must defend against assaults on those forms and inquiries.

I got this, as a smart-enough grad student, and I’d bet that I wasn’t the only one.

But Bérubé and Warner are shocked—shocked!—that  “it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely.”

No shit, Sherlock.

Okay, so that wasn’t very nice. Bérubé  is a lit professor and was busy mining his own particular veins of concern; that’s one of the benefits of scholarship, after all: to forsake the surface and plunge below. Conversely, it was really not such a stretch for me, as a budding political theorist, to have recognized the political implications of anti-foundationalism.

Anyway, Bérubé is now aware that excavations below can lead to instability up top:  “[P]erhaps humanists [read: humanities professors]  are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place.”

Just so.

There is more to this story, of course, not least of which is a defense of such excavations given the possibilities of instability; the short version is that the cracks were always there.

The long answer awaits.


What makes NPR liberal? What makes any media outlet liberal or conservative?

On the Media didn’t quite ask this, but in a segment with Ira Glass (who insists NPR is not liberal), they introduced the possibility that they will ask this question, as well as, perhaps, whether it matters.

Still would have liked to have heard them discuss O’Keefe’s edits of the vid.


I am old. I like to go fast.

That I put the “I am old” statement first tells you that I blame my age for my hesitations regarding speed.


I took my road bike out yesterday—first time in years—for a coupla’ spins around Prospect Park. Oh, every time I get on this bike I marvel at how quick it is. Unlike my road bike, this baby just sssshoooms when I crank the pedals.

That light narrow frame, those smooth skinny tires, the aerodynamism of the hunched-over posture. . . ack! That light narrow frame means it’s less stable! Those smooth skinny tires are apt to skip across the road! In my hunch I can’t see as well!


No, I didn’t wipe out. (I will: I wipe out at least once every biking season, usually because I panic and can’t untangle my shoes from the clips fast enough. I try to have this happen away from traffic.) But the marvel at the speed competed with the concern that things are more likely to go wrong at speed.

Prudence is a fine thing, but so, too, is the exhilaration which follows recklessness.

Anyway, I’d rather not be afraid, and think that the more I ride the road bike, the less anxious I’ll be.

All the shit I have yet to learn and still, all the shit I have to re-learn.