Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Gatesgate test

The Gatesgate affair may be mercifully behind us once the principals have enjoyed a beer together at the whitehouse, but it's been an instructive little summer newstorm. Your reaction to it may be taken as a pretty definitive test of your politcal leanings. Try to think back to when you first heard the story. If your reaction was sympathy for the policeman, you are an authoritarian, with a reflexive tendency to submit to authority and a desire for others to do the same. If your sympathy was with Gates, then you are a (small-l) libertarian, inclined to distrust authority and favor the individual in contests with state power. Note that this has little to do with the facts of the case. The ambiguity of the event makes it a nice litmus test.

Obama is neither of these, and I believe his unfortunate remark that the "police acted stupidly" may be explained as an interaction of these competing frames. His sympathy for the underdog (Gates) in this particular case competes with his effective role as Chief of Police (or, executive officer of the most powerful government in the world). He has no desire to delegitimize state power, but in this case the results were undesireable so it was applied "stupidly".

Of course simple racism also affects what side one falls in, but racists tend to be authoritarians, who would like nothing better for the inferior races to adopt their former subservient stance. To such people the very existence of someone like Dr. Gates is an affront.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match...

Readers (well, one) have occasionally accused me of being anti-Catholic for my harsh words about some of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church, while ignoring the sins of the Jews. So just for the record let me state that I highly disapprove of rabbis who are part of international human-organ trafficking rings, with or without the mayors of Secaucus and Hoboken as co-conspirators. Oy, what a shande.

This story is one of those things that would sound too extreme if it occured in fiction, sort of The Sopranos mashed up with Larry Niven and, oh I don't know, Gary Shteyngart? In fact, the medical anthropologist who first uncovered this ring had trouble getting the FBI to believe her -- after all, everyone knows that all those stories of people waking up missing a kidney are urban legends.

And of course we can count on libertarians to defend the practice of commdifying human organs.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Giant Vampire Squids

Matt Taibbi and Max Keiser (who I never heard of before this) are having a very enjoyable friendly competition to see who can produce the best invective about Goldman Sachs. Are they financial terrorists who should be brought up on charges in the Hague, or giant vampire squids their tentacles wrapped around the face of humanity? We report, you decide.

Here's Keiser on French TV, which is apparently a lot better than ours:

And here's the more sober Eliot Spitzer saying essentially the same things:

As a well-known financial ignoramus, I truly am not sure how pissed off I should be at this, but until I hear otherwise I'm willing to trust the above commenters. If this anger would penetrate the gelatinous brain of the average American we might actually be at risk of something happening...but it won't.

Most depressing is the realization that the Obama administration is just as much in the pocket of the financial "services" industry as the Republicans, if not more so. Not really a surprise, but the temporary mood of hope and change sure has faded fast.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What cannot be said

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.
What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

-- Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
The idea of apophatic theology has gotten some play in blogs recently, mostly due to a book by Karen Armstrong defending the idea, and some leading uncompromising atheist scientist flamers have attacked her. I'm not sure I see why. Apophaticism by design does not make any positive statements about God or anything else, thus it cannot conflict with science. You'd think that would satisfy the militants, but no, they will not rest until anything even vaguely smacking of religion is razed to the ground.

Not me! I have a mystical streak and a contrarian streak, so this form of enlightenment through negation appeals to me. I see Jerry Coyne is having a contest to name those atheists who like me are less than thoroughly hardcore. I think I like "placatheist" the best of his candidates so far.

One good argument for apophatic theology is to look at what happens when douchebags and pinheads think they have a line on God and "the Absolute". Apparently He's not only American, but a wingnut Republican as well. I think the wingers have (in embryonic form) something of a new religion, in which the saints are the founding fathers and Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin is playing Joan of Arc. In keeping with the apophatic approach I am not very comfortable giving attributes to God and I can be pretty sure that he doesn't pick sides in US electoral contests, nor does he have some special affinity for people born in North America.

The obnoxiousness of the noisy religious right is a large part of what drives intelligent people to atheism, but I think it's a tactical error. There is generally a hidden metaphysical core at the heart of most political belief systems, and the left needs to be more explicit about it. There is a vague correspondence between the apophatic demand for silence about metaphysics and the liberal walling-off of religious arguments from the public sphere. But it's not clear that apophatic religion can compete with the more primitive forms as a political organizing tool.

If you can't say anything about that-which-we-usually-call-God but probably deserves a more mystagogic name like "the One" or "the Absolute", what can you do with it? Contemplate it silently I suppose. Keep it in mind as a reality underlying the visible world. Or, you can just deny that the concept has any meaning or utility at all as the hardcore atheists do, but that is boring and philistine. Or you can make meta-level statements about your inability to say anything about it itself. This is what Wittgenstein and others do. A great deal end up being said about that of which we cannot speak.
I'm in the business of effing the ineffable.
-- Alan Watts
Why I, like others, am compelled to issue words on this topic which demands silence, I cannot say. Call it a nagging dissatisfaction with the standard stories. Neither the materialist nor the standard religious pictures of the world make much sense to me, so I'm trying to construct my own. The loudmouths for God or for atheism strike me as team players, which I am not. Universal skepticism is more my thing. Even the existence of an apophatic tradition makes me suspicious; I wouldn't want to accidentally be part of a movement.
Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
-- Samuel Beckett
Links to the tradition: