Monday, March 17, 2003

I Give Up: This is, for a while, my last blog post. I don't want a hiatus to "consider the direction of my blog" or any such thing--I don't want a hiatus at all, in fact. But as you may have noticed, both the quality and quantity of my posts have been going down for some time, the result of both a lack of regular Internet access and a lack of time. I can't afford a nice new computer--it would consume several months of truck-driving salary--and even if I could, I don't want to spend my entire evening staring at the computer and only see my wife on weekends.

I'm as unhappy as hell about this; blogging has been one of the best things I've ever done. It was really great for making me feel useful when I was unemployed, and I wish I could keep doing it now that I'm getting paid.

I won't stay away any longer than I have to; on the other hand, I won't start up again until I'm sure I can make a better go of it than I've been doing lately. I'll (probably) be going to law school in the fall, which should make things much better (except that the Cambridge PD's gun licensing boss is an asshole who doesn't want me to go hunting or protect myself. New Haven is, amazingly, better, but I haven't heard yet).

There are a hundred things I want to write (for instance, I just read Bias and I'd like to review it. Short version: It's not bad, but it's not great, even if I agree with the conclusions). It's frustrating not to be able to write them due to time constraints.

I won't disappear completely--Joe Katzman has generously offered to consider putting some longer essay-style pieces on Winds of Change; I have an old one on freedom and security (built around a literary analogy) which I'll get over to him as soon as practical and we'll see what he thinks of it. I'll try to do more. But daily posting is out.

Enjoy the bloggers on my blogroll--I'll keep trying to read them. I'll see you over at WoC from time to time and I hope to be back for real ASAP.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Blog break: My wife and I will be out of town visiting various law schools that have accepted us. Please check back next week.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Encouraging Terrorist Acts: One of the many objections to war in Iraq is that it will encourage terrorism by outraging the "Arab street" (We heard the same objection when we invaded Afghanistan).

But it seems to me that nothing will encourage terrorism quite like capturing terrorist leaders alive. If we are known to be holding masterminds in "undisclosed locations," subordinates may run operations, in particular things like hostage-taking and bomb threats, with the specific demand that leaders be released "or else."

The obvious answers include secret detentions and (though this would hurt our intelligence gathering) simply killing instead of capturing terrorists.

I'm waiting to hear from the anti-war movement on this point...

Friday, February 28, 2003

I told you so: In one of my first blog posts ever, I criticized the government's move to define "organic" as used in supermarkets. Among other things, I pointed out that this would make the definition subject to political forces, and in particular to pressure from powerful agribusiness lobbyists.

I was right. Sen. Leahy has introduced a rider (I hate riders) which would allow chickens fed non-organically raised corn to be labeled "organic." I don't have an opinion either way on this one--I don't worry about whether my food is P.C. or not--but I doubt that it will please food purists. Which goes to show that you shouldn't get government involved unless you really, really have to.

Iraq: For a long time, we were told that there was no "smoking gun" proving that Iraq had banned weapons. Then the inspectors discovered missiles with a longer range than allowed. Sounds like a smoking gun to me. Do the opponents of war agree? Oh, no--not so long as Iraq agrees to destroy the missiles which it shouldn't have in the first place, and explicitly lied about starting last December and continuing up to a couple of days ag.

Look, I know that war is an unpalatable option, but if anti-war activists just keep moving the goal posts, they're going to forfeit all credibility. Any pro-war thinker had better be willing to define the conditions under which peace is acceptable, and any anti-war thinker had better do the opposite. So far the anti-war side has done a very poor job, and gives the rather strong appearence of being willing to sacrifice everything to an illusory notion of "peace."

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

No blogging today due to illness... hopefully back online tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Harvard's Penis Problem: (Sorry if this seems out of date, I meant to post yesterday but there was a snafu).

Erin O'Connor reports on a huge phallic snow sculpture erected at Harvard, and subsequently destroyed by female student who used rape imagery to justify her actions.

To begin with, the destruction of the sculpture was both laughable and sad--if non-consensual construction of a 9-foot snow penis is tantamount to rape, then surely the non-consensual destruction of it is castration on a grand scale, and I'm at a loss to understand why symbolic emasculation is more acceptable than symbolic forced intercourse. (That, and the rape comparison is stunningly insulting to people who have been, you know, actually raped. Remember them?)

But here's the thing: I think Harvard should have destroyed this sculpture themselves, on the grounds that it does not contribute to the educational mission of the university, and is offensive to many people.

Now, I know I'm headed into dangerous territory here, censorship and all that. But the mission of a university is not to be a haven of freedom, it is to be a center of education. Education requires standards, which includes standards of civility and argumentation. A student who replied to every question on a test with marvelously accurate pencil drawings of genitalia (or, less offensively, with smiley faces) would fail a class and, if a repeat offender, would be expelled. Such a student could not and should not be prosecuted. Free speech is distinct from proper academic work; the standards for the latter are much stricter.

This sculpture was not, of course, an answer to a test. But even if we leave the silly rape metaphors behind, there is nothing wrong with demanding that people keep their privates private. At some times and in some places, nudity may be appropriate because it furthers the educational mission of a university, but we expect that those times and places will not include the center of campus, so that those who don't want to be involved don't need to be. The most common solution to offensive speech--don't listen--is impossible to implement when there's a giant dick between your dorm and your first class of the day. The same goes for shouting obscinities from an open mike on the quad or having sex in public.

Most importantly, Harvard should be holding a discussion (I don't mean some formal debate, necessarily, perhaps dueling op-eds or something) about academic standards and civility (maybe they are doing so, I don't know). The mere act of debate about appropriateness would be a huge step forward. Actually, I tend to favor mandatory "Great Books" courses for the same reason--not so much because students need to read certain books, but because students need to argue about what books students need to read.

The standard canard which might apply here is that college is all about stepping outside your comfort zone. That's true enough, if "stepping outside your comfort zone" means being forced to defend your Marxism to a PhD economist or explaining your sincere Christianity to an atheist. But just as silver screen violence can serve a purpose ("Saving Private Ryan" "Black Hawk Down"), it can also be gratuitous and totally inappropriate (the terrible made-for-TV movie on as I type, "1st to Die"). Pushing people outside their comfort zones with frozen sex organs accomplishes nothing; the university should put a stop to it.

That does not mean that an individual student should have destroyed the sculpture; there is a difference, indeed a critical one, between individual and community action. This is clearly a case of community standard-setting, and no single person should take that on themselves.

Many people are uncomfortable with the notion of using educational arguments to support the destruction of what was, frankly, a better work of art than many at the campus museum; they worry that any attempt to impose standards will degenerate in to a witch hunt against certain political viewpoints. Those people are probably right; certainly the craze for speech codes is a strong point in their favor. I would, however, argue that such codes are the result of too little in the way of academic standards. Unless expectations are set--and enforced--education becomes impossible, and mob tyranny sets in. Our current predicament, with administrators ignoring newspaper theft but cracking down on blackface, and students literally burning books which suggest that affirmative action should be ended, results from years of neglect--a long period during which no one was willing to say "no" for fear of sounding judgemental. Speech codes are the perversion of academic standards by people who never got to know the real thing.

I'm not saying those who built the sculpture should be prosecuted, or even that they should be subject to school discipline. I don't think either is appropriate. Nor should the snow-Bobbitt girl who destroyed it, though I'd dearly love to wipe the self-satisfied smirk off her face (courageous, my ass).

If we want to reclaim universities as centers of learning, we cannot be free speech absolutists. We must set boundries and discourage people from crossing them. We must have good, long debates about where the boundries ought to be, and whether something is inside or outside, but we cannot doubt the need for the boundries themselves. That an essential tool has been perverted by some--as murders use kitchen knives or handguns, so PC enforcers use "educational mission"--should not lead us to discard the tool altogether. In this case, it's all we have.

Friday, February 21, 2003

Foreign Policy, Free Speech, and Unintended Consequences: Well, reports seem to indicate that Iraq's compliance with the weapons-inspections regime has dropped off in the wake of anti-war protests, which some people believe emboldened Saddam by making war less likely. Since, of course, Bush is not likely to care what British college kids think, war is actually more likely now. That is a sad irony indeed, even for someone like me, who supports the idea of regime change in Iraq.

But this isn't just another post on unintended consequences--it's about the challenge of conducting foreign policy in an era of free speech and global communications.

The reason the President was given most of the foreign policy power in the Consitution was simple: it is important that the nation speak with a single voice when dealing with foreign powers. It's a lot like parents and children: it is important for parents to avoid undermining each other's disciplinary authority, lest a child sucessfully set parents against one another. In like fashion, it is essential that a foreign country not be permitted to divide--and thus to weaken--our government and population.

It is of course also essential that the population be able to criticize the government, and that the various members of the government have the freedom to fulfil their duties--e.g., that senators be able to dissent from the President's Iraq policy. The problem in 2003 is that such dissent is immediatly broadcast around the globe--and can end up providing comfort and propaganda to our enemies. It may also lead our enemies, who often lack a thorough understanding of our culture and government, to disasterously miscalculate.

Saddam's apparent belief that the anti-war protests will stop war is one example of such miscalculation. There may be similar problems with North Korea as we speak. I personally regard Kim Jong Il's nuclear program as a major and frightening crisis, but the Bush administration has been very cool in public. This may be part of a deliberate strategy, akin to ignoring a child who misbehaves to get attention. Obviously no one can say that in public, so I can't be sure.

But every time I read an op-ed calling for Bush to drop Iraq and pay attention to Korea, I wonder if Kim is also reading, and is encouraged that someone is paying attention to his antics (a guy who runs an Stalinist state would be more likely to think that the NYT is a Bush mouthpiece). I also wonder if the writer has even bothered to consider that perhaps Bush is paying attention ot Korea--but not in public, for sound policy reasons.

I'm certainly NOT suggesting censorship, but do think that it would be well for pundits and protesters to consider carefully both why the government does what it does, given that public pronoucements will often not reflect policy reality, and also how their words might play overseas. It seems odd to say it, but it is possible that some minor editorial writer could end up undermining the policy of the President--and, if the results of the anti-war protests are any indication, the result could be exactly the opposite of what the writer wants.

Scary: The "classic rock" station in Seattle played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" today.

I must be getting old.

Not, however, as old as the Armed Liberal, who, by my reckoning, must be exactly twice as old as I am.

Music and Sex: There's an interesting contrast between the music played in the auto parts store where I work and the music I pick for myself when I'm out in the truck making deliveries. In the store, it's mostly top-40, and out on the road, I mostly like oldies and classic rock. Today, I heard a hip-hop song which was quite disgustingly explicit in its description of sex acts; I found it repulsive, though not for any moral reason--there was nothing described which I wouldn't be willing to do myself. Rather, I simply didn't want to be invited to anybody else's play date.

On the other hand, I love the suggestive sound of the original "Son of a Preacher Man" (I'm fudging the title because I don't actually know it), which mixes a bass line suggestive of heart-pounding experimentation with brassy overtones evoking superficial conversation. I'm left with the impression of young lovers hiding their nervousness--and guilt--with banter.

A more explicitly raunchy-sounding (but not raunchy) song is "Little Red Riding Hood" ("you're everything a big bad wolf could want!"), which features a big bad wolf who desperately hides his true self to impress a girl. His intentions--and worldliness--are not in doubt, but his behavior is still gentlemanly.

I'm frankly not brilliant at romance; I couldn't sweep anyone off her feet with a broom. I understand the male fantasy of easy, hot sex with beautiful women. But somehow, I find the gently suggestive description of romantic seduction far more interesting, exciting, and pleasant to listen to than the hottest sex. Even if we reject moral strictures on what we say and do in public, could we perhaps accept such strictures on the basis that it makes for better music?