Friday, May 14, 2010

Obama's Spine

The overriding narrative that the Bush administration gave us was that the world changed on 9/11. Sure. The events of 9/11 were undeniably the most horrific thing that has happened to American civilians on our own soil that we didn’t inflict on ourselves (i.e.-the civil war). Many conservative pundits, as well as my conservative friends, however, are quite overselling the change that took place on 9/11, trying to unfairly re-write pre-9/11 history to make Obama look bad and Bush look good (an ambitious project, I will admit).

This post will attempt to address Ann Coulter's post from May 5, and the subsequent discussion I had with my friend Garth about it on Facebook.

Here, in simplified form, is the syllogism that some conservatives make about Obama’s softness on terror:

1) Before 9/11, nobody could have known that America was at risk to terrorist attacks.
2) After 9/11, Bush got tough on terror (the Patriot act, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), which has kept us safe ever since.
3) Obama “has no spine” and is weak on terror.
4) Any terrorist attacks on America are derivative of Obama’s weakness and vindication of Bush’s tactics.

I have a few arguments to point out to debunk this annoying set of arguments:

The distinction between pre- and post-9/11 America is a logical fallacy of the first degree. An attack on NYC was neither unprecedented nor unpredictable; 9/11 wasn’t even the first time that the World Trade Center had been targeted.

This said, conservatives are right to argue that Bush was not personally culpable of any gross negligence or conspiracy as regards 9/11. While I do not think very highly of Bush’s skills or even his work ethic, I have seen the evidence presented by both sides that 9/11 was actually preventable, and I think that the problems were systemic, not individual, unfortunate, but not negligent.

The subtle and underhanded logical slip comes when conservatives want to look closely at the run-up to 9/11 in order to forgive Bush, but then do not afford that same diligence to the Christmas day attempt or the Times Square attempt. Bush can’t be held responsible for allowing 9/11 because he could not have done anything personally to prevent it. Obama, however, is damned for anything that happens between 2009 and 2012, regardless of what he could or could not have done about it. If Coulter and Hannity can repeat it into the void enough times without anybody challenging it, however, people will inevitably accept it, even though it’s dishonest and misleading.

The efficacy of Bush’s anti-terrorist policies is still a matter of debate. Although compelling arguments exist on both sides of the discussion (on the one hand that an aggressive approach dissuades potential terrorists from violence or on the other that injustices perpetrated in the War on Terror radicalizes moderates and affected family members to take up terrorism), the logical flaw in this argument is that we can conclude that Bush’s policies are the reason for our span of relative peace, or that any terrorist events must be the result of our deviations from them. This is the same weak-headed logic which causes people to think that antibiotics cure viral infections, homeopathy does anything, or vaccines cause autism. This is, perhaps, why so many people who believe these logical fallacies are also so willing to accept their political equivalents. Ad hoc ergo proper hoc is not sound logic. Furthermore, the likes of Giuliani have to ignore the Richard Reid attempt or the attack foiled in Britain to even make this argument; I can’t decide whether he’s overtly dishonest or just stupid.

This argument is annoying not only because the facts actually refute it completely, but because it would be a fallacious argument even if the facts didn’t contradict it.
Obama has greatly increased the use of drones against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, he’s upped the ante on the war in Afghanistan, and he’s had numerous successes in taking out ranking members of terrorist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Anyone who wants to call Obama weak on terror must ultimately ignore the actual things he’s done and instead focus on his rhetoric or his, GASP!, bowing to world leaders.

Rather than contradict the so-called indictments against Obama that he’s rhetorically weak on terror or too conciliatory with our enemies or rivals, I’ll instead make the more important argument which often gets overlooked in this discussion: the rhetoric of the American president is not an important factor in recruiting terrorist attacks against America or American interests. Anyone who argues otherwise is selecting their cases in a dishonest and selective way (for example, was the bombing in Beirut the result of Reagan’s pussyfooting around with terrorists?), or doing so without any evidence at all, relying on the partisan I’ll-accept-anything-that-Hannity-tells-me-ness of their listeners.

If anybody would like to try and make the argument that trying KSM in NYC is somehow going to anger terrorists, I’d love to see your internal logic. Keep in mind, however, that in order for the trial to be the cause of the attacks, you’d have to argue that these terrorists would not have wanted to bomb NYC before the trial, but would make the attempt if the trial took place. I’ll wait.

This is an ad hoc ergo propter hoc argument waiting to happen. For those of you who weren’t paying attention, the Bush administration made no such claims until they were out of office. When their tenure was over, however, Cheney immediately began claiming that it was his and Bush’s policies which had prevented another attack. They had found the magical incantations necessary to keep us safe, and anything that went wrong from January 2009 until the end of time was no longer Bush’s fault. Rather than refute this unsound argument, I’d like to just pose a few questions for you to consider: what specifically did the Bush administration do to tighten up the no-fly lists (which may have prevented the underwear bomber from attempting his attack, and would have also stifled Faisel Shahzad’s near escape)? Did the Bush administration do anything to increase security in NYC that would, for example, have prevented an inept Pakistani-American from leaving a car bomb in Times Square? Do Bush or Cheney deserve credit or blame for Richard Reid’s failed attacks?

Even Ann Coulter is too smart to rely on such inane argumentation. I conclude that she manages to sell such garbage to her followers (full disclosure, I actually like Ann Coulter and think that she’s both a good writer and an insightful commentator on certain, albeit limited, issues) because it’s what they already want to hear. If she were to honestly call out Bush for his ineptness or forgive Obama for things that aren’t really his fault, we’d have a much better dialogue about terrorism in this country. Unfortunately for Ann Coulter, however, she might not get the attention or book deals that make her so much money if she were to do what’s best for America. Pundits make their money by selling irresponsible half-truths. In a reasonable and rational discussion of the issues, Ms. Coulter would probably not have a place at the table.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

on dark urine

In the past few months, friends and family have e-mailed me links advocating quack science of all kinds. Of all of the things that pass my view that I want to comment on, the quack science claims lauding vitamin megadosing, organic foods, natural cures, perpetual motion machines, healing crystals, magical thinking, or young-earth creationism tend to rile me up the most. Unfortunately for me, however, I find myself consistently unhappy with my own writings on these topics. I often write posts during one sitting, let them ruminate overnight (as is often my M.O.), and realize the next day that I have managed to be both condescending and insulting to my friends and family I am trying to persuade and also essentially unpersuasive.

As it turns out, I am not a great science writer. As passionate as I feel about the value and importance of science, I am not particularly skilled at explaining how and why science is important, and why it makes me so angry that people make so much money by selling false hopes and worthless medical products.

And so I hope you'll take 17 minutes to let Michael Specter's TED talk do it better than I can.

Some day I may be up to the important challenge of convincing my friends and family not to waste their time, money, and energy on ginko, echinacea, acai, and organic foods. I hope to also prevent them from falling victim to anti-vaccination dogmatism, conspiracy theories, or global-warming alarmism. Until I can find a way to do all of this without angering and offending all of the people I love, however, I think I'll probably stick to 500-word diatribes about contemporary politics, religion, and philosophy; you know, the topics people don't take so personally.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A further revision for the DSM IV

I need to interrupt my series on the Great God debates to give a shout out to my friend Bruce.

Bruce is a friend from the BYU debate team. While he and I never debated either as partners or against each other at any tournaments, we did always debate fiercely controversial topics on the car rides to every tournament. Although we were very much on different poles of the spectrum on almost every issue when we first met, we’ve both become more pragmatic and moderate as we’ve gotten older, and we actually agree on most things now, and for the same reasons.

Yesterday, however, he pulled off masterfully what I’ve been trying and failing to do for months. I still can’t say whether he’s done it on purpose, or if this was similar to inventing penicillin, but if his method turns out to be reproducible, he may go down in history as the discoverer of the cure for a very serious mental disease.

To make a long story short, he may have cured Obama Derangement Syndrome.

For those of you who have been paying attention to any conservatives or their news sources, you may have been under the impression that the Second Coming of Christ is only days away. Democracy is dead. Capitalism is dead. The American dollar is worth less than the Zimbabwe dollar. Socialism has triumphed. Your freedoms have all been revoked. Obama has single-handedly turned the well-oiled machine of an economy that Bush built and turned it into Russia’s economy circa 1988. Obama needlessly destroyed our government-interference-free utopia of a health care system and replaced it with U.N.-led death panels. In fifteen short months, America has been transformed from an Emersonian paradise into an Orwellian nightmare.

Some of you may not have heard that America is in its final death throes. You might not even believe that others are being so dramatic about it as I am implying. If this is you, I’d urge you to listen to Glenn Beck tonight. Turn on Rush Limbaugh. Shoot me an e-mail and I’ll copy and paste dozens of Facebook status updates from the past week.

So what is this magical cure? How can you convince your friends and loved ones to unload their guns and step away from the brink of an aneurysm? The technique is quite brilliant, actually. Send them to this link. In this piece, an American ex-patriot regales you with dozens of foolish reasons why America is worthless. The author urges you to immediately flee the sinking ship that is America for better countries, of which there are apparently scores.

Suddenly, and without warning, the same people who have been decrying America and Obama will begin to defend him. They will take back all of the apocalyptic and unsupportable pessimism in order to rebuff the unsupported and apocalyptic claims made by an America-hater.

And it will make you smile.

And so, Bruce, I congratulate you on curing our Republican friends of their temporary hatred of America. If your technique works just as well on lefties who blame Bush for 9/11, I might seriously consider nominating you for a Nobel Peace Prize (although apparently that award doesn’t have any cachet anymore either). If nothing else, I award you an honorary degree in civil psychology. Congratulations.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Great God Debates: Part II

Generalizations and labels are tricksy for me. While I can see the value in generalized scientific claims like “an alkyl halide reacts with an alcohol in an Sn2 reaction” or “copper is an efficient conductor of electricity,” claims like “tomatoes are good” are markedly more problematic. Are all tomatoes good? What exactly does “good” even mean? Isn’t context important, especially in matters of taste?

I should have known that my attention to nuance and definitions would have caused problems in a debate over whether God exists or not, or whether religion is good for the world and its followers or not. All too frequently, the actual theme of the debate wouldn’t come up until the third or fourth speech. The debates were interesting, but they fundamentally fail when no specific questions can be asked or answered, since no position or thesis has to be defended.

The atheists did a horrible job of pinning down Dinesh D’Souza to a particular belief and then hammering him on it. When they mocked Jehovah as a bronze-age genocidal tyrant, D’Souza smoothly told them to talk to a rabbi about it, not him, since the Old Testament is a Jewish, not a Christian holy book. When they criticized the Catholic conception of the pope, D’Souza calmly explained that he, along with most Catholics, does not really believe in papal infallibility. Time after time, the atheists would criticize a common belief and put it to scorn, only to find that D’Souza was unwilling to stand by that belief himself.

While I was listening to the debates on God, I was endlessly impressed with Dinesh D’Souza’s style, skill, and charm. His debate tactics were first-rate; he had a way of convincing you he was answering the charges against him, even when he was utterly ignoring them. After every speech he gave, I felt like he was under control and would have my vote, even when I disagreed with some of his points.

The drawback of such a style, however, is that it leaves me cold once the charisma is forgotten. While I felt at the time that D’Souza won all but one of his debates hands down (the exception being Peter Singer’s), his message has none of the staying power that the atheist’s did because he never clearly staked his ground and defended it. I know what brands of Christianity D’Souza doesn’t believe in, but not which ones he does. He is agnostic about whether a resurrection will take place (and rightly demands that the atheists take the same position), he admits that a belief in Christ is not absolutely necessary for salvation, and he acknowledges that liberal humanism can serve as a basis for pro-social behavior (though he doubts it will ultimately last, and asserts that it owes its origins to religion). This moderate world view has the advantage of being, in all likelihood, true. It also avoids the polemic absurdities of his opponents who claimed that religion has always done far more bad than it has good. What it does not do, however, is justify or defend the type of religion that most religious people actually follow. I mentally voted for D’Souza after almost every debate. In so doing, however, I was silently agreeing that religion really should occupy only a peripheral place in daily and societal life. In refusing to argue with the often justified barbs of his adversaries, D’Souza retreated to an amorphous position where God, even if He or She does exist, is essentially worthless. He may have won the battles, but Dinesh D’Souza definitely lost the war.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Great God Debates: Part I

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sick of debating politics. Although I’ve been trying to quell the false notion that Americans are somehow universally opposed to the health care bill that passed, that we’re living in a socialist police state, or that the second coming is only hours away, Nate Silver has pretty much already said everything I’ve been wanting to say better than I can.

Instead, I want to discuss some of the arguments I’ve been thinking about since listening to around a dozen hours of debates between D’Souza and various atheists. I’ve waited about a week since I listened to the debates before writing any of my thoughts down. Rather than be bogged down in the procedural minutia of the debates or even my impressions of who won, I wanted to focus my responses to the broad focus of the questions being discussed and those arguments that have stuck with me.

The adversarial system of debate has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, these debates avoided what I call the Colmes problem; both sides were represented by equally intelligent, prepared, and devoted debaters. Additionally, both sides also avoided the easy-out option of agreeing to disagree or finding an ecumenical peace. While such an agreement may be the ultimate goal of watching such a debate, I believe that moderatism should be borne of a fair consideration of good arguments from both sides, not the contention-is-of-the-devil-so-we-shouldn’t-talk-about-controversial-things intellectual laziness that I’ve seen so much.

The major drawback of the debate model is that both sides have incentive to make arguments they don’t necessarily believe are true, simply because they are effective. In debate, making arguments which are untrue, but which take a long time to debunk, is called “spreading.” I saw far too much of this coming from both the Atheists and D’Souza. What’s worse, however, there were debates where some of these arguments went unaddressed, meaning that an argument that the debater knew was untrue (as shown by the fact that in other debates he acknowledged that it was misleading) stood out in the audience’s mind as being accurate.

In the interest of keeping close to my 500-word goal for each post, I will not address my most serious concerns with the debates now; those merit their own posts. There are a few quick judgements worth noting, however:

Hitler may have been a closet atheist, but the outward religious message he used to sell his philosophy deserves at least part of the credit for the Third Reich, Mr. D’Souza.

The USSR, on the other hand, was actively antithetical to religion, even though it tolerated it. Atheists: do not try and dispute that Stalin is yours. It only makes you less credible when you correctly disown Hitler.

Faith, as it is defined by D’Souza, is actually a useful category. He is right that science is based upon it, and he lays a fine theoretical foundation for the value of faith in a god. I disagree with his specific application of his faith into Pascal's wager, but I think he gets the first half of his argument exactly right.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Every time I pass a group of tweens I am filled with a deep sense of shame and sorrow. For all of my attempts to deny that I, myself, used to be eleven years old, emotional, awkward, and embarrassing in public, my memories always convict me in my conscience. I was there, after all.

In my calmer moments I realize that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being eleven. Sure, I was a dweeb in the early nineties. There's no reason to feel particularly guilty at having acted my age, is there? When I got a little older, I put most drama behind me. I grew up.

For me, drama is any time we give more emotional importance to a situation than is helpful or warranted. Billy just broke up with you? Crying about it some or eating a whole pan of brownies is a commensurate response to the emotional pain. Claiming that the world is going to end because you were dumped, slitting your wrists, or drinking an entire fifth of vodka would be overly-dramatic. You can find another boyfriend, but only if you don’t die from alcohol poisoning.

For as much as I profoundly love having conversations with people about politics, the drama is reaching epic, almost middle-school proportions. I'd like us all to try this simple breathing exercise.

Breathe in slowly over the course of five seconds. Hold your breath for two full seconds. Breathe out over the course of five seconds. Repeat.

While you're doing that, please allow me to clarify a few basic facts about democratic government. For those of you who suffered from Bush Derangement Syndrome (believing that Bush personally planned 9/11, that Cheney literally comes from Hell, or that Rove is an evil-genius), this applies equally to you. I will copy and paste this post next time the Republicans are in power.

1) We live in a democratic republic. We elect congresspeople, senators, and the president. These men and women ultimately make laws.
2) America has been like this for a long time. This system is not new.
3) There are always disagreements on almost every issue. Although you may think that you have the 100% absolute and indisputable truth about something, I guarantee that an equally intelligent, upstanding, and articulate American citizen fundamentally disagrees with you on that point.
4) That person has as much of a right to believe their opinion as you do yours.
5) That person is not horrible for disagreeing with you, nor does he or she deserve to be unfairly slandered.
6) You deserve that same protection when your party is back in power.
7) In case you didn't notice, about half the country was disappointed with your side being in power last time.
8) America, democracy, and apple pie didn’t come to an end when Bush made mistakes. It won’t now either.
9) This isn't your country any more than it is mine. It's ours. Equally. Any intimation otherwise is just offensive.

Now I understand that many people hate Obama's health care plan. I understand that almost all of us hate Congress. We're all justifiably worried that things aren't quite right with the world or with our government.

But for goodness sakes, get some perspective. This isn’t a nuclear holocaust. This isn't the end of democracy. Obama isn’t the anti-Christ. The sky isn't falling. You'll get another boyfriend.

Now go make yourself a plate of brownies.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

you're to blame for making me mad

A thought experiment:

My religion insists that nobody should ever wear yellow clothes. One day, I see you wearing a yellow shirt. In my religious fervor, I demand that you burn your yellow clothes, join my church, and give my god all your money. You refuse, so I kill your family.

Who is to blame for the death of your family members?

Obviously, there is a distinction between reason and a responsibility. The reason I killed your family is because you were wearing yellow. I, however, am responsible for my actions, even if you could have theoretically prevented it by acceding to my demands. You had no way of knowing how I would enforce my god's rules. Furthermore, you like the color yellow, and you rightly place significant value on your freedom to wear whatever color shirts you like, regardless of what crazy people like me demand you wear.

My previous post addressed D'Souza's claim that liberals are more to blame than conservatives for 9/11. I argued that conservatives, since they equally participate in activities like pornography use and divorce, wear just as many yellow shirts, as it were, as liberals do.

For the purposes of today's post, I don't really care which political wing in America angers crazies more. If you believe that all conservatives honor their marital vows and are all heaven bound and that all liberals are heroine-using pornographers, it won't make a difference for today's arguments.

Mr. D'Souza rejects political considerations like America's support of Israel as being the primary impetus for the 9/11 attacks. Although I disagree with him, I accept his premises while analyzing his argument.

There is a distinction between pragmatic ideas and categorical blame. The FAA could have implemented better security before 2001 which may have prevented the attacks of 9/11. THE FAA's failings were sins of omission, imperfections manifested by imperfect institutions and people.

The sin of commission on 9/11 was the wanton barbarity of 19 murderers and those who purposely helped them. They alone bear the guilt and responsibility for these heinous acts.

Passing blame from the hijackers to people who wear yellow shirts or who could have appeased unjust demands is an implicit forgiveness of those how actually committed the crimes.

It is only possible to forgive the 9/11 murderers if you empathize with their rationale for committing those acts.

If you believe that 9/11 was misguided vengeance for murdered Arabs, the actions are at least understandable; unforgivable, but understandable.

I refuse to empathize with the urge to kill someone else because they are wicked. We Americans owe the false god of these psychopathic men absolutely nothing. We will wear yellow shirts if we choose. We allow freedom of speech, even if such allows the creation and distribution of pornography on the internet. We reserve the right to believe in our own god, or none at all, if that is what we decide.

If you do not wish to have MTV or Hollywood pollute your youth, ban it in your own countries. If you do not wish to be corrupted by pornography, avoid it; I have done so my entire life, even though it is readily at hand.

You are not free to try to convert Americans to your particular beliefs through violence and terror. I do not care how strongly you believe that you are correct. I do not care what your god wants or expects from me. Let your god punish me directly, if he is displeased with me. I will not lie down and allow you to punish on his behalf, just because you believe it just.

I used to think that every American would stand behind these notions of freedom of religion 100%. It was, in my view, the very quintessential element of what it meant to be an American.

Mr. D'Souza has proven this hope wrong, however.

Shame on you, Mr. D'Souza, for trying to blame the horrors of 9/11 on Americans who use their God-given freedom to wear what they want.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Enemy at Home

I just finished listening to Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11. I downloaded it from Audible after my friend Jon, a self-described conservative whose opinions and fairness I trust, spoke highly of D'souza.

To put it mildly, I was underwhelmed by Mr. D'souza. Before I can even engage in most of the issues he raised in this work, I feel like I have to decode a number of rhetorical tricks he's trying to play, and even square basic definitional problems.

I take the task of being fair and balanced very seriously. While I intend on devoting at least one more post to Mr. D'souza's arguments, I am worried about coming off as overtly liberal in my criticisms. For my conservative friends, please be aware that I have also listened to Howard Zinn's History of the United States, and found it equally lacking. If you take issue with this series of book reviews, please know that I’m not attacking you. If I get riled up, it is because I thought I was engaging a respectful, careful theorist, and instead got half-baked talking points.

The most damning criticism I could give of this book would be to point out Mr. D'souza's failed attempt to define "cultural left." Although he gives numerous examples of ideas he takes issue with, as well as politically liberal politicians who champion those ideas, the essential root of cultural liberalism is what religious conservatives call "sin." Although the thesis of the book can be analyzed further by merely replacing all uses of the world "left" with "sin," the intent of the book evaporates if you do so. This book is not a universal call to religious and cultural repentance, it is an attempt to blame a political movement for the collective "sins" of the entire nation. Although he admits the glaring fact that political party is neither a cause, nor a predictor of sins like divorce--self-described liberals and self-described conservatives have similarly high rates--he attempts to blame the sins of conservatives on the cultural influence of liberals and their Godlessness. Since liberals are to blame for changing social gender roles, and since they continue to fight for a further decline in cultural patriarchy, THEY are to blame when conservatives cannot or will not live their own religions well.

Here's a dialogue between a conservative and God, as imagined by D'souza:
"You don't understand, God, I WOULD have kept the commandments, but my neighbors were always talking about how fun sinning was"
"You know, you're right! Even though you committed just as much sin as they did, you always talked a lot about how righteous you were, and how righteous all people SHOULD be. There has to be bonus points for drawing near to me with your lips, right? Come on, son, let’s go torture Hillary Clinton."

If you’re offended, I’m sorry to parody the final judgement like that. Given the wild illogicality of the idea I am critiquing, however, satire was the only tool strong enough to do the trick. Has anybody read this book? Am I being unfair? If any of you want to defend D’souza, we can probably find a way for you to log on to my audible account and listen to the book—not that I can recommend it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

repetition is not the same as an argument

I do not eat organic food.

It's not that I categorically oppose spending $2 for red peppers. I already spend a significant amount of money on food, and it's not that I would stop buying or eating produce if I suddenly had to pay the organic price.

It's also not that I think organic food is any worse than normal produce. Actually, I can't tell the difference between organic and non-organic produce; I'd be willing to bet that none of you could tell the difference either.

My problem with organic food is that it's a political distinction which masquerades as a health distinction.

Let me be clear: organic food is not healthier than non-organic food. Scientific studies have confirmed this fact. If any of you doubt this, or have evidence to the contrary, please let me know and we can discuss it further.

What I have found, however, is that all sorts of people--journalists, hippies, and even scientists--will acknowledge that organic produce is no healthier than regular produce when pressed with the facts, yet continue to use the use the word as an equivalent for "fresh" or "raw" produce.

In a documentary I just watched, the film makers were trying to offer solutions to America's unhealthy lifestyles. One of their solutions is that schools should stop selling cheese fries and coke for lunches, and start offering real food alternatives, including lower-fat, higher-nutrition meals made with fruits and vegetables. I am personally a HUGE fan of such proposals.

The crime that this documentary film made, however, is one that I see being made increasingly more by careless people: the program's chef stressed the fact that he only feeds the kids organic foods, yet he ignored the more salient facts of his diet. While I do not take issue with this chef's political passion for sustainable farming methods, local foods, or a pesticide-free world, why did he have to muddy the waters of the argument by bringing in something completely tangential to the point? The kids in his program are not healthier or happier because they are eating organic produce instead of conventionally-grown produce, they are healthier because they are eating low-fat, low-cholesterol diets with sufficient vitamins and fiber instead of Twinkies.

I'm not sure whether this mistake is being made on purpose, a calculated effort to instill an unproven fact into the minds of uncritical listeners, or whether it's simply well-meaning, yet ultimately negligent act.

Whatever the answer to that question, the fact remains that the filmmakers are doing more harm than good to their stated goal. Some schools will be dissuaded from implementing healthier school lunches because they're unable to afford the jacked-up organic prices, and don't realize that conventional produce is JUST AS GOOD. Someday Little Debby will come out with organic Creme Pies. Some poor sod will eat even more of them because he thinks that they're healthier for being made with organic sugar.

Mostly I'm just annoyed that the repetition of a lie somehow replaces arguments or proof for something.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Today is my 28th birthday.

For those of you who know both me and my brother well, you know that of the two of us, he is the more nostalgic of the two of us by far. He journals diligently, puts together beautiful compilation books of his images and sentimental items, and makes wonderful lists which summarize his activities or favorite things.

I'm generally suspicious of sentimentality. It leads otherwise intelligent people to accept the flagrant lie that things used to be better, to see the past as a golden age where everything was simpler or somehow more moral. Observe. Furthermore, the high-schoolish mentality to divide into warring factions based on musical preference, fashion sense, or even age (or school year) has always seemed pretty dumb to me. Sentimentality needs to be kept in a safe box, defining us and giving us our own signature set of preferences and ideas, yet not unnecessarily balkanizing us into hateful clans.

Every once in a great while, I indulge in uncharacteristic sentimentality. I made myself deviled eggs this morning because I wanted something that I had fond memories of, but which I hadn't eaten in a long time. I wanted to post something today about health care reform, Glenn Beck's offensive CPAC speech, my annoyance with the organic foods movement, or give a book report on some books I've read lately (Wingnuts by John Avlon is fabulous, by the way). After making a list of documentary films for my friend Lina, however, I've been in a list-making mood. I think I'll keep things friendly for my birthday, following a tradition my sister often follows on her blog, I'll include a list of things that I love, rather than only things that are wrong with the world. Today seems as good a day as ever.

Here's a list of my favorite movies from the last decade:
20. The Village
19. Volver
18. Amélie
17. Snatch
16. X2: X-Men united
15. Children of Men
14. Unbreakable
13. Bourne Identity
12. Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
11. Spy Game
10. The Hours
9. Once
8. Goodbye Lenin!
7. Wall-E
6. Brick
5. Royal Tenenbaums
4. Spirited Away
3. Mean Girls
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
1. Fountain

Other favorite movies that weren't mentioned above (sorry Lina, this isn't as artistic of a list as the one you provided):
The Man Who Planted Trees
Run Lola Run
The Seventh Continent (warning: Haneke films are prone to bruising your soul)
The Incredibles (The best family movie ever)
Meet Joe Black (no snide comments, please. I realize that you probably think this movie is boring, but I still think it's one of the most beautiful films ever. So there.)
You've Got Mail (best romantic comedy that doesn't have Audry Hepburn in it, in my opinion)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
The Trial (Franz Kafka + Orson Welles = delicious)

I don't think it's possible to have favorite books, since they are so contingent on when you read them, what state you were in, and what they've done for you. Even still, here's a list of books which either are, or have been influential on me, and that I still have a love for:
Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
The Beach by Alex Garland
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut
Welcome to the Monkey House by Vonnegut
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky
Blood Meridian by McCarthy
Atonement by McEwan
A Clean Well Lighted Place (short story by Hemmingway)

Other random things I love, and which may or may not shine light on who I am as a person:
Rodin's The Gates of Hell
Giving food for people I like
Talking politics
Grocery shopping
Editing (it's convenient for me that Amanda's getting a PhD in English)
Cooking, esp. crepes, Indian food, and desserts
Angel food cake (if I knew what to do with all of my extra egg yolks, I'd probably cook myself one twice a week)
Mocking stupid movies
Public speaking
I like both Chicago- and New York-style pizzas. In my view, they're totally different foods which should not be compared.

Random things I don't particularly like (you knew I wasn't going to be able to keep it positive the whole way through, didn't you?):
Pictures of myself
Spiders (The Burrow had brown recluses, which did not a happy Daine make)
Plain pickles. I can eat relish on hot dogs, tuna, or in deviled eggs, but I never eat pickles plain. It's one of the very few foods I don't enjoy.

All of this is probably far too much information to post publicly. I've got to go change all of my security questions, lest someone try and use this information against me. In the meanwhile, however, I've got an angel food birthday cake to bake. . .

Friday, February 19, 2010


One of my friends and I recently chatted about our love of documentaries. As she recommended a number of documentaries to me, I realized that I haven't been keeping track of which ones I liked, and which ones aren't really worth recommending. This is a list of documentaries I've watched in the last year according to my netflix account. This post is specifically addressed to Lina, but any of you are welcome to either take these recommendations for yourself, or take issue with my taste in documentary film. By the way, this doesn't count against my 500-word limit I've set.

Best documentaries I've seen in the last year:

Deliver us From Evil
Jesus Camp
The King of Kong
The Education of Shelby Knox
The Conscientious Objector
Ken Burns' America: The Shakers
Born Into Brothels
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Manufacturing Dissent
Street Fight
The Order of Myths
Lewis and Clark: The Journey

Echelon 2 documentaries, somewhat sorted from top to bottom, best to worst:

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Girl 27
Cocaine Cowboys
Ken Burns' America: The Congress
Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man
Speaking Freely: (multiple volumes)
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?
Ken Burns' America: The Statue of Liberty
Plan Colombia
The Weather Underground
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
In Search of History: Salem Witch Trials
The Dark Ages
Ken Burns' America: Empire of the Air
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
Maxed Out
Life and Debt
The Devil Came on Horseback
Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains
The Goebbels Experiment
Escape from Suburbia
King Corn

Documentaries on war, most of which aren't really all that mind-blowing or persuasive:

No End in Sight
Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers
Frontline: Bush's War: Part 2
Frontline: Bush's War: Part 1
Taxi to the Dark Side
Body of War

Documentaries not worth watching:

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Sideshow: Alive on the Inside
Strange Culture
Constantine's Sword

Saturday, February 13, 2010


During my first year at college, BYU had a pretty good basketball team. Although I've never really been a big sports fan, I was exposed to quite a bit of BYU basketball that season, attending a few games live, and watching a few on the TV in the Morris Center.

Basketball, for those of you who don't know, is a surprisingly violent game. Each player is allowed 5 fouls (in college) before they are ejected, and the strategic use of fouls is an integral part of team play. Unlike penalties in football, for example, breaking the rules in basketball is often advantageous; players who "foul-out" are not met with scorn by fans, but with gratitude for having used their fouls to benefit their team.

The importance of fouling elevates the referees to an important position in any basketball game. They set the tone for how much physical contact is allowed, how assertive the coaches and players can be (before they are given technical fouls), and how much of the game is spent shooting free-throws.

I quickly noticed some disturbing habits of my fellow watchers. Whenever BYU was called for a foul, people would scream and curse the referee for his "bad call." Whenever the other team was credited with the foul, however, these same fans would clap, looking as if justice had been restored to an otherwise chaotic and cruel world. At first, I credited this phenomenon to my relative inexperience with basketball and its rules. Perhaps I just wasn’t seeing what really made some of the calls good and others bad.

I'm sure you already know the conclusion to this post. It only took me a few minutes of watching to realize what these fans were doing. They were very purposely conflating calls that they didn't like with calls that were patently unfair. When a pretty obvious call was missed in the MWC championship game against New Mexico, the BYU students cheered, claiming that it "made up for previous missed calls which hurt BYU."

There are bad referees. There are bad calls. I'll be there right with you calling a spade a spade when bad calls are made or when the system is actually unfair. Decrying everything which doesn’t go your way, however, puts the system in very real danger. NCAA basketball would not last more than one season if my fellow freshmen from BYU had the power to perfectly control referees.

Furthermore, I had less respect for these student’s opinions in other matters because of how they acted as basketball fans. If literally every call which went against them was necessarily “unfair,” I come to the conclusion that their unfairness meter is broken. I think that we should just stipulate that extremists are die-hard fans of their philosophies, that their opinions are hopelessly biased, and that we should ignore them, trying to build the fairest system possible without them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Annoying pattern III, split advocacy

I see this one all the time, and it makes me really angry. In essence, this tactic is a slash-and-burn operation. Argumentative techniques are employed, not to reflect what the person actually believes, but rather as a weapon against what they don't. You throw everything including the kitchen sink at your opponent, trusting that at least one of the mean, snarky, nasty things you've pointed out will cause a bystander to learn to hate what you yourself hate. For example:

Opponent: I hate D.
Me: why?
O: Well for one thing he/she is extremely E.
me: really? I don't see D as being that extreme.
O: Also, D is not nearly E enough.
me: Wait, what? How is it possible to be E and not E at the same time?
O: Whatever, you've just drunk the D kool-aid. You wouldn't understand.


Opponent: Hey look at this, I've found evidence from source F that D is horrible.
Me: Do you really trust source F?
O: Not at all. I think that F is an absurd source, actually.
me: So you don't even think that people who read source F should trust them?
O: No. Source F is normally full of lies.
me: Then the only reason you're citing them is that they agree with you in this case?
O: Is that bad?

In short, this style of argumentation is not only dishonest, it's the root cause of the general malaise of jadedness that exists in our society today. There IS room for debating from the other side ("even if you start from a position of G, you should still dislike D"), but such a tactic requires that you take apart the black box of the other argument. There is an internal logic to other points of view. Posting or citing mean, hateful, and often inaccurate sources of journalism, however, is not the answer.

Annoying pattern II

This next pattern is just as wide-spread as the first pattern I pointed out, but even more intellectually dishonest and damaging, in my opinion. It takes many forms, so I've got a few examples to illustrate it.

Example One

Me: X is true.
Opponent: That's what person A says, and person A is a jerk/idiot/ideologue for the opposite party as me, so it must be false.
me: I don't agree with person A, and I agree that they have many shortcomings, but I still stand by X.
O: Person A is pure evil. If you believe in X, then you agree with person A and thus you're dead to me.

Example Two

Me: X is true.
Opponent: You just say that because you're a/an B (note: this is a variable for a slur, not a shortening of a particular swear that begins with B).
me: I'm not a B, actually. But even if I were a B, does that mean that X is not true?
O: All Bs believe in Y as well, which is wrong/offensive/against my moral code.
me: Please stop changing the subject. We're not talking about Y, I'm not a B, and you're ignoring the fact that X is still true.
O: Whatever, B. That's what they teach you in your B literature. You've drunk the B kool-aid, you B-kool-aid drinker.

Example Three

Me: X is true
Opponent: Person C disagrees with you, and I trust person C implicitly.
me: I can show you both why person C believes what he/she does, but also why he/she is wrong.
O: Person C is never wrong/is a good person/is way smarted than you.
me: What about in this case D, in which person C has been proven to be wrong/admitted to being wrong? Is it not then possible that person C is also wrong in this situation? Can we at least talk about the warrants for X?
O: You're just a C-hater. You cannot be trusted, since you think that person C could be wrong.

These examples are often mixed and matched. Is there any defense against them? I'd like to know your thoughts on how to combat these tendencies, if they're actually justified, or if you've ever seen me use any of these tactics.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Annoying pattern I

I write, on average, 6 blog posts for each one I type out and post. I engage people in debates almost constantly, either on message boards, on blogs, or in face-to-face conversations. I also surround myself almost constantly with podcasts, audiobooks, or TV shows like the Daily Show which feed my desire to comment publicly or at least write my thoughts and opinions down for later use.

As a result of a number of failed conversations I've had lately, I wanted to write down some generalizable patterns I have been running into. Perhaps some of you can help me to understand why this is happening, what I'm doing wrong in trying to argue my cases, or if this pattern is an inextricable part of being human, and I should get used to it rather than be annoyed by it.

The conversation goes something like this:
Opponent: Y is true.
me: I don't believe in Y, can you explain to me why you do?
O: Y is true because of X.
me: Now there's our problem. X is undeniably false. You yourself have admitted to me in the past/earlier in this conversation that X is [figurative and not literal/a patent falsification/extremely unlikely].
O: You're right. I don't stand behind X.
me: So do you still believe in Y?
O: Most definitely.
me: What is your reason for believing Y, now that we've established that X is not true?
O: Since Y is true, then X must have led to it, so X must be true as well.

Are people just appeasing me when they admit that X is false, or is it just innate to stick to our favorite lies, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them?

Most importantly, please let me know if you've ever seen me pull the type of garbage that I'd like to critique in the next few posts.