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124 posts from June 2005

June 30, 2005

NDN: Food for thought

Earlier this week The New Politics Institute hosted the first in a series of conferences on developing progressive media.

How can we develop a better Progressive Media Marketplace?

On June 28, 2005 in Washington, DC, the New Politics Institute held its inagrual forum on Developing Progressive Media and Creating a Progressive Media Marketplace.

NDN President Simon Rosenberg, Media Matters President David Brock, NPI Fellow Jamie Daves and Air America CEO Danny Goldberg shared their thoughts on the topic.

The proceedings are now available online.

The organizers invited several progressive bloggers to join a conference call after the meeting, including myself. I was very impressed with the discussion.

To me, the most interesting aspect of NDN's objective is its emphasis on creating a self-sustaining market for progressive media. The left is already familiar with the right wing noise machine's superior organizational prowess, its lavish benefactors, and its impressive fundraising abilities.

Sometimes left wing analysts get so preoccupied with the non-profit parts of the right wing noise machine that we often overlook the parts of the movement that are profitable businesses in their own right.

The for-profit and non-profit sides of movement stand in a symbiotic and self-perpetuating relationship. Ideologically neutral investors fund right wing media because the market is well-defined and profitable. These successful ventures spread right wing ideology and thereby increase the potential market for even more right wing media. The non-profit groups supply the messages, the strategy, and the intellectual legitimacy. The for-profit entities drive distribution, outside investment, and revenue.

The left needs something comparable, but won't be easy to emulate the right wing model. The market for left wing media isn't nearly as large and our message isn't as congenial to large corporate backers. Obviously, we need more Air Americas and Fahrenheit 9/11s, but we also need to develop infrastructure to fund progressive content on a smaller scale.

In the last election we saw the power of grassroots fundraising, in the years to come, I hope the left will also invest in grassroots enterprise. Grassroots enterprise would focus on connecting bloggers and other small content providers with small sponsors. BlogAds and similar services are already doing some of this work. Perhaps progressive organizations could facilitate enterprises like these on a larger scale.


Damned zombie contractors:

The lawsuits, the most recent of which was filed June 17, allege that a contractor for Stanley Medical Research Institute obtained brains from cadavers in that state without receiving full consent from family members. [...]
Lorraine Gagnon, with husband Frank, said she consented to allowing small parts of her son's brain to be donated but not the whole organ. [WaPo]

Granted, we've all been there. You say to yourself: "Just a one-by-two-inch slice...," and the next thing you know, you've eaten the whole thing.

I am a Big Five deviant

Richard Chapelle is doing some research on bloggers, personality (as measured by the IPIP-NEO inventory), and political orientation (as measured by the Political Compass quiz).

Richard plans to compile these data and make them available to social scientists and statisticians under an open-source license. This is a really neat project and I encourage all my fellow bloggers to participate.

The five factor model is a fascinating subject in its own right. The Big Five paradigm is most scientifically rigorous approaches to the study of personality that psychology has to offer. Sanjay Srivasta has an excellent introduction to the subject here:

The Big Five were derived from analyses of which traits tend to co-occur in the population, but the underlying correlations are probabilistic and thus exceptions are possible. For example, talkativeness and assertiveness are both traits associated with Extraversion, but you could imagine somebody that is assertive but not talkative -- the "strong, silent type." However, numerous studies indicate that most people who are assertive are also talkative (and vice versa), which is why they go together under the broader Extraversion factor.

Here are my results. No real surprises, except for the fact that I'm only in the 17th percentile for "morality" and at the 0 percentile for "modesty." When you interpret your own scores, keep in mind that the names of the sub-scales don't necessarily capture the concepts they evoke. For example the "morality" subscale seems to measure something more akin to straightforwardness or guilelessness than morality, per se.

Richard's instructions for taking the test and spreading the meme appear below the fold.

Age: 26
Gender: Female
Location: New York, New York
Religion: None
Occupation: Writer
Began blogging (dd/mm/yy): 08/03/04

Political Compass Results
Economic Left/Right: -9.13
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -7.44

[NB: These numbers are percentile rankings comparing my scores to those of other adult women. When you take the test, your scores will be calculated relative to the responses of other people of the same age and gender--Majikthise.]

EXTRAVERSION: 60 (Average)
Friendliness: 28
Gregariousness: 27
Assertiveness: 87
Activity Level: 97
Excitement-Seeking: 56
Cheerfulness: 45

Trust: 47
Morality: 17
Altruism: 53
Co-operation: 48
Modesty: 0
Sympathy: 92

Self-Efficacy: 93
Orderliness: 25
Dutifulness: 57
Achievement-Striving: 97
Self-Discipline: 64
Cautiousness: 90

Anxiety: 42
Anger: 23
Depression: 33
Self-Consciousness: 35
Immoderation: 26
Vulnerability: 0

Imagination: 86
Artistic Interests: 41
Emotionality: 25
Adventurousness: 99
Intellect: 93
Liberalism: 99

Track List:
1. Philosophy, et cetera - - pixnaps97a2
2. Majikthise - 6ea37d10-e9b9-11d9-8cd6-0800200c9a66

Continue reading "I am a Big Five deviant" »

Mukhtar Mai closer to justice

Some good news for Pakistani activist and educator Mukhtar Mai:

Pakistan's High Court Suspends Acquittals in Village Gang Rape [NYT permalink]

General Pervez Musharraf (official website) rescinds the travel ban and returns Mai's passport, saying that he now has "full faith in her and her patriotism." [BBC]

Aside: General Musharraf's mailbag is worth a look all by itself.

Abstinent geckos and zombie dogs

Uncomfortable truths from the world of science:


Geckos that forego sex and instead clone themselves are able to run farther and faster than relatives that reproduce the more conventional way. [Live Science]


Boffins create zombie dogs

SCIENTISTS have created eerie zombie dogs, reanimating the canines after several hours of clinical death in attempts to develop suspended animation for humans.

US scientists have succeeded in reviving the dogs after three hours of clinical death, paving the way for trials on humans within years.

Pittsburgh's Safar Centre for Resuscitation Research has developed a technique in which subject's veins are drained of blood and filled with an ice-cold salt solution.

The animals are considered scientifically dead, as they stop breathing and have no heartbeat or brain activity.

But three hours later, their blood is replaced and the zombie dogs are brought back to life with an electric shock.

Plans to test the technique on humans should be realised within a year, according to the Safar Centre. []

[Hat tip to Loren Beyerstein.]

June 29, 2005

Friends in low places

I'm backing a lobbying campaign to make David Horwitz discover Pandagon and add Jesse and Amanda to his Network.

They've got potential. I really think they could go all the way this season. Except for one little thing:

Is it that a passed out Panda banner doesn't really strike fear into the hearts of liberal-haters everywhere? Maybe if we replaced it with one that had fangs and blood dripping from its mouth.--Amanda

Problem solved:



Evolution and morality

Here is my long overdue reply to Mark Kleiman on evolution, morality, and torture, and his follow-up on literalism, skepticism, and torture.

In his original post Mark argued that those of us on the culturally liberal, scientifically-minded "blue team" should show more respect for people who resist evolutionary biology. He notes that many religious conservatives are uncomfortable with evolution because it implies that humans descended from non-human animals:

The red team is, I am convinced, wrong to think that believing the account of human origins in Genesis is a necessary condition for behaving well. But red-teamers aren't wrong to think of that account as providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior, and can't, therefore, justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to attempts to kick that prop out from under their children, and other children who are their future fellow-citizens. [Emphasis mine.]

In my last post, I argued it would be irrational and superstitious to reject evolution for the reasons Mark ascribes to the red team.

First off, there's overwhelming evidence that the creation myth of Genesis is wrong.

If members of the red team are rejecting evolution because they think that the story of Genesis might encourage good behavior, they are indulging in wishful thinking. It is irrational to start with the conclusion you prefer and adjust your reasoning to reach that conclusion. Some people are afraid of the implications of evolutionary biology, but the desirability of those implications is irrelevant to the plausibility of the theory itself.

Obviously, not everyone takes Genesis literally. However, non-literalists have even less intellectual justification for opposing evolution than their fundamentalist counterparts. If you regard your holy book as an inspired mixture of fact and allegory, you shouldn't necessarily feel threatened by evolutionary biology. As Mark said previously, the story about humans being created in God's image is a potentially ennobling metaphor. It is a poetic reminder of our shared humanity and our duty to respect other people. This is a good metaphor regardless of whether Genesis is an accurate geology textbook.

As Mark notes in his second post, it's a mistake to approach a holy text as a collection truth-valued propositions. That's the fundamentalist approach. Skeptics who assume that all religious study is an exercise in finding truth values are missing the point. As a skeptic, I approach holy books as literature. I don't expect them to be literally true, or internally consistent. I read the bible much the way I read a Shakespeare history play--as a potential source of moral, aesthetic, and psychological insight that can be appreciated independently of its historical accuracy.

I think my approach is similar to that of most religious believers, except that I deny that the bible is in any sense holy or inspired. Typically, religious people believe that their scriptures are a privileged source of insight relative to other texts or sources of knowledge. If you take that view, you can have the best of both worlds regarding evolution: God gave us these ennobling metaphors and the rationality to investigate his creation. It is our job to decipher the moral message and apply it to the world as we find it. If humans descended from apes, the faithful just have to figure out how the spirit of Genesis applies to an evolved species of primate.

The viability of any religion as a moral framework is simply independent of the truth of evolutionary biology. I have argued elsewhere that so-called revealed truths proffered by most religions are superfluous for morality. Specifically, the alleged supernatural or revealed source of the moral truth is irrelevant to the value of the moral principle.

If there are moral truths, they ought to be discoverable, or at least defensible by reason. Religious traditions may be rich repositories of accumulated moral insight, but at the end of the day, it's the arguments themselves and not the putative mystical authority that matters. Even if some religion turns out to teach the a valid moral code, that set of principles ought to be explicable and defensible to someone who isn't religious. If so-called moral principles must be accepted on faith, they cease to be moral principles at all.

That's what I was getting at when I argued that Genesis could just as easily be a corrupting influence. If you aren't committed to taking your entire holy book as unalloyed and literal truth, you get to pick and choose which metaphors and themes you find relevant and compelling. The story of Genesis only bolsters an appeal to universal human rights among those who already embrace those values. If you have other values, you can use the same source material to justify those baser impulses.

Unlike Mark, I won't say that those who advocate torture are bad Christians or bad Jews. I will say that they're bad people. Being a good member of religion X is just to be a faithful upholder of the tradition in which you find yourself. Sometimes being a good X increases your chances of being a good person, but not necessarily. Depending on the X tradition in which you find yourself, good Xness may be an impediment morality.

Members of the red team who reject evolution because of its moral implications are deeply confused about science and morality. I would argue that their reticence also bespeaks a lack of faith and/or a muddled theology. They deserve the same courtesy as anyone who is advancing a view in a public debate, but they don't deserve any special deference from us because their beliefs are well-intentioned and/or faith-based.

June 28, 2005

Trainee's overtime paid in bourbon

They say this like it's a bad thing.

Damn liberal media.

Mukthar Mai paradox

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has re-opened the case of Mukthar Mai, the woman who brought criminal charges against the men who gang-raped her on the orders of her village council.

When Mai was invited to New York to address human rights activists, General Pervez Musharraf issued a travel ban and placed her under house arrest.

Musharraf told journalists in Auckland that he personally imposed the travel ban in order to preserve Pakistan's public image.

"I don't want to project the bad image of Pakistan," he told the journalists' club.

"I am a realist. Public relations is the most important thing in the world," he said, adding that media misperceptions would discourage tourists from traveling to Pakistan.

"Pakistan is the victim of poor perceptions. The reality is very different," Musharraf said.

He defended his regime's treatment of women, saying it was working for their emancipation. Rape was not "a rampant malaise Pakistan suffers from every day," he said.

Musharraf's reaction baffled observers. Many commentators wondered if the General had gone nuts. After all, Musharraf desperately wants to "sell" Pakistan to the West as a free and enlightened society. Mukthar Mai's legal triumph would appear to be a propaganda coup. After all, the nation of Pakistan upheld her rights in court after she was brutalized by tribal authorities. She became living proof that a Pakistani woman can have her day in court. (The travel ban has been revoked, but reports suggest that the authorities continue to restrict Mai's freedom, allegedly for her own safety.)

Ejaz Haider attempts to make sense of Musharraf's reaction in an editorial called Mukhtar Mai and bounded rationality. He sees Musharraf's apparently crazy decision as an example of irrational behavior within the bounded rationality of a military leader:

Musharraf is an army officer. He shares the worldview of his organisation through army’s acculturation process. He suspects everyone and everything outside of the exclusive club, believes the army is tasked with securing Pakistan’s interest and that it knows how best to go about it.

One can do a broader structural analysis of the factors that could have led to this decision but space does not allow that. However, a larger point that emerges from this episode, given the implications of decision-making at the national level, relates to the issue of military’s political role in Pakistan. If bureaucratic organisations depict bounded rationality as well as systematic stupidity, it is not only dangerous to entrust them completely with nuclear weapons sans civilian control (as Sagan tries to show) but it is even more hazardous to have them in the driver’s seat politically and take decisions that impinge on national life.

I would take Haider's analysis one step further. Male privilege can be its own form of bounded rationality. Most of the misguided reactions to rape seem "rational" if you accept the fundamental precepts of male privilege.

Rape stigma is a direct result of male privilege. As long as women are assumed to be the property of men, a woman's rape is a defeat to whoever "owns" her. According to this warped worldview, a rape victim who speaks out about her ordeal shames not only herself, but everyone who was supposed to have been controlling her (her husband, her male relatives, her community, and even her nation).
Male privilege isn't unconditional--you don't get to be a "real man" unless you can control "your" women. So, every acknowledged rape unmans the victim's rightful owners. As Echidne notes, Mai's rape sentence was the ultimate extension of that twisted logic: punishing a man's sexual misconduct by raping his sister.

Male privilege literally can literally create bounded rationality about rape, despite a conscious repudiation of the practice and a desire to curtail it. If you presuppose male hegemony, it makes sense to address rape by silencing victims and to protecting future victims by restricting their freedom, especially their access to other men. The framework itself is often invisible to those who operate within it, making it impossible for them to realize the presuppositions that circumscribe reactions to the problem of sexual assault.

The bounded logic of male privilege pervades attitudes towards rape in every society, including our own. It asserts itself every time a guy is incapable of condemning rape without admonishing women for doing "stupid things."

Gen. Musharraf can't see Mai as source of good PR, even though her accomplishments objectively support the image is is trying to promote. Maybe, as Haider contends, this is a product of his military mindset. I would argue that his blindness can also be explained in terms of an even more widely-shared ideology of male privilege.

Update: Looks like The Heretik and I made it into Bidisha Banerjee's Slate blog roundup. Scroll down.

I'm back!

I was AWOL from the blog for 24 hours while I was en route to Vancouver. Regular posting will resume now that I'm back within reach of WiFi.