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131 posts from May 2006

May 31, 2006

Men can be feminists

Can men be feminists?, asks Aspazia of Mad Melancholic Feminista.

Hell, yes! If you live by feminist principles, work for feminist goals, and identify yourself as a feminist when it really counts, then you are a feminist. (Update: Let me stress that male feminism isn't just some remote theoretical possibility, it's a fact that I observe daily. Granted, I probably know more feminists than the average American, but even so...)

Obviously, there is a big difference between standing in solidarity with an oppressed group and being a member of that group. However, I don't know many male feminists or feminist allies who are unclear on that distinction.

Some men who support the feminist movement hesitate to call themselves "feminist" for fear of being presumptuous. I admire their hesitation. It bespeaks respect for women and what used to be called "the women's movement." However, I don't think that much reticence is called for.

Sure, some guys who call themselves feminists are poseurs or opportunists--but that's just a commentary on the prevalence of fakes and users, not on the possibility of sincere male feminism.

It takes a lot of courage for a guy to self-identify as a feminist outside his women's studies class. A man who's willing to tell his drinking buddies that he's a feminist is taking a risk. He's putting a little of his privilege on the line when it counts. That's a choice that commands respect.

Some feminists argue that men don't deserve "extra credit" for doing the right thing. I don't consider it extra credit to acknowledge the distinctive obstacles that men in our society have to overcome in order to get right with feminism.

Any guy who's willing to stand up and be counted as a feminist deserves to march under our banner.

An Inconvenient Truth: Review

My friend Ryan's dad is a famous polar zoologist. Several years ago, I asked Ryan what his dad thought about "the whole global warming thing."

"Well, my dad's an optimist about global warming," Ryan said.

I breathed an inward sigh of relief.

"He's not nearly as dark as a lot of his colleagues."

I began to hope that the crisis had been exaggerated.

"My dad just thinks that global warming is going to kill off all the indigenous peoples and most of the wildlife in the arctic."

Last night I went to see Al Gore's new anti-global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth (IMDB). I was very impressed. It's not great art, but it's terrific science. More importantly, it's an easily accessible message that everyone needs to hear. Go see it whether you feel like it or not and take your kids.

Al Gore lays out the evidence of an impending climate crisis clearly, rigorously, and compellingly. Given the profound implications Gore's argument, it seems almost perverse to dwell on the movie's aesthetics or its implications for American presidential politics. An Inconvenient Truth deserves to be assessed as a scientific, political, and moral argument for American leadership in the fight against global warming.

An Inconvenient Truth is the film version of Al Gore's famous global warming lecture, a free multi-media presentation he has delivered to thousands of people in dozens of cities around the world. Lecture footage and graphics are interspersed with biographical vignettes about Gore and staged footage of life on the anti-global warming sawdust trail.

Gore explains global warming terms that anyone can understand: Burning releases carbon, and carbon gets trapped in the atmosphere. Sunlight comes through the atmosphere and warms the earth, but carbon traps the heat, so temperatures rise. This phenomenon has been described as the greenhouse effect because carbon acts like the glass in a greenhouse. Sunlight goes in and turns to heat, but the heat can't escape because the glass insulates the greenhouse.

The caged heat is warming up the oceans. Icebergs shrink, glaciers retreat, and polar ice melts. Currently, giant ice masses like Greenland serve as giant mirrors that deflect sunlight back into space. However, as the surrounding water heats up, that ice begins to melt. More melting means less surface area for deflection. Less deflection means more heat absorption by the surrounding water, which in turn accelerates melting.

I didn't know this until the day before I saw the movie, but Ryan's dad gave Gore some of his slides on the melting ice in Greenland. Our fellow movie-goers probably thought it was a little weird when we started applauding for Dr. McCarthy's credit.

One of the best scenes in the movie is when Gore describes his trip under the North Pole on a nuclear sub. Submarine crews have been meticulously monitoring the thickness of the ice for decades because subs can only surface through relatively thin ice. Previously, these measurements were classified. Gore explains how he went up north to convince authorities to release this important data. The submariners' graph is now part of Gore's slide deck. It's just one of the innumerable pieces of converging evidence that the earth is warming up all over, especially at the poles.

A large percentage of the world's fresh water is locked away in ice. Millions of people get their drinking water from the runoff of glaciers, but glaciers are shrinking all over the world. Gore shows a long series of dramatic "before" and "after" shots of shrinking glaciers from Mount Kilimanjaro, to Patagonia, to Glacier National Park. (Links for illustration, not shots from the film.) If glacial melting continues, millions of people could face water shortages.

Furthermore, warming causes both floods and droughts. Hotter weather increases evaporation from the soil, exacerbating droughts and dustbowls. Rising temperatures also give rise to more violent storms by increasing evaporation from the seas. Storms also get stronger when they travel over warmer water. See RealClimate for a sober look at Katrina, global warming, and loaded dice.

Even more seriously, rising temperatures threaten ice reserves in the arctic and the antarctic. One of the most alarming signs of global warming the unprecedented ice breakup on the Antarctic Peninsula:

Antarctic Peninsula - Collapsing ice-shelf, January-February 2002. The northern section of the Larsen B ice shelf, an area of 1,250 square miles (3,250 km2), disintegrated in a period of 35 days. This was the largest collapse event of the last 30 years, bringing the total loss of ice extent from seven ice shelves to 6,760 square miles (17,500 km2) since 1974. The ice retreat is attributed to the regions strong warming trend - 4.5F (2.5C) in the last 50 years. [Climate Hot Map]

Gore explains that Antarctica has both land-based ice and sea-based ice. The floating ice is melting much faster than scientists expected it to. The rapid depletion of sea-based ice is exposing land-based ice to warmer temperatures. So, land-based ice is now melting much faster than expected.

The recent surge in land-based ice melting is alarming because of the implications for global sea levels. Land-based ice is ice propped up above sea level. If it melts, the runoff increases sea levels. (An floating iceberg that melts in the sea won't raise sea levels for the same reason that an ice cube floating in a drink won't overflow the glass when it melts.)

If a big chunk of land ice were to melt, world sea levels could rise by up to 20 feet. Gore shows a simulation of what a 20-foot rise in sea level would do to coastal cities around the world. One animation superimposed the effects of this 20-foot jump on a map of Manhattan, including the WTC memorial. It was eerie to sit in a Lower East Side theater straining to pick out the building I was sitting in on the satellite image before it disappeared under the advancing blue front.

One thing Gore doesn't explain clearly enough is how long it would take for world sea levels to rise by 20 feet if a major melting crisis happened. A year? Two years? A few months? The animation doesn't specify the timeframe. The take home message is not that people will drown en-masse as they did in New Orleans, but rather a large percentage of the world's coastal cities would have to be abandoned.

Melting ice also dilutes the sea. Salinity is integral to the ocean current systems regulate the global climate. The gulfstream is part of a so-called conveyer belt that carriers warm water from the Southern hemisphere northwards. The warm surface currents modulate the climates of the land masses they pass. These warm currents provide Europe with one third as much warmth as direct sunlight. Surface currents also become saltier as they travel because of evaporation. Eventually, this water gets cold enough and salty enough to sink to the bottom and resume the cycle.

If Greenland were to melt rapidly, massive amounts of fresh water could be released into the sea. If the salt levels dropped too much, the conveyer belt could stop working because the warmer water wouldn't sink back down again. Geologists say that the last time this system broke down, Europe was enveloped by an ice age in as little as a decade.

Real Climate's review of An Inconvenient Truth gives the production high marks for scientific accuracy. However, the review's author notes that projecting future temperatures based on the past correlations between carbon dioxide and the projected carbon levels may overestimate the expected rise in temperature. The reviewer doesn't doubt that temperatures will rise because of CO2, he just thinks that they may not rise quite as much you might think based on past correlations between CO2 and temperature because other cooling trends may offset the effects of CO2. If I remember correctly, Gore doesn't actually project the temperature forward. He superimposes the graphs of global temperature and global carbon levels. The carbon line gets projected into the future, but the temperature line stops at the present. Gore invites the viewer to look at the block-long pattern of correlations and infer what the temperature will do as carbon emissions rise exponentially.

The central plank of global warming denial is that that correlation isn't causation. Even skeptics can't deny the basic greenhouse mechanism. Nor can they deny that global temperature has been closely correlated with carbon dioxide levels for tens of thousands of years. There's no getting around the fact that human beings are adding vastly more carbon to the earth's atmosphere than it has ever contained. The two major culprits are fossil fuels and burning tropical forests. Increasing industrialization and population growth can be expected to accelerate carbon emission trends. Tellingly, the earth's temperature has been rising more or less proportionately to the increases in atmospheric carbon since the industrial revolution.

Still, we can't do controlled experiments with the world's climate. Any evidence that increased carbon levels cause increased temperatures in the real world is going to be correlational. Any evidence about the likely mechanisms of global warming that is based on models or laboratory experiments can be dismissed as being unrealistically simplistic. (Of course, the hired shills will also dismiss as mere correlation the fact that their denials are highly correlated with their pay checks from the oil and gas lobby.) This self-sealing rhetoric of denial more or less guarantees that we will be submerged without knowing that global warming is real.

We can only hope that movies like An Inconvenient Truth can cut through the haze of disinformation and denial.

Treasury Secretary nominee says failure to ratify Kyoto hurts US

, originally uploaded by 'stpiduko'.

ThinkProgress notes that that Bush's new nominee for Treasury Secretary is a big supporter of Kyoto:

President Bush’s new nominee for Treasury Secretary, Goldman Sachs Chairman Henry M. Paulson Jr., not only endorses the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse emissions, but argues that the United States’ failure to enact Kyoto undermines the competitiveness of U.S. companies.

How refreshingly reality-based.

Incidentally, Al Gore's new anti-global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has a very interesting segment on fuel efficiency standards and competitiveness in the global auto market. Apparently, the US can't export cars to China because our vehicles don't meet Chinese emissions standards. (I'll post a full review of the movie later on today.)

May 30, 2006


Anya Kamenetz has an interesting op/ed about the hidden costs of unpaid internships. [NYT]

Kamenetz argues that unpaid internships foster an unhealthy level of identification between impressionable interns and their bosses. She estimates that free intern labour worth nearly $124 million/year to corporate America. No doubt, all this free work exerts downward pressure on wages. Why pay someone minimum wage to sort mail when you can get a college kid to do it for free?

These are all legitimate concerns. However, my primary worry about unpaid internships is that they undermine meritocracy by imposing hidden costs on young workers. College is expensive enough already. Unpaid work is a luxury for people who don't have to support themselves.

Excessive reliance on internship probably creates a barrier to upward mobility within corporations. Nobody expects that a Pfizer mailroom employee is going to advance in the management structure. However, if you're already a student a prestigious college and you can afford to sort mail for free, you can get a leg up at Pfizer. Instead of keeping an eye out for talented workers in lower-level jobs who want to work their way up, managers can fast-track college kids with impressive pedigrees.

The internship bargain is that ambitious young people will trade work for networking opportunities and a prestigious line-item on a resume. The implicit promise is that an internship will help you get a better entry-level job or improve your chances at getting into graduate or professional school.

Of course, unpaid interns are doing jobs that entry-level hires used to do, especially in prestigious fields like publishing and public policy. Entry-level jobs in these fields also tend to pay on the assumption that people's parents can afford to support them during a de facto apprenticeship in a major American city.

This isn't just a problem for college grads, it's a problem for society at large.

Universities could help by creating more co-op programs. My undergraduate school, Simon Fraser, is a leader in co-op education. The university works closely with corporations and the government place students in entry-level jobs that pay better than market rates and allow the students to do work that is actually relevant to their education. One of the main arguments for interning that it provides first-hand experience in an industry. Unfortunately, at lot of internships just put students to work doing menial tasks. Sorting mail in a law firm probably doesn't tell you a lot about whether you'd enjoy being a lawyer. By contrast, a good co-op program is designed to ensure that the work/experience bargain is rewarding for both students and employers. Most importantly, all students can afford to participate in the program because wages are at least as good as those in the job market. Therefore, students compete on the basis of merit for slots in the program and job placements. This pre-screening makes them extra-valuable to employers who are willing to pay slightly higher wages in exchange for a better class of applicant.

Hat tip to Garance at TAPPED.

What the hell is Goldstein talking about?

Holiday weekends are weird in the blogosphere. The more functional members of our community get day passes, while we hardened cases are left to run the asylum. So, what did we fight about while you guys were off barbecuing, jet skiing, petition circulatin', dissertation drafting, or working overtime? Philosophy of language!

I feel like I'm standing knee deep in empty beer cans and used condoms, trying to explain what the hell happened over the weekend.

It all started when Nate made fun of Jeff Goldstein for not knowing who painted the Mona Lisa.

Nate's target was footnote twenty of Goldstein's “You can't spell history without the ‘story’: History and Memory in the Fictive and Imaginary” (punctuation Goldstein's).

20. Would we, for instance, argue that MacBeth, printed in The Riverside Shakespeare, is a different text from MacBeth printed in a Penguin edition? Suppose that each is printed in a different typeface. The marks, under these circumstances, have been altered, but the signs, we assume, have remained the same. What allows us to make this claim for verbal texts? If I were, for instance, to move the Mona Lisa's eyes closer together, no one presumably would claim that I haven't altered the composition of the Mona Lisa in some way. What is it, then, that makes the verbal text different in this regard from the non-verbal or iconographical text? In both instances, intended marks have been altered. But the difference is that in the case of verbal texts, the marks themselves are not what we consider important. What we do consider important are the signs— the marks plus their signifieds. And what makes these marks signs to begin with is the intention to use them as such. My revision of the Mona Lisa certainly has a "meaning"—and it was clearly intentional. But my meaning is different from the meaning of the original composition, the meaning intended by its producer Michelangelo. [Emphasis added.]

Some of us a good laugh, including Jane Hamsher, Thersites, and eventually Atrios.

Nate's a mild-mannered philosophy blogger who was shocked when Jeff fired back with this. He was probably utterly perplexed when Goldstein accused Thersites of being drunk. (Don't worry Nate, that's SOP for Goldstein.)

I gather that things got really ugly after I went to bed. It's hard to piece together what happened overnight because of all the subsequent deletions and repostings, but it appears that Jeff or one of his commenters dug up a bunch of personal details about Thersites, his wife, and their kid and posted that information in a thread.

Evidently, an anonymous Goldstein supporter was so worked up that he told Thersites that his two-year-old had cocksucking lips. [Correction: Turns out the cocksucking insinuations preceded the meaning of meaning dustup. My bad. I'm told that while I left the house to see Al Gore's movie, JG reposted Thersites' personal info on his blog. His bad.]

On the morning after, Goldstein surveys the damage.

You probably thinking, wow, that must have been some footnote.

As far as that footnote goes, Jeff is making a pretty straightforward point: Written language is a shared code for expressing thoughts. Readers of English tacitly understand which variations are important to the meaning of sentences. For example, we know that word order is very important to meaning. "The cat is on the mat" means something very different than "The mat is on the cat." Whereas, the meaning of "The cat is on the mat." doesn't change if I reset it in Helvetica or Times New Roman. I can write it in red, double the point size, or sculpt the letters out of clay without changing the meaning of the sentence. It's still about some cat on some mat. Arguably, you can even translate that sentence into a different language without changing the meaning. "Le chat est sur le tapis."="The cat is on the mat." (These are all philosophically loaded assertions, but they're hardly implausible or unusual for philosophers or lay people.)

Codes have rules for distinguishing signal from noise. You can deliver the same message in Morse code with a telegraph, a kazoo, or bursts of yodeling. Someone who knows Morse code also knows that the differences in timbre don't carry any conventionalized differences in meaning. So, they'll get the same message as long as they can discern the information-bearing features of the transmission--the pattern of long and short pulses.

In the footnote, Jeff's point is that paintings don't consist of conventionally agreed-upon codes. So, all the properties of a painting are potentially relevant to its "meaning." He's sloppy to imply that the Mona Lisa has a meaning in the same sense that a declarative sentence does. However, I think that if you construe his point charitably, it's not crazy.

I don't want to tell the literary types their business, but isn't it also sloppy to say that different publisher's editions of Shakespeare's plays have the exact same meaning? Rival scholarly editions of Shakespeare aren't word-for-word duplicates of each other. These editions are shaped by editors' judgments about how to reconcile inconsistent contemporary manuscripts, which modern spelling system to impose (if any), and so on. A better example would have been the same manuscript printed in two different fonts.

Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of that footnote. It's actually the best part of the paper.

The gist of the paper as a whole is this: The only legitimate way to analyze literature is to figure out the author's original intent. I'm not a literary theory type, but Jeff's rule seems absurdly strict and arbitrary.

There are many interesting debates within the philosophy of language about the relationship between the speaker's intentions and the meanings of his or her utterances. However, these aren't really germane to Jeff's argument. He just likes to name drop.

I agree that it would be hard to have an interesting discussion about literature without the background assumption that the work had an author who had some intentions. Maybe s/he wanted to tell gripping story, represent reality, share fantasy, make readers laugh, express feelings, evoke emotions, explore the untapped potential of a genre, react to other works of art, advance a moral argument, get paid, get laid, etc., etc.

Some artists are more calculating than others. Creators have different levels of insight into their craft. Presumably, authors sometimes have intentions that they fail to convey. We know that some works are even more revealing than the author intended. For example, racist themes and assumptions crop up in many works of literature. We can ask whether the author intended to be racist (i.e., whether s/he meant the racially charged content as a putdown, or as a means of legitimizing the social hierarchy, or as propaganda, or whatever). However, even when there's no evidence of intent, can also ask what cultural presuppositions may have informed the author's attitudes, and how a popular work of art with racist themes might have legitimized or perpetuated certain stereotypes.

Jeff allows that the author's unconscious/subconscious intentions are also legitimate objects of literary study. It's hard enough to interpret conscious, overt speech acts. How are you supposed to rigorously reconstruct the unconscious/subconscious motives of an author from a text? Meaning is underdetermined at the best of times. What justification do you have for saying that an author had one unvoiced, unreflective "intention" rather than another? There are always going to be hordes of hypotheses that explain the available evidence equally well.

If you allow for subconscious and unconscious intentions, you allow for the multiplicity of interpretations that intent purists are seeking to avoid. If someone who's strict about authorial intent is willing to entertain theories about the subconscious motives of a creator (which presumably could be at odds with the conscious motives, or internally inconsistent), they're opening the door to all socially, politically, and psychodynamically informed criticism that they were trying to rule out by being authorial intent purists.

It is just a mistake to assume that every aspect of a novel or a play that a reader might imbue with meaning necessarily reflects a straightforwardly interpretable intent by the artist. Unlike the isolated sentences that philosophers of language tinker with, works of literature are aesthetic objects that can't be fruitfully analyzed simply by elucidating the truth conditions of the sentences they contain.

Ultimately, I don't see an a priori reason to assume that all interesting literary questions can be answered by appeal to the author's intentions. In most cases, just there isn't enough evidence. Even in cases where there's a lot of evidence, it's almost impossible to formulate precise hypotheses or test competing claims about an author's intent. So, unless we're prepared to give up on literary analysis altogether, we've got to explain how we can say interesting things about stories/texts without presupposing that we can know exactly what the author intended.

Notwithstanding the fair point raised in the footnote, Jeff's larger argument fails because literary texts are in fact more like paintings and less like the single-sentence examples that most analytic philosophers of language like to model. When you're grappling with a work in full, there is no single consensual storytelling code that enables a reader to distill the author's intent into a series of truth functional claims.

Literary analysis shouldn't be reduced to a guessing-game about what the author intended. You can't distill a single authoritative authorial position paper from a work of art.

US policy to shoot refugees in Korean War

American forces in the Korean War were officially instructed to shoot South Korean refugees approaching their positions, according to a recently discovered letter:

More than a half-century after hostilities ended in Korea, a document from the war's chaotic early days has come to light -- a letter from the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, informing the State Department that U.S. soldiers would shoot refugees approaching their lines.

The letter -- dated the day of the Army's mass killing of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri in 1950 -- is the strongest indication yet that such a policy existed for all U.S. forces in Korea, and the first evidence that that policy was known to upper ranks of the U.S. government. [WaPo]

The US was afraid that North Koreans would infiltrate US-held territory by sneaking across the border with South Korean refugees. American troops may have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians at No Gun Ri in 1950, but the public didn't learn about the killings until an AP report in 1999. The Pentagon inquiry that followed concluded that the three-day killing spree at No Gun Ri was not officially sanctioned. The newly-discovered letter casts doubt on the Pentagon's findings.

May 28, 2006

Sunday Sermonette: Pope Ratz blames God for Holocaust

The pope blames God for the Holocaust:

Benedict said it was almost impossible, particularly for a German Pope, to speak at "the place of the Shoah." "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God -- Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

Now that's what I call chutzpah.

Recommended reading

Teresa and the Knife, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Christie of FDL on Cheney's constitutional crisis.

Crooks and Liars has a hilarious video of Chris Matthews trying to get Howard Dean to dignify Matthews' obsession with the Clenis. (Or the Cli-t--, as the case may be.)

Philosophy blogger Nate of De crapulas edormiendo on evil and belief in one's own rectitude, and Jeff Goldstein.

ThinkProgress reports that a climate skeptic violated Godwin's Law by comparing Gore to Hitler, because it wasn't inflammatory enough when the last climate skeptic compared Gore to Goebbels.

Twisty on Poland banning tampon commercials during the Pope's visit.

More on Gore and the media

Greg Sargent has an excellent post about media coverage of Gore's reaction to the media coverage of his last campaign.

Ad Nags is dusting off the old slurs:

But in a feisty and frequently argumentative telephone conversation, Mr. Gore brimmed with disdain at the state of American politics and political journalism, urging his interviewer to quit a career of covering politics to turn to matters of real consequence.

"Stop covering politics; cover the climate crisis. It is not too late!" he said, with a boom of laughter.

"Have you read my book?" he asked a moment later. "Have you seen the movie?" Mr. Gore cluck-clucked at the "not yet but I will" response.

To hear Mr. Gore talk about the state of politics and journalism today — this from a man who has a history in both professions — it is hard to imagine him ever running for office again. Politics, he said, has become a game of meaningless, mindless battles, conducted by unscrupulous methods and people, designed to transform even the most serious policy debates into sport. [NYT]

Adam Nagourney just declared war on Al Gore's candidacy. The narrative is that Gore is a bitter man who hates the press:

Hey, journalists. Al Gore thinks you're stupid. He thinks he's better than you. What a big phony! Just listen to cluck-clucking asshole. He talks all kinds of shit about us, but deep down, he's just wants us to kiss his ass. How pathetic is that? And who does he think he is, anyway? I mean, what kind of twit goes to the environmental reporters to talk about his environment movie. I don't know shit about the environment, but I sure know how important I am! Why doesn't Gore get it?

Canadian Conservatives deny Zinni honorary degree

Dana of The Galloping Beaver remarks on the latest embarrassing stunt by the ruling Conservative government: Canceling General Zinni's honorary degree from the Royal Military College.

Gen. Zinni was one of the six retired generals who publicly criticized Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the invasion and occupation of Iraq:

Gen. Zinni was particularly critical of Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, saying of his handling of Operation of Iraqi Freedom: "Ten years' worth of planning were thrown away; troop levels dismissed out of hand. These were not tactical mistakes. These were strategic mistakes, mistakes of policy." [National Post]

The Royal Military College had decided to award Zinni an honorary doctorate on May 19, but the Conservative defense Minister personally intervened at the last minute to quash the award.

This editorial in the Montreal Gazette neatly sums up the terrible optics of the sudden "no confer" order from Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor:

It also looks like blatant political interference, and the best evidence yet that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is keen to to curry favour with Bush. Whatever harm this degree might have done to relations between Ottawa and Washington - we suspect not very much - it has been superseded many times over by the bad domestic optics of a kowtow to a president who is viewed by most Canadians. liberal or conservative, as a failure.

Zinni is supposed to have called the invasion of Iraq a "brain fart of an idea." O'Connor's decision could be described with the same phrase.