Archive for May, 2010


I got home late last night from Minneapolis, where Desert Democrat and I traveled to participate in the biennial conference of the Rhetoric Society of America.   RSA is a professional society for people who study rhetoric.

Rhetoric Society of America. Click logo for home page.

Now I know that “rhetoric” is sort of a dirty word among most folks, who think of it as lies or bullshit.  But the people who study rhetoric seriously think of it as central to the maintenance of democracy.  Rhetoric was first taught in school in the sixth-century BCE.  But it was probably first practiced with the second breath humans took after they learned language.

Rhetoricians think of their art as teaching people how to find all of the arguments that are convincing in a given time and space.   I personally think that if this art and skill were taught in school, democracy would be a lot better off, because citizens would be able to discover both good and bad arguments for themselves, no matter what the issue being debated:   immigration, our national dependence on fossil fuels, racism–you name it.

If people knew how to systematically investigate issues to find all the available arguments, they could also discover which are good and which are worthless.  Sadly, public debate now features mostly the latter kind.  Today public arguments are based less on facts or evidence than on beliefs which may be correct or incorrect, but which citizens cherish no matter their worth, their justice, or their consonance with reality but because these beliefs offer emotional solace.  And arguments are forwarded with such vehemence that those who disagree feel as though they must shout equally loud in order to be heard–again, no matter the quality of the arguments they have stumbled into without giving them much thought.

At the conference I heard some marvelous papers.   This year there was lots of interest in the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s.  I’m not sure why this was so;   perhaps because the hysteria around Obama has brought racists out of the woodwork again.  My favorite session, I think, was about Fannie Lou Hamer, a powerful speaker and activist who spoke to the credentials committee at the famous 1964 Democratic convention.  (You can read/listen to her speech at AmericanRhetoric.com).  Hamer was a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which argued that its delegation should be seated at the convention rather than the delegation that had been elected by the state Dem party machinery, and which was, of course, all white and all male.

The people who testified included some heavyweights from the Civil Rights establishment such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King himself.   But it is Fannie Lou’s speech that is remembered, because she told the unvarnished truth about life in Mississippi as that was endured by black people.   While she testified, LBJ tried to silence her by suddenly holding a press conference.  But the networks all played her speech that evening during prime time.

LBJ was afraid that if people heard the truth Hamer spoke the Democratic Party would lose white southern votes for the foreseeable future.  He was correct, of course–white southern Democrats first fled to George Wallace’s independent party and eventually landed in the Republican Party, where they remain today.

But Fannie Lou Hamer’s rhetoric was eventually successful;   even though the Mississippi Freedom delegation was not seated in 1964 (Hamer angrily refused a compromise offered by Hubert Humphrey that would have seated only two members of the MFDP), in 1968 the party passed a platform plank that required all states to send delegations in which members of all races were equally represented.

In other words, Fannie Lou Hamer found an available argument that suited the time and place.  In this case the time and the place required telling the truth.  As a result she changed the Democratic Party and this country for the better.


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Opening our eyes

Can anything at all good arise from the eventual aftermath of the BP oil spill?  Perhaps, as when an alcoholic who almost dies in a drunken car crash may thereafter swear off booze, we’ll now agree to tame our addiction to oil.   We’ll stop bickering for awhile about whether we even need to.  At the least this disaster may open our eyes to the damage it causes.  We’ll start paying attention.  I was heartened in a somber sort of way (if that’s not an oxymoron) to see this article about oil pollution in the Niger Delta on The Guardian’s front webpage.  I’d known from environmental organization newsletters that the situation there is terrible but I’d not seen mention of it on a major news site before.  Nor had I known how very, awfully terrible it is.  It’s estimated that as much oil has leaked in that region yearly for decades now as was lost in the Exxon Valdez spill. The lifespan of people who live in the region has dropped to around 40 years.

The oil companies operate with impunity there.  These corporations have larger budgets and more clout than many countries, and most of us who use their products don’t know it.  They’re big enough to operate outside the law, or to buy off lawmakers to enact laws favoring them.  Perhaps this tragedy will bring about some accountability.

Or not.  Perhaps they’ll just up their political bribery budget and continue on with business as usual.  I can envision some near-future dystopic scenario where the interests of these megacorporations – energy companies, financial institutions, drug manufacturers, the food industry – will so far supercede those of the countries which nominally host them that they’ll start impinging on each other, and we’ll start to see wars break out between them.  Perhaps they’ll still be fought with national ‘proxy’ armies but corporations will back and finance them.  The proxy army part is already happening to some extent.  Why are we fighting a war in Iraq, and not in Myanmar?

It used to be that government was run by the Church.  Nation states rose to power as religious institutions became too ossified, complacent or unwieldy to deal with political events and societal needs.  Perhaps nations are now poised to give way to corporations.  Countries like Nigeria have already sold themselves over to oil interests.   China’s huge growth is dependent on the profitability of the corporations whose products it manufactures.  The nations of the developed world seem incapable of governance with regard to the huge challenges we face these days.  Corporations may step in to fill that vacuum.   I doubt it will be to our benefit.

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The End of Lost

If the number of posts about Lost that come up on Google this morning is any measure, everyone in the known world is talking abut the finale of the show, which aired last night.  I wonder if any work will get done today.  If I were still working, I’m sure that three or four people would be in my office, seated on the “student’s chairs” or leaning on a file cabinet, proclaiming their version of what ‘really’ happened on the show.   And that fantasy about a different life not being lived (at the moment) is perfectly in keeping with a major theme of Lost.

Trep, I know you don’t watch TV, so I’m a little hesitant to give spoilers on the off chance that you may someday watch the series.  I’m sure your office is full of Lost talk this morning, so maybe you know already.  But I’ll try not to give anything away unless you ask.

I recorded the finale last night so I wouldn’t have to endure the interminable commercials.  I watched it early this morning and an hour later I’m still blowing my nose.   The rational side of me knows there were plot holes through which a truck could be driven, and lots of lose ends left untied.   And there was a religious tone about the ending, albeit not exactly Christian, that irked me.

But my emo side is still in overdrive.  I realized as I watched that I really liked these characters that we’ve lived with for six years, despite the fact that most of them are seriously flawed.   That fondness results from the writers’ great skill at characterization and from great acting–far better than we usually see on network television.  There was a special treat near the end in a fine scene between the two best actors on the show–Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson–as they portrayed a last conversation between Locke and Ben.

I gather that the DVD will contain more information that the writers gave us last night.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, given that the finale has apparently engaged the show’s fans in asking, and arguing, big metaphysical questions about life and death and the power of love.

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I’ve started playing Final Fantasy VIII in the evenings.  Its character equipping system is quite a bit more complex than FFVII’s was.  I’ve been spending as much time reading the manual and futzing with settings while trying to discern learn the results as I’ve spent at times doing the same sort of thing when configuring some new aspect of a database.  It’s feeling suspiciously like work.

And yet it has me hooked.  I want to figure it out.  It’s interesting to think about all the 17 year old guys who’ve put hours of reading and experimentation into configuring video game details over the years who wouldn’t dream of expending such effort in school.  Is it because in an institutional setting, the freedom factor is missing?  If high school students had to master a good video game as part of their curriculum, would some of them resist?  Would they be better students?  The covert skill building that some of these games develop – applying reason and controlled experimentation to problems (thinking things through); looking for alternative solutions; persisting despite discouragement; applying patience or quick reaction as the need arises; paying attention – is impressive.

It seems I have a bit of a way to go in these categories myself.  After a field test fighting a nasty monster in a cave, followed by a foray against a military incursion in a foreign country involving some unexpected twists and a giant self-repairing robot attack spider, I passed the SeeD exam yesterday evening, advancing to become a paid soldier at the mercenary school where FFVIII starts. 

(Here’s the school – a bit sexier than Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley CA)

But my score was so poor I entered the ranks at the second lowest possible level.  My test results said I was too impetuous, too hesitant, missed opportunities, and didn’t follow directions well enough.  Maybe I should be glad I didn’t have to take Video Gaming 101 in high school.

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So I finally tried out the scanner function of my all-in-one printer today.  After sussing out the minor detail that it won’t scan unless its scanner software window is closed after the prior scan, it was smooth sailing.  Here’s an example:

This was made by my sister, whose nom-d’internet, if she has one, is unknown to me.  The production process involved a linoleum tile, a carving tool, ink and paper.  I think the original design is indented in to the linoleum.  I think it’s pretty amazing, and have wanted to show it off, even if it isn’t my homework.  It’s a depiction of the landscape near Homolovi Ruin up here in naz.

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Who Knew?

So Rand Paul, the Rethuglican (Tea Party branch) candidate for Senate from Kentucky, is opposed to Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights acts on libertarian grounds?    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (draws breath) ha ha ha ha ha.  That’s a good one.

Paul made the mistake of being interviewed by Rachel Maddow last night (a “mistake” he acknowledged this morning while talking to conservative talker Laura Schlesinger, to whom he whined that the “looney left” was out to get him.)   If Rachel is the looney left, I guess Noam Chomskey’s politics reside somewhere near infinity.

Trep, you should watch or read this interview, if you haven’t already.  Previously Paul said he opposed part of the CRA because it forces private businesses to serve people they’d rather not.  When she asks specific questions about the ramifications of his position, Paul evades, evades, evades.

He makes a limp analogy between restaurants excluding gun-bearing patrons and people they “don’t want” (ignoring the glaring fact that black people cannot choose to be black while gun owners can choose to carry or not).  He says her questions are “abstract” and “philosophical” when she asks if the owners of lunch counters had a right to beat up the Civil Rights activists who attempted to desegregate their businesses in the 1960s.   Whooee!   In Paul’s mind, or what passes for the space between his ears, clubs and baseball bats are “abstract”!

I expect there is a sound libertarian argument to be made against Title II, but this interview proved that Rand, Jr. is all hat and no cattle.  Unlike his father, who is equally racist but is better versed in libertarianism.  Rand Paul needs better handlers, who won’t book him on shows where the host has a PhD in Political Science.   Handlers who will teach him how to answer hard questions so that his racism isn’t on naked and embarrassing display.

Not that recourse to libertarian values is a useful way to hide a candidate’s racism.  Libertarianism is both elitist and juvenile in its desire to elevate the “fittest” over all of those who can’t cut it in the view of the fittest, and most people grow out of it when they turn sixteen or so.   I have a friend who went to St. Johns, where the curriculum consists almost entirely of philosophy.  He says that every year one or two freshmen tried to start an Ayn Rand club, which soon died for lack of interest.   And for awhile the Randians tried to argue with everybody in their philosophy classes, including the professors, until they either learned how paltry selfish individualism really is, or just gave up and transferred.

Are the Rands, father and son, related to Ayn?


Olbermann:   “Republicans have begun to rue Paul.”

Jim Clyburn, minority whip and Democrat of South Carolina (I’m paraphrasing here):   Given Dr. Paul’s libertarian philosophy, one wants to ask what he thinks about regulation in general–of Wall Street banks, or of oil companies, for instance.

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. . . with curiosity and a little case of nerves.

Mr. Desert called me the other night to tell me that ESPN was reporting the Big 10 conference had invited Nebraska and Missouri to leave the Big 12 and  join up with their older midwestern brother.   As we talked, I got all starry-eyed:    every year there would be Nebraska vs. Ohio State!   and Nebraska vs. Penn State!   And academic prestige would accrue from being in the same conference as Illinois and Michigan!

But the more I thought about it, the nervouser I got.  No more biennial Oklahoma-Nebraska football games–us Huskers are big on tradition (probably in part because our tradition is more glorious than our current status, in football at least).   No more driving down to Lawrence, Kansas to party and to knock the Jayhawks around on the field.   A higher level of competition in women’s volleyball and basketball–and probably in gymnastics and archery and everything else as well.   Farther for student-athletes to travel, which would be a real problem in sports with frequent games, like basketball.

This picture of Shawn Watson, Nebraska’s coach on offense, has nothing to do with the Big 10.  It is  here for utterly extraneous, purely aesthetic reasons.

But I digress.  My worries were all premature because ESPN had jumped the gun.  According to reports I subsequently read on the web, the Big 10 is thinking about expanding.   (There are actually eleven schools in that conference–the University of Chicago is a shadowy member that is not often mentioned on the athletic side of things because they don’t play football.   I expect they are very good in chess, though).

The bottom line for the Big Ten’s university prexes and chancellors is financial–isn’t it always?   More competitive sports competition means more money for the universities involved.  And because football is the biggest (and sometimes the only) earner of money among college sports, it’s important to recruit good football schools in any contemplated expansion.  That’s why Nebraska and Missouri are attractive to the Big Ten (of course it doesn’t hurt that both schools are academically sound as well).

But the Big 10 is also talking about expanding southward.  Demographic projections say that the southern states will have far more population in twenty years’ time than does the Rust Belt, where most of the Big 10 schools are located.   I don’t know who they could get in the south who is both athletically and academically respectable and who is not already in the SEC–which everyone agrees is currently the best football conference.  It would be cool if the Big 10 were to adopt one or more of the historically black colleges that dot the south, but I expect most of those are too small to be able to afford the necessary teams.

I think this is all smokescreen, though.  The Big 10 really wants to get its hands on Notre Dame, which is currently an independent and which has a lucrative contract with CBS to air all of their games.  And the conference wants two more football schools so that Joe Paterno, the legendary coach at Penn State, can have his conference playoff.   (If a conference is big enough, like the Big 12 or the SEC, it is split into two divisions.  The winners of each of those divisions play each other at the end of the season for the conference championship.  Of course the championship game, which is usually played on a neutral field, is a big source of revenue because it has a national teevee audience).   And JoePa is probably tired of playing Ohio State every year, and losing.   If the conference were bigger, games between the powerhouses would occur every two years rather than annually.

If the Big 10 takes Notre Dame, though, they have to take someone else too, in order to have equally balanced divisions.   There has been talk about Pitt or Rutgers from the eastern conferences, but I am not convinced either of those schools can compete with the big state football schools (one is private, the other is supported by a city).  Of course some of the current Big 10 schools are not much to shout about athletically, either.

The Big 10 conference spokesperson said that this decision will be made in the next eleven months.  Hmmm.  I guess we will all have to stay tuned.

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