Friday, September 30, 2005

"Rita's Weather Was Bad Enough, But Journey Was Even Worse" Dept

As one Houston station learned from an insightful caller during the Rita evacuation.

"Aggie Hurricane Preparation" Dept

Thanks to various people who have e-mailed this photo to me...sorry, I don't know who came up with it originally.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

If inner-city black people are getting shafted, it's obviously due to white racism

Or not.

Hat tip: Mickey Kaus

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"Sorry About the Confusion" Dept.

Rafael Palmeiro today, on being asked why he swore falsely in Congress that he had never taken steroids, responded in astonishment:

"Steroids? Steroids? Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said Altoids..."

OneTrueGodBlog-related posts

First of all, my wife is a much, much funnier writer than I am, and you should certainly get her book, It All Started when the Toilet Fell Over, readily available at Amazon.

Now, for those of you coming here because of Hugh Hewitt and the OneTrueGodBlog, the following posts are particularly relevant.

I found the name of the OneTrueGodBlog interestingly problematic, as did certain others, because the very name of the blog declares Hugh's allegiance to a particular fundamental religious metaphor, namely that of Fact (rather than Therapy or Family). I think a significant percentage of the hard feelings that arise out of religious arguments, come from unrecognized clashes of underlying metaphor. The basic concepts are laid out in "The metaphor wars;" the Fact, Therapy and Family metaphors are explored in some detail in "Defusing religious conflict," and the specific application to OneTrueGodBlog is addressed here.

I've been wrestling with the problem of suffering for a long time. Unfortunately relatively little of that wrestling has taken place on the blog, but you can read here some early musings that arose out of our work with youngsters like Zhenya. As for the OneTrueGodBlog itself, David Allen White's response to the OneTrueGodBlog question about human suffering inspired me to post an old essay on how the Incarnation and Passion revolutionizes the theology of human suffering, and some thoughts on the fear of suffering, especially in American religious thought.

If you're interested in our adoption story, you can start with "Two stories." If you want to read the whole saga of our adoption as it unfolded, you can go to the master adoption saga post and follow the links from there.

And I really do wish you'd read the autobiographical sketch of Zhenya, a young Kazakh girl whom we love very much.

Oh, one final thing: any post whose title ends in "...Dept." is some sort of silliness or other. Thus, since I work in Houston, Hurricane Rita inspired "Hurricane Rita Evacuation Plan -- the serious version" and "An actual hurricane evacuation plan," both of which are meant seriously. But "Hurricane Rita Evacuation Plan" Dept is really just an Aggie joke.

Welcome, and thanks very much for dropping by.

On generalizations, racial and otherwise

You cannot think clearly about racism, if you can't think clearly at all.

You cannot think clearly about racism, if you do not understand how human thought and language uses, misuses, and is ultimately made possible by, generalizations.

The only time I ever tried to write something for actual publication, it was a book called "The Stupid Switch," on how we manage to lie to ourselves; it sprang from a twelve-week class I offered at our church. Life got in the way (as you can tell from the blog, I'm sort of busy) and I never finished the book. But I did write the chapter on the use of generalizations, which happened to use discussions of race as a teaching example. So, since Alexandra has gotten me involved in a discussion about whether it's racist to call an African-American "articulate," I thought I'd copy that chapter into the blog, even though it will be a VERY long post.

The chapter naturally assumes that you already know (from previous chapters) what I mean by "the Stupid Switch," namely that perfectly intelligent people suddenly become capable of believing the dumbest things once emotions, unquestioned assumptions ("self-evident beliefs") and prejudice get themselves involved. This chapter concerns prejudice, and its original title was:

Prejudice: When Bad Stupid Switches Happen to Good Generalizations
...continue reading...
...We’ve now covered emotions and self-evident beliefs. It’s therefore time to turn our attention to prejudice, which is, fundamentally, the abuse of generalizations.

Now, generalizations in themselves are not a bad thing. In fact they are – generally speaking, of course – a very good thing, because they make it possible for us to think and function at all. Practically all language is based on generalizations. For example, if I say, “I’m going to read a book,” you assume that the “book” is going to have sheets of paper bound together with words written on them. Most of the time you’ll be right, although it is possible that I could be planning to download a book from the internet and read it on my computer. Again, when you decide to sit down in a chair, you do so because you believe that the chair will hold your weight, because that’s what chairs are designed to do. And almost always it does.

Our words represent general classes of things – chairs, books, tables, elephants, senses of humor. Or general classes of actions – running, swimming, thinking, cheating, giggling. Or general descriptions – pretty, wretched, obnoxious, sordid, monotonous. Each such generality is an abstraction from all sorts of individual things and experiences. Once we have assembled all these generalizations into a vocabulary, then we can talk and think about the world by taking each new experience and slotting it into the general class.

So we can neither live nor think without generalizing. But of course generalizations can be abused, and this chapter addresses the major ways in which we abuse them.

First of all, of course, a generalization must be valid. That doesn’t mean it can’t have exceptions; of course it will have exceptions. But it should be true more often than not. If it’s false more often than not, then it’s invalid.

Secondly, we must know how reliable the generalization is. The generalization, “When I go into a friend’s house, I can sit down on the nearest convenient chair without worrying about whether it will break,” is a highly reliable generalization; there are very few exceptions. The generalization, “People from New Jersey are jerks,” may or may not be valid; but even if it is valid, it isn’t terribly reliable, because there are lots and lots of exceptions.

Thirdly, if we have a choice of more than one generalization, we should choose the most reliable one. Let’s say the generalization, “People from New Jersey are generally trustworthy,” is valid; and let’s say that the generalization, “People who have multiple convictions for fraud and larceny are not generally trustworthy,” is also valid. Now an ex-convict from New Jersey, who happens to have served multiple sentences for running con games, invites us to take part in a sure-fire, can’t-lose business opportunity. Do we trust him because he’s from New Jersey, or do we distrust him because of his criminal record? I think for most of us, the answer would be obvious.

In other words, the rules for using generalizations are pretty obvious once you think about it. The trouble, of course, is that the Stupid Switch makes us blind to things that are obvious. So we need to examine just exactly what happens, when the Stupid Switch kicks in, to our ability to use valid generalizations wisely.

I am going to take a major risk here: I am going to discuss the way we think, and talk, about race in America – for, like it or not, we constantly use race-based generalizations in the United States. This may mean that some violent emotions are stirred up as we go along. On the other hand, it should make it clear how important it is to understand what emotional forces can disrupt our use of generalizations.

I am White, 36 years old, five feet eleven, and a not-exactly-intimidating 155 pounds. As a teenager I was a passionate and skilled basketball player, though one would never have guessed it to look at me; and until very recently I continued to play pickup basketball on the playground from time to time. And one of the things I loved about playground hoops is that the playground court is perhaps the only place in America where race is treated rationally and honestly and (at least frequently) without malice.

Let me explain. Imagine that I go to a new playground where nobody has seen me play, and when I walk on the court I am one of fifteen available players, of whom the other fourteen are Black teenaged boys. Now, I can tell you right now that I won’t get picked for the first round of five-on-five, and I don’t resent it at all – if I were them I wouldn’t pick me either. (The logical coherence is perhaps a bit suspect there, but you see what I mean.) They are applying a perfectly valid generalization: in general, if you have to choose between a 35-year-old White guy and a Black teenager, everybody knows which one is more likely to help you keep the court.

Now a whole bunch of you are all upset about the “racism” involved here. Let me urge you to set aside the moral question here and concentrate on the logical question. That is, don’t think about what a nice person would do; think about what a smart person would do. The salient points here are that: (1) They haven’t seen me play. (2) In order for them to see me play, there has to be a game. (3) Only ten of us can play; so in order for there to be a game five people are going to have to sit out the first one. (4) If you’re a captain and your team loses, you’re off the court and at the end of the line. (5) It really is true that the typical guy who looks like me isn’t going to be able to keep up with the typical Black teenager.

There’s nothing personal or malicious about it, you see. It’s just a rational maximization of your odds of being on the court (as the first game’s winners) for the second game.

But I’ll get into the second game, because I’ll “have next,” in playground terminology.[1] And after that game the situation will have completely changed. You’ll have seen me d-up, shoot the trey, rebound, run the break, do the no-look dish. I won’t be “the middle-aged[2] White guy” anymore. I’ll be me – which may be a good thing (it used to be) and may not (it probably wouldn’t be now). If I’m good enough, then two weeks from now I’ll have my own nickname. And tomorrow when I show up I won’t be judged on the color of my skin. I’ll be judged on the content of my game.

Now I love the court precisely because, in my experience, the players make no bones about the fact that everybody knows the Black guys as a whole can spank the White guys – but if you can ball, then as soon as you show that, your skin color doesn’t matter. The broad generalization is there, it’s real, it’s valid, it’s useful when you don’t know anything particular about somebody, and as soon as the particular information about your skills is available, the broad generalization is discarded.

It’s important to realize, though, that the information about my particular skills is itself a generalization. “Sweet’s got a good offensive game” may well be generally true (I used to answer to “Sweet” when at the city park in Elgin). But my offensive game (given my physique) all starts with the long jumper; I have to force you to come out and cover me away from the hoop in order to open up the court for everything else. Sometimes the touch isn’t there, and if it’s one of those days when there’s a lid on the basket, then as long as the jumper isn’t there for me, I have at best a mediocre offensive game. So when I stop being “the middle-aged White guy over there” and I become “Sweet,” the other players don’t stop using generalizations. They just stop using a relatively broad generalization about middle-aged White guys, and start using a relatively narrow generalization about “Sweet.”

In fact, the smarter defensive players will soon figure out how much my game depends on the jumper. Then on the days when my jumper is falling, they’ll play me tight and try to force me to drive, but on the days when I’m cold from twenty feet, they’ll sink back toward the goal and try to cut off my passing angles. When that happens, then they’ve moved from a relatively broad generalization about “Sweet” to a pair of relatively narrow generalizations about “Sweet when he’s hot” and “Sweet when he’s cold.” Thus Hall-of-Fame basketball player Bill Russell once explained how he blocked a critical Elgin Baylor shot by saying something like, “Well, I know that whenever the game’s on the line, Elgin usually goes to his left hand.” Which was still a generalization, but a bloody narrow one.

Let’s go back to the first time I show up on the court and have just started getting involved in a couple of games. It could happen, of course, that I could run into a player who had some sort of racial agenda and who had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to pick White guys no matter what. In that case, he might not pick me even if it became obvious that I was one of the two or three best players on the court. But such a player’s problem isn’t the fact that he believes healthy young Black kids are usually better than skinny middle-aged White guys – that’s actually true, and there’s nothing wrong with believing the truth. The problem is that he’s insisting on sticking to the generalization even though he knows that I’m an exception. When you don’t have specific information, you don’t have any choice but to use a generalization. But when you do have specific information that invalidates a particular generalization for a given case, there’s something very wrong if you insist on sticking to the generalization anyway.

Here’s another example from my personal experience. I was raised in southeastern Oklahoma, and young men always were expected to hold open doors for ladies. It was something so deeply ingrained in me that I wouldn’t even be consciously aware of doing it. Then I went to Princeton, New Jersey to go to school. About two weeks after I got there I was going to the local convenience store and arrived about two strides ahead of a lady I would guess to have been in her mid- to late-thirties. Automatically I held the door open – and I received a brief but blistering and indeed unblushingly profane lecture on how perfectly capable she was of completing the physically and mentally undemanding task of opening a door for herself, and how despicable I was for daring to insult her by implying the contrary.[3]

After four more years at Princeton, and then sixteen years (and counting) in Austin, Texas, I can say with confidence that there are dramatic cultural differences between New Jersey women and Oklahoma/Texas women (including the strong and personally confident Southern women who can hold their own amongst any group of men). These cultural differences do not reflect any moral superiority one way or another; they are merely differences in cultural interpretations of an action. In Texas, holding open the door is interpreted as a sign of respect and consideration. In New Jersey, the same action may well be interpreted as a sign of disrespect and chauvinism.

I went to Princeton operating under a simple and naïve generalization: when you reach a door at the same time as a lady, you should hold open the door and allow her to go through first. At Princeton, I refined the generalization: when you reach a door at the same time as a lady in Texas, she will generally prefer for you to hold the door open; she will occasionally glare at you if you don’t, and she will rarely actively resent it if you do. In New Jersey, she will generally not expect you to hold open the door; she will almost never glare at you if you don’t (and if she does, that’ll mean she’s not from New Jersey but is a visitor from the South); and she will occasionally actively resent it if you do.

So if you’re a polite man and you have any sense at all, you hold the door open for ladies when in Austin and you bust right on through ahead of ’em in Newark.

But note that when you reach the door at the same time as a woman does, you have to decide whether or not to open the door for her. If you are rude, then you’ll just consult your own convenience no matter where you are. If, on the other hand, you wish to be polite, then you’ll need to take her wishes into account, and since you usually don’t know her, all you can do is guess – and your guess will be based on a cultural generalization. If you’re a redneck hick fresh from the Southern backwoods, you’ll probably use a clumsy generalization and mess it up some at first. With experience (some of it unpleasant), you’ll refine your generalizations so that they have more and more sophistication, which is to say that you’ll move from an initial stage of having a few very broad rules of thumb to having more and more, and narrower and narrower, generalizations.[4]

This is the first rule of using generalizations: you should always be moving from relatively few, relatively broad generalizations toward relatively many, relatively narrow generalizations.[5]

Now there’s a second rule as well, and to illustrate it, let’s do another hypothetical example, which I hasten to say is not based on my actual personal experience. Let’s say that I’m a single guy, and that my experience with women from Texas leads me to think that, in general, women from Texas are very self-centered and materialistic. And (just so that I can have the fun of outraging most of the women I hang out with in Austin) let’s pretend that this is a completely valid generalization. Now, a friend comes to me and tells me that he’s got a blind date for me and she’s perfect, but as he’s describing her he makes the mistake of mentioning that she hails from Beaumont. And I – applying my valid generalization – immediately interrupt him: “Oh, hey, no way. I’m not going out with a Beaumont girl. I don’t want to get stuck married to a self-centered woman who just wants me for my money.”

We all know that’s a ridiculous attitude. What I’d like you to think about is why the attitude is ridiculous. My friend, of course, is going to say something like this: “Look, Kenny, this girl is different. She isn’t like that. Besides, I’m not asking you to marry her. I’m just asking you to have dinner with myself and my wife and this girl. If you don’t like her, then what have you lost? – I’m buying, after all. But if it turns out that she’s perfect for you and that she isn’t like most Texas girls, and you don’t even get to know her because of your stupid prejudice, you could miss out on the perfect girl.”

If you look back at the situation with my not getting picked on the basketball court, you’ll note that one of the important facts is that the captains had to go ahead and pick a team. When you have to make a decision right now, then you have to make that decision based on the best information you have.[6] But in this situation, I do not have to decide tonight whether I’m going to marry the girl. There’s absolutely nothing to keep me from saying, “Well, I think I’ll wait to make up my mind until I’ve met her.” Why leap to a conclusion when I could just as well wait and find out more? Why use a broad and clumsy generalization about ten million Texas women to make an unreliable decision right now, when I could go collect information about this specific girl and then make a decision based on her and her alone?

So the second principle is simply, don’t rush to judgment.[7]

Now, here’s something to think about. If you know somebody is an exception to a general rule, it’s obviously stupid to insist on clinging to the generalization. If you don’t have to make up your mind right now, it’s obviously stupid to rush to judgment. So why do people do it?

I’ve asked this question before in a classroom situation, and I get lots of answers, all of them valid, and all of them reducing to one of two simple reasons: (1) because it’s never occurred to them that the generalization might have an exception, and (2) because they want to. In other words, either you have a “self-evident” belief, or else your emotions have kicked in the Stupid Switch. It’s really that simple.

When you mix emotions and self-evident assumptions and generalizations (even valid ones), you get prejudice. Prejudice, you see, is not a belief in generalizations; generalizations in themselves are good and useful (as long as they are valid). Prejudice either involves using generalizations that are invalid in the first place, or else in using a generalization even after you ought to realize that you’re seeing an exception to the generalization, or else in rushing to judgment before you have to. And when you act on prejudice, it’s going to be because either your emotions have stacked the deck, or else because the prejudice stems from some of your self-evident beliefs.

It is important to understand this whole dynamic when we turn to topics of race. For example, ought persons of Arab descent be scrutinized more carefully at airport security checkpoints? Well, the first thing to establish is whether such a rule would result in more effective security. And this will depend on the validity of some generalizations.

Is it, for example, true that most Arab-looking men getting onto an airplane will be al Qaeda suicide bombers? No, not at all. That’s an invalid generalization. So you can’t act based on that one.

Is it true that the vast majority of al Qaeda suicide bombers are Arab-looking men? Well, in fact that one’s true.

Is it true that if you stop and search an Arab-looking man you will have more likelihood of intercepting an al Qaeda suicide bomber than if you stop and search a White guy? Unquestionably it is. But is it also true that if you stop and search an Arab-looking man you will have more likelihooding of pestering a nice guy who just has the misfortune to look like an Arab terrorist than of actually intercepting an al Qaeda suicide bomber? Unquestionably it is.

That’s what makes the “racial profiling” controversy such a difficult issue. From the perspective of saving lives and protecting innocent people from another 9/11, there’s no reason that racial profiling can’t be an entirely rational tool. But from the perspective of protecting innocent people from constant harassment on the basis of race, there’s no doubt that racial profiling is a bad thing, since most of the people who fit the racial profile will be innocent, but will suffer the consequences of being associated with a relatively few bad guys.

Or look at it this way (people who don’t like math can skip this paragraph). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 0% of White men are al Qaeda suicide bombers, and that 0.0001% — one in ten thousand — Arab men in America are. From one standpoint, an Arab man getting on a plane is infinitely more likely to be an al Qaeda suicide bomber than is a White man; if you look at it that way, racial profiling makes sense. On the other hand, an Arab man getting on a plane is only 0.0001% more likely to be an al Qaeda terrorist than is a White man. And from that perspective, racial profiling seems highly objectionable.

It’s important to understand that the biggest problem isn’t ridiculously invalid racial generalizations (like “Them there coloreds jus’ luv that there watahmelon”). The problem is what to do with the valid ones. Mainstream Americans really believe that it’s a good thing to be color-blind, and therefore mainstream America went to some trouble not to blame all Arabs or all Muslims for the behavior of the 9/11 terrorists. But that didn’t stop mainstream America from feeling nervous whenever they saw an Arab man getting on the plane with them, because mainstream America couldn’t help but understand that planes with no Arab guys on them were planes with no al Qaeda suicide bombers on them. And that generalization was true. The problem, of course, is that it is also generally true that that planes that did have Arab guys on them...were also generally planes with no al Qaeda suicide bombers on them. That generalization was also valid. It just wasn’t quite as valid as the first one. And with the image of the crumbling Twin Towers fresh in every passenger’s mind, we all wanted perfectly valid generalizations. We wanted to be on the planes that we knew had no al Qaeda lunatics on them, not the ones that we could be almost certain were lunatic-free. Our fear, in other words, worked to push us toward prejudice.

So what do we do with these valid, but offensive, generalizations? I don’t pretend to have the answer to racial profiling (other than to recognize that for a great many Americans, “Racial profiling is always Evil, Evil, Evil!!!” is a self-evident belief of great force). There are basic moral principles that have to be invoked, and have to be invoked appropriately, and this is not a book on fundamental ethics.

But I can tell you a few things, just on the basis of how generalizations work.

First, the sooner we devise better and more accurate profiles than “Arab,” the sooner we can stop using race. (For example, a Tunisian passport is rather less worrisome than a Saudi Arabian or Egyptian passport.)

Second, searching an Arab man before he gets on a plane is just moving from a very unreliable generalization about “Arab men” to a vastly more reliable generalization about “people who’ve been carefully searched at the gate.” I can see somebody trying to defend that. But kicking them off the plane and refusing to fly with them, even if they are willing to be searched, just because “they make me nervous” seems altogether too much like insisting on using an obviously unreliable generalization when a much more reliable one is available. I doubt that such an action could possibly be justified.[8]

Third, non-Arabs should be empathizing with all the innocent Arabs who have been associated with evil actions that they themselves abhor, and should be remembering that the vast majority of the Arabs in America detest the actions of al Qaeda and would never engage in terrorism. They should be remembering, in other words, that while it is true that the vast majority of al Qaeda members are Arab, it is equally true that the vast majority of Arabs are not al Qaeda members.

Fourth, Arabs who find themselves guilty of “Flying While Arab” – that is to say, Arabs who find themselves the target of suspicion just because they are Arab and on an airplane – should reflect on the fact that their predicament is not the fault of their fellow passengers, but of the terrorists who have chosen to do great evil in the name of a cause that is associated entirely with the Arab world. They should remember, in other words, that it is true, however inconvenient and regrettable they may personally find it, that the vast majority of al Qaeda members are in fact Arab men.

This whole dynamic underlies the Yiddish phrase shanda fur die goyim. A shanda is a “scandal,” and a shanda fur die goyim is literally a “scandal for the Gentiles.” But culturally, the phrase captures the Yiddish comprehension of the damage done whenever a person who was known to be Jewish behaved in a way that confirmed the negative stereotypes that European Gentiles held of Jews. Even the Jews who were not, say, miserly and usorious, were affected by the behavior of a usorious Jewish miser, for every such Jew – every shanda, in the phrase – rendered the stereotype that much more nearly valid. Accordingly, there was a great deal of social pressure within the Jewish community against being a shanda fur die goyim.

You see, a caricature with no truth behind it is a lie, and it has power only with the very ignorant or the very hateful. A stereotype that can be justified by an occasional shanda has more power, because it has more truth, even though it is not really valid. But a negative generalization that is actually valid (in the sense that it is more often true than not) is devastatingly powerful, for the “scandals” are the rule rather than the exception.

In such a case, if you’re a member of the affected group, you have a big problem, because there will be times when a decision must be made, and when the negative generalization based on race or religion or cultural allegiance is the most reliable generalization available. At that point you can try to convince people not to use that generalization anyway, on the grounds that it represents “racism” or “stereotyping” or “religious bigotry.” But you will have a lot of trouble doing that, for the simple reason that you are essentially trying to tell people that morality requires them to do something stupid; and that can be a very hard sell.

It is thus critically important for a vulnerable race or culture to put a great deal of pressure on its members to avoid being shandas. If you are a Black man and you want to be able to catch a cab whenever you want, you need to realize that the problem will persist until young Black men stop mugging cabbies more often than do young men of other races. If you are an Arab and you don’t want people to worry about you on airplanes, you need to realize that as long as al Qaeda poses a threat, your presence will make people who don’t know you nervous. If you are White and you don’t want Black people to distrust you at first sight, you need to know that as long as a lot of White people treat Black people differently than they treat White people, the problem will persist. (And of course that last remains equally valid if you switch the roles of White and Black in the sentence.)

And if you are a Christian, then here’s one final thing for you to consider. Most people base their opinions on emotion rather than fact and say very stupid things when trying to defend their beliefs. Therefore, since most agnostics are human, most agnostics base their opinions on emotion rather than fact and say very stupid things when trying to defend their beliefs, which is either amusing or frustrating to Christians, depending on temperament. Unfortunately, by the same token, most Christians are human, and unsurprisingly most people who call themselves Christians base their opinions on emotion rather than fact and say very stupid things when trying to defend their beliefs. Therefore the stereotype of Christians as basing their opinions on emotion rather than fact and stupid is actually a valid generalization, and thus has great power. Every time a Christian behaves in accordance with that generalization, he reinforces the validity of the generalization and increases its power – which is to become a shanda.

Of course, the fact that most Christians base their opinions on emotion rather than fact and say stupid things doesn’t at all mean that Christianity itself is a stupid lie. And of course, while it’s reasonable for an agnostic to see that most Christians say silly things, the same agnostic should also realize that most agnostics say equally silly things – but being an agnostic himself, he isn’t likely to recognize that one. Doesn’t matter. The fact remains that the truth is the most powerful lie, and every Christian shanda makes that particular lie more powerful, because he makes it more true.

We can sum up the chapter, then, in the following points.

· Generalizations are not a bad thing.

· You should not, however, rush to judgment, even though our emotions and self-evident beliefs try to get us to leap to conclusions. Rushing to judgment involves acting on prejudice.

· When you do have to make a decision, you should use the most reliable generalization, even though your emotions and self-evident beliefs may be pushing you toward a less reliable but more agreeable generalization.

· In general, the more narrow and specific a generalization is, the more reliable it is.

· Prejudice happens when self-evident beliefs or emotions push you into either rushing into judgment, or else choosing an unreliable generalization when you could have picked a better one.

· The more truth there is in a negative generalization about a particular group, the more trouble that group is in; and therefore it is important for any group to keep itself as free as possible from shandas.

[1] Or what was playground terminology three or four years ago in central Texas. The playground has its own patois that is in a constant state of rapid evolution, and I’ve been out of the loop a while.
[2] If you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, 38 is definitely middle-aged.
[3] I know there are people who consider this type of episode to be an urban myth, but it didn’t happen to “a friend of a friend.” It happened to me.
[4] As a matter of fact, on the door-holding issue, a sensible man also takes into account the age of the female in question. Thus he uses an even more complicated set of narrow generalizations than the one I’ve described.
[5] In language, the greater your vocabulary, the more precisely and accurately you can think and express yourself.
[6] Returning to the example of cab drivers’ discrimination against Black men: a cab driver has to decide right now whether to pick up the fare, and if he makes the wrong choice he can (and numerous cab drivers every year do) die.
[7] There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns. At a certain point you have to decide that you’re going to go ahead and decide just because you don’t think any more information is going to come your way to change your opinion. But I didn’t want to go off on that tangent, and besides, years ago Thomas Sowell did a much better job than I could do in his Knowledge and Decision.
[8] This example is, as Arab-Americans are all too aware, based on actual events.

Zhenya's story

I posted, some time back, a reminiscence about our college students in Karaganda, and dwelt particularly on our beloved Zhenya. I said at the time that she had sent us her life story. I just got permission from her to tell that story to you -- or rather, to let her tell it, in her own English, as she e-mailed it to Dessie.

Young people like our Zhenya -- this is why we can't stay away from Kazakhstan.


Hello, Dear Dessi!

In the first place, I am so sorry that I could not answer your letter so long. I am really sorry for this.

In the second place, Dessie, thank you very much for every thing you have done for us. It is time now for me to admire you. Really you are a fine woman with a great heart, where you can find a place for all of us. Thanks, that in spite of the fact that you are loaded with work and you have a family, you can have time to write letters to us.

Recently I met Damir: we were walking, that we decided to call in an Internet-café; to check up e-mail. There we read your last letter to Damir. Now I can myself answer your question. So you will know more about me. This is my small, but full and interesting story of my life.

I have not lived with my parents since I was five. My mother was an alcoholic. That is why she was deprived the rights of her children. But we were not taken to an orphanage, because we had been guardian to by my stepfather ( he is a father of my younger brother and sister). ...continue reading...But it happened that parents of my stepfather did not want to take care of me, because I was not a native granddaughter to them. And my stepfather were taking only my brother to them, and I was staying with my mother. My mother was often drinking. She did not take care of me at all. Only a neighbour did. Her name is Lyuda.

Then she began to take me to her home for a week, then she took me more than for a week. Then she moved and took me with her. My mother agreed me to live with Lyuda. I think my mother was likely to by content. Thus I had been living with aunt Lyuda for 7 years. During this period my mother inquired after me only 3-4 times. I even did not know how my mother, stepfather, brother and little sister lived. And they did not know how I did. But sometimes I saw my brother at school as we studied at the same school, but in different day time.

Gradually aunt Lyuda changed her attitude to me. She became rude with me and cruel, did not let me see my family.

Periodically she beat me and did not let me go to school. I was afraid of her very much. That is why I could not make up my mind to leave her, because I knew my native parents did not need me. I would not study there and would do something unknown if I had come back to them.

Aunt Lyuda had a daughter Lena. She was elder than me and got married at young age. As she was rude and cruel with me, I stopped going to school. I began to trade in pies at the age of 11. In the mornings and during all day I also traded in alcoholic drinks.

But once when I went to her work, she was in a bad mood and she beat me hard, then she threw me out and said she need me no more. But she did not think I would really go away.

I left the house and went to her daughter Lena, where I had been living for 6 months, because I have no more place to live in. Then Lena drew all my documents up for taking me to an orphanage, I asked her myself to do that. I wanted to study, and by this time she had two little children.

So I found myself in the orphanage in August 11, 1998. I’d been living there for 5 years, than I left it and entered Teacher's college. On Faculty of Preschool Education.

When I lived in the orphanage, my mother was killed by my stepfather. He was put in prison, brother and sister were taken to different orphanages. I also have an aunt. She is my mother's sister. But I don't do any contacts with her as she is afraid that I will live at the expense of her and ask her for help.

My brother is leaving the orphanage this year, and my little sister will still study for a long time more.

This is the story of my life. Now I answer your another question. At the college I study these subjects: education science, psychology, English and Kazakh languages, speech development methodology, the children literature, maths. There are the first-year subjects.

On the second year I study: defect logy, a special course, economics, philosophy, art methodic, physical education theory, political science. That is all.

Dear Dessie! I miss you very much and want to see you. I am so glad you will be able to come here soon. I am looking forward to our meeting. Dessie, you know, I often remember our conversation. It helped me so much because we could be so closer to each other. And it is cool we can mail letters to each other.

Dear Dessie! I am so grateful to God for meeting such a fine [wo]man as you. Thank you very much for everything. I will not be tired of thanking you a lot of time. But you deserve more.

Last days my studies take all my free time, so I could not answer your first letter. I promise I will improve myself.

Dessie, I am finishing my letter. I am waiting for your letter and I will answer it at once, I promise. Give my best regards to everybody, please.

I kiss you and embrace you strongly.

From Zhenya with Love!

If you would like to be a part of helping Zhenya fulfill her dreams, e-mail me at, or go to

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Black and white in America

Note: philosophical background to this post can be found here, the only problem being that it's a long post.

I spent (as I mentioned several posts back) most of my childhood playing basketball and baseball with black friends; but teenaged boys are not exactly prone to sitting around talking about their relationships, and southeastern Oklahoma high-school sports teams were not hotbeds of political and philosophical discussion. So it was a very educational experience for me to join the Princeton University Gospel Ensemble and spend a year building relationships with a host of intelligent, articulate young black people from all over the political spectrum.

When I think back on my Ensemble experience, two things stick in my mind that I learned.

(1) I learned to sing, and I started to expand my piano skills into the jazz arena of improvising rather than playing from sheet music.

(2) I slowly came to understand what still seems to me to be the thing that separates the experience of American blacks from that of other Americans, especially white Americans. Which is what I want to talk about in this post. ...continue reading...

Now, granted, it may seem obnoxious for a white guy to talk about the black experience...but then numerous black people freely talk about what white people think and feel, and indeed are happy to explain to us that they know how we feel better than we do ourselves. I don't pretend to be speaking for all black people...just passing on what I've observed. I don't even pretend to be speaking for all white people, just for a whole bunch of us.

If you're white in America, and to a large extent if you are non-white in America, you can go for weeks at a time without ever being consciously aware of your own race. If you are black in America, nobody -- least of all other black people -- ever lets you forget it. White people don't understand that black people are forced to be more or less continuously aware of their race. Black people don't generally understand that white people, Asians, etc. think about their own race only occasionally, and then generally because an unusual context has forced them to become aware of it. But -- because our experience with black people has taught us that this is a necessity -- the mere fact that a black person whom we do not know well has entered the room or the conversation, creates a context in which we are forced to be aware of race.

There are all kinds of consequences to this dynamic. I'll just list a few, in no particular order.

1. Most well-meaning non-blacks think that the opposite of "racist" is "color-blind." We are whole-heartedly behind MLK's dream that men will be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. White people of my generation by and large don't see anything wrong with intermarriage (opponents of white/black marriages are overwhelming black, these days); indeed, about the only reason I didn't try to get Tina Smith (a wonderful young lady from the Ensemble) to go out with me back in the day was that I was sure that anybody that beautiful, intelligent and talented was out of my league. (Well, that, and also I had decided not to date until I got out of college, for other reasons.)

But because we can't help but notice that most black people see race everywhere they turn -- since most black people are most definitely not color-blind, whatever other good qualities they may have -- most white people have learned by experience that the most "racist" (i.e., non-color-blind) group of people in America, is the African-American community. We have learned that when you're around Asians, for example, they won't take a perfectly innocent comment and astonish you by reading racist intent into it; you can tell an Asian-American that he's articulate, for example, without having any fear that he will take offense. But around black people, you never know when you're going to accidentally say something they'll take the wrong way. Furthermore, we don't know many Asians who hate white people on principle, or who assume that white people hate them on principle; but we all know black people like Oliver Willis. So we carefully censor our speech whenever we're in the presence of a black person, until we get to know that person well enough to know whether he's reasonable or not. (And if the black person in question is Oliver, we never stop censoring our speech, because he insists precisely that we censor our speech in his presence in order to cater to his idiosyncratic sensitivities. News flash to Oliver: it's no fun to hang out with somebody who lies in wait to trap us in our words and inform us that we're evil, no matter what color he is. Decent people try to think the best of their friends rather than the worst of them. So the fact that we avoid conversation with you, well, that's not because you're black. It's because you're a jerk. There are plenty of black people who are willing to think the best of their friends rather than the worst; and they are welcome in our circle of friends, even if they disagree with us about every subject under the sun.)

In other words, most of us white Americans behave differently around black people (until we get to know them well) than around anybody else. We start with the assumption that people we have just met are generally reasonable...unless they're black, in which case we assume that they are ready to put a vicious interpretation on our most innocent comments. So, black people think that we treat them differently than we treat other people -- and they're quite right. It's a vicious circle.

2. If two white people are disagreeing on politics, they may call each other stupid, evil, callous, enslaved to corporate interests, fascists, commie-lovers, and all kinds of other abusive terms. But if in the middle of it all one of them looks at the other one and says, "No true white person would believe that -- you're not really white, you're just a black man with white skin"...well, then the conversation would end, right there, because the other person would realize, "My God, I'm dealing with an insane person." There are no beliefs that are off-limits to white people because of their skin color, and nobody ever tries to tell a white person that he isn't "really" white. Except for the kook fringe, there aren't even any white people left who will tell another white person, "You're a traitor to your race." White people in America have complete intellectual freedom.

But black people, especially black conservatives, know all too well that there certain opinions that you adopt only on pain of being declared an "Oreo," an "Uncle Tom," and other equally vicious racial epithets -- by other black people intent on stifling specific points of view within the black community. The intellectual freedom white people take for granted, is something available only to black people who freely conform to those views that are acceptable for black people.

3. There's a scene in the tedious movie Waiting to Exhale, fairly early on, where Angela Bassett's husband, a successful businessman, announces he's walking out on her, leaving her and their kids for his secretary. Your sympathies are, of course, entirely with Angela. Then they begin arguing. Now, it probably won't register on the white viewer's consciousness, but Angela's husband is carefully played as a white sellout -- his speaking accent is carefully white, his dress is white, he is succeeding in "The Man's" business world...and we soon find out, thanks to Angela's bitter recrimination, that he's "leaving me for a white woman!" The words are spat out in hatred and contempt.

"Would it make a difference if she were black?" asks Angela's husband angrily.

And with utter hatred and bitterness and contempt, Angela fires back, "It would make a difference if you were black."

And at that point, most of the black audience feels that Angela has just nailed him with a great comeback. But most white people watching...instantly lose sympathy for Angela and start to think, "Well, he's got no business breaking his marriage vows and I'm not excusing that, but I can sure understand why he'd want to get away from this racist bitch."

4. There is of course an immense divide in American opinion concerning the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson. The divide is between black people, who in large numbers think O.J. was innocent, and everybody else, who overwhelmingly thinks that only a complete fool could doubt O.J.'s guilt. This divide is primarily due to the fact that O.J. could be innocent only if an unrealistically large number of white people had spontaneously decided to join in an anti-O.J. conspiracy, with other white people they didn't even know, just to nail the black dude. White people know that's absurd, because we know that even if you were a white guy who wanted to frame O.J., the chances that the other white guys would go along with you are too slim. The white community doesn't think in terms of white-against-black. But a lot of people in the black community found such a conspiracy theory perfectly credible; precisely because a lot of people in the black community do still think in terms of black-versus-white, and refuse to accept that The Man doesn't still hate them. The white community has left Jim Crow behind; many in the black community have not. For white people, especially those in my generation, simply don't think of themselves as self-consciously white the way Jim Crow bigots did; but most people in the black community are still perpetually conscious of themselves as black people.

I'm just rambling here, but I hope you see my basic point: race dominates the experience of black people in America, to an extent the rest of us can't imagine; and a great many black people assume that race dominates our own self-awareness to the same extent it does theirs -- but for many of us race is simply not an aspect of ourselves that we consider significant, any more than we consider the color of our eyes to be significant. My skin is white; well, my eyes are blue. So what? But Oliver could live for five hundred years and never reach the point where he cared as little about the color of people's skin as he cares about the color of their eyes. And as long as black people like Oliver insist on being always thought of as black people rather than just as people ("you can't call him articulate because he's black and that makes it an insult"), the rest of us will, perforce and to our disgust, be forced to continue to pay attention to skin color, as long as that skin is black.

I love this idea

Really. I love it at every level. Let's do it...

...oh, wait, it'll never happen because it would massively deflate the self-importance of congressman, who while in Washington get to have everybody in town pretend the universe revolves around them.

Great idea, though. Too bad we'd have to get Congress to agree to it.

Hat tip: Vodkapundit.

The fear of suffering

Here's the second part of my response to David Allen White's response to Hugh Hewitt's question about human suffering. (The first part was entitled "An old essay on human suffering."

Mr. White observes that "the most obsessive idea in the Modern Age is the avoidance of suffering." In my opinion, this is one of the most important things anybody who wants to understand modern American religion absolutely must grasp. At the heart of the Therapy orientation is the deep-seated conviction (usually never even consciously formulated, much less questioned) that the whole point of religion is to make you feel better. In all of human history there has never been a society less willing than the modern American society to hear Christ say, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, and pick up his cross, and follow me," nor any society less capable of comprehending how the apostles could possibly rejoice that they had been counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ. ...continue reading...

What's more, if you try to point those passages out to a modern American, the odds are good that he won't say, "Oh, maybe I ought not be trying so hard to avoid suffering." He is much more likely either to explain the passages away and refuse to believe that Christianity could really place value on suffering -- or else to believe what you're telling him about Christianity, and therefore instantly condemn the religion with scorn as a religion of sadomasochism. I'm serious; the words sadist and masochist will absolutely come into play...unless, that is, you're dealing with somebody who actually has some training in psychological disorders and therefore knows something about what those words actually mean. The Baby Boomer won't look at you and think, "This man disagrees with me; perhaps I should reconsider my views." He will look at you and think, "That man is a pervert and I can dismiss his views categorically without further thought."

Then he will walk away congratulating himself on how much more open-minded he is than you are.

In 1996 I wrote a very, very long post to a gentleman on, which dealt at great length with the problems posed to theism by the existence of human suffering (as well as other issues). I never got around to actually posting it, and I'm considering resurrecting it for the blog. The only problem is it's so long that it would absolutely overwhelm the blog -- it turned into a full-blown apologetic piece seventy single-spaced pages long complete with a bibliography. I'll try to figure out how I can adapt it for the blog format.

In the meantime: your average American comes at religion in order to make himself feel better. Christianity warns you up front -- Christ warns you up front -- that the way of the Christian is the way of the cross. Therefore a great many American "Christians" invest massive amounts of desperate energy in the attempt to convince themselves that Christianity can "work" for people whose fundamental religious goal is categorically rejected at the outset by Christ himself. It is no surprise, then, that so many Americans take a brief sojourn in the camp of nominal Christianity and then walk away saying, "Christianity just didn't work for me," nor that so many other American "Christians" (both liberal and conservative) have invested such energy in finding ways to explain away all those teachings of Christianity that they find inconvenient or onerous.

Previous posts on human suffering:

An old essay on human suffering
The college students, and a meditation [on suffering]

An old essay on human suffering

David Allen White's response to Hugh Hewitt's question about human suffering struck a deep chord with me, on two levels. I should say, he raised two themes that I think are critically important and that I've written on at length myself, years ago.

First, there was his observation that "the most obsessive idea in the Modern Age is the avoidance of suffering," which is one of the most important things anybody who wants to understand modern (especially Baby Boomer) American religion absolutely must grasp. I'll talk about that in a later post.

But second, he points to the way the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection revolutionizes our understanding of human suffering. I can't tell you how delighted I am to hear somebody else besides myself -- in particular, somebody who, unlike myself, has influence and an audience -- addressing that point. And it reminded me of a column I wrote long ago...probably ten years ago, back in the mid-nineties...for the newsletter for tiny St. James Episcopal Church in Taylor, Texas. Here's that essay.


At this time of year [Christmas and Epiphany], it’s often said that Jesus "wasn’t born the way we would expect God to be born," meaning that we would expect God to be born in a palace, as befits his rank. It seems to me, however, that in at least one sense Jesus’ miserable birth, in a stable at midwinter to impoverished, politically oppressed, socially despised parents was exactly what we should have expected. ...continue reading...

Different men reject Christ for different reasons. In this column we’re interested in those people who refuse to be a Christian because they don’t like the way God has chosen to do things; they have a grievance against God. Of these, the most noble are those who complain, not of how God has treated them personally, but of how God has treated others — those, in other words, who hold that since evil and suffering exist, God does not.

Now this argument against God actually has two parts. One part is rational; it consists of the arguments that claim to prove that God and evil are incompossible. (To steal Ambrose Bierce’s definition of incompossible: "Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man." I consider this the most amusing of all attempts to disprove God’s existence by appeal to human suffering.) If God is to win the soul of the atheist, He must refute these arguments, and that is why He created people like St. Thomas and C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.

But the rational arguments are not what really matters. The complaint against God does not begin with logic. The caring atheist does not look at a suffering child and calmly deduce that he should be outraged. No, he looks at the suffering child, feels outraged, and shapes his outrage into the form of logical arguments. The idea, "No caring God would allow this," is not something we figure out by thinking rationally. It is an instinct, or, to use technical language, a direct judgment. And no matter how clearly you show the holes in his arguments, the compassionate atheist will continue to believe that no caring God would allow such suffering. For he believes it, not because his logic demonstrates it, but because his indignation demands it. The logic trots along behind the indignation, not the other way around.

Now the indignation comes, not from a belief that God is powerless (if He were, who could blame Him for allowing suffering?), but because He "doesn’t care." And I think that the image behind that is something like this: "God’s in His heaven, even though all’s wrong with the world." We want to know what kind of smug Being would sit comfortably on a celestial throne and gaze unconcernedly on the misery of an innocent child. If He cared, wouldn’t He be driven to act? Wouldn’t He be driven to end the suffering?

Now the cure for this feeling of outrage only begins when we recognize a curious fact. A person can help end the suffering of another without caring about him at all; if, for example, God wanted to show off His nobility, He could end suffering and congratulate Himself on His "compassion," even if He didn’t care tuppence about us. It’s perfectly true that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; we must not forget the new heaven and new earth that await us. But first God did something even more compassionate than ending our suffering. Before He ended it, He stooped down and shared it.

The atheist’s true answer is the life of Christ. Is it outrageous to see an infant born into extreme poverty? You bet. And what is God’s answer? "She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger." Is it obscene that a child should suffer degradation because his parents are thought to have sinned? Absolutely; think, for example, of what it meant for a Jewish boy to be referred to as "Jesus, son of Mary (since we don’t know who his father is, heh, heh)." Are we sickened by political oppression — such as the Roman oppression of the Jews? Or by brutal physical and mental torture, such as ripping the flesh off a man’s back and spitting in his face and hurling insults in his broken teeth? Or, most of all, by the murder of an innocent man? From Calvary come the words of the dying thief: "This man has done nothing wrong."

The atheist will never be convinced until his moral outrage has been appeased. And I know of no way to appease it except by the observation of Dorothy Sayers, that though the reasons that God’s rules allow sufferings are beyond our understanding, still "God plays by His own rules." For the eyes of every suffering child are the eyes of Christ, who two thousand years ago was born in a stable, "because there was no room in the inn."

UPDATE: Welcome, Hugh Hewitt and company. I'm afraid the quality of my posting is wildly erratic. In case you're wondering, we did successfully manage to get our last two girls adopted, though it was a tremendous struggle, and they're still in Kazakhstan pending immigration approval (and our ability to come up with money for the airfare home). The whole saga is blogged at length in a series of posts; there's a master post that walks you through the whole story one post a time, but if you just want to read the most important post in the saga, that would be Two stories. I'd also be very grateful if you could read Zhenya's story.

Oh, and one more thing: any post of mine whose title ends in "...Dept.," is silliness of some sort.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Charlie Weis, you might even make me cheer for Notre Dame

Could I cheer for Notre Dame, now? Alas, probably not...the combination of sanctimonious self-righteousness and insatiable greed that Notre Dame has displayed over the past decade, is a lot for me to overlook. But this story at least makes it pretty much impossible for me to cheer against Charlie Weis. Consider that:

(1) The kid would never have known.

(2) When Weis made the promise, he didn't know the Irish would start at their own one-yard line.

There is no gap between what Weis says and what he does. And I can't think of many higher compliments I can give a man.

UPDATE: Welcome, Hugh Hewitt and company. I'm afraid the quality of my posting is wildly erratic. In case you're wondering, we did successfully manage to get our last two girls adopted, though it was a tremendous struggle, and they're still in Kazakhstan pending immigration approval (and our ability to come up with money for the airfare home). The whole saga is blogged at length in a series of posts; there's a master post that walks you through the whole story one post a time, but if you just want to read the most important post in the saga, that would be Two stories. I'd also be very grateful if you could read Zhenya's story.

Oh, and one more thing: any post of mine whose title ends in "...Dept.," is silliness of some sort.

Two more stories

I started a post on race in America, and then it reminded me of a story, which I told, and that reminded me of another story, which I also told, and by that time I had completely ruined my post about race in America, having strayed too far from my point to be able to find my way back to it. So I've decided to put them in separate posts. This one's the one with the stories. They are not edifying, just mildly entertaining.

I grew up playing basketball, and in McAlester, Oklahoma, basketball was a black kids' game. White guys played baseball and football, not basketball. My best friend in middle school was the son of the president of the local chapter of the NAACP; his cousin was J. C. Watts, who spent some time as the Sooner quarterback and some more time as one of Oklahoma's Congressmen; and when I walked onto the Princeton University campus I spoke, all in a deep redneck drawl, a mixture of hillbilly Okie and housing-project slang (but with the profanity cleaned out because my parents didn't like it and I loved my parents). I still remember the look of disbelief on my Boston roomate's face the first time I leaned back on our dormroom couch and moaned aloud, "Aw, man, my foots is killin' me." ...continue reading...

I was deadly at the game of "Twenty-One" because I could hit a quick-release pull-up jumper anywhere from twenty feet in, and I shot better than 90% from the free throw line. Well, one day halfway through my senior year in high school, after basketball practice was officially over, about ten of my buddies and I were (as usual) still playing Twenty-One, and I needed only four points to win the game. Also as usual, I was the only white guy on the court. I yanked down a rebound and escaped to the perimeter, and then our point guard (who, I kid you not, went by the nickname "Tootsie") yelled out, "Can't let the Stringer score, he's at 17," and charged out to d-up on me.

And before I thought what I was saying, I cocked my head on one side with a crooked grin and drawled exactly what any of them would have said in such a situation: "Niggah, PLEASE!"

The moment the words came out of my mouth I thought, appalled, "I did NOT really just say that...tell me I did NOT really just SAY that. Holy crap, I think I did just say that." But the effect was not at all what I would have expected. Every one of my teammates collapsed in gales of hysterical laughter, partly at my having said such a thing, but I suspect especially at the look of horror that I know must have been on my face.

Later, I said to Tootsie, "Listen, man, I'm sorry about that nigger thing; and it was nice of you guys to think it was funny instead of getting mad." He just grinned and laughed and said, "Oh, hell, Kenny everybody knows you're not a racist and you don't care what color people are." Then his face sobered. "But if Tank [the other white guy on our team] had said that, I'da beat the livin' shit out of him."

And that reminds me of one other story. Years later, as a late-twenties father of three young kids who had just moved into the small Texas town of Elgin, I escaped the house one Saturday afternoon and went looking for a game. I eventually found a court down at the elementary school, and there were two members of the local high school team -- both black -- playing Twenty-One. I asked if I could join them; and they looked at each other, and then at this not-quite-six-foot 140-pound over-the-hill EXTREMELY white guy, and then back at other; and they snickered; and then said, "Sure."

Halfway through the fourth subsequent game, with neither of them having managed to reach 11 in any of the first three games, I shaked-and-baked one guy on the perimeter and then blew past the other kid to the rim for another bucket. The perimeter guy yelled something derogatory at the second fellow, who slammed the ball onto the concrete in disgust and fired back, "What you talkin' 'bout? That nigger's done beat us three times!"

I'm not sure I've ever gotten a higher compliment...but be that as it may, I'm certainly sure of this: if you had ever asked me if there was anything I was 100% sure my so-blond self would never in my life get called, I think I'd've had to say, "Well, I'm pretty safe from ever gettin' called a nigger..."

Mea culpa, Jim

My fellow adoptive parent and PAKK friend Jim, was displeased by my post "The tragedy of too much warning;" he felt that my "comments about New Orleans people not rising to the challenge" required refutation, and added presciently, "I think more often then not, the media focused on the tragedy, and not the heroic efforts of people who were truly first responders."

Well, Jim, you have my official permission to call me a gullible moron. I don't suppose there's much particularly wrong with my logic, but boy, did I ever have my premises wrong: all the stuff I was trying to explain, turned out to be pretty much the figment of the highly irresponsible news media's fertile imagination. It's not just that the media focused on the tragedy: it's that great big chunks of the tragedy were made up out of whole cloth.

I also apologize to the citizens of New Orleans. Let's see, a group of people whom I already know to be liars, exaggerators and professional histrionists, make wild and lurid accusations about people about whom I know nothing at all. To whom should I give the benefit of the doubt? "The media" -- um, sorry, Peril, wrong answer. What happened to all my pious blatherings about how, "There's a critical rule in life: whenever somebody tells you something really bad about somebody else who isn't there, you always -- always -- assume that you don't yet know the whole story"? Oh, that's right, I had to delete the post in which I thusly pontificated...good thing, too, because if it were still on the blog people would be able to tell that I'm a hypocrite.

Jim, if we ever meet in person, I owe you a drink for being right. And I owe most of the people of New Orleans a drink for believing vicious slanders about them...though I don't think I'll buy 'em that drink because I don't know how they'd all manage to share it.

One True God Blog

There's a new blog on the blogroll, OneTrueGodBlog (hat tip: All Things Beautiful). Its founder is Hugh Hewitt, who complains here that he's still trying to find a liberal contributor, and prints an e-mail from somebody who's concerned that the title will scare liberals away.

The concern is valid, but I don't think the author of the letter understands the true root of the problem. The divide between theological liberalism and conservatism is not a disagreement about fact, and it's not really an argument about government-sponsored religious persecution. It is a clash of fundamental metaphor, made much worse by the fact that almost nobody who writes about religion is aware of the degree to which his thoughts and feelings about religion -- and those of others -- are shaped by the metaphorical substratum.

Hugh and the contributors who have posted so far, are clearly from the Fact camp; while liberals come at religion from a Therapy perspective. What the liberal objects to is fundamentally the idea that religious truth is objective rather than subjective -- that is, that one should adopt religious beliefs because they are true or false rather than because they "work for me." Hugh and his contributors are going to approach questions of religion as if they were addressing a question of science: what are the facts? What is the truth? But liberals come at questions of religion as if they were in a therapy session: what approach works for me? How do I get the results I'm looking for? And they feel passionately that it is downright immoral to talk as though religion had "truth," in the sense that Fact-oriented thinkers mean the word.

What I want to emphasize is that your typical liberal or conservative has not looked at the various available metaphors and decided that the Therapy perspective or the Fact perspective or the Family perspective is the most appropriate. Each of us has typically been raised within a particular religious metaphor, and while we may switch from one religion to another, we very rarely indeed switch from one metaphor to another. The metaphorical choice is, in short, usually not a choice that has been made well, because it usually isn't our choice at all -- it's the result of our cultural programming. But the metaphorical choice is the most fundamental choice we make -- Family-oriented Kazakh Muslims and Family-oriented Kazakhstani Russian Orthodox are fundamentally closer to each other than either is to Fact-oriented evangelical Christians or Wahabbi Muslims; and much closer to each other than are Fact-oriented Episcopalians and the Therapy-oriented bishops of the Episcopal Church of the USA. Fact-oriented Christianity and Therapy-oriented Christianity are two different religions; insofar as they use similar words, they use them with radically different meanings (both denotation and connotation). It is precisely this fact that causes Therapy-oriented politicians like Al Gore to consider that Fact-oriented Christians like Dubya are "the same thing" as fundamentalist Muslim terrorists -- the word "fundamentalist" in the mouth of a Therapist means Fact-oriented. And the one thing a Therapy-oriented American is absolutely convinced is evil, is a Fact orientation in religion. Muslem terrorists can be thought of as freedom-fighters, but a "fundamentalist" is (shudder) intolerant. And "intolerant" here doesn't mean, "When you disagree with him, he burns you alive." It means, "When you disagree with him, he thinks you're actually wrong."

I've gone over this ground in detail earlier and won't revisit it. The basic concept of the religious metaphor is set out in "The metaphor wars," and I explore the various metaphors, and the way people from different metaphorical camps interact with each other, in "Defusing religious conflict." For, as you can see from the very title, "Defusing religious conflict," I'm most interested in finding ways across the communication barrier that, I firmly believe, is responsible for a high percentage of the hard feelings (and worse!) that arise from religious disagreement.

But before I stop, let's look at the actual words of the person who is uncomfortable with the title of Hugh's blog:

It ["One True God"] is in mainstream church conversation a bit of a "shock" phrase and for many of us -- and truly, many of my liberal friends would not consider me all that much of a liberal--- that phrase "One True God" is a code word for judgemental, exclusive, religion.

You see that "mainstream" is, for this person, essentially defined as Therapy-oriented (the writer, bless his/her heart, doesn't realize that mainstream Christianity, meaning the Christianity of the last two thousand years and the Christianity held by the overwhelming majority of present-day Christians worldwide, is unquenchably Fact-oriented, which shows a touchingly naive theological provincialism on the writer's part). The writer honestly doesn't consider himself/herself "all that much of a liberal," -- but then can't even finish the sentence without the giveaway terminology "code word," "judgemental," and "exclusive." It would be trivial to point out that all of these words have strongly negative connotations, and that their use represents the passing of judgment and the condemnation of the religious tradition thereby judged. What's more important is the fact that whenever you see such language, you are always dealing with a Therapy- or Family-oriented person who is condemning the Fact perspective.

But the writer absolutely captures the fundamental truth: no decent Therapy- or Family-oriented religious person would ever use the phrase "One True God," because the very phrase is to the Therapy- and Family-oriented an evil phrase -- a "shock phrase," a phrase that generates an instant, non-rational, visceral antagonism. By naming his blog what he has named it, Hugh has declared his allegiance to the Fact orientation. And that's going to make it rather difficult for him to get the Therapy-oriented to join in, except in tones of condemnation.

UPDATE (27 September 2005): When I first worked out this theory of underlying religious metaphor, I used the term "Truth orientation" rather than "Fact orientation." I have been uncomfortable for a long time with the term "Truth orientation," because the word truth is one of the words that means either of two radically different things, depending upon whether the person using it comes from a Therapy perspective or a Fact perspective. Driving to the coffee shop this morning it suddenly occurred to me that "Fact" would be a more accurate, and much less ambiguous, designation than is "Truth." Mr. Data, make it so! (That's not a Star Trek reference; it's a TMQ reference.)

Enjoying Jess's blog

My hilarious young friend Jessica Lugo has stopped sending out her periodic e-mails, and instead is now blogging. Let's look for a moment at one of her recent posts.

She wishes to tell the story of how the kitchen faucet malfunctioned, and how her and her roommates' attempts to solve the problem just made things worse. But she is handicapped by the fact that, not being a plumber, she doesn't know the names of the various parts of a kitchen faucet. So she insouciantly makes up names for the parts she doesn't know (e.g., "feebus" and "furbus") and sails right on along with her story. "She comes in and starts to turn it too except the feebus detaches!...Linds moves her hand off the furbus and a geyser of water shoots up..."

Thing is, the child is a good enough writer that her story is perfectly clear and understandable even though she's telling it using words she just made up off the top of her head. (I suppose it says something about my age, this referring to college sophomores as "children"...)

So, anyway, head over to Jess from Texas, read a couple of week's worth of archives to catch up and get to know her, and start enjoying her acquaintance.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

"Where the Entertainers Are Queens and the Politicians Are Entertaining" Dept

The crack young staff of "The Hatemonger's Quarterly" -- let's call them "Chip" -- are monitoring the shenanigans of British politicians on our behalf. The U.K. is clearly pulling away in the looney pol department, and that's not even counting George Galloway.

"Since You Asked..." Dept

My beloved St. Luke's on the Lake, like many large churches, has a separate children's service on Sunday mornings, called "Rite K." At the beginning of the main service, the officiating priest calls the elementary-school children to the front, talks to them briefly, and then sends them off to Rite K.

So last week, Fr. Mike calls the children to the front as usual, and begins by asking them, "Tell me, kids -- what's your favorite thing about Rite K?"

One kindergartener obligingly chirps, "Well, we don't have to listen to the sermon."

All my evacuees are fine

All "my" evacuees came through Rita in style. They were in the northwest part of Houston, and they were far enough west that they didn't even lose power. The big grocery stores start opening up tomorrow afternoon, and they all have food, water and gasoline to get them through until then. So the crisis is past and they all made it through.

I'll sleep easy tonight.

By the way, this all worked out just beautifully for us -- we get full credit for being willing to take an extra sixteen people into the apartment where we already keep our family of eight, and they are all quite absurdly grateful to us...but since none of them made it out of Houston, we didn't have to put up with any of the annoyance of actually having them in the flat. I highly recommend that, whenever possible, you arrange to get credit for generosity without actually having to do anything. Very highly efficient way to rack up relational capital...

Saturday, September 24, 2005

An actual hurrican evacuation plan

Okay, this is a 100% serious proposal, albeit one in need of some fleshing-out.

I start with the following assumptions about the ideal evacuation plan.

1. If there were people who wanted to leave and couldn't, those people would be in relatively safe areas rather than relatively dangerous ones.

2. As many people as possible would get out.

Now, if you want as many people as possible to get out, then clearly you have to keep congestion low, and this means that you would prefer a high ratio of escapees to vehicles. You also do not want some roads to be overutilized while other roads are underutilized. And you want to unleash the creativity of the private individual, which, as Wal-Mart has shown us, is generally much more effective than government action.

So here is my plan, using the Rita evacuation as an example.

1. When you register to vote in an area that may require evacuation, you are assigned to an evacuation group, and given a placard that you can hang from your rearview mirror when evacuation is necessary. For example, Galveston, Texas City, and downtown Houston would represent three different evacuation groups. (In Texas I'd want to try to make use of the EZPass infrastructure that allows a car to drive through a checkpoint at 60 mph and be recognized and identified as a specific car associated with a specific credit card.)

2. Official evacuation routes are defined in advance and signposted, and also are divided into clearly marked sections. For example, I-45 from Galveston to Dallas would be an official evacuation route, divided into one section from Galveston to the FM 1764 intersection near Texas City, another section from FM 1764 to I-10, and another section from I-10 to Buffalo, etc.

3. When an evacuation threat arises, the government prioritizes evacuation groups and declares an evacuation schedule. Anybody who wants to evacuate may evacuate whenever they want -- but only if they use some road other than the official evacuation routes. This, as you perceive, maximizes the use of alternate evacuation routes and helps minimize the sort of inefficiency that allowed me to go to Austin in five hours on back roads while others were taking twenty on the official routes. The evacuation routes are counterflowed as soon as the schedule kicks in, except for one lane (marked off with cones) for emergency vehicles; and the driver of any vehicle on an official evacuation route without the appropriate placard gets a stiff fine.

From 12:00 Tuesday to 14:00 Tuesday: I-45 south of I-10 is counterflowed; northbound Galveston evacuees only on I-45 south of I-10.
From 14:00 Tuesday to 20:00 Tuesday: I-45 south of Buffalo is counterflowed; northbound Galveston evacuees only on I-45 south of Buffalo.
From 20:00 Tuesday to 04:00 Wednesday: I-45 south of Dallas is counterflowed; northbound Galveston, Texas City and League City evacuees only on I-45 south of Dallas.
From 04:00 Wednesday to 14:00 Wednesday: northbound evacuees from Pearland, La Porte, and points south only.
From 14:00 Wednesday to 10:00 Thursday: northbound traffic only, for anybody who wants to head north.

4. For any particular evacuation, placards may be leased on the open market for the duration of the evacuation. That is, a person may sell his right to evacuate with a high-priority group, to a person in a lower-priority group.

The last provision may seem outrageously "unfair," but note that its primary effect is to reduce the number of small vehicles on the road and to give private individuals an incentive to bring in large vehicles (e.g. buses) and evacuate those unable or unwilling to drive.

Example 1: I have a Suburban and I intend to evacuate League City to go stay with friends in Austin. My neighbor is an elderly individual whose son lives in Austin and is planning to drive down and get him. Instead, I offer to take my neighbor with me. We auction my neighbor's placard off on e-bay (or, for that matter, on a state-run electronic exchange) and split the proceeds. The person who bought our placard gets to evacuate early; so the people who are really panicked or for other reasons are especially desperate to leave, can go ahead and buy a placard and leave. Meanwhile my neighbor's son's car stays in Austin, and the traffic load is reduced by one vehicle.

Example 2: I show up in Texas City with a tour bus, in a section of town where a lot of people don't have cars, or where gas shortages are making it difficult for people to buy gas. I collect forty people, use one placard, and auction off the other thirty-nine, thus performing a public service and making a profit in the bargain.

Note that the more dangerous the storm is perceived to be, the more valuable the placards become, and the more incentive private individuals have to get people out while conserving placards -- that is, to get people evacuated while minimizing the congestion on the roads.

Okay, comments? I have put only about twenty minutes of thought into this; you're getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, because I've only just started playing with this idea.

UPDATE: In order to avoid having people in Galveston, say, sell all their rights forward for ten years and then not be legally allowed to leave in a mandatory evacuation, I think we need to say that the declaration of a mandatory evacuation causes all evacuation rights to revert to the original which point they can go back to selling them, but only if they evacuate (that is, if they find some way out other than their own car, and they go ahead and leave). If you stay in a mandatory evacuation zone, then your evacuation rights are cancelled and you have to give the money back to anybody to whom you sold them. You can sell your rights forward, but anybody buying the rights knows that they lose the right if you move out of the evacuation zone or if a mandatory evacuation in your zone is declared; thus far-forward rights would be very steeply discounted, killing most trading out further than the next hurricane season.

Also the more I think about it the more I realize that this doesn't work well without EZTag-type technology, and that you would need an evacuation rights on-line exchange. I'm in the field of mission-critical software consulting myself, though (trading software, as a matter of fact), and while I wouldn't be one of the bidders for the contract, I can absolutely say that it's quite feasible to set up such an exchange. You're basically talking about a market in evacuation rights similar to markets in emissions allowances -- each "right" gets a serial number, etc.

More on intent, implication and inference

Just thought I should spell out some rules for useful and candid discussion of potentially loaded subjects. I referred to those rules by implication in my previous post, but didn't spell them out.

1. Words and phrases carry connotations due to the way they've been used historically, and those connotations can be in outright conflict with the strict denotation of the word or phrase. It is quite true that Southern racists have historically been capable of complimenting "articulate" black men in a tone of voice that clearly implies that black men are in general unusually inarticulate; and such a compliment is offensive. But it of course doesn't change the fact that persons who are not Southern racists almost certainly have never used the word "articulate" as anything but a compliment. That set of connotations is a historical accident associated with the particular experiences of a limited group of people.

2. Because different groups of people have different experiences with the same words and phrases, the connotations can vary dramatically, making it practically impossible for a human being to utter any sentence remotely relevant to anything controversial that somebody won't find offensive. For example, Ann Althouse finds it offensive for John Roberts to use sports analogies, because feminists of Ann's (and my) generation are accustomed to perceiving the male use of sports analogies as betraying insensitivity to and disrespect for women. Ann appears to think that Roberts should tell himself, "There will be ladies listening; so I need to avoid sports analogies, since sports are a guy thing." But my young friend Vanessa would find it outrageously offensive and sexist and patronising for Roberts to avoid the use of sports analogies when in the presence of The Weaker Non-Sports-Playing Sex; feminists of her Title-IX generation find the idea that sports are a guy thing to be intrinsically sexist and offensive. So when it comes to the use of sports analogies, Roberts is damned (by Ann) if he does and damned (by Vanessa) if he doesn't.

3. It is the primary responsibility of any well-meaning speaker to express himself with clarity, so that the audience can see precisely what points he is making.

4. Along with this, it is the responsibility of any well-meaning speaker to consider the audience to whom he is speaking, and, if he is aware of any connotations that would render a particular phrase painful or offensive to his audience, to avoid those phrases if other phrases are available. But of course, this assumes that the audience is a reasonably homogenous audience. Where the audience is highly diverse, different sections of the audience will react differently to different phrases, and it becomes more and more difficult for any speaker to find a phrasing that both communicates his point clearly, and keeps from accidentally poking sore points in some portion of the audience. Therefore the more diverse the audience, the more the speaker's responsibility shifts toward clarity of expression and away from inoffensiveness of phrasing. A person speaking to a single individual whose personal history he knows well, can certainly be expected to avoid sore topics and to cater to his friend's pet peeves. A person speaking to the entire nation cannot be asked to avoid everybody's pet peeves at once; it's absurd for Ann to expect John Roberts to pay slavish deference to her pet peeves when by doing so he will violate Vanessa's.

4. But it is the responsibility of any well-meaning listener who hears a word or phrase that could be considered offensive, to take into account the speaker's history and apparent intent, and if there is no good reason to consider the speaker malicious, the listener has no business taking offense. And the broader the audience to whom the speaker addresses himself, the less right the listener has to expect the speaker to cater to the listener's own pet peeves and to the idiosyncratic sensitivies of the listener's subculture.

In the particular case of Captain Ed and Oliver, Oliver has (apparently) a list of compliments that he has heard used as disguised insults, and that he therefore finds offensive in the mouths of white people. On the other hand, most white people of good intent genuinely believe that the opposite of "racist" is "color-blind," and that to have a list of compliments that can only be applied to people who aren't black, is itself to be racist. Therefore if Captain Ed calls a black politician "articulate," Oliver damns the Captain as racist; if Captain Ed refuses to call the man articulate because he's black, others will condemn the Captain for his racism (i.e., his lack of color-blindness).

What the Captain has decided to do is perfectly reasonable for a person addressing the entire, astonishingly diverse American nation, and it is exactly what Roberts decided to do: he said what he wanted to say as clearly as he could, and if people from particular special-interest groups wanted to use the Captain's/Roberts's phrasing as an excuse to be snarky, then they were welcome to their snarkiness, which snarkiness says considerably more about them than it says about the Captain/Roberts. The Captain thinks that Steele is exceptionally articulate (not "for a black guy," but "for a politician," as would agree anybody who had to listen to the Senators' questioning of Roberts); so he said so. If Oliver wants to get his panties in a wad, well, that's his right in America, where even the stupidest speech is free, and where you're free to dislike anybody you want to dislike whether you have any good reason to or not. But there is simply no way Oliver can credibly argue that the Captain intended his remarks in a racist sense. Therefore Oliver fails, dramatically, to fulfill the responsibility of the well-meaning listener in responsible discussion.

Which, to anyone who has read more than about five of Oliver's posts, is anything but a surprise.