Saturday, October 17, 2009

Things That Are Not Rights

- You do not have a right not to be upset or disturbed by troubling news.

- You do not have a right to not be inconvenienced.

- You do not have a right to be trusted or presumed honest.

- You do not have a right to be believed at face value.

- You do not have a right to question someone else's beliefs when you've never questioned your own.

- Unless you invented the game, you do not have the right to make up your own rules.

- You do not have the right to never be presented with information or situations that challenge your beliefs or intellect.

- You do not have the right to act as though an untested belief was true.

- You do not have the right to tell someone how to pronounce his name, nor how to spell her child's name.

- You do not have the right to tell an adult not to do something because 'your parents won't like it'.

- You do not have the right to tell a child that isn't related to you that either doing or not doing something is 'bad' or makes them a 'bad person'. (And even if the child is related, unless it's yours, you should consider still following this advice.)

- You do not have the right to give advice to people whose advice you do not consider.

- You do not have the right to a full explanation of why someone doesn't like you.

- You do not have the right to be automatically treated as though you know what the fuck you're talking about.

- Unless you made the rules, you do not have the right to interpret them. (Depending on the situation, however, you may have the privilege of interpreting them, but don't mistake this for being presumed correct in your interpretation.)

- If you do something in public, you do not have the right to avoid criticism for it.

- No matter how many nice things you've done in your life, you do not have the right to be assumed to be a nice person.

- You do not have the right to treat someone with scorn or anger when the same request can be made politely.

- You do not have the right to blow off requests and expect that people will still treat you politely.

- You do not have the right to assert someone's belief is wrong without proof of your assertion.

- You do not have the right to present an easily falsifiable belief as true, no matter how good it makes you feel.

- You do not have the right to compliment someone if you are aware that person does not wish a compliment.

- You do not have the right to speak one way about someone when she is present, another way when she is absent, and expect to be thought morally or ethically consistent.

- Unless you are the person who paid for the entire pizza, you do not have a right to the last slice.

- You do not have a right to say offensive things and still be thought wise.

- You do not have the right to see anyone's tattoo unless you also have the right to forbid that person from getting a tattoo. The same is true of toenail polish, undergarments, and sexual partners.

- You do not have the right to make decisions you know nothing about.

- You do not have the right to reduce your portion of the bill because you think someone else's tip is too large.

- You do not have the right to get something for nothing.

- You do not have the right to avoid the consequences of your actions.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Nobel Hall of Fame

Since U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, political organizations all over the United States, and to a lesser degree the world, have been abuzz with the news. Much of the conversation in the U.S. has revolved around the question of whether or not Obama 'deserved' to win the award.

It turns out that this is one of those times in life where being a sports fan actually helps you with a non-sports-related life situation: having listened to arguments, rants, and out-and-out denunciations of various sports award winners over the years, I can say with confidence that the people discussing whether or not Obama deserves the Peace Prize are missing the point: being deserving has very little to do with receiving an award.

Consider a less significant award, such as baseball's Cy Young award or college football's Heisman Trophy. One of a number of different scenarios may apply:

- There may be one candidate who achieves general acceptance that he should win the award. In almost every case, this candidate does end up winning the award without controversy. If for some reason this candidate does not win the award, controversy inevitably results.

- There may be two or more candidates seen as equally qualified to win the award. One of these candidates will generally win the award, but if there are only two such candidates, and their support breaks nearly down the center of the population doing the evaluation for the award, the award may be awarded to 'co-winners' for that given period, usually to avoid controversy, which otherwise almost always occurs.

- There may be no candidates seen as obviously qualified to win the award, yet the award must still be given out. Someone will be chosen, for reasons which either may be revealed or may be left to the imagination, and there will inevitably be controversy over which candidate was chosen and why.

Even in the first scenario above, where there's a single candidate that nearly everyone agrees should win the award, it's not a question of that candidate 'deserving' to win (though supporters will often use the word when describing the candidate and the award). To borrow a concept from Bill James (discussing the baseball Hall of Fame), awards exist to honor the individuals thus awarded. To say that someone deserves a specific honor is a very difficult thing, especially given that most awards are pretty vague as to what it is they are honoring. (For example, nearly every annual sports award is given to the 'best' practitioner of a given sport in that year, usually without defining what 'best' is supposed to mean. How can you say someone 'deserves' to be honored as the best player of a given sport when you can't really even say what is meant to say that a given player is the best?)

Given this, I find that getting all worked up over whether or not Obama 'deserves' the Nobel Peace Prize is about as sensible as getting worked up over whether or not Joe Mauer 'deserves' the American League MVP award; whether or not someone wins an award doesn't change what they've done or what their goals are. Johan Santana was no less admired as a starting pitcher for not being awarded the 2005 American League Cy Young award, nor did winning the Peace Prize in 2002 mean that Jimmy Carter's diplomatic work in Haiti was considered more significant than the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

Whether or not someone 'deserves' an award is irrelevant. If you agree, celebrate. If you disagree, congratulate the winner and then bitch to your friends. Preferably in private.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Do It Yourself Reification

I spent some time a few years back talking about my postmodernist worldview, and within that discussion talked a bit about reification: the creation of human items (physical, psychological, philosophical) and then the subsequent 'forgetting' that those items were made by humans. It's a weird game, but it's played almost constantly in our culture, though it's hard sometimes to tell whether or not the people doing the reification are actually forgetting the human-derived nature of their sacred cows, or they're simply ignoring it in the hopes that their ideas will seem more powerful if they're thought to be eternal verities handed down by the ages.

One interesting thing to note, though: people on the American political right wing tend to be either really bad (or really good, depending on how you define it) at reifying their belief systems.

Case in point: small-government conservatives and the 'intent of the Founders'. It's a little bit of a stretch to put folks as relatively disparate as Ron Paul, Grover Norquist, and Bill O'Reilly into a bucket as 'small government conservatives', though they do seem to share that general belief. They also seem to share a belief that such an opinion is not only Constitutional (Paul in particular is very keen on arguing that many government programs of the 20th and 21st centuries are unconstitutional, based on little more than his understanding of the Founding Fathers), but opposed to the very spirit of the men who banded together to craft that founding document. The Constitution, to their minds, is a small-government manifesto.

Except that, if you actually look at early American history following the Revolutionary War, you find that this isn't strictly true. Yes, the men who gathered in Philadelphia for the so-called Constitutional Convention were leery of unbridled executive power, having just fought a war to free themselves from the perceived oppression of the British crown, but the former colonies at the time were operating under an organizing document called the Articles of Confederation, in which ultimate power was vested in the governments of the various colonies-turned-states, and the whole reason the gathering was taking place was because of the realization that a confederation of states simply wasn't working as a system of interstate governance.

Granted, not everyone at the Convention was as gung-ho about federalism as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the two men who were the primary authors of the Federalist Papers that both helped define and promote the Constitution during its ratification period, but the people who showed up in Philadelphia recognized that the Articles of Confederation weren't working, became convinced that something else was needed to balance powers between the states, and realized that the best tool to balance states against one another was a plenary federal power.

Those who disagreed? They stayed away. The state of Rhode Island, afraid that the Constitutional Convention would abrogate their powers, boycotted both the convention and refused to ratify the subsequent Constiution. One could make a joke about the size and stature of Rhode Island as an independent state, but...

One notable absentee was Patrick Henry, he of the famous 'if this be treason, make the most of it' line (though ironically, at the time that comment was made, Henry apologized for it). Henry was one of the most well-known anti-federalists (only fellow Virginian anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson would likely be considered more famous at the time); he both agitated against the ratification of the Constitution and then, once it became obvious that the Constitution would pass, lobbied to add the Bill of Rights as the original Constitutional amendments. However, by the end of the 18th century, Henry's anti-federalist opinions had changed (it is said primarily due to the excesses of the French Revolution), and he even spoke out against Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions which specifically sought to limit the scope of federal Congressional power as defined by the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson is likely the most famous anti-federalist in the early American political landscape, writing both the Declaration of Independence from England and the aforementioned Kentucky Resolutions. His absence from the Constitutional Convention, though, was not so much a philosophical difference with the aims of the convention (he was good friends with Madison, who would keep Jefferson updated of the proceedings by post) as because he was actually in France serving as American ambassador. While Jefferson continued to write and argue against what he considered to be liberties taken on behalf of federal power (even going so far as to repeal federal taxes once elected President in 1801), he also exercised significant federal power himself, working with Congress to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France and passing the Embargo Act of 1807 in the hopes of convincing Britain to respect American naval power. From this, one could argue that all anti-federalists are actually federalists when the chips are down.

In short, very few men involved in the drafting of the Constitution were interested in creating a crippled federal government, and the few who fought against the expanded federal role at the time either recanted or made use of those powers when convenient. Hardly the shining example of small government heroics I'd have expected given the right's reification of the Founders in general, and Jefferson in particular.

Another somewhat bizarre example of the right's seeming need to invent things and forget that they invented them can be seen at the somewhat awkwardly named wiki site Conservapedia: The Conservative Bible Project. Everything you really need to know about the project can be summed up in its first sentence:

Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations.

To which I reply: huh?

The project seems to be deriving its impetus as an alternate translation to the King James Version of the Bible, one of the most oft-printed texts in human history. Their ideas on what needs to be changed, though, seem a bit off.

Let's begin with their first beef with the 'liberal translations' of the Bible (by which I infer that they're talking about texts like the New American Standard edition and the New International Version; to avoid these problems, I'll use the online Skeptic's Annotated Bible where I don't have access to someone's direct translation): that 'liberals' have added words to or mistranslated words in the Bible to support their political agenda. The specific example they give is Luke 23:34, where Jesus says, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," as the soldiers crucifying him throw dice to determine who got to keep his discarded clothing. Conservapedia suggests that the 'liberal' modification of this line to 'they don't know what they are doing' is a corruption of the original. Oddly, in his book "Misquoting Jesus", Bart D. Ehrman, graduate of the Moody Bible College and Wheaton College (the latter being the alma mater of Billy Graham) and head of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, translates the original text of the Gospel of Luke exactly in this way: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." (p.143) Perhaps the chair of religious studies at Chapel Hill is too liberal even for Conservapedia?

Ironically, Conservapedia glosses over some much more historically and litergically significant differences in Luke. One of them is in Luke 24:12, where after Mary Magdalene and other women have gone to Jesus's tomb to pay their respects and have been frightened by the presence of an angel, it is Peter who discovers that Jesus is no longer physically in the grave: "But Peter, rising up, ran to the tomb, and stooping down he saw the linen cloths alone, and he returned home marvelling at what had happened." Ehrman notes that this text is stylistically different from the rest of Luke's Gospel, and thus there is reason to believe that the verse is not Luke's but that of an orthodox scribe added to Luke's Gospel in order to do two things:

  1. To emphasize that Jesus had a physical body (necessary in order to fight the early Marcionite heresy that said that Jesus did not suffer, because he was not made of physical flesh), and
  2. To put the glory of the discovery of Jesus's resurrection into a man's (Peter's) rather than a woman's (Mary Magdalene's) hand.

Of course, the Conservative Bible Project has no doctrinal or political issue with either of these motives, so the truly suspect verse in Luke may be allowed to remain, while a perfectly valid translation of a different verse is recommended to be modified to support a specific political viewpoint. It's going to get truly interesting when the volunteer Conservapedia translators get to places where the Gospels actually contradict one another: the Passion according to Mark is very different from the Passion according to John, for example, particularly in their willingness to show Jesus as human (Mark has numerous examples of Jesus angry or frightened, where John's Gospel has Jesus as an almost cosmically detached emotional figure, becoming anguished only at the very end).

I could go on, but anyone reading this who hadn't already made up his mind to support these two conservative examples of making shit up and then pretending that they totally didn't make that shit up has probably already gotten the point by now. Further bulletins as events warrant.