SocraticGadfly: 5/19/13 - 5/26/13

May 23, 2013

De Sade — Insane, or marginized genius?

Or somewhere in between?

The Marquis de Sade, before we get to that question of the header, was not the Larry Flynt of 200-plus years ago. Rather, through his graphically, violently sexual writings, he was, it seems, challenging Enlightenment society in general, and late-Enlightenment France of the philosophes in general.

The Baffler, a place I love visiting, has a very interesting take on him.

That said, the piece is interesting, but, but I disagree with some of its conclusions. This is the most iffy Baffler piece in some ways that I've read in some time. The main thing I like about it is that it strips away much of the myth surrounding the Marquis de Sade. He wasn't promoting free love, he was promoting violent grotesqueries to challenge claims of how enlightened modern homo sapiens of his day allegedly was.

The main thing I don't like is:
It’s impossible to know whether Sade—who was almost certainly mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it—deliberately sabotaged the Enlightenment by ruthlessly parodying it or really held the philosophical and political convictions his characters voice ad nauseam.
The "impossible to know" may be somewhat overstated; I lean toward thinking he really had such convictions. That said, it's not tremendously overstated.

What is thrown out baldly, without evidence, is the claim that he was "almost certainly mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it." Isn't that a way of marginalizing what he said, and not trying to wrestle further with that "impossible to know"? After all, people have no problem pointing at Nietzsche as insane, even well before the period when he actually did go insane, as a way of dismissing him.

And, I suspect that if ancient Alexandria, in Hellenistic times, had had both insane asylums and Christians, insanity charges would have been hurled against Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism. That said, he's not an exact parallel.

Other than demythologizing him, the piece is good in demythologizing Nietzsche's claim to have been his later interpreter, and Ayn Rand's claim to have been the later interpreter of both of them. Those claims are made more by their followers than by the two themselves, actually, but they're out there to this day.

Anyway, it should be clear I think de Sade was neither half of the header. He was insightful about the problems with rationalism in general, including its assumptions about the potential, or actual, rationality of human nature — assumptions that too often go unchallenged today.

That said, was he also a tortured soul in some ways? Yes. Was he mentally ill most of his life? Probably not, unless forensic psychology can make a good definition of him as a sociopath. He may have been depressed much of his life, but I don't think Hussein Ibish meant that by "mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it."

That said, was he as great as Diogenes? No. Diogenes challenged human social structures more deeply, yet with much less verbal violence, than de Sade, and in a much broader range of portions of society.

May 22, 2013

Four dead in air-drone-strikes

It's not quite as catchy as "Four dead in O-hi-o," but, there's a parallel.

Eric "Hitler" Holder
The New York Times informs us that President Barack Obama, aka Dear Leader, had drone strikes of the US kill not only American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but three other American citizens. Without due process. Without even close to a semi-declared "War on Terror" involving Yemen. Just vague names like "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
In a letter to Congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. disclosed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.

The letter also said that the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Mr. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan. 
And, given how much Attorney General Eric Holder Hitler has obfuscated in the past, why should we believe this:
“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Mr. Holder wrote.  
I don't.

Anyway, here's justification Hitler and his boss, Dear Leader, offer:
Holder, in a speech at Northwestern University Law School last year, laid out the administration’s basic legal thinking that American citizens who are deemed to be operational terrorists, who pose an “imminent threat of violent attack” and whose capture is infeasible may be targeted. ...

But Holder’s letter went further in discussing the death of Mr. Awlaki in particular, an operation the administration had previously refused to publicly acknowledge. He said it was not Mr. Awlaki’s words urging violent attacks against Americans that led the United States to target him, but direct actions in planning attacks. ...

Holder alleged that Mr. Awlaki not only “planned” the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, a claim that has been widely discussed in court documents and elsewhere, but also “played a key role” in an October 2010 plot to bomb cargo planes bound for the United States, including taking “part in the development and testing” of the bombs. 
Fine. Present the information in a court of law. (We know that, in reality, that will never happen.)

This is probably part of what is behind Holder's snooping on the Associated Press. They either have reason to believe, or fear, that something about these other targeted killings were being, or going to be, leaked by somebody.

To refresh, that snooping was about:
Officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
The Times' story about the four killings doesn't have dates on the third and fourth killings. So, it's not guaranteed this is part of what the snooping was about, but it stands to reason.

And, of course, these are just the four we know about.

What other American citizens, whether targeted or not, have been killed in drone attacks? And, not just in Yemen or Pakistan in the War on Terror, but, say, in Mexico in the War on Drugs?

May 21, 2013

Getting public prayer wrong again

As the Supreme Court has decided to accept a case about prayer at the start of local government meetings, it's worth a look at a comment from an attorney for Greece, N.Y.:
David Cortman, a lawyer for the town, said its practices were consistent with that tradition. “Americans today should be as free as the founders were to pray,” he said in a statement. “The founders prayed while drafting our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”
Well, not quite true.

When the Founders were working on the body ofthe Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, and got stuck, Ben Franklin suggested starting with daily prayer. His motion died for lack of a second.

As for the Bill of Rights, the Congress may have had chaplains, but James Madison, known for his work on the Bill of Rights, strongly opposed such chaplains on ... wait for it ... First Amendment grounds.

Second, this is a red herring, of the types that claim the Supreme Court has barred prayer in school. Nope.

Kids, or teachers and staff, can pray on their own whenever they want in school. Teachers can't lead kids in organized prayer, though.

Ditto, Mr. Cortman's councilmembers can pray on their own during council meetings, if they want. A public invocation, though not as coercive of adults as organized school prayer is of kids, is still coercive.

And, per this story about the case, given that it appears American Christians lie about church attendance and less than 25 percent of people attend a church on a weekly basis, it's quite arguable that prayer in general is coercive and minoritarian.

May 20, 2013

Social media, disasters, and learned pretend helpfulness

Putting on my curmudgeon hat for the third blog post in less than a week, here. (Hey, I'm entitled; I'll be passing out of fortysomething in not too, too long.)

The tornado near Oklahoma City, and all the Facebook posts about it, are the trigger that I'm willingly pulling.

Folks, yes, if you live in some other state, even if you've never lived in Oklahoma, it's statistically possible you have one or two Facebook friends there. If you're up to your  5,000 max and your personal page has been turned into a "site," maybe 10 or so.

But, realistically, does posting "So-and-so has been found," or "so-and-so is still missing," or "so-and-so is looking for her parents," do any good? Seriously, if you're a frantic parent, you're bellowing across a field, not checking Facebook on an iPhone. And, you're checking with the police every 15 minutes to see if your kid has been found.

Beyond that, a friend of a friend ... that's two social media filters, delayed time, and always room for mistakes. (And setting aside how good of smartphone reception there is, post-tornado.)

Since my previous curmudgeonly post was about pop psychology and happiness, with a bit of a nod to learned helplessness, I invented the phrase "learned pretend helpfulness" for this.

Or, perhaps a bit more bluntly, with a nod to the Internet world, this partially overlaps with "slacktivism." Many people want to think that, by making a Facebook post, even if it's sharing someone from someone else who's three shares distant from the original (let's next ponder six Facebook degrees of Kevin Bacon), they're "doing something."

Ditto for someone in Montana who posts on Facebook about a child reported abducted in West Virginia.

Or people from 500 miles away posting local Red Cross numbers, or whatever. Or the national toll-free number. It's not like a Facebook post is really going to guilt-trip a lot of other people into donating, if the disaster itself hasn't touched them.

Folks, beyond "compassion fatigue," too much stuff like this on Facebook will probably lead to "disaster fatigue" or "tragedy fatigue." It's a known element in news reporting. A current example is that casualties in Syria's civil war are up, well up, over the rate of a year ago, but, it's not getting reported that way.

And, speaking of, in addition to the "more static out there" effect of social media, maybe that's another reason newspaper readership continues to slide. Social media now involves home-shot video, still photos, slide shows, and commentary. For better or for worse.

I mean, think back 15 years. If you had a computer, and had Internet access, did you email all your friends about news updates from something you saw on TV, every five minutes? Or 10 years ago, did you IM them?

Yes, this is part of the dark side of the Internet. And, it's not quite disaster porn, but it's in the same general ballpark.

At times like this, people need to become Buddhist or Stoic and accept that there's simply nothing they can do.

There may be a time and a place for social media as a tool, but it's usually after the dust has settled.

Anyway, back to the "numbing" ...

I've long known that nothing I posted on Facebook would make a damned bit of difference about it. And, I'm trying to remember that on a big natural disaster like this tornado, that other friends are posting links about the tornado itself, so maybe I don't even need to do that, news junkie that I am.

Also, we don't need "Kossacks" from Daily Kos live-blogging tornadoes. If we're in the affected area, we're watching TV or listening to the radio or going online ourselves. Numbnuts.

Doorknob knows I probably post too much on Facebook at times, as it is, whether that's in the belief I'm a font of immense wisdom, or the latest incarnation of the humor of Hawkeye Pierce.

Don't worry, folks. As I get closer to fiftysomething, then enter it, you'll get more like this. I'll move beyond skeptical left-liberal politics and atheism to becoming a curmudgeon social philosopher.

Update, May 21: Meanwhile, with the Moore death toll estimates now reduced to 24, how long will it be before some Religious Right types talk about the miracle of only 24 dying, Gnu Atheist types firing back in public about why would a god let 24 people die in a tornado in the first place, and non-Gnus, but still atheists, like me, wishing Gnu Atheists would just let the Religious Right types blabber on?

I don't know, but when I mentioned this on a friend's Facebook feed (her setting is "public," so I'm not divulging anything) a friend of hers accused me of being snide, even after clarified that I was just talking about Religious Right types. (And, this friend-of-a-friend, with Dawkins' "The God Delusion" among his Facebook likes, isn't a theist, obviously.)

To which, I pointed out that I was making an observation based on how past similar disasters had played out, and not being snide. If I had been snide, I would have finished that comment with something about his tone-concern trolling, but I didn't.

Or, there's Pat Robertson, doubling down on teh stupid and teh insulting by claiming Oklahomans forgot to pray. (I forgot all about that scenario.)

Oklahoma is one of the "reddest," most wingnut and most religious states in the nation. Even more than normal, Pat Robertson is just making shit up as he goes along. I could, instead, say if I were religious: Hey, Oklahomans, you forgot to pray, so now you have to listen to Pat Robertson.

That said, I've already given him more attention than he warrants and less than Gnu Atheists will.

Pop psychology #happiness #fail

This list of 22 traits of happy people was posted by a friend of mine on Facebook. It sounds nice, but it's trite, and some of it actually conflicts with what other happiness researchers, or "researchers," tell us. Fortunately for psychologists, economics is still listed as a social science, or social "science," to keep psychology from being the most unscientific field in that domain.

A few specifics about this list?

8. Never make excuses.

Uhh, wrong? Er, wrong! Per happiness guru Marlin Seligman, tools such as "minimization" (which certainly involves excuse-making) are big, big, big, in promoting one's own happiness.

10. Wake up at the same time every morning.
Have you noticed that a lot of successful people tend to be early risers? 

First, "happiness" isn't the same thing as "successful," if it's being defined as something like business success. Second, waking up at the same time is not the same as being an early riser. Third, Ben Franklin, author of "early to rise" as a maxim, did no such thing himself.

19. Live minimally. 

But, there are rich, and at least somewhat materialistic, people who actually are happy. And, up to a certain point, even in America, more income does buy a better sense of well-being.

2. Treat everyone with kindness.
Did you know that it has been scientifically proven that being kind makes you happier? Every time you perform a selfless act, your brain produces serotonin, a hormone that eases tension and lifts your spirits.

Oh, doorknob, the "your brain is a sponge on neurochemicals" claim. It's been getting outdated for nearly a decade.

Media as "unindicted co-conspirators"

If you think that, while the IRS nonscandal has been blown way out of proportion, in part by Team Obama playing Shirley Sherrod in the face of wingnut pressure, and that Benghazi's been wrongly covered, because nobody's talking about what the CIA was doing there, but ...

You know there's one real scandal, even if arguably legal — Team Obama spying on the AP, then ...

Glenn Greewald's latest is a must read.

Per my header, he argues, and rightly, that that is exactly what the White House is doing with investigative journalists. Besides indicting the leakers as soon as it can (even if they've clearly done nothing illegal, more below), it's treating the media recipients of leaks as unindicted co-conspirators.
(A)s Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler noted recently in the New Republic, when the judge presiding over Manning's prosecution asked military lawyers if they would "have pressed the same charges if Manning had given the documents not to WikiLeaks but directly to the New York Times?", the prosecutor answered simply: "Yes, ma'am". It has long been clear that this WikiLeaks-as-criminals theory could and would be used to criminalize establishment media outlets which reported on that which the US government wanted concealed. 

Now we know that the DOJ is doing exactly that: applying this theory to criminalize the acts of journalists who report on what the US government does in secret, even though there is no law that makes such reporting illegal and the First Amendment protects such conduct. Essentially accusing James Rosen of being an unindicted co-conspriator in these alleged crimes is a major escalation of the Obama DOJ's already dangerous attacks on press freedom. 
The imperial presidency of Nixon? The unitary executive of Shrub Bush?

Growing even more under Dear Leader.