Friday, November 26, 2004

Offensive rebound

The situation described at the end of my previous post has been rectified. I stopped in at the bar where Colleen works -- she's a waitress as well as a part-time student -- had a beer, and got her email address.

Popular mistrust of atheists, however, continues to plague America.

(Post updated 2:21 AM)

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Atheism

In a rare and wonderful event, many philosophy boys and beautiful girls were sitting together at a piano bar tonight. American Pie was being played, and my friend Howard stuck up his middle finger and yelled when the singer left an opening for "The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost". Kaitlin (who is in her 2nd year at MSU law school) was a little taken aback. "Sometimes Howard's atheism gets in the way," I said. There was an expression of distaste on her face, and I continued, "I'm an atheist too, but it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying the song."

"Are a lot of philosophers atheists?" she asked.

"Well, you sort of make a list of the things you can say exist," I replied. "And for many philosophers, God doesn't make the cut."

She got an amused smile, as if this way of regarding religious belief was something peculiar and amusing. Does this attitude towards religion seem peculiar to a lot of non-philosophers? For me, it's always been the way to evaluate the belief in God. You treat it as any other belief and reject it if it's ill-supported by evidence. For a while in college, I tried to see if I could induce religious belief in myself, thinking that it would be a happier and more meaningful way to live. I now have firsthand knowledge that desiring to believe p does not cause one to believe p. But even this took place against a general background of knowing that there weren't any good epistemic reasons to hold metaphysically outlandish theistic beliefs, and that that was the proper form of evaluation for such belief.

Most atheists I know come to their position simply because they don't see good evidence for belief. It's not that they dislike the idea of a God. (Some, like Nietzsche, do. Personally, I'd think it was really nice if some powerful being were to give people a pleasant afterlife.) Gallup recently asked Americans the following question: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a 'X' would you vote for that person?" For x=atheist, only 49% said yes. This was worse than gay people, who were accepted by 59%. I wonder how much of this comes out of confusion about how atheists come to their beliefs. There may be a perception that atheists are generally hostile to religion, that we're anti-theists rather than mere nonbelievers. (Howard, I guess, is. My point is that he's the exception rather than the rule.) What's really important to me, as a hedonic utilitarian, is how much pleasure and pain are in the world. If you want to help me crank out the hedons and you've got a good plan for doing so, I couldn't care less what kinds of other beliefs you tote along. I imagine that most atheists are similarly welcoming to theistic allies who will help them implement their ethical programs. Our concern about religion is merely that theism motivates people to fight against our ethical programs, as in the gay marriage issue.

(In other news, I had a wonderful conversation with a sweet girl named Colleen, and passed up my golden opportunity to get her phone number. But my relationship-starting incompetence is a far less interesting topic.)

Monday, November 22, 2004

Brand Democrat

Between now and 2006, I want to see us do more of this.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Hazards of being a Leiter student

I just sent 6 copies of the following email to Brian Leiter. I don't know how significant a figure the person I refer to here as [Large Philosopher] is in his field, since I don't know that much philosophy of language, but he is physically very large.

Hi, Brian!
I just went to a Linguistics-Philosophy workshop here at Michigan. I met some good people working in the philosophy of language and had some excellent conversations.

I just wanted to make sure you knew that [Large Philosopher] had moved from [University A] to [University B]. It was not listed as a 'Major Faculty Move' in the PGR, although [Another Philosopher]'s departure from [University B] was. [Large Philosopher] was very upset about this and shook me multiple times tonight on the way back from the bar. He also told me to send you 6 emails about this matter. (Although the shaking was quite forceful and my jacket made unusual noises, I am unharmed. Also, I have not included some of the content he asked me to include in these emails.)

Yours,
--Neil

Friday, November 19, 2004

foreign and domestic policy: we are screwed

How badly has the Bush administration wrecked our relations with allies? So badly that six NATO members, including Continental heavyweights France, Germany, and Spain, have refused to help us train Iraqi police officers. No combat duties were involved.

Meanwhile, inflation is coming to town and Alan Greenspan is preparing to raise interest rates on the village in order to save it. I wish there were more appealing foreign stocks to buy -- I'd like to get as far away from the American economy as possible. The one thing that didn't crash during the recent recession was real estate. When you raise interest rates, you're making it really hard for people to find the money for mortgages on new houses. The decline of the real estate market will not be pretty.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Help me maximize utility

With fellowship checks coming in, a cheap ($325/mo!) apartment, and some quick stock market gains, it's time for me to start making significant charitable contributions. The top candidate for my money right now is Doctors Without Borders. If anyone knows of a charity that would be more effective in cranking out the hedons, please do tell. And yes, I am approaching this in the classic hedonic utilitarian way: I'm looking for the option that allows me to generate the most pleasure or prevent the most suffering.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Biblical lego fun

Here is one of my favorite educational web sites, Brick Testament. It includes thousands of depictions of scenes from the Bible, done entirely in Legos. The story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis is quite good -- the first page is hilarious and the rising waters are depicted very well. If you're not disturbed by Lego nudity, sex, and violence, learn about the biblical prohibition on bestiality.

Happy Dreams

I keep having dreams in which it's before the election and there's something I can do to help John Kerry. The other night I dreamt that I was doing some kind of organizational work at the Democratic convention. While napping tonight I dreamt that I was helping out with data entry with a Democratic volunteer group. Waking up is disappointing.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Israelis and Palestinians

The following is my simplistic understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Am I missing anything?

Moderate Israelis just want the Palestinians to stop blowing them up.  Moderate Palestinians just want to be under some kind of functioning government that represents their interests.  (The Israeli government doesn't represent Palestinian interests, and the Palestinian Authority doesn't have the territory or the power to be a functional government.)  Both desires are legitimate, and at present nobody has what they want.  This is partly because of extremists who polarize everybody, destroying the possibility of big moderate coalitions getting together and working things out.  While suicide bombers are blowing up Israelis and settlers are building fortresses deep in territory that would be part of a Palestinian state, neither side trusts the other, and you can't get a critical mass of moderates together from each side who'd trust the other side to engage in good-faith negotiations and keep a leash on their respective extremists. As long as this continues, nobody gets what they want and the violence keeps happening.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Alberto Gonzales, your next Attorney General



"Gonzales publicly defended the administration's policy -- essentially repudiated by the Supreme Court and now being fought out in the lower courts -- of detaining certain terrorism suspects for extended periods without access to lawyers or courts.

He also wrote a controversial February 2002 memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, which said it helped led to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. "

Sunday, November 07, 2004

How we'll live now

People whom I care about are feeling really bad about the way this election went. They're right to feel this way; it was a disaster. For the next four years, terrorists will benefit from our foreign policy ineptitude, hundreds of billions will be spent in idiotic ways, and crackpot judges will be nominated to high positions. What makes this election especially heartbreaking is that the left got powerfully mobilized, like it had never been in my life, and we still lost. The margins were small but decisive -- 3% in the presidential, 2% in each of 3 senate races we lost. In previous posts I've discussed some of the things we need to do to win future elections, and I'll discuss more in the coming days.

But for now I want to address the issue of how we should personally respond to this disaster. I want to specifically reject all this 'moving to Canada' talk. I come away from this election with a sense of how huge and consequential the battle for the soul of America is. While I might still teach overseas once I get my Ph.D, my desire to spend most of my life in this country is much stronger than it was in October. So much in the world depends on the makeup of the American government, and an America where morality is about helping people, treating others with respect, and preventing human suffering will be able to do enormous good. But an America where morality is contaminated with prejudice, where self-serving professions of religious faith trump genuine concern for the well-being of others, and where people choose a leader based on his posturing rather than his policy will be a huge source of suffering everywhere. There's no way to escape being a citizen of the world, and the best thing you can do for the world is remain a citizen of America.

This election made me fully aware that the battle for the soul of America isn't something one fights at the beginning of November. It's something that I'll have to fight all my life. It falls to us -- Americans whose moral beliefs are based on benevolence rather than prejudice and whose factual beliefs are based on reality rather than fantasy -- to make the battle for the soul of America part of our lives. We don't need the kind of activism that chains itself to trees and makes noise at rallies. We need the kind of activism that carefully searches out the most effective strategy for making a difference and aggressively pursues that strategy. In the short term, we'll write letters to key Senators and donate to 527s that show ads to win support for Democratic filibusters. In the medium term, we'll spend many summer and fall hours volunteering for 2006 Congressional and Senate campaigns. And in the long term, we'll find ways to use our particular talents, resources, and influence in the world to set things right. If I spend a decade teaching ethics classes at the University of Arkansas, it'll be a decade well spent. All I want is for those students to engage in the slightest critical reflection on the supposed immorality of homosexuality -- to watch conservative moral philosophers scramble to construct pathetic arguments against gay rights, and read John Corvino's excellent rebuttal -- and the Enlightenment will have won a small battle against the darkness.

In the meantime, we've been defeated by bad men whose shortsightedness and prejudice threatens to lead our country into ruin. I look at this in a basically Irish way. Defeat won't prevent us from taking pride in having stood by John Kerry. And no defeat is severe enough to keep us out of the field when they next sound the call to arms.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

'Values' and irrational epistemic pressures

Yglesias points to Freedman, who gives good evidence that the contribution of the 'values' issue to our electoral defeat is being overestimated on the left.

There's a good psychological explanation for why people like us would make exactly this mistake. According to the 'values' theory, the agents of our defeat are precisely those people whom we're the most opposed to -- religious nuts who hate gay people. In making our defeat the fault of our worst enemies, it attracts more credence than one would be justified in giving it.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Five things we did right

1. The organization and mobilization. We'll have to review the effectiveness of organizations like MoveOn and ACT, which I thought were going to deliver us the election. But the fact that these organizations sprung up and were filled to the brim with hardworking people was awesome. My deepest hope for the Democratic Party's political apparatus is that these organizations remain strong, continuing to attract funding and volunteers in future elections. My deepest fear is that people will regard them as losers and not show up again or fund them again.

2. Unity on the left. My second deepest hope about this election is that people on the Nader-2000 left continue to stick with the Democrats, despite the defeat. I imagine they will, since the GOP is going to be moving right and the gap between the parties will increase.

3. Our guy won the debates. Kerry won each debate, beating Bush by a lot in the first and third. The way he acted during the debates was the best counter to the GOP's 'flipflop' spin. By my count, Kerry threw only two interceptions -- "global test" and "Mary Cheney." It's to the shame of Kerry's (otherwise very capable) Clintonite media team that Bush's Osama gaffe and Kerry's winning streak weren't the story of the day, while the Mary Cheney thing was.

4. Edwards for VP!. Edwards didn't say anything dumb to give the Bush people talking points. In his own speeches, he attacked Bush and Cheney with all the effectiveness one could expect from a VP candidate. He had the best approval/disapproval ratings of any of the 4 national candidates throughout the campaign, and we've got a solid guy on the shelf for 2008.

5. Building an internet donor base. I'm really optimistic about the potential for internet fundraising. I'd never given any money to political campaigns until this year, but the internet made it really easy to see some 527 group's ads, give them money, and participate in what they do. This is going to be very helpful in the 2006 midterm elections, because we'll be able to do a good job funding House and Senate races in other states.

Change politics, keep policy

In the post below, I don't suggest any substantial policy changes. That's because I think they simply aren't needed. If we had lost 61-38 instead of 51-48, there'd be some reason to change our policy stances. As it is, we lost by just 100,000 votes in Ohio. The only real losing policy stance we had was the right to marry, and that's an issue where demographics are trending slowly in our favor. Terrorism doesn't really count -- Bush's advantage there comes out of personal identification with him rather than any kind of policy difference.

Furthermore, one thing that we can all learn from Bush is that your political rhetoric and your policy only need to meet at a few points. Bush talks about democracy promotion while weakening the hopes for democracy in Iran, Russia, Central Asia, and much of the Middle East. He talks about fighting terrorism while blowing the obvious opportunities to kill Zarqawi and Bin Laden. He talks about NCLB but fails to fund it. Your signature policy proposals only need a tenuous connection with the rhetoric you use to sell them, and you'll do just fine. Since it's the rhetoric that voters hear, that's what we need to change.

There might be some issues in our current policy portfolio we need to emphasize more, though. Raising the minimum wage always seemed like a political winner to me, especially if we have John Edwards to sell it as a moral issue of giving hard-working Americans what they deserve.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Six things we could've done better

1. Nominate the Southern guy. Tomorrow when I write "Five things we did right," I'll talk about things Kerry did well -- there definitely were some. But next time we absolutely have to nominate a Southern or border Democrat for president if we want to win. There's an automatic suspicion that red-staters have of Massachusetts types that makes them immediately willing to listen to the right-wing spin machine. Any spin that attempts to connect the Democrat to stereotypes of the effete liberal Northerner will be unduly successful, however hard we try to dispel it by having our candidate go hunting and talk about his military service. But if we nominate a Southern or border-state Democrat whom red-staters can identify as a normal guy like them, they'll be more charitable in assessing his character. He'll also be less threatening to those dreaded "Moral Values" voters, and some of them might not go out in the rain to vote against him.

2. Run a convention that actually accomplished something. Whatever the polling results showed (and I don't know what they showed, since they were all different), we failed to establish any of the things we needed during the convention. I wish Kerry had given a convention speech where he laid out the foreign policy narrative of the previous years, including Bush's failure to capture OBL, the lack of focus on al-Qaeda, the rush to war on Iraq, and the bad decisions that the administration made in running Iraq. We ended up not getting any of the facts we needed into play. I wish Obama had given a speech that had done something other than elevate his rock-star status in the Democratic Party. The sole thing that got established for the Kerry campaign during the debate was that Kerry was a veteran who had pulled Jim Rassmann out of the water. (Here I ignore Clinton's wonderful speech and the funny hamster story.) Then the Smear Boaters came along and damaged whatever we gained...

3. Hit back quick and hard against the Smear Boaters. These guys should've been instant laughingstocks. Schachte had claimed to be on a boat with 2 other guys and Kerry, and that Kerry wounded himself with a grenade launcher. The two other guys said he wasn't there and that nobody used a grenade launcher. The stories were more transparently false than the much-ballyhooed CBS memos, and yet they hung out there in the media for a month.

4. Do some straight-up Osama-bashing. Kerry talked about Osama more than Bush, which was right. But he should've pushed this to the point of saturation. Bush couldn't talk tough about Osama, since he hadn't caught Osama. Kerry should've been invoking 9/11 and talking about how disgusting it was that the perpetrator was still running around. Continued sincere expressions of anger about this would've eaten up some of the Bush lead. The major flaw with this strategy is that early on, there was no guarantee that Bush wouldn't catch Osama by election time. But in the last two months, it would've scored plenty of easy points.

5. Don't let the GOP stack the ballot-initiative calendar. I'm assume a portion of the reigning conventional wisdom -- the GOP won this election in large part by loading ballots in 11 states with ballot initiatives to deny gays the right to marry. Did this really increase Ohio Republican turnout enough to let Bush win? I don't know. But it seems to have added to GOP turnout wherever it came up. If at all possible, Democrats should've let Republicans pass these measures through legislation rather than as ballot initiatives. (Of course, stopping the initiatives with a majority vote is preferable, but letting them become turnout-boosters is a disaster.) For all our 527s, there's an ancient and powerful organizational advantage that the GOP has over us. On the Sunday before the election, they can get a sizable percentage of their people to sit through an hour of moral indoctrination that culminates in the imperative to go out and vote. Giving them salient ballot initiatives to rant about just makes their job that much easier.

6. Run a "I'm not concerned about Osama" ad mocking Bush's earlier comment. Where were we with this one? Running the ad would've gotten Bush's gaffe onto the TV-talk-show docket after the last debate, and stole some of the spotlight from the Mary Cheney issue. By itself, the ad wouldn't have changed things too dramatically, but combined with an earlier emphasis on antiterrorism and the Osama-bashing mentioned above, it would've hit Bush quite hard.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Something to cheer

Yesterday was a bad day for Democrats, and particularly for gay people. But at least Dallas now has a Hispanic lesbian sheriff!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

I love Detroit

Nobody knows how the election will turn out. But in advance of any such knowledge, let me say that today has been beautiful.

Dennis Clark and I were poll monitors at the Emerson School in Detroit, with Election Protection. In a 95%-black polling place where 600 people had turned out for Gore in 2000, about 1100 turned out for Kerry. Despite the two-hour wait in the morning, most people toughed it out and stayed the whole time. There were 2 precincts in the same polling place, and I did most of the work of directing the voters to their precincts, helping everything go smoothly.

One of our jobs was to redirect voters who had come to the wrong polling place, and tell them where they were supposed to vote. Unfortunately, the 1-866-our-vote hotline was too busy and it took forever to get through. So I decided to call my sister and have her look up people's correct polling locations on the internet. Thanks to her efforts, as many as 4 people were successfully redirected.

It was also really nice to talk to lots of the people in the neighborhood, hear their reactions to political issues, and get a sense of how they relate to each other. I don't spend much time in urban majority-black communities, and I was glad to spend much of a day chatting with their local activists.

Detroit

Sorry for the dearth of posting leading up to the election. I've been doing a lot of volunteer work for Kerry and things are going well.

In about 7 hours the polls will have opened in Detroit, and that's where I'll be. Unlike most of you, I probably won't be saying much about Kerry or Bush between 7 AM and 8 PM. I'll be a poll monitor with Election Protection, a nonpartisan group that tries to make sure that nobody intimidates voters.

If you want a prediction, here it is: Kerry wins the Presidency, Republicans keep the Senate by 2, slight Democratic gains in the House.

Even if you're not in a swing state, make sure you vote. There are Congressional and local races all down the ballot. You could advance the career of the next Barack Obama (at this point, he's still just a Illinois state Senator). And it's important that Kerry win the popular vote too, so we can get a clear rejection of the Bush presidency.