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Yes, They Really Are That Crazy, Redux (Or: Intellectual Penis Envy)

If any doubt remained that the giants of intellectual conservatism who staff National Review Online were a bunch of raving lunatics severely handicapped by intellectual equivalent of penis envy, Andy McCarthy is now making a non-endorsement endorsement of the deeply paranoid and strange notion that Dreams from my Father was ghost-written by Bill Ayers:

There has been speculation about this which I've ignored, no doubt because there are enough policy reasons to oppose Barack Obama and I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia.  But I've finally read Jack Cashill's lengthy analysis in The American Thinker.  It is thorough, thoughtful, and alarming — particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama's memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers' memoir.

There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is.  And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book.  Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.  And, to be sure, writing is different from speaking — in fairness, some of Obama's off-the-cuff bumbling when he speaks is certainly due to the rigors of the campaign which would cause even the most gifted communicator to faulter from time to time.  But it's not unreasonable to expect more similarity between Obama the writer and Obama the orator.

It really shouldn't be necessary to debunk this, and in fact, it won't do any good for anyone to bother, it's just so god damned loony of an idea. But dammit, it offends me as a writer. And I find it obscene, frankly, that someone who makes a pretense to intellectualism can put such crap out there and try to pass it off as reasoning.

Here's how Jack Cashill starts out his "thorough, thoughful" "analysis":

Prior [strange broken link preserved as a slap at Jack Cashill and American "Thinker"] to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing.  Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant.  I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all.  Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf.  To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour.  It doesn't happen.

Right from the outset is remarkably sloppy thinking, and it's really kind of comical that it's the lede for a story in a publication called "American Thinker." My wife, who teaches composition to college freshmen, would have sent back the draft that included this with a note that indicating it would seriously hurt the grade of the final paper. I really shouldn't have to point out the amazingly obvious logical errors (and there are two howlers, either of which renders the lede worthy of ridicule by any reasonably intelligent junior high school student), but the ostensibly intellectual Jack Cashill didn't spot 'em so I guess I should assume NRO-clique conservative intellectualoids are just not sharp enough to get them.

  1. The fact that Cashill isn't aware of Obama's writing during that time period doesn't mean there wasn't any. There was probably a lot. He was a law student for much of that time, a community organizer giving frequent talks and speeches for much of it as well. And he was talking day after day with black preachers, who train in narrative reasoning at the feet of their family and neighbors from a very young age. This is stuff Cashill should be bright and educated enough to know. That he's not accounting for it strikes me as willful ignorance.

  2. As importantly, writing (something Cashill's clearly not that good at, since he seems unable to form coherent arguments) is actually not even remotely like golf in one very important regard: Golf is comprised of a set of specific cognitive and motor activities that aren't really very mappable to real life, whereas writing (and particularly in African-American communities) corresponds to cognitive and social-interaction activities that an intelligent and conversant person uses all the time in his/her daily life. If you're a thoughtful person, you're always "writing", and always learning about language. So if someone writes a crappy essay that's published when he's 14, and the next thing he publishes is a masterful novel that hits the shelves when he's 30, it's actually not very surprising.

So, what's going on here? It's obviously not that Cashill actually has objectively creditable reasons for believing that Bill Ayers (or anybody else) ghost-wrote Obama's memoirs and speeches (and no, he doesn't stop at the memoirs). There's got to be more to it. I actually don't believe it's purely race, either. I think David Brooks (whose name is probably less than mud at NRO) is onto something with his critique of the (lack of) intellectual foundations of the modern American Right. Now, I don't think David Brooks is an intellectual giant, but dammit, he actually makes a credible effort and he's willing to deal with reality. I don't necessarily agree with his ideas about demographics, for example, but he's done the work of thinking through the problems and I can actually believe he knows more about the details than me.

So is it the standard white male's fear of a black man? Or is it the more profound standard conservative male's fear of an intelligent "leftist"?

So, let's be fair: There are some "leftists" intellectuals who are as frightened to the point of irrationality of intelligent conservatives as Cashill clearly is of Obama. And there are some conservatives -- even some occasionally hot-headed ones, like Andrew Sullivan* -- who are capable of having intellectually honest discussions with people who don't agree with them on doctrinaire matters. Cashill, though, is clearly an intellectual fraud. So's McCarthy. They're so terrified of the idea that someone they don't agree with might be better than them at the one thing that makes them special, that they have to expend this much effort rationalizing away that person's success. 

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*Sullivan's at least intelllectually honest, though, inasmuch as when he does get carried away -- as he sometimes does -- he's generally able to recognize it and willing to call himself out. Buckleyites, in my experience, are rarely willing to do that, and never in deference to anyone they've identified as "leftist."

Freeman Dyson and the Pretense of Vision

Freeman Dyson is one of the more dangerous scientists alive right now.

.... The wiggles in the [Keeling] graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

That's just science fiction, of course -- not the scary part at all. This is the scary part:

It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.

Translation: "We don't need to do anything now, because we'll invent our way out of the problem when the time comes."

I suppose I should be grateful that he's no longer appointing himself global diagnostician. At least now he admits that there might be a problem.

I've been told by people I respect that Dyson is a very good physicist. But I'm hard put to recall anything outside of his domain that wasn't just plain stupid once you got past the "oh, neato" moment. I mean, Dyson Spheres are a cool idea, but also a really dumb one if you think about them just a tiny bit. They're a triumph of the broadly logically possible: We can imagine it, therefore it must be feasible. We can imagine going Niven & Pournelle one better and building a sphere around a small star (or arranging otherwise to intercept all of the star's energy). We can imagine nesting matrioshka layers one inside the other, to overlap and trap the inevitable leakage. All we have to do is solve this list of several thousand technical problems. We've solved every other technical problem we've ever been presented with; we'll clearly be able to solve these. What is conceivable, is feasible.

We can imagine magic carbon-sequestering trees, therefore they must be feasible. We can imagine a quarter of the world's trees being replaced by these magic inventions, therefore we should count on it happening (when the alternative is essentially the collapse of civilization).

All of these speculations commit an obvious and really, really troubling error: They assume that certain important things, like rate of technological innovation, rate of increate in energy use, etc., are essentially laws of nature: That not only won't they change, but that their not changing is a righteous thing. Moore's Law will go on forever; we'll keep increasing our need for energy at a predictable and increasing rate; we'll keep inventing new ways to solve all of our problems; better living through chemistry.

This kind of thinking is usually based on a detailed look at only a very short span of human history, and a very high-level gloss of anything beyond the past three or four hundred years.

It's disturbingly short sighted, in other words, even as it pretends to vision.

This is why I don't respect Dyson: He pretends to vision, but is blind to his own short-sightedness

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Freeman Dyson Is Smarter Than The Climate Scientists

Or at least he thinks he is:

.... It is at least a possibility to be seriously considered, that China could become rich by burning coal, while the United States could become environmentally virtuous by accumulating topsoil, with transport of carbon from mine in China to soil in America provided free of charge by the atmosphere, and the inventory of carbon in the atmosphere remaining constant. We should take such possibilities into account when we listen to predictions about climate change and fossil fuels. If biotechnology takes over the planet in the next fifty years, as computer technology has taken it over in the last fifty years, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models.

Such vision! Who knew it was that simple: China burns the coal, we sequester their windblown carbon as topsoil. Mirabile dictu! Dyson ex machina.

And who knew that Dyson had such a complete grasp of the processes of planetary ecology. He must, since he feels so ready to propose that we replace all of the current thinking by climate scientists and ecologists with a suggestion by a physicist that we just give up on climate modeling and replace it with a wholistic, diagnostician model.

It's convenient to be so brilliant that one doesn't feel the need to apply the same criteria to his own theories as he does to others.

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Thought for the moment: Katrina as God's Punishment on the Poor

Question: How do you tell if someone is going to get help after hurricane Katrina?
Answer: Find out if they were actually in the hurricane. If so, probably not.

I've been thinking about something. There's a very important and simple difference between the people who are getting help and the people who are not: The ones who are getting help were able to drive to safety; the ones who are not, were stuck in harms way.

Put another way: If you're middle class, the probability is that you're getting help; if you're poor, the probability is much higher that you're not.

Very soon after Katrina hit on Monday morning, there were hundreds of Army and National Guard trucks en route to the Gulf Coast, loaded with MREs and fresh water. Where did they go? Why, they went where the refugees were: Places like Baton Rouge.

But they didn't go to New Orleans. Obviously, it would have been harder to get in to New Orleans, but you would think they'd be prepared to mobilize a few Blackhawks and Chinooks to airlift in a few palettes of drinking water and MREs to those highway flyovers poking up above the floodwaters. (That is, if those Blackhawks and Chinooks weren't half a world away enforcing a schoolyard-bully foreign policy.) But no: Instead, they went to places that already had a functioning infrastructure, where, though it would have meant some hardship, locals would have doubtless chipped in to help.

The semiotics of this aren't that simple, of course. There's already an undercurrent of discontent at the idea that people who made the "choice" to stay in a place like New Orleans need to be taught a "hard lesson". (You don't need to look to the web for this -- just keep your ears open.) And then of course there's the symbolism of washing away "Sin City South" in a deluge. Anyone still there, must be part of the mess that God wanted to wash away.

Youthful Indiscretion

So some people seem to remember that Iran's new President-Elect was one of their captors during the time when they were held prisoner in the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979-1980.

Sorry if I seem like a bit of a hard-ass on this, but: So what? Even if they're right -- why should this have any bearing on how we deal with Iran? Vladimir Putin was a KGB man -- a member of the secret intelligence service of an enemy state. Abu Mazen was a terrorist, and we deal with him. Menachem Begin planned bombings for the Irgun during the Jewish insurgency in Palestine; he was responsible for the deaths of many non-combatants. But they were British, mostly, or Palestinian, so they don't matter to us.

Really, it seems as though we look for excuses to refuse to deal with other countries. And by "we", I mean the Vulcan Cabal, and by "other countries", I mean ones that might possibly oppose the hidden agenda of the Vulcan Cabal, which is American Hegemony, plainly and simply put. But I digress.

When former soldiers go to Vietnam as tourists, Americans expect them to be greeted with respect -- which, by and large, they are, at least as far as I've heard. And by and large, we treat old Viet Cong and NVA "terrorists" with respect when they come here. What's the difference?

I expect it has something to do with blood. People look at me like I'm a little off when I tell them this, but I really do think that bodies politic (the "American People", the "Iranian People") "think" (which is to say, "feel") in terms of blood sacrifice. This is all at a sub-rational level, of course; we find other rationalizations for our behavior, but in the end it's a ritual matter: Once blood is spilled, the nature of the discussion changes.

If you walk through the world for a few days looking at news reports, I submit that you'll start to see this view as making sense. We sacrificed blood in Vietnam. We have never sacrificed any blood in Iran. Not publicly, at least. Blood would have sanctified our humiliation -- it would have taken it to a new level, made it "serious".

So in Vietnam, we had a sense that we paid a price, in blood. Blood is real currency; humiliation is just getting taken. It's not real currency, not to most people. We're going to have the same sense of things with regard to Iraq, I predict. (Though I expect history to reliably fail to repeat: the dynamics will be very different in the long run.)

This isn't likely to happen with regard to Iran -- at least, not soon. We'd have to really go to war with them, and I like to hope that won't happen, because the price would be ... fantastic. It's not Iraq; it's a functioning state with a patriotic people, well-armed with real (as in non-imaginary) and extremely dangerous weapons.

I hear on NPR that Iranians don't think much about the hostage crisis. To them, it's part of the "American Satan" background noise. When people in the US do remember it (and I doubt that many do, at least accurately), they remember it as shaming, as humiliation: That those little pissants could thumb their noses at us in public and we could do nothing about it.... I was there -- that is, I was alive and politically conscious, 15 and 16 years old, at the height of my natural adolescent boy's obsession with respect and purity of purpose.

I remember it like a little scar. I remember how much it made me despise Jimmy Carter. He was responsible (in my mind, at that time) for making the US seem weak. I talked tough about it with my friends; I think that deep down, many Americans wanted to wake up one morning and find out that all those hostages had been killed. It would have made us victims, given us the "right" to start shooting. And I can tell you, we wanted to start shooting. We wanted that so badly.

A Question of Belief have posed an interesting question [courtesy MeFi] to a collection of "scientists and science-minded thinkers": "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?" (It's just the latest in a series of annual questions.) Many of the answers are thought-provoking, or instructive (even though most are simply restatements of that thinker's area of interest in the form of an "unprovable" "assertion"). The zeitgeist implicit in their answers is interesting, too. John Brockman writes:

This year there's a focus on consciousness, on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof. If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty.

We are in the age of "searchculture", in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it?

This is an alternative path. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis.

Maybe it says that. Maybe it says that this is how science actually works: Having hunches, then trying to prove them, which is really what most of the answers are about. Some of them get more fundamental, as when Richard Dawkins answers:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

... which is a remarkably blunt and honest thing for him to say, since it faces head-on the core weakness of his anti-ID positions. I personally think ID is a load of horse-hockey, but I don't think it can be countered with "proof" that it can't work any more than we can solve the first-mover conundrum. I'm glad Dawkins doesn't shy away from that. I'm not always crazy about the way he formulates ideas ("selfish gene" theory still seems too simplisticly reactionary to me, nearly 20 years after I first heard of it), but he is nevertheless one of the most able and vigorous opponents of ID, so it behooves me to pay attention to what he's saying out there.

In any case, while the Q&A is intriquing, in many cases (and as I've noted) it's largely a matter of researchers restating their research-focus as though it were a controversial idea. [bonehead @ MeFi observes, "... scratch post-docs or hungry assistant profs for real wild-eyed speculation. Of course, most of them will be wrong (entertainingly so), but that's where the future Nobels are too."] And I don't think Brockman is really giving credit to scientific process: Believing something you can't prove is usually how anything valuable and previously unknown gets to be learned. Call it a hunch, call it belief; the process whereby that belief is substantiated (though hardly evern "proved" in a strict logicalist sense) is what we know as science. And I'm not altogether sure that Brockman groks that.

Brockman also seems to think there's a new way of being an intellectual:

... There is also evidence here that the[se] scientists are thinking beyond their individual fields. Yes, they are engaged in the science of their own areas of research, but more importantly they are also thinking deeply about creating new understandings about the limits of science, of seeing science not just as a question of knowing things, but as a means of tuning into the deeper questions of who we are and how we know.

It may sound as if I am referring to a group of intellectuals, and not scientists. In fact, I refer to both. In 1991, I suggested the idea of a third culture, which "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. "

I believe that the scientists of the third culture are the pre-eminent intellectuals of our time. But I can't prove it.

This idea of "Third Culture" scientists is worth exploring, but it's a topic for another time. Suffice for now to say that I don't see anything sufficiently new that a new organizing principle is required; in fact, I think a concept like "third culture" has more potential to alienate thinkers from cross-pollination than it does to encourage them. A bit like "brights" in that regard.

But that's an issue I haven't got time to take on right now....

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