Saturday, April 7, 2007

Obama for President, but not until 2016

He gets my vote on coolest logo, though

Every four years there comes a time in our country when 50 or 60% of Americans of voting age vote for a president based on their perceptions on the candidates. These perceptions come from lots of places and are formed a number of different ways. According to the last two elections people just vote on geographical party lines: if you live near an ocean or a freshwater ocean you are a red state to distinguish yourself from the water, and if you don't live near water you are a blue state to demonstrate that obviously this blue part is the land. It will be interesting to see if this changes in 2008 and who can win the most swing states in '08 (according to Wikipedia's article, there are 14 current swing states. In 2004, of those states, Bush won 8 - Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Florida - while Kerry won 6 - Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves because we have primaries to worry about, although always keeping in mind the primaries are very much influenced by who we think can win the general election, where the potential to win swing states should be a huge factor.

So, apart from electibility in the general election, which I think is determined by who wins the New Hampshire primary (which is determined by who wins the Iowa Caucus), what is influencing people's votes in the primaries? This is a complicated issue but I don't think too many people will argue with me when I claim that the primaries are heavily influenced by money, which is heavily influenced by name recognition and, of course, money. This is a big problem, and I blame the media. Unless you make the effort that I am not comfortable assuming that all voters are making, you get all of your info from the media and all you are going to have learned form themknow about the candidates right now is two things. First, that Hillary, Obama, McCain, and Giuliani are on TV a lot, either getting mentioned or actually being shown interviewed or speaking. So there you have your name recognition, which is a self fulfilling (mothman) prohpesy because people will assume that they are the best candidates and vote for them just because they are familiar with them. Unfortunately the these four are only getting so much more attention because they have been in the spotlight in the past and the other candidates haven't, and this of course says nothing about what kind of president they would be. The second thing most people know now thanks to the media is that Hillary and Romney raised the most money in the most recent money count. Are you freaking kidding me with this? Sure, it can be seen as a proxy for how many supporters they have right now, but this is really dangerous because fundraising is so dependent on name recognition and how much money you have to put together a good fundraising campaign, which, again says nothing about what kind of a president you would be. Despite this, fundraising is used as a proxy not only for how many supporters the candidates have, but also for how good they are as candidates, because everyone likes a winner, perhaps regardless of what kind of competition that they've won (this is also why winning the party nomination is so dependent on Iowa (Yeearrrrgh) and New Hampshire).

The other reason why the media is determining so much is that they pick up the slack for the candidates. Putting aside the fact that the media do a horrible and actually could do a much better job at this, let's not let the candidates off the hook so easily. For several reasons (for starters take the fact that America is such a large country with diverse opinions and the fact that it has more potential than any other country to carry out various potential projects and ideas, of which there are approximately eleventy billion), political campaigns have become an exercise in talking a lot and saying little or nothing of substance. This is partly because if you say anything that gives away an actual opinion the media will replay it over and over again (partly because you would be the first to do so (IE to give them news!) and also becuase yearrghhh), but also because this is just how the system has come to function: because of the diversity of opinions among the huge number of voters, politicians beleive they can maximize support by being vague and not committing themselves too much on particular policy ideas for difficult (is there any other kind) isses.

The result is that we are informed that all of the candidates want to win in Iraq and bring the troops back ASAP, and all of the candidates want a strong economy with more jobs, and all of the candidates want to improve education and health care, etc. They all agree on most of the ends (or, at least, the ones that they think that are most important to the voters), however this turns into all that they talk about, and they tend no to go into much detail on the means, to a point where they will often all agree on the means as well because they are not being very specific. So how are we supposed to choose? I'm not going to lie, I'm not really sure. One way is, even if the candidates are giving the same answers, to pay attention to how they give them. A wise man once said "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." For instance, compare "she had a crack baby" to "she had a crack, baby." In other words one would have to read or listen to the candidates discussing the various issues and then compare and contrast, and decide who you felt sounded the most sincere and knowledgeable and capable when discussing what they want to do and why/how they can do it. This, again is what I am not comfortable in assuming that most of the voters are going to do. This should not be too shocking since we all lead busy lives nowadays, but it should be troubling because these are big decisions to be made. Unfortunately, many people are probably just tuning into the news every now and then, and then watching the debates, where, again, the candidates don't give us much info (to combine the horrors of the media with those of the vague candidates, the media then gives us statistics on who won the debates -- PEOPLE SHOULD DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

So I think it's clear that we all need to admit that we have a responsibility to be better informed. Call it a responsibility as an American, a responsibility as a human in society, an ethical responsibility, a moral responsibility, William Jennings Bryan, William Tell, whoever. Of course, this isn't easy either, and requires a lot of effort. One place I'd like to start is the candidates web sites on the issues. As I said, they all come to similar conclusions on the issues (except for the traditional democratic-republican splits on certain things), but maybe you can make a judgment just based on what issues these guys (and girl!) put up on their web sites, and also how they phrase them. So here are the issues that each candidate chose to give you their opinion on via their web site.

Fiscal Discipline
Cutting Taxes
Winning the War on Terror
Public Safety
Second Amendment

Government Spending, Lower Taxes and Economic Prosperity
Human Dignity & the Sanctity of Life
Lobbying & Ethics Reform
The Consequences of Failure in Iraq
National Security
Stewards of our Nation's Rich National Heritage
Protecting Second Amendment Rights

Defeating the Jihadists
Competing with Asia
America's Culture and Values
Health Care

Iraq: A Way Forward
Afghanistan and Darfur
Health Care
Access to Higher Education
Preparing for College
Homeland Security
Climate Change

American Security
Energy and the Environment
Health Care
Leadership on Iraq
Jobs and the Economy

Honestly I cannot find Clinton's "Issues" part of her web site and I'm not sure whether there is one!

Strengthening America Overseas
Plan to End the Iraq War
Cleaning up Washington's Culture of Corruption
Meeting America's Energy Needs
Honoring our Veterans
Improving our Schools
Creating a Healthcare System that Works
Protecting our Homeland
Strengthening Families and Communities
Protecting the Right to Vote
Reconciling Faith and Politics

National Security/Foreign Policy

So there is a starting point. And finally a word about my personal opinions and in reference to the title of this article. I think I will probably vote for one of the Democrats although I haven't ruled out some of the Republicans, so, since this is a blog, and blogs are for non-experts to air their personal opinions on issues they don't fully understand, I will do so. As I mentioned, the media is already shaping the primaries and thus the general election, and they are simplifying the Democratic primary down to Hillary-Obama, which is unfortunate. Personally I am thoroughly unimpressed with Hillary, and I am very impressed with Obama, although I am equally if not more impressed with Dodd, Edwards, Richardson and Biden. These three are incredibly smart guys and the pundits and the media as well as us when we discuss politics in our personal time ignore these three at our own and our nation's peril. For reasons including but not limited to experience, I think it makes much more sense to have one of those guys as the Presidential nominee, and they will then do well to choose Obama as their running mate. Maybe Barack can be VP for 8 years - he can still speak for our country and have an influence in shaping policy, and then he will be ready to be President in 2016.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Literary Corner

Jim: Hi Tom. What's on your Roll?

Tom: It's a sandwich I made. I took the flesh from a dead baby and spread it on a Kaiser. I call it a "Roll Doll"

Jim: Oh My God! I love Roald Dahl.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Second Materialism

I’ll tell you who I like- Madonna. That woman can sing. So catchy. And poignant. God, is she poignant. “I’m living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” Madonna must have been reading all the trade journals, because never a truer thing was said of our modern age.

I think Madonna was singing about material wealth- that’s the materialism she meant. She noticed the creeping desire for material possessions infecting our greedy American souls and sang a little ditty about it. I don’t think anyone would deny that Madonna was right on the money on that account. Last year the U.S. bought so much stuff that we had to borrow $765 Billion dollars from the rest of the world to pay for it all.

But Madonna may have been right-on by other accounts as well. There is another form of creeping materialism these days, and it too is flagrantly American. It informs our science and motivates our politics. It supports our pragmatism. It has become so firmly entrenched in our thinking and cultural identity that it seems perfectly germane to our lives- so much so that we could not imagine another way. I am speaking of the materialism that makes drugs, and bombs, and windex. The materialism that craves physical gain and quantified benefit. The materialism that asks “What happens at the end of the day?” And “What’s the bottom line?” The American materialism that says, once and for all: “Enough with all the hub-bub and tell me what it is, really.” I am speaking of that other American materialism-philosophic materialism- the belief that at bottom, it’s all just matter, material. Material-ism.

What the hell is he talking about?

I’m getting there.

Has anyone noticed that neuroscience is taking over? It’s everywhere. I can’t not-read the Times without seeing some new study that proves, finally, that morality, or empathy, or language, or time, or prostitution, or backgammon is really just an issue of grey matter and synapse firings. And it’s proliferating as well. We now have neuropsychology, neurobiology, neuroeconomics, and most recently, neurotheology. Traditional disciplines are being usurped by the neuron- that most unwitting conquistador.

It’s not just the neuron, though. Legal proceedings now rely heavily on DNA records. Drug companies pay millions for chemical patents. Dr. Francis Collins just mapped the human genome and found God. What’s this all about?

Somewhere along the line, we became obsessed with the miniscule. We took two millennia to reach the stars, then suffered exploratory remorse, and in a reflective moment of depression, turned the instruments inward and wrote a new mantra: “it’s just…” It’s just molecules. It’s just atoms. It’s just quarks. It’s just genes. It’s just that, nothing more.

“What’s the big deal? It’s just neural activity, that’s all.”

“But I’m sad!”

“I know it feels like that. But really, it’s just a deficiency of sodium in your cerebral cortex.”

“Great. Thanks.”

We marveled at our escape from mysticism and aggrandized our new religion- science.

"Come one, come all. Come and see the newest thing in town. It’s not opinion. It’s not faith. It’s fact- it’s science."

No it’s not. It’s materialism. It’s belief that reduction to atomistic makeup constitutes explanation and knowledge. It’s a desperate attempt to forget humanity's special gift- consciousness- and all the responsibility that comes in tow. It’s a ravenous lust for results, productivity, control; and it couldn’t be more American if Madonna actually did sing a song about it.

The Real American Materialism:

“That’s it man. You see that quark there? That’s the Truth of it all.”

“Really, where? I can’t see it.”

“Here, use this.”

“Oh, there it is. That’s Truth?”

“Sure is.”

“Who said?”


“What did they say?”

“They said we’re living in a material world, and we’re all material girls. Come on, get with the times.”

“We’re living in a material world?”

“Sure are.”

“Is that right?”


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Anybody Read This Lately?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Do You Have Any Idea How Complicated Your Circulatory System Is?

I heard Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, on NPR last week discuss his new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and found his message perplexing. It appears Dr. Collins is part of an intellectual crusade from a stealth subset of the scientific community whose members believe in God and seek to reconcile their faith with the apparently bible-refuting evidence of modern science. No short order. But I’ve seen a lot of these guys popping up lately, with their calm demeanor, gently explaining to us that it’s no big trick to believe in both science and religion, and I’d kindly like to know just what the hell they are smoking.

There are a few standard tacks that these guys make. One is to say that science and religion are two ways of looking at the same thing- two completely contradicting perspectives that no sane person could hold simultaneously. That one always goes down a little rough for me. Forgetting the mental gymnastics that jumping between these perspectives would require, I’m curious to know: two perspectives of what? The point is to determine what there is in the world. If science and religion are mere perspectives on what there is, then what good are they? We’ll still need something else to tell us what there is to have a perspective on.

Another popular tack is to claim that science and religion operate in different realms, answer different questions, suit different purposes, and address different needs. I think the idea here is that you go to work everyday and play with empirics, but at the end of the day you go home and read the bible, and one thing has nothing to do with the other. I imagine that is actually how it is for most of these guys. But when you have to vote on whether to teach evolution in the school, which realm do you listen to? Modern science, or the Bible? I think the convenient separation of religion and science is a powerful bit of wishful thinking.

The last tack that these guys usually make is to say there is nothing contradictory about science and religion: science is the tool with which God carries out his plan. This is the most interesting position, for my thinking. This position would have it that science and religion separate along the micro/macro division. That is, religion explains the big stuff, and science just mops up the details. So really, science and religion are continuous. The ancients would have been very surprised to learn that God was a modern Physicist.

So science and religion are separated by one of perspective, pursuit, or domain, but in any case, they share an underlying unity that permits a dual allegiance in these trying times. Is anybody buying this?

I have an alternative theory for Dr. Collins. Actually it’s not my theory, but I think it helps explain why these attempts to reconcile science and religion sound so strained. Heidegger says in his essay “the Age of the World Pictures” that there is a separation between science and religion, but it has nothing to do with perspective, pursuit, domain, or anything like that. Heidegger considers the break between science and religion to be much deeper than any of the superficial rifts that science or religion admits today. Heidegger claims that what differentiates modern thinking from religious thinking is a tacit commitment to the nature of Being- a commitment so fundamental to one’s thinking that to hold conflicting commitments in this regard would be self-annihilating. In his own (translated) words, Heidegger says “the fact that whatever is comes into being in and through representedness transforms the age in which this occurs into a new age in contrast with the preceding one…the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age. For the middle Ages, in contrast, that which is, is the ens creatum, that which is created by the personal Creator-God as the highest cause” (Heidegger, Age of the world Pictures, The Question Concerning Technology, p. 130).

What that means in plain speech is that the essence of what is (as in “is in the world”) for the modern age is that which is available to be represented by us; as opposed to the preceding epoch, the Middle Ages, during which the essence of what is was defined as what God created. Does the reader see how much deeper a distinction that is than the ones proposed by Dr. Collins and the religious scientists? For Dr. Collins, while there are distinctions between science and religion, the distinctions are supported by deep underlying continuities which enable a dual allegiance. For Heidegger, the distinction goes right down to our bedrock beliefs about what there is in the world. Once you register a distinction at that level, there can be no reconciliation. That is why these attempts to reconcile science and religion sound so strained: they are attempting to unify beliefs about Being- beliefs that are exclusive and irreconcilable.

What does this mean? Does it mean that you can not be both scientific and religious? Not at all. You can certainly be religious and a scientist. I would not wish to take anything away from the valuable work that Dr. Collins has done to map the human genome or impugn his faith. I’m sure it is quite strong. But I think it is preposterous to say, as Dr. Collins does, that the more precise our science gets, the closer to God we come. And if Heidegger is right, if the distinction between science and religion is rooted in a distinction regarding Being, then we know why Dr. Collins’ position is preposterous as well.