Friday, May 25, 2007

Men, Women, Again

A very special guest-blogger (with whom I’ll be at Niagara Falls over the weekend, so debate politely in our absence) weighs in on the comments of Peter the “seduction community” member who commented so intriguingly in the long thread resulting from my earlier post on feminism (I should say that while I stand by pretty much everything I said in that entry, I acknowledge that this is a vast terrain of never-ending debate, and I emphasized the select areas I felt were being overlooked, often annoyingly so — but, hey, my account of things is arguably far more nuanced than, say,


First, the thing about earnestness being less effective in sexual/romantic success than deception: it’s insane to me that you think it’s just WOMEN who respond to deception. Much to the chagrin of earnest feminists like me, there are tons of workshops and self-help books telling women to stop being so damn earnest and essentially training them to manipulate unsuspecting men into relationships and marriages. Apparently, these “systems” are enormously successful, too. Just to be extra clear, I’m not here to celebrate the deception just because it goes both ways. I find the “how to make him fall in love with you” crap just as depressing as your “seduction community.” I wish there was more honest, good-faith communication between the sexes. Maybe Todd is right, most people are just stupid. But I am not ready to give up hope….

Second, I think what’s interesting about your complaint that women expect you to “cut them more slack” than men is that women say exactly that about men. Like many straight women, I have often felt that men expect to be accommodated and to get their way all the time, at my expense. But just because I “felt” it, I don’t assume I am correct. I don’t think you’re correct about women either. And I don’t think that means one or both of us is irrational. I just think it’s a perception gap.

I suspect gender differences play into this, to a considerable degree. That means we respond to some things differently from you. It doesn’t mean we’re asking for “more slack” — at least no more slack than YOU ask of us (unwittingly, I’m sure). Take for example, Todd’s assertion that women cry as an “emotional manipulation” strategy. Similarly, a lot of women think men become withdrawn and unresponsive in the middle of a conversation (“it’s like hitting my head against a brick wall”) as a bullying tactic. I am sure there are examples where both of these things are intentionally employed as tactics. But for the most part, women aren’t trying to manipulate you when they cry and men aren’t trying to bully us when they shut down. We just respond to frustration differently.

But I don’t think it’s JUST the gender differences. I’ve had lots of male friends and lots of mixed-gender friend circles, so I can tell you that men and women who are platonic friends don’t generally have the same complaints about each other that they do about people they date. I wonder if certain complex needs, emotions, conflicts, etc. aren’t simply inherent in sexual/romantic relationships, regardless of gender. Just ask any gay couple — they seem to have many of the same problems. People have to accommodate mates in ways they don’t need to accommodate friends. These relationships have a different quality of intimacy and trust that seems to require more understanding (“slack” if you will). My friends are extremely important to me and when necessary, I am perfectly willing to cut them a lot of slack, but they generally don’t need it as much (or as regularly) as any of my boyfriends have needed. And the boyfriends could probably say something equivalent about me. (The exception, so far, is my current boyfriend, Todd Seavey — yes, I’m Todd’s liberal, feminist girlfriend — because we seem to share an almost identical joy of hashing out all our differences earnestly. But, if and when the need arises, I’ll be more than happy to cut him some slack, because I trust his good intentions).

Like I said, there seems to be a perception gap between the sexes, which is exacerbated by the existence of assholes (on both sides) and by people’s tendencies to lash out and think the worst others. Those of us who end up being able to relate to the opposite sex without condescending to them, despite having been seriously exasperated by them, do so as a result of some self awareness, a genuine openness to the other’s point of view and a little patience.

If someone — a woman-was really patient with you and open to hearing you out, I think you would feel differently about women and be able to discern the neurotic assholes from the rest of us. But, it’s hard to be open to you when you’ve decided that we’re all irrational and not worth engaging in good faith. Just like women who accuse all men of being misogynists and potential rapists can’t reasonably expect men to sympathize with their position. I understand that your venom comes from bad experiences with women. Believe me, most of male bashing also grows out of the bashers’ personal wounds, dealt (or perceived to have been dealt) by men. These are not good reasons to advocate cutting off the conversation, although I am in no way callous about the scars that you (and the male bashers) have obviously sustained. I hope you will all find ways to heal from them. I’m a romantic, so I also hope all of you will fall in love with someone wonderful any day now!

As far as the “seduction community,” I’m glad to hear that their methods are at least getting you laid, although they have failed to help you with the full relationship you had obviously hoped to find. But I wonder, if this is really working, even just for sex, then why do you have to be grateful for prostitution and porn?

In any case, I’ll take you at your word that your “porking” success rate has improved since you got seduction training. In the same spirit, I trust you will take my word that I have a large circle of women friends who easily are 9s and 10s, are constantly hit on by men, and none of them accept the advances of guys who treat them with disrespect, already have girlfriends, or are full of themselves (confidence and arrogance are not the same thing). And no, my friends aren’t lying to me. I KNOW their dates, boyfriends and husbands. They are the kindest, most decent men you’ll ever meet.

I won’t try to put a number on my own hotness, but I must be passably attractive, since I usually don’t want for male attention (at least when I feel confident and good about myself) and yet — and now I’m asking you to take MY word for it — I have always chosen to be with guys who are good human beings. Certainly, I like a guy who is also “confident and feels good about himself” and is — preferably — some combination of good looking, smart, interesting and funny, AS WELL AS a nice guy. (why do people say “nice guys” when they really mean unattractive, insecure, boring guys who have nothing to recommend them except their alleged “niceness”?) I don’t see how any of my criteria are “irrational” just because they don’t begin and end with “nice.” And no, I’m not just “steering” my sexuality consciously. I’m telling you about my visceral reactions to different kinds of men. An attractive (even a moderately attractive) guy, who is really smart, and genuinely kind and seems to sincerely like and admire me, is a HUGE turn on for me. Arrogant, self-centered men simply turn me off even if they are hunky, smart etc. A whiney, insecure guy doesn’t turn me off quite the same way, but he will never turn me on just by being “nice”. Being nice is a threshold requirement of decent human interaction, not some amazing virtue deserving of special rewards. Most women don’t expect to be rewarded with tons of romantic attention just for being “nice” people.

Yes, there are women out there who are cock-whipped by arrogant, self-centered males, but there are also plenty of guys who are pussy-whipped by arrogant, self-centered females -so this doesn’t really say anything meaningful about the “mating drives” of either sex. (On a related note: Peter claims that women “won’t come to grips” with their mating drives, as opposed to men, who know what they are looking for, which is simply “looks and loyalty.” Really? Care to check out Todd’s “Personal Ad”? Also, if “looks and loyalty” are all Peter is looking for, then, what’s his problem? Why does it matter to him if women are “rational”?)

Of course, there is also the type of woman who just won’t care what kind of person you are or if you are already in a relationship; she’ll want you just because you turn her on sexually. Well, given that MEN behave this way much more regularly — and even brag about it — than women, I find it puzzling that you see this as an example of FEMALE irrationality.

If I may offer a suggestion to Peter and other men who feel the same way, consider this: when you bemoan the fact that “women” are irrational, unresponsive to kindness, and whatever other complaint you have, are you really sampling from the general population of women in your acquaintance? Or do you start with the 9s and 10s (scored that way based on characteristics completely unrelated to the things you are complaining about)? In other words what do you screen for FIRST? If you start by pre-selecting the hottest women around and then lament the low occurrence among them of all those other qualities you seek -well, that’s not really the most “rational” way to go about things, is it? I’m not saying beautiful women can’t be smart, sane, kind and earnest. I’m just saying if your selection criteria are prioritized to place the highest value on X, then your results will be skewed toward more X, and the co-incidence of Y, Z and W will be much more random.

By the way, I checked out (briefly) the two seduction sites that Peter linked to. Of course, the focus of these are ultimately manipulative and therefore distasteful to me, and we (at least the women) have no way of verifying their claims — they have a product to sell to desperate people (just like fad diets that “work”). Still, even assuming the veracity of their claims about results, when you see the type of specific advice that apparently has actually succeeded, it does not seem to support Peter’s conclusion that they work because women are “inherently irrational”.

I have four general areas of observation:

1. One bottom line principle behind these seduction techniques is that you have to (comfortably) exude some sexuality (i.e. flirt) in order for women to respond to you sexually. Well, no shit! Where is the “irrationality” in this? How is someone supposed to find you sexual if you don’t exhibit any sign of it? Interestingly, I found this principle set forth in an entry about the old “nice guy v. jerks” debate. Ladies, you will be relieved to hear that even these seductionist cads admit, very clearly, that women don’t pick “jerk” qualities (rudeness, arrogance, boorishness etc.) over “nice guy” qualities, but rather, that this misunderstanding comes from the fact that the self-proclaimed nice –guys are confusing “niceness” with androgyny and asexuality. My own 2 cents: if you can’t be sexual without being rude, arrogant or boorish, then maybe you’re not such a “nice” guy.

But I’m really not suggesting that all guys with the “nice guy” complaint are latent boors. Some just lack other things women want. And others have honestly come to believe that all sexual behavior they initiate will be somehow offensive to women. I have to lay some of the responsibility for this on certain of my fellow feminists, who have promoted this idea of associating any expression of male sexuality with “violence” and “aggression” and led some good men (like Peter, perhaps) to internalize the notion that flirting is “disrespectful”. I (and a lot of other feminists) summarily reject this notion, but many feminists do endorse it — and I think they are rightly criticized for it.

Incidentally, there’s a pretty widespread belief among a sizable minority of women — usually not feminists — who bemoan the scarcity of “good men”: that men don’t appreciate a good, loyal woman; that it’s those narcissistic, selfish, bitchy women that get all the guys; that to get a man to be loyal and treat you well, you have to be cruel and treat him like crap and keep him insecure about your relationship. In other words “nice girls finish last.” I think these perceptions, just like the “nice guy” problem have less to do with reality than with resentful interpretations of reality.

2. Another key insight shared on the seduction sites is that women find confidence attractive. What’s “irrational” about that? Unless you are confusing confidence with arrogance, rudeness, or boorishness?

By the way, men respond to confidence in women too. Men and women are socialized (or perhaps biologically wired) to convey it differently, but it’s important for both to have it. Notice the way Peter describes the behavior of the “10″ — that’s some serious alpha-female shit! And frankly, in these discussions, when men say “women” they completely leave out of the equation all those mousy, insecure, “nice” women who are sitting in a corner (or at home), pining away for some Mr. Nice Guy to come rescue them. The women these men are “gaming” are the ones that are out there, confident in their sexuality, laughing, dancing, flirting, acting like they own the world. Yes, men are visual, and one of the most important visual cues they respond to is confident body language. The hot girl who also knows she’s hot will get the most guys. Of course confidence doesn’t quite make up for being ugly, but NOT having confidence will doom a mousy girl to be overlooked forever, even if she is technically “pretty.” A girl who is less pretty will be noticed and actually will be considered “hotter” if she cultivates a sense of self or at least a certain look, posture and stride.

I’ve gone through periods of insecurity in my own life -for reasons unrelated to men or sex-but during those periods, suddenly it seemed nobody was attracted to me. As soon as I snapped out of it, stopped caring what anyone thought and went about being myself and rediscovering my joie de vivre, the men came back out of the woodwork trying to get me to notice them. Even though I looked exactly the same. (disclaimer: I belong to a special subspecies of humans, called “nerds” –our mating rituals may be a little different from the rest. Still, I think we can draw parallels).

3. Another general approach of seduction seems to be that instead of complimenting a woman, you make fun of her a little. The claim is that women respond to being demeaned and having their confidence eroded. But lets look at how the specific tactics worked, at least in the video examples I saw. One guy went up and started insulting women. No woman responded well to him. They couldn’t get away from him fast enough. Another guy went up to a really hot girl and said her teeth were cute, like “bugs bunny”. She found him endearing. But note that he was smiling, his body language was friendly and just a little suggestive without being threatening. His comment charmed because it was unexpected (and funny) and seemed unrehearsed. Part of the reason it’s funny is precisely that it seems like an utterly ridiculous pick up strategy. Like George Costanza telling women he’s unemployed and lives with his mother. It has a novelty. And women like guys who are willing to expose themselves that way. Of course, the unemployed-lives-with-mother line will only work if it’s obviously a joke! And I think “bugs bunny” knew she was being joshed with and not insulted for real. To think a gorgeous woman with no dearth of male attention will have her sexual confidence “eroded” based on a stupid comment from a stranger is laughable. Maybe a guy who needs seduction training to find a date has a self image flimsy enough to be swayed this way, but the 9 or 10 he’s “gaming” is probably more secure than that.

4. Some of the other suggestions on the seduction sites are simply manipulation and deception tactics. They have nothing to do with women’s “mating drives.” If you misrepresent who you are and I buy it, that just means I am trusting or gullible. It doesn’t mean I enjoy being deceived or that the fact of being deceived is what I am responding to.

For example, one piece of advice was to lull a woman into a false sense of bonding with you by pretending to be a platonic friend while you get her to talk about her sexual fantasies. Apparently this works.

One reason that a woman may respond to this (and for argument’s sake lets grant that some women do) is that she notices how comfortable she is with you. In other words, she is being turned on by a nice-guy quality. To her, you’re a nice, “easy to talk to” guy who is not asexual and the talk is sexually charged. The fact that this turns her on should make you reject (or at least question) the notion that she is looking for a jerk to demean her. If you choose to think that it’s the fact that you’re actually a deceiver pretending to be a friend that’s the real turn on (as opposed to the sexy talk and the comfortable rapport with you) then it’s your interpretation that’s irrational. Not the chick.

Another reasonable interpretation is that she is turned on by her own sexual thoughts, but the object of her fantasy isn’t available, so she’ll act out her lust on you, as you happen to be around. I don’t see why this should be derision-worthy. If anything, men should identify with this kind of behavior. After all, it’s fairly common for men to admit that when they are horny, they will have sex with any available female, regardless of who they are actually fantasizing about.

One last note about seduction: women have always very successfully used “feminine wiles” and insincere seduction tricks on men too, does that mean men are “inherently irrational”?


And Todd here again, with a concluding note: another issue of dating symmetry and asymmetry will be hashed out in the next of our Debates at Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) at 8pm on Wednesday, June 20, when “Rev. Jen” Miller and Rules for Saying Goodbye author Katherine Taylor (who’s also a libertarian — maybe she’s voting for Ron Paul in the primaries, too!) ask “Is It More Painful to Get Dumped or to Do the Dumping?” I’ll host (and Michel Evanchik will moderate), so by all means come by and debate all these interrelated topics if you like.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Conspiracies and Ron Paul

Ron Paul It is ironic that just when I find myself looking with pity at conspiracy theorists, my favorite presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), is in danger of becoming “the conspiracy theory candidate” in some people’s minds. But first, I should explain why conspiracy theories have been on my mind lately.

Conspiracy Theorists — They’re All Around Me!

In a single week earlier this month:

–I met a Phillips Foundation Fellow who’ll be writing (in a skeptical fashion, rest assured) about 9/11 conspiracy theorists — which probably made most of the other Phillips Fellows, a conservative bunch, think “It’s about time someone took a hard look at some of those oddballs” but made me wonder whether I should put that Fellow in touch with my friend Sander Hicks, who, when he’s not promoting Marxism, publishing books, seeking the Green Party nomination for Senate, or running the Vox Pop cafe/bookstore in Brooklyn, is also the author of a book called The Big Wedding, which argues not only that 9/11 was an inside job but that the scapegoat organization in the attacks, al Qaeda, doesn’t really exist and is basically a facade created by Swiss neo-Nazis. I know what you’re probably thinking: “What?! He runs a cafe?” It’s incredible but true.

–I met a libertarian who thinks fluoride in the water is making us sick (I don’t pretend to be a fluoride expert, but that scare does bare a strong resemblance to a lot of the exaggerated scares analyzed on the site I edit by day, — interestingly, it’s a scare that began on the right, as so beautifully parodied in Dr. Strangelove, but has become more popular with leftists and environmentalists).

–I saw my co-workers at the American Council on Science and Health dismayed by the realization that even the American Cancer Society is now passively repeating, without good evidence, the assumption that “chemicals in the environment” are giving us cancer.

–I learned (from a good friend who would probably rather not be mentioned in this context) that the Washington Post Magazine ran an astoundingly sympathetic article earlier this year about people who think they’ve been targeted by government mind-control rays — despite Dennis Kucinich making an effort to outlaw any such devices (making him the only candidate to address the issue so far, though I think Ron Paul would be with him in principle, and we’ll get to that below). It’s amazing that the Post was unfazed during the editing process by paragraphs such as the one that non-judgmentally describes how one member of the “Targeted Individual” community, once a successful author, now feels she is being followed and harassed by mysterious Jewish-looking individuals (and for goodness’ sake, if you are a member of the “TI community,” please, I beg you, do not even consider writing to me or posting on this blog, as I am not equipped to deal with your very special needs and will immediately delete your posts).

–I learned I am myself indirectly connected to a man who worries about government mind control rays (please don’t ask).

–All that inspired me to think of a great way one could rise to prominence within the “9/11 Truth” community (the movement that believes 9/11 was an inside job): by writing a book arguing that the World Trade Center is still standing. If the lies run as deep as the Truth folk say, don’t think the government couldn’t pull off this ultimate con job. The shocking book about it might start out something like this: Why do you think they don’t let anyone walk right up to the “footprints” of the two buildings? The Pentagon can create holograms as easy as pie — that’s common knowledge and requires nothing more than existing technology — but they couldn’t prevent people bumping into the buildings physically if they walked around down there willy-nilly. QED. The real question, then, is: What sinister activities are going on inside those buildings now that they are officially “disappeared”? Think Area 52, if you will

(Two asides:

1. After years of not being able to get a good look at the pit at Ground Zero, I only recently realized, returning from a visit to my girlfriend Koli, that if you take the PATH train from Jersey on the “World Trade Center” route, the train actually does a big loop around the inside walls of the pit, like a big, creepy Disney: The Ground Zero Experience ride. Worth checking out if you find yourself coming back from Jersey City or Hoboken for some reason [the 33rd St. train doesn't make the same stop], morbid as it may sound.

2. Speaking of, or rather alluding to, Area 51 [soon to be the subject of a movie written by my favorite comic book writer, Grant Morrison, fresh off his stint, coincidentally or not, on the comic series 52], much as I dislike paranormal claims in non-fiction material, I’m pretty pleased to hear that the rumored plot of the fourth Indiana Jones movie, due out next year, pits an aging Indy against 1950s Soviet agents out to steal “ancient astronaut” artifacts [possibly including a crystal skull] with ties to Area 51. If this kind of nonsense is rattling around in the popular culture anyway, I can think of few better uses to put it to than a new Indiana Jones movie. When I believed in that sort of stuff, as a child, I planned to make a crystal skull central to my own comic book scripts someday, so once more the culture dances to my tune — I’ll have to share the rest of the envisioned comic plots with you someday.)

Ominous Connections — to Celebrities!

In the highly unlikely event I ever do write a conspiracy theory book about 9/11 and thus join the Truth community, it might give me a chance to meet the new most-prominent spokesperson of that movement, departing View hostess Rosie O’Donnell (I once met Rachel Simon, whose mentally retarded sister O’Donnell played in the TV-movie Riding the Bus with My Sister, and I’ll bet her sister doesn’t go around claiming, for instance, that fire can’t bend steel, as O’Donnell has, so the sister’s got at least one advantage). One of my former Stossel co-workers, producer Kristi Kendall, who sort of comes across like a blonde, twelve-year-old Girl Scout despite now being about thirty, says that her grandmother once wrote to The View to suggest that Kristi should be its new co-hostess, and though I laughed about it at the time, if ABC had listened to Kristi’s grandmother, we could have prevented the whole Rosie thing. (Note: a recent poll shows about 1/3 of Democrats now believe that Bush had advance knowledge of the attacks, but as my Manhattan Project co-hostess Karol Sheinin says, South Park has argued that 1/4 of Americans are retarded.) [UPDATE: Ah! Rosie's finally being countered instead by argumentative comments from her conservative, shoe-designing, Rhode Island-raised, Survivor-featured co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck -- that's what I'd call giving America a clear choice.]

The closest thing I’ve done to meeting O’Donnell this month, though, was probably attending a lecture about global warming skepticism by Julian Morris of the International Policy Network, but I say this not because I lump global warming skeptics in with 9/11 conspiracy theorists (or Holocaust deniers, or anti-Darwinists) — on the contrary, my skeptical statistician friend Chuck Blake and others have helped convince me that the danger from warming, to the extent we can even make any reliable predictions about it, is wildly overblown and probably best left to the quiet study of climatologists rather than policy-makers for at least another decade or two.

No, the reason I say that night’s IPN lecture was a bit like meeting O’Donnell is that without IPN knowing it in advance, Whoopi Goldberg was having a book release party downstairs from the IPN speech for her new children’s book. I was surprised how little security a Whoopi appearance entails, though I’m sure they’re used to this sort of thing in L.A. (perhaps L.A. people are surprised how little security there is at author appearances when they visit New York). The aforementioned Mr. Blake, also in attendance at the IPN speech, commented, though, that he wasn’t terribly excited about Whoopi himself and thought of her mainly as “the person who screwed up Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Like Bad Sci-Fi — No, Wait, It Is Bad Sci-Fi

My one regret comes from the thought that had I known about my proximity to Whoopi’s appearance in advance, I could have brought with me — and asked her to autograph — the DVD my friend Meredith Kapushion gave me of the movie Whoopi says she wishes she’d never made: Theodore Rex, in which she plays a tough cop in the future who gets partnered — much to her chagrin! — with a fast-talking, uncouth, human-sized tyrannosaurus rex created through genetic engineering. His tail often slaps people in the buttocks at inappropriate moments, and the guy who created him wants to blow up the world with an ice missile. Whoopi wears a lot of really tight black spandex. I also wish she hadn’t made Theodore Rex and can’t really laugh about it anymore. At the end, Whoopi and the dinosaur learn to overcome their differences and work together. I need to watch this for a moment to compensate. OK, all better.

(On another sci-fi note, I read that next season sees a TV series called The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which takes place between Terminator 2 and Terminator 3 — which strikes me as beating a dead horse, since there are only so many times time-traveling cyborgs can plausibly attack one person without finishing the job or having the whole thing turn into an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch [Note: Microsoft Office spellcheck does not contain the word "cyborg" -- there's something wrong about that {Oh my gosh! It also doesn't contain the word "spellcheck"!}]. I am more optimistic about the live-action Star Wars TV series scheduled for 2009, which takes place between Revenge of the Sith and the original film, since Lucas says it will feature the bounty hunters seen in The Empire Strikes Back, such as Boba Fett and Bossk. I could see them, unlike Sarah Connor, sustaining at least two seasons. Boba Fett, for instance, has a cool helmet, while Bossk is a lizard guy. That’s two episodes right there.)

Meanwhile, on Earth: Ron Paul

It’s strange that roughly half the country is antiwar enough to see opposition to continuing the Iraq War as Democrats’ chief virtue, yet Ron Paul is treated like a crazy person for suggesting (in the recent South Carolina debate between the ten announced Republican candidates), in a fashion that doesn’t even strike me as logically incompatible with a hawkish attitude, that groups like al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq may hate us because of past U.S. interventions in the Middle East. (His views about this are sometimes mentioned in conjunction with his aversion to the U.S.’s close relationship with Israel.)

Now, it’s true that Paul comes from the most crankily anti-interventionist wing of the libertarian movement (Note: Someone please pay me to explain all this in more detail), the Old Right-sympathizing “paleolibertarians,” kindred spirits in some regards to Pat Buchanan’s anti-interventionist “paleoconservative” faction (but with a bit more of that California-hippie-anarchist flavor, which, like some of the folks mentioned above, often has that tiny, zesty hint of schizophrenia about it). Some in that faction don’t even think that the U.S. should have gotten involved in World War II. But what strikes me as odd, I guess, about Paul getting labeled nutty for his anti-interventionist position is that this may be the most mainstream thing Ron Paul believes — yet oddly enough, is nonetheless my area of greatest disagreement with him (though I don’t dismiss that position as completely or as huffily as did Rudy Giuliani, who, in a further irony, I may well end up voting for in the general election, after casting a symbolic vote for Paul in the primary, if Paul lasts that long). Here’s a video debate just today between National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and the Brooking Institution’s Peter Beinart over whether Paul’s a nut (this video clip is from the same series of Goldberg-Beinart conversations that included this one, a nice summary of where the GOP, and its various factions, stand after the 2006 election defeat).

In contrast to his views on the military, I’m completely onboard with Paul in his desire to:

–abolish the Federal Reserve

–end Federal involvement in drug enforcement

–abolish the income tax

–dismantle the entire welfare state

–get the U.S. out of the U.N.

–restore the gold standard and/or allow private currency production

–end all subsidies

–eliminate virtually all Cabinet-level agencies

And so on. Who would have thought, in other words, that being antiwar is the thing that would get him “in trouble”? I only wish I could take this to mean we’re all now in agreement on all those other items.

I also wish, whatever differences I may have with Paul, that those unscientific online polls that his fans are so good at “winning” for him were accurate and reflected a groundswell of support that would carry him to victory in ’08, if not on this Earth, at least on some superior alternate world, somewhere amid the fifty-two universes of the multiverse. I am reminded of a heavily Michael Moorcock-influenced old idea I had for a sci-fi novel in which a man is forced to work across multiple universes with his own doppelgangers, each with a seemingly divergent political philosophy but all compatible with the core idea of liberty in the end. I’ve put up with enough crap from politicians in my lifetime that I ought quite easily to be able to hold my nose and vote for Ron Paul — indeed, for once, I may not even notice a stench. How can I pass up a quite likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like that?

P.S. Ah, well, at least Michelle Malkin has acknowledged that Paul is not a member of the 9/11 Truth conspiracy theory movement noted above, and if the whole issue gets too depressing, we have this video clip presenting the lighter side of 9/11, pointed out to me by Dan Raspler.

UPDATE 5/23/07: Speaking of conspiracies, my friend Jessica Seigel of the New York Times is scheduled to be on O’Reilly on Fox News Channel tonight at 8 Eastern (and 11) reacting to a new Pew poll showing most American Muslims don’t believe Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.  [And now, here's the video.]

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Death Notice: Raymonde Evanchik

The mother of this site’s webmaster has passed away, and he sends the following obituary:

Raymonde Evanchik

Wife, Mother, and Grandmother.

Daughter of Joseph “Albert” Billaux and Germaine Thalgott Billaux. Wife of Nicholas. Mother of Michel and Francoise. Grandmother of Jack and Freya.

Born July 8, 1940, Redon, France. Died May 16, 2007, Calvary Hospital, Bronx, NY.

A fiercely proud French citizen all her life and a Parisienne, she grew up in the 18ieme arr.

Her maternal grandfather, an Alsatian, joined the French Foreign Legion to fight against the Germans in WWI. Paternal grandfather was a survivor of the Battle of Verdun, and a member of the French underground in WWII. Father was seriously wounded fighting in WWII. She was born in Brittany, at her grandfather’s, to escape the potential bombing of Paris.

She moved to America in 1964, where she lived in Rego Park and Flushing until her marriage in 1970. They honeymooned on the cruise ship La France. She bore her children in Sweden, where she lived for 5 years, where her husband worked at Gevalia Coffee.

She returned to the USA in 1976, where she moved to 119 Alder Drive in Briarcliff Manor, NY, where she was to live for the rest of her life.

She was a devoted and tireless homemaker, frugal and thrifty with
herself, generous with her family and friends.

She travelled extensively in the US, Canada, Mexico, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe. She loved to go off the beaten path. She summered annually in Paris.

She was an avid reader. She needed her morning coffee before she could start her day. She ran the household so her husband could devote himself to his career. She oversaw her children’s education and upbringing so that they would grow up to be good, strong, and kind. She was a gracious and loyal friend to those she loved.

Viewings of the body will be 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. on Friday, May 18, at Waterbury and Kelly Funeral Home, 1300 Pleasantville Rd., Briarcliff, NY. A funeral mass will be held 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19 at St. Theresa Church, 1394 Pleasantville Rd.

We will all miss her greatly.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Atheism, Book II

Ah, you academics, with all of your words and your ideas. It’s ironic that Christine, who was one of my defenders in the “Aborting Feminism…” post’s response thread — where I was also faulted for lumping diverse forms of the criticized philosophy together — is now my harshest critic in the first “Atheism…” thread, on the charge of lumping diverse forms of religion together.

What it comes down to is this: I am saying it is irrational to assert the existence of something for which you have no evidence. I acknowledge the possibility of a religion that avoids doing this, but in practice virtually all do make such assertions, and that is my primary philosophical objection to them. I really don’t think this very fundamental criticism hinges on detailed knowledge of (to take one item to which Christine referred) the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Indeed, since Christine wrote comedy professionally even before attending divinity school and becoming a history professor, I’m sure she can see why I might find it a bit amusing that someone would imply that the details of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 were in any way decisive in determining the rationality of professing belief in the unseen and unproven — though I expect I’m laughing with her, not at her. I had also forgotten that there’s an apostrophe in the anglicized spelling of Ba’al, I must confess, but I think that even without knowing a detail like that I can say that most religions — like most belief systems in general — discourage desertion from the fold (and whether they do so through “dicta” or “dictums” is also secondary, not that I am obliged to defend everything Sam Harris or Clara say).

And while Christine expresses frustration with having to tell me over and over again why she’s not professing belief in a bearded father figure in the sky, imagine my even greater frustration with having to say over and over again, as I have, that I know theists do not (or no longer, if ever) tend to believe in some literal bearded father figure in the sky but that I in any case think that belief in, say, a thinking yet non-corporeal creator-force is irrational (absent good evidence). Water down theism all you like, and it’s still the irrational profession of belief in something without evidence.

And the burden of evidence for something’s existence or non-existence surely lies with the person making the profession of its existence, so to treat theists and atheists as if they are making “equal” unproven claims is completely absurd — very much analogous to the view that if someone says, without evidence, that “Jones has committed a murder,” the burden of proof is now equally on Jones (who presumably says “I have not committed a murder”) — assuming, again, that there is no evidence at all against Jones.

The only reason the assertion of a God sounds remotely plausible — or more plausible than random, paranoid assertions that one’s neighbors are secretly murderers or that an invisible UFO is currently hovering, undetected, over the neighborhood — is that at this late date the assertion lacks novelty and so doesn’t strike us as terribly, terribly strange. If, by contrast, one were sitting with a group of people in a restaurant and one suddenly said, for no apparent reason, “The minds of the dead endure after death and form a phalanx of warriors locked in an eternal battle to invade a planet at the center of the Andromeda Galaxy,” no one would say, “Well, even in the absence of the slightest scrap of evidence for this extraordinary claim, we must treat this as a plausible assertion until we can mount an expedition to check.” The assertion could happen to be true, of course — and there could be a God (atheism does not mean the assertion with absolute certainty that there is none, only the absence of belief that there is one) — but there’s no obvious reason to treat either claim as an important probability or a matter worthy of serious thought, in the absence of some sort of evidence. Shirley MacLaine says without evidence that she is reincarnated from ancient Atlantis. Christians say God exists (or in some formulations simply “hope” God exists). Why treat either assertion with respect, beyond the basic civility due even the mentally ill?

There is a great deal we know about human psychology and why people might believe in something like the God-claim without it being true. Wouldn’t it almost be overdeterminism to suggest, given that the God idea so often comes packaged with moral harangues, childhood indoctrination, and promises of eternal life, that we must further posit that for so many people to find the idea appealing, it must be true? That’s a bit like saying “I can’t imagine any reason that people would be tempted to buy this product that’s advertised as a wrinkle-eliminating, age-reversing, brain-enhancing, cancer-curing elixir — unless all the claims about it are true.” Surely, the advertising alone would be reason to expect at least some people to be intrigued — and indeed potions that make subtle enough claims that they are hard to test in any one customer’s personal experience do sell well even without any good empirical evidence of their efficacy (true claims would obviously be in an even stronger position to win and keep loyalty, but truth is not the only way to win people over).

So the fact that people believe cannot be treated as evidence in itself that their beliefs are warranted — people believe all sorts of manifestly false things, some far more fervently than the average mainstream religious believer believes the claims of religion (witness the willingness of a handful of sad souls to die for the Hale-Bopp Comet cult, believing they would be resurrected and taken to an alien mothership and then to a better world).

I’m not sure what other lesson I’m supposed to draw from the admittedly diverse and complex history of religion — which Christine obviously knows far, far better than I do — than that religion varies radically but is almost always grounded in the unproven belief that some sort of non-corporeal entity exists, which remains the very fundamental thing to which I’m objecting. The occasional really nasty manifestations of that belief, such as suicide bombers, are secondary, though I think you can see why one might reasonably hope that humans who were taught not to believe in things for which they do not have evidence — such as a Paradise awaiting those who martyr themselves for Allah — would be at least somewhat less likely to become such monsters.

If we go around telling people it’s all right to believe in things without evidence, they will occasionally come up with some very strange and dangerous ideas — but their beliefs would still be irrational even if they did not manifest themselves in dangerous, socially destructive ways, and I don’t mean to imply for a moment that rationality and social utility are synonymous.

And if my objection to faith is that fundamental, it’s not clear to me why (beyond my general personal enrichment) I need to know or discuss the details of Christian history (I have other things to do, you know). My objection is not to Christianity in particular (though dwelling in the U.S., I think it’s fair for me to use it as the example closest to hand) but rather to all faith, whether in Jesus, fate, lucky rabbit’s feet, the eventual return of a manifestly-dead long-missing relative, psychic powers, “some greater purpose that must exist for this misfortune,” the eventual triumph of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the “inevitable” rise to fame of a talentless and long-struggling actor. Belief without evidence is irrational (even if once in a rare while the faith-fueled belief turns out to be true or helpful, essentially by dumb luck that does not probabilistically constitute a model for future rational thought).

Certain atheistic strains of Buddhism and other exceptions notwithstanding, then, I think I’m making a fair — though inevitably imperfect — generalization when I say: I object to “religion,” and I leave the details of religion’s varied forms and its rich history to professors like Christine to sort out if they so choose (if I’ve overlooked, for instance, numerous strains of Christianity that don’t involve the positing of a God, I’m delighted to hear about them, but I think it’s safe to say they’re exceptions and furthermore that their practical purpose is a bit unclear — though I’m willing to exclude such atheistic forms of religion, if any, from my sweeping condemnations of “religion”). What more should I say? Despite the leveling against me of charges of evangelism (a practice that, for the record, I’ve never objected to — I object only to spreading false beliefs), what more, or less, can I say without simply trying to curry favor? Religion’s starting premise is false (or at least there is no reason to think otherwise). It would probably behoove humans to try to tell the truth for a change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Atheism on ABC's “20/20” This Week (Video link added)

Tomorrow night (Friday, May 11, 2007, at 9pm Eastern) ABC News airs a two-hour special on Seeing and Believing: The Power of Faith — but the good news is that there will be one segment on atheism, reported by my old boss, John Stossel, who is usually the conduit through which sanity is injected into ABC News broadcasts.

Last time I checked, Stossel was more agnostic than atheist (a good reporter strives to suspend judgment, I suppose), but he should provide a sympathetic ear to Richard Dawkins, one of his interview subjects (and author of The God Delusion).

I was only recently reminded (by my comrade-in-skepticism Chuck Blake) that I’ve been arguing not only with the faithful but even with full-fledged creationists since high school, when a handful of our fellow honors students at Norwich Free Academy high school somehow fell for the whole no-convincing-fossil-record, carbon-dating-my-ass pre-“intelligent design” version of anti-Darwinian thinking.

Indeed, I think the first political column I ever wrote was a high school piece warning about the influence of the fundamentalists on the religious right — but I was more wary of the moral relativism and apologies for communism on the left and for about the next twenty years took the Reaganite view that these religious issues are sort of secondary things best left to the general culture to sort out, while politics is mainly the realm of tax and regulatory debates. Since the post-Reagan coalition on the right hasn’t substantially deregulated or shrunk the government, though — and more importantly, since religious fundamentalists killed thousands of people downtown a few years ago and would surely love to do so again — my patience with treating faith as a useful or at least tolerable cultural partner is at an end.

(Sadly, I don’t really trust the organized Skeptics movement that much anymore, either, since their premier magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has opened a DC headquarters and unskeptically jumped in a big way on the global-warming-doom bandwagon, something I need to dispatch a terse letter about the moment I finish writing this blog entry.)

But in any case, the truth does not hinge on political necessity, and if one casts aside all of the social-utility and psychological-utility arguments (which often aren’t all that convincing to begin with) for religion, one is not left with anything I think we’d normally call evidence or a remotely plausible rational argument — just stuff that in one way or another boils down to “but thinking it was true helped me overcome alcoholism/write an opera/avoid a life of crime/convince fellow neocons we had a duty to invade Iraq/etc.,” all of which is swell but not exactly a good basis for claims about the basic structure of the universe. And in any case, perhaps we can avoid alcoholism and so forth even more effectively without filling people’s heads with fairytales, which means we may be retarding long-term cultural development for short-term gains, like parents who tell their kids not to go in the woods because the boogeyman will get them instead of teaching the kids about real predators, wilderness survival, knot-tying, and so forth.

I remember telling a co-worker back when I was working for Stossel, in fact, that I thought the dangerous thing about faith is that since it does not check its conclusions against empirical reality, it may “tell” people to love and tolerate their neighbors today but tomorrow, blown by different cultural winds, tell people to commit mass murder. Oh, that doesn’t happen, my co-worker basically assured me, amused at what she saw as my relentless negativity in this area (as she is to this day). That was before 9/11, of course.

It’s bad enough that billions of people on this planet continue to treat faith with respect as a means of discerning truth despite the obvious fact that it leads some people to believe in Jesus and, with just as much plausibility, leads other people — who seem clearly to be operating on the same level of well-meaning eagerness to believe in what’s right and good — to believe in Vishnu. But to continue praising faith as a reliable guide even while our civilization is under assault by the likes of al Qaeda strikes me as evidence that most people are stubborn and close-minded right up to and beyond the point of self-destruction (and still they wonder how suicide bombers happen).

Given the spats between church and monarchy that shaped centuries of European history and the clashes between religion-fueled political groups and liberal-or-socialist pro-government groups in our own era, I suspect a lot of human history will (eventually) be looked back upon as effectively a stalemate between two false choices: let the imaginary king in the sky control your life or let the all too real authoritarians on Earth control your life. If you say, “Hey, maybe we can do without either,” you’re labeled a radical nutcase. Ah, well, at least there’s the Stossel broadcast tomorrow.

P.S. I beg you not to respond with citations of religious authorities as supposed “reason” to take faith seriously. Believe me, I’ve now heard decades worth of apologetics for religion, and it’s all complete crap, as I think even the truest of true believers know, dimly, on some level. But the most useless form of the stuff is the offering up of banal Bible passages as if they have some persuasive power greater than bad poetry, so, as the “owner” of this site, I’m telling you not to trespass with nonsense like “But, Todd, you have forgotten Zebadoodah 3:24:05, which clearly teaches us that ‘He who maketh not his resting place beneath the Lord’s bower finds himself lost like unto a man who thought there was a river nearby but now is parched and cranky, while he who taketh comfort in said bower is flowed o’er full ten fathom deep with river water, but in a good way that doth de-parchify his soul, making all who know him glad and strong, for God has this way of revealing things unto those who stop asking certain obvious questions and play along like the sorts of upbeat people who end up onstage, no doubt enjoying themselves more than thee, at one of those onstage-hypnosis acts, like unto the ones seen by Ezekiel when he was in Galilee.” I can delete comments, you know.

UPDATE 5/14/07: The Stossel segment can be seen here.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Celebrities I Loved

Say, no sooner do I post the previous blog entry, noting my new girlfriend, than the first celebrity I recall finding attractive — Annie Lennox — is in the news, her house destroyed by party-goers who found out online about her daughter’s intention to throw a party there (a growing problem with MySpace, apparently, though seemingly nothing that couldn’t be solved by armed guards or even a quick call to the police).

This is ironic timing, since if I weren’t already seeing someone, I could probably fly to London to comfort Lennox in her time of need, inevitably becoming romantically involved with her, thus taking the first practical step toward my teenage goal of living in a super-high-tech skyscraper aerie in a stable, three-partner relationship with Lennox and the singer Sade, possibly accompanied via time travel by a young Lauren Bacall (nineteen [!] in this clip and already more woman than any actress active today).  Or maybe Sheila E.

Again, I never claimed to be a feminist, but I don’t think you can accuse me (as some responders to my anti-feminism post did) of wanting mere wallflowers or mindless cheerleaders.  In the fantasy, of course, these women all liked philosophy, too.  No regrets, though.

P.S. To get back on the good side of any offended leftists, I offer my favorite environmentalist-misanthropic rock video as atonement: World Party’s “Ship of Fools.”

Book Selection of the Month: "Girlbomb" by Janice Erlbaum (plus: New-Girlfriend Bombshell) Book Selection of the Month (May 2007):

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum

In recent entries on this blog, I mentioned being troubled by people’s tendency to invest intellectual energy in illusions instead of analyzing the real world carefully. Janice Erlbaum’s memoir of her troubled teenage years (of which the paperback edition was released last month) is a great exception to that tendency. It’s full of ugly yet utterly familiar moments of depraved human behavior — family conflict, crime, drug use, homeless shelters — and Janice, bless her, describes it all in detail with humor but without sugar-coating any of it. While the book might be eye-opening for some people who couldn’t imagine a smart, spunky girl ending up homeless, it would probably be even more eye-opening for people who think homeless teenage girls have hearts of gold, sort of like Oliver Twist’s. It’s hard to keep thinking of them that way after they do things like try to stab our heroine Janice.

Even when describing more mundane environments, Janice is unsentimentally frank. She has the honesty to note that in her high school, as in essentially all high schools, there was a clique of tough, brutal, often sadistic males who had fawning female groupies, Janice among them — while most of the girls scorned the majority of their own suitors. We also get to see the painfully cyclical nature of Janice’s mom’s attraction to abusive boyfriends who became abusive pseudo-parents to Janice. And we see Janice escaping some of the worst parts of her existence only to wander unreflectively into some pretty hardcore drug use — an aspect of the book as revealing as the glimpses of homeless shelters, at least for those of us who were lucky enough (as I see it) not to be teens in New York City during the 80s. All this street-level rough-and-tumble stuff is something of a welcome break from the usual theoretical-type-stuff I read, by the way, with the grittiest and realest volumes usually no scarier than, say, Laura Vanderkam’s Grindhopping, not to be confused with Grindhouse (which may actually have made less money), about how to use real-life job experience to start your own business. No stabbings in that book, interesting though it is.

Despite all the violence and trauma in Girlbomb though — and a few well-earned poignant moments like Janice’s brief glimpse of her vicious, seemingly inhuman, teen-girl attacker’s teddy bear — Janice turned out to be a swell human being as an adult and, as the book does not say but as I’ve seen with my own eyes, she has become a talented stand-up comedian in addition to being a successful writer and volunteering at a shelter for homeless teens. In fact, despite my recent anti-feminist blog entry, I liked Janice’s act the first time I saw it in part because it was overtly feminist, resulting in a couple memorable jokes such as (this may not be verbatim, and my text won’t hold a candle to her delivery): “It bothers me when people call lesbians man-haters — I mean, what do lesbians know about hating men?” and “My feminist demands aren’t that extreme; I just want the simple things — like to be able to eat a banana in public without feeling self-conscious.”

And speaking of likable feminists, I should mention two others: (1) Jen Dziura, one of our debaters at Lolita Bar last week, who displays an admirable grasp of economics in her almost Seaveyesque new list of ten reasons to reject feminist arguments that housewives “should” be making over $130,000 for their labor, and, more important, (2) my very new girlfriend, Koli, who, as some of you will be unsurprised to hear and others (mostly less-charitable or simply less intelligent readers) will be shocked and confused to hear, is a smart, tough, outspoken, argumentative lawyer who considers herself a feminist, leans Democrat, says she’s become slightly more sympathetic to religion with age, teaches homeless kindergarteners without getting paid for it, and thinks she may eventually want kids but seems to be enjoying putting up with me in the meantime (she even saw Spider-Man 3 with me, and a nerd can’t ask for more than that, if he knows what’s good for him, so precise political positions are secondary). In any case, she’s rational, kind, funny, and emotionally even-keeled, and that is rare, despite all that stuff people try to tell you about everyone being created equal. (We met through a event, so here’s a big thank-you to its organizer, Julia Kamin.)

Perhaps I should devote more time on this blog over the summer to talking about concrete things like relationships — and some science — and leave the political theory aside for a bit (once I get back from a trip to DC tomorrow for one of my thrice-a-year visits to the brilliant writers and editors at the Phillips Foundation, that is). And I’m not just suggesting that shift in emphasis to help keep the girlfriend happy — though she hasn’t actually gotten around to reading the anti-feminism entry yet, and it might be wise not to try her patience too much right off the bat.

(Did you know, by the way, that founding anarchist William Godwin was married to founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and that their daughter, Mary Shelley, was arguably the first science fiction author and was in turn married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, co-founder of Romanticism? Surely there’s a lesson in co-existence there for us all — or just another, very, very extreme reminder that talent is not equally distributed between families. What have your close relatives accomplished lately?)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Does the Beauty Industry Oppress Women?"

As if my recent blog entry denouncing feminism weren’t controversial enough, two talented comedian-debaters will tackle the question “Does the Beauty Industry Oppress Women?” at the next of our monthly Debates at Lolita Bar.

Charles Star argues “yes” and Jen Dziura argues “no.”

That’s tomorrow (Wednesday), May 2, at 8pm, at 266 Broome St. (basement level) at the corner of Allen St., one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (free admission).

P.S. Because of the complexity of the issues raised by this debate, both of aesthetics and gender, the debate will be preceded by a brief explanatory sock puppet show entitled “Beyond the Looking Glass,” performed by Diana Schoenbrun (creator of the exciting new children’s book character Amos the Armadillo, and of sock puppets), eye doctor Heather Mcleod, and animator Jeff Hong.

Bonus puppetry factoid: Paul Winchell, ventriloquist and voice of Tigger and Gargamel, patented the first design for an artificial heart, though it was not used in people or ventriloquist dummies.

P.P.S. If things go quickly at this May 2 debate, you might also consider zipping over to nearby Mo Pitkin’s on Avenue A near 3rd St., where, at 9:30 that same night, you can get a sneak preview of one of the debaters who will appear in our June 20 debate, Rev. Jen, who will be hosting her monthly “Anti-Slam” open mic night — and declaring it a black and white ball in honor of her chihuahua/Rev. Jen simulacrum, Rev. Jen Jr.

By the way, for a few of you who have already expressed confusion, let me repeat: writer and funny performance artist Rev. Jen is one of our June 20 debaters, seen here in a Supergirl outfit:

Rev Jen Supergirl

While writer and comedian Jen Dziura is one of tomorrow’s (May 2) debaters, seen here in a Wonder Woman outfit:
Dziura Wonder Woman

Remembering which Jen is which shouldn’t be difficult: Rev. Jen is obviously from Earth-1 and Jen Dziura from Earth-2 because Supergirl did not exist on Earth-2. All that will probably be clearly explained in issue #52 of the year-long comic book miniseries 52, which, as it happens, hits stands tomorrow (on 5/2, in a further coincidence), bringing with it the return of the DC Comics “multiverse” and the end of my comics methadone program (namely, reading about comics online as a replacement for buying them for years).

See, my willingness to research these subtle differences — and the reasons for them — disproves all those feminist claims that I don’t understand women. But we can discuss that tomorrow, too, if you like.