03.26.07

It’s been a long time since the last public cat burning

Posted in Society at 14:57 by RjZ

There have been a spate of (excellent) articles recently, each rehashing a long held belief of mine: the world is a better place today than it was any time in history. (For people, at least; maybe not for trees and bunnies.) Indur Goklany (Cato Institute) reminds us in his recent article in Reason that life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down. Furthermore, people are more literate, freer and healthier than ever before and this is true in the first world as well as the third.

The New Republic pointed out that, in spite of genocide in Darfur and the Abu Ghraib tortures, violence is on the wane in modern society. The article opens with the telling example that, “cat-burning” is no longer a popular form of entertainment! By the way, that article is written by Steven Pinker, the MIT nee Harvard psychologist who proposed the theory of evolutionary psychology and was interviewed recently by Stephen Colbert. Colbert asks ‘Describe for me how the brain works. Five words or less!’ Pinker thinks a moment and then ‘Brain cells fire in patterns.’ Smart guy, this Pinker. As I was saying…

That such an optimistic view was published in the libertarian magazine Reason is not surprising. Faith in human progress is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. It’s much more exciting when it’s coming from traditionally liberal sources such as the New Republic. I’ve heard liberals justify draconian regulations on corporations and vigorous redistribution of wealth in order to stem the otherwise inevitable rising up of the poor huddling masses against the hording rich.

Even comedian Jon Stewart, whose satire depends on the average person expecting the worst from politicians understands what’s really going on:says:

“In general, the more egregious flaws of our country have, over time, become less egregious,” he says. “That’s not to say that we don’t have enormous problems of poverty and race, but they are no longer so clearcut as during the times of slavery, segregation or when women couldn’t vote. In our big ticket items we’re down to gay people getting married. That’s a lot of progress over the past few hundred years, considering where we came from.”

Even as the political press and pop-culture begin to acknowledge the true progress we’ve made, the average person still thinks the sky is falling. What about Islamist terrorists and war in Iraq? What about wire-tapping and prisoners detained indefinitely at Guantanamo? I am as angry and concerned as the next person about this realities, but the fact is, go back one hundred years ago and prison tortures wouldn’t even be news! We’re more outraged today because we expect things to be better and don’t simply accept them for business as usual. We’re comfortable enough in front of televisions, that we have enough time to worry about the plight of others less fortunate. This, my dear readers, isn’t an example of moral decay, it’s proof how much better society as a whole is.

So who stands to gain from the continued decay of society? It doesn’t hurt the media. It’s always more newsworthy to report of moral decay and disaster than to show another human interest story of people having enough food to eat. The religious-right doesn’t mind either. All this destruction of the planet is fuel for the end-of-days fire predicted (over and over again) in Revelations. (See, for example,,here or better still here. Better get thee to a church and line up behind the Moral Majority, because the news proves that the end of days is nigh. Religious leaders have been warning us for about two millenia now and it’s time to wonder if maybe those predicting the end don’t actually have a direct line on the wisdom of god.

It’s time to stop worrying about the impending doom of the human race. Let’s draw courage from the enormous successes we have already made and start working on the challenges still before us! Maybe we can make the world a better place for trees and bunnies too, and not just people. They were here first after all.

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03.16.07

I really shouldn’t write this

Posted in at 15:31 by RjZ

Have you heard about Ann Coulter? She’s got a big mouth and some people think she’s funny. I don’t really think so. She’s doesn’t have big mouth like, say, Chris Rock. While, it’s obvious that her business is entertainment, just like Rock’s, that’s not what she makes herself out to be. According to her bio: “Coulter is the legal correspondent for Human Events and writes a popular syndicated column for Universal Press Syndicate.” She’s a conservative pundit with credentials like being “named named one of the top 100 Public Intellectuals by federal judge Richard Posner in 2001.” We shouldn’t get upset when what she says is just a joke, but Jon Stewart doesn’t claim he’s anything more than a comedian and satirist on his bio. This misrepresentation is part of why people get so riled when she says mean and hateful things.

I was discussing some of the reprehensible things she says (which I won’t bother to repeat here…just go to her site; she’s hardly shy) when another overheard my and motivated by the hypocrisy of it all, said “Oh come on, it’s not like she’s the only one. Liberals say just as many mean and nasty things. The media makes a big deal about Coulter because she’s conservative.”

I have quite a few problems with this remark. The first one I stated right then and there: “I think Coulter’s comments are unacceptable hate speech. That there are liberals engaging in the same doesn’t make her any less guilty. I will hold the liberal (and libertarian) equally accountable.” It’s obviously silly that we should forgive Ann because, well, folks on the other side of the political aisle in the United States are just as bad.

But are they? I figured Google would know. I did several searches and came up near empty. I found this example by a conservative leaning blogger intended on exposing leftist hate speech. After reading it I wasn’t satisfied. One of the comments left on this post explains the same thing I noticed when I read an example quote on the site by Jesse Jackson. I thought, “hey, that was a long time ago.” The comment sums things up with this:

I can’t help noticing that some of them are as much as 23 years old. In fact, of these 24 quotes, barely a third were spoken in this century (counting from 2001) – only two within the last year. On average, these quotes are almost 8 years old.

In addition to including Louis Farrakhan for four of those 24 quotes (anybody who calls Farrakhan a liberal to his face would probably have to watch out for the reaction!) it seems there weren’t really all that many credible examples after all. I’ve read Coulter and I’ve read Franken. I don’t really like either of them, personally, but Franken just doesn’t seem even a 10th as mean-spirited. I think Micheal Moore would do more good for his cause if he’d grow up a bit, but he too doesn’t seem to actually be wishing much violence on others.

I hope someone reading this will prove me wrong on those last subjective statements. Like I said, I’d be happy to condemn both of the liberals (although I don’t care much for what either of them have to say, in any event) but even if that happens, this goes no where toward forgiving Ms. Coulter and doesn’t mention that she probably has 24 nasty quotes like those listed every year.

If she’d admit she’s really a comedian, that might be one thing. Then we could all laugh at her buffoonery. For now, it’s just sensationalistic, headline grabbing, pandering. I kinda feel dirty even writing about it and giving her the time of day.

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03.06.07

Great story, what’s the point?

Posted in Reviews at 16:30 by RjZ

I was telling my story of a person hacking up phlegm on holy Mt. Sinai to some friends at dinner the other day. I was really doing it up, quieting my voice to communicate the hushed tones of the climb and then really hacking to demonstrate the shock of hearing such discordant noise near the top of the mountain. When I was done, they looked at me puzzled; expectantly. What’s the point?

I have to admit they’re right. It’s a cool story, but I’d built it up so much with my dramatic telling that being told that all that really happens is that we’re disturbed on our way up a morning hike is a bit of a let down. I still like the story, but I guess it’s easy to over promise and then under-deliver! I’ll have to watch out for that in the future.

It wasn’t so different with Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers. I enjoyed the book very much. Unlike a typical novel, nearly every chapter could stand alone as a fascinating short story in its own right. Yet, like the carpets mentioned in the title, they are interwoven with each other into a complex pattern.

Translated wonderfully from German (actually, I’d like to see the German edition, because I can’t judge how good it really is, except to say that one would never know it’s translated) The Carpet Makers reflects many themes from post WWII Germany including how one questions authority from the state and the church and what can happen to a society with and without absolute power. The novel reads quickly and enjoyably and makes for an interesting genre bender: is it science fiction for the fantasy lover or fantasy for the sci-fi buff?

The only problem is, like my climb up Mt. Sinai, Eschbach seems to have spent more time in the telling than on the ending. Most of the chapters would make fine short stories; the last chapter isn’t one of them. Approaching the last few pages I kept thinking “there won’t be enough time to wind this up.” There wasn’t, but that didn’t stop Eschbach from offering us an unsatisfying, and certainly not terribly unexpected ‘plot twist.’ One wonders if the author suddenly became tired of writing.

I enjoyed the journey through the book and I’d recommend it to anyone for an exciting, page-turning read, but, like my dinner companions hanging on my every word, you might wonder where the punch-line is.

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