In the nutosphere

Again via Agto— an amazing tale of wingnut scurrility.

Briefly: Obama mentioned an uncle who helped liberate part of Auschwitz.  A full lard load of chickenhawk wingnuts were convinced that he’d made up this uncle, so they wrtote to a veterans’ organization for confirmation and received, as Sadly No put it, “the greatest bitch slap in history.” 

Undeterred, they went on to attack these WWII veterans as “Sheehanites” and seized on the fact that the uncle was at Buchenwald rather than Auschwitz to declare, from their Cheeto-dust-covered armchairs, that Buchenwald “was a work camp — and not a death camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka. So one wonders why he was so terribly traumatized”.  Nope, nothing traumatizing there at all

General Patton was there; it affected him to hard he had to go throw up.  Dudes, if it makes Patton vomit, it’s bad.  I’d like to know what Patton would do if he heard these Bush-Jugenders describe Buchenwald as “not historically abnormal in a time of war”.

It’s hard to underestimate how low a wingnut will go, but attacking WWII veterans and minimizing Nazi concentration camps is pretty damn low.  I don’t know how they’ll bottom this one, but I’m sure we’ll find out before November.  And hopefully at the same time, the voting public will administer its own bitch slap.

Indiana Jones and the CGI Monsters

Here’s a bad idea: read a bunch of these mini-reviews and rants on Indiana Jones:

I kind of understand, but mostly despise, the frequently expressed idea that “it’s just a fun movie, what is wrong with you for analyzing it?”  Since when is obsessive fan analysis wrong?  Very likely the people who say this have something else they will analyze for hours… sports, for instance.

I liked the movie a lot… and given George Lucas’s bent for ruining his own franchises, that’s more than could be expected.  It’s good pulpy fun, which attempts now and then to sketch in something more meaningful: a swipe at anti-communism (a nice touch in a movie whose villains are commies); a respect for teaching; a rekindled love affair; a lost son.  This technique might have fallen flat, as it did in the Star Wars prequels, but it was just good enough here.  (To see what I mean, compare Mutt Williams with Jar-Jar Binks.)

Some people seem really bothered by the aliens.  I’m not sure why; if you’re going to age Indy then you end up in the ’50s, and in pop culture that was the decade of aliens; it would’ve been jarring to send him back on ’30s style mythological quests.  And ever since Velikovsky and Van Daniken, there’s been a link, silly as it is, between archeology and aliens.  I don’t know; the same people often enjoy both fantasy and sf, but many want to put up some kind of hard barrier between them.  (Admittedly the design of the alien is horrible.  ’50s aliens were actually better than those thin, big-eyed things that infest modern pop culture.)

I liked Indy being older and crankier, though of course, this being an action movie, he ends up being more of a badass than his whippersnapper son.

My wife was bothered by the absurdity of the Latin American references, especially the mix of Inca, Nazca, and Maya elements.  Well, that just joins a bunch of other goofy elements (psychic commies, plexiglass skulls that attract gold and gunpowder, or for that matter Indy’s complete absence of archeological technique).  Plausibility has never been the series’ strong suit.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The counter-sixties are over

Fascinating article by George Packer in this week’s New Yorker: The Fall of Conservativism.

In brief: modern conservativism was invented by Nixon, a non-conservative, as a way to fight the ’60s.  Nixon and his young speechwriter Pat Buchanan wanted to revitalize the Republicans– still reeling from their landslide loss in 1964– by tapping into the rage of the “silent majority” against the counterculture.  Buchanan wrote a memo in 1971 that outlined the next thirty years of conservativism: highlight the “elitism” of the national Democrats; use abortion to split off Catholics from social liberals; win the white working class by cutting taxes and denouncing welfare.  Nixon was happy to use the rhetoric but in fact governed pretty much as a liberal.

Conservativism went on to take power, roar triumphantly, push the country to the right– and collapse.  As recently as 2004 the Karl Rove strategy seemed unbeatable; liberals worried and conservatives crowed about the coming permanent Republican majority.  Four short years later, the movement seems to be in shambles.  Its president, “blown up in Iraq and drowned in New Orleans”, faces 70% disapproval ratings; its base couldn’t even get one of their own as presidential nominee; defeats in solidly Republican congressional districts portend big trouble in November.

What happened?  Largely, political conservativism was a negative movement– it just wanted to destroy liberalism, and it had no positive vision for government.  As David Brooks says, “people want government to do things.”  Inaction on health care, global warming, and economic decline is not a winning strategy.  Without the Cold War and with taxes already cut to irresponsible levels, there’s little agreement over what to do next. 

More importantly, perhaps, the ’60s are long over.  As Packer points out, the Democrats demonized Herbert Hoover well into the ’70s.  The Republicans are still fighting the 1972 election, defeating George McGovern over and over.  It worked splendidly for decades, when most voters were still exercised about ’60s concerns, but it’s a strategy with a distinct sell-by date.  The younger generation, in particular, isn’t moved. 

The hard-core conservatives, naturally, are still there; they explain that George Bush just wasn’t conservative enough.  Conservatives under fifty, Packer reports, are solidly for reform instead.  They’re trying to figure out how to use government rather than destroy it– though one senses that their ideas need more work.  David Frum, for instance, has this to suggest to solve the health care crisis: a government campaign to raise awareness about obesity.  Yeaahhh.

This dovetailed nicely with another recent read: Morris Fiorina’s Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  Fiorina argues that all the furor in the punditosphere about red states and blue states is hooey– America isn’t polarized, and most Americans are moderates.  His book is full of tables showing that opinion in “red” and “blue” states is more similar than different.  E.g.:

Issue – and percent of support in red/blue states Red Blue
Immigration should decrease 43% 41%
Government should ensure racial nondiscrimination 51% 57%
Stricter gun control 52% 64%
Equal role for women 82% 83%
Abortion should be always legal 37% 48%
No job discrimination vs. gays 62% 73%

 Why does America seem polarized then?  Simply put, because the political class is– politicians, media, pundits.  The parties have sorted themselves out much more than before: there are few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans any more.  The media likes stories of conflict, and ideological purists make great talking heads.  And of course if presented with two extreme candidates, moderate voters have to elect an extremist.

Packer’s story makes it clear that this polarization was a strategy explicitly chosen by the Republicans.  Naturally, while it worked, they pressed it more and more.  But even more than ideological purity, politicians value winning.  If they keep losing, they’re going to re-evaluate the strategy.

Landslide in Kentucky

…for McCain!

McCain picked up 72% of the vote.  That’s pretty good… except, he’s already the nominee.  Knowing this full well, 28% of Kentuckians voted for other people– 8% for Huckabee, 7% for Paul, and so on down to 1.1% for Alan Keyes.  It looks like the fundies and libertarians are not going gentle into that good night.  McCain did barely better than Hillary.

I don’t doubt that by fall, both parties will be all fired up for their candidates.  But I expect it’ll take all summer to get there. 

And he’d like a pony, too

Wow.  McCain has a whole laundry list of things he think he can get in four years.

Highlights: a safe democratic Iraq with no militias, Iraqi authority respected in “every province”, “most” US forces returned home (but this is not a “withdrawal”!), a bigger army, a flat tax, no more food crisis, health care magically less expensive, less dependence on foreign oil, and a Social Security system that is “solvent” despite having some huge fraction of its income eliminated by privatization.

Apparently, no word on how this contradictory bag of miracles will happen.

Oh, and the economy will be growing “robustly”. 

So much for the thought that a grown-up might actually lead the Republicans this year. 

More on Chang

Alert reader Raghav Krishnapriyan pointed me to James Surowiecki’s review of Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans:

Surowiecki (whose “Financial Page” in the New Yorker is a gem) doesn’t defend the neoliberals, but he doesn’t think Chang has made his case.  He brings up some good points— countries that have rejected neoliberalism don’t necessarily prosper; no one has a sure recipe for progress.  He also, I think, misses some of Chang’s historical reasoning; Chang doesn’t maintain that free trade is always bad or that infant industries should be protected forever.  

I think one of Surowiecki’s major criticisms misfires, though: “He simply takes as a given that consumers should be willing to make themselves objectively worse off in the present in the hope that this will translate to greater success in the future, because that’s what’s in the best interests of the nation.”  

That seems like the complaint of someone who just can’t bring himself to question orthodoxy, even in the face of a compelling real-world example– which Chang provides in his narrative of growing up in South Korea.  By following a policy of development rather than free trade, South Korea went in forty years from a per capita income of $84 to one of $13,980.  How is that “making themselves objectively worse off”?  Does he really think Chang’s parents or leaders made the wrong choice?

(He’s on firmer ground noting South Korea’s then dictatorship… but, that also applies to one of Surowiecki’s examples of a successful free trade nation, Singapore, and of course the example of the US and UK shows that a import substitution policy is perfectly compatible with political freedom.)

Stupid reactions to Burma

Via Agto, Laura Bush opens her big mouth about Burma:

“Although they were aware of the threat, Burma’s state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path.” 

“It’s troubling that many of the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, sounded the alarm,” she said.

Asked by a reporter whether she was accusing the junta of having “blood on their hands,” she said it was clear they are “very inept.”

As opposed to her own husband’s administration, which issued an order to evacuate New Orleans after all the mass transportation had been closed, and her own husband, who only learned of the ongoing disaster when aides forced him to watch TV clips.  

And now Time has its own breathtakingly stupid suggestion: invade Burma.  Because nothing improves a natural disaster more than adding a war on top of it.


Same as it ever was

So, two months ago, playing with Slate‘s delegate calculator, I guessed that Obama would end up with 1677 delegates (thus needing 348 superdelegates).

And today the default settings give Obama 1701 delegates (so he needs 324 superdelegates).

This isn’t because I’m a great pundit… it’s because the numbers were pretty much in two months ago.  It looked bad for Hillary.  And pretty much every state has gone the way anyone with a learner’s pundit permit guessed.  Yet it’s only now that the media seem to be stating openly that Hillary’s history.

At this point Hillary’s playbook must look like that S. Harris cartoon with the scientist staring at a blackboard with a bunch of equations on two sides, and in between “… and then a miracle occurs…”

So much for Chomsky

I just finished Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings (ed. Dirk Geeraerts).  I wanted to get up to speed on this cognitive linguistics, as the kids call it these days.  I actually like it more than generative syntax, though I think its program is better than its progress.  It wants to be cognitive, even if mostly it’s still people noodling around on sketchpads rather than, say, in the genome.  But it’s still an improvement over Chomsky, who despite holding that grammar is innate, is aggressively uninterested in the brain, in the evolution of language, or in any way language might be integrated into general cognition.

I used a few of the essays as fodder for my upcoming Xurnese grammar; but I thought I’d highlight one here: “Usage-based linguistics”, an overview of developmental studies by Michael Tomasello.  What’s most striking about his research, to me, is how incompatible it is with Chomsky’s latest theories.

Briefly, Chomsky thinks syntax is innate– we’re born with a complete universal grammar, and all the child has to do is figure out a few switches to flip once she discovers that she’s learning English rather than Ojibwe.  He supports this idea with the “poverty of stimulus” argument, which claims that there is far too little linguistic input to learn the full complexity of syntax.

Here’s what Tomasello found: children at first learn single-meaning utterances (‘holophrases’).  Some are imitations of entire sentences (“Gimme-that”), but it’s pretty clear that they’re used as invariable units.  Next, they try two-unit phrases– usually a noun filling a slot (“More juice”), though sometimes the added element is a verb (“I-wanna walk”).  Later the slots get more complicated.

He had an unusually rich corpus for one 2-year-old, and took the last half-hour, counting 455 distinct utterances.  Then he compared each one to the previous weeks of data.  78% were word-for-word duplicates of previous utterances.  18% were copies of previous utterances with one minor change; just 4% had two changes, though in each case the particular changes were themselves already attested. 

That is: the vast majority of utterances were things the child had said before, or very minor variations on them.  It’s been noticed that children rarely learn a new pattern that’s demonstrated in front of them, which has been taken as meaning that they don’t imitate adult speech.  But now we see that they don’t do it because a single instance isn’t enough data for them.  They don’t venture to use a new construction till they’ve heard it many times and know how to use it.

A nice confirmation of this: children learning inflectional languages don’t learn the six person/number combinations at the same rate.  They first master the ones with the highest frequency in adult speech– e.g. 1st person singular, rather than 3rd person plural.  Again, they’re learning by imitation, and it takes a huge amount of repetition for them to learn something.  They also seem to learn each verb paradigm separately– it takes a long time before they start generalizing.

Another supposed bit of evidence that children don’t imitate adult speech is that they make errors like “Her open it.”  But Tomasello points out children hear plenty of expressions like “Let her open it” or “Help her open it.”  They’re reproducing part of an utterance that they’ve heard without understanding the whole thing.  They don’t make mistakes like “Mary hit I”, because that never occurs in what they hear.

A child may use what seems like a complex construction, but it can be an illusion.  For instance, he found that kids pretty quickly say “I think…”  But at that age they didn’t have other forms (“she thinks”, “I don’t think”, “I thought”, or even “I think that”).  So this is very likely not real subordination; rather, they’re using “I-think” to mean “maybe”.

Now, why is all this striking?  Because it doesn’t fit at all with an innate, complete understanding of syntax. If all the kid had to do was flip switches, she wouldn’t struggle like this.  They aren’t born knowing the patterns of language; they have to laboriously acquire them, adding new features only after they’ve been exposed to a load of data.