The later Martin Luther King

Some writers are very good at planning ahead for their writing and preparing pieces that coincide with upcoming anniversaries. I am hopeless at this, reacting to events after the fact rather than anticipating them. So, for example, Charles Darwin’s birthday was on February 12 but I completely forgot about it, even though I have been reading and writing about him extensively. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday came and went in January without me commenting on it, although he was a person who influenced me tremendously.

But today’s visit to Case of Harry Belafonte, yesterday’s Case Martin Luther King celebration with speaker Fred Gray, and the recent death of Coretta Scott King have made me reflect on the life and message of Martin Luther King and the importance of resurrecting an essential aspect of his message. It is clear that there is a need to remove the layers of gauze that have covered his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard edged vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his “I have a dream speech” given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from his pre-1963 positions. His new emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle, cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.

Since his death in 1968, the mass media have increasingly portrayed King as primarily a visionary and a dreamer of a non-racial America, and some have even argued that that his dream has essentially come true, apart from some minor remaining problems. To read his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is to be jolted by the piercing clarity of his wide-ranging analysis of the real problems, what needed to be done to resolve them, and the immense obstacles that lay in the way of reaching the goal of a free and fair society. It is also important (and rather chastening) to note that nearly everything that he said four decades ago is still relevant today.

What is particularly striking about King’s writings is his ability to keep in balance the tension between a hard-eyed and realistic appraisal of the problems faced in trying to achieve justice (derived from his study of politics, economics, history, and philosophy) and his deep-rooted optimism in the innate decency of human beings (derived from his religious faith).

He saw that the successful multiracial coalitions that formed in the civil rights struggles and which culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act were just the first phase of the struggle and that these focused around the issues of treating African-Americans decently but not necessarily equally. People of all races were appalled at the lynchings and beatings, and the legal remedies that were proposed did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. “There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.” But he pointed out that “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the same thing as the presence of justice.”

King noted that when the issue switched to the second phase, from that of simple decency to one of equality, much of the multiracial support evaporated as the cost of the remedies for generations of injustice became clear. “The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions of people is complex far beyond integrating lunch counters.”

King praised the thousands who rushed to battle the brutalities of Selma, “heedless of danger and of differences in race, class, and religion.” But he also realized that they represented “the best of America, not all of America” and “Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions. . .The great majority of Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price for eradicating it.” He realized that while equality was the common goal of everyone, even the word was interpreted differently by whites and blacks. “Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says. . .but most whites. . .proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.”

It is startling to see how well King’s analyses of the status of African-Americans in US society hold up three decades later, despite all the other changes that have taken place during that time. King realized that generations of slavery and other forms of discrimination and subjugation had taken its toll on the financial, intellectual, and other resources on the African-American and thus required an enormous and concerted effort from within their own community in order to “overcome his deficiencies and his
maladjustments.” But he rejected out of hand the suggestion (currently enjoying a resurgence) that the poor conditions under which they lived “can be explained by the myth of the Negro’s innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.).”

He was no sentimental believer that this appalling state of affairs would disappear by itself once the institutionalized roadblocks had been removed and a legally ‘color blind’ society had been created. He saw that the problems went much deeper than that. “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. . .They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agricultural operations using itinerant labor would suffer economic trauma, if not disaster, with a rise in wage scales.”

In other words, powerful economic and political interests benefited from the depressed state of poor people and would strenuously resist any attempts to improve things.

He realized that achieving equality for African Americans required a massive expenditure in education, housing, and employment for blacks, but always emphasized that this must be done within the context of a general anti-poverty program meant for all poor people, of all races and religions. It is a big mistake to think of King as a leader of only black people. When he was killed, he was becoming an outspoken national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.

To be continued. . .

The Harry Belafonte-Coretta Scott King funeral mystery

Harry Belafonte’s talk at Case has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at 7:00pm at Strosacker. The event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. The tickets issued for the earlier date will be honored at this event.

The original talk was postponed because Belafonte said he had to give a eulogy at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. It is common knowledge that Belafonte’s relationship with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was strong and his involvement with them and the civil rights movement has been for more than half a century. (See here for my previous postings on Harry Belafonte.)

But he was not seen during the funeral ceremonies. So what happened?

What is clear is that there is a split in the King family with one daughter Rev. Bernice King, along with some other influential black pastors who are on Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” gravy train, trying to take the movement along a direction quite different from that envisioned by her parents. And since she seems to have wrested control of the funeral arrangements, and President Bush had expressed interest in attending the funeral, Belafonte became an embarrassment since he has been outspoken in his criticisms of Bush, calling him a terrorist. Did the Bush administration demand that Belafonte be bumped from the roster of speakers as a condition for attending? No one is saying but suspicions abound that there was a quid pro quo.

This article in The Tennessean provides some background:

Could Belafonte have been asked not to show up at Mrs. King’s funeral after supposedly being on the program? Could he have been excluded to ensure the presence of President George W. Bush at the “first lady” of civil rights’ funeral?

Earlier this year, Belafonte called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” while in Caracas, Venezuela, as he met with Venezuelan President (and Bush critic) Hugo Chavez, according to the Associated Press.

“I called Belafonte to find out for myself if it was true, and he said it was,” the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a veteran civil rights activist, told me Friday after calling to see if I could find out why Belafonte was not at the funeral. “I asked were you disinvited, and he said, yes.

“The reason is that the president was not coming if Belafonte was going to be there. …”

That’s just not true, according to a public relations spokesman who worked with the King family on services for Mrs. King.

“The rumor Harry Belafonte was disinvited to the King funeral is 100% inaccurate,” Dan Rene, vice president of Impact Strategies, a Washington-based public relations firm, told me Friday over the telephone, and later in an e-mail. “The only individuals with the authority to take such action were the King family.

“The White House did not have that authority, nor did anyone else – again, only the family. It is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that they would treat someone so close to them and their mother in such a manner.

“It is up to Mr. Belafonte to answer the question of why he was not in attendance. The King children would have welcomed his presence. In fact, he was listed in the program as an honorary pallbearer.

“Additionally, the rumor is very suspect because no one, including Mr. Belafonte, can explain exactly who it was that supposedly disinvited him. The reason for this is, of course, the fact that he was always welcome.”

So, who and what do you believe?

I haven’t been able to reach Harry Belafonte directly for comment, but Rev. Vivian told me it is unlikely he will respond publicly because he wants to maintain some relationship with the King children.

The issue was also raised Tuesday in a newsletter distributed by former Emerge magazine editor George Curry. “Evidently, the funeral organizers were more interested in not offending Bush than recognizing the person who had actually supported Dr. King and his work,” Curry wrote.

And, in The Weekly Holla from the Web site, www.SeeingBlack.com, a reader asked Tuesday, “Are y’all going to run anything about the King children dis-inviting Harry Belafonte …?”

Vivian, meanwhile, told me that Belafonte is saddened and hurt by this turn of events. If this is true, who could blame him? And it makes you wonder about that freedom we call speech.

The excellent website The Black Commentator had this article by Dr. Donald H. Smith, Associate Provost and Professor (Emeritus), Bernard M. Baruch College, the City University of New York, that provides some important background into what happened, as well as the class divisions that exist in the black church community.

Importantly, we also cannot be fooled by the Black Faith-based, self-anointed “Bishops” of mega churches who seduce and beguile depressed, often defeated African Americans, whose largess allows them to fly their private jets, drive Rolls Royces and live baronial existences. Instead of advocating to their congregations that they should organize and take direct political action, even civil disobedience as Dr. King consistently urged to secure the “blessings of liberty” to which they are entitled, these “Bishops,” whose already sizeable incomes are supplemented by the Republican government’s Faith-based Initiative grants, use powerful propaganda oratory to convince their congregations that God will take care of their needs, and, not incidentally, to support President Bush and vote Republican.

“Bishop” Eddie Long, in whose New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia where Mrs. King’s funeral was held is typical of the increasing number of money driven Black preachers. It is a cruel irony that the funeral was held in Long’s church rather than Ebenezer where Coretta Scott King was a member, where Dr. King was pastor and where his funeral was held. Preacher Eddie Long is the very antithesis of what Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, stood for. In 2004, Bishop Long led a demonstration in Atlanta to the tomb of Dr. King to protest a woman’s right to choose and to denounce the right of individuals to marry persons of the same sex. Among the thousands of supporters who marched with preacher Long was Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, a minister at New Birth. Instead of the social justice and freedom advocated by the Kings, preacher Long endorses the conservative mandates of the Republican government. Coretta Scott King opposed the march, and reaffirmed her stance for human rights and social justice.

“Bishop” T.D. Jakes, whose mega church in Dallas has a reputed congregation of 30,000 members, and who sells “blessings” for $50, $500 or whatever larger sum he can persuade, was also a speaker at Mrs. King’s funeral, though his brief words were hollow, unlike the bombastic oratory for which he is well known. Like Bishop Long, Bishop Jakes is a friend and supporter of President Bush and the Republican government’s Project for a New American Century.
. . .
Bernice King and the Republican Party sought to control the funeral discourse, denying the likes of civil rights veterans Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian the opportunity to speak, as well as preventing Reverend Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, in whose district the funeral was held, from speaking and – the unkindest cut of all – disinviting Harry Belafonte who marched with Dr. King, who gave large amounts of money and who consoled Coretta Scott King when her husband was assassinated, nevertheless the truth was heard. As Dr. King said many times, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.” And truth did emerge from the mouth of President Jimmy Carter who underscored the present controversy of wiretapping American citizens by reminding the mourners of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of Dr. King, whom he had threatened with disclosure of intimate information. President Carter was the only one of the four presidents who spoke of the government’s mishandling of the Katrina tragedy, and he stated that the nation has not yet “achieved equal opportunity for all Americans.” And truth emerged from Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Coretta Scott King had criticized that money spent for the war should have been spent to fight poverty in America. And truth came from the poetry of Maya Angelou who made a point of saluting Harry Belafonte. The truth was told.

The most that can be said about the tortured, illogical eulogy/sermon delivered by Mrs. King’s daughter, Bernice, is that those four King children deserve our pity and love for the tragic circumstances of their childhood. When Bernice King, possessor of three degrees, including degrees in divinity and law, said “God is not looking for another Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott, the old has passed away, there is a new order that is emerging,” I hardly knew what to think, as many of the mourners must have been puzzled. Did Bernice King imply that she is the new emergent order, along with her “mentor” Eddie Long? Heaven help us.

Unless Harry Belafonte chooses to tell us, we probably will not know what silenced him at the funeral. But it is clear that he should have spoken and would have spoken and that his omission could not have been his own choice.

The state of literacy in the US

The government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is an invaluable source of information about the state of education in the US. Among other things, it periodically measures the state of literacy and determines what percentage of the population falls into four categories: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. These levels are defined (with samples of abilities and skill sets) are given below:

Below Basic indicates no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.

Key abilities
• locating easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose texts
• locating easily identifiable information and following written instructions in simple documents (e.g., charts or forms)
• locating numbers and using them to perform simple quantitative operations (primarily addition) when the mathematical information is very concrete and familiar

Sample tasks typical of level
• searching a short, simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test
• signing a form
• adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip

Basic indicates skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding information in short, commonplace prose texts
• reading and understanding information in simple documents
• locating easily identifiable quantitative information and using it to solve simple, one-step problems when the arithmetic operation is specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• finding in a pamphlet for prospective jurors an explanation of how people were selected for the jury pool
• using a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time
• comparing the ticket prices for two events

Intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing, making simple inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing the author’s purpose
• locating information in dense, complex documents and making simple inferences about the information
• locating less familiar quantitative information and using it to solve problems when the arithmetic operation is not specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• consulting reference materials to determine which foods contain a particular vitamin
• identifying a specific location on a map
• calculating the total cost of ordering specific office supplies from a catalog

Proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences
• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents
• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Sample tasks typical of level
• comparing viewpoints in two editorials
• interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity
• computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items

The 2003 results can be found on page 4 of the NCES document.

For prose literacy, the population breaks up as 14% below basic, 29% basic, 44% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For documents literacy, 12% are below basic, 22% basic, 53% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For quantitative literacy, 22% are below basic, 33% basic, 33% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

It does not surprise me that the literacy levels go down for quantitative skills. What does surprise me is that the bars are set so low. Maybe I am living in a dream world (after all, I do work in a university!) but it seems like the tasks required of people at the proficient level are the minimal ones needed to function effectively in modern society, if you are to have a sense that one is aware of what is going on around.

For example, last week I was preparing my tax returns and it seemed to me that to be able to do them requires proficiency level (at least as far as prose and document literacy went), since there was a lot of “if-then’ reasoning involved. And my taxes are fairly simple since my finances are straightforward, as is the case for most people whose income comes mainly in the form of salary or wages.

To think that only 13% reach proficiency level in all three categories is troubling. How do the rest even do their taxes, let alone make sense of the complexities of the modern world?

The Death of Conservativism

In a previous post, I wrote about how political language has been abused and how words have either lost their meaning through misuse or whose meaning is deliberately kept vague so that they can be used as political weapons.

Glenn Greenwald (over at Unclaimed Territory) points out how this process of distortion is in full swing currently over the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” And in the process, he points put that conservatism, as a recognizable political ideology, is dead in America, killed by the very people who currently proudly claim themselves to be conservatives. I am excerpting some key passages from his long essay on this act of ideological suicide but you really should read the whole thing, with its links to supporting examples..

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a “liberal” or someone “of the Left,” one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day – social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, “judicial activism,” hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a “liberal,” such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a “liberal,” only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a “liberal,” regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more “liberal” one is. Whether one is a “liberal” – or, for that matter, a “conservative” – is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

. . .
People who self-identify as “conservatives” and have always been considered to be conservatives become liberal heathens the moment they dissent, even on the most non-ideological grounds, from a Bush decree. That’s because “conservatism” is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as “liberal” is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

. . .
As much as any policy prescriptions, conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible, particularly when it comes to its application by the Government to American citizens. It was that deeply rooted distrust that led to conservatives’ vigorous advocacy of states’ rights over centralized power in the federal government, accompanied by demands that the intrusion of the Federal Government in the lives of American citizens be minimized.

Is there anything more antithetical to that ethos than the rabid, power-hungry appetites of Bush followers? There is not an iota of distrust of the Federal Government among them. Quite the contrary. Whereas distrust of the government was quite recently a hallmark of conservatism, expressing distrust of George Bush and the expansive governmental powers he is pursuing subjects one to accusations of being a leftist, subversive loon.

. . .
And what I hear, first and foremost, from these Bush following corners is this, in quite a shrieking tone: “Oh, my God – there are all of these evil people trying to kill us, George Bush is doing what he can to save us, and these liberals don’t even care!!! They’re on their side and they deserve the same fate!!!” It doesn’t even sound like political argument; it sounds like a form of highly emotional mass theater masquerading as political debate. It really sounds like a personality cult. It is impervious to reasoned argument and the only attribute is loyalty to the leader. Whatever it is, it isn’t conservative.

. . .
A movement which has as its shining lights a woman who advocates the death of her political opponents, another woman who is a proponent of concentration camps, a magazine which advocates the imprisonment of journalists who expose government actions of dubious legality, all topped off by a President who believes he has the power to secretly engage in activities which the American people, through their Congress, have made it a crime to engage in, is a movement motivated by lots of different things. Political ideology isn’t one of them.

This happens to ideologies. Initially they are about ideas, about the principles around which societies should be organized and about how to govern. But when people with a strong sense of ideology get into power, they find that trying to attain their goals takes longer and is more difficult than they anticipated because most people are not strongly ideological and resist being forced to conform to a rigid mold. So then the focus shifts to cutting corners on honesty and ethical and even legal behavior, doing anything to silence their critics and stay in power for as long as they can so that they can attain their goals by whatever means necessary. And in the process, the principles of the very ideology that initially drove them become sacrificed.

When that happens, the original followers of that ideology have a choice to make. Either they stay with their original principles and become critics of those in power or they abandon the principles and become instead power cultists, slavishly and uncritically following the dear leader.

A good test to gauge this thinking is to ask such people if there is anything, anything at all, about the leader’s actions that they find objectionable. The signs of cult-like behavior are when those people cannot find anything about the leader’s policies to criticize or when they do criticize, point to trivialities (“I wish he would make better speeches”) or say that the leader should be even more extreme. (“There should be warrantless wiretapping of everyone!”, “We need to invade more countries!”, “We should torture not just suspects but their families as well!”, “We need to put all foreigners in internment camps, not just Muslims!”) Such statements are not really criticisms. They are in reality a form of pandering, because they enable the leader to claim the mantle of moderation while pursuing extreme measures.

When this kind of thing happens on a large scale, it signals the impending death of the ideology. It is what we currently see happening in the US for the movement formerly known as conservative.

Greenwald’s essay seemed to have touched a nerve, with many “conservatives” trying to deny the existence of a Bush cult and to discredit his main point that conservatism these days is measured by the degree of blind allegiance to whatever Bush does. He has responded to those arguments in this post.

Why is ice slippery?

I have been meaning to write about this for some time but got sidetracked by all the other topics. It formed the basis of an article by Robert Rosenberg in the December 2005 issue of Physics Today (pages 50-55).

How people respond to such a question can tell you a lot about their relationship to science in general. Some people will think that such an everyday question should have a simple answer that has been known for a long time. Others will answer that that is just the way ice is. Intelligent design and other types of creationists might respond that ice was made slippery for a purpose that we cannot comprehend. Yet others will say “who cares?” and wonder why we should bother with trying to answer such a question at all. But ask a group of scientifically-minded people this question and you will get a lively discussion going about the various possible explanations.

The basic reason why ice is slippery is not hard to understand. It is caused by the presence of a thin layer of water on the surface of ice

But this begs the next question of what causes that layer of water to coexist with the ice. Why doesn’t it also freeze? And seeking the explanation for this has formed the basis for a long series of research programs that have lasted for well over a century.

One popular explanation is that the pressure of the feet or skis or skates on the ice lowers the melting point temperature of ice. So when ice skaters glide on the ice, the high pressure caused by their weight on the thin blades (nearly 500 times atmospheric pressure) causes the melting point to drop below the normal freezing point of 0oC, and thus the surface of the ice, finding itself about that temperature, melts. Joly examined this idea in 1886 and calculated that such a high pressure would lower the melting point temperature to -3.5oC.

The catch is that the optimum temperature for figure skating is -5.5oC while ice hockey players favor harder, faster ice at -9oC. In fact skating is possible at temperatures as low as -35oC. However, the chief scientist of the 1910 Scott expedition to the Antarctic reported that at -46oC, the snow surface became sandlike, making skiing difficult. But this pressure explanation, despite its flaws, remained the dominant explanation for nearly a century.

Another competing explanation (originating in 1939) was that the friction caused by the walking or sliding generated heat that caused the ice surface to melt. Experiments done between 1988 and 1997 to test this showed that skiing and skating over ice and snow did create enough frictional heating to create a water layer.

But this still did not explain why ice was slippery even when you were simply standing on it. The current explanation originated as far back as in 1850 from suggestions by that great scientist Michael Faraday who did some experiments. He found that even though cubes of ice seemed to have a surface water layer, when you held two cubes together, their common surface froze together to form a single ice block. This suggests the phenomenon of pre-melting which says that the surface layer of ice is unstable (because of the lack of molecules above it) and becomes liquid at temperatures below the commonly accepted melting point. But when two cubes are brought together, the common surface is no longer a surface layer and thus freezes, binding the two.

Faraday’s explanation was supported by others at the time but challenged by critics who said that holding the cubes together created pressure between them and it was this (and not premelting) that caused them to bind together. Faraday lost out in the end and his theory was pretty much forgotten until more sophisticated experiments were done beginning around 1950. In 1969, experiments confirmed that premelting of ice started occurring at -35oC and yet more sophisticated experiments have been done since and are still continuing that suggests that premelting is the explanation.

Is this something peculiar to ice? It turns out that premelting occurs in other materials as well. Lead, for example, melts at 327oC. But premelting causes the surface to become unstable at about 307oC, so you would be able to skate on lead at that lower temperature, in the few seconds before you were burned to a crisp. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Scientists have found similar liquid surface layers below the melting point for other metals, semiconductors, molecular solids and rare gases, suggesting that this is a common phenomenon.

Some interesting features of this history stand out. It shows how science and scientists work. Although Michael Faraday was a famous scientist, and his explanation ultimately turned out to be correct, it was not accepted at the time, despite some experimental support. It was only much later, with solid quantitative data coming in from a variety of sources, that resulted in the premelting hypothesis being accepted. Scientific prestige only assures you that your ideas will be taken seriously, not that they will be accepted.

Second, ideas by themselves, however appealing or aesthetically appealing, need their own supporting data if they are to be accepted. It is not enough to simply discredit other people’s ideas. Solid support for Faraday has only been coming in the last half-century.

Third, if you have a theory that explains one phenomenon, then it should also predict other phenomena. This is what was done by extending the liquid layer surface idea to other materials and seeing if they showed the same thing. When they did, the idea gained credibility. In other words, it was not an ad hoc theory to explain just one result, that of ice. This is the essential hypothetic-deductive (if-then) reasoning at work in science, which says that if something explains result A, then it should be possible to use it to predict something in context B.

I emphasize these three points to contrast the process with what intelligent design creationist (IDC) advocates are trying to do with their idea. They are violating points two and three of those criteria. They should not be surprised that IDC is being rejected by the scientific community.

POST SCRIPT: Motown at the Super Bowl

Some critics argued that the NFL showed bad judgment by selecting some aging British rock band to play at half-time at the Super Bowl, and completely ignoring Detroit’s Motown sound.

Meanwhile, Alexander Pollack, Detroit’s city architect, had proposed a truck horn band in which the air horns of big trucks could be tuned to play the musical scale and thus could serve as an orchestra. He had proposed that this collection of trucks be driven in during half time to play music on their horns but his idea was rejected because of the weight of the trucks. I like the Rolling Stones but this would have been a far more novel halftime show.

But he did get the trucks lined up to play somewhere outside the stadium and if you go here, you can hear the air horns playing “Stop in the name of love.” So Motown did have a presence at the game. Sort of.

Hot buttons and the people who push them-3

When it comes to how to find and push hot buttons in the US (see here and here for the first two parts of this series), we can all learn from the master, the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. These people are so off-the-wall hateful in their message that they are almost a self-parody.

Phelps and his small church consisting of mostly his extended family (he has 13 children of his own) hate gay people with a passion. He and his church members started their crusade by traveling around the country demonstrating at the funerals of gay people (especially those with high profile deaths like Matthew Shepard where they knew media would be there), with anti-gay signs.

This was annoying enough (especially to the grieving people at the funerals) but did not create enough of a ruckus to satisfy Phelps. After all, picking on gay people is hardly newsworthy, given the strength of anti-gay sentiment in this country. So Phelps cast around, trying to find ways to create a bigger impact, something that would really get under the skin of a lot of people. And he found one. His church members decided that in addition to protesting gays, they would also protest “enablers” of the gay lifestyle. This broadened the targets of their attacks to almost everyone.

They struck it big when they started demonstrating at the funerals of dead soldiers. At one such funeral “members of the church stomped on the American flag and held signs thanking God for the explosives” that killed the soldier being buried. How are soldiers “enablers” of gays, you ask? Easy, at least for Phelps, who displays an affinity for syllogistic arguments. Soldiers defend the US. The US harbors gays. Ergo, soldiers enable the gay lifestyle.

So members of the Westboro Baptist Church travel the country picketing military funerals with signs saying that the soldiers deserved to die because god hates them for defending a country that tolerates homosexuality and adultery.

They also demonstrated at the funeral of the miners killed at the Sago disaster, with “God hates miners” signs in addition to the standard signs against gays and gay enablers. How are miners gay enablers, you ask again? Well, miners support the US economy and keep it running. The US harbors gays. Ergo, miners are gay enablers.

They even demonstrated at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Why her, you ask? I’m sure you can fill in Phelps’ reasoning for yourself.

What do you do with people like this who are being so obnoxious? It seems to me that publicity and attention is what such people really crave. And Phelps found a really hot button with the military funerals because now state legislatures are proposing laws that restrict demonstrations at military funerals, at least to greater than a certain distance.

That is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong thing to do. What it does do is guarantee that Phelps will get the spotlight as he goes to court and eventually, as seems likely, win his case (perhaps in the Supreme Court) on first amendment grounds. And Phelps will take credit for being a martyr for free speech rights.

His case is like that of the Maryland man who got annoyed with his neighbor over some triviality concerning his dog, and mooned his neighbor. He was taken to court for indecent exposure but was acquitted because of the first amendment. That man now actually calls himself as an “American hero.”

If we could only learn to take control of our hot buttons we would take away the only weapon these obnoxious people have.

If the families of the slain soldiers could, instead of looking for laws to protect them, ask the military to designate a few people to go up to Phelps’s crowd at these funerals and smile and thank them for their concern and for taking the trouble to come to the funeral, then Phelps might get deflated. Or if people come with other signs saying things like “God loves gays” and “Only gays go to heaven” and stand near Phelps group, then that shifts the attention away from Phelps. Or they could stand with those signs outside Phelps’s church before and after Sunday service.

In my opinion, humor, parody, satire, and gentle ridicule are far more effective at neutralizing obnoxious people than physical threats and legal actions, because the latter enables them to play the hero role while the former makes them merely figures of fun. People who deliberately set out to be obnoxious are (going into pop psychology mode for a moment) usually humorless and insecure, and it is disturbing to them to be ignored or considered ridiculous.

As I have said before. I am a firm believer in the first amendment and free speech rights. We have to protect them because those rights are needed to protect those who are using it in the service of the common good. If in the process of protecting them, we also allow people like Phelps to pester grieving families or some newspapers to goad some Muslims into intemperate behavior, then so be it. (See an interesting article on this in the Guardian.)

But my right to say what I feel does not mean that I am to be commended for using that right whenever and wherever I please. It is true that I have the right to insult someone (within limits). If that person is provoked enough that he or she threatens me with physical harm, I should have the right to be protected. But I shouldn’t expect praise for my exercise and subsequent “defense” of free speech rights. It seems like praise is what the newspapers who published the Muslim cartoons, Phelps, and even the Maryland mooner, expect.

The so-called Golden Rule of human behavior, that says that we should treat other people the way that we would like to be treated, is articulated almost universally by religions and societies. It sets a high bar for behavior and is a hard rule to follow.

I would like to suggest a somewhat lower standard of behavior, say the Silver Rule, and that is: We should try not to be gratuitously offensive to others and we should try not to take offense easily.

If people simply followed that rule, life would be a lot more pleasant.

POST SCRIPT: The Cheney Chronicles

Trying to shed himself of his secretive and reclusive image, the VP has been making the rounds.

David Letterman shows clips of the VP giving a speech after the shooting, talking frankly about himself. . .

. . . and then Jay Leno interviews him . . .

. . . and then Cheney, showing that he has talents other than starting disastrous wars, gives a concert where he sings his version of the Johnny Cash hit Folsom Prison Blues, the song that contains the immortal line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” (Warning: Explicit lyrics because in the song Cheney repeats the phrase that he used against Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the US Senate.)

Baby killers

I saw the documentary film Winter Soldiers on Wednesday night at Strosacker and it was a very moving experience. (The film will be shown again on Sunday at 1:30pm. I strongly recommend it. See below for details.)

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, more than 125 veterans of the Vietnam war came to a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit and spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The documentary gives voice to these soldiers as they describe what they had seen and done.
[Read more...]

Secret Agent Vice President

What amazed me is that after Vice President Cheney shot 78-year old Harry Whittington, the administration started by essentially blaming the man for getting shot.

From what I have read (see here and here), the consensus among bird hunters is that in such incidents, the fault almost always lies with the shooter. It is like rear-end collisions, where placing the blame is a no-brainer because it takes an extraordinary series of events for the person who gets rear-ended to be at fault. But this is an administration that however much it messes things up, always finds other people to blame and insists that what it did was right.

The Daily Show satirized this attitude with correspondent Rob Corddry saying, “Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be the 78 year old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face.”

After it became clear that the attempt to blame Whittington was not getting any traction and was inviting outright ridicule and contempt, after four days, the Vice President in an interview absolves Whittington from blame.

What is interesting about the whole story is the reticence to reveal information about the incident and the sometimes contradictory nature of the information that is disclosed.

For example, although there were reports of three hunters in the party, the identity of the third was kept quiet and was only revealed after much prodding to be that of Pamela Willeford, the US Ambassador to Switzerland. Since she was an eyewitness to the events, why was her identity not revealed earlier? Why was she not questioned about her version of events? After all, she is a public employee.

Noted criminal lawyer and Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz also questions the reasons for the 14/18/24-hour delay (depending on who is reporting) in revealing the details of the shooting, and brings his experience to speculate on possibilities.

And others are questioning the story that the shooting distance was 30 yards since that does not square with the density of pellets that hit the victim, and the degree of penetration of the pellets. Those facts suggest that he may have been much closer, say 30 feet.

If this is a simple accidental shooting, why is it so hard to have a simple, straightforward, accounting of the events? In fact it is amazing that the VP waited four days before speaking on the matter, and then, rather than give a full-fledged news conference, he spoke only to Brit Hume of Fox News, who can be counted upon to be very sympathetic, if not outright sycophantic.
Why was it so hard for the Vice President to come forward quickly and publicly apologize and say that he is terribly sorry about the accident and the resulting pain he has caused Mr. Whittington and his family? He could have turned it into an important lesson learned, that even people experienced with guns can make mistakes and thus should always exercise extreme caution when handling firearms. That seems to me to be the gracious thing to have done. (I am assuming that he has already done all this privately to the Whittingtons. If he hasn’t, that becomes even more appallingly ungracious behavior.)

The Vice-President seems to think that he can simultaneously have all the privileges of a private citizen while having all the perks of being on the taxpayer payroll. As James Wolcott points out:

The question the press should ask itself when it has time to pause and (ha-ha) reflect is: Why has Dick Cheney been allowed to be secret-agent vice president since 9/11? Everyone foolishly accepted that he needed to be in an undisclosed location in case of terrorist attack, but there hasn’t been a terrorist attack and Cheney has used the 9/11 moment as a permanent opaque bullet-proof shield between himself and accountability on everything pertaining to his office. Has there ever been an administration where the vice president was more aloof, arrogant, and stealthier than the president himself? As Dana Bash said the other night on CNN, the vice president’s office routinely refuses to let anyone know what the veep’s schedule is, what his travel plans are, who he’s meeting with, etc. They didn’t know he was spending the weekend shooting quail and the occasional fellow hunter until the news broke in Texas. He’s an elected official, which he seems to have forgotten, as has the press, as has the Republican Party, as have the American people.

Good points. The VP is not a private citizen, although he seems to think he can act like one. As many people have pointed out, the media fuss over this incident is surprising since they glossed right over all the much more serious things the VP has been involved in, especially in making the fraudulent case for attacking Iraq.

Just this very week, on February 10 it was reported that Cheney’s indicted former chief-of-staff Lewis Libby “testified that his bosses instructed him to leak information to reporters from a high-level intelligence report that suggested Iraq was trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, according to court records in the CIA leak case.

Cheney was one of the “superiors” I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby said had authorized him to make the disclosures, according to sources familiar with the investigation into Libby’s discussions with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame.”

That criminal investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is ongoing.

Then Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 said on February 10 “In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made,” Pillar wrote. And Cheney was one of the people who made those decisions.

These news items, although very serious, have received scant attention from the media because of the shooting on the very next day (February 11), which led comedian Bill Maher to joke that the VP may have deliberately shot Whittington to draw attention away from those more serious policy revelations.

So why the media focus on the shooting? After all, no one is seriously suggesting that at bottom it was anything more than an accident. Some are suggesting that the way the shooting episode news release was handled is the straw that broke the camel’s back. At some point, the White House media got fed up with the almost obsessive secrecy and stonewalling that they have been receiving on so many issues.

For example, just on Tuesday, the White House press secretary in the morning was trying to laugh off the whole shooting incident by joking about it and then during his daily briefing in the afternoon, while knowing that Whittington’s condition had taken a turn for the worse that day with a heart attack, and did not share this information with the assembled unwitting press corps. This kind of secrecy is hard to understand.

Perhaps the media are taking their frustrations out on the White House using a story that is simple to understand and write about, even though it does not have the serious policy implications of the Iraq war and the other controversies of which the VP is at the center.

POST SCRIPT: Parody film trailers

Sleepless in Seattle as a stalker thriller? The Shining as a warm family comedy? These are some of the parody film trailers circulating on the internet that take scenes from the real film and present them as belonging to a completely different genre. Of course, Brokeback Mountain has also spawned its share of parodies such as Brokeback to the Future and Top Gun 2: Brokeback Squadron.

To see them (and others), go here.

Ohio Sets Back Intelligent Design

Yesterday the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) struck a huge blow against intelligent design by voting 11-4 to remove benchmarks in its science standards that called for “critical analysis” of evolution and to eliminate a lesson plan based on that benchmark.

Here is some background to the issue. In 2001 I was selected to be part of Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board to set new science standards for Ohio. After many months of work, we approved a set of standards to be fleshed out by other people in writing committees. There was some discussion of what to do about intelligent design creationism (IDC) but the consensus was to keep it out.

Then in 2002 an emergency meeting of the advisory board was called in Columbus (which I did not attend) and I am told that the members who did attend were told that certain members of the OBE were unhappy at the omission of IDC. They were then given an ultimatum. In the section that dealt with biological evolution, they had to include a benchmark that said “Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of intelligent design.” If they did not agree, the entire set of standards would be jettisoned and a new set created by the state legislature. Since this would probably be worse, the members of the advisory board reluctantly agreed.

At the OBE meeting where the standards were to be adopted, some OBE members were concerned that this benchmark would open the door to teaching IDC so they added additional language that said (in parentheses) “The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.”

But it soon became clear that this benchmark was a Trojan horse. The pro-IDC OBE members inserted people into the lesson plan writing team who drafted a lesson plan called Critical Analysis of Evolution that essentially recycled IDC ideas without explicitly mentioning intelligent design.

This lesson plan was roundly criticized on both science and pedagogical grounds but the OBE stood firm on retaining it.

The Dover trial revived the criticism of both the benchmarks and the lesson plan and at its January meeting, a vote for their removal was narrowly defeated 9-8, with two members absent. Governor Bob Taft then stepped in and asked for a legal review of the lesson plan to see if it could be challenged. Meanwhile I and twenty other members of the original science advisory board wrote to the Governor on February 7, 2006 urging elimination of the benchmark and the lesson plan.

All this lay behind yesterday’s 11-4 vote to reject both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

In order to clarify the somewhat subtle issues behind this, I had written an op-ed on February 10, 2006 which I submitted to the Plain Dealer and which was rejected. But I reproduce it below so that you can see what was wrong with both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

Here’s the op-ed:

How Critical Analysis Can be Abused

The course on The World’s Religions was proceeding smoothly. Using a textbook that had one chapter dedicated to each religion, the students learned about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, and Taoism. The class soon settled into a predictable routine in which they learned the basic beliefs, rituals, origins, and history of each religion.

The students were surprised, however, when a completely different teaching strategy was adopted for the chapter on Christianity. The new lesson plan adopted a much more critical stance.

The students were first asked to identify five important elements of Christianity’s religious beliefs and history, such as the Genesis stories, the exodus, the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the virgin birth. For each item, the students were instructed to critically analyze it by finding one major piece of evidence in support of it and one to challenge it, and to compare and contrast that evidence. The class watched the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There (which challenges the idea that Jesus was a historical figure and argues that his life story was constructed out of myths that were prevalent at that time) and students were also directed to archaeological, anthropological, historical, and scientific sources that said that the Genesis stories could not be taken literally and that the Biblical story of the exodus did not occur.

Students were asked to evaluate the usefulness and credibility of both the Bible and the sources that challenged it, debates were held among the students on the relative merits of the sources, and students were asked to write reflective essays on why it was important to critically analyze Christian beliefs. Students were asked to provide written arguments both in favor of and against each of the basic five Christian beliefs, and teachers were given sample answers to better help them guide students towards providing suitable answers on both sides.

At the end of the course, many students felt that Christianity was much less credible than all the other religions.

Where did this biased form of teaching occur? Well, actually, I made it up. But it is fictitious only in terms of its subject matter. I created this example to clarify what is at issue behind the February 7, 2006 letter that I and twenty other former members of Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board sent to Governor Taft, urging that a lesson plan approved by the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) be removed.

This grade 10 “Critical Analysis of Evolution” lesson plan treats evolution almost exactly the way Christianity is treated in the above example. While all the other topics in physical, earth, space, and life sciences are taught so as to give students a basic understanding of the elements of those disciplines to prepare them for more advanced work in the field, there is a sudden change as soon as evolution is introduced and students are taught as if the arguments for and against it are on an equal footing.

This singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was one of the reasons that US District Judge John E. Jones III used to argue that the Dover, PA school board’s action was unconstitutional. His ruling (Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover, 2005) quoted a US Supreme Court judgment that objected to legislation that “[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools…chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects.”

Judge Jones further said with this kind of singling out “the Board sent the message that it “believes there is some problem peculiar to evolution,” and “[i]n light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists. . . the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board’s problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator.””

He said that this extraordinary scrutiny of evolution violated the “prohibition against government endorsement of religion” because that prohibition “preclude[s] government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.”

Those members of the OBE who have been promoters of the lesson plan argue that the Dover decision does not apply to Ohio because their plan does not mention intelligent design, which was an issue in the Dover case. They should not be so sanguine. Although it is hard to predict how a different judge in a different jurisdiction in a different case might rule, the Dover case has relevance because the problem Judge Jones identified was that the singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was tantamount, because of the history of the issue, to an attempt to undermine its credibility in order to advance a specific religious belief.

It seems clear that that argument applies to the Ohio lesson plan as well, and thus the Dover ruling will weigh heavily. The OBE would be well advised to remove the lesson plan.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on Science Standards

UPDATE: Lawrence Krauss will be talking on “Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education, and the Emperor’s New Clothes” in Rockefeller 301 at 4:15pm on Thursday, February 16.

See here for more details.