Is cheerleading a sport?

In the seminar that I teach that deals with scientific revolutions, one of the difficult questions that we grapple with is how to distinguish science from non-science. In other words, if we have two boxes, one labeled ‘science’ and the other ‘non-science’, can we establish some criteria that will enable us to take any given theory and determine which of the two boxes it should be put into? To be able to do so requires us to establish the existence of both necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered science.

If we have only necessary conditions, then any theory that does NOT meet those criteria is definitely not science so it goes into the non-science box. But if it does meet just necessary criteria, all we can say about it is that it may or may not be science. i.e., we do not know which box to put it into. So for example, the commonly accepted idea that scientific theories are materialistic and generate predictions that can be tested are necessary conditions. This is why any theories involving supernatural entities or that are untestable tend to be immediately classified as non-science. But all theories that are materialistic and testable may not be science. For example, the idea that soccer fans are intrinsically rowdier than football fans is not a scientific theory (in the usual sense we use the words) although the methods of scientific investigations (such as statistical analysis and correlations) may be used in seeing if it is in fact a true statement.

Similarly, if we have criteria for sufficiency and a theory meets those criteria, then it goes into the box marked science. But if it does not meet the criteria, it may or may not be science, so again we do not know which box to put it into. As an example, if we say that a theory is science if it has been cited as the reason why its inventors were awarded a Nobel prize, then quantum theory would be scientific without a doubt. But what about the theory of relativity? It has not been cited in Nobel awards so by our rules we cannot definitely say if it is or is not science.

This is why we need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements that theory A is science while theory B is not science..

One would think that it might be easy to simply make a list of necessary conditions and say that if a theory meets ALL of those necessary conditions, then that is sufficient. But it is not that simple. What complicates things is that any demarcation criterion that tries to distinguish science from non-science would have to be such that all theories that are commonly accepted as science (such as Newton’s laws of motion) would meet the criteria and be included while those that are commonly thought to not be science (say astrology) are excluded. Trying to ensure that existing theories go into the correct boxes is where the difficulty arises because there are always difficult marginal cases.

Finding necessary and sufficient conditions for science has been so difficult that some have declared this problem to be either insoluble or not worth the effort to solve it.

In teaching these somewhat abstract concepts of necessary and scientific conditions, I try to give my students a more down-to-earth parallel by posing to them the question: Is cheerleading a sport? This usually generates a lively discussion and they soon realize that in order to answer this question, they need to arrive at necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a sport or non-sport and they quickly discover that it is hard, if not impossible, to do so. And the difficulty is exactly the same as that confronting demarcation criteria for science. While it is possible to make prescriptive lists of conditions for what constitutes a sport, what complicates things is that whatever conditions we arrive at should also be such that things that are commonly accepted as sports (say tennis and soccer) and those that are not (drinking a beer or taking a nap on the couch) fall, using those criteria, into the correct boxes. And there are some tough marginal cases, not just cheerleading. Is chess a sport? Is the card game bridge a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?

It turns out that my classroom discussion question of whether cheerleading is a sport is not a purely academic exercise. It is actually being argued before a federal judge in Connecticut. The reason is that Quinnipiac University has been accused of subverting the requirements of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires colleges to provide some level of equity in support of women’s athletics. The university cut costs by classifying the high-numbers, low-cost, women-dominated cheerleading as a sport, enabling them to eliminate other women’s sports (such a volleyball) that cost more per student. The women’s volleyball team has challenged the university’s classification of cheerleading as a sport and this is what has led to the lawsuit.

In arguing the case, we see the same necessary and sufficient arguments surfacing.

While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 “national championships” a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as “emerging.”

It looks like what Title IX has tried to specify are just necessary conditions which, as we have seen, can only definitely say if cheerleading is not a sport. It is not clear if it says that if an activity meets ALL the necessary conditions, then that is sufficient to make it a sport.

Whatever the outcome, Quinnipiac University should be ashamed of itself for trying to subvert the spirit of Title IX and eliminating women’s volleyball.

But what I am really curious about is how the judge is going to arrive at a verdict. Will he be able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions and thus arrive at demarcation criteria, something that has so far eluded my students and me? If so, I will gladly say that you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

POST SCRIPT: Who is an atheist?

The rotten US health care system

Just last month I went for a routine physical examination followed up by routine blood tests and a bone density scan. According to my health insurance plan, all these were supposed to be fully covered. Of course, being a veteran of the bureaucratic health care system in the US, I know that nothing is ‘routine’ here and so before I did any of these things I had to spend some time making sure that I was going to a doctor covered by my insurance plan and that the blood-testing laboratory and the bone-density measuring facility were also covered procedures done by approved facilities.

After everything was over, I received bills charging me the full amount for both the blood tests and the bone density scans. This meant that I had to call the insurance company to find out what had gone wrong. After fighting my way through the thicket of the voice mail jungle to get a real live person, they said that one of the bills was due to an error by their processing office and the other was due to a wrong process code entered by the laboratory. (It fascinates me that these errors always seem to favor the insurance companies, never the patient.) So then I had to call the laboratory and tell them to re-submit the bill using the correct code.

Of course, I was not surprised this happened because I have had enough experience with the absurdly bureaucratic US system to know that this kind of hassle that patients go through is the norm. In fact, I fully expect that there will be more glitches and more bills requiring more phone calls from me. All this for relatively trivial and ‘routine’ processes. For other people, things are a lot worse. The wife of a friend of mine died after a long illness. In addition to dealing with his grief, he now has to deal with the enormously complicated details of who should be paying for what aspects of her care. Dealing with all the paperwork and bureaucracy is practically a full-time job.

Let’s not mince words. The US has one of the lousiest health care systems in the developed world. (For my previous posts on this topic see here.) This is not just my opinion. It is supported by numerous studies, the latest of which finds that the US ranks at or near the bottom on most measures when compared to six other countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) in the quality of the health care its people receive. This will, of course, come as no surprise to those people who have paid close attention to this question and seen through the propaganda of the lucrative health industry and their bogus arguments about hip replacements and wait times and the like. (The organization Physicians for A National Health Program gives a lot of great information.)

A Business Week news report on the new study says:

Despite having the costliest health care system in the world, the United States is last or next-to-last in quality, efficiency, access to care, equity and the ability of its citizens to lead long, healthy, productive lives, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based private foundation focused on improving health care.

According to 2007 data included in the report, the U.S. spends the most on health care, at $7,290 per capita per year. That’s almost twice the amount spent in Canada and nearly three times the rate of New Zealand, which spends the least.

The Netherlands, which has the highest-ranked health care system on the Commonwealth Fund list, spends only $3,837 per capita.

The report also debunks the most common sound-bite made by supporters of the US system, that supporters of single-payer don’t really know how awful other systems are. The converse is true. People who have experienced health care in any of those other countries (like I have) are the ones who are amazed at how awful the US system is, because only they realize how much better it can be, and is elsewhere.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, commented that “as a physician and public health practitioner, I have routinely spoken out in favor of health care reform in the U.S. The responses evoked have not always been kind. Prominent among the counterarguments has been: ‘You should see what health care is like in other countries.'”

“This report utterly belies the notion that the former status quo for health care delivery in the U.S. was as good as it gets. Others have been doing better and we can, and should, too,” he said.

In fact, the UK with its (gasp!) ‘socialized medicine’ turns out to be at or near the top.

U.S. patients with chronic conditions were the most likely to say they got the wrong drug or had to wait to learn of abnormal test results.

Overall Britain, whose nationalized healthcare system was widely derided by opponents of U.S. healthcare reform, ranks first, the Commonwealth team found.

An American physician now working in Canada gave the commencement address to newly minted doctors at the University of California at Irvine and he made some interesting comparisons with his experience working in the US.

It was interesting for me, as an American physician practicing in Canada, to see the recent negative depictions of the Canadian system in TV ads and lay media, depictions that bore absolutely no resemblance to the actual environment in which I practice daily. My reality is very different. I can see any patient and any patient can see me – total freedom of practice. My patients’ parents have peace of mind regarding their children’s health. If they change jobs or lose their job altogether in a bad economy, their children will still get the same care and see the same physicians. Micromanagement of daily practice has become a thing of the past for me. There are no contracts, authorizations, denials, appeals, reviews, forms to complete, IPA’s, HMO’s, or PPO’s. Our Division’s billing overhead is 1 %. My relationship with the hospital administration is defined by professional, not financial, standards. I have no allegiance to any corporate or government entity, nor does one ever get in between me and the patient. This environment, which some denigrate as the ever so scary system of “socialized medicine” allows for more patient autonomy and choice than was available to most of my patients in California. (my emphasis)

That is not at all to say that I practice in a medical utopia. There is no perfect health care system. The Canadian system has its own set of difficulties, challenges, and shortcomings, and Canadians are also looking to significantly reform their system. But as physicians, we have to enter the debate and we have to enter it objectively, salvaging it from the bias, misrepresentation, and demagoguery that has characterized it. Health care should not be a liberal or conservative issue, for disease, disability, and death do not recognize political affiliations.

As a socially conservative Christian myself, my belief that health care is a fundamental human right, and my efforts on behalf of single payer universal health coverage stem from my faith, and not despite it. My faith calls for personal morality, but also for societal morality – how do we treat the sick amongst us, the weak amongst us, the least amongst us?

Some form of single payer health care system (whether socialized or not) is what the US needs. Now.

POST SCRIPT: This is the best the US can do?

It amazes me that the corrupt, wasteful, and greedy health insurance industry in the US is what some people want to preserve.

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What the McChrystal affair reveals about the media

One initial reaction of the mainstream media to the Rolling Stone article that got Stanley McChrystal fired as commander of US forces in Afghanistan seemed to be “Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone?” They couldn’t understand why the person in charge of the war in Afghanistan gave so much access to what they saw as a hippy-dippy magazine that mainly covers rock music and popular culture. The issue with the McChrystal article had Lady Gaga on the cover and, as you can see, the article in question did not even get top billing, suggesting that the magazine itself did not realize what its impact would be.

lady gaga.jpgBut the journalist Michael Hastings is no hippie who had gone to Afghanistan mostly for the high-quality opium and talk to the US top brass in between puffs. He was correspondent for Newsweek in Afghanistan for two years before being transferred to cover the 2008 elections, is very familiar with the people there both among Afghans and the US, and even has a brother serving there now. Furthermore, Rolling Stone has had a long history of covering politics from unusual angles because they hire good reporters who seem to be given much more freedom and time to do their work in unorthodox ways. Hunter S. Thompson used to write for them and Matt Taibbi, one of the best current reporters around, works for them

A second reaction was much more revealing. The mainstream media couldn’t understand why Hastings had burned all his bridges by publishing his article containing the explosive quotes by McChrystal and his macho ‘Team America’ denigrating the civilian leadership. By doing so, Hastings had ensured that he would not be granted future access to other important people and, even worse, may have ruined it for other ‘respectable’ reporters as well. Why, they wondered, had he not cleaned up his article by sanitizing it and making sure that they all looked good, the way that that nice reporter Bob Woodward does? That way he could ensure, like Woodward, that important people would be eager to talk to reporters, knowing that they would be well portrayed.

David Brooks, someone who, like Woodward, epitomizes the corrosive schmoozing culture of Washington and has also benefited by it, bemoans the effect that the Hastings article, which he dismisses as ‘gotcha’ journalism, will have on the friendly conversations that currently occur between reporters and the people who cover them. “Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.”

Brooks gets duly taken to the woodshed by his Nemesis, Matt Taibbi, who points out that the explosive quotes were embedded in an important story about the confusion within the administration over the policy to be pursued in Afghanistan. (See Stephen Walt’s analysis of this angle.)

Of course Brooks himself almost certainly never even considered the newsworthiness of McChrystal’s perhaps-unilateral expansion of the Afghan war; I doubt his thinking about this issue even went that far. I’m almost certain that to him this is a matter of decorum, that what he doesn’t like about the Hastings article is that it violates what I’m sure are deeply-held ideas of how a reporter should behave toward a large strapping man with immense political power and a snappy uniform.
Hastings did the opposite of what Brooks would have done in the same situation — instead of wetting himself in the presence of all those stars and epaulettes and spending long Saleri-esque nights dreaming up new descriptive bon mots for the General… Hastings did his job and let the public decide what sort of news, and on-the-record comments, it is and is not ready to handle.

The media insider flap over the Hastings article illustrates the important difference between beat reporters (assigned by major news outlets to cover on a daily basis a specific area, the White House, Pentagon, business, etc.) and one-off reporters working for magazines. Matt Taibbi reveals why beat reporters and their publications have become so vapid.

For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.

This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it’s a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush’s shut-out of the Washington Post’s White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don’t always deserve.

Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That’s a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that’s why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that’s partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.

Taibbi points out that it doesn’t have to be that way as long as news organizations are willing to call the politicians’ bluff.

I do think we’d all be better off if news organizations stopped choosing teams and worrying about access and started doing what Hastings did, which is risk the shut-out. It’s hard to write something that you know is going to put you straight into Siberia with your sources five minutes after the piece comes out. I certainly don’t do it very often. Most reporters don’t. But if we all did this more often, what we’d find in the end is that politicians would come calling and offering access anyway. In the end, they really do need us as much as we need them.

Barrett Brown hopes that the Hastings article is a sign of the future.

[The article] was written by a perfect specimen of the new breed of journalist-commentator that will hopefully come to replace the old breed sooner rather than later, and which has already collectively surpassed the old guard by every measure that counts—for instance, not being forever wrong about matters of life and death.

McChrystal and Co. would have exhibited far better judgment had they looked into Hastings’s career and writings and come to the obvious conclusion that this sort of journalist has nothing to lose in reporting a series of demonstrable facts. Unlike many of this country’s most respected commentators, Hastings did not spend the better part of a decade repeating conventional wisdom about our allegedly unprecedented success in two wars that have already proven to be abject failures, and thus he has no reason to simply take the word of some or another confused presidential administration that everything is under control, or will be after some additional expenditure of blood and treasure.

You cannot be a good journalist if you are working as a beat reporter for any of the major news organizations. They are all, almost by definition, careerist hacks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show‘s take on the flap

Of course, you knew that Jon Stewart would be all over the story.

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The low tax rates in the US

Every year when I do my taxes, I also do a small extra calculation to see what percent of our gross family income goes as taxes. It amazes me that the number comes out to less than one third. This low rate would make sense if I were poor. But I am not. I have a good job, as does my wife, and our combined income puts us well above the median income for families in the US, which in 2008 was around $52,000. In fact, as I have discussed previously, our whole concept of what constitutes the ‘middle class’ is hopelessly out of whack with how income is really distributed.

Bear in mind that in calculating my total tax liability I include federal, state, and local taxes, and also social security, Medicare, and property taxes. Furthermore, I do not use an accountant to find loopholes or use any fancy tax shelters and the like to reduce my liability, the way that very wealthy people do. Our finances are so straightforward that I have always done my own tax returns. Yet despite the lack of any determined effort to find ways to reduce taxes, I still pay what seems to me to be an absurdly low rate.

This is why I have so little patience with those people, often people like me or even better off, who use phony tax arguments to constantly whine about how the taxes in the US are too high. They are not. These people seem to start from the assumption that the justifiable amount of tax is zero and anything above that is an imposition. You hear these people saying things like every dollar they get in their paychecks is ‘their’ money and that anything taken out from it in taxes is tantamount to the government ‘stealing’ their hard earned income. Because these people have dominated the discussion, they have convinced everyone that all taxes are bad and any politician who raises them risks defeat.

But this argument is bogus. When I take on a job and sign a contract to have my employer pay me a certain amount of money, that is not a zero cost arrangement. For the company to exist to offer me the job and for me to be able to accept requires the existence of a huge infrastructure. Simply to exist, the company needs roads and bridges and lights and water and electricity and police and schools and fire protection and a whole range of other government services. For me to reach a stage where I am capable of doing the job requires those same services. All those things require money and just because I do not pay for them at the moment of use does not mean they cost nothing. The cost is hidden from us because they are paid using our taxes. These costs are factored in by employers when they negotiate the contract. So what is ‘taken out’ of our paychecks is what was ‘put in’ to cover all these costs. The taxes we pay is not ‘our’ money that is taken away from us, it is basically a bookkeeping device to show us how much money was essentially loaned to us to cover the cost of the very things that enable us to earn the money in the first place. If the costs of all those services were paid for elsewhere by the tooth fairy, our salaries would likely be correspondingly lower.

The fact that costs are factored into the process of determining salaries should be obvious. This is why a job in New York city will likely pay more than the identical job in a small rural town, because to live in a big city simply costs more, especially for housing. We could have a system where the city levies a ‘housing tax’ that reduces your take-home income by a certain amount and uses that money to subsidize your housing costs so that you recover the money at the back end. The net result in terms of take-home pay would be the same but people accept the former arrangement because they themselves are paying the extra costs for housing and it seems like they have a choice as to how they spend ‘their’ money. It does not come out of their paychecks and is thus not seen as a tax.

But certain public services cannot be paid for by individuals at the point of receiving the service. How would you pay for roads and streetlights and police? The debate about taxes should be not be the silly one about the amount of taxes we should pay, as if there is some magic number, but about what public services we want to have and at what level and the degree of progressivity of the tax code that we think is fair. The taxes we pay will naturally flow out of that discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism-inspired rock song and video

The song Bombastic Mind by the band Mental Health has been chosen as one of 40 songs taking part in the Storm The Charts campaign in the UK. By purchasing it starting on Monday, June 27, you can help it reach #1.

It is actually a pretty good song and if the embedded video below does not work, you can see the video here.

The band’s website is here.

Bogus concern for the poor

The last few decades have seen massive giveaways to the very rich in the US that has resulted in huge increases in the inequalities in income and wealth. See these charts for how bad the situation has become. Even in the last year when almost everyone was badly hit by the economic recession, the millionaires and billionaires saw their wealth jump by almost 20%.

But whenever there is any suggestion of narrowing the gaps, the arguments raised in opposition are fascinating. Suddenly, the very rich people start arguing that those going to be most affected by tax policies aimed at them are actually the poor people. It is quite amazing how there is always a surge in solicitousness for the welfare of the poor whenever the wallets of the rich are threatened.

For example, when suggestions are made that in order to close the budget deficit, the marginal tax rates on the highest income brackets should be raised, we are told that the people who would be hurt most by this move are the people at the low end of the income scale, whose income is in the lowest tax brackets. Why? Because supposedly if you increase taxes on the rich, they will have less money to invest in businesses and so businesses will have less capital and thus will not hire more people or will even close, throwing people out of work. These arguments are usually made in the form of these kinds of just-so stories, without supporting evidence.

When it comes to farm subsidies, they are always sold as essential in order to protect the ‘small family farmer’, a phrase that conjures up a mental image of dad on the tractor, mom baking bread, and the children before and after school cleaning out the barn and feeding the chickens on a small farm that the family has owned for generations, when in reality these subsidies are mostly giveaways to the same large agribusiness that are destroying the environment, keeping livestock in inhumane conditions, and actually driving genuine small family farms out of business.

As another example, the estate tax is imposed on people who die leaving enormous amounts of wealth to their heirs, people like Paris Hilton. The very wealthy, the only ones affected by this tax, have long tried to repeal it and again tried to make out that they were acting on behalf of poor people. They again invoked the small family farmer, who had struggled hard to make a living all his life and after his or her death, the so-called ‘death tax’ was going to be so onerous that the descendants would have to sell the farm to pay off the tax. This is totally bogus. No one could produce even a single example of such a case. To pay any estate tax, the estate would have to be worth more than $3.5 million.

Recently there have been moves to close a loophole that enables the managers of hedge funds and investors in derivatives, the people behind the recent financial collapse who made enormous profits (Making Big Bucks by Betting on Collapse by Carl Ginsburg in the May 16-30, 2010 issue of CounterPunch), to pay only 15% in taxes on this income instead of the top rate of 35% they would have to pay if those profits were treated like ordinary income. On NPR I heard one person opposing closing this loophole, saying that doing so would harm (surprise!) poor people. Why? Because hedge funds provide financing for (among other things) construction and thus taking some of their huge incomes as taxes would mean less money for building projects and thereby put construction workers out of work. So closing a loophole that prevents vastly wealthy people from paying their fair share in taxes is now argued to be a move aimed at construction workers. Again, no evidence is given to support this argument.

BP is playing the same game. In order to pay for the damage caused by the Gulf oil spill, they are being asked to not pay dividends to their shareholders. Suddenly we are hearing that the people who would be harmed most by not paying dividends would be the old pensioners in England who depend on the BP dividend to keep them from starvation and freezing in the cold English winters. In reality, the largest shareholders in BP are big institutions, with Wall Street banking giant JP Morgan Chase topping the list.

Just last night, the auto industry obtained an exemption from oversight by the new consumer watchdog contained in the financial industry regulations to protect consumers that are being sought in the wake of the financial meltdown. Their argument to for special consideration? That they represent the ‘neighborhood auto dealer’, that they are ‘Main Street and not Wall Street’ (to use a current populist cliché), when in reality more than 70% of the loans they offer are backed by the same big Wall Street firms.

The image that the very rich try to impose on the rest of us is that what they constantly seek to do with their money is find opportunities to invest in new business and create new jobs, when in reality what they do is use their money to make more money by financial manipulation. They don’t care even if, as it often does, their greed results in low wages or throws people out of work because of the pressure to squeeze more profits out of them. When they do spend their money, it is on luxurious living, so perhaps it results in more business for yacht makers and a few people in the service sector such as high-end restaurants, hotels, and places of entertainment.

What these examples illustrate is that the one thing that very rich people are good at is spinning stories that can make their naked greed and self-interest seem like civic mindedness.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher’s New Rules

The only thing that is working in favor of Obama and the Democrats, despite their terrible performance in office so far, is that the Republican Party has gone crazy. American conservatism has been hi-jacked by demagogic know-nothings who pander to and fuel the most paranoid and xenophobic fears of people. See this video by Bill Maher on the difference between British and American conservatives.

Today Arizona, tomorrow the US

One of the things that seems obvious to me but most people seem unaware of is that the US is a country in deep decline and if no corrective action is taken soon it will end up just like many other failed empire in history, collapsing from within due to a combination of hubris, arrogance, and greed.
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Fashion and foot binding

The novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) is the story of the lifelong friendship, starting from childhood, of two women in early 19th century China as each undergoes major life changes, one moving up the socioeconomic ladder, the other down. Told through the eyes of one child who begins life as the daughter of a poor farmer and rises, through marriage, to become a noblewoman, it gives insight into the curious and sometimes brutal life of the various classes of women in the patriarchal Confucian system.

The book describes the hidden and secret world of women in that gender-segregated society, its superstitions and rituals, and the rigid hierarchy and roles that people, especially women, were assigned to. Women were meant to stay in the home and drilled with the rules known (p. 24) as the Three Obediences (“When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son”) and the Four Virtues (“Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery”) so that they will grow into the ideal of a virtuous woman. Women are told repeatedly from birth that they are worthless and any woman who does not bear sons is treated even worse than normal.

But what I found truly horrifying were the descriptions dealing with the binding of feet. I had been aware of course of this terrible practice but to have the process described in detail in the novel was chilling and makes one wonder how such a barbaric standard of beauty could have even been conceived and implemented except as a means of dominating women and breaking them both physically and in spirit.

The ideal of the perfect foot sought by the binding process seems grotesque now:

Of these requirements, length is the most important. Seven centimeters – about the length of a thumb – is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all the weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and the arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. (p. 26)

This result was obtained by brutally binding the feet of very young children with tightly wound bandages. Children started undergoing this process around the age of six or so, and it is, as you can imagine, not only excruciatingly painful but dangerous, with death from gangrene and permanent crippling not being uncommon. Even when “successful” the result was women whose mobility was impaired. To be quite frank, I found those sections too difficult to read and skimmed them. The descriptions of little children screaming in pain as their mothers put them through this process was just too much for me to take. This is another example of adults callously violating the bodily integrity of children by imposing their own beliefs on them.

How could such a terrible practice ever become seen as the norm or even desirable? From the point of view of men, having women who were restricted in their movements may have been seen as good thing as it enabled them to dominate them more easily. (The efforts by the Taliban and other Muslim fundamentalists to deprive women of education and keep them virtually prisoners in their homes seem to serve a similar purpose.)

But how did it happen that women also internalized this as a desirable standard of beauty? It is suggested that the practice began with wealthy women and that the very negatives associated with it, such as impaired mobility, were seen as signs of wealth and privilege since it implied that one was a woman of leisure who had servants to do all the work on one’s behalf.

But as is often the case with fashion, what begins as an extravagance to be flaunted by the wealthy is then adopted by everyone as the standard and that may be why foot binding took hold among almost everyone in China except the servant classes, who were needed to do work. Thankfully the abolition of the Chinese monarchy and the creation of a republic in 1912 resulted in the banning of the practice, and after the Communist Revolution of 1949 the ban was even more strictly enforced so I believe (and hope) that the practice has disappeared altogether.

While reading the novel, it struck me that this kind of practice took place in the west too, though in less extreme forms. The kinds of clothes women wore in Victorian times, with highly restricting corsets, suffocating layers of petticoats, and ornate wigs and makeup were also a means of flaunting the fact that one had nothing better to do than spend vast amounts of time and money paying attention to one’s appearance.

Nowadays, fashions are not so physically constraining but there are still things that are the result of rich people’s lifestyles being adopted by others. For example, take the idea that one’s wardrobe must be changed frequently. To be seen in the same outfit more than once, let along many times, is to commit a fashion faux pas. This strikes me as absurd. It seems logical to me that if someone looks good in an outfit, they should wear it many times. Just because rich people can afford to purchase vast numbers of outfits and discard them after one or two wearings does not mean that this is not a silly and wasteful practice. But it becomes positively ruinous for people who internalize this as good fashion sense but cannot afford it.

The spending of vast sums of money on accessories and makeup and hairstyles and other ‘beauty’ treatments are other examples of rich people’s extravagances being adopted by people who cannot afford them.

As anyone who has seen me and the way I am dressed and groomed will immediately realize, I am not really an expert on fashion so there may be other contemporary examples of women going to extremes (either physically through plastic surgery or cosmetically or sartorially) that I am unaware of, purely because they have internalized a concept of beauty that has as its source nothing more than the flaunting of wealth and privilege.

I am not saying that one should not take care of one’s appearance or try to look nice. But what we talking about here goes well beyond minimal requirements or common sense.

POST SCRIPT: The metrosexual danger

David Mitchell points out easy it is for men to look well-dressed and warns that those few men who pay too much attention to their clothes and grooming risk ruining it for the rest of us.

The great discovery of religions: Be nice to others

In the debate that is currently being waged between accommodationists (those who believe that science and religion are compatible worldviews) and new/unapologetic atheists like me who argue that they are not, the accommodationists usually argue that each area of knowledge is separate and has revealed different truths that complement each other. But what are these great truths that religion has supposedly revealed? Here they are vague but recently the Dalai Lama wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled Many Faiths, One Truth where he takes a shot at addressing this. (Thanks to commenter Ross for bringing my attention to it.)

The results are, to say the least, underwhelming. What the Dalai Lama says he finds is that despite their superficial differences and beliefs in their own superiority that has led to hostilities at various times in history, all religions reveal a common feature: the importance of compassion.

That’s it? This is the great truth revealed by religion? Thousands of years of study by theologians all over the world and the end result is that we should be show compassion to one other? This is something that was likely known to agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago and even to the earlier hunter-gatherers, long before any of the current religions came into being, simply because of its utilitarian value. It is also something that any child now would discover for himself or herself simply by playing with others.

Compare that banal discovery with the truths that science has revealed in just the last few hundred years. Sean Carroll helpfully provides a list. (Thanks to commenter kosmofilo for the link.)

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

The Dalai Lama deplores the fact that religions have long been intolerant of one another and used violence to further their aims. But these kinds of articles usually contain an obligatory swipe at atheism and in his attempt at this bogus balance, he takes a swipe at new atheists, saying “Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs.”

So while religious believers have carried out murderous rampages against people of other faiths and unbelievers many times over history, what we atheists are guilty of is making ‘blanket condemnations’ of religion. i.e., we have used words and ideas to advance our goals. Oh, the horror!

One does not like to criticize the Dalai Lama or even make fun of him. He seems like a nice guy who smiles a lot and advocates peace. But his op-ed is nothing but platitudes, designed to give ecumenical religious people something to feel good about by claiming for it some special benefit that does not really belong to it.

POST SCRIPT: Trailer for Star Wars, Episode VII?

(Thanks to Pharyngula)

Liberal democracy and religion-5: Israel’s bleak future as a democracy

The brutal behavior of the Israeli government in boarding an aid flotilla and killing some of the people on board and then justifying the action may have come as a shock to some but should not. For a long time, it has been clear that Israel is sliding further and further into becoming an authoritarian state based on religious orthodoxy that treats the Palestinians in the occupied territories with practices that strongly resemble the abhorrent apartheid policies that used to be practiced by South Africa.

Because of the rising influence of orthodox Jews, Israel has started making rules based purely on religion into laws that everyone, believers and non-believers alike, must follow. Recently Benjamin Netanyahu used the Bible to support his claim to be able to build in East Jerusalem.

Peter Beinart’s article describes how Israeli politics is moving farther and farther away from a liberal democracy.

Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” With their blessing, “a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.

The article goes on to say that the demographic trend of Israel’s Jewish population is going to make things even worse.

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young.

While Israel still has a somewhat free press, there have been increasing efforts to suppress freedom of speech, going so far as to detain at the borders and then bar entry to the West Bank to Noam Chomsky when he had been invited to give a speech. The government even destroyed all copies of a newspaper that had an investigative report on the 2008 assault on Gaza. Uri Blau, the journalist who wrote it, even had to go into hiding, perhaps because it would have had stories like this one from a United Nations report:

Israeli ground troops ordered around 110 Palestinian civilians into a single home in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood and ordered them to stay indoors on Sunday. On Monday morning, Israeli forces repeatedly shelled the building, killing at least 30 of the civilians inside. It then refused to allow ambulances to retrieve the dead and dying people for days.

What is going to happen is that as Israel comes more and more under the sway of its increasingly Orthodox religious right wing population, it will pursue even more racist policies towards the Palestinian people and become an even greater international pariah.

Instead of putting pressure on Israel to move in a more liberal democratic direction, the Israel lobby in the US actually encourages the authoritarian trend by trying to make sure that every politician in the US seeking high office swears unswerving loyalty to Israel. As a result, we have the executive and legislative branches willing to express support for almost any actions by Israel, even if it might harm the long-term strategic interests of the US. The way it manages to pull this off is by making it seem as if the interests of the US and Israel are identical. Glenn Greenwald recently highlighted New York senator Charles Shumer’s abhorrent views where he states that he supports the Israeli government’s view that the entire population of Gaza should be punished right up to the point of starvation. And the audience of Israel supporters in the US actually applauded him. Other US politicians and commentators have followed suit without any outcry at all, let alone at the level reserved for Helen Thomas when she said objectionable things about Israel.

In an interview, historian Tony Judt expresses his views on the long-term danger to Israel of depending on the unconditional support of the US and discusses how its current psyche of victimhood came into being.

In the case of both Israel and Iran, we see how easy it is for two countries that once showed promise of becoming liberal democracies to be steadily driven away from that under the sway of religious groups. As a result, the future of that volatile region looks exceedingly bleak.

If the appeal of religion is not nipped in the bud before religious groups can gain in strength, it seems like only a matter of time before those groups gain power and influence, with potentially disastrous results.

POST SCRIPT: Pandering to the Israel lobby

Each election season, we have the spectacle of politicians pandering away to Israel and the last presidential election was no exception, as this The Daily Show demonstrates.

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The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

For more on pandering to Israel, see clip here.

Liberal democracy and religion-4: The Iranian case study

Iran provides a good case study of how unstable liberal democracies can be when faced with concerted efforts by powerful forces determined to undermine them.

Americans were taken by shock when students occupied the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held embassy employees captive for 444 days. Ever since they have been bewildered by references of Iranians to the US as “The Great Satan” and have asked themselves the question “Why do they hate us?”

If they read the 2003 book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer they would understand better what the rest of the world has long known. The book reads like a spy novel, describing in great detail the CIA-backed coup that in 1953 overthrew the popular elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh and gave Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) and his brutal secret service known as Savak such autocratic power that they suppressed democratic institutions and allowed foreign companies to continue exploiting Iran’s natural resources in return for providing them with military hardware.

The book recounts the history of Iran and the events that led to the coup. In a nutshell, a succession of corrupt Iranian rulers had allowed a British oil company exclusive rights to export the country’s oil with no oversight and paying just a pittance to the Iranian monarch. The British oil company executives and technicians lived in luxury while the Iranian oil workers lived in slums of indescribable squalor. As nationalist sentiment rose in the 20th century, there came demands for a representative parliament (knows as the Majlis) to be formed to take away some of the power of the monarch, redress some of the grievances, and obtain a fairer share of oil revenues. But the oil company, backed by the British government, high-handedly refused to deal with people they considered barbarians.

When the charismatic nationalist Mossadegh was elected prime minister by the Majlis in 1951, he immediately nationalized the oil industry and was hailed throughout the country as a great hero who was finally reclaiming the resources that rightly belonged to the people.

The British government, under the racist and imperialist Winston Churchill, set about trying to overthrow him and managed to use anti-Communist fears to persuade the newly elected Eisenhower government and the newly created CIA to take the lead in the venture. And they succeeded is doing so, conniving with the Shah to overthrow Mossadegh and do so while the Shah fled the country, and then restoring the feckless Shah to the throne, giving him and his puppet prime ministers control of the country. It should be remembered that in their fights with the British (and also the Russians), Iranians had seen the US as their friend in the anti-colonialist struggle, and so the CIA-backed coup against them was seen as a shocking betrayal.

The name of the oil company at the center of the intrigue and exploitation was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and yet later, after the coup, returned to Iran as British Petroleum. (Yes, BP was a greedy and unscrupulous corporation long before the Gulf oil spill.)

After overthrowing Mossadegh and placing him under arrest for the rest of his life, the Shah of Iran ruled dictatorially and brutally until he was overthrown by the followers of the religious extremist Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and had to flee the country again. When President Carter allowed the Shah into the US, outraged Iranians saw this as a repetition of the 1953 history in which the CIA would once again connive with the exiled Shah to engineer a coup to return him to the throne. In order to prevent that, they occupied and ransacked the US Embassy in Teheran, which had been a center of coup planning in 1953.

For the purposes of this series of posts, the point I want to make is that Mossadegh was a believer in liberal values, such as the freedom of speech and the press and the right to demonstrate. He was personally religious, though not a zealot, but believed in secular government. It was his support for liberal democratic values that enabled the enemies of Iran, including the CIA, to foment dissent and opposition by bribing military officers, journalists, media owners, politicians, thugs, and religious zealots to destabilize the government. They did this by creating the impression of popular opposition to his rule by organizing street demonstrations against Mossadegh and even getting some of the thugs to pretend to be counterdemonstrators in favor of Mossadegh and have them deliberately destroy property so that ordinary people would get disgusted with him. Mossadegh did not clamp down on demonstrations or suppress opposition media against his government even though they were being instigated and paid for by the CIA, and thus he was deposed.

Kinzer says (p. 210) that buoyed by their ‘success’ in overthrowing the government in Iran, the CIA then went on to undermine governments in Cuba, Congo, Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere. So now, whenever you hear of ‘popular’ protests against governments that the US does not like, such as that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, you would not be far wrong in inferring that the CIA is playing at least some role in creating the impression of dissatisfaction. The classic book Inside the Company: CIA Diary by former CIA agent Philip Agee (1975) describes in detail the tactics the CIA uses and how they foment ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of opposition. It is a must-read.

So after the Shah’s brutal dictatorship from 1953 to 1979, Iran has been led by an illiberal, religion-dominated government consisting of mullahs and otherwise highly religious people, not quite an outright theocracy yet but dangerously close to becoming one. But it has managed to survive all manner of external attacks, ranging from an invasion by Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein who was then backed by the US that supplied him with money and material and defended him at the UN) that resulted in a war that lasted from 1980-1988 and took a terrible toll, to sanctions and other destabilizing efforts led by the US.

The only window of government which even approached that of a liberal democracy was the period 1951-1953 under Mossadegh.

The demoralizing inference is that liberal democracies cannot survive unless people are willing to defend it with the same fervor that religious fanatics seem to be willing to put forth to defend theocracies.

POST SCRIPT: Philip Agee describes how the CIA subverts democracy