Moloch just ate another baby

Once upon a time, Todd Starnes tried to get me fired. He raged about me on Fox News, posted it on various wingnutty sites, and made enough noise that a university lawyer contacted me to let me know that they were getting all these complaints…and also to reassure me that they had my back, and nothing I said was actionable.

So you’ll forgive me if I chortled smugly at this headline.

It’s good news, also because it makes me wonder if Fox News is getting a bit worried about their intimate association with far-right radicals and is trying to edge away a bit. Democrats may worship Moloch, but Republicans definitely worship Mammon, and their god is feeling some heat lately.

Maybe we need to think more deeply about the ethics of science funding

Most of the scientists I know, including myself, live in a world of scientific poverty, constantly struggling to scrape together the funds needed to do their work. Some of us, again like me, consciously select research topics that are doable on a tiny budget; others lock themselves into their offices and write grant proposal after grant proposal, watching most of them get rejected, and hoping that one or two get funded so they can pay their students to do the science while they lock themselves back into the office to start writing again in preparation for the next grant cycle. That’s the real life of your typical scientist.

Except for some who manage to get noticed enough to attract celebrity money. There are millionaires who look to gain a little prestige and a reputation as a patron of the sciences by splashing money at high profile research projects. There is no glory to be earned by tossing $10,000 to an obscure spider biologist at a small liberal arts college, even though that’s a sum that would have him reeling deliriously with joy and fund some major upgrades to his lab. That’s not something you could brag about to your millionaire friends! On the other hand, being able to say “I gave a million dollars to an already incredibly well funded lab at Harvard” is going to earn you admiring glances and plenty of back-slaps from your cronies.

Hmm. Somebody ought to do the experiment of handing some massive money, like a million dollars, to some weird little biologist in Minnesota, just to see what kind bragging rights they’d get. No, don’t; I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of money, I’d probably just hand it over to administrators to turn into teaching projects, and no one brags about enhancing teaching. I also kind of like the small science I do, and don’t want to end up obligated to some smug investment banker.

You know, like Jeffrey Epstein. Suddenly, a lot of big money scientists at high-toned institutions are finding themselves scrambling to back away from the cash they received.

Epstein called himself a “science philanthropist”, and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations such as Harvard, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute. At one point, he was allegedly giving as much as $20m a year to fund scientists. Some institutions and researchers continued to take Epstein’s money even after his 2008 conviction, like MIT, according to BuzzFeed News.

Epstein called himself a ‘science philanthropist’ and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations
Joi Ito, the head of MIT’s world-famous Media Lab issued an apology last week for having accepted donations for the Media Lab and his own tech startups. In his open letter on the MIT Media Lab’s website, he said: “I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.

You can read Ito’s odd little apology — it’s strangely evasive. He disavows any knowledge of Epstein’s actions, despite receiving money after he was convicted. Hey, somebody gives him money, he’s not going to question where it came from. He doesn’t say how much money it was, either, although he promises to raise an equal amount from other donors and donate it to non-profits that defend survivors of sex trafficking. So…he’d be a middle man, taking donations to the MIT Media Lab and redirecting them to a completely unrelated charity? Is that ethical?

And wait — who is he taking money from? Ito is stumbling all over himself in embarrassment over having taken money from a slimy multi-millionaire, but isn’t he just setting himself up to take more money from more millionaires? I don’t think we can assume subsequent donors will be non-slimy. They’re millionaires, by definition they’re contemptible parasites who have exploited others to obtain their excessive wealth. He wants to find donors who stole their money by means forgivable by capitalists and who haven’t tainted their cash by raping children. Cash smeared with the blood of exploited workers, or by manipulation of capital, why, that’s OK.

Now I’m wondering, though, why we tolerate science philanthropy at all. Was Jeffrey Epstein a competent judge of the quality of science being done to make those who received his largesse proud of the donation? All you’d be able to say is that you superficially impressed a fool with a bucket of loot into giving you some. You haven’t earned the grant, you’ve just been handed money for being a great glad-hander and schmoozer, not for the science. Your donor is going to use your acceptance and your friendliness at parties to inflate their ego some more.

I’m not going to pretend that grant review at our funding institutions is perfect, but I’d be far more impressed with a donor who recognized their limitations and and handed their $20 million to the NSF, and asked them to distribute it to the most qualified research applications. I’d also be more impressed with scientists who won awards by the assessment of their peers than their ability to chat up bankers at cocktail parties.

But then, I’ve just admitted to being a guy who does small science on a shoestring, so nobody cares what I think. Maybe if I could woo some wealthy financiers with irrelevant stories, then my opinion might matter.

Spiders done been fornicatin’ in my garage!

Look! I found their unholy spawn crawling out of their crude, barbaric nest!

These are probably all Larries (Larinioides), but they’re too young to tell for sure.

I know, you’re all getting tired of spiders, spiders, spiders on my web site, but you can look forward to a Minnesota winter when they’re all dead or hiding or hibernating, and I’ve got nothin’ but ice-rimed empty cobwebs to gaze upon, forlornly.

The hero we needed

A teenaged boy — I’d say he even looked “angelic” — slapped the back of the despicable Fraser Anning’s rotten head with an egg. He was a brave young man. Not only did he give Anning a small taste of what he deserves, but he stood his ground as the Australian senator punched him twice, and as his crack team of thugs wrestled the unresisting assailant to the ground and put him in a chokehold. You never know, he might have a second egg somewhere, or a high capacity egg magazine, or an assault egg. You can’t be too careful.

I had to use the word “angelic” to describe him, since the newspapers are doing their usual thing of looking into people’s backgrounds after a crime and trying to paint white people as innocent sweethearts right up until the moment they did the thing. The Daily Mirror has a feature on the childhood of the fucking asshole murderer who killed 49 innocent people in a mosque, and look what they say:

“Angelic boy” — my god, he’s blonde. As everyone knows, all angels are blonde and white-skinned, too, so how could such a sweet child grow up to be a terrorist?

I’m just thinking…there are a lot of blonde white people in Iowa, and as a rural state, a lot of chickens, too. It would be a real shame if Steve King were pelted with eggs at his next public event.

Better than syrup of ipecac!

Just in case you were looking for a reason to vomit today, here’s Dinesh D’Souza interviewing Richard Spencer.

What’s so great, I asked him, about the white race? Spencer spoke of what he termed its “Faustian spirit. The white race is expansive whether in terms of conquering, in terms of exploration of the seas or space, or scholarship and analysis of science. We possess something that’s peculiar to use, and it makes us special.” And was that something, I inquired, in the genes? “It is,” Spencer replied. “No question. Everything is in the genes.”

Everything? So, for instance, language is genetic? I guess that explains how all those English-speaking parents have children who speak English, and Spanish-speaking parents produce little kids fluent in Spanish. It’s all in the genes.

D’Souza is rather primly disapproving of Spencer throughout the interview, but he doesn’t object to the racism, strictly speaking, but because he declares that Spencer is actually a Democrat, and we know how much he hates Democrats.

In a purely logical sense, Spencer should be a progressive Democrat. Progressive Democrats invented the ideology he espouses, and even today the Democratic Party is the party of ethnic identity politics. Spencer’s problem, however, is that the Democrats mobilize black, Latino and Asian identity politics against that of whites. Since whites are now the all-round bad guy, Spencer’s brand of progressivism is no longer welcome at the multicultural picnic.

Why, then, did Spencer vote for Trump? Why does he consider himself on the right? The simple answer is that Spencer has no place else to go, so he is trying to carve out a niche for himself in the only party where he can find some measure of agreement, however small. Trump isn’t embracing Spencer’s agenda; rather, Spencer is embracing Trump’s agenda because his own is politically irrelevant.

Note the cunning trick, there. He is logically a Democrat, in D’Souza’s mind, but then the convicted felon declares that Spencer can only find a small measure of agreement with the Republicans. D’Souza can simultaneously think he ought to be aligned with Democrats, while also saying he has no point of agreement with Democrats. Alrighty then.

A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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A terribly backwards take on the Franken resignation

Ugh, New Yorker.

The case of Franken makes it all that much more clear that this conversation is, in fact, about sex, not about power, violence, or illegal acts. The accusations against him, which involve groping and forcible kissing, arguably fall into the emergent, undefined, and most likely undefinable category of “sexual misconduct.” Put more simply, Franken stands accused of acting repeatedly like a jerk, and he denies that he acted this way. The entire sequence of events, from the initial accusations to Franken’s resignation, is based on the premise that Americans, as a society, or at least half of a society, should be policing non-criminal behavior related to sex.

It’s not at all about sex. It’s about consent and respect. It’s about treating women as people.

If Al Franken had been participating in discreet wild orgies with consenting adult men and women, it would be fine — it would be none of our business, would have harmed no one, and would have been irrelevant to his position as a senator. I’m not interested in “policing non-criminal behavior related to sex” at all. The concern is the casual abuse of power, the expression of mocking contempt for a colleague, and the neglect of that all-important consent.

I don’t know why this is so hard to get across to some people. Your sexual behavior is personal and private, and as long as it only involves consenting adults, we shouldn’t care. It’s the Right that wants to bust into your bedroom and arrest you for your activities there.