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.
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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.)
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Estimating Civilian Casualties in Iraq

The bombing of the Shia Askariyah shrine in Samarra threatens to lift the existing low-level civil war in Iraq to the status of a major one. Already, the level of deaths has risen dramatically. Which again raises the question of how little we know (or even seem to care) about the level of Iraqi deaths since the US attack on that country in March 2003.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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