Pithy Pell and RBG’s Call


Looking for a worthwhile news and commentary aggregator, I found Dave Pell’s celebrated NextDraft site. The background buzz was almost intoxicating.

Maria Konnikova, of The New Yorker, declares it to be “a consistently informative and entertaining guide to some of the best stories on the web, with a healthy mix of news you should know, want to know, and prefer to pretend you didn’t read.” Wah?

CNN Executive Editor, Ram Ramgopal, says “NextDraft is a must read.” (Where have I heard that before?)

Andrew Corsello, associated with the authoritative serial GQ, lauds Pell for answering “questions you weren’t even aware you were asking.” I guess that’s a reference to the really important questions.

“NextDraft is invaluable,” says Tim Sullivan, Editorial Director of Harvard Business Review. Don Van Natta Jr. (ESPN) calls it “indispensable.” Hamish McKenzie (whoever that is) offers somewhat more modest praise when he says that NextDraft is “perhaps the world’s best email newsletter.” Modesty increases as visibility on the page decreases, when Kevin Kelly (whoever that is) says that NextDraft is “usually interesting.”

Others opine, but Dave Pell himself tops them all. “I am the algorithm. Each morning I visit about 75 new sites, and from that swirling nightmare of information quicksand, I pluck the top ten most fascinating items of the day, which I deliver with a fast, pithy wit that will make your computer device vibrate with delight.”

This is not the pithiest expression of hubris I’ve heard. But the point is made . . . pointedly. Except that the entries for September 21 don’t live up to the self-hype.

First up, “Famous Last Words.” This witty entry begins with recitations of last words by cultural gods and goddesses—Dylan Thomas, Elvis Presley, James Joyce, Groucho Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and Steve Jobs. (“Oh wow” is right.)

Oops. Did I say “gods and goddesses”? Mea culpa. There are no goddesses in the group, only male deities.

Recently, however, a woman “placed herself towards the top of the pantheon” when she “dictated to her granddaughter” words we’ve heard trumpeted in worshipful awe over the past few days: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Dave Pell thus sets the stage for his first diatribe of the day, a missive about doubts that the attribution is genuine.

I don’t doubt that Ruth Bader Ginsberg said such a thing. Count me agnostic. And indifferent.

But isn’t it interesting how the alleged deathbed wish has been baptized as an almost religious aphorism? Pell speaks of “RBG’s call.” Does he mean that Ginsberg (who “placed herself” in the pantheon) issued an edict to be obeyed by the American people? Surely not. But Pell does say next that some people launched “an immediate, cynical race to disobey.” To disobey? You heard that right—disobey. These are the people cynical enough to follow (obey?) the United States Constitution, drafted by a pantheon of American political geniuses.

So as RBG joins the august ranks of Groucho Marx and Elvis Presley, Pell enjoins obeisance worthy of her peers within that great pantheon. The suggestion appears almost satirical. But the subtlety of such wit strikes me as beyond the reach of the celebrated aggregator.

The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading


A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

Is Donald Trump a “Birther”?


Donald Trump has been making a very publicly visible appeal to President Obama to settle the matter once and for all and make his birth certificate public. Does this make Trump a “birther”?

First, keep in mind that the term “birther” has been used by the media to stigmatize a portion of the American electorate as right-wing kooks. Some media outlets seem to have calculated that by calling these American citizens by this epithet it will eventually embarrass and silence them, or at least contain their influence.

This appears to be a clear effort to defend the President. But defend him from what? Apparently, the President’s stubborn refusal to publish his birth certificate is viewed even by his defenders as a posture that is worthy of media defense. But why?

And what exactly is a birther? You’re definitely supposed to be a birther if you actually believe that Obama was not born in the United States. There are people in this country who believe this. So they have the clearest claim to the epithet. And maybe some of these “true believers” wear the epithet with pride.

Are you a birther if you are genuinely concerned about the possibility that Obama was not born in this country, and would simply like for him to step up and prove that he was? I wouldn’t say so. And this seems to be Donald Trump’s attitude. Trump, as far as I can tell, is not a birther. He has said that he hopes Obama was born in this country. Would a real birther hope for this?

With Trump’s recent appeal to Obama to take the very simple step of proving his citizenship, I’ve thought about the issue a bit more than in the past. It now seems to me that Obama has repudiated an opportunity to demonstrate good will toward all Americans, including those who would like to have clarity about this matter. What possible harm can there be in accommodating a reasonable request for such information? What past American President would refuse to make his birth certificate public if there was such a broad interest in seeing his American citizenship demonstrated?

Many who are not generally considered birthers have enjoined Obama to produce his certificate. In response, challengers often say, “Do you believe that Obama was not born in the United States?” And if the answer is, “No,” then challengers think it’s stupid to ask the President for his birth certificate. But it isn’t stupid. If there is enough concern among the American people to see this demonstrated, then that should be reason enough for the President to accommodate them.

That’s my view, then. Without believing that Obama was born outside the United States, I do believe he very simply ought to make his birth certificate public. I believe this because his refusal to do so has revealed a stubbornness that is unbecoming of the leader of our nation. There’s some reason why he does not wish to give satisfaction to those who have called for it. Those reasons create suspicion and escalate discord about the matter. Why not “bring the country together” on such a small point?

Trump alleges that Obama has spent quite a bit of money to ensure that his birth certificate does not come to light. If that’s true, I’d like to know why. Does it lead me to believe that Obama was not born in the U.S.? No.

Others have said that media outlets are so thorough in their scrutiny of a presidential candidate that if Obama was not born in the United States, then this would have been exposed during Obama’s candidacy. But doesn’t this argument cut the other way just as well? Doesn’t it stand to reason that if Obama was born in the United States—given the huge controversy concerning the President’s citizenship—compelling evidence that he was born in the U.S. would have come to light via media scrutiny? The evidence, apparently, hasn’t been conclusive either way.

The issue hasn’t subsided and there’s reason to think it will haunt the President in the future. It’s looking now like Obama will be confronted with this issue again as he campaigns for a second term. Will the pressure be great enough this time round for him to capitulate and make his birth certificate public? Who can say? If the President was not born in the U.S., then, by Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Obama is not the legitimate President of the United States. That would provide motive for refusing to go public. But if that’s true, how long can the truth be suppressed? I imagine that sooner or later, even if Obama is elected for a second term, actual dissembling about his citizenship would come to light eventually. And that would not be good for Obama.

Here’s something to consider. There’s a good chance that the history books will note the issue and document Obama’s determination not to publicize his birth certificate. Readers will not have the benefit of observing his charisma and judge his likeability. If the President isn’t eventually forthcoming, perhaps a majority of Americans a couple generations from now will be birthers. That would not be good for Obama, either. What President would wish to go down in history as very possibly the only “American President” who was never really a legitimate President? The only way for Obama to ensure that that never happens is for him to produce his birth certificate.

Notes:

  • FactCheck.com concluded that an alleged digital copy of the certificate, released by the Obama 2008 Campaign, is of an authentic certificate for Obama from Hawaii. The story features a foto with the caption “The Obama birth certificate, held by FactCheck writer Joe Miller.”
  • Snopes.com also has written in defense of this perspective.
  • See Wikipedia articles on conspiracy theories about the Obama birth certificate and about Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Donald Trump appears to be testing the water for a run at the presidency in 2012. Could this be why he has re-introduced the topic of Obama’s birth certificate into the national discussion?
  • Chester Arthur, 21st President of the U.S., has gone down in history with doubts about his citizenship still lingering. Vice President Arthur succeeded President James Garfield after Garfield died of gunshot wounds caused by an assassin.

Related Post:

Dick Morris Reports Popular Support for Controversial Governors


Events in Japan have caused a nearly total news blackout on everything else. But things continue to happen elsewhere in the world. For instance, in Wisconsin, the Republican Governor Scott Walker is still threatened by angry Democrat leaders, and a few Republican state senators are being challenged with recall efforts by Democrat senators who boycotted passage of a bill they didn’t like by leaving the state.

Dick Morris, a very smart political strategist, has polled Americans for their attitudes about these happenings. The strong more popular support for bold challenges to public employee unions surprised me.

One of the most interesting sections of Morris’s report says this:

Absentee State Legislators

Voters reacted strongly against state legislators who boycott their legislatures to stop the passage of labor legislation. By 25-61 they rejected the idea that it is “necessary” for Democrats to boycott the legislature so as to deny the majority a quorum “to stop legislation restricting unions from being passed.” The majority agreed that the legislators “should return to the legislature and respect the decisions the voters have made in the last election.”

See the full report here.

Stock Market Responding to Japan’s Nuclear Crisis—The Role of American Media


The stock market is responding to Japan’s nuclear crisis, and the picture isn’t pretty. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down 242 points today. The Nasdaq dropped by 51 points.

This is because the stock market doesn’t like uncertainty. And uncertainty is the hallmark of the current situation. Japan is in crisis. The American media are trying get to the bottom of things. But they have resorted to sheer speculation on the basis of doubtful evidence. I hold the irresponsible media partly responsible for our stock market malaise.

Japanese officials are holding their cards close to the vest. Is this because the news about their damaged nuclear reactors is far worse than they want the world to know? Or is it because the Japanese culture favors patient and cautious reporting rather than minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow updating? Who knows?

Here’s something we do know. When the American media bring the experts in to speculate about events unfolding in Japan, they are compelled to reflect “two sides” to the “issue.” (Maxim: “There https://douggeivett.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpare two sides to every issue.”) What’s the issue? “Just how bad is the situation and how much risk of spreading radiation is there right now?” So one expert is selected precisely for his relative optimism and another is selected for her more negative outlook. This does not ensure that the media retain individuals on each side who are equally competent to evaluate what little is known.

Case in point: Bill O-Reilly (Fox News) interviewed Professor Richard Muller, a physicist at UC Berkeley, and Rita King who, bless her heart, is a “former nuclear industry journalist.” Speculation without benefit of good data is bad enough. But speculation from a former journalist is painfully specious.

Gunther Oettinger

Cameras with direct feed into some American broadcast studio are an invitation to loose lips. Have you heard what Gunther Oettinger said today? Who’s Gunther Oettinger, you ask. He’s the European Union Energy Chief. Gunther said that Japan’s nuclear plant crisis is “out of control.” This was during a European Parliament committee meeting in Brussels. The stock market went nuclear; the sell-off in equities plunged deeper. Read about this here, where we’re told:

The EU energy commissioner’s spokeswoman, however, later clarified that Oettinger did not have any special or extra information on the situation in Japan.

There you have it. An escalation in alarmist talk with no correlative change in data.

Let’s face it. We don’t know what’s happening on the ground in Japan. Our typically American demand for immediate information and quick fixes isn’t getting us anywhere. Poor Shepard Smith, of Fox News, flew out to Japan to get first-hand information, and he’s learning more about what’s happening in Japan during his conversations with Fox anchors at home than he is from officials in Japan.

In American news reporting, there’s no such thing as keeping your powder dry and your mouth shut. But if there isn’t any more specific real news from Japan soon, the media may have to start covering other important issues and events happening in the world, like our national debt and the Congressional failure to produce a budget, the war in Afghanistan, and Muammar Gaddafi’s goofy and perilous antics in Libya.

Nuke Media Distortion with Facts—What to Believe about the Dangers of Japan’s Nuclear Reactors


Are you good at believing the things you believe? That’s my motto. So what are we supposed to believe about the danger of nuclear radiation following Japan’s recent 9.0 earthquake and damage to nuclear reactors at two locations?

Satellite view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

First, why we need to know what is happening:

  • We care about the safety of the Japanese people.
  • We care about the safety about the world population.
  • We care about radiation drift toward North America.
  • We have energy needs that may be met with new reactors in the U.S., but only if they’re safe.

Second, why the mainstream media cannot be trusted for knowledge of what is happening:

  • The media are prone to sensationalize the “news” in order to boost their ratings.
  • The media have a liberal bias, which is already heavily invested in opposition to nuclear energy.
  • The media have no idea what a reactor is, how one works, and what terms mean when used to described behavior at a nuclear plant (e.g., “meltdown).
  • The media, even if they try for “balanced coverage” by “experts” with opposing views, are as likely to get crackpots having their own meltdown over what’s happening in Japan.

Third, the only way to nuke media distortion (whether deliberate or not) is with facts and critical reflection.

For facts, the internet is probably your best guide.

The most valuable report I’ve read so far comes from Dr. Josef Oehman, a research scientist in mechanical engineering and engineering systems at MIT. Read his analysis “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”. The cost of being well-informed is the effort of becoming informed. Oehman’s article is lengthy, but accessible. You can settle for sound bytes or get the facts in clear and cogent detail.

Oehman captures the threat level with this advice:

If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy.

I’ve started following Oehman on Twitter.

Of course, you want more than one doctor’s opinion. So switch off your TV and search out other reliable sources of real information. If you must monitor the TV coverage, be sure to note the names of specialists and experts who are interviewed, find out who they work for, and examine their credentials.

And listen carefully to the naive questions the journalists are asking. Watch for their own off-hand comments and simplistic reactions. Last night I watched Geraldo interview specialists about the news out of Japan. Geraldo marveled with near-panic that engineers had resorted to flooding their reactors with sea water in order to cool the over-heated reactors. Apparently he didn’t know that this is backup protocol when disaster strikes. (See the article by Oehman.)

Critics of nuclear energy will be sorely tempted to make good use of the disaster in Japan. But this could backfire on them if it turns out that the 9.0 earthquake demonstrates the safety and viability of nuclear power plants, even when disaster strikes.

Time will tell.

What Is Modus Tollens?


Modus tollens is a valid argument form. Because the form is deductive and has two premises and a conclusion, modus tollens is an example of a syllogism. (A syllogism is any  deductive argument with two premises and a conclusion.)

The Latin phrase ‘modus tollens‘, translated literally, means ‘mode of denying’.

Shown schematically, this form of argument looks like this:

Premise 1: If A then B.

Premise 2: Not-B.

Conclusion: Therefore, not-A.

Arguments of this form are produced by substituting statements in English for A and for B. For example, suppose A = ‘Casey is a dog’ and B = ‘Casey has four legs.’ We can substitute as follows, for a valid argument:

Premise 1: If Casey is a dog, then Casey has four legs.

Premise 2: Casey does not have four legs.

Conclusion: Therefore, Casey is not a dog.

Any argument of this form is valid. But not every argument of this form is sound. For an argument to be sound, it must meet two requirements. First, it must be valid; second, it must have true premises. The above argument about Casey is valid, but it’s not sound. Why? Because the first premise is false. It implies that all dogs have four legs. But this generalization, unfortunately, is not true. (It also turns out that Casey does have four legs; so premise 2 is false, also.)

Because modus tollens arguments are always valid, we may extrapolate from this argument form a rule of inference as follows:

“Always infer not-A from the conjunction of two premises, if one premise is a conditional statement of the form ‘If A, then B,’ and the other premise denies B.” (The order of the premises doesn’t matter.)

Caveat:

Be careful not to confuse modus ponens with modus tolendo ponens. Modus tolendo ponens is an argument of the following form:

Premise 1: Either A or B.

Premise 2: Not-A.

Therefore, B.

See also “What Is What Is Modus Ponens?”

The Perils of Multiculturalism


British Prime Minister David Cameron

One of the most important speeches of the year—and it’s only February now—was delivered by British Prime Minister David Cameron a few days ago at the Munich Security Conference. In his speech he focused, in laser-beam fashion that is unusual for a politician, on the perils of multiculturalism. I urge you to read or view his speech.

Cameron links “Islamist extremism” to the “British experience” of multiculturalism, and argues that, if only for security purposes, multiculturalism must be reversed in his country.

Here are a few questions we all should be considering:

  1. What is “multiculturalism”?
  2. What’s the difference between multiculturalism and a policy of multiculturalism?
  3. Does Great Britain have a policy of multiculturalism? Does the United States?
  4. What are the virtues of multiculturalism?
  5. What are the perils of multiculturalism?
  6. Should the British government halt multiculturalism?
  7. Can the British government halt multiculturalism?

I’m especially interested in two other questions:

  1. How are you affected by multiculturalism?
  2. Do you agree with David Cameron’s general position on the issue?

Update:

This post was referenced in the “Roundup for Week 7” at the The Naked Listener’s Weblog. Thanks, Robert Lee, for the notice!

Two Bad Ideas—Building a Mosque & Burning the Qur’an


Two big items in the news today: first, Imam Feisal Abdul’s article congratulating America on its religious tolerance of Islam; second, an American pastor’s plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11.

Building a mosque at Ground Zero is a bad idea. So is burning the Qur’an.

The media and politicians on the Left are obsessed with the differences between the two intentions. Putting it mildly, they condone the erection of the controversial mosque. But let’s be honest. Those who haven’t been silent—including President Obama and NYC mayor Bloomberg—have expressed unequivocal support for building the mosque (even though they have equivocated following their unequivocal expressions of support).

What about the pastor, with plans of his own? He is angrily denounced.

Ahem. What about the striking similarity between the two men and their “projects”?

Whatever else can be said about their true intentions, their plans appear to be deliberately provocative. That’s the point that ought to be stressed in the great conversation we’re having about “tolerance” and “rights.”

Within the framework of this likeness—that is, both are deliberately provocative—we can make more useful distinctions between the men and their plans. We should acknowledge their similarity, then ask: as deliberately provocative acts, how do they differ?

Here’s one salient difference. A mosque will have a longer term effect, with direct bearing on more people, than the singular act of burning copies of the Qur’an on 9/11. The minister’s action, if he goes through with it in a few days, will soon be forgotten—even by Muslims, I dare say. But if the mosque is built, it will stand as a permanent monument to—well, what?

For non-muslims, the mosque would not be a monument to anything at all. But can this be said of Muslims? Hmm?

Oprah on My Mind


Winfrey on the first national broadcast of The...

Image via Wikipedia

Time Warner was at my house today to troubleshoot instability and speed problems with our internet connectivity. After the fix, we tested the speed at speakeasy.net and speedtest.net. The technician then suggested that I open YouTube for a real world test.

I cranked up the ole’ YouTube and the first thing that popped up was a six-minute video titled “The Church of Oprah Exposed.” We watched the whole thing.

It reminded me of a lecture I heard a few weeks ago by a Christian woman with a far more sophisticated exposé of Oprah’s religion.

Then I was reminded that I had agreed to review a book called “O” God: A Dialogue on Truth and Oprah’s Spirituality, by Josh McDowell and Dave Sterrett.

The most limited encounter with Oprah reveals at least the following few facts:

  1. The turning point in Oprah’s spiritual odyssey was when, as a young woman, she heard the preacher in her Baptist church speak of God as “a jealous God.” Until that moment, she says, she was pretty traditional in her Christian beliefs. But the idea that God was jealous offended her sensibilities, and off she went in search of a new form of spirituality.
  2. Eventually, Oprah concluded that spirituality is not about belief but about experience. You would think that she has no definite religious beliefs, but that she only expounds on spiritual technologies that bring people together. She does, however, assert that God is in everything. From this she divines many other “truths.”
  3. Oprah uses her media venues for the overt dissemination of her religious notions. Oprah is an evangelist, with an evangelist’s fervor. You might say that she’s the single most successful “television evangelist.”
  4. Oprah emphatically denies the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and extols the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth. The Power of Now, published in 2004, just now has 1,166 customer reviews at Amazon.com, and boasts 4 and 1/2 stars and an Amazon Bestseller Rank of 263. A New Earth garners 4 stars, 1531 customer reviews, and a Bestseller Rank of 370.

Oprah enjoys enormous popularity and her influence in the lives of individuals is considerable. There clearly is a need for sober reflection on Oprah’s significance as a spiritual guru.

Even cursory exposure to her teachings is unsettling. Her claim that religious or spiritual reality is not really about believing anything is self-defeating, since the technologies she promotes are rooted in certain definite beliefs. By denying the significance to true belief, Oprah takes the important role of evidence off the table and promises a set of attractive experiences. Meanwhile, her avid disciples or “fans,” if you prefer) abandon their more traditional beliefs, or try somehow to line them up with the principles of “the power of now.”

Oprah believes that Jesus Christ was not the unique savior of the world. That’s a pretty fundamental belief. It’s no use denying that she has control beliefs. The question is whether her beliefs are adequately grounded in evidence and whether her beliefs are true.

Here are some suggested principles for evaluating Oprah’s claims, or anyone else’s for that matter (including the preacher at your neighborhood church):

  1. If she denies that beliefs are important to her spiritual outlook, she’s being dishonest, or else she has deceived herself.
  2. If experience is promoted over truth, then there is no way to gauge the validity of the experience. Does it connect with reality, or is it a counterfeit of reality?
  3. If Oprah’s entire odyssey in the direction of a New Age religion was prompted by an altogether naive understanding of the claim that God is a jealous God, then expect the rest of her perspective to be riddled with equally naive holes.
  4. If you accept Oprah’s claim that Christianity can be harmonized with Oprah’s gospel, then count yourself a convert from Christianity to something that isn’t Christianity.
  5. If Oprah has made herself wealthy and politically influential, take special care to examine her claims, lest you be snookered by a media pro taking selfish advantage of others who aren’t sure what they believe.
  6. If Oprah’s success is owing to her media skills, then understand that she is no more credible than any other television evangelist who is known solely as a public persona.
  7. If you’re going to read Eckhart Tolle’s books, check each of his claims against reasonable standards of truth and evidence.
  8. If Oprah and Tolle make statements about what Jesus really taught, or what the Bible really means, take care to examine their statements for yourself to see if their interpretations are accurate.
  9. If you’re a Christian, check the fundamental claims of Christianity against reasonable standards of truth and evidence.
  10. Whatever it is you belief about the things that matter most, check your beliefs against reasonable standards of truth and evidence.

Did Dr. Laura Use the N-Word?


It’s all over the media. Dr. Laura Schlesinger has left radio, over a dust-up over her alleged use—eleven times (!)—of the so-called “n-word” in conversation with a black female caller.

Notice I said “alleged.” The fact is, Dr. Laura did not use the “n-word” at all. Nope, not even once. She said the word, but she did not use it. How do I know? Because if the word she said had been put in writing, as she said it, it would have been placed in quotation marks, indicating that she was not employing the word to refer to something or someone or some class of people, but to speak about the word itself. This is known as mention. It is fundamentally different than use. In mention, a word is singled out for direct consideration.

The caller now says she has absolutely no respect for Dr. Laura. This is nuts. I watched in shock as Dr. Laura, who obviously agreed to appear on the show, was grilled by a CNN anchor for her wrongful action. What wrongful action?

Let’s be clear. Dr. Laura is not being arraigned because she used the n-word, but because she said the n-word.

* * *

The distinction between use and mention is well-known in philosophy and deserves greater respect. Consider this way of explaining the point from an excellent reference work in philosophy.

  • Sentence 1: The Nile is longer than the Murrumbidgee.
  • Sentence 2: The Nile is shorter than the Murrumbidgee.

The Nile and the Murrumbidgee are rivers. Which sentence, (1) or (2), is true? Answer: (1). The correct answer is determined by the comparative lengths of the two rivers. The Nile is the longest river in the world, around 4000 miles. The Murrumbidgee River of New South Wales is much shorter, at about 870 miles.

Now consider:

  • Sentence 3: “The Nile” is longer than “the Murrumbidgee.”
  • Sentence 4: “The Nile” is shorter than “the Murrumbidgee.”

Which sentence, (3) or (4), is true. Answer: (4). Why? The correct answer here is determined by the lengths of the phrases “the Nile” and “the Murrumbidgee” in sentences (3) and (4). “The Nile” (8 characters, if we include one space) is shorter than “the Murrumbidgee” (16 characters, if we include one space). “The Murrumbidgee” is twice as long as “The Nile.” So (4) is true and (3) is false. The lengths of the rivers has no bearing on the question.

[See A. W. Sparkes, Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook, p. 8.]

* * *

I have a question for readers. How are we supposed to talk about concepts without words, and about words without the words themselves? Today, apparently, you can’t even say the “n-word” for the purposes of mention and analysis. So how are people supposed to know what word the term “n-word” refers to? (You can say “the n-word” but you cannot say the word that “the n-word” stands in for.)

Outrage over an exaggerated sense of meanness in Dr. Laura’s radio counsel is another move toward the coarsening of culture in the direction of a culture of vicitimization. The poor woman who called Dr. Laura for her advice in a matter was poised to be offended. She’s been conditioned by shabby thinking and a form of racism that continues to poison public discourse.

* * *

If I say that I don’t like the “n-word,” what do you suppose I mean by that? Do I mean that I don’t like the six-letter word that is signaled by the hyphenated word? Or does it mean that I don’t like the hyphenated word?

Frankly, I don’t like either one. The first I don’t like because it is pejorative when used, and obviously (but inexplicably) dangerous even to mention. The second I don’t much like because it’s just plain stupid. It’s the only word currently tolerated for the purposes of referring to the altogether different six-letter word that starts with an “n” and is rightly offensive when it is used.

So here’s another question. What’s the difference between using the phrase “the n-word” to refer to, you know, the n-word, and mentioning (as opposed to using) the n-word itself?

Oh, and why should Dr. Laura have to leave radio over something like this?

Interview with Brian Auten


I was interviewed recently by Brian Auten. Most of Brian’s questions concern the topic of miracles. Today Brian has posted this audio interview at his website and can be heard here.

Doug’s other posts on the subject of miracles:

Voter Intimidation and the Law


The concept of voter intimidation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are in the news today. Last month, J. Christian Adams resigned from the Justice Department and is being called a “whistle-blower” for describing a disturbing insensitivity to voters’ rights during the 2008 election—in this case, white voters’ rights. Read more of this post

Did Rahm or Rush Use the R-word?


The word “retarded” is not the commonplace it once was. Today we rightly refer to people with mental disabilities in other ways. One severe problem with “retarded” as a noun (i.e., the collective noun “the retarded”) is that it is easily used too generally as a label for those with mental disabilities—as if having a disability is their essential attribute, the feature that defines them as human beings. Read more of this post

Media Responsibility & a Democratic Republic


About a year ago I had the opportunity to speak with one of our nation’s Senators. I suggested that a responsibly engaged electorate must be a well-informed electorate. My question to him was about how any of us who aren’t part of the “inner ring” can be assured of being well-informed. He agreed that this is a real difficulty.

There’s nothing new about this worry. In 1969, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew gave a speech on “The Importance of Television.” He noted the “profound influence” of television news “over public opinion.”

Television’s influence is disproportionately great because: Read more of this post

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