Wednesday, January 31, 2007

SNL 'Terrorism' Punchline: A Matter of Taste?

Jonathan Schwarz of This Modern World links to a discussion at Rasputin Bigbodie about whether a recent, recurring SNL punchline is even marginally funny. Briefly:

SETH MEYERS: Christian and Muslim Britains joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims. Also fueling a backlash against Muslims? Terrorism.
SETH MEYERS: Muslim groups are concerned that the new season of “24,” which features Muslim terrorists setting off a nuclear explosion near Los Angeles, will foster hate against them and create a climate of Islamophobia. Also creating a climate of Islamophobia? Terrorism.

I think the humor in these statements, or at least the intended source thereof, lies in the following areas:

  • Absurd contrast: This is especially the case with respect to the first quote. It raises the question "Why are Muslims worried about minor backlash generated by 'The War on Christmas' when the single biggest backlash-generator is terrorism?".
  • Taboo breaking: The statements generate humor by transgressively raising the aforementioned question in contravention of the prevailing norm.

I don't believe that these statements necessarily imply that all Muslims are terrorists, as some people appear to be claiming. Rather, they

  1. Note that terrorism causes image problems for Muslims.
  2. Imply that Muslims have the ability to prevent or reduce instances of terrorism.
  3. Question whether the Muslim community is committed to doing so.
Item 1 seems non-contestable, item 2 seems contestable, and item 3 seems like a legitimate question. I don't necessarily agree with items 2 and 3, but its not self-evident that they represent an ad hominem attack on Muslims in general.

As always, some of this is a matter of personal taste; the SNL statements might legitimately be classified as "black humor". I was going to try to explain what may be essentially unexplainable, but then Mr. Schwarz wrote the following in the Bigbodie comments

I’m sure that Seth Meyers and whoever’s laughing think the point of the jokes is “It’s ridiculous for Islamic organizations to try to lessen anti-Muslim sentiment by doing these small things, when they don’t seem to do much about a much larger reason for anti-Muslim sentiment: terrorism. I mean, what causes more Islamophobia — an episode of ‘24′ or 9/11?”

This sounds like it makes sense until you think about it for one second. Because semi-analogous jokes would be:
SETH MEYERS: Christian and Jewish Americans joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Jews. Also fueling a backlash against Jews? Shooting Palestinian children in the head.

Here's where personal taste comes in, because the first time I read that I laughed my ass off. That statement scores high in terms of both absurd contrast and transgressivity. Mr. Schwarz acknowleges as much, nothing that "[n]eedless to say, SNL won’t be airing material like that anytime soon". There's a strong norm in American against criticizing Jews/Israel, so when someone does do it while speaking truth (especially if they have good delivery) the results are darkly funny.

As always, however, one person's "darkly funny" is another person's "tasteless", wherein which the conflict lies.

Drug Use and Pregnant Women, Take 2

piny of Feministe has posted an extended rebuttal of the idea that exposing a fetus to drugs in utero constitutes child abuse. Its a good response, so I'll post the meat of it in full:

If you fail to feed your child adequately, you are guilty of child abuse. If you fail to seek medical treatment for your child when your child is sick, you are guilty of child abuse. If you hurt your child, you are guilty of child abuse. If you do not supervise your child such that your child’s life is in danger, you are guilty of child abuse. When the crime is not child abuse but “fetal abuse,” however, none of the criminalized acts are things done to the fetus. They are things that the woman does to herself. If you feed yourself drugs, you are feeding drugs to a child. If you drink, you are forcing alcohol on a child.

So a pregnant woman who leaned out too far over a balcony would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who exposed herself to injury–say by working with wild animals–would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who didn’t eat well or ate too little or failed to take care of her body in any number of other ways would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who failed to seek pre-natal care would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who did not seek medical treatment for any health problem would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who refused any medical treatment or advice that might save her health or maintain her healthy pregnancy would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. She would be a criminal if she failed to safeguard her own body, and liable for any harm that might translate to her child, because there’s no difference between her body and the body belonging to her child.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that there's a fundamental difference between the scenarios discussed in the second paragraph and exposure to drugs in the womb.

Assume the following:

  1. At conception a fetus is not a person.
  2. At some point the fetus becomes a person.
  3. An entity has the "ability to be harmed" if and only if it is a person.
  4. It is wrong to harm a person; governments have the right to prevent harm to and seek redress for harm done to their citizens.
It doesn't substantively effect my argument when the fetus becomes a person; I'll assume "birth" for convenience.

Assuming agreement with assumptions 1 through 3 then there's not an issue with the scenarios in the second paragraph. The fetus is not a person, so putting it at immediate risk does not warrant government scrutiny. The person that the fetus will become is not materially affected by these actions, so there is no reason for government intervention on that account either.

Contrast this to the drug use scenario. The damage inflicted by drug use persists past the point (wherever you define it) when the fetus becomes a person. At that point the now-person has suffered harm as a direct result of the mother's actions in the past. Provided agreement with items 2 through 4 the government has a legitimate interest in preventing this situation and seeking redress when it does occur.


Libertarian Spoilers?

Markos thinks that Libertarians contributed to the Democratic sweep of Congress last November. He seems to be basing this assessment on the assumption that Libertarian candidates pull voters away from Republicans far more often than they do Democrats, a statement which is by no means self evident.

Take, for a random example, myself. I'm a little-'L' libertarian; the last time I voted for President I cast my vote for John Hagelin (it was awhile ago, youthful indiscretion and all). Presumably I'm the kind of person who might vote for a Libertarian candidate as, Markos notes, a protest vote.

But I don't think I've ever, ever, that I can recall, voted for a Republican. In a two-party race I'm almost certainly going to vote for a Democrat. The amount of pure, unadulturated crazy coming out of the Republican party is more than enough for me to overlook the Democrats' failings.

To be fair, Markos should list squeakers in the opposite direction as well i.e. those Republican victories where the margin was less that the number of Libertarian votes cast.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

While I'm At It

As long as I'm takings digs at Amanda Marcotte I might as well critique her post on criminalizing pregnancy outcomes as well. Amanda states that

[i]n sum, it’s a really bad idea to criminalize pregnancies based on outcomes. No pregnant woman is absolutely perfect and all can probably have something dug up on them that they did during pregnancy—or before it—that could be used to blame her if she has a stillbirth or gives birth to a disabled child.
I agree with her up to a point; in general there's no way to demonstrate what causes a birth defect or a miscarriage. We shouldn't go around prosecuting pregnant women for not getting enough folic acid. But she also claims that giving birth to a baby that tests positive for drugs is a "non-crime", at which point I have to disagree.

As I've touched on before, its hard to come up with a coherent definition of child abuse that doesn't include taking drugs prior to giving birth. Unlike the case with miscarriages or birth defects, babies aren't born with drugs in there system for no apparent reason. If an infant tests positive for drugs there's a high degree of probability that his mother was using drugs during her pregnancy. This is a volitional act which causes harm to the child, and is analogous in most respects to exposing them to second hand smoke, though the effects of exposure to drugs in the womb is likely far more damaging.

Presumably Amanda doesn't support beating children, or starving them, or locking them in a closet for 24 hours a day. If exposure to drugs in the womb causes effects similar to oh say... head trauma, for example, and you would call the physical act of hitting a child upside their head "child abuse", then are you not also bound to categorize drug use in the same category? They're both volitional acts the outcomes of which are reasonably easy to anticipate; it doesn't seem to me that one is substantively different from the other.

In Joe Francis' Defense

As a matter of principle, isn't it a little disingenuous to complain about Girls Gone Wild and then mock Joe Francis because he doesn't want his private recordings being shown in public? The Girls Gone Wild participants are performing for the camera; admittedly the whole bit about getting them to sign consent forms when they're drunk is an issue, but in the least you can argue they have a diminished expectation of privacy. Whereas, as far as I can tell, Mr. Francis' expectation of privacy remains undimished, since the tapes were created in private and never intended for public consumption.

Even if he is a scumbag he still has rights. The willingness to ignore those rights on account of his business ventures reflects poor reasoning at best.

Friends of God

I watched Friends of God on HBO last week; it's a fantastic documentary that anyone who's interested in evangelical Christianity should definitely watch. Most striking, I think, were the various manifestations thereof which Ms. Pelosi was able to capture on film, a couple of which caught my attention in particular.

She recorded a worship service at an evangelical mega-church; I believe it's the one formerly run by Ted Haggard. I've written about this before, comparing the worship services to a Dionysian rite, but it was another thing to actually see it on tape. There were all these young-ish people moshing/pogoing up at the front of the stage like they were at a concert or something. One gentleman stood out in particular; sort of dumpy looking, with a white, button-up shirt and a tie, jumping up and down like he was having the time of his life. Its probably inaccurate to judge based on a 3 second video clip, but he had a look about him that made me think he'd be a real buzzkill in any other situation. I s'pect that the only time he cuts loose might be at church services. Odd, to say the least.

Though I think my favorite, just in terms of sheer transparency, was the car show. Ms. Pelosi went around asking people what kind of car Jesus would drive, admittedly a silly question, but she got people to answer it very earnestly. As a general rule it seems that Jesus drives whatever the person answering the question drives; absent that, its something manly like a Mustang. Hello, projecting much?

Anyway, check it out if you get the chance.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Speaking of Abridgments of Speech...

Some guy claims to have cracked the DRM in Windows Vista, but doesn't want to talk about it for fear of getting "sued out of existence" for violating the DMCA. That's crap, pure and simple. Not only does the DMCA prevent fair use of a specific media item, but now its stopping someone who wants to promote general fair use.

For those of you who don't know about the DRM in Windows, it essentially requires you to have Microsoft's imprimatur before you can make full use of your computer system. Said imprimatur is beyond the means of most Open Source projects, which means that a lot of useful programs just won't run as well as they should on Windows systems. Mr. Ionescu appears to have devised a way to bypass this "feature", thus allowing people to run what they want on the hardware they've purchased.

Free Speech in Canada

Ed at Dispatches has an interesting post about what appears to be censorious overreach on the part of the government of British Columbia. Coincidentally enough, I just last night finished the chapter on Canada's approach to free speech in Ronald Krotoszynski's The First Amendment in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Its a book that bears reading if you're going to critique freedom of speech in other developed countries.

According to Krotoszynski, behavior such as Ed cites is a direct result of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Among other things, this document requires respect for "cultural and group identity", effectively granting collective rights to groups. This idea of collective rights is a concept which is largely foreign to the US, which is one of the reasons why some of these incidents coming out of Canada seem so odd to us.

Incidentally, he also notes that these rules, which were formulated to protect Canada's minority populations, often backfire and end up perpetuating the discrimination they were originally designed to prevent. In that sense Ed is right in saying that these sorts of things are not a preservation of human rights, but a violation thereof.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thoughtcrime, Child Porn, and Sexual Orthodoxy

Warning: Not worksafe.

A man in Dallas, TX, was recently arrested for taping female wrestlers at a high school wrestling meet, the contention being that he was filming crotch shots for his own "amusement". According to the CNN article he's being charged filming someone without consent for the purpose of sexual arousal.

What I find intriguing is the nature of offense itself. No one is claiming that he needed authorization to film, nor does anyone appear to be arguing an actual violation of the privacy of any of the wrestlers. That seems reasonable to me; I used to be a varsity wrestler, and I know firsthand that all sorts of people tape meets. When you're out on the mat you're the center of attention; its hard to argue any sort of expectation of privacy in that situation. Presumably the same footage, shot by a parent or coach, wouldn't fall afoul of the statute.

So what's the difference between the violator in this case and a parent/coach? The only thing which appears to separate "legitimate" from "illegitimate" filming is the subjective response of the filmer to the film. An activity which would otherwise be legitiimate is illegitimate because he (ostensibly) finds it arousing; he runs afoul of the law based solely on his internal mental state.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, do we have a bona-fide case of thoughtcrime here? A man is being charged with a crime, not on the ground that his actions caused harm, but because he engaged in a socially unauthorized way of interpreting his act i.e. getting his rocks off to high school wrestlers. Members of the jury, that looks like thoughcrime to me. But what, you may ask, does that have to do with childporn?

I submit, for your consideration, the following:

Not child porn Not child porn Child porn

The first picture is from a child beauty pagent, the second is from a child photo contest, and the third is child porn. Its not obvious to me that one is any more, or less, salacious on its face than any other. Nor do I know of any reason to believe that the production of any particular photo was more damaging to its subject(s) than any other. What separates the first two pictures from the third is the context of their presentation and their intended audience.

Indeed, the c|net article makes it clear that child pornography legislation is totally unmoored from any notion of objective harm:

The explanation for that lies in a criminal statute called 18 USC 2252A, which Pierson is accused of violating. Child pornography is defined as the "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person" under 18 years old.
In this case "lascivious" is literally in the mind of the beholder; a picture is porn or not porn based on who's lookin at it and for what reason.

Both of these items, the filming arrest and the examples above, demonstrate a (perhaps increasing) willingness to punish people solely for the content of their thoughts. Not good, not good at all.

Mock The Ethicist: Inaugural Edition

I picked an opportune day to start mocking The Ethicist; he's in fine, crack-smoking form this week.

Let's start with this week's lead question:

I answered an ad for a job as a data-entry clerk at a faith-based charity, but I stopped filling out the application when it said I could not work there unless I signed a “statement of faith,” affirming that I had evangelical Christian beliefs.Isn’t this religious discrimination? — Janet Lama, Charlotte, N.C.
Why yes, yes it is; it seems that The Ethicist and I agree on that much. But then, as he is want to do, Mr. Cohen starts with a reasonable position and proceeds to make a hash of things.

One thing that I've always admired about him is his untrammeled belief in his own infallibility; it shows he really has a pair. Who else would ask an expert for their opinion on the issue and then proceed to ignore it?

If you ask a lawyer, he will explain why this group can reject non-Christians. Andrew G. Celli Jr., for example, an attorney with expertise in civil rights law, says, “This is what the law allows — and for good reason, given the time-honored constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” This charity sees its work as an expression of faith, Celli says, and “government should not be in the business of telling religious organizations which of their activities are religious and which are secular.”

But if you ask me — and you did — I’m with you. For the law to retreat from making such judgments, even the most straightforward ones, allows religious freedom to mutate into religious discrimination.

Uh-huh... right. Let me get this straight... you're saying that the government has the ability to divine what is religious practice and what isn't? You know, you should listen to your expert; maybe he knows what he's talking about after all.

There's a reason why the government should avoid making religious judgements: it tends to fuck them up royally. Even if there are noble folk somewhere in the great machine who have the wisdom to divine such things, the actual divination often falls to blinkered bureaucratic functionaries who are no more capable of making such a judgement than they are of flapping their arms and flying around the room.

The real question that you should be asking is why do we grant religious exemptions at all? Doesn't this approach, allowing all sorts of exemptions based on religious reasoning while denying the same to those with secular philosophies, represent a government endorsement of religion over non-religion? The only coherent solution to this problem is to grant unlimited exemptions to everyone, or to grant no exemptions at all. Anything else requires the government to decide the truth of metaphysical propositions, clearly not a legitimate function of government.

Whew... after that screw up it seems anticlimactic to pursue today's second question. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I think it demonstrates The Ethicist's penchant for pulling things out of his ass. So here is is:

I was to screen candidates for a job at my office that requires considerable phone time with our high-end, snobbish customers. When my boss said, “Don’t bring in anyone who wants to ‘ax’ you a question,” my first reaction was that she wanted me to exclude African-Americans. My boss claims to support equal opportunity, but was she being racist here? — name withheld, New York

Well, let's look at this question logically. IMHO there's two valid interpretations:

  • This person's boss wants them to exclude everyone who uses non-standard English, "ax" being an example of such a usage.
  • This person's boss wants them to exclude African-Americans, and is using "ax" as a code phrase.
It's basically a push... given the limited details in the letter there's no apparent reason to favor one interpretation over the other. An interesting criticism that can be rendered in this case (though not necessarily one I agree with) would be to question the exclusion of persons using non-standard English, since that occurs in both cases.

So what does the Ethicist do? He makes shit up:

Was your boss brusque? Yes. Uncouth? Perhaps. Unkempt? I can’t say; I’ve never seen her. Racist? I can’t say that either, and neither can you. There’s not enough information. Using “ax” in place of “ask” is sometimes done in casual conversation by some African-Americans, but it is done by other groups as well.
Uh-huh, name me another group that's associated with the use of the word "ax"... didn't think so. Sweet jesus, 5 minutes of googling and he could have found this, which says that modern usage of "ax" in place of "ask" is largely confined to the African-American community1. Right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

Tune in next week for another exciting episode of "Mock The Ethicist", same bat-time, same bat-channel.

1 Shame on the OED, btw; their entry for this sense of "ax" is woefully unenlightening.

My Public Needs Me

It turns out that I have a small, but dedicated, fanbase that wants me to keep at this whole blog thing. Fine by me, I'll write it if they want to read it.

As an experiment I'm also going to be introducing a couple of regular features. I like music and have a burning desire to hold my tastes up for ridicule, so I'm going to be instituting a "Friday Random Ten" list. On the original material front, someone suggested that a weekly "Mock The Ethicist" series would attract attention, so I'm going to try that as well, the first edition thereof to be posted later today.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. No need to crowd, there's enough for everyone.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eh... it was worth a shot.

Well, its just not holding my interest. A year in, and I'm really not getting anything out of it. Bye.
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