Sep 9, 2014

Dear Frustrated Parent

Dear Frustrated Parent,

Feel bad.  I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, and five seconds is three too many.  However, if you actually read the problem (see?  English Degree!), what is asked of you is to spot the mistake, and then verbalize what the person did right and how to fix the mistake.  For example:
Dear Jack,
To subtract 316 from another number, you need to jump back three hundreds, one ten, and six ones.  You got the 'hundreds' and the 'ones', but you forgot the 'tens'.  Just remember it next time and you'll be fine!
Someone Who Read the Problem and Can Count
You don't get to tout your calculus credentials if you can't tell the difference between '306' and '316' on a number line.  But this is a very well-constructed problem: children are not asked to display the mere technical mastery of mechanically producing the right answer, they are asked spot how that process can go awry, and to verbalize their understanding of the conception and the mistake.  Good, good stuff.

Now: ignoring the fact that this has nothing to do with Common Core, and ignoring the fact that our parent's frustration mostly stems from lack of reading comprehension, the 'new method' is more or less how I taught myself to do math in my head when I abandoned the clunky, overcomplicated, counterintuitive bullshit they taught me in school in favor of something that not only made more sense to me, but that was faster, more likely to be correct, and generally wrong by a smaller margin when I screwed up.  Sure, the old way looks simple in those neat little lines the way that you write it out.  But let's try a different problem.  Let's say, 426 - 327.

First do it my way.  We start by taking away three hundreds, 4 - 3 = 1, leaving us 126 - 27.  Then we take away twenty, 2 - 2 = 0, leaving us 106 - 7.  Then we take away seven: count back six to 100, then count back 1 more to 99.  426 - 327 = 99.  This is an intuitive, left-to-right approach, like the way that we read, and it consists of two one-digit subtractions and one counting back: three operations, and as errors are more likely to compound the further into the problem we get, we're more likely to get an error in the 'ones' column than the 'tens' or 'hundreds'.

Now let's try it your way:


6 is less than 7 so we have to borrow:


16 minus 7 is 9, so:


So, 1 minus 2 ... whoops have to borrow again!


11 minus 2 is 9, so:


and three minus three is 0, so ...

Thus we have: two multi-digit subtractions, one single-digit subtraction, and two complicated borrowing operations, all going in a counterintuitive, right-left direction, with the hundreds column coming last, meaning that compounded errors will have a vastly greater effect on the magnitude of any wrong answer.  Got all that, kids?  In the real world, simplification is valued over complication---this might be why it takes you more than twice as long as me to do arithmetic.  I certainly hope that wouldn't result in my termination, but if one of my engineers couldn't figure out a number line--or understand a word problem, or spot the difference between 306 and 316--it certainly would result in his!

Bemused English Major

Sep 3, 2014

Growing up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 2

When my parents went to the States to fundraise, they would leave me to hold down the fort in Sofia. On one such parental trip, my cell phone rang--an odd occurrence.  It was Petko, who had semi-officially taken over the Rakovitsa church after Ivan got kicked out for accepting bribes from political figures (a car and perhaps a keyboard from the King’s party) to sway the congregation their way.

“Andrew!” he began, out of breath, and then proceeded to tell me the story of a child.  A recent birth from a couple in their church had come with severe complications, and the child had had one operation and was waiting on a second, but needed some special medicine not available in Bulgaria and my parents were in the States so couldn’t they please do something to help?

As far as I got, it was spinal bifada, and possibly hydrocephaly.  Petko didn’t actually say the words for either of those conditions, it just sounded like it based on the description, which came to me via the telephone game: the doctor to the couple in their second language, they to Petko in everyone’s native language, then finally Petko to me in his and my second language on a cell with a bad connection.

It caught me by surprise, but I thought to ask: what is this medicine that they need?  “It’s one of four things,” he replied in a rush.  “Any of them will do--I’ll send you the names!”

Really?  I thought.  Fucking really?  The doctor can think of four separate things that will work and none of them are available?  It’s not the nineties anymore, you can get stuff, and if there’s four different things that work then surely he can think of a fifth that they actually have in-country rather than pulling the asshole move of telling poverty-stricken gypsies from a small-town ghetto that their mortally ill child desperately needs something from abroad.  “Okay”, I said, “look--there’s a couple issues here.  America isn’t like Bulgaria.  You can’t just go to the drug store and buy whatever you want.  I don’t know what these are, but they might not be available in America (he had mentioned they were French), and if they are my parents might not be able to buy them.  Also: America has funny rules about what you as a private citizen can ship (thanks, Canadian Internet pills!) and it’s not actually legal to ship a lot of medicines.  They’re also travelling and I don’t know when they’ll be able to get to this, but even if they drop what they’re doing and go to a drugstore tomorrow, and even if the drugstore has these meds, and even if it’s legal to buy them, and even if it’s legal to ship them, then it will still take time to get here and be really expensive--”
“We’ll pay whatever they spend!”
“--Yes, but there’s still the time--”
“Whenever they can!”
“--Listen!  Your best bet is to go back to the doctor--or to go to a different doctor!--and to ask him for something that is available in-country.  Got that?  If it’s as urgent as you’re making it sound, then shipping from the States isn’t the best option even if it’s possible.  You need to go to the doctor and demand something that’s available here.”
“Got that?”
“Okay, I’m sorry that--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” he said as he hung up, his voice actually sighing in gratitude and relief.  Fuck me, how do I always get involved in this shit? You’re counting on me. Great. Try listening to me instead.  Now I was actually kinda proud of that response, because I had gotten this out-of-the-blue phonecall with the breathless insinuation that I was all that stood between a newborn babe and certain death, and had still managed to tell them the best thing that I could have told them.

Well I wrote the parents, and they didn’t write back.  They were travelling, and between the nonstop running about and the staying with older friends who only sorta knew how the wifi worked and the schmoozing and their own medical stuff, they almost never checked their email while in the States.  It was too early their time to call, and their weird schedule also meant that they had a knack for either not charging their phone or for turning it off and forgetting it.  I eventually got in touch and they promised to look into it, but couldn’t promise much.  In the meantime I took the list down to my pharmacy and asked the girl if she had ever heard of any of them; she gave me the sort of look normally reserved for elderly relatives’ Facebook politicking; I took this as a ‘no’ and made some face-saving remark as I headed out the door.  

For the next week Petko called me nearly nonstop: “I’ve passed along the message, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ll call you as soon as … yes, I have your number … the one you’re calling me from right now, I can see it if I pull the phone away from my ear … look the best thing really is to go back to that doctor, or to a different one, and to--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” *click*

I eventually found out what the “medicine” actually was: a dietary supplement/super-power formula, basically to fatten the kid up for the next operation.  Mindboggling: all the kid needed was nutrition, and the doctor tells these panicking, uneducated parents that only this stupid French formula will work?  And they go out of their minds--and nearly drive me out of mine--trying to find it?  Truly his dickery knows no bounds, and this was compounded by the Bulgarian attitude towards medicine.  It’s not like the States, where people go off their antibiotics the first afternoon they perk up.  No, in Bulgaria, you have to take the medicine.  Even if it’s two weeks later and it was an antihistamine and you’re no longer stuffed up, the doctor said ‘Take it!’ and buddy you gotta take it.  So when the doctor pulled this French bullshit?  That was the sole possible and magically efficacious cure for their dying child.

After about a week M&D called up to say that they were heading back to Tennessee, and they would try to work something out with [a doctor friend] to see if she could get access to this stuff and possibly ship it over.  By that time I was thoroughly disillusioned with the whole affair--not only in my own power to actually obtain the “medicine” in question, but in the likelihood that doing so would actually affect the situation in any way.  Still, it was something.

Then the next day Petko called and said the kid died.  So … nevermind, I guess.  “But thank you for your help,” he added.  Sure.  Lay it on.  Why not.

The parents called back to confirm something-or-other about the situation: “The kid died, so … don’t worry about it,” I said.
“Oh,” they said.

And then we proceeded to the next item of business.

Aug 4, 2014

Growing up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 1

[When we first came to Bulgaria], policemen could stop you on the street and demand to see your documents--foreigners were even easier to spot in those days than now--then keep you standing there forever.  Well, until you bribed them or it finally sank in that you weren’t going to.  This got worse when we got a car.  Because of the weird rules regarding foreigners owning cars (among other things, the car had to be owned by a business and bear special blue license plates that practically screamed “Pull me over!”), we actually purchased the van through the Baptist Union.  Marginally less conspicuous, but when you were pulled over, and the cops realized that you were foreigners and Baptists, then things could get ugly.

Like pedestrians, drivers could be pulled over for document checks--the cop would step out into traffic with his little shiny red ‘МВР’ lollipop and flag you down.  You stopped the car, he came up, “The documents, if you please.”  In fairness, sometimes (read: quite often) Dad really had done something bad, and Bulgaria was more or less the car-theft capital of Europe at the time.  But more often they were looking for bribes, or power-tripping, and on more than one occasion detained us for hours after seeing that the car was owned by the Baptist Union.

It’s hard to say where the truth of the matter lay.  Sometimes it was obvious, like when they would say “Baptist” or see a missionary visa immediately prior to losing their shit.  Other times?  Does he get off on being an asshole?  Is it merely that westerners are famous the world over for greasing the palms of the local constabulary?  Or are they persecuting the followers of Christ just as He warned us that they would?

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.”  In John he expands on the subject more at length: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.  But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”  And check it out: we were meeting lots of people who had suffered for the faith, and we were suffering for ours!  Proof positive that we were on the side of the angels, co-participants in the suffering of Jesus for which our heavenly reward would be great.

Don’t get me wrong, sitting in the car for two hours in the heat while a policeman sat flipping through the various documents--car registration (in the name of the Baptist Union, which started all the trouble), our passports, official notarized letter from the Baptist Union granting us the right to drive the car, our visas, notarized copies of the registration of the Baptist Union proving that it was a real legal entity, driver’s licenses (American and International), proof of civil liability insurance, etc.--sucked.  But the idea of the thing?  That was awesome--I was so fucking proud of that you wouldn’t believe.  I couldn’t wait to tell all the kids back home, and on furlough that story was a real crowd-pleaser, let me tell ya’.  I had actually suffered for my faith, how cool was that?

Christians love to suffer.  By which I don’t mean that Christians actually love to actually suffer--the American ones in particular are huge babies about it--but Jesus taught that his followers would be a persecuted minority, a gathering of outcasts and the despised.  The world’s attacks and contempt were a sign of God’s special favor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and so forth.  Problem is, in America Christians are the overweight majority of the richest and most powerful nation that ever was.

The dichotomy makes them kinda batty.  Insofar as Christianity is or ever was mythology, the dominant mythos is that of the chosen few defying Satan with the truth: even at the cost of their lives, even though the Devil brought to bear all the powers and principalities of this world--which were under his control, natch--to rail and threaten and silence them, for he despises to hear the truth.  The heroes of the church are martyrs.  The masses looked on and were converted, Satan looked on raged at the reminder of his coming ignominious defeat, and God looked on and was pleased--He even gave them special robes in Heaven, and His final plans await the full tally of their numbers being achieved.  

Now what the hell do you do with that story once you get the power?  The gate’s not so narrow when eighty-odd-percent of your countrymen claim to have found it.  On the one hand, having got it, they’re happy enough doing the natural thing and yanking its levers against their own perceived enemies.  On the other, they’re still shoehorning everything into the only myth they know while desperately trying to convince themselves of their own oppressed status.  If Jesus promised His followers that they would be persecuted, then the thought of not being persecuted is too terrible to contemplate.  Thus, with Heaven’s favor on the line, “Gay marriage is persecution of Christians!”

Jul 1, 2014

An Invitation, in Light of Recent Supreme Court Decisions

Hi, my name is Andrew, and I'd like to talk to you a minute about the First Church of FSM, Piratist. We Pastafarians have long believed that global warming has been caused by a lack of pirates, and, along with our sister organization The Swedish Piracy Church, have done our best to prevent it despite government persecution.
This recent Supreme Court case, however, gives us hope. In order to more closely comply with the decision, we have now changed our official doctrine--yes, His Noodly Appendage hath reach down and touched us, and we have a new revelation. Copyright law is an abortifacient, and it is not the government's place to say "that [our] religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial." Be it known, be it proclaimed, blessed be the Grater of the Mooncheese.
I invite all citizens of goodwill to join us in body and spirit, wallet and swarm. Save the planet. Stop abortions. Keep up with Game of Thrones. Join the First Church of FSM, Piratist, today.

Apr 23, 2014

Caught in the Pulpit Quote

I read Daniel Dennett's and Linda LaScola's Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind recently.  A powerful book for anyone who's left a faith, and presumably for anyone who's stayed.  One passage in particular, written by Dennett, stuck with me in light of other recent discussions:
I have been asking defenders of sophisticated theology for a reading list of works they are prepared to defend as intellectually bracing and honest, but I have yet to have my challenge met.  I am tempted to conclude that they have realized, on closer examination, that they, too, have adopted a double standard, letting pass as deep thought work that is actually just obscure--and often apparently deliberately obscure.  Such works serve only to buttress the adopters of epistemological modesty, who can reason as follows: "These professors are professorial thinkers about religion.  They are still in the church, so they must have gone way beyond me in thinking these issues through.  I don't get it, but they do, so I should accept their authority."  These high-flown ruminations may well be incomprehensible, but they are nevertheless deemed inspiring and authoritative.  "Go read the meticulous arguments of this thinker; they should sweep away your doubts."  (And if they don't, it must be your fault.) (page 224)
To a T, sir.  To a T.  There's simply no 'there' there, no solid ground but a fuddled slough so vast that no end can ever be reached to prove it.

Mar 28, 2014

Treasures of the Tubes, pt. 1: Sinfest

I'm thinking of a bit of a change of pace around here: something positive.  Ranting about stupidity in politics, evolution, and religion is great, but the recent experience of introducing a good friend to something wonderful made me feel all tingly inside, so with that in mind here's a new series.  The basic idea is to take something that I love, and give it a link and little write-up.

So! Let's get started.

Sinfest.  What can I even say about Sinfest?  This is where it begins:

It just gets better from there.  Slick (the Calvinesque fellow about to strike the Faustian bargain) and 'Nique (the Hobbesian hottie with whom he is perpetually stuck in the friendzone) are the stars of this daily webcomic with a 4000+ strip archive.  Read the whole thing if you have time--the artwork improves, the many characters and their relationships develop and change, and the strip slides along the spectrum between 1-offs and longer, more focused story arcs--such as when the devil, realizing he's just playing the role God assigned him, commits the ultimate act of rebellion by walking away from his booth and hitting the beach.

Then there's God himself, who speaks to man through masks handpuppets:

It's incredibly creative, endlessly entertaining, beautiful to look at (at one point, the Sunday strips began appearing in full color) and hits altogether too close to home in discussions of politics, pornography, theodicy, relationships, loneliness, pot, and pets.  It also gave us what may the greatest line of any webcomic ever, in panel 2:
I leave you with some of my favorites:

Mar 27, 2014


This morning, Mother pestered me about some or another apologetical work in that plausibly deniable way she has--"I was just asking for you opinion!"  Faced with the familiar "put up with false-consensus BS" or "start a fight and have everyone jump on you for being unpleasant", I picked B, and in the ensuing argument she asked just why I was so threatened by religious ideas.

Apparently she confuses "being annoyed by repetitive garbage" with "having my rebellion against God shaken to its core".

But the truth is ... I am threatened by religious ideas.

Just look at yesterday's Hobby Lobby oral arguments, in which sincerely held religious beliefs--that contraception is an abortifacient*--are being claimed as grounds for special legal privileges.  This despite that 1) carving out a specifically religious privilege specifically discriminates against the nonreligious and 2) contraception is not an abortifacient, you raving morons.  This infuriating lunacy not only made it to the Supreme Court, but might just carry the day.

Or take today's big headline: World Vision allowed gay-married employees, then reneged as 2000 Christians cut off their sponsor child.

Or go a little further back.  Do a Google image search for "Jessica Ahlquist death threats."  I'll wait.

Or consider the more recent squashing of a SSA club in North Carolina via death threats and blackmail.

Or take my Mother, who votes against my healthcare and my brother's civil rights because of ... wait for it ... her religious ideas.

So yeah, Mom, you're right: I am threatened by religious ideas, because people insist on acting them out.

* Oh, and, I now believe that enforcement of copyright law is an abortifacient.  Sincerely believe it, as my Church, The First Church of FSM, Piratist, teaches.  Donations are tax-exempt, and if the legal winds blow some precedent our way then we, too, will be hiring lawyers.

Mar 23, 2014


So ... I finally got around to watching REC and REC2.    I'm not a fan of the "found footage" conceit, but the films do showcase the possibilities--the things that it does very well.  For example, because the first film was shot by a local TV person, she gets to stop in a quiet moment and talk to people on camera.  It also works very well for suspense, mostly because we only see what the characters see.  Their panic becomes our panic as they run away, their suspense becomes our suspense as they scan the room with their nightscope.

It also showcases the weakness of the conceit.  The human visual system is pretty finely calibrated to compensate for how much we move our heads.  Video cameras?  Aren't.  So when the characters run away, you can't see for crap, whereas in real life you would still be able to.  You have to create increasingly contrived reasons for the characters videoing instead of doing something useful and/or realistic.  The first movie did this all right--they were a news team after all--and the second movie tried really hard without quite getting there: sure, the SWAT team has cameras on their vests, but the priest repeatedly yelling how everything must be documented ... uh ... why, exactly?  Then there was the ending of 2:

*major spoilers here, highlight to read*

If the demon had control of the camera, what possible motivation could it have for leaving the huge loose end of the footage which showed that it had escaped?  And why on earth would it drag her back into the room it had just dragged her out of, apart from the fact that that's where the camera was?

*spoilers end*

That happened so that the dropped camera could catch the action, not for any discernible narrative reason.  I also--and this is a *HUGE* pet peeve of mine--hate the sound of people breathing/clothes rustling into a too-close microphone.  Hate it hate it hate it hate it, and sadly the continued "the characters themselves are filming this as they go along" schtick means we get a lot of it.

Like most original/sequel pairings, the original was better.  There were the obligatory "people in a traumatic situation screaming at the authority figures who won't give them information" scenes, but while I find them annoying they are fairly true to life.  There were the obligatory "girl who is 'just sick'--'she has tonsillitis!'--actually has the zombie virus!" scenes, and there were the obligatory "OMG what's happening?" scenes as the characters figure out which genre they're in.  Again, realistic, but watching characters try to figure out what you learned from the trailer (ie, this is a zombie flick) is boring.  But cliches aside, the movie kept me guessing, kept me in suspense, and while I really wish the girl had been less panicky and/or breathy, I highly recommend the film.  I love the ending bits particularly:

*MOAR SPOILERS, highlight to read*

The demon possession angle was masterful.  I mean, of course the Church would think that a zombie virus was possession and try to treat it as possession.  And of course it wouldn't work, because it's a virus!  I love that their interference prevented proper medical treatment (up to and including getting actual medical personnel on the job of finding a vaccine) by abducting her from the hospital and I love that it's their failed meddling that allowed the thing to spread.  Marvelous.

*spoilers end*

The second movie wasn't nearly as good.  Okay, I kinda understand why they didn't brief the SWAT team.  I also understand why the SWAT team is mad about this.  But the aforementioned "people in a traumatic situation screaming at the authority figures who won't give them information" scenes don't work so well when the folks doing the yelling are trained combat professionals in a building known to be chock-full of face-eating undead with functional ears.  Discipline, much?  Also, we were given to understand that how fast you succumb to the infection depends on blood type.  Rotten luck that everyone in this movie had the same blood type.

But its worst crime is to "solve" the issues raised by the ending of the first movie in the boringest way possible, and since the second movie spoilers the first we won't have any more warnings.  Just stop reading here if you haven't seen it.

Thank you for shitting all over the brilliant ending to the first film and retconning it to something utterly banal.  But since you did, let's talk about it.  The zombies are actually possessed.  Not some kind of viral zombies plus brilliant commentary on the Catholic Church, just an actual demon(s?) which needs a biological agent to function but against which Catholic implements are super effective.  But about that ... you know crosses hold the possessed at bay.  And you didn't hand out crosses to the whole team.  Ooookay.  You know headshots kill them permanently, and you didn't feel like sharing.  You need a sample of the original's blood, not one of the subsequent infections, because MacGuffin.  You can't take the original's blood once the original has been shot because reasons.  Certain things are only actually there in total darkness because it's scarier that way faux archaic mumbo-jumbo, but they radiate infrared.  What's so magical about the visual spectrum?  Can demons only see the same frequencies that we do?

I love zombies, though I'm not a huge fan of horror, but I really wish films would follow their own rules and actually think through the implications of their world-building beyond what will be scary right this second.  Yes, REC2 was scary, and tight (mostly--the teenagers were stupid and should have been cut), but not nearly as good as the first.  Go watch REC, but skip 2 and stick with your headcanon.

Mar 9, 2014

In Defense of the Courtier's Reply

I've recently become a fan of The Secular Outpost over on Patheos, where this post brings up a bit of poo-pooing over The Courtier's Reply--an unsophisticated tack by unsophisticated people, as they would have it.
Except that ... it's not.
I was raised Christian and spent most of my twenties desperately trying to stay one. Then when I left (both the religion as a whole and individual doctrines within it), tons of people told me, often in so many words, that they won't take my rejection seriously until I read 'X', where 'X' is derived by marching down a list of apologetical works/arguments/authors until they reach one I haven't encountered. Then invariably when I do, it's the same old nonsense as before, and now 'X' has become the next such item on the list. No Christian has EVER admitted to me that I know enough to reject either their religion or even their pet doctrine--in fact, many have told me to my face that this is impossible. This despite the fact that 1) I almost always know more than they do and 2) I know exponentially more about this particular claim that I reject than they do about the thousand claims that they reject, and I've had it with their crap. The Courtier's Reply quite fits the bill.
The sophisticated theologians (who everyone assures me exist and further assures me are not represented by whatever awful codswallop I just got done with) are just the same thing with bigger words (occasionally used correctly, I'll admit), but they use their sophisticated arguments in defense of sophisticated beliefs that bear precisely zero resemblance to Christianity as it was conveyed to me in a thousand sermons, Sunday School lessons, AWANAs, RAs, MK Retreats, Mission Meetings, dumbass books well-meaning relatives give you when you go off to college, EBC conferences, hymns, small-group meetings, family prayer time, BCM gatherings, and a lifetime of conversations with actual believers.
Whatever bit of my childhood indoctrination I reject or criticize, I'm met with "Ahahahahaha that's not what Christians believe you should go read Aquinas! Oh you've read Aquinas? Erm ... uh ... Craig! Oh him too eh ... uh ... well ... I bet you haven't read ... uhm ... Origen!"
They were nowhere to be found when their 'unsophisticated' counterparts fucked with my head all through childhood, but boy-howdy they like to get in my face now that I'm fighting back.  Tell ya' what: if you sniggering fluff-and-rufflers want my unsophisticated self to take you seriously, then start by getting in the collective face of everyone who lied to me about the cowboy boots.
The Courtier's Reply is a PERFECT encapsulation of that frustration. They defend the tribe against legitimate criticisms of things large swaths of the tribe not only believe but teach their children while doing sod-all to correct them. I've never yet encountered a theologian or apologist who didn't pull some version of this crap, despite how everyone likes to assert they exist. Hell, look at the very first entry in that debate that the poo-pooer mentions as transcending such unsophisticated things:
"[He] dismisses as a “fraud” an entire academic field to which many thinkers of universally acknowledged genius have contributed." Feser then follows up with endless name-checking. Then comes comment #3: " Do you think he has actually read S.C.G. 3:65 or S.T. 1.104.1 ? I doubt it."
Does anyone want to tell me that's not the Courtier's Reply, through and through? Would anyone who wants to tell me 'no' also like to explain just what the difference is? 
I hear and I hear and I hear that it doesn't work. But it just keeps right on working, because they just keep right on doing it. Let them stop doing it, and I'll stop saying that they do it--let them specify in advance how much I have to know to reject their position, then let them deal with that level of haute couture for every rival court, then let them not move the goalposts, and then I shall retire my beloved Courtier's Reply.
Now let's be frank: it doesn't prove I'm right. What it demonstrates is that I can be confidently right without exhausting the musings of every crank who ever opined on the subject, just as I can reject astrology without having first familiarized myself with the mathematical computations--whose complexity puts apologetics to shame!--that underlie it.

Nov 23, 2013

Nuclear Disarmament

Let's start with the obvious: back when the Democrats were obstructing Republican nominees, the Republicans loudly derided their obstruction and threatened to change the Senate rules.  The Democrats--the same who just followed through on those Republican threats themselves--objected to them in the strongest possible terms at the time.  Much as I usually hold the "both parties do it" folks in contempt, here, at long last, is something that both parties actually do.  The minority obstructs the majority, the majority rumblingly threatens to curtail its power to do so, the minority whinges about tyranny or time-honored Senate traditions with a tone of voice somewhere between grave disappointment and constipation, and it's all Very Serious.

I've now spent the last couple days watching conservative friends post democratic contradictions and liberal blogs post republican contradictions, as if the mere fact that the Republicans and Democrats routinely reverse opinions on the question actually constituted an argument for or against either position.  The basic argument, as I see it, is that the present obstruction is sufficiently greater in degree that it amounts to a difference in kind.  The old rules no longer allow for a functional government in our present circumstances, so change them.  For the record, I buy it.  The US system has too many potential chokepoints--contrast a parliamentary system, in which one side actually runs the damn government and then is judged at the polls on its performance.  There's a continuum here, but we're rather too "choked" at present.  Will I still think so when next--FSM forbid--a Republican is elected?  Consistency demands it.

There is, of course, a more cynical way to view the calculation.  Republicans, on the whole, block far more nominees--and keep them blocked far longer--than Democrats.  Stifling the ability to do so would therefore be a net gain for the Democrats.  One party's interest will--on balance, mind you--be advanced, and the other's set back, by the proposed rule change.  The parties and their supporters have lined up appropriately, and marshaled arguments in support of their positions, but the real position comes from the interests and not the arguments.

Well, cynical mode off, now.  What I would really like to see happen is to keep the filibuster, but make it an actual filibuster.  In other words, no longer can any Senator simply place a hold on any bill or nomination.  No--if they object to something and wish to delay it, then they can stand up and start talking.  Then the vote happens when everyone is done talking.  I'm not sure how this would work in a practical sense, however: victory would come when the majority party simply gets so tired of it that they cave rather than letting you go on.  But that would happen whenever you expressed a willingness to go on that went beyond the majority's ability to tolerate/get things done.  This in turn incentivizes grander threats and earlier caving, leading quickly back to the situation that we are in now, unless the majority leader had the stones to force the issue every time.  So it's very pretty to think that something like this might be workable, but in practice the willingness to use whatever weapons are at hand to obstruct means that's unlikely.

Which is why, on balance, I'm in favor of the present forced disarmament, which everyone melodramatically insists on calling the 'nuclear option'.