Sunday, January 30, 2011

U. of Minn.: Obama SOTU at Early Eighth Grade Level

Average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses by Presidents Since FDR

Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Bush 43
Bush 41
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

This article, on the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics web site (it is aptly named, BTW), is very interesting. It rates all of the orally delivered State of the Union addresses, going back to the beginning of the New Deal, as if they were texts that school children read. The grade level of Obama's two SOTU speeches is grade 8.5. That of last Wednesday's speech is a stultifying 8.1, the lowest yet. That's right,when if comes to giving SOTU speeches that make few demands on your gray matter, he is probably the all-time champ.

I find this puzzling, for two reasons.

One has to do the fact that this is pretty much the way his speeches have always impressed me. (See this, and this.) Why, then, do people (eg., Sarah Palin) keep saying that Obama's speaking manner is "professorial"? I don't get it at all. I'm a prof myself and have known hundreds of them, and I have never known one who talks anything like him. We see here one very simple reason for that. There is no subject taught in any college I know of that can be taught with an eighth grade vocabulary.

The other thing is this. Look at the chart again. Notice there is a pattern: a certain rough tendency for the level to drop over time. The last 5 presidents are also the bottom five. Why?

A typical answer, given in the above article, is that people's "attention spans are getting shorter" -- a trend that for a long time was blamed on TV, later on the internet. This has always sounded like BS to me. What is an attention span, anyway? If it means anything, shouldn't it mean that people are less and less willing to sit through long speeches? And yet the SOTU speeches are not getting shorter. If anything, they are stretching out. According to this site, the two champions of long-windedness since the days of LBJ are Bill Clinton and -- guess who? -- Barack Obama.

Besides, this explanation blames the audience. Doesn't it make more sense to blame the politicians and their writers? After all, they are the ones producing these increasingly idiotic speeches.

Over the years, it seems to me, political speeches in general have been less and less aimed at contributing in some serious way to a discussion of important issues. Politicians seem to think, for whatever reason, that the way they talk represents their most effective way to compete for votes and for voter approval. But why? Why is competition driving them toward the bottom? I really don't know.

Three more random observations:

1. Though I speak of a rough historical trend here, I have to say it is far from uniform. Notice that the high point in this list is JFK -- who, historically, comes somewhere in the middle. I think this means that you can't explain this entirely on the basis of some kind of historical determinism. I think it also means that, though you can't blame Obama for the trend, you can blame him for carrying it to a new low.

2. Contrary to what many would predict, Republicans do not pitch their words to a more stupid audience than Democrats do. George W. Bush spoke at a tenth grade level. In other words, students who have just managed to understand Obama would have to study two more years to grasp the wisdom of Dubya.

3. Maybe "trend" is not the right word for the historical pattern at all. It's not clear there is any historical trend in the above chart before Reagan. Rather, Reagan seems to represent a break with the past and herald of stupidity yet to come. One reason this is interesting: this happens well after the advent of TV, but before the internet. Something else is going on here.

[A few comments on this post may be found here.]

(Hat tip for the link to Michael Richard Brown.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is the Right Starting to Get It Right?

Jack Hunter and Justin Raimondo have a take on things that is very hopeful for those of us who love both freedom and peace. I hope they are right.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Climate of Hate Theory Explained

As everyone knows, when Sarah Palin put her "targeted districts" map on a web site, there instantly were complaints that this "violent image" was an incitement to bloodshed and could actually cause it to happen. And yet, when the Democratic Leadership Council in 2004 published a very similar map with exactly the same theme (see below), we heard not a peep of protest. Why the difference?

Obviously there are a number of reasons, but surely one of them is this: The only people who would say that about you would be your critics, and the critics of the DLC -- conservatives, radical libertarians, Marxists, racialists, etc., etc. -- don't think this way, but a certain group of critics of Palin -- namely left liberals -- do.

What way is that? This of course is the climate of hate theory, as I have called it. (See also this.) I think this theory, which seems so silly to a lot of non-liberals -- is firmly embedded in the following features of the left-liberal view of the world:

1. Liberalism is based on the a strong desire to improve the world by means that are now within our reach. (It is both idealistic and optimistic.)

2. This means that the changes must be piecemeal: huge, systemic, revolutionary changes are not currently within our reach. (Thus they are committed to thinking that the problems of the world are not deeply rooted. This makes left-liberalism seem shallow to people who hold the opposite assumption, including Marxists, conservatives, racialists, and some radical libertarians.)

3. It also means that the causes of the world's problems must be subject to human control.

Believe it or not, I think 1-3 can explain the seeming obsession that so many left-liberals have with controlling the way others use words and other symbols (an urge that includes so-called "political correctness").

Here is one example of how these basic assumptions play out in terms of policies and practices:

Since everyone is equal, there is no reason why African Americans should be so much poorer than others are -- except that others keep discriminating against them. Why do they do that? Because they have bad ideas and attitudes. Where to they get these bad ideas and attitudes? From each other. How? By means of the things they say to each other. Through bad speech, they plant bad ideas in each others' brains. Institutional racism is a complex web, but it includes a choke-point that is subject to manipulation and control: speech, bad speech.

The climate of hate theory is simply a corollary: It just identifies one of the most obvious ways in which bad speech causes problems in the world. The fact that it is rooted in the way it is can easily explain features of the theory that seem anomalous to outsiders:

a. Though it sounds like a causal, empirical theory, they never give any evidence for it. Where are the studies correlating hateful speech with violence? That is like asking "where are the studies showing that the physical universe exists?" This theory is very close to their fundamental assumptions about how the world works. For a several reasons, people don't generally feel compelled to give evidence for such assumptions. For one thing, they seem far too obvious to need evidence.

b. The theory is only applied to right-wing speech, never to liberal, socialist, Marxist, feminist, or environmentalist speech, no matter how hateful or intemperate it might seem. It is of course a theoretical possibility such progressive speech could cause some violence, but we don't focus on that possibility because such speech is progressive: it is part of the solution, while right-wing speech is part of the problem. It is just the sort of speech that causes so much of the trouble in the world. The talk of "over-heated rhetoric," as if it only occurs on the right, does make sense, but only if you see it from inside the left-liberal world-view.

c. Though the theory often takes the form of dire warnings about bad things that are about to happen, the people who warn us about these things never seem to be genuinely frightened. Their tone seems scolding, not fearful. These dire predictions are not spontaneous expressions of emotion. They are attempts to make the world better. If we can just shame right-wingers into toning down their speech, progressive speech would have more effect and the world will eventually be cured of some of its serious troubles.

This is the best I'm able to do, so far, in understanding this curious phenomenon: the over-heated right-wing rhetoric theory.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Radio Station Pulls Limbaugh "Straight Shooter" Billboard

Considering that this sign is in Tucson, I can certainly appreciate the motives of the corporate execs who decided to pull it. On the other hand ...

I think certain people have gone off half-cocked with this no gun metaphors thing. I mean, I can’t go for it lock stock and barrel. I’m setting my sights on a more nuanced approach. A scattershot response that targets every sort of speech that has any association with violence misses the mark, in my opinion. The target ought to be speech that, partly because it is intended to do physical harm, makes the speaker morally responsible for the mayhem inflicted. The full arsenal of the law should be brought to bear on speech like “Shoot him!” or “I’ll give you $10,000 for killing my wife. $20,000 if the body disappears.” But go much beyond that and you are just shooting blanks or, worse yet, gunning down the innocent along with the guilty.

Hat-tip to Ruchira Paul for the story and L. Neil Smith for the basic idea, which I shamelessly stole.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Worst Gun Control Idea Yet?

It looks like Rep. Peter King (R NY) is about to break rule #5 in the above video: Legislate carefully.

According to this news story (hat-tip to Ruchira Paul) he is going to propose legislation to that would make it " illegal to knowingly carry a gun within 1,000 feet of the president, vice president, members of Congress or judges of the Federal Judiciary.

Is there any rational basis for such a law? I don't know if actual data on this are available, but it seems very likely that, except for the President, who is already heavily guarded, these people are less likely to meet a violent end that is the general population.

Members of Congress already have the right (which seems reasonable enough to me) to be accompanied by federal marshals any time they feel they are at risk.

This law would offer government officials another level of protection (whether it would really protect them is doubtful, but that is the intention behind the measure) that is denied ordinary mortals. It puts me in mind of old laws that held that "the person of the king is sacred and inviolable" (an actual quote from the Austrian constitution of 1848).

Those were the bad old days when people thought kings are very special sorts of people and the rest of us are not. Now we have democracy and believe in equality.

Or do we? Proposals like this one convince me that most of us do not truly, in our hearts, believe in equality at all. The nation is now virtually in mourning because a Congresswoman was shot in Arizona. It may be my imagination, but I think other mass killings on a similar scale have gotten less than half the obsessive coverage, attention, and threatened new legislation that this one has gotten. A few days before the Arizona atrocity, a 68 year old grandfather was killed by police in a botched drug raid in Massachusetts. And yet you would have to dig very deep to find that story. (Here it is.) What is the huge difference between Rep. Giffords and him?

Even if I thought that King's proposal would work, and would make officials safer than they already are, I would probably still be against it. These people should live in the same environment as the rest of us.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Explaining the "Climate of Hate" Theory

Wow. Sheriff Dupnik admits he hasn't got a shred of evidence that Loughner even listens to right wing radio or other sources of right wing rhetoric, and yet repeatedly says that he has "no doubt" that this is what caused him to commit mass murder.

Why are so many people on the left so convinced that the "climate of hate" theory is true?

There are three features of this sort of talk that I think are relevant to finding the correct explanation:

1. As the Sheriff's comments suggest, this idea is probably not rooted in concrete evidence. There actually is an academic literature that advances this idea -- it is the basis of "speech codes" and "hate speech laws" -- but as far as I know, none of it ever cites actual, scientific studies that correlate "bad" speech with actual violence.

2. The theory is never applied to liberal, socialist, feminist, or environmentalist rhetoric. When the Unabomber killed 3 people and wounded 23 others, no one said "Boy, these environmentalists had better tone down their rhetoric!" The theory is not really about overheated rhetoric at all. It is about overheated right-wing rhetoric.

3. Though the belief in the theory is no doubt sincere, it seems to me that the avowals of fear are not. Though people like Dupnik are talking about things that are supposed to be scary, they do not actually seem to be frightened. Look at Dupnik's face and listen to his tone of voice. What do you perceive? Me too. Their tone is generally one of scolding, preaching, hectoring, and complaining -- not one of sincere cries of fear. Cong. Giffords famously claimed that Palin's "gunsight" web page put her in danger -- yet on the day she was viciously attacked, she was at an event in front of a Safeway supermarket, completely open to the public and with no security at all. This is not the behavior of someone who feels she is in any danger.

I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, and calls for some sort of special explanation. What is the explanation for this curious behavior? I'll post my answer in the next day or so.

I hope the suspense of waiting is bearable!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Palin Web Site Causes Mass Murder!

Some folks on the left, quite a few of them in fact, are now bringing out one of the silliest versions of what I call "the climate of hate theory": namely the claim that this image is, or might well be, what caused a deeply disturbed psychotic to murder at least five people yesterday in Tucson. What is the climate of hate theory? To answer that, I'm reposting below my original post on that subject. I have nothing to add to it at this time:

Just before 11:00 am, on November 22nd of my senior year at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa CA, I was hurrying to my civics class. The hallway was packed and I was weaving between students and open locker doors when suddenly I heard the shattering news: the President had been shot, and probably killed. Once in class, we all sat in devastated silence. Suddenly Mr. Johnson, our teacher, shouted, as if to an unseen presence in the room, "I hope you are happy, Fred Schwarz!!"

Fred Schwarz?? Schwarz, whose death at the age of 96 earlier this year went completely unnoticed, was at the time a prominent speaker and giver of seminars on the evils of Communism. Liberal commentators and politicians had been grimly warning the activities of Schwarz and other anti-Communists was dangerous as they create a "climate of hate" in America that could cause violence. Mr. Johnson's instinctive reaction was to assume that it was this right wing climate of hate that killed the President.

Strangely enough, the "climate of hate" theory persisted, even after we found out that Kennedy was murdered by a Marxist defector to the USSR who was angry about Kennedy's belligerent policy toward Cuba. Within a year, Melvin Belli, Jack Ruby's attorney, described Dallas, the site of the assassination, as "a city of hate" and quoted Dist. Judge Sarah T. Hughes saying that “a climate of hate here in Dallas...contributed to President Kennedy’s assassination.” They were referring to the fact that Dallas was a center of right-wing activity of various sorts. They were not referring to the hatred in the nasty little mind of Lee Oswald himself.

When I first saw Nancy Pelosi saying that "we" should curb "our" rhetoric, I thought for a fraction of a second she meant to include rhetoric like her earlier suggestion that the town hall protesters include overt Nazis, or Jimmy Carter's claim that the "overwhelming" preponderance of their motivation is pure racism.

Of course, that's not what she meant at all. The vague comment about the late seventies probably is meant to convey the notion that former San Fransisco Supervisor Dan White (a Democrat) was moved to murder Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by the anti-gay rhetoric of activists like Republican State Senator John Briggs. She's invoking the climate of hate theory.

This theory, as I understand it, consists of two parts:

1) Angry rhetoric on the part of various mass movements has a powerful capacity to inspire violence, even on the part of people who are not members of the movement, more strangely yet, even on the part of ones disagree with it. It creates a generalized atmosphere in which unstable individuals just sort of explode, rather like popcorn kernels in a puddle of hot oil.

2) The rhetoric of liberal, socialist, and environmentalist movements does not have this capacity. Only that of non-leftist movements has it.

Part 2 obviously does not deserve serious comment. Part 1 is also rather odd. Why do big government liberals (as opposed to the classical, J. S. Mill type) find it so obvious? It sure isn't obvious to me. Pelosi's apparent explanation of White's evil deed is the first cousin of the explanation offered by his lawyer: that White was pushed over the edge by munching sugary snacks.

The answer is probably systemic: I think the reason big government types are so prone to this idea has to do with other aspects of their Weltanschauung. There is something about their system of ideas and feelings that requires or enables this one, an idea that seems so goofy to those of us who view their mindset from the outside.
Update: As to the real connection between Loughner's "political views" and his murderous act, see this. It's the most sensible thing I've seen on the subject.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Arizona Shooter One Sick Puppy

Like a lot of people, the first thing I want to know when I here of a murder that seems to be political is what the political views of the killer are. For some reason -- I'm not sure why -- I don't likie the idea that this person might have had views similar to mine.

So I went to the murderer's Youtube page. Wow. It was a pretty disturbing experience. Try it, if you think you can stomach it. Realize if you do that you are entering the brain of someone who just murdered five or six people.

It brought back creepy memories of real crazy people I met back in the sixties, when plenty of severly afflicted loons were out and about.

I find it hard to see any ideology in this creep's ravings. A lot of them are written up as if they were valid syllogisms. He seems to be fond of the mood Barbara.

There are a lot of gems like this one (click to enlarge):

He has some sort of screwy theory about time, which seems to involve the idea of a year that cannot end. He is also convinced that the government controls our thoughts by controlling the rules of grammar, and that he can control the thoughts of others. He insists that many Americans are illiterate. Much of what we see here is the most incoherent gibberish.

It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder why nobody noticed that this guy is really crazy -- and not in a good way.

Update: As everyone knows by now, Pima Community College was about to suspend him for bizarre disruptive behavior and incoherent outbursts in class when he withdrew as a student. So someone did notice his condition.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Edition of Huckleberry Finn Cuts the N-Word ...

Language warning: Offensive words will be mentioned, though not used, in this post.

... and, as this article explains, we don't mean "nonesuch." It replaces all 219 occurrences of "nigger" in the book with "slave". It also replaces "Injun" with "Indian".

The responsible party is Alan Gribben, a professor of English at the Montgomery campus of Auburn University.

One of the arguments in favor of the Bowdlerization that I have seen attributed to Prof. Gribben is, in my humble opinion, shockingly silly. In the above-linked article he is quoted as saying "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." He says he is simply "updating" the book. This seems to mean that, because language changes, Mark Twain should be forced to speak our way.

Prof. Gribben is a teacher of literature: his job is to educate young people in the way others use the English language, especially people in the alien, sometimes-creepy world of the past. The soul of this process is the student extending her or his mind to see things from the other person's point of view. This is especially important when the other person seems off-putting to us and, yes, that includes people who have bad thoughts and do wrong things. There are several sorts of reasons why this mind-expanding process is crucial, and some of them are ethical reasons, having to do with respect and the overcoming of arrogance.

A more serious argument is one that has the sympathy of the author of the above article. Gribben's main concern, obscured by his talk of "updating" Twain, is that schools, out horror at fictional characters who casually say "nigger," are taking it off reading lists:*
... if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge.

It's unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of "The Godfather," you down-and-dirty melon farmer?

There is an interesting issue here. How is replacing "nigger" with "slave" so that more schools will assign Huckleberry Finn different from replacing "motherfucker" with "melon farmer" so that "The Godfather" can be on a station that children might see?

The first thing to say about this is that our culture at present does not treat these two cases alike. Gribben is innovating. So it is at any rate not obvious that they are alike.

Second, there are a couple of obvious differences between the cases. One is that the controversial one is about education. If you can't see how that makes a difference, please re-read the third paragraph of this post. (And don't skip anything this time.)

The other obvious difference has to do with the point of the Bowdlerization in each case. In all of them we are, like the original Bowdlerizer, trying to protect someone from something. There are reasons to protect small children from a too-early exposure to a) sex and b) violence. Do these reasons apply in the Huck Finn case?

I don't think so. For one thing, students are not going to be reading Huck until high school, when they are plenty old enough to handle "nigger," along with material that is more shocking than that. If I were showing "The Godfather" to a high school class in film history or film criticism, I would think it is very important that "motherfucker" stay in the movie, along with ever shot in all the gruesome murders. (Again, see third paragraph.) If a student convinced me that s/he is really too sensitive for this sort of material, I would let them do an alternative assignment. As to the film itself, either show it or don't show it. Teaching a mutilated version of "The Godfather", just because of the rough language and shocking violence, is not a legitimate third alternative.

In addition, it makes a big difference what you are protecting people from. In the "Godfather" case we are protecting children from a too early exposure to certain things, mainly violence. "Motherfucker" is violent language, intended to hurt and shock. The thing about the use of "nigger" in Huck Finn is that it doesn't seem to be used in that way at all. It just feels like it to us. What we are protecting people from is the effort of moving from "to us" to "for them." In other words, we are protecting them from having to learn something. Teachers should not be protecting young people from things like that.
* Notice that these two arguments, both of which are attributed to Prof. Gribben in the press, lead to completely different conclusions. If the Updating Argument is right, then the old "Huckleberry Finn" is unsuitable to the Brave New World of the 21st Century. It has simply become a wrong book. Down the memory hole! On the other hand, if the Reading List Argument is right, then it only follows that we can Bowdlerize the text to protect the delicate sensibilities of American teenagers. [Insert snarky comment about American teenagers here.] As far as that is concerned, maybe the old version can stick around, to be read by adults who can take it. So, maybe -- not down the memory hole.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Rock and Roll vs. Collectivism

This is an interesting Soviet propaganda film. Back in the day (the date is not given) young Russians would hang out behind the giant Gum (pron. "Goom") department store, selling pirated records of American rock 'n' roll music. They had figured out how to duplicate them by making impressions into discarded X-ray plates.

This little film is an attempt to shame these youngsters out of participating in this fascinating -- and of course forbidden -- little sub-culture.

What I find interesting is the nature of the argument they give: Aren't you ashamed of yourselves -- doing this instead to being out there building a hydroelectric dam "for the people"!

This is why that system was doomed. No system can survive if the source of motivation upon which it relies is the willingness of the people to devote their lives to an anonymous herd of strangers.

As long as people retain a shred of self-respect, they will devote their lives primarily to their own happiness and to that of individuals they actually know and have some reason to love.