Thursday, February 19, 2004


February 19, 2004

This week's column is less polished than usual because I have a class to attend in half an hour, but it's also going to catch a lot of you off guard because it's not a venomous rant directed at stupid people (though it well could have been). This week I'm jotting a quick piece of Filler from inside the lovely Perry-Castaneda Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. I'm putting my Mardi Gras break to some use other than mental alteration this year specifically to look at UT- Austin's legal department and the philosophy grad school (both ranked amongst the top ten in the nation), but a large part of my visit has been to experience that all-important "vibe."

Austin has exploded over the course of the last decade or so thanks to its rising reputation as an intellectual town; in the '90s, it was actually being called "The New Silicon Valley." The students seem by-and-large interested and competent, but the representative of the philosophy department I spoke with today also said that many of the waiters, gas station attendants and trash collectors around here have doctorates because they were students who did not want to leave the stimulating environment. UT-A is actually the biggest university in the nation at the moment, with 50,000 students, and growing.

So what have I learned about Austin? It's a big city university, which means two important things:

First, it's well funded. This library has more floors than I had time to count on the way in (rumor has it that they own everything printed in the last 50 years), and some of the professors I've spoken with are quite renowned in the legal realm.

Second, in spite of the size of both the university and the town, people seem friendly. Though there's certainly a tendency against the homey customs of my podunk home town like meeting other people's eyes or simply saying hello in passing, everyone has been instantly responsive, conversational, and quite helpful as soon as I asked them a question, even if they didn't speak English that well.

In short, I'm impressed but not in love. If there's one piece of advice I'm happy I got before striking out on this venture, it's this: visit the ones that matter, but don't fall for the first one you see. I have several more stops on my quest before I make a decision, but my visit here has confirmed every good thing I've heard and given me a feel for what I'd be doing. Visit your grad school! It makes a difference!

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The Circus

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum… That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate”

-Noam Chomsky

February 12, 2004

I'm writing this week's column for my mother, satellite TV subscriber and avowed Cable News Addict. The various talking heads of the upper 300s have become like family at our house; Chris Matthews has sparked many a bonding moment between my Southern Baptist, Republican, pre-school teaching mother and I, but we can't watch that braying ass Pat O'Reilly together anymore (sorry, Mom, but he's an idiot!).

These days I get my news online, where the bias is a bit less strangling, but I still leave the reruns of the evening talk shows on while I work at my night job. It's with that bizarre mixture of fascination and disgust that makes people watch things like "Fear Factor" that I sample the spin-happy opinion-mongering of Hannity & Colmes Fox “Fair and Balanced If You’re Right Wing” News, and it is with respect for a true asshole that I watch as Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” puts the screws to absolutely everybody brave enough to talk to him, but this week I want to talk about the little things.

I’ll take an example that particularly got under my skin a couple of weeks back from Neil Cavuto. Howard Dean said on January 7 that his faith led him to support civil unions between gay people, and Neil Cavuto, before going to commercial that night, announced that interview over soundless footage of Dean with the subtitle “Howard Dean Says God Told Him Gay Marriage OK,” which really just speaks for itself. When they returned, they didn’t run the interview but instead immediately launched into commentary on Dean’s support of gay marriage, which would politically hurt him because most of the country is against gay marriage blah blah blah. This isn’t just sensationalism; this is blatant misreporting.

The icing on the cake is that Dean said in that very interview that he supports civil unions and specifically not gay marriage; go look it up… online. When I look at the hundred little implicit lies of mass media journalism, I like to think that most people noticed when the people who load trucks with explosives and drive them into buildings went from being “suicide bombers” to being “homicide bombers,” but at the same time I wonder if most people are just happy to get what they pay for: the circus.

By the way, to demonstrate just how subtle bias can be, I support Howard Dean, and I left out something he said in that interview that could actually damage his campaign a bit. Find out for yourself.

The fall of creationism got a couple of you talking, but I’m nowhere near the account size limit at

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Crucifying Creationism

February 5, 2004

Recently Georgia has decided to remove the term "evolution" from its biology coursework and replace it with the more politically correct term "biological change over time." They say they do this in response to the buzzword status evolution has achieved as a controversy provoker. So of course I have to write about it.

Now, this first part doesn't bug me too much; I can understand the need to get re-elected by placating the Bible Belt. A change in terminology isn't such a big deal, and the theory is what's important. When these kids get out of Georgia's public school system, they'll learn that all that "biological change" stuff they were taught was simplified evolution (if they didn't equate the two already thanks to all the news coverage). The thing that really makes me wish it wasn't illegal to nail dead pets to school board members' doors as warnings, however, is the fact that they want intelligent design taught alongside this watered-down evolution as equally valid.

Listen closely: If you are a creationist, you are wrong. We know the mechanism (genetics), we know the method (meiosis, in us), and we're learning the specifics. We see evolution in action every damn flu season. But evolution is not a substitute for god; it just provides a mechanism for one of the events we invented him to explain. Evolution has no intent, there is no end point, there is no "improvement", only change, and so it does not provide a compass for the human race. I think evolution's value neutrality, its failure to provide any ethical or moral code beyond survival, is what causes a lot of people to reject a powerful, fundamental theory of biology. They reject facts because they confuse the function of evolution (providing an explanation for spontaneous generation of increasingly complex order from chaos) with that of god (providing an independent, unassailable authority for moral guidance).

This is yet another case of lazy American parents trying to legislate their duties as parents; if you want your child to understand that you disagree with evolution, tell him, and stop shoving your ignorance down the public throat.

Apparently not many of you have anything to say; nobody's been talking to me at