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Been There, Done That

The only difference between these three advertisements is the inspiring piano arrangement playing in the background of the Edwards and Gephardt messages.



Preventing World War III

"If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you oughta be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary for making a nuclear weapon." President Bush, October 2007.

Wow, who doesn't get chills from thinking about such a scenario? Well, a month and a half after Bush warned the world of the Iranian threat, a report that the rogue state suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 has surfaced. This can only be interpreted as good news for the rest of the world. Now this lame-duck administration will have no valid argument in pursuing a second war, saving Americans from another hawkish disregard for responsible foreign policy.

There is no question that Iran's regime is troubling. According to the website, on a scale of 1-7 (7 being the lowest), Iran ranks as a 6 on both political rights and civil liberties. However, it is obvious that Iran wants to protect itself from outside invaders (i.e. America), and has done so by stopping its pursuit of nuclear weapons. With America's weak dollar and increasing deficit, a second war in 5 years is the last thing we need-especially since there is no end in sight with Iraq. The best prescription is to tolerate the Iranian government's oppression of its own people as long as they remain marginalized on the world stage.

Politically, this is encouraging. With regards to Iran, we American citizens will not have to bear witness to another "with us or against us" strategy in the realm of foreign policy. That particular strategy has served to alienate the United States with the rest of the developed world. America can also save itself from another charge of oil-hoarding. With this encouraging report, Bush has no legitimate reason for engaging the American military in another baseless conflict. However, if Iran proves that it is in fact a world threat, then the next president can take the necessary course of action. Until then, the best thing George W. Bush can do for his presidential legacy is to do nothing at all.


The Fermi Conspiracy

I just read an excellent three part summary of the Fermi Paradox (2,3) and wanted to share some thoughts. Let me summarize the paradox. Every discovery we make points to an inescapable conclusion: Earth is not special. Therefore the galaxy is probably teeming with life. If this is true, where is everybody? Shouldn't they be listening or broadcasting or filling up every habitable planet in the galaxy? Let me offer some suggestions to be picked apart and ultimately discarded.

First, let's try to extend the "we're not special" paradigm. We assume that E.T. will really try to search out every scrap of life in its neighborhood. For a planet that has never made contact, we feel this is a big priority. But if the galaxy really is teeming with life, any capable civilization would probably get bored with this project. They would spend fewer and fewer resources on it as they got fewer returns. Consider entomologists studying exotic bugs in the Amazon. The bugs might wonder why, if there are more intelligent beings than themselves, these beings have never found them. The answer is, we are a little interested and we do find some, but the resources required to catalog every kind of bug in the Amazon satisfy a law of diminishing return. An exhaustive search takes exponentially more resources and gives only very little extra information. So there's some probability that we're a bug near humans that are still very interested in learning about more bugs, but it's a small one. So it's not that E.T. isn't looking, they're just not looking very hard for something (us) that is nothing special.

A second possibility is that without warp speed and subspace communication, there is some natural maximum characteristic size that a civilization grows to in space. Sci-fi always invents things to make this size bigger for interest sake, but it might be interesting to study the things limiting this characteristic size. For instance, most planets will not be exactly like the ones a civ evolved on, so most resources will go towards long-scale terraforming, rather than continuous rapid expansion. Maybe terraforming is something that can't really be hurried, so it provides a bottleneck. Or maybe slow communication means that no society can maintain enough cohesion to stick to a single long-term goal like continuous expansion. I think there are many unexplored possibilities for bottlenecks.

A third possibility which has no basis in any science I know of, is that gravity waves are where it's at. All advanced civilizations realize that for some reason, gravity waves (or insert other random cutting edge tech) are the way to send messages to other civilizations efficiently. And they assume any advanced civilization has figured this out. And maybe we're close. Maybe we realize in the next hundred years that technology X is where the action is at and no one would waste time with radio waves or whatever we waste time with now. Considering the speed at which we obsolete old technology this seems plausible. I'd love it if the first thing LIGO hears/sees/feels the spacetime distortion of is not two black holes colliding but an intergalactic "Wassup!"

Well, it's always fun to think about these things, but of course we all know the truth: They are already here. Fermi is one of Them and he introduced this so-called paradox to distract us from the truth, that they already walk among us.


A Film Analysis of "Good Night, and Good Luck"

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) is George Clooney’s warning to today’s post-9/11-YouTube culture that civil liberties and rights can slip away with mass hysteria. Clooney’s Marxist approach criticizes government and corporate influence over the news broadcasting industry, which is a problem that undermines one of America’s most basic liberties—freedom of speech. The heart of Clooney’s approach is the idea that sometimes journalists need to go beyond simple verbatim reporting and offer some interpretation of news, even when it means questioning the integrity of government/corporate entities. Clooney emphasizes the tensions caused by the post-war paranoia through the acting and characterizations, the editing, the sound, and the lighting.

In order to grasp why these stylistic elements are appropriate, the reason the film takes on a Marxist approach must be considered. Ed Murrow’s crusade against McCarthy was very controversial, considering that the major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) essentially thought of their news shows as filler programming. Each show that examined real issues of the day was only thirty minutes, leaving the vast majority of the day’s programming devoted to shallow entertainment. The news shows were merely a vehicle to legitimize the networks, since the shows themselves did not make any money. The selling of advertising time on television is capitalism at its finest, and this is where Karl Marx would take issue. News reporting, as the “fourth check on government,” has a distinct responsibility to not only report, but to expose injustices in government actions. The news media is the microscope that educates citizens by displaying and dissecting the actions of their nation and world. The Marxist approach finds the network corporate umbrellas favoring the advertising dollar over uncensored news material outrageous, as this is an example of how the bourgeoisie dominates the masses. This favoring of money and shareholder interests over risqué content also lessens the impact of broadcast news, as Murrow amazingly foretold in his 1958 speech about the dangers of complacency in the television audience.

The Marxist approach can also be applied to the hierarchical scheme of the CBS corporation. Take the portrayal of William Paley, the head of CBS. He effectively becomes the villain of the film that prevents the heroes—Murrow and Friendly—from telling the news from the interpretive perspective. He prevents them from doing so not necessarily because he disagrees with them, but because he gives in to the pressure of the advertisers and the ratings. This is the upper class of the corporate hierarchy telling his workers to stand down and not risk his source of income, as opposed to giving them complete autonomy in their news story decisions. Marx would say that the “bourgeoisie” of CBS is holding back the “proletariat” news reporters, explaining it as another example of the dialectical view of class struggle.

Since the era of McCarthyism encompassed fear and paranoia, the acting and characterizations in Good Night, and Good Luck had to drive this point home. In almost every scene where the content of See It Now is portrayed, the expressions on the actors’ faces are of grim desperation. The dramatic acting in the film is lush with prolonged eye contact and intense line delivery, combining the two to illuminate the fear of being fired felt among the people. This is specifically evident in the paranoid-filled dialogue in the scenes between Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson. When these characters interact, their facial expressions are highlighted by close-up shots that vividly depict their paranoia.

The film strives to illustrate the incredible fear the CBS employees had about being accused as Communist sympathizers, and the dramatic acting methods employed perfectly cue the viewer in on this. Take David Strathairn: Every time he ends his courageous oratories about the Senator’s actions to close out his broadcast, he looks down and gasps as though he had just been punched in the gut, giving the idea that he knows an IRS audit is forthcoming. He is also perpetually smoking a cigarette, even while on the air. This is one of the characterizations of Murrow that gives the viewer the impression that while he is brave and full of conviction in his reporting, he is also a nervous wreck over the implications of his editorials. The very fact that an on air personality would criticize a congressman was unprecedented, let alone done at a time when people were cautious in what they said. With that kind of pressure on Murrow, it is easy to understand why he was such a nicotine addict. It is obvious that David Strathairn studied Edward Murrow tirelessly, as he seamlessly slips into the role, leaving viewers to believe that this is the real Murrow. He is a true impersonator. The tone of voice that Strathairn uses is exactly like the real Murrow. He also delivers his lines with an unparalleled articulation of the enlightened being, legitimizing the perception that this one man really spoke for an entire generation of American citizens.

George Clooney is another example of how the acting adds to the message, and yet again he exhibits himself as a personality actor. In every movie he seemingly plays the suave, cool, almost James Bond type of guy that drives all the women wild. However, he perfectly fits his well-established screen qualities into a believable journalist/producer character that is cool and calm under the corporate pressure during the McCarthy era. The scene where he is chastising the two colonels indicates this clearly. This particular scene is Clooney’s way of telling his audience that reporters are the best people to expose loss of civil liberties due to bogus charges. Clooney’s Leftist viewpoint is well-established, and casting himself in the movie subconsciously promulgates his real life viewpoint.

Another example is the Don Hollenbeck character. The man gives a façade of confident reporting, while in reality is sick with worry over his critics. He is always hiding behind a wry smile, and his eyes tell the story of his paranoia better than his actual dialogue. He almost has to use every ounce of his strength to speak when his dialogue does come into play. This is evident in the scene where Murrow refuses to go after O’Brian upon his request. The scene where he forces the critic to be read aloud also establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt the characterization of the paranoid anchorman.

The sound adds to the theme of fear and paranoia. The most obvious is the use of the jazz singer as a transition and mood setter. At the very beginning, the sound of the 1958 banquet is silenced and the jazzy song plays over the event. The singer is used as an audio cue for the viewer to feel the current mood of the scene--one of tension and suspense as the viewer knows the CBS employees would be experiencing difficulties. After Murrow’s criticism over the Ridulovich case airs, the sound cuts out and the jazz singer is featured again singing, “I’ve got my eye on you, so beware.” This is an obvious reference to the fact that if the government and advertisers were not watching before, they certainly would be now. The songs not only give the viewer a feel of the 1950’s, but provide cues as to where the story is transitioning.

There is a rather ironic transition in the editing. When the commercial for Kent is played, the announcer talks about how the Kent customer is a sophisticated American with great taste. The customer is also not “easily persuaded by advertising,” and makes their own intelligent decisions. This is ironic in that when the commercial first plays the viewer of the film is led to believe that the announcer is citing a statistic lauding the free-choosing American citizen, but then finds out it is an ad for the insidious drug. This is an example of how capitalism can mislead the proletariat masses.

One of Ed Murrow’s pet peeves was that networks always favored entertainment over news, since the advertising money in the entertainment shows was more substantial. The movie spotlights Murrow’s interviews with Liberace and a European royal couple. These interviews are placed during the complication part of the film’s linear structure. Each interview is ended on a light-hearted note, with Murrow almost cringing as he closes out the segment. After he gets a response to his softball question, he sits in his chair with an extremely forced smile. The entertainment driven segments pleased the advertisers, again compromising what news stories made the air. The addition of these segments in the film illustrates that the entire program was not completely devoted to pure news. The Alcoa commercial is used the same way. The footage is not only used as a transitional element in the editing process, but also to illustrate that the advertisers were a constant presence. These commercials are played before Murrow’s program begins, and Clooney illustrates that the commercials and their money were always a constant presence, and thus a constant consideration when going forth with a news story.

Another example of the Marxist message in the editing lies in the Annie Lee Moss hearing. Unfortunately, America’s history of race discrimination is abhorrent. With the Communist hearings fledgling under McCarthy’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach, a blue-collar black woman was an easy target to gain support for the witch hunt. In the scene, McCarthy tells Moss’s lawyer, a black man, to speak only through his client. This violation of the defendant’s 5th Amendment right would be less likely to occur if she were a white woman with a white lawyer. Once McCarthy’s charges are discredited, another Senator speaks about the ridiculous nature of the investigation. By editing this real footage into the film towards the climax, the message is clear and one that gives the film a textbook-like quality—that this threat of lost liberties has happened before and is on the verge of happening again.

The lighting combined with the black and white color scheme in the film gives it a neo-noir appeal, and this is appropriate considering the time period and political climate. The lighting is used to provide a visual element to the overall paranoid feeling. An example of this is the first appearance of Joe McCarthy, where the CBS news team is watching his speech. As he speaks, a close-up of Murrow is shown. His face is dark because of the room lighting, and this offers a clue about the dangerous waters he is about to tread. Another use of dark lighting to reflect character is used during the aforementioned scene with Friendly and the two colonels. Friendly is washed in the white light from the window while the faces of the two colonels are dark. This contrast in color gives a clue as to who falls into the roles of protagonist and antagonist.

Tying in with the editing (the scene with Murrow interviewing Liberace), the lighting serves to display the previously stated disdain Murrow had for the soft stories. After the show goes off the air, Murrow sits in his chair smoking a cigarette in complete darkness, yet he is still bright in white light. This lighting symbolizes the fact that even though the man is in a dark corporate hierarchy influenced by money, he is still a man people can trust to tell the news like it is.

Considering the political climate of today, Good Night, and Good Luck is Clooney’s thesis that external influence over news is not only dangerous, but leads to wide-spread hysteria and eventual chaos. Clooney uses the McCarthy/Murrow feud as a way of encouraging Americans to not be afraid in questioning the motivation behind government and corporate actions. After all, when the integrity of news is threatened because of the excesses of capitalism, how free can America be?


A Reply to Scalia's Dissent in Lawrence v. Texas

Dissenting in the landmark 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding. The impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional ‘morals’ offenses is precisely why Bowers rejected the rational-basis challenge. ‘The law,’ it said, ‘is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause, the courts will be very busy indeed.’”

I agree wholeheartedly with Justice Scalia’s above legal reasoning; however, I contend that legalizing most of the activities on his list of horrors would be a good idea. Thus, the courts should be very busy indeed, striking down these absurd laws wherever they can yet be found in our nation, this alleged land of the free and home of the brave. I will make the case for legalizing each of the activities on Scalia’s list of taboos individually.

First, there is bigamy. I do not know what Scalia intended this word to mean, so I will make an important distinction before preceding any further. Many people use the words "bigamy" and "polygamy" interchangeably, but doing so causes unnecessary confusion. The word "bigamy" almost always refers to a man illegally having two or more wives at the same time; however, "polygamy" often refers to a man having multiple wives in a situation where doing so is not illegal. Furthermore, "bigamy" often refers to a scenario in which a man's multiple wives are unaware of each other's existence. Due to the contractual nature of marriage, this type bigamy necessarily involves fraud. Thus, there is a solid legal basis for banning bigamy independent of any attempts to enforce Scalia’s conception of traditional morality. Polygamy is another matter entirely.

There are actually three basic types of polygamy. The type most widely known in the United States involves one man marrying multiple women. This practice is called polygyny. A less common type, though one that has been practiced in some cultures, involves one woman marrying multiple men. This practice is called polyandry. The third alternative is less common still and involves multiple men marrying multiple women. This practice is called polyamory. Importantly, in all of these situations all of the people involved are fully aware of what is going on. Thus, fraud is not a concern.

Rational arguments against legalizing polygamy are likely to focus on three basic issues: spousal abuse, child abuse, and an overburdening of the legal system. If spousal abuse is the primary concern, then we should focus on providing legal and social services systems that guard against it--regardless of what sort of marriage is involved. There simply is not any data suggesting that group marriages are inherently more likely than monogamous marriages to result in spousal abuse; however, even if such data did exist it would not justify banning all group marriages. By that logic those who are at highest risk of being trapped in an abusive situation (such as people with particular socio-economic backgrounds) could be prevented from engaging in monogamous marriage, too. The government is simply not equipped to make these sort of decisions for people, attempting to stop them from getting into situations where they might possible be abused. Again, it is on the abuse itself that the law must focus. These same arguments apply to concerns about child abuse. Finally, partnership law already provides the legal framework necessary to deal with group marriage. Also, there is no reason that people engaged in group marriage should not be expected to pay for any extra legal services they may require.

Second, there is same-sex marriage. Many developed nations and some US states now allow same-sex marriage (or some equivalent) without any demonstrable negative effect on their societies, so there is no reasonable basis for suggesting that it would harm American society as a whole. In any case, the most popular objection to same-sex marriage does not seem to be that it would actually harm anyone, but that marriage is supposed to be a religious term; however, if that is true, then the government should not be involved in marrying people at all. Government involvement in such a religious ceremony could violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. An easy way to solve this problem would be to have the government provide civil unions to any two or more people who desire the current legal benefits of marriage. Marriages could then be exclusively religious affairs, allowing religious conservatives to maintain that by definition marriage must be between only one man and one woman. Requiring a church to marry people the church did not want to marry would violate the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

Third, there is adult incest. As an extremely open-minded and tolerant person, it is easy for me to support polygamy and same-sex marriage. Neither of those practices bothers me. I cannot say the same for adult incest: it disgusts me. Having sex with my father, mother, or one of my siblings is one of the most revolting things I can imagine. The problem is that being grossed out by something is not enough to make it illegal. For example, the idea of morbidly obese people having sex is also terribly revolting, but that does not mean I support prohibiting such people from having sex.

The real problem with adult incest is the risk of producing children with severe birth defects. Thus, a law against close relatives having children with each other could be justified on the grounds of preventing the suffering that such children would experience in their lives. Remember, however, my argument about spousal and child abuse in polygamous relationships: if the problem is the high probability of severe birth defects, then the law should be aimed at fixing that problem. Any such law would only be fair if it applied to all people who know (or should know) that having children together would be as risky as it would be for close relatives. Therefore, some people who are not closely related would also be prohibited from having children--at least without using embryo selection and IVF, which of course could also potentially get close relatives off the hook.

Fourth, there is prostitution. Like same-sex marriage, prostitution is legal in several Western nations, again without causing those nations any appreciable harm. In fact, legalizing prostitution has been shown to lower the levels of violence and disease associated with that industry. Ultimately, continuing to prosecute prostitutes in our modern society just seems odd: it’s bizarre to prohibit people from selling something that they are allowed to give away for free.

Fifth, there is masturbation. Including masturbation on his list demonstrates just how ridiculous Scalia’s fears truly are. A solid majority of Americans masturbate, especially men, in whom refraining from masturbation is exceedingly rare. Suggesting that most Americans should be punished for pleasuring themselves is incredibly silly. All a law against masturbation could accomplish would be to decrease general respect for the legal system. The simple fact of the matter is that a majority of Americans currently do not and in all probability never will in the future support laws against masturbation.

Sixth, there is adultery. Like bigamy, adultery is a contractual issue. If people contract to maintain absolute sexual exclusivity with each other, then failing to do so is a breach of contract. Thus, it is certainly reasonable to allow for civil penalties for adultery, but criminal penalties are a different matter. Although most Americans believe adultery is wrong, enough American commit adultery that it would be politically impossible to seriously pursue criminal prosecutions as punishment for it. This fact serves to expose the hypocrisy behind much of the “pro-family” rhetoric that many religious conservatives currently espouse. Despite how obvious it is that adultery and divorce pose a much greater threat to the traditional family than any aspect of the gay rights movement, no proposals to actually enforce criminal laws against adultery have gained any traction--it’s simply much easier to pick on gays than heterosexual philanderers.

Seventh, there is fornication. Fornication is nearly as widespread as masturbation. The vast majority of Americans have sex before they are married. Again, laws against this sort of widely popular activity do nothing more than damage the legal system’s overall prestige.

Eighth, there is bestiality. Like adult incest, bestiality is deeply revolting to me, but unlike the unpleasant case of adult incest, there is a consent problem here: how can one tell if an animal is consenting to a sex act? This is a difficult question and would probably be best addressed through empirical research using brain activity scanning technology. It would be odd, however, for us to concern ourselves too much with discovering whether animals are consenting to acts of bestiality when we concern ourselves so little with the fate of animals in the food production industry. Obviously, far more animals suffer as a result of poor treatment on farms and in slaughter houses than suffer as a result of acts of bestiality. The most rational means of combating animal abuse in all its forms would be to treat all acts that cause animals to suffer equally. Thus, when the state charges a person with animal abuse, it should have to prove that the animal or animals in question are being made to suffer. If the state is unable to prove that a self-described zoophile's relationship with an animal is causing it to suffer, then that person should not be able to be convicted of criminal animal abuse.

Ninth and last, there is obscenity. The definition of "obscenity" has steadily eroded over the years and by now the word barely means anything at all. The First Amendment protects material with any redeeming social value--material conveying political, social, scientific, or educational messages--regardless of whom it offends. In order for material to fall outside of the First Amendment's vast protective coverage, it must have basically no social value at all. Furthermore, it must appeal to people's "prurient" interests: it must sexually arouse them. Obviously, sexual arousal is not normally a legal issue, so the alleged problem with obscene material must be that it is not the sort of thing that "ought" to arouse people. Deciding how to make that judgment is exceedingly problematic: so much so that the best legal minds of the last century have been unable to come up with a workable solution. Thus, I propose it is time to give up.

It is important to distinguish between "obscene" material viewed in a private setting from that which is displayed in public such that people are subjected to it against their will. Actually prosecuting people merely for possessing in their private homes materials that other people find offensive and think ought not cause sexual arousal involves such a breach of individual privacy and autonomy that doing so is untenable in today's society. People simply would not put of with such intrusions into their lives by the voyeuristic likes of Justice Scalia. The booming pornography industry presents excellent evidence for this assertion. Displaying such materials in a truly public setting, however, is a different matter.

There is a case to be made for laws prohibiting the display of grossly and gratuitously offensive material in public, but it is a case that must be made very carefully. We must be careful because there is always a danger that the government will label something "obscene" merely because some tyrannical government official does not like it. If we are to prohibit any material from being publicly displayed it must be material that no reasonable person could interpret as politically, socially, scientifically, or educationally valuable. It must also be deeply offensive to a majority of the people being exposed to it. In such a rare case I am willing to concede that it is appropriate to remove material from a public place where people who are minding their own business are subjected to it against their will. Ultimately, the reason I am willing to make such a concession is purely a matter of politeness. Publicly displaying, for example, a large image of people engaging in bestiality is simply incredibly rude. It is very much like walking up to someone in a restaurant and spitting on her food and ought to be prohibited for the same reason. It has nothing to do with what ought or ought not sexually arouse anyone.

After having poked fun at Scalia’s list of horrors, I will now give him credit where credit is due. At least he did not include rape or child molestation on his list. The fact that he left them off shows that he truly does understand why those two things are importantly different from the things he did list. Rape and child molestation are wrong and illegal because they both violate consent. In adult rape one adult forces another adult to engage in sexual activity against his or her will. Child molestation is a form of rape because we do not consider children capable of giving meaningful consent to sexual interactions. They are simply not mature enough to engage safely in sexual activity with adults, so we protect them accordingly.

In conclusion, if Justice Scalia is as concerned as he claims in the quotation at the beginning of this essay with our court system being overburdened, then he should support my proposed legal reforms. A law enforcement system wastes valuable resources when it seeks to identify and punish consenting adults for living normal lives as homosexuals (laws against sodomy and same-sex marriage), for not being monogamous or even just not getting married before having sex (laws against fornication), for being polygamous (laws against "bigamy"), for being sexually involved with a close relative (laws against adult incest), for getting paid in exchange for a valuable service that can legally be given away (laws against prostitution), for being a normal human being and deriving thoroughly healthy pleasure from one's own body (laws against masturbation), or even choosing to use an animal as a sex toy instead of butchering and eating it as normal people do (laws against bestiality). Justice Scailia points out the obvious when he writes that the law is based on morality. Thus, the law enforcement system ought to be used to protect members of society from the sort of violent acts that people don't want done to them, such as murder, rape, assault, and theft. Focusing instead on attempting to enforce Justice Scalia's personal ethical code is utterly irrational, inexcusable, and, yes, immoral.


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