Stupid McCain Wife Beating Controversy

June 28, 2008

John McCain is currently in a bit of hot water for… potentially maybe getting in hot water for a quip he recently made about how he “stopped beating my wife just a couple of weeks ago.”

Simply put, the controversy is nonsense. It’s the unnamed people who “found the subject of McCain’s joke — wife-beating — inappropriate” who deserve a smackdown here.

McCain was simply responding to a loaded question from a reporter with the classic logic-school response. As the example goes, a reporter asks someone if they’ve stopped beating their wife. The point of the fallacy is that whether the person answer yes or no to the question, they are still implicitly admitting to wife beating. It’s a trick question, and McCain was simply calling the reporter out on it.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could justify getting upset about this. Yes, wife beating is terrible. But that’s exactly the point of the phrase: it’s extremely dishonest to use a question to backhandedly accuse someone of doing something horrible. Sometimes we use certain terrible things as examples of… terrible things. Get it?

The embarrasment here is not that McCain used the phrase. The embarrasment would be if any educated American citizen was so foreign to basic concepts of logic and argument that they had never encountered this classic example of a logical fallacy before.

And stop me before I start sounding too much like Bob Somerby, but this is just another example of how our dysfunctional “Press Corps” covers politics. In this case, journalists are basically exploiting the possibility of a remark being wrongly interpreted (or the fact that some are wrongly interpreting it) to justify spreading and insinuating what they know to be the wrong interpretation.

It gets even more ridiculous when Jake Tapper, the journalist linked above, tries to tie the remark into a supposedly “unfortunate” political context. It’s not even close: the Governor of the state McCain was in at the time was divorcing his wife after apparently cheating on her. But that’s not even close to the same thing as beating her. If anything, making that thin connection is what trivializes physical abuse. Likewise, the allegation of a cocktail waitress that the Governor grabbed and propositioned her in a parking lot isn’t wife beating either: closer, but still not enough to make a connection appropriate or justified (McCain didn’t do any of those things, and his remark wouldn’t make him even the least bit more responsible for them or relevant to them even if it was a tasteless joke).

Next time anyone laments the way our political discourse is dominated by incoherent wars over the meaning of soundbytes and gaffes, you know who to blame.


Obama Seal Gone: Nation’s Sanity Still in Question

June 24, 2008

The Obama campaign has rather wisely dropped the use of their latest logo, after much mockery.

Me, I’m left saddened and embarrassed for the media commentators who couldn’t resist piling on this story, and the many many people who took this non-issue seriously.

Political commentator Larry Sabato gets it right on the first try:

“The press corps adopts a subtext for each candidate,” Sabato told The Examiner. “Daddy Bush was ‘a nice guy but out of touch.’ Bill Clinton was ‘smart but randy.’ Bob Dole was ‘heroic but too old.’ Gore was ‘brilliant but a fibber and a bore.’ Dubya was ‘pleasant but dumb.’”

He added: “Obama’s subtext is rapidly becoming ‘charismatic but arrogant.’”

None of these characterizations of any of these politicians was built on honest, accurate, or comprehensive appraisal of any of these men. Few of the claimed traits (except maybe for Clinton being “randy” and Dole being “old”) actually seem more characteristic of the men in question than they are for the others. Instead, they’re built out of an accretion of heavily interpreted, and often factually challenged, fluff pieces. Of which this seal case was the perfect, almost paradigmatic, example.

This is one more reason I’m far more cynical about voters (more in the aggregate than any individual) than I am about politicians, or even the media. It’s ultimately voter behavior that drives how politicians act, react, and how they present themselves. It’s voter demand that favors schoolyard psychoanalyzing for their election coverage instead of actual policy debates.

Voters get legitimately frustrated and cynical about our political system. But the political system has just as much cause to be frustrated with voters right back.


Shock: Tim Russert Passes Away at 58

June 13, 2008

It’s a sad day for broadcast journalism to lose someone so young, so suddenly. I never met Russert myself, but I do know many people who are going to feel the loss very severely. Friends, colleagues, and family deserve every condolence.

I last saw Russert in person during one of the final debates between Clinton and Obama, where he was a moderator. For all the criticisms people over the years have had about Russert’s style, his preoccupations, his biases, what his style, preoccupations, and biases gained him was an sense of incisive immediacy and even a bit of danger (perhaps something that was easier to feel and appreciate live).

Long before the new generation of loudmouth and dogmatic pundits ironically trademarked “no spin zones,” Russert was pursuing an interview style truly designed to throw powerful people off their guards. Folks have and will debate whether he played favorites, whether he pursued distractions, even whether he was, on some issues, too timid.

But he always struck me as a newsman who at heart just wanted interviews and stories to truly be informative: to not simply have well-prepped politicians repeat back the same information and platitudes that everyone already knew were coming. After working to get where he was, at the pinnacle of political debate, he wanted his job to be interesting at least, worth all that effort and opportunity.

Getting that meant having a style that was a little rougher, and a little less perfectly balanced, than critics might have wanted. But it was quite often worth the effort, and whatever criticisms people have of today’s modern media of which he was a part, I think they’ll quite quickly look back and miss him all the more.


Aliens Travel Many Lightyears to Earth Just To Annoy Local Couple

April 29, 2008

The phenomenon was thought truly bizarre: Pikesville, Maryland has been experiencing “deafening” booms and flashes of light every so often. They even caught it on videotape. And no, it didn’t seem to be lightning, at least not in any conventional sense. Police were baffled. Meteorologists ere baffled. So baffled that residents were even willing to appeal to aliens (though only tongue in cheek) and the supernatural.

But it turns out that the actual solution was a little more conventional and closer to home:

When they searched Mackler’s home, they found pyrotechnics, guns and drugs.

Police said that Mackler had problems with some of his neighbors, so he would wake up at 2 a.m. to set off the pyrotechnics.

As this case illustrates, “pyrotechnics, guns and drugs” is a actually pretty good default hypothesis for any weird, inexplicable event.


HJ Live Interviews Expelled’s Mark Mathis

April 15, 2008

Greg Wright and HollywoodJesus have been covering the film Expelled! over at SteinWatch for quite some time now. Wright has been fairly skeptical of both sides of this debate, and while I’ve spent some time disagreeing with his positions on the film, he’s nailed down enough excess, overstatement, and error from people in both camps to qualify as a must-read perspective.

For instance, Wright today has an interview with Expelled’s associate producer, Mark Mathis that manages to get significantly more detail on the film’s production than we’ve seen previously, including mention of other film titles that were under consideration along with “Expelled” earlier in the project’s production. Mathis also repeats his usual implication about the film not receiving substantive criticism:

Throughout the last weeks, maybe even months, what we have seen are allegations, charges that are made, that are not substantive, that don’t cut to the heart of the film’s arguments, that are really nothing more than insignificant distractions.

I agree that in the grand scope of things, debates over the behavior of the production are pretty insignificant (though I’m not sure that those aren’t issues still worth looking at on their own terms). But when it comes to whether critics have addressed substantive issues, I would say that it’s either Mathis that’s simply too distracted to notice that they have done so (indeed, in many cases have been doing so long before the movie was even conceived), or that he himself wants to distract others from noticing said substantial criticism.

If you missed it, Wright also interviewed PZ Myers a little ways back about his perspective on the film, his featured interview in it, and the infamous Mall of America screening that Myers was ejected from.


Eight Year Old Requests a Divorce. Seriously. And It Only Gets Worse

April 14, 2008

I’m not now and never have been a cultural relativist. When you measure the success of a society by the degree and wide availability of human happiness and liberty, as well as the avoidance of screwupedness, some cultural, political, and ethical structures fail to measure up.

And arranged marriages, particularly those that involve promising children (almost always girls) to adults… they just aren’t a good idea. In addition to the simple tragedy of coercing and constraining your children’s future and choices, there’s also just the deeply creepy aspect of it… something which recently found its most horrible expression in Yemen recently.

Simply put, some guy, allegedly with mental problems, forced his eight-year old daughter to “marry” a 30 year old man. Yemeni law apparently allows the arranged marriage of underage girls, but restricts sex “until she is ready or mature.” This restriction, unfortunately, didn’t stop her unrepentant “husband”:

Thamer is in jail now. “Yes I was intimate with her, but I have done nothing wrong, as she is my wife and I have the right and no one can stop me,” he said. “But if the judge or other people insist that I divorce her, I will do it, it’s ok.”

What a gracious concession!

While Yemeni prosecutors are trying to line up charges against the two men involved in this scheme, the local laws on arranged marriage clearly demand some further examination.

Shatha Ali Nasser confirmed that item number 15 in Yemeni civil law reads that “no girl or boy can get married before the age of 15.” However, this item was amended in 1998 so parents could make a contract of marriage between their children even if they are under the age of 15. But the husband cannot be intimate with her until she is ready or mature,” said Nasser.“This law is highly dangerous because it brings an end to a young girl’s happiness and future fruitful life. Nojoud did not get married, but she was raped by a 30-year old man.”

And there’s nothing much more to say than that.


FoxNews Pans Intelligent Design Film Expelled!

April 9, 2008

Wesley R. Elsberry of the Austringer sends word that Fox News has reviewed Expelled!… and they were not impressed.

Directed by one Nathan Frankowski, “Expelled” is a sloppy, all-over-the-place, poorly made (and not just a little boring) “expose” of the scientific community. It’s not very exciting. But it does show that Stein, who’s carved out a career selling eye drops in commercials and amusing us on sitcoms, is either completely nuts or so avaricious that he’s abandoned all good sense to make a buck.

The reviewer even gets the basic larger strategy of the film of trying to troll up a national controversy:

What the producers of this film would love, love, love is a controversy. That’s because it’s being marketed by the same people who brought us “The Passion of the Christ.” They’re hoping someone will latch onto an anti-Semitism theme here, since there’s a visit to a concentration camp and the raised idea — apparently typical of the intelligent design community — that somehow the theory of evolution is so evil that it caused the Holocaust. Alas, this is such a warped premise that no one’s biting.

Let’s be fair here though, and dispense with the apparent idea that there’s something politically special about FoxNews giving a poor review to a conservative movie. Fox’s entertainment reporters, and especially Roger Friedman, are generally all over the map when it comes to liking or hating political event movies. Friedman even gave a decently positive review to Fahrenheit 9/11 and panned The Passion of the Christ.

If that didn’t hurt Friedman’s credibility enough though, it gets worse: he hates Rush, Poison, and Journey.

All this is not to say that Expelled! has never gotten rave reviews: WorldNetDaily loves the thing. But the trend, of course, is that these reviews simply parrot the claims made in the film and celebrate its conclusions: the negative reviews, in contrast, tend to be from people who are in on the scam and point out specific misrepresentations and problems with the films’ claims.