A Philosopher's Blog

War on Christmas

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2012
Christmas in the post-War United States

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States has numerous Christmas traditions, ranging from elaborate decorations to re-gifting lame gifts like fruitcakes. While these are broad traditions, embraced by millions of Americans, there are also narrower traditions. One such tradition is the Fox & friends holiday ritual of claiming that there is a war on Christmas.

Gretchen Carlson and State Representative Doreen Carlson lit the ritual hyperbole log (not to be confused with the Yule log) near the end of November 2012. After discussing what she took as the latest evidence in the existence of the war, Carlson closed with “a lot of people, for whatever reason, will look at this interview today and say, Gretchen Carlson and Doreen Costa are nuts. They’re so nuts because they think there’s this made up war on Christmas. We’re not nuts, are we? There is a war on Christmas!”

While it is very tempting to dismiss Carlson and her fellows on the grounds of some sort of insanity, I will not do this. I do not think that she is insane. However, I do think that the war on Christmas is made up, in the same way that Santa is made up—only with a rather less pleasant intention behind the fiction.

While the term “war” gets thrown around so excessively by Americans (we have wars on everything, including actual wars on actual people) that is has become worn and shoddy, I will endeavor to present a rough account of what would be required for there to be a war on Christmas.

Roughly put, a war would seem to indicate a conflict with breadth and intensity. In terms of breadth, a true war typically would require a reasonable broad front, either literally or metaphorically. After all, a few sporadic episodes of violence that take place far from each other would hardly count as a war.  In the case of the alleged war on Christmas, there would need to be battles occurring across adequately broad areas of the country as opposed to extremely limited numbers of isolated incidents. Not surprisingly fine folks at Fox traditionally make use of the hasty generalization (a fallacy in which a person draws a general conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not adequate in size) to create the impression that the few examples of what they claim are incidents in the war are actually general occurrences. Naturally, one should not take my word for this. If it really matters, a person can create a war map and plot out the locations of the alleged incidents to determine if they constitute a large enough number to count as a war. This can be done my imaging each incident as a fight proportional to the incident.

In terms of intensity, a true war (as opposed to a cold or false war) would seem to require a level of conflict that would intuitively match what is expected in war. If, for example, soldiers on opposing sides exchange taunts and occasionally throw rocks at each other, that would hardly seem to be a war. In the case of an actual war on Christmas, what would be needed would be attacks on Christmas of sufficient intensity to be considered warlike aggression against the holiday.

In general, Fox tends to point to incidents of the “intensity” discussed by Carlson and Costa. In Rhode Island, where Costa is a representative, the governor held a holiday tree lighting, rather than a Christmas tree lighting. Fox also points to cases in which Nativity scenes are not allowed to be displayed on state property, such as in front of or in government buildings. Incidents in which people say “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are also taken as evidence of the war. On the face of it, these incidents do not seem intense enough to count as warfare.

There is also the fact that is blindingly obvious that Christmas itself is not under attack (other than the usual commercialism that corrupts the very heart of the holiday). After all, Christmas is not only completely legal, the overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate it and almost all Americans participate in some way (my atheist and non-Christian friends have never turned down a Christmas gift nor a Christmas dinner). Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas goose, Christmas lights, Christmas carols, Christmas services and so on are also completely legal and unhindered. It would take a strange epistemology indeed to believe that there is a war on this beloved and almost universally practiced (in America) holiday.

But, one might say, what about the fact that state officials, like the governor of Rhode Island, have “holiday tree” lightings. What about public schools having “winter breaks” rather than “Christmas breaks”? What about Nativity scenes not being set up in federal court houses? Are these not evidence of a most vile war on Christmas?

The obvious answer is “not at all.” One should be careful to note that what is occurring is that the state is simply not giving special treatment to the holiday of a specific faith (although Christmas seems to have extended way beyond Christianity) with the main focus being on the religious trappings. So, for example, trees, snowmen, Santa Claus and so on seem to be fine on state grounds. Baby Jesus, not so much. However, this is no more a war on Christmas than changing “chairman” to “chairperson” is a war on men. It just means that one specific faith is not getting special treatment denied to other faiths. Not always getting what one wants and not having one’s faith enshrined by the state is hardly the same thing as a war on Christmas.

What would an actual war on Christmas look like in America? That is easy enough to answer. From 1659-1681 the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. This was not the work of anti-Christians, but due to the Puritan opposition to Christmas on religious grounds. While New England is now famous as a Christmas place, the celebration of the holiday did not come into vogue until around the mid-19th century, at least around Boston. So, Fox, until people start banning Christmas across regions of the country again (or worse), talk of the war on Christmas is just annoying and divisive hyperbole. Worse, it gets people who have weak critical thinking skills upset, worried and angry and that is not the sort of holiday spirit that is right for the season. So, for the sake of the Christmas spirit, stop engaging in this foolishness.

My books make excellent gifts, especially for the fine folks at Fox.

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Pathfinder RPG Adventure: Ogre Tomb

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2012

  A Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 3rd-4th level characters.


Ogre Tomb

Gragash is a wild place populated primarily with monstrous humanoids, such as orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls and evil giants.

Because of their chaotic and evil nature, the inhabitants of Gragash generally spend their time making war on each other. However, on rare occasions a leader of sufficient power and vision emerges and to force the warring humanoids into a menacing horde.

One of the greatest leaders to arise in Gragash was Chu-Umbro. Chu-Umbro was the product of a deranged experiment by Bazule, a human necromancer. By the use of vile magic and lots of cheap wine, Bazule bred a captive elf with a swamp troll. This troll later gave birth to a hybrid that was named “Chu-Umbro” by Bazule. This apparently was Bazule’s attempt at humor: “Chu Umbro” is a crude mashing together of the giant and elvish languages and Bazule took this as meaning “successful effort.” While Bazule had originally conducted the union as a mere experiment, the result so pleased him that he took the young Chu-Umbro as an apprentice.

Bazule taught the young hybrid the ways of necromancy and intended him to become one of his chief servants. However, Chu-Umbro chafed under his master’s rule and, desiring to be his own master (and the master of others) he fled to the land of Gragash.

Using his necromancy and ruthlessness, he rose to power quickly. Soon he had forged a fearsome horde and was raiding small human villages. Desiring even more power, he bargained with a demon prince of the undead and was transformed into an undead being. Some of his followers, though thoroughly evil, balked at the idea of serving such an undead monstrosity. Never one to waste resources, Chu-Umbro has his loyal followers kill them and then raised them up again as undead to serve his will.

One of Chu-Umbro’s most faithful followers was the ogre Ghugar. Ghugar was massive, even by ogre standards, and delighted in crushing his foes beneath his iron hammer Skull Breaker. According to legend, Ghugar possessed an ancient necklace that gave him great power over his fellow ogres. According to the stories, this necklace was made from the vertebrae of the first ogre that troubled the world. Ghugar served Chu-Umbro faithfully until the Fifth Battle of the Crossroads. Ghugar fell in this battle, protecting his lord from a paladin wielding the holy weapon Sacred Light. Chu-Umbro and his forces were driven back, though not without inflicting terrible losses. One of Chu-Umbro’s followers recovered the body of Ghugar from the battlefield.

Unfortunately for Chu-Umbro, Ghugar could not be raised up again as an undead being. Chu-Umbro speculated, correctly, that the wound from the holy weapon prevented the corpse from accepting the vile gift of unlife. Bound by his oath to his demon prince, Chu-Umbro could not raise his friend from the dead. Saddened, Chu-Umbro had a tomb built for his faithful servant and laid his remains to rest there.

Chu-Umbro was later betrayed by an ambitious underling, Brukus. Brukus in turn was betrayed and destroyed. With the end of Chu-Umbro and Brukus, the forces of Chu-Umbro quickly turned on one another and were easy pickings for a human army lead by paladins and clerics.

The location of Ghugar’s tomb was believed to have been lost with the destruction of Chu-Umbro’s forces. However, ogres and others have long sought the tomb to find the necklace with the intent of commanding ogres or keeping others from doing so. From time to time rumors of the tomb’s location have surfaced, but none have proved substantial-at least until now.

Available  on Amazon.

Available for free from 11/29/2012 until 12/3/2012.


See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Knowing I am Not the Best (Extended Remix)

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.

I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.

In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.

One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.

One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.

A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.

While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.

It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.

It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.

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Knowing I’m Not the Best

Posted in Philosophy, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 26, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp. I was a terrible player with no skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. The coach made the other boys do pushups and made me do double the number, since I had failed to consider myself the best. I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed wrong. I recall quite well getting a lot of abuse for my actions, which made me think about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone, but I have thought about it over the years.

One the one hand, I do get the point of such self-deception. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him towards being the best.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. Of course, there is a clear challenge here, namely being motivated to be the best while still being realistic about one’s abilities.

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Race in America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2012
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Thanksgiving!

I plan on doing my traditional Thanksgiving: running the 15K race in the Tallahassee Turkey Trot, dropping off clothes for charity, then cooking a turkey that will not give me food poisoning. I’ll also grade some papers-which hurts less when I’m stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie.

As a descendant of John Howland and Native Americans of New England, Thanksgiving is something of a family holiday. I am thankful that the Mayflower made it-otherwise I would not exist. And what a loss that would be.

I am also thankful that I am not a vegetarian, because turkey is so damn good. At least when it doesn’t give me food poisoning.

Here is to everyone having a good day with family, friends and food. Be sure to think of those less fortunate as well.



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Rockets & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2012
English: A Qassam rocket fired from a civilian...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a repeat of events in 2008 (and earlier) Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. Israel, not surprisingly, responded with attacks of its own. In addition to the political and humanitarian concerns, this matter raises numerous ethical issues.

One issue of concern is that Hamas generally locates its launch sites close to or in civilian areas. As such, Israel runs the risk of killing civilians when it attempts to destroy the launchers. This raises the general issue of launching attacks from within a civilian population.

On the face of it, this tactic seems to be immoral. To use the obvious analogy, if I am involved in a gun fight and I grab a child to use as a human shield, I am acting wrongly. After all, I am intentionally endangering an innocent to protect myself. If the child is hurt or killed, I clearly bear some of the moral blame. While my opponent should not endanger the child, I would rather limit her options if I kept attacking her while hiding behind the child.  Naturally, if I was shooting at her innocent children while using a child as a shield, I would certainly be acting very wrongly indeed.

One possible counter is that the analogy is flawed. In the child example, the child is coerced into serving as a shield. If the civilians support Hamas and freely allow themselves to be used as human shields, then Hamas would not be acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if I am in a gun fight and people volunteer to take bullets for me by acting as human shields, I would seem to be acting in a way that would be morally acceptable. As such, as long as the civilians are not coerced or kept in ignorance (that is, employed as shields by force or fraud), then it would seem that Hamas could be acting in a morally acceptable way.

There is, of course, a rather obvious concern. To go back to the gunfight analogy, suppose my fellows volunteer to serve as human shields while I shoot randomly at my opponent’s friends and family. If my opponent returns fire and hits one of my shields while trying to stop me, it would seem that my opponent would not be acting wrongly. After all, she is not trying to kill my shields—she is trying to stop me from shooting randomly at her friends and family.

This, of course, leads to another point of moral concern: Hamas fires rockets into populated areas as opposed to aiming at military targets. That is, Hamas seems intent on hurting random Israelis. One main argument in defense of Hamas is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as retribution for wrongs. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution. Of course, it must be shown that Israel has done wrong and that the retribution is proportional and justified.

However, the fact that Hamas is shooting rockets that randomly hurt people seems to remove the retribution justification from Hamas’ attack on Israel.  After all, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted on whoever happens to be at the receiving end of a rocket. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

One stock reply is that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent.  That is, they are fully accountable for whatever wrongs Israel has allegedly committed. However, being a member of a large group seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such random retribution. To use an analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the president of the university can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally starts randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars and that she defends her actions by pointing out that the students are associated with Big University and hence just targets of her retribution.

On the face of it, Sally’s justification seems absurd: the students are hardly accountable for the doings of the president. Likewise, one might argue, random people are unlikely to be accountable for any alleged misdeeds attributed to Israel.

One obvious counter is that being a citizen comes with moral accountability that would not hold in the case of students. A citizen of a democratic state, it can be argued, is responsible for what is done by her nation. After all, a citizen of a democracy has the right to elect officials and make decisions regarding the actions of the country. So, the rocket attacks could be just retaliation provided that the actions of the Israeli state warranted such retribution.

The obvious reply is that while citizens of a democratic state do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, it seems clear that every citizen does not bear the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who opposes violence or it could murder a child. Surely such people do not deserve death, whatever the alleged misdeeds of the country.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions).  However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim.

As such, these random rocket attacks fired from within civilian areas seem to be morally wrong.

Naturally, a similar sort of argument can be applied to any cases in which Israeli attacks kill random people in Gaza. Or random attacks kill anyone anywhere.

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Republicans & “Minorities”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2012
Republican Party (United States)

No longer a white elephant? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Bill O’Reilly pointed out, the majority of black & Hispanic voters supported Obama over Romney in the 2012 election. While O’Reilly presented this a moral failing on the part of blacks and Hispanics (as O’Reilly saw it, they supported Obama because they wanted “stuff”) more practical Republican politicians have taken a different perspective.

To be specific, these politicians are saying that the Republican Party needs to attract these voters and this will require that the party undergo some changes (or at least the appearance of change). This has already led some politicians to say that the party needs to reconsider its stance on immigration so as to win over Hispanic voters. Interestingly, the party had previously professed to have taken a principled stance on this and related issues. However, that was before they lost the election to Obama.

While politicians profess principles and ideologies, these are typically means to the end of being elected rather than actual commitments. That is, politicians profess what they believe will get them elected.

There are, of course, some true believers. However, there are clearly more politicians who are like Romney (who changed his professed views with consistent inconsistency) than like Ron Paul (who is well known for his constancy in belief).

As such, it makes sense that the practical Republicans would begin to change their professed views on the matter of immigration. After all, they believe that doing so will increase their chances of being elected (or re-elected). As might be imagined, it has been pointed out that Hispanics do not care solely about immigration and that merely saying something different about immigration will not be enough to win over voters.

It is also interesting that the main focus is on Hispanics rather than other minorities. However, this is not surprising—Hispanics are a rapidly growing “minority” and even before the Republicans publicly acknowledge the need to get their vote they were a coveted demographic for advertisers. Also, as some might point out, it had been assumed that blacks would support Obama and hence little effort was made to woo black voters. This might, however, change.

There has also been an effort to win over women voters and this began before the election. Romney was able to make inroads against Obama’s lead, but Obama did well with single women, making this a demographic that Republicans will need to win over in future elections.

It is, of course, tempting to criticize politicians for doing this. After all, if O’Reilly can criticize voters for supporting Obama because they want “stuff” it seems very reasonable to criticize politicians for abandoning their professed principles and ideologies simply to get votes. After all, they are not acting on principle—other than the principle that one should do whatever it takes to get elected. After all, when they thought they could win by appealing to white and socially conservative voters, they pandered to them. Now that they have realized that the demographics are not as their narrative told them, they are changing their pandering targets.

In defense of the Republicans who are advocating a change in professed values, it could be argued that they are not merely being cynical and practical politicians. Rather, it could be argued that they are following the principles of democracy and modifying their views in a principled way to match the values of their potential constituents. That is, the Republicans are legitimately undergoing a re-evaluation of their values and assessing them in a principle manner—as opposed to changing their rhetoric to pander to the new demographics so as to get elected.

However, if the Republicans truly change their professed principles on key issues to win over black, Hispanic and women voters, then there is the important question of determining what the party and its members stand for (other than winning elections). Of course, the party could contend that they will still retain their core values while changing what are now the more peripheral values (although these values seemed rather core last time around).

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Republicans, Race, Gender & Free Stuff

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2012
Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much to the dismay of the fine folks at Fox (and to the delight at the marvelous mortals at MSNBC) Obama was re-elected president. In the face of this defeat for the Republican Party, there was a rush to explain Obama’s victory.

Bill O’Reilly, visibly shaken by the results, put forth a three part explanation falling under the general heading of demographic change. The first part is that 50% of the voters want free stuff and they voted for Obama because he would give it to them: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

The second part is that there are more non-white people in America and they voted for Obama, presumably because he is only half-white and Romney was 100% white. The third part is that women (who may simply fall under people who want free stuff) voted for Obama: “The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

This explanation, which is a beautiful example of a rhetorical (or persuasive) explanation, certainly matches what could be seen as some of the uglier parts of the Republican narrative regarding people of color, women and the 47%. However, what is most striking about it is that O’Reilly said many true things.

First, he actually underestimated the percentage of voters who like free stuff. I would say that the figure is closer to 100% than 50%, given the extent to which Americans of all classes receive “stuff” from the state and seem to like that “stuff.” I know I liked getting my Pell grant. Now I like driving on public roads, running on public sidewalks, enjoying the protection of the state in the form of police and the military and so on. While I do not receive Social Security yet, I certainly would like to get that when I retire—after all, I have been paying into it for years.

Being somewhat more serious, O’Reilly’s main point seems to be that those who supported Obama did so out of a moral failing—they simply want to get free stuff from the state. However, the evidence that 50% of American voters are morally defective in this manner seems to be assumed by O’Reilly based on the fact that they voted for Obama rather than on the basis of significant and objective evidence. O’Reilly seems to have mainly just bought into Romney’s infamous 47% remark which was not grounded in reality but merely based in stereotypes and prejudices.

Second, he was right that most voters who are not white voted for Obama. Of course, plenty of white voters voted for Obama as well. While O’Reilly and others seem to be casting this as a moral flaw on the part of said voters of insufficient whiteness, he did point to an important reason Obama won: most black and Hispanic voters believed that they would be better off with Obama in office than Romney. While O’Reilly clearly buys into the old racial stereotypes that blacks and Hispanics are lazy spongers and presents this as a reason for Obama’s win, the real reason lies elsewhere. To be specific, the Republican party has made little serious effort to win over black and Hispanic voters at best and at worst some elements of the party seem to embrace views that are at least tinged with racism. This is not just a matter of immigration but of broader issues as well. As such, it is not just that Obama won these voters it is also the case that the Republicans lost them. While it is no doubt emotionally satisfying to put the blame on the black and Hispanic voters, this does them an injustice and also, ironically, serves to make the situation worse for the Republican Party in terms of gaining voters.

Third, he was right that Obama did very well with single women. As with blacks and Hispanics, the explanation seems to be that the women who supported Obama did so from their moral failings—that is, they want free stuff (presumably abortions and birth control). While this might be an emotionally satisfying narrative, it is at odds with reality. While it is true that Obama won over many women voters by doing things that benefit them (such as supporting equal pay for women), this hardly shows that these women merely want free stuff or that they are thus morally defective. If it does, it would seem to show that almost all voters are morally defective—after all, people tend to vote for the person they think will do what is best for them. In this case, women voters would be morally defective, but this would not be a special flaw on their part.

O’Reilly also seems to fail to consider that while Obama did win over many women voters, the Republicans also lost them. Rush Limbaugh denouncing Sandra Fluke as a slut surely did not help the Republicans. It is also likely that the “legitimate rape” and unequal pay episodes of Akin and Mourdock’s idea that being impregnated by rape is a gift from God did not win over women votes. The attempt to impose mandatory transvaginal ultrasoundon women seeking an abortion probably also pushed a few women voters away from the Republican Party. While I could go on providing examples, it should be clear that women had incentives other than getting free stuff to vote for Obama.

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The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2012
English: Karl Rove Assistant to the President,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.

In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.

My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.

As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.

As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.

While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.

One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”

After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.

Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better.  Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.

In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should.  To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.

It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.

As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.

People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.

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