Tuesday, September 26, 2006

READ THIS ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Santa Claus is the focus of Christmas for us secular folks. An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, which most of us call The Night Before Christmas, created the modern vision of Santa, and is the greatest Christmas poem ever written (d’uh), probably tied with A Christmas Carol as the greatest post-gospel Christmas literature.

Everyone knows that The Night Before, as I call it here. was written by a Clement Moore, right?

Actually, no, not everyone.

Ever feel like you are the only one who read a book? I highly recommend Author Unknown by Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College. Mr. Foster has made a name for himself by analyzing anonymous literature and determining its author. He is probably most well known for correctly pointing to Joe Klein as Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors, and had previously identified, maybe correctly, a 17th century poem signed by “WS” as written by Shakespeare. OK, hard to appreciate that one – we all know that those are Shakespeare’s initials, and we can never be quite sure.

Most fascinating is Foster’s argument that The Night Before was not written by Clement Moore as everyone thinks, but by one Major Henry Livingston. He convinced me, and I’m pretty skeptical. We’ll get to the details below.

Foster’s method is combining research skills with modern technology, utilizing computer software to count and analyze the actual words used by the anonymous author. In other words the internal evidence of the work. Apparently, using internal evidence to identify the author is highly controversial among the fun loving older generation of English professors, although I couldn’t quite understand why. Perhaps its just that older folks have more difficulty getting used modern technology.

Here's how it works. Let’s say you have a poem written a long time ago, perhaps the 13th century. No one knows who wrote it. Dr. Foster analyzes it and puts it through his computer, checks databases and it turns out that this author regularly uses the pronoun thou sandwiched between a transitive verb and a gerund, which is incredibly rare (especially since I just made it up now). It further happens that only two authors in the 13th century had the same habit. However, only one of them regularly wrote about … um, the sensuous prostitutes of Old London, and that happens to be what your mystery poem is about. Presto, you are on your way.

Before I get to the nitty-gritty of who wrote The Night Before, I checked on Amazon.com to find that I may in fact be one of the few people who have read this book, or at least lately. If it was ever popular, it didn’t have legs. Its ranking in hardcover is 649,650, which can’t be good, but not as bad as say Marvin Hamlisch’s autobiography (I checked for the hell of it -- ranked 797,896). But get this. You can actually buy Foster’s hardcover for one penny. There were 11 new copies available at that lowest of low prices and 65 used ones. For some bizarre reason, the used paperbacks started at $1.50. I think I got my copy on Amazon, but I don’t remember paying a penny.

I first read about Foster’s theory in a newspaper article a few years ago. Last year I read the book, and, between you, me and the wall, some it was a little tedious. But not the Santa stuff. That was intoxicating. With apologies to Professor Foster for simplifying his exacting research, here goes.

The Night Before was published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a small newspaper in Troy, New York. Moore took credit himself in 1844 about 17 years after Livingston was dead and many years after the poem was first publicly attributed to Moore himself.

Major Livingston, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was part Scottish and part Dutch, which is quite important The first words he wrote that are still known and existing are “Happy Christmas” in a 1773 love letter to his future wife. Those words will prove more important than you think.

Henry was a journalist and illustrator, using wacky pseudonyms like Peter Pumkineater and Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo. He was quite a fun loving fellow and father, writing many whimsical poems for his children that were never published. According to his family, he wrote The Night Before in 1807-8 for their enjoyment, many years before it was published.

Clement Moore was a very wealthy man of English loyalist descent from a very old and rich American family. He was a biblical scholar and a terribly dry and pious man. He took his religion and poetry quite seriously, even declining an invitation from Washington Irving to join the gregarious St. Nicholas Society. Moore was a somber fellow, somewhat un-Santa like, and quite the opposite of the jolly Livingston, at whose home holidays were joyous affairs.

I had always pictured Clement Moore as sort of an American Fezziwig. It turns out Livingston was Fezziwig and Moore was a little more like Scrooge, bah humbing at all the fun parts of holidays and life.

Still, comparing the vivacious Livingston to the dour Moore was not what convinced Foster. Moore it seems found anapestic poetry (go with it, that’s the type of poetry The Night Before is, and has to do with that jumpy and fun meter) intolerable, while Livingston wrote quite a lot of it. The first evidence of Livingston’s poetry in this style dates to the 1780s when Moore was just a boy, and continues on for fifty years. Moore had only one poem in that style which Foster believes was based on similar poems by Livingston, and which is quite different in tone from The Night Before.

Foster makes two extremely convincing analytical points. The first concerns the word all which he points out can be a pronoun meaning every one, or an adverb meaning totally. The author of The Night Before used it to mean totally four times (all through the house,” “all snug in their beds,” “dressed all in fur,” and “all tarnished.” He also used it to mean everyone five times. Roughly even.

So what did Foster find when he looked at Moore’s and Livingston’s other known writings to see how they used all. Livingston’s usage was fairly evenly split, half pronoun, half adverb, just like The Night Before’s author. Moore on the other hand used all as a pronoun ten times for every once he used it as an adverb in his poetry, and a hundred to one in his prose.

Foster identifies the usage of all as an adverb as a particularly Scottish trait (part of Livingston's heritage) and less an English one (Moore's heritage). The earliest known usage of all snug (meaning tidy) was by a Scotsman named Allan Ramsay, who happened to be one of Livingston’s favorite poets. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gave the Ramsay source, gives one other early source of All snug (by then meaning cozy), by one Christopher Anstey, who also turns out to be another Livingston favorite. Yet another early use of all snug also turns out to be by a third Livingston favorite, John O'Keeffe. Livingston 3, Moore 0. Getting convinced?

Foster had me at all snug, but another word usage was even more convincing. The Night Before ends with "Happy Christmas to all" (later editors changed Happy to Merry). Now recall Livingston’s use of that awkward phrase "Happy Christmas" in the letter to his future wife. Was it just a popular phrase, now antiquated, that anyone might have used at the time? No. In fact it was always quite rare. But not for Livingston. If he did not write The Night Before, he sure had an amazing amount in common with its real author. Not Moore. His usage of Happy Christmas or even Merry Christmas, for that matter, was zero.

To tickle you with a little more mystery, despite the fame it had brought him, Moore never took credit for the poem, first printed it in 1823, and first attributed to him in 1836, until some eight years later, and only after he had written and received a reply to his letter from the original publisher and learned how he had acquired the poem. What Moore was told (the letters still exist) would have told him that anyone who might contradict him was dead. He published the poem as his own in a book called Poems which is strangely silent as to how he came to write it.

There’s a lot more evidence in favor of Livingston (and to be fair, some for Moore) which Foster outlines, such as the use of the Dutch Dunder and Blixem instead of the Donder and Blitzen (both mean thunder and lightning) in the great poem, often changed by modern publishers, and Livingston’s characteristic unusual usage of the exclamation point, also just like whoever wrote The Night Before.

That’s all you get here. Go buy the book. It costs one penny! (plus shipping and handling, but you know Amazon has a lot of free holiday shipping). It will also move Foster up in the Amazon rankings. He deserves it. So does Henry Livingston.

Friday, September 22, 2006

LEAVE SUPERMAN ALONE, MR. CHAVEZ

First of all, you have got to love Hugo Chavez, even if you hate him. He is going to be making news for years like a socialist version of Ann Coulter without the looks and the writing skills, but with diplomatic immunity.

Why is everyone yelling about what he says about Bush, anyway? He is Bush’s best friend right now, probably yanking him up in the polls the way no policy speech ever could. Nancy friggin’ Pelosi just defended the President. That’s like Oscar picking up after Felix, or Bluto rooting for Popeye. Like with Ahmadinejad, the more he talks, the more we understand what he is really about.

On the other hand, Chavez did go too far. He suggested that we should be reading Noam Chomsky instead of Superman and Batman. Now that’s ridiculous. Chavez claims to hate our government, but love America. This should mean he loves American culture and American values. If he thinks reading comics is a waste of time, he knows nothing about us.

Superman and Batman represent the best of us, or at least they did before the trend was to make superheroes darker, more flawedand modern, which is when yours truly stopped reading them.

Superman the archtype, is virtually all powerful, the closest thing we have to a pagan god like Hercules or Thor (unless you count the Marvel Comics versions of those deities). He could easily rule the world or be an absurdly powerful super villain. In spite of that, he lives a modest life in a regular apartment, and seems only to want to help people.

Remember Carl Lewis, one of the fastest sprinters and easily the best long jumper that ever lived. Maybe he is a real nice guy. You never know with celebrities. But at the height of his fame, he became incredibly cocky, even predicting superstar celebrity status for himself. Superman can run around the world while Carl’ s blinking, but seems unimpressed with his abilities, preferring character to prowess. Hard to believe of course, but then again, he’s a comic book character.

When real people set out to be roll models, like most politicians or some athletes, they often fail because of their human flaws. Superman was drawn without character flaws, at least most renditions of him. Even when he temporarily becomes evil or crazed, as frequently happens, it works emotionally for us because its Superman, and the true inner Superman can only be unearthly good. At some point he must revert to form, just like we always know no matter how much punishment he takes Rocky Balboa will summon the courage and will to prevail.

Superman represents enormous power and energy, but also humility, good faith,charity, fair play and common sense with which he defeats even super intelligent criminals. Americans may not be able to say they have these characteristics more than any other people, certainly some less so, but they are no doubt American ideals, and Superman has them in spades. I want kids reading Superman.

There are other super heroes who are just as powerful. The Martian Manhunter was always Supeman's equal and could even turn invisible, alter his shape, and see through lead, powers that leave Superman in the dust. Arguably, the Green Lantern, could just wish Superman away and his ring would take care of it.

So why do we prefer Superman? Its because his American values make him irresistible. That’s why there have been numerous Superman movies, books, comics and television shows in the decades since his birth. Will there ever be a Martian Manhunter I or II? Not that he was a bad guy for a Martian, but you know how cranky they can get.

Batman, The Dark Knight, has always been a little grimmer, but then again, he watched his parents get shot when he was a little boy. In real life, he’d be popping pills, working things out at the therapist, or dating Paris Hilton and wrecking Mazzeratis. Yet despite his Bill Gates like wealth, he also dedicates his life to helping people and fighting crime, despite having no super powers.

Batman represents hard work, ingenuity, overcoming adversity and that “can do” mentality thing. That’s why he has such a nifty utility belt. Boy Scouts should be so prepared. He also represents obsessive-compulsiveness, which is a pretty American characteristic too.

Because they are fictional characters, Superman and Batman can realize American values in a way that flesh and blood Americans can't, because they can represent our ideals and "better angels of our nature" whereas we can only write and dream aboutit. Plus, they fight easily recognizable bad guys.

Chompsky cannot captivate, nor inspire people, the way our greatest heroes can, even if they are fictional characters (hats off to the creaters, writers and artists, of course). If Hugo Chavez wants to convince Americans of anything, or just insult the President, he ought to read a few comics first. They have Superman comics in Venezuela, you know.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

THANK YOU, MR. CHAVEZ (BUT WE’LL KEEP THE U.N. WHERE IT IS)

If you were listening to Venezuela’s President at the U.N. today and hadn’t heard him speak before, you might have been shocked and upset. Or not.

Hugo Chavez, an unabashed critic of the President called him the devil and said the podium he spoke at still smelled from sulphur (Bush spoke from there the day before).

He has also called him an assassin, a terrorist, a mass murderer, and linked Bush’s name with Hitler’s, among other friendly remarks.

Is this outrageous? Well, the first friend I reported this to responded that he agreed with Chavez (although acknowledging that he preferred Bush to Chavez or Ahmadinejad). Many people I know would probably respond the same way. You might too (dear reader). War protester Cindy Sheehan openly prefers Chavez to Bush.

A recent poll showed that 36% of this country believed (another poll with a tiny sample though) believed that the government was either actively involved with 9/11 or let it happen EVEN THOUGH AL QAEDA HAPPILY ADMITS IT, REJOICES IN IT. So, you can't be surprised when anyone believes anything.

Until recently, if you had wanted a steady diet of nasty talk about Bush, you didn’t need to wait for the U.N. meeting, you just had had to listen to the now defunct Air America Radio. “Nazis” may have been one of the kinder comparisons to Bush & Co. on that station.

This is no different than what conservatives say about Clinton or still say about “liberals”. You can here "Nazis" on conservative talk radio too. Just wait until Hillary Clinton gets the nomination. Comparisons to Nazis or Hitler, as well as descriptions like mass murderer are just popular ways of saying “I don’t like you” in political discourse. Its not new either (remember in 1804 Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton over some unknown "despicable opinion" for one single, but dramatic, example).

Chavez and Ahmadinejad are the Idi Amins (self proclaimed King of Scotland and America) and Muammar Qaddafis of the day, spouting high volume rhetoric meant to anger and incite. Its not that different from the open secret conservative pundit Ann Coulter knows, and her liberal targets don’t seem to get. “If you don't leave liberals in a sputtering impotent rage, you're not doing it right". She keeps insulting them and they keep sputtering. Why they keep falling for it I'll never know, but people are sensitive and calling them names drives them insane.

Bush and his team are wisely ignoring the taunts, but its not hard to believe that the President isn’t a little distracted at the moment, secretly picturing himself standing over Chavez the way Muhammed Ali was standing over Sonny Listen in that classic photograph, or daydreaming about a little private water boarding.

The most interesting part of the speech was the stirring round of applause he got after he finished. Lots of diplomats from all over the world seem either to agree with Chavez, or are impressed with his chutzpah, calling Bush a criminal in his own house. The president of the U.N., an Arabic lawyer, could not seem to restrain herself. Chavez was the rock star of the moment. Its like Wilt Chamberlain said, “Nobody likes Goliath”.

It’s not hard to picture the round of applause that Bin Laden would get if he made a speech in the U.N., as long as he targeted Bush and Israel.

One of Chavez’ suggestions was to move the U.N. somewhere else. Many Americans have had the same thought, and you have to bet, not the least today. Sometimes the obvious anti-Americanism at the U.N. gets me mad and I think so too. Sometimes I think not only move it, but drop out of it, and go into a period of semi-isolation from supposed allies whose governments or people seem to hate us (tempered by self interest, of course).

But then I remember “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” which I understand is attributed to Sun Tzu (“Book of War” about 400 B.C.). Whatever benefits we get from it, and that includes secret illegal surveillance, getting to speak first (or last), tying diplomats emotionally to America, preventing Bin Laden from speaking, and so on, its worth the costs and having to put up with obnoxious remarks from our guests, who we must also protect.

All of these leaders and diplomats are safer here than they would be anywhere else. Would Mr. Chavez would have felt as comfortable walking into a U.N. building in Iran and calling the Supreme Leader “El Diablo”? Yeah, right.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

UFOs

UFO videos are awesome, but . . .

The sudden prominence of internet downloaded video sites is a new window on the world. We can not only spy on fights, police abuse and bravery, and athletic events, but also all types of authentic looking UFO flying around by themselves, or in formation, doing all kinds of nifty things. These videos are either real or very well crafted. Pictures and films have always been suspect, because they can be altered, but with the advent of relatively easy to use digital and other editing tricks, you can’t have a lot of faith in them to prove things that are "out of this world".

The abilities of these vessels (if they are not digital imaging or balloons) to turn on a dime or shoot off in another direction at astonishing speeds, makes it difficult to believe it is a new terrestrial military weapon. Give that possibility a low probability, just based upon what we know of today’s military capabilities, even if the really good stuff is hidden away at Area 51.

But don’t yet believe that we have “strange visitor[s] from another planet” to steal a line from the 50s Superman television show.

We can easily make a strong argument for intelligent life on other planets. We do not have an understanding of what makes life, what makes consciousness, or the type of consciousness we call reason and intelligence, or what planetary conditions would be required for those qualities.

The great physicist Erwin Schrodinger (of “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought experiment fame) suggested that the gene or chromosome fibre was an “aperiodic chrystal” or solid in his essay What is Life, which was an attempt to make biology accountable to physics and chemistry.

Don’t fret over what aperiodic crystal means. It has to do with growth that is not regular as opposed to a crystal's regular or “periodic” growth. Although the book is fairly short and readable, you might want to wait for a vacation on Mars to read it unless you have a deep interest in science. The point here is that it seems reasonable to believe, if he’s correct, that aperiodic crystallization could occur on other planets, although not likely in forms easily recognizable to us, or which are intelligent by our lights.

Still given the gazillions of stars and (likely) planets out there, the odds don’t need to be very great in order for life to appear on some millions of planets and intelligent life on many of these. Some books, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos crunch the numbers and come up with a probability for these events, but obviously, they are subject to an awful lot of assuming and guessing.

Still, lets say the above argument is enough to convince reasonable people (as opposed to people who want to believe everything found on the paranormal shelf at Borders) that there is a fair to good probability of intelligent life out there – maybe a lot of it, and at least the small possibility that some beings somewhere in the universe have advanced to the degree that they can fly at or near the speed of light.

One factor greatly lessens the possibility of those intelligent beings finding us -- the inarticuable vast distances. First, even if telescopes are zeroing in on big bang country as some scientists claim, space is really, really, really big (say the words “really, really, really big” a trillion time to get an idea how big). We know that at the speed of light, a capability we cannot even begin to hope for yet (sorry trekkies), a vessel traveling to the the most likely life hospitable star in nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would take a 4.3 years to reach. That means with current technology, we could hope for a trip of many tens of thousands of years. It is unknown any of the three suns in that system have planets at all.

Finding a needle in a haystack would be nothing compared to finding us. Even if we improve the odds of finding us for our mythical fast-as-light aliens by saying that they have received our radio transmissions (however unlikely), that technology is little over a hundred years old. The odds of life, plus consciousness, plus intelligence, plus faster than light travel having occurred within say, a hundred light years of us in any direction, is also astronomically small. More likely you will win the lottery tomorrow.

Distance is relative to speed. If we can go fast enough, it won’t matter how far away another planet is. Read any book (by a real scientist) on this subject to understand the problems involved, both in terms of time relativity (yes, everyone you know on earth would be dead by the time you got back at the speed of light from a habitable planet, maybe for thousands of years) and in the energy resources necessary to accomplish it. NASA’s website considers the possibility of interstellar travel, but really raises nothing but presently insurmountable problems. The Physics of Star Trek is better.

Nothing in this essay is claimed to be original so far. You can read similar arguments in many good books about the possibility of life in space and the search for extraterrestrials. The argument raised here, one that at least I have never seen anywhere before, is no more speculative than any of these other arguments, and a lot less than some of them.

If there are intelligent beings on other planets that have the ability, and taken the time and trouble to travel here, however infinitesimal that possibility seems, then they have a curiosity and sense of adventure that must be a lot like ours.

If that is so, it is reasonable to infer that they would very likely do the same types of things, in a broad sense, that we have done when our adventurers and travelers encountered new beings, in our case, other people. They would trade with us (if we have anything they need), kill us, eat us or conquer us. Something. Even if it's an impossibly weird alien interaction like turning everyone over 5' 2" into a pancake. As UFO advocates, many who are extremely intelligent (and who could be right), claim that UFOs have been visiting Earth for a long time, it seems psychologically unrealistic to believe that they would not have had some contact, for better or worse, with the other beings who have managed to leave their planet’s atmosphere in a craft.

That hasn’t happened. If you believe enthusiasts, aliens do monitor us, stick needles in us, eat our cows, draw power from our electric lines, etc. It just seems unlikely that would be the extent of the interaction. Of course, in the finale to X-Files the invasion is scheduled for 2012, which isn't that far away.

Arguably, these are all culture bound concerns. Maybe we don’t know just how superior alien technology is, or if they can be understood in terms of our own psychology. Maybe they can go many times the speed of light (“Warp 3, Mr. Sulu”) and are so far above us that we are like insects to them. OK, its possible. But if so, wouldn’t you think that beings that have the technology and enormous energy reserves to travels billions or trillions of miles in a craft do not need to watch us from our atmosphere. They could park their craft in deep orbit, or even easily and more safely watch us from the other side of the moon. If they came closer, it would only be to contact us, kill or eat us.

First hand reports of sightings, even from people who are generally honest, are just not credible. Experience tells us that when someone wants you to believe in something that is considered "over the top" or supernatural, they will go to great lengths to do so, including simply making up stories. Moreover, their desire to believe, like Muldar, leaves them susceptible to seeing what they want. Their versions often begin with “I used to be a skeptic, but . . .”. Second or third hand accounts are even less credible ("This really happened to my friend's aunt, and she would not lie.")

You can believe whatever you like, and in our country at least, say it out loud. There are millions of intelligent people who also believe that psychics can foretell the future, that ghosts haunt the world and that Uri Gellar could bend spoons with his mind. As James Randi (“The Amazing Randi”), a magician who debunks mysticism (including in his wonderful and too little read book, The Mask of Nostradamus, from which I quote) wrote, after demolishing the prophetic myth:

“The legend of Nostradamus, faulty as it is, will survive it all. Not because of its worth, but because of its seductive attraction, the idea that the Prophet of Salon could see into the future will persist. An ever-abundant number of interpreters will pop up to renew the shabby exterior of his image, and that gloss will serve to entice more unwary fans into acceptance of the false predictions that have enthralled millions in the centuries since his death. Shameless rationalizations will be made, ugly facts will be ignored and common sense will continue to be submerged in enthusiasm.”

He knows what he is talking about. When I went to the library to get the exact quote I noticed that this rational study of what Nostradamus actually said and how it has been fiddled with over time to make him look prescient, was surrounded by dozens of other books on Nostradamus or prophecy which took the more entertaining, and I am sure, the more lucrative path

The belief in creatures from other planets careering around our skies cannot be put in the same league with Nostradamus prophecies and other supernatural beliefs. The number of scientists and military men who have courageously come forward to share their experiences (can they all be nuts or liars?) gives me the small indistinguishable hope that "the truth is out there" despite all I have written above and presuming that the visitors are more ET than Klingon like. That’s the little Muldar inside me talking.

The James Randi quote is included because people will continue to believe in alien visitors for the same reason they believe in supernatural beings. Not because of evidence but because of its attraction. Videos or photographs which can be faked and testimony about shapes on radar screen are one thing, a Venusian Battle Class Lasercraft 3000 landing on Pennsylvania Avenue with peace signs or ray guns on its dome is better.

We could argue about it literally forever, because really, hopes aside, no one is coming.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

DO ATHEISTS FEEL SPIRITUAL?

Do atheists feel spiritual?

A friend asked me this week if I thought science could explain away spirituality. I didn’t think so. Science can’t explain how we think yet, much less something complicated like spirituality. But I did have my standard reply as to what spirituality is.

Spirituality is a feeling of connection to the universe which some people associate with a deity.

Let me critize my own definition a little. Sometimes I use“emotion” instead of “feeling.” Its probably close enough. But spirituality is not an emotion like fear or excitement. It’s more like intellectual satisfaction or surprise (as opposed to being startled) or wonder. Is there a big difference? Maybe not, but emotions strike me as something that can happen as an instinct or a reflex like fear or arousal. A spiritual feeling seems less primal and probably requires some knowledge or thinking process (“the light coming through that cloud reminds me of God” or “Look at those stars. I wonder if someone’s up there looking down on us.”)

"Connection with the universe" may be too broad. Probably "connection with the universe or nature or another person or people" would be better, but it wouldn't be very pithy, would it? "Universe" can subsume everything else anyway.

There might also be a little problem with the fact that “spirit” usually has something to do with a supernatural being. Still, you can have a feeling about something even if you don’t believe in it. If not, there would be no point in reading a novel or seeing a movie or play.

It’s like this. I don’t believe in Santa or a supernatural Jesus, but I often feel Christmassy because I like the lights, the music, the food, decorations and the whole Holiday thing. In short, those things give me a “Christmas spirit.” I don’t need to “believe” in any of it in any religious sense. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I still feel “spooked” watching “The Sixth Sense”. I use “God” as a metaphor all the time and even occasionally say “Jeeeesus Christ!” and more often “God Dammit.”

So, can atheists feel spiritual? Sure. They just don’t think that their connection to the universe is related to a deity. I love studying mythology, religions and ancient cultures. Sitting alone in Delos among the broken columns and the rows of lions, where Apollo and Diana were supposed to have been born, was a very spiritual experience. Walking in the shadows in St. Paul's Cathedral in London or through St. John's Cathedral in Manhattan gives me the same feeling. I feel that way on a river or on a lake too, mostly when I’m alone. I feel that way when I’m staring up at stars or sitting in a tree, which, honestly, doesn't happen a lot anymore. I feel that way reading The Lord of the Rings, which for me, is like stepping back into a mythological past.

Religious rituals, except for the music and funerals, and technology gives me the opposite feeling, but that’s for another blog.

Who cares whether atheists can feel spiritual? Some people might. I’ve been told lots of times that I can't or shouldn’t use religious expressions, or be interested in churches, that I can’t have morals or firm convictions, or even read The Bible just because I don’t believe in God.

I remember being blown away by a poll some years ago. The question was whether the takers would vote for people of various groups. It was nice to see that most Americans would vote for a woman, a black, a Jew, etc. These numbers were up around 90 % or higher, the best I can remember. Gays were somewhere down in the seventies. But the least likely type of person to be voted in would be an atheist. Only somewhere around 50 % of the people polled would vote for someone who did not believe in God.

Earlier this year I read “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. To give it an unfairly brief summary: Religious people who are certain what is going to happen after death can be dangerous, particularly in a world of nuclear and other dangerous weapons. One passage he wrote really struck me, so I will reprint it in full here:

“Of course, religious moderation consists in not being too sure about what happens after death. This is a reasonable attitude, given the paucity of evidence on the subject. But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others. As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of “knowledge” that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy – those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations – are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.”

If you read this passage and think either “that’s right, would not vote for one” or “that’s ridiculous,” then I guess you care about what atheists think and feel, whether or not you want to hear it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

HERE IS A SCARY OPINION POLL

I don’t know how much world opinion polls mean, but they are fun.

A late 2005 BBC world opinion poll (www.worldpublicopinion.org) surveyed 33 countries about their views on some of the world player’s, namely China, Russia, U.S., Iran, Japan, Britain, France and Europe in general. Subjects were asked whether each country listed had a “mainly positive” or “mainly negative” effect on the world. There were also three wishy-washy categories, “depends,” “Neither/No difference” and “DK/NA” which I will mostly ignore here.

Once you get past that the U.S. was viewed unfavorably by almost everyone, there were some interesting results. For on thing, most Afghanis must wear rose colored glasses. They gave the U.S. a 72 per cent “mainly positive” rating as opposed to only 14 per cent “mainly negative”. So much for the conventional wisdom that everyone hates their invader or occupier.

Why not, you say, why can't they think well of us? Well, for one thing, that’s a higher favorability rating than we gave ourselves by almost ten per cent and higher than any other country gave us except the Philippines, which, hmmm, we also occupied for a while. You don’t want to know what our close allies think, but you can go look if you like. Its not pretty.

Afghanis seem to overlook the fact we have no apparent exit plan, and that our soldiers sometimes accidentally kill innocent Afghanis, including children, with friendly fire.

Maybe Wolfowitz wasn’t wrong that we’d be welcomed as liberators. He just had the wrong country. And maybe you (you know who you are) can’t say that Bush administration does everything wrong. Looking at this poll by itself, they are doing Afghanistan right. You have to wonder if Iraq II never happened, and we had instead flooded Afghanistan with troops “to finish the job,” as some argue we should have, that we would quite as respected there. Short of discovering that there really are alternate universes with slightly different histories, I guess we will never know.

On the other hand, the Afghanis seem generally very appreciative of other nations. Although the U.S. seems most respected by them, Afghanis seem to like almost everyone, at least relatively so. Take Russia as an extreme example. You would think Afghanis hate Russia so much that they could not believe they had any positive effect on the world. Still, Russia got a 30 per cent “mainly positive” rating from them. The “mainly negative” result was only slightly higher -- 33 per cent -- a tiny, probably insignificant, difference. The Afghanis, who suffered through Russia's devastating invasion in the 70s and 80s (I'm thinking 2 million dead) have a view of Russia that mirrors the rest of the polled world, at least as an average.

For every other subject country, the Afghanis viewed their effect on the world as “mainly favorable” by a huge margin, least being Iran, who still got well over twice as many “mainly positive” votes as “mainly negative” ones.

Enough of Afghanistan. You know who else seems to appreciate us? Mostly African countries like The Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. In Europe, its just Poland, and in the rest of the world, only the Philippines.

Here’s the scary part. Consider our neighbor to the South. Mexicans seems to appreciate Japan, India, France and Europe in general. They viewed more unfavorably China, Britain, Russia and Iran (just barely). Most of all, they overwhelmingly viewed as "mainly negative” . . . US!

Only 10% (I’m going to say that again, bigger, for effect - ONLY TEN PER CENT) of Mexicans polled found our effect on the world as “mainly positive,” while 55% found it “mainly negative”. No other country’s inhabitants gave any other country a lower rating except when considering Iran, which had by far the worst ranking of all the nations. In fact, Iranians polled were two and a half times as likely to find that we have a "mainly positive" effect than were Mexicans. Is that possible?

Apparently, the fact that so many Mexicans come here to live or work each year and all the foreign aid we have given for a long time now, means diddly-squat when it comes to what they think about our effect on the world.

Maybe it really shouldn’t be any surprise. Heritage Foundation studies have shown that United States’ bilateral financial aid to countries does not result in those countries voting with us in the United Nations (take a look at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/BG1335.cfm.) So why should we think that it would make their citizens view us favorably? But TEN PER CENT.

Compare Mexico’s rating for us with their ratings of two other countries. This is going to really hurt. Even though Iran was viewed most unfavorably throughout the world, more than twice as many of the Mexicans polled viewed Iran’s effect on the world “mainly positive” as they did our effect. Iran’s “mainly negative” ranking was less than half of ours. Almost three times as many Mexicans found Russia, the next lowest ranking country, to have a “mainly positive" effect as they did for us. According to this poll, Mexicans think so little of us that Iranians polled were two and a half times more likely to think that the U.S. had a "mainly positive" effect than were their Mexican counterparts.

There are, of course, substantial flaws in the poll. For example, roughly 1000 to 2000 subjects were polled in each country regardless of their population. Huge China (1.3 billion) had only1863 polled whereas sparsely populated Finland had 1069 (only 5 million or so). For some reason South Africa had nearly 3500 polled. Given the millions and in some cases hundreds of millions in each country, one or two thousand people is probably a small sample.

All these things certainly puts the credibility of the whole study at risk. Throw in the Israel-Hizbollah war and the recent politics of immigration reform here, and maybe the results would be different if it was done now, less than a year later. Maybe the results mean nothing.

But TEN PER CENT! Sheesh.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .