A Perpendicular View

The terms Liberal and Conservative are two sides of the same bent, broken coin. In this weblog, I look at current events, ideas and issues from 90 degrees off the continuum.

Jeff Clothier is the author of "The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Bachelor's Survival Guide and Cookbook." Please address feedback to: jclothier@clarityiniowa.com.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Few Snotty Questions for "Intelligent Designers"
by Jeff Clothier

A simple test for whether an idea is being treated as "scientific" or "religious" is whether the holder of that notion would abandon it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Despite "gaps", evolution and the processes that underpin it - variation, selection, adaptation - are widely observable in nature, can be manipulated in the laboratory, and are responsible for advances in medicine and biology. It is the scientific theory that best fits the facts at hand and has lead to actual progress in knowledge and practical application. If this were not true, ethical scientists and teachers of science would readily abandon the theory in favor of one that showed results.

I would ask so-called Creation Scientists and proponents of Intelligent Design whether they would abandon their notion in the face of contrary facts, or would they hold onto it like flat-Earthers or those who condemned Galileo? What practical applications or scientific advances has ID delivered? What can it possibly deliver in the future?

Should we continue to do research into stock breeding, hybrid crops, genetic improvement, prevention of birth defects, new medicines and cures for cancer? Or should we merely wait for upgrades from the Intelligent Designer?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Intelligent Design Insults Intelligence
by Jeff Clothier

I am concerned with recent PR campaigns by promoters of so-called "Intelligent Design" and the headway they are apparently making in Kansas and elsewhere. Intelligent Design is not science.l It is a default philosophical position whose premises sound good until their consequences are considered.

The first premise, which states that if something "looks" designed, it probably is, ignores numerous examples of spontaneous, complex order coming out of chaos. Crystal formation is only one example.

The second, which observes that some biological structures are apparently "irreducably complex", which means that if any one part is removed, the biological unit does not function, assumes that the purpose of the unit came before the development of its parts. This is not necessarily so. Compare the structures of a fish's fin, a bat's wing, and a hand, and it becomes clear that a structure originally fulfilling one function can adapt to fulfill completely different ones. All these structures are remarkably similar, similarly placed on the bodies of their respective species, share much the same anatomy, and yet fill widely disparate roles.

The third premise suggests that if science cannot immeditately deliver a satisfactory answer to the question of origins, it should give up and chalk it all up to some superior intelligence - God or space aliens, presumeably. This simply adds a layer of complexity to the equation rather than providing any real answers. In other words, who or what created the Creator?

The suggestion that a consciousness, particularly a highly superior or even a magical one, can exist without anything to be conscious of is an example of the kind of thinking that attributes thunder to Thor's hammer.

It is not science, it is mythology.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Family Tradition
by Jeff Clothier

Mother's Day is coming up. For years now, it's been a pleasant family custom for me to buy a hanging basket of spring flowers for my mother, grandmother and sister, the mother of my niece and nephew. I think, I don't know, but I believe that they look forward to it every year, and appreciate it.

This year, I've considered doing something different. I've had an eye out for some other token of affection for any number of reasons, first and foremost because my grandmother is now in a nursing home and no longer in a position to care for a hanging flower basket. I feel strange about it, but I'm considering it.

Family traditions are important. They provide continuity, and a feeling of security. Some are rooted in history and cultural origins. Some are even rooted in biology. One thing many have in common is that their actual origins are a mystery.

Because the origins of a particular tradition are often hidden in time, and because many of them work pretty well for those following them, at some point they may come to seem inevitable, irrevocable, even necessary for survival. Those who fail to follow them may be ostracized by their families, even penalized or punished.

Every once in a while, members of a family or other community may try to establish a new tradition, or carry on old traditions in different ways. This can be even more dangerous than flouting tradition entirely. Those who do so may expect condemnation, social sanction or even problems with the law.

Hyrum W. Smith of the Franklin Covey corporation tells a story about a young woman hosting her first big family dinner. A guest noticed that she cut off both ends of a ham before placing it in the oven. Curious, he asked her why.

"Because it makes it taste better," said the lady.

"Where'd you learn that," asked the guest.

"From my mother."

The guest asked the woman's mother , "Did you cut both ends of your ham off before you put it in the oven?"

"I sure did," said the older lady.


"Because it makes it taste better."

"Where'd you learn that?"

"From my mother."

The hostess's grandmother was in the house, and the guest asked her if she had cut off both ends of her ham before putting it in the oven.

"Yes," said the grandmother.

"But, why?"

"Because it wouldn't fit in my oven any other way."

Like I said, the origins of tradition are often lost in the mists of time.

So where did my little flower basket tradition come from? Is it an ethnic thing, or a long-standing practice of my family or clan? No. Truth is, back when I was teaching middle school band we raised funds every spring selling bedding plants and decorative hanging baskets from a local wholesale greenhouse. It was economical and convenient for me, and it made the ladies in my family happy for the last decade and a half or so.

If I decided to change our little flower-basket tradition, would I ruffle some feathers? Maybe. Would it affect anyone else, or be anyone else's business? No.

People who live according to tradition are free to do so. Forcing others to live up to some perceived "tradition" or hold to "traditional values" that may have no particular value, or whose origins are so lost in the wilderness of time that the incident or circumstance that fostered them are unknown, and may very well no longer be valid, is unnecessary and wrong.

I'll probably go with the hanging baskets anyway. It's pleasant, convenient, and it tickles my mom.

But if not, it will be no big deal.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Reply from an "Iowa Racist"
by Jeff Clothier

Heidi Schnakenberg's jeremiad on racism in the Des Moines Register, like most strongly expressed opinions, has a flipside. Her implication that Iowa has not embraced minorities sufficiently can be easily disproved by visiting los ciudades de Marshalltown or Denison, or by talking to members of the Taidam and other Asian communities who celebrate their heritage annually in Des Moines, by visiting a Lubuvitcher delicatessen in Postville, etc. Or, one can simply peer into the cubicle, office or home next door and meet a new face. More and more those faces look radically different from those we are used to. As we continue to welcome new Iowans, we do hope and expect those new arrivals will work as hard to adapt to the environment here as we do to make a place for them. That isn't always the case. A romantic attitude toward minorities and immigrants in general does as much to dehumanize and devalue them as overt racism.

Schnakenberg's "local girl goes to New York and has her eyes opened to the world" attitude is as hackneyed as it is patronizing. Race relations on the coasts aren't as idyllic as she paints them. Communities and individuals clash there as they do everywhere else, and probably moreso due to greater concentration and closer proximity. Of course New York is more "cosmopolitan" than Iowa. It's a port city and an historic point of entry for legal immigrants. Sadly, our geography and heritage prevents Iowa from being as "minority friendly" as she might like. That is changing as law, technology and transportation progress. Not all of those changes are for the better.

My advice to Ms. Schnakenberg, if she has anything but contempt for her home and for the people who still live here, is to celebrate the successes Iowa has had in welcoming newcomers and minorities rather than simply complaining we are still too white. Otherwise, please, sweetie, take your white guilt elsewhere and quit bringing it home with you over spring break.

Friday, February 25, 2005

An Idea From A Constituent
by Jeff Clothier

For the past two years I've made part of my living as a housepainter. I am a degree-holding communications and education professional with a twenty-year record of service to my community and to my loved ones, I am a writer and a musician, and I have spent much of the last two years of my life as a housepainter.

I have never been more proud.

When you deal in ideas and live mostly in your head, or vicariously by means of students, coworkers, or live and die according to the stock price of the corporation you shill for, you tend to lose track of the tangible. Hanging twenty feet in the air on a ladder cutting in under the eaves of someone else's dream home, you are absolutely rooted in the here-and-now.

You tend to take stock. You tend to see things in terms of assets and impediments. Above all, you keep your head up and your mind focused because, hey, you're ass is hangin' twenty feet in the air.

Cutting in under a ceiling or overhang involves making two surfaces at ninety degrees from one another appear to join seamlessly. It is hugely difficult. When you can, you use tape to paint a clean edge. When you can't because you might damage the finish you do it freehand. This one simple skill is the one by which a housepainter is judged, and by which one judges himself.

Every politician and office holder, Republican, Democrat or third-party, ought to spend a summer painting other people's houses. He ought to arrange it so that he has to live, for that one summer, on the profit from his work, and possibly to support his family on it. It brings all the discussion about taxes, subsidies and the free market into crystal clear focus. More accurately, it brings things that are far more important into crystal clear focus and relegates all those other things into the background where they belong.

Programs, departments, policies, tax breaks and benefits – none of these things matter when your immediate livelihood depends upon your balancing on an eighteen by three-inch ladder rung twenty feet in the air while cutting the straightest line you can and hoping your client will be pleased enough when you're done to pay you what he promised. It is only when you're finished that those other things become relevent.

What happens to the fruits of your labor after the labor is done is where government comes in. And because most people in government do not get to spend a summer painting other people's houses, they cannot possibly understand the full impact of what they do on people like me.

So, when office holders or office seekers wonder what happened to the support they once had, or why they enjoy the support they currently do;

When they contemplate the positions they are taking, wonder whether or not they are the right ones or simply the popular ones;

When they have qualms about whether the votes they've taken have any effect on their constituents at all, for good or ill;

When they wonder about their place in history or even recent memory, I have a suggestion:

Climb a ladder.

Paint a house.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Some Specifics
by Jeff Clothier

Been on a rant the past few days about recouching Democratic ideals in terms of a more Libertarian age. So far, I've been very general about how this ought to be done and my motives for suggesting it.

I have voted Democratic most of my life. Occasionally, I've even registered and caucused as one. I come from a family of lifelong Democrats and it is natural for me to do so. Still, I have been a huge skeptic about the party, as I have never been one for groupthink. I feel the party as a whole tends to think about people in large numbers – interest, racial and ethnic groups, class divisions and income strata. This works only in eras when there is huge agreement among people, when events are such that the divisions between individual interests pale. The Depression, World War II, Vietnam, 9/11 – In a crisis we band together.

That cohesiveness breaks down, however, in better times, which I find appropriate, but, historically, Democrats have seen as a loss of virtue. Democrats place a high value on community. Too often, however, they forget that a community is made up of individuals. When looking for "society at large" one finds that there simply isn't any "there" there. For purposes of political convenience, too often the Democrats try to herd people together – as "Latinos," as "African-Americans," as "Bi-Gay-Lesbian-Transgendered Persons." While people tend to self-identify with groups like this they often resent being herded into them when circling the wagons simply isn't necessary.

But now the herding is being done by the Republican Party.

In the past election cycle, they have used nationalist, nativist, religious and patriotic rhetoric in such a way as to equate liberty with conformity. They did it against the backdrop of an optional war for shifting purposes and dubious and dangerous results - and it worked.

In short, George W. Bush has made a liberal Democrat out of me. A Classical liberal, but a liberal all the same.

It is clear to me that, in order to muster an effective opposition at all levels of politics and government, the Democrats need to be able to frame the debate differently. They need to take the rhetorical initiative, and make a completely new case for their major issues. It shouldn't be that hard, and it doesn't have to dilute Democratic support for those traditional issues one iota.

On the environment:

Talk less about the air, water and land as properties we hold in common. Talk more about the right of individuals to the use and enjoyment of their private property without trespass. Time was when a person bought land, he theoretically owned a wedge going down to the Earth's core and reaching up into the skies above. He could fence it in if he wanted, and anyone fouling his air, his water, or his land was subject to criminal trespass. A hog lot built upwind of a housing development ought to be directly liable for the damage it causes, or be forced to remunerate its neighbors for the inconvenience. Regulating parts-per-million of emissions merely sets a limit on how much polluters are allowed to pollute, how much trespass must be tolerated.

On reproductive rights, family planning and biological science:

Talk about the sanctity of human life, but that the perpetuation of human life depends upon the ability to make choices. The intrusion of government into the family, into the doctor/patient relationship, into reproductive research and medical science does nothing to protect or defend the sanctity of human life, only relegates it to the status of State property.

On free trade, markets, outsourcing and foreign labor:

Extoll the virtues of the free market, and the idea that they theoretically benefit those on both sides of the transaction. To the extent that they don't, then the market is not free. Be bold in stating that those who profit from coerced economies overseas are not, by definition, free marketeers. Don't be afraid to get Constitutional, and state that the U.S. was set up as its own free trade zone, where the basic assumptions are equal across the continent, and that the Federal government has Constitutional powers to levy duties and tariffs at our borders where necessary and appropriate. We are indeed a nation of immigrants, but there are and must be distinct benefits to U.S. citizenship, or there is no value in that citizenship.

These are just a few specific examples of how I feel the debate can be reframed, and why. I am still a Libertarian, and an individualist. But because I am those things, I am also a Democrat.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Democrats, Take Heed
by Jeff Clothier

An inciteful op-ed by the Washington Post's Harold Myerson entitled "ISO: Working Class Democrats" should be cut and pasted to the inside-front cover of every Franklin Planner of every Democratic operative in the country.

There is a current perception of Democratic leadership as gin-and-tonic-swilling elitists condescending to what is left of the lower middle class. There is some truth to that perception, as nobody but gin-and-tonic-swilling elitists can afford to run for office these days. Everyone expects Republicans to be gin-and-tonic-swilling elitists, but on a Democrat, it just looks hypocritical.

Like it or not, there is a strong Libertarian streak in the American character. The farther removed we are from catastrophes like the Great Depression and World War Two, the wider that streak becomes. Union membership, as the Post article suggests, is shrinking not only because the industrial sector is shrinking, but also because union membership is no longer seen as beneficial by many potential members. While collective bargaining provides a measure of security, it also ties the material gains of the most able and productive to those who merely coast. Add to this the perceived nose-thumbing at working-class prudery by leading Democrats in the past election cycle, and you begin to see why the traditional Democratic base may be slipping.

Where to go from here? Again it may be useful to look to the opposition for clues.

Today, the America's Future Foundation, yet another rightist Beltway thinktank, hosted a cocktail-weenie feed and forum entitled:
Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Apparently, it can't. At least not according to a summary posted on Reason Magazine's "Hit and Run."

Under the heading, "The Lib/Con Marriage--A Summary," Julian Sanchez writes:

Cato's Jeremy Lott and The American Conservative's W. James Antle both argued for the symbiotic benefits both sides derive from the relationship: Libertarians get, well, relevance, and conservatives get a conscience—Antle stressed that it's in the interest of neither the Republicans nor the country if the party lacks a voice on the inside warning it to steer clear of big-government conservatism. Lott emphasized the idea (Frank Meyer's?) of fusing libertarian means to conservative ends, pointing out that the case for limiting government interference in people's lives was intimately tied to the value of the civic and familial institutions conservatives prize. Both also observed that, as Gene Healy succinctly put it, a man is only as faithful as his options—with whom will we make common cause if not Republicans? Hillary?

Maybe. But if not Hillary, than perhaps enlightened Democratic politicians seeking office in the next four to eight years who recognize that working class people do indeed feel threatened, but not necessarily by Republicans.

They feel threatened by those who don't really understand them and their concerns, yet pretend to. They feel threatened by a future in which more government control over their lives seems inevitable. They feel threatened by those seeking to shore up legacy systems and institutions and programs rather than seeking forward-looking solutions to the problems those old systems were meant to help solve.

Working and middle-class people want what they have always wanted: A voice, a choice, and an opportunity. Then they want the freedom to take the next steps themselves.

Republicans are in power now because of higher perceived respect for what the former Democratic constituency really want. But, as the Reason piece suggests, Republican conservatives aren't entirely comfortable with that Libertarian streak.

Democrats should get comfortable with it. They must come to understand that that Libertarian streak is the core and the basis of traditional Democratic values of civil rights and liberties, and economc opportunity for all. They should stop balking at discussions of Constitutionality, individual rights and freedom, and develop a lexicon around them.

They should talk about freer, fairer markets, and how they are meant to benefit the average consumer as well as the megaproducer. They should talk about traditional families, and how individuals ought to be free to establish new traditions. They should talk about the sancticty of human life, and how human life depends upon the freedom to make choices.

Rather than squelch that Libertarian streak in all of us, to make us feel lost and afraid, incapable of acting on our own in our own best interests, Democrats should embrace that streak. Create a new, forward-thinking populism. Talk about individual pride, capability, leadership, achievement. Elevate the working man and woman from "average" to "extraordinary." Take seriously his or her point of view, and tell truth to power.

Selecting Howard Dean as DNC chairman may be a nod in that direction. His "You have the power," campaign theme powered an incredible online fundraising machine. Had that machine generated caucus and primary votes as well, 2004 would have been a far different race.

In any case, it may be high time, now, to put down the g-and-t and put on some work clothes if the Democrats are to improve their fortunes in a more individualistic age.

Danger in Success
by Jeff Clothier

It is possible, just possible, that events in the Middle East are converging to make the Bush Administration appear more successful in that region than it can legitimately claim to be.

The timely death of Yassir Arafat, an apparently successful initial election in Iraq, the overwhelming reaction by an angry Lebanese populace to the killing of a beloved, anti-Syrian politician — It is possible that a synergy is emerging to actually foment popular, democratic change in the region.

The U.S. must walk a very fine line at this time, being engaged at all levels while taking care to ascribe as much credit as possible for any democratic gains to local populations. The one thing that is certain is that President Bush will seek to take as much credit as possible, and use every scrap of good news - and good press - as post hoc evidence of the correctness of his policies, particularly vis a vis Iraq.

Any crowing the administration does now or in the ensuing months could very well serve to derail any popular change in that volitile region. That is the danger to the U.S., and to the Republican Party.

The danger to Democrats would be to let him get away with it.