15 October, 2006


Our colleagues in the on-line world have done a good job of defending last week's study that tried to show the true extent of the violence in Iraq. I think the best defense was here*and here.

The funny thing that comes through as right-wingers, war supporters and other innumerates try to debunk the study is that people appear to believe words before they believe numbers. They have more faith in the blandishments of their political leaders than they do in empirical, statistically verified evidence. This reminds me of Saheli's post almost a year ago about the need for more people to learn quantitative methods.

*Maybe I'm just pointing you this way because Majikthise, the author, has taken as her name that of the head of the philosophers' union in the Hitchhikers Guide series, which gives her big nerd cred.

Why, just tonight she mentioned that she had heard a lecture and afterward regretted not asking for "the graph of the derivative" of global temperature over time. I realized that even though I'm pretty numerate, calculus is still enough of a foreign language to me that I wouldn't have thought to ask this perfectly reasonable question in such an elegant way.


there's a scene in albert brooks's defending your life  — pretty funny movie — where he learns that advanced souls don't read words, they read binary code. (which fails the geek test in terms of data bandwidth, but it's a very good visual joke.) (it was 1991. if the page were in hex, would people have understood it as numbers?)

anyhow the fear with an inconvenient truth (and probably why there's so much "when i was a boy" material) was that numbers don't make a good story. certainly very little of the movie is about the numbers, it's all demonstrable cause and effect and positioning new narratives for easy access when making future decisions. i'm not excusing anybody, including myself, whose sense of numbers is wholly intuitive and badly wrong, too often. but the acquired skills are about narrative, not non-visual counting. language is more physical and easier to combine with gestures and behavior and socializing, i think.

add that possibility to america's cornucopian politics and to knowing that elite folk combine complex secret apportionment deals with public shows of heroic ignorance. it just doesn't add up to either pressure or perceived need for number awareness. you're not going to get screwed, you're the hero of the picture! hero hero hero. 

Posted by hibiscus

maybe i should have said "cornucopian dialectic." 

Posted by hibiscus

This brings to mind the latest assignment for my teacher's certification class. We were asked to respond to the oft-asked "Why do we need to learn this? When will we use it?" in the subjects of algebra, chemistry and music. I'll just cut-n-paste my answer for algebra here, because I'm too lazy to summarize...

Algebra is a student’s first exposure to abstract thinking. Elementary school math involves manipulation of numbers. Numbers are concrete. Schoolchildren may have trouble understanding concepts like fractions and decimals, negative numbers, or word problems. However, all of these concepts can at some level be represented by a concrete example. Percents and fractions can be shown with colored in pie-pieces. Multiplication and division are easily illustrated with blocks.

Algebra is the first time a student has to deal with mathematical concepts that cannot be illustrated. Algebra is usually not taught to kids at a very early age. Young children are not able to think in abstract terms. If something can be seen or counted, then it is easy to understand. It is not until later that children are able to understand that not everything needs to be seen to be understood. Algebra is taught at this point. Being able to manipulate numbers to figure out the unknown, without a convenient mental crutch, helps a student learn to think about abstract concepts. Students learn to find answers using only the power of their own minds, not their senses.

I think this lack of concreteness has a lot to do with why people are so afraid of statistics. 655,000 is a big number, but try and break down where that number came from, and people get all confused. You can clearly see that a sample size of 12,000 is a lot smaller than the actual population of Iraq. You can't see a confidence interval. The untrained, third-grade math part of your brain cannot reconcile the numbers you can see with the numbers you can't see. 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

Gladstone: 'Lies, damned lies and statistics.'

Facts/information are always vulnerable as to be shared, they need to be communicated and all acts of communication are subjective and ideological. If we choose to believe what we are told by those in power, that is our responsibility, but for the majority, they are content to abdicate that responsibility because it allows them to do nothing.

Political power is a myth. In reality, it is no more than authority and can thus be undermined fairly rapidly should enough people choose to challenge it.

Iraq is just another example of the consequences of apathy. I have no idea how it will be resolved and I don't think the idiots who started it all have any idea either.

Thanks for another thought provoking post Hedgehog.


Posted by Glamourpuss

Political power is a myth. In reality, it is no more than authority and can thus be undermined fairly rapidly should enough people choose to challenge it.

Unfortunately, the guns, firings, jailings, and other harassment, intimidation, etc. that get used when it is challenged are not myths. That is why resistance--true resistnace--is so difficult, and why mocking the populace for not engaging in it is so wrong. 

Posted by saurav

i think the blacklisting is the worst. it's the hardest to organize against. look how well the frat-republicans are doing it. their retaliations and loyalty tests are the big story but few are reporting it for fear of slander and exclusion. 

Posted by hibiscus

Yo, man, I don't think Iraq is an example of apathy. I seem to remember participating in the largest and most energetic anti-war demonstrations in history, along with millions of other Americans and tens of millions around the world. There was very little wrong with popular opposition to the war; it was strong, it was well-informed, it was persistent. It also had NO political support from our so-called leaders and was completely ignored by Bush. Apathy was not the problem; power was. Confronting power is not easy for the powerless, and actually undermining the authority that we have allowed to be put in place is a monumental task. 

Posted by saurabh

There is a difference between political power and the power of the state. Political power is ideological and can thus be challenged, based, as it is, upon consensus. The power of the state is power - ie, the state has the power to directly control us through the use of weapons etc. But that still does not let us off the hook - we elected them, we accept the system as it is, we abdicate our power to political leaders. Ok, maybe my argument is too abstract for this forum, yes, we demonstrated against the war, yes, our leaders have guns, but as members of western society, we have created the reality we find ourselves in, no on else did it for us.


Posted by Glamourpuss

Glamourpuss & Saurabh: You are right on to think about politics as a question of power. The way I see it, power can't be taken, it can only be given. Saurav & Hibiscus, you mention the ultimate coercion, that of force and blacklisting. But these are still cases where the dominated person gives up power. We all get to make choices, until we're dead. The fact that so many people, from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Hanoi Hilton, have kept their integrity at risk of death rather than going along to get along, inspires me. It also shows how frickin wimpy we all are here. Yes, millions of us (myself included) marched against the war, but what else? This year I have a good job and will pay $10,000 in taxes, which can buy a good 1,000 rounds of 50-cal. ammo to tear up flesh in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is up to me -- and to all the other war opponents -- to rearrange my life so this doesn't happen. 

Posted by hedgehog

tch. just because we live in a free country doesn't mean the ship of state has no momentum or turns on the whim of a vocal dissident minority.

the folks at the helm now learned this lesson 30+ years ago and have been planning and building up to this act of piracy ever since. they did a good job, all the loopholes and wishful thinking are pointed their way. it's their show to run into the ground.

you have to believe i am not being sarcastic or defeatist. i'm shocked-like-a-little-kid that the american system didn't have better defenses against this. well no — people fought off the fixes. my point is the power that is being given or taken here was given years ago and the how-and-from-whom of taking it back isn't as clear as it looks like it should be. this was never intended to be a populist government. (a couple weeks ago i dug around and found that the presidential election of 1800 involved barely over 1% of the country's population. that's our system today — more people can vote, petition, assemble, etc, but that early bias toward elites remains.)

yes i could have done more. what i did was wrack my brain for answers. but almost nothing you can say right now can convince me that i could have saved lives in iraq. that ship sailed years ago. maybe with the first OPEC boycott. 

Posted by hibiscus

Hibiscus, I take your point but Hedgehog is right, this is a question of integrity. Every second of our lives offer us the opportunity to choose how we wish to be/stand for. Our level of participation in the fantasies of Western 'democracy' are chosen - however unconsciously. It is one reason I gave up being a school teacher - I could no longer promote an ideology I fundamentally disagreed with - the old Protestant work ethic, definitions of success, values I did not hold etc, etc.

I'm not saying we all have to live in communes and eat what we grow, but we do need to be aware of the ways we comply with the state. Hedgehog is so right when he says that power can only be given and the power of the individual is awesome, truly awsome. The image of one man standing in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square mobilised the world.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Ghandi. He was utterly true to himself - walked the walk as well as talking it, and achieved independence for his country. There is hope, and hope always lies within us, we just need to access it.


Posted by Glamourpuss

The image of one man standing in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square mobilised the world.  

Did it? While see it on a lot of posters and in a lot of collages, when it comes to basic freedoms like speech, press, religion, and assembly, the PRC still seems to have a long way to go. To you that image is a touchstone of courage, but to me that story is a shuddering lesson in what one must be willing to risk--perhaps for nothing. That man was pulled to safety back into the crowd by the fearful crowd itself, perhaps saving his life--unlike the hundreds of students and workers who were massacred, many of them shot in the back . He might very well have been executed shortly thereafter anyway .

In Vaishnav theology, there is an idea called the "opulence of renunciation,"-- along with fame, physical power, resources, beauty, and intelligence, these are kinds of abstract power. We don't want to "live in a commune" and eat what we grow"---we do not, generally speaking, posess this opulence, which is why it is particularly attractive. There's also the idea of being detached from the results of one's actions, doing one's duty regardless of the result. That's a kind of renunciation as well. Maybe Tiananmen shopping bag man was, in fact, detached from the results--from the possibility of death, from the impossibility of change--and that was what enabled him to do it. I admire that, I don't mean to detract from his courage. The very possibility and existence of such courage is, in fact, something of a relief. But inspiring and hopeful gives me the sense that our appreciation of him is grounded in some notion like, "Oh look he did, so can I, just do this, everything will be fine." Everything will not be fine. Some people will be shot. Some people will get crushed. Gandhi knew this. He spend decades of his life clearing it of all kinds of dross and entanglement and hardening his ability to deal with the crushing. It's not a force one accesses in a single moment of epiphany, like Neo or Luke Skywalker. It's a lifelong process that may lead no where. And it's a lot easier if you don't have any attachments, like, say, loved ones. Gandhi dragged his family along on quite a life--in a society and time whent the paterfamilias decided everything. And while they might have eventually decided it was worth it, and they were with him, that's some rough dragging. He got independance for his country, and without minimizing that at all--I am so very grateful for what he and his fellow freedmom fighters did--please remember that he lost his own life and that his country got freedom at the cost of two or three gaping wounds that still bleed and burn.

I'm not disagreeing with anyone, I just think we should be honest about how bloody awful the consequences can be.  

Posted by Saheli

After spending several years of my youth confronting power, I've sort of settled on the idea that power can't be defeated via direct confrontation. It's best at responding to direct challenges. I'd rather be like quicksand - the bedrock that power stands on slowly crumbles away, and the whole edifice sinks into oblivion.

As Puss points out, the culture of compliance is more important than anything else - and changing that culture does not necessarily mean adopting a culture of non-compliance . In fact, I think this is a really rotten way to do things, since mirror images are rarely congruent or meaningful in their own right. But adopting a different culture IS an excellent way to undermine power. What's really tough is, what should this culture look like, and how do we create it?

I suggest the answer is: art. Not post-modern, nihilistic art, but life-affirming, positive art. Someday I'll write about this in greater detail I guess. 

Posted by saurabh

One of the most important political texts in U.S. history :

Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the screen, was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do--namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, "I would prefer not to."

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, "I would prefer not to."

"Prefer not to," echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. "What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here--take it," and I thrust it towards him.

"I would prefer not to," said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero23 out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.

As the bloggers say, read the whole thing. 

Posted by hedgey

hedgepig: cheating on re-reading i found this which funkily twists the politics .

saurabh: "we can do it!"?

saheli & gpuss: you're both reminding me of the rosa parks section of a book that had too catchy a title to remember but was something like "everything you learned in school is wrong." the gist: rosa parks was an activist, first. her role as tired-working-woman-wanting-to-sit was the national sales pitch; she herself had resisted the bus segregation several times before. "community leaders" were ready to do a legal challenge and had tried to start it before but had rejected several candidates. rosa was older, more reliable, less out-of-wedlock-pregnant, and gave good interview.

anyway the author retold the story because he thought people who didn't know the organizing part got a little freaked out by such superheroic stories, thinking to themselves, "i'm no rosa parks, what can i do?" but rosa parks wouldn't have been ROSA PARKS if she hadn't been trying to bring about the right thing in a day-to-day way for a couple decades, making the connections she did, finishing high school, and everything else. it's slow going when you're working alone. it's when you work with other people that myths emerge.

the hero thing has brought us to the brink, IMO. no green heroes. al gore is probably playing a rosa parks role right now, having been stuffed by a bunch of know–nothings who are the shame of the country. like montgomery 1955 there's finally an opportunity to really get the crowd moving and make changes that have had support but no real way through the muck. 

Posted by hibiscus

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