Archive for July, 2008

Solving Problems - Where There’s Smoke There’s Cash And Mirrors

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Billionaires stubbing out smoking, brains logging on to solve problems, and mirrors as healing devices.

“I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself.”

- Terence

Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

philosophy blog: mike bloomberg bill gates anti-smokingBusinessman, philanthropist, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in his $500M anti-smoking campaign fund. This may not seem like a whole lot of money when compared to the billions that cigarette companies make selling cigarettes around the world, but it dwarfs the WHO estimate of $20M per year currently being spent to combat smoking in low to middle income countries. The fund is expected to save hundreds of millions of lives over the next couple of generations. Yet another reason to shake our heads over the spending priorities of our elected administration (such as the decision to airlift $12B cash into Iraq without keeping track of where it all went…)

Pinky Dinky Doo

Pinky Dinky Doo

Not yet a potential target of big tobacco, my four-year old son fortunately wouldn’t know the Marlboro man if he rode in on his horse. One of my son’s favorite shows of the moment is Noggin’s Pinky Dinky Doo (parents take note — no ads on Noggin!!) Pinky, the show’s heroine, engages her little brother, Tyler, with stories related to a problem he’s encountering. At some point in every story, Pinky’s fictional self “thinks big” in order to solve a problem. Thinking big means thinking laterally, or outside the box. Very entertaining. And now I read that there’s a whole network of Pinkies (not to be confused with pinkoes) who can sign up to compete to solve problems and win cash prizes. “InnoCentive,” reports the Times, has “solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.” Cool.

Philosophy blog: elephant looking in mirror self reflection medical benefitsAnd all of this relates to mirrors how? I’m getting there.

It’s a little all over the place and fluffy, but Natalie Angiers piece on mirrors has some interesting moments. (I scurried off to research her claims about mirror images, thinking she’d got something wrong, but for the moment I have to admit she’s right and I’m feeling a little chagrined.) Here are the pertinent nuggets:

1. Scientists have been “applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.” Wow!

2. “Subjects … in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. … people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. ‘When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,’ Dr. Bodenhausen said. ‘A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.’ Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection.”

smoker in mirror anti-smoking bloomberg gates fundSo if I imagine for a moment that I’m Pinky Dinky Doo and that Mike Bloomberg is offering a prize for the person who can come up with a device that would help people quit smoking, I’d say that he should use some of the fund to distribute hand mirrors to smokers or their loved ones so that they can watch themselves puffing away day and night and hacking up gunk first thing in the morning. Just an idea.

(I would say that he should send a big old mirror to George Bush, but the researchers have also found that not all conscious animals recognize themselves in their reflection. “‘Tellingly,’ said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, ‘animals raised in [or preferring?] isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.’”)

Related posts from around the web…

Gates, Bloomberg pool riches to fight smoking - Microsoft founder Bill Gates, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg walk on stage to announce their $375 million global anti-smoking campaign at a press conference in New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. …

What does an elephant see when it looks in the mirror? - But on further inspection it is thought that they may realise they are seeing themselves as they will repeatedly touch a mark painted on their heads which they wouldn’t be able to see if it were not for the mirror. … (more…)

New Yorker, Obama: A Second Bite

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Jean Cocteau“Art is science made clear.”

- Jean Cocteau

“your head gonna make a dead end on your street”

- Velvet Underground (White Light / White Heat)

Yesterday’s post left me with a disquieting murmur in the back of my mind. ‘Too easy,’ it muttered. And here comes Jean Cocteau to remind me that art is science made clear.

Can we criticize the New Yorker and Barry Blitt on social or political (or sociopolitical) terms for portraying the Obamas as a Muslim and a terrorist in the White House? No. Can we criticize them on artistic terms? Perhaps…

Decrying Blitt’s cartoon as tasteless and offensive doesn’t mean it’s not satirically funny; instead, it lends the cartoon a couple of the stock credentials of satirical humor.

Philosophy Blog: Barack Michelle Obama New Yorker Blitt Barry cartoon cover terrorits Osama Bin Laden White House American flag burning fireplaceTo understand the failure of the cartoon one must look to Cocteau: ‘art is science made clear,’ he insists. Considering the New Yorker’s high standards, does the cartoon make clear the science it satirizes?

Yes, and  no.

Yes, it parodies the ridiculous public fears and scurrilous Foxian paranoia about the Obamas as anti-American sleepers.  The New Yorker satisfactorily defends each subversive element of the cartoon (the Muslim garb, the gun belt, the burning flag) as a reinforcement of its plain and simple satirical intent — to explode the damp squib of right wing racism.

But… and here Cocteau helps enormously, it isn’t necessarily funny, because, despite all of these well placed clues, it isn’t made clear.

The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. I love to read it.  I’ve often said that I could be happy reading the New Yorker and nothing else.  (Not strictly true, but it has some damn fine writing.) It’s also, despite the wry, dry, sprightly daggers of its prose, an essentially sensitive publication. It skewers the bad guys. While for the good guys it reserves a blunted point.

Philosophy blog: New Yorker cover cartoon Obama Blitt Barry Barack Michelle terroristsI worked so hard yesterday to repress this awareness. I wanted to laud the New Yorker and Barry Blitt. But as I scrolled through the New Yorker cover cartoons seeking out examples of the same kind of abrasive satire I knew deep down that I wouldn’t find anything quite like the Obama cover.

We see Ahmadinejad being being enticed to a game of footsy in the bathroom stall, Bush as a housemaid standing over a cigar-smoking Cheney, the neocons up to their necks in a muddy flood… Jubilant snickers at the expense of the bad guys.

But with the Obama cartoon, those at whom we would snicker are absent.  If we laugh at the cartoon, we don’t laugh with the Obamas and we can’t laugh at them.  The objects of our laughter, the conservative commentators and our narrow-minded neighbors, don’t even make the frame.  They’re nowhere but in the dim recess of the cartoonist’s mind’s eye.  Considered from this perspective, the cartoon veers toward the tragic. The victims take center stage.  But clearly the cartoon cannot be tragic if the supposed victims don’t know it. The Obama’s expressions betray satisfaction and mischievous glee.

Philosophy blog: Lou Reed guitar Velvet UndergroundIf the New Yorker in its cover cartoon had, as does the Onion in its copy, a history of satirical lampoon with no holds barred, the cartoon would make more sense; its art would be science made clear. But given the absence of this history, the cartoon’s immediate psychological impact tends to muddy its message.

Not that any of this matters in practical terms. The tiny fraction of the population who even read the New Yorker and would pay any attention to what it has to say aren’t inclined to think that the Obamas might be terrorists, no matter what cartoon it runs on the cover.

A couple more for Barry Blitt, with sympathy and respect…

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”

- Jean Cocteau

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown,”

- Lou Reed

Related posts from around the web…

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Why Satire Is Tasteless And Offensive

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama Michelle Obama muslim terrorist new yorker bbc bill burton satireThe New Yorker has a long history of offending people with its notoriously tasteless and offensive output of low-brow hackery. Obama spokesman Bill Burton rightly dismisses the magazine’s latest outrageous cover cartoon: “The New Yorker may think… that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create,” Burton says, before he draws a fiery breath, “but most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

We agree, indeed. What else would we do, applaud the New Yorker for tackling head-on the kinds of issues that all other publications skirt?

Philosophy blog: new yorker barry blitt cover cartoon amajinabad iran bathroom stallSatire has no place in an enlightened society. After all, to appreciate satire one must simultaneously understand the direct impact of the satirical object as well as its indirect object. Surely we shouldn’t be expected to hold opposing or divergent concepts in our minds at one time, that’s just barbaric! This is one nation under god, godamnit!

I sympathize with Barack Obama or Bill Burton, or whoever it was who most felt the affront of the New Yorker’s tasteless and offensive campaign. Getting to be president is a sensitive business and one must protect one’s thin skin if one is going to successfully attain the office.

Philosophy blog: Obama Clinton New Yorker Cover CartoonRepublican opposer — John McCain — no stranger himself to satire, limped nimbly to Obama’s support, declaring: “New York can go take a hike! Oh, wait a minute, there aren’t any decent hiking trails around New York. Come to think of it, the only place you can even safely fire your gun in New York is from the roof of a New York City housing project, and who would want to set foot in one of those places…”

(McCain may be old but his mind wanders beautifully.)

Philosophy blog: New Yorker Barry Blitt cartonon cover satire ObamaSo, when you get your hands of a copy of the current New Yorker, be sure to set it on fire and toss it into the grate as quickly as you can. At least, tear off the cover and set fire to that… we’ll decide later what to do with the rest of it.

But before you toss the cover, take a quick look at the cartoon: See how Blitt has cunningly distorted Obama’s face so that it seems confident, unperturbed, wily even. What a scam, what a ruse.

Related posts from around web…

Mika: New Yorker Obama Cartoon ‘Dangerous’ - True, the Danes had nothing to do with the New Yorker’s publication of the Obama cover. But what more time-honored locale to protest an irreverent cartoon of a figure adulated with religious fervor? Mika has condemned the New Yorker …

Obama New Yorker Cartoon Cover Outrage! - Have you heard about Tina Brown’s provocative New Yorker cartoon magazine? Well, some wacky kids in Georgetown claim to have found some rejected Barack Obama cover illustrations, such as this one, showing the Maoist basketball Soviet …

New Yorker Cover - Both Barry Blitt, the cartoonist, and New Yorker editor David Remnick responded to the immediate outcry on Huffington Post. The Obama campaign called the cartoon “tasteless and offensive.” Remnick insists the cartoon “hold[s] up a …



Human Potential

Friday, July 11th, 2008

On human potential, personal development, and the philosophy of growth.

“Everyone is as God has made him, and oftentimes a great deal worse.”
- Miguel de Cervantes

“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”
- Frank Herbert

US science fiction novelist (1920 - 1986)

Rational philosophy blog: Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraWithout reading too much into the respective literary ouevres of these two authors, we may not be surprised that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, observer and recorder of human failings and doomed repetitions, takes an essentially pessimistic view of human nature, while Frank Herbert, a creator of alternative realities, perceives unlimited boundaries for knowledge and achievement. (Herbert spoke with enthusiasm about the positive power of science fiction to point to possibilities, including potholes or chasms that we should avoid.)

Biographers describe Cervantes the young man as brash and idealistic. He fits Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s model of a person with a “fixed mind-set.”   “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow”, in this week’s NY Times, discusses Dweck’s theory of fixed versus flexible mind-sets. In Dweck’s own words: “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed tend to push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

Dweck believes that society’s obsession with natural ability thwarts our capacity for growth.

Don Quixote’s imaginary battles against windmills and flocks of sheep speak to me of his creator’s struggle with the idea of fixed potential. That Quixote’s engagements, won or lost, are illusory magnifies the futility of these attempts to conquer fabricated enemies and prove himself worthy of his love. As he grew up, Cervantes’ family moved from town to town, never settling. It’s easy to imagine Cervantes the brash, idealistic, talented young man wanting to achieve something real, but unable to stand long enough on firm ground to be sure of what was real, each move to a new place confirming the isolated and unchangeable nature of his self.

Rational philosophy blog: Frank Herbert Author of Dune Science Fiction novelContrast this with the assertion of Frank Herbert’s son that his father didn’t finish college because he took only to the courses that interested him, forgoing required classes. Herbert worked at writing for many years before achieving success, relying on his wife’s income to support them. He submitted his landmark science fiction work — Dune — to 20 publishers before it was picked up for publication by a smallish press.

Obviously, even within Dweck’s postulate, talented people can achieve success (Cervantes may be a prime example), but she claims that people can achieve more success if they maintain a flexible mind-set. (She cites several mighty examples from the business world — John F. Welch Jr. of General Electric, for his emphasis on teamwork over individual genius; Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of I.B.M., who praised ‘the thousands of I.B.M.’ers who never gave up on their company’; and Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox, who turned an eye to morale and staff development even as she made tough cuts.)

If you’re reading this and thinking “jeez that sucks, I’m one of those people with a fixed mind-set;” I’d hold out a little branch of hope, attached to a big old tree of potential. To begin the conversion from a fixed mind-set to a flexible mind-set we need only accept the concept of self doubt. What if we aren’t born fully formed and unchangeable? What if we accept that growth is possible but takes work…

Related posts from around the web…

Mindset, it will profoundly affect everything. - If you answer yes, your thinking about learning is aligned with a key quiet leader principle and you likely have a “growth mindset,” a personal characteristic that Professor Carol Dweck says will “profoundly affect all aspect of a …

Fixed Mind-Set vs. Growth Mind-Set - The article describes the implications of the research of Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck. In an interview of Carol Dweck by Coert Visser, Dweck said:. People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill …

On failure pt. 2 - Rae-Dupree sums up thoughts from a 2006 book by Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that describes two views one holds about oneself. We can think we’re born with talent or not. Whether we think we’re Picasso or a dolt …


Independence And Interdependence

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Young Winston Churchill 5th HussarsOn Obama’s political promise and compromise, Kripalu’s spiritual economics, and a country’s declared intent.

“The reserve of modern assertions is sometimes pushed to extremes, in which the fear of being contradicted leads the writer to strip himself of almost all sense and meaning.”

- Sir Winston Churchill

Philosophy blog: barack obama ap religious assurances

The New York Times editorial board today criticizes Barack Obama, saying that he’s already slipped from his bold promises to eschew big money contributions and stand up to special interest groups. The editorial board’s concerns seem to be valid in some respects, but not in others: Yes, Obama has allowed himself to be persuaded that it’s OK to take lots of donor money. Yes, Obama has reversed his earlier position on telecom company immunity re wire-tapping for no good reason. And yes, Obama has begun pandering to religious groups in an alarming way by promising further erosion of the separation of church and state.

But the editorial board also criticizes Obama for his right of center positions on gun control and the death penalty. I can understand the board not liking these of Obama’s positions, but they reflect a consistency in his opinion rather than a divergence. Obama seems a bit of a social conservative when it comes to certain issues. Here’s what he says in The Audacity of Hope: “While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous…that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”

While this opinion on the death penalty reflects a moral weakness that disturbs me (outrage is enough of a reason to kill people?) Obama can’t be said to have conveniently changed his mind.

Even the boldest and strongest politician (and it’s yet to be seen whether Obama is one of them) feels the tug of interdependence. How crucial is it to hold onto one’s views and beliefs if they seem sure to hurt your chances of election? Of what use is a politician without office?

Philosophy blog: Kripalu Center monetizing spirituality commerce marketing yoga health“What are the needs of the market, and what are the needs of society?  What we’re looking at is what will someone pay to take a vacation to do.” So says Ila Sarley, president of Kripalu Center for Yoga And Health. The description of the Kripalu back office sounds every bit as spiritual as the booking office for Ringlings. But despite and within the commercial mundanity that the center’s bureaucracy has become, there still exists, I imagine some room to kindle the kind of healing work that started the whole thing. The instructors come. The students come. The classes happen. And spirits are lifted, muscles stretched, minds opened.

To reach more people, the independent acts of teaching and growing become dependent on the commerce of marketing, sales and management.

Philosophy blog: copy of declaration of independence The original “fair copy” of the Declaration of Independence, the one present on July 4 when it was passed, hasn’t been seen since. But there are a couple of dozen printed copies (containing slight variations) still at hand. And then there’s the ‘official’ copy that sits in the National Archives behind bulletproof glass. But this is a later copy that was post-dated.

Even something as fixed and seemingly concrete as a manuscript can’t alwats be genuine. So what hope the intent, inspiration and concept of such a manuscript?

As we enter the twilight years of the American domination of global commerce, which brought with it a political domination backed up by an insurmountably powerful military, we begin to see how fleeting and frail the concept of independence can be. Once wielding a big stick when it came to oil prices, for instance, the US now doesn’t have much say, and we’re left suffering at the pump. As China and India forge ahead, we’ll soon be just another alsoran, looking to find ways to leverage where we can.

Philosophy blog: world map 1776This isn’t necessarily a failure, nor a position to lament. Independence is always in tension with interdependence. We exist in a universe in which all things fundamentally result from different arrangements and forms of energy bound together in a single universal instance of space and time.

What matters is that we’re aware of this tension, that we don’t try to deny it or defeat it. Not that Obama should shed his convictions for reasons of political expediency, but if he does shed some along the way, let’s hope he does it with full awareness of the sacrifice he’s making. Likewise those trade-offs faced in every life and pursuit, from Kripalu retreats to the trajectory of nations.

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Obama’s private funding: what does it mean? - By opting out of public funding, Obama has already reformed campaign funding, more than campaign-funding crusader John McCain ever has. Obama has said that he’s in favour of far-reaching reform of federal campaign funding; by making his …

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Neural Pathways, Hypocrisy, And CIA Commies

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

On exciting brain research, insightful psychological studies, and the latest shocker from the ill-thunk war on terror.

Quotes of the day:

“I can’t speculate on previous decisions that may have been made prior to current D.O.D. policy on interrogations,”

Lt. Col Patrick Ryder, in reference to the Guantánamo interrogation training chart repurposed from 1950s Chinese torture methods that elicited false confessions.

“All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”

H. L. Mencken US editor (1880 - 1956)

Philosophy blog: core neural system connects to cerebral cortex mapping showsUsing structural and functional brain imaging, scientists now have unprecedented insight into the mechanisms of thought. Writing in the Public Library of Science, Liza Gross cites the ‘form follows function’ edict of architect Louis Sullivan, which itself echoed Aristotle’s essential philosophy of form, in describing the findings of Patric Hagmann, Olaf Sporns, and their colleagues. Hagmann and Sporns found that a dense set of core neural pathways acts as an interconnection hub to the brain’s cerebral cortex the home of higher cognitive thinking and self awareness. The elegant, symmetrical spread of pathways — like the branches of a tree extending from the trunk — correlates to the brain’s seamless processing of information on different levels and in different ways. (Gross’s use of computer technology analogies I find unhelpful. The brain is not like a computer, after all, a computer is, somewhat, like the brain.) Interestingly, the hubs correspond to a recently reported neural system that shows increased activity levels when we are at rest.

Philosophy blog: psychological foundation of hypocrisy obama mccainPsychologists seem to have uncovered where we aim some of that resting activity — self rationalization. (”The duality of virtue: Deconstructing the moral hypocrite.” Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press. “Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue.” Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno. Psychological Science, 2007.) The researchers devised cunning experiments to lure subjects into choosing an easy chore over a hard one while maintaining that they’d been acting fairly in leaving the harder chore for someone else. In the abstract, the subjects understood that choosing the easy chore wasn’t fair, but in practice most of them chose it anyway. But the true genius in the research came when the researchers asked the subjects to hold a sequence of numbers in their heads while they judged the fairness of their choice. All of a sudden they judged their actions just as harshly as anyone else would.

So, what kept them from admitting their unfairness wasn’t a failure to recognize it, it was a failure to admit to it. And the act of hypocrisy required considerable brain cycles.

Central Intelligence AgencyInterrogation experts should take note. If you want to extract an honest answer, break out the Sodoku puzzles rather than the water buckets and manacles.

Since form follows function, it is no surprise that the form of the administration’s war on terror has evolved into a horrifying, amorphous mess. The New York Times reveals that the interrogation chart used as a training device for interrogators back in 2002 derived from a 1957 article entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War.” Albert D. Biderman, a sociologist working for the Air Force, had put together the chart to document interviews with American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators falsely confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities (Chinese Torture Techniques - See page 4 of Biderman’s original report).

So, let’s see if I have this straight: In 1957, Biderman set out what Chinese interrogators did to obtain false confessions.  The army then used this to help them train the next generation of American soldiers so that they could avoid providing false confessions. And a few generations later the DOD used the same material to train interrogators on how to extract (false) confessions…

The only change made to the chart used at Guantánamo? The trainers dropped the original title: “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.”

No, that wouldn’t look good at all would it, using “communist” coercive methods.

Here’s the opening sentence of Biderman’s 1957 report: “The United States Air Force has expended considerable effort to get a full, accurate and meaningful account of what happened to its personnel who were captured in Korea.”

Related posts from around the web…

Better Brain Map - This is basically an outline of the wiring connections between neurons in the brain’s outer layer. This is the most complete mapping of the interconnected brain nodes to date. Apparently this is one of the first maps of the human brain …

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Moral hypocrisy emerges from deliberative processes: Study - … graduate student of psychology at Northeastern University. This study highlights that moral hypocrisy is controlled by a dual-process model of moral judgement, in which the prepotent negative reaction to the thought of fairness …

Are We Kidding Ourselves? - “Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control,” said Dr. Valdesolo, a psychologist at Amherst College. “Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions, suggesting that we …

US used communist Chinese torture techniques at Guantánamo - NYT: The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart … copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain …

Unconscionable - I’ve seen lots of commentary on the revelation that Bush administration torture techniques have been modeled on the work of the ChiComs but not much specific focus on the fact that the main purpose of these Chinese torture techniques …



On Patriotism: Its Character, Purpose, And Poison

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Barack Obama vs. John McCain, Robert Mugabe vs. Zimbabwe, Abu Ghraib detainees vs. US interrogation contractors.Philosophy blog: George Bernard Shaw

“We don’t bother much about dress and manners in England, because as a nation we don’t dress well and we’ve no manners.”

- George Bernard Shaw

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama defends his patriotismAs the presidential campaign continues, the exchanges between the Obama and McCain camps have honed in on the relative patriotism of the two candidates. Retired General Wesley Clark, speaking on CBS’ Face The Nation and acting, we are told, as a mouthpiece of the Obama campaign opined that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” Meanwhile, over on ABC’s This Week, Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said, “I think Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope perhaps should be retitled ‘The Audacity of Hypocrisy.’ ”

Philosophy blog: John McCain returns from vietnam after release from hanoi POW campNot surprisingly, Obama wishes to steer the campaign away from a contest over who is the more patriotic. He’s smart enough to know that patriotism is a double-edged sword, and principled enough to want to avoid hollow pledges of undying allegiance to the idea of a country. McCain, the ultimate ironist, knows that he will always win any such contest, not just because of his war record, but also because he can claim undying patriotism with sufficient earnestness to convince those who care.

But it seems that we have some philosophical distinctions to make before we can decide whether Obama or McCain is the better patriot. The media loves the stereotypical definition of patriotism, the flag-waving, ’til-death, America-the-greatest kind of patriotism. McCain understands this and allows himself to be adorned by that mantle.  Privately he understands that the people who inhabit the rest of the world might beg to differ. Nevertheless one can imagine that if he had to choose a preferred country, McCain wouldn’t hesitate to choose America.

Obama’s patriotism comes from a different bottle. Obama believes that we can and should put our allegiance somewhere; that we should invest our hope in the potential of a thing or place or person. Obama’s patriotism acknowledges and mourns the shame, faults and frailties of the country, past and present, and he resolves that we can and should do better. America, the land of freedom, Obama understands, is the land of slavery, segregation, rendition, invasion and torture. McCain understands this, too, but he’s not about to ruin his chances of election by pointing it out. For the many millions of Americans who believe in America the way that an apple believes in gravity — as something inevitable and unswervingly sure — Obama’s patriotism inspires suspicion, ridicule, and fear.

Philosophy blog: Robert Mugabe violence and intimidation in electionsIs Robert Mugabe patriotic for defining Zimbabwe and constraining it to his definition? Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew as the opposition candidate because of violence and intimidation by Mugabe’s thugs, would doubtless argue he’s not.

Unfortunately the conceptual ground of patriotism rests in the drawing of distinctions between ourselves and others. We measure the qualities of our own country in opposition to those of other countries. The aim and end of patriotism must be to inspire in us the assurance that we live in the best country there is. As soon as it moves beyond a benign, feel-good, group hug (and it always does) patriotism becomes corrosive and dangerous.

Today several Abu Ghraib detainees filed suit (here in the US) against the government contractors they say tortured them. Surely we won’t find a better example of patriotism’s failures and illusions. The Bush administration, the face and fist of American foreign policy for the past seven years, repeatedly ignored, twisted and refashioned international conventions and US law in its treatment of the detainees. Official investigations naturally failed to find and attribute fault to any but the most lowly and least culpable offenders. And now the detainees have turned to the American civil justice system to seek recompense.

Philosophy blog: Abu Ghraib detainees sue US military contractors claim tortureContorting our national pride to find a silver lining even in this sad cloud, Susan L. Burke, of the Philadelphia law firm Burke O’Neil, had this to say about the suit: “These men came to U.S. courts because our laws, as they have for generations, allow their claims to be heard here.”

Related posts from around the web…

Thought for the Day, from George Bernard Shaw - “Liberty means responsibilty. That is why most men dread it.” George Bernard Shaw.

On Patriotism to counteract Fourth of July rhetoric - George Bernard Shaw, [Irish dramatist (1856 - 1950)]. Patriotism is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate [or perhaps oil] above principles. George Jean Nathan, US drama critic & editor (1882 - 1958)

John Lumea: The Conspicuous Silence At The Heart Of Obama’s … - Indeed, the attempt to cast Obama himself as a closet Muslim — as if being a Muslim were somehow un-American — lies at the deepest, darkest heart of the most persistent attacks on his patriotism. Whatever else Obama did with his …

Text of Obama’s Patriotism Speech - “The America We Love” - And at the beginning of a week when we celebrate the birth of our nation, I think it is fitting to pause for a moment and reflect on the meaning of patriotism – theirs, and ours. We do so in part because we are in the midst of war …

Asked If He Questions Obama’s Patriotism, McCain Doesn’t Directly … - This is noteworthy: Asked directly at today’s presser whether he questioned Obama’s patriotism, McCain actually didn’t give a direct answer. Here’s the exchange:. Question: “Do you question at all his patriotism and secondly do you …

Mugabe: The Anti-Mandela - South Africa’s leaders remain shamefully silent and impotent regarding their northern neighbor’s recent ruthless power grab.

MUGABE IN OUTBURST, SWEARS AT UK JOURNALISTS - The amazing scenes came on the first day of the two-day gathering of African leaders who are under pressure to find a solution to Zimbabwe’s political stand-off after Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term last Sunday following a disputed …

Ex-Abu Ghraib detainees sue military contractors for torture - [JURIST] Four former Abu Ghraib detainees filed lawsuits Monday against two private US military contractors and three of their employees, alleging torture, war crimes and civil conspiracy. The former detainees said that employees of …

Abu Ghraib Detainees Sue Contractors - Attorney Katherine Gallagher, stated bluntly: “Private military contractors and the individuals they employ cannot act with impunity. Contractors must act within the bounds of law and must be held accountable.” …

Former Abu Ghraib Detainees File Lawsuits … Thank You, SCOTUS - Former Iraqi detainees sue US military contractors. By Daren Butler. ISTANBUL - Four Iraqi men are suing US military contractors who they say tortured them while they were detained in Abu Ghraib prison, according to lawsuits being filed … (more…)