On Madness

8 01 2009

I’ll break the ice with a little joke. A man was driving down an unfamiliar road which had a very tall chain-link fence running alongside it. He soon passed a gate with a sign saying, Sunnyvale Mental Health Facility. The man could see scores of people wandering aimlessly around the immaculately-groomed lawn beyond the fence, all wearing identical pajama-like garments in various pastel colors.

A few minutes later, his car lurched and gave off the distinctive whopwhopwhop sound of a flat tire. Cursing, the man pulled onto the shoulder next to the fence to change the tire. Several of the inmates had apparently seen or heard the blowout and wandered toward the fence nearest to him. He was nervous, but did his best to ignore the small crowd of observers, who watched his every move in an eerie silence. He had enough presence of mind to place the lug nuts from the flat tire inside the upturned hubcap to keep them from getting lost in the weeds near the shoulder of the road, but the ever-growing crowd of loonies watching him in spooky silence was really getting to him. He tried to hurry, but the spare slipped off the wheel lugs and fell out of his hands. The tire landed on the edge of hubcap holding the lug nuts and flipped it into the weeds like a tiddlywink.

More cursing ensued. The man finally managed to get the tire onto the wheel lugs, but could only find one lug nut of the original five. After several fruitless searches through the weeds, the man sighed heavily and tried to figure out what to do next. As he stood and glared at the car, he heard someone say, “Hey!“.

He quickly turned around,  and one of the inmates at the fence called out, “Take one lug nut from each of the other wheels. That will give you four lug nuts on each wheel, which ought to get you into town if you drive carefully.”

He thought about it for a second, then broke out in a broad smile. “You know,” he said cheerfully. “That will work! Thanks for the tip.” He quickly put the inmate’s words into practice and grinned in satisfaction. He turned around to thank his benefactor.

“I’d probably still be trying to figure that out if you hadn’t chimed in,” he said. “What on Earth are you doing in a loonie bin?”

The inmate replied, “I’m crazy- not stupid.”

Just because someone is goofier than bug shit doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid. You may wish to remember that when you deal with people who have mental problems- and there are lots of people in this country who fit that description. Whenever possible, try to treat the mentally ill with the same courtesy as everyone else. Being condescending or rude is both needlessly cruel and counterproductive. After all, the loonie you just ignored might be able to point out some fact or otherwise help out.

Consider, for example, the case of Norton I, Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.

Briefly, Joshua Norton was a San Fransisco businessman during the California Gold Rush who went round the bend while enduring a painful bankruptcy. On September 17th, 1859, he delivered a proclamation to several newspapers in that city declaring himself to be Emperor of the United States. At least one paper printed the proclamation, and for the next couple of decades he marched around the city inspecting public works and officials for proper functioning and issuing proclamations whenever the fancy struck him. Several of these proclamations were useful or prophetic: he called for the construction of a bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, which came to fruition nearly a century later. He also demanded the establishment of  a “League of Nations” to prevent wars. Other useful decrees called for the dissolution of Congress and the abolition of the Republican and Democratic parties. Clearly, the Emperor was a man ahead of his time.

San Francisco being the city that it is (even in the late 19th century), Emperor Norton became a beloved (or at least tolerated) fixture of the city. The city paid for upgrades to the Royal uniform, and police officers would salute him as he passed. At intervals during his reign, he would issue bonds or scrip for US currency, which were duly honored as cash in many establishments. Several establishments which the Emperor frequented (because of their “free lunches”) adopted brass plaques boasting, “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I“.

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today (January 8th, 1880), the first and only Emperor of the United States was walking to a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he collapsed and died on a rainy sidewalk. People in the city paid for a royal funeral, which was attended by an estimated twenty thousand residents. When San Francisco closed and moved all the cemeteries outside the city in the 1930s, the city paid to move Norton’s remains to Woodlawn cemetery, and a large stone marks his grave- inscribed with the words, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

The best epitaph for Joshua Norton was given by a city official more than ten years before the Emperor died: “He has shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.

This is exactly the sort of ruler our modern civilization needs- one who rules best by ruling least. Norton’s demands upon his subjects were few and limited largely to basic needs. He provided both foresight and the benefit if a good example to others.

Tonight I will raise a glass in his memory. We could use a few more gentle madmen.

Current status: Amused

Current music: Mandlebrot Set by Jonathan Coulton

Their Own Worst Enemy

4 01 2009

First, the bad news: The barbarians in our midst are still at it, doing their best to undermine our civilization by destroying the science upon which our technological progress is based.

The good news is, they aren’t particularly good at science. As a result of this blind spot in their world view, they keep falling prey to their own ignorance when trying to foist their religious pseudoscience upon the rest of us.

A couple of years ago, some citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania sued their own school board over the inclusion of religious pseudoscience (so-called Intelligent Design theory, or ID) into the school science curriculum. These citizens claimed that Intelligent Design was thinly-disguised Creationism, which was a religious dogma and therefore an unacceptable intrusion of religion into Public Schools.  A federal judge  listened to the arguments and ruled that Intelligent Design was, in fact,  crudely disguised Creationism, and therefore could not be taught in science classrooms.

The proponents of ID were furious, but they couldn’t do anything about it. They were neither plaintiff nor  respondent in the case, and therefore had no standing to appeal. The only one who could appeal was the Dover School Board. This was unlikely to happen because the voters in Dover had voted out the IDiots on the Board, and the new Board was quite happy with the ruling.

To the proponents of Intelligent Design, the ruling is a massive thorn in their side. This ruling by  federal court meant that it was applicable throughout the country. Therefore, any group of citizens who wished to have actual science taught in science classrooms need only quote Kitzmiller v Dover as the legal basis for any suit against Intelligent Design. They had to do something to reduce the negative impact the Kitzmiller ruling was having on their campaign to get ID into school curicula around the country.

IDiots are not particularly good at science, but they are very good at Public Relations. When the facts don’t suit you, attack the credibility and competence of the people on the other side. Under normal circumstances, they might have flooded the airwaves and newsprint with accusations against the judge for his perceived liberal (and by implication, anti-christian) bias. The problem there was the judge in question was an evangelical christian who had been appointed by George W. Bush.

With the judge relatively immune to the usual character assassination, the ID proponents turned their attention to the opposition’s expert witnesses. Attacking their credibility would be difficult, because they were all recognized experts in their fields- and IDiots don’t do science well. In a modestly clever attempt to circumvent this weakness in their argument, they began aserting that the opposition witnesses had lied or misrepresented their case on the stand. In particular, IDiots claimed that the plaintiff’s expert witness had specifically lied when describing certain claims of the Intelligent Design theory.

Alas, acumen in PR does not equate to competence in legal matters any more than scientific affairs. The testimony, amicus briefs, and supporting documentation for the case are all part of the legal record. One of the expert witnesses for the plaintiff, Ken Miller, got tired of these accusation. Using nothing more than public records and his own wit, he metaphorically demolished this ID attack in a three-part series of blog articles for Discover Magazine.

Of course, little things like facts and evidence seem to hold little sway over ID proponents. Their stated goal is to undermine the teaching of evolution at every opportunity and replace it with their thinly-disguised creationism throughout the United States. Since they are on a Mission for God, mere facts will not dissuade them from their sacred task. The fact that this sort of fanaticism is alien to a large majority of Americans also has little meaning. The proponents of ID know what is best for us all, and they are going to get us to see things their way by any means necessary- including deception.

This attitude will be their eventual undoing. IDiots are their own worst enemy. The more they sputter and pontificate, the more ridiculous they make themselves look. Every time they try to deny some aspect of science that refutes their arguments, they are buried beneath a mountain of unassailable evidence to contradict them.

My main concern is for what will happen when these fanatics realize that they’re losing. Religious fanatics as a general rule do not have a good record of dealing with successful opposition. What happens when the fanatics realize that everyone with a functional brain is mocking them?


Current status: Concerned

Current music: Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull