Saturday, April 26, 2008

Aren't we all just so witty

Over at Making Light, a discussion is going on regarding whether a certain commenter at is a troll or not.

Ah, Trollology. It would be the perfect subject for me to study in depth if I were sufficiently brain-damaged that I was unable to study anything else.

I've come to some very unsettling realizations about the bizarre side of human nature by paying attention to trolls. I think I once witnessed a very weird creative impulse at work in the comment section of Kevin Drum's blog.

Kevin Drum is a liberal Democrat. His blog has a lively and vigorous comment section. Most of his commenters are liberal Democrats. Trollery is inevitable in this environment. Post something that purports to be from a conservative point of view, and people are going to read it wondering if it's meant to be some sort of joke.

Now. There seems to be a long-standing tradition on Kevin Drum's blog that there be some designated "troll handles". They have names like "Al" and "egbert" and "American Hawk" and spout a conservative point of view.

Here's what deeply and profoundly disturbs me.

Sometimes, say, American Hawk (I haven't seen the name on KD's comment threads in a while, but he was a typical example while he posted) will obviously be a liberal parodist spouting dumb ol' Republican tomfoolery, the better to make fun of those stupid old Republicans. Sometimes American Hawk will sound like a somewhat unhinged right-winger. Maybe this version of American Hawk is a liberal parodist, but just as likely he really is a somewhat unhinged right-winger. And sometimes he sounds like a relatively reasonable conservative, maybe a right-wing version of Kevin Drum.

It's perfectly possible "American Hawk" is a handle shared by several people. But think about it: why would a reasonable conservative post using a handle that has previously been used to make fun of Republicans?

So I came to an unsettling conclusion: many people think that if you want to make fun of a certain subset of humanity, like Republicans or religious fundamentalists or progressives or vegans or whatever, then the thing to do is mimic them so exactly that no one can tell it's a troll.

Well, it was unsettling for me. Maybe this is old news for everyone else. I just think it's weird that I could be reading some apparently sane comment by an Obama supporter about what he should do to ensure victory in the Indiana primary, and for all I know it might actually be written by some snickering Republican wit who wants to see Obama lose badly because he's a Democrat, and who thinks it's the height of cleverness to pretend to be posting some level-headed analysis by an Obama supporter.

Not only is this something of an alien mindset to me, but it means anything I read on these here Intertubes could just be utterly fake, just someone's idea of scintillating wit. Anything.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Philosophical Correctness

I like to think I'm pretty tolerant and libertarian when it comes to social issues. (This has got nothing to do with political libertarianism. I live in a country with universal government healthcare, and I like it!)

This is a libertarianism that states that it's none of the President or Attorney General's business what my neighbor is doing behind closed doors, whether he's making a religious offering to the ancient god Gab'Shokoth, teaching his kids to hate Methodists, or having sex with his brother, assuming they're consenting adults.

Let's say the conservative religious couple down the street want to teach their kid that God created the world 6,000 years ago and modern science is a bunch of lies. Well, I don't approve of that, but ultimately it's none of my business.

Let's say these neighbors of mine want to teach their kids that Jews and Muslims are to be distrusted, gays are evil and people of other races ought to be kept separate. That's much, much worse, and I have every right to be offended, but I can't condone the State butting its head in and telling them to knock it off. You let the State go after racists and anti-Semites today, and you never know who it'll deem ideologically unfit next week.

Now let's say my neighbors down the street are physically beating the stuffing out of their kid every evening. Let's say they're sexually abusing the kid. Now most people would agree that they need to be separated from the poor child before they can inflict further harm.

OK, now does the State have any right to interfere in this, which involves two competent, consenting adults?
An Australian father and daughter who conceived an apparently healthy child are being monitored by police and social services after going public about their incestuous relationship.

John Deaves, 61, and his daughter Jenny, 39, say they want to be treated as an ordinary couple despite being biologically related, but their case has sparked outrage.

Court documents have revealed that a child they had earlier died from a congenital heart defect a few days after birth.

The couple, who have pleaded guilty to incest and been banned by a judge from having sexual contact, appeared on a television news programme in Australia to tell their story. They were shown with their nine-month-old daughter, Celeste, who they said was fit and well.
My reaction to the story of this loving couple was a slightly disbelieving "okaaaaaaaaaaaaay". Even so, I'm a bit uncomfortable with a judge banning two adults from having sexual relations with each other.

I suppose you could say that this kind of incest ought to be illegal because any kids who are born as a result would be at a very high risk of genetic defects. (This is where the history geek in me points out that Cleopatra was the result of several generations of sibling marriages.) There are all sorts of things mothers can do while pregnant, from drinking to smoking to eating certain foods, and I'd feel distinctly uncomfortable if the State decided to legally ban pregnant women from doing these things. I can't see a reason to ban close relatives from having a sexual relationship.

Then there's the recent government action against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Just to make my feelings clear: from what I've heard about this church, it sounds extremely creepy. But the U.S. Government is not my superego, and creepiness is not against the law.

But marrying off kids against their will is.

And yet, there's a bit of social libertarianism in my head that protests that no, the government has no right to come in and break up this little subculture that isn't hurting anyone in the wider world.

I think the government action is the correct thing to do. I think this subculture, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is actively harmful to many of its own members. I just need to convince all sectors of my brain that the government raid is the philosophically correct thing to do.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Meta-Fools!

The Featured Article blurb on the front page of Wikipedia today, April 1, 2008:
Ima Hogg was an enterprising circus emcee who brought culture and class to Houston, Texas. A storied ostrich jockey, she once rode to Hawaii to visit the Queen. Raised in government housing, young Ima frolicked among a backyard menagerie of raccoons, possums and a bear. Her father, "Big Jim" Hogg, in an onslaught against fun itself, booby-trapped the banisters she loved to slide down, shut down her money-making schemes, and forced her to pry chewing gum from furniture. He was later thrown from his seat on a moving train and perished; the Hogg clan then struck black gold on land Big Jim had forbidden them from selling. Ima had apocryphal sisters named "Ura" and "Hoosa" and real-life brothers sporting conventional names and vast art collections; upon their deaths, she gave away their artwork for nothing and the family home to boot. Tragically, Ms. Hogg (a future doctor) nursed three dying family members. She once sweet-talked a burglar into returning purloined jewelry and told him to get a job. Well into her nineties, she remained feisty and even exchanged geriatric insults with an octogenarian pianist. Hogg claimed to have received thirty proposals of marriage in her lifetime, and to have rejected them all. Hogg was revered as the "First Lady of Texas", and her name and legacy still thrive today—just ask Ima Pigg, Ima Nut, and Ima Pain, who have all appeared in the U.S. Census.

Now, the average human being is going to read that, look at the date, and think, "Oh, I get it. It's an April Fool's Day featured article. Ima Hogg isn't real."

But Wikipedia is actually practicing a subtler - and more sophisticated - form of humor. Ima Hogg was a real person.

And every individual fact in that featured article summary is true. They're just edited together in a way to make for some really loopy reading.

April Fool's articles aren't generally known for their subtlety. But I thought Wikipedia's was really well-done.