Surface Backfill About Contact


Limited internet access means I'm a little late to the party criticizing a Randy Barnett post claiming that the Left lives in a fantasy world of made-up "facts" and selectively chosen real facts. Most of the criticism seems to be along the lines of "the right does it too" or "big generalizations about the Left or the Right are never correct."

But what struck me is how profoundly unoriginal Barnett's line of argument is. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book to claim that your oponent can't face reality and instead living in a self-confirming fantasy. I've yet to hear of anyone who was convinced of their errors by such an argument (though preaching to the choir can be a useful function). Why is this such a popular type of criticism?

One possibility is that it's often true. Barnett himself admits that "we all do it to some degree -- ... no one is totally and completely objectively realistic about the facts." This is not merely an issue of human fallibility -- to some degree, the ability to live in a fantasy world can be functional. The world is a complex and messy place, so we are constantly confronted with seemingly contradictory data. I say "seemingly" because, presumably, if we were able to look deep enough, we would see how things all fit together. But few people have the resources and skills to resolve every scrap of data. So we have a faculty for dismissing apparent outliers, of moving ahead, secure in our convictions, when the weight of contradictory information is small. Imagine, for example, the believer in evolution who is told by a creationist about fosilized human and dinosaur tracks found together, and who trusts that there is a scientific explanation for this anomaly even though he doesn't have the time or access to data to figure it out. This faculty also inhibits snap conversions after hearing a seemingly convincing argument, making us uneasy enough about changing our views, so that we take the extra time to think more about it and aren't easily swayed by rhetorical skill without substantial content. This is the faculty of faith. The existence of such a faculty, however, means that it's open to being perverted, of becoming hyperactive and dismissing what ought to be convincing evidence. At the same time, faith can make a person overconfident in the convincingness of his own arguments, thus making the role of faith in bolstering his opponent's views more naked.
Stentor Danielson, 12:09,


While visiting DC, Aussie John Quiggin notes that Americans are friendly -- friendlier, in fact, than his fellow Australians (except for the Brisbanians/Brisbanites/Brisbaniacs). This seems at odds with my own experience, as I found Australians to be friendlier than Americans. The people of DC were of about average friendliness, so it's not an issue of which Americans he's met. These two observations, while seemingly contradictory, do appear consistent with a larger trend: people who go abroad typically report that the inhabitants of their destination country are very friendly.

Off the top of my head, I have a couple theories as to why visitors to foreign countries generally find their hosts to be notably friendly. It may be an issue of lowered expectations. We can come to (sometimes subconsciously) expect foreigners to be notably unfriendly -- put off by our alienness, perhaps, or we're both unable to overcome the culture barrier. Against this low standard, otherwise average friendliness shines. It may be an issue of how people react to foreigners versus natives. It's possible that people in general tend to be friendlier toward those who reveal themselves to be from far away -- out of a fascination with encountering someone out of the ordinary, or a desire to help someone who may need more help due to being away from familiar surroundings. It may be an issue of under-estimation of the friendliness of the people in our own country. I know I'm surprised from time to time at how much more friendly people in Pennsylvania are than I expect them to be (despite having lived in the state for 17 years, and off and on for 5 more).
Stentor Danielson, 17:20,


It's time for a little blog-introspection. The epigraph on the cover of the bulletin at the Unitarian church I attended this weekend was:

Writing for me is a way of understanding what is happening to me, of thinking hard things out. I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself.

-- May Sarton

This is a good description of the best blogging that I do. My most valuable posts -- both in terms of being worthwhile to write and containing profound, original, well-expressed content -- are the ones that I begin with the shadow of an idea beginning to emerge in my head, given definition by the process of writing it out. I've noticed the contrast much more this summer, when I'm rarely in front of the computer. I try to save my best thoughts for blog posts, since this blog serves as a record of my thoughts as well as a place for thinking them through. But I find that when I've thought about an issue, and figured out what I have to say about it, beforehand, I lose the joy and quality of posting. Posting becomes a sort of chore of transcribing things from my memory to Blogger.
Stentor Danielson, 18:51,

An update on the "creationist books I find lying around" front: I encountered one in a motley stack of books in the back room of the natural history museum. It contained an interesting reversal of the usual connection made between evolution and atheism. Normally creationists argue that teaching evolution promotes atheism because it encourages people to see the origin of species as a process not needing God. This book, however, claimed that the prevalence of belief in evolution (supposedly inexplicable on the surface given the weight of evidence for creationism) can be explained by the rise of atheism. The book argued that the church's misdeeds, such as taking sides in wars and teaching about hell (which tipped me off to the fact that it was published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, aka Jehovah's Witnesses), so discredited it in the minds of the public that people were left searching for another explaination for life.
Stentor Danielson, 18:21,


There seem to be three major ways to claim portions of the past as one's heritage -- genetic, cultural, and geographic. So my ancestors could be variously defined to include the Vikings, the ancient Greeks, or the Lenape/Oneidas/Nipmuc(depending on whether I count Palmerton, Hamilton, or Worcester as my residence).

Disputes between Native Americans* and archaeologists over the use of human remains can be seen in terms of these types of claims to heritage. In the case of very old bones, such as Kennewick Man, the Native American argument is geographic (ideally all three types of connection can be shown). Native groups often treat geography as the fundamental component, claiming continuity with all people who lived on their land before them. From this they can infer genetic and cultural continuity, based on the claim of indigenousness -- that they are the true people linked to that land since time immemmorial. This is reinforced by the idea that deceased members of the tribe are united with the land, fusing the two kinds of continuity. The claim by archaeologists that most disturbs many Native activists is that Native tribes migrated to their contact-era lands (though such migrations form a part of much Indian traditional history and mythology), best captured by the Bering Strait migration theory -- a claim that undercuts total geographic continuity.

However, geography only works up until 1492. After contact, it is obvious that Native Americans' lands have also been inhabited by those whose claim to remains is being disputed. By purely geographic standards, that would give white archaeologists a claim (while making the claims of forcibly relocated Native tribes more tenuous). So the primary line of heritage from contact to the present is made genetic. Meanwhile, efforts are made to portray non-Natives as illegitimate and visitors to the land they happen to reside in (a claim made easier by the reluctance of European culture to acknowledge connection to the land in a way similar to its articulation by Indians, as well as the effect of the wilderness myth in making America out to be a blank slate at the time of European colonization).

Counter-arguments to Native claims usually attack a genetic or cultural lineage. Archaeologists will argue, for example, that the remains in question are not biologically ancestral to the Native Americans trying to claim them. Or they argue that that the culture of the deceased was so different from that of the claimants that they can't reasonably be considered the same group and Native beliefs (about things like proper burial practice) are thus not relevant. The problem here is that archaeologists are asserting a prerogative, not recognized by the Natives, to define "how close is close enough" for these types of relationships. There's no clear line between "ancestral" and "not ancestral" on any of the three dimensions of heritage, which means there's wide room for disagreement even if neither side is drawing the lines based on self-interest.

From a Native perspective, (white) archaeologists can come off as making a geographic claim to remains -- "this is our land now (by right of conquest), and thus we can do with these remains as we please." However, the archaeologists themselves see their claim as transcending the three categories I outlined. These three categories are types of claims to particular heritage -- for one person or group to claim a special relationship to another person or group. Archaeologists, however, see their claim as on behalf of the whole of humanity (genetic insofar as they would dispute the ownership of the remains with, say, a hungry dog).

*nb: My references to "Native Americans" should generally be read as a shorthand for the subset of Native Americans who promote a separate Native cultural identity and more or less agree with the positions I attribute to them. These people often claim to speak for Native Americans as a whole.
Stentor Danielson, 19:48,