Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Puzzle About (Feminist And Other) Belief

Jamie's piece cited one spot down-blog mostly isn't argumentation, but this is a very important point:
Don't expect a word of protest [about a Taliban propaganda official's admission to Yale] from our feminist and gay groups, who now have in their midst a live remnant of one of the most misogynistic and homophobic regimes ever. They're busy hunting bogeymen like frat parties and single-sex bathrooms.
I don't think I've ever read an adherent of, e.g., current left-feminist orthodoxy directly engage with the problem that Taliban-like phenomena pose for their beliefs. (There's no shortage of indirect engagements by means of subject changing.)

For all the good reasons to dislike the administration, and lord knows there are a lot of them, some of which are intuitive even to non-movement leftists, nothing the administration has done is comparable to the predations of the Taliban; well, the torture policy actually is comparable though (I'm guessing) the Taliban still comes out worse. But at least as far as treatment of women goes, the West and Sharia totalitarianisms can't really be discussed in the same theoretical language. (Look at what happens when people try to do so; you get arguments that, well, women are oppressed here and there, so how can we say that one's better or worse. By saying so. Similarity (i.e. imperfect similarity) and identity are not the same property; in fact, they're incompatible. Everything is identical to itself, not similar to itself, not identical to anything else, and similar to a degree to everything else. When two instances of oppression are not, in fact, identical, they are not in fact identical. And that means that it is possible to compare one to the other.)

But the puzzle Jamie's getting at goes a lot deeper than equivocation over equivalence terms. It's a glaring, potentially fatal inconsistency in the kinds of leftist orthodoxies he's describing. That is --- let's just take orthodox left-feminism as a paradigm, and assume it's accurately characterized by those self described leftist feminists at say, Yale University, who are more radical about this stuff than an anarcho-libertarian like me who thinks that rights attach equally to all bearers of a personhood predicate and no one else, nor ever inequitably, and not quite as far in their radicalism as some usual suspects --- there are two propositions contained in their theory that appear to be incompatible. The first is that governmental assignment by fiat and enforcement of unequal rights based on sex is always wrong. The other is that --- through a long dialectial chain I've never really understood, and I hope you'll believe I've tried --- something to do with patriarchal society makes it the case that it is wrong under circumstances subject to very elusive conditionals to take intervening action in cultures with value-systems different than yours, even in order to prevent governmental enforcement of sex-based inequality of rights. (Note that the second proposition, by using the word "prevent," is designed to cover only on-going oppressions. No need to worry about retributive actions for past oppression; I want to cull these arguments at the intuitive peaks.) Okay, it's obvious where this is going. If women's rights concerns are central to your politics, and just in case you're not an absolute pacifist, there are conditions under which you'd assent to military action to prevent the violation of women's rights. Very well, and what was going on under the Taliban wasn't enough? How about a hypothetical regime that oppressed women as severely as it is possible to do without inflicting direct physical violence on them. Would it have to take something like a genocide --- which will always do the trick, regardless of the identity of the victims --- to justify humanitarian intervention? But then, how can it be the case that in your own subjective conceptual framework, women's rights have a special place at all? In other words, if there aren't conditions justifying intervention in their defense that are distinct from the conditions for all other cases, aren't you really just laboring under a self-delusion about being, in the robust sense of having the courage of your convictions, a feminist?

I don't see how to resolve this problem without abandoning one of the two beliefs, i.e., either cease being a feminist or change positions on intervention for women's rights. If both are analytic constituents of feminism --- that is, if a theory that did not include both could not be a feminist theory --- then feminism is just doomed. But no need to panic yet, I'm not even slightly moved to that conclusion; nothing about feminism itself plausibly warrants the second belief. What I dismissed as a dialectical tangle above, really, is a kind of handwaving. I know there's loads of seductive jargon going around, I get it. And I know it's no fun, it can even be traumatic, to be an apostate --- better for peace of mind, though perhaps not long-term wisdom, never to have joined up than to question a party line --- but there's a simple answer for how to be a feminist without believing in these hundredth-hand plagiarized assertion-like incoherences. The answer is: just be one. If a group of bearded patriarchal nutcases takes over a country and claims its women as private property, speak the hell up and don't qualify your speech for one moment if the misogynist bullies happen to be anti-American or anti-capitalist. That doesn't commit you to advocating military action; pragmatic concerns, to cite just one timely example, can rule that out. But it does commit you to rejecting intervention a posteriori if you're in fact going to do it.

It does commit you to preferring, were you a being who could set truth values at worlds, to inhabit a world in which the regime is overthrown over one in which it's not. And it also probably commits you to orienting your concern to those geographic regions in which violations of women's rights are most severe: to choosing, say, to help women in Iran live as freely as possible without facing reprisal for their sins against God instead of, say, debating against yourself, not to do intellectual house-cleaning but to make a public spectacle of your own self-righteousness, over whether you can do more to destroy Yale though external activism against it or by gaining an internal position providing you with Yale's own resources, so that the more ironical it will be when you discharge your moral duties by poisoining from the inside out the institution that wrongs the world so severely by its existing and occasionally extending individuals like, say, you, profound generosity. None of these commitments sound to me like they involve prohibitive theoretical prices, but I don't presume any privileged knowledge about how the metatheory market works in other minds than my own.

All the same, I just can't figure out how the notion of feminism's necessary entailment of the second belief has any intuitive pull for anyone, let alone in the numbers it does. I mean, the only causal explanation I can come up with is that huge numbers of even the subpopulation at the highest regions of intelligence curves just don't have any reflective moments for years at a time. That is, how could anyone possibly suppress the intuition that any regime under which the status of women fits a description matching the description of women's status under the Taliban is a regime whose overthrow by possibly restricted, possibly unrestricted means, it is a feminist's duty to support, and where possible without incurring an unacceptable burden, actively aid such overthrow. No, all I've got is that that thought just never occurs to a large number of ostensibly intellectually engaged people.

Here's another way of putting the puzzle: is it possible to truly have the first belief if one has the second; in other words, might it not be the case that anyone who in fact holds the second belief gives a mistaken belief report anytime she claims to also hold the first? That passes the plausibility test, I think.

All of the foregoing, even if it seems at times dismissive or a mere rhetorical exercise, is not. (Where such appearances are present, it's because I really have devoted energy to thinking about this, and have tried to the best of my ability and failed to construe certain positions in a way that has any intuitive hook on me at least; and I'm my only test subject.) It's all offered in the spirit of inquiry and discourse; I really want to know what people think, because, for one thing, I want to be a feminist but can't if the second belief is essential to it, and more fundamentally, because I don't think any set of beliefs has any sort of privilege of any kind that exempts it from the most strenuous possible scrutiny. That includes my own; if someone disagrees with me, I want to be told; there's a good chance hearing about it will clarify why I hold a particular belief, and possibly get me to change my mind. If some large scale theory I uphold seems to someone to involve an irresolveable tension like what I'm suggesting here, then I really need to hear about it. The point is, there are helpful answers and unhelpful ones. Claiming that I've caused offense or am bad or am a reactionary achieves...what? All that could be true and this puzzle is either a real problem for an orthodoxy or not. So a helpful answer would be one about whether there's some feature of the beliefs I'm missing that resolves the apparent tension, whether my construal is correct but the apparent tension doesn't exist anyway, which of the beliefs or both or neither is essential to a theory being feminist...etc.

I'm not in a perfect position since I have no statistics---though I doubt there are relevant stastics---but the fact that the beliefs I'm laying out for inspection do track a certain kind of orthodoxy in leftist feminism is one I'm pretty confident in. Likewise that responses to iterations of the puzzle---I didn't invent it, Jamie's got one, so do lots of other people---strongly tend towards evasion rather than engagement. In Jamie's case, indeed, I've personally seen recourse to a kind of artificial reasoning shortcut along the lines of, well his views are so repugnant that I'm going to talk about how repugnant they are rather than listen to and respond to him. Who's better off for such a tactic? Certainly not his interlocutor; if the puzzle poses a serious challenge to his or her beliefs, avoiding recognition of that fact impoverishes him or her intellectually.

And just to clarify one more point. This phenomenon of argumentative evasion isn't a function of left-feminism or left-feminists having something uniquely wrong/intellectually dishonest about them. Quite the contrary. One way to demarcate West and East is to draw a line between those societies whose members are most deeply invested emotionally in political beliefs, and those whose members are invested most deeply in religious beliefs. When it seems in the West that big movements like political Evangelicalism are primarily about religious beliefs, what's actually going on is that they have political beliefs whose subject matter is partly religious (partly, often largely not---there's nothing remotely religious about positive or negative attitudes towards gay people). To borrow Quine's web of belief metaphor---it's really enormously useful---most members of Western society place political beliefs closer than any others to the center of the web. Religion can be nearby, but loyalty to major sports teams is surely more central than religion in significantly many cases, and self-interest is very near but not dead center. Practical ethical beliefs, aesthetic beliefs, long-term intentions and desires are farther still, and then only at the periphery are you likely to find beliefs about the sorts of things I'm most interested in, like, e.g., the difference between a dispositional property and a categorical property. And since most people the world over are both dumb and uneducated, it's not a surprise that they react viscerally when you tug at beliefs in the center of the web.

Central beliefs also are vitally important for giving the web its structure; they're weight-bearing beliefs. Take them away and the whole goddamn thing is liable to fall apart; nobody wants to rebuild a web of belief; ideally, the one you start out with is perfectly suited to accomodate your total life experience, but for most people, it's enough to keep knocking down superfluous walls, buying up adjacent property, and rearranging and replacing the furniture of one and the same web. The likeliest candidates for cases of true demolition and rebuilding are a certain kind of political conversion, but not all such conversions. David Horowitz, for example, was a Stalinist on the left and is still a Stalinist on the right. And paranoid and boring and inarticulate and really rather strange, etc. etc. Somebody like Whittaker Chambers, on the other hand---he's certainly a very ambivalent figure, but the conclusion that best fits the evidence about him is that he really did genuinely change his mind, and in doing so, fundamentally reoriented himself. Whereas Horowitz just replaced the value of a lonely variable somewhere in there, and then trimmed around the edges as necessary, Chambers seems to have actually pulled up the foundation stone, gathered the raw materials he had left, and started to build again. The rebuilt web still had plenty objectionable to it---less than the original though---but it's the rebuilding that's fascinating. I've certainly never done it, although I've gone through significant and (you'll have to take my word on this) sincere political change over say, the past 6 years or so. But I never had to junk my belief-web and start over, because I'm the wierdo whose political beliefs, though not along the perimeter, just aren't weight-bearing. I don't know why, and I don't deserve credit for it. Now, if you could show me that non-reductive physicalism is false, I'd been a world of pain.

So what's going on phenomenogically with avoidance of this puzzle and others like it in orthodox left currents (there are essentially one-to-one analogues of the puzzle for any left ideology centered on the kinds of property identities that have been historically important, i.e. gays and racial minorities, not bald men, even though modal realists like myself are sure there are possible worlds in which bald men have historically been subject to greater persecution than any other group---i.e., no need to consider a wider scope of convention than the actual)? The same thing is happening among evasive leftists that's going on when Bush apologists choose to deny objective reality rather than just concede truths that are not difficult to grasp and maximally publicly accessible. Internally, they're acting on a calculation that too much depends on not weakening the beliefs targeted by such challenges. Does that get Bush apologists or self-contradicting leftists off the hook? No, because they're failing in their epistemic duties regarding self-scrutiny and criticism. The difficulty or risk in meeting those duties for a central belief can't be excused by its centrality, since anyone else could have the same belief at the edge of his web, and therefore would have an obligation to resolve a conflict between it and another belief. All beliefs are subject to a categorical imperative for epistemology. (Are there limiting cases? The maximum loss that fulfilling all obligations could entail is something like what Chambers went through. That doesn't sound on first blush like a limiting case.) So it's not the case that, although it seemed like Bush apologists should be reprimanded for their ostrich-poses, it turns out that they're acting out of understandable, indeed excusable, concern for themselves; rather, the magnitude of their normative error is just what it seems to be, but counterintutively, its location is further back in metatheory than prima facie appearances indicate.

What could be the subject of a very interesting discussion is the possibility that people can get those calculations wrong. Troy Cross, for example, said at an informal talk a few years ago that one of the things that kept him holding onto religious beliefs after his direct faith in them had faltered was the fear that his moral intuitions would fall away too. But he did let go of religion, and none of his other beliefs were the worse for it. So it's possible, and here's anecdotal testimony that it's happened before, that people mistake which beliefs are weight-bearing and which not. The inexactness of the metaphor bites back here; there are ways of shifting beliefs around, moving some closer to the center and others farther away, like what must have been the case in my experience, on the assumption that it's not the case that my central beliefs in kindergarten included beliefs about the metaphysics of modality, only I didn't know it. Such movements of belief do jeopardize the overall structure. What enabled Troy to give up religion was that it drifted or was pushed away from the center, so that the beliefs with which it was incompatible came to occupy a more central position.

That incidentally, is what intellectual house-cleaning means: recognition that two or more of one's beliefs are incompatible, and rectifying the problem by repudiating one of them, or both; but the epistemic obligation is only to lose one. What will determine which one survives is their location relative to the center. And although it would be nice to think that the weighing of empirical evidence is an indepedent determining factor, the potential for it to have causal interactions with beliefs depends on the presence of various metabeliefs about, e.g., recourse to empiricism. (That's nothing but Hume's Treatise, by the way.) The balance ends up awfully complicated, with some function of the centrality of one contesting belief along with metabeliefs and others related to it by some subjunctive conditionals, weighing against a parallel function of the other contesting belief. But even on this complicated picture, the sources of any vectors on either side of the balance are at least supervenient on the position relative to center of the opposed beliefs.

The Bush apologists are a useful example again. How can the cream of the National Review crowd, at this advanced date, still deny that officials in the highest strata of the administration deliberately constructed a prisoner detainment policy that involved torture and general violations of human rights? Willful wickedness is a tempting, but unilluminating answer. A more contentful answer is that, given even infinitely many assertions to the contrary, belief in realism about the external world is just not centrally located enough to outstrip the exertions of a cluster of beliefs about the president, his political opposition, and loyalty to country. How do we know that resultant offended protests are false that claim that so-and-so is certainly a realist about the external world and has never said a word against the theory? Because if it were true that so and so is an external world realist (in the robust sense of having conviction in it), so-and-so could not deny facts about the external worlds that enjoy serious publicity and which have specifically been presented to so-and-so on multiple occasions. There could be some buffering mechanism that allows so-and-so to uphold an anti-realism entailing loyalty and a belief in realism, but it is one that only allows so-and-so to uphold both for as long as so-and-so is mistaken about the content of his beliefs. That's the best situation for a torture apologist to be in epistemically, since it would mean that he speaks truly when he claims to believe in external world-realism, and that upon having the buffer removed---a true friend is one who deprives us of such devices---he would recognize what's amiss in his beliefs. Alternatively, so-and-so could just be mistaken about believing in world-realism; he believes he has that belief, but he doesn't. So his reports of having the belief involve honest mistakes, not lies, and also some paradoxical truths. E.g., if p is external world realism, and q is the proposition that s believes p, r is the proposition that s believes q, r can be true when q is false: [s believes (s believes q)] is true even though ~(s believes q); introduce self-referential pronouns and there's something going on similar to Moore's paradox. (Such paradoxes are not exculpatory to be sure. See a few paragraphs up on why an honest mistake isn't an excuse, and merely pushes normative error from theory into metatheory.) Or, a final alternative, so-and-so could just be lying, having privately made peace with anti-realism but continuing for pragmatic reasons to say otherwise publicly (Straussianism!).

I suspect that what happened in the interesting relevant cases, those of middle-rank officials in communist bloc states paradigmatically, is a synthesis of deliberate dishonesty and honest mistaken belief report; that, I suppose, is what the phenomenon of doublethink was fundamentally, a bifurcation of the mind that allows the following propositions to all be true: that I believe I believe in realism about the external world, that I know I believe I believe in realism about the external world, that I don't believe I believe in realism about the external world, and that I know I don't believe I believe in realism about the external world. The cognitive science going on is pretty fascinating; you have essentially a mind partially and asymetrically divided to enable the cohabitation of beliefs that would be intolerable in an undivided mind with the same level of self-knowledge of its beliefs. This divided mind is not subject to a schizophrenic pathology however; it is only divided at certain points, and the division allows it to maintain cognitive function roughly equivalent for most purposes to that of an undivided mind. The division is one strongly shaped by the intentional states of the mind in question; division occurs at the points where the inconsistent beliefs would converge, and nowhere else (there are failures of course, and loads of cases of doublethinkers going bonkers after decades of such self-willed and subtly structured psychopathology).

But I think I've drifted far enough in speculative epistemology for the time being.


At 3:31 PM, Blogger Nosferatu said...

You should become a free jazz pioneer, Finnegan. It is needed.

At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Ashish George said...

As a student at a not-so-liberal liberal arts college, I rarely have cause to whip myself up into such a state of undeserved self-congratulation from firing at my left, but I won't begrudge you your smug orgasm, Dan. But your onanistic excesses have spilled onto my monitor, so please allow me to clean up a bit.

"Orthodox-left" feminists--everyone has an orthodoxy but you, I suppose, who are content to wag your finger from behind that ring of humbled fragments from all those smashed idols--have been quite critical of Islamic fundamentalism's relationship to women. I believe Matt Yglesias recently provided ample evidence of that when Kathryn Jean-Lopez made insinuations along the lines of yours (great minds, Dan...?)

Huffing and puffing and trying to blow the leftist house down, you wrote, "That is, how could anyone possibly suppress the intuition that any regime under which the status of women fits a description matching the description of women's status under the Taliban is a regime whose overthrow by possibly restricted, possibly unrestricted means, it is a feminist's duty to support, and where possible without incurring an unacceptable burden, actively aid such overthrow." I'm sure liberal feminists would, if they could with the wave of a wand, rid the world of oppressive Islamofascist--is that the historically illiterate War on Terror word du jour?--regimes, but it's not just ideas that have consequences, but the endorsement of those ideas. And the practical effect of talking carelessly of ousting more governments is bringing us that much closer to a possible world in which those governments are in fact ousted. And the practical effect of ousting more governments is...well, who the fuck knows? Concerns about unintended consequences are often part a priori and part a posteriori. What evidence do you have when you say that feminists who reject intervention against religious thugs do so out of simple, incurious mulishness? A few unpleasant exchanges with the girl next to you in symbolic logic? A banner somewhere on campus you thought was a bit too critical of the Afghanistan campaign?

And when you say feminists are predisposed to frown upon taking "intervening action in cultures with value-systems different than yours, even in order to prevent governmental enforcement of sex-based inequality of rights", I have to wonder if Yale has an Amnesty International chapter, or has ever had, as we recently did here with the Vagina Monologues, campaigns to aid victims of female circumcision. This isn't a whatever-floats-your-culture's-boat attitude at work, but it is one that would like to avoid outright war, an exercise which in our age has a civilian-to-combatant casualty rate of something like 8 to 1, a figure which I am sure would also not be kind to women.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Okay, well now, first of all, I'm surprised you don't know by now that the kind of excesses of mine that make it onto the blog are almost always the product of amphetamines, not masturbation (when you're high enough the two aren't compatible, incidentally).

Anyway look, if I hadn't been tweaking I might have been able to express myself better, but the purpose of all the Quine/web of belief stuff was just to say that I'm trying to show that there's something going wrong somewhere in a certain set of beliefs. Since (for reasons I don't really get beacause my metatheory is different), political beliefs so commonly cluster around dead center of the web, that all it takes is one little miscommunication and then all that elegant Gricean stuff about how languages function and what communication means completely breaks down and you've got people yelling at each other in distinct homophonous languages.

Actually, that's just an extreme picture of what I think most intellectual discourse is really like. (Not in analytic philosophy; it's got its own unique discourse problems but the paradigm is really perfectly suited for communication, with everybody constantly translating natural language into symbolic logic....)

Okay, so now that I'm not tweaking...maybe I need to talk about this more, but the reality is I never use the term "orthodoxy" normatively. Because it's not a normative term. It's not even a rigid designator (except for Orthodox Christians and Jews). It has one of these beautiful intension functions that just flies around possibility space looking for appropriate groups that divide into appropriate subgroups and then sees if any of them meet these requirements about constituting the dominant position on [.....], dissent from which entails thuswise consequences etc. etc.

If I'm not allowed to say 'orthodox' then I'll just have to use a cumbersome description about something being the paradigm cluster of ideas in a movement and if you start doubting too many of them you might just commit yourself a priori to being outside the movement. Or can I have the word back if I promise not to ever, ever use it normatively

As for me, I've been ditching my last conceivable orthodoxy over the last couple of months, which was direct reference theory of semantics, because it looks like George Bealer has some devastating counterarguments against it. Otherwise, I'm in a minority about pretty much every question I have an answer to that's of the type that there could be an orthodox answer, so that pretty much rules me out of orthodoxy right there. I don't see how I'm any better off for it.

Okay, anyway, I spurn Kathryn Jean Lopez as I would spurn a hug from a naked leper, and the funny thing about these here's a haffa-dozen, here's a haffa-dozen more type arguments is the evidence is so vast and so hard to sift through that there really isn't any practical possibility of getting a determinate answer on who's most embarrassed by their choice of comrades questions.

Now, that said, I can't speak for anybody else's experience, but there is most certainly an intellectual current on the left, it comes out a lot from folks in Women's and Gender Studies, that tries to uphold some kind of borderline analyticity for the two premises I'm trying to reconstruct.

Now --- even if it's impossible to use examples like the Taliban because of some kind of unknown to me terminological requirement in feminism's premises that just modus ponens and modus tollens in the type of context of which the Taliban is a token --- it's still not very difficult to tease out some a priori evidence to embarrass the proposed analyticity.

The primary reason to write about this is, first of all, it's hard to just try to reduce this all to logic, and giving it some time in the ol' armchair, I'm pretty sure somewhere near the genus of the traditional belief puzzles (like, er, Kripke's "A Puzzle About Belief") that really provide the only a priori evidence there is against the truths of logic.

The secondary reason is that, because politics is such a mess and everything, we have all this great epistemological stuff going on and yet really nothing to say about political belief. I wouldn't be shocked if it turned out that the actual practice of politics created new propositional attitudes like, say, doublethinking that [ ], that are just going to put pressure on your philosophical semantics, not to mention, again, logic.

Speaking of George Bealer, the other day he quoted somebody saying that he thought the Liar's Paradox was too interesting to leave on the trash-heap of pragmatics, and Bealer went on to say that Frege's Puzzle is too compelling to leave on the trash heap of pragmatics, and what I want to say is that while the motivation is warranted, trash-heap isn't really the right metaphor. More like cock-fighting ring.

There's a reason I said I didn't really want to hear about practical costs and it's the same reason you don't count friction or air resistance in high school physics, because there's something potentially illuminating going on now,


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