Saturday, January 12, 2019

Equality

The most difficult thing about having compassion for everyone is letting go of the idea that the natural state of the world requires that people be unequal. Whether it is a matter of having the same compassion for the self as one does for others, or avoiding conditioning compassion on any other factor, the idea that all people are equal is central. And with that comes the understanding that the divisions we make between people and the levels of hierarchy we create to rank them are fundamentally arbitrary.

This is not to say that they are wrong. One person may be more valuable to us than other, or people may differ in terms of how we regard them. And those distinctions may be perfectly legitimate. But they are born of ourselves and not the people themselves, and for that reason, they do not alter the persons to which we apply them, as even though they may seem real to us, they have no reality beyond us.

Therefore, if compassion is to act within the world as it is, rather than as we judge it to be, it should transcend our judgements, rather than reflect them.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Expendables

A Republican county official in Texas has survived a vote to oust him after several local party members took issue with his Muslim religion.
Texas Republicans fail to oust Muslim official over religion
When I first heard about this, I was suspicious. It seemed to be just enough of a parody of Islamophobic Republicans that it couldn't possibly be genuine. But, of course, it is, because Islamophobia has gathered enough of a following within the Republican party that [Grand Prairie precinct chairwoman Dorrie O'Brien had] "previously slammed her Republican colleagues for not intervening in what she called a 'stealth jihad' and 'Leftist/Shari'a Zuckerberg-ization of Tarrant County'," without being laughed out of the group.

While it does make for an eye-roll-worthy change to point and laugh at a group of people who see bent on confirming people's stereotypical view of the Republican party, it does point out one of the problems that arises from a two-party system that is effectively composed of roughly equally-sized coalitions of voters with widely differing interests. Each party has set of voters (and thus, officers) for whom "can't live with 'em, can't win elections without 'em" is an apt description.

While the Tarrant County Republican party may have responded to Dale Attebery's resignation with a heartfelt "don't let the door hit you on the way out," the fact of the matter remains that if there are too many people like Mr. Attebery in the ranks, their disaffection with the party's refusal to go along with their belief that party Moslems are untrustworthy potential fifth columnists will result in their losing elections.

Now, given that Texas is a fairly Red state, the number of defectors that it would likely take to destroy the party's hold on local electoral office is fairly high. Embarrassing sectarians, therefore can easily be shown the door. But this isn't true everywhere, and it's those places where Republicans feel they need every vote they can get where questions of who is able to have their opinions mirrored back to them by the party apparatus will really become important.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Another Brick

Yesterday evening, President Trump addressed the nation. I am told that the purpose of this was to broaden support for his wall along the border with Mexico beyond his relatively small base of hardcore supporters. I didn't bother to watch.

I've always been of the impression that physical barriers aren't really the best solution to the problem. After all, we see how well that worked out for the former East Germans. And for Hadrian, for that matter. On the other hand, once "the Great Recession" started going, net illegal migration to the United States was negative. Hmmm...

The simple fact of the matter is that the majority of people who are coming to the United States are coming here looking for work. And most of the work that they end up with are in sectors of the economy that the nation as a whole have more or less decided should be exempted from the American Dream. (As much as people complain that they need illegal immigrants because "Americans don't want those jobs," the fact of the matter is that immigrants don't raise their children to want them, either. They're low status and low pay. I suspect that almost no-one genuinely wants those jobs. They're simply the best that some people can get, and they're an improvement over what would otherwise be available.)

But if the problem is that destitute migrants from Latin America are showing up to compete for low-skill, low-wage and low-status jobs that people do want (or are lowering the wages and status of those jobs by expanding the pool of available applicants), the answer to that is simple: remove their ability to take those jobs. And there is a much simpler way to do that than attempting to physically bar people from entering the country.

There is a doctrine in tort law, normally applied to children, termed "attractive nuisance."The general idea is to establish liability when property owners leave things lying about that are likely to attract children. Instead of the children being liable for trespassing, the property owner bears the liability for not making their property unattractive enough. Were one to combine this principle with the concept of civil asset forfeiture, you could put in place a legal regime in which law enforcement could seize property, including businesses, that attracted people in the country illegally by providing them with jobs. Unless the property owners could then prove that no wrongdoing (hiring of people not eligible to work in this country) occurred, the government would then auction off the property. You could even go a step further and hold businesses liable for the acts of businesses that they contracted with who brought people onto their premises. So an office building could be seized if the property owners contracted with a company that couldn't prove its workers were legally allowed to work.

I would suspect that, if a law like this could be passed, that the market for migrant labor would collapse fairly rapidly, especially if enforcement was even moderately pursued. No property would likely even need to be auctioned, the expense of defending the property alone (and recall, in civil asset forfeiture, it's the property, not the owner, that's involved in the dispute with law enforcement.

Of course, this would create problems of its own. But they likely wouldn't be much more serious than what would happen if, somehow, the United States Government could manage to catch and deport every single person who wasn't authorized to be here and keep them out. And reducing the incentives to have people migrate for economic reasons would make policing the border easier. People who saw themselves as refugees wouldn't have to worry as much about being mistaken for would-be sub-minimum-wage laborers, there would be enough resources to manage them and you could be pretty sure that someone who decided to go way out into the middle of nowhere to attempt a crossing was likely up to something shady.

The wall is an idea of a way of keeping people out that would likely still allow enough people in that the United States could support its current standards of living by importing poverty. Which is what we have already.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Godless Vote

So this is an interesting video that was posted to The Atlantic a couple of years back. The central premise is that Democrats have a problem with religion. But it leaves something out.

It makes the point that about 28% of self-identified Democrats "don't identify with any particular religion," twice the percentage of the Republicans, and up from 10% in 1996. According to Pew, in 2015, about 23% of all Americans identified as "Unaffiliated," most of them claiming to be "Nothing in particular."

And what this tells us is that while Americans who lack a religious identity and/or affiliation are over represented in the Democratic party, it's to a lesser degree than they are under represented in the Republican party. So I wonder: Would it also be accurate to ask if the Republican Party takes non-religion seriously?

Because maybe the problem isn't so much that Democrats are bad at speaking about religion as it is that they have to meld together a coalition that has a LOT more non-religious people in it, and who expect to be treated as equals. I know people on both sides of the Democratic - Republican spectrum, and I haven't had someone on the Democratic side openly disparage my lack of religiosity in 20+ years. On the other hand, my Republican acquaintances are much more likely to view me as either a target for conversion or as potentially dangerous - and tell me so, although it's been a couple of years since the last time it happened. And of the few people that I'm personally familiar with who are both staunchly Republican and devoutly Christian, most of them are fully in favor of laws that, from my point of view, would basically mandate that everyone effectively paid lip service to Christianity.

And I think that this factor is one that goes unmentioned. As the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown, "Freedom of Religion" has, for many of them, become interpreted as "Freedom to behave irreligiously." And, let's face it - while the stereotype of Republicans as theocratic may not be accurate, it is widespread. When you hear about a bill that "would require teachers to spend no more than 15 minutes in the first class of each day to read, verbatim, opening prayers said before a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate" (even if you don't expect enough members of either party to vote for it that it has a chance of passing) which party would you suspect of having offered it? For all that Republicans offer secular reasons for things like opposition to same-sex marriage (well, sometimes, anyway) again, pretty much anyone who understands American politics at all suspects that the real reasons are found in a Bible or at a pulpit. And while the last politician who refer to an atheist student as an "evil little thing" was in fact, a Democrat, I suspect that most people would have bet the other way.

And so if you're a religiously unaffiliated American who actually cares about freedom of irreligion and wants to be politically active in a party that might actually win an election now and again, which party do you choose?

And maybe that's the issue. Because Democrats can't afford to alienate their non-religious voters and still remain a viable party, they can't rely on the same overt appeals to religion that were still workable when I was a child. The person who serves two masters my not be exemplary for either of them, but politics doesn't always leave one with a choice.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Evidence

I came across the picture above in a social media post that (sadly) degenerated pretty much immediately into sniping between camps. I can understand why some of the faithful were aggrieved at the comparison, but I found it ironic that they felt the need to comment on the post and tell people: "If you don't believe in the Bible, then don't read/talk about it."

But Spider-Man isn't really all that much different than a classical Hero, like Heracles (Hercules) who has also been appropriated for modern comic books (despite the medium's general aversion to religion). One wonders, if there were a great catastrophe today, 1,000 years from now, would people think that some segment of the population regarded Spider-Man as a demigod? Or even a full-on deity? Would they be able to differentiate the stories that we tell to entertain ourselves or to make particular points from the stories that we understood to be true? Would there be arguments about whether these stories were meant to be history or allegory?

Back in the days when the scriptures of most modern religions were written, diaries weren't a big thing. The authors didn't include footnotes to tell us what they were thinking or attempting to get across to a reader. And so we argue about their intent, and their understanding of the world, and a lot of that argument is shaped by our modern opinions of what people were like back then. (And, it occurs to me, our opinions of ourselves as compared to them.) If you're convinced that ancient peoples were ignorant dirt farmers who needed to impose a cosmic order on a world they didn't have the knowledge to understand, that casts their belief systems in a much different light than an understanding that they were devout folk who were much more open to the divine.

And so I find myself wondering what people are going to think of us, when they look back after the centuries, especially if something happens to disrupt the transfer of knowledge into the future. Are we going to be seen as simple-minded ignoramuses, inventing stories of colorful strongmen to re-assure ourselves in an uncertain world? Morally insecure sophisticates, seeking to banish moral ambiguity? Overwhelmed and fantasizing about being powerful and animalistic?

I suspect that however the future looks back on us, we'd find it simplistic and, in being so, inaccurate. But I suspect that it will also be contentious. And I wonder what we'd make of that.