Monday, May 28, 2012

Coming Around

Do people in other countries have online petitions to retailers in the United States, asking them to refrain from enabling us to engage in activities they consider immoral or self-harmful? Are there petitions in the Islamic world asking American retailers to put an end to sales of revealing women's clothing? Do vegetarians in India petition to ask that we stop farming animals for food?

Of course, large foreign-owned retailers, brick-and-mortar or online, don't really have much of a presence in the United States. Although, in that vein, it's interesting that one of the stated concerns that the unwashed Internet masses of America have is that China will start dictating the movies we can see, if the Dalian Wanda Group buyout of AMC Entertainment Holdings goes through.

Richard Naught (StormBringer) wrote:
Great! Now we can be subject to Chinese censorship.

happy sassy (sassyhappy) wrote:
so now we will have censorship of our films . . China censors everything including internet access . . AMC probably needs the money but if you lie down with dogs you get fleas . . I for one am done with AMC . . Regal Cinemas your stock just went UP . .
But why shouldn't foreign firms be busybodies in the way that we often expect American companies to be? If Congress feels that it's legitimate to call companies on the carpet for not doing enough to push American values and legal ideas on overseas markets, why shouldn't overseas companies push their values and legal systems here?

Of course, this isn't to imply that Americans are necessarily hypocritical about this - after all, in a nation of more than 300 million people, there is going to be quite a bit of diversity of opinion about such things - from those who have found it worthwhile to have an opinion, anyway. And there are few things less productive than calling an entire nation of people hypocritical because any two of them have differing opinions about the same topic.

The idea that the United States should use the influence of its corporations as a lever to effect social change in other countries (a process pejoratively termed "cultural imperialism" by many, including a number of Americans) spread as American innovation lead to American companies having major global footprints, while at the same time keeping foreign competitors mostly bottled up in their own markets. While there's pretty much a Google, Yahoo or Microsoft presence in all parts of the world, how many Americans have ever even investigated Baidu? Can many Americans even name a prominent software maker is Russia, for instance?

As globalization becomes a truly globally-driven phenomenon, rather than one that propagates mainly from the United States and western/northern Europe, we are going to see more pressure on the First World, rather than the pressure coming exclusively from the First World. How we will react to that will provide interesting cultural insights, and perhaps even a glimpse of national character.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If You Want It

[David] Zuckerman and Nevitt have been very vocal in support of a GMO labeling law introduced this session in the Vermont legislature. It didn't pass. And Rachel Nevitt is:

    Nevitt: Furious. I'm furious because it's an issue that's really important to a lot of people; we've made that really clear. We have a right to know what's in our food. Period.

Four separate polls found more than 90 percent of Vermonters support labeling food made with genetically modified seeds. So why wouldn't such a feel-good law pass?

    Chuck Ross: Um, the problem is that we're quite confident that we would be sued right out of the blocks.

Chuck Ross is the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture. He says lawmakers worried about the reaction from Monsanto and other large multinationals. But close to 20 other states are still considering GMO labeling.

    Ross: But they run the same risk that the state of Vermont does in it being a suit. And that's a costly proposition to engage in. This is an issue that would be best dealt with by Congress with a national standard.
States consider labeling GMO foods
But if 90% of Vermonters really want modified foods to come with some sort of Genetically Modified Organism labeling on them, they have a simple option. Don't buy anything that isn't labelled. You can rest assured that, even though Vermont isn't the largest food market in the United States, that food producers will rush to get labels on to their products. And then what's Monsanto going to do? Sue 90% of the state? Not bloody likely.

It's clear, from the fact that officials expect a lawsuit the moment a labeling law goes into effect, that Monsanto expects that sales of GMO foods will drop. Non-GMO will become a competitive advantage that they're not positioned to take advantage of. This gives the people of Vermont, whether they know it or not, leverage. And it's leverage that they can, and should, put to use.

While on the surface, there's nothing wrong with a GMO labeling law, it strikes me as unnecessary, as the people of Vermont have it within their power to make their state unfriendly to unlabeled foods. There might be an issue with dishonesty among producers and suppliers, but there are ways around that. Fraud, and deliberately mislabeling foods would certainly qualify, is already against the law. And if you cut whistle-blowers in for a piece of the take and maybe throw in some other considerations, someone should be willing to step up when people turn to deceit. (And we know someone will.)

We have to be careful about expanding government to give them powers to do things that we wish for, but don't want badly enough to put effort into. Government should be geared towards those things that we can't do effectively for ourselves, not things that we don't want to do. For one thing, our society becomes more amenable to small groups that have different ideas. Labeling foods and GMO or not can't be both mandated and not at the same time. But if those people for whom it's important make their buying decisions based on labels, someone will put labels on foods, and the people who don't really care can still buy unlabeled foods if they want. (Now, it should be pointed out that for people who don't care, the labels don't do any harm - not all situations are like this, and that should be kept in mind.)

We've become accustomed to turning to government, but sometimes, that's not the best answer. Not all situations are going to be like this one, where modest effort on the part of a broad group of people will quickly lead to the changes that they'd like to see. But some are, and it would be worthwhile to explore other avenues of getting things done than looking for legislation.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Blue Trees

In downtown Seattle.

The Question?

Sometimes, a lot of thought, writing and editing leaves you with a single thought.

"What would our world be, if we weren't so afraid of what we think it actually is?"

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Label, By Any Other Name

What does it mean to be a Roman Catholic? Or a Democrat? Or a Left-Libertarian Market Anarchist? And if You're Doing It Wrong, what does THAT make you?

I've recently been caught up in a couple of discussions, online and off, of what it means to be a "true" Christian or a "true" Conservative (among others). Leaving aside for a moment the inevitable charges of falling prey to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, we have a larger question in front of us - what determines someone's ability to take on a certain label? Who is the gatekeeper? And what responsibility do the rest of us have in that regard?

We often have difficulty understanding the importance of labels that we don't aspire to, and this often leads to a high level of inconsistency with the way they they're applied. On the other hand, for many people who do aspire to them, the labels are important parts of their identity and self image. Put these two things together, and you may be able to see why there are so often fireworks around them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Defense of Universal Suffrage

Perhaps the most unlikable thing about the United States is the near-constant whisper that certain people should be denied a voice. Whether it be Gerrymandering, or calls for change through revolution, the idea that voting is wasted on some or a simple waste of time never goes away. It should.

Because when people come to the conclusion that they are so correct that other people shouldn't have a say, things start going off the rails. It's precisely when we start thinking "talking to these people is worthless, I should force them to go along with me," that we should stop and re-think. Most people are terrible political salespeople because they don't bother to understand that they're attempting to sell something to an audience - and that means knowing what your audience wants, knowing how you getting what you want helps them get what they want and knowing how to convey the win-win to them. It also means understanding that you can't convince everyone and the hard sell at the wrong time is worse than useless.

When allow ourselves to feel that institutions like democracy, and one person - one vote are only useful when we're winning, we abdicate the responsibility that we all have to prove our cases, rather than impose them upon others. It's easy to feel that we would be the very model of a benevolent dictator, and that once people lived under our guidance, even if it takes a while, they would understand that it's better this way. But it's very likely that this is untrue, if only for the reason that many of us have difficulty understanding the difference between what we think is best and what might actually be best.

Democracy was not designed to go hand-in-hand with enlightenment. A sufficiently enlightened people could choose which among them would make a suitably benevolent dictator, and likely have the result work out quite well for them. In fact, the sufficiently enlightened could make any government work for them. Democracy is designed as a way of letting the enlightened, the unenlightened and the partially enlightened exist in a strange blend of harmony and tension while pushing them to interact with one another. While it is imperfect, it does as it should, which is more than we can say for many other things.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Two Tone

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lesson Chamber

According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project Study on "Social networking sites and politics" the following (among other things) are true about users of Social Networking Sites.

Conservatives are less likely than liberals to have taken steps to ignore or disconnect from someone whose views are different.

Liberals are more likely than conservatives to have self-censored their posts because they were worried it might upset or offend someone.
What's your immediate reaction?

I ask this because in my experience, where the rubber really meets the road is in what people do with this sort of information when they are presented with it. I encountered this study through a Google+ user who had reshared another Google+ user's post of an article that referenced the study. The article was both partisan and misleading (unsurprising, given the partisan nature of the site it was on), and that started an echoing effect.

And it was clear to me that no-one had gone back and actually read the research itself. Mainly because the comments I was reading were disconnected from the study itself, and concerned themselves with either amplifying or mocking the partisan commentary on the article or appealing for unity in spite of it. Misleading statements in the article that concerned the study's findings went unchallenged. Perhaps this is simply a part of my natural skepticism of random things that I read on the Internet, but when I found a link to the actual data, I read it, and found that while there is information that partisans on both sides of the divide to use against one another, those people who self-identify as political moderates come out the best - and worst - in nearly all categories, being less likely to try and shield themselves from political commentary they disagree with, yet also substantially less likely to be concerned with offending or upsetting others.

Of course, there's no real incentive for wings to unite against, or aspire to, the center. So they tend to content themselves with garnering victim cred and virtue points by holding up the flaws of the other side. But perhaps the opposite is in order. Maybe those social media users who consider themselves "Liberal" and "Very Liberal" should be willing to tell the minority of their peers who are likely to lock themselves away from dissenting voices and possibly offensive content to be more open. On the other hand, perhaps the political middle could learn something about being more aware of how others feel. And "Conservatives" and the "Very Conservative" could choose either lesson to take to heart, and share with their peers.

But always looking to catalog the sins of others; to point at them and say "There's the problem," is nonconstructive. And huddling in a circle to remind ourselves of how superior we are will do nothing to solve the problems that we find ourselves confronting.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Seismic, My Foot

I'm impressed, somewhat surprised and a bit dismayed that the outcomes of the French and Greek elections are being termed a "seismic shift." It's merely people voting to lessen and/or avoid measure that they find painful. This what democracies do. If given half a chance, many people would vote to retain the benefits to themselves while socializing the costs.

The previous French and Greek administrations suddenly found themselves in a situation where sooner (Greece) or later (France), the world would perceive their debts as growing too large, and that the risk of default was growing. Borrowing money to make investments that will either yield new revenues or lead to reduce costs is all fine and good. Borrowing money that will effectively be consumed, however, is unwise. Part of the reason is that people grow accustomed to the goods and services that are paid for with borrowed money; when you ask them to pay taxes later or to forgo the benefits, they (correctly) perceive a decrease in their standard of living. When enough people have started to complain about this, you can be sure that SOMEONE will run on a platform that promises to reduce or eliminate the pain for cutbacks. And then you wind up with a new administration that not having had to deal with the crisis that the previous one confronted, can simply say that their predecessors did it all wrong, and there's an easy and painless way out. They then promptly kick the can down the road, with the tacit approval of the public, who it either waiting for a miracle to occur, or doesn't care WHO pays the debts - as long as it isn't them.

In electoral politics, this is about as surprising as the sun rising in the East. Hardly Earth-shaking.

NOW He's Mad?

Unlike a lot of people, I guess I don't have a problem with the contention that allowing same-sex marriage to be common could get us on the Judeo/Christian/Moslem God's bad side. After all, I have four years of Roman Catholic theology classes under my belt, and so I understand the Biblical prohibition against homosexual (male, specifically) sexuality.

What I have immense difficulty understanding is how we're not ALREADY on God's bad side. The very creation of the nation that is the modern United States required murder and theft on a colossal scale. Settlers used everything from blatantly walking away from treaty obligations to crude forms of biological warfare to remove the native people from their lands. In the modern day, murder is endemic, and by the time one makes it to adulthood, the chances that at least one female relation, schoolmate or coworker  will have been sexually assaulted are virtually 100%. (Come to think of it, I wasn't even a teenager when I first heard of a classmate being raped.) We're winding down two wars in foreign nations that have resulted in perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, capping more than a half-century of wars in which the United States seems to have had little thought for the lives of foreign civilians. On the other hand, we carefully turn a blind eye to atrocities committed in nations that agree to be our proxies in conflicts, are economically useful to us or have the wherewithal to make an open conflict with them painful. Are we really to understand that God is okay with that? If a deity is judging us on our collective performance as a nation, would we really otherwise make the grade?

My point isn't to make the United States out to be a den of iniquity and vice. After all, I don't have to - there are plenty of ministers, preachers and evangelists who are more than happy to do so themselves, and they're much better at it than I. (So why not leave it to the professionals?) But the idea that not having a S.W.A.T. team kick in Adam and Steve's bedroom door and drag them away is THE thing that we've done that will bring down the wrath of the divine upon our heads? I can't believe that our Catalog of Sins is anywhere near that thin. And so I wonder where the calls are to clean up the rest of our act.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


There are, conventional wisdom states, three things that should never be discussed in polite company: Politics, religion and sex. In the United States, however, it seems more and more like one thing, as discussions about sex almost always devolve into politics or religion, and discussions about politics and religion are becoming difficult to distinguish from one another. Because just as political discussions in the United States are strongly centered around the partisan divide between Democrat and Republican, religious discussion seems to have become just as polarized between Christianity and Atheism.

And it seems that this breakdown is occurring for the same reason in religion as it does in politics. There are, of course, more than simply two political parties in the United States. The others simply aren't large enough to be able to manage a consistent voice in any sort of national-level discourse. Oh, you're a member of the Constitution Party? Well, in most heated discussions between members of the Big Two, you're likely to be treated as simply an apostate Republican. And if you're a member of the Unity Party? Welcome to Being Completely Ignored. Population: You. By the same token, while American Christians and Atheists go at it hammer and tongs, they treat each other as the only real alternative to themselves. Buddhism? Quaint, but not really relevant. And Shintoism? The typical American response is likely to be "whattoism?" While allowance might be made for Moslems and Jews, for "normal" people you're either a Christian or an Atheist, and that's that. Also common to both topics is the idea that there is some sort of ulterior motive, if and possibly consequence And like the political parties, Christian and Atheist activists are convinced that their way of doing things can (and should) be all things to all people, represents the only path to fundamental "Truth" and is self-evidently correct, to the point where disavowing it can only be the result of deliberate rejection of what one knows to be correct, ignorance born of gross negligence, abject stupidity or "brainwashing." About the only thing that's missing from "religious" discourse that's commonly found in political debate is the proactive blaming of the other side and their worldview for what would otherwise appear to be unrelated events.

This vehement, and ultimately bogus, duality, and the zero-sum thinking that results from it, leads the activists of both sides to look for opportunities to cry foul, in the form of any news article or public discourse that demonstrates any sort of positive view of the other side. Want to garner a long thread of comments by random people on Google+? Link to an article that discusses some difference between Christianity (often erroneously termed as "religion") and Atheism (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "secularism"). Some personality trait will be ascribed to one and not the other, and from that, the sparks will fly. When a news site offers up a human interest story of someone making a personal journey that starts in one camp, and ends in the other, you can be sure, if there is an open forum, that things will quickly become heated, with ad-hominem attacks, complaints about media bias and a diligent cataloging of sins by the partisan activists of both sides. Also entertainingly common are the comments that lead with an insult and then bemoan the other side's hostility, like this little (unedited) gem from Google+:

the fool has said, there is no God, there IS a difference between religion and faith in God , it is a shame that too many "atheist's" are little more than haters of God ,and of the people who believe in God
The bitterness of Christian/Atheist partisanship isn't likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Both sides view the other with fear and loathing, and this lead to a need to prove themselves Correct, not on their own merits, but through discrediting the other. Again, the parallel to politics is striking. And it's likely a large part of the reason why these two topics part company from sex. Unless either religion or politics is involved, Jack and Jill's sex life has little to no impact on what Dick and Jane do in their own bedroom. And whatever Tom, Harry and Sally are up to - well, what happen in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But in the spheres of activist religion and politics, what other people do DOES matter. A lot. Jack voted Republican? That makes him an accessory to the alleged crimes of the Bush Administration. Jane is an Atheist? Let her sort prevail, and watch Humanity descend into amorality and decadence, provoking God's wrath.

In the meantime, those of us who are decidedly non-activist about such things stand back in bemusement, wary of doing anything that will draw the activists' attention to ourselves. Oh well. I suppose we can always talk about money...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mr. Jara's Neighborhood

If you've been reading for a while, you're likely aware of a occasional sideline I like to indulge in, namely clicking the "Next Blog" link at the top of the page, and seeing where it take me. The way that Google comes up with whatever the "Next Blog" should be is all COBOL to me, but I'm always curious about what the selections say about Nobody in Particular, and, by extension, myself.

Well, it seems that N.I.P. has taken to hanging out with the faithful. As I wound my way from "door to door" as it were, I found myself in the company of Christians. Because of the fact that weblogging is a luxury good, which means that many bloggers are Americans, and the fact that many Americans are Christians, once you find yourself in the realm of the religious blogger, you're not likely going to be visiting anywhere else anytime soon. This "Hotel California"-ish phenomenon is likely (although I'm guessing here) driven by the simple fact that many religious people tend to include their religiosity in other things that they do. So when even when I landed at the page of a clear Doctor Who fan, the fact that she was also a devout Catholic meant that the "Next Blog" link from her page lead to blog with a primarily religious theme.

Now, if you look at the Labels list that runs down the right-hand side of this page, you'll see that Religion is clearly a second-tier topic for discussion, lagging way behind the heavy hitters of Politics, Society and even Media. So I'm curious as to why Google lumped Nobody in Particular in with blogs about personal ministry, relationships with God and how to live one's life in accordance with the Bible.

Shrug. The World May Never Know.

But if there's one thing I've learned about N.I.P. over the past few years, is that it dislikes hanging out with the same crowd twice. So we'll see what the neighborhood looks like next time out.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What They Don't Know

This Michael Ramirez cartoon, showing a smarmy-looking reporter posing with a corpse in U.S. combat gear, is captioned: "Los Angeles Times reporter posing with a dead American solider who was killed in reaction to their two-year-old story and pictures." This odd twist on the idea that "it's not the crime, it's the failure to cover it up," clearly attempts to shift the blame from the soldiers to the media.

Filmmaker Bill Duke faced much the same criticism when he made the movie "Dark Girls," which dealt with color prejudices in the African-American community. "Why are you airing our dirty laundry?" he was asked. (The same criticism was made of Bill Cosby after his "Pound Cake" speech.)

And despite the fact that Federal government publicly supports whistleblowing, Federal employees often tell a very different story when it comes to the reality of speaking out when something isn't right.

This idea, that dirty laundry is always best hidden, is a corrosive force in so many facets of our society because it encourages and rewards secrecy. Supporters of such secrecy often fall back on the claim that they can be trusted to clean up their acts, and that they shouldn't have to lose face or suffer other consequences by having word of their misdeeds made public. But the reality is that many problems, once pushed out of site, quickly become out of mind as well, and they simply fester in the darkness. As in the case of American soldiers posing with body parts of Afghan bombers, where the Army's investigation into the incident was not prompted by the incident itself, but by the fact that Los Angeles Times had the photographs.

In light of this, and other actions that have made the armed forces look bad, the Secretary of Defense has come out and told the troops that it was up to them to avoid the sorts of incidents that might cause problems down the road. Or, as the rest of us know it, the "6 o'clock news" test: "If you wouldn’t want it reported on the six o’clock news," don't do it.

Keeping your act, and thus your laundry, clean strikes me as a much better policy than hoping to cover yourself later by blaming the news.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Right To Left

In the 80s and 90s, put out by a Democratic policy that they derisively referred to as "Tax and Spend," Republican party decided on a tactic that could easily be labeled "Borrow and Spend." To fund the lower taxes of which they were so fond, the Republicans turned, not to lowering government spending, but to borrowing money on international capital markets.

Despite claims that lowering the overall amount of revenue that the Treasury raised from native sources would eventually lead to explosive economic growth and prove that "deficits don't matter," all that happened was that the United States went deeper and deeper into debt. Ronald Reagan put the national debt on everyone's minds back when I was in high school. In fact, we would sometime use the term "the national debt" to refer to some random Very Large Number, if not outright Infinity. For all of the rhetoric about stimulating the overall American economy, Borrow and Spend was really about enhancing the ability of Government to fund Republican priorities, while at the same time avoiding painful cuts that would have riled up the public to vote Democratic. It was, plainly and simply, buying votes with borrowed funds from overseas.

And it never worked as advertised. Not a single study that has looked into it has ever shown that simply cutting taxes spurs enough economic growth to allow for enough extra revenue to pay off the loans taken out. Or, for that matter, even allow the government to break even. Despite Ronald Reagan's claim that lowering taxes on what the modern Republican party likes to term as "job creators" (a.k.a. wealthy people) would spur them to invest more of the money, when investment opportunities were limited, they did what any intelligent person would do: pocket the money.

And now it seems that the political Left in Europe, looking to buy votes with the promise of avoiding painful cutbacks in government spending, have decided on "pro-growth" policies. Otherwise known as Borrow and Spend. And it's easy to see why. Entire industries are built on the willingness of government to spend public funds on private enterprise. Were the United States to cut its defense spending to "merely" a quarter of the world's total, whole corporations would cease to be viable overnight. Congressional delegations, prodded by unemployed citizens missing their old jobs, would be up in arms immediately.

Now, I'm not a ideologue when it comes to the interactions of people and their government. If the public wants to avoid paying the piper now by borrowing there way out of social unrest, so be it. But this euphemism that they've attached to it - "pro-growth policies" - is just that - a euphemism. There will be no magical super-growth that will pay for the interest on the loans. Governments are poor domestic investors because people have a low tolerance for pain when they perceive that relief is no farther away than the stroke of a pen (or a run of the printing press). And so money winds up being funneled into consumption, rather than true investment. And in any system where people are allowed to participate, there will always be a path to elected office that runs through the willingness to tell people that today's bills can be paid for with tomorrow's cash.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012