Sunday, May 28, 2017

Bridging the Gaps

Most of the people in my social media circles are left of center, and that tends to mean that even the ones who profess a certain level of religiosity tend to be dismissive of the role of divinity in mundane events, even those that are unusual. Accordingly, they tend to look askance at people who rely on religion, rather than modern (Western) medicine. Discussions about the topic tend to end up with calls for relying on faith to be viewed as a form of child abuse by the legal system, and questions as to why people look to religion in such circumstances.

Occasionally, one comes across a case where the believers claim a certain obligation to "Let go and let God," as the saying goes. And this furthers the confusion. This has, I believe, less to do with religion, than it does with a certain inexactness in medicine.

There are stories of other great miracles that were brought about by faith that no one attempts to replicate today. Jesus is said to have feed a multitude with a few fish and a handful of loaves of bread - but if a food bank director who said that they would rely on God to stretch a few boxes of food into filling meals for the entire homeless population of a major city, you would likely have a difficult time finding someone who would take them seriously. And you would likely have an even harder time finding someone who considered skepticism of the director's claims to be disparaging faith in God. Given a certain quantity of food, one can generally predict how many people can be fed with it. You might be off by a few people here or there, but most people can come up with reasonable estimates, with a little training. The idea that a miracle would occur to multiply the food is likely beyond the expectations of even ardent believers.

But medicine is something different. A doctor could proclaim that a patient has only weeks to live, only to wind up seeing that same person again and again for years when the diagnosed condition doesn't behave in the manner expected. Diseases go into remission and people recover from injuries, seemingly at random, and in a manner or time frame that leaves the medical establishment at a loss. I suspect that most practitioners would tell you that there are any number of things that we simply don't know, or can't speak to with 100% certainty.

I think that it's telling that people tend to see miracles primarily (if not exclusively) in these places that have uncertainty in them - the "miraculous" outcome, while unusual, or perhaps even unheard-of, is not, however, manifestly impossible given our current scientific understanding. Were I to be in an automobile accident that required amputation of a badly mangled leg and put me into a deep coma from which most experts agreed that I would never recover, a respectable doctor could claim that one day, I might awaken. But that same doctor would lose pretty much all credibility were they to claim that they'd be unsurprised to enter my room, and find me with both my feet again. Similarly, while we might see the hope of someone who prayed for me to awaken to be reasonable, if they claimed to be be praying that my amputated leg would grow back, they'd widely be considered delusional.

By the same token, raising the commonplace to the level of the miraculous also strains credibility - while the flu can be fatal, few feel that divine intervention is the only reason why people survive. And so casting such as a miracle seems to be overdoing it.

The limiting of the miraculous to areas of uncertainty has the side effect allowing both sides to claim victory, seeing what they wish to see. Which ensures that the debate will likely never reach a conclusion.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Culture Bombs

"This is what happens when you disarm your citizens."
Texas sheriff defends Facebook post on Manchester attack
What would a gun ownership rate in Great Britain that mirrored that of the United States have done in this instance? I don't claim to be an expert on firearms, but the last I checked gunpowder doesn't undo explosions.

Yes, you can make the point that if someone had seen the suicide bomber approaching, recognized him for what he was and had a gun on them, they could have shot him, before he made it into the crowd. But that's a heck of a counterfactual that requires a lot of pieces to fall into place. And let's not forget, simply HAVING a weapon isn't good enough. A person has to be ready to use it. (See the Clemmons incident here in the Puget Sound region, where a man was able to ambush and kill four police officers, and get away, albeit with a gunshot wound of his own.)

In the end, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree's Twitter remarks on the Manchester bombing mistake the Culture Wars for security policy, seeking to blame a cultural movement with which he disagrees for the deaths. It may make him a "truth-teller" to his fellow Culture Warriors, but it's a poor substitute for what's already been shown to actually work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Put a Lid on It

When the Obamas went to Saudi Arabia in January of 2015, Mrs. Obama did not wear any sort of head covering. Donald Trump tweeted:

Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted.We have enuf enemies
As you might be aware, current first lady Melania Trump did not cover her head while she was there on the first family's trip to the Middle East and Europe, although she did follow Vatican custom of black clothing and a lace veil when the Trumps met with the Pope.

This is, not surprisingly, eliciting howls of protest over President Trump's hypocrisy. Which is a complete waste of time. Because the issue here isn't that President Trump is a hypocrite now, it's that he was a motivated critic then.

It's unlikely, that anything that Mrs. Obama would have done could have denied now-President Trump from criticizing her. Had she gone with a head covering, she could just as easily taken flack for bowing to regressive Saudi gender norms. And given the Mr. Trump was starting his campaign for President himself, he had no reason to let any opening get by him. So rather than calling for consistency with his past positions, a better route is to simply ignore them as the results of political opportunism.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Not a Chance

"I was the first guy on TV to say 'Give Trump a chance.' I f---ed up. Sorry," Chappelle said during a routine at the event, according to MSNBC's Willie Geist.
Dave Chappelle Regrets Saying to Give Trump a Chance: "I F---ed Up"
I don't get it. I don't understand how in effect saying, "Hey, let's allow the President to actually do some things, and then judge whether or not he's any good," counts as "fucking up." Because that implies that the correct course of action was not to extend to President Trump any benefit of the doubt - once the predetermination was made that Donald Trump was going to be a bad president, the appropriate thing is to act as if he's already done it.

This isn't a matter of tit for tat or raising the overall level of discourse. David Chappelle giving President Trump a chance before deciding to criticize him will not make a lick of difference when the political pendulum swings back the other way. I don't believe for a moment that people make their decisions that way. If right-leaning celebrities decide that a Democratic president is the worst thing ever (and I suspect that many of them will decide just that) they'll choose to criticize, or hold their fire based on what they think is best for them in the moment (whatever criteria they use to determine that), not on what others have done in the past.

As far as we in the public are concerned, whether or not we decided to give President Trump a chance or protest everything that seemed to offer a reason was immaterial. Regardless of what one thinks of the republican form of government, the fact remains that President Trump had the support of enough of the Republican voter base that most Republican members of Congress couldn't simply dismiss whatever he put forth out of hand without jeopardizing their own re-election chances. And so to the degree that the viewership of Saturday Night Live leans Democratic, the fact that they are of a mind to oppose the president doesn't matter in the slightest. The election was in November. The shouting that came after the vote tallies was simply the last resort of people who were, for the time being, politically powerless.

And in that sense, declining to "Give Trump a chance," is simply another form of partisan virtue signalling. While that may have its uses, declining to participate in it shouldn't be considered fucking up.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

_____ Makes Right?

Asked during Sunday's pageant in Las Vegas whether healthcare was a privilege or a right, Miss McCullough said: "I'm definitely going to say it's a privilege."

She added: "As a government employee, I'm granted healthcare and I see first hand that for one to have healthcare, you need to have jobs.

"We need to continue to cultivate this environment that we're given the opportunity to have healthcare as well as jobs to all American citizens worldwide."
Miss USA Kara McCullough criticised for saying healthcare a 'privilege'
Welcome to a divide between different interpretations of how the world around us works. "The new Miss USA beauty pageant winner has sparked controversy by declaring that healthcare was a 'privilege', not a right," for the simple reason that when most of people ask the question, they have a particular way of viewing the world in mind.

Let's consider the case of Jack. Jack doesn't have access to anything other than charity care for some reason or the other. And there are many people, millions of them in fact, in Jack's position in the United States alone. Now, you can look at this in one of a few different ways, but let's start with two of them: You can say that Jack has a right to health care, and that right is being violated. Or, you could say that Jack clearly doesn't have a right to health care, considering the number of people in the same boat as he is. And this isn't necessarily an ideological or political difference. Rather it's a matter of how one understands something to become a "right."

For many people in the United States, rights are a simple matter of realizing them to exist. They were always there, regardless of any other considerations, but a person may or may not recognize them. We can call this a Natural Law approach. A vegan might say that animals have the right to lives that are not ended prematurely in order for them to be butchered for human consumption. And as far as they are concerned that right has always existed - it is, after a fashion, a fact of nature. People may not have had the resources, or been enlightened enough to respect that right, but the right was there, and animals killed to be food had their rights violated, as Natural Law endowed them with those rights. But if you look at rights as deriving from the existence of actions taken to protect that right, you can have a different perspective. It's perfectly normal to raise animals (generally speaking) for no other reason than to kill them for food. We may not always like the way people go about that, but it's a common practice and the people who seek to do something about it are few and far enough between that they aren't making much headway. We can call this a Human Action approach. And from this perspective, you would be hard pressed to understand that animals have a right not to be eaten by humans. (Note that there are more viewpoints than this - one could say that rights are created by declaration, whether or not they are backed up by actions, for instance.)

And because these two understandings of rights are mutually exclusive, the fact that they use the same language becomes grist for confusion. Or bitterness, as the case may be. People have a tendency to hear words as if they themselves, rather than the actual speaker, had spoken them. And so when Miss McCullough stated that she considered healthcare a privilege, people didn't bother to consider the context in which she'd made that statement, which to me is rooted in the idea that rights are defined by actions and the facts on the ground. But, as one might suspect, we don't have a right to be understood.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Moving Markets

The on-again off-again affair between Southern states and the Confederate battle flag reveals just how slowly racial justice moves in this regard. Despite evidence that its revival as a symbol of white supremacy coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, the flag means only "tradition" and "heritage" to its supporters. In 2016, discussion of a problematic poll revealed that attitudes toward the Washington professional football team's mascot are wildly inconsistent. Until we critically examine how our opinion of the mascot is a function of our own social conditioning — like celebrating Columbus Day, being a lifelong sports fan, having no American Indian friends — we can never be objective consumers of ideas about it.
Hate Speech And The Misnomer Of 'The Marketplace Of Ideas'
I'm dubious about this statement, because it carries an undertone that equates "objective" with "right thinking." It also assumes things about the meanings of words. I, as a Black person, can assume all I want that some dude flying a giant battle flag of the Army of Virginia from his truck would like nothing more than to re-fight the Civil War, and upon winning the rematch, form the southeaster United States into a new nation that enslaves every Black person it can lay hands on, but that assumption doesn't have to bear any real relationship to the truth. A person's romantic notions of the Lost Cause of the Confederate States of America doesn't have to be the least bit grounded in reality in order to be sincerely held. (And if they are insincerely held, that {to me, anyway} becomes proof that ideals of racial supremacy and apartheid government are held in enough distaste that people will not admit to them. Given that we live in a world that is not ideal, I'll take that.)
Racist hate speech has come to emblemize free speech protections because the parties it injures lack social power. Students of color are expected to endure insults to their identities at the same time that celebrities win multi-million dollar defamation settlements and media companies scrupulously guard their intellectual property against plagiarism.
I don't know if I understand someone calling me "nigger" is as bad as falsely labeling someone a criminal or a cheat. Likewise, I don't know that being referred to as a "coon" carries the same legal ramifications as taking someone else's work and passing it off as one's own. But more importantly, this formulation presumes that to be non-White is to be, in a sense, outlawed. I suspect that I could win a defamation settlement if someone were to, say, knowingly falsely claim that I murdered someone. Likewise, were someone to lift my words from Nobody In Particular, and in passing them off as their own, somehow make money in so doing, I could go after them for plagiarism. The chief obstacle I would have in these cases is not the color of my skin or my presumed continent of origin, but the fact that litigation is expensive, and few people are dim enough to act in a way that the case against them is ironclad enough that an attorney would be willing to work for little more than a share of the payout.

The issue with "the marketplace of ideas" is not that the government regulates it to the detriment of women, non-Whites and/or sexual minorities. Rather, the issue is that there is a belief that "right" ideas are obviously and fundamentally better products than "wrong" ideas. But this is no more true of ideas than it is of anything else. The issue with "Hate Speech And The Misnomer Of 'The Marketplace Of Ideas'" is that it assumes that there is an obviously right answer, and therefore, the "goodness" or "badness" of an idea can be determined by how it aligns to that answer.

But, as I used to remind an ex of mine, there is more than one road that leads to Rome. She was disturbed by the idea of skinning cats, and so I didn't use that saying when she was within earshot. Now, it's possible to take that as proof that what's needed is a at least some anger or confrontation on the part of distressed people to influence others to change, but in the end, it came down to a simple calculation on my part. Since this was my girlfriend, I wanted her to like me, and like spending time with me. She wouldn't do that if I was going to randomly squick her out by talking about skinning cats (which she liked much more than I do). So I created a new saying - because there was something in it for me.

And that's what's missing from the marketplace of ideas - the idea that the "correct" idea still needs to be treated as a product. Even if they can't articulate it well, or at all, the Redskins fan who supports the team keeping the name or the pseudo-Confederate who decorates their home with the flags of defeated armies or defunct states derive something from those practices that have meaning and value for them. To really compete with them in the Marketplace of Ideas, the concepts that boosters hold up as "good" ideas have to bring just as much value and meaning to the table. Rather than presuming that people pass on forcing the Redskins to change their name or seeing flags of the Confederacy as standing for "tradition" and "heritage" as indicative of a failure of those people to be "objective," perhaps people would do better to see them as one would any other marketable commodity, and ask what benefit the would-be customer will derive from purchasing them.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Now, Don't Go Anywhere

I've never been more than vaguely aware of how material witness warrants work. I'd typically heard of them in relation to terrorism cases, where prosecutors would use them to lock up someone they understood had incriminating evidence against a suspect, but couldn't be tied to the crime directly enough to simply be a suspect themselves. Some of these warrants seemed suspicious to me, given the very limited information I had, somewhere between fishing expeditions and punitive detentions for the crime of being too well acquainted with someone the public was afraid of.

But reading the BBC recently, I learned that it's possible to take material witness arrests to a whole new level.

In 2015, 56-year-old Russell Hernandez was released after two years without charge at Rikers Island prison on a material witness bond. Mr Hernandez served more time than the two men who robbed him and never even testified, because they took a plea deal. He won $1m in compensation.
'Scared for my life': Why are crime victims being jailed?
Prosecutors, it turns out, also use material witness warrants to detain people they're concerned may not show up to testify against the people accused of committing criminal acts against them.

When I read the article, I was reminded of a something I'd read once on the web: Some people go into law enforcement to serve the public, and some people to get the bad guys. Keeping someone in jail for years, simply to ensure that they'll be available to testify against a pair of robbers seems to land squarely in the mode of getting the bad guys. Although I can understand, from the point of view of a prosecutor, how it can seem like serving the public.

And that raises an interesting question: What is the responsibility of the target of a crime to participate in bringing the perpetrator of that crime to justice? And what should we be prepared to ask people to sacrifice to discharge that responsibility? Was it worthwhile (even outside of having to pay $1,000,000 in damages) to incarcerate Russell Hernandez for two years simply to be able to force him to testify against to men who robbed him? Were the robbers that dangerous? Even in a case where the crime was violent, is it worth incarcerating someone to compel, not their testimony, but their availability to testify? Given the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, should we be using jail time as a means to secure it? I don't know. I'm not judged on my ability to bring people to justice.

Part of this, I suspect, points to a problem that we have with reassuring that being on the side of the law is worth it. Once a witness is murdered by someone with ties to a perpetrator, they tend to become just another statistic. Locking people up doesn't change that. It needs a bigger push.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Right Minds

In a speech to employees at the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson openly said what a lot of people have suspected has always been true: That the security interests of the United States take precedence over asking other countries to adopt American values when the two come into conflict.

Despite this being little more than the United States aligning its rhetoric with its practices, this shift in tone has alarmed some human rights watchdogs, who feel that the United States is lessening its commitment to global human rights. Part of the concern is that nations that are already dismissive of human rights concerns will become even more willing to contravene them, if they understand that the United States is moving them to the back burner.

The question that this raises for me is a simple one: Where does the perception that governments around the world look to the United States for guidance (or how much they can get away with) on human rights issues come from? The missile strike ordered against Syria for the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population took many people by surprise precisely because it was unusual. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, had no problem with telling President Obama to go to Hell when criticized about the number of extrajudicial killings he sanctioned in his war on drugs, drug users and drug dealers. While he's now been invited to the White House to meet President Trump, it seems unlikely that he was reining things in before this, simply because of the United States' official disapproval or fear of intervention.

America's traditional approach has been to use the rhetoric of moral absolutism but to act pragmatically, while the rest of the world gazes at our hypocrisy with slack-jawed astonishment.
Eric Posner "Convictions - Simple Answers to Complex Questions" Slate Magazine, Monday 7 April, 2008
One presumes that the world's human rights abusers recovered quickly from their astonishment, because American rhetoric around moral absolutism has rarely moved the needle. The United States tends to care about trade and security, and rarely do human rights concerns bear directly on those aspects of American foreign policy. Rather, they were often used as a critical talking point, a way of calling out nations on the world stage. This is not to say that the United States has never taken human rights seriously, but serious consequences for violators, simply for being human rights violators, seem pretty thin on the ground.

It seems that what's at work here is people taking international "Whataboutism" more seriously than perhaps they should. While it's true that other nations are often quick to criticize the United States for not practicing what it preaches, they rarely bother to do the work to take the high ground themselves. Rather, their criticisms come across as more, "I know you are, but what am I?" And the nice thing about claiming that only the perfect can criticize is that since no-one is perfect, no-one is ever in a position to criticize. Nations ignore human rights - or what activists and advocates consider human rights - because it's in their interests: economic, military, political et cetera, to do so. And the United States has rarely, if ever, placed human rights above those issues itself. If a nation is sanctioned for human rights violations, it tends to be a safe (though not guaranteed) bet that, as far as the United States is concerned, it isn't a significant trading partner, it's not of any strategic importance and there isn't a powerful domestic constituency staring down their members of Congress. Especially if they're being sanctioned solely for human rights violations.

So while I understand the desire for the United States to be a moral leader on issues like this, I don't understand the apparent perception that it already is. The facts on the ground don't seem to support it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Thursday, May 4, 2017


In the end, I think the problem with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is wrapped up in the nickname "Obamacare," in that is has become much more about people's opinions of President Obama than it ever was about the processes and finances of health care.

And in a lot of ways, people's opinions of President Obama weren't even about the person of Barack Obama. Instead, they were about an understanding of political philosophy and ideology. To the degree that President Obama was a symbol of a certain type of progressivism and social consciousness to people who supported him, he was some mix of a caricature and nightmare vision of the same to his detractors. And whatever the views were, they were buttressed by a combination of confirmation bias, cherry-picking and, when needed, outright fabrication.

As a partisan matter, the debate about "Obamacare" never had anything to do with health care in the United States. Instead, it was about the interlocutors' competing visions of right and wrong. And perhaps that explains both the flaws of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the American Health Care Act - vision statements rarely have to line up with the reality on the ground.

As I see it, the vision put forward by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is one of shared responsibility. People, by virtue of being people, have value and worth, and a responsibility to help each other recognize that value and worth through staying healthy. This is more or less in line with how I understand the Liberal worldview more broadly. Life, when left to it's own devices aims its slings and arrows with abandon, striking some down while sparing others and the role of the collective society is to mitigate against that randomness - not for the sole benefit of those who receive aid, but for the greater benefit of the whole. On the other side of the coin, the vision of the American Health Care Act is...

Hmm. Maybe it's too early to say. On its face, it seems like a repudiation of the ACA's shared responsibility vision. Which would make sense, as the American Conservative worldview tends to see itself as an antithesis of American Liberalism. From where I sit, it postulates that life's slings and arrows are predictable in that they are earned - they are the results of choices that people make for their own benefit, and those self-serving choices should not be financed by involuntary donations from the public at large. Mitigating against those effects encourages moral hazard, as losses are socialized, yet gains are hoarded. Letting the world work as it does is not for the sole benefit of those who do well, but for the greater benefit of the whole... Sound familiar?

But here's the thing. Neither side is willing to credit the other with looking out for the greater good. Rather, each sees the other as cynically invoking the public's welfare, while seeking to enrich their friends and favored benefactors. (I, anecdotally, blame the abortion debate, which strikes me as one of the first controversies to directly insert the concept of "evil" into a policy debate.)

For Republicans, President Obama, from the outset, was a figure to be distrusted. Not because he was secretly a Manchurian Candidate - a Kenyan-born Moslem who sought to undermine the United States to honor African anti-colonialist sentiment, but simply because he was a Democrat who ascended to the White House after the disastrous onset of the "Great Recession," something that Republicans at the federal level were mostly unwilling to accept responsibility for. They feared a hard left turn in American politics, driven by a crisis that they felt must have been brought on bad acts by government.

Primed to distrust "big-government" solutions to problems, especially those they felt were caused by government in the first place, Republicans in Congress were perhaps also primed to see the concessions that President Obama offered to their sensibilities as a trap. And so, while many people noted the similarities between the Affordable Care Act and a plan pushed by Governor (and candidate for President) Mitt Romney, it can be argued that the American Right smelled a Trojan Horse.

In the end, many critics of the Affordable Care Act wanted it to fail. Not because they wanted people to suffer without health care, or even that they felt the price was too high; but because they saw it as intentionally bad for the very people it claimed to protect - not to mention their constituents, in whom they'd stoked distrust and motivated skepticism.

I will be unsurprised if, regardless of how it turns out, the American Health Care Act doesn't meet the same fate. For all that it's Republican boosters will enthusiastically tout it as a cure all to everything that ails American health care, the fact remains that it's unlikely to tackle the difficult economics, perverse incentives and slapdash legislating that created the system we have now. A dedicated refactoring of the system, and the laws regarding it, would be a difficult undertaking and likely a thankless one at that, as change creates losers, and losers birth opposition.

As long as American politics consists mainly of mutually antagonistic factions who see each other a moral and mortal enemies, the animosities stoked will become an impediment to lasting progress. There will be change, and counter-change, as each side seeks to undo what the other has done and replace it with something more to their liking, but that's a different beast than actually creating solutions.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Hook, Line and...

Because I've purchased things from Amazon, they have my e-mail address. And in an attempt to drum up business for The Washington Post, which they now own, they've been sending me a "complimentary daily newsletter." Which is good - I'd hate to think that I might have to pay for unsolicited e-mail marketing.

Today's e-mail was titled "Most Read from The Washington Post: Before Michelle, Barack Obama asked another woman to marry him. Then politics got in the way." A lot of the other headlines were no better.

This one Clinton quote shows why her supporters hate the media

These YouTube parents pulled disturbing 'pranks' on their kids. Now, they've lost custody.
On the one hand, I get it. After all, it's called "clickbait" for a reason. And The Washington Post doesn't strike me as being any less reliant on a constant stream of eyeballs than any other outlet. But on the other hand, I guess I never really figured the Post was in the market for the sort of reader who chases clickbait. Of course, all this means, most likely, is that I don't really understand people's reading habits on the Web. I'm beginning to suspect that clickbaid headlines appeal to a much broader section of the public than I would have guessed prior to Amazon's new project to clutter people's inboxes. And, to a certain degree, I suppose it makes sense. While I tend to shy away from obvious clickbait, I've learned to have a certain suspicion of headlines in general, given that they are rarely written by the authors of the articles they advertise. And, obviously, wonky headlines don't alter the underlying information in the stories themselves.

I've come to associate clickbait headlines with unserious reporting - the fluffy, gossipy end of the human-interest spectrum - the sort of thing that one reads to waste a few minutes, rather than to become informed about the world. And so one thing that interests me about The Washington Post adopting the style is that it's a push back against that. It will be interesting to see if they stick with it - if it works, I presume they will.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Mayday, Mayday

I'm not the sort to concern myself much with protests. I don't live or work in Seattle proper, so protests are really only an issue if I go downtown to see one. But it's May 1st again, and that means protests in the city. It seemed that this year that antagonistic groups of protestors outfitted themselves with Go-Pro cameras and set out to provoke those they disagreed with into starting fights - no doubt to gather footage that would show the Other Side behaving badly.

Ah, to be young again. Now that I'm a grown up, I don't have that kind of time to waste anymore.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Just the Basics

In other words, yes, Bill Gates will get $12,000 too but as one of the world’s wealthiest billionaires he will pay far more than $12,000 in new taxes to pay for it.
Why we should all have a basic income
While I see what the piece is getting at, I really hate it when people are glib about important topics like this. Wealth and income are not the same, and they really shouldn't be conflated, because it confuses the issue. And when you give people the idea that you will tax wealth directly to fund programs like this, it tends to drive opposition. Heck, the idea of taxing income drives enough opposition as it is.

For me, what makes me dubious about Universal Basic Income schemes is that they tend to be explained in the way that this one is - with the unstated assumption that the status quo doesn't change except for the fact that "the rich" pay vastly higher income taxes than they do now, and "poor people" get checks. Now, I'm not an economist, so I can't be certain, but I don't think that it's quite that simple. And that raises this question for me - once the government commits to creating and funding a universal basic income how does it guarantee the tax revenue to support it? For many people, the answer seems to be simple - since whatever new taxing structure goes into place has no other economic effects, hey presto! you're in business.But it strikes me as unlikely that there won't be economic ripple effects.

This isn't to say that a Universal Basic Income scheme that funds itself from income taxes is unworkable. It is to say, however, that one that assumes that it's business as usual across the whole of the rest of the economy is suspect.

Friday, April 28, 2017

No Time Left

Arkansas has put to death convicted murderer Kenneth Williams. His was the last of a series of executions accelerated because the state's lethal-injection drugs were about to expire.
Arkansas Executes 4th Inmate In 8 Days
Someone commented to me that Arkansas was executing people like it was going out of style, and that prompted me to think about the circumstances of this recent series of executions. The stated driver of the push to execute 8 men (that number was quickly whittled down by the courts) in the latter half of this month was the fact that the state's supply of the sedative midazolam was due to expire.

Pharmaceutical companies, wary of being seen as supporting the death penalty, have been shying away of selling states the drug for use in executions. In fact, one of the lawsuits that challenged Arkansas' plans was from McKesson, which makes a different drug used in the executions, vecuronium bromide. The drugmaker claimed, among other things, that their business would suffer "grave reputational harm" if their drug was used.

For opponents of the death penalty, this is all welcome news. Although there's nothing that prohibits states from returning to older methods of execution, such as the electric chair or firing squads, the push for more humane ways to put people to death (an oxymoron to some) means that they are unlikely to return to widespread usage, and so lethal injection is likely to remain the method of choice. But, in theory, after this month, Arkansas no longer has access to that choice, unless they manage to find other sources for the drugs required. And so they implemented as many of the executions as they could in the time they had available.

And so I wonder - if the State of Arkansas wasn't up against a deadline, would there have been the same rush to complete the executions? I can't give a definitive answer to that, given that it's a counterfactual, but my initial impression is "no." And that leads me to an ironic conclusion - that the effectiveness of opposition to the death penalty set in motion a chain of events that lead to the rapid executions of Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams,  Jack Jones Jr. and Kenneth Williams. Given that they had been on Death Row for some time, and had exhausted their appeals, one could say that their fates were already sealed, and this isn't to imply that anti-death penalty activism is responsible for their deaths. Responsibility lies with the people who signed the warrants and carried them out. Governor Hutchinson may have felt that he had little choice but to proceed as quickly as possible, but in the end the choice was still his in large part.

An attorney for Ledell Lee claimed that he'd been executed before DNA testing could be done to determine if, as he'd claimed for the nearly half his life he'd spent in prison, he was innocent of the charges against him. It seems strange to consider that if the state had understood that they could still execute him a month or a year later than they did, there may have been more time to pursue his claims.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


While we might mainly encounter this sentiment in regard to physical possessions, it seems worthwhile to think of it in broader terms than that. There are any number of intangible things that we consider ourselves to own in some regard, like culture, and those things can also exert what becomes an ownership interest over us if we come to see them as something that we have no choice but to possess - or to keep from others.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Cluster of Yellow

I hundred tiny yellow flowers, all in a bunch.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Silence Bubbles

Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at Berkeley this coming Wednesday, but university administrators have cancelled the event, citing "active security threats." The Young America's Foundation, the Republican group that was to sponsor the event, is, unsurprisingly, crying foul, especially after it appears that the conditions that the university caved in to liberal students who wished to deny Ms. Coulter a venue.

Whether the university is being straightforward about their reasons for nixing the event or not, I don't know. But, let's presume for the moment that the Young America's Foundation is correct in their assertion that pressure from more liberal students lead the university to back out of the engagement. (And it's likely that at least a few anti-Coulter students and their allies will claim credit for this turn of events.) What has been gained?

Okay, so a speech by someone that many liberals consider hateful has been nixed. And that's really about it. The people who would have gone to hear what she has to say can still hear her speak - she planned to go to the campus and talk anyway, and I'm not certain that the school can prevent her from doing so. But even if she didn't go in person, she could always make the speech and post it on YouTube. Or summarize her remarks on television. She could send out the text of her speech in an e-mail to supporters and allow it to be passed around to other people who wish to read it. She could make it into an e-book or/and print-on-demand and offer it up for sale (or for free) on Amazon or another online bookseller. She could distribute it as a podcast for download.

I'm not the world's most creative thinker, and so I'm sure that there are lots of other ways that Ms. Coulter could get her words out to any and everyone who is willing to listen - and this could be a much larger audience than just the members of the Young America's Foundation. But even if the goal was to simply come between Ms. Coulter and expansive news coverage of her remarks, the coverage of her being denied the chance to speak during the formal event would seem to have rendered that moot. So... I don't really understand what has been gained here.

The only concrete effect of all of this seems to be that Ann Coulter will not be speaking at Berkeley as part of a formal event sanctioned by the University itself. And I don't really understand how that changes anything. It's not as if Berkeley formally places its stamp of approval on everyone who sepaks there or everything they say. And, as I noted above, nothing about this new situation prevents anyone from actually hearing what she has to say. About the only effect that I see is that some number of students can go about their day secure in the knowledge that speech they disapprove of is being given outside of any sort of official university channels. Which may be of some comfort to those individuals, but it doesn't seem to move the needle in any other way.

If one presumes that the things that Ms. Coulter is planning to say are legitimately a clear and present danger, that danger has not been mitigated. Her words can still reach a receptive audience, and if the fear is that those people will take those words to heart and act on them in unacceptable ways, nothing has been done to educate them in a different direction or convince them that their actions would be harmful. If the worry is that the in-person interaction carries some increased influence, little more than slight inconvenience has been added to overall situation - there are other places where the talk could take place that are easily reachable by the students who want to hear her.

And if the point is really as narrow as simply not having the talk at Berkeley, that smacks of NIMBYism, and all of its accompanying concerns. Simply preventing conservative speakers from formally coming to campus isn't going to get rid of the conservative students who attend the school. Even "safe space" arguments seem to be weak here. If the very presence of conservative speakers prompts one to feel unsafe as an 18 year-old freshman, it seems unlikely that college will do enough to defang the world that it will be safe for that same person when they graduate at 21 or so.

(As an aside, this was one of the things that I was dubious about when I worked with children. As much as I understood the goal of protecting them, or even sheltering them, from the nasty aspects of life in the broader world, without some experience in engaging them, all we were doing was delaying the day when they had to deal with them unprepared.)

I understand the appeal of closing oneself off from a world that seems to legitimize one's dehumanization. But that doesn't make that world go away. Sooner or later, the bubble will go away. And that world, warts and all, will be waiting.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Progress and Falsehoods

"On the left if you're consuming fake news you're 34 times more likely than the general population to be a college graduate," says [Jeff] Green[, CEO of internet advertiser Trade Desk].

If you're on the right, he says, you're 18 times more likely than the general population to to be in the top 20 percent of income earners.
The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news
This was, of course, only to be expected. While "fake news" has become a buzzword for deliberate misinformation designed to mislead, in the end, the entire phenomenon is less about taking in the public than it is about taking in advertiser dollars. For those of us who don't earn money this way, the fact that even relatively obscure websites can generate enough traffic to enable someone to make a living from advertising revenue may be something of a surprise. But that's the reality of the situation, and that reality places a premium on one of the Web's primary forms of currency, the pageview.

And this isn't a new phenomenon.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
David Foster Wallace ("Host" Atlantic Magazine, April 2005)

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame (Comment on "Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005)
(Given this, now might be a good time to re-launch liberal talk radio.)

This combination of information seeking its own level and the fact that the dissemination of information is a business, is what is driving the shift in fake news from stories designed to appeal to the American political Right to the American political Left. Okay, so consumers (and sharers) of Right-wing fake news might be individually wealthier than most of the general public, but an overwhelmingly college-educated audience is nothing to sneeze at either, given the general wage gap between the the college-educated and their less credentialed fellow citizens.

And this is important because it points to an important concept: Education is no defense against being told what you want to hear - or other wanting other people to hear it. Fake news poses as news because that gives it the appearance of a legitimate source, and that appearance makes it more likely that, once it resonates with someone, it will be passed along to someone else as "proof" of the correctness of the audience's political sentiments. This is independent of a person's level of education; anyone can want something to be true badly enough to skip checking its veracity when it's handed to them on a plate.

Because the American Left sees itself as educated, and thus, skeptics by default, it was easy to see people on the Right, who are typically regarded as uneducated, provincial, yokels as being taken in by fake news because the purveyors of the medium were smarter than their targets. And this sentiment was likely reinforced by the laughably poor quality of some of the information presented. But one thing that following media outlets on social media has taught me is that all someone needs to respond, positively or negatively, to a news story is the headline. And headlines are often enough at least somewhat inaccurate - and that inaccuracy will often allow someone who has read the article to quickly pick out which commenters haven't. And even when people do read the pieces to which headlines are attached, the desire to be proven right is often stronger than reading comprehension. I have found myself impressed by people's ability to conclude that the main takeaway of an article is something directly contradicted by the text; someone confronted only with vague innuendo or sketchy sourcing will have a simple time of things.

If it is next to impossible to get a person to believe something that their livelihood demands that they don't, it is quite easy to get someone to believe something that their sense of the world asks that they do. Politics, by itself, will never elevate people above that.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


When the weather is nice on the weekends, I try to get out with my camera and take some pictures. I'll likely post one or two a week as an alternative to my usual griping about politics and whatnot.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


While a lot is being made over President Trump's changes in position on subjects like NATO and China, these are things that strike me as simple part of the normal process that presidents undergo when transitioning from presidential candidate to actually holding the office.

A lot of candidate Trump's campaign messaging could be boiled down to the idea that other nations in the world need the United States much more than the United States needs them, and this lopsided relationship placed the U.S. in a very strong bargaining position, one that previous administrations (especially the Obama administration) shamefully failed to take full advantage of. It's an appealing message on the campaign trail, perhaps because it frames the costs of globalization as unnecessary giveaways, when the nation could, in fact, have its cake and eat it, too.

But it seems likely to me that President Trump is learning differently. Namely, that while other nations may not hold all the cards, they do have workable hands that they can play, and this gives them a reasonable Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, should they simply choose to walk away from the table. This may be a hard sell for the President, should his core voters begin to lose faith in him, because their losses then simply become the price of doing business; one that must be paid to reap the benefits of the global economy. And to the degree that those benefits flow unequally, they're simply out of luck.

One of the lessons of politics, especially partisan politics, is that during a campaign, cold, hard truths and the things that audiences want to be told are always much more in alignment then they are when the work actually needs to be done, because everything is achievable for the person who isn't actually accountable for the results. Of course, we as a society never learn that lesson because there's always going to be someone whose position is that the hard choices and difficult trade-offs of life are simply a cover for wrongdoing, and that idea is always going to be attractive to people for whom the luck of the draw is indistinguishable from being deliberately cheated of their just deserts.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

I See Your Idiocy and Raise You...

I have to admit that I have both dread and giddy anticipation of someone attempting to go over the top of this lot.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Getting a jump on Spring in Seattle by spending some time on the water.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wanna Fight?

Maybe it's just the way I view the world, but it strikes me that people who take the position that "people oppose us because what we're doing is right" also seem to have a habit of picking fights with people - which then become the proof of their correctness.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Exit, Stage Left

In my experience, when people speak of media bias, they are referring to the idea that media outlets select the stories that they are going to present with an eye towards advocacy, rather than simply informing. News outlets tend to push back on this in their public statements, but sometimes it seems that this is because they don't pay much attention to their own coverage of the world.

The story, as presented by National Public Radio's "Code Switch" team, has a fairly straightforward headline: "How Offering Driver Licenses To The Undocumented Makes Roads Safer." And it has a fairly straightforward subject: some new research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that says "New research shows a positive safety impact of a California law that gave 800,000 people a license to drive."

Fair enough. But when you read it, the main effect that the researchers noted is a reduction in hit and run accidents. Now, maybe it's just me, but the issue that I have with hit and run accidents, when it comes to traffic safety, specifically, isn't the "and run" part of the formulation, it's the "hit" side of things. After all, unless someone does more damage or injury to the person(s) and/or vehicle(s) struck while fleeing the scene, the simple fact that they don't stick around doesn't make matters worse. You could say that in situations where the at-fault driver is the only party able to call for emergency assistance to a critically-injured person, that their leaving is a problem in and of itself, and I'll concede that point. Still, absent a change in the total number of accidents (and in the number of fatal accidents), the primary effect of California offering driver's licenses to the undocumented is a greater number of people being willing to take responsibility for having caused an accident. Which is a worthwhile outcome, but it seems odd to use that a measurement of safety.

If there is no change in the total number of traffic accidents, and no change in the number of fatal accidents, it seems to me than unless, there is a noticeable shift in the overall number of injury accidents, that driving in California is just as safe (or, I suppose, as dangerous) as it was prior to the passage of AB60.

And in this sense, both the press release from Stanford Business and the NPR article seemed more like advocacy than information. And given that, I can understand how people look at coverage of particular topics; in this case, illegal immigration into the United States; and understand that "the news media" is seeking manipulate people into a predetermined mindset. To be sure, I don't suspect that this is what is going on here. Instead, someone came upon an interesting bit of research, and quickly whipped out a story about it that, rather than skeptically examining it, simply repeated the researcher's claims. But taken with the generally sympathetic coverage of the undocumented that NPR presents, one can see how people feel that there is "an agenda" at work.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I read this online: "It's sad how victimy and unempowered people choose to make themselves." And I wondered, "Who really chooses that?"

Now, I have an internal locus of control, and so I tend to see the world around me as being highly influenced by the choices that people make, and my own life as being the sum of the choices that I've made. And I do tend to perceive people as chasing victim status, for the perceived benefits that it brings. But that's different than selecting victimization and disempowerment as deliberate life choices. Rather, as I see it, those are, at best, the side effects of other choices that we make.

Even when people see themselves as victimized and disempowered, these are typically not deliberate choices. Rather they are the way people come to see the themselves based on their understanding of the world around them. For instance, my internal locus of control tends to stand between me and and an understanding of myself as lacking agency in my life. And while I, or someone else, can say that I choose to see myself as empowered, the fact of the matter is that I don't know where that internal locus of control comes from. Learning the concept when I was in college didn't enable to make a deliberate selection. Instead it allowed me to recognize and name a facet of my personality that was already present.

Behaviors such as learned helplessness or capture bonding, even though they may be classed as "survival strategies" are not choices in the sense that a person weighs all of the options before them and makes a conscious determination to be passive in the face of unrelenting adversity or to sympathize with the interests of someone who is harassing or abusing them. That is to say, they are not strategies selected based on their effectiveness. Instead they are imposed on a person by the circumstances they find themselves in.

On the other hand, I understand the logic behind seeing a person who understands themselves to be a victim or disempowered as having deliberately made that choice. It's an ego boost for people who understand themselves as victorious or empowered to claim that they could have taken another path, but through strength of character or force of will, made the "better" choice. It's part of building ourselves up by climbing over others, and it's a common facet of human nature.

Judging people who have been induced to see themselves as "victimy and unempowered" does nothing for them, despite what those who see judgment as an incentive to change might tell you. Understanding the aspects of their lives that lead them to perceive themselves as victimized and disempowered, however, could open the way to changing those things. And that has a much better chance of revealing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April Flower

Friday, March 31, 2017

Side Vs. Side

[B]ack in September, Flynn made it clear how he felt about people who seek immunity.

"When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime," Flynn said  during an interview with MSNBC commentator Chuck Todd.
Michael Flynn's comments about immunity last year are coming back to bite him
While I will admit that this prompts me to look askance as General Flynn, in the end, that's because I'm not a staunch partisan; I don't have an interest in shielding Republicans from criticism and casting Democrats in a bad light. But, by the same token, I'm unprepared to level charges of "hypocrite;" again, because I'm not a staunch partisan. I don't have an interest in shielding Democrats from criticism and casting Republicans in a bad light.

For me, where General Flynn erred was in not being more partisan during his interview with Chuck Todd in September. Had he simply cast the Clinton aides who had requested immunity as probable criminals flat-out, he'd still be facing criticism for following in their footsteps, but he's have an easy defense in the idea that he was impugning the motives of the specific people he was talking about. Because that's likely what he was intending. I somehow doubt that General Flynn honestly believed that the American justice system was 100% witch hunt-free until the day he decided that asking for immunity in exchange for testimony was a good idea.

After all, this is the nature of partisanship. If I'm talking to a die-hard Republican, I'm not at all surprised when they insinuate, or even flat-out declare, that Democrats are dishonest by simple virtue of them being Democrats. Likewise for Democrats. Of course, any investigation mounted by Democrats that target's Republicans is simply a political which hunt and power play. Of course, any Republican operative who requests immunity from prosecution is looking to avoid jail time for crimes they knowingly committed. When speaking to someone whose worldview, and perhaps more importantly, moral compass, is centered around their partisan/tribal affiliation, why would one expect anything different?

Our problem with partisanship isn't that many of us are active partisans. It's that many active partisans openly look down on active partisanship, and so seek to present themselves as neutral, objective, players. And they do this despite the fact that it fools no one. In a sense, we're all partisans, in the sense that we have biases. If you've read more than two or three of my Politics posts, my biases should be fairly apparent to you by now. And if there were a political party that directly aligned with my biases, I'd likely be a fairly partisan supporter, and have to constantly be on my guard against reserving the presumption of good intent exclusively to fellow party members. So, in that regard, I'm non-partisan in the American system only in the fact that neither of the two major parties particularly suits me. I'd like to think that I'd escape groupthink enough to only believe in my party, right or wrong, as opposed to my party is always right, but I don't know that I'd bet on that.

Because in the end, there's no profit in being even-handed about these things. A Republican who disputes that there's a witch hunt or a Democrat who says that General Flynn is simply playing the game as it played won't earn themselves anything with the people who matter. Their co-partisans will likely resent the party's reputation being undermined, and counter-partisans might be happy to point to their statements as proof of the other side's dishonesty, but that's different than an embrace at the ballot box.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Knowledge Based

Which is better: A short news story with an increased probability of leaving listeners (especially motivated ones) with misconceptions, or a long new story that people don't take the time to listen to all the way through?

Now, this is somewhat of a leading question, and I suspect you understand what the "correct" answer is. I was listening to Morning Edition on the radio this morning, when a story cane on about geoengineering to reduce global warming. Morning Edition is intended to be "drive time" radio, and so the stories are short. And that brevity can sometimes work against a full understanding of the issue at hand.

This morning there was a story about climate engineering in the service of cooling the planet, and how the researchers involved are weighing federal funding for their research. Whether or not climate engineering is the best way, or even a good way, to combat the overall warming of Earth's atmosphere is certainly open to debate, especially given that it's never been attempted on a large scale. So one can understand the importance of researching the issue. But now that President Trump is in office, backed by a Republican Congress, researchers have become more leery of accepting funding from the federal government.

Many environmentalists are suspicious of efforts to deliberately tinker with the climate. They think just talking about the possibility of cooling the planet will threaten the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So the last thing [Ted Parson] would want is for this research to be associated with the Trump administration.
Scientists Who Want To Study Climate Engineering Shun Trump
I pulled this particular quote from the story because it points to a particular facet of the climate change debate and its goals. Namely, the issue with carbon. For many people in the fossil fuels business, especially the rank and file workers whose job it is to help extract, process and transport the materials, climate activism seems like a direct attack on them and their livelihoods, hence the rhetoric of a "war on coal." From the environmental activism side of the equation, things look a little different. Workers in the fossil-fuel industry may be being asked to sacrifice their careers in the name of cleaner energy, but that's a means, not an end.

To the uninitiated, given those positions, climate geoengineering seems like a win-win. Energy workers can keep their jobs and the temperature of the atmosphere can be controlled. One can have one's cake and eat it, too. For climate scientists to appear to back away from an idea they saw as promising a year ago, simply because the current administration is more committed to fossil fuel industry employment than the previous one seems to undercut the idea that the problem is the effects of fossil fuels, and not the fossil fuels themselves.

Here is another quote, this one not taken from the radio piece, but from the accompanying article on NPRs website:
"I am more comfortable," [David] Keith[, a climate scientist at Harvard University] said, "taking money from clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists than I am taking money from the administration."
For someone who sees money as money, something that spends the same no matter where it comes from (or who writes the check), this statement could easily stoke their suspicions that climate scientists have an agenda, and that they are being less than honest about their findings. Why, after all, should money from a Clinton administration or "clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists" be any better than money from a Trump administration? It doesn't require a particularly suspicious mindset to suspect that climate scientists are more comfortable taking money from those they agree with ideologically, because they'd be more likely to accept ideologically-driven results.

All of this is not, I suspect, the intended takeaway from this piece. But if you know little to nothing about climate engineering initiatives other than you heard/read in this story, it could easily be the message you're left with, especially if you already think that something's not on the up-and-up. On the other hand, the alternative may not be workable. Giving an audience a working primer on the scientific concerns about climate engineering and then discussing climate scientists concerns about the current administration is a tall order of a drive-time news story with a three minute running time. I'm a fairly regular NPR listener (whenever I'm commuting) and I'm somewhat up on the debate over climate engineering. But NPR, and media outlets in general, can't count on their audiences always knowing the greater context. And it does their audience a disservice to leave it out.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger Danger 2.0

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Moslem.
Donald Trump is agent for Russia.
Micah White is a Satanist.

Or, perhaps more simply, each of these people is a Dangerous Other in the eyes of those who oppose their politics. So why not focus on their politics? In an intensely partisan environment, it isn't very difficult to find some policy prescription that a candidate that is vulnerable to being described as Wrong For America, or whatever jurisdiction that they hope to represent or manage. In a world where solutions are rare and trade-offs are common, most policies will come at a cost to someone - those costs being the necessary trade-offs for the benefits proposed - and people's Loss Aversion tends to prime their sensitivity to those costs, making them easy targets for mobilization to scuttle the entire enterprise.

Part of it, I think, is related to the idea of Lovely Awful Things - the seductive nature of Bad Ideas that makes them attractive to people other than ourselves. The injection of ad hominems into the mix is designed to inoculate people against Wrong Thinking by casting the source of those thoughts as Evil.

But I also think that this phenomenon grows out of a focus on Stranger Danger. Although Stranger Danger is perhaps most accurately defined as the conceptual framework that we've built around the idea of the threat to children posed by adults they don't know, I think that we can also broaden the term to encompass the idea that people we don't know who don't signal shared virtues with us are dangerous, in no small part because they seek to advance their own special interests at our expense.

In this sense, the focus of Birtherism is a way of blunting the rhetorical skill of President Obama and the accusations that President Trump is intended to undermine the idea that he's simply another partisan. Likewise, but on a much smaller scale, labeling Micah White a Satanist is mean to counter his for-the-common-man bona fides. Just like an adult unknown to a child offers sweets as a lure, politicians from the other side of a political divide offer reasonable-sounding policies only as traps for the unwary, and casting them as an evil person aligned with an outsider enemy allows for ad hominem attacks on them without appearing to be openly partisan. The non-partisan may be repelled by an attack on someone for their partisan affiliation, but calling them out as a Dangerous Other allows that unacceptable prejudice to be cloaked in an tolerated one.

In 1992, I turned 24, after a childhood in which Stranger Danger was starting to become a thing, even if it hadn't yet acquired that name. Stories of predatory adults prowling about for children to victimize seemed to be slowly becoming more an more common. And even though people my age often look at modern parental hysteria with a mix of amusement and concern, it's not as if our own generation didn't indulge in it. And I wonder of part of the pattern of increasing, and intractable, partisanship that seemed to take root as my age cohort came to be of voting age isn't perhaps rooted in the distrust of strangers that was starting to be seen as a virtue when we were still in school. Part of that distrust was buttressed by the speculative things that were attributed to unfamiliar adults, things that, as time went on, morphed from unsupported suppositions to presumed truths, each becoming a justification for shedding the presumptions of innocence and good intent.

Of course, I'm speculating here. I don't have any evidence one way or another, and correlation does not imply causality. But part of me hopes that there's something there, for no other reason than it offers a visible, if not easy, path to begin to undo some of the divides that we've built between ourselves.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And the Law Won

Instead of changing in the couple’s favor, the laws evolved to make her husband more vulnerable to deportation, a development the Beristains never expected. She told the Tribune that Trump’s deportation measures — the one’s she thought her family would be exempt from — are harming “regular people.”

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen told the CBS TV affiliate WSBT. “But when you’re a good citizen and you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”
Trump supporter thought president would only deport ‘bad hombres.’ Instead, her husband is being deported.
Helen Beristain has already received a lot of criticism over this situation, from both the Left and the Right. (Of course, they are attacking her for different reasons, but neither side seems inclined to hold their fire.) So I'm not intending this post to be a direct criticism of her, myself. Rather, I'd like to point to an aspect of this situation that I find instructional.

Roberto Beristain, for all that he might be a wonderful person is, by definition, not a good citizen. And that's because he's in the United States illegally. And there was nothing in President Trump's rhetoric, back when he was still Candidate Trump, that pointed to the idea that simply because Mr. Beristain was a good person - that he supported and he helped and he paid taxes and he gave jobs to people - that he would be converted into someone who is in the country legally.
Helen Beristain, his wife, says she supported President Trump but feels his policies shouldn’t apply to her husband because he owns a business and pays taxes.
Trump Supporter’s Husband Faces Deportation
While this is sometimes the way that laws work, when we refer to "the Rule of Law," this generally isn't what we have in mind. The Washington Post headline says that Mrs. Beristain believed that President Trump would only deport "bad hombres." And while it's an understandable sentiment, it points to a fundamental understanding of the nature and the purpose of laws.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on immigration. That's a body of law that, like many of them, takes quite a bit of time and effort to really understand. But, to the best of my knowledge, the United States does not have a policy that accepts all potential immigrants, with the exception of who are criminals or have been adjudged to have done "bad things." Rather, one has to apply for entry and be accepted. The original intent behind the United States' immigration policies may or may not be valid, depending on how one views the nation's motives when they were first enacted or how strong a position one takes on the idea that people should have unfettered rights to move about in the service of bettering themselves. But even if we ascribe a desire to apply a filter to would-be Americans, and the rules are designed to let in the good, and keep out the bad, there is a process by which the government determines who should be allowed to stay, and who should have to return to their home nation. And it's not based on the personal sentiments of private citizens, whether they be immigration activists, low wage employers or the spouses of those who didn't make the cut.

Generally speaking, the purpose of law is to be a weapon against people who behave in ways that we find to be unacceptable. In order to live in communities, human beings have evolved the capacity to create and manage remarkably complex series of rules and strictures that govern personal behavior and mandate sanctions for violations. But part of what allows rules to work is that they have to be (reasonably) consistent, and in a society like ours, where the body of law is simply too large for any one person to commit all it to memory, it has to be applied in accordance with how it is recorded.

The problem that many people had with President Obama's actions on immigration was that it didn't square with their personal desires on how the law should be applied. For critics on the Left, the President's stepped up enforcement actions were an affront to their ideas that people who were seeking better lives should be allowed to do so without interference. For critics on the Right, the loopholes that the President opened in the rules were proof that he wasn't serious about enforcing laws that they saw as essential for the security of the nation. But both sides seemed completely disinterested in examining the purpose and the wording of the laws under consideration and asking it were time for changes. My personal understanding of the reason for this is that it allows both sides to retain laws on the books for the purpose of being weapons against those they don't like - a broadly-written law that is ignored when convenient can be just as easily recalled for convenience. But that's likely an overly cynical way of looking at it. Rather, I think that most people are like Mrs. Beristain - they believe that the intent of a given law roughly matches what they would intend with it - in this case that the objectively criminal and the subjectively bad would be barred from entering the country, and we would simply look the other way for the "good" immigrants. (And despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are perhaps the most subjective determinations that we ever make, that people would generally agree on who belongs in which category.) But in the end, that creates a legal structure that lends itself to either being arbitrary or to being sectarian and prejudicial; and American history is rife with heartbreaking stories of how that wound up allowing the law to become a cover for abuse.

In a nation divided by competing political and moral ideologies, a body of law that is to everyone's liking is probably beyond our ability to put into place. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to cultivate a high-level understanding what our currently laws are and understand what provisions are encoded into them, and what informal and unwritten modifications have come about as a result of custom, resources or simple desire. And if we understand the law as it is practiced to be superior to the law as it is written, lobby intentionally for those changes, rather than simply assuming that they will always stand.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I never knew that flowers could be unkempt.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trolls in the Hoods

One such post is an article on white supremacist website, The Daily Stormer. "How to be a Ni**** on Twitter" breaks down methods for creating a fake account in order to take "revenge on Twitter" for banning Andrew Auernheimer's white supremacist ads and for blocking Jared Wyand's account for anti-Semitic tweets. The secondary goal, the article notes, is to "create a state of chaos on twitter, among the black twitter population, by sowing distrust and suspicion, causing blacks to panic."
The Emergence Of The White Troll Behind A Black Face
I don't use Twitter. I've never had the time to look into it, and I have enough random online accounts that I don't use to begin with. So I don't have any insight into how Twitter society, even the Black Twitter society works. But I have to admit to being dubious about the idea that a bunch of trolls pretending to be Black people on Twitter could somehow manage to spark "panic" among actual Black people on Twitter. How does Black Twitter interact with the site that a disruption to it would cause "panic?" I understand how social media has risen from online yearbooks to become a central part of many people's lives over the past decade and a half, but it seems strange to believe that simply being unable to trust the someone who claims to be a given ethnicity is actually that ethnicity seems like a flimsy reason for fear.
Some of the steps to creating a fake account include pretending to know people they might be related to, calling people out on their drug dealing activities, and accusing them of being Neo-Nazis using fake accounts. This way, Aglin writes, "Blacks will then accuse each other of having fake accounts and start reporting each other."
Given that everyone understands, or should understand, that on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog, it seems optimistic to the point of derangement to think that a few well-placed trolls could turn an entire online community, especially one that comprises millions of people, into effectively a circular firing squad.

Having some difficulty understanding how anyone could possibly believe that such a hare-brained scheme could work, I'm tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a parody, and chalk its newsworthiness up to Poe's Law. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell a genuine idiot from someone who's simply pretending to be one on the Internet. (Of course, given the generally low opinion that many people have of White Supremacists, it may be easy to believe that they'd hatch schemes that come across as obviously broken.)

In my own activities online, I have encountered any number of people who make assertions about themselves that I can't verify. Generally, speaking, I don't pay much attention to these things. When people post self-portraits of themselves, I typically assume that they are honest pictures, and when they make statements about what's going on in their lives, I typically assume that they're accurate descriptions. But I don't need them to be. I don't base my comfort and safety on the World Wide Web on the idea that people that I've otherwise never met, and only "know" from online interactions are who they portray themselves as being. If I really need to speak to a known quality, I simply connect directly with one of the people that I have enough of an offline relationship with to be comfortable speaking to. Were some noticeable fraction of the others to turn out to be engaged in elaborate subterfuge, I'd simply drop them. Calmly.

The fake account advice proffered up by The Daily Stormer seems to be based on a parody of a minority online community, a group of people who are frightened and insecure enough to require the comforting presence of people superficially like themselves, trusting enough to believe that anyone who presents as like them must actually be like them and naive enough be easily manipulated by literal strangers. In the case of Black people specifically, it also seems to be predicated on a sort of group subterfuge; a pretense of respectability that people engage in between drug deals. And in that sense it comes across as a plan to trap elephants using their fear of mice.

Like I said, White Supremacists are an unpopular bunch, and perhaps this is what makes it seem reasonable that they would think such a vapid scheme is workable. But from my perspective, I suspect that someone's having a good laugh at NPR's expense right now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Opposites Detract

One day, people will stop using moral/ethical terms, such as "right/wrong" and "good/evil" when describing their emotions about certain people - how likeable, how trustworthy or how safe they understand someone to be.

Of course, that will be the day after the final extinction of humanity...

I've always wondered about the habit that people have of predicating someone's moral or ethical opinion of someone's entire interior life on a single data point. "This person supports certain people, so they're unacceptable as an acquaintance" or "This person is okay with a certain action, so they're completely without scruples." These have always struck me as a form of personal Purity test, and what I will admit confuses me about them is how unacceptable they are to admit to, given how common they are.

I can't manage a day without someone loudly proclaiming how this one singular (usually vague) action that some or another (usually nameless) person has said or done means that they should be cast down into the fires and how anyone who disagrees should uncircle/unfriend/unfollow them *this instant*. And nine times out of ten, my first thought is, "Given that I have no idea what the crack you're going on about, I can't understand how to make this information actionable." Usually followed up by the sinking feeling that I'm going to regret ever having encountered them in the first place.

Now, to be sure, I'm a moral noncognitivist (Whew! Say that three times fast!) which is really just a five-dollar word for the idea that what people consider moral and ethical truths are a form of behavior preferences, rather than any sort of objective statement about the world. In other words, when someone says, "Taking candy from a baby is wrong," what I understand that to mean in the broader context is "I disapprove of taking candy from a baby," because there is nothing intrinsic to either candy or babies that creates an objective prohibition against separating the two. And while I can take that disapproval seriously, and support acting on that disapproval - in the end, it's just personal disapproval, and if someone else (say, a dentist) approves of taking candy from a baby, what we have is a difference of opinion rather than competing understandings of the objective nature of the universe.

But even setting that aside, going all the way to a description of someone's ethical framework based on whether they support this artist or disagree with that law seems like a tremendous, and unwarranted, leap. Especially because we tend to use such leaps to avoid simply saying: "I prefer to associate with people who openly share all of my preferences when it comes to certain activities." Because for some reason that seems more narrow-minded and partisan that making wild presumptions about people in order to justify a preference to not associate with them. I don't understand it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Border Stories

After one too many jarring electric wake-up calls, I picked up a clock radio, and now I am reminded of the loathsome fact that I need to be out of bed at far too early for my tastes by the disembodied voices of NPR correspondents and their subjects. And often, as part of that morning routine, there is a story about immigration, typically illegal immigration from Latin America.

Immigration stories on NPR have a certain sameness about them after a while, as they fall into a predictable pattern, being sympathetic treatments of the migrants and their plight, while making sure they talked to a token cranky Gringo (who dutifully makes the expected complaints).

While I appreciate the newsworthiness of these stories, they do become stale after the fiftieth time you hear about some hardworking Mexican being forcibly returned to a life of poverty, some Guatemalan parents being shipped back home while their children look for a place to stay, or some small-town bumpkin calling for the government to round 'em all up an' ship 'em all back to where they came from, usually in the comically vain hope that this will mean that the local unpaid labor market will suddenly raise wages to upper-middle-class levels again. But more importantly, they seek to boil the debate down to the effects on a set of carefully chosen individuals, who are intended to represent much larger groups of people. Groups that are large enough that they're not as monolithic as they're made out to be.

What I'd like to see are reasoned debates on some of the central issues surrounding immigration. One that's touched on from time to time is the human rights issue. Seems reasonable enough. It seems needlessly cruel to say that people in marginal areas have no right to go a wherever they can find opportunities. But there's always at least one flip side, and in this case, that's the right of a nation to control its borders, and decide who its willing to let in, and who stays out. These two concepts are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. So deciding which one of these we consider to be more important to us is going to be a major part of a broader plan going forward. Surely, news outlets can dig up specialists on human rights and national sovereignty to both depersonalize and contextualize that aspect of the debate for us?

Will it solve the whole debate for us? Of course not. There are other considerations to be taken into account, and it would be good to know those as well. But we'll have more to go on than we have now, and can start to see the bigger picture.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


“Well, I’m a huge student of American history and I recognize this is one of those times where there’s great polarization between the two parties. And frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise. Hence you have the deadlock we have today.”

“Well, the fact is, you never compromise on principles. If people on the far left they have a principle to stand by, they should never compromise, those of us on the right should not either. [...] What has motivated many people to get out and work for us and we are at that point where one side or the other has to win this argument. One side or the other will dominate.”
Richard Mourdock former Treasurer of Indiana
Mr. Mourdock's comments came during an interview with Soledad O’Brien while he was running for the Indiana United States Senate seat formerly held by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, whom Mr. Mourdock had defeated in the primary, in part by casting him as too moderate and too willing to work with President Obama. I was reminded of the interview after a conversation with a politically-minded acquaintance in which I made my standard argument about the importance of not demonizing the other side when you talk to them. His response was basically, that he never intended to speak to them, only about them, and that his goal was to rally the rest of the nation against them.

And that left me with a question. Is a lasting victory for one side or the other even possible? Can either America's political Left or Right actually manage to convince enough people to follow them to create the sort of "permanent majority" that Karl Rove once envisioned without compromising their principles enough to appeal to a large swath of people who don't normally vote? (And can they do so in such a way that doesn't motivate others of that same group to join the opposition?)

There's nothing about the nature of the political universe that prevents it. So the question really becomes: If circumstances don't line up in such a way as to bring down their opposition, are the political parties willing to do what it takes, whatever that is, to secure long-lasting power for themselves? Right now, the answer seems to be "no," if only because the parties, while unified in what they don't want, and not unified enough in what they do want to be able to marshal all of their resources into a dominance project. Which may be a profound disappointment to staunch partisans on all sides, but is likely a boon for the rest of us. A political party driven by a sense that their principles are both morally right and the last line of defense again a willfully perverse opposition, if given an unassailable majority for even a short time, could restructure the political landscape to give themselves formidable structural advantages that could last decades. Republican control of redistricting in several states meant that in 2012, despite narrowly losing the overall popular vote in House of Representatives races, they were able to hold on to control of the chamber.

Richard Mourdock envisioned a world in which the American public effectively exiled one party or the other to the political wilderness, making them the opposition in name only. He saw the electorate as being given a choice and making it. It's a vision that's unlikely to play out anytime soon, given the way the public is divided and the political parties fail to effectively cross those divides. But people will continue to look for ways to end the back and forth. Something tells me we're better off if no-one ever manages it.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Rain, it turns out, is not a good subject for photography, because unlike snow, you can't really catch it in flight. And the ripples in puddles always look better when they're in motion.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Return to Gray

Reasons why Aaron isn't Black Enough, number 23,695.

I saw this, and my first reaction was to burst out laughing. Fortunately, I have my own office where I work, so I didn't bother my coworkers. I think that this is funny and clever. And yes, I understand why some people are offended by it. But no, I don't think that it's objectively bad. I'm not going to be "that guy," the one who runs around telling people to "lighten up," or "have a sense of humor." Because you can consider this to be the worst thing ever done to beer and still be the life of the party. But I do become kind of annoyed when things like this are cast as being about race and ethnicity, rather than about the individuals involved. What we find offensive, or not, is about who we are as people, and not the color of our skin. I happen to take Black Lives Matter seriously, and still find this to uproariously funny. It's hard for me to avoid chuckling as I type this.

But on the flip side, I understand that there are people who feel that the joke is on them, and they're being undermined. That the dead are being mocked, and that centuries of pain are being ignored. I don't know whether or not that was the intent. Honestly, I don't know if it matters. I became at peace with the idea that some percentage of humanity simply wasn't going to like me, for some reason or another, on sight some time ago. I find I enjoy life more that way.