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.