Tag Archives: politics

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — Facebook Edition

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but instead I’m blogging this. I use the term blogging very loosely, because a website that never gets read can’t really be accurately called a blog. But sometimes writing here helps me get my thoughts together and–as long as I back up regularly (!!!)–this might be a nifty adjunct to my nonexistent journal.

Anyway, I argue about politics on Facebook. This has had predictable (but mild) consequences until now: a few people blocked me, a few others quietly ignore anything I say that’s even faintly politically colored, etc. This Fall, however, in the leadup to the 2012 Presidential elections, it got ugly. I try not to post truly nasty things. I don’t post that Fox News watchers are idiots, or that Republicans are fascists or what-have-you… even though I occasionally get these kinds of sentiments from a few of my FB friends, directed at anyone deemed insufficiently conservative. In discussions, I try to be fair, but I also don’t tend to let things go by that make no sense. I try to make my focus more on the process and quality of thinking than on the endpoints of the issues themselves. This has lost me some friends–at least three, by current count. Continue reading

Facebook political arguments

I recently reconnected with a high school friend. As can be expected, we have become very different people from our 17-year-old selves in the past few decades, and we immediately began arguing on Facebook. After a few arguments, it became painfully clear that this was an exercise in frustration. Although I worry this will damage our relationship (which I value despite his rhetorical style), I felt the need to post the following reply to the latest of half a dozen or more of his arguments that exhibited evasion and classical rhetorical errors. It sounds pretty uppity of me–and maybe it is–but I want this recorded because I went to the trouble (a couple of hours, at least) of working some things out for myself about how I think and how I think thinking should–and should not–should be done, at this point in my life. I also think it will be useful to smack my ego down in the future to see what an insufferable twerp I can be on FB.


@XXXXXXX, this is the way many of our discussions on FB have gone, as far as I can tell:

1. You sometimes make assertions about the way things are, about the way they should be, etc.

2. I sometimes challenge those assertions.

3. You defend your assertions by stating things that sound like principles.

4. I question those principles by extending them outside the narrow domains in which you applied them.

5. You tell me my extension is invalid for a variety of reasons, often abandoning your defense of what I originally thought was a principle.

Principles, by nature, tend to apply beyond narrow domains. They don’t apply to every domain, but their limits need to be clearly spelled out and make sense. Those limits, as important parts of the principle, need to be subject to rationality- or reality-testing. Increasingly, however, I have become frustrated talking to you about political things because it seems that what you present as principles really aren’t, for you.
Continue reading

Who will run the Church in ten years?

I sometimes wish I could go get a new PhD in something else–in this case, sociology or anthropology, to study LDS people. I’ve been having some odd thoughts about de facto succession of leadership and participation in the church. I feel, lately, that I have seen a pattern emerge from time to time:

  1. Apparently doctrinally-orthodox member distances him/herself from the church
  2. Apparently doctrinally less-orthodox member distances him/herself from the church
  3. #2 comes back
  4. #1 does not

Of course, it could be my imagination, but this combination of those factors seems to happen a disproportionate amount of the time (not necessarily a majority of the time, though). My seat-of-the-pants hypothesis is this: What if this reflects an underlying difference in styles of belief? Members in category 2 (from the list) might have more of a willingness to acknowledge doubts and uncertainty, or to question orthodoxy, than those from category 1. These differences could lead to different reactions when faith-challenging events occur: A few category 1 members might find that their less-considered faith is fatally threatened by such challenges, while more of the category 2 members, despite initial distancing due to the doubts and disillusionment activated by the challenges, may find that their intellectual foundations (built through years of questioning, doubting, and resolving those things) provide them, ultimately, with answers that lead them back to the Gospel.

This is a standard question among many people of faith, and it assumes a lot of things I really can’t back up with data (so it’s rank speculation). But it feels like at least a hypothesis worth pursuing. But I’m not done yet.

The real kicker, for me, is that–if the process I’ve imagined is really happening–the membership or leadership of the Church may gradually come to be represented more and more by those in category 2, with interesting implications. For example, I think (again, no data) that this style of belief may be favored more by people ultimately drawn, for a variety of reasons, to more liberal social-political views, more intellectual pursuits (higher levels of traditional education?), and a less purely-emotional approach to faith.

The results may or may not be good for the Church in the long run; I don’t know. But this is interesting. The world is run by those who show up for the meetings. The Church is the same way.

Dear Dan Savage: Good Intentions Do Not Justify Stupid Rhetoric or Prejudice

Dan Savage’s column has always been a sometimes-entertaining example of pandering to one’s audience and earning revenue through controversy. Now, however, Savage seems to have made the leap from occasionally funny sexual entertainment shockster to ideological Doberman. Sure, his narrow-minded bias is employed for only the best of motivations, but isn’t that always the case? The first reply in this column — currently a popular social media buzz-link — is a showcase of dirty rhetorical tricks and blatant bigotry, covered with a thin sheet of popular sentiment (at least probably popular among his regular readers).

“L.R.,” the writer to whom Savage is responding, expresses exactly one opinion that may be taken as anti-gay: “As someone who… does not support gay marriage…” This was apparently enough to justify a very nasty ad hominem, ad your-whole-presumed-social-group-inem attack. Sections of Savage’s reply are reproduced below, with my comments:

“Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: F*** your feelings.”

It seems Savage packed the following assertions into that line:

  1. Gay kids are dying.
  2. You do not support gay marriage.
  3. Therefore, there is no need for me to give even minimally respectful consideration to your words.

Niiice. I wonder if Mr. Savage would agree with this rhetorical approach in some other context, such as justification to invade Afghanistan. “Mr. President, I feel that a full-scale invasion might be an overreaction.” “Mr. Reporter, Americans are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: F*** your feelings.”

What do you think? Is it OK to use a current crisis to completely marginalize the views of someone who is honestly trying to find common ground on the crisis topic? Perhaps just as disturbing is Savage’s implicit assertion (later to be made explicit) that opinions such as those of L.R. are exactly why “gay kids are dying.”

Moving on.

“A question: Do you ‘support’ atheist marriage? Interfaith marriage? Divorce and remarriage? All are legal, all go against Christian and/or traditional ideas about marriage, and yet there’s no ‘Christian’ movement…”

This one’s not as dramatic, but it’s still a dirty trick. No response to L.R.’s request that Savage tone down his anti-religious rhetoric; instead, Savage attacks the consistency of Christian behavior in related areas. Reminds me of the parody of Bush 43, in which someone asks him a question about his policies, and he responds, “Why do you hate freedom?” Perhaps we as a civilization have become so numbed to the tricks played on us by mainstream-media talking heads that we simply can’t see that a counterattack is not the same thing as a reasonable response to a concern. Also, there have been such movements in the past (except, maybe, atheist marriage), but those who iniated them lost the legal and social battles. I would have thought Savage would know that.

“And—sorry—but you are partly responsible for the bullying and physical violence being visited on vulnerable LGBT children.”

As I would write on any of my students’ papers if they used such logic, this is an empirical question and the statement is unsuported. In this context, I think it’s downright irresponsible. It is incumbent on Mr. Savage to demonstrate that people with views like those of L.R. (recap: loves the Lord; does not support gay marriage; heartbroken about consequences of bullying of gay individuals; thinks we are all imperfect, fallible, and in need of a savior; thinks it’s not OK to believe anyone is better or more worthy than someone else; thinks it is OK to take public figures to task for making blanket discriminatory statements about a large, diverse group of religious people based on a small number of observations) are “partly responsible” for “bullying and physical violence” toward vulnerable LGBT children. What is the evidence of this? How strong is the evidence?

As I tell my students, if you don’t have data to support your statements, at least find good reasoning, and reduce the certainty of your statement accordingly. If you don’t even have good reasoning, then why are you writing such a thing? Test it, Mr. Savage. Use your dollars or your influence to support some research to answer your question, instead of simply flinging the accusations around. It’s not an impossible study: get a nice, representative sample of gay kids or young adults who have been bullied, go find the bullies, do some assessments and data collection with the bullies’ parents, and find out if they’re like L.R. You could also test the assertion that people like L.R. are indirectly responsible for gay kids being bullied, though that would take fancier research design; still hardly beyond the scope of good behavioral science. Wouldn’t that be better than simply accusing anyone who disagrees of sharing responsibility for the deaths of children? I don’t know what the actual facts in this area will turn out to be, but until someone does, perhaps Savage should refrain from lambasting large social groups with what must be assumed to be nothing more than his suppositions.

Early on in the mess o’words, Savage begins to express a discerible “logic.” At this point it appears to be:

  1. Gay kids are dying from bullying
  2. L.R. says he does not support gay marriage
  3. L.R. is part of the reason gay kids are dying.

Except actually there seems to be another point, when we read a little farther:
2 1/2. L.R. is Christian

And that’s where it gets really ugly. How ugly? Let’s find out. Note that Savage never clarifies the extent to which his most vitriolic remarks should be applied, but they seem at least to be for L.R., and to include a vague category of people who self-identify as Christians. Here’s my understanding of the not-very-subtle meaning of some of the remarks:

“…even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way…”

(a) “Those people” are a group apart from you and yours, and (b) they are bigots.

“…there may not be any gay adults or couples where you live, or at your church, or in your workplace…”

L.R. lives a culturally restricted life.

“…while you can only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally…”

(1) Voting in ways that limit or redefine legal marriage for people in gay and lesbian relationships is a personal attack on gay and lesbian people.
(2) People who vote like this prefer to hurt others from afar (perhaps they are cowards?).
(3) L.R. is such a person.

“Real gay and lesbian children. Not political abstractions, not ‘sinners.'”

L.R. and/or Christians do not understand the reality of gay/lesbian children, and categorize them as “sinners.”

“Try to keep up…”

L.R. is kind of slow.

“The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from the lips of ‘faithful Christians…'”

(1) Christians who think they are faithful yet hold opinions like those L.R. expressed are not faithful.
(2) Such people say dehumanizing, bigoted things (possibly this means saying they do not “support gay marriage”, though this is not clear).

“…the lies about us that vomit out from the pulpits of churches that “faithful Christians” drag their kids to on Sundays…”

(1) Again with the “faithful Christians” in quotation marks bit.
(2) Children of such people must be forced to attend church.
(3) The religious leaders of such people universally say untrue things about LGBT people.

“…give your children license to verbally abuse, humiliate, and condemn the gay children they encounter at school.”

(1) Children of people like L.R. (or perhaps just Christians with similar views on gay marriage) perceive their parents’ statements (e.g., “I do not support gay marriage”) as license to do all that stuff to gay children.

(2) I think it’s implied that these children apparently actually do such things.

Savage rarely specifies how frequent or common his accusations are, within the outgroup that L.R. belongs to, and that’s another cheap debate trick: leave that kind of thing undefined. The impression is of pervasiveness, but if anyone ever accuses you of that, you can point to your vagueness and claim your comments were only intended to apply to a minority of the target group.

“Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit.”

(1) Holding these opinions is the same as encouraging your children to hurt others.
(2) Such opinions are evidence of personal hate and fear (presumably toward gays or LGBT-related issues).

This is another old trick: characterize opinions differing from yours as being due to some socially-unacceptable impulse (i.e., hate and fear), implicitly ruling out the possibility that they might arise from any rational or positive motivation or mental process.

“…having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry…”

(1) Those who do “not support gay marriage” tell their children that gay marriage is a threat to family.
(2) They also tell their kids that gay sex is displeasing to God
(3) If you disagree with Dan Savage on this point, he will publicly mock your most cherished ideals instead of addressing the substance of the disagreement.

“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy.”

Since there’s nobody else’s letter being responded to, here, we can only assume Savage is saying that people who say what L.R. said about gay marriage also see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy of full civil equality. And of course there’s another causal statement, though this one at least has some support in the form of research from other areas: children do tend to accept their parents’ opinions in many areas (though Savage might also want to read up on research showing that this doesn’t happen nearly as much as parents might wish it did).

“…we’re seeing the fruits of [your encouragement, hatred, and fear]: dead children.”

At this point, we can sketch a rough picture of the full Dan Savage Theory of How Gay Children Get Bullied to Death:

Step 1: People (possibly only Christians) who do not “support gay marriage” say things like this where their children can hear it. It does not matter what else gets said (e.g., anything about tolerance, acceptance, humility, equality, etc.).

[unclear: The theory may also stipulate that people with these opinions are necessarily filled with hate and fear, are not religiously faithful, force their children to attend churches where the leaders tell blatant lies about gay people, and tell their children gay marriage is a threat to family. Also, the theory may stipulate that such people are less intelligent than those who have different opinions.]

Step 2: Children of such people perceive such comments [again, not clear whether this only refers to the comments in step 1 or to all the comments Savage later atrributes to his ill-defined outgroup] as license to hurt any gay children they happen to know.

Step 3: These gay children experience significant harm (this is a charitable reading of Savage’s comments), and may die as a result.

If supported, this theory might require some serious changes in how we talk and behave toward gay/lesbian issues (not just toward individuals), because–in the “strict” reading of the theory–simply disagreeing on the point of gay marriage rights is enough to cause your children (or your children’s friends) to bully their gay friends to death.

This kind of theory has serious implications for public policy and debate. If the theory Savage has outlined were to be supported, then we might also reasonably expect to find that:

  • Atheists expressing contempt for their neighbors who do not recycle will lead children to bully their non-recycling neighbors’ children to death, even if they also talk about what wonderful people these neighbors are.
  • Baptists who talk too much about patriotism may lead their children to contribute to the deaths of children who have doubts about American cultural values.
  • Classic rock fans expressing disdain of “emo” music may lead their children to bully emo kids to death.
  • Voting a Democrat ticket in the next election and telling one’s family about one’s opposition to the Republican political platform may lead children to kill Republican children.
  • Muslims who politely express an opinion that they do not support America’s consumerism or Middle-East interventionism are partially responsible for 9/11.

You see where this is going, and how ludicrous it is. I do not in any way condone what has happened to the many children recently reported to have suffered from bullying or violence because of their sexual orientation. I don’t even discount the possibility that a chain of events like what Savage has so viciously outlined could turn out to be real. This piece of writing is not intended to endorse any particular political, social, or even moral position, except one:

Bad thinking and bad logic are still bad, even when they are employed in the service of a popular (or even objectively right!) cause. Prejudice is always the product of faulty thinking, but those who express it always think they’re being reasonable. If cornered on their sloppy (or even directly unethical) argumentation, they sometimes bust out a version of “ends justify means” rationale. But they are wrong. In many cases, their means are all you really need to know about them.

And then…

“…at schools filled with bigoted little monsters created not in the image of a loving God, but in the image of the hateful and false “followers of Christ” they call Mom and Dad.”

Does Savage really not see the mind-exploding irony (or hypocrisy) of writing something like this in a popularly-read newspaper column when his entire thesis seems to be that even carefully-phrased disagreements about others’ identities can turn into child violence? By his theory, he should probably be responsible (or, as he puts it, “partially responsible”) for about a thousand juvenile-perpetrated murders of Christian children, by now.

Perhaps Mr. Savage’s real reason for writing his vicious little piece was to generate some controversy in non-readers of his column and some good old moral indignation in the readers. Or maybe his real reason is expressed best by one of the first phrases he wrote to a reader who had civilly expressed a difference of perspective:

“Did that hurt to hear? Good.”

2008 Income and Taxes

So I was getting frustrated with partisan rhetoric about taxes and income. Yes, talking about percentages and rates and proportions and whatnot can often increase clarity with complex data, but sometimes these are also used to conceal or distort some aspect of the information. I decided to make my own graph of 2008 incomes by percentile of the US population, including each group’s income taxes paid. I was working with some chunky data from here, so it’s not a pretty, smooth curve. I used Excel to expand (in an ugly fashion) the groups so you get a rough (very rough) idea of the different group sizes.

The groups are by percentile of income in the US: the lowest-earning 50% up through the highest-earning 0.1% of the population. The height of each bar represents average annual income, and the height of the blue portion within the bar represents the amount of taxes paid.

You’ll notice I had to make the graph extremely big so that the lowest income group’s income even showed up enough to give a hint of a line for the tax they paid.

And 2008 was considered to be a bad year for the super-wealthy.

(click to see the full image with enough detail to be even slightly useful)

My issues with Arizona’s new immigration law

Look, I argue about Arizona’s immigration law, and about people’s response to illegal immigration in general, but it’s not because (as the rabid anti-immigrant crowd is wont to insist when anyone doesn’t toe their particular line) I think illegal immigration is laudable. Of course it’s not. It is, however, a question of costs, benefits, and priorities.

Sure, illegal immigration is illegal. It’s right there in the name. It’s a violation of U.S. law, plain and simple. But so are other things. That’s the point, the rabid anti-immigrant crowd will say: it’s illegal and it’s causing horrible, terrible harm to America.

And that’s my problem: (a) the harm it’s causing is open to question, and (b) other illegal things cause equal or worse harm. It really feels like a group of people is highly dedicated to finding the harm because they’ve already decided that immigration is bad. Which makes you wonder why they really think it’s bad.

I posit that you can’t (with good data) make a serious case that immigration is destroying America, so it’s one of many issues with pluses and minuses and some serious, serious costs if we want to eradicate it.

You want to know what causes a lot of harm, both economically and physically? Bad driving, especially speeding. Traffic accidents killed almost 34,000 Americans last year, with speeding being a main factor in about half of those cases. This costs American taxpayers (even those who don’t blatantly and repeatedly break the law) billions and billions of dollars. Those numbers are many times higher than any estimate of the costs of illegal immigration. People are breaking the law and killing Americans and getting a slap on the wrist. The law is the law! What part of “illegal” don’t you understand? Unsurprisingly, however, I don’t hear Rush or Glenn calling for the National Guard to patrol roads and root out the problem, though. Nobody is pushing for speeding to be a mandatory felony with prison time. I don’t notice anyone demanding that we suspend the constitution so we can be sure to apprehend every speeder in Arizona. Why not? Would it not be OK to give the police a mandate to check the traffic record, outstanding unpaid speeding tickets, etc., of anyone they interacted with who fit the profile of a chronic reckless driver or speeder? You know, a male between 16 and about 25? Domestic violence call? We’re going to have to also check to see if you need to be sent to jail for an unpaid speeding ticket while we’re here.

No. No one is saying that, despite the far higher death toll from illegal speeding than from illegal immigration.

If the anti-immigrant movement is really only concerned about our safety as Americans, then the question of why they aren’t pushing for tough penalties and profiling of those who commit much more dangerous crimes is a good one. It applies to speeding, white-collar offenses, safety violations in coal mines, hunting accidents, and a whole passel of other things where the illegal behavior of a few harms many. Why have the anti-immigrant crowd picked their particular crusade instead of one of the many others where the economic and human harm is so much more clear and egregious? The answer to that will tell us something about the mindset of those pushing the anti-immigrant agenda.

The facts about illegal immigration are not yet fully known (though there are some useful data on several issues), and they often shift with funding sources or ideological biases. It seems clear that illegal immigration has risen in the past two decades, though we are far from the historical peak. Illegal immigrants occupy lots of jobs, though how many of those would be taken by Americans otherwise is debatable. Immigrants pay taxes and social security (not always knowingly), and their purchasing dollars go into the American economy. Even the service fees on the money they send back home contribute to Wells Fargo’s revenue. There is some evidence that illegal immigration boosts the economic fortunes of the middle class while harming the poor. You’d think the Tea Party would be all over that.

Some illegal immigrants take advantage of social services like medicaid, emergency rooms, food stamps, education, etc. Others are arrested for crimes, sometimes violent. It is extremely difficult to gauge how many crimes are committed by illegal immigrants, but only the most obviously anti-immigrant organizations “find” a percentage greater than those committed, per capita, by long-time American citizens. Muddying these waters is the fact that some immigrants come to the US specifically because they are criminals or they want to commit crimes (e.g., human traffickers, smugglers, drug dealers), and others are recruited into crime because of their immigrant status or their legal vulnerability (e.g., the drug industry, prostitution, gang membership). Balancing these criminal elements are the many more illegal immigrants who are, essentially, family members looking for jobs and trying to stay as far from official notice as possible.

Some studies find that the net economic impact of illegal immigration is positive, and others that it’s negative, though even these clarify that it’s not much, compared to the benefits doled out to legal Americans. You can argue that even a single dollar given away to an illegal immigrant is too much, and you’d have a solid basis to argue. Would you also argue that we need to catch every single white-collar embezzler, pot-smoking college kid, or stock fraudster in America, no matter how much of our tax money that takes? Why not?

Down here near the border (and in Arizona, New Mexico, and California), the issues get more polarized. These areas bear the brunt of the costs of the Mexico-US drug trade and some of the most negative consequences of illegal immigration. We also have disproportionately large numbers of both legal and illegal immigrants who don’t seem to cause any harm. Places like South Texas, where most of the people are Hispanic, demonstrate ambiguity about enforcement; you get both strong pro and con opinions expressed, with plenty of “meh” in between. Places where Anglos make up the tax base tend to show much more consistently anti-immigrant sentiment.

Illegal immigrants do not outnumber the legals. They also don’t show some kind of rabid resistance to acculturation into American society. Overall, my take is that the majority of illegal immigrants are similar in many respects to legal American citizens, espousing similar values about family, freedom, and economic choice. Maybe that’s why so many Americans have such an opposition to them.  It would seem that most of those who cause the most problems are associated with the situation where the richest country on earth (with the most voracious appetite for recreational drugs and underaged prostitutes) is situated right next to a country still firmly in the developing world. Bad problems, to be sure, and they need some serious solving; but blaming immigration for the drug trade is like blaming BP for our dependency on petroleum.

I have problems with our immigration laws and philosophy, sure. We are ideologically (and some biologically) descended from illegal immigrants. Our forefathers in many cases hosed the Native Americans (who were doing just-fine-thank-you-very-much) to no end, squatting by the tens of thousands on their land and refusing to leave, killing the legal residents instead of respecting their laws. Well, we’ve been here two centuries, and the US is awesome in many respects, so perhaps we should forget about that, but it’s still pretty hypocritical to claim that we are “original” or “native” Americans and ban everyone else. Jesus had a parable about stuff like that.

Maybe immigrants are bringing nasty diseases like tuberculosis to the US. OK, then we need to issue a LOT more work visas. This will bring those coming here for upstanding reasons (wanting jobs) through the legal checkpoints where they can be screened for such conditions. And maybe there’s too much drug money and trafficking going on (all right; there most definitely is). Then we need to put our money where our mouth is and stop smoking weed and snorting blow. Seriously. But immigration is not the problem, in itself. It’s a red herring for entitlement, spoiled adolescent thinking, and probably a good dose of xenophobia.

Healthcare Reform Polls: If you’re governing by the numbers, at least get the numbers right.

This article (worded in predictably bellicose HuffPo prose) talks about a poll last week on the healthcare reform debate. Poll numbers like these are regularly cited on the right side of the fence to support the idea that the American people do not want healthcare reform. The responses for “do you favor or oppose the current healthcare proposal?” look bad for the reformers and good for the opposition: 47% oppose it and only 41% are in favor. However, if you look at why people oppose vs. support the current reform, a different picture emerges.

It seems that a healthy chunk of those who oppose the current proposal do so because they are in favor of healthcare reform in general, but the current proposal doesn’t go far enough. Lots of people apparently agree with Dennis Kucinich.

When you look at who’s actually in favor of healthcare reform in general, versus opposed to it, you get just over 49% in favor and only 30% opposed. Half in favor of reform. Less than a third opposed to it. If the Senate looked like that, the opposition would not be able to filibuster.

Notably, however, the Senate is not debating healthcare reform in general. They’re debating the current bill. If the poll is to be believed (and this caliber of poll generally is), the majority of Americans want healthcare reform, but half of those supporters want the Democrats’ current proposal killed because it’s not enough.

Here’s my quick-and-dirty Excel layout of the results  (after the cut). Continue reading

Question for Anyone Who Thinks the USA is the Greatest

The US-Canada hockey game (it just started as I write this) and this article have got me thinking. If you’re a person who believes “The USA is the greatest…” in some way (i.e., greatest nation ever, greatest society, greatest political power), I’d like to ask a very serious question:

How (if at all) would your feelings and behavior change if the USA were someday not the greatest?

Not that this is inevitable, but it could happen. Of course, first you have to define in what way the US is the greatest. In economic power? Military power? Civil liberties? Government structure? Moral behavior? Humanitarian aid? Your personal definition of righteousness? Some combination of factors? Defining “greatest” is itself a little threatening, because as soon as you commit to a definition of America’s greatness, there’s the possibility that someday that might measurably change.

But let’s say you define our greatness. What if it were to end? What if we slipped to second or third place? And don’t say, “stupid question; America will always be the greatest.” There’s no guarantee of that. Even if we were “the greatest” forever (i.e., billions of years in the future, when the universe dies in heat death, the US still exists and is still the greatest), the thought experiment alone is worthwhile.

How would you feel about your country if it stopped being the greatest? Maybe it would be really good, just not the greatest.

Would you still be proud to be an American, a citizen of one of the better nations on earth, but not the greatest in any obvious way?

Would you become embarrassed and deflect questions about whether you were a patriot?

Would you still love your country?

Would you continue to insist that the US was still the greatest, even if there was no way you could demonstrate its greateness?

How would you react? Just curious.

“Poor Mexico: So Far From God, So Close to the United States”

from flickr user marca-pasosI have some questions:

  1. Are you the kind of person who won’t buy a T-shirt made in China or tennis shoes sewn in Myanmar? If so, are you also the kind of person who believes you’re “not hurting anyone” when you smoke a joint?
  2. Do you believe that “more enforcement” is the answer to our border problems?
  3. If the U.S. legalized say, tennis shoes, do you think that would stop all exploitation and suffering associated with their manufacture and sale to Americans? No? Imagine that.
  4. Do you like the idea of American soldiers in long-term military action inside a massively corrupt, destabilized nation, with little possibility of long-term success? What if the dead soldiers were only coming home from a few hundred miles away? What if this hypothetical conflict were, say, ten or twenty years in the future, so your kids could participate?

If one consumes mainstream news, one will perhaps build an image of Mexico as a corrupt, backward banana republic forcing its scary illegal immigrants and nasty, nasty drugs on America with no gratitude for our condescending tourism dollars. Much of that is wrong. More importantly, much of it is our fault. Continue reading

Finally, an article about Palin I can get behind

This article on Reason.com, by Nick Gillespie, echoes quite a few of my sentiments about Sarah Palin (and one or two about Barack Obama), in a tone that doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for the person writing. Refreshing. Also, kind of funny that Gillespie refers to the people insisting that Palin is not really the bio-mom of her son Trig as “after-birthers”, in contrast to the “birthers” who hound the President.

OK OK OK. I’ll just post some lemony snippets.

On Palin’s less-than-inspired political platform:

… Americans have heard it all before, most recently during the administration of George W. Bush, who with the able assistance of a Republican majority managed to double overall federal spending in real dollars over the course of eight years. If the Republicans are to regroup and advance in another direction, they will need something other than warmed-over Karl Rove speeches.

Continue reading

Hey Middle East, I’ma Try Somethin’

(Map ganked from TheKurds.net)

I have no degrees in history, political science or comparative religion. I have no diplomatic or military experience. I do, however, sometimes think relatively logically, and I try to check my sources most of the time. Therefore, in matters of Resolving Intractable International Problems, I feel I am more qualified than, say, Sarah Palin, and significantly less qualified than, say, everybody else. But I get a thought and it wants to be shared, so here it is:


The Kurds have an incredibly raw deal in many ways. There’s that business with Saddam Hussein killing thousands of them with poison gas, but that’s just the icing on a large, ugly historical cake. They’d really like to have their own nation, apparently. So what about this:

Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia all give up some of their most Kurdishest of regions, temporarily. Say, for a fifty year trial period. Draw up a contract and everything. The Kurds get to govern this region. It’s only limited sovereignty, though. Certain powers, including the power to Take It All Back If The Kurds Don’t Deliver, are reserved for the donor nations during the trial period.

During those years, the Kurds do the following two things:

  1. Prove that they can govern their new territory by way of some economic, political, and other progress metrics, including human rights (i.e., how do the Kurds treat the people who are suddenly the minorities in their region?)
  2. contribute guerrilla-fighter know-how, lots of policepersons and/or soldiers, diplomatic skillz, negotiators, community-builders, liaisons, and whatever else might be useful to anti-terrorism efforts in the donor nations. Thus, the amount of land conditionally donated to the new Kurdish state by each nation might depend on how much they needed fifty years of highly motivated Kurdish human help in reducing terrorism.

This would need to be funded. The donor nations would have to pony up proportional to their ability and need, of course, but the UN (probably with lots of US funding) would need to foot a large part of the bill. The UN could also be the watchdog, making sure everyone held to the contract. This “bill” would not only include outfitting and training the Kurdish personnel (which would be LOTS cheaper than doing the same for American personnel), but would also have to involve a lot of state-building within the hoped-for Kurdish region.

As the fifty (or whatever) years drew down, the UN would evaluate whether the Kurdish proto-state had kept enough of the conditions of its bargain. If not, then power would revert to the original donors, but the Kurds would now have a much-improved place to live, even though they didn’t really run it anymore. Or maybe someone would renegotiate the contract. But if they had done what they said they’d do, the Kurds would gradually return to their new homeland, now with full autonomy.

I think there could be lots of benefits, such as:

  • The Kurds get a homeland
  • Maybe a civil war or two gets prevented, down the line
  • Anti-terrorism efforts are advanced (by people who are a lot more local than us)
  • Ties are formed between the Kurdish state and its neighbors, as well as between the neighbors themselves
  • The Kurdish state gets infrastructure, human-capital, and other support to get off to a good start
  • I get a lucrative consulting job in Washington because of my awesome idea to fix part of the Middle East, thus assuaging my fears of becoming an unemployed ex-junior-professor

Does this sound expensive? It is. But my less-educated-than-everyone-but-Sarah-Palin guess is that the long-term cost would be less than the costs incurred by fifty more years of business as usual. And seriously, we are going to be in Iraq another half century, anyway, so why not make some kind of a reasonable long-term plan for improving things while we’re there, in ways that will make everyone (including us) safer? Maybe not this plan. But some plan.

Sometimes I think American foreign policy is like my housecleaning habits: short-sighted, based on fantasies about messes cleaning themselves up.

Contradictions bugging me today

Contradictions — even (or especially) my own — bug me.

  1. The congresspersons opposing a government-run option in the currently-proposed healthcare reform plan are all beneficiaries of a lavish single-payer healthcare plan funded at taxpayer expense.
  2. Al Gore’s monster mansion and constant airline flights continue to create, like, a thousand Pakistani peasants’ worth of carbon emissions.
  3. We still claim to be a nation interested in peace, but we spend more on our military than anyone else. In fact, we spend about as much as all the other military budgets in the world, combined.
  4. The people pushing for the harshest punishments for illegal immigrants are often the same ones who celebrate our immigrant forefathers. Said forefathers settled here, usually without the permission of the American cultures and nations that were already in place, and often in direct violation of the wishes of the legitimate inhabitants.
  5. Our current President was elected largely as a reaction to the excesses of his predecessor, but he has since followed Bush 43’s lead in his use of executive powers, his capitulation to our oligarchy, his treatment of suspected terrorists (with the arguably small exception of the prisoners in Guantánamo), and even our overseas military involvements.
  6. Several of the lawmakers in the healthcare debate — both pro and con — are accepting donations from organizations with a vested interest in making sure any new program serves corporations rather than American citizens, and it shows.
  7. And finally (drum roll please)…. The GOP’s health care plan for its employees covers abortions.

That last one surprised even my cynical self, I gotta say.

Dobbs Takes His Business Elsewhere

Lou Dobbs has just quit CNN. I know some Hispanic activism groups will be happy about this, since the move reduces CNN’s perceived hypocrisy in regards to Hispanic and immigration issues, but I’m not as enthusiastic. Don’t get me wrong: I think Dobbs is yet another demagogue entertainer masquerading as a journalist, like Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann (I was going to add Beck and Limbaugh, but I’m not sure they even really masquerade that much; they’re just entertainers, even if many of their fans seem so desperate to validate their own political views that they insist on seeing them as newsmen despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary). However, the news networks, like the political landscape of the country, seem to be getting more and more Balkanized, with less and less true dialogue between individuals who have opposing opinions. Or maybe it’s always been this way, but it’s certainly not getting any better.

Dobbs’ exit, on the one hand, makes CNN just a teensy bit more honest and accurate (by removal of the opposites). On the other hand, diversity of opinion on the network will suffer. I said I’m not enthusiastic, but I also don’t really mind him leaving; I just don’t think it’s as big a deal as some people do.

My guess is that, within a year, we will see Dobbs join O’Reilly, Beck, and others on the Fox Kind Of Like News network. What was a somewhat refreshing conservative point of view on CNN will be lost in the roar of conservative righteous indignation constantly pouring from Fox, which will be a shame. On the other hand, Dobbs will also continue spouting his particular mix of lies, half-truths, and misleading statements about immigration and Latinos, and that will get lost in the roar, as well. I hope.

If you love teh internetz, let it go…

…or something. There has been some discussion in the tech-aware world about a major step in the process of de-Americanizing the internet: non-Latin characters have now been approved for (eventual) use in domain names. This is a much bigger deal than it seems on the surface, btw, and it seems like one of those areas where things could go either very wrong or very right. Like the Marshall Plan after WWII. In fact, some guy named David Coursey at PC World has some comments that echo some of the sentiments from that time period:

is there any doubt that if another country had “invented” the Internet–say the Russians–that we’d all have had to learn to type Cyrillic characters by now? Moreover, do you think they or the Chinese or Japanese would have changed the Internet just to suit English-speakers. [pic]

Indeed, had the Internet been developed around a non-Latin character set, would it even exist today? Has the success of the Internet not been linked to the role of English as the global language of business and popular culture?

Ignoring the chicken-egg problem Coursey seems to miss, it is, to my mind, fairly clear that the “invention” and development of the internet were initially driven by the U.S., as much as anyone ever invents anything (strongly tied to the U.S. military, actually). Believe me, I feel the same urge to hold onto something I consider “ours” as the next guy. It’s a rabid, jealous, strangely fearful feeling, actually. But I’m not sure those feelings should always be listened to.

Mr. Coursey has a lot of “what if” questions in his little rant on pcworld. Let’s ask some more: what if the U.S. had said “Screw Germany, screw Japan; they started the war; let them fix their destroyed economies and infrastructures themselves”? Would the world now be a better place to live in? What if, somehow, inventors of automobiles, telephones, vaccines, bicycles, steel-reinforced concrete, etc. had been able to keep total control of their creations in perpetuity? And what do we now do about situations where pharmaceutical companies lobby to retain control (and forced high prices) of life-saving drugs they have developed for ever-increasing lengths of time? While we’re at it, we can wonder whether human genes should be patented.

This area can easily become a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma situation. Do we do what’s best for us and ours, at the expense of everyone else — and, in the long run, even ourselves — or do we sacrifice something in order for everyone to benefit? It’s not clear that this internet thing fully fits that definition, but it’s certainly conceivable.

I don’t deny that there is a huge potential for unintended consequences if the internet is “given away,” especially if the process is done badly. However, I also feel that part of what has made the U.S. a great nation (yes, it is still great) has been our habit of sharing the benefits of our labor. Often, international situations like this are not a zero-sum game; it is actually possible for everyone to win sometimes. I still have a basically optimistic belief that the internet, as a means of providing unfettered communication, can be a force for good: education, empowerment, economic regulation, political transparency, etc. It might turn out that giving it away is the right thing.

Mr. Coursey apparently feels at least a little similar, ending his post by saying this is a bad day for the English Language, but “…a good day for the billions of people who do not speak my mother tongue. They have rights, too, even if I am not always happy about what that means.”


Us vs Them beats Ideology

I am becoming ever more cynical. Recently, it seems to me that ingroup/outgroup distinctions, along with ingroup loyalty and outgroup derogation, are stronger for most people than the things those people say they believe. Examples (callously lumping people together and ignoring exceptions for my own evil rhetorical purposes):

If the Democrats really believed their “save the planet” schtick, Democrat public servants would have drastically lower personal resource consumption than the average US citizen.

If Conservatives truly cared about reining in bloated programs and reducing the power of the Federal government, they would have been leading the charge against our military buildup since WWII in general, and against our two most recent wars, more specifically. Or at the very least they would have felt kinda conflicted.

If Conservatives were really opposed to giving social and political power to wealthy entertainers, to those with family, interpersonal, or criminal issues, or to those with and substance abuse problems, people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly would be unknown.

Most obviously, if certain among the Hollywood elite truly cared about justice (social or any other kind), there would be absolutely nobody defending Roman Polanski.

I think these (and many other) disparate ideologies/actions are examples of people supporting their ingroup and slamming the outgroup, rather than doing what their belief system tells them is right. What we do and what we say — maybe even what we think –are deeply at odds. The immediate rewards and punishments we get from our peers continually overwhelm the future rewards we may get from holding fast to the things we believe are true. We could (and do) argue about what we should think; but I sometimes despair of that mattering, because what we think seems to have so little effect on what we actually do.

ACORN & the GOP: Pots & Kettles

So now there’s some dirt on ACORN, and what dirt it is! It’s like an episode of Law & Order; the kind where you shake your head at the TV and say, “This wouldn’t happen in real life.” ACORN leaders (and Nancy Pelosi, FWIW) claim the nastiness was only a few people in low positions, and that the organization itself would never condone such slimy tactics. Exactly like the response of the military and Presidency in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse debacle, actually.

The ever-vigilant GOP has demanded (and the Democrats are on the bandwagon almost as fast) that ACORN be punished. One of our great American traditions is to punish organizations by taking away their federal moneys. And I think that works. For organizations, money is like food and water; removing it gets them where it hurts. Awesomely, however, some overzealous Republicans, who apparently didn’t realize they were not supposed to upset the status quo, drafted a bill that would withhold funds from ALL federally-funded organizations with fraud complaints against them.

As anyone who pays attention might have predicted, this broad criterion turned up a nearly comprehensive list of military industrial contractors (i.e., Haliburton, Lockheed-Martin, Northrup-Grumman, and so on). Some of them have literally dozens of fraud charges against them There’s an unofficial list here, created at the behest of a freshman Congressman from Florida named Grayson.

Naturally, I don’t believe any of those massive, multibillion-dollar corporations will have any of their money cut, even if their fraud amounts to thousands of times more than ACORN’s. The Republicans will howl, and the Democrats will get all conciliatory, and everyone will work out a deal whereby the corrupt community organizers are cut off from the Federal teat, while the corrupt weapons manufacturers will get a maternal nip on the nose and then be ushered back to the privileged sucking spots. The military-industrial complex is implicated in the careers of quite a number of our congresspersons on both sides of the aisle, and (in a not-unrelated note) we Americans, by and large, are more tolerant of organizations that build bombers than of those that build communities, all frauds being equal.

Still, even if the consequences of this little drama are painfully predictable, stupid human tricks like this give me unwholesome giggles of political amusement. It’s nothing more sophisticated, really, than the thrill of watching a 5-year-old get pwned on the playground when he realizes that for every finger pointing at the other kid, three more are pointing back in his own face.

good <> bad, even if you’re arguing

People are sometimes stupid about communism. Maybe the word serves as such a useful blunt instrument of verbal assault (with a nail in it) that they forget communism has a reality outside their witty repartée, and is therefore subject to logical thought. I am not a fan of communism, and I think it is/was a Very Bad Idea, but can we get this one thing straight, please? Pay close attention:

Sharing is not bad.

No, seriously. Communism had lots of problems: the belief that totalitarianism would eventually lead to its polar opposite, the huge means-ends problems, the bizarre insistence that giving a small number of people a huge amount of unrestricted power would lead them to voluntarily go back to farming potatoes, the massive imperialist expansion…

But the sharing was the good part. Sure, forced sharing is a different issue; I understand that; but even there, it’s the forcing, not the sharing, that makes it problematic. Remember kindergarten? Sharing GOOD. Selfishness BAD. The fact that sharing was a key principle cited by a crashed-and-burned misguided utopian movement doesn’t make sharing itself bad.

Save me from political blog commenters

This “Obama is going to indoctrinate my kids” flap has provided marvelous political theater, especially given that it recapitulates the issues surrounding a similar speech given by GHW Bush in 1991. I think there are some real issues raised, by it, though not of the catastrophic caliber suggested by the Rightest of the Right. I am still researching the issue of the “altered” portion of Obama’s speech (quotes used because I still haven’t found credible evidence that he changed it significantly after the furor started; but I’m still looking).

On some of the conservative blogs and news sites I visited in trying to figure out this controversy and its highly tenuous connections with Oprah’s “Pledge” video, I found some reasonable comments. However, I also found comments that strayed from Reasonable, ran through Questionable’s back yard, and hopped the fence right into Idiotic. Since those are much more fun than intelligent comments, here are some of them (from this blog post, about the “pledge” video):

“… Did you see the two Cubans in the Video-Cameron and Eva? Well screw them! I pledge to keep using plastic at the grocery story and driving an SUV!”

“I pledge to add a few more minutes to my really HOT showers.

“I’m with you. Today I tossed a plastic bottle in my trash in honor of the disgust I felt for this hair raising filth.”

“I pledge to throw perfectly good paper right into the trash.”

“I pledge to walk past the recycling bin at the gym and put my water bottle into the trashcan while horrified people look at me. And I will smile.”

Wow! How awesome is that!? “I disagree with the President, so I’m going to do something generally antisocial, like make my country a little big uglier, a little bit trashier, and a little bit less energy efficient.”  Why stop there? Express your displeasure with others’ ideas through this interesting tactic in other domains, too!

“Did you see the President trying to prop up the American auto industry? Well screw them! I pledge to never buy another American car or automotive accessory!”

“The President thinks he can indoctrinate my kids to do better in school, does he? Then I pledge to have a heart-to-heard talk with each of my kids, on the topic of how stupid school is, and how awesome it is to drop out. Also, I think I’ll keep them home one day a week, playing video games.”

“Obama is still fighting terrorists? Well, I pledge to stop my monthly donations to the United Way and instead give my hard-earned charitable cash to whatever shell organization will launder it and give it to Al Qaeda, while horrified people in the human resources office look at me. And I will smile.”

All joking aside, the most painful comment on that site was the following, perhaps so poignant because I believe the commenter really could not imagine any other point of view:

EXCUSE ME! For 8 years, and still today, our troops (under POTUS GWB) FREED over 50 MILLION people in two wars. Not only that, but we lost many of those troops being patient for those freed people to understand and trust their newfound liberty.

Save My Babiez from teh President!

Here’s the situation: The President is going to give an address to the nation’s schoolchildren. Initial reports say he will emphasize the importance of taking their education seriously, staying in school, etc. He’s a controversial President. There is an outcry from the other side of the political continuum. There are fears he will push his political platform through the nation’s children. It sounds like Nazism, or Communism, or some kind of scary -ism.

This happened in 1991. The President was George H.W. Bush. His Department of Education encouraged teachers to broadcast the speech and use it as a teaching opportunity. Bush encouraged students to write him letters, with suggestions on how he could better achieve his goals. The Democrats were upset. The party leader called Bush’s address a “paid political advertisement.” Bush’s supporters said that was ridiculous.

So now we come to the current hullaballoo, suspiciously similar to the above, except the players have all flipped sides. Now the Conservatives are accusing the President of indoctrinating the kids. Some school districts won’t broadcast the speech. Many parents will keep their kids home, rather than risk them hearing it.

Somehow (I am seriously not sure how), this has become confused with the paranoia about “pledging allegiance to Obama.” Here’s my synopsis of both issues, after some internetz researchz: Continue reading

Are there any Conservative blogs with fewer insults, please?

I was recently referred to a blog post so I could understand better why some parents are concerned about allowing their children to hear the upcoming education speech. I also read about a dozen others, trying to get a handle on all the facts (as much as one can do so via the interwebs).

A long time ago, in a galaxy called High School, a teacher taught me that people who use underhanded rhetorical techniques quite likely got nothin’ else. Of course, it’s possible to use nasty debate tricks and have a good point, but I think the presence of the former does reduce the probability of the latter, overall. There are definitely liberal outlets (*cough*HuffPo*cough*) that use these ridiculous tactics on a regular basis, but I think I find them even more from the Right. Perhaps I should do a structured study to test whether this is just a perception issue.

Anyway, here’s most of the dumb tricks from that blog post.

Why Parents Don’t Trust Educator-In-Chief
By MICHELLE MALKIN | Posted Thursday, September 03, 2009 4:30 PM PT

the sneering defenders of Barack Obama – can’t fathom – the cult of Obama – activist language – Obama’s bureaucrats – whitewash – the taint of left-wing radicalism – the Educator-in-Chief and his “comrades.”

The bulk of the post is actually about William Ayers, and is composed of quotations establishing his leftist views. Standard.