Friday, September 6, 2013


“Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.” 
Theodore Roosevelt

I hesitated to write about Syria, because I have neither military nor foreign policy expertise.* But then, neither does the guy ostensibly in charge, the one whose metaphorical Commander-in-Chief uniform fits him like a clearance-bin Halloween costume and promotes just as much respect. So, here it is.

The question is whether to intervene is Syria's civil war or not. The case for intervention rests on Assad's (alleged) uniquely brutal use of chemical weapons on the civilian population. This action is so terrible, so inhumane, so revolting that it demands retaliation. That is, whenever we get around to it. Someday, maybe, when all the speeches are done.

Imagine this: Four corpses, murder victims, lie at your feet. One was shot, one stabbed, one blown apart by a bomb, and one poisoned. Which one is more dead? Right. So why are we in such high moral dudgeon over these killings when we've ignored all the others that can be unambiguously laid at Assad's door? If we're to intervene at all it has to be for a good reason, defending the vital interests of the American people and our allies. Causing death and suffering to avoid even more in the future is justifiable, however gut-wrenching it may be to most of us. Ask Harry Truman or William T. Sherman. 

Before we do anything to cause such suffering, to our own people as well as others, we have to have a clear objective and a plan for realizing it. So far I've not heard any, from either the executive branch or Congress. Don't ask me to trust the judgement, competence, or even the good intentions of any of them--not when Obama, Kerry, and the "leaders" of both parties have been engaged in an endless political circle-jerk of solemn pronouncements and press releases.  Like less public forms of masturbation, this may be amusing to those lacking maturity and interpersonal skills, but it's ultimately unproductive. It also leaves you with a mess on your hands.

Let's face the truth: the idea of a "limited yet decisive"strike is not only oxymoronic, it's just plain moronic. It exists only in John Kerry's famously nuanced imagination. Any such limited action is, and will be perceived to be, a mincing, limp-wristed slap on the arm of a sneering bully. It will only empower the Islamists and encourage Vlad ("The Impaler") Putin, not to mention lesser thugs. 

If we take any action at all it must be broad, firm, and final. More of our own people will die, more will be maimed, more American families will suffer, and whatever our people experience will be magnified a thousandfold among the Syrian people. That's the way war works, even the "little" ones. Whatever we do must ultimately save lives--ours and theirs--to justify such losses. So we either fight to win or stay out of it altogether. Personally, I'd stay out, following Napoleon's advice not to interrupt your enemy while he's making a mistake. But if we're going to fight we have to know in advance what winning would look like. 

To that end, I propose six military objectives and a final diplomatic action:

1. Kill Assad.
2. Kill all of Assad's enablers and supporters.
3. Kill all of their enablers and supporters.

Then turn on the rebels and:

4. Kill all the Islamist, Jihadist, and al-Queda affiliated leaders.
5. Kill all their enablers and supporters.
6. Kill all their enablers and supporters.

When these objectives have been accomplished, employing the rules of engagement we followed in, say, Normandy or on Okinawa, turn to the remaining rebels and say, more or less:

"We're leaving now. It's your country to run as you like, except that you must follow these three rules.
1. Leave Israel alone.
2. Leave the Christians alone.
3. Quit supporting Hezbolla and sucking up to Iran.

If you break any of these rules, even a little, we'll be back."

The Iranians might note that they're no longer immune. The Russians will huff and puff but can't push the issue. The rest of the world? They'll know the grownups are back in charge.

* Two who do are Michael Yon and Daniel Greenfield. Neither may agree with the above but that doesn't lessen my respect for them.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Talking About Race

If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.
Despair, Inc.

We hear a lot, recently, about the need to have a "racial conversation." Some use the Zimmerman/Martin case and its aftermath as the immediate stimulus, although those people have been conspicuously silent about Christopher Lane,  Delbert Benton, and the beating of a white 13 year old on his school bus. Now that it's been 50 years since the March on Washington and King's "I have a dream" speech, the calls for dialogue are redoubling in frequency and intensity.

I say horse manure. In fact, more conversation about race is the very last thing the United States needs. First consider this: given that these calls emanate from people with an ax to grind, what's the likely outcome of such a conversation? An airing of grievances and then polarization as those on all sides rehearse their talking points and refute their opponents'. As a result, each position becomes more extreme, more hardened. How, exactly, is that going to make anything better for anyone except those who profit from racial hostility?

Second, what would this conversation be about? There is no satisfactory definition of race, so who is to be included, and as what? You can't limit the conversation to "people with some African ancestry" and "people with mostly European ancestry." What about the Indians (both American and South Asian?) How about those with ancestors from East Asia? Polynesia? Then there are my people, the Jews, who may or may not be a "race" depending on who (and when) you ask. Let's not forget those of Latin American descent, with varying admixtures of Spanish, American Indian and African genetic and cultural heritage. That doesn't make them a unique race, you say? Tell "La Raza."

Not confused yet? Just wait, because lumping any of these people into one category is not only intellectually incorrect but will get you into major trouble if you do it to their faces. Don't believe me? Tell a Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Han Chinese, Cantonese, or Tibetan that they're all alike because they're "Asians" and see what it gets you.Do the same with a "Polynesian" Samoan, Fijian, Maori or Hawaiian and expect a severe thumping. Likewise a "Native American" Lakota, Dine', Iroquois, Inuit---or an Italian, German, Irish or Swedish "European." In Africa you confuse Hutu, Tutsi, Zulu, Bantu, Yoruba, etc. at your great peril. Mexicans are not Cubans are not Salvadorans are not Venezuelans are not Brazilians, either. In short, "race" is a sometimes-useful, if fuzzy, concept for some purposes, but for a social conversation it's nonsense. 

Hell, we can't even agree on who's "really" black and who's white. For instance, American, African, and Caribbean black people don't like one another.  Apparently, dark-complexioned folks of Caribbean origin aren't "black" in the sense that term is typically used. A man with one European and one African parent is "the first black president," however, despite the fact that he neither has ancestors who were slaves on this continent nor experienced a moment of Jim Crow discrimination. Then there's George Zimmerman, the "white Hispanic. " He had to somehow be labelled "white" to create a racial incident out of a sad rainy-night scuffle. This label incidentally informs a lot of people proud of their Spanish ancestry that they're not white.

Jesus (who was likely an olive-skinned, Aramaic-speaking, Middle Eastern Jew) wept.

Third, if we can't have a meaningful conversation about race, what can we discuss? What about problems that we all share, as Americans? Bigotry, for instance, which knows no ethnic or genetic boundaries but is used by cynical politicians and other charlatans to divide us for their profit? Crime, which makes all of us suffer while it feeds bigotry? The absolutely dismal state of education at every level from preschool through post-graduate studies? Terrorism and radical Islam? Don't like these? Supply your own---there's plenty to go around.
The important thing is that we approach these problems as Americans first and foremost. I guarantee that if the dream of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison and the rest disappears, Martin Luther King's will, too.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I Love Big Nanny

"The dignity of man is not shattered in a single blow, but slowly softened,
bent, and eventually neutered.  Men are seldom forced to act, but are
constantly restrained from acting.  Such power does not destroy outright,
but prevents genuine existence.  It does not tyrannize immediately, but it
dampens, weakens,  and ultimately suffocates, until the entire population
is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid, uninspired animals, of
which  the government is shepherd."
Alexis de Tocqueville 

The nanny-statists are at it again, led by "behavioral economist" Cass Sunstein, Obama's erstwhile regulatory czar. Dressed in his best Mary Poppins outfit, merrily humming "A Spoonful of Sugar," he's busy advocating the oxymoronic philosophy of "libertarian paternalism" in such notably libertarian outlets as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. Echoed by columnists like David Brooks, most recently in the Aug. 12 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the basic idea in this latest metamorphosis of Progressive philosophy
is that people shouldn't be forced into doing what some philosopher-king thinks is good for them (i.e. "ends paternalism.") Rather, they should be "nudged" via subtle manipulations based on what research shows are the normal flaws and shortcuts in their judgement processes (i.e. "means paternalism.") In essence, he argues that government should do what advertisers, chain retailers, internet providers and other commercial interests do already. For instance, food stores create displays at the end of aisles, knowing that shoppers see these as reduced-price displays and often don't bother to check the actual cost. Likewise, people are often required to "opt out" of contract provisions rather than being given the opportunity to add them, which inspires more thought. You get the idea, and if you want more details the links above will let you opt in.

On the surface this approach seems innocuous, even benevolent. That's what you're being nudged to think. The framing of a manipulative policy with an adjective implying freedom is evidence of that. Let's do a little systematic thinking:
Sunstein and his cohorts are engaging in a common academic practice, presenting one-sided and exaggerated data. The research they cite is from the "heuristics and biases" literature, popular among professors because its conclusions are that ordinary people aren't too thoughtful (versus professors) and because the results were, originally, counterintuitive. Essentially the argument is that people use shortcuts and estimates when making judgements. These then differ from what economists have defined as "rationality,"  making them flawed.

There are at least four problems with this line of reasoning. First, the original research on which these statements depend is entirely laboratory-based, using undergraduates to make judgements about things with which they have little personal involvement. Even studies of actual shoppers concern minor purchases, things that prompt minimal thought at best. Furthermore, the size of the effects---the difference the manipulations make in behavior---is small, though statistically reliable.

Second, Sunstein and friends ignore an entire domain of contrary research showing that the shortcuts they deplore are actually useful and efficient in everyday life. If one takes an evolutionary perspective this isn't surprising, but since the paternalists are committed to their intelligent design position the last thing they want to hear about is the beauty of natural selection.

Intelligent design requires designers and administrators, and that's the next big problem. Who gets to design and run the "libertarian paternalist" system? One guess. Now---what is the goal of these designers and administrators? Throughout history, there have been two:
power and money. Of course, they're really the same, because if you have one you have the other. Governments and bureaucrats always want more power, more influence. It's how they grow, and the fortunes of each member are tied to that growth. So there's always more to be done, more problems to solve, and that requires more people, more money, more regulations
that give rise to more status.

Then there's the interesting question of what you nudge people to do.  Even if we make the Pollyanna-class assumption of honest selflessness on the part of academics, legislators, executives elected or appointed, bureaucrats and so forth, what makes anyone think they'll know? For instance, tobacco used to be a minor vice; now it's the Devil's weed. Marijuana is fast becoming the recreational drug of the future, a harmless happy pastime rather than the gateway to lifelong addiction and degradation it was in the 1950's. Obesity is the new health menace, replacing anorexia and bulimia. Today's automobile is the carbon-belching destroyer of the environment that enables deadly urban sprawl. It used to be a source of personal freedom and an industrial mainstay of middle-class prosperity. 

That Sunstein and his faux-libertarian friends are fundamentally totalitarian is revealed, finally, by their academic cherrypicking. If they were interested in promoting freedom and human welfare they'd be asking how government might promote active, thoughtful deliberation where that would actually be helpful. We know ways to overcome harmful biases, to defeat manipulation, to make judgements as good as they can be given fallible information and a changing world. Yet all these self-appointed saviors can do is substitute  manipulation by government for that of other self-interested organizations. And, let's not forget, government claims a monopoly on the use of force. What do you suppose happens when psychological nudges prove ineffective? Nudging with bayonets is crude, to be sure, but we'll have Sunstein to remind us that it's for our own good.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Zimmerman case, by someone who really knows.

I felt the need to write more about the Zimmerman case until I read Michael Yon's essay:
It's better, more thoughtful and more truthful, than I could have written, better than anyone else has written, and deserves your attention.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Trials and Errors, Part 2

"Even when you win, you get kicked in the head."

"Blinky" Rodriguez, former world kickboxing champion

A few minutes ago, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges. My prediction was wrong, and I'm delighted to have been wrong. 

Of course, it's not over. There'll probably be a wrongful death suit. There'll be pontificating by "activists," and they might inspire violence----or, more accurately, give cover to those who are looking for an excuse for violence. Zimmerman's life won't ever be the same, though I hope he and his family will eventually recover, emotionally and financially. 

Perhaps some of the people who bought guns in the latest round of panicked acquisition will take a lesson from this sad affair and get competent instruction, not only in safety and shooting skill but in the equally critical skill of managing their lives to avoid the need for self defense. Those of us who are serious armed citizens should be mentors to our friends and neighbors in this effort.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Tax Men

"The apportionment of an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice."
James Madison, The Federalist No.10, 1787 

“The power to tax involves the power to destroy...” 
John Marshall, McCulloch vs. Maryland, 1819

Systematic political abuse by the IRS doesn't dominate the headlines any more, having been replaced by gay marriage, "immigration reform," Edward Snowden's depredations and Russia, China and Ecuador (!?!) laughing in our faces over them, the George Zimmerman trial....It seems as though the working memory of the American public can only handle so many crises, scandals and miscarriages of justice at one time. Thank goodness there's no new Kardashian Krisis to suck up bandwidth.

Leaving the hapless Zimmerman aside, there's really only one issue: the monstrous intrusiveness of the Federal Government into the lives of its citizens, a degree of intrusion that would have astonished Orwell and sent the Founding Fathers scrambling for their muskets. Somewhere, George III is laughing.

Despite the obvious metaphor, it's not time for muskets, and with luck may never be. We're not yet dealing with what in 1775 amounted to a foreign power, nor yet a hereditary monarchy. A "...decent respect to the opinions of mankind..." as well as simple morality requires us to act peacefully as long as humanly possible. Otherwise we might as well be the Tsarnaev brothers, or William Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn, that fun couple from the 60's.

Peaceful action, however, doesn't mean waiting on politicians to solve our problems. If history shows us anything, it's that we can depend neither on their courage nor their competence. What, then? Peaceful mass demonstrations are all very well, but won't inspire Obama, Holder, or any of their minions to reform or resign. Big public meetings do give the NSA a chance to use their facial-recognition technology, though, and add a line or two to everyone's file.

What, then? Let's start by remembering that despite all the buck-passing and obfuscation, oppression is carried out by people. Sure, they work for giant bureaucracies, but they're individually responsible for their actions. They can claim to have been "following orders" (or policies, which are just vague orders), but that excuse didn't fly in 1945 and won't now. 

Who are these people? At the IRS there's Lois Lerner, who refused to testify before Congress, claiming her 5th Amendment right. There are Daniel Werfel and Douglas Shulman, masters of the Sergeant Schultz defense--- "I see nothing–NOTHING!" Then there are the unnamed IRS agents who actually carried out the harassment. There is no reason why the home addresses, telephone numbers and photographs of these people shouldn't be made public, just as the personal information of concealed-weapons permit holders has been. Google Earth photos of their homes would be nice, too.

I would never suggest that these people be threatened or harmed in any way. SEIU thugs, Muslim terrorists, neo-Nazis and other scum do that. But several people picketing their homes to identify them and their crimes against the Constitution might have a salutary effect.
Letters (remember them?) and emails politely but firmly condemning their actions and expressing disappointment in their characters could also be effective. Remember, no insults, no invective, no vandalism, certainly no interference with their families in any way. We're not Occupiers and should demonstrate what we preach, respect for individual rights.

What's the goal? One, keeping Constitutional issues in the public consciousness. Two, reminding bureaucrats that they can and will be held individually responsible for their actions. Three, motivating others to refuse illegal orders and resist oppressive policies. You never know---it might catch on.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gay Abandon

"My dear, I don't care what they do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."
Mrs. Patrick Campbell, British actress 

"Who do you love?"
George Thorogood

Yesterday 55.5% of the Supreme Court justices revealed their decision that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and by the way, if you disagree you're a nasty homophobic Kluxer.  Further legal wrangling notwithstanding, homosexual couples can now enjoy formal marriage, with all rights, privileges and responsibilities thereunto appertaining. 

Except for the all too familiar liberal bigotry contained in the DOMA opinion, for which somebody should be slapped, I can't get excited one way or the other. My preference would have been for civil unions (marriages in all but name) to take care of legalities such as benefits and inheritance, and religious ceremonies by sympathetic clergy for their personal, symbolic benefit. I think that would have satisfied most people on both sides of the issue, and let the country get on to more important things. But it is what it is, and that's done.

Well, except for the social conservatives, once again insisting that one-man, one-woman marriage has been the norm in all societies for thousands of years. They were repeating that all over the radio and TV Wednesday, and will be for the foreseeable future. Because I generally like these people and stand with them on a lot of nonreligious issues it's a little painful to say this, but...they're wrong. Utterly, completely, totally wrong.

Please note I'm not contesting their religious or moral arguments, which are matters of faith. Their right to hold and express those moral principles is absolute. I'll defend their rights as I would my own, by any means necessary. But their historical arguments are matters of fact, and they've got the facts wrong.

Even the most casual reading of the Old Testament reveals that polygamy was the norm in Biblical times. Likewise, even casual reading of ancient history and archaeology shows us a huge variety of marital arrangements. Consider the Pharaohs, for whom incest wasn't a sin but a commandment. In modern times history, anthropology and sociology show us still more. Mormons happily practiced polygyny (multiple wives) until it became a political liability, and some still do. There are places where polyandry (one woman, 2 or more men) is common as well. One-woman, one-man marriage is hardly universal.

If you want to be traditional about marriage let's go back just a few hundred years, when they were arranged based on politics and economics. Marriage is a set of contractual rights and obligations. Dowries, bride-prices and the like have always been important, as have political and business alliances. Our modern idea of "romantic love" comes from the songs of medieval troubadours, who sang about mythical nobility and their soap-opera romances. Those, you should know, always ended tragically. Marriage was considered too important to be left to the emotions. If we were really conservative we'd leave the kids out of it and let the families and their lawyers negotiate.

I won't let the homosexual community off the hook, though. Now, or shortly, they'll have marriage. Shortly after that they'll have divorce, custody hearings, property disputes, legal fees, and all the rest. It happens. Marriage may be a blessing, or a sacrament, or whatever, but it's also a difficult job. There's a lot of good in it, but that good has to be earned, every day. I wonder how many people, caught up in romance and righteous political fervor, will wake up to realize that the days, weeks and years after the honeymoon are what matter?
That the candle-lit dinner doesn't count for much if you can't agree on who cleans the toilets?

Then there are the other alternative lifestyle groups waiting in the wings, ready for their time on stage. They're less public, not as well-funded, but they have just as much right to a hearing as the "conventional" homosexual community. There are the polygamists, of course, as the social conservatives remind us. Why should fundamentalist Mormons (or, for that matter, Muslims) be denied the right to marry as their desires and consciences dictate? And if one man can have multiple wives, why shouldn't one woman have multiple husbands?  Wouldn't it be sexist in the extreme to deny them the right to an emotionally (or otherwise) satisfying relationship?

Let's not forget the polyamorists. Many of these folks are more or less pan-sexual, but in any case have multiple sexual and emotional relationships. Familiar terms like "bisexual" don't fit them; they find love in many different kinds of arrangements including two, three, four or more people, men and women alike. I've known some of these people, and outside of their unconventional forms of sexual and emotional expression they seem perfectly normal, conventional and as nice as anyone else. Maybe nicer, since they have to pay more attention to their relationships. It seems like way too much work to me, but I wouldn't stand in the way of someone who wanted to try, say, a quintuple marriage. Besides, I can't wait to see a children's book titled "Bobby Has Two Daddies---And Three Mommies."

What I really wonder, though, is how much support the homosexual community and their allies will offer all these people in their struggle for the same rights the court has just recognized. We'll see how much principles count.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Trials and Errors

Jury selection is strictly an emotional process. They're looking for people they can manipulate. Both sides are.
Joseph Wambaugh

George Zimmerman will be convicted. I'm making this prediction based on inferences from one fact and 30 seconds of TV news coverage. Details follow.

The fact: The Zimmerman jury is all female. Women, for better or worse, are more easily persuaded by emotional arguments.  Right now some of you (probably women) are thinking "Not aaallll women, you sexist bastard!" True, not all, but what follows is a statistical argument and the numbers are indifferent to your ideology. Besides, I doubt that there are any female mathematicians, engineers, physicists or other reputedly more systematic thinkers on that jury.

The TV coverage: The prosecutor is relatively young and relatively handsome. He stands erect, and speaks authoritatively while telling the jury the story of gun-toting would-be vigilante George Zimmerman, who set out to hunt poor, young, innocent Trayvon Martin.
Not with murder in his heart, perhaps, but with a vision of himself wielding the Sword of Justice against an imagined evildoer. That vision predisposed Zimmerman to violence.
According to the State's story, why else would Zimmerman have a gun, an object most women regard with emotions ranging from distaste to dread? Why else would Zimmerman have disregarded instructions to stay in his car? It's an easy story for these jurors to believe, because it fits the way most of them already think.

The defense attorney is older. He leans forward to address the jury like an aging uncle with advice to give. He opens with a lame joke, then tells the jury Zimmerman was defending himself against a vicious and unprovoked attack. He feared for his life, says the lawyer, justifying the use of lethal force. This is a technical argument that relies on evidence and legal reasoning, requiring the belief that young Martin was the aggressor. It takes substantial mental effort to process; the juror must want to be logical and unbiased.* The trouble is, most people think they're being logical and unbiased even when their judgement is the most skewed.

How do jurors decide guilt or innocence? The best theory we have tells us that these judgements are based on a "story model." That is, which side tells the most coherent story of the events? That, in turn, depends on both the storyteller and the listener. In this case, both the predispositions of the jurors and the superficial "cues of credibility" (see, e.g., this paper) are on the prosecutor's side. 

But wait----a jury verdict has to be unanimous. Only one juror can hold out and possibly sway the other five! Truth and justice can prevail! Right. How much are you willing to bet?
What research since the 1960's has shown is that group decisions (including jury verdicts) are based on the "weight of opinion" held by group members before any discussion at all. An even split of opinion might result in a hung jury, but if four of the six Zimmerman jurors buy the prosecutor's story, social pressure will do the rest.

You might care what I believe. As is often the case, both sides have it partially right. Zimmerman acted stupidly, looking for trouble when there was no need, his head full of sheepdog fantasies. He's a sad, fat little man who wanted to be a hero, and whose idea of heroics derived from silly action movies. Yes, he was defending himself against a young, aggressive punk who might well have injured or killed him---but he put himself in that position. Was Martin justified in attacking Zimmerman? Absolutely not. On a strictly legal basis, as I understand the law, was Zimmerman justified in shooting Martin? Absolutely yes. Does any of that matter? Sadly, probably not.

George Zimmerman is screwed.

*For a short introduction to these issues, see this.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Moral Panic

“Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think.” 
Emma Goldman

Once again the American public is being treated to a festival of gibbering and arm-waving over the statements of a semi-public figure. Charges of bigotry are flying like arrows in a 1950's cowboys-and Indians movie. Their target this time is Paula Deen, the chunky, (formerly) smiling restaurateur and celebrity chef. Sued by a disgruntled white ex-employee for "discrimination"---of what sort, unspecified---she admitted in a deposition to having used the dreaded "N-word" on more than one occasion some years in the past.  The Food Network promptly cancelled her show, and would-be pundits across the political spectrum rushed to condemn her.

Interestingly, nobody asked if she'd used other racial, ethnic or religious slurs, for instance the "J-word" for Blacks, the "K- or S-word" for Jews, the other "S-word" or the "W-word" for Mexicans, the "G-word" for Koreans or Vietnamese, and so forth. Using those might mean that she was in fact an all-purpose bigot.* She and others claim in her defense that that the word in question was commonly used in less enlightened days, especially (but I promise, not exclusively) in the South. While admittedly in bad taste, they say, its historical use alone should not blacken anyone's reputation.

Let's get serious here. The public condemnations of Deen's private conversation aren't about bigotry in general or this case in particular. They're about either political or psychological advantage. Race pimps like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton speak out against her; they pretend to bravely defy bigotry, as if a moderately wealthy old white woman was a legion of hooded Klan bullies. Two fourth-string Atlanta radio hosts inveighed against her, one opening his show talking about her "fat food" and her diabetes. He seems to be enjoying schadenfreude, taking pleasure from someone else's misfortune.  Perhaps he doesn't like her cooking style, and in his sophomoric arrogance believes nobody else should, either. The other piously proclaimed that the "N-word" should be forever expunged from our vocabularies, wrapping himself in a comfy cloak of self-righteousness and, just maybe, higher ratings. Perhaps he believes that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn should be burned or Bowdlerized. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's house cartoonist drew a crowd of costumed Klansmen outside her restaurant, once again illustrating the intolerance and prejudice of the "liberal." 

If any of these frauds and fools really cared about fighting bigotry, they'd simply shut up. They'd let a court decide if Deen and her relatives actually discriminated against anyone or if the charges simply represented the rancor of a disaffected employee. They'd realize that the surest way to get someone to do or think something they shouldn't is to tell them they must not do it. ** But living your own life well and being thereby an example to others isn't nearly as much fun as picking on an old woman, is it?

* Apparently, I missed the fact that Deen had told ethnic/racial jokes as well. According to my source, these included redneck jokes, so it's hard to take them as evidence of racial bigotry.

Still, fair is fair, and I had to correct myself. The rest of what I said above stands as written.

**Reread the second paragraph and don't think about the meaning of the various "initial-words," for instance. Now, don't use any of them. Ever.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Waiting for Photosynthesis

"In the strict scientific sense we all feed on death---even vegetarians."
Mr. Spock, Star Trek, "Wolf in the Fold."

It's common for us carnivores to stereotype vegetarians either as sissified, ineffectual wimps or self-righteous Puritans trying to impose their abstemious ideology on the rest of society. I did, too, when I was young and ignorant. Being no longer young and slightly less ignorant, I now know better. My vegetarian friends are of several sorts, from strict vegans to those who'll also eat cheese and eggs, and none of them is either sissified or self-righteous. Just the opposite, in fact. Their reasons for vegetable diets range from simple preference to the deeply personal to the religious; what they have in common, though, is respect for other people's choices. I'd no more think of parodying them than I would my Orthodox  friends, who go to considerable effort following the letter of Jewish dietary law. I admire all of them for living their convictions, even if I don't share those convictions.

But there are exceptions to my embrace of dietary diversity. The PETA types, ("A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.") for instance. These militant vegans would rather millions die of disease than have doctors experiment with animals, however humanely. They're just bad people.

Then there are the plain silly ones, the self-proclaimed "bioethicists" who devote volumes of exquisitely convoluted reasoning to the question of which plants we might in good conscience consume. One of these is Michael Marder, research professor of philosophy, who (in the New York Times, of course) discusses the ethical implications of recent research showing that pea plants exposed to drought chemically communicate their distress to other pea plants. These plants, "forewarned," adapt better to stress. In other words, there is communication and planning in plants. Another is Natalie Angier, a science reporter (also of the Times, also of course) who wrote in 2009 of plants that emit chemical "cries for help" when attacked by caterpillars. These chemicals attract dragonflies and other insects which then eat the caterpillars. Who knew plants could call in air strikes? Special-ops teams?

Research in plant communication is not the issue. None of this is really new. I recall learning in the 80's that insect-infested trees chemically signalled others in their grove, which enabled those others to better resist the bugs' invasion. In other words, plants "talk," albeit on a level we can't detect, and act on what they "hear." Can they also communicate joy, or anxiety, or lust, or philosophy, at some level we can't comprehend? Maybe. 

However, some people take this to ridiculous extremes. If plants communicate like people, say these philosophers, what right do we have to take their lives just to prolong our own? Marder, Angier, et al., worry about finding an ethical way to kill and consume our distant vegetable cousins. Even the Swiss, who I always thought were practical, no-nonsense folks, have incorporated "plant dignity" into their Federal constitution.

Enacting these sentiments into law means that we're not simply having one of those quasi-intellectual discussions you might hear in a liberal-arts college dorm. Is every harvest a massacre? Do potatoes scream as they're ripped from the warm, comforting earth, bagged, sold, and thrown alive into vats of boiling water? Do oaks and pines cry as they're brutally mutilated into planks? Is a dandelion the moral equivalent of a rose in its right to live and reproduce? Does it gasp, choke and shudder when doused with herbicide? Scream like a potato when the gardener tears it from the soil?

Of course not, one might say.* Plants don't think, don't decide, aren't rational like humans are. Well, maybe, but then there are those who claim that despite all our chattering, people have no more free will than, say, oysters, which are almost plants. 

You don't need to claim that humans are exceptions to the rest of the natural world to avoid this silliness. Just the opposite. Consider natural selection, the driver of evolution. Natural selection works by competition; the winners get to live and reproduce, while the losers become food and, eventually, compost. That's the circle of life. You may not like the game but it's the only one in the universe. Plants compete just as animals do, albeit more slowly.  Vines climbing that oak we can't ethically use for 2"x4"s will kill it as surely as a pack of hyenas brings down a baby zebra. Plants steal each other's water, nutrients and sunlight, the vegetable equivalent of chimps killing each other over territory. Why, then, should we ponder the ethical implications of a baguette, or wonder if cracking walnuts is equivalent to making an omelet? 

That doesn't mean I disrespect other people's choices, as long as they respect mine. It doesn't mean I tolerate cruelty to animals or people, or the senseless destruction of plant life, for that matter. Some things are just evil, and I'll fight them. If some philosopher tells me my standards are arbitrary, culture-bound, and emotional, my response is, "So? Everybody's are; these are mine. Don't mess with them." That, remember, is how natural selection works.

Meanwhile, for those upset at the thought of consuming any other living thing, here's my suggestion: Dig a hole. Take off all your clothes. Step in and cover your feet with soil--the composted remains of once-living things. Next, spread your arms to the sky and wait for photosynthesis. 

Good luck with that. 

* See Wesley Smith's essay, from which I borrowed references. I owe him one. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Rat Model of Terrorism

"By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation."
  Edmund Burke

Consider the rat. Honed by natural selection, it is superbly adapted to its environment. It prospers in sewers, woods, deserts, plains, jungles (concrete or vegetable) and just about everywhere else.  Its senses guide it through dark, narrow places. It gnaws or wriggles through most barriers. It eats anything and everything. It breeds prodigiously. It learns quickly, from experience and observation. It fights viciously, against other animals and its own kind. Yes, rats die a lot, but that doesn't matter because there are always more rats.

People don't like rats. They carry filth and disease into our homes. They damage our infrastructure, even the most secure. They consume and worse, contaminate, our food.

Now consider the terrorist. Except for their conscious malevolence, what's the difference?
They prosper in environments from mountains to deserts to jungles to cities. They learn, they adapt, they use our technology against us, infesting the Internet just as rats scurry along the girders of our skyscrapers. They breed, in both the biological and the psychological senses. They constantly seek to penetrate the barriers we erect against them, to avoid the traps we design. Yes, they die a lot, but others learn from each failure. There are always more.

Rats are decentralized. There may be many in one nest, but the nests are independent. Destroying one doesn't affect the others; it gives them an opportunity to expand into new territory, bringing their filth, disease and viciousness with them. As Darwin and Nietzsche would predict, whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger, more adaptable, more vicious. And we can never kill them all.

Like rats, terrorists are decentralized. There is no central command, no secret headquarters. There are nests of violent people in every corner of the world. Wiping out one creates only a temporary respite and, ironically, the opportunity for another nest to expand.

How do people deal with a rat infestation? They protect their food supplies, barricade their buildings, set poison and traps. A farmer or rural homeowner might sit in wait with a rifle, killing as many as become visible, which isn't many. In a city that option isn't available. All of this takes time and resources, and both are limited. Rats have unlimited time and use our resources.

All the options have downsides, too. Traps and poisons kill other, innocuous creatures. Children and the foolish need to be protected from them. Barricades need maintainence. Shooting creates its own problems. Not every bullet goes where intended and in any case the shooter has other things to do. Rats don't. And, of course, in the modern world there are the soft-hearted, who lobby for and legislate the "humane" removal of creatures who would happily eat the soft-hearteds' childrens' faces.

The world's governments are in the position of the farmer or the homeowner. Each tries to buttress their homes, barns, and silos against the infestation. Sometimes they share information and advice, sometimes not, believing that if their neighbor suffers they'll gain a competitive advantage. Some, like the United States, attempt a humane policy. Others (think Russia and China), traditionally and historically brutal, don't mind inflicting collateral suffering and damage. Neither policy is successful.

Ask yourself a question: Given all the rat's evolutionary advantages, why aren't we hip-deep in them? There's an easy answer. Predators. Hawks, owls, foxes, wolves, coyotes, cats large and small, and so forth. As the rats evolved so did the predators. The same eons of natural selection have equipped predators to hunt and kill. It's how they live. Like rats, the predators are decentralized, hunting as individuals or small independent groups. Like rats, they learn quickly and well. And, very importantly, like rats they have nothing else to do.

It would be a mistake to think of predators as our friends. They prey on whatever they can catch most easily. They can be just as dangerous to us as to the rats---more so, if we're easier prey. You can't just drop a predator into an ecosystem, or you're likely to get what happened in Hawaii, where the mongoose was introduced as a way to control the rats infesting sugar cane fields. In another irony, rats were also brought by people, though inadvertently. It's a tossup as to which is now the bigger problem.

The principle applies, though. To control terrorists we need independently operating predators with nothing else to do but kill them. The challenge is predator control. How do you keep the feral cats from eating your free-range chickens, so much tastier and easier to catch than rats?

I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I had any answer. Our current policies are not only ineffective but foolish, the product of self-delusion and wishful thinking. We're not asking the right questions, because we're thinking in terms of either warfare or criminal justice, neither of which applies. We need to ask the questions an ecological model demands or we'll be living with a plague of rats for a very long time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thoughts About Boston

                                                                    Winning and Losing

"Another such victory, and we are undone."

Almost as soon as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody, Bostonians celebrated. It was a muted celebration, to be sure, remembering the four dead and some one hundred and seventy* maimed, some horribly so. But it was a celebration nevertheless, as if a victory had been won.

In fact, nothing was won. The Boston bombing was a defeat inflicted by an implacable enemy. Not as terrible as 9/11 by any stretch of the imagination, but consider:
At a cost of two casualties, one dead and one captured, and a few thousand dollars at most, a major city was shut down for days. A massive manhunt took place, involving thousands of police. The news media of the entire country was dominated for most of a week.  Charges and counter-charges are flying between Federal agencies, prompting massive bureaucratic ass-covering. By some reckoning the incident cost a billion dollars or more, directly and indirectly. I'd be surprised if as much again wasn't spent on subsequent investigations and Tsarnaev's trial.

We can't afford it. Local, state and Federal budgets are already overstretched. Cries for more security will stretch them further. Something has to give, and I guarantee it won't be entitlements. More taxes? Fine, and watch what happens to business, then jobs, then government revenues. Welcome to Detroit, with cameras and drones. There's no good answer.

The Boston bombing was a classic cheap shot: underhanded, despicable, and effective.

* Most recent estimate: 260+

                                                              Culture Matters

"What multiculturalism boils down to is that you can praise any culture in the world except Western culture - and you cannot blame any culture in the world except Western culture."
Thomas Sowell

Progressive philosophy is sort of schizophrenic. On one hand, progressives love to separate people into groups and celebrate their diversity. We're asked---or ordered---to attend to cultural differences, to be "sensitive," to be guilty about "majority" status and privilege. All cultures (except that of the American South) are said to have value and deserve respect. On the other hand, when member(s) of some pet culture commit a heinous act perfectly consistent with their cultural values, norms and history, we hear about individual differences. The perpetrators are aberrations, exceptions---unless, of course, driven to savagery by their majority oppressors. Only Southern white males, especially religious combat veterans, commit atrocities because of their culture. To progressives, culture matters more than the person, except when it doesn't.

No. Culture is real in the same way that individual differences are real, and both matter. Culture is associated with, among other things, differing distributions of individual attributes that render certain dispositions more likely than others. To argue otherwise is to ignore evolution, something progressives are happy to do when it suits their purposes even if they otherwise sanctify the concept.

Islam isn't a culture, of course. Saudis are not Afghans are not Indonesians are not Persians are not Chechens, ad infinitum. But might there not be some common thread that makes at least some of these people more likely to become terrorists than, say, Scottish Presbyterians are? Chechens, in particular, are some of the most vicious people on the planet.  Maybe it's because they've fought the Russians for so long. Maybe they've fought so long because they're so damn mean. Or maybe they started mean and have gotten meaner the longer they've fought. Right now it doesn't matter.

I suspect that most Chechens, like most of everyone else, just want to be left alone to live their lives. But if there's even a 5% difference between them and, say, Lebanese Muslims in the frequency of violently motivated people, that's a hell of a lot of Chechens ready to be radicalized. There's a truism in psychology, supported by a library's worth of data, that it's easier to push someone in the direction they're already leaning than in the opposite direction. Call it "psychological judo."  

Expect to see more Chechens in the news.