Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Elections should not be traumatic

In June 2007, we were having a typical day at Sather Air Base, adjacent to Baghdad International Airport. I was a computer support technician in charge of tracking the distribution of computer equipment across the base – a bean counter, really. In the late afternoon, a volley of rockets hit our base. This wasn’t the first rocket attack on our base, and it wouldn’t be the last. However, this one stuck out because of two words which came over the radio: “Man down.”

In previous attacks, the enemy would fire a few rockets at the base, kick up some dust, make a lot of noise, but they had never actually hit anyone or anything before. On this day, two airmen who were out having a cigarette were in the path of one of the rockets. They took a lot of shrapnel from the blast (these were tank-busting rockets, albeit WWII-era technology). Thankfully, we had some world-class trauma surgeons on site who were able to save their lives and get them stabilized enough to transport them to a better medical facility.

After we were given the “all clear,” a group of us went to visit the site of the explosion. Soaked into the sand was a pool of blood about ten feet long by five feet wide, at least best as I can remember. I tried to go and eat after that, but I couldn’t, so I just went to bed.

I’m typically hesitant to share that story. For one, it isn’t a particularly pleasant memory. For another, I was a support troop. Many troops had much more horrifying experiences outside the wire: fire fights, road side bombs, clearing houses, the works. I don’t like to seem like I’m comparing my experience to theirs. A lot of guys didn’t make it back, and those guys had friends and colleagues who watched them die.

The reason I chose to share this story is because of an article I saw on Slate, written by Christina Cauterucci, about the “trauma” of the 2016 presidential election and some of the people who had their favorite restaurants ruined for them because they associate it with Trump’s victory. A sample:

I’m not alone in this. While Trump fans might cherish the MAGA hats they wore to 2016’s election watch parties, a friend of mine went so far as to throw out the outfit she was wearing the night Trump was elected. My colleague Josh Keating had recently moved to a new neighborhood as of Election Day 2016, and he and his wife were eating takeout from a new-to-them Indian restaurant while they watched the results come in. “We have never eaten there again,” he said. “Can’t separate that night from the taste of mediocre saag paneer.” Brendan Leonard, a 34-year-old university employee in New York City, used to love making a particular pulled pork recipe in his crockpot. He was eating it over nachos when Trump won the election. “I haven’t made it since and refuse to—at least until the results on Tuesday,” he said. “I want to say that if the Dems take the House, I’ll be able to make pulled pork again, but I’m still very anxious about the whole thing. Maybe if the Dems take the House and Steve King loses, then I can return to making that dish. Or maybe I’ll wait two more years.”

One might read this and think of it as a satire of extremely privileged New York City liberals, akin to the famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Dave Chapelle hanging out with his bougie white liberal friends reacting with horror to the election returns. Alas, this is very real, and it’s an example of something that has bothered me for a few years, now: a tendency for left-leaning journalists and activists to appropriate the language of trauma in self-serving ways to describe their feelings about politics.

In 2017, Teaching and Teacher Education published a study about the trauma students experienced in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. One teacher said, “I held students as they sobbed in my arms. Many of my Hispanic students shared that they were petrified and shook in terror. I comforted more students that day than on September 11th.” Respectfully, if students are processing a presidential election as a traumatic event, teachers would do well to ask what role they had in making it traumatic. For an educator, a presidential election is supposed to be a teaching opportunity, not a national tragedy. Instead, the study proceeds to treat the election of Donald Trump as a traumatic event on par with 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and Pearl Harbor. Again, this was a presidential election. They happen every four years as a matter of course. If children are processing this as a traumatic event, that’s the fault of the adults in their lives. Adults are supposed to reassure children, not stoke their fears.

The concept of “triggering” directly relates to events which arouse memories associated with a traumatic event. Thanks to the misapplication of it to describe something which makes people uncomfortable because it goes against their worldview, however, people with PTSD can’t talk about things that trigger them (in my case, loud noises and screaming children). The term that they’re reaching for is, of course, “cognitive dissonance.” It’s a normal and uncomfortable feeling people experience when processing new ideas which challenge their previously held beliefs. However, by blanketing their cognitive dissonance in the language of trauma, they not only shield themselves from having to process new ideas, they imply that their discomfort is the fault of people presenting new ideas.

In the case of Cauterucci and her colleagues, it’s a perfect example of privileged liberals who’ve nestled themselves in a cocoon of affirmation. Their only exposure to contrary ideas is the caricatured version they invent in their imaginations. They never experience a persuasive argument against their own beliefs, much less actual physical danger. Thus, when reality comes crashing in for a moment and they realize that there are millions of Americans who do not live or think as they do, the cognitive dissonance is so strong that they process it as a traumatic event.

Unfortunately, I have to live in a world with screaming children, so I have to learn to process these triggers without them ruining my ability to function. So too do Cauterucci and her colleagues have to live in a nation with millions of people who disagree with them on politics. I would suggest that if their desire is to persuade people over to their side, it might be useful for them to expose themselves a bit more to how the other side lives. That’s what good journalists do.

However, I would ask in closing that they stop describing their disappointment in the 2016 election results as trauma. Nowhere in the article was there any hint of how the Trump presidency has impacted their lives the past two years. That’s likely because it hasn’t. They follow politics with the passion of a sports fan, but just like a sports fan, their day to day lives don’t change if their team loses: they just get in a bad mood.

In short, I’d like left-leaning journalists who talk about an election as a traumatic event in their lives to please check their privilege on this. Your “trauma” was caused by extreme cognitive dissonance, not any actual physical danger to your person.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Legacy of Scientific Racism in Western Thought

Yesterday, Slate’s Chief Political Correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, wrote an article titled The Enlightenment’s Dark Side in which he explored the ways in which scientific racism and colonialism grew up alongside the Enlightenment’s loftier ideals, often in the same thinkers.  Rather than rehash the article here, I’ll simply encourage my readers to read the article for themselves.  I’ll briefly touch upon a few points he made, but my intention is to build upon his work, not respond to it.
My main takeaway from the article is that secular and classical liberal thinkers are just as vulnerable to self-delusion and self-justification as religious thinkers, if not more so.  Scripture says what it says, no more or less, but the process of rationalization can make anything say what you want it to say.  If you start with a conclusion, e.g., that the white race is superior other races and instead of examining whether your assumption is true, simply begin to examine why it is true, then you’re going to end up with a lot of garbage science, which is what racial taxonomy is.  And yet its influence still pervades our society, much like the more recent garbage science involving vaccines and autism.  Once the pseudoscience takes on a following, it’s nigh impossible to snuff it out.  Yet if we are to limit the spread of its nefarious influence, we need to start at the beginning.  That’s where Bouie’s article takes us.
As an aside, and I don’t wish to dwell here for too long, but Bouie writes, “Colonial domination and expropriation marched hand in hand with the spread of “liberty,” and liberalism arose alongside our modern notions of race and racism.”  I think it’s worth noting that European colonialism began following a roughly four century campaign by the Ottomans to conquer Europe.  For quite a long time, Western civilization was quite literally under siege.  I don’t wish to justify Europe taking its turn at the trough as it were, but I feel it’s worth noting that their campaign of colonialism didn’t come out of a vacuum.
An attempt to trace the line of scientific racism and its continuing influence on otherwise “liberal” thought should not be construed as necessarily discrediting its loftier goals.  I have no desire to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as it were, but we do need to remove the baby from the bathwater and recognize that all the grime in the bathwater did come off of that baby.  Bouie focused mainly on 18th century thinkers such as Kant, Locke, and Jefferson.  Their subscription to scientific racism is important because they were greatly influential in both the Enlightenment and in the founding of the United States.  Pressing forward to the 19th century, when the institution of slavery began to collapse, Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man wrote:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
What’s notable about this quote is that Darwin’s intent wasn’t to make an argument for this future development; he simply saw it as the natural progression of evolution.  What has actually transpired through history is quite different.  Rather than being wiped out by so-called “civilised” peoples, so-called “savage” peoples have begun rising up and developing civilization of their own.  The population of Africa is growing just as other parts of the world did when they began industrializing.  Far from being exterminated, Africa is beginning to thrive.  The reasons for this are worth exploring in a different piece.  However, the point here is that the assumptions of scientific racism were so ingrained that the founder of evolutionary science assumed that his conclusions meant that “inferior” races of humans would eventually be overtaken by strong races, perhaps just as the Neanderthal or other extinct hominid species were.
In the early 20th century, the progressive movement began embracing eugenics as a way of perfecting humans by removing undesirable traits from the gene pool.  Given racist assumptions of the time, this naturally led to eugenics policies aimed at limiting the breeding of inferior races or the creation of “mongrel” races (i.e., mixed race.)  The practice of involuntary sterilization was widespread, but particularly rampant in California.  As recently as between 2006 and 2010, California authorized the sterilization of nearly 150 female inmates.  Even though eugenics has been largely discredited, it still holds currency in some quarters, just like scientific racism.  At the root of population control movements, there is always the assumption that “certain types” of populations need to be controlled.  White populations and especially middle to upper class populations are never among those numbers.  When people discuss the impending continued growth of the human population, it’s worth pointing out that developed nations have largely leveled off in their anticipated growth and that much of the anticipated growth is in Africa, where there is no shortage of natural resources.  Then ask what they have in mind in trying to avert this “crisis”.  In truth, the ascent of the African continent will undoubtedly be a boon to the world, bringing with it cultural enrichment and new trading partners.  The starvation which has been rampant was not a natural result there being too many people, but of nefarious social engineering in the mold of the Holodomor, Mao’s engineered famines, and even the current crisis in Venezuela.  They didn’t need our charity, which largely wasn’t reaching them anyway.  They needed regime change.
But I digress.  Leaving aside the ascent of Nazism, which undoubtedly traced its roots at least partly in scientific racism, Darwinism, and eugenics, (and I leave it aside partly because this is ground well covered and partly because it deserves more attention than I’m able to devote to it here), scientific racism continues to pop up in things like discussions on IQ differences among races.  Here, we risk again justifying disparate treatment among races by implying inherent differences among races.  I won’t delve into the merits of the racial IQ debate too much, of which there is little if any, except to point out that some variation is to be expected and the racial differences in mean, such as they are, are not as significant as people make them out to be, especially since there are many other factors at play.  And yet, people latch onto these differences, demonstrating the continued legacy of scientific racism in our thinking.
There is much more ground to be covered, but I will leave that to others.  I will say in closing that just as the Enlightenment cannot be divorced from the scientific racism it produced, the progressive movement cannot be divorced from its enthusiastic embrace of eugenics in the early 20th century.  And just as the Enlightenment has its sins to atone for, so does the progressive movement as the Enlightenment’s inheritors.  Ideas such as the minimum wage didn’t simply grow up alongside racist Southern Democrats, it was actively supported by them with racist intent.  A racist business owner might hire a black man if he can pay the black man less than a white man, but if he has to pay them the same, he’d just as soon hire the white man.  Many New Deal programs were intended for whites only.  None of this means that things like minimum wage or social security are bad in and of themselves, but the racist stain of the original intent can’t be washed away until it’s at least acknowledged.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Quick thoughts on the Russia investigation

I don't want to comment too greatly on the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year's election, particularly since the investigation is ongoing and there's still a lot of information which has yet to come out.  The second we think there's an "ah ha!" moment, something else comes out which complicates things.  It's a slow drip that hasn't exonerated anyone yet, but hasn't exactly given us a smoking gun.

Personally, for every new revelation, I only end up with more questions than answers.  A few of mine:

If the Russians were backing Clinton's only two major competitors (Sanders and Trump), what would the election have looked like without Russian interference?

More specifically, would it even have looked like an election?  As it stood, most of the other Democrats seeking the nomination dropped out before a single vote was cast, and O'Malley dropped out after the Iowa caucus.  The only other candidate in the race after the very first caucus was Bernie Sanders, who managed to both out-fund raise and out-spend Hillary Clinton's campaign in the primaries.  That by itself certainly raises questions about where Sen. Sanders' funding was all coming from, but assuming Russian involvement was steering money to Sanders, why was there no other candidate in the Democratic primaries receiving any significant support?  There was no incumbent in the primary, yet Sec. Clinton was treated like an incumbent by the fundraising class.  Why?

As for Trump, Sec. Clinton out-fund raised now-President Trump by a cool $230 million.  It wasn't enough to carry her over the finish line, but why were these her only two major competitors?  Why was absolutely nobody else able to even come close to challenging her?

The American political establishment seemed content to simply allow Sec. Clinton to have this one, leaving the field open for her to win in a walk.  The problem is that nature abhors a vacuum, and in place of American candidates challenging her candidacy, we got Russian candidates, instead.  Because this is not the first time Russia has tried to influence our elections.  It's just the first time they've been able to do so successfully.  And if it wasn't because there was nobody else challenging a frankly weak candidate, then I'd like to know exactly what was different about this election that allowed them to throw it to a vulgar, semi-literate game show host.

Gun policies that could actually win

I'd like to follow up on my previous post with a couple suggestions for gun policies which I feel would meet the criteria I specified yesterday.

In an online conversation which had varying degrees of helpfulness, I came across two suggestions which have been floating around that I can get behind: the first was to increase the age requirement for purchasing a firearm to 21.  The second is mental health screening to go along with criminal background checks.  The first one is fairly straight-forward, but the second comes with a few caveats.

The proposed age requirement increase would be consistent with laws dealing with handguns.  Currently, 18 year-olds can purchase rifles and shotguns, but they can't purchase handguns.  This distinction had to do with the fact that handguns were (and still are) the mostly commonly used weapons in homicide.  However, these mass school shootings have been carried out with rifles.  The main advantage of a handgun over a rifle is its ease of concealment.  However, as we've seen, most schools lack the security to stop a disgruntled student (or former student) from charging into a school with a rifle and wreaking havoc.  While 18 to 20 year-olds are permitted to serve in the military and carry rifles as part of their duties, those people are trained and supervised, and those rifles are checked into armory.  The soldiers do not own their rifles any more than Boy Scouts who shoot .22 caliber rifles at summer camp do.  That is a fairly large distinction.

This is a proposal which likely actually would reduce the number of school shootings.  While students would still potentially have access to their parents' firearms, they would not be able to procure their own.  It places a very real barrier between an upset teenager for whom school has been their only world and the means of taking their anger out on their peers and teachers.  Further, we could incentivize parents to secure their firearms by holding them accountable if their children use those firearms to harm others.  We probably wouldn't even need a criminal statute.  A tort would do, covering it under the umbrella of "wrongful death."

The second is a bit trickier, but with some specifications about types of mental illness which would prevent someone from purchasing a firearm as well as judicial adjudication, this could be accomplished while meeting people's due process rights.  David French at National Review proposed a process called Gun-Violence Restraining Orders, in which family members can petition the court to bar someone they believe to be dangerous from purchasing a firearm for a time.

While there are various versions of these laws working their way through the states (California passed a GVRO statute in 2014, and it went into effect in 2016), broadly speaking they permit a spouse, parent, sibling, or person living with a troubled individual to petition a court for an order enabling law enforcement to temporarily take that individual’s guns right away. A well-crafted GVRO should contain the following elements (“petitioners” are those who seek the order, “the respondent” is its subject):
  1. It should limit those who have standing to seek the order to a narrowly defined class of people (close relatives, those living with the respondent);
  2. It should require petitioners to come forward with clear, convincing, admissible evidence that the respondent is a significant danger to himself or others;
  3. It should grant the respondent an opportunity to contest the claims against him;
  4. In the event of an emergency, ex parte order (an order granted before the respondent can contest the claims), a full hearing should be scheduled quickly — preferably within 72 hours; and
  5. The order should lapse after a defined period of time unless petitioners can come forward with clear and convincing evidence that it should remain in place.
The GVRO could be the first step in having a court declare a person unfit to purchase a firearm and thus have them flagged on a background check.  This process would protect Constitutional rights while placing substantial barriers in front of people who are clearly unfit to own firearms.

If activists want to make progress on gun legislation, they should focus on these two policy proposals.  Let me go down the list of questions I raised yesterday:

Will the policy have a desirable effect?

Yes and yes.  If the desire is to reduce the number of mass shootings at schools, both of these proposals would make it substantially more difficult for disturbed young men to carry out these horrific acts.

Is the policy enforceable?

Yes and yes.  Both of these are enforced at the point of sale, and if the firearm dealer sells the weapon to the assailant, they can be held civilly and criminally liable.

Will it meet Constitutional scrutiny?

Yes and yes.  Handguns are already age restricted to 21 and over without any constitutional concerns, and the mental health screening as proposed observes due process concerns.

Does the state have a compelling interest in restricting this right?

Yes and yes.  As these types of mass shootings are growing increasingly common, the impulse control problems of young men are of concern, as are mental health issues.

Are there other factors at play?

Probably, but the impulsiveness of young men and erratic nature of the mentally ill are both well known, and restricting both of these demographics' access to firearms is something actionable we can do while trying to figure out why there's been a seeming spike in these types of dramatic events.

Am I informed enough on this issue to have an educated opinion?

In this particular instance, I think so.  I'd welcome any feedback to the contrary.

Am I being honest about my motivations?

My motivation is to make the world less dangerous without making it substantially less free.  The above proposals do not place an undo burden on stable, law-abiding citizens, but they do place barriers in front of maniacs who would do people harm.  They're solutions I can live with.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Memes don't make good policy

The ongoing debate about gun control in this country, which seems to spring back to life in the wake of any mass shooting, is broken.  Like a broken record, it skips back to a certain point and plays on repeat until it runs out of steam and goes back into hibernation until the next mass shooting.  With nothing resolved, people remain content to play out the same tired arguments again and again, having learned nothing.  Rather, we simply go back to yelling at strangers on the Internet or else withdraw from the discussion entirely out of sheer exhaustion while friends and loved ones share simplistic memes on social media to the applause of people who already agree with them and the righteous indignation of people who don't.

A more productive conversation could be had, but it requires people to step back from their passionately held views and ask a few questions.  There are ways to construct good policies, but it requires acknowledgement of realities.  The shortest path between two points may be a line, but that's irrelevant in a mountain range or a minefield.  Obstacles exist whether we want them to or not, and more often than not, they exist for a reason.

Some questions to ask when constructing new policy:

Will the policy have a desirable effect?

A common policy proposal in the wake of a mass shooting is to ban the type of firearm used in the shooting.  Will banning this firearm stop future mass shootings?  To answer that question, we need to examine other questions.  Are there other firearms with similar lethality and functionality?  If yes, do you need to broaden the scope of your proposal?  This leads to other questions.

Is the policy enforceable?

Another policy which is proposed is universal background checks.  For the most part, background checks are requirement of any Federal Firearms License holder.  However, private sales between individuals are not covered under that.  Several states do have such a background check requirement, but it doesn't exist at the federal level.  If such a requirement were to be implemented, how would it be enforced?  The last time such a requirement was proposed, there were concerns about the implementation of a national firearm registry.  Such concerns were dismissed, insisting that such a registry would not be implemented, but without such a registry, the background check requirement would be toothless.  Without a way to track who sold the firearm to the person using it to commit a crime, there is no way to hold anyone accountable.  Are we okay with a national firearm registry?  If so, this leads to the next question.

Will it meet Constitutional scrutiny?

Something important to remember is that the right to keep and bear arms is a right protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  This is a point of contention, but it shouldn't be.  Many on the pro-gun control debate still believe that the Second Amendment only applies to members of a "well regulated militia," but in addition to being nonsensical, the question has already been adjudicated by the Supreme Court.  In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual citizen's right to own firearms untethered to membership in a militia.  In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the Court clarified that this also applies to state governments, not just federal districts.  This is two separate holdings, and while both of them were 5-4 decisions, case law doesn't work like legislation.  The principle of stare decisis places strong institutional resistance against overturning previous rulings absent new information.  It's not simply a matter of whether or not individual justices would be inclined to overturn the holdings in these cases, but whether or not the Court would even hear any challenges to them.  Absent new information, if a circuit court affirms the previous case law in its ruling and a state were to appeal to the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that the Court would hear their case, and the decision would stand.

Some proponents of gun control argue that D.C. v. Heller  was wrongly decided, but while it's reasonable to have differing opinions on the merits of existing case law, particularly cases decided on a 5-4 vote, the fact is this case law exists.  This interpretation of the Second Amendment is binding.  Any new policy proposals must meet the following question:

Does the state have a compelling interest in restricting this right?

One could argue that it does, but if your proposal is to ban AR-15s, then you have to explain why this particular semiautomatic rifle needs to be banned, but not others.  If your proposal is to ban all semiautomatic rifles, then you're going to have a much steeper hill to climb due to Heller's "common use" test.  In the case of banning all semiautomatic rifles, which are in very common use, it doesn't meet the standards of the prior question and it will be struck down by the courts.  But banning a particular firearm might, provided you can explain why this firearm is uniquely dangerous.  If you can't, be ready to fail.

Are there other factors at play?

I won't dwell here too long, but before proposing to restrict people's rights, it might be worth considering whether there are other problems which can be addressed first which don't require restricting a Constitutional right.

Am I informed enough on this issue to have an educated opinion?

I respectfully submit that if you're not familiar with Heller, the answer to that question is "no."  If you don't know the difference between an automatic and a semiautomatic weapon, the answer is "no."

Understand that people who are against gun control know about guns.  They will use their knowledge to discredit you, to great effect.  Educate yourself, then come back to the table.  If you don't, be ready to fail.

Am I being honest about my motivations?

If you propose a policy, make sure you're being honest with yourself and others about what your ultimate goals are.  If you're just particularly concerned about a certain model of rifle, then say why.  If what you really want is to repeal the Second Amendment and sharply restrict firearm ownership, then say so, and then read up on the process for a constitutional amendment.  It's an onerous process, and if you think that passing gun control legislation in Congress is hard, try getting a two thirds majority in both houses to agree on this ultimate sanction.

If it is your goal to eliminate firearms in the United States, understand the road you have ahead of you.  You are going to have to change people's minds on a massive scale.  Half-literate snarky memes are not going to be the way to do it.  And if your goal is to make the world stop being unsafe for children, then there's no historical precedent for that.  I can't offer any advice on how to do something which has never been done in the history of humanity.  For now, you're just going to have to settle for teaching your children to navigate a dangerous world.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Democrats: It's not as bad as you think. It's worse.

I've been contemplating what happened on Tuesday, and the best analogy I can think of is this:

The ground has been decaying under the Democratic party for years.  Part of this was a natural backlash against the sitting President, but a big part of it was internal corruption.  It's been well established that the Clinton campaign was diverting funds away from state parties to support their campaign.  Result?

* Republicans hold a 51 vote majority in the Senate.
* Republicans hold a 238 vote majority in the House of Representatives.
* Republicans have 33 governors to the Democrats' 15.
* Republicans control 31 state legislatures to the Democrats' 11.

Republican dominance of every part and parcel of the United States' government(s) is not new.  It's been building for years.  It's just that most Democrats haven't been paying attention.  As long as they have the White House, they're winning, right?

But look!  Over there!  It's Donald Trump!  Put all your chips on Hillary Clinton, we have to stop Trump!

Stupid and self-defeating.  Presidential elections are run at the state level.  Wail and gnash your teeth over the Electoral College once again elevating the loser of the popular vote to the White House, but until we can pass a Constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College, that's the political reality we have to deal with.  And you know what we need to have in order to pass a Constitutional amendment?

* A two thirds majority in both houses of Congress


* Control of 34 state legislatures

Notice something?  Republicans currently control nearly enough state legislatures to propose a Constitutional amendment without Congress even getting involved.  Eight state legislatures are currently split, and if you don't think Republicans are working to get full control of three of those legislatures, you haven't been paying attention.  They are right on the cusp of having enough power to make sweeping changes.

Weakening state Democratic parties to serve Hillary Clinton's Presidential ambitions is what weakened the ground enough for the earth to give way under Clinton's feet.  Who do you think was organizing all the canvassing to Get Out the Vote?  The state parties.  The DNC did this to themselves.  Campaigns don't run themselves, and winning the presidency requires a motivated electorate.  Right now, the Democratic party is ashes.

What happens going forward is up to us.  We can continue on the path we've been on, or we can rebuild.  But rebuilding is going to require we start at the ground level and build from there.  We can't start by figuring out who we're going to run for President in 2020.  We first have to figure out who we're going to run for state legislature to prevent Republicans from controlling 34 of them and being able to pass Constitutional amendments through a national convention of states.  Yes, they would need 38 states to ratify the amendments, but it wouldn't have to happen all at once.  The 27th amendment sat on the shelf for 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days before finally being ratified.  At a national convention of the states, 34 state legislatures could ratify the amendment, and then they could just wait until four more came along to complete the job.

What sort of amendments could they pass?  To name a few:

* A marriage amendment wiping out Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
* A "personhood" amendment wiping out Roe v. Wade (1973).
* A "states' rights" amendment wiping out Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

Literally every bit of progress the Left have made through the courts could be wiped out by Republican-controlled state legislatures.  And the real kicker?  This would be the case even if Hillary Clinton had won on Tuesday.  The President plays no role in Constitutional amendments.  The President doesn't get a veto on those.  The real power base is in the states.  Always has been.  Democrats have taken their eyes off the ball.

This is the political reality of the Democratic party.  It's bigger than Trump.  Republicans could easily dispose of Trump and put Pence in the big seat, and this is the landscape that he would have in front of him.  We Democrats would still have to deal with that.

Once the grieving process is over, we need to get organized.  We have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Death rates increasing for "poorly educated" middle aged whites.

The New York Times recently published a report revealing a startling and largely unnoticed public health crisis:

Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling


The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found.

This is obviously astonishing, but perhaps it shouldn't be.  The current political dialogue is focused on nearly every other demographic group in America.  Women and minorities, immigrants... hell, even transgender bathroom rights receives more press than poor, middle-aged  whites.  There are a few take-aways from this for me:

1) The sense middle-aged whites have that their lives have gotten worse, not better, is not just in their heads.  Increased mortality is the absolute most direct way to detect a problem within a group of people.  In this case, the deaths are linked to increases in substance abuse and suicide.  For all the poo-pooing from the Left about "white privilege," there is something very wrong happening among the less privileged whites in this country, and it's largely being ignored.  It's easy for college educated whites to dismiss poor whites as "white trash," but perhaps that's part of the problem.

2) The Democratic party is proposing literally nothing for these people and refuse to even acknowledge that there's a problem.  Then they wonder why poor whites turn and vote for Republicans, who mostly demagogue illegal immigrants for their problems.  Are Republicans offering anything substantive for them?  Not really, but at least in the process of giving poor whites someone to blame for their plight, they are acknowledging the problem exists.  This is similar to how Democrats pay lip service to systemic racism while only making token gestures to eliminate it, while Republicans barely acknowledge it exists.

3) This trend has been on-going long enough that it's likely to continue and will be very difficult to reverse.  The sooner we begin a discussion on it, the better.  And hopefully the Left will come up with serious ideas for this, since it runs contrary to their narratives about privilege in this country.  (And hopefully the Right can come up with something besides, "Get married," especially since this is their largest voting bloc.)  Yes, black Americans of that age range still have a higher mortality rate than whites (for now), but the gap is closing, and if nothing changes, white mortality will eventually surpass those of blacks.

Middle-aged blacks still have a higher mortality rate than whites — 581 per 100,000, compared with 415 for whites — but the gap is closing, and the rate for middle-aged Hispanics is far lower than for middle-aged whites at 262 per 100,000.

That black Americans are making progress is heartening.  But when another group begins falling behind, we need to ask why.

Final point:

Dr. Deaton had but one parallel. “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” he said.
It was to the great shame of many American politicians that they disregarded HIV/AIDS as a "gay disease" and saw fit to ignore it.  It is my hope that the Left will not similarly disregard this as a "white people's problem" and similarly ignore it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Poet Bravely Fights the Evil Atheists

Modern poets are something of a dying breed, although I must confess they've always been regarded as peripheral.  If approached in a bar and asked what one does for a living, if one answers, "I'm a poet," the approaching person is going to hear, "I'm unemployed."  Poetry isn't something one does as a primary profession any more than chess or Sudoku.  It's a labor of love which is largely relevant only to the person performing it, even if deep down they believe themselves to be a guiding light to humanity.

Thankfully, publications like Slate are willing to publish poets like Michael Robbins.  Not his poetry, mind you.  Rather, he writes click-baiting atheist bashing articles under the thin veneer of a "book review" wherein he creatively repackages familiar and discredited anti-atheism arguments in obfuscating, poetical language.  I confess, I'm a sucker for deconstructing articles like this, since it hides its own point under flowery language.

Whereas I have not read the book he is reviewing, I will only be discussing the article as it is written.  The Slate headline on the front page gave no indication it was a book review, and the article frankly veers off course fairly early.

This won't take terribly long.  The article is essentially hate speech, employing phrases like, "the vulgar atheist imagination".  I'll just cover the highlights.

Spencer's point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. (Spencer focuses on Europe, whence modern atheism arose, and hence on Judeo-Christianity.) Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. ("You seriously believe in God?" "Well, how do you explain thunder?")

His point is puzzling.  He doesn't seem to acknowledge the existence of creationists who seek to push the teaching of evolution out of schools, or at least the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution.  If explaining natural phenomena is not at least one of the purposes of religion, then why is this a controversy?

Robbins, of course, is a "sophisticated Christian" who believes, essentially, that 99% of Christians give the other 1% a bad name.  But no matter.  We'll travel down this rabbit hole with him.  Why, pray tell, does religion exist?

A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live.

Actually, that's a rough definition of "culture".  But keep going.

Science does not—it isn't designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls "the conduct of life." Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion "is a scientific theory," "a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life." This is—if you'll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.

Actually, if creationists are going to propose that evolution should be scrapped in favor of Genesis, then it's perfectly valid to evaluate creationism on its scientific merit.  And since the entire proposition rests on the assumption of the existence of a creator, then this is something which must be scientifically tested, as well.  Or is he unfamiliar with the Scopes monkey trial?  Science didn't pick this particular fight.

To be sure, several scriptures offer, for instance, their own accounts of creation. But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity.

This is – if you'll forgive my scientific jargon – horseshit.  Perhaps if he said, "some Christians", but to claim that Christians far and wide across the globe recognize – and have always recognized – that the creation myth in Genesis is, in fact, a myth, runs contrary to observable reality.  Seriously, I'll just leave this here.  Moving on.

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description. Indeed, it is what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls their "austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions" that enables the sciences to do their work. So when, for instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and pop-cosmologist Lawrence Krauss dismiss the (metaphysical) problem of how something could emerge from nothing by pointing to the Big Bang or quantum fluctuation, it is difficult to be kind: Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what "nothing" signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.

This is only a problem to the extent one believes that there was ever a "nothing" at some point.  It presumes that time is as linear as we perceive it and foists our limited worldview onto the entire universe, demanding that it explain itself on our terms.  But the universe does not owe us explanations.  We have to earn our knowledge through diligence, not wait for it through revelation.  To say "nothing is nothing" is a simple tautology.  To ask how something could come from nothing assumes very large facts very much not in evidence and the implication here is that either it came from nothing, or it came from God.  This presents a false dilemma based on the presumption of a linear procession of time.  Questions of how and why we exist are what science is attempting to answer.  We don't get to skip to end of this particular mystery as religion would have us do.

Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren't truly atheists. "The knowledge of contraries is one and the same," as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you're not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists' arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism).

Goodness, there are a lot of deviations between the deities presented in "most theistic traditions".  And I don't need to have a conception of dragons similar to your culture's conception of dragons (there's divergence between eastern traditions and western traditions even on that) to disbelieve in the existence of dragons.  I don't need to conceive of ghouls or goblins the way you do to disbelieve in those.  And I don't need to study the Koran to dismiss the Muslim's conception of Allah any more than I need to study Works and Days to disbelieve in Prometheus or Pandora.  Atheism is a null proposition.  One can fill it with science, humanism, or nothing at all.  The last option, it seems, is what Robbins thinks gets left behind when you remove religion, since he goes on to compare modern atheists unfavorably against nihilist philosopher Nietzsche.

Coyne accused me of "atheist-bashing" the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers.

"Really, some of my best friends are atheists!"  The poet doth protest too much, methinks.  At least have the courage to own your bigotry.  You're reviewing a book called, "Atheists: The Origin of Species" and quite enthusiastically refer to atheists as a different species.  I mean, really try hard and imagine applying this to any other minority group and get back to me.

Atheism in the sense of unbelief is probably as old as the gods—although you often had to keep your unbelief under your heretical hat if you wanted your head to remain under it as well.

Those were the days, eh?

He then cites Nietzsche extensively after briefly commenting on the book he's ostensibly reviewing.  He comes around to something resembling a point:

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: "Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it." How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.

The point isn't that morality requires theism, but that atheism has destroyed Christian morality by questioning its foundation.  If Christianity is in shambles because it was founded on a lie, then it deserves to be.  If Robbins had actually read Nietzsche a bit more extensively than what a Google search can reveal, he'd have found that the period of darkness or "nihilism" following the removal of Christianity as our morality through the removal of "God" as its foundation is also an opportunity to replace it with something better and more life-affirming.  Science may not engage in questions of "ought", but looking at the world and ourselves with a more informed outlook than we had millennia ago allows us to develop our morality through a more complicated and even pragmatic prism than "God says so".

His entire argument against atheism is essentially an appeal to consequences.  "What will be the foundation of our morality without religion?"  And this is an important question to ask as we proceed without religion, and it's one which atheists who start out as believers grapple with all the time.  As corny as it may sound, love may actually be a good start for developing a higher moral code.  But that's a discussion we need to have together, not one atheists can settle on their own.

Toward the end of the article, he shares an anecdote about this nice Christian who encountered these terribly rude atheists on this one comments section, which is… adorable.  He then concludes his "book review" by forgetting that he was reviewing a book at all.

This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called "the tune of the time." Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, "Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be."

I would agree, but if Robbins' intent here was to elevate the conversation, he could attempt to do so with a bit less seething contempt for the people he is attempting to address.  Attend to the beam in your own eye before concerning yourself with the speck in ours, brother.