24 May 2015

How to complain about something that's already going on

Guaranteed income edition. 

Most of these are problems for the existing system as well.

The cost argument of the entitlement state is a pretty compelling reason to reform it. I'd frankly just abolish or phase out Medicare and roll it into Medicaid for people who are poorer and older, and a negative income tax would be far more useful than SSI, as starting points, as most entitlements tend to benefit people who already have money and take it from people who don't or won't live as long, etc. My concern here is more poverty alleviation and provision of basic need, not universal health care (that could be done many ways as preferred). The point here is that the expanding cost of provision of entitlements is going to be a problem (we can make it a smaller one of course). These questions of the costs of providing these benefits being difficult to assign or fix is not something that disappears. On the contrary, the costs become less visible than transferring cash directly.

The second is typically an argument that we get over some things and not for others, so for example Republicans tried to cut SNAP aid but not crop subsidies. Both corporate and individual welfare programs are a form of state-aid supports. The one is arguably justifiable (individuals), the other is far less so (businesses). I think of the arguments against it, this is the most compelling question really as it impacts the former question (how much) and the next (who gets it). But, as I said, this is a problem that already exists baked into the present welfare state. We already talk about what kinds are acceptable and which are not. The distinction is that the price tag and the benefits to transfer recipients is less clear. For one example, not everyone seems to realize program X is the government, for another, it isn't clear that it works better than giving a wad of cash in each case. Food stamps is a pretty efficient policy really on the face of it for helping with poverty and its basically a wad of cash. Because everyone needs food, it gets spent. The mortgage interest deduction is not like this because it distorts the prices of housing and not everyone needs to buy a home to have shelter.

Getting a wad of cash is pretty clear on both fronts, and could be adjusted for specific policies from there to provide some specific stipends or vouchers as needed. That's a discussion we are already having, so we may as well make it easier to have.

The third is a wide spread theory for why Americans have a less generous welfare state in the first place than many European states or other OECD countries. Namely that we have a lot of minorities, natively, and a lot of immigrants. Xenophobia is an in-group, out-group problem that doesn't require a national boundary to kick in and allows Americans to exercise a degree of moral supremacy over those "lazy poor people" or "those socialist Europeans" or some such.

22 May 2015

Random sex scandal stories mentally intersected

Probably shouldn't be, but I don't know enough about either story on its own to fully address either.

The Duggar scandal. - I tend to break these kinds of stories (and there are lots of them) into a couple standard elements

The presumption that "godly" or "god-fearing" or otherwise ardently religious people are good, decent people and thus incapable of heinous abusive actions clouds the reaction with a lot of "but he seemed like such a kind, decent person" reflexes. My operating assumption isn't just that ardently religious people are assholes, but that most people are. Even, or perhaps sometimes especially, the "kind, decent" people that I barely know. I don't assume they're incapable of anything unless there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. Most of us do not know this family and its various members, just as we do not know many other 15 minute TV celebrities or politicians and so on. So the inflection of these characters with special decency, or special hatred (as is often the case) is bizarre. As I said back during Tiger Woods' story some years back, we don't know them just because we watch them play golf and let them sell us Buicks on TV commercials. So the idea that we should just assume they are all wholesome goodness is absurd. This is particularly rich for someone like me when it is suffused with a lot of religion as in this case (as though this automatically removes the prospect of guilt and destructive actions against fellow human beings), but the argument holds across virtually any sector.

I think that interacts with the Cosby rape allegations over the last many years in a disturbing way. Namely that we are slower to see it when we have established this person as a social role model. We should be able to separate out the social role model, the character that a person has crafted and presented to the world, from the actions of the human being and hold them accountable. Many of America's founding political philosophers/lawyers owned slaves. This does not automatically invalidate their political views. It means they are flawed in a nearly fatal to the country way which was partly resolved some decades after their deaths. But the arguments are no less sound simply because they were not at the time applied to all men (much less all women). If we have to do the same now with a musical performer, or a comedian, or a TV star, maybe people can do that and still enjoy their art (or whatever it is that reality TV shows are portraying). But if someone is actually a slime ball of a human being who has abused and assaulted women, that can matter to our calculations of how we appreciate and enjoy their art, and it certainly should mean that we will still want to find them accountable for any actions they've done.

Huckabee has taken a somewhat forgiving stance in his public statements so far. I'm not sure I begrudge this if it existed on its own as it's probably an outgrowth of his general religious faith. But there are problems with it. First, that he wastes little time blaming and socially insulting or assaulting people whose cultural views he does not agree with for their actions (eg, liberals), but then also wastes little time forgiving his cultural allies. That's convenient selectivity for his purported desire for forgiving people (if he's going to waste as much time as he does attacking Beyonce for basically being a good capitalist, it doesn't make much sense to defend this guy in other words. But then, I didn't quite understand where he was going with the Beyonce stuff in the first place). Second, that the problem with the story isn't that he did something awful and could or should not be forgiven for it (some people won't be able to, but some would), but that he did something awful and nobody did anything about it, so far as can be shown, and then is to be forgiven for it now with nothing having been actually adjudicated so far as anyone can tell, either in a court or a psychologist's office or whatever. It seems like he went and did some yard work and it was otherwise swept under the rug for quite some time even before that occurred. This is not the way one deals with a problem like child molestation. It is somewhat understandable that a family might be slow to pull the trigger to turn in a family member for conducting horrifying indignities upon young women, but this all seems like nobody ever took it that seriously. Including Huckabee in his public statements about it after the fact. That should be worrisome both for Christians in how it portrays a continued lack of concern for the well-being of women and in general that we seem to be comfortable according a certain lack of concern for both the victims and the perpetrators of sexual violence (when underage like this story implies, it suggests they may also have been victims too of course, which is a further problem).

At the same time, I've been vaguely following the Columbia mattress art project story. And I can't really make heads or tails of it. I suspect that's why the university didn't do anything either, despite a lower standard of guilt required than a court of law. What that tells me isn't that we don't take women seriously when they make accusations of sexual assaults, though that might be true in many respects, but that we don't always have a very clear means of adjudicating those complaints in a manner that clears it up for all parties in a decisive and satisfying way. Applied to the Duggar case, it isn't obviously clear what we should have preferred we do. Register him as a sex offender for life? We have lots of problems with how that system allows people to re-integrate into society, or seek any necessary treatment and atonement for what they did, in a manner that is disproportionate even in a society that makes such reintegration difficult. Prosecute him for sexual assault? That can be difficult if the victims do not want to cooperate with police and prosecutors, as it may be likely in the case of family members (for example). Nor does a conviction mean that the victims of such assaults like molestation are automatically healed and may go forth without incident or harm to their development as people. There are intermediate steps here to resolve these cases most likely that we could have chosen that may not satisfy every gawking audience but may have worked fine for victims in this or other cases.

But I suspect one of the problems is that we don't do very much as a culture to give people a way to communicate about sex in general, and sexual abuse in particular (and this includes, perhaps especially, evangelical Christians like the Duggars). We do not have a very clear grasp of sexual consent and the language both physical and spoken involved, and that means it is difficult to teach children about it as something they could defend themselves against, or might wish to complain to an adult or parent about if it were to happen (not that we spend much time doing so). It becomes more difficult to navigate and adjudicate complaints between possible couples or one-night stands in a college dorm in a way that feels like justice. And it becomes easier to dismiss dozens of complaints against famous celebrities by generally ignoring the story because we previously enjoyed the celebrity and their performances being held at fault more than we wish to provide a means of justice and resolution for these harms and injustices committed upon them.

Maybe this is because some of us don't really think these are harms or injustices deserving of serious attention, as might be the case with many devoted fans of the Duggars or Bill Cosby, or just some random student at Columbia who we maybe aren't sure did anything that should be considered illegal or not (and so far as the university was concerned, didn't). Maybe this is because some of us think these are people incapable of being improved, for lack of a better term, and by extension reducing the incidence of these types of sexual criminal acts by giving such people (mostly men in these examples and cases) a manner of relating to women as individuals and human beings rather than just objects of sexual desire. Or in the case of child sex abuses, there are treatments and therapies available for that as well. Maybe this is because we just don't like talking about sex, gender politics, sexual communication, and sexual abuse, and we'd prefer someone else handle all of that (if anyone as again evangelicals seem especially prone to ignoring the valence of these as subjects demanding conversation).

Passing the buck isn't really an option here. In part because it doesn't seem like there is a clear expert on which we should trust an opinion on all matters of sexual confusion, much less disturbing sexual abuses. We have to take some responsibility for not wanting to discuss these things with our children, or our friends, or our families. Not all of it needs to be aired out in public for all the world to see, or even our close friends who we might talk about all manner of things instead, but there needs to be somewhere to start. But in large measure this is because these are some of the most intimate forms of abuse one can construct. They often involve very trusted friends or family members or family friends (or other trusted authority figures, like celebrities can often be). Without some architecture for understanding what is even happening, without some method of reporting what has happened, it will go on. And without some one stepping in and saying, "no, that's not appropriate", or even "no, that is wrong", it will go on. In order to do any of that, we will need to be able to talk a little more about what we are not sure about.

Sex is basically a form of physical communication for human beings. Even if it is inappropriate or unwanted it is still a communication. It is at that point saying "I can do whatever I want to your person" and also at some level "your body is what I want, so I will do whatever I want to it", which is a terrifying or horrifying message to want to communicate. It is inherently dehumanizing and stripping another person of agency, desire, and the capacity of communication of anything in response, physically or spoken. One response to this would be to tell people to want to communicate less horrifying, "better" messages instead using their bodies (and by extension communicated with other people's bodies). At some level that shouldn't have to be a message we have to explain to other people but we may have to start at this basic level and build up. It doesn't appear we're making a lot of headway by compiling "yes means yes" policies and trying to explain things like obtaining affirmative consent (using words) or by establishing draconian penalties for sexual abuse and wrapping in a lot of inappropriate nudity (streaking or peeing in public for example or mixed age teenage sexuality, or teens just sending nude photos to one another), or by generally ignoring complaints of sexual abuse and misconduct for years at a time. Start at the beginning and move forward from there.

A further and perhaps more important point might be what should we do about the victims in the meantime. It isn't clear the Duggars did anything (as little as they did with the molester among them, this isn't that surprising). Cosby's various accusers haven't gotten a day in court that I can tell and there doesn't seem to be any hurry to provide one. Columbia let one form a complicated performance art stunt to complain. That may be an option even if all it really tells us is someone is maybe an asshole.

Addendum: TLC or any other network could pull a reality TV show off the air for pretty much any reason and I would not complain. But this seems like a fairly reasonable response is to kick off the air a family that has a lot of offscreen moral and legal trouble going on right now, even if the response wasn't designed as a penalty (it undoubtedly is, but still). For the main reason that it portrays the network (and the family it is airing a TV show about) with a certain aura of hypocrisy for proclaiming some sort of "family values" notions when at least one member of that family has a now admitted history of abusing other members of it. But also because this sort of attention isn't something that needs to come to focus for his victims (if they don't wish to be a part of it). People do not always want to be defined as victims of a sexual crime and that would be difficult to avoid with a TV show in the public forum. They may prefer to be known for other things. I'm inclined for their sake to let them try to do so.

A minor point that keeps circulating. Stomping on it now.

Somehow there's a theory that's been floating around, mostly in conservative circles but I'm seeing it from some number of liberals as well, that Iran is somehow closely linked to either ISIS or al-Qaeda or both.

Now I could just file this under one of two things: Americans' natural aversion to Iran and apparently Muslims in general acting a lot like our general aversion to aboriginal peoples in the 19th century in a clumsy set of "understandings" of the nature of a strange culture and people. Or Americans' general lack of knowledge of foreign relations and our clumsy way of clumping together things that don't actually have anything to do with one another because we don't possess any actual facts.

But since the idea keeps popping up, and conservatives seem to feel there are documents in the bin Laden stash that was just released that would prove it (that were not released, as part of some conspiracy to get us to go along with a treaty negotiated with Iran on their nuclear programme), I feel obliged to point out that it's absurd and dumb and points out one of the reasons why many of our interventions in that region have been counterproductive: namely, that we don't know what the sides even are that we are intervening for. I could reject it without argument because it presents no evidence but it also ignores and elides several sets of evidence on the ground that contradict these theories.

1) ISIS subscribes to a particular strain of Islam, largely drawn from Sunni traditions (and mixing in a lot of crazy, as religious zealots are wont to do). al-Qaeda, particularly the Iraqi version around which ISIS is partly formed, does likewise. But they're not all that fond of each other, at least not any more. ISIS may have started out as a branch of al-Qaeda but they're mostly engaged in warfare against other Muslims for territorial dominance. Which wasn't the primary interest of al-Qaeda, which is mostly concerned with interference from Western powers in Muslim culture (and then also imposing a variety of Muslim culture with a degree of crazy of its own concoction once that influence and interference is or was removed).

al-Qaeda under al-Zawahiri might be mostly engaged in a pissing match with al-Baghdadi for control over radical or fundamentalist Islamic groups in the region, but that they are not all that fond of each other does seem to be true, and does seem to be a factor cutting against the idea that these groups will necessarily fall under the same rubric and same features of being a threat. Our goal should not be to lump them together under a lazy and mildly bigoted narrative arc but take stock of the divisions in our rivals and use them when needed to strategic advantage.

2) They're both not all that fond of Iran, which is the primary source of Shi'a Islam. The idea that they would cooperate with Iran is about as absurd as the idea that they would have cooperated or been operating with the support of Saddam government in Iraq. This argument smells mostly of the narrative supports being used to sell us on a potential war with Iran (in the same way this was used to sell us on a war with Iraq) rather than any rational explanation of the facts on the ground. This is to say that it mostly smells like bullshit. It doesn't need to be categorically rejected, but it requires a stronger burden of proof having already been an argument made and been shown as demonstrably false before.

3) The main area of territory controlled by ISIS is in Syria and Iraq. Both of these were effectively client states of Iran prior to the civil war in Syria and the emergence of ISIS in Iraq (the Kurdish area of Iraq might be an exception here, but particularly the eastern and southern parts of Iraq are Shi'a country, effectively). Iran's main interest would be the stability and maintenance of these regional partnerships. ISIS is exactly antithetical to that. Which is why Iran's been backing a variety of Shi'a militia groups in Iraq to go fight ISIS.

4) al-Qaeda, particularly the Iraqi version, has spent most of its time killing other Muslims, mostly Shi'a Muslims. They're not going to be all that concerned with Iran either. bin Laden might be a different case than Zarqawi. Which wouldn't be all that surprising that separate cells of a terrorism organisation would have and form different goals. Zarqawi's dead though. So is bin Laden. So what they thought or tried to do is not as relevant to how their respective groups have behaved since under new leadership.

5) Regardless of these facts, it seems less than clear that it is established that either ISIS or Iran is a substantive threat to American interests or national security. We have allies in the region that aren't all that happy and most of them are doing things about it. But whether that imposes a danger to Americans or the US nation-state is not established by other countries having problems.

19 May 2015

Continuing to talk about unspeakable things

Torture edition

I think this view actually confuses the utilitarian argument. Or at least the consequentialist argument against torture and for a general prohibition on its use by the state (and in a related matter, the NSA dragnet). That argument goes like this:

1) Obtaining accurate information is a valuable intelligence goal in preventing heinous acts of violence.

This isn't a dispute in either the torture or the NSA dragnet debates. The problem is that it is unclear that torture or the NSA dragnet have provided this information, and that valuable intelligence was often obtained in other ways.

2) We should use those methods that quickly and verifiably provide that intelligence.

It is not disputed that torture or the NSA dragnet could provide verifiable and useful intelligence (there's some dispute on whether it has, particularly in the latter case). The big question mark is if it is the most efficient means of investigation and interrogation of sources out of the litany of options available to detect and parry aside possible threats of terrorism. Which it doesn't appear to be.

The argument is often made that KSM lied to provide information the interrogators wanted to hear rather than actual useful intelligence because of torture. This is somehow defensible in the minds of torture proponents because he or others lied under normal interrogation methods too. That is undoubtedly the case that they did but this has little persuasive use in pointing it out. If other methods allow for easier verification, or prevent interrogators from entering with an agenda of scaring out a particular story of guilt (and thus obtaining false and unverifiable "information"), those methods are superior even if they also obtain false information as they may be less prone to these systematic errors (over time). The key is whether we are  obtaining truthful and accurate intelligence, and it is far from demonstrated that torture was a reliable method on this merit. The NSA dragnet seems even less clear and a more demonstratable failure (even by their own admission, it appears its main use was to expensively and invasively demonstrate that there weren't that many people worth following as potential threats to acts of terrorism; that the threat for which it existed in the first place doesn't actually exist).

3) We should also use those methods that do so with minimal cost upon the interrogators, detainees themselves, and where these are international norms being involved upon a state of moral standing obtained by being a "good country" which conforms to, or even helped set (as in this case of torture prohibitions), those norms.

A utilitarian logic would conform to a cost-benefit analysis at some point. If there are substantial costs to doing something, then it would be reasonable to look for something that provides a similar benefit without the higher costs. In the case of torture, to our general security by agitating many people by violating norms of international human rights, or to the moral qualms of the people engaged in the acts of malicious cruelty themselves.



One plausible argument and serious problem with the terrorism mantras is that we are often confusing single (or a handful of) villainous individuals and their ideological causes and potential defeats with a defeat of the threat of danger. This is too linear and perhaps not even expansive enough (eg, "terrorism" is only terrorism if it happens because X did it, and if we can stop people like X, we win). Terrorism however is a process and tactical strategy of using asymmetric warfare and it has a multivariate set of causes. Rather than being a single cartoon villain defeated in the space of a Hollywood plot, it is inherently a long-lasting system with a variety of agents attempting to use it throughout human history (many more than just "islamo-fascists", whatever that's supposed to mean). Attempting to suppress it likewise has a number of effects. Including the possibility of creating lasting animus that inspires further attacks, such as by abusing captive prisoners with violence or physical and mental trauma in violation of our normal standards of human rights (which we ourselves as a nation have been long-time promoters and advocates). Americans haven't typically demonstrated great skill in asymmetric warfare. At least not for generations (maybe against some native tribal peoples in the 19th century and prior to that, and then of course, we have our history of violence against racial minorities). So it's not something I'd advise we undertake casually, without attempting a fuller appreciation of consequences to our preferences in actions and strategies to suppress violence and terrorism undertaken against Americans.

We are a long, long, long way away from the "ticking time bomb"/24 style scenarios that our government attempted to assure us were to be the norm for regimes of torture, even for those subjects about whom there is less sympathy for their plight (KSM for example). We are instead looking at a systematic method of abusing captives with a secondary purpose of possibly obtaining information being a norm, with an episode like Abu Ghraib being not an outlier but a standard of operation. When we have reasonable alternatives to imposing violence and cruelty upon captive human beings, about whom we may have uncertain at best standards of their guilt or complicity in any plots of violence against Americans or really anybody at all, it is reasonable to continue to use them instead.

On this topic in particular I go back principally to the high value our society places upon punishment and its confusion with severity of punishment as a method of deterrence rather than as a means of satisfaction. That appears to be the ideological preference of those favoring torture regimes or systems of un-adjudicated detention for our purported enemies and threats to national security. In so far as some methods of penalty, detention, and general safety or security are favored and needed for a prosperous society to continue to flourish in the face of dangers of crime and mayhem, I don't think this is a disputed point. In so far as the extremes being demanded and insisting that these are necessary and helpful steps (in the utilitarian sense of "it works"), this is far less clear. The "ends justify the means" logic really only works if the ends were the only way to obtain the means and then it helps if they actually obtained the means. Which is in this case, less clear.

We are seeing a similar debate (finally) cropping up surrounding the death penalty and mass incarceration policies for our more commonplace domestic criminal activities. One should expect that would be far more controversial as it pertains to millions of lives, both of criminals and victims of crime and yet there are broadly shaped ideological coalitions pushing against the systems of policing and incarceration or punishment strategies being used for their cost being excessive, both in human and fiscal terms. The cost in the form of torture is rarely discussed when placed against the purported benefits (both sides ignore the existence of the other). Which suggests that people wishing to use some variety of consequentialist logic to justify their preferred actions aren't bothering to actually try to do so.

05 May 2015

On crime and punishment

This is probably why I find comment threads and many of the attitudes of others a little disturbing.

Not only do I not care very much about what random strangers think of me, I do not think I should care very much about them and what they want to do either. Since random strangers rarely think very much about us to begin with, I regard this benign neglect as a form of kindness where the alternative is busily interfering with one another in potentially harmful ways. It is, I think, a discordant attitude relative to many of my fellow citizens and human beings to be moderately tolerant and patient of their transgressions and opinions for which I disagree.

I do think it is necessary to bring attention to incidents of bigotry or intolerance where they occur. Our modern age of social media makes this extraordinarily easy to have previously isolated communities that could have stewed their views as they had for decades before instead be exposed to the light of day and a position of considerable push back from opposing views showing the potential error of their ways. But the manner of doing so matters a great deal to allowing people who commit these transgressive acts of speech or behavior to learn from these errors, if we think of them as errors. The goal here is to ultimately improve our social environment by having people accept that these displays of intolerance or bigotry or hatred and even violence are not useful to helping themselves prosper and promote whatever genuine values they adhere to in that modern world either. Not to submerge these behaviors and conceal them, but to be rehabilitated in their ways in some respect. Or at least to own up to the behavior in a credible way and move on.

Instead. Our interest, as it is with crime, is generally to punish those who inflame our delicate sensibilities. I have little interest in punishing people for crimes either, seeing our system of laws and jails and prisons conceptually as more suitably based around reducing or preventing future crimes than attaining some balance for those that are already committed. For a serious crime like murder or rape for example, this is to me, impossible as a task to try to use the legal system for explicitly, to balance these scales in a complete manner that the victims will feel made whole again in this way. Meanwhile, for the many, many less serious crimes, it is likely our balance is far too far weighted toward injustice in the penalties we assign already. Putting people in prison to punish them is therefore not a delicate action carefully considered. Neither it seems is a social media pile-on.

The affliction of suffering and pain onto other human beings is something that ought to be undertaken only carefully, without malicious intentions, and with the notion that the effect it will have may be ultimately salutary upon both ourselves as those who must impose it and upon the object of our affliction in the form of an offensive or malicious action undertaken by another human being that requires sanction and attention. Too much is undertaken with the notion that the effect it will have will make us feel better about ourselves and our own (as yet still favored) forms of intolerance and its expressions without thinking carefully about the damage and whether it will have any beneficial effect. Perhaps this is a natural instinct of human beings to meddle in this way, but it is a dangerous instinct if followed too closely in ultimately re-creating the thing we hate and fear.

I would instead suggest a focus like this might be more healthy.
- Attend to instances of suffering inflicted by others. Be aware these exist, even if not all claims will be legitimate or possible to resolve (they may be systemic or interconnected to other issues, or the demands of the suffering may be irrational and impossible to placate). Approach them seriously as matters of serious concern for our attention and interest.

- Seek a manner of redressing those grievances. There are many options besides assuming the worst possible motives of another person or issuing threats of harm to their person (true of both the offender or the offendee). The volume of response doesn't need to go to 11 all the time.

- Cultivate a degree of relative indifference where suffering is not present. Let people be on their way most of the time without accosting them with virulent and aggressive responses. Learn to let some things slide, and pick your battles.

01 May 2015

Avengers

There be some minor spoilers

Good stuff.

1) Vision. Pretty well executed, has some of the more insightful lines. Does one awesome "surprise", which most people wanting to see it will have heard about in a day or so. Ties in well with the broader plots of the MCU. The one element I liked best there is that for a universe with so much technology, it's one of the hallmarks to say "technology isn't necessarily going to kill us all". Even with Ultron around. There's a question there about how we use technology or how we allow it to evolve and what it can do for us, or to us.

2) Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow all seem to have good plot arcs/threads. It's basically a Hawkeye/BW movie really. This is good because those two are probably the best two actors in the franchise and seem like they actually enjoy doing it (along with RDJ), as opposed to some of the other skilled actors/actresses that don't (Hopkins/Portman seemed really bored in both Thor movies). Thor also gets to do more it seemed like.

3) A few good lines still to make for humor (Vision, Hawkeye, and Thor have some of the better ones. Iron Man isn't so much). Some weren't landing or went on too long. Stark-Ultron dynamic sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. The fact they're still trying to be funny or sarcastic or witty once in a while is a critical break from the "no jokes" world of DC. Daredevil still had some cynical/sarcastic humor despite being way darker than this was. This was also a little darker as it was, exploring the dark side of (most of) the characters. So the humor helps, but they could have played it more like Winter Soldier or the first Avengers film.

4) Scarlet Witch has some very cool moves. Ultron has a line about how she will tear them (the Avengers) apart, and she lives up on the damage she can dish out.

5) War Machine and Falcon cameos. As sidekick characters go, they've done pretty well casting some of these. I'm sort of curious if they cut some of Falcon's scenes or not.

6) Klaw's introduction was very good also. I'm more curious how Black Panther will go as a result.

Mixed/bad stuff

1) Quicksilver was much cooler in the mid-sequence in X-Men. Expectations being that high, they didn't do much with his speed and basically gave him one line (which was not "I am Groot"), and a monologue to pass that off as character development. His sister does a little more movement.

2) I'm not sure they worked out the twins' plot line that well. They went a little too smoothly to the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic. I realize Captain America is supposed to be really charismatic and awesome, but he's basically the only reason they do as far as I could tell. They had a pretty compelling reason to be pissed off in the beginning.

3) Doesn't really have a firm examination of the ethics of AIs. There's a nod toward the idea that they won't necessarily be evil, but that's as far as it gets it seems like. Vision is good because...? I'm not sure where they established what makes him that way. It's boldly stated, and then he does good/heroic things in the show/not tell mantra that Marvel succeeds at where DC has been failing for a couple movies. But what actually made him different than Ultron? We get a glimpse of it at the end, but it doesn't really proceed during.

3a) Ultron basically feels like they made a Dr Doom as villain movie plot line without embracing who Ultron was at times. The trailers made him out to be a pretty creepy robot (quoting Pinocchio for example while engaged as a fanatical murder robot), but he did not go much farther. There's some nods toward why he is the way he is being crucial aspects of his creation and design. This also means the villain isn't very interesting. Or at least feels like he could have been much more interesting. He really quickly goes off the rails and we don't really get why for a while other than "audience expects an intelligent computer to be homicidal". They've been struggling on the villains other than Loki so far.

4) Most of the fights were messy/choppy. The first one right off the bat was pretty smoothly executed, and did a fair amount of showing how they've worked as a team since some of the improvised cooperation in the Battle of NY in Avengers 1. Later fights felt choppier. The Hulk-Hulkbuster fight wasn't too bad, but the Cap-Ultron one was rougher, more like a Batman fight. The fights in the freighter also were meh. Daredevil and Winter Soldier may have ruined that expectation on how the fighting can go in a superhero movie.

5) Whedon has a pretty firm dialogue stamp. Which occasionally means that some of the characters feel off from previous movies (that he wasn't involved). Captain America in particular comes off much differently than he did in Winter Soldier, and also Thor.

6) I'm guessing some of the stuff on the cutting room floor would have helped unpack some of the jumbles on character development or a couple plot arcs (Thor's is kind of abbreviated at times). Supposedly the DVD release will have all this cut stuff in it.

On balance, it's still a very entertaining film. It's popcorn stuff, if you like popcorn. But it's not much more than that. Winter Soldier and to some extent Daredevil have these broader social nods to things actually going on (drone warfare, surveillance states, corruption/brutality by police, etc) that make them feel a little meatier than a standard comic book film. This doesn't so much. It's basically Guardians of the Galaxy but with less music and more Avengers.

28 April 2015

Thoughts of the day

1) As before with the gay marriage cases before SCOTUS, I'm not interested in displaying a changed photo status on social media. I don't go in much for symbolism for one, and secondly, I think the case will be basically about the final score (whether it is 6-3 or 5-4) and not the outcome. I don't think any marginal lobbying on twitter or facebook is going to make a difference to the score. Where my (our) focus would need to be is on people who don't think this is an okay change, or at least think it happened too fast, and not on the justices, and finding ways to connect to these people and change their minds or at least understand their objections and help them find ways to live with it now as a disfavored minority. Gay marriage being equal is all but a done deal, if not now by court ruling then very soon by public mandate as demographics shift away from older conservative Christians to younger more progressive Christians (at least on this topic). Now supporters and opponents have to live together and deal with this new reality. This has become a more vital project as court rulings have greatly and rapidly expanded the equal recognition of homosexual couples at a more rapid pace than I would have thought likely. I regard that as a good thing that it has, and that it likely will continue. But the fact remains there is still bitter intolerance and hatred present among a subset of the population, and considerably larger population that is uncertain or uneasy about these changes and what they will mean either from prejudices or ignorance of the issues at hand, and all of that will continue to need to be moderated even with these changes in legal status as applied to marriage and marriage contract benefits coming swiftly.

The gay rights cause seems to be winning something in my lifetime and bully for that as it is a much needed change in social tolerance and respect for individuals and their liberties. I've written or spoken generally in support of such a change for years (with a detour into the fantastical realm of the government not recognizing marriages at all and letting people make private contracts as they see fit, but still not proclaiming that any government or government official should ignore or refuse those contracts when made between same-sex couples). It's also impacting a much smaller number of people ultimately than some other issues that often dominate my attention, so I don't have as much to say on it now that progress is being made. Like whether we as Americans are being policed or occupied in our own communities. A topic where progress is much more diffident and uncertain.

2) Baltimore.

On the one hand, I'm not a big fan of riots. They're generally destructive to the city involved, rarely raise the value of the underlying issues causing people to generate mayhem or to demonstrate angrily (but peacefully), and don't seem to change people's minds regarding the strangeness of seeing APCs and police decked out like they're invading Iraq wandering through American cities. Very little good comes of it. They are a point of protesting when people feel they are rendered voiceless and a means of relieving their need for aggression against this frustration. But that's not generally what people hear and it often drowns out the message as a result. Typically people not involved but necessary to act oversimplify the basis for protests and riots down to single, isolated, circumstantial incidents (bad apples) rather than the systematic problems which put thousands of people in a position to demonstrate angrily.

So. On the other hand. I regard the need for police reforms on militarization of equipment, aggression toward the public in the form of escalation and authoritarianism rather than de-escalation and public service, violence and brutality viewed as unacceptable and unfortunate outcomes rather than excused as "by the book" , methods of dismissal or penalty for brutality and mayhem by police, penalties for violations of civil rights and unwarranted arrests (for example, "resisting arrest" should be abolished as a possible charge), and so on as very high on my list of "things I want to see changed positively in my lifetime".

One of the major problems during previous riots in Missouri (Ferguson), was that there was a perception among many Americans that this was all stemming from a single incident of violence or brutality by police (in that case, Michael Brown being shot and killed, also Eric Garner being strangled to death by a chokehold in NYC). Such shootings or killings of citizens by police are fairly common, distressingly so in fact. There's a fairly reliable crowdsourcing effort putting the number over 1200 per year of people killed by police. Official government statistics, which have accountability and reporting/self-reporting problems, have been recently revised upward from around 400 to around 800. But even if it were only at 400, this should be regarded as a serious problem worthy of scrutiny and reform in our methods of policing, if not a serious failure of how we police and enforce laws more broadly or an indictment of our cultural preferences for violence. That's at least 1 person per day killed by a police officer somewhere in the country, and probably closer to 3 people per day.

Most other developed nations do not kill that many people in a year via their police forces. We do so every day. Even if that were the sole impetus behind the protests and riots, it should be a cause in which we should be concerned that this is the result of our choices and policies for police.

But it wasn't just about cops shooting or killing people and a perception that they will always get away with it. Baltimore is a large city, with thousands of police officers. Ferguson is a modest suburb, with a few dozen officers. Both however have been investigated by the Department of Justice. And both find similarly disturbing behavior on the part of police officers in their treatment of residents, particularly on racial divisions. Violence and brutality are far more common than should be tolerated as necessary. Police are often seen much more as an occupying army in many parts of these communities than a helpful and reliable ally in a fight against crime, with their purpose being to rack up fines in Ferguson, and to roust and harass residents for petty, seemingly arbitrary, infractions in both cities.

This is not just the fault of police. The public has demanded it as well. The public, certainly among the well-to-do middle class white Americans, believes crime is much higher than it actually is as a risk and danger, and often sees police responses as capable and justified. Their interactions with police are often limited to polite but unpleasant traffic tickets and fines, not flashbang grenades in the window and family dogs being shot, and your person detained and questioned without probable cause on a weekly basis (if not more often). So there's an understandable division in how the police are interpreted. There are communities where violence and crime are serious problems requiring a firm police intervention, but these are not resembling the types of criminal actions we commonly are seeing resulting in violent actions by police. Walter Scott was shot because he faced possible arrest for not paying child support payments and fled from police (shooting someone who merely runs away is, of course, not considered kosher under the law, and the officer involved is facing a murder charge, thanks mostly to a citizen cell phone recording the incident). Freddie Gray was killed in part because of a series of low-level arrests for drug enforcement laws and because he ran after looking at a cop (he was arrested, it seems, because he supposedly had a knife which he was not wielding aggressively at anyone at the time or likely visible at all to the public). Michael Brown as an incident seems to have started because he was walking in the street. Eric Garner was killed while being arrested for selling loose (untaxed) cigarettes. At best, none of these cases represents enormous threat to safety of other people and yet all apparently allowed us to deploy violence to enforce these laws.

A better, more torturous example of how this indicts the public though is available. Tamir Rice and John Crawford were killed basically for holding air guns in an unwise manner. What seems to have aggravated these last two was the public response to seeing a young black male holding what appeared to be a fire arm and doing so in what seemed like a strange way. Rice was pointing it at passerbys in the park he was in, but the only reported call suggests that they knew or suspected it was a prank and a toy gun. Crawford sounded like the caller greatly exaggerated the threat as there doesn't appear to be much evidence he was threatening or menacing anyone and in any case, police fired upon him while he was talking on a cell phone and not threatening anyone. In both cases, police response was aggressive, moderated for what we might think appropriate for a terrorist incident or a potential hostage crisis. This is typical training for aggressive uses of forces and the escalation of violence rather than the de-escalation allowing everyone to at least be arrested peacefully. Militarized high-risk raids on homes are typically undertaken rather than detaining someone by knocking on the door or at or coming to or from work, as a more widespread example of this type of thinking. These are the most adverse risks and consequences of what is demanded of police to enforce and against whom (mostly poorer minorities).

The most common risks however are just as poisonous in their effects upon a community. A person who is arrested risks losing a job that sustains them and risks difficulty obtaining a new one. They generate costs for themselves in the case should it proceed to court (many do not), and additional costs  in time and money if it should go to trial (most convictions are arbitrated without a jury). Most people who are being detained, arrested, and charged in Baltimore and Ferguson and hundreds of other cities cannot afford either the time or the money for their infractions, which makes it more difficult for them to properly defend themselves or moderate and navigate the penalties to something appropriate for their crime. If they go to jail or prison for any extended period of time, they then have a criminal record, which further makes it difficult to re-integrate into society. Many jobs now require occupational licenses or at least background checks, which frown upon criminal records. All of this makes it difficult to maintain a respectable job. If someone is being arrested for armed robbery, that's rather understandable that it should be punished with an inconvenience like this. But many arrests are trivial, for example drug possession charges or "disorderly conduct" or "resisting arrest" or easily chalked up to bias and misunderstanding and essentially are arbitrary crimes (most people in prison, less so). The cost of this is not inconsequential in the economic disruption it causes a community in the form of fines, bail money, loans, and lost time and productivity. In many communities, such penalties begin racking up with teenagers (if not earlier, Tamir Rice was not even that old), costing gains from education as well, or leading kids to abandon education entirely as too adversarial rather than beneficial. Crime imposes such costs as well, but fighting it should not.

Many states (and juries and public opinion) likewise frown upon someone who has a prior criminal record by perceiving violence against such people by police more likely justified, or should they be arrested again perceive that as justification for additional and much more severe penalties in any new infraction, or perceive it as more likely they are guilty of whatever they are accused of owing to their prior recklessness. All of this makes it more likely that people may repeat offenses, or end up back in prison, or out of work and willing to do shady or outright hazardous things to generate a living. If a community sees police as an enemy, not an ally, and yet demands a response to its problems with crime, that is the fault of the police and the communities that fund such forces and provide them with missions and arms through the force of law.

I propose to resolve this issue we should consider the following:
a) Whether all of the laws we want enforced are justifiable if they should result in the death or injury of fellow citizens who may be suspected of violating them by police. If they are not, we should reconsider whether the force of law is the appropriate vehicle for amending or coercing bad behavior as this is a risk of having laws on the books. Many things which are laws in my opinion should not be written into legal code for this reason. For example, there is evidence that a charge like "resisting arrest" is essentially code for "I beat someone up" when used by police as it is typically used by a very small cohort of police, and that that cohort in turn shows a higher likelihood of being accused of brutality or excessive force (in these or other cases).

b) Whether or when enforcing the law should permit violence in defence of a community as a minimum necessity of use of force rather than aggressive tactics and maximum force. Self-defence is typically regarded as an acceptable moral landscape, as is the defence of others against violence. A large number of these controversial cases appear to be based more around compliance to authority rather than aggression. Pepper spray or other non-lethal weapons (tasers especially) get used pretty casually under the logic that a use of force that doesn't kill someone is justified to get them to obey commands or to punish non-compliance. It sounds likely Gray's death may have been related to rough car rides in the back of a police van as a "disciplinary" practice, under a similar vein. Defending other people is an acceptable use of violence under the law. Meting out extra-judicial penalties for someone being an asshole or having a bad attitude toward a cop is not.

c) What level of armament is appropriate or necessary for police to carry out a minimum necessity of violence. This includes uses of "non-lethal" force. A baton or even a fist can still kill someone. So can a taser or a flashbang grenade or even pepper spray. A gun isn't necessary to kill a suspected criminal. This means we should think very carefully about use of force protocols as a society for the people we empower to enforce laws, but also think very carefully about what weapons they are given to do so, and how they will be used or trained for. An APC or submachine guns seem to serve very little purpose in this process. There's little evidence they're even that useful for riot control (the best available practices there should be to aim to prevent the riot from starting in the first place).

25 April 2015

A ridiculous piece of cloth

Most people who have encountered writings of mine over the years will know I am not much sympathetic to nationalistic displays. Indeed, the primary reason I oppose the pledge of allegiance isn't the "under god" element, but the odious nature of having children recite some words presenting themselves as aligned with the government of the state and its goals (this was its initial purpose was to force immigrants to declare themselves loyal subjects of the American nation-state, the god stuff came much later).

I am not unsympathetic to the idea that people should try to avoid being offensive to others. I find it is often counter productive or at least not that persuasive versus the amount of negative attention it creates. This applies to people protesting abortions or protesting police shootings, gay weddings, or whatever (the ideological disposition of the protest is irrelevant). It doesn't mean it is never effective and it does not mean I would prefer to see offensiveness stamped out with coercive forces, like threats of violence, deportation, job losses, etc. Simple disagreements over the manner and content of expressions by other people, even if they are offensive to other parties, are not really sufficient to place people in diametric conflicts that they need to be removed permanently from each other. These disagreements can be investigated, and at times where people obviously diverge from each other's basic worldviews, perhaps then a polite removal from each other's company suffices. On social media, block-banning people for whom there appears to be a permanent state of disagreement and disharmony works quite well enough to ignore people who would needlessly be getting up the blood pressure to work up on a topic.

I don't have much tolerance for most personal expressions of sexism and, especially, racism, but I'd at least engage the topic first to assure that is the basis of these expressions is some deeply held position about the nature of gender or racial disparities rather than a poorly tasted joke or some other implicit bias that could be confronted and identified, or perhaps a general ignorance of the subject being argued on which it came up in the first place. I also don't have much tolerance for expressions of nationalism (again, as I've repeatedly indicated, distinguished from patriotism), and some varieties of religious expression. Neither to me is particularly interesting to investigate very deeply.

Nevertheless, none of this inspires me to say that my disinterest or disagreement means that anyone evincing support of these opinions, perspectives, or beliefs should be silenced and shunned by everyone every where. I can sometimes find fault with the manner of expression, if it constitutes harassment of others for example or otherwise presents as menacing and threatening behavior. But this is potentially harmful behavior, not speech and expression. People invoking in your face methods of demonstration (burning a flag, putting up signs with dead fetal tissue, blasphemy of religious beliefs, "foul-mouthed" language, etc) doesn't rise to this level. It is annoying. Perhaps disturbing to some. Disturbed sensibilities are however often the point of such activities. Attracting attention in order to have a wider audience of people paying heed to your words and actions is the goal.

There are several ways to respond to this I find well below the common public's reactions demanding violence and arrest or other criminal or civil penalties.

1) Ignore it. If the goal is to attract attention, deny the attention that is sought. Change the channel, look away, listen to something else, engage a friend in conversation, find something else to do with your time in general. I find much of the things people are that worked up about to protest I don't care very much about, or at least, don't care very much that they are worked up about it and don't think it will amount to very much mind-changing on the issue if I do care very much about it. This makes most of it fairly easy to ignore and move on with my day. There are rare exceptions. It's really easy on the internet. Putting up a blanket status update about how awful people are to each other in comment sections or message boards/threads is sufficient to excise any reaction that occurs to the perspective of the general public on some topic for which they are ill-equipped to argue with one another.

2) Put forward one's own point of view. Counter-protest in other words. Try to persuade or argue with an unconcerned majority why they should find the other side of people to be nutcases and agree with you and your wise ideas instead about a particular problem or what should be done about it.

3) Confront people doing things you find offensive and try to find out why they do so. People displaying actions of blasphemy toward a nation-state by torching that country's flag or standing on it, etc, are typically provoking the idea that something is, in their mind and perspective at least, deeply wrong with that country and its operations as a people or legal state. They have a perspective and point of view they are trying to get attention for and speak upon. The disagreement one has may only be about their methods of expression rather than the core of the message. Listening to other people has the probability that one can learn something, or find a topic worth investigating further.

4) Confront people doing things that are found offensive and mock them. "Offend back". This isn't very respectful and polite and probably will make you look like an asshole too, but it has the possible effect of getting people to reconsider their tactics of discourse. (Don't threaten them or harass them. Mock/ridicule/laugh at, not endanger, is the suggestion here). In general the idea would be to communicate that this person is being offensive (and doing so stupidly and unproductively). I suppose it has the effect of being possibly satisfying on an emotional level, briefly, for reacting to the offense in kind.

And so on. None of this requires we provide people with the abject horror and displeasure they may intend for our reactions, or that we respond with violence and intolerance. Nor that we are somehow providing tacit agreement through our silence and permissiveness for free expression. Nor even that we should punish people who have made unpleasant mediums or content of expression by expelling them from polite society for any single transgression of speech and expression and demand they be removed from their jobs or company position. Economic boycotts have their place in response to acts of discrimination. Responses to people committing acts of fraud or spreading salacious falsehoods about others in public also have considerable merit to do likewise. But a general expression of opinion on a matter of religious or political construction is not fraud or salacious falsehood on the level of libel or slander. No matter how offensively it is presented.

22 April 2015

Cultural note

Daredevil. It's pretty good on balance. Some spoilers.

Good

The fighting sequences, especially some of the earliest ones are excellent. The single shot sequence fight is on par with some of the best choreographed fighting in any film (Oldboy, the Korean version, is typically looked at as one of the standards there). It's not as long as the single shot in True Detective last year, but that didn't require as many beats in a concentrated arc either. Most of the Marvel fights revolve around a lot of CGI characters (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor) doing CGI things, which are fun, sometimes even a comic relief (Hulk smashing the puny god Loki for example) but not the same as watching actual human beings doing moderately impressive things and taking the physical and emotional punishment of trying to do so. One exception was the fights and stunts in Winter Soldier, which were a lot crisper and easier to follow as a result. This was generally better than that with the caveat that most of them took place in often poorly lit sequences involving a guy in a dark set of clothes. These were still usually much better than most of Batman's fights in the Nolan movies, by a comparison to a darkly lit and ominous detective/crime fighter. It looks very smooth and well-thought out as a demonstration of a skilled hand-to-hand fighter (occasionally using clubs and improvised throwing weapons).

The darkness itself comes off as almost like a character at times. The way lighting and shots are constructed gives a feeling of almost perpetual night to much of the scenes. Since the main character is a blind guy, I would assume this is partly deliberate as a nod to that on top of the rather grim story line being itself an oppressive variety of darkness.

There's not very much of the campy-self-referential humor of the movie (which was basically a series of set piece fights rather than a film with a plot), or the other Marvel properties. There's some, but not much. It's way darker and bloodier than almost anything comic book related anywhere Watchmen is a much closer proxy universe than Guardians of the Galaxy. Even the Nolan Batman trilogy is much closer really. That makes it distinctive from other Marvel projects so far. There are a few tie-ins to the broader Marvel universe (a couple references to Hulk/Thor/Stark), but it basically stands on its own territory and stakes it out instead.

One element that's heavily involved in the plot is that Daredevil is basically a blind guy who moves pretty well in a fight and has very evolved senses as a superpower that help him dodge or anticipate threats. He does not have a suit of armor that makes him invincible against bullets and knives, or carry a magical hammer and come from another realm. So he gets beat up and stabbed and otherwise wounded much more easily. That means there's a lot of potential consequences and risks to when he wanders into a fight. It provides a touch of realism or at least pragmatism to the story line.

The performance for Fisk feels like it draws a bit on Brando's Kurtz/Vito Corleone, but with more violence of his own. There's a reasonably interesting dichotomy between what Murdock/Daredevil sounds like and what Kingpin/Fisk sound like in their vision and even possession of the city over which they are contesting each other, and also how both seem to have these disparate parts of their grand versions of idealism internally feuding with a darker pragmatic approach. This is distinguished from the Joker-Batman dichotomy because at no point does a version of the world Batman is seeking to create resemble the version of Joker's even though their methods differ. When the cultural views of the villain and hero look not so far apart, things get blurry and dark as to whether their methods are justified (Catwoman vs Batman is more like this example).

Stick's cameo appearance was funny. In part because there's suddenly a cynical asshole (brutally cruel almost) in the show countering all these idealistic crusaders. That and a couple other bits should set up a second season nicely as well with an obvious set of new villains, on top of the enemies he'd already have made from season 1.

Mixed or bad stuff

Daredevil as a character that they're drawing on is the Frank Miller early 1980s version. When NYC was a crime-ridden hellscape essentially (that also appears heavily in the Batman universe). While aspects of the dysfunctional governance of a large city-state still fit the times today, for example the possibility of corruption or violence from police sitting on the throat of a city rather than a helpful agent guarding the city fits in nicely with stories like Cleveland or Ferguson or Miami Gardens, the idea of a city that is so distraught and downtrodden that it requires not just a vigilante, but a brutal vigilante on the scale that the Miller version of Daredevil represents is missing now as there are few places where crime is that desperate a social ill that vigilantes become automatic heroes. Bernhard Goetz was considered a hero at the time by many people for the subway shooting he committed. Now he's looked on a little differently (and apparently feuding with home squirrel care advice and requirements). The show by dint of this grimmer reality gets to embrace a much darker version of anti-hero than usual. Which is certainly interesting as a means of cultural exploration, but presents certain challenges.

Most notably he essentially tortures almost every criminal/corrupt cop he meets. Since DD can basically act as a human lie detector, this seems like a very strange way to get information is to beat it out of people (and in a couple of cases, stab it out as well). To be sure one might often need to fight people in combat when dealing with criminals as a vigilante and there's plenty of that "ordinary" violence in the series, this is different. One of the most successful elements to me of the Nolan Batman universe is that this isn't demonstrated as a very effective means of getting the information he needs. Not only does Batman show up at one point to prevent someone else from torturing a suspect, when he does so himself, he doesn't typically get what he needs (Joker deliberately lies to him, and the mob basically tells him off eventually instead of giving him anything). What he does instead is employ a lot of complicated and often high-tech detective tools in order to figure out what's going on and who is behind it, for which some these tools and methods have their own questionable ethics. There's a few nods to this with Daredevil where he uses his sensory abilities to figure things out, but not many so far. I'd be more interested in the moral or ethical complications of a man who can basically determine if anyone is lying at a whim or effectively spy on anyone they want, and so on. One of the background themes of X-Men is the morality of having someone like Charles Xavier around and basically trusting that he will use his powers ethically and instruct others to do likewise, which isn't something everyone trusts to be the case. That becomes a challenging hypothetical ethical argument to entertain. The moral juice available from watching someone somehow magically decide someone is evil and then beat them up for information purposes so they can go find someone more important to beat up instead is much less compelling. Presumably it carries a degree of emotional satisfaction to the "eye for an eye" type crowd. It doesn't do much for me. The degree of brutality in the criminals being depicted is to be somewhat expected (kidnapping children, execution via car door slams, escape from prison using rib bone shards, etc), and some degree of response makes sense. But there isn't a very long examination of whether the lengths gone to are too far. There's only a hint of a conscience to these questions despite an overtone of religious examination supposedly going on.

Foggy isn't typically very interesting as either a foil for Murdock's better half idealism or as a comic relief character. Page comes off as more interesting mostly because we never really see her back story (it's implied at several points that she has had an... interesting life). Foggy's we see, but it's basically just "here's this guy Matt hangs out with because they were college roommates". He does however seem more practically engaged in the process of fighting worthy court battles, translating this idealism into legal battles rather than fisticuffs in the dark corners of the city. Maybe that will play out better for Murdock over time, but he spent most of the season scrambling over rooftops engaging in fisticuffs, so it doesn't interact as much as it could. They also seem to have reconciled this difference rather too casually.

14 April 2015

Hawk is a hawk

I'm seeing some recycling of the idea that Clinton is not a hawk or not basically a neoconservative on foreign policy issues. To the literal extent this is true. She's not likely to be as rhetorically bold or nonsensical and aggressive as a Rick Santorum or Marco Rubio and on a few policy choices (Cuba maybe a key example) she might be much less ridiculous and less useless than the GOP alternatives. Nevertheless, there are several major problems with the arguments being used.

1) Judge her on her record, not her rhetoric. Most of her opponents have little or no record at all on IR either. At best, they've been in the Senate long enough for issues like Libya, Syria, Iran, Cuba, and ISIS to come up. None of those were as clear and decisive however as "I voted for the Iraq War" and most have not resulted in any actions of any kind by the Senate. On a few occasions, Syria for example, even someone like Rubio opposed military action and voted accordingly.

Rhetoric is one way to assess what kinds of goals political figures have on international issues when we don't have much in the way of record. She also exercises a good deal more choice over what she says she might do than what she actually will do and can choose to portray her preferences as more dovish or diplomatic than she does. That she does not do so should be seen as suggestive of more hawkish preferences in our international affairs, even if she shades these with some occasionally prudent diplomacy that her rivals may not (Cuba). She isn't shading her position on Iran in that way for example as she apparently was insistent on a much stronger and more restrictive deal than the one that was possible (and thereby insistent on no deal at all, with no international monitoring instead of a good deal of it).

2) That record isn't as instructive as we should think because it derives from political calculations or some such. Eg, other people had voted for the first Iraq war and it helped their chances of political success later on.

The problem with that line of argument is that the first Iraq war was a very different geopolitical environment. We had regional support and allies, we had international allies, and most importantly, we had a fairly limited and easily decided goal in what we were declaring our interest to perform. We weren't going in to topple a heinous regime and attempt to construct or reconstruct the diplomatic and democratic institutions necessary for a modern nation-state to prosper and co-exist with western ideals. We were going to kick them out of an occupied nation-state that bordered them and possessed substantial quantities of a vital strategic and economic resource (oil). That's a fairly prudent reason by national interest standards to go to a war (protection of economic hegemony and protection of an international standard of territorial integrity).

The second Iraq war did not carry these advantages with it and this was clear to any rational observer at the time that not only did it not have these advantages, it carried considerable and obvious risks of not succeeding, certainly not as sufficiently as we were often promised would be the case. I said as much to as many people as cared to listen at the time. The world is filled with terrible dictators and governments doing horrible things to the populations of the countries they control. Our ability to first destabilize these and then replace them with stable democratically elected and guaranteed systems of government should be viewed as an enterprise not to be undertaken lightly however as the evidence suggests that we have a very limited capability to carry this mission out. Of such missions in the past 25 years, the only one I would regard as a "success" would be Serbia, and that had more to do with turning over the leadership of the country to international tribunals than a ground occupation. South Sudan, Kosovo, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Kosovo, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc all suggest that a strong intervention is potentially likely to carry large risks of blowing up in our faces rather than forging a stable democratic framework or even a stable and prosperous state of any kind (Rwanda seems to be doing better 20 years on, but this is partly because the conflict that started there moved to the DRC, which descended into a massive civil war killing an order of magnitude more people than were killed in Rwanda).

Favoring a predictably disastrous ground occupation therefore should be looked upon as a black mark upon one's history of policy decisions. Even favoring an energetic air campaign supposedly on behalf of others should be looked at as an expensive luxury rather than a basis for sound international relationships and a means of crafting a stable, free, and prosperous global community.

If the political calculations that people make on behalf of the decision to bomb or invade other nation states is being made from the point of view that it will cynically advance a political career rather than whether it advances or defends some vital national interest this is not exactly an endearing argument anyway.

3) Why does any of this matter?

I'm being told by various conservative pundits, and what looks like some of the eventual Republican strategy, is that this will somehow become an election centered on foreign policy. The problem is that on actual policy grounds, there is not that big of a difference between Clinton and most of the GOP field. The lone exceptions are Rand Paul (generally to her left on IR and national security issues, and very unlikely to be the nominee) and people like Rubio or Santorum who are more hawkish rhetorically and tone (but rarely that much farther to the right in actual policies). Everyone else seems to be basically hawkish at similar levels or not a viable foreign policy candidate anyway if that's the intention (Cruz, Huckabee, Bush, Walker. Three of these are/were governors and Cruz's main drum in the Senate has been religion and Obama, not Iran and the Pentagon). So if this is their supposed winning strategy, I do not see it working out all that well anyway. Trying to run an IR election against a former Secretary of State who was reasonably successful in that role (by Washington standards) who has a reasonably hawkish track record for a Washington politician (and a very hawkish one for a Democrat) is an extremely stupid idea already on its face before considering a bigger problem: it's not likely to be an election decided on foreign policy grounds. It's not even that likely to be a consideration for most voters.

I'm dubious that this will be an election centering on IR issues simply because such elections are rare and generally focused on very large IR issues (like declared or potential wars). 2004 was sort of in this category (I think the rhetoric that Iraq decided it was overplayed). 1916 and 1940 meanwhile are obvious. 1952 would be another likely case. And then 1968. And that's about it. Most voters pay little attention to brush fires and minor interventions, by this standard. And in any case most voters are broadly in support of diplomatic approaches to the Iranian situation, a position Clinton is likely to take at least rhetorically, mostly don't care about what we do to or with Cuba anymore, even in Florida and even among the Cuban expat community which now has second and third generation voters who don't care either, and while the public are not fond of ISIS, they also don't seem to want us putting (more) troops back in Iraq to deal with them on the ground. These positions are not sellers and they are broadly speaking, what the GOP is selling (again, other than Rand Paul). Clinton's not so stupid about her interventionist tendencies to go against the general public during an election cycle. Which is to her credit. Meanwhile, most voters in most cycles tend to go with economic conditions or domestic policy concerns (things like crime or civil liberties/social policies issues). Most of which Presidents don't have much control over anyway, meaning this is a dumb approach to electing Presidents, but it is the approach people have typically taken. Barring a recession (a possibility, but still somewhat unlikely given the monetary policy positions at present), we're not likely to see much of a shift on these grounds that make it that favorable for Republicans (or for Clinton either), but we're also not likely to see much that makes it unfavorable for Clinton either, meaning she probably wins on an incumbency bias and then some sort of populist economic message talking about income inequality and the middle class, and on IR she probably crushes whoever gets picked up (just as Obama crushed Romney on that front).