18 September 2016

Why were we invited to that party again?


I'm having trouble understanding why libertarians are still marginally affiliated with Republicans/conservatives. These questions are not helpful for figuring that out.

"Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?

Conservatives: 23% better, 64% worse
Libertarians: 74% better, 12% worse."

There are better ways to tell the difference between these two, but pessimism will do if nothing else will. (These are all among a group of mostly millennials, not overall populations).

Immigration had a big split, but mostly because libertarians were 94% in favor of more immigration, and 86% opposed to a stupid wall. Conservatives were divided, nominally opposed to more immigration and in favor of a stupid wall. Another big gap existed over the NSA and defence cuts, and ground troops to fight ISIS.

And then there were these questions.

"Do you believe that identifying with a gender different from the gender assigned at birth is morally acceptable or morally wrong?

Conservatives: 64% wrong, 1% acceptable, 32% not a moral question
Libertarians: 13% wrong, 24% acceptable, 62% not a moral question

Recent killings of black men, including incidents in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge have sparked national protests of police treatment of black Americans that centered around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter. Do you support or oppose the goals of #BlackLivesMatter?

Conservatives: 21% support, 76% oppose
Libertarians: 64% support, 32% oppose

It is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values

Conservatives: 88% agree, 8% disagree
Libertarians: 34% agree, 61% disagree

I am willing to give up some personal freedom and privacy for the sake of national security

Conservatives: 80% agree, 16% disagree
Libertarians: 24% agree, 70% disagree

Internet pornography is a public health crisis

Conservatives: 53% agree, 44% disagree
Libertarians: 10% agree, 84% disagree

The government needs to do more to combat the prescription painkiller addiction epidemic

Conservatives: 48% agree, 49% disagree
Libertarians: 25% agree, 70% disagree"

And these

"How concerned are you about the following issues?

Terrorism/national security

Conservatives: 89% very concerned
Libertarians: 29% very concerned

Abortion

Conservatives: 71% very concerned
Libertarians: 26% very concerned

Morality in society

Conservatives: 67% very concerned
Libertarians: 50% not concerned at all"

"Which of these best describes your religious preference?

Catholic

Conservatives 32%
Libertarians 8%

Evangelical

Conservatives: 32%
Libertarians: 6%

Non-religious

Conservatives: 3%
Libertarians: 40%"

08 September 2016

Gary Johnson and political ignorance

I take it that an interview this morning did not go well for the upstart third party campaign of Johnson-Weld. I have numerous reservations with Johnson's positions on a number of issues as it is, though I still find him broadly preferable to either Trump (who is just awful) and Clinton (who is merely pretty bad). But this kind of event requires some thinking and examination.

To recap. Johnson's "problem" is he has gotten a lot of media coverage this campaign cycle, which means he is getting a broader array of questions than a third party candidate normally gets. He has a habit of deflecting questions he does not understand, whether by brain fart or sheer ignorance, by asking what they are talking about and then formulating some kind of answer. This looks really quite bad when the question is asking about what are deemed to be significant policy details. Such as a city in Syria. I was not happy that he didn't know where Aleppo was.

In voter ignorance terms, most Americans did not know where it was and what significance that question had either. Very few Americans probably knew what that question meant or was in reference to. Had I heard it, as someone who tries to keep abreast of foreign policy and issues in other countries, I would have sought to clarify what they were specifically asking about in regards Aleppo (the fight between Assad's regime and the rebels there? the refugee problem? the general state of affairs in Syria as a whole? the deployment of American special forces there?), suggesting it wasn't a terribly great question anyway. Perhaps the context was helpful and I could have provided a cogent response without seeking clarification, but I am dubious. It is not like "Morning Joe" is likely a space for intelligent commentary and interviews.

As to what that means in political terms.

Probably not very much.

Presidential candidates have gaffes of memory or misspeaking quite often. We have one candidate in particular (Drumpf) who does not seem capable of uttering virtually any factual information correctly whatsoever. I am not happy about it to be sure. Aleppo is, or at least ought to be, pretty well known within discussions about Syria. But it isn't very pertinent to specifically know about it in order to determine overall strategic questions about what should be done in Syria or about Syria by the United States.

It turns out that the media doesn't seem to know where Aleppo is or what it is either. Which is not terribly surprising. Most Americans of all lines of work and persuasion are woefully ill-informed about other countries. Even other countries in which we seem to have a considerable interest in intervening in militarily or diplomatically or are actively doing so. (The old line about "war is god's way of teaching Americans geography", which Bierce or Twain did not ever actually say or write). Getting those kinds of details correct is something Presidential candidates should try very hard do in order to sound well-informed to a public that is usually not well informed. But. Secretary Clinton is nothing if not razor sharp at recalling and reciting facts about policies that might be informative at determining what good policies are and have achieved. This has not generally helped her form what seem to be wise and effective policies where international relations are concerned (see: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Rwanda, Kosovo....). Meanwhile, Donald Trump has more or less gone out of his way to sound uninformed and uninterested in becoming informed on pretty much any policy, in particular international affairs. I would imagine this could leave some room for error in the middle in the minds of many undecided voters.

The current two major party candidates are both pretty unpopular, and American foreign policy is not considered a major issue by many voters. While domestic considerations like terrorism and ISIS are considered important, they're not actually a big deal. I don't think it is automatically disqualifying for how one should vote if one was considering a third party that someone flubs a very specific policy question. Most of his support appears to be from younger voters anyway. Voters who are unlikely to pay much attention to mainstream media coverage and whose main problem would be making sure they might show up to vote in the first place.

This will probably depress Johnson's vote total somewhat, but probably not below the 5% threshold to secure funding and ballot access for the Libertarian party in the future, which is a useful goal for libertarians or libertarian-ish voters to seek out as a means of demonstrating a potential avenue of reform for either political party. If his vote total is subsequently depressed from the current 8-10% nationally in polls to around 6-7% in votes (something I regarded as likely anyway), that will possibly help Clinton in a couple of close states (perhaps Colorado or North Carolina most noticeably). It will also probably keep him from competing as effectively in Utah to try to win any state, something no third party candidate has done for quite a while. And possibly put a damper on his fundraising efforts to some degree in order to run ads or voter registration campaigns in favorable states. But all of that is also unlikely to impact the result of the election simply because the third party vote, while apparently much higher than normal, was pretty unlikely to impact the result of the election already.

I would say that this is a common issue with media and establishment types to deem minor party candidates as "disqualified" by dint of rather minor errors, while writing off rather substantial errors made by the major party figures (see, most everything Trump has done for the last year, as well as his entire public life, for example). That will not help Johnson recover from this blunder. The margin for error is really quite low if one is running an insurgent campaign to garner any public respectability. This was something he should have been aware of. And worked harder to avoid.

For the record: the correct answer on Syria/Aleppo should be something like the following list
1) Take in vastly more than 10000 refugees. Possibly as many as one million. Or basically anyone who wanted to come here. The American refugee system is pretty reliable for both vetting potential refugees to reduce problems of terrorism or criminality or maladjustment, and also for producing high quality immigrants who work hard to assimilate to a new life in a pretty safe and advanced country that took them in from a place of hardship and violent upheaval. Historically it's one of the best weapons we have both against terrorism or violent extremism. And also one of the best faces we can put upon what it means to be "American" is that we will take in people from anywhere and more or less leave them in peace to live their lives once they get here. We should take advantage of that to take in and shelter as many people as we can. This is the most pressing element of the war is the displacement of ordinary people it has created and the vast humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as a result. We should be seeking to do as much as we can to alleviate that by removing people from a position of violence and danger and placing them in the position of trying to build ordinary lives elsewhere.

2) Use diplomatic pressures to try to end the civil war between the Assad forces and various rebel groups who don't like him. This may mean that Assad must step down, the country could be partitioned into autonomous or semi-autonomous states (like the Kurds in Iraq), Russia or Iran would have more influence on the resolution of the situation than is nominally desirable, and so on. I do not mean to suggest that this path is easy, but it seems more likely to have a productive result in ending fighting and violence in Syria than violent intervention and use of force against Assad to remove him militarily, or that the provision of military assistance to forces we might nominally support is likely to guarantee that weapons we provide won't be used against us later, or won't be used internally or regionally for the purposes of brutal repression (as the Saudis have been doing in Yemen and has been mostly ignored).

3) Use diplomatic pressures to try to involve all of the relevant regional parties in suppressing ISIS regional state as a thing that exists within Syria and Iraq and might be of some threat to the outside world, most especially the neighbouring countries and the people within the territories it has control or influence over. This would mean Turkey, Syria/Syrian rebels, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and probably Russia as well.

4) Do not use American foreign policy in the form of bombing campaigns or ground forces to resolve the question of lone wolf style ideologically inspired attacks within the US and the West. That is not how that fight is going to be won. That is a terrible policy formulation. American leaders should take advantage of voter ignorance and indifference on foreign policy to "ignore" problems like that and seek their resolution in other means (intelligence gathering and cooperation with foreign governments, counter-terrorism policies, police investigations, etc).

31 August 2016

Odious speech

There have been two parallel trends of "free speech" discourse over the last several years I have observed with some disdain.

People who complain when other people who do not like what they have said and say so, or otherwise use their private ability to discriminate who may use a platform of speech they have provided, under a mistaken belief that "PC-policing" of this kind is infringing upon their rights to free speech.

Groups of people who cite anecdotal experience to suggest that there are broad, sweeping, and new trends which threaten civil discourse norms of engaging with political opponents in a polite disagreement over facts and motives.

The former is merely stupidity about what the Constitution means; that it restricts the government, but not the people, from imposing restraints upon what someone can say, or what they wish to hear. Which is par for the course, but still really annoying and tedious.

The latter position if true would be a deeply shared concern, but I have not really seen anyone making an attempt to demonstrate that it is in fact what, say, college campuses and college students on said campuses are doing in a new way that they have never before done. These two trends often intermingle in a way that suggests a major problem is in fact the demand for PC behavior. There are points on which I might agree this is the case. But in general, it is not.

The former situation operates in something like this manner: If I am attempting to engage with someone I likely may disagree with, it is best to do so in a method that treats them with a degree of respect. One way to do this is to answer questions in a civil manner. Another is to try to understand their perspective. One can still be quite dismissive of the manner they have arrived at an opinion, of the "facts" they have marshaled in support, of the flimsy nature of logic being used to move from one subject to another, and so on. But one should ultimately try to avoid being dismissive of the person with whom a conversation is being engaged with. This is not always easy to do but it is the proper and civil nature of a debate to carry out, and it has some noble aims in principle behind it. It is possible you might persuade them that they are wrong, or that they have considered a perspective that you have not and that you are in fact in the wrong. At "worst", it may persuade people with whom you haven't even engaged that one of you is offering a more sensible option for interpreting events or their proposed solutions. That is the purpose of engaging in civil debate and discourse with people who disagree with you. What I often find instead is that disagreement is then used as a means of divining and imputing all manner of ill-favored motives, character flaws, ethnic or racial origins (where not otherwise obvious), and an increasing slide into personal attack rather than argumentative cases being constructed for the matter at hand. The effect of such action is to persuade neither person of the wrongness or flaw in their argument, and most likely to make both of you look like complete assholes to any innocent bystander who happens by.

The Internet, for all its flaws in preventing or harnessing the ability of individuals to filter out bullshit from fact, actually does offer some amount of tools for dealing with this as a problem. The ban hammer comes out and away that person goes to cool down for a while, perhaps indefinitely. What it does less well is deal with this when it concerns an entire movement of people condemning an individual or groups of individuals, whereupon they have descended as locusts to feast upon the person, marrow and bone all.

One of the essential difficulties of this is that the former activities, banning an obnoxious troll from your sight and daily interactions, is a subjective action that protects the time and energy of the individual (and sometimes their viewpoints). I find it useful for abusive persons in social media debates, or for people whose arguments are so tedious and pathetic that I no longer wish to expend the time on them. But the latter action, banning a whole host of persons at once, or restricting one or more person's ability to influence said persons through a social media platform entirely, involves a more rigorous analysis than "this person annoys me". And as such, it often passes well into less decorous behavior before anything is or could be done. Threats (true or otherwise), abusive language, bigotry, and so on. Almost all of which is and probably should remain perfectly legal and free from public sanction by the mechanics of government and law. But a platform provided by a private company has no obligation to allow anyone to use it in that way either. It is perfectly legal behavior to be an asshole, and to carry forth senseless mayhem in argumentation. It is also a perfectly sensible action to point out that someone is acting like one.

This is the essential component of what gets termed PC. What is "politically correct"? A simple stab at an answer would be "avoiding being an asshole in public". Expressions of bigotry or intolerance do not need to be tolerated. Merely being annoying or offensive might need to be tolerated at some level, but doesn't need to be sought out either.

This is the part that I am having some difficulty understanding however is how this intersects with college experiences. There are definitely many specific stories indicating that there are some people who have difficulty understanding what to do with academic freedom, or whether academic freedom should exist, and instituting speech codes with fairly arbitrary purposes, and trying to suppress the public speaking appearances of controversial figures. I've encountered some people with a rather poor grasp of freedom of speech in academic settings myself, in debates on public forums, and so on. Getting from there to the supposition that the entire architecture of freedom of inquiry and debate is under assault because "kids today are weak and don't want to engage with tough ideas!" is a very large stretch however.

I consider these concepts like "trigger warnings" to be reasonably robust in the culture at large. We tend to use mechanics like parental ratings systems to screen out material we may not want to view on TV or in films or hear in music. This is not limited to trying to restrict access for children. But to tell ourselves as adults or parents that this is going to have some graphic material and to decide whether or not we want to deal with a show about rape and sexual abuse, or brutal violence or torture. To be sure, I probably have more tolerance with viewing nudity or sexuality, or violence, and certainly with hearing "strong language" than many other people. Nevertheless, I usually want to know that's what I'm about to be in for, implicitly or explicitly rather than just sit down and all the sudden be in the middle of hearing about a brutal rape case or viewing a fictional torture sequence in a film or TV show. If I were taking or teaching an ethics class, I would not expect to dive right into asking about incest as a moral topic. Or abortion. Or even humans (Westerners at least) eating insects (or other humans) as food. There's a certain amount of mental preparation most people need to make in order to get past shock or disgust and try to dig into the content.

If and where these concepts like trigger warnings or safe spaces are being used to destroy discussion altogether, or to prevent controversial figures from speaking and learning what, if any, rationale they might have for their views, or otherwise to present only a sanitized and sanctioned understanding of a topic, I would agree they are being misused and applied to an over broad practice of policing thought and expression. This is not generally what people are doing with them in academic settings. It's more like giving people a minute to collect themselves. I would feel it works more like the slow and relaxing climb up a roller coaster ride, before diving and twisting around.

One of the many beneficial features of free speech and free inquiry is that it allows people to go more or less anywhere with a thought or a hypothesis and to explore many ideas. It also means that when we are treading off into an area of exploration of ideas or the expression of them that is likely to be offensive or troublesome, other people will be free to say so. We can then ignore them. That is likely to make us come off not so well in a social sense, that it will have cultural and social consequences. This should encourage us not to automatically abandon our esoteric and unpopular quest for what seems to be forbidden knowledge. But instead to think harder about its merits and how to express them, or to acknowledge perhaps there are few enough merits to discount the idea more or less entirely and to move on into other inquiries more worth our time. Or at least better forms of expression to get across our ideas. A key value of free inquiry and free speech is the process of ideas having to do some amount of rigorous battle with each other. Rather than simply being able to express something freely without complaint, we should expect that people might marshal their energy to oppose us. And that should lead us to make or seek out the very best and most rigorous arguments for not only what we believe we have learned and discovered to be true about the world around us, but what others believe as well. Such a process should humble us about our own level of certainty. And will also provide some outlets for controversy and debate. Even basic fundamental premises like "major political candidates should not say racist things and be able to get elected" will be tested from time to time, giving us the space to re-evaluate ourselves alongside our fellow citizens, classmates, teachers, friends, family members, and so on. To recognize whether we seem to be progressing or not with difficult ideas like how to deal with issues of racism or sexism. Or crime. Or punishment. Or education.

Even the premises of speech themselves are challenged from time to time. Very strong advocates for its utility should be willing to re-examine the value of speech and understand how robust it is, or how weak it has become as institutional practice if that is indeed the case. As well as understanding the varieties of expression will include shocking and distasteful methods or topics that can be approached more cautiously and perhaps more productively as a result.

Random thoughts



1- Suicide Squad was pretty fucking bad. Like terrible. Possibly one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen. Non-existent plot which basically consisted of "and now things are happening, and here more things are happening that are almost entirely unrelated to the things that just happened, with no explanation". Poor script or dialogue. Mostly bad casting. Robbie and Smith were wasted on this garbage, and Leto sucks. Years of unfortunately having seen Michael Bay films did not prepare me for how stupid a movie could be.

2- Dick pics. I don't get the premise. Even as a form of sexting, I'm not aware of women who want to receive them. I have a hard time understanding what the basis of thought involved in it is. "Okay. That's my bulge in the groin area. Or the full extent of my erections. Enjoy ladies." This is rather dull as an expression of perspective or understanding what it is that women will tend to enjoy. Almost no woman I can think of is going to be suitably impressed by a photo of a penis on a tiny screen. I'm pretty sure she's going to be a little more impressed if you have any idea what good that penis may be for. Which is not for show and tell. As a hint.

I don't really understand the concept of flashing either. Male strippers, maybe makes sense (I don't really understand strip clubs either, but to each their own there). The rest does not, even as a form of exhibitionism. It's creepy and strange. And does not work even for the base purpose of attracting or enticing women for sex. It doesn't communicate desire or sensuality. It mostly communicates this is a fairly normal human male who believes women should admire his penis, but probably would not care much about the rest of him.

So. I'm a little confused as to why, besides an unfortunate last name, Anthony Weiner keeps sending them, many years after he was caught doing so and destroyed his political career by leaving a photographic trail indicating just how often he thinks only with his penis. You would think this would be a learned behavior that could be amended. "Hmm. This got me into trouble before. Perhaps I should try some other means of attracting women, one with less of a photographic trail at least."

I am really confused as to what possible attraction there is for taking a photo of one's genitals or even a bulge created thereof mostly concealed by clothing, but also having a child in the photo. This does not seem like a reasonable fetish to advertise. Or a legal one. And it should not increase one's sex appeal to have a child prop in a photo intending to demonstrate that you may indeed have a functioning penis.

29 July 2016

An incomplete list of dumb ideas

An incomplete list of political positions Trump has taken that are morally reprehensible or stupid. More importantly, this list all contradicts common public perceptions. For example that he is "isolationist", "non-interventionist", "realist" on foreign policy. Or that the more common perception that he is "softer" on social issues than his Republican counterparts. How this is relevant when he is still far to the right of Democrats or libertarians is not clear. 
One can agree with some or any of these as policy agendas, but one should not be able to examine a list like this and come away with the interpretation that these are positions compatible with the above views. This should not also be taken as a complete list of Trump's dumb ideas (in my view) but rather a list which refutes certain common narratives which I see frequently expressed. His views on immigration more broadly and any number of other issues I take to be quite awful as well, but I would prefer to focus on stuff people haven't paid as much attention to or might take to be false if they have casually involved themselves on the subjects at hand. 
1 - Mercantilism motivates most of his trade and foreign policy positions. This was a discredited economic perspective over 200 years ago, involving zero sum competition and tariffs/protectionism rather than mutual cooperation and trade (a position which allows for more economic and social growth). Global trade and competition does involve winners and losers, but the "losers" are easily predictable ahead of time and could be accommodated through domestic policies. 
2- Colonialism motivates the remainder of foreign policy perspectives, the idea of taking over the strategically valuable territory or resources of a country if it is attacked or invaded. This is idiotic. Such resources are used or sold on open markets. So long as the country attacked or invaded is not attempting to impose export tariffs on the goods or resources it is capable of distributing abroad, it's virtually irrelevant to consumers where such things will come from. On economic grounds. People may have moral concerns about the government or non-state actors, but that's different from the economic viability of trade. In either event, naked conquest for the purpose of resource extraction or tribute extraction is an idea which was last common in the 19th century as European powers conquered Africa and SE Asia. 
3 - Opposes 14th amendment guarantee of birthright citizenship. This is not merely a statement about opposing "illegal immigration" but an effort to reduce legal migration and immigration by adding an additional step to provide for the guarantee of citizenship rights. There is a minority legal position that in any way the 14th amendment does not provide for birthright citizenship, but it does not appear to be held in mainstream legal theories or have clear legal precedence that could make this likely to be overturned. In fact most of his legal views are inscrutably bad, suggesting he has little or no familiarity with the legal and judicial system, or otherwise no idea what he is talking about where Constitutional concerns would arise. 
4 - Supported a government shutdown attempt over Planned Parenthood funding (last year). His views on abortion may have "evolved" but the belief that they are more socially liberal is based upon positions he held almost 2 decades ago. I would prefer to evaluate someone on the basis of what they now hold to be the case rather than what they implied when I was still in high school. 
5 - Stated women who receive abortions should have legal penalties. It was his first instinct to respond with the most aggressive possible legal sanctions. This was walked back, slowly. 
6 - Stated he would attempt to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v Wade. The list of judges that was leaked was viewed favorably by anti-choice groups for the likelihood of doing so.
7 - Buys into the "War on Christmas" narrative.
8 - Wants to abolish IRS rules on religious organisations and political campaigning.
9 - Supported NC House Bill 2, a bill removing LGBT anti-discrimination protections enacted by local governments. (He did change his mind on this, but he now supports it).
10 - Expressed same position on same sex marriage for over two decades. Which is that he does not support it. His supreme court short list included a number of anti-LGBT judges and he suggested after Obergefell that he would seek to overturn it.
11 - Suggests having the DoJ investigate Black Lives Matter protesters and organisations. In addition to other first amendment violations regarding freedom of the press; somehow expanding libel laws, attempting to bar disfavored reporters or media organs from covering his events, etc. 
12 - Mocked a reporter with a visible disability during a speech, suggesting no sympathy for people with physical maladies and disabilities. 
13 - Supports using stop and frisk searches (a highly questionable and probably unconstitutional practice of searching people without a clear Terry basis for a stop).
14 - Supports torture and capital punishment.
15 - Opposes legalisation of marijuana, and supports increasing enforcement efforts in the drug war
16 - Supported Iraq war and Libya, and generally supports the same policies as Clinton for Syria, and her pre-treaty positions for Iran. All of which are quite hawkish positions.
17 - Long history of deploying racist or fearmongering propaganda where it concerns Native Americans.
18 - Is fine with nuclear proliferation, which increases risks of very damaging military conflicts, which may or may not involve us, or nuclear terrorism (a fear which I would tend to ignore under ordinary circumstances). This is not a favorable non-interventionist position if it increases the danger or risk coming from foreign powers to an unacceptable degree. The purpose of non-interventionism is to get along with other nations on a neutral but friendly basis and thus reinforce acceptable international norms (things like "you don't need nuclear weapons" being among them). The point is not to increase the mayhem and chaos of the world but to engage with the world in a responsible manner. 
19 - Generally gives favorable approval of "strongman" behavior (Turkey's post-coup behaviors for example). This does not indicate interventionism, but it reinforces the probability that he might wish to govern in an aggressively anti-democratic way. 
20 - Can't make up his mind about Ukraine, but seems to be demanding we become more involved or makes demands that NATO become more involved. 
21 - Wishes to maintain very close ties to Israel, while putting forward positions on NATO/West Pac that are favorably viewed by rivals or hostile states in those regions (Russia/DPRK/China). As a general strategic view of the world, this is very unusual. Israel alone requires military aid without qualifications? Even though it has already a stronger and more advanced military and economy than any of its neighbours/rivals? As a theory of politics it suggests we should only help those who don't need it by being already strong. 

19 July 2016

Stateless actors

One of the key elements in "fighting terrorism" I have noted is a reliance upon occupation and bombing campaigns of other places in a theory that fighting terrorism abroad means we won't have to deal with it here. This sort of logic lay under a lot of late 20th century foreign policy, through offshoring and other proxy fights with communist rulers across the globe on a theory that preventing the spread of communism to new countries would prevent it from spreading here. A more sensible understanding was that communism was never going to be that fertile in the US anyway, and much of Western Europe and other allies either and that all that was necessary was containment while the ideology destroyed itself. The mythology that Reagan won the Cold War has some pieces of merit, but at no point did he directly confront the USSR militarily in battle either (indirectly in Afghanistan and other places, yes). This should be instructive to understanding the limitations of the fighting abroad logic.

But what is really demonstrative is comparing the chaos caused by terrorism now to that of the 19th century anarchists (and some communists). This period spawned shootings, bombings, and political assassinations all over the world for several decades. The common cause was ideological, sometimes vaguely, and this inspired individual actors with guns and bombs to mayhem and violence. There was no other country to go invade or bomb to put a stop to it, as there is not really today either. The problem was growing and incubating within each country itself. It came from an idea, not a border. The problem now resembles this far more than the Cold War rubric that seems to dominate strategic action or what passes for strategic thought today. There is a "state" in the form of ISIS, which functions in a bureaucratic sense to administer territory, but the relevant feature of that state is not its ability to threaten us, or even its neighbours, with invasion and devastation in military conflict. It cannot do any such thing. It is the ability of this state's ideology to inspire action abroad to make small scale isolated attacks in an attempt to terrorize or at least annoy their perceived enemies. When or if it is crushed as an illegitimate state force, this result will be largely irrelevant. Other groups carry similar ideological beliefs (al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, etc), and have inspired or carried out large scale attacks of their own. Conflict in military arenas is not the appropriate strategic realm on which to fight this problem in the first place, but appears to be the only dominant method we have considered executing.

It flows nicely from the "we must do something, this is something, let's do it" logic that I suspect pervades much public action. What we "know how do to do" is bomb locations or targets, and defeat enemies militarily with logistics, stealth, and firepower. Therefore that's what we're going to do by Jove. But almost all of which is useless against ideas. And typically involves a very expensive method of attempting with violence and force, and mostly failing, to stablize regions and governments that might spread and sponsor such ideas. This should be recognized as a dysfunctional method of response. Or at best, only a part of a response.

It is by now a common set of wisdom however that if they hit us, we hit them back. This is not a solution to most problems at the age of 4 or 5 in observing the play of children. It is hardly a solution to most problems for adults. Much less nation-states. A better analogy might work something like this. It is reasonable to take steps to deter a mosquito bite, to try to prevent mosquitoes from approaching you or an outdoor patio when one is in a summer or spring repose taking in the day. It is even reasonable to slap and kill the mosquito when it should bite you. It is not reasonable to decide after such a bite that you shall endeavour to exterminate any insects of any kind near you, most of which have done and will do nothing so remarkable even as to provide a small itchy patch of skin. This is generally what our responses look more like than the more limited "slap the mosquito" response.

In a foreign policy or national security explanation, we should be attempting to gather intelligence. On suspected terrorists, not on everyone, with a more strict limitation on what constitutes "terrorism". We should be taking reasonable but not onerous and super-expensive security steps. So some minor security screening to get on airplanes, with those having secured cockpits and alert but not paranoid passengers. And not rigorous and endless lines involving the removal of shoes and belts and toothpaste at great expense of time and energy (and lives) for little or no gain in actual security or deterrence of threats. We should be operating intelligence along the outer rim of groups that are deemed at risk of violent action (white supremacists, Islamic radicals, anti-choice radicals, etc), to try to identify and deter possible violence before it happens. But we should not be treating anyone with a generic Muslim heritage, members of biker gangs, or anyone using vaguely anti-government rhetoric as a potential terrorist either. Same with mental health issues and on down the line as subjects we have highlighted for prejudicial assessment in this way. We should not be deploying weapons of war to our own local and state police forces. These are of little use for most towns and cities in the project of anti-terrorism. They are of great use in the oppression of citizens local rights instead. And we should not be seeking to conduct bombing campaigns aggressively in other countries in the hopes of possibly killing "terrorists". Who are often insurgents, at least in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no thus no threat to us here.

Violence that we would prefer to avoid is in this sense a disease. It is not solved by spreading it to more people than those who are already afflicted by it. Or afflicting yet more violence upon those already at risk of it.

05 July 2016

Thoughts on the email/Clinton scandal

I have generally been meh in reaction to this as a scandal. In so far as I agree it is a scandal, there is that. But it also does not present much useful information for me. There were a number of reasons I was not very moved for or against Clinton.

It was always to my mind extremely unlikely she would be prosecuted or charged with a crime. High government officials are rarely held legally accountable for their behavior. David Petraeus essentially did the same thing. He in fact deliberately leaked information, something which would be hard to prove in Clinton's case, and only got probation and a fine. There were numerous scandals and public officials under investigation during the Reagan administration. Very few of them went to jail; one was a cabinet official convicted of bribery involving public housing projects and building contractors. Agnew was convicted of tax evasion, but Nixon was pardoned for Watergate. Albert Fall was the first cabinet official ever convicted of a crime while in office and that took until the Harding administration and Teapot Dome. And so on. This makes no statement of whether the legal system should be more involved in the accountability of public officials in the executive branch. It's a statement that they usually aren't charged and convicted when something sketchy legally occurs, and that any expectation that would happen here should be tempered by the knowledge that it hasn't happened very often. As to why it does not happen more often.
a) It can be really hard to prove an actual crime was committed deliberately. Bribery for example has to usually show there was some significant political favor purchased with the bribes. It isn't as simple as showing that money moved from point A to point B. These are rarely cases involving direct physical evidence like a murder or robbery that can be examined separate from the case itself.
b) Justice department officials and public executive officials, like local police and prosecutors, more or less have to work with each other and have strong incentives not to rock the boat too much where it concerns a high official who if they screw up the prosecution and gets off, then is likely to still be The Boss. And probably will not be very happy with whomever tried to grind an axe and failed.

Without a legal charge, there was little probability that it would have a major impact on the campaign. As a scandal it largely fit the processing of how many people already saw the Clintons (both Bill and Hillary). This is more a statement about us than it is about her. If people already saw her as hypocritical or duplicitous, then behavior which appears hypocritical or duplicitous simply reinforces the existing narrative. Many people already held this view of the Clintons and of Hillary in particular. This was not changed or altered in some fundamental way such that it actually matters in campaign horse race terms. I generally see coverage to the contrary as media attempting to get attention for something rather than reporting on something new and interesting. Such as any policy shifts she has made, and proposed to make, and whether those will be good for the country/world or not.

As a statement about her judgment it says very little. A more concerning feature of judgment is her assessments of waging war in Libya. Without a probable long-term campaign to re-stabilize the country after deposing a ruler, or risking any long-term diplomatic strategy for getting China and Russia on board if a more significant foreign government/dictator actually needed to be deposed, like, say, Assad in Syria. The Benghazi "scandal" has largely ignored this question during investigation, most likely because many elite Republicans favored intervention in Libya, much as they favored intervention in Iraq (as she did too). The email scandal meanwhile has occasionally been linked into questions over her support for NSA metadata collection, opposition to publicly available encryption, continued processing of far too many government documents as classified or other attempts to keep them from public view, and so on.

These to me are the far more important questions of her judgment being in error as these potentially negatively impact the civil liberties of millions of American citizens and residents, something a President has enormous power and sway to do. Likewise pushing for an ill-advised bombing campaign for the purpose of regime change in an unstable area without likely stability in the form of new leadership (which is judged in some way morally superior), seems like a poor judgment. The bigger picture seems more important than whether or not some sensitive documents were hacked because they were improperly handled. That's more or less par for the course right now, in my estimation, because that's kind of how the internet works right now. Documents will be hacked if someone wants to hack them. Or leaked if someone wants to leak them.

08 May 2016

Civil War

I had other thoughts on the quality of the film (it was good, but not at the level of Winter Soldier or Avengers). This isn't about that. (spoilers anyway though).

One thing that has emerged in the aftermath is people seem to have trouble understanding what Captain America/Steve Rogers basis for "rebellion" against the authorities even is. This is much more clearly spelled out in the comic, but the component parts are all present in the film itself. The problem is they aren't very clear; the movie seems very clearly to be hammering upon questions of revenge instead of the geopolitics that underlie the comic that spawned the film in the first place.

So here's what it breaks into.

1) Cap does not trust the agendas of potential oversight. He has good reason not to from the events of Winter Soldier, to be suspicious of other people telling him what they are up to and for what purpose. The comic was written at the height of the Iraq War's unpopularity. The gist both there and to an admittedly less clear but still present extent in the film is that people in charge often demand weapons and violence be pointed at the "wrong" targets, and this still results in the terrible results they are seeking to prevent by enacting rules of oversight (such as collateral damage). It is an important distinction that the agendas of "ordinary" men are going to differ, perhaps wildly, from what may be objectively found to be good or best possible alternatives. The results may not always be terribly different, but if we're looking for "extraordinary" people to set these agendas, it's possible they may do so more capably and with less damage by not attacking the wrong places deliberately. Winter Soldier sets this up pretty strongly as a concern within the series of films.

2) The film portrays the oversight as coming from the UN via a broad international agreement. But anyone familiar with the UN will be aware it is often dysfunctional and will probably prevent many actions for political reasons ("agendas" as Rogers calls them). "Movie UN" is always a really powerful and cohesive group for some reason. I suppose it wouldn't be very amusing in movie terms to see the UN deadlocking on a vote or Russia or China or the US vetoing deployment of the Avengers to go deal with a raging supermonster/supervillain somewhere on the globe. The question of whether they will be sent somewhere they don't want to go (to do something they shouldn't), or won't be allowed to go somewhere they need to, is a viable concern if what they are doing is dealing with potential threats all over the globe which potentially threaten millions of lives. This is also an argument that many neoconservatives make of course. We are seeing that the threats the Avengers deal with are usually "real"; this is not the case of the US or other nation-states and their agendas.

But. It should be pretty clear that the UN/accords governments ignore the input of the superfriends team of Avengers almost immediately (Ross ignores Stark's file of evidence on Bucky) and that they would end up likely being a huge red tape working on shutting them down rather than using them as a superfriends team to do some good.

3) He does not generally trust the methods of others; again, seeing WS, he presents a very strong civil libertarian case against what SHIELD/Hydra are up to. "This isn't freedom, this is fear". And of course, this being a movie, his fears of what is going on turned out to be quite justified. He has a good degree of trust in the abilities of people he works and trains with closely, and that they are just as concerned that they work carefully to save lives/protect people. He does not trust others to get the job done as often and as well, that there won't be more lives lost. Or that they won't turn out to be weapons that can be turned against the innocent deliberately (as in WS). There's an argument to be made that a team of superheroes with considerable abilities and being well-equipped and trained to use those abilities together will be able to limit the possibility of damage far more than anyone else. Or may be the only ones who can stop certain plots from occurring at all (say some enormous alien invasion of NYC, or cleaning up Stark's mess from creating a psychotic AI, or unraveling and stopping nefarious plots by international bad guys bent on world domination, or whatever).

This is not a great argument in real life. But in the context of the Marvel universe, it probably makes more sense not to attach too much red tape to their activities and to give them the tip of the spear/sword/shield and decide how to use it themselves instead of someone else telling them where they can and cannot go. They aren't just a band of superpowered thugs roaming around blowing things up for kicks. They have spies and computer hackers to help them pick the right targets as best as they can.

The counterargument is strengthened by Stark's screw-ups (with his company selling weapons under the table that he had to clean up, and later himself creating Ultron, but also Vision), which is why that makes a compelling argument to him, but not to Cap. The comic also strengthens this argument in that there are bands of lesser superheroes who cause problems because they are not as skilled or admired or otherwise legitimate, and ultimately this causes more collateral damage.

4) One of the major points in the comic, and which may be obscured by the more personal nature of the film, is that one of Cap's key concerns is that he will be sent after people who do not sign on the dotted line to agree to the rules. And most likely sent after them to kill them, because these are potentially very dangerous people that inspire fear (whether deserved or not). Or at best these would be people who would be imprisoned indefinitely. This point does get made, but very subtly. In the film, Cap was about to sign the accord, until Tony brought up that Wanda was still effectively imprisoned until he signed (plus obviously Falcon and himself). This does not go over well, predictably. Wanda later makes a key point that people are going to be afraid of her no matter what she does. It doesn't actually mean much that she signs a piece of paper (or that Cap signs it for her, essentially).

5) I felt the best argument that was made in the political sense was Widow's "we still will have one hand on the wheel and we have to use it earn back their trust". But, because of the plot of the film in hunting down what ultimately ends up being the wrong man, she sees this isn't going to play out in a way they would have control or influence over what they are to be doing either and bails on it.

26 April 2016

Inequality and voting

Bernie Sanders made a hilariously poorly framed statement. Effectively blaming the lack of poor people voting for why his campaign has faired relatively poorly (or at least, isn't winning). One obvious problem with this is that Sanders has not done any better among those voters who are poor and have shown up to vote. There are reasons for that.

I propose that this was a fundamental flaw all along with his campaign. That it was unlikely to appeal to many people who are among the poorest Americans. The reason, to me, was that he was not running a campaign based on the issues that matter to such people. He was running a campaign based on issues that matter to relatively well off white middle class voters. Of the sort one encounters in Vermont.

For example. Most of the poorest Americans live in fairly awful school districts for K-12 primary education. A campaign which promises free college tuition is meaningless to most of these people as their children would not be provided with basic skills and knowledge necessary to be modestly successful at navigating through college and graduating in the first place. The problem of inequality as it relates to college is that a high school diploma has become economically useless, and the reason is that the perception is that most such schools are poorly qualified at providing useful skills to employers. There are lots of ways to try to fix that, some of which may even help and work to improve education and even the possibility of college and a decent living for hundreds of thousands of children. Paying for the college educations of legions of already reasonably well educated suburban children isn't one of these. It is not surprising that it is popular (among recent college graduates, and some professors). But it has little relevance to the problems of the majority of Americans suffering from poverty. It should not be surprising it doesn't catch on as a special message for the poor.

This problem continues throughout. Sanders has made considerable claims about the fairness of campaign funding. But the actual problem for poorer Americans is liable to be ballot access. They can't take off work to go vote (on a Tuesday). If they even can vote (if they have been removed from registration, or have a criminal record, for example). Various states have made it more and more difficult to vote early, or to vote by mail, or even to register to vote. Politicians may certainly be swayed by money and influence, but they're mainly swayed by votes, on the theory that they would like to remain in office. If legions of poorer voters were to show up or be able to show up and vote, one expects this may influence the behavior of some political figures. Middle class voters may wish to feel like their smaller sums may fund better campaigns, but the actual and immediate problem is ballot access, not influence access.

Meanwhile there is not much evidence that more people voting or more access on campaign funding via semi public methods or funds matches has any noticeable effect on the progressivism of governance voters receive. Maine does some of the stuff Sanders seems to like. Maine also has one of the few people in America possibly more insane than Drumpf as its elected and currently serving governor. There may be other good reasons to amend how elections and lobbying are funded. But the formation of some kind of "progressive revolution" is not one of them. Voters who don't vote aren't very progressive (except on economics, where they are often socialistic), and are apt to endorse all manner of biases and prejudices that we probably don't want or will have to fight in court. This is the messy business of democracies is that voters have wacky ideas. Some of them are wrong via prejudices or at best woefully misinformed. This is not necessarily their fault (in some cases), as they have little reason to become well-informed. Non-voters are typically even worse on this score, as they have had even less reason to become well-informed. We should not expect that merely getting more people to vote will have mainly predictable and beneficial outcomes for our society and its civic virtues. This is a silly belief in the rationality of voters toward voting in their self-interest. Something many of them do not in fact try to do. Many people vote out of a sense of civic virtue and simply do not agree on what would best create a better and more prosperous society. Often resulting in what we have as governance. This is not fixed by encouraging more people to vote and having to resolve more of these disagreeable notions.

Railing about bankers and the rich as Sanders often does has its amusing charm I'm sure, but it offers little sustaining fuel for what comes next, and it often rejects things bankers and rich people want on the grounds that it is bankers and rich people who want it. This is not sensible. But it also isn't the variety of inequality which seems to preoccupy most people. Most people have no idea how Bill Gates lives. Or Jamie Diamond. Etc. This does not violate some sense of fairness or attainable goals as a result. They do have some idea how their friends and neighbours and former classmates and co-workers live. The sort of inequality which dominates most people's time and attention and energy is "am I keeping up with my peers"? "Am I able to live in accordance with my perceived shared values?" This is difficult to make into a policy, much less a stump speech. But I suspect it occupies more of daily concern and thought for most people. There's clearly some sense that the game is being rigged, but it is many millions of miles away from our lived experiences in many cases. It is an abstraction, often involving complex legal and regulatory schemes. Our friends, or some random people we know across town doing much better than us, or seeming to via facebook, is a much more accessible emotional problem. I don't understand this variety of envy as naturally sensible, and it obviously affords little comfort in the form of government intervention. But I also don't understand concern over extremely wealthy people necessarily either. Unless we have clear evidence that they are gaining that wealth through misbegotten strategies and tactics at the expense of others, and there are cases that this would be (US sugar or corn farmers for example), I'm not really concerned that some people are outrageously successful. This is not by and large something that deeply disturbs many Americans that some people can get very rich, even among people who are pretty poor. For Sanders, it appears to be. This is not likely to be a connection people will make readily as a result.

A final problem. Perhaps the main one ultimately. Sanders has had difficulty making inroads with minorities, particularly African-Americans. I have read more times than I can count over the last few months that his policies would be of tremendous benefit to such people and why don't they like them or vote for him, as a disturbing example of whitesplaining I suppose. There are a litany of problems with this variety of statement, but a simple objection suffices: the things Sanders and his fans seem most animated about aren't the priority of this community to fix and address. The priority might be something like "we want a police force that doesn't brutalize and kill us and feel like an occupying army in our neighbourhoods". Or "we want the ability to start a business and get a fair loan to do so". "We want our children to be able to go to a decent school to prepare them for their future". There are basic forms of survival and prosperity which have gone unmet and are in need of serious improvement, and these problems cut beyond some version of class warfare that Sanders believes is necessary; they have ethnic and historical roots that are not merely the behavior and intentions of rich people to put in place and accost people for. The prejudices are deeper and broader than that. These issues are as a result often very disconnected from the types of policies and politics which Sanders and his supporters have put forward most often and most readily. Certainly it seems unclear that Clinton offers policies that may adjust these situations in a positive way. She has not endorsed many Black Lives Matter positions as part of her platform, and has a track record that is sketchy at best where race and criminal justice are involved. But neither does Sanders offer some version of an improvement on many of these questions (a possible exception is the drug war, which he seems slightly less enthusiastic about continuing to wage). In that instance, people may go with the devil they know.

One way to look at these questions however is to say that often inequality as a political issue does not seem well connected to inequality as a social issue. It therefore does not resonate the way a political figure believes it will when they talk about it. The reason is fairly simple. Most political figures do not know very many poor people. Or many people from ethnic or religious minorities. This makes it more complicated for them to connect their message in a way that actually feels like it would impact the plight of people who are marginalized and not well off economically. Much policy is then crafted almost entirely in the absence of asking how it would actually impact the people involved, or whether it actually addresses their needs and concerns. A paternalistic "we know better than they what they need/want" attitude also pervades these conversations with notions of "people voting against their self-interest" and the like. Little of this probably feels like it relates to the lived experiences of actual people who are poor.

A note on bathrooms

Much fussiness has arisen over who gets to use which bathroom. This seems incredibly paranoid and silly at best, but mainly doesn't seem like something that requires laws. Which is to say: transgendered persons have been using bathrooms of their choice and intention for years without much in the way of public complaint or incident. Nobody really noticed or cared. Why this arises now? Most probably because anti-gay bigotry is less popular to express, but some version of it still demands expression. This is as close as some people can get. Laws restricting the behavior of homosexuality are unenforceable and unlikely to pass muster in courts. Trans persons are a relative unknown, very few people know much about the biology involved (and people's eyes will glaze over when you try to explain the available neuroscience to them), and they represent an even smaller minority that is thus easier to pick on. Any legal fight is still perceived as uncertain.

What we are seeing is that there is a strong cultural fight ongoing, where businesses and liberals and progressives are (generally) allies, social conservatives are off on a strange island, and there is some number of people in the middle who don't yet know what to think of any of this and perhaps harbor vaguely creepy and uninformed notions about who or what transgender means in society and as a set of behaviors. As with abortion, this physical and moral uncertainty (and even fear) can sometimes privilege very restrictive legal actions that are inappropriate or unnecessary, even as an intention to alleviate some alleged social or health related problem. To be clear, I feel I know very little about this subject myself. I've written about it before with some circumspection. What I do know suggests very little of the public debate has had anything to do with the behavior of transgendered persons, the reasons for it, the norms enforcing that behavior, or really much of anything with respect to the actual fears of people involved.

There are pretty strong norms about bathroom use; that someone going into the women's restroom should look like they belong in that space for example. But even these allow for some things like a parent taking small children into the "wrong" bathroom, or women using the men's room stalls at large events (sports or concerts), and so on. Creating laws which might rigidly define who can use what bathroom seems typically unnecessary. Social conventions are quite capable of handling this question in a "common sense" way without messily involving the law and its blunt instruments of gender assignments. And the implication of law is that somehow we must be enforcing these restrictions. Using what methods? This is a question generally left unexamined. Would we punish women who look insufficiently feminine for using the "wrong bathroom"? How would we even tell someone who has had sex reassignment therapy or surgery is in the "wrong space"? Is someone going to be assigned to check IDs? Or check people's bits? Again, social norms will tend to enforce these conventional situations more than adequately without these mixed up scenarios.

The creepy "men will get dressed up as women to watch women peeing" or some such narrative pushed by many men on this point makes no sense in relation to this subject. Men can already do this. They generally don't. In large part because social norms and (yes) laws will punish such behavior. And in any case, there's plenty of this rather odd sexual fetish available relatively freely on the internet (presumably including varieties where men have dressed up as women). Mostly this suggests something is wrong with the person making this argument, that they think this is something people would suddenly start to do that they somehow cannot right now. It has little to do with what makes someone transgendered that someone "decides" to use a "different" bathroom, much less for the purpose of creepily staring at women or children. Such a conversation is like speaking a different language with an alien species and rarely amounts to productive conclusions.

There isn't in fact very much danger in public restrooms for sexual abuse. Upon women or children. Think about what this argument suggests for a moment. A random stranger, someone totally unknown to a woman or child, will sneak into an inappropriate bathroom where there may be an unknown quantity of persons within, often doing so in full view of store security or video surveillance, and most likely with a guardian, friend, or parent nearby to the person they wished to target for abuse, who then will have ample opportunity to resist and to call for help in a public location where other human beings might hear them and assist. There are many reasons that sexual abuse is nearly always perpetrated by someone known to the victim (for children, the percentage of known abusers approaches 95%. Random assaults or even kidnappings are vanishingly rare). But these are all pretty strong arguments against the fear of random strangers in public bathrooms, not arguments in favor of laws relating to who can use what restroom. We are imagining a fear that doesn't actually exist, and not creating a new scenario that didn't already exist by allowing people to use the bathroom in which they are personally most comfortable. More to the point, rates of sexual assault itself have been declining. The actual danger being identified, a risk of something untoward happening while someone is in the vulnerable position of relieving their body of physical waste, is already unlikely, and is in a category of crime that is itself less and less likely.

One problem I have been seeing is that comparisons are being made to demand laws or stronger social efforts to punish sexual offenders (instead of these kinds of silly laws regarding restrictions on transgendered bathroom selection). We already have a vast infrastructure of laws punishing all manner of lewd and inappropriate behaviors, sometimes severely, in addition to laws punishing sexual assault and rape and other more morally reprehensible crimes. Thousands of people are required in most US states to register as sex offenders, to be restricted on where they may live, contact with family members is often heavily restrained (assuming their offense was not involving such, family is often a key method of reintegration to society as it provides a basis of support), to have social stigma attached to them from neighbours who often wrongly infer their actions make them a threat to their children, job restrictions on where they can work or what kind of work they can do, and so on. The vast majority of these people did not go around molesting children, raping women, or other heinous actions of sexual predators. Therefore I would submit that the idea that we should punish sexual offenses more severely or more readily is already an idea we have taken to heart and practiced as a society. We already do it at a prodigious rate.

To be sure, there are still problems in how many people, including some police and prosecutors and judges, perceive rape and sexual assault, and the methods of adjudicating claims thereof are still often fraught with he-said-she-said difficulties, and problems in how swiftly and readily evidence is processed for criminal convictions (or as proof of innocence). And there are serious questions of sexual consent (and communication regarding sexuality in general) that are still awkwardly worked out for many young people in a way that disadvantages them from the healthy and consensual enjoyment of the human form. But our eagerness to punish sexual misbehavior reaches far beyond these questions and often ends up vigorously criminalizing (generally natural) sexual exploration by teens, drunken stupidity like public urination, and on down the list. This is where we go when we want to punish sexual misconduct as a society. And not toward more violent and non-consensual criminal actions. We should be careful to look at an imaginary danger, some vast looming threat posed uniquely by transgendered persons using the "wrong" bathrooms in public, and not replace it with other imaginary dangers in the effort to dismiss the former.