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).

08 April 2015

Ignorance is not a merit badge

This isn't a complaint about any one in particular. I've become frustrated by an increasing number of discussions and debates and political topics where I observe that one or both sides, or a variety of their participants appear to not understand the topic. But still wish to fan their ill-considered opinion into the fray. Much of this is, I think, that most of us do not know very much about either the other side, or the people about whom such fights are being waged. It's also very cheap to air an opinion into the fray and there's often very few interlocutors who will know enough to push back.

An example: abortion. Most of us probably do know someone who has had an abortion, or someone who has had a partner/spouse who did. But most of us don't discuss it, either if it occurs, or go about indiscreetly inquiring about it. It's not exactly a topic that comes up and isn't liable to be a very comfortable topic to discuss. Many women or families that have them are likely to not want to discuss it on the (reasonable) fear that some number of people will be extremely judgmental. They will prefer to remain friends or have quiet family dinners than to discuss this activity and decision with others on the risk that they will decide this is some unforgivable behavior. Or it will have happened so long ago as to be seen as immaterial. Similarly, it is a comfortable assumption to believe that abortion is something that "other people, not like myself" do, and probably seen as impolite to presume that it is occurring among the circle of associates we have collected and ask about it.

All of that means that abortion politics and debates about abortion center largely on these vague assumptions about who is getting abortions, vague assumptions about why they occur, and the various preconceptions one has about those decisions, how they are made, who makes them, and what we should do about it. In fact, these would be much simpler discourses if we know or could conceive of someone we know who did in fact get an abortion. Instead of these amorphous characters upon which we may pile our assumptions made from ignorance. We can, in the absence of this personal experience, rely on data that is collected. A composite may be made. But that will still be a stranger that we imagine. Not a friend. Or a former classmate. A former teacher. A former lover. And so on through the range of possibilities.

Throughout discussions over the last several years, I have noticed this ignorance of the topic becoming a serious problem for how people are informing their political decisions or activism, or how they are discussing issues therein with others. People are unaware of how often police shoot or assault suspects (part of this is that US police forces do not keep proper statistics of course). How often they raid people's homes in full tactical military gear (again, most states don't keep or report this information). How often those raids find not only few or no illegal drugs (the most common basis for such acts), but no weapons either (the most common basis for why they needed the aggressive military raid). How often police are killed or assaulted by suspects (this is tracked, it's been going down). Whether the crime rate is going down (most cities it has, by a lot). People are unaware of why abortions happen or who gets them. Or who has miscarriages and how common those are and whether laws intended to punish and restrict abortions might not also punish women who have had miscarriages with criminal investigations. People are unaware that women in lower class or lower income jobs probably won't get the ability or time from their employers to use a breast pump to aid in breastfeeding while at work. Or that they don't have access to basic family leave policies and sufficient income that will allow women to recover mentally or physically from pregnancy if needed and for new parents to spend time with a new child and the time and energy that requires and must return to work very soon after giving birth if they wish to continue to pay bills or keep their job. People are unaware of how Muslims behave. Or atheists. Or even (other) Christians. Or are unaware that their own grandparents might be in favor of gay weddings. Or that they are not. People are unaware of what gun owners are like and why they want to have and keep guns (or unaware of why other people might have some reasonable fear of guns). People are unaware that putting calorie counts on fast food doesn't make most people order healthier; it might work the opposite way even. Or that paying for health care more easily doesn't make people go to an actual doctor for their health needs; they still go to the emergency room instead, maybe because they don't have time to schedule appointments during working hours. People are unaware of the actual time and energy involved in being working poor in our society and the impact this has on decision making or the ability to do ordinary "middle class" things, or the moral and ethical decisions that may be altered because of the need to rely on others for basic status and survival purposes. People are unaware of others in many contexts.

And yet we all presume to know a great deal and presume that other people should not only know these things that we think we know, but that they should behave as we do, with our different incentives and experiences left unexamined.

From observing and talking to other people, I think there are two basic roots to this problem

1) The belief that other people are fundamentally "like me". I do not generally share this problem. It exists for me, but it is not as infectious an idea as I can easily find and deliberately push forward things that make me "different" and will challenge this assumption when others care to look at it. I admit and sometimes revel in the fact that I am an odd ball outsider observing other people. My politics are often more radical. I won't vote for candidates I can't support in good conscience (most people vote for the lesser of two weevils. Or it is evils. I'm not really sure what they're implying I should be doing). I don't practice any religious or spiritual traditions. Consequently from this "outsider" perch, my perspective shows me that there isn't as much of a difference between Christians and Muslims (or Scientologists even). Or from Democrats or Republicans (or libertarians). From heterosexuals and homosexuals. Or from Bob and Linda. Most people are pretty depressingly normal once you get to know them, even if they believe or say wacky things sometimes. They have to be very strange indeed to be surprising. Maybe some things or people are worse and more destructive than others or other things are better and more apt to form a prosperous and pleasant environment in which to live and work, but they're not so fundamentally distinct to be unrecognizable. (That in itself is depressing, in that these supposedly very distinct worlds can collide and destroy very easily what is built because they aren't coming from places that are very far apart most of the time).

Most of humanity seems instead to assume that other people they know and associate with fundamentally agree with them on many things rather than admit this possibility that they might be "weirdos". Sure maybe Bob likes the Yankees or sometimes votes for Democrats. Or maybe Linda has a better job. Or whatever. Basic worldviews are in alignment. Basic outlooks and perspectives. Basic status and welfare is generally similar. So we assume they're like us and that they think and agree with us on many points. On many points, that's maybe true. We do have friends that are often more like us than not. Our families are usually like us. But we aren't clones. We don't spend the time to investigate these distinctions. We do not listen, and we do not ask. We've assumed we already know all we need to and that what we don't know won't be that shocking.

2) The lack of networks for most of us for accessing people who are "others". If we are white, we don't have many black friends. If we are rich, we do not have many poor friends. If we are Christian, we probably have few atheist friends. And so on into less pleasant circumstances for some of us (these aren't equivalent categories but rather examples of things we don't like to consider: we don't know of the women who have had an abortion, we don't know any Scientologists, we don't know any Neo-Nazis, we don't know Young Earth Creationists). And we lack the imagination to perceive how that may (or whether it should) change. There is little or no percentage or gain perceived. There is more to be gained by more tightly winding our way up. Not by looking around at the people around us that are "in the way" and aren't part of the group.

Some of those "others" may actually be distasteful and unpleasant. That's to be expected. We are also encouraged, in order to keep and earn some respectability, not to know and associate with of many of these unpleasant groups where they are in public disfavor. Knowing someone who is explicitly racist or sexist is uncomfortable (for some people, even implicit expression of biases is uncomfortable and worthy of challenge). It probably should be, or at least be pushed back upon and challenged where it is encountered, as there seems to be little benefit to such practices and demands made by racists or sexists if enacted where they are made widely and openly without any social consequence. Knowing a woman who has had an abortion is also probably uncomfortable for many people. Maybe it should not be. Knowing someone who has been arrested? Knowing people who are serving in the military? Knowing politicians trying to get elected? Cops trying to uphold law and order? And so on. We should not pretend that these are people totally alien to us, any more than they should toward us. Often this is the framework that emerges. Christians versus atheists. Cops versus the general public. Politicians toward the public and each other. These frameworks of intense opposition are not obviously and necessarily helpful. They are easy ways of discussing a debate that we know little about because we probably know little about the relatively small number people on the other end of it, or the many more people who are observing this debate with only partial interest and investment of time and attention, or even and most importantly the people whose actual lives are going to be impacted by what, if anything, comes out of our discourse and elegant arguments and shouting matches.

Perhaps a different approach would help. If a state wants to pass a law that might be seen as permitting discrimination, maybe it would be useful to have the voices of people who might be discriminated against involved in the discussion and formation of such laws to be heard and discussed even if in opposition to their crafting and language. Or a state wants to pass a law that might restrict access to abortion, perhaps women, families, and doctors should be consulted. Or perhaps if we're going to form a set of international sanctions upon a country, we could then talk to them to see if we can find ways to accommodate both sides demands in a reasonable manner. These are not complicated steps but they are apparently difficult to achieve. We would benefit by having to interact more with actual people once in a while.

The world isn't a zero sum game. One of the prices of living in a pluralistic and highly elastic (and thereby unequal society) is that eventually and sometimes the various disparate parts start clawing at each other. Sometimes these disagreements become fundamental and impossible to work around. But one of the benefits of living in such a society is that there are opportunities to find ways to prevent that, for people to all prosper and get what they want or need. They don't even need to get along or like each other that much at all for that to happen. A very modest level of respect of the identity and intentions of others suffices.

An exercise perhaps to help. Start with the assumption that you do not know what they are thinking, what they have done, and what they wish to do and why, and that maybe you should investigate that more before doing things that might effect them. Or if that's too much, try to imagine that someone you know closely is like this person. How might that impact your thinking? Or your friendship or work relationship or marriage? A little humility and a little awareness of ignorance in some of these debates might open the floor to more opinions and more knowledge.

04 April 2015

Iran

So. On to more pressing business.

I've been following the Iran sanctions and negotiations with some interest for months. Some thoughts

It has been a stated position that Iran has had an interest in pursuing a nuclear programme and weapons associated with it for about 3 decades now. They've had one going back to the 70s in the Shah days (with the help of the Israelis actually at that point, paradoxically).

Supposedly all of this was about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I am dubious. I would submit if it were, an agreement very much like we just obtained would be the best and most plausible way to ensure that not happen. There are more "certain" ways to prevent it, such as annihilate the entire country and its government in particular with a full-scale or tactical nuclear assault or invade it and overturn its government as we did with Iraq, but neither of these are "best" case scenarios (both are extraordinarily messy and not without considerable risk to American security) and neither is worth the cost if we can achieve that outcome peacefully. That is: they are not serious options anyway and persons suggesting that they are should not be taken seriously. In theory we could suppose that our actions in opposition to Iran's purported goals here are only consequential as it regards Iran, but they are not.

One of the main reasons and arguments against a nuclear armed Iran isn't that Iran could exert more diplomatic or regional hegemonic dominance against its rivals. Iran already has the capability to do this (provided it doesn't hamper its economy through mismanagement or its economy isn't hampered by crippling sanctions from abroad). It does not need nuclear weapons to do so, and in fact probably benefits more from an environment where it does not have them. The main argument is that an environment where Iran pursues and achieves nuclear weapons also is an environment where its rivals in the area may do likewise (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey). Considering we are discussing a region of the globe that is highly unstable politically, and contains some number of extremist political or religious groups that are effectively anarchist in IR terms or at least likely to seek to possess such weapons to further their bloody and undesirable goals in the region, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in that region would be a rather noteworthy policy goal to seek to prevent.

We are already aware of reasons that we would prefer such weapons not exist in unstable countries in the form of Pakistan (or many of the post-Soviet republics that turned their weapons held over to Russia). For example, Pakistan's government began moving its nuclear arsenal around on lightly defended trucks because it feared the US would seize or destroy their arsenal if the situation became (more) unstable otherwise. That is not an example of a type of behavior we would want a nuclear armed country to be engaging in.

We are also aware of the lack of use by rogue states. North Korea has had its own weapons for some time. No use has occurred. Iran, while we are told is a highly ridiculous religious entity capable of doing something so self-destructive as to use an arsenal of nuclear weapons as soon as it attained them, is not even in that rather reductive and absurd scenario more strange than North Korea and it provides no evidence that they are likely to use weapons either. It is generally strange to make this assumption that their intention in acquisition is to immediately use them to destroy their rivals. Were they to attempt to do so with say, Israel, they would themselves be immediately destroyed by just the Israeli counterstrike, much less that of other countries. Pakistan and India have had less than cordial relations for decades also and no exchange of nuclear arsenals has yet occurred.

This does not mean that such uses are impossible, but it suggests that the obtaining of nuclear arsenals serves other purposes besides attempting to suicidally annihilate rival states. From a rational perspective, the opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran by countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, the United States, is understandable. Rival nations in possession of destructive weaponry is not a desirable outcome. Opposition to any diplomatic means (by the US and other powerful nation-states) of obtaining that result is more frustrating, but still understandable. What is at stake there isn't a nuclear Iran at all, but rather a more normalized relationship with Iran vis a vis the West. If the US more often listens to Iran than it does, and takes into account its interests more communicatively, instead of only interpreting those interests through the mantras we are told via Israel or Saudi Arabia, or other interlocutors, then the favored nation status of those states diminishes and they would have to compete more for our diplomatic attention and financial or military assistance, and they would be doing so with a rather loathed rival actor in play. In some respects, this reminds me of the British cutting Transatlantic cables from Germany to the US during WW1. They could control the news Americans received and coerce our involvement in a war (that we had little or no stake in). Saudi Arabia and Israel (and Turkey) are not powerless nations, and other Gulf States likewise possess some level of economic and military power that they could align themselves to oppose Iranian attempts at regional dominance, and cooperate with Iran or oppose them where it suits themselves with or without our intervention and constant attention. But through a decades-old level of strife between the US and Iran (and the UK and Iran going farther back), and decades-long level of disconnection and no communication, or means of such, we are in a position where we are left backing much of what the Saudis or Israelis might want, and not determining our interests such as we should have any in the region for ourselves, as we did effectively prior to 1990. Our involvement in the region post Desert Storm seems to have been excessive in response to aggression that could be contained and destroyed from that point with sanctions and offshoring the responsibilities to the local and endangered nation-states. Those states have substantially built up their military capabilities with American or Western hardware and equipment.

There may be diplomatic reasons for the US to involve itself in their regional conflicts (eg, fighting ISIS), but these are not the same as saying that these are going to be our interests in the region. A general hegemonic interest in the region would be to maintain a relative balance of power and stability, and assure the oil-producing states do not go to war with one another or plunge into total chaos. And that's about it. What sounds like the worry is that the Saudi and to a lesser extent the Israeli governments believe we are too busy thinking for ourselves. Perhaps we will err in our thinking, but it would be equally foolish for us to pursue no diplomatic efforts with their rivals to conclude key strategic goals on the basis that such client states believe we should not (when it substantially and overtly benefits them for us not to do so).

More complete thoughts on RFRA

This will be the last I have to write on this. It's sucked up too much attention from the Iran negotiations and police misconduct/shootings stories/studies that I'd prefer to be paying attention to instead as there's very little actually happening.

First. My understanding of the law (the original, not including the clarifying aspect) is that it does not actually protect the baker-florist-photographer example, much less more than that like a hotel denying accommodations, with a religious disclaimer to any discrimination claim. RFRA's primary use was religious practices intersecting with government regulations (traditional drug use, beards, etc) and isn't primarily useful in overriding significant government interests, like discrimination arbitration.

Which is to say that the law as written did not actually accomplish much. Neither the supporters pushing for its passage or the opponents demanding boycotts of the state seemed to have understood this. Suggesting the law was poorly thought out, surely, though that is not that unusual.

The problem there is not the RFRA process, but the lack of anti-discrimination laws that protect homosexuals (and others) from being fired, say. In states like Indiana. In states that have such laws protecting sexual orientation as a class from discrimination, there are generally few claims against businesses for discrimination of services. There are two ways to interpret that

1) There are not many businesses which actually have any basis, much less a religious basis, in being interested in discriminating against their customers or employees on the basis of sexuality. It's actually a fairly expensive way to discriminate for one. Race or even class is generally very easy, religion or sexuality are less so and we should expect them to be less frequent. There are also very strong social signals for employers and businesses not to discriminate against people for sexual orientation. Even for people trying to claim some sort of religious determination suggesting they should.

It is perhaps surprising to some people that even in the presence of RFRA laws, there are not successful lawsuits defending the desire to discriminate, and there are not many such cases, given the rhetoric surrounding this debate.

2) What discrimination does exist is masked by people not stupid enough to claim that the basis for this is "I don't want to serve/employ homosexuals". That is, they find some other reason to claim they won't do so which is much more difficult to prove. They may even do so in an implicit bias way, rather than an explicit "fuck off" kind of manner we are accustomed to legislating. This is to say that there are not very many legal approaches we can take that will alter this variety of behavior. Such approaches would require a great deal of intrusiveness (monitoring a business' schedule to see if they are in fact not available at that time for example), and would otherwise be very expensive ways of reducing the likelihood of such activities.

What all of this comes down to, to me, is a different determination. Generally when the state gets involved, and there are legal remedies and approaches being constructed, I want there to be a very large externality (positive or negative) that is being resolved. This is so there is a certainty that government action is helpful and necessary. If there are widespread instances of restaurants refusing to employ or serve homosexuals in a general sense, this strikes me as a fairly large externality worth resolving as it potentially denies access and opportunity to an entire class of people to the market and there is no right being protected to generally oppress others in this way. Likewise the state should not be interceding in determining which private contracts between consenting adults are or are not marriage. At least in so far as it applies to sexual orientation this is a very small cost (some number of people might be offended), and a very large gain (some number of people's privately preferred associations can be fulfilled and recognized with the same rights and privileges as others when they do so).

Where this is less clear for me is more specialised economic services. A business which is generally open to the public must be fairly accommodating and non-discriminatory, at least so far as general classes of people are concerned (a grocery, a hospital, a hotel, or a restaurant). A business when or which makes fairly individualised services (an attorney, a doctor, a cake maker, etc) has more latitude to say when there will not be services offered. It is in effect, inherently a discriminatory service. A family doctor or an attorney does not have a legal obligation to treat everyone who walks in their doors. We might think it strange that a photographer doesn't serve gay weddings (but will do wedding photography generally), but they may also decide not to serve by doing baby portraits, say, or nude photography. This analogy is not perfect, but the point is that we already allow individual businesses a fairly wide latitude in how they will perform their services. It also means there is a market available for those that will perform those services. So there is a market for people to go do wedding photography, and do so where it involves gay or lesbian couples. In most cities, it would be strange to find that no photographer would do so I suspect. Or no cake baker. Or not one florist. None of these are themselves rights of consumers to expect that we may necessarily engage others to do for us. These are general promises made by businesses to make accommodations for us and vice versa. Most businesses will probably do so. Those that do not are at issue.

What that means removed from the market and the intersection with discrimination lawsuits is that the burden of proof that there is a discrimination proceeding is somewhat higher. Someone who foolishly evinces a (potentially bigoted) desire not to serve certain people, or to do so only for general services and not for others, lowers that bar such that it is easier to prove (as in the pizzeria example in Indiana, which explicitly said they will serve gay persons and couples, except under a hypothetical example of catering a wedding, something that I'm dubious has occurred even for many straight couples).

It also suggests something else however. What that does not necessarily mean is that the only right and proper remedy is that the business should be fined by the government or shuttered and any licenses revoked, and so on. Indeed, even if that is a remedy made available, it does not strike me as the necessary path of resolution. It is not clear, and has not been clear to me for the entirety of this debate, why someone would want to compel someone who has already demonstrated a desire not to work with "people like me" to perform a service that requires them to be creative and involved in the manufacture of food or decoration. I would not be confident in the quality of service I would receive and would think it strange to compel it. Particularly if there are alternatives available who would do so without compulsion. Provided there are alternatives, or alternatives could be manufactured to compete easily enough, it might be enough to identify such businesses that are less participatory and to compete economically through boycotts, or through the normal operation of markets to have less-discriminatory players benefit from those that are paying the cost of discrimination (less business opportunities, or fewer qualified employees, etc). There are limits to the amount of backlash to backlash I would sanction. In that I would not be prepared to say we should do anything to destroy or defame the property or harass the owners and operators or employees. But those owners can be made aware that there are problems with their decisions and that those decisions will have economic and social consequences. Perhaps some number of them will backtrack and decide their ideas about what their religion demands of them are incorrect. On this topic, given the rapid shifts in popular opinion, I would expect that there are many people still racing to catch up with what is and is not considered okay or what is or is not considered a demonstration of their faith as it applies to these questions. It is not clear to me that denying services to a wedding is required by any dogma and that mostly these are people who are in the "ew, gay people can get married" mode of thinking and wildly seeking any justification for that offense that they believe others will tolerate. Most people do not in fact tolerate religious pluralism on this question and there appears to be very limited legal backing for that position.

As to the more general atmosphere, and why these kinds of laws are emerging in the first place. I believe one of the reasons I've taken a more "meh" approach is that I recognize the laws themselves are, in most cases as there are exceptions, actually fairly powerless on these questions of discrimination law and what protections they would provide. But that does not mean that the laws are not representative of some legal or cultural attempt that deserves to be recognized for what it is and what is being attempted (haphazardly and fruitlessly as it is doing). In most cases, the recent attempts to enact RFRA statutes by state legislatures are transparently about the legal recognition being extended to homosexuals through marriage laws being overturned to provide legal equality. Since these legislatures, and a few cases the populations of states, are powerless to prevent this, this is a bizarre attempt to fight a rear guard action. It is itself toothless symbolism. I don't mind the existence of general protections of religious freedoms and favor such laws being passed. But under these circumstances, and with some of the exemptions that more extreme laws than Indiana's more general interpretation of the federal law, one cannot hope to notice that these attempts to demand pluralism are coming from the backing of people who have never demanded pluralism before and indeed, sought to suppress it for decades. Pluralism for me and not for thee is not how it works. To that extent, I think it is wise to oppose any new legislation be authored on this topic of religious liberty and to let things continue to play out in the economic, social, and cultural spheres as much as possible.

Some of the other arguments against such laws strike me as more standard progressive interpretations, which may also explain why I sort of shrugged is I'm more classical liberal than modern. Hobby Lobby for instance gave rise to a belief that "now for-profit companies can have religious beliefs". Which wasn't really what the case did. Aspects of the ruling applied to say this, but the RFRA application was to say the government can intercede to provide its interests if there is a minimal burden, the least restrictive one available, or the interest cannot be satisfied in some other way (which in the case of Hobby Lobby, was the case, the government had already provided an alternative that was less restrictive). This does not seem to me an overly offensive interpretation of reality anyway. Most everyone knows the religious stances of certain business owners (Chik-fil-A for instance), and this is in and of itself not objectionable that they should seek to conduct their business in a manner consistent with those beliefs. Some of those beliefs are objectionable. Which is a key distinction. Not every business which aligns itself with the religious beliefs of its core management and not every practice they undertake provides a direct manner of scrutiny in this way.

Similarly there was an argument that Indiana was different because it protected individuals in private lawsuits (as the New Mexico case was). But this is not actually that unusual either. The original interpretation and debate of RFRA included a lot of discussion surrounding private discrimination, rather than discrimination by the government in the form of "public discrimination". Private discrimination claims are typically introduced and taken up by states rather than pursued by those private individuals who are discriminated against. This is not that unusual of thinking or process. Such claims are typically involving many persons who would each have to mount a case separately for instance and the state's interest in preventing discrimination and being seen as preventing discrimination encourages it to take up large cases. The only reason this emerges is a circuit court split allowing for local or state courts to decide that this is not explicitly protected under RFRA laws (because it's not in the text usually). But a fairly standard understanding of how discrimination claims work would say that this is what is being discussed is private actors discriminating and being able to advance an affirmative defense against those claims.

There is a more compelling argument against this, to me anyway. That is that it allows religious claims to be advanced, but not necessarily taken at face value to override government interests like anti-discrimination, but does not necessarily allow non-religious claims. Say an atheist wants to discriminate for some reason, or perhaps more likely is accused of doing so. On the position of discrimination lawsuits, here I think it seems strange that a religious defense is rhetorically and ethically treated as morally superior to a secular defense and given some protection in law. In so far as religious adherents have specific practices, rituals, and requirements that are to be protected against government intrusion or permitted within reasonable accommodation by employers/businesses, and that was one of the primary intents of RFRA laws, that is perfectly understandable. Secular people tend not to have such rituals or requirements, so protecting such actions would be strange. In so far as religious adherents operate their business under the belief that it requires certain discriminatory actions, this is much less plausible as a defense. One that isn't typically being accepted anyway.

The difference of opinion for me is how to respond to that and whether to recognize it as a systemic problem in the market when it occurs or one that we can find a way around easily and resolve through the continuing and evolving standards on how society should treat one another fairly in our private transactions.

29 March 2015

RFRA

So a neighboring state decided to pass a law. Lots of reactions occur. Some thoughts

The actual text of the law isn't substantially different from the federal statute (passed back in the 1990s over a different issue). The main difference I can find is that it specifically allows for religious-based defenses in private lawsuits (concerning discrimination). This is possibly true in the federal statute but the Supreme Court hasn't issued any opinion on it as yet and there's a circuit court split over whether the federal RFRA protects private individuals from each other or not on this point.

Actually the main difference I can find is that in between this statute being enacted and the federal one, a Supreme Court decision occurred (Burwell), which potentially allowed large scale corporations to have religious beliefs. Smaller scale ones kind of could always do some weird stuff that would pass unnoticed.

A second main difference is that Indiana, among other states, currently has a legal standard owing to court rulings requiring the recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriages. Which is what is primarily what is at issue in these religious liberty exercises sought to be protected is the practice of some small number of people to privately refuse to recognize such by being required to provide services in the attendance of ceremonial duties at weddings between such. More broadly other forms of discrimination against homosexuals such as hiring/firing practices or perhaps residency in apartments or some other manner of discrimination could be at issue for reasons that will be examined in a second.

A crucial aspect of the law is that it requires a "substantial" burden or the possibility of such in order to be invoked at all. On that point I'm a bit confused as to why Indiana is getting a lot of attention and, say, Mississippi is not. Because Mississippi's statute is different and does not require a "substantial burden", just a "burden". But the basics here would be that Hobby Lobby (supposedly) can not purchase certain kinds of birth control when otherwise compelled by law, because it is believed to be relevant to their religious practices (there were factual grounds for dismissing that claim I thought, in that those beliefs were factually wrong and therefore without merit on at least several of the drugs under consideration in that case). I would think this would generally allow for a baker or florist of a fundamentalist Christian affiliation not to be required to provide services at a wedding for which they have some religious disagreement (principally those between homosexuals, though there may have been some that refused service on remarriages or those between divorcees, etc). What it doesn't do is allow a restaurant owner to decide their religion protects and even demands that they not service anyone they believe is homosexual. Or some such related case. That kind of claim is very liable to be dismissed as there is no factual basis for a substantial burden test.

But. Because the Burwell/Hobby Lobby case was decided without having any kind of factual examination for the claim being made (it was simply assumed that the burden existed because the religiously based belief asserted it did), we do have a somewhat wider and weird legal realm where it is unclear what is in between those positions and what will be considered a substantial factual burden on the exercise of someone's religious beliefs and what will not, what will be considered a protected class of action and what will just be discrimination. That I think is worthy of consideration to say that this law was a potential problem in that we do not have a clear legal guideline on what constitutes free exercise, even when discriminatory, and what is just discrimination being masqueraded as religious expression.

The thing I have trouble understanding here is why that same claim isn't applicable to other states that have pre-existing statutes like this, or the US government itself. There are now 20 states with some variety of RFRA, generally similar to the federal statute as Indiana's is. Including Connecticut and Rhode Island and Pennsylvania (it isn't just random loony red-states). Plus another 13 that have something in the pipeline that could be passed within the next year. Plus the federal government. It may be worthwhile to oppose the signing of any new laws, and some laws have been very overt and specific (Arizona's second attempt for instance. The first had already succeeded but apparently didn't go far enough for the "religious liberty" crowd). It may be worth attempting to overturn these statutes even. What isn't clear is what singling out one state does when others have the same basic framework in place. Illinois for instance.

Those other states, or the US government, aren't going to overturn their laws and will suffer no major ill effect from a boycott targeting one state in the attempt to get it to overturn the law. Part of the reason apartheid eventually failed in South Africa or even Jim Crow to some extent was economic pressure. So I understand the impetus to boycott. Just make sure you know where and how wide the net has to go. Or you kind of look silly.

As far as these laws. I'm unclear on how widespread this particular type of discrimination is, both legally and physically. I can definitely imagine there will be some number of businesses try to deny service to homosexuals. Some of them could be hotels or restaurants and likely will be prevented from exercising that form of discrimination as it will not rise to be a substantial burden (there isn't any religious belief that I'm aware of that could apply). Some may try to fire people or deny a job being offered on those grounds (this type of decision usually allows for people to make other determinations and claim those instead. Only morons actively claim that they discriminated against someone purposefully, but there are of course plenty of morons). I believe that's likely fairly widespread but as I insinuated, difficult to prove without specific claims. And some of these businesses may be bakers or florists or photographers refusing service at a "gay wedding" (or as I'd refer to it, a wedding). And those claims may end up being defended by these varieties of laws. I'm assuming there are a number of scenarios in between these that I'm less certain of still or less aware of. I'm unsure of how many of these kinds of cases there actually are, whether the existence of new laws would make them more likely, whether the existence of these said new laws would provide some social bulwark that would sustain them economically in spite of any backlash, and so on.

My general position on any of those claims is that people should be allowed to make them, but that the general public will be made aware of it and be able to coercively respond. In the form of a baker/florist/photographer, the public will usually have other options who won't deny service and word will quickly spread which options will or will not. Those that will not may see their services overall suffer from economic attention and pressure, both from boycotts and from other businesses who do not discriminate. Some of them may change their minds. Which should be the goal. That they change their minds about whether this is a religious expression that they are required to make in the business of offering a service in exchange for money. I think this would, in most states and most localities, work out much differently than Jim Crow, in part because of the standards that anti-Jim Crow legislation eventually provided (that it is morally repellent to refuse service to people at a publicly available business for random and stupid reasons like race, or religion) and that the explicit need for legislation either protecting the right of business owners to do this or the right of consumers to be served is unnecessary. This is something that could be worked out privately on that point. I favor neither the need for any explicit protection to discriminate nor the explicit protection against it in the absence of evidence that either is needed.

There is likely evidence that individuals will be sued over discrimination claims, and likely evidence that without some pre-existing law that recognizes it as a form of discrimination, such suits will not succeed (as they did in New Mexico). This however is not clear to me that using lawsuits is necessarily the most effective method of changing business standards or affecting the bottom line versus other more overt and public methods (boycotts for instance) and that we need a clear legal standard for everyone that allows, if not encourages, lawsuits to be a primary form of working such things out.

I have several major considerations here.
a) Public opinion is still shifting and forming regarding homosexuality and the recognition of proper legal rights regarding marriage. I favor such legal rights being equally extended for what are to me, obvious moral and legal reasons (it improves the quality of life potentially for some number of people to be able to enter into private contracts that are recognized with special rights and privileges by the government and for the government not to extend those special rights and privileges only to those legal contracts over which it approves of, while denying it to those that are similar in any reasonable respect). But I recognize that a large body of the public is still uncertain over this change. Mostly for religious or traditional reasons. I am uncomfortable imposing upon this minority every possible demand we can conceive of in order to get it to shift to be a much smaller minority.

b) Recognizing that the public's opinion has shifted, dramatically at that, this is a change largely coming about not because of the relatively small number of secular people whose minds shifted some time ago, but because an increasingly large number of Christians have changed their minds about what the appropriate legal standards should be, regardless of the standards of their religious congregations. They are recognizing that extending legal rights on a level playing field isn't going to make lots of people suddenly become homosexual (it is unclear to me how that is a bad thing if it did), or make lots of marriages that already exist weaker and invalidated (also unclear), will not harm children adopted or raised in such households, and will also make some number of their friends, family members, co-workers, and so on much happier with their own relationships and affections to be able to affirm them with the same legal sanctions that they did in their own lives. That is a good thing.

c) Recognizing that it is to these Christians who have changed their minds that the cause of gay marriage as a result owes some basis (albeit slowly), those people who favor advancing this as a cause to be protected and tolerated should seek to continue to change people's minds. There are many forms of argument available. The strongest is "you are legally required to do what we say", but this carries with it no requirement or mechanism that anyone actually change their mind and beliefs. They can resume being a bigot or privately intolerant if they find a means to do so. For instance, Christian florists could decide to form a private club where floral arrangements would be provided for a membership fee. Or they could do something else instead of running a flower shop. A weaker argument is "we do not approve of what you are choosing to do by discriminating against these people". But this argument also implies a dialogue can occur rather than imposing a final decision. Which is what has been happening for a couple of decades now is the general public is working out amongst themselves, very publicly at that, why this is a legal and ethical requirement that they should endorse and uphold and shifting toward that state of affairs. If their arguments against this are grounded in religion, so are many of those that have shifted to accept the situation now. Perhaps such arguments may be more compelling than simply issuing demands. Perhaps not. I am inclined to continue to let those arguments work themselves out. They will have to privately anyway. There are fewer ways to craft and impose laws that would compel families to accept a homosexual child, even if there are many ways to allow homosexuals to form families (marriage, adoption, etc).

d) One crucial aspect is whether the "public" as formed into governments may discriminate. This I think is a wholly different question than from what the diverse set of individuals may privately do in their homes and businesses. This is among the more compelling arguments for why the rights and privileges governments establish as coming along with our private arrangements for marriages should be equally available to both straight and gay couples seeking them. So a government would not be able to prevent someone access to public services and assistance, housing, licenses, and so forth on the basis of that person's personal sexual orientation. These laws are not centered around this question. Rather we are arguing about how much we can compel the public at large to decide the operation of their businesses and private affairs, and how much the government could compel such decisions. For instance by restricting business licenses. Eg, the case of the doctor in Michigan who denied her personal services in pediatric care for a lesbian couple and their child and demands by some that her medical license be taken away post haste. Medical licensing is done by the state (a somewhat less dubious state requirement than most). I'm uncomfortable with the state making that as a determination. What was most alarming was the unprofessional manner and the lack of dialogue (a refusal to engage with the couple once a decision was made, when that decision was a clear reversal of prior arrangements to boot), and for that some variety of sanction is perhaps appropriate. But what I do not wish to see is the public effectively demanding that everyone must orient themselves immediately and without delay to a world that has radically shifted over the last couple of decades. I do not expect that businesses will necessarily stop demanding drug testing for marijuana even in states where it has been legalized (either for medical or recreational purposes). That also has been a radical shift. I am not prepared to demand that employers must accept marijuana use as they tend to with alcohol (even though they should probably tolerate the former more than the latter, especially if someone is showing up drunk to work).

When we are making major changes in society's laws and operations, we should expect that some people resist those changes, sometimes for very dumb reasons. It is incumbent on us not to accommodate stupid reasons, but to recognize that they are there and convince people that they are in fact stupid and not reasons. This is, by and large, working in the case of gay marriage (and to some extent drug legalisation, albeit so far just a couple of presently criminalised drugs). I would advise that we continue to let that process work itself out and shake out where the bugs are going to be. If these are more widespread problems than I estimate that they will be, that there will be dozens of legal cases per year, every year in a given area instead of one or two say, then more action may be warranted.

Keep in mind also that I do not advise people not to boycott or to organise non-discriminatory alternatives, among other sub-governmental (but legal) actions to be available to respond to these as problems, employee strikes or walkouts could be another option, and so on down the line. I also do not think that such actions are a form of repression, nor do I think there would be some way to legally protect against them even if governments are to become compelled to allow people to be discriminatory on the basis of their religious beliefs. These actions are coercive, but they do not automatically force anyone to shutter a business or change their religious beliefs. Instead more people who tried to practice their beliefs in this way would have to engage with the uncomfortable notions that they may be wrong about their beliefs, or how those beliefs must intersect with their work at any rate, and they may also be able to try to present an argument as a result as to why their beliefs do or why they are correct. That is a good thing to have beliefs being challenged and argued in this way.

26 March 2015

A set of amusing evaluations

By Christians of atheists. 

There were several interesting elements pulled out for comment by them.

"Skeptics represent one-quarter of all unchurched adults (25%). Nearly one-third of skeptics have never attended a Christian church service in their lives (31%)."
-The first statistic matters because the "nones" are frequently used as a calling card for both the skeptical/atheist community and the Christian community rather than a direct signal of who such people are. If only about a quarter of the "nones" are "skeptics", by that definition, then that's only about 5-6%. Which is about what you'd expect and doesn't sound like a major rise or something to worry about. If the "nones" population is instead more like 20-25% and comprised mostly of atheists/skeptics, then the claims made by religious folk that "we" have too much influence on public policy and they are being "discriminated" against, or otherwise actively repressed start to make more sense. But as it is, it sounds more like a large proportion of people who are bored or disaffected by churches, and just not willing to stick up for those who aren't so disaffected when they wish to impose upon others.

I'd also imagine the non-attendance of a Christian church figure would be somewhat lower if one expanded it to include any religious faction (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, etc). The narrow focus on Christianity is to be expected from a pro-Christian group but it ignores that people are potentially leaving any religious tradition for similar reasons as they may leave that state of Christendom behind.

"Given their antipathy or indifference toward the Bible, it is remarkable that six out of 10 skeptics own at least one copy. Most have read from it in the past"

This is "remarkable" in the sense that it is worth a remark. It isn't "remarkable" in the sense that it ought to shock or surprise anyone. Yes I've read it. Yes I have a copy (digital, but still). No I wasn't impressed. Indeed, I've talked to many skeptics that the process of reading the "good book" itself was a major factor in their now stated disbelief. So having a copy around is kind of a reminder of that process for most of them. I could not quote chapter and verse myself as it did not make that grand of an impression on me to memorize entire passages. I don't remember Greek myths word for word either yet those were a little more pragmatic and entertaining I found. I also don't bother re-reading them now, decades later.

Given the widespread nature of influence on public policy and sometimes the private lives of others, I perhaps should heed the theological implications and interpretations of scripture (upon others) somewhat more than I do. But in so far as someone identifies a strictly religious basis for their positions as to what the government should do, I rarely find this will be an interesting debate and will rarely draw upon any serious scholarship to back such positions. In many cases, it will not resemble at all the theological writings and interpretations they believe backs their opinion in the first place. This is because I rarely find most religious people take the process of theology all that seriously either. Serious theological study is intended to bring all the text under the same architecture, placing it in context or in interpretative philosophical positions alongside the rest. Most people are not doing this. Most of them pick and choose to their convenience and ignore other matters entirely. Whole passages and indeed entire books within the canon are often ignored or unheeded. I'd say the percentage of people who have even read the entire text is much lower than is commonly believed, much less the percentage of people who are taking the process of how to believe as a serious intellectual pursuit.

"Perhaps the biggest transition of all is the entry of millions of women into the skeptic ranks. In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women. By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent. This enormous increase is not because the number of skeptic men has declined. In fact, men’s numbers have steadily increased over the last two decades—but not nearly as rapidly as among women."

This should be a little more surprising, and most definitely reassuring for atheists/skeptics. The more prominent figures in the "atheist" community, such as any exists, are typically older white males (Maher, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc). "On the ground", there's more women than one would think would be the case from that feature. Keep in mind that women are also becoming "more religious", so the ones who are not leaving are becoming more conservative and more tied to their faith. That may also be true for the men, but on different grounds. I would guess the key appeals for women to leave a religion are most likely not a rejection of church authority in favor of a more anti-authoritarian world but a rejection of the use of that authority to abuse or discriminate against other human beings, including women (based on conversations).

"Churches have done little to convince skeptics to reevaluate. In fact, because more than two-thirds of skeptics have attended Christian churches in the past—most for an extended period of time—their dismissal of God, the Bible and churches is not theoretical in nature." - This is not surprising that the large majority in a largely Christian country have past experience with church.

"Most skeptics think of Christian churches as:
Groups of people who share a common physical space and have some common religious views, but are not personally connected to each other in meaningful or life-changing ways" (sounds about right)
"Organizations that add little, if any, value to their communities; their greatest value stems from the limited times they serve the needy in the community" (definitely true)
"Organizations that stand for the wrong things—wars, preventing gay marriage and a woman’s freedom to control her body, sexual and physical violence perpetrated on people by religious authority figures, mixing religious beliefs with political policy and action" (seems like a major factor for the youth disappearing, and there has been a long tradition of Christians seeking to divide public policy and religion for which such activities are often offensive and divisive. This also doesn't address the possibility of Christianity increasingly being seen as offensive and in opposition to science and research, where it often was not for much of the last century)
"Led by people who have not earned their positions of influence by proving their love of humankind, and are thus not deserving of trust" (this critical attitude toward authority isn't limited to religion, it's heavily involved in many institutions today, but religion and Christianity in particular has done considerable self-harm under this arc certainly).

"The data does lend support to the notion that college campuses are comfortable places for young people to abandon God and assume control of their own lives."

That line I find is telling not because of the college aspect, but the "assuming control of their own lives" part. One implication of it is that "we" are supposed to be telling them what to do and they're not listening anymore.

"One of the unexpected results we uncovered is the limited influence of personal relationships on skeptics. They are considerably less relational and less engaged in social activities than the average American."
I'm not sure what "less relational and less engaged" entirely means. Introverts anonymous unite, each in your own homes? But in as far as skeptics are less likely to do or believe something simply because their friends or families do, yes. I agree.

"It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum to identify which came first: the atheist celebrity or an uptick in the number of atheists. Whatever the case, atheism has shifted in the past 50 years from cultural anathema to something the “cooler” kids are doing."

I'd like to have seen this pulled apart quite a bit more. The main reason I suspect it was cultural anathema was the association, still but less often casually made, that "atheism" or "godlessness" was for some reason synonymous with "communism". While there's a strong political association among atheists with more progressive policies, particularly on social issues but also on economic positions, this is no longer a common affiliation that most people will make. Or at least, a more neo-liberal economic consensus dominates the landscape, and a variety of policies are available and accessible both to people on the political left and for skeptics to assess and support (or oppose). One way to look at this would be that the end of the Cold War placed "communist" as a dirty word worthy of scorn for the damages it wrecked upon humanity, it no longer left "godless" as a strong affiliation one way or another. European/Western societies have become increasingly secular throughout both the 20th century and the Cold War. While there are non-serious attempts to show they are "socialist", it is rarely declared they're the second coming of Stalin or Mao either. I would suspect that lacking this cultural ability to point to someone's godless nature as an endorsement of the Soviet Union, the great enemy of the last generation, there's not as much compunction to be seen as god-fearing or whatever instead and that this has far more to do with the cultural shift than anything Dawkins is saying or has written. (And indeed, the post-Soviet Russian political landscape includes a reclamation of the Russian Orthodox church both politically and culturally, even as the Russian state remains a considered opponent to US hegemony).

The second aspect is the accessibility of the internet has made information and critiques of Christian apologetic works much more widespread. One doesn't need to have read Dawkins or Hitchens at all where this was probably a much more influential need 20-25 years ago.


15 March 2015

NCAA rankings Final Madness edition

All records are top 100, with top 50 only records in parentheses.

1) Kentucky 23-0 (17-0) Gap closed a bit here. They will probably win the title, but if you're looking for a dark horse, don't expect one to appear until the Final Four (they would potentially play Arizona or Wisconsin, who are in the same region).

2) Arizona 12-2-1 (4-0)
3) Wisconsin 20-2-1 (13-2)
4) Villanova 19-1-1 (11-1)
5) Virginia 17-3 (9-3)
6) Gonzaga 9-2 (4-2)
7) Duke 20-4 (8-4)
Those are the best shots for a darkhorse. Duke is pretty clearly not a good choice however (lots of people are picking them and they're the worst of the group).

8) Utah 9-7-1 (2-4) - Fell out of the previous tier. I think with good reason, they didn't win many good games, and they didn't win on the road.
9) Oklahoma 14-9-1 (10-6)
10) North Carolina 14-11 (8-10)
11) Kansas 21-8. That's not a typo. That's basically their overall record. (13-6)
12) Notre Dame 15-5 (10-3)
13) Iowa State 18-7-1 (13-5)

14) Baylor 16-9 (10-8)
15) Michigan State 11-9-2 (8-8)
16) Wichita State 8-4 (1-2)
17) Ohio State 9-10 (4-9)
18) Louisville 12-8 (6-7)
19) Northern Iowa 8-2-1 (3-2)
I don't like Ohio State being this high, mostly because they look terrible record wise and don't win on the road. If they weren't playing VCU in the first round, they'd look interesting as an upset special team for a couple of rounds.

20) Texas 8-13 (3-12)
21) Butler 8-10 (4-9) (yes these two play each other in the first round)
22) Xavier 11-9-4 (8-5)
23) Georgetown 9-10 (5-9)
24) West Virginia 12-9 (6-9)

25) SMU 12-6 (0-5) Yes that's a 0 for wins in the top 50.
26) Iowa 9-10-1 (6-7)
27) Arkansas 13-8 (7-6)
28) BYU 3-6-3 (1-5) - Basically snuck in a play-in game because of the Gonzaga win.
29) San Diego State 10-6-2 (2-4)
30) Providence 12-8-3 (6-6)
31) VCU 13-8-1 (5-4)
32) Maryland 13-6 (8-6)

33) Davidson 8-5-2 (2-4)
34) North Carolina State 14-11-2 (4-9)
35) Georgia 10-10-1 (6-6)
36) Oklahoma State 9-12-1 (5-9)

37) Florida (Not in the tournament) 8-16-1 (3-14) - They're the highest rated in part because they played a lot of games against tough competition and played many of those games competitively. But lost almost all of them so they weren't going anywhere (probably not to the NIT either).
38) Miami 9-10-2 (also not in) (4-7)
39) LSU 11-6-4 (8-3)
40) Purdue 11-10-2 (7-8)
41) Mississippi 10-10-2 (5-8)
42) Cincinnati 8-7-3 (4-3)
43) Dayton 8-6-2 (3-3)
44) Stephen F Austin 1-3-1 (0-3)
45) Indiana 9-11-2 (5-11)
46) Boise State 6-5-3 (2-2)
47) St John's 9-9-2 (5-8)
- This group has the last set of teams to worry about as upset potential in the early rounds. None of them looks like a deep run team however.

48) Vanderbilt 9-11-2 (3-8) (not in tournament)
49) UCLA 4-10-3 (1-7) - I have little idea how this team was even considered for the NCAA tournament. Note that almost all of the at-large teams above have more than 4 wins against the top 100, and more than 1 win in the top 50. UCLA also appears to have been considered more highly than BYU (BYU is in a play-in game), which is baffling.
50) Stanford 5-10-2 (1-6) - Note the similarities in Stanford and UCLA. It seems strange that one was okay and the other was not.
51) Texas A&M 7-10-1 (4-7) - not in
52) Oregon 10-7-2 (3-5)
53) Illinois 6-12-1 (4-8) - not in
54) Buffalo 3-4-5 (0-2)
- There's a mix of "not-in" teams listed here for comparison. I do not think much of any of the teams that are in as a result.

66) Valparaiso 3-1-4 (0-0)
67) Georgia State 1-4-5 (0-1)
92) Wofford 2-3-3 (1-2)
94) New Mexico State 2-6-4 (0-2) - Not sure how they ended up with a 15 seed.
96) UC-Irvine
97) Harvard
102) Wyoming 7-4 (3-3)
111) Northeastern
- This grouping is possible upset fodder, but not much potential beyond that.

126) Albany
129) Eastern Washington
131) UAB
133) North Florida
145) Manhattan
146) Coastal Carolina
148) Belmont
168) North Dakota State
178) Robert Morris
186) Lafayette
190) Texas Southern
253) Hampton
- None of these teams should win a game.

Other bubble considered teams that did not get in.
62) Colorado State 7-3-3 (2-3)
63) Temple 8-9-1 (2-6) - This to me was the strangest exclusion when compared to UCLA.
64) Old Dominion 5-2-5 (2-0)
As I see it, these teams are all in the low 60 ranking wise anyway, so their inclusion would be quite strange as it is. If I had to pick a team to put in, it would have been Miami, followed by Temple or Texas A&M.

Bubble gut check

Last six in
62) Colorado St 7-5-1 - Wyoming winning both helped and hurt as it meant their two in-season losses weren't as bad, but it also meant there's a good chance they are the next team on the chop-block.
20) Texas 8-13 - Should be safe.
63) Temple 8-9-1 - Probably safely in.
44) Boise St 6-5-3 - Probably in. Wyoming winning also helped/hurt here (they were also swept by Wyoming)
28) BYU 3-6-3 - Win at Gonzaga is basically it. They're very highly rated but didn't win very many games.
45) Indiana 9-11-2 - Probably should be in, but probably won't be.

Last six out
43) Mississippi 10-10-2 - I think they should be in, but if it's between them and Indiana, that's not good for Mississippi.
50) UCLA 4-10-3 - No idea why this team is in the conversation.
77) Tulsa 6-8-2 No idea here either.
42) Miami 9-10-2 - Probably should be in, but won't be.
51) Texas AM 7-10-1
64) Old Dominion 5-2-5

Connecticut is not on the bubble and has a pretty good chance to beat SMU today, which that would knock another team out.

10 March 2015

Quick sports thoughts. Basketball version

1) Harden-Curry looks to me still like the best cases for MVP. Westbrook has passed Harden in many discussions publicly but I see two major downsides to his case. He missed too many games, and his team isn't actually playing that great record-wise despite his run of insanity. Durant being out for a portion of that time has not helped, but Harden has had Howard out and basically ineffective most of the season and Houston was not fighting for it's playoff life the way Oklahoma City was for much of the season.

2) I'd still take the odds that Kentucky goes undefeated to be pretty high. They have an insane high chance to win the tournament, depending on how the seeding goes. I've not seen a team over 20% in a while. They're projecting over 40%, and were almost 50%. That will make winning your NCAA pool a little harder. Unless you pick someone else AND that team wins, which is what happened in 1997 for example, when Arizona won and upset both Kansas and Kentucky in route (both teams that were heavily favored). 50-60% still suggests a lot that could happen, but I'm also not sure who else I would take right now either (Arizona again looks like the best potential).

3) Draymont Green isn't a household name. But he should win defensive player of the year pretty handily. He might not because voters are weird. Really the best competition is a 6th man (Gobert, apparently being called the "Stiffel Tower"), a really old guy (Duncan), and a guy who was hurt off and on (Kawhi). That's it (two of them are on the same team, which may be important in the playoffs). But for some reason DeAndre Jordan keeps getting mentioned as a favorite. He has important skills for playing defense and does it rather well, but I do not buy that he is a great defender when I see the Clippers playing. The team defense moreover is pretty average (except at getting rebounds, which is Jordan's main value). Golden State's is fantastic.

06 March 2015

More still thoughts on anti-theism

Something which has occurred to me in observing the vast majority of other atheists is that they come from a religious tradition that they have abandoned or escaped or rejected. To the extent that this represents an often significant portion of their lives that were expended in what now are visibly wasteful time and effort, or inspired them to hold to beliefs that they found inconsistent or harmful, or otherwise amended their behavior in ways they now find to be unnecessary (or were harmful to others), the level of animus toward that former religious entity is understandable. I did not experience this break personally, and I have a hard time processing the pre-eminence it seems to take for other secular-minded persons without reminding myself of this experience.

There are obvious advantages in such people and their stories and identified issues however. They can demonstrate first hand where a faith and its practices have gone astray and become harmful, which is necessary if we wish to focus effort on reducing the amount of harm religions and religious persons can do to a society. They can also identify a path that helped them to recognize that that faith and its practices were harmful or no longer something they could hold to, which may be helpful to lead people to become less religious, non-religious, or at least stop practicing and believing the most egregious and destructive aspects of a faith.

But there's a limitation to this as well. It reminds me of how political exile communities are treated where there is an unpopular dictatorial regime we wish to replace somewhere on the globe. In that it is easy to give to such voices too much credit that they know and understand the mind and intentions of many, if not most, of the body of adherents to the faiths they have left behind. Political exiles are apt to be somewhat unusual, sometimes elite bodies of people who were capable of escaping a previous circumstance in part owing to some outside world connections that permitted it and this makes their credibility in criticizing or providing intelligence as to the public sentiments of a foreign country somewhat less reliable than might otherwise be the case. There's also a strong incentive if the goal is to overthrow and/or replace the regime to provide misleading intelligence of the sort demanded by the powers that could assist. Religious "exiles" are in a similar circumstance, that they are often escaping to Western liberal societies, and often live and work in largely secular communities (such as academia or the media). There will be few voices available to say, "that's fine, but that's not how I experienced my faith". And it is telling that when such voices do arise, they are often told "that's not how you experience your faith", or if not that brazenly, that's not how "other people not myself do or did". This variety of mind-reading may have some merit where they have firsthand experience with other persons and the mindset that was imposed, as they see it, upon them for a portion of their lives. But it has limited utility for people who did not in fact share that mindset, which is likely to be the majority of adherents to a particular religion. No religion is that uni-polar that all or even many of its adherents experience it, practice it, interpret it, and believe in its dogmas and dictates in the same way. This is a common occurrence that these exiles seem to lack this nuanced expression of how other people must be experiencing religious devotion or beliefs and by this declare that it is the beliefs themselves that are harmful as an entire structure (be that Islam or Christianity).

In less freedom tolerating societies outside of the Western world, where religious belief is often compelled by law and violence, perhaps this is so, or perhaps it is more true at least than it is in the West. But as indicated in my last bit on this, the western world is the field on which most of us will experience interaction with religious persons as most of us will not travel widely to areas outside of that arena and will have little or no interest in the foreign relations that lead us to intercede in the affairs of those countries. So it is the secularized West for which our interactions and assessments of fear are largely predicated. And in the secularized or secular-ish west, such experiences as a uniform "truth" as it applies to all Christians, or all Muslims, are not typically bound up in legal traditions that compel people to believe in a particularized, often radicalized way (nor is that prevented, provided it does not lead to violence or compulsion by force). It is more likely that it isn't the beliefs that are at danger or issue in this world and environment but that the people are largely selecting religious beliefs to justify things they already want to believe and practice. In that light, beliefs which command or appear to command violence are dangerous if they expound beyond mere beliefs about the nature of unbelievers or apostates or homosexuals, to cite some examples. But given that much and most violence in the US occurs without such commands, this appears to be a very unusual concern to place highly on our list of issues to be afraid of is the religious theology of command morality. It is well that humanists or atheists are not well-represented among the prison population, but this says more about where humanists and atheists are typically drawn from (well-educated, middle class or upper middle class, Caucasians, all groups who are also unlikely to be in prison), than it does about the apparently or supposedly religious motives of the prison population when viewed in this perspective. That is: that it is unlikely that any variety religion and religious belief is uniquely dangerous as a process in the life of the average Western atheist. They are dangerous in legal or political terms at times, but this is distinguished from the low probability of death or imprisonment by the state or via extra-legal means.

This all leads to the highly specious assertion that removing religions, or religious beliefs, or specific more uniquely "dangerous" religions would be of great benefit in alleviating the risks of violence across or within societies. I submit that this is unlikely to have a great effect on the rates and causes of violence if the only change is to eliminate religious beliefs and practices and that the intended focus point here is wrong as a result. If the problem is that some religious beliefs are bad, or harmful, and dangerous to societies, and that the practice of those beliefs results in violence and other offenses, and is otherwise an impediment to a form of moral progress or enlightenment, then it is these specific things that our energy should turn toward seeking ways to eliminate or restrict, and to challenge the theological or logical grounding of such beliefs. If that means that more people embrace a form of "liberal" religion, instead of strict adherence to a fundamentalist mindset, then that's one option. If that means that many people must lose their religion entirely and work must be done to see that this occurs, that too is an option. Religious beliefs or practices have also over time tended to moderate some of these more annoying and destructive perspectives. It takes longer sometimes than it should and much harm is done in the meantime. But it is possible to do. They do not necessarily remain moderated either. Which is also something to be on guard about.

The progress of a society governed by the reforms of the Enlightenment era in Western history is substantial but not guaranteed. As a historical example, both the Roman and Ottoman Empires experienced long and enormous gains in civilized behavior and societies themselves, and both eventually disintegrated and were broken apart or conquered, with the civilized gains in agriculture, urbanization, law, trade, philosophy, science, and education lost or abandoned for many years after, lacking the infrastructure to support them. In this respect, the work of anti-theists represents a defence of these gains against encroachment from the past eras of squalid and cruel destruction. It does not necessarily represent or propose an advance however. Which seems a far more interesting moral and social goal to promote than a rear guard.