25 October 2014

list of things I do not care about

That I heard a lot about this week.

1) Monica Lewinsky. If I am even hearing about this at all that is bullshit. That was almost 20 years ago. I do not need to be reminded I am getting older. At least not in this way.
2) Ebola in the US (and purported risk of epidemic). As distinguished from Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which is actually kind of a big deal.
3) Sarah Palin's family. If I am even hearing about this at all one year later (from 2008), that is bullshit.
4) Michael Brown shooting reports that do not alter general systemic problems of policing (for which the protests were largely spawned), or do not substantially alter what was already known or disputed (the shooting and circumstances leading up to it, or the circumstances of the fatal shots).

I've written mostly about the former problem and avoided pontificating on the latter (the circumstances of his death), in part because my general understanding is that it is quite likely the "shooting" itself may be deemed justified or legal in the same way that Zimmerman's shooting of Treyvon Martin was justifiable. Where the ethical/legal problem likely is residing isn't the procedures of "some sort of fight has broken out and I must defend myself". The actual ethical problem is that there was (possibly) a fight in the first place and that a series of events were escalated into a fatal scenario by an aggressor or agitator who is now rendered blameless despite (deliberately) creating a threatening scenario that another person may have felt obligated to react to with force. Police have established a pattern of other fatal incidents involving young black men (including not far from my residence) and escalating procedures of threats and force for what amounts to horribly trivial behavior (that should not rise to the level of criminality at all in most cases).

The preferred method should be de-escalation. Which is potentially less dangerous for the cops, less dangerous to bystanders, and less dangerous to ordinary citizens who may be shot at and killed deliberately by police.

19 October 2014

A complaint about secular strategy

I have a number of complaints about Reza, but this seems to me an essential point that both secularists AND religious apologists often miss. 

"...that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion."

People in effect are picking and choosing values to fit their experience and preferences. This at least has long been my experience in talking with religious persons and observing their behavior. Religion influences those values around the margin from there and can certainly impact the values that children might start with as "priors" that they can either accept or abandon throughout their lives. But its primary influence is to reinforce what people already want to think and believe. Whether that is charitable or hateful in its orientation toward other people.

If "we" spend a lot of time arguing over the text, we may be hitting something that some people are "clinging to" as a basis for their beliefs, but it isn't necessarily where those beliefs came from. Nor something most practicing religious people take seriously. One should always be keeping in mind most people who are religious do not read their canonical texts regularly or completely with an eye toward the contradiction rather than seeking verification and affirmation, much less study theology. This has the effect of making arguments over the text relatively pointless and the influence of religious dogma on their behavior and existing beliefs relatively small. Sometimes those logical "gotcha's" will amount to something. Most of the time they will not relate to the experience of religious persons, or religious persons can explain away such complaints as the beliefs of "other people" (a common problem when dealing with the metaphysics of their deity of choice).

This doesn't explain away the societal problems of religious interpretation, particularly religious literalism and fundamentalist mindsets (not necessarily the same). All of these have potentially harmful effects, and all of them are much larger in impact than I think Reza or other theological scholars tend to be aware of. For instance the large volumes of people in the United States who express belief in a "personal god" or in young earth creationism suggest a large body of the public that either prefers literal canon or wishes to be seen expressing support for literal canon, as they imagine it, rather than expressing skepticism over the validity of metaphor upon actual human and global history and the accumulated knowledge of the physical sciences as tools for investigating those processes. That is still a serious setback to contend with as a society. It is not insurmountable, but it is significant.

But it does suggest that many of the approaches of argumentation designed to marginalize such people who do practice a "literal interpretation" are potentially ineffective. Such arguments can casually lump together in the attempt to divide away "moderate" co-religionists and can backfire by sloppily describing "all Christians" or "all Muslims" in broad strokes, with the caveat attempted, or excluded depending on which religion and which commentary, that "only these kinds of people are true X". The no true Scotsman argument never works but it is especially flawed if the attempt to use it is to say "these other people I am describing and am not a part of can be sub-divided like this". Given the volume of contradiction and interpretations required to make religions still have value and meaning in the modern environment, we should expect that arguments over "religious" or theological validity as applied to the general religious public are functionally useless. People will be able to easily evade such arguments internally without making fundamental shifts in their worldview that distinguish or even touch upon any doubts in their faith claims and associated dogma and purported wisdom.

A central point to respond to instead is not arguments over what makes a "good" or "moderate" religious practice, but rather how much bigotry and hostility to "other" (be they non-co-religionists, women, homosexuals, atheists, etc) a population of people already has, already prefers in their personal lives, and which their choice of religious practices can serve to amplify and accelerate in its effectiveness. The main upshot of such thinking is that it provides a more functional mission to secularists. Dismantling religion, and the religious beliefs, faiths, and practices of billions of human beings is an impossible, daunting and perhaps fruitless task. Dismantling and reducing the impact of racism, of religious strife and exclusion, of sexism or misogyny, are likewise difficult Sisyphean tasks, but they are tasks for which there is demonstrable progress and for which religions themselves can be contorted to become useful allies in those causes. As examples, those religious entities which opposed slavery or supported the causes of civil rights or which oppose the prosecution of US immigration law upon otherwise innocent, hardworking and decent individuals. These are also much more practical goals than arguments over metaphysics and dense treatises on canonical laws. Where they arrive at obstacles from canonical law or metaphysics, the religions themselves can become isolated through obstinate, dogmatic resistance to change (see: the volume of people fleeing from the Catholic church, or from Southern Baptist communities), and this then serves the associated goal of decreasing social reliance upon religion in the formation of public law (I have less interest in the association of private beliefs upon personal behavior so long as it doesn't violate the law or compel legal environments upon all people that do not have some Kantian or utilitarian logic behind them, your mileage may vary). The religions that have endured for hundreds or thousands of years have done so because they are flexible and adaptable, much as any other social institution can do. They can be slower to adapt and may have been dragged kicking and screaming to a change. But change they will if they must to survive and flourish.


As a secondary point, I would draw attention to the distinctions between ISIS and Hamas being made later in the interview. One of the major points which leads to the effectiveness of many terrorist groups is the ability of those groups to service the demands of the public they control (sometimes through fear and violence rather than ideological coherence). Those demands and grievances are real and they are often legitimate demands and problems even under a liberal Western convention of human rights and needs (jobs, education, medicine, food for example). Much of what people saw in the "Arab Spring" as a "yearning for democracy" was more a recognition by broad and otherwise non-unified bodies of the public in those countries demanding basic things like jobs, or food, or better public services. We might recognize those things as effects of a democratic society, or think of them in those terms, but in practice, so long as those needs are met, people may otherwise put up with quite tyrannical states. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or much of Iran works in this way where Egypt could not, and we accordingly see less internal strife in those countries than we do in Jordan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Turkey, etc. If a group emerges promoting itself as capable of instituting reforms that will provide those basic needs and it appears well-organised or has a track record of provision of some of those reforms for its members and allies, whether that group has terrorist affiliations or not, it will be able to assume some level of power and authority in any government that is subsequently re-organised. The reason we have seen less cohesion in Libya or Syria than was initially the case in Egypt (under the Muslim Brotherhood) is that there are fewer organisations that have such track records, and greater internal factionalism. The reason those groups like Hamas attract some level of popular support isn't necessarily that people approve of their violence or even oppressive social goals (they quite often are repelled by it, though not nearly enough), but that they have proven somewhat effective at managing basic survival and economic needs. This is not a feature of "Islamism". It is a feature of virtually any insurgent group which deems itself as providing a front against an oppressor. Religion becomes a weapon in that war, a selected belief and set of practices, and the selection of harsh and oppressive forms of religious practice has its own purposes in providing internal cohesion or the appearance of purpose to potential members. But it isn't necessarily the agent behind the war.

There are agents globally for whom that is true, that religion is a principal motivation for which they are committed to violent action. But most people are fighting or agitating or committing acts of heinous violence over something more basic. When we do not recognize this, and proceed to acts of violent retaliation ourselves, without concern or consideration (as say, the drone war appears to be waged), this itself does damage to our cause by providing more fuel to those who say we are nothing but oppressors and glory to those who wish to be seen as fighting that oppression. Sometimes the best thing to do with someone who wants attention for their misdeeds is ignore them and treat them with disdain rather than viciousness. This though still leaves the underlying mission of basic humanity, resolving those basic questions of meaning and purpose through the provision of a functional economy and basic human needs of health and safety. That is difficult to instill and install from afar. I would not recommend that we do so in many cases (Iraq and Afghanistan being but two examples that were ill-advised, Syria or Egypt or Libya being others). But I would also not recommend that we be seen or allow ourselves to be seen as preventing it either.

13 October 2014

Yes doesn't mean no either

California passes a law. Various sectors choose to comment on what it means. So I guess that means me too.

Let's go ahead and make a few important stipulations to get them out of the way of the conversation.

1) Rape is rape. Regardless of its cause it is an act of aggression. "Rape rape" is perhaps distinct in circumstances but certainly not in the type of violation against another from say "date rape". They are the same animal.
2) Rape is a criminal act, depriving another person of agency and autonomy for personal gratification without consent is a serious criminal act even and should be treated as such. I would place very few criminal actions as more serious in the form of moral and legal violations involved (basically murder or torture would be on par, but that's about it).
3) Attaining consent is not that complicated (for most of us it really isn't that complicated to have sex when we want to, with a partner we want to). Which should make violations of consent and autonomy less sympathetic. Yet there is still some social and rhetorical baggage relating to victims of sexual crimes that suggests that we do not take them necessarily as innocent victims of aggression.
4) Thus things which we can do to prosecute violations of consent, protect those who are violated or potentially violated, and make such violations less likely are an important public and social good benefiting the individuals who can instead form mutually beneficial relationships.

All that said. I don't think California's law falls into that last category (as a common issue with many laws, it looks like a "we must do something, this is something, let's do it" logic, rather than well-thought out as an approach to the problem). I have a number of complaints.

Firstly. The bill is limited to college universities. It does not apply outside of colleges. It governs the procedures of investigation and authority and evidence involved in acts committed on universities by their students (or faculty). While there may be some mysterious process by which rape is more common among students of colleges and the inhabitants of dorm rooms than among the general public which accords these matters with greater importance to the legislative process, I am doubtful there was any evidence presented that the vulnerability was greater among those bodies of the public than among any other. If our interest in governing is in protecting the welfare of the general public, it should be for protecting all of that public, and not merely those fortunate and educated enough to attend universities. General legislative bodies should not make it their business to make distinct legal environments for certain groups of the public without some compelling reason that it should be necessary. This fails to do so. Either there are victims or there are not, and it should matter very little whether they were attending a school or not. If it was to be an experiment to try to reduce sexual assaults and rapes at universities, in the form of attempting to accelerate a discourse over sexual advances, equality of genders, and the importance of clear communication of consent, let the universities do the testing rather than a government. A law has the quality of being difficult to abandon as an experiment if/when it is shown that it does not work and thus we should be cautious of making laws where other bodies may act. And to boot, this law has the quality of accelerating and continuing the arbitrary nature of enforcement by that same lesser body of justice than the courts that could very easily have appointed it upon itself to make these changes internally already.

As a related problem within sexual assault cases, there are states where rape victims must pay for the medical treatment that they must undergo to treat injuries and examinations of their bodies after a crime has been committed against them. The state may pay for portions, such as the collection of evidence of a rape (usually sexual secretions like semen), but large quantities of the bill could go on the members of the public who were victimized, or the bill may be only paid after any criminal charges are pressed and a case goes to prosecution and a victim is paying up front. California may not have this problem, but lots of other states do. That seems like a pressing matter for a legislature to attend to to help protect the citizens they represent. All of them.

Second. The bill does not treat rape and sexual assault necessarily as criminal acts. Both for the victim and the accused, this is a poor attempt at justice. An accused deserves more than preponderance of evidence for significant penalties to emerge, but rather clear evidence of guilt should be involved and adjudicated. Even if those penalties relate to their academic life, at one particular university, the attainment of a college degree at a particular university, or post-graduate degree, still has significant impact upon lifetime earnings, career paths, etc. It is not the same as imprisoning someone in the deprivations that are involved. But we are talking about a person's life here. Our system should presume a strong level of innocence until we provide proof otherwise of guilt in the destruction of others. This is also true of victims of assault, it is a person's life, and a strong level of innocence should be provided. Such cases deserve the prospect of severe penalties (like that of depriving the liberty of others to do as they see fit). They should be arbitrated, but the arbitration of justice should include the possibilities of using police powers and courts of law to do so. Colleges are not necessarily trained to deal with these matters, and have just as many incentives as police to be arbitrary and capricious toward both accused and victim, but they have a further incentive in that they are dealing with their own students, with powerful donors/boosters, star athletes or students, and so on. There were already a number of complaints relating to the handling of some high profile rape cases, or the matter of how some conservative Christian colleges were handling the entire concept of rape that suggest that the treatment by the university of complaints and grievances of a serious nature may not be to the incentive of the university to take to task. Police have their own bad incentives in investigation or prosecution of crimes, but they also have no direct financial and PR incentive to make rapes go away if they might reflect poorly on the institution of the university (they have also incentives to protect their students, but creating a system that allows them to arbitrarily punish some students and ignore others is the best way for them to do so, by their standards). A law which entrenches this poor incentive rather than removes it ought to be treated with some level of suspicion rather than cheered.

Thirdly. To me the general problems of college campuses and rape or sexual assault stem from two things
a) People (mostly men) who are predatory, and who commit acts of sexual aggression in a serial way, taking what they want from others. Generally such people do not care much about what consent laws might be changed to mean in the first place, and for whom these kinds of legal changes are irrelevant (if not protective). There is not, by and large, an ambiguous nature of consent for sex and sexual acts, nor some grey zone of uncertainty to navigate that there are large quantities of rapes committed because someone didn't understand the body language and intentions of a potential sexual partner. Nobody really has to tell anyone verbally that sex is on the table (one of the more common complaints I'm hearing is the ad reductio argument that now sexual partners will have to ask each other at each step of a sexual event what they're doing next. You don't really have to ask in words, so that's a rather silly complaint). It helps to come right out and say so of course, but it isn't that hard to read both the when it is and when it isn't from just body language and physical reactions.

There might be some nebulous zone where there is reluctance, from either party or both, for some action or another. But this is unlikely to stray into a denial of consent either and usually only requires that both parties are communicating and listening. If there's something that might be helpful there and there are numerous complaints about these kinds of incidents being registered as sexual assaults by colleges or police, or some other authoritative body, what would probably be necessary isn't a new legal environment. It's a sex ed course that teaches and discusses issues of consent and communication with sexual partners. Acts that crossed the line over into assault or rape, we already have laws for without needing a new standard necessarily. If this was the problem, which I'm dubious, then the need for a standard is cultural in change and nature. More people need to be willing to communicate and listen to any intended sexual partners about sexual acts. Before, during, and after. As embarrassing or complimentary as that can be, and as awkward as many people find it. It's a far healthier environment on the other side of that fence.

b) The second causal agent is alcohol (and to an extent other mind altering substances too). Younger people at college have a rather easy relationship with alcohol. They are away from supervisory agents (parents usually) who could also attend to their relative safety. They are often away from long-time childhood or teenage years friends who have a strong investment in their well-being and safety who will look out for them at a party or friend's room/home and assure they won't do something that could place them in danger. Many college students come in with some level of "expertise" in the use of any of these substances, but they don't have a clear delineation that says "I can consume this much and still make cogent and responsible decisions in a moment of crisis, but if I consume this much, I cannot". The compression of available recreational time between studying and normal behavior and the possibilities of penalties for underage drinking further press for higher pressure consumption habits. Which results in a lot of binge drinking, and also a lot of drunken occasions that can involve sex. Consensual or not (some of it while intoxicated is consensual, some of it is perhaps unwise, and some of it is sexual assault).

None of this suggests that it is the fault of the students who consumed too much if something awful and terrifying happens to them later. It is incumbent on others to treat someone who is in a state of vulnerability from a chemical "impairment" with a level of dignity and security for their person rather than to press the advantage and violate that person. It is hardly our fault if there are a few who seek a more predatory relationship with our vulnerabilities and we fail to adequately protect ourselves against any possible, however unlikely, threat from coming to pass. If someone is robbed, it is not our fault that we didn't have a security system installed, or proper locks. Such precautions may reduce our risks, but they are not deemed as blameworthy. Someone still had to decide to walk into our home or property and take something from it. The same applies here.

I cannot say there would be a point of alcoholic consumption where I would find that individuals would cross that line that didn't require alcohol to violate it in the first place. That is: the people who are initiating assaults don't need to be drunk, don't need to be warned not to get drunk or to be careful who they are drunk around, because they'd be the same assholes with or without it and the alcohol is not their problem. The alcohol is a grease for them to use their problem more easily. There does need to be a strong social message at work here. Not to say "don't get drunk", but "look out for one another". Hold up as praiseworthy those who object or stand up rather than look the other way and claim the victim deserved it and should have known better not to get that drunk. In the long run there's a strong need again for that honest conversation about sexuality and consent to be undertaken by scores of many young people, and that aggression against others without obtaining consent is a serious concern that should be treated seriously, perhaps even criminally.

Our ultimate goal here in dealing with this as an issue should be in part to assure that people who are committing acts of aggression are adequately punished for having done so in accordance with the severity and frequency of those violations. In some cases, the number may be dozens and the severity will be utterly banal in its details. "She said no and I did it anyway" versus "she said nothing and I did it anyway" is not really a different legal and moral environment to me, both are a species of aggression and sexual assault or rape. This is not that complex when boiled down to its specific elements that we should need a standard that is very different from "no means no". Non-consent is non-consent. Resistance or verbal objection should not be necessary to tell someone to stop trying to fuck someone if they don't want "you" to do it. In the sense that this establishes a "yes means yes" standard, that's great for slogans, but it doesn't actually shift the goalpost in moral terms toward stopping anything.

More importantly, the main goal should be to reduce the likelihood that anyone in particular is violated and becomes a victim of such people. There might be a path where these kinds of changes help make that the case. There are other universities around the country who have installed these kinds of rules relating to sexuality among students. Perhaps there have been studies on the effects those changes have on the frequency of sexual assaults, complaints of assaults, and the penalties doled out for those assaults as there may be for this to suggest that it does have a strong impact on the social conversation and the likelihood of sexual misconduct versus a sexual equality. But if there are any looking into the impact of such concepts, I'm not seeing them trotted out in defence of the legislature making a change instead of the universities doing so ahead of them, and I'm not clear on how the college can make the system less arbitrary and reasonably fair to all parties to a complaint (especially victims) with or without the intervention of the state on their behalf. I'm concerned we have allowed victims to be ignored, accused to be punished without due process, and for no one to learn much of anything about how to prevent it from happening again, or to others.

Given the seriousness of the issue, I am willing to allow for some leeway in experimenting to see what will work and what will not to reduce its severity and impact further. I'm not convinced that it won't ultimately have some positive effect that these kinds of changes should happen somewhere. Perhaps it will help. But I am not sure that it properly targets the problems, provides a clear and transparent method of adjudicating claims and concerns for all involved, and places a stronger incentive for colleges to treat this as a serious matter for their attention (than should already have been the case).

06 October 2014

Another tedious notion

Guilty by associations.

In politics and much of life, what seems the quickest way to a problem, other than sending photos of your genitals to other people, is to carry along some baggage in the form of people who say or do some "shameful shit". And then to have one's opponents, anyone looking to point and laugh, people who appear willing to endorse a world of pain upon others quickly, spend most of their time running about talking about how terrible it is that you (not they) carry that baggage in the form of things you must think or want done in your name.

This is hardly limited as a phenomenon. Atheists deal with this in the association and sometimes espousal by some of their number with all manner of far-left ideological positions (communism for example), and the historical assumption by the public that secularists must all be godless communists or some such.

Christians have the Westboro Baptist Church. The Tea Party has Sarah Palin. Muslims had Osama bin Laden, and so on down the line.

Libertarians deal with it all the time with some of the ideological travelers it carries and brings along for the ride (Randians, Austrians, gold standard folks, paleoconservatives, secessionists, anarchists, and outright racists at times). "States' rights" in libertarian circles (usually) means something about decentralized power and an attempt, misguided in practice but perhaps sound in theory, that a more localized government be used. The theory is that this would be more adaptive and responsive to the local knowledge and wisdom of local institutions and public and in that way provide a "freer" society under which to live than one ruled by a distant and central authority with only a vague need to respond to local demands and concerns. (In practice, public choice and regulatory capture issues demonstrate that local governance is often ignored by the public and more easily swayed by "special interests", where funds and policy can be diverted to benefit the few at the expense of the many, and a decreasing quantity of cities and towns have a local beat that provides some added scrutiny to these forms of governing behaviors.) "States' rights" in normal conversation means Jim Crow and segregationists, and the legacy of slavery that came before it. That gap of language and communication exists. Libertarians do themselves little credit to pretend it does not. It thus does little good to run around talking about a complex philosophical theory of politics when what the public hears is "we would like to be race supremacists and hang around with other racists!". And then to have a variety of public figures of vaguely libertarian dispositions who have done little to disassociate or disabuse the public of that impression.

When one is of a commonly known, accepted pluralist institution, say the Catholic Church or Christianity in general in the United States, it is quite easy to cast aside the notion that something ridiculous and offensive, if not outright awful and terrifying, that someone is doing, has done in the past, etc, doesn't involve "you", as a person of similar faith and practices. Almost no one puts out a demand for denouncing such people in order to accept as decent and respectable those people of similar dispositions. No one demands anyone stand up and do so. No one looks around to see that it is done. Denunciations come anyway of course, because what is said or done may well have been terribly reprehensible on its own grounds (the priest abuse scandals say). But no one is checking the work to hold it against them later.

Suppose one is of a maligned, oppressed, misunderstood, or relatively unknown minority instead. And now the equation flips. Denunciations come anyway for reprehensible actions by people of similar dispositions (for calling out racist sentiments, acts of terrorism, etc), just as before. But now they go largely ignored by the horde of people who are demanding such denunciations in the process of declaring that whichever disfavored minority group must tacitly support such activities if it doesn't issue such things. A minority group, particularly when composed of somewhat radical persons, has a strong duty imposed upon it to police its own members, its own fringes, and its own fellow travelers to avoid baggage.

If racism and terrorism make up a fairly low probability effect in the average person's interests, it doesn't occur to most of us that we need to denounce the behavior of "other people", even if they look like us, or attend the same civil and religious institutions. I suspect part of the reason school shootings attract so much attention is that there's a growing disposition to park young men in this category of dangerous and hostile, despite it being a fairly rare quality that most young men partake of violence of any kind. If it does not occur to most of us in some minority population that these shared characteristics require us to acknowledge the offending or heinous actions of (supposed) fellow travelers that we may or may not feel any special kinship toward, it should not be surprising that most such people do not speak up against them in some special way, just as it is not surprising that most people in a larger and more entrenched plurality for some society might not. It also should not be surprising that attempts to denounce such groups in this way can have the counterproductive effects of a) not demonstrating to the group a specific problem caused by perceived or actual members of it as they are already feeling disassociated from these aggrieved members and see no need to disassociate further, or b) conforming the group around to defend the activities, up to a point, of these aggrieved members rather than condemning and reforming any actual bad behaviors by supporting the emotional reaction that the group is under attack.

So what to do? Or, rather more pressing, what purpose does this all serve? Primarily the arguments of this kind take the form of "these silly people ALL must be like this crazy mofo", in the seeking of dismissal of their kind for partisan gains (be that party political, religious, or some other division). This is effectively why people argue, not to discern what is true or false about a thing or person or their associates, loose or otherwise, but to win arguments in a social context, and to drive people to or away from goals being sought by others. Sometimes these arguments are of convenience, seeking allies without. Sometimes they are of purity, seeking to restrict and annihilate heresies from within. But always, the goal is to advance one's interests. Not to find and to do what is "right".

To deal with this, minority groups should have twin goals. First. To police their own of the most radical and offensive notions, in particular those of harmful intention toward others, and to declare these notions as out-of-bounds, marginal, or otherwise unjustifiable (in most instances). And second to declare their own positions more fiercely and publicly so that the public can not easily use heuristic positions to simplify their thinking into something more offensive. For something like say, suicide bombing, it is common to declare that Muslims are "fine" with such things. In fact, outside of the Palestinian territory, most Muslims are not. The vast majority even in most countries (including the United States). Where they are accepted as "sometimes justified", it is possible to see such attacks as a form of asymmetric warfare, where there might be particular forms of attacks (upon soldiers or supplies of soldiers, and civilians working on a military base of a perceived foe, for instance), that might indeed be seen as "justifiable" in the context of military conflicts, and others which are clearly reprehensible. There does not appear to be much work done to determine if this is the thinking being used of course when answering questions (that these are somehow "legitimate targets"). It probably is not in many cases and that there is a vibrant minority which expresses support for what would legitimately be a horrifying position morally.

That there is any substantial population expressing favor for such thinking should be viewed as a problematic development that should require some response internally. And if we look around, we find that it can be treated as such. It has been decreasing in popularity already over the last decade. There are various clerics writing and declaring that it is harmful and wrong. Various strategic leaders within some extremist/fundamentalist groups understand that it does little to advance their purported cause, particularly when civilians may be killed. The violence of extremist groups is overwhelmingly listed as one of the biggest problems with such organisations (not their extreme ideological or fundamentalist views, but deprivation of life and the retaliations that brings). The abhorrent views of such groups might be still problematic for their own reasons, but it is the violence that foremost attracts the ire and attention of both the outside world and the internal Muslim communities. This should demonstrate that it may be possible to both clearly identify the worst offenses of some group, and to work to condemn, constrain, and as much as possible eliminate such offenses from the constellation of activities that a group of persons is to engage in.

There's another flipside to all of this. How is it that the majority or large pluralities can be favored so well that their "sins" are forgiven and ignored, or at least declared the acts of lunacy and depravity that they often are, without some grander accounting. Put into practical terms, does this serve us some good in reducing such activities of offense or harm to declare it the acts of insane minorities, themselves sub-groupings that are clearly delineated from the whole by some arbitrary measure? If the affront is committed by some members of a more popular, and thus socially favored group, say police or the military, how does a community respond? Why does it not respond in the same way? Why are we quick to declare that "of course not all cops are bad", as a caveat when some legitimate grievance does emerge, but we may more easily saddle up to the notion that certain religions declare and command violence (but not other religions, certainly not "our's") or certain political ideologies command and worship greed and selfishness (but certainly not "our" political affiliations). What service does this perform for us in attending to any institutional reform needs of these more popular places to be able to hang one's hat as a member? Or to the expulsion or if possible the rehabilitation of its most heinous members?

20 September 2014

Bombing begins in 10 minutes

I do not shy away from the idea that occasionally military conflicts are inevitable or capable ways to quickly resolve dangerous international situations. But ISIS doesn't strike me as a problem that we can resolve in this way with military force. It is unclear to me what our goals are in intervention. It is unclear to me why our forces, or our interests are of higher concern than those of the regional players who may be threatened (Saudi Arabia, Iran) that we should react or act on their behalf, or why we should seek to prevent those regional players from acting and reacting (Iran), and it is pretty clear that we (the US/EU) are not actually threatened that we need to respond directly and promptly ourselves.

Several thoughts

The threat of "hundreds of members who hold Western passports" does not materialize to me as a conceptual threat that these members could turn around and conduct terrorist attacks on American or European soil with relative ease. Conducting and plotting terrorist attacks is difficult to carry off successfully. And more to the point, if we're aware they have these members, these individuals can be flagged as potentially dangerous and monitored and observed well before they could carry out any plot that is made. That's precisely why we have an NSA or CIA or FBI or MI-6, etc (it isn't for monitoring hundreds of millions of unsuspecting American citizens, but for monitoring much more suspicious potential threats like this, western pro-Islamist radicals willing to go train or fight in foreign insurgencies).

This is also one of the reasons most of the intelligence community doesn't appear to agree with the emerging public consensus that ISIS represents an imminent terrorist threat to Americans over the next several years. It can declare it wants to attack Americans or Brits all it wants, but actually doing it is very different from proclaiming itself to be hostile. That's mostly a PR stunt to attempt to recruit, not a statement of an ongoing mission planned and prepared. Al Qaeda was able to carry off its attacks over a decade ago largely because it had a long timeline to develop them and intelligence community coordination was poor in reaction or response. I'm not persuaded our intelligence community has learned much about how it should conduct its operations to identify potential terrorism threats, but it's possible that a rather public threat like this would command sufficient attention to be identifiable in the wake of the knowledge of what such threats could maybe eventually lead toward (eg, 9-11). This intelligence operation should be the focal point of any response to the idea that Americans might be endangered now or in the future, and not open-ended military campaigns conducted abroad in intractable political contests over power and religion in other countries.

In general, ISIS lacks power projection capabilities common to a large developed nation-state. It doesn't have an air force, navy, long-range missile capabilities. It largely consists of well-armed guerrilla and insurgent infantry forces (similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan). It will as a result have difficulty expanding, consolidating, and enforcing rule over areas of the Middle East that it does not already enjoy, for various sectarian religious and political reasons, a modest level of public support. That is to say: if it tries to expand or attack or agitate in areas that aren't mostly Sunni, and mostly irritated with Western or "pro-Western" governments, it won't get much done and will be resisted by any capable forces available. It can be an irritant in that area and represents a threat to the region and its relative stability (such as there is any), but it cannot control much of significant importance to American interests. People invoking Chamberlain "appeasement" and Godwin's Law comparisons have no idea what they are talking about and should be ignored. Germany was a powerful nation-state with a capable military for power projection and a burgeoning economy to support that machinery of war in the 1930s. ISIS is none of those things, and probably never will be (this was also true of the Iraqi state in the early 2000s). Such talk needs to be silenced and ignored as patently idiotic. What it can do is be annoying, and perhaps try to operate as a zone to attract and train militant fighters and/or terrorists. But it can't represent a major threat to American interests and safety. It bears keeping an eye on, not a preemptive military strike.

Bombing insurgents, or sending in special operations teams, might help in small doses where our regional allies require assistance, but the main line of resistance needs to be coordinated and conducted by those regional allies (Jordan, Kurds, Turkey), and by other regional players who might be endangered in some way (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria). They are the ones threatened by direct attack or occupation and in need of response to overturn the danger. If it were clear that our intervention was to buy time for these disparate entities to coordinate or develop a strategy to respond and crush this rebellious force militarily and also provide some political means of responding to the situations that allowed it to flourish (local repression by Syrian and Iraqi governments primarily), then perhaps such interventions over a brief time could be warranted. I am skeptical that the local powers can coordinate politically and militarily; (Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to hate each other for example. And as a result skeptical that they can respond to the political problems involved; Iraq and Syria were in some measure the cause of those problems, it seems unlikely they can help solve them. This situation will not be best resolved with a semi-permanent force of US power tied to the area with the need for bombings and assassinations.

Our interventions thereby exist in a strategic no-man's land. Since we are responsible in some measure for the political situation in Iraq, it seems unlikely we can help much on that front either. Interjecting ourselves into civil wars and sectarian strife with an intent to resolve them is unlikely to be a fair long-term use of our power and capabilities. This has been borne out in Israel-Palestine for decades, in Palestine internally for a decade, in the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict that we have allowed ourselves to be dragged into rather than selecting a sensible set of allies, ideally who share western values in some measure, to support ahead of time as a means of protecting and expanding our hegemonic power through soft and hard power projection, and so on. It is extremely unlikely that a campaign of bombing, or special operations, or military occupation, will successfully repress and destroy our purported enemy on its own without an overall COIN strategy that our allies can successfully execute to defuse the intractable political and sectarian conflicts that have brought this to our attention. Which leaves the prospect of intervention open-ended, without a position and goal of success to achieve that allows us to leave the situation behind at some future date. Given that we have had a history of this as well (Iraq under Hussein, Afghanistan under the Taliban/Karzai), this should tell us that this strategy lacks a degree of wisdom and smacks too much of a reaction to emotion rather than a reaction to a threat of grave concern.

12 September 2014

morality v religion

This should not be terribly surprising. There doesn't appear to be a big difference in reported moral behavior for the religious from non-religious populations.

What appears interesting out of it so far
1) Haidt's moral framework of distinct moral values and the ideological or religious faultlines over which are held in higher regard is rather clearly demonstrated in what people self-report as moral violations or achievements. Religious (conservative) people often identified different things as immoral than the secular (liberal) population. This probably explains a large measure of why non-religious persons are often regarded as "immoral" by religious people, because they do not identify much of their behavior as morally and ethically questionable where the religious person does. This does not mean that non-religious and secular persons have not considered these questions or that they avoid these moral quandaries in order to do things. Instead it usually means they don't find it very important to judge themselves or others on these questions and may regard them as matters of personal taste; Coke v Pepsi style or rap v country rather than intractable social questions.

2) People report hearing about immoral behavior much more often than moral behavior. This is the traditional transmission vector for morality, getting other people to gossip about your misdeeds. I suspect religious people are more vulnerable to negative gossip (from within "their" group). Most secular persons I am familiar with are vulnerable to negative gossip, but mostly because they may try to ignore it until it has already caused a problem for themselves. Paying attention to the opinions of others is tedious, and often a waste of time, but sometimes carries benefits.

3) Religious people experience more guilt or shame over moral questions. This does not appear to lead them to avoid these actions however. It means they feel worse about it. My off-the-cuff impression is that non-religious people experience less guilt mostly because the moral behaviors that religious persons identify are more common (purity or disgust violations) and easy to identify. Non-religious person's ethical codes are more likely to identify most behaviors that are non-harmful (to others) and consensual acts to be acceptable and experience little guilt over these versus other actions where other persons were harmed, which are less likely to occur or be observed in a daily or weekly pattern. If they feel guilty over drinking too much the night before, it's probably because of the hangover and not because they violated some decree, as an example.

10 September 2014

Quick Hits

1) I don't care that Apple thinks people still want a 16th century technology. Watches are stupid. Keeping track of time that closely is rarely important. If something needs to be done "soon", get it done as fast as you can. And don't worry about the time limits with precision.

2) Something that's come up often, and somehow managed to make it onto my social media feed: People who complain about white people getting killed by cops (or by minorities) somehow being ignored (by the media, or other people in their social circles).

The problem here is we're talking about two different things:
a Individual people getting killed. Which is bad. A problem (sometimes police violence, or crime). That kind of problem deserves attention and is terrible.
b People who are systematically oppressed, with a matchstick moment like an unarmed person from that community of people being killed (by police or whomever).
White people aren't oppressed (at least not in that way involving police brutality and racial profiling, etc). Crime against white people also isn't ignored by police or media. When there are protests surrounding a particular killing or beating of a minority victim, this isn't just to make a statement about the actual killing. It is to draw attention to the overall setup that helped lead to that killing. Large numbers of people are totally unaware of the deployment of SWAT teams into the Hispanic or African-American part of town, or the futility of stop and frisk searches as little more than racial discrimination under the supposed rubric of guns or drugs (which are almost never found). If the SWAT team is hitting a middle class white family, that gets attention, or if the police started frisking everyone in "your" neighborhood. And so on.

One of the consequences of all of this is that police and the citizens they police begin an adversarial relationship rather than a cooperative one. This all makes it much more likely that the tactics described above might be used, and that brutality and violence would occur, and thus shootings of unarmed citizens would be much more frequent. And much more likely to be ignored by the public at large, or passed over as supposedly "justified".

So. Yeah. If someone posts that kind of thing, you're going to get an angry note.

3) The NFL. I intend, as usual, to basically ignore football as a sport and watch as little of it as possible. I believe I watched a game last year involving 8-10 inches of snow on the field (Lions-Eagles). Because that was funny. But because football is a vastly popular media topic, it is impossible to ignore football in general as a topic. And what seems like the situation is that the NFL, if it wants to remain relevant in 15-20 years, probably needs to replace its commissioner as soon as possible. Because Goodell is basically running all the PR issues straight into the dirt rather than floating over them as problems. It confronts almost none of its major issues. Sexism -most teams are involved in long-standing fights over cheerleader treatment, pay, etc, and a variety of criminal charges involving domestic abuse and its players occur per year. No doubt it is not the only such league that has these, but its responses attract more attention, because they are often woefully inadequate. PEDs. Basically the league is ignoring these because faster and stronger players are more exciting (the NBA effectively does as well, and I don't particularly care that much about PEDs ethically). Concussions and brain trauma research, the league has tried to bury this, and took years to get around to addressing it at all. And so on. Football doesn't need to become a less violent sport to survive in relevance in America. But it does need to attend to these as issues. Parents (of both sexes), will see the risks of football as increasingly harsh environments (on and off the field) for placing their children into the sport and depriving it of vital talent and skilled play, a serious long-term risk to the health of the sport. And meanwhile women are a large and growing source of disposable income, and could be a large and growing fan base for professional sports. It should not take a violent video being leaked to disturb the conscience of league authorities relating to the off-field violence of one of its players and declare that it takes these concerns of how its players conduct themselves privately with a measure of seriousness.

08 September 2014

Another topic I tire of writing out opinion on

The Pledge. 

This comes up often in discussions with atheists. While I share some of the discomfort of other secularists in a ritual which implies an affirmation of belief in a deity, my main objections to the entire enterprise are more complex than simply finding "under god" offensive to those sensibilities, or more accurately, that lacking those affirmations makes one "unpatriotic". The pledge itself is more objectionable than the precise wording including a religious phrase to be uttered. Both to the notion of religious belief involved and to the associations of "patriotism" with "nationalism", in a profane exercise of confusing the two in the minds of (usually) impressionable children.

While it appears that if we ask a populace aware of the history of this pledge and ritual practice, and the changes of its language, far more recently in both its origins and current design, that that populace is more comfortable (but not popularly comfortable) abolishing the "under god" from the recited lines required, this is not the biggest problem I have had with the issues surrounding the pledge. I never felt that it was in some way requiring an affirmation of belief in a deity to mouth words. This is because the far bigger problem was the affirmation of a ritual requiring a declaration of patriotic duty in a particular way. The exercise of putting everyone in a room together to "support" or "respect" "our troops", as it was recently declared, and other affirmations of what is implied by one's patriotic responsibilities as a citizen is the offensive quality of the pledge. Patriotic duties are wide and varied, and the implication is not the same as blind nationalistic sentiments. The pledge is primarily about the latter. It is not a statement for the love and fostering of growth, prosperity, and peaceful development of a nation-state and its people, but obedience to its symbols, authority, and leaders that it is celebrating and developing.

We can see this in the manner that it is conducted, led by an authority figure (a teacher or school official), with a variety of methods of condemning or shaming those who do not comply. Among the student body, if not done by the teacher. We can see this in the number of complaints and court cases filed, not necessarily and not often by atheists who object to the language, but by co-religious figures who find the nature and coerced expression of patriotism offensive in its design. We can see this in the violence that was perpetrated against those who refused, out of a strongly held religious belief rather than its absence, not to accede to the standing and reciting of some words (even before those words included the sometimes objectionable phrase "under god").

A free society without room for disagreement and debate does not last long in a peaceful state with itself. A society that seeks to provide space for its people to decide how best, or even whether to, love and improve one's nation and the state of its people should not start the lives and days of its youth with the premise that its people and residents owe love to that country and its leaders. That would be earned out of the respect for the ideals of that society as they are practiced in providing that liberty, not out of a declared and recited oath of fealty to a nation that will strive, and not always succeed, to reach those ideals. Obedience is not a quality that should be enjoyed in a democratic society without it having been earned through a level of trust in the obedience of its people and leaders to protecting and fostering the values of a democratic society and it is definitely not a quality that should be enjoyed and fostered by rote and ritual presentation for children to participate in by fiat and requirement.

As a final, and perhaps more annoying note. The "under God" phrase itself is objectionable not merely for its religious elements. But because it is grammatically awkward. It was clearly inserted as a half-measure when it was done so in the 1950s and as a way to reference Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln's speech used the phrase in an entirely different way, something akin to a request say "god willing", that we might aspire to that goal of a unified and free nation (certainly in his time, and ours in many ways, still a very uncertain prospect). This does not appear to be the presentation of the words used in the pledge, which appear to be a purposeful inclusion of the sovereignty of a deity over the land. As opposed to the communists who opposed us when it was inserted. In order to make such a statement, the phrase is ill-suited.

The appropriate response of secularists, or people of a humanistic ethic generally, isn't really to demand the language be changed so they too can participate in this curious ritual. The appropriate response is to remain seated when the pledged is to be uttered. Do not participate in it at all. Submit to authority where it is warranted, not where it is only demanded.

05 September 2014

Empty shells of wordless speeches

Pages turned through the dust
Ink has spilled across the paper
Words. So they say.
To deeds never done
To speeches never made
Toasts of places never seen
and people never met

Stay a while and listen
Or fill the empty space
of others with nonsense
cleverness or viciousness
Attention. Hero at work
Nothing happened
No one needed saving
Indifferent possibilities abound

An empty shell out
for a stroll
Filled the bottle with
a dreadful need
a purposeful hatred
on a voyage to a horrid
place to visit
with no one to speak to
and a song that never ends
blasting on the radio




26 August 2014

ALS and ice

I've been trying to form some opinions on this for a while. It seems a complicated issue to talk about, for reasons that I wasn't quite sure of. I believe I figured out why people are annoyed to have an adult conversation about it, so I will say a few words.

I don't mind that people are suddenly giving money to this as a cause. I would think other causes will be trying to adapt it and will catch up. They will learn how to make viral and invasive messages about their own serious matters too. This was just one of the first to make it that way in the internet age (Susan Komen and others with the colored ribbons would be one of the first to make it that way in the pre-internet age).

I'm a little disturbed that it is inefficient. The utilitarian calculator in me is really annoyed that there are dozens of other things that would be less wasteful as a display of viral contests. Dumping clean water and ice on your head is a pretty obvious "first world" thing to do, and screams "look at me!", I care about X and will do something silly to prove it. That's a little irritating but not so much so that I find it necessary to object to it out of hand. It feels more like an itch brought on by extroverts and their need for attention and overt displays than actual narcissism.

There are also causes more likely to produce a considerable net positive social and global good by giving to them (malaria research, basic genetic research, clean water, or general cash donations to the poor). I think this is the general feeling of a lot of people who are mildly annoyed by this "contest" or challenge or whatever is an offense against other causes is being caused. And it is true that some, perhaps even most of the money is exclusive rather than freshly produced charity. Meaning that some other very worthy causes won't be getting as much money for research of cures or prevention or treatment of the sick, the infirm, or the otherwise at risk.

That point of view however has been expressed rather poorly and reacted to with enormous vitriol. As though anyone who says it is a) completely unaware and unconcerned of the suffering imposed by ALS or b) doesn't want it to be cured. If I thought these donations would reduce the suffering imposed by leading to a cure or prevention/treatment method, we'd be in some major hot water there. It's possible they will, but not very likely. It's much more likely giving someone in a third world country 100 dollars in start up capital will do something, or a 100 dollars of water or water cleaning research or technology to a town in Central Asia or Africa, etc. So I would rather do that.

I don't know why that PoV complaint should matter. If people, like me, are applying some utilitarian logic and are actually annoyed the money is going to ALS instead of something else conceived of as more productive, give the money to something else, and ask others to do the same. We are not required to obey to give money only to this one thing. This is the part that seems to be missing from commentary on the subject. If dumping ice on each other's heads is the transmission vector, dump ice on your head for some other reason and try to use what's working now for that cause instead. This isn't a legally binding requirement that once challenged, our money is locked into this donation. It's a blank check. Treat it as such.

Charitable giving and "awareness" generally are not inherently bad objects. It is desirable that we should be concerned with the suffering of others, even those unknown to us, and attempt to help them in indirect ways if necessary. We should avoid criticizing people for doing this, which I believe is one reason people are annoyed with anyone saying "eh" at their giving to ALS now is a perception of criticism.

Giving is often an excuse to do wasteful or immodest or even immoral things elsewhere in one's life though. Philanthropy isn't necessarily something corporations or the wealthy do simply to "be good". These actions are reputational adjustments they can point to when people complain about something else they are doing (which may actually be worse). Altruism isn't really a big thing for most of us. It is usually more important to be seen caring about something than to produce an effect on the problem we are proclaiming loudly to care about. This is what I think most pro-life/anti-choice people are doing, as an example, trying to express concern about abortion without working to make it less likely to occur. Because that would be too hard and require listening. This as a cause isn't quite in the same category. It isn't necessarily doing damage to us as a society to loudly express concern in this way about this thing instead of something else of deeper and more significant damage to our own society and well-being (say, the war on drugs, or expanding birth control accessibility, or dealing with miscarriages, or diabetes, and so on down our litany of woes). A few million dollars for this instead of a few other charities isn't a big deal in the scheme of things.

But it's in the same variety of action and could be twisted quickly to something that could be damaging. Which is a little worrisome. One of the biggest problems is that the point many use to justify is "awareness". Awareness is useful if it can be combined with something that we can do to mitigate. Awareness and understanding of depression is, for example, something we can act upon as an individual to be attentive and listen to others, or otherwise be present. Awareness of AIDs is something that allows us to try to prevent it from spreading and afflicting others. Awareness of police brutality or violence allows us to gather together to try to reform our system of oversight so that it might be punished accordingly or at least transparently. Awareness of ALS would be kind of like awareness of an impending alien invasion. There's not a whole lot we can do about it right now and it's been worked on for decades. Maybe these donations will have long term impact. I hope they do and I think most everyone involved hopes they do. They aren't being malicious by giving. But "raising awareness" isn't really a way to deal with a long-term problem like this. The reason is that once people feel "aware" of a problem, and maybe do something like dump ice buckets on their heads, they may feel they have absolved themselves of the responsibility to do much else about it, and passed it on to others to act. They have met their "I care" quota for the day and can let something slide. I have very little "I care" as a quota to go around, so I find that dispensing it in this way is not very effective in actually demonstrating whether I care about something or not. This is a serious problem. It deserves serious attention. It is difficult to do much about it though, so I find it is a better use of time and money and energy to go "care" about something else instead.

I find it curious that other people don't recognize that, but I don't think it is necessary to judge them for this decision. And I think much of the commentary has come off as a judgment that they are doing something wrongful by acting in this way. Which should justly make people mad.