31 May 2015

Secularists getting more strange advice


This piece felt really incoherent as a set of ideas being expressed. I'm not sure what the point was but I imagine I could pull a few bits out and make them make more sense.

I wasn't sure if she was complaining about atheists imitating churches or holding it up as some sort of ideal. Is gathering together once in a while to sing songs and eat cookies and cupcakes with people who generally share your worldview considered an example of a way people demonstrate their tolerance and decency? Isn't that one of the problems sociologically with religious organisations is the exclusivity and in/out group behaviors formed and reinforced by gathering together in a regularized way with people who already agree with you? Is this some form of rigorous tradition of secular society to perform the same basic traditional rituals as religions upon which it is drawing for strength and balance while contending with a heavily religiously structured worldview? Short version: Doesn't seem like that part of the piece had much of anything to do with anything else. Secular exchange of ideas has always occurred, in salons and cafes and coffee shops and universities and schools and articles and blogs. It isn't made more suddenly rigorous by placing it in a church-like environment to be worshiped. Neither is the moral functions of humanism or secularism necessarily reinforced by gathering in that way. Or at least no evidence is put forward to suggest that's how it works.

A secular community that lacks a set of common values isn't likely to gain much by trying to gather people together in the way that religious organizations do. One critique of such gatherings is that they can very easily stray into the "let's all bash religion" and become very boring, very quickly. People "recovering from religion" do seem to need more therapeutic release of this type, but eventually something needs to take the place of "I'm mad that people brainwashed me for 20 years" as a basis for secularity or it isn't of much use to anyone else. Much less yourself. Most people are engaging in this, to be fair, but the processes outlined in this piece don't seem to be suggestive of how that would work. People don't need to gather together to remind themselves and each other that god and religion are terrible things or wrong in some intellectual way. We already figured that out generally, often on our own. Maybe it feels good to know there are other people who agree with that position, but affirmation isn't a long-term strategy for social functions. I at least don't want to be told how awesome I must be for not caring about something that doesn't exist in reality. What's at stake is something else that isn't necessarily scratched by these arguments about religious theology that are easily undertaken, or at least those arguments need to be tuned in the direction of what could be a better ethos than religious dogmas often command.

I have generally very strange politics relative to most other secularists on a number of issues. I have a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward some of the hot button issues (gay marriage opponents, low-level religious discrimination, income inequality, teaching of creationism, etc). This makes me somewhat strange among secularists, but it doesn't make me "unusual" in that most people have variance of their moral and political views and what annoys them and grinds the gears into action. One insight that this gives me is that people are generally going to be a little off, and if you can put up with the way they are off, you should try to rather than trying to mold them into neat little boxes that all conform to a single worldview with only a single possible outcome or set of shared goals and ideals. It's not worth the effort in many cases.

I'm also fairly motivated to be decent to other people (most of them, most of the time, or at least indifferent rather than actively harmful), to try to be patient with people who are less verbose or technical in writing out ideas rather than immediately mocking them when they don't seem to be able to get to the point, or to try to help people who are suffering (sometimes not the most reassuring voice, but probably one people find useful all the same). I've also often heard from religious people that non-religious people (like myself) are typically less judgmental of others and tend to be more patient with difficult questions and the uncertainty they can provoke in people, which is often seen as a moral good that religious organisations and the associated societies of people they have cultivated do not always promote well. It is these values that ought to be highlighted in the move to have secularists be more accepted in society. That we are generally attempting to be decent human beings without exceptionally judgmental and exclusive attitudes toward those who are not like us. All of those values appear almost no where in the piece other than as a throwaway sort of "we'll show them we're good people" tact or as a general nod toward "tolerance". Meaning what exactly? That we also attend strange ceremonial rituals? That we also believe we have a set of moral codes that is superior? That a level of civic tolerance toward people who disagree (politely and peacefully) is bad? Those seemed to be the hallmarks of the piece. Those have little to do with being a good person, even in a humanistic ethos. I didn't see a way from point A to point C being laid out.

I sympathize with the questions involved as they are important questions. How are atheists likely to overcome significant social stigmas in a heavily religious society? How might more people be accepting of a secular moral worldview (and not dismissive of it)? How might more people learn to be appropriately skeptical of answers to difficult questions or religion, or science for that matter? How might people learn to be decent and kind to one another (or at least indifferent rather than fearful)? What is it that humanistic values or secular values offers positively in exchange for not having to get up on Sunday mornings? How are these difficult moral questions to be resolved in the absence of authority figures telling us what we are to do, how do we put them into practice? And so on. But almost nothing in this piece suggested a path toward resolving those questions. It suggested they are important questions and then threw in a bunch of anecdotes about going to a church that didn't have a bible in use instead and "some things Sam Harris has said". Suspiciously sounds like woo rather than science. (I'm not exactly in the Sam Harris fan club anyway as I've written about him a couple of times in takedown fashion).

30 May 2015

Charity to rivals

Some nice things to say about people I will tend to disagree with.

1) Conservatives
 - Abortion- Many ardent pro-life persons actually do seem motivated by a genuine belief and desire to protect the lives of the unborn as a basis for argument, rather than some innate hatred of women. Indeed I don't begrudge those few who seem willing to state that they oppose exemptions even for rape and incest, simply because their priority is on the as yet unborn life in a consistent moral argument. While those making carve-outs are effectively ceding the battleground on which they are fighting to the "I don't like your reasons for an abortion, while mine are perfectly fine" position on which most people are contending with this issue.

My disagreement is whether these prospective lives of the unborn tend to justify the variety of policies put in place to police the activities of women and doctors, whether these are from a moral or ethical standard actual lives or not (in many cases, I would argue not, at least in the legal sense that we could design any practical policy to enforce and protect them that would not also punish or provide investigatory powers for common natural events like miscarriages). And then in many cases, either the tactics or laws pursued are either trivially annoying and ineffective or outright counterproductive to their purported goals. I don't not believe their motives as real in many cases (some perhaps are opportunistic or patriarchal) despite the inability to match up policies they would support with actual results.

- Drug Warriors - Are in fact motivated to combat a potential social problem, drug addiction (or general irresponsible drug use as a secondary issue). They have chosen the worst possible methods I can imagine (police and force instead of doctors and social work). But there is at least the existence of a problem they are choosing to fight using the social tools available to them.

- Police more broadly - I'm sympathetic to the problem of having to enforce a myriad of laws and social mores and directives, with a changing set of political agendas hovering over all of this. I feel the easier solution is less to provide more tools and weapons and aggression for the command of authority to rule the day but for fewer things to be resolved by police and laws, and to allow police to do things on which they are more suited to enforce and investigate (eg, not worrying about vice laws or drug crimes, and more of a focus on preventing murder or theft). Police are not social workers in the broad sense on which we have often deployed them to deal with parenting questions, mental ailments and issues, endemic poverty, race relations and so on. To expect all of that to go swimmingly by using force through the police is to expect something that isn't possible.

- Religious conservatives generally - While I have all manner of theological and atomistic reasons to think religion (any religion) is silly, a great many people seem to extract a sensible set of value from participating in their religious traditions. Tradition in and of itself isn't interesting to me, but it often can contain kernels of wise council about our actions. A broader sense of community isn't interesting to me, but for many people provides purpose and a camaraderie that they enjoy. Metaphysics generally isn't interesting to me at all, but for many people, answering "life's big questions" with a set of prepared answers (whether or not those answers make any sense) is a satisfying practice. Occasionally religious entities even do useful and good things; helping the poor or indigent or providing aid and shelter after a disaster.

There are downsides to the "community" aspects of religion, namely the in-group/out-group dynamics are extremely strong (perhaps rivaled only by nationalist fervor in the modern context), such that outsiders can easily be viewed with suspicion or hatred. And bothering people who don't have much interest in being part of these communities gets really annoying.

- Neoconservatives - Do at least seem to be trying to pay attention to the international community by observing the rise and fall of potential threats. They've often overblown how dramatic the threats are, or have no idea what methods would best resolve the threat before it becomes a real danger. But it's a starting point relative to many who utterly ignore the affairs of other countries, governments, and the people and associations they form, complete with their own interests and goals, in other lands.

This bleeds into security state defenders (strong/invasive NSA policies), where I would agree these are people generally motivated by an interest in protecting people from harm, but who have crafted policies that either fail to do so, fail to do so at the cost, or which are more harmful than beneficial (because others have less noble ends in mind, such as prosecuting the drug war).

- Nationalism - Does form originally from ardent patriotism in most cases. Which would be productive. I don't have anything else good to say about it though so I should probably stop talking. (this is probably one of the worst modern "sins" I can conceive of people having endorsed is to place nationalism ahead of patriotism, or humanism, or their faith, or basically any value set whatsoever would be superior).

2) Libertarians

- Ayn Rand fans - I appreciate that these are people who are starting to grapple with a wide set of public policy questions and issues. The lens used for examination is problematic, but it's a start and people need to start somewhere. Most people rarely study public policy questions with any degree of seriousness, with no eye for coherent ideologies or practical effects. Political philosophy is probably an even rarer source of investigation for most people. Her's isn't much of a philosophy as it is a guideline, but again, baby steps.

- Ron Paul fans - paleo-conservativism has its uses in moderating many of neoconservatism's worst impulses (IR aggression or the security state as examples). I still question the motivations pushing for much of any anti-globalism or anti-trade or anti-immigration notions that sometimes arise in these far fields of political conservatism. But tamping down the worst excesses of another political structure's intentions by offering an alternative interpretation (even if often straying way out into paranoia), is a vital enterprise for public policy.

- Gold bugs/end the Fed types - The average person spends almost zero time observing monetary policy, seeing it as opaque and insignificant. These are people who seem to focus on almost nothing else. I'd hope for a more happy medium from both the public and government officials in the amount of attention and less fussing over precious metals as though that would somehow resolve our financial position ("strong" currencies, of the type usually favored by gold specie demands are meaningless because they can be potentially damaging or self-correcting to economic prospects and provide no additional stability that isn't created by moderately competent central banking).

3) Liberals/Progressives

- Economic views - Seem to be largely concerned about concentrations of wealth or the condition of the poor. I'm ambivalent about the first being a huge problem in and of itself, but the latter certainly is a powerful and concerning issue. Often don't seem to grasp effective solutions and causes very easily. This isn't a critique of progressives or liberals specifically however as most people do not (conservatives are often just as bad on economic policies that they want to put forward).

- Environmentalism - Most people seem to accept a genuine concern for the natural world as a sensible motivation. Activities or positions taken on some issues (nuclear power or fracking for example) are alarmist and counterproductive. There's a real danger in environmentalist positions and movements of the same variety of closed-minded-closed ranks behavior that conservatives have tended toward, where adherence to a set of positions on issues supersedes evidence of actual risks involved in those issues, or adherence to rigid policy outcomes while disregarding any path to them (that isn't an absolute drop/change).

A way to summarize most of these disagreements would be as follows:
"I believe you are well-motivated and have identified what you feel is a problem. But your actual positions and motions to do something about it are misguided, ineffective, or totally symbolic rather than meaningful and productive. Stop being symbolic and do some real work to think carefully about what you want to achieve and whether what you are asking can be done, or can be done in this way."

24 May 2015

How to complain about something that's already going on

Guaranteed income edition. 

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

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

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

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

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

22 May 2015

Random sex scandal stories mentally intersected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 May 2015

Continuing to talk about unspeakable things

Torture edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 May 2015

On crime and punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 May 2015


There be some minor spoilers

Good stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed/bad stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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