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Saturday, June 28, 2008

When "Progressives" are bigots, part 2

Too Clever by Half has arguably valid points in his post against the D.C. v Heller decision. Yes, the reason the D.C. law didn't work probably has a lot to do with the ease with which one can buy a gun in one of the bordering states. And yes, I suppose the decision does signal that who becomes president might have an impact on future court cases. (I'm ambivalent about this last point: apparently someone who voted for the first Mr. Bush was supposed to have anticipated that he would have named two justices to the Court, only one of whom would vote for Heller...still, I guess the point has some validity.)

However, the post descends into some of the more obvious caricatures of people who support gun rights: "gun nuts are running through the streets, firing into the air, and gettin' all likkered up and sheeeyit." And of course, the imminent sharp upturn is due to "the capricious morons who call themselves the conservative Justices" We'll have to wait until they "die off. Or get shot by some crazed DC-area Republican. Could happen."

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with the Court's opinion, but isn't it possible to admit that the second amendment can lend itself to the interpretation adopted by the Court? Now, it is quite healthy to see the ideological underpinnings of court decisions and to be free of the myth that the court is seeking only the "Truth." But aren't there more substantive critiques than simply painting anyone who disagrees with one's interpretation of an archaically worded constitutional provision as rabid nuts?

When "Progressives" are bigots

Too Clever by Half, who apparently read the same Wall Street Journal articles I read this morning, claims that traditionalist Amish and Mennonites (and, just to salt and pepper the pot, he adds in a n unsupported jibe at "fundamentalist Christians") should, in his infelicitous phrasing, have help getting "their heads out of their own a---es." He bemoans the travesty of a "premodern" people trying to escape their responsibilities in the world and yet "free ride" on the services and protections that the world provides. In other words, Amish and Mennonites should take out health insurance just like everybody else instead of seeking charity care and then complaining when the hospital sends their bills to collections.

Fair enough, but he misrepresents the WSJ article we both read. The article discusses a Mennonite farmer who has already paid over $400,000 of his own money (he is now, according to the article, in debt for about $287,000). That should be mentioned before that blogger writes that "they don't pay their debts." Of course, "seriously, these people have no sense of restraint, shame, or responsibility."

Yes, there are compromises that a traditionalist has to make and he or she should take those compromises in account. But the "progressives" of the world could do without Too Clever's condescension.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Varieties of Judgement

A well known dictum from the Bible (I believe it's a verbatim quotation, but I do not know the book, chapter, or verse, so I stand to be corrected) states "Judge not lest ye be judged."

What does it mean "to judge." For example, regarding the story about the teenagers who beat a homeless man to death while others watched, I am inclined to say that I should not judge the others who watched. Yet can I at the same time say that watching without assisting the man was wrong (a statement that is a judgment about right and wrong) and still be consistent? I think so, as long as I am clear about what sense of judgment I mean. Here are the following senses I can identify.

  • Judgment as to the truth or falsity of facts
  • Judgment as the choice between at least two possibilities
  • Judgment as to rightness or wrongness of a given act
  • Judgment as moral condemnation or as moral approbation
I am inclined to say only the latter meaning is intended by the Biblical verse. Still, obeying such a verse--if one is so inclined--strikes me as particularly difficult.

The "No Hidden Fees" Ripoff

Bank (and sometimes credit card) commercials often try to lure new customers by stating that with their accounts, there are "no hidden fees."

When are fees actually hidden? I understand that banks have disclosure requirements and could face lawsuits and, potentially, criminal prosecution if they do not disclose all their fees. In other words, almost any American bank can truthfully say they charge "no hidden fees," and if they can't do so truthfully, then getting new customers is the least of their worries.

The issue should be whether the bank has an easily understandable fee structure. In other words, it's a question of whether a layperson can look at the disclosures and be able to know with a high degree of certainty when a specific fee will be charged and what the amount of the fee would be. For this reason, it is often better, in my view, to have an account that charges a monthly fee but has a simple fee structure than to have a "free checking" account in which one cannot figure the fees. (Yes, I realize the federal government has certain requirements about what banks can call "free checking." Still, there are ways to charge fees on such accounts without violating the regulations.)

What would I have done?

Yahoo news has posted an AP report stating that a gang of teens beat a homeless man while passersby supposedly watched without intervening. Bearing in mind the caveat that such reports often tell only part of the story, let's assume the report is true.

Would I have intervened? Would you (assuming anyone actually reads this blog)? I would like to say that I would have, that I would have had the courage to stand up for someone else. But I really don't know what I would do.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christianity and Buddhism are a lot alike, especially Buddhism

C. S. Lewis supposedly said this. I just think it's a neat quotation.

Clintonian Welfare Reform

Mr. Obama reportedly urges his supporters to help Ms. Clinton pay off her her debt. If this report is true, it reports a bad idea. Ms. Clinton knew the risks of running and incurring the debt and should be accountable for them without a bailout. She is not a George Bailey who is down on her luck and has "helped the town in so many ways." She is a politician who has done very well for herself. Yes, it is true that she may have done very well for others, too; I'm not going to gainsay her accomplishments. But especially with the upcoming election, which will probably require all the political capital possible, Mr. Obama should not be wasting it on appeals to bail out a person who is a millionaire many times over.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

C. S. Lewis and the Idol of Money

The protagonist in Perelandra, one of C. S. Lewis's science fiction novels, has the following ruminations shortly after landing on Venus (ellipses in original):

"The itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards...was it possibly the root of all evil? No: of course the love of money was called that. But money itself--perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defence against chance, a security for being able to have things over again, a means of arresting the unrolling of the film."

Critical Faculties

About a month ago several news outlets reported about some lost tribe in Brazil that had not any contact with the "outside" world. I remember thinking at the time the story came out that it was bs to make that claim about any "tribe." Apparently, I was onto something, as I just saw a blurb on Yahoo! news admitting that it was a hoax.

Before I get too haughty, I should admit that I never once questioned whether the story was a hoax. I questioned only whether this tribe could actually be truly "lost" as the supposed experts claimed.

Monday, June 23, 2008


I have wasted a considerable amount of virtual ink on declaiming against the certainty of "activists" for social justice. I should have started with myself as I am certainly not purer than Caesar's wife.

I once was, briefly, an "activist" about 9 years ago. I was part of a campaign to convince people to boycott a Colorado bank that was subsidizing the efforts of a steel company in Pueblo to continue its illegal lockout of workers who had protested their working conditions.

At least, that is the story I told as I leafletted people going in and out of the bank branch I and a few of my confreres monitored. The story was more complex: that bank was our target, but it was only the leader--one of several banks in a consortium--that was helping the steel company. "Lockout" is a bit of a term of art: it was a lockout because the company refused to negotiate with the union after it had struck over working conditions. At some point, the strike became a lockout. It was a strike over "working conditions" and not "wages" because the company was doing some allegedly atrocious things to its employees but also because strikers who strike for "wages" have fewer legal protections than if they strike for working conditions. The National Labor Relations Board ruled the steel company to be in violation of several "unfair labor practices"; therefore, the lockout was illegal. But the company was appealing the decision.

It was very hard to explain these particulars to passersby and customers of the bank. (Indeed, I'm fuzzy now, 9 years later, over the exact details (and I may be wrong in some of them).) So, the protest became an exercise of pulling the heartstrings of those people whom we asked to boycott the bank. On two occasions, we led a demonstration against the bank, with picket signs and slogans like "Union Busting....Is Disgusting." Of course, the fliers we handed out contained a proviso that the group I was working with was not affiliated with the steelworkers' union (because if we had been, our action might have been construed as an illegal, secondary boycott).

On those big protest days, a large group of people accompanied us. Their goal was to close their accounts all at the same time to show solidarity with th e cause. I was not inside the bank (I was busy "protesting"), but I heard that at least some of the people shouted at the tellers when their turn came to appear at the teller window "I'm closing my account because I don't like what the bank is doing to steelworkers!!!" (or something to that effect). Now, I had been a teller a couple years before that, and I can tell you it's not very pleasant when customers shout at you when you are just doing your job.

Was what I did right? The company's practices were really abhorrent and apparently documented: forced overtime, disregard of safety practices, hiring of illegal replacement workers while a strike was still going on. I don't know what eventually happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if the company, out of some technicality, declared bankruptcy instead of paying for its NLRB violations and instead of paying its backwages to those who lost their jobs. I have no sympathy for the company.

But when I leafleted the people entering and leaving the bank, for the sake of "clarity" I had to elide a lot of important distinctions--the difference between illegal labor practices as enumerated in Taft-Hartley and the original Wagner Act and simply unethical but perhaps not illegal practices; the bank's complicity in the strike and the fact that the bank's employees, while perhaps drawing a paycheck from the bank, were not as complicit as the bank itself; the insufficiency of the NLRB system of labor adjudication at the same time we were citing decisions of the NLRB to support our cause; the theoretical possibility that I was part of an effort to promote what was, in all senses except the legal sense, a secondary boycott.

I felt like I was being dishonest, not telling people the whole story, even though I believed I was fighting for the right. Again, let me state for the record that I continue to believe that the company's practices were abhorrent, and I wish nothing but the best for the steelworkers.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" and the Dangers of Entrapment

Some of you may have seen the that voyeuristic Dateline show called "To Catch a Predator." On that show, a Dateline works with a group called "Perverted Justice" to trap predators who troll the internet to look for underage children for sex. When the predator arrives at the house, Dateline nabs nabs the predators on camera and a reporter, usually Chris Hansen, interviews him before letting him go. After the predator leaves the house, he is arrested by cops.

Is this entrapment? As far as I can tell, from a legal standpoint, it is not entrapment. In other words, a judge would probably not throw out the case for reasons of entrapment. As a non-lawyer, I can just assume that the police, "Perverted Justice," and Dateline take the necessary precautions to stay within the law.

But legal questions aside, is this entrapment at a moral level? If I induce someone to commit a crime, am I morally guilty of something? If Dateline or "Perverted Justice" induces someone to commit their crime, or merely offers themselves as a foil on which the person tries to commit a crime, does the inducer have any guilt?

I am quite aware of the argument that most, maybe all, of the predators nabbed on the show would have tried to have sex with underage children if they had not been caught. I'll accept that argument for the sake of argument (although I have my doubts as to whether all of the people caught would have done what they did were it not for "Perverted Justice" enticing them). For what it's worth, I'll also say I have no sympathy for the people who are caught on the show.

But if I were to entice someone to commit a crime, even a crime that that person would otherwise commit, am I not "creating" the specific crime and thus share in the crime's guilt?

The Fight for Right and Purity of Conscience

I said in an earlier post that one who protests the United States' continued presence cannot, even if right, do so without doing harm. I do not mean to say that those protesters are wrong (although I am ignorant of what the proper course of the US should be now that it has invaded Iraq).

I am saying that because Mr. Bush ordered the invasion (and because some supported him, and others, like me, did not speak out against his plans to invade in the first place), we face a situation where nobody is clean. Any decision--silence, apathy, advocacy for withdrawal, advocacy for a "troop surge"--is tainted by the collective guilt we share by virtue of the situation. There may be a right decision on what the US should do, but that decision will not come without costs. The loss will be real. Some people, like Too Clever By Half, claim that whatever the cost, it's better to withdraw now. Still, even he acknowledges what he says is the probable outcome for Iraqis.

Finally, might I say that the question of blame doesn't enter into consideration? One may, quite rightly, blame Mr. Bush for the war. One might blame Mr. Hussein. One might blame me. Still, now that the invasion has occurred, we share the guilt (even if not the blame).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

testing links, again

I'm still testing out how to link. Please bear with me. (The cite I'm linking to is a blog I like to read, but I don't necessarily endorse all the views expressed therein.)

Why I use scare quotes when I write "democracy"

The reason: the meaning of the word is frustratingly difficult to pin down.

Churchill supposedly said something to the effect that "democracy is the worst form of government around, except for all the others." And yet, he was the prime minister of a country, the political ideology of which places, in theory, sovereignty in one person. More to the point, he was part of a political system that elected representatives to a parliament and that in turn elected a leader to run the government. To my ears, that sounds like a republic. In other words, laws would be passed every year on which most of those affected by such laws would not have had a chance to vote.

It gets even weirder: sometimes people who cry "democracy" mean majority rule, sometimes they mean minority right. Sometimes they mean both, on the argument that on most matters, the fairest overall outcome is usually the outcome favored by the majority but that on issues concerning basic rights of an individual, the minority should have certain guarantees. Maybe that statement of the matter is about as commonplace a notion of what "democracy" is as any other, and is probably the most serviceable.

Still, we have the spectacle of people stressing, with very little consistency, the minority right versus the majoritarian arguments. I cannot number how many Democrats I heard in 2000 claim that Mr. Gore should have won because he got the most votes. Of course, there were very real issues about the actual tally of votes in the state and about alleged disfranchisement of large numbers of blacks. But the argument I heard, probably most often, was that Mr. Gore got the most votes. Meanwhile, Republicans pointed quite accurately to the rules of the Electoral College, which allow for such an outcome.

In 2004, the situation was potentially the reverse. If Mr. Kerry had won Ohio, he would have (if my math is correct) won the presidency but probably would not have garnered the majority of the popular vote. Now the cry by one Democratic cheerleader I know is that Mr. Bush's administration stole the election and rigged the voting machines in Ohio. (His blog is here, although you'll have to hunt in his archives to find the discussion of the Republicans' supposed machinations.) I don't claim that my friend speaks for most Democrats (he doesn't even speak to my memory of how most Democrats reacted Mr. Bush's reelection), but the crux of the argument is that "democracy" was sinned against because the rules weren't followed. Maybe they weren't followed, but Mr. Bush got the majority of votes.

Maybe "democracy," at least as people tend use the word, is just a synonym for "mobocracy" after all.

"You can't oppose the war and support the troops at the same time"

Supporters of the war in Iraq as well as apologists for Mr. Bush's administration, make this statement a lot, usually, to my view, with the hope of painting critics of his foreign policy as unpatriotic, or at least dangerous. Many quite rightfully denounce the cynicism inherent in such slogan, yet they often ("always," from my anecdotal encounters with such people) miss an important point: the slogan has some validity.

If the hope of at least some of the "insurgents" in Iraq is that the US will pull out, then protests at home that aim to encourage the US to withdraw will plausibly encourage the "insurgents" to keep up their attacks on US soldiers. The participants of such protests may very well have the best concern of the soldiers at heart: what could be more supportive of them than to take them out of harm's way? Still, in the short run, these participants are, to a degree, encouraging those who would attack American soldiers.

Now, all "democratically" run societies run this risk when it comes to war. Public officials must engage in public debate and to the extent that a society is presumptively "democratic," freedom of political speech must be upheld. But those who advocate openly an expeditious withdrawal from Iraq cannot have it all ways. They should acknowledge, at least to themselves (and perhaps they do), that to some extent they are encouraging people to continue to attack American soldiers. Maybe this encouragement is minor in the grand scheme of things, and maybe such "insurgents" would attack American soldiers regardless. Still, even if these suppositions be true, that does not absolve advocates for withdrawal of all and any criticism. There are none unsullied and purely righteous, even those who fight for the right.

UPDATE 8-1-09: I changed some of the phrasing in the first paragraph for the sake of clarity.

The Electoral College is "totally undemocratic"

I once had a friend explain to me that the US Electoral College is "totally undemocratic."

Now, I'll agree that use of the College to elect presidents implies recourse to some undemocratic features (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it is easy to draw a line between "democratic" and "undemocratic"). But to call it "totally" undemocratic? Let's look at the history:

In most presidential elections since tallies of the popular vote have been taken, the winner has mostly been the one to garner at least a plurality of the popular vote. The major exceptions that I know of are the elections of 1824, 1888 and 2000.

It is of course more common for the winner to win only by a plurality and not by a flat out majority: for the twentieth century the elections are 1912, 1916, 1948?, 1968, 1992, and 1996.

Still, the winner got the most votes.

By writing the above, I have no intention of claiming that number of votes is the only measure for what constitutes "democratic" elections. Obviously other factors are involved. But to say that the College is "totally" undemocratic is wrong.

Now, isn't this a bit of a straw man argument I am indulging in? You might object that my friend's use of the word "totally" was merely a figure of speech. Maybe. But I find this to be a style of speech very common and allows people to say many outrageous things and disown responsibility for them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Activism and the Analogy of War, part 3

I notice several faults and potential point for criticism of my blog posts on activism.

First, I don't define what I mean by "activism."

Second, I neglect to mention that while "activism" (whatever that means), it can, at least sometimes, be useful and helpful.

Third, the conservations I relate with my activist friends are caricatures. They are true conversations I had--at least to the extent that I remember the conversations correctly--but they tell only a part of the story. Moreover, the friends I caricature are kind, thoughtful people who sometimes, like all of us and like me in particular, often say ridiculous things.

Still, I don't realize how people can be so sure what the right and the just thing is.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Activism and the Analogy of War, Part 2

I have a friend who is a strong opponent of the US-Iraq war. This person often participates in protests against the war. I once asked him what the solution should be, or, in other words, what he hoped to gain from protesting. In short, I wanted to know his prescriptions for what the US should do.

His answer: the US should never have invaded in the first place.

Fair enough, but now that the US has invaded, what should it do now?

His answer: the US should never have invaded in the first place.

Okay, but if the US withdraws "precipitously" (to use a favorite word of Bushites), mightn't doing so cause the Iraqi people a lot of problems?

His answer: I'm not saying the US should withdraw right away. Now that it has invaded, it's got to find a way to ensure peace.

Then why protest? What do you hope to gain?

His answer: the US should never have invaded in the first place.

"In [name the ethnicity] culture, family is very important."

One very irritating cliche is the assertion by someone that in his/her culture, "family is very important." In what culture is family not important? While there may be an odd culture or two that values family not at all, don't most cultures place at least some value on family?

What these people really seem to be saying is that "my culture values family more than the dominant [usually "American" or "Anglo," though I assume it depends on the context] culture." That assertion might have something to commend it, or not, even though it is ultimately very difficult to prove.

Activism and the Analogy of War

I have come to the conclusion that most activists tend to believe they're involved in something akin to a war of righteousness against evil. Living by such a metaphor is potentially dangerous and leads to unqualified assertions and actions in the name of "the just" without respect for collateral damage.

I have met a few self-proclaimed "activists" or former activists who believe passionately in the rightness of some cause, such as Trotskyism, the living-wage campaign, anti-Walmartism, the Democratic party, abortion rights, right to life, and labor organizing. Usually, with some exceptions, these activists display a frightening amount of certainty about the rightness of what they do without entertaining any of the legitimate concerns of the other side.

For example, I knew someone, a friend, very adamantly in favor of the proposed ordinance in Chicago a few years ago that would have required all "big box" stores in the city to pay a "living wage." In short, this ordinance, which ultimately failed, was an attempt to force large stores like Walmart to pay decent wages to their workers should they decide to establish themselves in Chicago (I believe pre-existing stores were exempt from the requirement, but I stand to be corrected).

I asked my friend about an argument then current that opponents of the ordinance advanced: if the city passed the ordinance, Walmart might not move into Chicago and the people who stood to gain new jobs might have no jobs (in the debates over the ordinance, it was assumed that Walmart would settle in areas of high unemployment). I asked my friend whether an argument was to be made that it is better to have a minimum-wage paying job than no job at all. My friend's response was something to the effect that "if the city allows Walmart to pay the minimum wage, we're telling those employees that that's all they're worth." In itself, that's an interesting point, but it still didn't answer my question, so I repeated it. His answer remained substantially the same, never addressing the argument that a low-paying job might be better than a higher paying one.

Maybe the answer to my question should be "Yes, it is better to have a low-paying job than no job at all. But in the long run, certain sacrifices have to be made to ensure that stores such as Walmart pay their fair share to their employees." I don't know if I'd agree on the necessity of imposing "sacrifices" by others who have much less than I do, but at least that would have been an answer to my question.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Being new at blogging, I thought I'd test setting up links.
See this. (It's a blog I like to read.)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008


People say I'm foolish to vote for a third party candidate. But I say, it's better (probably) than not voting at all. Our votes don't count anyway, except in maybe local elections that might be decided by a few votes, or in the occasional national election that hinges on a few votes. Otherwise, the power of my vote depends on several thousand people agreeing with me already. It's mobocracy on the march, and we might as well throw our vote away instead of not voting at all!!!