Archive

Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Doing More, Just with Less Flash

August 27th, 2015 No comments

One of the difficulties of several liberal vs. conservative policies is that the liberal ones are often at a disadvantage in apparent terms.

For example, racism exists in most part silently, whereas Affirmative Action and quotas are out in broad daylight; as a result, AA and quotas are very high-profile, whereas most racism, despite being far more prevalent and influential, hides from view.

This was brought to mind when a Facebook friend shared the story of a man whose life was very clearly saved by gun control. A woman had her gun confiscated by police because she did not have a license (something not required most of the time); the next day, the woman had a psychotic break, and used a knife to attack the writer of the post. He was stabbed twice, but was not seriously injured. Had there not been a requirement for a license, the police would have not been allowed to take her gun away, and the man would be dead. Luckily, this was in a state where a license is required; there are only 5 such states, and 40 have no requirement for permits or licenses whatsoever.

However, this is a rare case: the woman just happened to have been deprived of her weapon very recently, and the police happened to tell the victim about it.

In the vast majority of cases, gun control works in a way in which it can rarely if ever be definitively found to have saved any specific lives. As a result, anecdotes such as the ones above are extremely difficult to find.

On the other hand, when a person with a gun even suspects that their gun helped them, it gets trumpeted all over the Internet. There are endless anecdotes to be found; pro-gun sentiment and venomous spewing against gun control is incredibly pervasive over that medium.

The problem is, most of these are cases where there is an assumption that the firearm saved them, termed DGU, or “defensive gun use. ”That guy looked like trouble,“ you will read, ”but when I flashed by handgun under my jacket, he got scared and took off!“ In such a case, there is no evidence that the gun stopped any actual event—just a feeling. Studies like those done by Gary Kleck include even the weakest data—such as, a man hears a sound outside his house, fires a warning shot, he sees nothing and nothing happens—as evidence of ”defensive gun use,“ which is then extrapolated to ridiculous effect. Furthermore, you know that most of these anecdotal reports are embellished to make the teller sound more heroic, and that cases in which firearms escalated situations and caused problems, you never hear people report that. This is the kind of ”data“ which is collected and used by gun advocacy groups to make ”studies“ which purportedly show that owning and carrying guns saves huge numbers of lives.

The thing is, no such report ever survived peer review intact; most if not all such studies are highly biased with severely flawed methodologies. However, it gets repeated, and strongly punctuated by anecdotal stories like the 83-year-old grandmother who fends off a street gang with a shotgun, or whatever.

It is unlikely that many will be able to report the specific effectiveness of gun control, despite its efficacy; it’s reporting about the dog that didn’t bark. Some criminal with a record for aggravated assault and murder tries to buy a gun, but gets arrested due to a background check. He goes to jail and never kills anyone again. How do the people who don’t get killed by this guy ever know they were saved? They don’t. And therefore, no anecdotal evidence. Or, at least, it is extremely rare, with only scattered stories like the one linked to above.

Despite the lack of persuasive anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of gun control, the figures supporting it are significant and convincing.

Between 1994 and 2010, at least 118,000 gun sales to wanted criminals have been stopped by background checks; during the same time, 1,034,000 convicted felons and 291,000 people with histories of domestic abuse tried to buy guns and were blocked by background checks. In total, over 2,000,000 illicit gun purchases have been stopped, an average of more than 62,000 per year—and that is with many weaknesses built into the program, weaknesses demanded by the NRA and other gun advocates.

The number of criminals trying to buy guns who were arrested because background checks does not seem to be available, but some figures are. For example, a background check instituted in Virginia has caused 1355 fugitives to be caught and arrested over a 20-year period; extrapolated to the population of the entire country, that would be the equivalent of 52,000 fugitives arrested over a 20-year period, about 2600 per year. In addition, the same state, in 2009 alone, arrested 856 individuals for violations related to background checks, which would amount to 32,000 per year nationwide.

So, with checks, every year, 62,000 illicit gun sales stopped, 32,000 arrests for illicit purchase attempts, 2600 wanted fugitives put in jail.

You want to argue that this does not/would not result in thousands of lives saved every year?

The problem is, since it work preventively—and because conservatives have fought hard to suppress any such research or reporting of numbers—it is impossible to say how many have been saved by the relatively weak, loophole-ridden process that we currently have.

Imagine what we could do if we have actual gun control—nationwide, closed loopholes, emphasis on availability to legal owners but with added requirements for safety and proficiency training… not to mention measures to help track down people who actually committed gun crimes.

Categories: Law, Social Issues Tags:

No, That’s Not the Way

May 11th, 2015 1 comment

I am getting tired of people saying that so long as there are Muslims who threaten violence for drawing images of Muhammed, the proper—even necessary—response is to do it more and more, to shove it in their faces to show that they cannot intimidate us.

You’ll have to forgive me, but that is such an unforgivably shallow and narrow-sighted reaction that it is rather startling to me that so many people seem to agree with it. That is absolutely not the way to react.

First, let’s not forget that most Muslims who would be gravely offended by drawings of Muhammed do not approve of killing people who offend them. These are the people you want to have on your side—so what the hell do you think is so brilliant about pissing them off?

Imagine a comedian is performing in front of an audience. Most of the people are into the act, enjoying the show. However, a few jerks in the audience are heckling and generally trying to derail everyone’s enjoyment. How should the comedian react? Is the proper response to insult the entire audience? Maybe say, “So this is the kind of idiot who typifies this city? Boy, everyone who lives in this town seems to be a flaming moron!”

Of course the comedian won’t do that—because it is eminently stupid. All it would accomplish would be to offend the very people you want to have on your side. All it will do is drive away the people who want to support you, and put many of them into the company of those you were trying to put down.

With this so plainly evident, why is the reaction of “champions of free speech” to do exactly the wrong thing? Why is the “necessary” reaction to the jerks and the extremists somehow inevitably the one course of action that will offend the good people the most, and only help the jerks and the extremists?

The reaction to violence against those who draw comics about Muhammed should not be to draw more comics about Muhammed. The reaction should instead be to draw comics featuring the schmucks who react violently to cartoons of Muhammed. Draw a cartoon of that person holding a piece of paper marked “Drawing of Muhammed,” and have the schmuck be wetting his pants and crying like an infant, shouting “KILL, KILL, KILL!!” while some reasonable Muslims stand by commenting, “What a dick.”

Why isn’t that evident?

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:

Shut Down the F**k Barrel

March 23rd, 2015 7 comments

John Oliver:

Watching this, something occurred to me: when explaining how those terribly oppressed rich people should have their taxes cut, conservatives love to harp on the 47%, about how poor people get away with “not paying taxes.” What they mean, of course, is that poor people don’t pay income taxes. Well, federal income taxes. Well, in that one year where so many people lost their jobs. Usually it’s been more like 40%. Although most of that 40% do pay federal payroll taxes—typically only 14% of households don’t pay payroll taxes. And in fact, the poorest 20% of households pay more than 12% of their incomes in state and local taxes, and about 16% of their total income in taxes altogether. While Mitt Romney, who is worth more than $200 million and apparently works little enough to enjoy equestrian dressage, only paid 14% on his $13.69 million income, and that’s the only year he let us see, meaning he usually pays less than that.

But I digress. Suffice it to say, people who claim poor people “don’t pay taxes” have their heads up their asses. Let’s leave it at that.

But the video above, along with Oliver’s piece on civil forfeiture, made me realize that there are even more hidden “taxes,” and they’re not just lottery tickets. The heinous system of cities and their police forces shaking down citizens for as much cash as possible is perhaps one of the more significant overlooked taxes paid almost exclusively by poor people.

These videos also made me realize something else. Remember how, a few decades ago, we shook our heads at the kinds of countries—and we usually envisioned Latin American countries—where policemen typically shook down citizens for bribes and protection money?

Yeah, that’s right: we’re that kind of country now.

Congratulations, everyone who decided it was a good idea to cut taxes. This is so much better.

Descending In Open Bigotry

March 21st, 2015 1 comment

There is a high school in New York which, as part of a National Foreign Language Week activity, read the pledge of allegiance over the school loudspeakers in a different language every day. The choice for the first language to try—Arabic—was almost certainly a mistake. Not because Arabic isn’t a proper objective choice, but because we have by now been long primed to act aggressively against anything that smacks of the Arab world.

Predictably, the reading of the pledge in Arabic sparked outrage. That outrage was almost certainly racist or born of religious intolerance, but of course that was not the reason claimed by the angry respondents. Many families complained that they had lost family members in Afghanistan, for example. The problem: Arabic is not spoken in Afghanistan. The two official languages are Dari and Pashto; Dari is effectively Farsi. Many other languages and dialects are spoken there, but Arabic is not one of them. Other complaints came from Jewish families; I fail to see, however, why they should have any more right to object than anyone else whose nationality has a beef with a country that speaks a certain language. Should Spanish be banned because a British family resented the Falklands war? A general language is not emblematic of a specific political conflict, and it should not be prohibited simply because some people make a general connection between something they hate and that language. Why? Same reason it’s not okay to hate all Arabs, or Persians, or all of any race. It’s the exact same principle.

No, the reaction to the reading of the pledge was, if not entirely racist, then mostly so, with general bigotry and ignorance blended in. Many people claimed it was just an aversion to the pledge being recited in a language other than English—in other words, run-of-the-mill xenophobia rather than outright anti-Arab sentiment—but that doesn’t wash, either. As the principal of the school pointed out, “Had it been done in Spanish first or Japanese first, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.” Indeed: had it been read in one of those languages, there would have been no protest—or at least so little that it would have been negligible. If such had been done first and nobody objected, then reading it in Arabic would have been much more difficult to protest. I do think that the principal was in error, however, in that people still would have complained—they simply would have had to be a little more honest about the reason for their protest.

Back in 2001, in the days after 9/11, Bush made it clear that we were not fighting against Islam, and warned against a backlash against Arab-Americans. It was one of the few stances he took which I admired.

Well, so much for that. America is now firmly bigoted against not just Islam, not just Arabic peoples and languages, but anything that reminds us of any of that.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

I Demand My Right to Take Yours Away

February 23rd, 2015 4 comments

If I’m not allowed to deny you your rights, that’s an infringement on my rights.

Does that make sense? No? Didn’t think so.

However, that’s how conservatives are trying to paint civil rights issues today. Take this reaction to a judge’s decision that a business cannot discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation:

Conservatives criticized the judge’s ruling because it infringes on a business owner’s right to refuse service.

Todd Starnes, host of Fox News and Commentary, said he thinks the court’s ruling shows how the government singles out Christian business owners for their religious beliefs.

“And it appears the courts are consistently ruling that gay rights trump everyone else’s rights,” Starnes said.

It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to figure out how ridiculous that is. Yes, businesses have the right to refuse service on an individual basis. Businesses, however, do not have a right to discriminate against a class of people based on an innate characteristic. You cannot run a business and refuse to serve black people, or poor people, or disabled people. You can turn away someone if they are behaving badly, or are not wearing a shirt, or for some other individual grounds. But not because they are gay. Remember how lunch counters used to be whites-only? Yeah, that was based on “a business owner’s right to refuse service” too.

Second, if Christian-owned businesses are being “singled out,” it is only because Christian-owned businesses are the ones violating the civil rights of others. It kinda works out that way—but it’s not the fault of the government, it’s the fault of the Christian-owned businesses for breaking the law.

As for “gay rights trump everyone else’s rights,” it is everyone’s right to not be discriminated against, while it is no one’s right to discriminate. So, yes, in that standoff, gay rights trump the right to discriminate. How terrible it is to be you, you poor oppressed soul.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Fair Is Fair

December 20th, 2014 5 comments

Nebraska and Oklahoma are suing Colorado for legalizing marijuana:

Colorado voters in 2012 passed Amendment 64, which allows the personal use of marijuana for recreation and creates a system of marijuana growing and marketing across the state, which is taxed and is supposedly regulated closely.

While this scheme is confined within the boundaries of the state, its two neighbors argued that Colorado-sourced marijuana is showing up increasingly in their states, in violation of their anti-drug laws.

Does this mean that California, with the strictest gun laws in the country, can sue Arizona and Utah, which have the most lax? I would think that guns from those two states have done infinitely more damage in California than pot could ever do in Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Categories: Law, Social Issues Tags:

Process of a Smear

December 10th, 2014 6 comments

Recently, I’ve heard more than a few people in media express wonder at why people in general have such an adverse reaction to the word “feminist.” Considering that the word simply expresses the idea of equality between men and women, why is there such a negative sense to the word?

The answer is easy: feminists are a liberal constituency. And if you’re a liberal constituency or issue, there is a process of denigration that is rather consistently carried out.

Here’s how it goes:

Step One: Find the most extreme, worst example of that issue or group.

Step Two: Assume all the worst imaginable motives for the worst possible intentions.

Step Three: Subtract or diminish any redeeming qualities.

Step Four: Exaggerate what remains.

Step Five: Add imaginary negative qualities to it to suit common fears and build scapegoats.

Step Six: Claim that this is wholly representative of the issue or group.

Step Seven: Popularize and reinforce as much as possible in the media.

This happens for pretty much any liberal constituency that you can imagine. Feminists? Arrogant, aggressive, ugly, butch, man-hating lesbians intent on dominating men because they were never admired by them.

Minorities? Shiftless, aggressive, uneducated, drug-using incipient criminals with a sense of entitlement enabled by feeble-minded liberals, looking to get free government handouts paid for with taxes taken from hard-working conservative whites. Ignore and whitewash the centuries of relentless discrimination which has kept so many minorities in poverty and/or jail.

Unions? Corrupt thugs who command high salary and benefits only for those in their lodge; union workers are under-qualified oafs demanding constant breaks, more concerned with union rules than efficiency, demanding union fees like a protection racket while stifling efficiency and production at the cost of the taxpayer, their padded paychecks causing American companies to fail and be less competitive. Ignore and whitewash the endless accomplishments of unions to create universal standards for strong, well-paid jobs with safe working conditions.

The poor? Welfare queens, the indigent 47%, either unemployed by choice or stuck in low-end jobs because they refuse to work hard, always on the make for another government handout—food stamps, welfare checks, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security—while living in taxpayer-funded government housing with all the modern conveniences (they have refrigerators!), always ready to convert food stamps into liquor and fine dining or welfare checks into big-screen teevees and nice cars. Ignore and whitewash the fact that these people do the lion’s share of the most difficult and necessary work to keep our society functioning, and pay a great deal in taxes to earn their fair share.

Educators? Lazy ivory-tower socialists unable to get a real job in the free market who opt for a job with banker’s hours and three full months off in summer while demanding tenure so they can never be fired no matter how inept or harmfully incompetent they are—because of union protection. Ignore and whitewash how overworked and underpaid these well-trained professionals are in doing one of the most important tasks in society.

Same thing with issues. Abortion? Late-term abortion, happens all the time, bloody fetuses resembling newborns, used frequently and callously by feminists as an alternative to virtuous self-control.

Affirmative Action? Reverse racism, allowing any and every unqualified minority to grab a college slot they do not deserve or demand a job that would have gone to a better-qualified white person, after which they are bulletproof and exempt from the same requirements and standards whites must satisfy.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Think of any liberal constituency or issue and you’ll find the same laundry list of extreme, exaggerated, irredeemable, negative qualities applied to the entire interest. This has grown to include cities (San Francisco, Hollywood, Chicago, Boston, etc.) and any professions where liberalism is considered dominant.

If a group or issue begins to lean liberal where it did not before, or becomes more significant than it previously was, it is added to the list and put through the same process. Scientists were not one of the constituencies until evolution and climate change started to become bigger issues; when that happened, we started hearing about scientists whoring for government grants and so forth. If, say, nurses or farmers begin to emerge as a group supporting liberals, we’ll begin to see similar stereotypes begin to form.

So, no, I am not surprised that feminism has gotten a bad name. That constituency was smeared a long time ago.

Categories: Right-Wing Lies, Social Issues Tags:

I Want My Country Back

November 30th, 2014 2 comments

We’ve heard conservatives saying “I want my country back” nowadays, a refrain begun soon after Obama took office, a cry marked by the fact that what they claim they lost never went away—except for what they won’t admit, that being a white or Republican president.

Well, you know what? I want my country back. The one I was born and raised in. Not in terms of which political party runs things or what race the president is, but the principles and ideals we were all taught were the foundations of our country.

I want back a country where torture is reviled, not a widely condoned or even a reluctantly accepted practice.

I want back a country where civil rights were things we gained, not lost.

I want back a country where you don’t have to half undress before getting on a plane, and we weren’t so willing to surrender our liberty for the flimsy perception of safety.

I want back a country where a strong education is universally seen as vital and desirable, and a college education does not break you financially.

I want back a country where if a politician says something so outrageously stupid or untrue that anyone could tell, that politician would be hounded out of office, not cheered. Or that most of the nation could actually tell.

I want back a country where the social priority was to fight poverty, not to pander to billionaires.

I want back a country where the press gives us news, not propaganda.

I want back a country where at least most people felt it was a good thing to sacrifice for the common good.

I want back a country where corporations are not people and money is not free speech.

I want back a country where unwieldily corporate conglomerates were broken up, not where entire markets—especially media—are dominated by fewer and fewer controlling entities.

I’m not saying we should have a perfect society or any other unreasonable expectation; I am not pining for a political or social ideal. I’m not asking for anything we never had but thought we did. These are all things that actually used to be real for us, but are gone now.

Can I have that back?

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Making the Pledge Meaningful

October 12th, 2014 1 comment

When I was a kid, I remember saying the pledge, and for years, I thought the pledge had the words, “one nation, under god, invisible….” True story—never having heard the word “indivisible,” I didn’t hear it, and instead filled in the word I knew which was closest. For years, I was pledging my allegiance to an invisible country. Which I thought was kind of cool.

For that matter, in the first grade, I really didn’t know what the words “pledge,” “allegiance,” or “republic” meant, and was fuzzy on concepts like “liberty” and “justice.” Come to think of it, kids that age usually have a very sketchy idea of what “God” and “the United States of America” are as well.

Let’s face it: kids do not understand what they’re doing when we have them recite the pledge. To them, it’s just one of those things they do because grown-ups tell them to. But they have no clue as to what they are saying.

That, in my opinion, is why we should never have the pledge recited in schools.

Think about it: what is a pledge? It is a “solemn promise or undertaking,” committing one’s self to an organization, a cause, or a course of action.

When we testify in court, we take an oath to only tell the truth. However, when we have children testify, they don’t take that oath—precisely because we know that they do not understand the concept we would be asking them to swear to.

So why do we make kids, incapable of understanding what they are doing, take the pledge, especially if we take the idea of the pledge so seriously?

The answer is, we don’t take the pledge so seriously. We take it mindlessly. Because, sad as it may seem, most adults are still fuzzy on the concepts in the pledge. Go ahead, try to get most of them to accurately define what a “Republic” is. Most would have difficulty making a distinction between “freedom” and “liberty.” And if you ask them what the consequences of the pledge are, they would probably have to compose such a list on the spot, never having done so before.

To me, having kids recite the pledge is not just nonsense, it’s bad civics. If a pledge is to mean anything, it must be made solemnly, with full and clear understanding of both the meaning and the consequences of the action. Having it be a forced, rote recital voids it of actual meaning and makes it at best a pro-forma ritual, and at the worst, indoctrination. As a result, most Americans do not understand the very country they live in, but think that they do. They have been trained to accept without thinking, while being weak in the fundamentals of good citizenship.

I would say that we make the taking of the pledge a serious event, making it clear what the pledge means in full, and what the person is actually promising to do. Don’t have it be a mass recital, but instead a personal statement.

This could not be done early or quickly, but over many years of time. Include the concepts involved in classes throughout school. Have kids take various pledges—not to steal, not to bully, not to get into fights, for example—and have consequences if they break those pledges, so they understand what a “pledge” is.

Have students engage in exercises to demonstrate allegiance, but throw in the ethical permutations. Should allegiance trump morality? If a kid has pledged his allegiance to a team, does that mean he should not point out cheating by his teammates? If the group they pledged allegiance to asks them to do something wrong, should they do it?

Make students aware of what the flag is: a representation of the nation, which is defined by its constitution. How well do you know the constitution? If you’re like most people, you don’t know it very well, just the vague outlines. So, we’re pledging our allegiance to something we don’t understand? Hmm. How about, instead of pledging allegiance, we bring back Civics as a required course, and learn what we would be pledging to first.

That would help cover the understanding of what a “Republic” is—and how it differs from a Democracy. I think you should probably understand the distinction if you want to make a solemn pledge to one of them. The same with “liberty” as opposed to “freedom,” and even “justice” as opposed to what most people really think that is, which is vengeance. Making all of these terms clear to young people would also be required for the pledge to be meaningful.

Then we should cover the consequences of such a pledge. Most people, like politicians, say the words without really meaning it, as if it were some lodge ritual, except they don’t have to sweat what the actual meaning is. If you asked most American adults what they have to do as a result of taking the pledge, you would probably just get blank looks.

I would say that taking the pledge means taking the republic seriously. I would say voting in all elections is the absolute minimum required for that. Availing one’s self of the free press and all other resources to become responsibly aware of the issues, so as to vote responsibly. Paying your taxes, not dodging jury duty, following the law—I would assume all of these would be concomitant with the pledge. Not just cheering for the country in the Olympics and taking our side in any international disputes, but to actively work to make the country a better place. Public service of some kind would not be a bad means, either.

When a child reaches some level of maturity, we should put them to a test, to see if they truly understand the terms of the pledge—the meanings of the words and the responsibilities implied. If they agree, fully understanding everything, then they take the pledge. Each person could, without fear of repercussions, decide to add or subtract the “under God” phrase. The oath would not be taken ceremonially, not ritually—that could be turned into a compulsory action—but meaningfully, as one takes a citizenship pledge.

This would not be required by law, one’s rights would not depend upon it to be realized. Instead, it would simply be what the pledge is purported to be: an oath of allegiance. Except fully realized, not mindlessly recited.

Then the pledge would have some sort of meaning. Then it would be worthwhile to ask our kids to take it. Then it would be a positive force in our society.

But now, it’s carried out in a way that is devoid of meaning, and unsurprisingly, used as a political weapon to boot. It is, as currently carried out, probably more detrimental than it is patriotic in any way.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Wrongful Birth

October 10th, 2014 Comments off

Astonishing. There are doctors out there who, upon discovering a crippling or fatal condition in the fetus of a pregnant patient, would deliberately withhold that information. Why? Because the doctor’s personal beliefs make them pro-life, and passing on that information would probably lead to an abortion.

Not so surprisingly, there are Republican-controlled states out there which have passed laws which prohibit lawsuits against these doctors.

This brings us back to the whole Hobby Lobby debacle: those with a peripheral interest in a situation put their own religious beliefs before the rights of the people centrally involved. As if only the people who are on the sidelines of a situation have rights, and the people directly impacted have none.

I understand the concern: the doctor, having given the information, will feel complicit in the abortion. The problem: that’s not how it works. He has a duty, one he has professionally sworn to. I know he probably feels like he just told the Nazis that the little Jewish girl is hiding in the attic, but that’s the case only if his beliefs are true and no one else is correct in theirs.

Let’s call this doctor “Dr. Smith.” After having salved his own conscience by forcing a couple to have a child with Tay-Sachs to go to term, Dr. Smith goes to his own physician, Dr. Jones. Dr. Jones performs Smith’s annual exam, and finds evidence of cancer—a highly treatable, easily curable form, if the patient gets early treatment. However, unbeknownst to Dr. Smith, Dr. Jones is a Christian Scientist, and believes the cancer treatment to be prohibited by God. So he withholds the diagnosis and lets Dr. Smith leave his office. Smith’s cancer, of course, worsens, and before Smith finds out about it, progresses to an incurable stage.

Would Dr. Smith feel that Dr. Jones acted appropriately? Hell, no—he would be furious. And rightly so.

Now, you might say that Dr. Smith shouldn’t have chosen a Christian Scientist doctor—but how many doctors that withhold medical information from pregnant couples warn them in advance that they are pro-life? And any argument about a Christian Scientist becoming a mainstream doctor would only highlight the impropriety of any doctor allowing their religious beliefs to affect the treatment they offer their patients.

If a state allows doctors to do this kind of thing, then there must be a companion law that doctors must warn their patients beforehand of their religious beliefs and how that might affect their treatment—otherwise, what you have is no better than malpractice and fraud.

Bet you any amount you like that these states, which pass laws requiring that doctors lecture inform women seeking an abortion about all the dangers, real and imagined, of the procedure, to the point of showing them horrific images and so on, see no need to force doctors to inform patients about what kind of treatment they can expect to receive…

An article on NPR which recounts several cases, and shines light on the situation:

In Suffern, N.Y., Sharon and Steven Hoffman’s son, Jake, was born with Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease that mainly affects Jewish families and is usually fatal by age 4 or 5.

“There’s no treatment. There’s no cure. There’s nothing,” Sharon says.

She says her doctor did not test for the disease. At six months, Jake was diagnosed with it. The couple says he lost control of his muscles and had constant seizures. He died two years later before reaching his third birthday. Sharon says she would have had an abortion if she had known.

“There is no quality of life,” Sharon says. “The only thing that you would be bringing this child into the world to do is to suffer. And die.”

This couple sued their doctor for wrongful birth and settled for an undisclosed amount.

In most states, parents can sue for negligence or if doctors fail to provide information about the condition of a fetus. But more than a half-dozen states have adopted laws that ban those lawsuits, and several others have been debating the idea this year.

Categories: Health Issues, Social Issues Tags:

It Was 100% the Violator’s Fault AND You Were Incautious

September 13th, 2014 1 comment

Ricky Gervais caught hell for tweeting this:

Gtweet

This brings up an incongruity which has always kind of bugged me: the idea that somehow pointing out incautious behavior must be interpreted as “victim blaming.”

I understand the principle involved. Women have been blamed for being raped since time immemorial, that blame often being linked to even the slightest or even imagined provocation; as a result, there is great objection to any indication that a woman who was raped was somehow doing anything that, if avoided, could have prevented the rape.

Women should be able to wear whatever they like, should be able to go to any party, drink any amount of alcohol, and should be able to expect not to be raped. Just like any person of color should be able to wear anything they like, walk down any street and into any shop, do any legal behavior, and not get stopped, frisked, arrested, beat up, or shot by police.

The problem is, that doesn’t fully represent reality. This is not to say that the people who are in fact in the wrong should not be 100% blamed, nor does it mean that we should not focus strongly on fixing those societal ills. It also does not mean that victims brought any injustice down upon themselves. However, until what is unjust is eliminated from our society, it is stupid to ignore the fact that such injustices exist and that people should be aware of them and try to protect themselves against them.

Let me give you an example. This will be an extreme example, so, please don’t immediately assume I’m one of those people who blame women for rape. Perhaps it would help if I mentioned beforehand that I agree wholeheartedly that not just rape, but any crime is 100% the fault of the perpetrator. With that in mind, consider the following:

I drive downtown in my nice, brand-new Infiniti G37 Coupe. It’s a really hot day, so when I run into a shop to get a frappuccino, I leave the keys in the car and the engine running so the air conditioning can keep the car cool. When I come out a few minutes later, the car is gone.

Keep in mind: in the above scenario, the person who stole the car was 100% at fault. I don’t care if I literally had shouted before going into the shop, “I’m leaving my keys in my car, no one take it, okay?” There is no excuse for anyone to steal from me.

Does that mean that no one should warn me against incautious behavior? Upon hearing what I did, would you really say nothing about my behavior?

Again, to ward off indignant fury, (a) this was an extreme example, (b) was not meant to mean that women are ever responsible for being raped, no matter how incautious their behavior, and (c) does not even imply that many or even most rapes or other crimes of a sexual nature involve any incautious behavior at all.

Nevertheless, this is not a perfect world; there are dangers out there; and there are times when people do things that open them to some kind of assault by those dangers. And by “open them to dangers,” I am not saying “it was their fault.”

Sometimes the lack of caution, despite the lack of blame, nonetheless can be of a type that honestly could, and even should, be pointed out.

Let me give an example of something much closer to what happened to the people in the recent hacked-photo incident.

Let’s say I purchase a Windows computer as my main computing device. Such computers often come with antivirus software, but only as a demo or trial. After the trial ends, maybe after 90 days, a few pop-ups appear, but I dismiss them as just being ads. I might even take steps to just get rid of them—and I don’t install any anti-malware application in the process. I surf the web without thought to where I am going, feeling that somehow I am safe—maybe I am simply unaware that just visiting a web site can trigger an infection, or maybe I believe that if that should happen, I will notice what’s happening. As a result, a hacker is able to insert malware onto my computer, and then has the ability to hurt me in any one of several ways. One way would be take photos of me in a compromising position with my own webcam, and then distribute those photos over the web.

This is actually a situation where I would have been less incautious than those celebrities, as I did not take nude photos of myself, nor did I store them on my computer, or on any cloud account, or send them to anyone.

In this case, like all other violations, the perpetrator is 100% at fault.

However, it is still fully true that my own actions made it possible for that perpetrator to do what they did. I shouldn’t have to install software to protect me from criminals. I shouldn’t have to worry about whether just visiting a web site could get my computer infected. However, in the world we live in, these are dangers which we should all know about and take steps to protect ourselves. It’s not my fault that the hacker did what he did, I’m not to blame for any of this. And I didn’t take precautions to keep it from happening.

Tell me, if someone knew all the facts, and then told me that I really should have installed antivirus software on my computer, would it really be reasonable for me to flare up in anger and accuse that person of victim blaming?

Not at all. I have a feeling that you would agree. What happened to me would be horrible, the responsibility lies completely with the hacker—and I failed to make my computer secure.

I would even go so far as to say that if we shied away from warning people against their lack of caution, we are simply making them even more vulnerable to attack.

The key point: there is a distinction between “blaming the victim” and pointing out incautious behavior.

Gervais was 100% correct: none of those people should have put nude photos of themselves on their computers. Especially not in a cloud account, or in email or any kind of message to others.

Yes, that sucks: we should be able to do anything we want, and expect privacy. And yes, the fault lies wholly with the asshats who hacked the accounts and stole and distributed the images.

That said, if I were a celebrity, the last thing I would do would be to have naked photos of myself on a publicly-accessible network anywhere, security or no security. Basic truth: no security is 100%. Any security, Mac or Windows, local bank or Vegas casino, can be hacked. If I had to have nude photos, I would store them on a USB drive kept in a safe. If I felt the need to take them and send them to someone, I would simply quash that impulse, knowing that I was a prime target of people who would intercept those images and make them public.

Celebrities, in general, already know that they are targets; they know that they are more vulnerable to such crimes. And they regularly modify their behavior to avoid such violations of privacy and decency. They know that if they do things in public that most people can get away with unnoticed, it will get plastered all over the Internet. Again, that sucks, but Celebrity 101 mandates caution about such things. The nude photos on a networked computer fall into that category.

Gervais wasn’t blaming the celebrities for being victimized. He was pointing out, with stinging irony, that they did something which was rather obviously incautious. Yes, it was insensitive, but it was also true.

We simply have to expand our understanding to make clear that doing something incautious, or even downright stupid, does not in any way excuse someone else from taking advantage of it. Nor is anyone who points out the lack of caution necessarily a villain for doing so.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Question What You Agree With

September 8th, 2014 Comments off

The Dish just cited a recent survey which says that 34% of Americans support removing “under God” from the pledge. I have always supported this point of view, so of course I want to check if this is a legit survey, or somehow slanted. You always have to do that: check the legitimacy of any fact you hear, but especially those that agree with your worldview. Not to mention that one-third sounds a bit high for such an idea in the United States as it is right now.

Sure enough, the survey was commissioned by a Humanist organization—not enough to negate it, but enough to arouse suspicion. Interestingly, the report begins by citing another such survey, in which an “evangelical research firm” found only 8% support for the same idea. That survey reportedly only asked the question about removing the words “under God” without context.

In contrast, the poll commissioned by the Humanist organization had the question presented within a fairly specific context:

For its first 62 years, the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase “under God.” During the Cold War, in 1954, the phrase “one nation indivisible” was changed to read “one nation, under God, indivisible.” Some people feel this phrase in our national pledge should focus on unity rather than religion.

And that got the 34% positive response.

Both polls were clearly biased. The first poll, by the religious organization, asked the stark question without context, “if they believed ‘under God’ should be removed from the Pledge.” Given without context, it has the sense of asking the respondent to make a choice against religion. Otherwise, it is up to the listener to apply a context, and many, having heard so much of the “war on Christianity” in the media, doubtlessly allowed that to influence their answer.

The Humanist take on it, however, was even more biased. It provided not only a very specific context, but a justification as well. It noted that the original pledge did not have the words “under God,” and that pressures from the now-defunct Cold War caused the new inclusion (thus providing the justification for removal), and then set the context for removal as one which promotes national unity. Essentially, it became a question about whether or not you support unity.

So it would appear that both are not accurate, and the actual range of support is somewhere between the two.

A context does need to be provided, but the tricky part is, what context? If people are asked if they approve of the “new health care law,” about 50% don’t like it; if asked about “Obamacare,” the disapproval is likely to be higher. However, if you ask people about the specific contents of the law, supports increases dramatically.

So, what context to provide for removing “under God” from the pledge? Probably one which presents the two primary arguments for and against. For example:

Many believe that the words ‘under God’ should remain in the pledge to demonstrate the religious nature of the country; others believe that the words, added during the Cold War, violate the separation of church and state and actively exclude non-theists. Do you believe the words should be removed from the pledge?

When polling, the two views should be swapped in order of presentation half the time, and the question should also be worded, “should be kept in the pledge” half the time.

I’d like to see what that wording gets in response. My guess would be about 20% in favor of removing it—about the number of non-theists in the country, give or take fence-crossers on either side.

Of course, the response should be 100% for removal; I believe strongly in the principle that any inclusion of religion, especially in a pledge so closely associated with citizenship and national fealty, is a threat to the freedom of belief—and indeed, Supreme Court “Justice” Antonin Scalia has used exactly this camel’s nose to justify the negation of separation and church—in his words, “manifesting a purpose to favor . . . adherence to religion generally.”

Nevertheless, when I see evidence presented which supports my point of view, my first reaction is to embrace it—but my considered response is to question it.

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:

Kajieme Powell and Police Responses

August 22nd, 2014 3 comments

Well, a new fact has come up that puts a new face on the situation: the police officers who shot Kajieme Powell had tasers.

To me, this makes a world of difference. One fact I had not been aware of was that these days, metropolitan police forces tend to make tasers standard issue. The St. Louis PD reported that the officers did indeed have the non-lethal weapons.

Looking at the video, the officers do not appear detailed enough to see if they were wearing them. If they were not, then they were derelict; if they were wearing them… that adds a whole new light to the situation.

When the police arrived, they could not know what situation faced them. As they got out of their vehicle, they saw a man who appeared to be the suspect, standing in front of them, approaching them with his right hand in his pocket. That is justification for drawing their weapons; they could not know if the man had a gun or not, and if he did, then he could begin firing very quickly.

Powell then took his hand out of his pocket, and held out a kitchen knife. That action should have had two effects: first, it should have heightened the tension with the officers, as he was armed; and second, it should have “lengthened the fuse,” meaning that the police should have given them several seconds more space to deal with the situation.

If a suspect, even with a knife, begins coming at you, you still have to make a decision. At first, I thought, shouldn’t the police have made allowances to back up to extend the space between them should he approach? It’s not as if Powell was running at them.

However, there’s a problem: if you back up, you could fall over something you don’t see. Not optimal.

Still, the officers should have known that, with the knife, they had those extra seconds. Without the tasers, it would have made no difference; with the tasers, it made all the difference in the world.

What the police chief said:

“So you’ve got an individual armed with a knife, who’s moving towards you, not listening to any verbal commands, continues, says ‘Shoot me now, kill me now.’ Tasers aren’t 100%. If that Taser misses, that subject continues on, and hurts an officer,” he said.

One of the officers should have drawn the non-lethal weapon. Once Powell started approaching, the one closest to him should have made a sign to the other that he was going non-lethal, which would have signaled to the other to keep his gun drawn and ready. If the taser didn’t work, lethal force would still have been an option from the second officer.

If this is not in their training, then the department is negligent. It should be obvious that if tasers don’t always work, a partner can provide backup.

The chief also said:

Sam Dotson, chief of the St Louis metropolitan police, said the officers may not have been able to Taser Powell because of his sweatshirt.

That’s bull. The sweatshirt was clearly open—and his partner was right there.

Had the officers been armed only with guns and batons, I would have given them the benefit of the doubt. But having tasers, and with ten seconds to draw them, a tactic which should have been in their training and well-practiced….

No.

This was not a necessity. This was not a situation where the officers had no choice. With the option of a non-lethal response with the ability to back up that response with lethal force if things went wrong, the officers clearly were not trained or not inclined to do the responsible thing.

If what happened is not murder, it is at the very least manslaughter.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Not All Situations Are Alike

August 21st, 2014 2 comments

On August 19, Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old man, reportedly with a history of mental illness, walked into a convenience store armed with a knife and took two drinks without paying for them. After leaving the store, the owner followed him and asked him to pay for the drinks. Powell went back into the store, picked up a package of pastries, and came back out. When the owner asked him again to pay, Powell threw them into the street. The owner then called the police.

Powell did not try to go anywhere. He remained where he was, having put the two drinks down on the ground near the curb. It was at this point that someone started shooting a video of the event. Powell can be seen walking back and forth near the drinks. He is wearing a blue jacket, with his right hand in the pocket. A police cruiser arrives, and two officers step out of the vehicle. Powell approaches them and starts to yell, “Shoot me!” The officers tell him to take his hand out of his pocket; he does so. Although it cannot be seen clearly in the video, Powell is holding something, and the officers begin to shout, “Drop the knife!”

Powell approaches, then stops about 12 to 15 feet away, continuing to shout at the officers to shoot him. He then turns to his left and climbs up on an elevated parking space perhaps three feet above the sidewalk, describing an arc which leads him to walk towards the officer who exited the right-side door of the cruiser.

When Powell is about 8-10 feet away from the closer policeman, the officers begin firing. By the third shot, Powell is falling, by the fourth, he is down. The police continue firing, the first seven shots in quick succession. There is a moment’s pause as Powell rolls on the ground in front of the officer, then two more shots are fired—a total of nine shots. It is unclear from the video which officer fired how many shots.


One thing is clear: Powell was attempting to commit what is often described as “suicide by cop.” He was clearly not interested in consuming the food he took from the store, nor did he make any attempt to escape; he was, almost certainly, trying to cause the police to arrive, and was waiting for them. When they arrived, he did what he needed to do to get them to shoot him.

People are outraged at this video for a few very obvious reasons. Especially in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, the shooting of a young black man by white police officers seems galling. The reports that Michael Brown was shot six times despite having his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender brings to this event the idea that Powell was similarly helpless. The video itself, however, appears to be the most damning evidence: we see a man who appears to be unarmed walking to the police, and for this, he is shot nine times, more than half of the fusillade fired when Powell was falling or on the ground.

There are some exculpatory facts. Powell was in fact armed with a knife. He was trying to get the officers to shoot him. It seems clear that he was not going to stop where he was, and had he not been shot, he would have continued at the officer. Whether he would have used the knife at all, whether he would have done real harm to the officer he was approaching, is a question to which we will never know the answer.

There are objections raised:

Powell does not move like a man who poses a threat.

You mean, other than committing a crime and then coming at police officers armed with a knife?

There is no evidence that anyone felt threatened before the police arrived.

That has no relevance to the situation; the police act according to what they find, and not according to what they have not been told.

Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs. He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance.

I do not find this a convincing argument; if a man with aggressive intent is walking towards you with a knife, and will be upon you in two or three seconds, I do not see this as being so less threatening that a defensive reaction is unwarranted. Similarly for the argument that he was not in a “fighting stance.” If a guy comes at me with a knife clearly intending to start an incident, I do not consider the fact that his hand with the knife is at his side a very comforting one.

Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous.

What difference does that make? Is a mentally ill person armed with a knife less likely to commit an act of violence?

But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car. They begin yelling at him to stop.

This is actually not surprising, as they are responding to an armed robbery and they find the suspect with his hand in his pocket.

There is no warning shot, even.

There has been discussion about warning shots, which many police departments have policies against; nonetheless, in other situations (this one in Missouri), it has worked.

On the other hand, by the time Powell was shot, it was clear to the police that he wanted them to shoot him, and was willing to endanger them to accomplish this. I doubt that a warning shot would have done much.

All in all, I find the objections less than compelling.


There is one rather simple yet significant fact: had the police waited a few more seconds until Powell was, in fact, just a foot away and (possibly) raising the knife, then our reaction to the video would be meaningfully different. Instead of seeing an apparently unarmed man being shot from a distance of 8-10 feet, we would see a man raising a knife a few feet away from officers shouting at him to stop. Self-defense would be arguably much easier to understand. Add to that the fact that these officers probably understood very well that this man wanted them to fire and therefore would probably do whatever it took to accomplish that, and it is somewhat more understandable.

And that is where the shooting becomes, if not less objectionable, then at least less incriminating in hindsight: there is almost no doubt that Powell would have continued to close the distance. Nor do I think that it would have made much difference had Powell never raised the knife. The fact that the officers shot from 8-10 feet instead of 2-3 feet is not meaningfully significant.

Despite my initial shock and horror of seeing the video, upon considering the situation, I do not see the officers’ actions as remarkably abhorrent. Disturbing, yes; tragic, yes. However, did the police act wrongly, when it is clear that two or three seconds more time would have made no difference in the outcome, except to make the officers’ actions appear more reasonable?

Below is the video in question. It is graphic in content (not bloodiness), and shows Powell being shot to death. At the key moment, if you play the video in full-screen 1080p resolution and zoom in on what happens, it is possible to see details that might be missed if you look less closely.


But then we have the firing itself. Powell is not just shot; he is shot nine times, in three seconds.

However, it seems that this is how officers are trained, and that “muscle memory” may be an issue. Police are trained to shoot several times, not just once. When they are trained, they may not practice shooting once or twice, evaluating, and then shooting again. They are likely trained to shoot many times, and this, in a panic situation with a live assailant walking towards you, could lead to the excessive firing.

Not knowing which officer fired how many bullets could be a factor; there is something called “contagious shooting,” where a gunman will fire on the signal of another firing. It is possible that the closer officer fired the first one or two shots, and then his partner, prompted by his partner’s shooting, fires his own gun several times, providing the latter shots.

We are also misinformed by television, where we most often see the “good guy” taking extra caution to avoid killing someone. How many times have you seen a video of a cop firing a bad guy in the arm or the shoulder, so as to remove the threat without deadly force? We see this and accept it as something that could happen in real life. However, if a man is coming at you with a knife with clear intent to do damage, and you have no idea what drugs he may be on, and he could be on top of you before you have time to evaluate after a single shot or two, and you know that a shot to the arm or shoulder could miss—do you really think you would try for just one or two shots to slow him down?

It’s easy for us to watch a video taken from afar and judge; it would be extraordinarily more difficult to actually be in that officer’s situation and have to make a split-second, adrenaline-fueled, life-or-death decision.

That is not to say that there was no wrongdoing by the police. I am not sure if the officer closest to Powell was right to remain between Powell and the vehicle, giving him no room to maneuver. I am not sure if the assailant having a knife and not a gun made the situation significantly different. I do not pretend to be knowledgable about any of this, so I could be very wrong in my assessment.

That said, before knowing more, I would tend to assume that, while appearing trigger-happy and excessive in shooting, the officers involved may actually have been justified in their actions.

It hurts to say that, considering the Powell deserved medical attention, and not to be shot to death. Most likely, this is much more about our failure to treat mental illness than it is about police procedures.

Not that police procedures should not be questioned. In fact, there was an incident in Toronto last year where a younger man was also shot by police nine times as he wielded a knife—this shooting appearing far, far less justifiable.

And then, of course, there is the shooting of Michael Brown, which also seems indefensible.


I know I will probably catch a lot of flak from people who have the same political beliefs and human sensibilities as I do; the same thing happened when I tried to understand Rodney Peairs’ actions when he shot Yoshihiro Hattori to death. Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to come to as complete an understanding as possible, and then to judge reasonably, and not just in a way that justifies your sense of moral outrage.


There is still something else that disturbs me greatly about this incident. This is from one report:

When police arrived, they said Powell walked toward them clutching his waistband. They say he then pulled out a knife and held it up in what Dotson described as an “overhand grip.”

We see this again and again: police reports, filed after the fact, differ greatly from what we later find to be the facts of the case. In this case, the police reports make it sound like Powell was in fact right on top of the officer, with the knife raised over his head, ready to strike.

The video clearly belies this account.

We saw something similar in the arrest five years ago of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a police officer whose official report was fairly clearly filled with inaccurate statements intended to justify the officer’s action.

This is what worries me as much as anything else: that police misconduct if much more common than we believe, and that much of it is covered up by police reporting which is to a great extent self-serving, and designed to the greatest extent possible to make the suspect appear guilty, and the officer completely justified. We saw this in Ferguson as well, when the police released a video intended clearly to justify the officer’s actions, despit that video having zero relevance to the misconduct in question.

But then there is the statement of the Saint Louis police chief describing the reaction to Powell’s killing. He stated that police officers have the right to defend themselves. This is true. But then he says something more:

“Officer safety is the number one issue.”

Which I find interesting. I thought public safety was the number one issue. And that may be part of the problem: the police do not see keeping the public safe as their main job—“to protect and to serve.” Instead, they appear to see it as a public management issue, with their own safety being paramount.

I do not begrudge the police the ability to defend themselves. However, when they view their safety as much more important than the safety of the public in general, that’s when things become worrisome.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

What Do You Think of These People?

July 17th, 2014 6 comments

There is a crisis going on in Northern Africa, one causing immeasurable violence in impoverished areas. The situation is intolerable even for the strongest of people, but the children are being hit the worst. If they stay, they face worse and worse fates, many likely to die. Thousands of children are forced to flee, and make their way across the Mediterranean to France, a nation with not just proximity but political investment in their home region. Boatloads of young children, wave after wave, wash up on the shore, hungry, desperate, frightened, and lost. It is a refugee crisis, but made up of the most innocent of the displaced.

The French, however, are pissed. Sure, they had a hand in what happened in that region, but these children are unwanted. They don’t give a crap about their plight, they don’t even care that they’re children. Thousands of French people, backed by millions throughout the country, mass at the shores and around the holding camps where the children are, yelling and screaming at the children. “Nobody wants you!” those in the crowd shout angrily at the kids. “Go back where you came from!” they spit. “They should come here legally,” protesters tell reporters. “These kids carry disease, and they expect us to pay for their needs,” one French patriotic group claims, distributing fliers vilifying the children. “They should go back to where they came from.” When reminded that such a return would likely result in their deaths, the protesters shrug. “Not our problem.” As buses filled with the young refugees drive out of holding centers, protesters surround the buses, beating on the side of the vehicle and shouting angrily. Some even go so far as to call it a literal “invasion” for which the military should be tasked to respond.


This, of course, is not happening in France. But reading the story, tell me: if it were, what would you think of these people?

More importantly, what would the people who are doing this now have thought if this were France doing it a year ago? Having helped create a crisis in a nearby developing country, to have waves of innocent children forced to flee for their lives… and then have the wealthy, comfortable first-world nation callously treat them like vermin and go ballistic at the thought that we might actually help them or something. No, let’s go out of our way and scream at them.

And send them back to the slaughter.

I think that even these wingnuts would have been taken aback at that—had another country done it. But us? No, that’s perfectly justified.


The idea of looking at things from a different perspective works with immigration in a more general sense as well:

Imagine you are married with two kids. The country hits really hard times, akin to the Great Depression of the 30′s (we almost went there a few years ago, remember). You lose your job, your house, almost all of your possessions. No work is available, though you would take any job and are constantly looking. You are reduced to living in a shack in a filthy part of town. Your kids frequently border on starvation, gravely need basic medical care. You are desperate.

Then a well-off family in a gated community tells you they will hire you to clean their house. It’s for way less than minimum wage, but you are way past that by now. Anything is better than going without food. But in that gated community, they voted in rules to disallow such hires—only approved cleaning services. The problem is, those services charge a lot, and this family would rather hire you for cheap—so they’ll bend the rules for their own sake.

However, because of these rules they supported and passed, they demand that you sneak through the hedges in the park near the creek in the back area of the community. If you’re caught, they’ll deny knowing you, and you could go to jail for trespassing. It’s degrading, not to mention a pain to do this at 5 a.m., but you have no choice. You do what they demand.

Later, reports come in that grungy-looking people have been spotted in the community. The neighborhood is outraged, fearing for their safety and worried about property values dropping. “These people just steal things, use drugs, and are violent,” the refrain goes—and the people who hired you echo these complaints. Worse, they scream at you because the landscaper is charging extra because of lawn damage in the private park—something you can’t help because the only way in is across that field right after it has been watered. But your employers blame you for it anyway.


What would you think of people like this? Because the gated community asshats are pretty much who we are.

We hear all the time about illegal aliens causing all these problems. How come we never hear about illegal employers? Because they’re far more at fault. You think the immigrants are the ones causing Americans not to be hired? You think the immigrants are the ones making off with the loot? You think they would not rather come into the country legally? No, they don’t want these things—but they have no choice. We have the choice—but instead of doing the right and responsible thing, we do it the screwed-up way.

You know how often illegal employers are caught or penalized? Almost never. And the “penalties” are a joke—usually a pittance, and then negotiated downward from there.

The immigrants are not the problem. Not by a long shot.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

What Stereotype Do You Fit?

July 15th, 2014 3 comments

Pew has a “Political Typology” quiz you can take, but fair warning: it’s a very blunt tool, and shouldn’t really surprise you much at all. Unsurprisingly, I was tagged as a “solid liberal,” but was very unhappy with a lot of the choices I was forced to make. You could very easily see where the questions were taking you to, and you will probably find yourself making statements you don’t agree with, being steered towards a group you don’t feel comfortable with.

The questions, mostly polar opposites, tend to be incredibly simplistic and often force you to extremes. For example, you either believe that you have to do “whatever it takes to protect the environment” or that we’ve “gone too far” already. Answer one way, you’re a tree-hugger; answer the other way, you’re a hard-nosed industrialist. In terms of U.S. international involvement, you have to decide if we usually make things worse or if things would be worse without us. Answer one way, and you’re an isolationist; answer the other way, you’re an adventurist. What if you believe in tempered involvement? Not major land wars, except in true emergencies (WWII was the last one to qualify), but definite strategic involvement with a military element. How is that factored in? The answer is that it isn’t—you’re forced to choose way too far in either direction.

In fact, I am not sure that you can test out as a moderate—the results do not even allow that. The categories in the center are called “hard-pressed skeptics” and “young outsiders,” but you get there by being polar on some issues that are left and some that are right. There is pretty much no allowing for people who want middle-of-the-road solutions.

Some questions are too politically vague for the spectrum they are laid upon. For example, is it best for our future to be active in world affairs, or should we concentrate on problems here at home? That supposedly falls along a spectrum from liberal to conservative—despite the fact that I have seen people on both extremes, and in the middle, voice that particular sentiment.

Finally, many of the questions and vague in a general sense; for example, “stricter” environmental laws are good or they are bad. Well, what does “stricter” mean? Stricter than we currently have? Stricter than is currently acted upon? How much more “strict”? Strict in a harsh, arbitrary way, or strict in terms of protecting the environment while maintaining the best future for business? Does this allow for or discount laws which encourage green technology which can be a significant economic benefit?

In order for this to be a meaningful quiz, it should be allowed more depth. For example, take this choice:

This country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment
This country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment

These should be changed to:

The country should do whatever is necessary to protect the environment
The country should focus all available resources to stem the damages
caused by global climate change
The country should use strong economic incentives to discourage
non-renewable energy sources and encourage renewables
The country should focus on using nuclear power to stem coal, oil,
and gas use until renewables become economically feasible
The country should allow market forces to determine the best use and
development of energy resources and technology
Renewables are a pipe dream and should be abandoned in favor of all that
can be done to make coal, oil, and gas resources more available

My list is probably incomplete or not properly balanced, but you see where I am going with this. The answers could then be sorted into more coherent political identities. Questions could be added which would determine specific tax policies; instead of “taxes are too high” or “corporations make too many profits,” we would be able to set what we believe would be proper fundamental tax types–e.g., income, capital gains, and corporate taxes.

Such a poll would be much more complex and would require quite a bit more work—but I would be really, really interested to see how that comes out.

Categories: Journalism, Social Issues Tags:

Why Are There No Good Conservatives Comedians?

May 25th, 2014 5 comments

It’s a good, legitimate question. Some answers are based upon the idea that conservatives are simply shut out of the business. “The mainstream media is mostly liberal, so conservatives are not given a chance.” This doesn’t ring true; first, there are plenty of right-wing outlets (not the least of which is Fox), and second, if someone is funny they will find an audience—and an audience pays, which always gets you on the air. It’s not as if there haven’t been attempts to popularize right-wing comedians; they simply have not taken off.

Others respond that “liberals don’t like others making fun of them.” Well, OK, but that only explains why conservative comedians don’t find a liberal audience, and cannot explain why conservative audiences don’t give them all the business they need.

It can’t be that liberals can’t be successfully mocked—watch John Stewart and you’ll eventually see him make fun of Democrats in a way that can evoke more than enough laughter (and scorn) to keep you going.

There’s no way you could convince me that it’s impossible to make enough hay out of video clips of Democrats, MSNBC hosts, and liberals in general saying stuff that could be mocked to fill a half hour comedy show four nights a week, especially if you pad that with takes on media in general and interviews with people pushing something or another. Humor can be fitted to any taste. I once made what I thought was a compelling case as to how Rush Limbaugh could have made a really funny, comic argument satirizing the contraception debate. Instead, he engaged in what amounted to hateful, dehumanizing diatribe—and called it “humor.”

In this way, many right-wing attempts at humor fall disastrously flat. Take this attempt by Fox to produce their own version of The Daily Show:

Pretty much one halfway good joke in there, and it was a really obvious one. Go ahead and look up other videos from the show’s very short run; you’ll find it similarly awful. Not unfunny because of one’s point of view, but simply not funny. Even for conservatives—after all, it flopped even on Fox.

However, the above clip is rather telling in a very important respect: the laughter. Not the fact that the laughter for the video was obviously canned, but the live laughter in particular: harsh, forced, almost angry.

Maybe the difference in humor has to do with a certain mindset. Comedians may often come from backgrounds that include being bullied and outcast, where a person might develop a sense of humor as both a defense mechanism and a way of becoming popular. But this is often tied in with a sympathy for those who are trodden upon, people who are undervalued and at a disadvantage—values more liberal than not. It might be argued that a lot of comedic talent naturally springs from a liberal viewpoint.

The clip from Fox shows the reverse: it comes across as a bully’s humor, even down to the harsh laughter. It does not so much playfully engage in satire and joking as it does condescendingly mock and degrade. This is the kind of “humor” that right-wing talking heads like Rush Limbaugh employ. Liberal humor comes from an attitude where the world is falling apart around you and you need to make fun of it to keep from descending into despair. Conservative humor comes from an attitude where you occupy a position of righteous assuredness and you need to make fun of those you see as different and therefore wrong.

And I think that’s at the heart of it: liberals are more apt to feel pain, conservatives to feel anger. Laughter comes from the need to dispel one’s pain; from anger comes something more akin to taunting—and that’s not funny for people who are not taking the bully’s point of view.

Categories: Entertainment, Social Issues Tags:

When to Tolerate Intolerance

April 5th, 2014 7 comments

If someone in a position of authority makes public statements of intolerance towards a class of people, should that person be forced to step down? Most people would say yes, as they are demonstrating an outward intolerance which could easily translate into discrimination against that class of people.

But what if the same person made a contribution to a cause associated with intolerance? Is that the same thing? Arguably so; it may be a political contribution, but it is effectively an active statement of support.

However, should a person be barred from career advancement, or from holding any position of authority, because of their beliefs?

The answer to that is clearly “no.”

Somewhere in there is a line that is crossed, and it’s not all that easy to identify. If the authority holds public office, there is a somewhat higher standard, as there would be if that authority makes decisions that can easily affect people of the class they disapprove of. Public statements are willful, outward expressions, signaling an intent to more than just hold a personal belief.

However, we are also talking about taking actions which could, albeit in a limited fashion, deprive someone of a specific career. In stating any public opinion on this, I believe it is important to carefully specify how certain lines are being crossed and exactly where they are.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was promoted to the position of CEO in the organization. Eich, however, had made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to support California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages. As far as I can determine, that’s all that there is; he has made no other public statements on any such issue, nor has he apparently taken any other actions which might impact anyone.

Eich had served for two years as the chief technology officer for Mozilla, with the donation known. However, when he was made CEO, that apparently was too much for some. Half of the foundation’s board members quit and a large number of employees and local citizens expressed their outrage.

As a result, Eich stepped down as CEO, arguably forced out by those unhappy with his personal beliefs.

The question is, is that justifiable?

It could be argued that as CEO, Eich would be in a position to make specific decisions that significantly effect people in the LGBT community, at the very least those who work for his company. As an official in a private organization, however, can he be punished for something that is simply more likely? A public official must live up to a higher standard, must avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Does the same standard apply to the head of a private organization? Can someone be denied a position because of what they may do? I think not.

Eich could be in a position to steer the company towards certain policies or toward supporting certain movements. The question is, should he be judged based on what he actually does, or what he could potentially do? Again, I think a person in such a position is only accountable for what they actually do.

Also, as the CEO, he represents that organization, is the public face of it, and therefore whatever beliefs he has also reflect on the organization. This is perhaps the strongest argument for forcing Eich to step down, as such representations can seriously affect the organization, fair or not.

Personally, I am loathe to participate in anything like this, which, frankly, smacks of persecution. No one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs.

I think a key factor, however, lies in the fact that this was not simply a belief that Eich held, but rather a belief he took action on.

His donation would have publicly stripped an entire community of a valued civil right. This was not just a private belief: Eich was taking action to force this belief on others. This goes well beyond Eich simply believing something but having tolerance otherwise. It showed that he would willfully and actively affect the lives of others based on his belief.

If a person, for example, believes that Christians are somehow harmful, this person should not be discriminated against because of that belief. If that same person is in a leadership role, then perhaps they should be carefully watched to see if they take action on the belief. However, if they try to get a law passed which, say, bans Christians from holding public office, that is a completely different matter.

Of course, this gets into a sticky area: what specific political causes could trigger such a response? Clearly, just voting for a certain political party is absolutely unjustifiable as a cause for denying anyone a position. No, this is about supporting a specific cause.

But is this just about people supporting causes we don’t like? The answer is just as clearly no—if Eich had, for example, contributed to a campaign to privatize social security, that would not create anything near the same furor. One could argue that such a campaign could adversely affect large numbers of people—though pretty much any political policy could do that.

There is a significant difference between supporting policies which are based upon beliefs regarding how society and its resources should be run, and supporting policies which legislate discrimination against specific groups defined by innate characteristics.

The line being crossed is, in fact, specific: we’re talking about a policy that discriminates against a class of people. We’re talking about someone in a position of authority, someone who acts as a representative, who took willful steps in that act of discrimination. That it was a political act of discrimination rather than a private act is a distinction without a difference.

Then there is the matter of which position is being denied. It is not as if Eich is being denied any job; he was not pushed out of his relatively high-profile CTO position despite his contribution being known. In this case, he was denied a leadership position—one which reflected on the company’s image, one which essentially said that everyone in the organization had or would have confidence in his judgments—something clearly contrary to fact.

When I first saw this story, my immediate reaction was against the call to remove Eich; I saw it as many now do, as persecution based upon beliefs. However, as I consider the specifics—in particular, the fact that Eich took positive action to discriminate, and that he would be in a leadership position with implications well beyond any specific actions he takes in that position—I changed my mind.

I probably would still not personally call for his ouster. However, I would not judge any such call as unjustifiable.

Categories: Corporate World, Social Issues Tags:

It’s Not About What Others Do

March 17th, 2014 4 comments

Fred Phelps is reported to be near death in a health care facility.

When he dies, no one should picket his funeral. Wrong is wrong.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

No, Outlawing It Isn’t Worse

October 19th, 2013 Comments off

At TPM, Cathy Reisenwitz made an argument that laws against revenge porn are worse than the problem itself. She begins with a disturbing hint that the law may be like marijuana laws that put people in prison:

The state of California can now add people who post naked photos of their former partners to its criminally overcrowded prisons if they do so without permission and with the intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.

It seems to me that this comment is wholly unnecessary. If the prisons are overcrowded, we should not put people there who have committed awful crimes? And yes, revenge porn is that sort of crime. Not nearly as bad as rape, but definitely in the same category. I am perfectly OK sending such people to jail.

She then gapes in puzzlement that the law would do more:

Proposed legislation in New York would actually widen to the ban to include photos victims take of themselves.

Yes, that’s right. Just because someone took a selfie does not make it any better when the jilted boyfriend publishes it on the Internet. Why should it?

But that’s not Reisenwitz’s main objection.

While well-intentioned, this kind of legislation is over-broad, poses serious free-speech threats and may not even be necessary going forward.

The first thing it’s important to keep in mind is that revenge porn laws criminalize speech.

Huhwhat?

As the ACLU has discussed, such laws can be used to censor photos with political importance. As Jess Rem pointed out for Reason magazine, people such as Jeff Hermes, Director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, share this concern about the law. Hermes has stated that revenge porn laws could have kept former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) nude selfies legally suppressed.

Uh yeah, no. Aside from the less significant but still relevant points that (1) it is arguable that politicians’ personal sexual peccadilloes are really newsworthy, and (2) relevant parts of the photos can be blacked out or pixellated in the case that context is somehow deemed necessary, there are two reasons why this is not an issue.

First, it is not necessary to show the image in order to report on the story. Even if a story about a politician sexting someone is not gratuitous in and of itself, the photos certainly are. I would not deem it a great threat to free speech if the media were limited to only telling us about Weiner’s selfies rather than showing us the images.

And second, no journalist would ever be prosecuted for revenge porn that did not specifically involve them. To make the person who released them liable is not something that affects freedom of the press, any more than outlawing the release of classified documents did in cases like Edward Snowden’s.

Not to mention that these laws often include language that specifies the offender must have “intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.” If someone releases photos of a politician in a state of undress, it could be for the purpose of revenge—but the claim could very easily be made that it was for the purpose of informing the public, thus making even the person releasing the images safe from prosecution.

In fact, the laws may not be strong enough. People wishing to release these images will probably find loopholes, like having a third party post the images on the Internet. If sharing the photos with a private third party is not illegal, and if the third party has no cause for humiliating the victim, then probably no case could be made.

Reisenwitz suggests, however, that there is enough legal protection without the new laws:

Civil lawsuits have always been available to victims. Late last year a Texas judge ordered an ‘indefinite’ lock on revenge porn site PinkMeth.com as Shelby Conklin sought “punitive damages of more than $1 million for intrusion on seclusion, public disclosure of private facts, appropriation of her name and likeness and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The case was eventually settled, and the offenders paid restitution instead of serving time in jail. This is just one example of the many successful lawsuits by victims of revenge porn.

Before the law, there were already at least seven different kinds of laws revenge porn could have violated, depending on the circumstances. They include but are not limited to laws dealing with extortion and blackmail, child pornography, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, voyeurism, intent and violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

The first example Reisenwitz cites is clearly inapplicable. It was against the revenge porn site, not the person releasing the images. You don’t even need revenge porn sites to release such photos, and sites not intended for such photos could claim they had no idea of the photos’ origins. Also, many of the charges dealt with commercial distribution, something that would not apply to an individual posting to a porn forum. Not to mention that many such sites will not be within the courts’ jurisdictions, or that any victim making such a case will become a huge target for similar sites and their supporters.

The other laws? Extortion and blackmail laws would only apply if the jilted party made such threats, which is probably very rare. Child pornography would apply only in limited cases. I’m not a lawyer, but I would think citing invasion of privacy is pretty weak—people are not penalized for spreading personal information about exes, and the fact that the photos were consensual probably negates this as a possible legal avenue. Copyright infringement could apply to selfies, but not to images taken by the perpetrator—and it would be pretty difficult to assess financial damage if you had no intent to sell the images yourself, and the perpetrator did not profit themselves. Voyeurism is laughable in this context. As for the Consumer Protection Act, it relates to commercial profit, again not applicable to the individuals.

It’s pretty clear that these laws are insufficient. Mitchell Matorin has a much more detailed rundown.

No, the law is not worse than the crime. Not in the least. And frankly, laws against privacy infringement are far, far too weak in this country. As with all forms of intellectual property and information in general, we are in a new age, and the laws are too far behind. These new laws are not inappropriate, and in fact, we need a lot more regulating how information is collected, disseminated, and bartered.

Balking at making revenge porn illegal is, if anything, a frightening step in the wrong direction.

Categories: Social Issues, Technology Tags: