Friday, May 31, 2013

In yesterday's long run, we are all dead

De Tocqueville famously said that “the American republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” When married with Keynes’ tongue-in-cheek observation that “in the long run, we are all dead,” we have an insight into what is arguably the single biggest problem in American politics today: how we think about time. We live in the here and now, for tomorrow we die. This could, if left unaddressed, cost us the Republic that Benjamin Franklin warned us would be a challenge to keep. We cannot banish the greed that drives De Tocqueville’s fear from human nature, and given the very real suffering and pain being experienced by Americans daily, thinking about the long run seems like an idealistic fantasy divorced from the reality of immediate needs. Short-term bribery, not long-term planning, wins hearts and wins elections.

And bribed we have been. Take debt, for example. It wasn’t until Reagan’s sunny optimism in the 1980s that U.S. debt surged past $1 trillion, but it has certainly climbed since then. Gone are the days of asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country; now we reward politicians who promise us heaven “because,” they tell us in the most patronizing of tones, “people have a right to it.” The government owes the world to its citizens, never mind that nothing comes for free, especially not other people’s labor, and heaven is an expensive place to live in. Who will pay? The $17 trillion in current debt has still not produced any kind of utopia, but it certainly amounts to a utopian price tag. No one has yet been willing to own up and pay the bill.

Our national problem with the future far exceeds government spending though; it’s a problem of a collective mindset. The average American credit card debt exceeds $15 thousand. Student loans and mortgage debts are even higher: $33 thousand and $150 thousand on average, respectively. Most Americans have no substantial retirement plan, no safety fund in case of emergencies and buy insurance only when it’s legally required.

Here, the question of “who pays?” has a clearer answer: “the suckers.” The suckers, so labeled by Michael Lewis in his semi-autobiographical book “Liar’s Poker,” are those who are out of the loop and unknowingly buy into the baited pyramid scheme that is so effective in garnering support and votes. The outrageous wealth inequality our nation has experienced in the last few decades isn’t the cause of our political and social problems—it’s the result of audacious bribery with the public’s own money, by our government, by our banks, by businesses and by us. We’ve been sold the lie that we can have it all, and have purchased a perfect present at the price of the future. But we did that several decades ago. Now yesterday’s future is upon us, and Shylock has finally come to demand his recompense, far exceeding a mere pound of flesh.
Perhaps “the suckers” are expected to pay for the national debt as well.

What will we do?

The unenlightened, knee-jerk reaction, and what Congress has been coerced into doing thanks to public demand, is to indefinitely defer any unpleasantry deep into the future. We could call this the ostrich approach: burying one’s head in the sand to make the problems go away. The obvious problem with this is that the problems don’t actually go away. Wealth inequality, global warming, national debt and economic hardship are not problems we can deny, wish or purchase away, despite the corporate propaganda trying to persuade us to the contrary.

A better solution would be to acknowledge that we cannot have our utopia—our proverbial cake—and our future too, and to be highly suspicious of those who claim they can make two and two equal five. The political problems we are facing today are the result of promises that cannot be kept, to be made with money that we do not have and at the price of the pain-deferred future that we will have to live with. When we vote for our political candidates, when we buy things, when we save money, when we decide how much we will work and how much money we expect for our work, we must think about the long-term consequences of our actions instead of just the short-term benefits. Failing to do so is to accept a polarized, divisive and dysfunctional state of the nation in exchange for a devilish offer of temporary money and comfort. It’s one that our nation should have rejected long ago, but the sooner the better.

Thoughts on today's Democratic Party

This is an excerpt from Eric Hoffer's 1951 book The True Believer:

"Those who would transform the nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope."

Barrack Obama, as we all know, ran for president in 2008 on the platforms of "change" and "hope," (his primary book was titled The Audacity of Hope, the secondary being Dreams of my Father). The Democratic party's underlying principle is progress; so blatant is this that democrats often self-identify as "progressive liberals." More recently, the 99% movement has articulated a more distinct demand for change, and the crusade for diversity and multiculturalism in universities, with the blue party's blessing, has achieved something of a religious orthodoxy in tenor. In short, the Democratic party in its current form is the quintessential foundation of a rising mass movement.

It should be noted that I first came across Hoffer in Max Bloomenthal's excellent exposé, Republican Gommorah, so I hope it's clear from the start that I don't think the Democratic Party is the only party susceptible to the dangers of mass-movements. The Christian right within the Republican party, the Tea Party within the "libertarian community" (forgive the oxymoron there), and various sub-groups within larger religious, social and political identities have all, at various times, succumbed to the luring power of fanatical mass-movements. The modern Democratic party is one of these that seems to be largely overlooked.

There are two assumptions that the radical left's political ideology relies on: one, that we know enough about what we're doing in social and economic policy to accurately predict what will happen when we change it, and two, that the situation we live in is in dire need of changing. These two assumptions are both quite separately debatable. Is the change we seek both desirable and possible? Is life in the status quo really so bad? The subject of more recent psychological research has been happiness, much of which vindicates De Tocqueville's observation of the French, who "found their position the more intolerable the better it became."

Unintended consequences have turned many a well-intentioned social programs into disasters. Indeed, as Daniel Dennett said, "if there is one thing we learned from the 20th century, it is that good intentions aren't enough." The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions, and the incredible power of "hope," "dreams" and "progress" to enact social change allows for the construction of such a road with alarming alacrity. (Just remember that "you didn't build that," and it will all be okay).

Most of Hoffer's examples are 20th century examples like the Nazis, fascists, and various other religious and nationalist movements. This is not to say that the principles do not apply today though. History's rhyming tune has to return to the chorus every so often, and the Democratic party, with its grand rhetoric and Utopian vision, provides a very plausible candidate for just that kind of political reincarnation. In essence, the donkey speaks more wisely as the voice of Orwell in Animal Farm than as the mascot of its corresponding political movement. We may disagree with old Benjamin about the cynical nature of the eternal state of affairs resulting from the human condition, but the grand calls for change are not new to this century, this generation or this president. It has all happened before.

I will finish with another excerpt from the same chapter of Hoffer:

"When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock their doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes,  however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Call to Unmask Obama's Impostor

My appreciation for some of President Obama’s policies is a veritable wellspring of debate and disagreement with some of my more conservative friends. I frequently cite his soaring defense of American principles of government from his United Nations speech last year, which many Republicans half-heartedly agree with, but with a facial expression that seems to imply the argument would somehow be “more true” if it had been said by someone else.
There is, however, a strange conflict which has become more apparent in light of the Department of Justice collecting phone records and, for all intensive purposes, stalking the Associated Press. According to Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive officer of the AP, the DOJ’s actions were unconstitutional in their infringement on the freedom of the press under the First Amendment.
During Obama’s address to the U.N., he defended the principle of free speech, including the “Innocence of Muslims” film despite his admission of it being “a crude and disgusting video.” In his own words: “I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our constitution protects the right to practice free speech. We do so because as diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”
“It is now well known,” said the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, “that the Obama justicedepartment has prosecuted more government leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all prior administrations combined, double the number of all such prior prosecutions.” For readers whose history is a bit hazy, the Espionage Act of 1917 was a fear-induced, shamelessly nationalist law from World War I that nearly makes the Patriot Act look constitutional by comparison.
The White House’s response to these allegations was similarly underwhelming when compared to Obama’s eloquence abroad. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that, “Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP.” As alternately put by an internet meme circulating online, “At no time did the Obama administration know what the Obama administration was doing.”
This, hints at the literal answer to this apparent discrepancy: there must actually be two Barack Obamas. For some reason, we’ve never seen them in the same place at the same time, but two separate look-a-likes are at this very moment, arm-wrestling in the Oval Office over who will speak at the next college graduation ceremony. Readers who’ve seen the movie “The Prestige” will know the kind of double act I’m talking about. One of them is a constitutionally-minded patriot, while the other is a reincarnation of Niccolo Machiavelli. In my humble opinion, the FBI should put more efforts into hunting down the imposter (whichever one that happens to be) and press appropriate charges.
Either this is the case, or our president is a pandering hypocrite like just about every other politician. At this point, the difference between the two scenarios isn’t especially important.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Racism under the guise of supposed "white privilege" is still racism

Some of the most athletic leaps in logic I’ve experienced have been in discussions about race and gender. Lines become blurred as differences of personal perspective become synonymous with “fascism” and “discrimination,” alchemical transformations come over topics, viewpoints and values.  In one particular instance, I was accused of being racist over my stance on free speech…in a disagreement about feminism. 
The ultimate example of these bizarre shifts, however, is the all-answering and unanswerable allegation of “white privilege.” I say unanswerable not because it is a legitimate claim, but because the types of people who will use this as an argument are generally not the type who are open to hearing the other side. It's a perfectly self-sustaining and self-winning argument, you see: as soon as you deny white privilege, you're a bad person and a racist (somehow?), and your opinion is no longer valid. Bellevue College has had a number of events talking about race-issues, where talk about white privilege elicits somber nods of agreement, and disagreement, if and when it occurs, is rebutted with the same two magical words.
Before I go further, there is a small biological hurdle: race isn’t a thing. There is no race gene. It doesn’t exist. So, in order to talk about white privilege, let’s ignore the illusionary nature of race that the idea relies on, since without the existence of race, we couldn’t make claims about any kind of racial privilege.
What we end up with is essentially the following line of argument: “Racism is bad, and in today’s society, white people end up doing better in many aspects of life than black people. This means that if you are white, you must be benefiting from a set of unearned societal gifts that you probably aren’t even aware of, and you should acknowledge this.” No doubt, some academic somewhere probably has an infinitely more nuanced post-modernist thesis that somehow gets around the issue of Asian privilege (which is statistically greater than the white variety, when the race premise is granted), but the gist of the idea is approximately the same. When it's actually articulated in public, there's usually an implicit message that white people should feel ashamed, and perhaps feel obligated to give something back as penance for the imperialistic crimes of their great-great-great-grandparents.
A short point of order: racism can be roughly defined as attributing traits to an individual solely on the basis of their skin color. We say it's racist, for example, to assume that a black person will like hip-hop music solely based on race because it's assigning group values to an individual without warrant. Even if we grant the idea of “race,” people are different, and you can’t expect to know anything, let alone everything, about an individual just because they happens to be black.
So why on earth is it magically okay to assume someone is “privileged” based their skin color if they’re white? This is the painful and irritating irony of white privilege; it’s fighting fire with gasoline. Before you assume that someone is “privileged” based on skin color, think about what racism actually means, and what you’re expecting based solely on their race. A little introspection will go a long way in stopping the divisiveness this stubborn bastion of disguised bigotry has been inflicting on campus.

In defense of courage

May 21, 2013

In 1963, Stanley Milgram verified with empirical observation what historians and philosophers have postulated for centuries. In his experiments on obedience to authority, he found that 65 percent of tested subjects could be induced to electrocute another innocent person—without coercion. In the face of legal pressure, this number would almost certainly be much higher. The conclusion? Milgram is worth quoting at length in this case: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Many writers have articulated the solution to Milgram’s dilemma, butI think C.S. Lewis grasps a depth in his answer that many others miss. “Courage,” he wrote, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Being nice simply doesn’t cut it. Bravery and standing firmly on one’s values, without the benefit of anonymity, has proven time and again to an insufficient but necessary foundation for a moral—and safe—society.
This, however, is precisely what society has been discouraging. Day to day, we run into countless demonstrations of this, but one particularly relevant and concrete example epitomizes the effects that this kind of cowardice-acceptance has in schools like ours.
In the strange world of education, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student privacy, because normal legal privacy protections apparently aren’t enough. It’s scary to stand in the public eye, so we should protect students from that. “For the educational environment,” we’re told. But anonymity is a double-edged sword, and the fantastic levels of “privacy” being forced upon students also “protects” them from having cases of their own abuse at the hands of school administrations, teachers or other students being made public. It also teaches them all the wrong lessons about citizenship and due process.
An example: a student who makes an allegation of drug abuse about another student can expect anonymity under FERPA law, eliminating the check imposed by public opinion on administrative kangaroo courts.
This is often in violation of the sixth amendment rights of the accused to a public trial and to face one’s accuser. In some cases, even proof of innocence isn’t enough to escape conviction and punishment; and why should it be? There’s no reason for the school to care, after all, without public oversight. Legal incentives give them reason to convict, in fact. Many schools have 100 percent conviction rates for drug or harassment charges against students. In a fascinating twist of logic, these rules can allow schools to invade student’s privacy—their facebook page, locker and even their person—oversight thanks to student privacy laws.
Why do we need this superfluous privacy protection? Where is our audacity to stand on our own two feet? Aren’t we supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? It won’t be  for long if we continue to reward cowardice disguised as victimhood and psychological trauma, and the ongoing legal labyrinth will continue snare innocents until we stop letting negligent emotion trample all over reason and due process. Courage, not the soppy self-pity that leads to these ridiculous laws, should be the goal of our education.

What do we mean by "safe?"

May 14, 2013

One of the most common of logical fallacies is that of “equivocation.” In the narrow sense, equivocation is the use of a word with more than one meaning in a misleading manner. Silly cases are easy to see through, but many cases of equivocation are much more subtle and sound more convincing at first glance.
The word “safety,” for example, can mean physical safety, as in safety from being attacked or killed. In more recent times, however, it has often been used to denote emotional comfort and a near complete lack of stress. “I don’t feel safe” can mean “I feel in danger of being shot if I speak my mind,” or it can mean “I feel in danger of people disagreeing with me or not liking me if I speak my mind.”
Now, we have laws in place to protect us against the former. Comparatively speaking, college campuses are extremely safe places. Incidents of violence on school grounds, unlike the daily violence of major metropolitan centers, are rare enough to make national news when they do happen. When we walk around at Bellevue College, we’re quite a bit safer than we would be walking around in downtown Seattle.Conversely, we do not—and cannot—have laws to protect us from the latter. Different people have different ideas of what is normal and even what should be morally acceptable. Homosexuality, for example, is deeply offensive to many people, even to some here on campus. This view is, itself, extremely offensive to me. It really, deeply bothers me that students think that other people are doomed to Hellfire simply for who they are. Whose emotional “safety” should we protect? We can’t do both.
When students say things like “I feel less safe on campus” in response to some crude and offensive writing, as happened on April 21 (in erasable marker on a dry-erase calendar), I can’t help but feel a bit of outrage on behalf of the gay couples in Uganda and Iran who really, truly are not safe. What they are doing, intentionally or not, is attempting to sneak in protection against psychological harm under the banner of physical harm. I’m reminded of a scene from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” in which Sir Thomas More is arguing with a prosecutor named William Roper. Roper says, “I’d cut down every law in England” to punish the devil, to which More replies, “Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat?” safety is an enticing but poisonous offer that we should emphatically reject. In addition to stagnating discussion, protecting my emotional safety means taking away yours, and protecting yours would mean throwing out mine…and childish, even detestable, is nothing like a “threat” to anybody.

Small step for Britain

May 14, 2013

South Park slipped in a joke aimed at the United Kingdom in its famous Scientology episode where, after Stan calls the religion a scam and deems Tom Cruise’s acting to be merely “okay,” Cruise runs sobbing off the screen, shouting over his shoulder: “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you in England!”
The joke is actually a rather dark one—so true was this little prod about England’s infamous libel law that British stations actually refused to show that particular episode for fear of litigation from the Church of Scientology. These are courts where Russian oligarchs can sue Russian journalists for slander, and have done so at crippling costs to the journalist, even when the claims are true. The foreign phenomenon has even earned the nickname “libel tourism,” and is by no means limited to Russia; journalists writing about Icelandic banks, Saudi Arabian princes and American movie stars have experienced the force of British defamation law without ever having to visit the misty isles.
The intense power behind a mere accusation of libel is hard to exaggerate, and we have a lot of reason to care about it. In addition to the threat to writers, British journalist Nick Cohen makes a strong case in his book, “You Can’t Read This Book” that the threat of retribution to potential whistleblowers on Wall Street was one of the biggest factors in allowing the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crises to happen. In point of fact, many of Cohen’s cited cases were phrased hypothetically or otherwise hedged so that his title didn’t become a more literal description. While some of these instances aren’t directly the result of British libel law, the mentality and effect of other legal constraints against slander is essentially the same. Broadly speaking, this brand of censorship has significantly dampened the progress of science, journalism, politics, economics, medicine, business, comedy and even daily conversation.
This is why we can all celebrate (a rare thing when studying international politics) the fact that the libel law reform campaign has been at least partially successful. On April 25, Parliament approved a law making it much more difficult to use the courts to attack the press or otherwise suppress dissenting opinions. Many thanks to the science community for their efforts in making that happen.
The war is not won however—far from it. The directional shift of Britain back to its own enlightenment values is marred by the dangerous slippage of other countries and institutions. Imitation policies, enforcing particular views on what is respectful and what is true, are quickly bringing others into the pit it’s taken Britain so long to climb out of.
The attempt to impose truth, or even good manners, by force has proved over and over again to be a failure. This time it happened to be Britain’s libel law, but it’s a globally replicable effect, and it’s a lesson we should take to heart. If we want to reap the benefits of skeptical inquiry, we must also accept the associated risks. We can’t have one without the other, and the attempt to escape all hurt feelings and falsehoods while still pursuing truth will ultimately fail on both fronts as it always has.

"Accountability" in Syria

May 4, 2013

It’s been nearly a year since Obama’s famous “red line” comment about the use of chemical weapons in Syria—that any use of agents like sarin or mustard gas would represent an intolerable violation of international law. The White House has variously reiterated this claim on no fewer than seven occasions. As Obama said in late March, “We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people…The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”
It is still possible that the U.S. government will stick with its guns (which, as a friend wryly observed, it seems hesitant to do in the private market) and reciprocate Assad’s breach of international law with military intervention. The American public doesn’t seem particularly up to taking part in another war however, despite our pledge to intervene in cases of war crimes and genocide. Without action to back up our support of the rules of war we learned in the trenches of Europe, Obama’s indictment of Assad threatens to invert Theodore Roosevelt’s admirable philosophy on foreign policy and replace it with a notably less courageous plan: speak loudly and carry a very small stick.
Three dangers come to mind from this, the first and simplest of which being the allowance of lethally criminal practices in the administration of sovereign states. Little elaboration is needed here, I hope.
Secondly, we cannot ignore the precedent our government sets when it follows up on its promises, or fails to do so. A basic trust that government will generally do what it says is necessary for the functioning of society; conversely, a cynical view of our elected representatives inhibits economic growth, communication, cooperation and problem solving on a national and international scale. When governments repeatedly fail to keep their word, they give everyone more reason not to take them seriously, which makes future problems of military, environmental or humanitarian nature more challenging to solve than they already are.
Finally, and most insidiously, public condemnations without action imbue a false sense of moral righteousness. While the cowardly nature of hollow denouncements is bad enough, such a spineless policy gives the same tranquilizing effect on movements for social justice as “liking” something on Facebook: it allows us to feel like we’ve done something without actually doing anything. The feeling of being good without having to sacrifice anything is understandably attractive, but is ultimately self-deceptive and often impedes effective solutions.
The White House decision on Syria won’t be a matter of life and death—not for us, anyways. It will have consequences though, and it might be indicative of what we can expect the next time our government publically affirms feel-good values like funding education. If they can keep their word on issues as morally black-and-white as whether or not to allow a sovereign state gas its own citizens, then it might be worth taking them at their word more generally. Otherwise, we’d be better off ignoring their Machiavellian rhetoric for what it is: platitudes and dribble.