Category Archives: politics

a case against free speech (not)

In today’s LA Times, a sociologist and legal scholar makes the case for restricting hate speech, on the grounds that not doing so subjects the “disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences.”

But she makes no mention of the fact that freedom of speech laws have actually protected the disadvantaged throughout our nation’s history. In fact, the first to suffer when speech becomes restricted are the disadvantaged, because they, by definition, lack the power to defend their rights of expression.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans were actually sent to jail for protesting segregation. The basis for which they were jailed was that they were in violation of speech restrictions! Some were even arrested for offenses as banal as praying on the steps of the Albany City Hall. One of those individuals you may have heard of, his name was Martin Luther King.

A year or so later, King and other movement leaders were ordered by Birmingham Sheriff, Bull Connor, that they were not allowed to engage in “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” or even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” According to the ACLU, “It was King’s violation of this injunction that landed him in prison for the stint during which he wrote the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” (See the ACLU article in the comments for more examples of egregious violations of constitutionally protected speech during the Civil Rights Movement.)

The professor who wrote this opinion piece is presumably aware of this history, but she leaves it out of her argument here. We are left to suppose that she has faith that a system which regulates “hate” (an ambiguous word on a good day) would only ever do so in a way that upholds her own (biased/political) definitions of what that word means. The very fact that she is making this argument amidst a Donald Trump presidency is baffling to me. But I guess nothing can be that surprising on the Internet.

I conclude with a quote from the article from the ACLU, “If we don’t stand up for the First Amendment when racist speech is censored, it is the weak, the powerless, minorities, and those who seek change who will be hurt most in the end.”

clear and present danger

In a speech yesterday at the 2017 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary James Mattis called North Korea a “clear and present danger” to the world. In general, I don’t have any problem with that at face value. North Korea does pose a threat to global safety and security, and their reckless antics must not be ignored.

But I do find it peculiar that, of all the many ways to describe North Korea, Mattis invoked a legal term, “clear and present danger”, that was established by the Supreme Court as a test for determining when and where the government may impose restrictions on what would otherwise be Constitutionally protected speech. Basically, the Supreme Court set forth guidelines that for 1st Amendment rights to be overruled, there must be a “clear and present” danger that such speech will result in “imminent harm.” Think “yelling fire in a crowded theater.”

In general, the “clear and present danger” test helps to strengthen speech protections by making it more difficult for the government to prosecute speech it deems undesirable, and that’s a good thing.

But according to the ACLU, during the era of McCarthyism, the clear and present danger test was severely weakened when the Supreme Court fell prey to the “witchhunt mentality” and held that “speakers could be punished if they advocated overthrowing the government — even if the danger of such an occurrence were both slight and remote. As a result, many political activists were prosecuted and jailed simply for advocating communist revolution. Loyalty oath requirements for government employees were upheld; thousands of Americans lost their jobs on the basis of flimsy evidence supplied by secret witnesses.”

Thankfully, 1st Amendment protections were strengthened in 1969, when the Supreme Court “struck down the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member, and established a new standard: Speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, ‘imminent lawless action.’ Otherwise, even speech that advocates violence is protected. The Brandenberg standard prevails today.”

As it pertains to National Security, the ACLU explains how the government has “historically overused the concept of ‘national security’ to shield itself from criticism, and to discourage public discussion of controversial policies or decisions.”

As to whether the “clear and present danger” terminology has been used in this case to set the stage for legal battles to come is, at this point, anyone’s guess. However, it is not a leap to see how an administration so adverse to transparency, and so hostile to criticism, may want to exploit “national emergencies” to reassert its right to engage in censorship of speech it deems is dangerous or weakens its ability to defend the interests of this country from enemy actors, both foreign or domestic. Of course, what “weakens” an ability of a government to carry out its constitutional duties is open to interpretation, and its up to the citizens of this country to stay vigilant lest we fall victim to the dark shadows of censorship.

portland mayor calls for censorship

How does a community react to someone so disturbed and deranged as Jeremy Joseph Christian?

Someone so unpredictable?  Whose politics were so apparently confused and extreme, all at once?  A person who has been disowned and disavowed by just about every political faction in America, including white nationalists?

How do we even begin to understand what would influence a man to harness such an extreme mindset in the first place?  A man whose most recent Facebook cover photo is an aerial shot of the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre, where nearly 900 people killed themselves at the behest of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones?  A man who bragged about being a nihilist?  Who has been labeled so many things, even though just about none of the labels—other than horrible—really fits upon further examination?

For example, the left was quick to label Jeremy Joseph Christian a Trump supporter, but Christian himself claims he did not vote for Donald Trump (in fact, he labeled him “fast poison” as compared to Hillary) and there was a lack of any evidence, besides a Brietbart “like”, that he was associated with anything to do with the Trump Train or traditional alt-right media outlets.

And here are some other things that Jeremy Joseph Christian had considered or showed an interest in at one point:

–  Bernie Sanders

–  Jill Stein

–  Lopping off the heads of people who circumcised children

–  A plan for American balkanization

–  Anti-zionism

In other words, he was pretty much a smorgasbord of ideas across the spectrum (many of them extreme), so why should he be considered the product of any one camp?  Did the alt-right create him?  Did the Bernie Bros influence him?  Was it Jill Stein who is responsible?  Donald Trump?  The anti-circumcision lobby?  Was it even politics or ideology that influenced his prior criminal record?  What about the kidnapping?  How does that factor in?

And the same is true about him on the night he stabbed those three men.  While initial reports said his tirade was primarily anti-Muslim, Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson said he was “yelling various remarks that would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions” and he was “talking about a lot of different things, not just specifically anti-Muslim.”

The problem is, unlike ideologues or religious extremists, there is no single book one can point to in order to understand Christian’s worldview.  He wasn’t a Marxist.  Nor was he really, truly alt-right.  He didn’t receive his direction from any known network of religious extremists.  And Christian certainly wasn’t inspired to kill random strangers because of any American politician.  Bernie hasn’t called for such behavior, nor has Donald Trump.  There are no easy explanations.  One would have to read many books across the political spectrum, shuffle them around, and then attempt to stitch together something that looked like what may have been going on inside of Christian’s head.  And even then one would probably be wrong, with the exception of the fact that we know Christian wanted to practice his right to offend just about everyone, under the auspices of the 1st Amendment.  And that is so because Christian is an extreme person, not a coherent one.  He is a jumbled mess.  He is fringe.  Rare by definition.  And thank god for that.

Which is why I am confused why Portland Mayor Todd Wheeler is calling on the federal government to revoke the permits of two right wing political events that are unrelated to Jeremy Joseph Christian, with the exception of the fact that both appear to be standing up for free speech?  He says, “My concern is they’re coming here to peddle a message of hatred and bigotry.”  But “hatred and bigotry” are not illegal—even though many people think, or want to believe, they are—assuming the mayor is even accurate in his portrayal of the events.

And if divisive messaging is the mayor’s concern, then why stop with alt-right events?  Are they not but one of many political movements in America that have irresponsibly pitted groups against groups, often with little evidence but strong emotion?  What about Black Lives Matter?  Have not some BLM leaders been called out for their own form of bigoted and highly charged political speech?  If the Mayor would like examples, I’d be happy to provide them.

Perhaps the mayor will justify his call for censorship because he believes organized protests caused Christian to murder those men?  But Christian was not at an organized rally, he was on a train, so it would be hard to reference as the cause of a behavior something that was not even relevant during the commission of the crime.  Then maybe the mayor thinks it was not the events themselves, per se, but the general right to freedom of extreme speech that caused Christian’s behavior, because Christian was quite clearly engaging in all forms of offensive speech. But it’s a leap to draw a connection between a right to say something and actually committing murder.  Besides, isn’t it better to know what folks like Christian are thinking, than to be caught totally off guard?

And if the mayor were to blame a political right available to all Americans, he must first take into account the fact that the vast majority of people don’t behave like Christian.  So even if Christian’s political rights were a factor, they only seem to matter with rare individuals who display highly emotional and unstable characteristics (and even those individuals rarely act out in such a hideous manner).  The mayor should be used to this way of nuanced, statistical thinking given that he probably also believes Islamic terrorism is a low probability event that has nothing to do with Islam.  And he almost certainly would not have supported, if asked, the recent calls to no platform Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, whose critics said advocates for “boycotts against Jewish businesses in Israel and random acts of violence against the innocent,” because to him, Sarsour is more emblematic of left feminism than she is of anything to do with hate speech and biased words.  In other words, to him, I’m guessing, Linda is part of the home team.  So less scrutiny there, I’m sure.

Perhaps then, if it wasn’t protests or freedom of speech specifically, it was just the atmosphere of division that caused Christian to lash out in violence against three innocent lives, killing two of them. While that may be closer to the truth, at least on one level, there is still much to be known about cause and effect here.  Determining causation is not easy to do, at least in any serious sense.  Note, here I differentiate between the average person confusing causation with patterns (or the appearance of causation), and actual statistical causation (real causation that actually caused something).  Often times, determining causation is far more complicated than pattern matching.  The Mayor is ostensibly saying that free speech causes violence by seeking the censorship of some political protest in the wake of this event (he would not censor said events in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption or bad weather), so we must contend with the mayor’s own thesis that the events must be censored, because too much free speech in Portlandia causes people to murder.

And while we are having this “speech/belief causes behavior” discussion, what about Islamic political groups?  After all, have you not read the Quran lately?  There is good reason to believe many individuals have acted out in violence upon reading the words of that book, and although some may disagree that Quranic doctrine causes antisocial behavior (like terrorism), that’s hardly an argument for why the mayor should not cast a wider net in his campaign to tone down the political atmosphere in Portland, because if speech/belief doesn’t cause behavior there, it probably doesn’t cause behavior anywhere.  Hence, behavior is random or influenced only by macro level forces, and suppression of speech would do very little to accomplish anything at all.  So the mayor might just as well censor everyone, because it doesn’t matter anyway.

Furthermore, one could just as easily argue that Christian’s incoherent worldview did not cause his behavior so much as that his life history (including variables such as his genes + environment) culminated in an inevitable tragedy.  The point here is not to obfuscate the causes, but to highlight that there are probably more than one, and a reactionary response is likely to be unproductive and result in far more harm than good.

But it seems the mayor has already determined causation, and as it turns out—by sheer coincidence that nobody would have seen coming ever—the source happens to be the mayor’s political opposites.  It’s funny how in an indifferent and uncaring universe, all 7 billion of us just happened to luck into a storyline where it’s always our rivals who are wrong and evil.  In fact, the mayor, so distraught and unable to cope with the rights of others, has called upon what would normally be his political opponent, Donald Trump (or his surrogates in high places), and asked that he or they withdrawal the rights of those the mayor deems inappropriate for Portland.

Once again, the mayor is seeking to normalize a behavior via a man who would, quite happily, censor the hell out of all of the mayor’s favorite stars if he could, because the mayor of Portland is unable to, in this time of grieving for that community, demonstrate resolve (or a spine) and carry on defending the fundamental protections that have resulted in many of the civil rights the mayor, I’m almost certain, cares so deeply about!  (See free speech and the Civil Rights Movement, for starters.)

How slapdash and careless, negligent and haphazard.  Amidst this environment, during these times, the liberal Mayor of Portland would rather acquiesce to the Censor’s Pen than, I don’t know, actually lead the city out of this time of morning in a manner that would celebrate the very rights Jeremy Joseph Christian so ignorantly and eagerly misunderstood.  Instead, we have here the Mayor of Portland, the Censor’s Stooge, calling on Federal Authorities to, amidst a tragedy, freeze those most basic of American rights.  Of the many ways that the Mayor could react, he takes a knee and bows his head in the direction of authoritarian dreams, and minority/under privileged nightmares.

In terms of the question I started this post with, how should a community react in the face of something as tragic as Jeremy Joseph Christian—the Mayor of Portland is doing it all wrong.  While there are no easy answers, and I certainly don’t have them, one thing I can say is that whatever the answer, it’s almost certainly not restricting the rights of political protest we find abhorrent, because, as per the ACLU, if we do, “it won’t be long before the speech of people we support will be under attack.”  And that would be a shame, because so many movements the Mayor supports would be at risk in environments far less like Portlandia and far more like, oh, I don’t know, the Deep American South. But maybe the Mayor hasn’t thought that far ahead.  Myopia is the dagger that has killed many a good things.

donald Trump – what concerns me

When I was a young lad, my high school football coach would say that if we were to ever lose a game, it wouldn’t be because we were sucking wind on the field, it would be because the other team was simply better than us. What he meant was that the fundamentals of the game required that we at least be in shape. 

Getting the fundamentals right is the first step towards winning championships, while getting them wrong could mean that otherwise inferior teams will eat your lunch.

The same is true for basically everything else in life. There are fundamentals that must be met before one can at least have a decent shot of expecting desirable outcomes–no matter what one is doing or hoping to achieve.

Which brings me to our current president. Many people voted for him because they felt he was the best hope for our country. Some saw in him a Supreme Court seat. Others saw in him an answer to the prevailing, and at times heavy handed, liberal order of the past administration. And still many more saw in him an unlikely alliance to advance a value system often at odds with the way the candidate himself has lived his entire life.

And who am I to judge them for voting according to their own interests? That’s exactly what democracy is all about. And it is to this that I return to the point of my post.

You see, my problem with Donald Trump is not that I disagree with his politics. In fact, there have been times I have even agreed with some of the things he has said. And my problem with him is certainly not because I can’t see how so many saw in him a rejection of the establishment norms they had come to so revile (often for good reason). 

No. That’s not my problem with Donald Trump. And what a merry day it will be when I can return to just being concerned about matters of policy. My problem with Donald Trump is that he does not even come close to possessing the most basic fundamentals that are required for our country to avoid getting beaten by even the inferior teams. 

And my fundamentals list is a very short one, because I have to allow for the fact that many people have different preferences for the qualities they seek in a candidate. It’s not that he’s authoritarian, because there are many folks who see nothing wrong with a strong leader who can get things done. Not my cup of tea. But a democracy must allow for the occasional strong leader personality types. And it’s not any one of his many other personality tics, because, as I said, I must allow for the fact that many people have diverging points of view about what they want in a president.

Rather, the two most basic fundamental qualities I think our country needs in a leader, regardless of that leader’s politics, personality type, or competency level, are humility and inquisitiveness. With those two in place, even incompetence can be managed with qualified enough surrogates.

By humility, I don’t mean someone who is always second guessing, because sometimes it’s better to have a leader who is decisive, especially during national emergencies. And by inquisitiveness, I don’t necessarily mean brilliance, because great leadership is not always about being the smartest person in the room, so long as the room is full of smart people. 

What I mean by the two is that we need a leader who is humble enough to appreciate that they don’t know what they don’t know, and inquisitive enough to want to learn more about the highly complex world they will inherit as the President of the United States. Perhaps the least qualified candidate for office then, would be a candidate who was basically incompetent, hard headed, and completely uninterested in even the most basic facts about the world. And in Donald Trump we have exactly that candidate. By any objective standard he is incompetent (and there is bipartisan agreement on this), and no reasonable person would deny that he is totally infatuated with himself, and not really much else.

And this is really a dangerous situation for the most powerful country with the most powerful military the world has ever seen. I really can’t overstate the dire straits this puts us in. And for those who see this as nothing but partisan blindness that prevents me from seeing the real, qualified candidate he is, I might add that the existence of the whole Never Trump phenomenon is proof that concerns about this president are bi-partisan, and cannot so readily be dismissed.

unity

Things to remember during these crazy times:

1) We are all Americans first, assuming you are American, like me

2) We are all Westerners, assuming you are from the West, like me

3) It doesn’t take citizenship to share Western values, which are really universal values, and I consider anyone of my friends who live in non-Western countries but who share enlightenment values to be equally one with anyone else from the West

It’s ok to take pride in these things, even while we recognize that American history, and Western history more broadly, have also been responsible for some horrible acts.

It is ok to say, “We are one before we are two, and we are united above and beyond those times we find ourselves divided.”  Be united, not divided.  The alternative is to be divided, and let those who ARE united determine the course of world history moving forward.  In general, those governments do not share the same values as do we.  

And so it is up to we, as Americans, Westerners, and all people who share a passion for the idea that all humans are equal and that the rule of law is fundamental–to stand together as a united front against the encroaching tides of tyranny, the world over, and to say NO.  Not this time.  Not ever.

unnecessary proscriptions — on the persecution of homosexuals the world over

How unfortunate.  For anyone who is interested in what caning looks like, you’ll find plenty of examples on YouTube. I would, however, advise against it unless you are cursed with the same morbid (and unfortunate) curiosity about the darker sides of human nature, and its evolutionary/cultural causes, that I seem to posses.

In general, I would just recommend that most of you simply take my word for it, and trust that when I say watching an elderly woman writhe over in pain for an offense as harmless as selling alcohol, a high degree of emotional empathy is not something one feels so fortunate to possess (at least not at that moment).
 
Anyway, there are a lot of seemingly stupid things humans do as a matter of course, even though there might be rational explanations for why we do them. Mostly, behaviors such as caning help to regulate society toward some end goal, often for reasons that appear at first to have little to do with the behavior being regulated.
 
For example, certain foods may be considered forbidden (and usually a religious explanation is given), but the real cause for why such foods lost favor in a given society has more to do with the fact that rival tribes consume them. To maintain group cohesion and regulate against out-group marriage, forbidding the consumption of the culinary delights of one’s enemies makes it more difficult for one’s progeny to engage in the “breaking of bread” with the “oh Romeo, oh Romeo” just across the way.
 
This is so because the emotion of “disgust” against foreign, but otherwise edible, food types emerges during childhood as an evolved way of protecting against food poisoning. We feel disgust for food that is more likely to be dangerous to eat, and the more disgust we feel, the less likely we may end up consuming that which puts us on our death bed (or heaved over the toilet). So the regulation against out-group foods takes advantage of disgust to reduce the likelihood that Romeo and Juliet will ever enjoy caviar under the moonlight, because Juliet would rather puke her guts out than consume caviar.
 
Anyway, proscriptions against homosexuality in religious texts probably also have similar evolutionary/cultural explanations. Mostly, in cases where a society needed to procreate at high numbers–such as during periods of military conquest, where changing the local demographics of an area was far more practical and advantageous than trying to rule, from afar, the out-groups who lived in those places–having every able bodied man and every able bodied woman getting it on in the style most likely to generate babies was the fastest way towards accomplishing the socially desirable ends of demographic conquest through demographic expansion. This is just one explanation, mind you, but it’s one I find compelling.
 
It’s also the only one that seems to make the most sense for why the Christian God and his Islamic variant, “Allah”, would want to forbid that which comes natural to approximately 3-10% of the world’s population, namely: “lying with a man as with a woman [when one is a man (and vise versa when one is a woman)].”
 
Obviously, there might be some more sophisticated theological reasons for why God/Allah would want to implement such totally unnecessary strictures, and of course those would offer some version of the “mysterious god” acting in “mysterious ways” argument — but really, in the end, I struggle to find why a just god would be so sadistic as to invent a whole sexuality that would develop in billions of his creation (including humans and non-human animals), and then outlaw it in the human animal only.
 
But needless to say, those verses were inscribed within these texts in a way that, today, results in an untold number of unnecessary brutality, in some countries, and tragically torn families in others. And while I am not a religious person, I would hope that, as more information becomes known about the natural causes for the great diversity in human sexuality (fact), today’s “tribal leaders” might soon find such unnecessary interdictions to be worthy of explaining away. Because the line of reasoning behind them rears it’s ugly head far too often around the world on a daily basis, and many millions of otherwise innocent, harmless people have their lives torn apart for doing nothing more than being who they are (and harming nobody for it). How sad that is.

grapes give you cancer (and climate change is a serious problem)

97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.  And this consensus holds even in response to anonymous surveys, which is salient because it indicates that the scientists are not simply self-censoring their true views due to political pressure.  In other words, 97% of the people who actually know what they are talking about believe climate change is a real thing.

Substitute “climate scientists” with oncologists, and make climate change cancer, and how would you feel if 97% of oncologists believed that eating grapes increases your chances for some type of fiercely deadly cancer by 60%?  How often would you continue to eat grapes?  Would you say, “Well, we need more science into whether grapes really do give people cancer?” – and go on eating the same amount of grapes you ate before?  Or would you reduce the amount of grapes you ate, if not stop eating grapes altogether?  More than likely, you’d probably change your behavior (assuming you like living).

Now, within the community of climate scientists, there is a wide range of views as to just how severe we can expect climate change to be.  While some are skeptical that it will be as severe as the consensus predicts, the vast majority believe that the data says we should be concerned.  So, in other words, the vast majority of oncologists are screaming, “probably want to worry about them grapes!”, even though some (but only some!!!) of them are saying, “Although the cancer may not be as bad as our current models are predicting.”

Therefore, since we can’t reverse the effects of human caused global warming, and because there are no other viable planets for our species to relocate to if the high end projections for anthropogenic climate change turn out to be true, it makes sense that only our best and brightest climate minds should be responsible for government agencies charged with managing our policy responses to this human problem.  It also makes sense that we take a conservative approach to how we interpret the data, and assume that the more severe projections are worth worrying about.  Again, because we can’t reverse the effects.

So why is the Trump administration considering a radio talk show host and non-scientist “climate skeptic” (I put that in serious quotes since he likely doesn’t actually know much at all about the actual science part) in charge of a USDA post that oversees research into climate change?  A position, mind you, that is supposed to be headed by an actual scientist?  Perhaps because the Trump administration has demonstrated a profound disregard for expert knowledge, or knowledge in general?

There is a difference, of course, between being an expert skeptic, and being a radio talk show host who believes that climate change is “simply a mechanism for transferring wealth from one group of people to another.”  Keep in mind that, as stated above, 97% of the actual scientists agree that climate change is a real thing.  So the oncologists are saying, “grapes give you cancer”, and Trump is considering the appointment of a radio talk show host and “grapes give you cancer” skeptic in charge of the government division responsible for the research into whether many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands (or even billions) of people’s livelihoods may be at risk by grape eating.  Let me just say that this seems pretty stupid.