Sunday, November 8, 2009

Where Is the Honor?

I happened to pass by a fraternity house at Valdosta State University on Friday and saw what appeared to be the beginning of a formal ball. The young ladies were all dressed in lovely gowns, looking like a classic collection of Southern Belles. The young men wore matching outfits – costume replicas of Confederate Army uniforms.

Why is there such a tendency here in the South to venerate the Confederacy and the Civil War? I understand the desire to honor heritage, and maintain tradition, and all that – but the Confederacy? It was, after all, a would-be nation that existed for barely more than four years, almost 150 years ago. Surely no one can claim that their ancestors were born and raised in the CSA, simply because four years is far too short a time to raise a child. There was little time to develop Confederate traditions, to create a Confederate heritage – so what exactly are these people honoring? Many people decry the immigrants who fly the flags of their home nations, screaming that they're in THIS country now, they should be honoring their new home instead of their old. Doesn't the same logic apply even more strongly to those flying the flag of a nation that existed so briefly, so long ago?

The brief existence of the CSA is entirely entwined with the Civil War. To honor the Confederacy's heritage is to honor their side of the war – for there are few other lasting accomplishments to be honored. Not to put too fine a point on it...the CSA was a treasonous organization devoted to ripping the United States into two nations, seriously damaging both. Had they succeeded, I would see a point in honoring the founders of the CSA just as we now honor Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the other founders of the U.S. But they didn't. What is it about the losing side of this war that makes it so deserving of honor, especially honor by citizens of the nation that won?

These days you can find innumerable celebrations of the heritage of the Confederacy strewn throughout the South – replicas of the battle flag fly everywhere, monuments and events such as that formal ball pay honor to the fallen Confederate soldiers, and so forth. As a soldier myself, I can certainly understand the desire to honor the fallen. But why honor only one side, and the losing one, at that? Some of the displays include their own apologetics – the bumper stickers that show the battle flag and the slogan “Heritage, Not Hate,” for example. They ignore the reality – there is no heritage of the Confederacy besides the hate. The only reason for the war was to maintain slavery. Many people these days like to claim it was about “States' Rights,” and the loss of power to the Federal Government – they ignore the fact that the only right those states really cared about was the right to enslave other humans. The public statements and documents of the time make it clear – the overwhelming cause of the secessions and the war was the question of slavery. That is the heritage these people are now celebrating. That is the cause they are honoring. That is the tradition they are maintaining. When I saw those students gathering for their event, they appeared to all be white. All things considered, that's not really a surprise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Convincing Majority

Science does not depend on majority vote. Truth will out, no matter how many people speak lies. So why do I take guidance from the consensus in regards to global warming?

Well, really, I don't. It's more a starting point. Here's how I really came to my conclusions.

Ideally, of course, I would research it myself and draw my own conclusions from the data. Sadly, I have neither the expertise, the training, or the time to do that. So I have to turn to those who do - the experts in the related fields.

That's where the consensus comes in. Just as I don't have time or expertise to research ot myself, I am equally unfit to judge the relative arguments. Under the basic principles of science and peer review, the conclusions shared by an overwhelming majority of scientists are generally the best available explanations for the data. Not necessarily "right" - but most likely to be closer to the truth than any other explanation out there.

For this issue, though, even the consensus seems fuzzy. I'm pretty sure that it is intentionally obscured by one side, so I'm already leaning towards the other - but let's abstract the process one step further, as a check. Let me look at who I know is lying.

I can hear my right-leaning friends and relatives now - "Al Gore! He's lying! He's just in it for the money!" Well, maybe so. The problem is, his investments make just as much sense, maybe even more, if he truly believes man-made global warming is fact. Did he put his mouth where his money is, or vice versa? I don't know, and neither do you.

There's some lies in the arguments that are easier to spot and confirm, though. First are the frequent petitions, conferences, and so forth that claim to show the growing opposition to the scientific consensus. Every one I've looked into, however, shares some common flaws -
they include people with no relevant expertise. One of them accepted participation from anyone with a science degree...even just a Bachelors of Computer Science. None of them appear to limit their participants to just those who have actually studied relevant subjects.
They often include people who never agreed to participate. This includes using deceptive questions to claim that support for one concept (Should we continue to research man-made global warming?) is also support for a more extreme idea (Is the consensus on global warming overblown?). In extreme cases, people have been added to the lists based on out-of-context statements in their published works - and have been kept on the lists even after they specifically requested to be removed. In one really extreme case, some of the people added to the list were dead!

In any event, even if we were to blindly accept their lists of "experts" who claim global warming is a myth...they are an insignificant percentage of people worldwide with the same qualifications. We can use their standards - include anyone with a B.S. degree - and their claim of 31,000 signers gets drowned in the millions of people worldwide with such degrees. Or we can limit our consideration to only those with relevant training and experience - in which case the vast majority of their side drops out, leaving only a few well-publicized scientists bucking the conclusions of their peers.

Other common tactics include the use of misleading statistics. Often a report will note two data points - say, a recent average temperature, and an equivalent reading from some years or decades past. Lo and behold, the two temperatures are virtually the same - the more recent might even be colder! Obviously, the Earth is not warming at all. On further, deeper investigation, though, one often finds some missing elements. It may turn out that the data points listed were from one location, while other locations showed significant warming over the same period. Or a closer look at the entire series of data will show that the latest reading is an outlier, much lower than the trend, and the carefully selected earlier reading was a higher-than-normal outlier - a trend line considering only those two points shows no change or even slight cooling, but a trend line showing all the intermediate readings shows clear evidence of warming. Or the report may claim that an effect limited to one area can be generalized to a whole continent. Or they may simply be reporting the variations caused by methodology errors as solid data to confirm their views.

So there's where my conclusion really comes from. Not the mere existence of a consensus that humans are causing our climate to change - that consensus seems pretty well confirmed to me, but as I said, science isn't majority-rule. No, the real convincer for me is how often, and how badly the opposition has to lie to try to create doubts in public opinion. If they really had facts on their side, they'd use them. Apparently, they don't.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I remember why I voted for Barack Obama. It was partly because I loved the idea of having a smart, well-educated person in the office of President, making decisions based on a rational appraisal of effectiveness rather than ideology, and with a thorough understanding of Constitutional limits. It was partly because I was truly frightened by that pathological liar and Christian Dominionist that McCain chose for a running mate. But it was mostly because I felt we needed a significant change from the failed policies of the previous Administration, and it seemed that "McSame" would not provide that.

Let's look at what he's actually done, though. Sure, the Republicans have attacked his every move, but that's purely reflex with no apparent cerebral involvement, so we should probably look a little closer. Shall we start with the economy?
  • Continued the TARP bailouts. I'm not saying that was the wrong thing to do - a collapse of our banking system would have been a bad thing, though I do feel that direct assistance to those facing foreclosure would have been more effective for both the homeowners and the banks, and possibly cheaper. But as that was a Bush-initiated program, there's certainly not much change there.
  • Massive stimulus package. New program, yes. Clearly, though, TARP was a stopgap to save the banks, and was never expected to totally solve the economic woes. No doubt McCain would have come up with a different focus, and different marketing tactics for his plan - but from what I've seen of the consensus from economists, pumping massive amounts of borrowed government cash into the economy was the only realistic answer to the short-term crisis. (It causes long-term harm, yes - but if the country is on the verge of economic collapse, long-term is not really the issue.)
  • Transparency of the process. This is something Obama promised for TARP and the stimulus. I really haven't heard much about it since he took office, though. Anyone know if he actually provided such a change? Do we really know where that money is going?
  • Nationalizing GM. Clearly not something the Republicans would have done, right? But I seem to recall a major public outcry about the lack of control we kept over AIG and the other financial institutions, who took the TARP money and used it to pay their executives, instead of actually, you know, benefiting the economy. When it came time to bail out the car companies, McCain would have been under heavy pressure to put some strings on that money, to maintain some control over how it was used. I believe that, again, it would have been spun a little differently. That would have been easy - the Republicans wouldn't have complained since it was their own plan, and decrying Socialism really isn't a normal Democratic position. But regardless of the change in spin, the effects would have been similar.
  • Health care. Not that Obama has yet accomplished anything there, but he's trying. Here's a spot that I think I see a little difference...but mostly in timing. Health care reform has been put off for a long time, and public opinion was clearly pushing for action. McCain might have been able to delay working on that, but I think the economic problems - especially massive layoffs with the attendant loss of insurance - would have forced him to do something about it sooner or later.
So, not much change there. Okay, what about the War on Terror?
  • Closing Gitmo. On his first day in office, if I recall. Yeah, McCain wouldn't have done that. But it turns out that's more of a pretty symbol than anything substantive. It's been six months of the promised year, and there's still 245 prisoners there. And now, it seems, Obama's own Justice Department is arguing that these prisoners can still be detained even if they are acquitted of any crimes.
  • Iraq. It seems we are finally, slowly, getting out. I believe, however, that the timetable was set before the election - admittedly, partly because of pressure from Obama and the rest of the Democrats. I suppose President McCain might have changed it, slowed it down, but I don't believe public opinion would have encouraged him in that. While I'm glad Obama is moving the right way here, I still can't count it as a change.
  • Afghanistan. Honestly, I haven't been following the news there like I probably should. I counted both Iraq and Afghanistan as long-term failures years ago - we may or may not be able to maintain peace there for as long as we stay, but it will fall apart when we leave. So I lost interest in the details. Anyone want to fill this one in for me?
Okay, how about civil liberties vs. executive privilege? This is where I was really hoping to see something significant.
  • State Secrets Privilege - Bush's Department of Justice asserted that if the Executive Branch declares material related to a court case classified, then the court must dismiss the case entirely. This in effect removes any check on executive authority from the Judicial Branch - the courts are not even allowed to hear evidence of government wrongdoing, let alone rule against it. Obama's DoJ has repeatedly asserted the same privilege. In press conferences, he speaks of more limited means to protect classified information in court case - but when his spokesmen are actually in court, he continues to claim an expansion of executive authority that would completely nullify the checks and balances against him.
  • Protection against false imprisonment - we've already discussed that one. Obama is willing to continue to hold a person found innocent of any crime, as long as he can claim a national security reason.
  • Fourth Amendment protections - Obama reversed himself on the question of immunity for telecom companies for warrantless wiretapping even before the election. At best, he has promised not to use the authority to wiretap without a warrant - but he doesn't seem to agree that the authority doesn't exist.
  • Torture - Bush, of course, enabled and approved it through the use of poorly reasoned legal justifications and renaming it "enhanced interrogation." Obama railed against it in the campaign, but since then he has threatened our closest ally, the United Kingdom, with the reduction of intelligence-sharing if they revealed memos detailing torture. He has retained and even promoted some of the Bush Administration officials that oversaw the torture and rendition programs. And he has called for investigation and prosecution of torture committed by other nations, while steadfastly refusing to take such actions here in our own. The net result is basically the same as his position on wiretaps - he's promising not to use the authority, but he is leaving the door open through a lack of legal action and precedent to change his mind, or for future Presidents to revisit it.
Very disappointing. How about other social issues?
  • Supreme Court nominee - the more rabid conservatives have attacked Judge Sotomayor on her empathy, her race, and her gender, but frankly they were threatening to filibuster even before Obama picked her. Again, their objections are reflexes with no connection to objective reality. In the real world, Sotomayor appears to be a very moderate selection, with a tendency to support authoritarian claims of power from police, prosecutors, and presumably the President in his attempts to retain the excessive authority Bush claimed for himself. At best, we can hope that the Sotomayor pick might be better than an right-wing extremist the McCain might have (or Palin certainly would have) chosen.
  • Gay marriage - Obama's DoJ has argued against overturning the clearly unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act. Many of the states have been moving forward on this, but apart from this one negative move, Obama hasn't done any more than McCain would have.
  • Gays in the military - Obama hasn't done anything towards removing Don't Ask, Don't Tell - exactly as we might have expected from McCain.
  • Medical Marijuana - Obama has made statements that his DoJ would stop harassing people who grow, distribute, or use marijuana in accordance with state law, even if that conflicts with Federal law. But the DoJ was still raiding medical marijuana dispensaries as late as March, and the Attorney General confirmed that the arrest and conviction of Charlie Lynch for operating such a dispensary is completely in accordance with the new Administration's policies.
  • Legal Representation - Obama's DoJ even encouraged the Supreme Court to overturn the long-standing principle that a suspect should not be questioned by police without his attorney present, once he's asked for one.
Conservatives have spent the last several months crying about how that change we asked for is going to destroy the country. Maybe they're right. Before I can believe them, though, I think I'd have to see some of that change...and so far, I haven't.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Big Lie

Imagine that you're the manager of the local Megalo-Mart. One day you begin to suspect that one of your employees is using customer credit card numbers. Of course, you can't arrest him yourself - but you do what you can. You save all the transaction histories, make sure your security cameras are watching him, and notify the police. Sure enough, you manage to confirm your suspicions. The police come in, take the evidence you provide, arrest the culprit, and thank you for your help. With a smile, you tape a termination notice to the criminal's chest as they take him out in cuffs.

The next day you open the paper to read the headline:


The story continues, noting the efforts of the police in catching a Megalo-Mart employee stealing credit card numbers. Your efforts are ignored - the only mention of your name is that you were "unavailable for comment." In fact, the story mentions that further investigations are ongoing. Worse, the day's editorial is a vitriolic piece decrying the greed of large department store chains, unsatisfied with their massive profits from high prices and low wages, putting local stores out of business, now apparently turning to crime.

Soon the crusade against you escalates. Every step of the thief's path through the justice system is highlighted - and at each step, his association with your store is emphasized, while your efforts in stopping him are ignored. Even an unrelated crime provides a way to tarnish your name - a home burglary a mile away is reported as being "suspiciously close to the notorious Megalo-Mart, home to the recently-caught fraud ring."

Then Phase Two begins. Apparently now satisfied that your store's name stands for crime, the paper uses it against others. Suppliers are noted as being "associates of Megalo-Mart, home of an earlier criminal enterprise;" other criminals portrayed as having shopped at your store. Even your charitable efforts are smeared - "Megalo-Mart computer found in use at local school! Inspections for password-stealing software are not yet complete..."

Sounds pretty horrible, right? Maybe even unimaginable? Well, that's pretty much what has happened to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - better known as ACORN. Many years ago, they began efforts to register voters in the communities they serve. A few of the people they hired for this task decided it would be easier to copy names out of the phone book or simply make them up than to actually go out and knock on doors or stand in public places. ACORN had procedures in place to detect such fraud. They separated out the suspected forged registration cards and noted who provided them. As the law required, they still turned those cards in to election officials, but they included all that evidence with the cards - and when the officials determined them to truly be fraudulent, ACORN assisted with the prosecution of those individuals responsible.

For their pains, the organization has been branded part of a conspiracy to commit voting fraud, and to steal the last election from McCain. This despite every investigation of ACORN and fraud has turned up no evidence of conspiracy. Also despite the fact that registration fraud - where the person registered is unaware of the fact, and may not even exist - is a far cry from actual voting fraud. Registration fraud has no effect on the elections - unless, of course, Mickey Mouse shows up at the polls.

And why has ACORN been so frequently attacked? Well, it seems that the poor and minority people they tried to register tend to vote Democrat - and unsurprisingly, their attackers have been Republican. But it has now gone much farther than that. Just as in my opening analogy, we are now well into Phase Two - where the original false accusations are now being used to fuel new false accusations.

First, Boehner and Vitter, aided by Fox News, implied that $5 billion from the stimulus package would go to ACORN - when in fact, ACORN was merely one of hundreds of community groups eligible to apply to work for that money.

More recently, Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) claimed that ACORN would be paid to handle Census data, not only receiving Federal funds, but gaining access to that "mother lode" of private information. It turns out that ACORN's only connection to the Census would be to publicize the availability of the temporary jobs; that ACORN would receive no money or data for this service; and that they were one of 30,000 organizations performing the same partnership role.

And now, a conservative group is attacking Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor because she worked for a legal defense fund that did some work for ACORN.

It seems to me that any time any politician or pundit brings up ACORN in any context, rather than jumping to their intended implication that they're showing me a conspiracy, I'm probably pretty safe in assuming that they're lying. In fact, I suspect that I'd be fairly safe in dismissing anything else that comes out of their mouths. Nice of them to provide me with such a shortcut.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Have We Been Drinking?

The use and abuse of alcohol causes incredible amounts of damage to individuals, families, and society itself. Everyone knows that, but few people really consider all the details. Let’s think about those.

Drinkers often suffer a loss of work productivity, either from drinking or from hangovers the next day. They may develop or exacerbate weight issues by consuming the empty calories in alcoholic drinks. Excessive drinking can cause medical problems through damaging the liver or other organs. The loss of judgment that comes from drinking can lead to any number of bad results from poor decisions – from bar fights to dangerous stunts to unwanted pregnancies.

Families, of course, suffer from all the problems of the individuals. In addition, they can be damaged by the drinker turning violent, spending too much money on drinking, and patterning poor behavior in front of impressionable children. Perhaps the most drastic damage comes from drunk drivers, who can devastate or destroy an entire family with one alcohol-induced accident.

Society has to deal with all those problems writ large. The medical issues increase medical and insurance costs – likewise the drunk driver accidents. Hangovers have a noticeable effect on our Gross National Product every Monday morning. Police have to deal with the aftermath of the bar fights, the stunts, the accidents. Even the raw materials for alcoholic beverages divert agricultural resources away from more nutritional products, thus raising food prices for us all.

And yet, very few people would suggest making this disastrously dangerous drug illegal. Why? Well, we tried it once. It didn’t work. It led to a massive increase in the size, wealth, and power of organized crime. It increased the levels of violence in the streets as those criminal mobs fought the police and each other. It led to horrible corruption in the police and government officials, who found it easier and more profitable to cooperate with criminals than to combat them. Most of all, it turned a large percentage of previously law-abiding citizens into criminals as they turned to illegal sources to get the alcohol they wanted. That had to lead to a lessened respect for the law in general – a small but significant step away from the rule of law, and into anarchy. All that…and we still had all the negative effects from alcohol consumption, since the law did little to actually stop people from drinking! In a few years, we discovered that the "cure" of Prohibition was worse than the disease it purported to treat - and we stopped.

It took fourteen years for our nation to realize that the Eighteenth Amendment was a mistake, and that prohibition of alcohol didn’t work. We’ve been fighting the “War of Drugs” for at least 40 years. How long will it take us to relearn the same lesson?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Politics and Anarchy

In the last several weeks, there have been a shocking number of what I can only call terrorist attacks here in the U.S. An anti-choice protester murdered a doctor in a church. A Muslim convert murdered two soldiers. A racist bigot murdered a guard in the Holocaust Museum. All in such a short time…I began to wonder if our nation was truly headed for disaster in the form of sectarian strife and war.

Then I heard about the election in Iran.

It’s truly an illuminating counter-example. The election may, indeed, have been stolen by Ahmadinejad – so I certainly understand the urge to protest, even riot about the results. But it shows how weak the respect for the rule of law is in Iran as compared to our own society. After all, when’s the last time you heard of such massive demonstrations and widespread violence here?

One might assume that the difference is the importance of the event – a Presidential election, after all, is fairly significant, so would seem to inspire greater anger when it goes awry. I don’t think that’s the real difference, though. We’ve, arguably, had our own Presidential elections stolen. I believe that there is ample evidence that Bush supporters used fraud and other illegal means to change the outcome of the vote in Ohio in 2000, shifting those electoral votes from Gore to Bush, and thus changing the overall results for the nation – and that’s not even considering the travesty of Florida’s election that same year, or the unquestioned fact that Gore won the popular vote. A great many others believe that our current President is constitutionally unqualified for the office under the “natural born citizen” restriction – though I personally feel you have to look at the evidence through a blindfold to believe that nonsense.

Disagree with me? Think that Bush won fair and square, and Obama is secretly a Kenyan atheist Muslim Indonesian socialist criminal? Fine, leave me a comment and we can discuss it – but it doesn’t matter for this. The real point is that significant numbers of our population have reason to believe that one or more Presidential elections were stolen…and their responses to that were overwhelmingly non-violent. They write letters, post on blogs, complain around the water cooler, file hopeless lawsuits, whatever. What they don’t do is go out and riot.

And that’s the right answer. Frankly, even if those elections were stolen, I think the damage to our society from such anarchism is worse even than having a criminal occupy our nation’s highest office. Al Gore showed a similar belief when he quietly accepted the Supreme Court’s decisions against him that gave Bush the Presidency, as did John McCain in failing to support or even acknowledge the birther controversy.

In Iran and many other countries, the result of political disagreement is rioting and destruction. That trickles down – I once heard a military intelligence officer bemoan the difficulty of tracking terrorist incidents in Kosovo, because it was too hard to separate someone throwing a grenade at their neighbor’s house because they were the wrong ethnicity or religion from those throwing a grenade because the neighbor’s dog barked too long at night. It is a credit to our nation that the violent political statements of lone lunatics are significant enough to be noticed.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Torturing the Facts

I don't normally consider myself to be a liberal. My views range all over the left/right spectrum, and sometimes simply don't fit on that nice, neat two-dimensional graph. But over the last few years, the conservatives and Republicans have become so consistently illogical and dishonest that I find myself almost forced into a liberal mindset in reaction.

Cal Thomas' most recent editorial on releasing evidence of detainee abuse is an excellent case in point. In the course of his article, he sets up a strawman caricature of the liberal view and, of course, completely destroys it - while totally avoiding addressing any of the real issues involved. And even with that seemingly overwhelming advantage in his argument, he still seems to need deceptive tactics to make his point. I'd like to point out a few of the more glaring fallacies and deceptions.

"In any game, much less a war, when one player plays by a set of rules and the other plays by no rules at all, it does not take a genius to conclude who will win."

Of course, that assumes that the players are relatively equal. Frankly, the terrorists with whom we are "at war" are enormously weaker than the U.S. Thomas' statement implies that the only way we can win is to descend to the same level as the terrorists - and I don't really believe that to be the case.

America-haters...want us to believe our behavior is directly linked to theirs and that if we don’t use techniques to extract information from suspected terrorists — information that might save American lives — then they won’t torture Americans who might have information they need to help them kill more of us."

Three lies for the price of one. First, it isn't the terrorists who are working the hardest to stop our use of torture. That would be counter-productive for them - as that use of torture is a huge boon to their PR and recruiting efforts. It is, instead, the liberals who want us to live up to our own principles. Second, their reason for trying to stop the torture is not to keep the terrorists from torturing our people - anyone with half a brain knows that won't happen, they're called "terrorists" for a reason. It is, instead, to turn that public relations bonanza around on them, restore us to our proper place as the morally superior side, and stop helping them recruit new fighters to kill our soldiers. And third, the idea that these techniques are necessary to extract information and save American lives is completely debunked. One of the interrogators has gone public, noting that traditional interrogation provided useful, actionable intelligence, while the "enhanced techniques" merely provided false answers, false leads, and wasted resources chasing them down.

Thomas quoted former CIA Director Peter Goss: "The suggestion that we are safer now because information about interrogation techniques is in the public domain conjures up images of unicorns and fairy dust."

No one is suggesting that releasing these memos and photos makes us safer. That's not the point. We should be using regular, legal interrogation techniques to make us safer - releasing these memos is to put a stop to the crimes committed by our own government.

He also quoted Mark Lowenthal, formerly with the CIA: "
We ask people to do extremely dangerous things, things they’ve been ordered to do by legal authorities, with the understanding that they will get top cover if something goes wrong. They don’t believe they have that cover anymore."

Frankly, they never should have believed they had "top cover." The Nuremberg Defense has been considered flawed for decades - and all U.S. military personnel (and, presumably, CIA personnel) know that they have an obligation to refuse illegal orders. And these techniques are clearly illegal - waterboarding, for instance, is a technique borrowed from the North Koreans, who used it to elicit false confessions from captured American prisoners. We have prosecuted enemy soldiers in the past, for using waterboarding on our troops. Should we now assume that it is legal simply because it has become convenient for us?

The facts are that these techniques are torture. They violate our own laws, they violate our international treaties, they make us appear as bad as our enemies, and in so doing, provide some level of justification for their further attacks on us. While Cal Thomas and other conservative columnists want us to believe that "the ends justify the means," it turns out that even if we accept that horrible ethical standard, it still isn't justified - because the means of torture produce huge amounts of false information...which keeps us from recognize any truth that might accidentally slip out.

Cal Thomas knows all this. Why is he defending the indefensible?