August 31, 2009

Pornographic Lime Candy Cartoons

No. Really. In England, no less. Someone complained about pornographic cartoons on lime-flavored candy so much he drove his wife she had to go sit in the car in complete humiliation while her husband berated what I take to be a convenience store manager. I have no idea what the guy running a convenience store in Britain is supposed to do about candy manufactured in Germany. Proof that there are utter and complete twits in countries other than the United States. Tell me old, chap, do you think the lime is bisexual?

From The RINO Files

Boycott WorldNetDaily. They are doing much more harm than good.

Damn skippy. High time someone said it. Those guys are nuts. Not only am I uninterested in the bizarre rantings of far-righties, I'm getting sick and tired of having to apologize for them or explain them away.

Republicans can't be the party of reflexive anger, the party of "no," without at least having something substantive to put on the table. I've said it before -- nuclear power plants, balanced budgets, strong dollars, means-testing Social Security, judicial reform that isn't hostile to the concept of an independent judiciary, immigration reform that still allows for immigration to take place, and an explicit disregard of adults having consensual sex is the platform to offer. Instead, we're getting people chanting "show me the birth certificate!" with their hands placed firmly over their eyes, and Glenn "Crybaby" Beck slipping beyond the fold of madness before our very eyes.

Maybe Bruce Bartlett has the right idea. Maybe us moderates should take a time out, let the far-right social cons run things the way they like for a while, and in 2013, move back in to pick up the pieces.

Heckler's Veto

If you subscribe to a religion that does not instruct you to disavow science and participation the real world, fine; you are not the target of this morning's rant. Take moral and social solace from your religion and go and harm no one with it. But if you believe in a religion that promotes ignorance and antiscience, then I'm aiming this post right at you. To decide if you should be offended at me or not, you need to take a careful look at what your religion actually teaches. I should warn you in advance that you may not like the result if you do.

Now then. Let's begin.

Can you spot the offensive religious reference in the T-shirt logo illustrated to the left? I, for one, cannot. But apparently one is there, because parents of students attending the Missouri high school in question complained and the school will no longer permit students to wear this T-shirt.

Here's the heckler's veto in raw form -- quoth a parent: "I was disappointed with the image on the shirt, ... I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school." Excuse me? You don't think science should be associated with a school? What would you say if I said I didn't want to see a high school associated with algebra? Algebra is, after all, the creation of foreign Muslims. As for "associating" evolution with the school, isn't evolution necessarily included in the the list of mandatory subjects for study in the science curriculum?

The principal's justification for giving in to the heckler's veto is "If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing."

Hear me now. The principal should censor the T-shirt illustrating Jesus on the cross, and should not censor the "evolution of the trumpet player" T-shirt. The reason is simple -- one is religious advocacy and the other is a reference to science. There is no equivalency between advocacy of science and advocacy of religion. They are different. The school is in the business of teaching science. The school is required to remain neutral about religion.

There is a pernicious notion that evolution is a religion. This is a deeply, deeply incorrect idea, propagated by people who should know better and bought into by people who should be intelligent enough to understand that they are being lied to, but who turn off their normally-acute critical thinking skills when a bizarre notion comes wrapped in the swaddling of their preferred religion. You will also notice that the only people who advance this idea are deeply religious themselves, and the vast bulk of them are Protestant Christians. Why do you suppose there aren't any Hindus pounding the tables about how evolution is a religion? The notion of evolution does not particularly offend Hindu theology.

Religion by definition involves the relationship of man to the supernatural; at minimum, it involves a search for the purpose of existence. There is nothing supernatural or religious about evolution. Religion, particularly the monotheistic religions descended from the patriarch Abraham, promote Manichean world views in which there is Truth and there are Lies, and nothing in between. They are about immutable, eternal truths which are found in their holy books. There are no immutable, eternal truths in science. Darwin's theory has undergone such substantial revision he would barely recognize it today -- which does not mean he was wrong, by the way. He was as right as the evidence available to him allowed him to be. He did not know about DNA and genetic sequencing; the modern synthetic theory does a much better job than Darwin's writings of explaining the phenomenon of evolution. Evolution specifically, and science generally, offer no answers to the questions about the reason we exist or the reason the universe exists. They offer no guidance on issues of morality -- just like your refrigerator does not offer such guidance and you'd be an idiot to ask your refrigerator for forgiveness of your sins. That's not what it's for.

The result of this politically-motivated bit of outright deception is the idea that there is any sort of equivalency between science and religion. To understand why, imagine if the T-shirt had illustrated an apple with a trumpet on it falling onto Isaac Newton's head, with the caption "The band has tremendous gravity" or something like that. Anyone who complained about that on religious grounds would immediately and universally be thought of as an ignorant buffoon. They would be mercilessly mocked, and eventually counseled to obtain rudimentary science education. They would complain that their religion was being ridiculed -- but if the religion inspired disbelief in gravity rather than evolution, almost no one would suggest that it was rude or impolite or even inappropriate to ridicule such a religion.

Yes, there is equivalence between the theory of evolution and the theory of gravity. They're both only theories. Both help us understand indisputably real phenomena. They've both been superseded by advances in scientific experiment and thought. But they are both science and they are both important for a person to learn and understand if they are going to navigate the world in a meaningful, intelligent way. And if someone who insists on worshiping a Bronze Age sky god claims that advocacy of either theory is incompatible with religion, well, it's religion that should lose that fight.

For the record, my perspective is as follows: science = good (saves lives, makes people smarter); religion = superstition (sometimes harmless, but sometimes inspires violence and keeps people ignorant). Also for the record, the parents who complained should not be subject to any kind of governmental sanction; the parents have freedom of speech to complain or be offended about whatever they like.

But the principal made a bad call by prohibiting the T-shirts. In doing so, he ceded to the idea of a heckler's veto, which itself is pernicious to the idea of free speech. In doing so, he advanced the idea that evolution is religion, which it is not. In doing so, he not only failed to remain neutral about religion, he has effectively advocated for religions that promote antiscience because he gave in to people who subscribe to a particular religion and thereby effectively delegated control of this issue to them. He has cast his school in particular and schools in Missouri generally into disrepute by choosing ignorance over science. And he cost his school and the band money by doing it.

Evolution is not religion. Get it right.

August 30, 2009

Station Fire

An update, mainly for out-of-area folks vaguely worried about the news of fires in Southern California.

My immediate area is not threatened by the Station Fire. However, yesterday and today everyone here in northern Los Angeles County has been treated to the spectacle of an immense smoke plume. To left is what it looks like from orbit. Those familiar with the geography of Southern California will recognize the distinctive curve of Santa Monica Bay and the Palos Verdes peninsula, and should be able to identify the primary smoke sources as coming from the southern crest of the Angeles National Forest.

Yesterday, it was smoky and gloomy all day long. Today, the winds shifted and we had sunlight over our house, but not over the parts of town where we went to do our grocery shopping.

There are no evacuations in my immediate area, but there are some evacuations going on about fifteen minutes away in the nearby community of Acton.

The point is, don't worry about me. Worry about my friends. I have friends in Acton, I have friends in La CaƱada. They're the ones who are most at risk right now.

The fire cannot really be contained well in the mountains. I know those mountains fairly well having hiked over many of them over the past several years. They are too rugged and steep for most firefighting equipment other than guys with axes and firecans -- and the conditions are such that setting up fire lines would be very dangerous all by itself, what with very hot weather and a prolonged drought to deal with. There hasn't been any appreciable rain in those mountains since February -- which is not all that unusual, but it does make for ideal conditions for a fire.

What I think can be done is to set up a firebreak in the easier territory at the base of the mountains -- but all the territory inside is going to be burned. That's forest and mountain land that I've come to like and appreciate quite a bit, and all of it is going to be gone. It will take a generation for the forest that I love to come back.

Eggs Benedict

For some reason, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce have both challenged my technical skills in the kitchen. Which has put home preparation of one of my favorite breakfasts out of my reach. Until this morning, that is. This morning, I woke up and said, "Eggs Benedict, you are my bitch today."

My egg poaching was aided by two silicone pods. Spray the silicone pods with some non-stick spray, pour a single egg in each, and drop the whole thing into a pot of boiling water. Cover the pot. The pods will float all by themselves.

My first poach was marred by some water leaking into the pod because I wimped out and tried to put the pod in with a long-handled slotted spoon, and awkwardly let about two ounces of water into the egg. After that, I knew I had to cowboy up, deal with the heat and the steam, and put the pods in the boiling water by hand. That kept the eggs dry, with the only water in the resulting pods being steam condensate, which I drained out before serving the eggs.

The slotted spoon is essential to removing the pods. Again, my first attempt at using these things was the learning curve -- the cooked egg needed to be separated with a spoon from the silicone despite the non-stick spray; just turning the pod inside out ripped the cooked albumen and let the still-liquid portion of the yolk run out everywhere. I'd have eaten this myself but The Wife was impatient and she disregarded the texture problem, pronouncing the egg "delicious."

She also did not want to put my hollandaise sauce on her Benedicts. Which, if you ask me, sort of defeats the purpose of Eggs Benedict. And I'd finished my learning curve on this batch of hollandaise sauce, so this turned out to be pretty good.

A couple of notes on hollandaise sauce. First, you can't keep it. Its primary ingredients are butter (that is, dairy fat) and egg yolks. A better breeding ground for bacteria is difficult to even imagine. Trying to store it or even keep it in an open container for any significant length of time is pretty much asking for it.

Second, not only can't you keep it to store for later, you can't even make it and set it to one side for use after you're done with other stuff. With a brown sauce, white sauce, tomato sauce, or a wine sauce, that's generally a pretty easy thing to do; you make the sauce and either keep it simmering or set it aside to reheat when the rest of the food is ready to be sauced. Hollandaise is different. Its ingredients want to separate rather than stay suspended together.

This means that when you make it, it should be close to the last thing you do. Hollandaise sauce is "just-in-time" sauce -- pour it directly from the double boiler onto the plate and serve immediately.

Now, here is my lesson in hollandaise sauce making. You need to whip up the egg yolks first, then add the water, and then sherry, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper mix, just a bit at a time, then take it off the heat and add the melted butter just a bit at a time, stirring constantly. No problem for the amateur cook of middling skill, right? Well, here's the deal. Whip the egg yolks in a cold double boiler, then put it on the heat and keep stirring them, vigorously, as you add the water one tablespoon at a time, and that water needs to be boiling when you add it.

I let the double boiler heat, because I was nervous about getting everything ready in advance. So the egg yolks cooked and solidified somewhat in themselves before any liquid got added, resulting in a granular texture to the sauce. Good hollandaise sauce should be smooth, creamy, and uniform.

The good news for today's breakfast was that despite the textural imperfection of the sauce it tasted great. (Well, it's made from egg yolks and butter, how could it not taste great?) The better-looking product is as illustrated above.

It's the just-in-time requirement for the hollandaise sauce and the just-in-time requirement for serving the eggs that makes Eggs Benedict a challenge. You need to time the egg poaching with the creation of the sauce so that both are ready within seconds of one another, and both right before service. If you're reading all this carefully, you will initially that you need five hands working at once to do the job properly. That's why, if you're beginning this challenge as I was before graduating this morning, you will probably need several attempts before you get the timing right.

This, by the way, is why the Egg McMuffin sandwich at McDonald's is the way it is. An Egg McMuffin is a poor man's Eggs Benedict. McDonald's can't do this kind of precision cooking in a fast food setting -- my work this morning took about an hour of setup and cooking before delivery of breakfast, although with experience that time will decrease. At McDonald's they fry the egg in a special ring made for the job, poking a hole to let the yolk run out during the cooking process, and they slap a piece of cheese on the final product instead of using hollandaise sauce. The grease you sometimes see on the egg is left over from heating the ham on the same grill; a well-prepared Egg McMuffin will not have grease on its egg.

The real Eggs Benedict that I prepared this morning have about a gazillion calories, so I wouldn't suggest this as an everyday breakfast. You also might want to consider serving some fruit -- melons or berries -- alongside the main dish, to cut the richness. But mmm-boy is this stuff good.

Hollandaise sauce

3 egg yolks
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
3 tablespoons boiling water
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 tsp sea salt
dash of cayenne pepper
chives to taste

Prepare two pots of boiling water, one for use with a double boiler and the other as a reservoir for cooking (see narration above). Mix sherry, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and chives (if desired). Slowly melt butter. In cold double boiler pan (see narration above) whisk egg yolks until they begin to firm up. Place double boiler over heat, and continue stirring vigorously as you add one tablespoon of boiling water. When mixture begins to firm, repeat with second tablespoon of boiling water, then repeat for third. Then, while continuing to stir, add sherry-lemon juice blend. Remove double boiler from heat. While stirring sauce continuously, slowly pour in melted butter. Resulting sauce should be smooth and golden in color. Serve immediately.

Eggs Benedict

English muffin
Smaller slices of Canadian bacon, ham, or American bacon
2 eggs
Hollandaise sauce (see above)

Prepare meat in the typical fashion. Toast English muffin in halves, place meat on bottom. Poach eggs in boiling water (see narrative above for technique notes) for six minutes, then place atop meat. Drizzle hollandaise sauce atop and serve immediately.

August 29, 2009

Didn't I Just Write About This The Other Day?

Don't lie to advance your own cause. It only sets your cause back. And sometimes, it also makes you look like a complete fool on the Daily Show when you get caught in the act. Watch the interview here.

The Pleasant Face Of The Anti-SSM Movement

The guy is right about one thing -- telling people that gay people caused Hurricane Katrina isn't going to convince anyone to change their mind and oppose same-sex marriage. A frothing, crazed religious screed isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already buy into the frothing, crazed screed to begin with. To reach out to the middle, you have to appear moderate and reasonable.

According to the Washington Post, the political movement to oppose same-sex marriage has found a spokesman capable of doing that. He is Brian Brown, the director of the National Organization for Marriage. In a lengthy and flattering profile, the WaPo seems to spend most of its time talking about what a really nice guy he is. As if that were a surprise. A good politician is always a nice guy (or a nice gal).

The issue, though, is whether his argument -- made slowly, without shouting or calling other people names -- is convincing. Here it is in a nutshell:
The institution of marriage has always been between a man and a woman. Yes, there have been homosexual relationships. But no society that he knows of, in the history of the world, has ever condoned same-sex marriage. "Do they always agree on the number of partners? Do they always agree on the form of monogamy? No," Brown says, but they've all agreed on the gender issue. It's what's best for families, he says. It's the union that can biologically produce children, he says. It's all about the way things have always been done.
In other words, the "argument from inherent caution against social change." That is, in my opinion, the most reasonable position for an opponent of SSM to take. But here's the flaw in that argument.

Okay, so it's not wise to go tinkering around with social institutions; we don't know what negative repercussions might result from doing so. Good. But some segments of society have not been so cautious; we now have SSM in five states and maybe six in a few months. Canada, a society very similar to our own, has had SSM for five years. A handful of Western European countries have had SSM for several years. What do the "let's just be cautious" folks say to the fact that the institution of SSM has had no measurable effect on anything in any of those societies? Do they say, "Not enough data yet?" Okay -- when will we have enough?

Just because things have always been done a certain way doesn't mean that it is the right way to do them. It means it's the way it's always been done. Fields were always plowed by hand, until someone thought of using animals to do the labor. Then they were plowed with animals and humans, until someone invented mechanical tractors. People only ate fish after it was cooked, until they tried it raw and liked it. Lawyers hand-wrote all their pleadings, until they didn't. Books all came on roll-up scrolls, until they weren't. Japan didn't allow non-Japanese onto the Home Islands, until it did. Things change. The question is when, how, and why should they change. Opposing change for the sake of opposing change may begin as caution, but it ends as reactionism.

Like A Horror Movie, It's Scary But Predictable And It Contains A Moral

The Concord Group is not a collection of paranoid alarmists nor are they insane. They are concerned with the government's fiscal irresponsibility, and have been so since the Reagan Administration. Unlike a lot of other interest groups, they are truly bipartisan. So when they start projecting that the annual deficit will be twice the already-astronomical amounts that Congress has projected, it's cause for alarm. Concord's assumptions are substantially more reasonable than the CBO's -- read the fine print in their report as linked above.

The point is that if we adopt the versions of healthcare reform currently favored by the Administration, after ten years we will have tripled our national debt. You can see the ticker on the right-hand column of this blog to observe the alarming rate that the national debt is growing already.

But none of this is any surprise to me, despite my alarm. This is the part where I get to toot my own horn, although I'm hardly the only blogger in America who has been predicting these kinds of problems. Still, long-time Readers may recall that in December of 2007 I wrote of Candidate Barack Obama:

[Obama's] Imaginative government policies, particularly in the areas of education and health care, would be very expensive. Does suggests that taxes should be "as low as we can afford them to be" consistent with government spending, suggesting that he would ask for tax increases to pay for his ambitious programs -- but it does not seem that he has thought through just how much more spending he has suggested, and how to pay for it all. Does not seem to consider a balanced budget to be a high priority.
* * *
Would mandate employer health care coverage and has proposed a "national insurance pool" as alternative for those without employer coverage. Believes it is "immoral" to consider cost of health care when patient's life is at stake. Stops short of advocacy of "universal health care," but significantly expanded governmental coverage is obviously an indispensible part of his proposed reform package.

And one year ago, immediately after he accepted his party's nomination, I wrote of our then-future President's speech and found his proposals regarding first health care to be:

Very short on specifics. That's not to say that a more detailed [health care reform] plan hasn't been offered previously (although I haven't seen it myself). Health care reform policies are inherently complex and difficult to explain. As close as I can infer from the language used here, that means that insurance companies will have to offer coverage similar to the plan offered to membes of Congress. He implies that this will be "available" to people who cannot otherwise afford that kind of coverage, but a Cadillac plan is expensive and without going to a single-payer system (which means no Cadillacs for anyone) it's hard to see how such a thing is possible. But again, the plausibility of the promise is not what we're really looking for here -- the issue is that the policy itself is described in only vague terms.

Then I looked at what he had to say about the alarming state of our national finances, first quoting the candidate and then offering my own thoughts:

"I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less... ."
This, of course, has been my big concern about Obama for a long time. He does not really specify, to my satisfaction, how he'll "pay for every time" of this ambitious expansion of the government's role in this laundry list of mostly nebulous policy goals. ... he suggests some general tactics ("closing corporate loopholes and tax havens") but does not even attempt to identify "programs that no longer work" or indicate how programs "we do need" can be made to "work better and cost less."
I'm going to have to call this one a broken promise. Not only has the President not come up with any plan whatsoever to "pay for" his expansive policy goals, not a single Federal program got the axe or even scissors in the President's budget, he has not promposed a single corporate tax loophole or tax haven, and it appears that he thinks every Federal program is needed and works so well they all deserve more money.

But he's certainly delivered on his promise for health care reform. Or rather, on his promise to try and deliver the sun, moon, stars, and the sky above without really defining what those things are, and to offer no plan for paying for it other than some sort of nonexistent national credit card.

Finally, on October 21, 2008, I endorsed Bob Barr for President, writing of the man who by then we all knew would actually be elected in his place:
Barack Obama inspires a lot of hope and will certainly try to push for changes in the way the government does business, in a way that John McCain will not. But we just plain can't afford the agenda that, even now, he still is relentlessly pushing on the campaign trail. We are ten trillion dollars in the hole, people, and that trend needs to reverse itself. Expanding healthcare, overfunding the Department of Education, and cutting taxes is not going to do that. ... As cool as Obama seems, and as much as you might want change, Obama promises Change We Can't Afford.
Sure enough, we got exactly what we asked for when we elected him. Generalized policy proposals phrased in lofty and inspiring rhetoric with the details left to others to work out, an ambitious attempt to vastly increase Federal outlays in order to dramatically expand health care, and no concrete plan whatsoever to cut taxes, raise taxes, or otherwise pay for any of it other than simply borrowing the money.

Like I say, I'm far from the only person to have suggested that Barack Obama's platform was going to be ruinously expensive and to mean the word "ruinously" in a literal sense. This situation been brewing right in front of us for nearly two years, if you only had the ears to listen for it coming. The question is not "how did this happen" or "is this creeping socialism" but rather "how are we going to get our national spending under control"?

Our national priority needs to not be health care reform unless that reform involves imposing cost controls and moving towards a more market-based system for delivering health care to the people who need it. But what we really need is a comprehensive austerity program.

Hat tip to Doug Mataconis for the Concord Coalition projection.

August 28, 2009

A Message From The Land That Irony Forgot

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, conservative firebrand from a liberal state, attends a town hall and finds a constituency sharply divided on the issue of health care reform -- some adamantly in favor of it and some adamantly against it. The top line coming out of this astonishingly irony-free zone has to be from this oddly well-dressed gentleman:

Yep, that dude really did say "I'll be danged if I give up my Social Security because of socialism" with no cognitive dissonance whatsoever.

You can pick your favorite reaction -- Commander Riker's face-palm of exasperated disbelief, or Captain Picard's scornful stare of disdain:

Really, either response is appropriate.

RELATED: This from the Washington Post:
In other pockets of the state [South Carolina], the reaction to Democratic proposals has been strong, too. At a recent town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, a man stood up and told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Sad To See

LeVar Burton may be most famous for playing Geordi LaForge on Star Trek, he may have made his mark playing Kunta Kinte in Roots, but he did his best work inspiring children to read books on Reading Rainbow, which after twenty-six seasons is finally coming to an end.

A Test Of Resilience

Many of you Readers will have already come across the sensational story of a woman escaping from an eighteen-year captivity in an East Bay Area exurb. She was kidnapped by a stranger near her home in South Lake Tahoe in 1991 when she was only eleven years old, and held by a married couple. Her male captor appears to have raped her at least twice shortly after she reached puberty, fathering two children by her. The kidnap victim, and maybe her two daughters, were forced to live in tents in the back yard, as over the years the captors seem to have descended into a cycle of madness reinforced by warped religious views. The dude finally got arrested taking these victims with him to circulate religious literature on campus at UC Berkeley, and now the story breaks.

I've got a few thoughts in reaction to reading about this.

First, I say the criminal here has "warped" religious views despite knowing that that determining the exact point of warping as opposed to theological disputes is somewhat subjective. I might think that someone who sincerely believes the Holy Spirit protects him from the venom in a rattlesnake's bite has gone over-the-line crazy while you might defend that person as as factually erroneous in that particular belief but otherwise functional in society and therefore not insane.

But we can all agree that when you think God speaks to you out of a cardboard box and tells you to kidnap and rape an eleven-year-old girl, and you also believe you've been gifted with the ability to control sound using only your own mind, it's been quite some time since you crossed the line from "unusual religious beliefs" to "schizophrenia." The male captor, at least, has a rap sheet for violent sexual crimes going back a quarter century.

So while in other entries of this blog I'm critical of religion, this incident isn't something for which religion, at least in the form I usually address it, is a significant factor. The issue here is the crazy, not the religion.

Second, the kidnapping of children by strangers who are sexual predators is actually extraordinarily rare, but it does happen, but when it happens, unfortunately, the usual and horrific result is that the child victim is raped and then killed shortly afterwards. (Regarding the frequency of stranger kidnappings, see also this contrary study, suggesting that 24% of all juvenile kidnappings are by strangers.)

What makes this situation extraordinary is that the kidnapper did not murder the kidnap victim but instead kept her. Perhaps that was an outgrowth of his particular kind of mental derangement. I think it would make more sense for us as a society to respond to the story rationally, by recognizing that it is an exceptional circumstance. I suspect, though, that it will be digested into our culture as an example of what usually happens in a kidnapping situation.

Third, at least here in California we have a culture in which it's not unusual to not know your neighbors very well, rarely if ever visit their houses, and generally leave them alone. I'm a big one to espouse the virtues of people minding their own business, and I think that giving other people a reasonable sphere of personal privacy is one of the obligations of decent behavior. Now, the Wife and I are friends with our next-door neighbors and we're very fortunate that they're perfectly normal folks. But the fact of the matter is that being friends with one's neighbors is something of the exception rather than the rule in California.

But what if our neighbors were not perfectly normal folks but instead were kind of weird, hyper-religious, seemed to prefer to keep to themselves, and had tents and outhouses up in their back yard all the time? At what point do we stop respecting their desire for privacy, and start to be justifiably suspicious that something criminal is going on over there? And once we form that suspicion, what do we do about it? No easy answers here.

Fourth and finally, how will the now-freed victims adapt to their new circumstances? The 29-year-old woman who was abducted was eleven when she was taken. That would mean she was in, I think, sixth grade. She's had no education at all since then but probably a lot of bizarre religious ranting. She is 29 years old and has spent 18 of those 29 years as a captive and probably as a sex slave of a couple of lunatics.

Her two daughters have had no education of any kind, and are now 11 and 15 years old. Whether the pubescent girl got treated like her mother is a disquieting question but one that there seems to be no choice but to confront when contemplating the situation. Either way, though, living in that bizarre environment is the only thing they have ever known.

How does a human being adapt to that sort of circumstance? How will these women re-integrate into normal society? What kinds of bizarre notions about the world will they have acquired? Will they be able to learn the kinds of skills that they will need to get jobs and support themselves? Will they be able to fall in love, and have families of their own? They were no doubt subjected to huge amounts of bizarre religion -- will they become religious themselves, now that they will have the freedom to choose for themselves how to live their own lives?

Gratefully, most of the public will never learn the answers to these questions. They will be a long time coming, and the media spotlight will move off of them very soon. Which is good -- these women should be allowed privacy and personal space in which to do what they have to do to heal and integrate into society. I would hope, though, that mental health professionals stay on top of the situation and there is at least some professional literature that comes out of the singular and exceptional case study that this situation represents.

There are elements of hope for a good outcome here; the abductee's mother appears anxious to reunite with her daughter after so many years; her stepfather also seems supportive and willing to help. (The trauma of having their daughter taken from them seems to have led to the breakup of that marriage, an illustration of how crime affects not just the victim but like a crack in a windshield spreads harm and pain to many members of society.) But I think that whatever happens to them will have to look a lot like the way people are deprogrammed from cult membership, and that seems to be a decidedly unpleasant process.

The proverb is that people are amazingly resilient and adaptable. But the reality is that they are not infinitely so. These three young women are going to be a test of exactly how resilient and adaptable people can really be.

Our Last Best Hope

Finally, someone thinks up a workable, dramatic, and quick solution to our national debt problems. Also note the same network brings us best short-form debate yet about using torture to interrogate terror suspects. Finally, intelligent, balanced discussion about the issues important to me!

August 27, 2009

Another Thing About The "Christian Nation" Theory

"America was founded as a Christian nation," the theory goes. If that's true, then was America founded as a Caucasian nation, too?

Better Rule in Washington

Last year, I wrote about the nativity scene in the state capitol building in Washington state. My opinion then, which remains the same now, is that Christian groups can put up and display as many nativity scenes, and as lavish as they like, on the lawns of their churches. But the state allowing such a display on the grounds of the state capitol looks a lot like an endorsement of that religious display, and therefore should be prohibited.

Some people said that atheists have no rights, others said that it's okay to display "Judeao-Christian" symbols because we are a "Judeao-Christian" nation. Neither of which is even remotely correct. But a more serious argument was made by others who said that the display is the Christian group's exercise of its free speech rights, and if the capitol building isn't a public forum where anyone can say anything, then there must be no such thing as a public forum anymore. That last argument is, I concede, an argument worthy of sober consideration. But as I see it, the superiority of the endorsement notion was borne out by what actually happened. An atheist group exercised its freedom of speech and put up a sign decrying religion as myth and superstition, in the same general area as the nativity scene. That sign was stolen and vandalized repeatedly. Note that no one vandalized or destroyed the nativity.

Is this a case of "free speech for me but not for thee"? No, I think what was going on was that the vandals thought that the atheist sign somehow represented a contradiction of the message of the nativity scene. And they were frustrated that the state would allow that contradiction to stand. They couldn't abide, so they took matters into their own hands. In other words, they saw the presence of the atheist sign as an endorsement of atheism by the state, and they registered their dissent of that point of view by way of vandalism. (No doubt the vandals considered themselves to have been acting in the service of a higher moral good while they stole and damaged another person's property and prevented them from exercising their Constitutional rights.)

If the sign hadn't represented something the vandals thought was an endorsement of atheism, it's likely they wouldn't have vandalized it. Other displays of atheist sentiments are not similarly vandalized elsewhere, although they do sometimes meet with other forms of unreasonable resistance by those who take offense at the mere existence of atheists.

Well, here's the follow up. Washington is not going to allow any holiday displays other than a "holiday tree" in the capitol building this year. The "holiday tree" is going to be paid for directly by the state and will be non-sectarian in its official display. I think most people associate decorated trees on display with Christmas instead of the generic holiday season, but that's not a place I would prioritize a hard push to enforce church-state separation.

Also note that displays will still be allowed on the exterior grounds of the building. This will presumably include nativities.

Myself, I still see an endorsement as long as the nativity scene is on public grounds. Nativity scenes promote Christianity. That's why Christians feel so strongly about them. The state should not be in the business of promoting Christianity. If it gets in that business, that's an Establishment. But there is the free speech argument as well, and I don't want to be on the wrong side of denying anyone their free speech rights. So maybe this is the right policy after all.

I'd like it better if the state came up with a policy that required a display to incorporate in some readily-visible fashion a statement identifying the actual sponsor of the display. A small display sign next to the sculptures in the nativity that says "This display is sponsored by the Landover Baptist Church" or something like that -- that would help demonstrate that the state is not endorsing the display but rather permitting use of a public forum. Personally, I don't think it's enough, but at least the remove from the building helps to create some symbolic distance between the government and the religious display.

I am also cognizant that as I insist that the state not promote Christianity, so too must it not repress it. The government's stance is supposed to be neutral. Washington State should simply stay out of a discussion about religion and let religious advocates have religious discussions on their own.

In making that concession, I must remind people that the failure to advocate Christianity is not the same thing as criticizing Christianity.

Exploiting Death For Political Gain

Yes, it's crass, but given that Ted Kennedy (or any other particular recent decedent at any given time) was a politician who spent his entire life trading on his name politically and the bulk of his energy and effort fighting for particular political causes, I doubt that he would have been particularly bothered by the notion of politicians -- of either party -- making political hay of his death. I assume he was a smart guy and he obviously knew his way through the political maze, so it's difficult to image he anticipated anything other than that people would use the opportunity of his death to score points for their side. Frankly, I think that if he could see or hear people arguing about him now, he'd be smiling about it -- everyone is talking about him, everyone is talking about his policies, and that lets him continue to score points from beyond the grave.

As for those of us who survive him, let's at least try to stay classy. That goes for people on both sides of the political spectrum.

August 26, 2009

Astonishing Prediction From This Dodger Fan

I've been frustrated with the Dodgers' slumping trend for a long time. My annual heartbreak seems to have arrived early, starting with a powerful slump that began a month ago. Thanks to lackluster batting in the clutch, the trends put Los Angeles at serious risk of missing the post-season completely.

At the way the NL West is breaking down, the trend is for the Colorado Rockies to win the division by five games. Right now my projections for the three top teams in the West are as follows:

Los Angeles9369
San Francisco9270

If that comes exactly true, Los Angeles beats out San Francisco for the wild card spot by a single game. I've not done projections for Florida or Atlanta, but they're in the wild-card hunt, too.

Since this is a statistical exercise, the margin of error is likely to be higher than one game. Point is, as hard as it is to sustain winning six out of every ten, the Dodgers need to do even better than that from here on out if they want to make sure they'll play more than four games in October.

The Worst Idea To Advance A Political Agenda Ever

In part of my continuing theme of "dial the rhetoric down from eleven," let me turn your attention to a phenomenon of truly astonishing disrepute: the fabricated hate crime. Here's how I suspect the thinking behind such an activity goes, in a condensed version:
I am an advocate of policy X. Policy X is important and necessary and in perfect congruity with the basic principles of decency, morality, and the Constitution of the United States. Those who instead advocate policy ~X are, therefore, wrong and would steer the country in the wrong direction. That makes them bad. These bad people aren't just misguided; they're evil. They can't see the importance of policy X -- that means they're opposed to and want to thwart decency, morality, and the Constitution of the United States. These evil people are traitors, they are the enemy! The enemy must be destroyed by any means necessary! Why can't everyone see just how despicable and inhuman the advocates of policy ~X are? How can they be made to see this? I must demonstrate to the world what they're capable of. I can do this by doing what those evil bastards want do, in a public way, and that will show everyone what they're up against!
Note the descent from policy advocacy down the slippery slope of demonization, finally arriving at the destination of engaging in a criminal act and staging the evidence to make it look like the other side is somehow responsible.

One problem with this is that the sort of person who arrives at the conclusion that this would be a good idea is typically not blessed with ample facilities of cleverness to begin with. The result is that the perpetrator of a hoaxed hate crime typically winds up getting caught, either in the act or immediately thereafter.

Perhaps the most famous hoaxed hate crime was the Tawana Brawley incident. Way back in November of 1987, an attractive fifteen-year-old black girl was found in a plastic bag in an idyllic New York suburb. She was found in torn clothing, with burns and feces on her body, and marks reading "KKK" and "NIGGER" written on her body. She said she had been kidnapped by several white men days earlier, one of whom wore a badge, and that they had held her in the woods and sexually abused her until they dumped her where she had been found.

If that had actually been what had happened, it would have been shocking and monstrous. And Black activists jumped on the incident very quickly, offering it as proof that race relations had a long way to go, that even in progressive New York there was rampant and violent racism, and some sort of immediate government action to protect black people from the new KKK that was kidnapping and raping nice girls was imperative. A national media outburst happened, with the Rev. Al Sharpton most prominent among the activists who took the opportunity to get some camera time and express their views about the kidnapping and rape of Tawana Brawley. Eventually, a white police officer and a prosecutor were accused of participating in the act, and when the cop committed suicide a few days later, that poured gasoline on the media fire.

As the facts later demonstrated, however, the whole thing was staged. The cop who took his own life did so for reasons unrelated to the accusation.

The facts came out fairly quickly upon objective analysis. The rape kit used on her found no evidence of sexual assault. There were no signs of exposure to the sub-freezing New York elements consistent with being held outdoors in the woods for days, and no actual bruises or marks of assault on her body. The DA who had been accused had an airtight alibi with witnesses, and a grand jury refused to indict him. (A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich on the flimsiest of evidence, so a refusal by a grand jury to indict is a remarkable demonstration of how tissue-thin the evidence behind this accusation really was.)

Young Ms. Brawley had skipped school and visited her boyfriend, who was incarcerated in an upstate jail, where we assume she got the idea as a way of avoiding getting in to trouble. Somehow, she sold her mother on it, because as we learned, mom helped Tawana stage the whole thing by putting Tawana in the garbage bag and helping write the racial epithets on her own daughter's body. Yet, the Brawley's media handlers, attorneys, and "advisors" continued to press on in the face of the exposure of the hoax -- justifying themselves by saying it could have happened like Tawana said, that the incident was useful because it provided exposure and public awareness of real hate crimes.

It did nothing of the sort. It did a tremendous disservice to victims of real crimes, who go through real trauma and pain, and who deserve to see justice done to their attackers. Tawana Brawley's hoax set back race relations substantially, because all future incidents of real hate crimes against African-Americans would now be viewed with a lens of some skepticism.

So it's astonishing to see, after this bedrock lesson in political activism, a progressive, liberal kid in Denver try to vandalize Democratic party headquarters and then try to blame it on Republicans. What was he thinking? It's as stupid as a Republican activist during the 2008 campaign claiming that she was robbed at a Pittsburgh ATM and her assailants carved a "B" for "Barack" on her cheek -- she staged the whole thing herself. I bring up both incidents to point out that neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this kind of stupidity; Wal-mart apparently sells these people Stupid by the Pallet and they eat value-sized portions of it every day for breakfast.

The lessons here are simple. First and foremost, lying to advance your cause always winds up hurting your cause. Second, if the other side were really so demonic, you wouldn't need to fake an evil attack; you could point to the real thing. The fact that there is no attack to point to should be evidence to you that maybe they aren't quite as evil as you think they are. Finally, you should remember that chances are good that you aren't quite as clever as you think you are, so don't try to fool professional crime investigators with vastly more resources than you have because they're going to find flaws in your cunning plan that haven't occurred to you just yet.

A disagreement about political policy should be just that -- a disagreement about politics. The battle should be fought with words and in the political arena. The battle is figurative, not actual. And recall that democracy requires that the loser of a policy dispute submit non-violently to the will of the majority; even in a democracy limited by a Constitution like ours, the loser of a policy dispute is required to make extra-political challenges to a policy in a peaceful, legitimate forum -- specifically, in a court. So make your arguments honestly and in the open and tackle the issues you care about head-on. Don't try to discredit your opponents with a hamfisted hoax. It's going to backfire, every time.

Reforming Constitutions

Apparently, talk of reforming Constitutions is much in vogue these days. Britain is considering a proposal to reform the House of Lords to be like the United States Senate. California is all abuzz with whispers of a constitutional convention.

While it's probably not my place to tell the Brits what to do, I would suggest that the Senate may not make the highest ideal to shoot for if the idea is to make Parliament more democratic. Our Senate was created in an age when it was thought that the various states were separate nations, banded together in an eternal alliance, with the explicit intention of giving equal power to small, and therefore favored, groups of people who had the good luck to live in a tiny state. Someone who lives in, say, Delaware or Wyoming has a tremendously greater ability to influence the policies pursued by his Senators than I do here in California. In Wyoming, about 250,000 people voted for Senator in 2008; in California's last senate election in 2006, nearly 9,000,000 votes were cast. That means a voter in Wyoming has thirty-six times the power in the ballot box than I do, and frankly I think that's not very fair to me. The idea of elected Lords seems a little odd, and the UK seems to be doing reasonably well with their effectively unicameral government (even if their PMs have a tendency to be a little bit lackluster).

I have a few ideas for California, though.

We have too many statewide officers with narrow focuses. Why do we directly elect a state Controller and a state Treasurer? They do different things but there is no real reason to not unify their functions. For that matter, why is the Board of Equalization's function not subsumed into the Legislature? Granted, I don't have a great deal of love for the Legislature, but in theory that is where taxing power should reside. Also, the Lieutenant Governor is about useless. Most of what the Secretary of State does is civil-service stuff except for writing descriptions of ballot measures.

So here's one idea -- let's put taxing authority back in the hands of the Legislature, and put government in the hands of the Governor. Only two statewide executive officers -- the Governor and the Attorney General. Fiscal control, administration of elections, the Department of Insurance, and all that other stuff should be under the control of the Governor. If there is a vacancy in the Governor's office, then the AG can become the Governor and call a special election to fill the now-vacant AG's office.

As for that Legislature -- I wish I could figure out a nifty, clean system for creating more competitive seats, so as to make more legislators functionally responsible to their constituents. But I haven't yet. One way might be to rely on county lines rather than arbitrary districts, but that could lead to the unequal representation problem that I complain about in the U.S. Senate. In terms of population, Los Angeles County is huge, Del Norte County is tiny; voters there should have the same ability to influence things as me, so that means either scrapping the counties or using legislative districts.

One idea that other states have used in the past is at-large representation. We could have all our legislators elected statewide in a massive jungle election, with the top eighty vote-getters for Assembly winning. But I suspect this would produce less responsiveness to voters rather than more. So here's a hybrid idea -- break the state down into, let's say, twenty localized districts, and then each district elects four Assembly members on an at-large basis every two years, with the top four vote-getters in each district serving; each of these districts also elects two Senators, staggered so that in each two-year cycle the plurality winner of the Senate election gets to serve.

As longtime Readers know, I'm not a fan of a democratically-elected judiciary. A judge who must conform to democratic pressure to hold on to her job faces powerful incentives to periodically deviate from the law, which sometimes compels unpopular results in individual cases. Judges are for the most part immunized from that problem by virtue of their anonymity, but it shouldn't be a factor at all. I favor appointment by the Governor with the Legislature exercising a "reverse veto" -- there should be a "hammock period" between the appointment and the time the judge is sworn and seated, and during that period the Legislature should have to exercise its initiative to take a closer look at an appointee. From there, the appointed judge should serve, barring a felony conviction, display of moral turpitude, or serious breach of judicial ethics, for a single, lengthy term (fifteen years maybe?), and then have to either seek re-appointment or move back into practice. Retired judges tend to do very well for themselves in practice, so don't cry for them.

Finally, I think it is too easy for the voters to amend the Constitution at the ballot box. I like the idea of initiative statutes, but to amend the Constitution should require a super-majority. And right now there is no definition at all for what a Constitutional convention is; that needs to be explicated for future generations so they have a procedure to use if they ever need to resort to a constitutional convention.

These are systemic, not policy, suggestions. The result of my ideas, I hope, would be to increase the power of the Governor and to create more competitive elections in the Legislature. I think there is a possibility that my idea for legislative reform might produce stronger party machinery, which may not necessarily be a bad thing in the abstract. I'd hope that my ideas will be evaluated on a longer-term basis than "would it favor Republicans or Democrats?" The idea is to set up a superstructure of the state government that will produce good policy and reflect the popular will.

Perhaps those two objectives are incompatible, but that's a discussion for another day.

Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy Dead At 77

Whatever else you might say about Ted Kennedy, there's no doubt he was a titan of American politics. A pillar and in many ways a personification of liberal politics, his early support for Barack Obama broke the "inevitability" surrounding Hillary Clinton and began the catapulting of the President into the White House. Had he not fallen prey to a series of unfortunate events and poor personal judgment when he was 32 years old, he could have been President himself.

As it was, he served more than fifty years in the U.S. Senate, for so long that some people thought "Senator" was his first name; his is the third-longest tenure in the Senate in American history (although that record is likely to be broken by Daniel Inouye in two months). Think about it for a moment: Ted Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate for almost a quarter of that institution's entire existence.

Kennedy finally succumbed to the brain tumor that had been dogging him ever since its diagnosis more than a year ago. American politics will not be quite the same with him gone.

Glossolalia Deserves Detention

So this guy is just teaching his high school class, when one of the students goes into a fit, speaking in tongues and issuing prophecies. Some of which are rather, shall we say, foreboding and concern fellow students.

If it were me, I'd handle it like a disciplinary problem (the girl was disrupting class). The fact that there is an allegedly religious gloss to the misbehavior does not change the fact that it is misbehavior. Further, it is readily apparent to me that glossolalia is a wholly volitional act, one for which people must be trained and the fictitious nature of which is known by the actors and criticized by sincere Christians.

Or maybe you believe in this particular kind of woo (demonic and/or angelic possession) yourself, in which case you have to entertain the idea that she really was possessed. Even then, if you're the teacher, you should treat it like a medical emergency, no different than if the girl had a grand mal epileptic seizure. Get her out of the class.

But if it were me, I'd give the girl a detention no matter what the "Holy Spirit" said about it, expect my principal to back me up on it, and let the Alliance Defense Fund sue me for it later. If they dared.

August 25, 2009

Cash For Clunkers: What Happens Next

I'd like for us to upgrade my wife's car, which we just finished paying off. But we're not going to do that -- we're going to hold on to the car that we don't need to make any payments on, and probably not replace it until we're done paying off my car, so we only have one car payment at a time. Until then, we'll make do with a not-so-spectacular vehicle and continue to live within our means. That is more important, and worth more money in tough times, than gaining an additional five to ten miles to the gallon. That's a decision that makes sense for individual consumers.

But apparently, that sort of decision doesn't make sense to the economic nincompoops in the Obama Administration, who think that we're so collectively rich as a nation we can just destroy perfectly good cars to buy new ones on credit.We're not doing it to decrease overall oil consumption or protect the environment. As a society, we're not about to run out of oil. We've already demonstrated that even dramatic increases in passenger car mileage is of only minimal benefit to the environment as compared to unspectacular, incremental increases in very-low mileage vehicles.

We're apparently not doing it to benefit American auto manufacturers, because it turns out that 59% of the vehicles purchased in the cash-for-clunkers program are foreign, and eight out of the top ten purchased cars were Japanese or Korean. So what we've done is to temporarily subsidize sales of foreign cars.

That's, um, not what I recall as being the stated policy goal of this program.

Well, what happens next? Let's say you traded in your old "gas-guzzling" car for a newer Japanese one. Got somewhere between $3,000 and $4,500 for it. What does the dealer do with that old thing? Does he turn around and re-sell it, injecting badly-needed cash flow into the automotive market, reducing the overall market price of cars so that more people can buy cars later, or even take it apart to part the thing out or sell it to a parts dealer?

No. Here's what seems to be a perfectly nice 2001 Corvette. The guys pour in some kind of clear gunk liquid into the engine, which eventually gels up and seizes, permanently disabling the motor (engine smokes at 3:00 and seizes at about 4:30):

As if that weren't sin enough, next they destroy the vehicle completely. Here's a perfectly operable Dodge Dakota 4X4 turned into a dense steel oblong in the name of temporarily subsidizing the sale of Hondas, Kias, Toyotas, and Hyundais:

We were sold this program as a way of revitalizing the American auto industry, meaning primarily the Big Three of GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and improving environmental conditions. The result, however, is a billion and a half dollars of national debt we didn't have before and a bunch of junked, formerly-operable cars.

I'm waiting for the part where someone explains to me why I'm better off for our government having done this. I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, I'm adding a new tag to the blog: "Lighting Our Money On Fire."

Deflate The Rhetoric Already

John McCain is, for the most part, a class act and he proves it again:
Senator McCain does not deserve boos and President Obama does not deserve derisive laughter from this crowd. It is one thing to think a policy is misguided and harmful. It is something else to confuse advocacy of a bad policy with a desire to subvert the Constitution.

To the nice, well-meaning lady who asked Senator McCain that question, I have a very simple response: the Constitution does not contain any limits on the amount of money that Congress can spend. If you don't like Congress spending all that money, your concern is political, not Constitutional.

To Senator McCain: you should lead off with validating the woman's concern, not defending the President. Yes, an assurance of the President's fidelity to the Constitution should be in your answer, and you can also insert yourself in the response. Try this response out for starters: "Well, gee, ma'am, I think you're absolutely right to be worried about all that money and all that debt. You're absolutely right on. And you'd better believe President Obama knows we're still under a Constitution, and he won't forget it, either, because I'm right there in Congress to remind him of that. That's why he's talking with us in Congress about all that spending because under our Constitution, we in Congress control the spending, not the President in the White House."

See, you don't have to give up being partisan, you don't have to give up being an advocate for the policies you think are best, and you don't have to tell people things they don't want to hear -- and you can still be respectful and within the boundaries of sanity while discussing political issues. With that said, I'm glad Senator McCain gave the response he did rather than throwing out red meat to the crowd.

Rudy! For Governor!

Hey, you heard it here first! Well, actually, I heard it first at Below the Beltway. And he heard it first in the Gray Lady. So you probably didn't really hear it here first. But you did hear it here. For the record, I'm not all that super-concerned with who is Governor of New York, for the main reason that I'm not a resident of the state of New York, although I think Rudy! would do a fine job and I think he's a net asset to the Republican Party these days despite the flaws within his set of policy preferences.

Friends Forever

From the deeply disturbing Comic Blasphemy. Seriously, this is about the tamest comic they have.

Failed Experiment

Too many people reported errors using StumbleUpon's thumbs-up. So it's gone now. I'll try and find some other way for users to easily register approval or disapproval of what they've read. Stay tuned.

Unpopular Lawyers

Most lawyers I know are ethical people; they do not lie or cheat or steal from their clients or fabricate evidence or conceal it in order to win. I'm not saying there aren't really people like that practicing law, only that in reality, they are uncommon. When they are out there, more of then than not substance abuse is involved somehow.

But lawyers are widely thought to be dishonest and untrustworthy. I think it's because most people don't have a lot of experience with lawyers to begin with, so they base their opinion on what they see on TV and in the movies.

So here's my thought: in popular media today, don't lawyers have to be a little bit sleazy in order to be interesting? Richard Gere's Billy Flynn in Chicago was interesting because he was overtly sleazy. William Shatner's Denny Crane on Boston Legal was an endearing scoundrel precisely because of his many ethical lapses. Jackie Chiles, the ambulance-chasing lawyer from Seinfeld played with elan by Phil Morris, was funny because he was such an overt parody of Johnny Cochran (a man Morris knew casually) and used obviously questionable tactics and case selection strategy.

Are characters like Atticus Finch and Perry Mason -- sincere, ethical, heartfelt crusaders for justice -- simply not interesting anymore? Matlock never interested me, so I'm not sure if he ever did anything scummy but I rather doubt it.

About the closest model of an interesting but ethical lawyer in modern popular culture I can think of is Peter Coyote's Jack McCoy from the original Law & Order series; he is interesting in no small part because he engages in a fair amount of ethical hand-wringing in the office but is able to set it aside and come out swinging after he's decided on a course of action in the courtroom. But in fact, McCoy often crosses the line -- he is not above threatening to charge people with crimes when he knows they are innocent in order to elicit testimony from them, and suppressing potentially exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, and he has more than once been found in contempt of court for these tactics. So in fact, he winds up being an interesting character in part because he personifies the ethical challenges, and sometimes the ethical failings, of lawyers. That these are more realistic kinds of ethical failings than those facing Richard Gere in an adaptation of a Broadway musical does not, in my mind, diminish the point.

Movies and TV shows that show lawyers behaving in a morally upright fashion tend to produce either very bland and uninteresting characters, or worse yet, ones for whom the legal profession is not particularly important to their characters. Rachel Dawes (played first by Katie Hudson and then by Maggie Gyllenhall in the new Batman movies) is singularly uninteresting despite her sincerity and political savvy; she is only useful as an object of affection and does not particularly need to be a lawyer to fulfill that role. Eric McCormack's Will Truman on Will and Grace was a good guy (neurotic about his relationships) but he was interesting for being gay and his wisecracking -- again, his job as a lawyer was not really an integral or even particularly interesting part of his character. Ryan Gosling played a singularly dull prosecutor in Fracture; his "conflict" about whether to take a high-paying private firm job or continue his career as a prosecutor was not so very interesting after all.

Even Tom Cruise's Lt. Caffey in A Few Good Men was only really interesting not because he sincerely wanted to do justice, but because you watched him struggle to put aside his own demons (his ongoing intimidation by his father, his dislike of the rigidity of military life, his doubts about his clients' innocence) to start to actually do the job of a lawyer at all.

So my question is -- if it is true that a lawyer on screen must be sleazy to be interesting, is that a reason why lawyers in real life are held in so much (in my opinion, undeserved) disrepute?

August 24, 2009

Prosecuting Torturers

So, we have reports that President Obama is backing a suggesting by Attorney General Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. The special prosecutor will go after people involved in the CIA's use of torture to interrogate prisoners, including the decidedly unloveable and villanious Khalid Sheik Muhammed. KSM wound up getting waterboarded more than 100 times -- perhaps as much as 180 times.

Let there be no doubt that waterboarding is torture.

At the same time, let there be no doubt that KSM is a bad, bad man who deserves severe punishment.

It might be argued that without the benefit of hindsight, torture of these isolated individuals was thought necessary. First we were told that it might be necessary to torture in order to combat an existential threat to the United States. Then we were told that torture had been needed to prevent ticking time bombs from going off. Finally, we were told that torture and torture alone would give us certain kinds of "actionable intelligence."

Well, now we know that despite having moved the basket lower and lower to the ground, the ball still never made it into the hoop. Torturing these scumbags did not generate a single piece of actionable intelligence. No ticking time bombs were ever found because there were none for the bad guys to detonate. The United States continues to exist and function quite nicely.

The willingness to disregard the rule of law and torture our enemies, however, is an existential threat to our nation and our way of life. We disregarded treaties to which we were party and which promise that if a soldier is ever captured by the enemy, he will not be tortured. Having disregarded our obligation to not torture our prisoners, what right do we now have to expect that if one of our sons or daughters is captured, our enemies will not torture them? We have laid forfeit our moral high ground on that issue.

I might be charitable and suggest that there were, and are, people who sincerely believed that torture was necessary to combat existential threats to the nation. I am not so charitable as that, however. Those people -- an embarrassing number of them Republicans giving voice to their opinions by way of applause during the 2008 Republican primary debates -- clearly want our interrogators to torture. I do not believe that they reasonably think that those enemy prisoners, or their still-at-liberty compatriots, represent an existential threat to the country. I believe they want the torture to happen because they think the victims of this treatment somehow deserve to be tortured. They believe that torture is justice.

And of course, it is not. At best, torture is vengeance. KSM certainly is an appropriate target for vengeance. Justice, however, is more than vengeance -- indeed, if you look at our system of justice you will find that opportunities for vengeance to enter into the equation of how an accused or even a convicted person is treated are minimized. For very good reason.

Justice, after all, is not merely a question of deserts. What one deserves is a part of it, to be sure. But justice also necessitates an understanding of ends and means. It inherently involves a result that at least considers a maximal social benefit. It involves questions of inalienable individual rights. Justice is complex. It is reasoned and reasonable. It is not based on vengeance; to the extent vengeance is part of the equation at all it is a small part.

Do we (meaning the government of the United States of America) torture bad, bad men who deserve severe punishment? Let the answer to that question be a resounding "no." The badness of the actions of our prisoners should have nothing to do with the moral decision to torture or not. The moral price of torture is paid by the torturer and not the torturee.

Now, although it seems that this sort of thing was only done to a small number of our prisoners and the number of people involved in doing it were small, the question is now what to do about it. The question of the day is whether President Obama and AG Holder are right to set the prosecutions on autopilot and let the chips fall where they may. This decision has apparently led to a profanity-laden screaming fit in the White House by CIA Director Leon Panetta. Panetta is simply trying to protect his people; his interest in the subject is vested even though he is not personally on the hook for anything.

My question is how far up the food chain will the prosecutions go? It is ever the case that corporals and sergeants are getting punished for decisions made by colonels and generals. That ain't right. We've got a lot of people involved in the decision to torture because, like any bureaucracy, our government spread around the decision-making and implementation of this policy to a bunch of people. In this target-rich environment, we have the following potential defendants from whom to choose:
  • Interrogators who actually did the torture;
  • Head interrogators who thought it would be a good idea to torture;
  • Section chiefs who put in requests to their superiors about whether they could torture or not;
  • Psychologists who tried to figure out the best way to torture and get the desired results;
  • Bureaucrats who passed along the requests and information without lodging objections to what they were seeing;
  • Lawyers who put a legal gloss on the request;
  • Politicians who either explicitly or implicitly told the lawyers to find a way to get a legal gloss on the request;
  • The President, whose "unitary executive" theory of Constitutional law would lead us to believe that all of the above happened under his personal authority and responsibility.
The further down that list you go, the more likely you are to run into legal immunity issues, immunity issues that are there to give policy makers "room to err" so as to also permit them discretion in which to govern effectively. But the further down that list you go, the more likely a prosecution will actually do some good down the road in terms of defining torture as actually "off limits" for future policies, future decisions.

My gut reaction is that the immunity doctrines serve to shield the most deeply morally culpable actors here. Not that I would be fond of the kind of people who would do the hands-on work of torturing, but at the end of the day, I think their degree of moral culpability is diminished substantially by virtue of having been informed that high-level government officials and lawyers had considered doing this and agreed to it in advance. If they were told by a lawyer "Yes, this is legal," then that's the lawyer being willing to step up to the plate and taking the blame. If you don't have the balls as a lawyer to make a call like that, you need to find a new line of work.

The matter of the appropriate punishment is something else. As I've written before, I don't think that those lawyers should go to jail. They should, however, be held in disrepute. A loss of a license to practice law is a pretty bad punishment for a lawyer; in the case of one of them (Jay Bybee), he has a seat on the Federal bench which Congress can take away from him if it chooses to impeach him. It does not mean an automatic loss of job, either; most of them are now in academia (e.g., John Yoo, professor of law at Boalt Hall) and you do not need an active law license to teach law. But it would be a serious rebuke. The point is that a conviction does not have to automatically lead to incarceration; there are other kinds of punishment that are in fact quite serious and also permissible, if we are willing to use them.

So if there are to be prosecutions for torture, let it not be the guys at the bottom, who were told that they were acting legally. For them, the penalty should be on their consciences. And let it not be the President and his closest advisors; while they may bear great moral culpability as well, we do need to allow discretion and room to err for future problems. Let it be instead the people who were faced not with questions of immediate conduct but rather with the formulation of policy. Let them defend themselves by pointing the blame upstairs, if they can; let them explain their silence in the face of the proposal to create a policy of such great moral abhorrence as to stain, forever, the good reputation formerly enjoyed by the United States of America. Let it be a reminder to all who serve in the future that they do not check their ethics at the door when they enter public service.

Movie Review: District 9

It took me a week and a half, but I finally got out to the theater with some friends and saw this one. I'd been intrigued by it since first seeing the very interesting advertising campaign for the movie in Los Angeles a few months ago.

Story: A massive alien spaceship appears and begins to orbit Earth, eventually coming to rest hovering over downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. Its alien passengers are stranded; something has gone wrong with their ship and they cannot go home. They will starve if they remain on their ship, so they are ferried down to Earth and begin to co-exist with the inhabitants of J'burg. Unfortunately, they do not get along well and eventually the aliens are segregated into a portion of the city reserved to them, the eponymous "District 9," which is fenced off from the rest of the city. The government outsources management of the area to a corporation, which wants to research alien technology, particularly weapons, while it allows the district to degenerate into a horrendous slum, inhabited by the alien refugees and some humans (mainly criminals preying off of the alien refugees). But there are still secrets the aliens haven't shared with the humans, and vice versa.

Script: We begin in media res as the corporation is going to attempt to relocate the aliens to a new habitation area outside of the city -- in theory a good idea but the whole thing appears to be quite sinister. Incredibly, on the eve of this massive operation, the corporation hands off control of it to a guy who appears to have had no idea he was being considered for the job -- leading the audience to think that he is being set up to fail. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and helpfully when accents become too thick for American audiences to follow, there are subtitles. In terms of storytelling, the writers don't pull any punches -- this is not a Hollywood movie.

Cast: American audiences will not know any of the actors in the movie at all. Most of the actors speak with Afrikaans accents, which are initially difficult but the ear quickly grows used to them. Another crop of characters are Nigerian, and their accents are thick enough that they must be subtitled. The alien language is also subtitled, and it seems that many humans have taken the trouble to learn it, but they communicate in English, which the aliens seem to mostly understand. The principal actor is quite convincing in his portrayal of a man who quickly realizes he's in way over his head and has to put together the skill set needed to survive in extreme circumstances on the fly. The other humans are generally cardboard cut-outs, unfortunately; the paramilitary antagonist and the corporate heavy are one-dimensional and uninteresting. The human criminals living in the alien slum are somewhat more interesting than the corporate types but they too are left largely one-dimensional. The aliens are all CGI-generated, and their voices and language are difficult to pierce in terms of emotion.

Cinematography: Initially, the movie appears to be made in documentary style, with captioned interviews and what appear to be immersion-action shots (complete with jerky, bouncy camera work). But after a time, the movie appears to switch back and forth between the "documentary" and higher-quality film directed from an omniscient point of view. This is done very gradually at first, but after a time the switches between interviews and documentary shots and the omniscient perspective become more fluid. This appears to have been intentional on the director's part rather than the result of having switched styles halfway through principal photography. It effectively tells the story, but in retrospect it is a very different way of telling the story. In a way, the seamless back-and-forth between immersed and omniscient perspectives is the most remarkable thing about the movie.

Costumes: Utterly credible. Most of the humans we see are in contemporary dress or military-style uniforms. Since much of the story takes place in and around a slum, the bulk of the costumes are poverty clothing -- blankets, flimsy T-shirts, and such. The aliens wear clothing, apparently bastardized from human clothing, as well. They also seem to paint or tattoo themselves to distinguish themselves from one another.

Effects: CGI is now de rigeur, and the CGI in this movie is very good. All of the aliens are created this way and they fit flawlessly into their environment. The aliens are believable, and so are the combat scenes. More things blow up spectacularly than is strictly realistic. Most impressive, though, is the alien ship hovering over the city -- it looks like a derelict, and it is partially obscured by haze and smog. It is this image of the ship, not always centered in the shot because the inhabitants of the city have grown used to its presence, which is the hallmark of the movie.

Music: The only noticeable score is used in the opening and closing credits, and during the omniscient scenes. The documentary portions of the movie are left unscored, which after a time becomes an almost unconscious way of indicating the switch in perspective. The sound effects are intense and ungentle, but that is in keeping with the overall tone of the movie.

Comments: Obviously, the movie is an allegory for inhumane treatment of refugees, a cry to do better. It is difficult to not form deep sympathy with the alien refugees, in particular the aliens who come grudgingly to the aid of the human hero (who is, after all, formerly one of their oppressors). The hero himself elicits terrible sadness, especially by the end of the movie. The theme -- men given power over other men are the true monsters -- has been done before. But the context of man oppressing alien refugees allows greater rein to that concept and perhaps a deeper exploration of it than a popular audience could stomach if the victims were human as well. The balance of the need for humane treatment of refugees and the expense and burden to a government of providing it are explored briefly in the opening minutes and not really touched on again; hopefully, the movie gets audiences thinking about ways that this most critical of questions can be answered in a manner that is morally acceptable.


One of the objections to evolution that I often hear is that "speciation does not occur." This objection is usually proffered by an anti-evolutionist who is ready to concede that over several generations, an animal or plant can "adapt" but they remain of the same "kind." This highlights an actual issue in modern biology -- there is no uniform definition of what a "species" really is. That makes it very hard to say that one species has evolved into another, because biologists -- all of whom will agree that evolution is an observable phenomenon and all of whom agree that natural selection is the best theory available to explain how it happens -- cannot quite agree on when speciation actually happens.

When this point in the discussion is reached, the anti-evolutionist will sometimes fold his arms, look smug, and stop, because the impossibility of evolution has just been proven to their complete satisfaction. I'll leave it to you, Readers, to figure out why that is incorrect; I will show some faith in your ability to apply logic and play "spot the fallacy." This one is easy enough, made even easier if you take the next step most such arguers take, and say that the inability of biologists to define speciation is proof of the literal truth of the Bible.

The example pointed to is often dog breeding. Sure, the anti-evolutionist will concede, you can breed dogs so that in four or five generations, you've made the descendants significantly larger, or smaller, or dominantly of a particular color or whatever other trait you've been breeding for. But that's an adaptation; you could take that same dog who is the result of the selective breeding and cross-breed it with another dog -- any dog, really, and offspring that are recongizably dogs will be produced. In fact, you can even cross-breed wolves and dogs* and there are some biologists who will say that they are really the same species.

What I'd like to call your attention to is that speciation appear to take place in observable time. To be sure, the boundaries are fuzzy and indistinct, and not all biologists agree with "speciation" as the divergence of communities of formerly like animals (or plants) such that they can no longer breed with one another. But if that is a definition you can accept, it is something that appears to be happening in the Solomon Islands.

The monarch flycatcher is a small bird that makes its living eating insects. A population of monarch flycatchers immigrated to a set of islands in the chain, such that it is difficult for birds on the large central island to travel to the birds on the smaller, outlying islands, and vice-versa. Over time, the birds on the central island developed all-black feathers; birds on the outlying islands developed a chestnut-colored belly. Then scientists took some of the outer-island birds and put them on the central island, and took some central island birds out to the outlying islands.

This is an experiment out in the wild, so it's impossible to tell whether the males of one population attempted to breed with the females of the other. But no specimens showing anticipated signs of cross-breeding have been found. And more to the point, the males of the indigenous population do not defend their turf from males of the invader population; they are not considered threats to "breeding rights" the way that other indigenous males are. It is exactly what we should expect to happen if speciation had occurred.

Is this proof of evolution by natural selection? No. If you're looking for proof of a hypothesis you're not exactly doing science, since a well-designed experiment is intended to disprove a hypothesis. Rather, this corroborates the theory. It fails to disprove the theory because this is consistent with the theory. What it really does is disprove both the dramatic hypothesis that "speciation has never occurred" or the more modest hypothesis that "speiciation has never been observed." While experts might disagree as to how conclusive the evidence is, and they might disagree on whether the line has actually been crossed or not, they would all concur that this is a significant movement in that direction. Stumble Upon Toolbar

* Some people like to keep half-wolves as pets. This is not, in my opinion, a particularly good idea. Half-wolf dogs are difficult to control and train to accept human leadership, and in particular they are prone to bite. Individual specimens may differ, of course, but the dogs you get as pets are the result of millennia of selective breeding to eliminate the very strong defensive traits of wolves in the wild. Sure, wolves can look very pretty but a wolf is a wild animal that can be dangerous; a dog is a domesticated animal that will accept training early in life and more to the point, has smaller adrenal glands than its wild cousins.