Category Archives: current topics

Time to Govern, Republicans

The Republican party now controls the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Presidency, and almost total legislative control of 25 states. Very soon after Inauguration Day, there will be more conservatives on the Supreme Court and possibly a few more conservative justices over the next few years.

This is all to say that the Republican agenda has very few roadblocks to implement their agenda, after being in the position of the minority (nationally, even if not at the state level) for the past few years. Now, there is no Obama to blame, and no significant push-back from Democrats legislatively.

So, time to govern. There is no reason why all the ideas that Republicans have been saying for the past few years cannot be implemented. They’ve been telling the American people, “If only Obama wasn’t in the White House, we would bring back all your jobs, lower taxes, eliminate the national debt, provide health care, unleash the free market to rebuild this country, protect your religious freedom, your guns, and all your other freedoms.” Ok, sounds great. So, do it.

I think there are some valid conservative ideas around economic policy and immigration, even though I wish they were a little more compassionate. So, I’m not dismissing all Republican ideas out of hand. I’m perfectly willing to listen to ideas and be convinced. And, I also am willing to listen to results. So, let’s see some results.

Governing is different than complaining. It’s one thing to vote to take away healthcare from 20 million people when you know the President will veto the bill. It’s another to actually take away healthcare from 20 million people (unless you actually replace it with something better).

Good luck, Republicans. I wish for our country to succeed and for our world to be safer and more prosperous tomorrow than it is today.

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How to Argue

I’m currently reading a slim book, “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston and have found the advice in it to be fascinating and uniquely suited to this election season.

Some people love to argue, even if they don’t know how. Other people hate to argue, no matter what. Then there’s others who genuinely want to know the truth and engaging in arguments with people is the way to go about it. I’d like to think I’m on of these people, but I know my own prejudices get in my way sometimes. It’s human nature to want to be right and to feel defensive whenever someone approaches you with a different opinion.

But arguments are not necessarily bad and do not have to be painful. One piece of advice from the book is to “consider counterfactuals”. Many of us argue by using examples and generalizations. We think that when we’ve found a few examples that prove our point, we must be right, but we refuse to consider any examples that oppose our conclusions. Your argument will be stronger if you consider all the ways in which your argument may be wrong and can find an alternative explanation for those examples that contradict your own. Or, you may even (gasp!) change your mind!

Human knowledge and reasoning is limited, but you can get closer to truth and be more sure of your beliefs by arguing effectively.

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The Real Cause of Terrorism

The mass shooting in Orlando, while it should probably not be called terrorism, has reignited debates about what causes terrorism, what we can do to prevent terrorism, and so on. Typically, terrorism is called by Islam, or so we are led to believe. However, I would argue that terrorism is brought about by a combination of poverty, lack of education (or mis-education), and anomie. Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Poverty. The causes of poverty are complex and there is no real reason to go into them here. But, the existence of poverty leads to hopelessness, despair, envy, and a desire to escape into another world, or to radically reshape this world. Of course, there are many people living in America and Europe who are (relatively) well off financially compared to people in Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. Perhaps a better term would be relative poverty. If you make $100,000 per year, you are not poor. But, if you are surrounded by people who make in excess of $1,000,000 per year, you very well may consider yourself poor. The problem with poverty is that, to some extent, it is relative. We do not compare ourselves (without great mental effort) to the homeless family desperate to cross the Mediterranean when we think about our financial status. We compare ourselves to the family down the street with the new car and pool. Regardless, poverty or at least the feeling of poverty is a great burden and leads people to feel desperate, to make poor decisions, to want to ‘get back’ at those they feel are benefiting at their expense, to change the way the world works so that you are wealthy and others can be envious of you.
  2. Education. A lack of education or a mis-education, whereby you are either indoctrinated into a certain ideology, or you are at least susceptible to dangerous ideologies. Does this mean that nobody with a college degree could commit terrorism, or an act of violence? Of course not. I’m not trying to be elitist here. What I mean by a good education is one that teaches you to be an active participant in your learning, one that leads you to critically question your existing views and ideas, an education that forces you to think about new ideas as they are presented to you and consider them in the light of evidence and reason. College is not needed for this, and in many cases, does a poor job of providing this type of education. A lack of education can easily lead to a person being swayed from potentially dangerous thoughts into actually dangerous actions.
  3. Anomie. This term in not in use much anymore, but it goes back to Durkheim’s book, Suicide, published in 1897. Surely, there is a more modern explanation for terrorism! I actually think anomie works quite well. Essentially, it means, “no norms”, that is, a feeling that you do not belong to a community, that there are no norms for a community to live by. Imagine if there was no general prohibition against murder? Even people who murder generally admit it’s wrong (typically they try to justify it, “he had it coming” sort of logic). What if we had no social norms for how to act? Can you imagine trying to go to work everyday and never knowing what to expect from your co-workers? Essentially, I see anomie as leading a worldview where you view everyone as an “other”, nobody understands you, you don’t fit in. We know that the people who commit these mass shootings are loners, people who do not have a strong social network, people who feel isolated, out of touch. When you feel like this, it is very easy to latch onto any group that seems willing to accept you and support you, even if they are a violent, extremist group.

Ultimately, I am trying to locate the source of terrorism not in a specific religion or ideology, but in a complex web of social forces that affect all of us. Many people would like to say, “If we only got rid of Muslims, then we would have no more terrorism!” This is facile thinking of the worst kind. Any one of us could be a terrorist, if the right circumstances are present, and if we feel trapped and have no other option. Terrorism is not limited to Muslims, nor is it even limited to religious people. Atheists are quite capable of committing violent, terrorist acts, if given the right provocation and set of circumstances that they are operating under. Instead of blaming a group of people and looking for ways to use our military to destroy an entire group, we should remove the underlying causes that allow these groups to arise.

 

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What is Terrorism?

Almost immediately after the mass shooting in Orlando, people classified it as a terrorist attack and the shooter as a terrorist. However, this has me thinking about what exactly is terrorism and why do we call some things terrorism and other things are not terrorism.

My understanding is that a terrorist attack is considered any violent action that is designed to inspire fear against a community and has some political aims. Lately, we seem to call anything terrorism when a Muslim is involved or the attacker makes a passing reference to a terrorist group.

As we understand it now, the shooter in Orlando pledged allegiance or displayed some affinity with multiple terrorist groups, many of which are actually fighting each other in the Middle East. Not all terrorist groups work together in one big happy terrorism family. They have conflicting goals, methods, political aims, and even religious affiliation (Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Hindu, etc.)

So, to classify all terrorists as Muslim terrorists or to immediately classify any Muslim who commits an act of violence as a terrorist is dangerous. When we use the word terrorism, it immediately conjures up the idea that there is an existential threat against our country and our community. It provokes a response beyond that which is normal for a criminal act. Suddenly, we have something to fear, plots and conspiracies that threaten our way of life, an act that is worth going to war for and worth curtailing civil liberties.

So, what is terrorism? I don’t have a great answer. But, I think we need to be careful about using the word terrorism and terrorist to explain the actions of deranged individuals.

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Orlando, Violence, and Security

The shooting in Orlando was terrible. I would say it is unspeakable, but the fact that so much has been written and said defies that term. To say that something is unspeakable means that we simply cannot speak of it. As so often in human history, the most terrifying events are the ones that we talk the most about, perhaps rightly so. I join so many others in expressing sympathy for the victims and their families and friends.

Unfortunately, one of my first thoughts (after the shock of hearing the news) was, “How will politicians use this story to satisfy their own agendas?” True to form, within a few hours, we had raging debates about whether we should have better gun control, better immigration controls, more tracking of people sympathetic to ISIS, bigger walls, more surveillance, outlaw the AR-15, or high-capacity magazines, provide more AR-15 guns to the “good guys”, carpet bomb ISIS and their families, whether God ordained this because the victims were gay (or at least in a gay nightclub), and on and on and on.

I was tired before any of this started because I knew my Facebook feed would soon be filled with half-baked ideas, assumptions, suppositions, and all sorts of other ideas that would do nothing to bring back the 50 victims or take away the pain of those who survived.

Better security = less violence. Or so we are told. However, no matter how much security we have, there will always be violence, at least, as long as we live in a pluralistic, (relatively) free, democratic nation. Conservatives want less government, unless more government seems like it would provide more security. Liberals want more civil liberties, unless fewer civil liberties seem like it would provide more security.

After anything like this happens, my fear is not more terrorism, but more repression at home, more surveillance, more detentions of innocent people, more fear, less tolerance of dissent, less tolerance of difference, less openness to strangers, to outsiders, to the other. Fear is easy. Not giving into that fear and continuing to demonstrate our core values to terrorists is hard.

There is risk in anything and everything we do. To live our lives in fear of everything or to demand ever more security measures from our government is counter-productive. This is not to say that there are not reasonable steps the government (and we personally) can take to protect ourselves and mitigate risks. But to completely upend our lives or accept living in a police state means that we have given up on life. Instead we would be merely existing. Breathing, eating, sleeping, and little else. What would be the point?

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My Politics

Watching the Democrats and Republicans (and to a lesser extent, the Greens) fight over policies has made me think deeper about my own political views and where I fit. In general, I consider myself a moderate that leans liberal, especially when it comes to social issues. However, I’ve been wondering why I think this way. Two things have affected my thinking here:

1. A philosophy article detailing how it may not be possible to change your mind. Essentially the argument was that to be able to change your mind, you had to imagine the actual arguments that would be compelling enough to make you change your mind. And, if you can come up with the arguments compelling enough to change your mind, then you must change your mind. So, it seems to be difficult to ever change your mind, as long as you are familiar with all the arguments and know which one is most compelling to you.

2. The book, “Socrates Cafe”, which encourages us to think like Socrates and constantly examine our assumptions, question our most basic understanding of things, maintain an open mind to new thoughts and evidence, and know that which we do not know.

Both of these readings has led me to question my basic beliefs and where I stand on some political issues, especially as I consider who to vote for in the upcoming primaries. Instead of listing my precise stance on certain issues like the death penalty, taxes, healthcare, national security, immigration, etc., I prefer to stake out some larger principles and any specific policies should match those principles, whether the policies are put forth by Republicans, Democrats, or some other party. If more Americans did this, I think we could avoid some of the partisanship, where a person supports their political party, no matter what policies they put forth.

  1. Respect for all persons everywhere
    • Essentially, what I mean by this, is that we should treat all people with dignity and respect, and enact policies that reflect this. One important thing to note is that I don’t believe that respect and dignity end at our border or even with non-citizens within our borders. I’d also say, for clarity, that I am defining a person as a human that has been born, so unborn humans and animals are not included (not to say they don’t deserve any respect, but perhaps a different level than born humans). This includes respect for different races, religions, genders, etc.
  2. Rule of law
    •  This means that no person is above the law, and the justice system works for everyone, rich or poor. While I think that there are some laws that are immoral and need to be reformed, people must follow the laws and work to change them within the system. This doesn’t negate the legitimacy of non-violent protest, but it is preferable to change the laws through democratic processes.
  3. Economic opportunity
    • I think that people should have an equality of opportunity, that is, there should be opportunities for people to demonstrate talent and move up in companies. People should be able to live at some minimum level by working 40 hours a week.
  4. Personal freedom
    • People should have the freedom to do what they please, so long as they do not interfere with the freedom of other people. Basically, people should not be prevented from acting as they wish, nor should they be forced to act as they don’t wish (unless they are interfering with other people). People cannot have an unrestricted freedom to act (otherwise how do we prevent murder, etc.) but generally speaking people should have many of the freedoms we take for granted now, speech, assembly, worship, etc.
  5. Privacy
    • I think this is closely connected with freedom, that there is a certain level of privacy that we should all expect, but there is no right to unlimited privacy. There is always a certain amount of information that you would be required to give up, just to live in a society.
  6. Equal opportunity in politics
    • Wealth should not be a requirement to entry into politics. Additionally, admission to a particular party should not be a requirement to enter politics. While these probably apply already to most local politics, once you try to enter state or national politics, the barriers to entry are rather high. A true democracy is based on everyone having an equal voice.
  7. Education can solve many problems
    • A broad based education can be a cure to many societal ills, across the world. While not everyone needs or should necessarily attend a 4 year university, there is a basic level of education (and our K-12 education in America is very uneven) that everyone should have and will help ensure economic security, lower crime, better politics, etc.
  8. Military interventions
    • A military will always be necessary, but should really only be used in a just war (see just war theory). War is occasionally justified, but we tend to be too quick to go to a military option in some cases, while letting just opportunities to use the military (during cases of genocide for instance) go by.
  9. Respect for property
    • Property is the basis of society. Almost everyone has some property that they have earned or accrued and we should respect that they can use it how they wish, within reason. This is not an unrestricted right to keep all property, but property should not be taken away from people unnecessarily or without some form of due process. This may also apply to taxation, since that is essentially taking away monetary “property”, even if property is usually thought of as more tangible assets. A certain minimum amount of taxation is required to make a society function, but it need not be excessive.

I realize that this may not account for every situation and I can probably be challenged on any of these points, but these are the general things I look for when evaluating policies and candidates for elected office.

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The Supreme Court Dissent: We should take it seriously (even if it’s wrong)

There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing and flag-waving over the Supreme Court decision affirming the right for all people to be married, regardless of sexual orientation. On the conservative right, it has been lamented as the end of civilization, the end of democracy, a legal apocalypse on the scale of Roe v. Wade. The more liberal left has viewed this as a great victory and another step in the onward march of progress. I think both characterizations are overwrought.

However, I want to focus on a couple of issues brought up in the dissent and the issue of same-sex marriage more generally.
1. The end of democracy: How many times have we heard it said, “Five unelected judges have decided…”. I am both mystified and compelled by this statement. One the one hand, it does seem as though 5 people have decided to “find” a new right in the Constitution that was not there previously. Considering that those 5 people cannot hope to represent all 320 million Americans, it is very undemocratic that they decided that same-sex couples have the right to marry when numerous states and elections have shown that there are large groups of people that do not believe in same-sex marriage. On the other hand, is the will of the people always paramount or absolutely right? How much better would we be if the Supreme Court had decided differently in the Dred Scott case, or Plessy v. Ferguson, even though public opinion largely supported them in those decisions? On a side note, our country is not a democracy, we are a federal republic. You elect a representative to act on your behalf. Those representatives (namely the President and the Senate) nominate and confirm appointees to the Supreme Court, so while the Supreme Court justices are technically unelected, they have to go through a rigorous process to be appointed, and they do have a tenuous link to “we the people”.

2. The “discovery” of a new right: According to both sides of the issue, SCOTUS found, discovered, or created a brand new right last week, the right to get married and that right cannot be interfered with by the government. On the face of it, this seems deeply troubling. What if SCOTUS discovers I suddenly have the right to have water, heat, and internet? Could I simply stop paying my bills and argue that I still have a right to received those services? We generally equate rights with freedom, in fact, Americans talk about rights all the time. I have a right to stand here, I have a right to do this, I have the right to not speak, or to speak loudly, etc., etc. Judging by all of our talk of rights, you might think that the discovery of new rights is a good thing! But, what about inalienable rights? Is SCOUTS discovering rights that have always been there, they’ve just been hidden? Or, are they truly creating new rights out of thin air? If that’s the case, then can our supposedly inalienable rights be taken away just as quickly as they were given to us? To be clear, I tend to think that all of our rights are mischaracterized. We have no rights as humans, we only have privileges granted to us by whatever government we are subject to.

3. The slippery slope: Same-sex marriage will lead to polygamous marriages. We should all be wary of a slippery slope argument as it tends (by definition) to be fallacious. However, related to the above paragraph, what is to stop the Court from discovering that I have a right to marry two women? Or the right to marry a man and a woman? And so on, ad infinitum. First, I don’t necessarily see the issue with drawing the line at marriage between 1 person and 1 other person. Second, why do we think polygamy is a bad thing? It is, after all, Biblically based. Third, can’t the religious freedom argument cut both ways? If you have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman, and I have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 10 women, then why should you be allowed to exercise your belief and I cannot exercise mine?

4. Marriage is for children: I cannot underestimate how often I have seen this in recent days, that marriage is primarily for child bearing and rearing. Marriage centered around the child makes sense since society in general has a vested interest both in reproducing and in ensuring that children are well cared for. However, I have two misgivings about this view. First, does this mean that we should exclude from marriage people who either cannot or will not reproduce? If you are elderly, or have some congenital defect that prevents reproduction, does that mean that we should prohibit your marriage? What if you want to reproduce before you get married and then find out your partner is unable to have children? Is it your societal responsibility to divorce that person and then marry again? There seems to be some stigma attached to young couples who choose to not procreate. Conservatives connect Roe v Wade with this decision here and say that SCOTUS is only concerned with sexual pleasure without consequences. We hate children and young people don’t want them because they would interfere with our pleasure, sexual and social. Thank you for thinking so little of Millennials…Second, it seems that an exclusive focus on children can backfire. Do we suddenly prevent people who would produce “genetically inferior” children from procreating, in the interest of bettering society? Do we treat couples without children as less than couples with children? Do we treat couple who adopt as less than couples who bear children? Why does “1 mother, 1 father” mean so much to raise healthy, good children? If I die, is my wife obligated to go out and get remarried so my daughter can have a father?

5. The loss of religious freedom: More than anything, this decision has been heralded as the end of religious freedom in America. Firstly, I am disturbed by the silencing of critics related to this decision and others. The idea that we will stifle and suppress discourse that we don’t agree with is terrifying. While I agree that the expansion of gay marriage is a good thing, I disdain the idea that I would shout at everyone who disagrees. In general, it seems as though our culture is in the middle of a huge expansion of stifling disagreeable thoughts and opinions. From the firing of tenured professors (Salaita) to the use of Title IX proceedings to suppress faculty on campuses, to the use of trigger warnings in college syllabi, to the harassment of people who are simply trying to voice their disagreement with the majority, we too often criticize and browbeat others into submission. That being said, if you are mocked publicly by others, if you own a business that people stop patronizing because of your personal views, if you are fired from a private company because of things you’ve said, if your friends desert you because of your political ideas, your first amendment rights have not been abridged or infringed. The government cannot prosecute you for your opinions or thoughts, but society can attach a stigma to you due to your opinions or thoughts. Do not assume that the first amendment protects you from persecution, it only protects you from prosecution.

Anyway, religious freedom. Perhaps I am misinformed, but I have not seen anything stating that clergy are being forced to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. If you work at the county clerk’s office and a same sex couple comes to get a marriage license, then you are legally obligated to do it, as an agent of the government. This is what the separation of church and state means. It’s not the silly little things, like whether we can or should pray before a town hall meeting, it’s the fact that as an agent of the government, acting on behalf of the government, you are obligated to perform your legal duty, and not let your religious beliefs interfere. If a polygamous Mormon works at the county clerk’s office, they cannot simply hand out polygamous marriage licenses, because they are illegal, no matter what their religious beliefs are. You can spend all the time you like, outside of your duties in government, advocating for your beliefs. If you truly cannot bring yourself to separate your religion with your legal obligation, then, perhaps a government job is not for you. I’m not saying all conservatives should quit government. Government, just like the private sector, needs diversity, and I include ideological diversity in that, and I hope that there are people out there that will comply with the law, while continuing to exercise their right to advocate to overturn the ruling or convince Americans that the ruling was wrong.

This was a very long post, and I certainly did not cover all the possible issues with the ruling. Again, I believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to be married, and I am pleased by the ruling. But, I do not think that the dissenting judges are “evil” or stupid. Let’s take their dissent, and the cultural dissent more broadly, seriously and engage with the ideas and what it means for us as a nation. What precedent does this set, outside of legalizing same sex marriage? Our public sphere of discourse relies on us engaging with ideas with which we disagree and weighing those ideas against the evidence prevented before us.

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