Saturday, May 30, 2015

What Does it Mean to Know?

Ernest Sosa, a philosopher at Rutgers, offers us a quick lesson in basic epistemology for the layman at The Opinionator. Epistemology is the (surprisingly, perhaps) fascinating study of the nature of knowledge and belief. Most of us think we know something if we are certain that it's true, but things are much more complicated than that. The classical definition of knowledge is that whatever it is we claim to know must be true, we must believe it's true and we must have good reasons for believing it's true.

Unfortunately, there are difficulties with this definition lurking in the philosophical weeds and Sosa points out the biggest of them, something called the Gettier Problem. He writes:
What is it to truly know something? In our daily lives, we might not give this much thought — most of us rely on what we consider to be fair judgment and common sense in establishing knowledge. But the task of clearly defining true knowledge is trickier than it may first seem, and it is a problem philosophers have been wrestling with since Socrates.

In the complacent 1950s, it was received wisdom that we know a given proposition to be true if, and only if, it is true, we believe it to be true, and we are justified in so believing. This consensus was exploded in a brief 1963 note by Edmund Gettier in the journal Analysis.

Here is an example of the sort used by Gettier to refute that theory. Suppose you have every reason to believe that you own a Bentley, since you have had it in your possession for many years, and you parked it that morning at its usual spot. However, it has just been destroyed by a bomb, so that you own no Bentley, despite your well justified belief that you do. As you sit in a cafe having your morning latte, you muse that someone in that cafe owns a Bentley (since after all you do). And it turns out you are right, but only because the other person in the cafe, the barista, owns a Bentley, which you have no reason to suspect. So you here have a well justified true belief that is not knowledge.
Sosa then goes on to discuss a modern formulation of the definition of knowledge, which, for what it's worth, I don't think is much of an improvement, but read the article and judge for yourself.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Are Miracles Impossible?

A common objection to the possibility of miracles is that such prodigies as a man rising from the dead, for example, would entail a series of violations of the laws of nature, specifically the conservation laws, and that, as David Hume put it, it's been the "uniform experience" of mankind that nature's laws suffer no such violations. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains in this 11 minute video why, even if the laws of nature were inviolable, even for God, it's a mistake to think that a miracle violates them. Whether the laws are Newtonian or quantum mechanical the occurrence of a miracle is not ruled out by them:
The only way the claim that miracles are impossible can be true is if the universe is closed, i.e. if there's nothing beyond it that can act in it. In other words, miracles are impossible only if there's no God or anything else of a purposeful nature which transcends the space-time universe. If it's possible that God exists then it's possible that miracles occur. Since it is possible that God exists any report of a miracle must be assessed on the evidence for it and not on the apriori assumption of atheism.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Should people feel guilty that they're better off because of the efforts of their parents and grandparents than those whose parents and grandparents couldn't, or wouldn't, pass on the same benefits to their progeny? Some liberals seem to think so. A British sociologist went so far as to claim that parents who read bedtime stories to their children should feel guilty that they're probably conferring an unfair "privilege" on their children over their peers whose parents don't or can't spend such time with their kids.

Robert Tracinski at The Federalist will have none of this nonsense and has some fine things to say about "Privilege." Here are a few:
I have two young kids. And I am working my tail off to give them as much “privilege” as humanly possible.

As if the good things you do for your own kids constitute actual harm for the children of others.

I want my kids to start their adult lives with a laundry list of advantages: I want them to be bright, literate, skilled, capable of self-discipline, athletic, with good taste and manners and grooming, maybe a little bit of money, and heck, even a few family connections—enough to get their feet in the doors of whatever careers they choose. I had some of these things, mostly a good education, and undoubtedly more than most people. I want my kids to have even more. Why? Because that’s my job as a parent: to give my kids the best start in life possible—and better than mine.
Precisely. Liberals survey society and see many parents who are essentially letting their kids raise themselves. This, naturally, puts those kids at a severe disadvantage in life, so the liberal solution is to level the playing field by criticising parents who want for their kids what Tracinski wants for his instead of criticising parents who don't do the things Tracinski does. Bringing the bottom up is hard. It's much easier to achieve the egalitarian nirvana by reducing everyone to the same miserable level. That's the liberal worldview in a nutshell.

Tracinski is careful in his essay to distinguish "privilege" from "entitlement:"
Privilege is not the same thing as “entitlement.” Entitlement means taking one’s advantages in life for granted, as if they are part of the normal order of things, and not realizing where they came from or what made them possible. Which usually means frittering away all of those advantages by failing to take the initiative to accomplish anything of your own.

In fact, one of the most important advantages you can give your kids is a lack of entitlement, the ethos of knowing that he has to work for what he wants in life. One of the great secrets of the middle class strivers is that they realize lack of entitlement is a “privilege” that will give their children a leg up on the spoiled rich kids.
There is one kind of privilege which far more parents, rich and poor, black and white, could confer on their children if they wished. It's perhaps the most effective thing they could do to insure their child has a modicum of advantages in life. It is to get married and stay married:
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution discovered that the likelihood of a child raised by [unmarried] parents born into the lowest income quintile moving to the top quintile by the age 40 was a disastrous 3 percent. Worse, 50 percent of those children stay stuck in the bottom quintile. And the outlook for the children of those marriage-less children is equally stark....But Reeves discovered a silver lining while crunching the data: Those children born in the lowest quintile to parents who were married and stayed married had only a 19 percent chance of remaining in the bottom income group. Reeve’s study revealed that this social-mobility advantage applied not just to the lower class: The middle class was impacted, too. The study revealed that children born into the middle class have a mere 11 percent chance of ending up in the bottom economic quintile with married parents, but that number rises to 38 percent if their parents are never married.
This is not a finding likely to be trumpeted by the liberal media which, judging by the policies they endorse, seems to be more concerned with breaking families up than with building them up.

Tracinski closes his article with this:
I’ve always loved an old quote from Henry Ford: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same thing goes for “privilege,” which is really just a disparaging term for “opportunity.” In this white-collar era, it doesn’t necessarily come dressed in overalls any more. But it still looks like work.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Idol of Equality

Sometimes it seems like the left has an equality fetish. They evidently think inequality is ipso facto proof of some sort of corruption in our body politic. Sometimes this leads them to rapturous excitement at some putative discovery of marginal validity of a primal egalitarianism between the sexes as in this article in the Guardian. The author gushes over a thinly supported theory of some anthropologists that primitive hunter/gatherer societies maintained sexual equality, to which one is tempted to respond by asking, "so what?" Apparently, any indication, no matter how tenuous, that women were treated as equals by men in some ancient culture is supposed to have important, if unclear, implications for us today.

On the other hand, liberals seem to be highly selective about the kinds of inequality which get their ideological juices flowing. For example, philosopher Peter Singer promotes a radical inequality which doesn't seem to ruffle the equality mavens at all. Here's an excerpt from a piece about Singer in which he declares that certain unborn children should not be treated as equal to the rest of us, or even to other unborn children:
On Sunday April 16, contentious Princeton Professor Peter Singer, once again argued that it is “reasonable” for the government or private insurance companies to deny treatment to infants with disabilities.

In the interview, which was perhaps ironically conducted as part of a press tour Singer is currently on promoting his new book about charities, “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically,” the professor advocated the shocking claim that health care laws like the Affordable Care Act should be more overt about rationing and that we should acknowledge the necessity of “intentionally ending the lives of severely disabled infants.”

During the controversial segment, talk show host Aaron Klein quoted from a chapter of Singer’s “Practical Ethics,” titled “Taking Life: Humans” published in 1993.

Singer, who is known for his provocative and often contradictory views on animal liberation and infanticide, also repeatedly referred to disabled infants as “it” during the interview. Without offering any scientific evidence to support what amounts to a return to eugenics, Singer routinely contends the “right to life” is related to a being’s capacity for intelligence and having preferences, which in turn is directly related to an undefined capacity to feel and/or comprehend ethereal concepts like pain and pleasure.

Singer told Klein that health care rationing is already happening, and surmised that hospitals routinely make decisions not based on need, but rather on cost. He then used the presumed practice to rationalize the killing of disabled infants by arguing in support of “non-voluntary euthanasia” for human beings who Singer contends are not capable of understanding the choice between life and death, including “severely disabled infants, and people who through accident, illness, or old age have permanently lost the capacity to understand the issue involved.”
For Singer the severely disabled are less equal than the rest of us and therefore don't merit a right to life. Singer, despite his radical inegalitarianism, is nevertheless a favorite of the equality fetishists at the New York Times.

Here's another form of inequality that fails to impress the left: The richest 1% of the taxpayers in this country contribute almost 50% of personal income tax revenue. Now if we really sincerely care about equality we'd find that appallingly unfair. Where are the demands from the liberals so outraged by "inequality" for a tax code in which everyone pays the same tax rate?

Perhaps the most absurd expression of the left's obsession is the solution to inequality we're beginning to hear about more frequently. The abolition of the family. Some on the left believe that the best way to eliminate inequality is to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator. Do strong families give some children an unfair advantage in life? Well, then let's limit what families can do for their children. This is only a step away from doing away with families altogether. Here's an example of the sort of thinking that is becoming more commonplace among liberals and other leftists:
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment. Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.

‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’ Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations. So, what to do?

According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
The break-up of the family is plausible maybe, he thinks, but even to the most hard-hearted there’s something off-key about it.
Indeed. In any case, Swift is not himself advocating the abolition of the family, he claims, but he does advocate limiting what families can do for their children.
‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.

The test they devised was based on what they term ‘familial relationship goods’; those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.

For Swift, there’s one particular choice that fails the test.
‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’
In other words, private schools are not necessary for family closeness, private schools confer unfair advantages on those who attend them, therefore private schools should be abolished. The same can be said for inheritance, of course, family connections, and even, perhaps, religious faith. Swift himself extends the concept to the traditional two parent model of the family:
‘Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,’ says Swift.
This is the sort of thing that follows once equality becomes an idol. There must be no differences, no advantage of one person over another, we must all be cut from the same cookie-cutter. How far have liberals fallen from the halcyon days of the 60's when all we heard was the need for individuality and the freedom to pursue our own ends in our own way. Liberalism employs this libertarian rhetoric until it succeeds in undermining all traditional institutions. Then it takes off the libertarian mask and reveals the underlying totalitarian impulse that seeks to control every aspect of our lives. The mask is starting to come off.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Perverting Science

Mark Franck at First Things tells an interesting tale of two social scientists who conducted research on a similar topic: Gay marriage.

The first researcher found that children of parents in gay unions do less well than children in traditional families on every measure tested. The second researcher found that when people talk in person to a gay man who describes to them how he would like to marry but is prohibited by law from doing so, the attitudes of the people frequently undergo lasting change in favor of gay marriage.

The first researcher has been put through the wringer because his results do not conform to the liberal narrative about gay marriage. The second researcher was roundly praised and feted by the media for his work.

The first researcher's work has been validated by everyone who has examined it, many of whom themselves favor gay marriage, but eventually other researchers whose mission it was to discredit the findings inexplicably threw out some of his data in order to get their results to conform to their preconceived conclusions. The second researcher, meanwhile, was found to have totally fabricated his research and his data.

The media is treating both cases as though they were somehow equivalently fraudulent. Science in America is taking on the aspect of science in the old Soviet Union. Unless the scientist's conclusions conform to the correct ideological line, they have no merit. The correct line in the liberal media is that gay unions are no different than traditional heterosexual unions, and if research finds that not to be the case then the research is ipso facto flawed.

Read Franck's fairly brief explanation of this absurd affair at the link.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Memorial Day Meditation

On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices and character of men like those described in these accounts from the war in Iraq:
A massive truck bomb had turned much of the Fort Lewis soldiers’ outpost to rubble. One of their own lay dying and many others wounded. Some 50 al-Qaida fighters were attacking from several directions with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. It was obvious that the insurgents had come to drive the platoon of Stryker brigade troops out of Combat Outpost Tampa, a four-story concrete building overlooking a major highway through western Mosul, Iraq.

“It crossed my mind that that might be what they were going to try to do,” recalled Staff Sgt. Robert Bernsten, one of 40 soldiers at the outpost that day. “But I wasn’t going to let that happen, and looking around I could tell nobody else in 2nd platoon was going to let that happen, either.”

He and 10 other soldiers from the same unit – the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment – would later be decorated for their valor on this day of reckoning, Dec. 29, 2004. Three were awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for heroism in combat. When you combine those medals with two other Silver Star recipients involved in different engagements, the battalion known as “Deuce Four” stands in elite company. The Army doesn’t track the number of medals per unit, but officials said there could be few, if any, other battalions in the Iraq war to have so many soldiers awarded the Silver Star.

“I think this is a great representation of our organization,” said the 1-24’s top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser, after a battalion award ceremony late last month at Fort Lewis. “There are so many that need to be recognized. … There were so many acts of heroism and valor.”

The fight for COP Tampa came as Deuce Four was just two months into its yearlong mission in west Mosul. The battalion is part of Fort Lewis’ second Stryker brigade. In the preceding weeks, insurgents had grown bolder in their attacks in the city of 2 million. Just eight days earlier, a suicide bomber made his way into a U.S. chow hall and killed 22 people, including two from Deuce Four.

The battalion took over the four-story building overlooking the busy highway and set up COP Tampa after coming under fire from insurgents holed up there. The troops hoped to stem the daily roadside bombings of U.S. forces along the highway, called route Tampa. Looking back, the Dec. 29 battle was a turning point in the weeks leading up to Iraq’s historic first democratic election.

The enemy “threw everything they had into this,” Bernsten said. “And you know in the end, they lost quite a few guys compared to the damage they could do to us. “They didn’t quit after that, but they definitely might have realized they were up against something a little bit tougher than they originally thought.”

The battle for COP Tampa was actually two fights – one at the outpost, and the other on the highway about a half-mile south.

About 3:20 p.m., a large cargo truck packed with 50 South African artillery rounds and propane tanks barreled down the highway toward the outpost, according to battalion accounts.

Pfc. Oscar Sanchez, on guard duty in the building, opened fire on the truck, killing the driver and causing the explosives to detonate about 75 feet short of the building. Sanchez, 19, was fatally wounded in the blast. Commanders last month presented his family with a Bronze Star for valor and said he surely saved lives. The enormous truck bomb might have destroyed the building had the driver been able to reach the ground-floor garages.

As it was, the enormous explosion damaged three Strykers parked at the outpost and wounded 17 of the 40 or so soldiers there, two of them critically.

Bernsten was in a room upstairs. “It threw me. It physically threw me. I opened my eyes and I’m laying on the floor a good 6 feet from where I was standing a split second ago,” he said. “There was nothing but black smoke filling the building.” People were yelling for each other, trying to find out if everyone was OK.

“It seemed like it was about a minute, and then all of a sudden it just opened up from everywhere. Them shooting at us. Us shooting at them,” Bernsten said. The fight would rage for the next two hours. Battalion leaders said videotape and documents recovered later showed it was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq fighters. They were firing from rooftops, from street corners, from cars, Bernsten said.

Eventually, Deuce Four soldiers started to run low on ammunition. Bernsten, a squad leader, led a team of soldiers out into the open, through heavy fire, to retrieve more from the damaged Strykers. “We went to the closest vehicle first and grabbed as much ammo as we could, and got it upstairs and started to distribute it,” he said. “When you hand a guy a magazine and they’re putting the one you just handed them into their weapon, you realize they’re getting pretty low. So we knew we had to go back out there for more.”

He didn’t necessarily notice there were rounds zipping past as he and the others ran the 100 feet or so to the Strykers. “All you could see was the back of the Stryker you were trying to get to.”

Another fight raged down route Tampa, where a convoy of six Strykers, including the battalion commander’s, had rolled right into a field of hastily set roadside bombs. The bombs hadn’t been there just five minutes earlier, when the convoy had passed by going the other way after a visit to the combat outpost. It was an ambush set up to attack whatever units would come to the aid of COP Tampa.

Just as soldiers in the lead vehicle radioed the others that there were bombs in the road, the second Stryker was hit by a suicide car bomber. Staff Sgt. Eddieboy Mesa, who was inside, said the blast tore off the slat armor cage and equipment from the right side of the vehicle, and destroyed its tires and axles and the grenade launcher mounted on top. But no soldiers were seriously injured.

Insurgents opened fire from the west and north of the highway. Stryker crewmen used their .50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers to destroy a second car bomb and two of the bombs rigged in the roadway. Three of the six Strykers pressed on to COP Tampa to join the fight.

One, led by battalion operations officer Maj. Mark Bieger, loaded up the critically wounded and raced back onto the highway through the patch of still-unstable roadside bombs. It traveled unescorted the four miles or so to a combat support hospital. Bieger and his men are credited with saving the lives of two soldiers.

Then he and his men turned around and rejoined the fight on the highway. Bieger was one of those later awarded the Silver Star. Meantime, it was left to the soldiers still on the road to defend the heavily damaged Stryker and clear the route of the remaining five bombs.

Staff Sgt. Wesley Holt and Sgt. Joseph Martin rigged up some explosives and went, under fire, from bomb to bomb to prepare them for demolition. They had no idea whether an insurgent was watching nearby, waiting to detonate the bombs. Typically, this was the kind of situation where infantry soldiers would call in the ordnance experts. But there was no time, Holt said.

“You could see the IEDs right out in the road. I knew it was going to be up to us to do it,” Holt said. “Other units couldn’t push through. The colonel didn’t want to send any more vehicles through the kill zone until we could clear the route.” And so they prepared their charges under the cover of the Strykers, then ran out to the bombs, maybe 50 yards apart. The two men needed about 30 seconds to rig each one as incoming fire struck around them.

“You could hear it [enemy fire] going, but where they were landing I don’t know,” Holt said. “You concentrate on the main thing that’s in front of you.” He and Martin later received Silver Stars.

The route clear, three other Deuce Four platoons moved out into the neighborhoods and F/A-18 fighter jets made more than a dozen runs to attack enemy positions with missiles and cannon fire. “It was loud, but it was a pretty joyous sound,” Bernsten said. “You know that once that’s happened, you have the upper hand in such a big way. It’s like the cavalry just arrived, like in the movies.”

Other soldiers eventually received Bronze Stars for their actions that day, too.

Sgt. Christopher Manikowski and Sgt. Brandon Huff pulled wounded comrades from their damaged Strykers and carried them over open ground, under fire, to the relative safety of the building.

Sgt. Nicholas Furfari and Spc. Dennis Burke crawled out onto the building’s rubbled balcony under heavy fire to retrieve weapons and ammunition left there after the truck blast.

Also decorated with Bronze Stars for their valor on Dec. 29 were Lt. Jeremy Rockwell and Spc. Steven Sosa. U.S. commanders say they killed at least 25 insurgents. Deuce Four left the outpost unmanned for about three hours that night, long enough for engineers to determine whether it was safe to re-enter. Troops were back on duty by morning, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla.

In the next 10 months, insurgents would continue to attack Deuce Four troops in west Mosul with snipers, roadside bombs and suicide car bombs. But never again would they mass and attempt such a complex attack.

Heroics on two other days earned Silver Stars for Deuce Four.

It was Aug. 19, and Sgt. Major Robert Prosser’s commander, Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, had been shot down in front of him. Bullets hit the ground and walls around him. Prosser charged under fire into a shop, not knowing how many enemy fighters were inside. There was one, and Prosser shot him four times in the chest, then threw down his empty rifle and fought hand-to-hand with the man.

The insurgent pulled Prosser’s helmet over his eyes. Prosser got his hands onto the insurgent’s throat, but couldn’t get a firm grip because it was slick with blood.

Unable to reach his sidearm or his knife, and without the support of any other American soldiers Prosser nonetheless disarmed and subdued the insurgent by delivering a series of powerful blows to the insurgent’s head, rendering the man unconscious.

Another Silver Star recipient, Staff Sgt. Shannon Kay, received the award for his actions on Dec. 11, 2004. He helped save the lives of seven members of his squad after they were attacked by a suicide bomber and insurgents with rockets and mortars at a traffic checkpoint.

He and others used fire extinguishers to save their burning Stryker vehicle and killed at least eight enemy fighters. Throughout the fight, Kay refused medical attention despite being wounded in four places.
For men like these and the millions of others whose courage and sacrifice have for two hundred and fifty years enabled the rest of us to live in relative freedom and security, we should all thank God.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hard Truths

Thomas Sowell states some politically incorrect truths about race in America in a recent column at The Jewish World Review. After discussing how the recent riots and looting were fed by the falsehood that Michael Brown was shot in the back while fleeing from a white cop, and the fact that a black cop in Alabama was, at about the same time, cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of an unarmed white teenager, an incident I'll bet most Americans who get whatever news they consume from the mainstream media were completely unaware of, Sowell goes on to talk about some fictions that surround black poverty. Chief among these fictions is the attempt to,
...automatically depict whatever social problems exist in ghetto communities as being caused by the sins or negligence of whites, whether racism in general or a "legacy of slavery" in particular. Like most emotionally powerful visions, it is seldom, if ever, subjected to the test of evidence. The "legacy of slavery" argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.
He supports these claims with an inconvenient fact. Black communities were healthier in the aftermath of slavery than they've been in the aftermath of the welfare state:
Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s. You would be hard-pressed to find as many ghetto riots prior to the 1960s as we have seen just in the past year, much less in the 50 years since a wave of such riots swept across the country in 1965.

We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less.

Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, DOWN — during the much lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.
Similar trends apply equally to poor whites in England, Sowell notes, as illustrated in Theodore Dalrymple's book Life at the Bottom. The point is not that blacks are somehow uniquely disposed to crime and dysfunction, but rather that liberal government policies destroy individuals and communities of any color by, in Sowell's words,
exempting them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain ....Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock, to be fed and tended by others in a welfare state — and yet expecting them to develop as human beings have developed when facing the challenges of life themselves.
As if to put the exclamation point at the end of his essay Sowell notes that "one key fact that keeps getting ignored is that the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits every year since 1994." In other words, if we were really serious about ending poverty in the black community we'd be doing everything we could to strengthen the two parent family rather than doing everything we can to weaken it.

Friday, May 22, 2015

What Now for Israel and Her Critics?

Hamas is nothing if not persistent. Having provoked Israel into waging war in Gaza and laying the place waste they're once again back to building tunnels into Israeli towns to facilitate killing more Israeli civilians. This, of course, is costing a lot of money, donated by other countries (including Israel) to be used to help Palestinians cope with living under the Hamas tyranny. No matter the needs of their people, what money and supplies there are in Gaza is being diverted to tunnel construction.

This presents both Israel as well as the Western critics of Israel's resort to force last summer with a problem: 1) Should Israel do nothing about these tunnels and allow Hamas to slaughter their civilians? 2) Should Israel once again invade Gaza and destroy the tunnels? 3) Should Israel ramp up their blockade of Gaza and squeeze Hamas economically until they stop construction? Western critics of Israel have condemned them for doing both 2) and 3) in the past, but to say they should not now resort to force or an economic blockade is to say they should allow the tunnels to be built and their children to be massacred by the Hamas barbarians.

While we mull over these options here's the essence of an informative piece on the state of affairs Israel is confronting right now:
The Israeli defense establishment and Israeli decision-makers have been well aware for many months of Hamas' rebuilding of the tunnels that were destroyed during Operation Protective Edge in August 2014. Hamas is not trying to hide its flagship project and has been pursuing it vigorously. The organization’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has invested immense resources in the project, while ignoring the deplorable condition of the population in the Gaza Strip, where things have worsened since last summer’s operation and the closing of the border with Egypt in December 2014.

The tunnel reconstruction project resumed a few weeks after the end of Operation Protective Edge. It employs hundreds of Palestinian workers as well as heavy transportation machinery. Palestinian men are fighting for the privilege of working in the tunnels, since this is their only chance to find work in the unemployment-riddled Gaza Strip. This intensive activity along the Israeli border has fully exposed the tunnel-digging and fortification project for all to see.

The defense establishment rejects the allegation ... that at least one Hamas tunnel has crossed the border into Israel. But members of Kibbutz Nirim in the western Negev Desert claim that a private company whose services they retained carried out a comprehensive inspection, which showed a high probability of a tunnel under the houses in the kibbutz.

Regardless of whether Hamas has been able to cross the border with Israel within 10 months, there is no question that this is its goal, and one that it has been pursuing strenuously. Before long, the project will get to the point at which dozens of tunnels are primed and ready for a strike in Israel. To date, Israel has apparently not taken any pre-emptive measures. Unlike on the eve of Operation Protective Edge, there is no dispute today over whether the defense establishment has intelligence about the scope of the tunnels and their real threat to Israel’s southern communities. Today, the threat is in the open.

Israel now faces both a military and diplomatic dilemma. If the IDF were to embark on another campaign in Gaza to destroy the tunnels, as Bar-Lev suggests, it is abundantly clear that it will not stop at the border. Instead, it will evolve into a large-scale operation with all the implications of such a move, namely rocket fire at Israel, a ground offensive and airstrikes in Gaza, fighting in densely populated areas and civilian casualties as well as further destruction of the infrastructure in Gaza, which is still licking its wounds in the aftermath of last summer’s fighting.

From an Israeli standpoint, another military operation in Gaza within a year will intensify the international pressure, regardless of the importance of the operation and the fact that destroying the tunnels is clearly a defensive need. On the other hand, when the picture is so crystal clear and the danger so tangible, Israel cannot again sit idly by and continue to treat Hamas as if the threat doesn’t exist.

Israel has been forced in recent months to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Supplies are shipped only via Israel, after Egypt sealed off the smuggling tunnels in Rafah. Had it not been for the recent more lenient approach and the allowance of raw materials previously banned by Israel, Gaza would have faced a humanitarian crisis by now.

Jerusalem’s only option now is to give the ultimatum to Hamas’ political and military leadership that unless the tunnel project is stopped, the rationed construction materials Israel is currently transferring to Gaza will stop, and little by little the easing of the blockade will end as well. Tightening the blockade will cause further deterioration in the population's situation. However, this is apparently the only deterrent at Israel's disposal before a military operation, which in turn could lead to civilian casualties and fatalities and more suffering for Gazans.
The critics of Israel are in a difficult spot. If Israel employs tougher sanctions the critics will have to endorse that policy since it's the only plausible peaceful alternative to war. If an economic squeeze fails to deter Hamas then the critics will have to remain quiet should war break out again. To object would be to implicitly side with terrorism.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Conservative Calls for Civil Disobedience

Thomas Jefferson, borrowing from John Locke, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that,
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
It may turn out at some point that revolution is the only way to avoid despotism, but the costs of such a measure are so high and the outcome so uncertain that it should be an absolutely last resort. Long before such drastic steps become necessary citizens who wish to remain free, who wish our nation to be a nation of laws and not executive fiat, who wish to retain their rights to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom to bear arms, all of which are under unprecedented assault in this country by the current administration, should take to the streets in acts of civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

That our freedoms are in the Left's crosshairs becomes plainer, it seems, every day. What, for example could the president possibly have meant when he said that we need to change the way we report the news? What could Hillary Clinton have meant when she said that religious convictions that cause people to oppose abortion must be changed?

Here's the president a week or so ago:
And so, if we’re going to change how Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell think, we’re going to have to change how our body politic thinks, which means we’re going to have to change how the media reports on these issues, and how people’s impressions of what it’s like to struggle in this economy looks like.
How can he do that without essentially abrogating the freedom of the press? Here's Mrs. Clinton last month:
Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper....Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed. As I have said and as I believe, the advancement of the full participation of women and girls in every aspect of their societies is the great unfinished business of the 21st century and not just for women but for everyone — and not just in far away countries but right here in the United States.
How can she change the deep-seated ... religious beliefs of a people without abrogating our freedom of religion?

The progressive veils are being taken off. Their agenda of compelling people to accept their utopian vision and their understanding of a moral society is being explicitly stated. Charles Murray has written a book (By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission)in which, in the words of Clark Niely at The Federalist, calls for conservatives to resist the Left's relentless statism by engaging in selective civil disobedience. Niely writes:
Summarizing the thesis ... Charles Murray calls (read Murray's essay here)for citizens to push back against government over-regulation by refusing to comply with laws that are “pointless, stupid, or tyrannical” — especially when they interfere with our ability to earn a living, run a business, or use our own property....

Thus, the mere fact that a court says it is constitutional to bulldoze people’s homes in order to build nicer ones, or license the sale of floral arrangements, or exercise federal control of local pet-care decisions does not make it so. Those decisions are so obviously wrong—and so poorly reasoned—that they can make no serious claim to anyone’s intellectual or civic allegiance....

Simply put, when the government’s abuse of its authority is sufficiently clear, sufficiently oppressive, and sufficiently offensive to the conscience and morals of decent people, there is nothing un-conservative about resisting it, even (or perhaps especially) when the Supreme Court is out to lunch—as it so often is.
In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King famously observed that unjust laws are no laws at all and should not be obeyed. The same can be said for Executive Orders and other unilateral means of unjustly imposing the will of one man on the entire nation while denying the people's representatives the ability to stop him.

Statists like those in the current administration will strip us of every freedom they can, they'll stick their noses into every aspect of our lives that they can, unless at some point, the citizenry declares that we've had enough. Murray thinks we're at that point now. If Mrs. Clinton wins in 2016 we'll surely be at that point then.

Even with a legislative branch controlled by Republicans, many of whom are also infected by the statist virus, the president can still appoint federal judges, Supreme Court Justices, and bureaucrats in the alphabet agencies like OSHA, EPA, IRS, etc. to circumvent any roadblocks the legislature may erect to ever-expanding government and ever-diminishing individual freedoms. It's past time for Americans to rouse themselves from their comfortable slumbers and begin to reclaim the freedom bequeathed us by the Founding Fathers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Accomplishments? What Accomplishments?

It's one of the charming oddities of our politics that people will vote for a candidate for all sorts of reasons other than the candidate's qualifications for office. The individual may be unqualified, corrupt, dishonest, untruthful, unprincipled, vindictive, and unscrupulous and people will still vote for the person as long as the person is in the right party. Then they'll spend the next four years complaining that politicians are unqualified, corrupt, dishonest, untruthful, unprincipled, vindictive, and unscrupulous.

The focus group in this video consists of a group of Iowa Democrats who are asked to name just one accomplishment Hillary Clinton can claim from her tenure as Secretary of State that qualifies her to be president. The consensus answer is, apparently, that she hasn't accomplished anything, but she's got the right view of gay marriage and abortion and she's better than Scott Walker because he's a Republican.
For those readers with long memories, remember that Richard Allen, Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor, innocently accepted a check from a Japanese magazine for arranging an interview with Nancy Reagan. There was no impropriety, he never cashed the check, and an FBI investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, but nevertheless the Democrats howled about the stench of corruption until Allen ultimately resigned. Hillary Clinton accepted millions of dollars in gifts from foreign countries while she was Secretary of State, a clear conflict of interest that potentially compromised American foreign policy, and her base remains steadfastly supportive. It's no big deal. She's not a Republican, after all.

Older readers might also recall that fourteen members of the Reagan administration were indicted in the Iran-Contra affair for illegally selling weapons to Iran and illegally channeling some of the proceeds to the Contras in El Salvador. The Democrats were livid about this, but Hillary Clinton was evidently involved in illegally sending weapons from Libya to Syrian rebels, an operation that quite possibly precipitated the attack on the Benghazi consulate, and it hardly makes the news. What matters to a lot of people is not the candidate's qualifications or character, but whether there's a D or an R after his or her name. They'd vote for Beelzebub himself if he was a member of the right party.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Knowing What We Know Now

The "Knowing what we know now" game seems to be enjoying a spurt of popularity among the media, mostly because it's being used to make Republican presidential candidates like Jeb Bush squirm. The fun won't last, though, since the game is inevitably going to be turned against both President Obama and Hillary Clinton. It's not hard to imagine either of them or both at some point being asked to play the game. If it involves the president it might go something like this:

Knowing what we know now do you think it was a good idea to:
  • Expend all your political capital on passing Obamacare
  • Encourage the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt
  • Undertake a "reset" of relations with Russia
  • Overthrow Qaddafi in Libya
  • Pull all our troops out of Iraq
  • Refuse to arm moderates in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine
  • Refuse to strengthen security for our Libyan diplomats
  • Blame Benghazi on a video
  • Facilitate the flow of weapons across the border to Mexico in the Fast and Furious operation
  • Give millions in taxpayer dollars to numerous failing companies like Solyndra
  • Trade five top terrorists for Bowe Bergdahl
  • Select Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State
  • Select Joe Biden to be Vice-President
  • Promise to give the American people the most transparent administration ever
On further reflection I take back what I said above. It is indeed hard to imagine either Mr. Obama or Ms Clinton being asked questions like these by a media so desperate to see progressivism succeed that asking tough questions of fellow progressives would never even occur to them, nor would they have any idea how to go about it if it did.

I've already suggested one way I think Bush or any other candidate should answer the "Knowing what we know now" canard here. Here's another courtesy of Allahpundit at Hot Air: "Yes, knowing what we know now, i.e. that any military success we would enjoy in Iraq would be entrusted to Barack Obama to sustain, it was indeed a mistake to invade Iraq."

Monday, May 18, 2015

White Flight

It's not unusual to hear commentators blame the problems of our urban areas, at least in part, on "white flight." Whites, it's implied, don't want to live in proximity to African-Americans and other minorities so they take their money and flee to the suburbs, leaving the cities, and their schools, impoverished. The tacit, or sometimes explicit, assumption behind this allegation is that white flight is motivated by racism.

The charge is nonsense, but that doesn't stop it from being made, as Dana Casey clearly fears it will be in her case. Casey has written a fine piece at The Federalist in which she lays out why, when she was a child, her family, liberal Democrats to the core, finally gave up and left Baltimore, and why as an adult she returned.

At the end of her essay Casey calls for genuine dialogue about the problems of Baltimore and other cities, rather than finger-pointing monologues in which blacks lecture whites about their white guilt. She says this:
On April 27, 2015, I listened to the sirens rush past my bedroom window all night, heading to another fire at the senior center less than a mile away, a center being built by a black church for local citizens. Baltimore was never the same after the ’68 riots, but I don’t think that will be the case today unless we keep listening to people like author Jake Flanagin or Al Sharpton, Loretta Lynch, Malik Shabazz, and even President Obama, who all keep pointing the finger instead of calling for healing or common ground.

Their supposed calls for dialogue are really a demand for monologue. The rest of us (meaning white people) had better shut up and accept the fact that we are all racist and everything is entirely the fault of white people, all white people. Then we should be made to pay (as Sharpton has so successfully modeled).

So what is true? I can only speak to what I know, but if we start including everyone’s stories and not just the politically correct stories or those that support “the narrative” being pushed by the Left as the only truth that matters, we may get closer to the actual whole truth.

Just putting in writing the things I actually witnessed in Baltimore in those troubled times will be enough to make some people hate me and call me a racist. I am willing to take that chance. Real dialogue, not just monologue, has to start with someone. I know I do not have the whole truth, but I do have a part of it and I may be that part’s only voice right now in Baltimore. Real truth, real dialogue, and real healing of our wounded city will only start when all legitimate voices are considered.
Read the whole thing. It's very good and very important.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Water's Weirdness

There's an interesting article by Alok Jha in The Guardian on the very strange and unique properties of a substance we (unless we're Californians) take for granted - water.

It's hard to overstate how amazing water's properties are and how crucial those properties are to living things. For example, Jha tells us that,
Water is at its most dense at 4C and, at that temperature, will sink to the bottom of a lake or river. Because bodies of water freeze from the top down, fish, plants and other organisms will almost always have somewhere to survive during seasons of bitter cold, and be able to grow in size and number.
If the temperature of the water continues to drop toward 0C (the freezing point) the colder water actually gets less dense and rises to the surface. That's why ice floats. It's less dense than the warmer water it floats in. In fact, if it didn't float it would sink to the bottom and bodies of water would freeze from the bottom up making it impossible for most forms of life to survive a cold winter.

Jha adds,
This, though, is just the start. Take a glass of water and look at it now. Perhaps the strangest thing about this colorless, odorless liquid is that it is a liquid at all. If water followed the rules, you would see nothing in that glass and our planet would have no oceans at all. All of the water on Earth should exist as only vapor: part of a thick, muggy atmosphere sitting above an inhospitable, bone-dry surface. A water molecule is made from two very light atoms – hydrogen and oxygen – and, at the ambient conditions on the surface of the Earth, it should be a gas. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), for example, is a gas, even though it is twice the molecular weight of water. Other similar-sized molecules – such as ammonia (NH3) and hydrogen chloride (HCl) – are also gases.
Of course if water were a gas at normal temperatures life as we know it would be impossible. Jha mentions a few other interesting facts about water, but he just touches the surface, as it were. Entire books have been written on the subject, and indeed, Jha himself has written one.

Here's one more fact that Jha didn't mention. Water gains and loses heat more slowly than almost any other substance. This is why the ocean is still cold even on a blistering hot day in June. It takes a long time for water to heat up and a long time for it to cool down. This is very fortunate for a number of reasons but one is that because there's so much water on the earth's surface and because it changes temperature slowly it tends to stabilize the earth's overall temperature and keep it within a range in which life can thrive.

Jha claims that evolution has shaped us to survive in a watery environment. Perhaps so, or perhaps the myriad fortuitous properties of water, so far from accidentally resulting from the mindless chaos of the initial Big Bang, are actually the deliberate result of the scientific genius of a brilliant cosmic Chemist.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Enemies of Free Speech

Kirsten Powers is a liberal Democrat (in the classical sense) who appears sometimes as a political analyst on FOX News. Unlike many of her fellow contemporary liberals, however, she's serious about freedom of speech - so serious, in fact, that she's written a book (The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech ) about how her fellow progressives are crushing free speech in America. An editor at Christianity Today magazine, Katelyn Beaty, recently interviewed Powers about her book. Here are a couple of excerpts:
K.B.: Your book criticizes an intolerance among the cultural Left toward those with dissenting viewpoints. You give many examples of how the “illiberal Left,” as you call it, is not just disagreeing with but discriminating against those with different views. What are some of the most powerful examples of this from your research?

K.P.: There were an endless number of examples, to the point that I had to cut a couple chapters. If I had to, I’d say the absolute worst [example] is one in which a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara physically attacked pro-life demonstrators who were doing a peaceful demonstration. It’s a prototype of these cases, not in the fact that it was violent, because that’s unusual, but her argument is typical: Disagreement is treated as an attack and even violent in and of itself. The act of expressing a point of view they disagree with is an act of violence. This came up over and over in the police reports when the professor was arrested. She was the victim, even though she was the persecutor. She had been harmed, they [the protestors] made her unsafe, and she has a right to go to work and feel safe and they made her feel unsafe.

This actually just happened, so it's not in my book: [Scholar] Christina Hoff Sommers has been on campuses lecturing about feminism for the past 20 years, and she’s a critic of gender feminism and talks instead about equity feminism. In April, at two different events, one at Georgetown and one at Oberlin, she had to have campus security protection because the students were posting things that had the administration so alarmed for her safety. She has been a critic of the rape statistics that are cited to show there’s an epidemic of rape on campuses, so she’s been deemed a "rape apologist," even though she’s obviously not denying rape; she’s talking about statistics. Some Oberlin students wrote a letter to the editor before she came and said, “There’s nothing we can do to stop her from coming here, so let’s stand together in the face of this violence.” And she hadn’t even spoken yet.

Traditionally liberals in the United States have valued free speech as enshrined in our Constitution, have recognized that dissent can be good and shape public policy in important ways, and that the freedom to say what we think and feel is an important element of democracy.

K.B.: Why is free speech such an important value, and what’s the cost of losing it?

K.P.: Our conception of free speech in this country comes directly, indisputably, from liberals. We would not understand free speech the way we do today if not for—and I’m sorry to say, conservatives who don’t want to hear it—the American Civil Liberties Union, and liberal Supreme Court justices who charted the course of expanding the view of the First Amendment, and activists during the Vietnam War. So this is a core part of American liberalism. So we have people who call themselves liberals on the Left of the political spectrum, acting in complete contradiction of their values and the arguments that underlie them.
Powers is correct about this. The Left was on the vanguard of the free speech movement throughout much of the twentieth century and especially from 1960 to 1990, but during this time they were a minority seeking to change the establishment. Now they are the establishment and free speech is as much a threat to them as they were to the establishment two generations ago. Thus free speech is now being defined as hate speech, as violence, and is to be suppressed and punished. This is the Left's modus operandi throughout history. They use the democratic system to destroy the system and then, once they're in power, they impose a totalitarian conformity on everyone else. George Orwell vividly illustrates how this strategy works in his novel Animal Farm, which every intelligent person should read at some point in their education.
KB: Is the dynamic we're seeing simply political correctness run amok, or is something more insidious at play?

KP: I don’t refer to the dynamic as political correctness, because that downplays what’s going on. It’s something much deeper. In the book I don’t diagnose why it’s happening, I’m simply trying to establish that it is happening.

But what struck me while writing the book is that the illiberal Left reminds me of religious zealots, except of a secular religion. The average religious person has their beliefs, but they’re not trying to get people fired who don’t have their beliefs. But zealots do do that. It’s not enough for them to believe it; they can’t tolerate other people who don’t believe what they believe, and they have this absolute certainty that they’re right. It’s self-sanctifying. They have to establish that they are morally superior to people who disagree with them. It’s social signaling: “My identity comes from the fact that I’m pro-gay marriage and pro-choice and believe in climate change and oppose charter schools.”
There's much more at the link. Powers is one of a vanishing breed of liberal that used to be typical in the 50s and 60s. She's someone who believes that being liberal means that one stands for freedom. Today being liberal is too often very close to being fascist. Those who stand for freedom in our contemporary politics tend to be conservatives and libertarians.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Harder Than It Has to Be

Once again a Republican presidential candidate is struggling to answer a question that shouldn't be too hard to answer. Earlier, you'll recall, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was blindsided by a question about his belief, or lack thereof, in evolution. I suggested at the time that Walker's response should have been to ask the questioner to explain exactly what he or she meant by "evolution," a term so protean that it can mean almost anything. Such a reply would so discombobulate his interrogator that the question would probably never be raised again. Few laypersons, after all, have any idea what scientists and philosophers mean by the word evolution and the almost certain inability to clarify the question in any coherent way would doubtless prove embarrassing enough to the journalist that probably no one would wish to risk public chagrin by raising it again.

It would have been easy.

The same could be said for the recent stumbling performance of Jeb Bush when asked whether, given what we know now, he would have invaded Iraq as his brother did in 2004. Bush has taken three different stabs at answering the question and he's gotten lots of criticism for all three attempts, none of which was very clear or convincing. There is a very simple answer he could have given, though, that would not have sounded like he was throwing his brother under the bus - which is, of course, what the media wanted him to do - but which would have been completely honest and reasonable. He should have said that the only way he could give an informed answer to the question is if he knew not only what we know now about what has happened since the invasion but also if we knew what would have happened had we not invaded Iraq.

Since we don't know that, and can't know that, there's no point in speculating in retrospect about whether toppling Saddam was wise or not. It's like asking whether, knowing what we know now, it was worth dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The question is unanswerable unless one knows all of what would have happened had we not dropped the bomb. The only fruitful way to frame such questions is to ask whether, knowing what we knew then, it was reasonable to conclude that going to war was justified.

Bush might also have added that many of the problems that have ensued in that part of the world are the result of the current administration's hurry to wash its hands of the place, which, it could be argued, was as great a mistake as some think George W. Bush made in going in.

In any case, answering these sorts of questions, which, of course, only get asked of Republicans - Hillary hasn't been asked any tough questions by the media about Benghazi, about her deleted emails, her use of a private server, or the evident massive conflict of interest posed by the donations foreign countries have made to her "charitable foundation" - shouldn't be as hard as these guys are making it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rapid Advancement Opportunities

The war against ISIS - a war of attrition about which we don't hear much from our media, fixated as they are on whether Tom Brady knew whether the footballs he used were underinflated - seems to be proceeding apace. One reason, perhaps, why ISIS has been successful in recruiting young, ambitious jihadis to the cause is that it's able to offer the new recruits ample opportunities for career advancement since top management positions are currently experiencing an exceptionally high turnover rate.

The leader of ISIS, one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seriously injured and incapacitated in a drone attack a couple of months ago that took the life of his close aide. After the attack Baghdadi's second in command, the ill-fated Abu Alaa al-Afri, took the reins. Now there's another job opening since al-Afri and dozens of other ISIS jihadis were evidently reduced to ash recently in a drone attack on a mosque in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar.

An article in the British Daily Mail explains the reasons for the "churn" in the ISIS leadership:
Figures from February showed allied airstrikes, including those carried out by British warplanes, had killed more than 6,000 fighters since September. The figure included more than half of the militants on the IS ruling council.

Among the dead jihadists was Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former Iraqi army lieutenant colonel considered Baghdadi’s number two and the most senior ISIS militant in Iraq.

His death and that of as many as nine others on the 18-man leadership council forced Baghdadi to promote local warlords to the status of regional commanders, as his inner circle of trusted advisers and battle-hardened loyalists became increasingly small.
And it looks like it's going to continue to grow smaller.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Racism in America

Racism is alive and well, even among university faculty where you'd think the bigots would at least be circumspect. Circumspection, though, is only for the faint-hearted, not for brazen hate-mongers like a certain female professor at the University of Alabama named Dr. Grundy. The following is from a report at The Blaze:
Dr. Grundy, an incoming assistant professor of sociology ... at the University of Alabama, reportedly posted a number of racially charged tweets about her disdain of “black people” — and her comments have apparently left many people offended. Though Grundy made her Twitter account private after her anti-black tweets started to go viral, the information is now on the Internet for good.

In one tweet, Grundy refers to “black college males” as a “problem population.” She also rails against “black masculinity,” calling it “THE problem for America’s colleges.” The Boston Herald has more on some of her other posts:

Other tweets stated “Deal with your black (expletive), black people .... and “Every ... week I commit myself to not spending a dime in black-owned businesses. And [more and more] I find it nearly impossible.”

UA released the following statement on Sunday:
“While we recognize that Dr. Grundy has the right to hold and express personal opinions, UA does not condone racism or bigotry in any form, and we are offended by such statements.”
Several students also slammed the professor’s “exclusionary” comments and argued a college campus should emphasize tolerance to all people. It wasn’t clear if Grundy would face any disciplinary action for her remarks.
Pretty disgusting, isn't it? And to think there are those who still insist that racism is no longer a problem in this country. A segment of NPR's Smart Talk the other evening dealt with how much bigotry there is among whites, much of it unconscious, and certainly Dr. Grundy represents millions of people who hold views similar to hers. Does anyone think that those who voice such sentiments should be compensated by taxpayers to teach our kids?

A couple of things, though, about the article I quoted. I altered it. The school which employs Dr. Grundy is not Alabama, it's Boston University, and Ms Grundy is not white, but black. The story above reversed "white" and "black" as those words appeared in the original article. You can bet if Grundy were white, especially if she were a white male, she'd be fired, or at least required to take sensitivity training, but because she's a black female, well, we'll see what, if anything, happens to her. After all, racism is considered malign in liberal circles only when it's practiced by whites.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rethink Your Bias

I had to chuckle at the recent ads carried by AOL adjuring us to "rethink our biases." One ad features this picture:

The reason I found this amusing is that the ad itself reveals at least two biases on the part of the people who made it. First, it shows a black man with a white woman. There's nothing wrong with this except that, if I may be permitted to play amateur psychologist, it's a subliminal expression of the liberal bias against white men dating black women, a juxtaposition liberals have trouble being enthusiastic about because in their minds it points to some sort of inadequacy among black men, as though they're not good enough to win the affection of the best black women.

The second bias the ad reveals is the preference for male dominance. When two people hold hands the dominant person will always, even if unconsciously, insist on placing his hand on top of the other's. Liberals, who are all about gender equality, of course, would deplore this, but they nevertheless acquiesce to it themselves when they're not thinking about it.

Perhaps you think I'm nit-picking and maybe I am, but the clear intent of the ad is to get people to confront their, perhaps unconscious, biases. Very well, but why did they depict the relationship the way they did? Does it not reflect the unconscious biases of the people who made it? Maybe AOL and the Ad Council, the organization which came up with the ads, ought to rethink their own biases before they presume to pontificate to the rest of us about ours.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Distinctions Without Differences

A friend sent along a link to a piece at Salon about the Pamela Geller cartoon event in Garland, Texas that resulted in two would-be jihadi mass murderers being sent off to Paradise to cavort with their seventy-two virgins. I shared some thoughts on this yesterday and suggested that attempts by liberals to distinguish between "hate" speech and "free" speech bordered on the ridiculous. The article in Salon confirms that judgment.

The author, an academic at Penn State University named Sophia McClennen, constructs an argument so convoluted that only an academic could think it meaningful. McClennen's point seems to be that satire that mocks, ridicules, and demeans religion is good, but using cartoons to do the same thing, as Geller did, is not satire and is therefore not good. This certainly seems to me to be a distinction without a real difference, but maybe you'll discern something in McClennen's piece that makes the distinction sound. She writes:
Rather than attempt to spark a debate about how fear, threats, and aggression can lead to censorship of satirical cartoons, Geller wants to draw out a fierce debate about the evils of the Islamic community. She wants to hype fear, not diminish it.
How, exactly, Geller was "hyping fear" by conducting this contest is not clear. Nor is it clear why the "fear, threats and aggression" employed by Islamists and depicted in satirical treatments of Islam are not themselves real "evils." McClennen's complaint seems to be more with style than with substance. She says of Geller that,
She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes her work as an example of "hate speech."
But why is satirizing Islam fine and dandy, but the event Geller sponsored consitutes hate speech? McClennen tries to explain:
[T]here is a radical difference between satire and hate speech. While many debated whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had gone too far, there is little question that [Geller's] “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” had none of the irony, critique, or sarcasm of satire. It was just aggressive. Satire, of course, can get mean too. It can cross the line and punch down when it is supposed to punch up, but it’s [sic] goal is to attack ideas and institutions that deserve critical scrutiny and productive skepticism.
So, it's all a matter of style. Geller lacks the savoir faire, the elan, of the typical liberal satirist, and therefore her work is deemed crude and hateful. McClennen implicitly slaps Geller when she distinguishes Geller's work from genuine satire by claiming that the goal of satire "... is to attack ideas and institutions." Her point here is just silly. Is not Islam a set of ideas? Is not Islam an institution? Is not Geller attacking them just like McClennen's "real" satirists do? Anyway, there's more:
So we should not be surprised that the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo was outraged to hear that Geller organized her event in honor of the magazine. Gerard Biard told The Guardian ”When we make a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, or Jesus, or Moses, we don’t mock or attack people. We mock or attack institutions, representatives, powers, and, again, political powers.” At the heart of satire is the interest in calling attention to accepted truths, to questing [sic] the status quo, and to exposing a lack of critical thinking. Geller’s project demands that her followers work entirely off of fear-based emotions, leaving all reason aside.
Biard's claim in that paragraph is absurd and dishonest. When Charlie Hebdo draws its cartoons of religious figures like Mohammed, or Jesus, or Moses, it's very much engaged in mocking and attacking both them and the people who follow them. Moreover, McClennen's last sentence above is an assertion unsupported by any evidence. She makes it sound as if Geller's entire project, and indeed anyone else who agrees with her (which includes many ex-Muslims), is irrational, but she offers nothing to give the reader any reason to accept her claim. Maybe a talented satirist might undertake to expose Ms McClennen's own lack of critical thinking.
This, of course, may be her greatest insult to the idea of free speech. Free speech is not a license to be stupid; in fact, the very right to free speech depends on the idea that humans are rational subjects. Sure we defend all sorts of speech under the notion of the first amendment, but we would never have even had such an amendment without a firm belief that the rights of the citizen should be grounded in reason and not faith. And there is no greater testament to reason than satire. Satire requires the brain to understand layers of meaning, to unpack irony, and to form independent ideas.
I've tried unpacking the preceding paragraph in my mind, but I'm not sure I've succeeded in deciphering it properly. She seems to be saying that free speech only applies to people of the intellectual stature she herself is blessed with, a stature that enables the proud possessor to comprehend satirical intricacies and sophistication hidden from ordinary minds. She seems to be saying, in other words, that cartoons that lack "layers of meaning" should not be considered free speech.

In any case, we get to what I take to be the crux of McClennen's dyspepsia in the next paragraph. It turns out that her real problem with Geller is that she represents those odious faith-based (read Christian), fear-mongerers (read conservatives), who populate the GOP (read axis of evil):
This is why we need to see Geller as another example of the faith-based, fear-mongering thinking that increasingly defines the GOP, rather than the critical satire of Molly Norris’s cartoon poster or the work of Charlie Hebdo. Clearly Geller seems to be attempting to incite the exact sort of violence that took place in Garland, Texas.... it is worth wondering whether Geller was hoping for violence.
This last sentence is a cheap-shot, another absurdity in an already lengthy list of them McClennen has composed. Would she insinuate that the editors of Charlie Hebdo were hoping for violence? If not, why not? Why ask this about Geller if not to somehow make her seem nefarious? And if that's what McClennen's trying to do, what's the difference between what she's doing to Geller in this essay and what Geller is trying to do to Islam?

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Garland Incident

The Garland, Texas episode has created some strange alignments. To recap, a woman named Pamela Geller who writes at a blog called Atlas Shrugs, and who is inveterately hostile to what she sees as creeping acceptance of Sharia law here in the states, organized an event in Garland in which cartoonists were invited to depict Mohammed. This, of course, is seen as blasphemy by Muslims, and two of them tried to commit mass murder at the site but were quickly dispatched by a police officer before they could do serious harm to anyone.

The controversy that subsequently erupted has been interesting. Generally the liberals (though not all them) are outraged that Geller would organize something so deliberately provocative. What she did, the left says, is hate speech, not free speech, or, at the least, it was gratuitously offensive.

Conservatives (though not all of them) have interpreted Geller's contest as a statement of principle. It was a way of asking whether we will continue to have free speech in this country or whether we will be cowed into dhimmitude by Muslim fanatics.

I agree that the event was offensive and disrespectful to Muslim's beliefs, but the liberals' outrage strikes me as hypocritical. It was liberals, after all, who defended Andres Serrano when he immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine and called it art. It has been political liberals, or progressives as they prefer to call themselves, who have consistently told us that art is supposed to challenge our most cherished beliefs and that disgusting portrayals of Christ should be seen as "opportunities to expand our consciousness." It has also been the liberal-left which has for decades insisted that freedom of speech, if it means anything, must be the freedom to say things that people hate and despise. At least that's the script they've read from as long as the speech in question offended only Christians. Offending Muslims is apparently a different story.

Some progressives amplify their hypocrisy by expressing their distaste for Geller and her anti-Islamic attitudes in terms they would never employ if the person being discussed were hostile to Christianity, like, say, Richard Dawkins.

On the right the officious Bill O'Reilly instructs us that Jesus would never approve of needlessly offending Muslims, and he's probably right, but that's not the point. The question raised by Geller's contest in Garland is not whether she should have done it or not, it's not whether we approve of it or not, the question is whether in a free society anyone should be able to express their criticism of other religions or ideologies in ways that those who bear the brunt of the criticism find objectionable. I think when we start limiting the forms criticism can take we soon wind up prohibiting criticism altogether as Tanya Cohen wishes us to do. When that happens, though, we've lost an essential freedom, and the rest of our freedoms will not long endure once freedom of speech has been abrogated.

In any case, I think Serrano's Piss Christ was far more blasphemous than Geller's cartoons. Christ, after all, is believed by Christians to have been God incarnate. Mohammed was just a human being whom Muslims believe was a prophet. His role in Islam was more like the role of St. Paul in Christianity or Moses in Judaism. Muslims do not think Mohammed was divine. Even so, if people wish to lampoon or degrade those who are objects of devotion for millions of people, that's part of the price of freedom. God, after all, doesn't need us to secure whatever retribution, if any, he might wish to exact for being insulted. Our response should be to display to the world through how we react and how we live how foolish it is to mock what we hold dear.

Nothing is more likely to convince people of the absurdity of a religion than killing those who disagree with it, even if they express their disagreement through mockery and sacrilege. And nothing is more likely to provoke mockery and sacrilege in a free society than telling skeptics that one's own beliefs are so sacred that if you disagree there will be blood.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Liberal Fascism

Having recently read an article in which a sociologist makes the claim that reading books to your children gives your children an unfair advantage in life over those kids whose parents don't or can't read to them, I thought the progressive left was jumping the shark. Then I read an essay by a left-wing activist by the name of Tanya Cohen which made the first article seem sane by comparison. Cohen claims, in essence, that only speech that she agrees with should be legal. Speech that supports her progressive ideology she considers "free speech." All else is "hate speech" and the First Amendment does not protect it.

I know you're thinking that I'm making this up or exaggerating so I invite you to read the piece for yourself. Unfortunately, Ms. Cohen is a very wordy writer and reading her essay is an exercise in Sisyphean stultification so I've pasted the salient portion here. Ms Cohen writes:
In order to establish ourselves as a country that sincerely respects fundamental human rights, democratic freedoms, and individual liberties, America needs to pass basic human rights legislation – such as a Human Rights Act – that outlaws, among other things:
  1. Speech which offends, insults, demeans, threatens, disrespects, discriminates against, and/or incites hatred or violence against a person or a group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or sexual activity, gender identity or gender expression, disability, language, language ability, ideology or opinion, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, hair color, etc.), mental capacity, and/or any other comparable distinction. In cases where hate speech is aggravated – such as incitement to genocide – prison sentences should be even longer.
  2. The spreading of misinformation, including climate change denial, denial of war crimes and genocides (especially Holocaust denial), conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine propaganda, and general nonsense.
  3. Anti-feminist, anti-multicultural, anti-immigration, and/or anti-equality ideology.
  4. Insulting, disrespectful, and/or offensive speech in general and speech that violates the dignity of people. This would include, for example, jokes about tragedies along with insults and derogatory/disrespectful comments about any person, group, place, or thing.
  5. Speech that disparages the memory of deceased persons.
  6. Speech that voices approval of oppressive, anti-freedom, anti-democratic, and/or totalitarian ideologies. This would include, for example, speech that opposes a woman’s right to have an abortion and speech that approves of Israeli apartheid in Palestine.
  7. Speech that opposes any human rights. This would mean that anyone saying that hate speech shouldn’t be against the law would be prosecuted, since hate speech is universally recognized as an injustice and a human rights violation. It would also include propaganda for war, which is illegal under international human rights law.
  8. Speech that incites, instructs, assists, condones, celebrates, justifies, glorifies, advocates, or threatens violence and/or law-breaking and speech that undermines the rule of law. This would include, for example, the advocacy of gun ownership (which would be classified as incitement to violence in any civilized country). In a civilized society, advocating violence is no different than actually committing the violence yourself. Only in the US is inciting violence and murder – even inciting violence and murder against minorities – considered to be “free speech”.
  9. Speech that undermines the authority of the state and/or interferes with the state’s ability to properly function and do its job. This would also include speech that undermines the authority of the United Nations and/or international law.
  10. Speech that objectifies women and/or reduces them to their sexual dimension, such as pornography and catcalling.
  11. Speech that promotes unacceptable ideas, such as un-democratic ideologies and ideologies that oppose freedom. This would also apply to promoting people who promote or promoted unacceptable ideas. For example, in the case of The Jewish community of Oslo et al. v. Norway, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ruled that glorifying Hitler not only constitutes incitement to Hatred, but also incitement to violence.
  12. Speech that harms and/or divides society in general, including speech that damages social cohesion.
  13. Symbols associated with hateful and/or un-democratic ideologies, such as Nazi swastikas and Confederate flags.
  14. Gestures and salutes associated with hateful and/or un-democratic ideologies, such as fascist salutes.
  15. Speech which constitutes microaggressions against vulnerable minorities.
  16. Images or recordings of any crimes.
  17. Speech which may lead to tensions with other nations and/or upset people in other nations.
  18. Speech which is found to be blasphemous towards minority religions.
  19. Depictions of indecent violence (especially violence against women) and/or other offensive content.
  20. Speech which is found to be irresponsible, unethical, antisocial, hurtful, impolite, uncivil, abusive, distasteful, and/or unacceptable in general.
Like all rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with great responsibility and it must be balanced against other rights. All of these things go far outside the realm of free speech, and all other advanced democracies have already passed laws against most of these things in order to protect basic human rights. Outlawing these forms of hatred does not interfere with the sacrosanct right to freedom of speech, and it would not violate the First Amendment in any way since hate speech is not freedom of speech in any way, shape, or form. Nobody has the right to take away rights from others. Nobody has the freedom to take away freedoms from others.
In addition to noting that several of her tenets (#11,12) are self-violating, it needs also to be pointed out that hers is an Orwellian view of freedom, but it is the view espoused by the liberal-left. She's actually calling for a form of slavery to be imposed by fascists like herself who use the word "freedom" to mean precisely its opposite. If people like her are elected to the presidency and to Congress (I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether they already have been) we'll all be walking around in our Mao jackets in abject silence, afraid to open our mouths for fear of bringing down upon ourselves the wrath of narrow-minded totalitarians like Ms. Cohen.

If you wish to see what her world looks like, indeed, what the Progressive utopia she and her fellow leftists have in mind for us looks like, make it a point this summer to read George Orwell's 1984.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Flat Tax

Bill Whittle, the "virtual president," observed the occasion of a recent tax filing deadline to make a succinct case for a flat tax. God bless him. Those readers who are unfamiliar with the flat tax will find this video helpful:
In my opinion, one of Whittle's key points is the statistic that shows the tax burden born by the top 1%, top 5%, and everyone else. When half the people pay no income tax they really have no investment in the nation's well-being. That's not a good situation - for them or for the country.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Three Warblers

Long time readers of Viewpoint will recall that from time to time I've posted photos of some of the more beautiful species of birds that I've had the good fortune to see in the field. With the spring migration in full swing I thought I'd share some pics (not taken by me) of some warblers I've seen this week:

This is a Prothonotary warbler. It famously figured in the in the late 1940s trial of Alger Hiss who was a State Department employee who was spying for the Soviet Union. Back then communists and communist spies were considered enemies of the United States. How times have changed.

This colorful little guy is a Cape May warbler. It really has nothing much to do with Cape May, New Jersey, but it's called that because a specimen was collected there and later described by the famous ornithologist Alexander Wilson. It nests in spruce trees in Canada and can be seen during migration in the eastern U.S. It is unique among warblers in that it has a tubular tongue for feeding on liquids when insects are scarce.

This is a Black-Throated Blue warbler. It nests in the north and at higher elevations wherever there's unbroken expanse of forest. Because of this habitat requirement the Black-Throated Blue is declining as North American forests are becoming more fragmented. It winters in the Caribbean and in Central America.

Most of our warbler species are undergoing population declines, largely because of habitat loss both in their breeding grounds and in their winter homes in Central and South America. It's a shame because they are beautiful creatures.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Theism, Atheism and Proper Basicality

Philosophers consider some beliefs justified even though the believer can mount no argument for them. They call these beliefs properly basic beliefs and they are the foundation upon which all our other beliefs are based. For example, we're justified in believing what our memory tells us we had for breakfast, we're justified in believing that we're experiencing a pain or seeing a tree or that other people have minds, etc. We're justified in holding these beliefs, prima facie, until an argument can be mounted compelling us to accept that we are mistaken.

Some philosophers, in what's known as the Reformed tradition of epistemology, argue that belief in God is properly basic as well. We're justified in believing in God, these philosophers argue, until and unless a compelling counterargument can be presented to us. Some non-theistic philosophers have claimed that just as theistic belief is properly basic, so, too, is atheistic belief. The atheist is justified in believing there is no God until and unless a persuasive counterargument is presented.

Rik Peels at the philosophy blog Prosblogion considers this claim and finds it unpersuasive. He writes:
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.

I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
After some helpful brush-clearing Peels gets to the crux of his argument:
On atheism, the most plausible explanation of why such beliefs are usually true is highly likely to be one in terms of our evolutionary history. It seems evolutionarily advantageous to form true perceptual beliefs about one’s environment. If we did not, we would not have been as successful at survival or we might not have survived at all. If we failed to see that a shark or tiger is approaching, our chances of survival would be comparatively low. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to other beliefs, such as beliefs based on memory or introspection, as well as on smell or touch.

Thus, our normal basic beliefs seem to be produced by cognitive mechanisms that are truth-oriented and generally reliable, because they have the right causal connection with the world (outside or inside) and having true beliefs contributes to survival (emphasis mine). There has been some debate about whether evolution selects for true beliefs, but it seems that virtually all atheists and even many theists embrace this thought, so I will not question that thesis here.

Now, the problem is that the basic belief that God does not exist seems to differ radically from perceptual beliefs, auditory beliefs, introspective beliefs, and our other basic beliefs. If God does not exist, he cannot cause anything in our physical environment, nor will he be exemplified in our physical environment in the way that properties like being such that there are three [sharks] within a range of twenty feet can be exemplified by the sharks circling around us.

Of course, believing that God does not exist may have survival value. However, even if it does, it does not seem to do so in virtue of its being true — this in opposition to, say, our perceptual and memorial beliefs. For, it seems that the belief that God does not exist is not and cannot be caused by the world inside or outside, in the way perceptual and memorial beliefs can. This is not to deny that atheism as a basic belief may have survival value: it may make one, say, courageous or independent. The point is: it seems it cannot have such survival value because of the causal interaction with the world. And such causal interaction does seem to be required in order for the mechanism that produces that belief to be truth-oriented and reliable.

Hence, even though, for all we know, the basic belief that God does not exist is true or even necessarily true, it seems it cannot be produced by a mechanism that is both truth-oriented and reliable. This means that whether or not God exists, it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that reliably produces the basic belief that God does not exist. And that means that, to the extent that one’s atheism is a basic belief, it cannot be properly basic. Hence, in order for it to be warranted, it should be based on arguments against God’s existence. This may even imply that atheism cannot be rational if it is merely a basic belief, for instance, if rationality requires that it seems possible that the belief in question is produced by a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism.
A non-existent God cannot have any causal connection with the world, thus our truth-oriented and generally reliable cognitive mechanisms could not lead to the properly basic belief that there is no God the way those mechanisms lead us to memory, perceptual, and other properly basic beliefs. Peels closes with this:
Thus, if something like Reformed Epistemology is correct, there is an important epistemic asymmetry between theism and atheism: theism can be properly basic, whereas atheism cannot—the theist does not need arguments for God’s existence, whereas the atheist does need arguments against God’s existence.
Interesting, at least for those interested in epistemological questions.