Saturday, July 30, 2016

Did the Russians Do It?

The Democratic National Committee and others have blamed the Russians for the hack of their embarrassing emails which Wikileaks released just before the convention. They've tried to blame this on Vladimir Putin's alleged desire to influence the election in Donald Trump's favor.

Our intelligence agencies, however, aren't playing along. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said this week that he's not ready to conclude that the Russians were behind the hack, and Debkafile offered four reasons why they conclude that it was "almost certainly not carried out by the GRU's cyber warfare branch, contrary to assertions by senior DNC officials who fix the blame on Russian intelligence."

Here are Debkafile's four. Readers can judge for themselves how persuasive they are:
  1. Russia’s cyber warfare system is still mostly a "black hole" for the West. Although it is highly effective, very little is known about its methods of operation, organizational structures, scale of cooperation with counterparts in other countries, and the tools and resources at its disposal.
    Had any branch of Russian intelligence been responsible for hacking the Democratic party’s servers, no obvious signatures, such as the terms "Fancy Bear" and “Cozy Bear” that were discovered, would have been left behind for investigators to find.
  2. Intelligence organizations, including those of Russia, are usually fully focused on seeking security, strategic and economic data. It is hard to see Russian military intelligence, whose resources are stretched, expending time and manpower on digging out the DNC's views of Bernie Sanders’ religiosity.
  3. Then, too, CrowdStrike’s claim to have cracked the case in two hours is hardly credible. Getting to the bottom of an APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) calls for extra-powerful computers, working in conjunction with the internet service provider (ISP), and consuming weeks, if not months of analysis.
  4. Attributing the hacking attack to the Russians provided US agencies with a convenient reminder that the most notorious leaker of classified US documents, Edward Snowden, still lives safe from prosecution in Russian exile, and that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, remains in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in Britain.
They conclude that the emails may even have been leaked by a party source:
The true identity of the hacker that sent the cat among the Democratic party pigeons, at the most damaging moment for Hillary Clinton, remains the subject of conjecture for lack of firm proof. The leading suspects may well be one or more of her party opponents.
In any case, Wikileaks has claimed that there are more revelations on the way. It should make for an interesting August.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Three Questions for Moderate Muslims

A story in The Guardian relates how the family of Adel Kermiche, the young man who recently slit the throat of a French priest who was saying mass, had struggled to keep him from jihad. Kermiche had twice been stopped trying to get to Syria to join ISIS and had been placed in prison, but he had persuaded a gullible French judge that he was a moderate Muslim and no threat. The judge, against the recommendation of prosecutors who knew better, released him from jail. Now a priest is horribly murdered and others are seriously injured as a result.

Moderate Muslims insist after these incidents that we must not blame Islam, that Kermiche was psychologically troubled and that, despite the testimony of his schoolmates and others who said he talked religion all the time, it wasn't his religion which drove him to commit his terrible crime.

David Wood is a man who seeks to engage Muslims to examine what the Qu'ran and Hadiths teach about violence. It may seem presumptuous for a non-Muslim to undertake such a mission, but apparently many Muslims, like many Christians, don't really know what their holy books actually say.

In any case, Wood poses three questions in this short video to those who consider themselves moderate Muslims. His questions are intended to highlight the overall question why it is deemed racist or bigoted to be concerned about the spread of a religion that seems to spawn such horrific acts of violence as has Islam.
So, is he missing something?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Phony Hysteria and Dumb Lyrics

Yesterday's Democratic Convention performances were overshadowed by news that Donald Trump had committed treason, or at least you might think that were you to listen to some of the media talking heads on television.

Trump had announced that if the Russians had in fact hacked the DNC, as the Democrats are alleging, he hoped they'd also be able to locate the 30,000 emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from her server. This sent the media into outrage overdrive. Trump was encouraging a foreign nation to meddle in our elections by hacking into Mrs. Clinton's server. This is nonsense, of course, since the FBI is in possession of Mrs. Clinton's server and it's no longer operable, but facts don't matter to the media when they catch a whiff of blood in the water.

Anyway, Mollie Hemmingway dispenses with this phony hysteria in an article at The Federalist in the course of which she makes this interesting observation:
If the media had been even a fraction as outraged by Hillary Clinton’s server, her shady lies, her foundation’s solicitation of funds from oligarchs and dictatorships while she served as secretary of State, the revelation that foreign governments had almost certainly hacked her information, this freakout by the media would come off very differently.

If the media had not spent 2012 mocking Mitt Romney for his “gaffe” of saying that Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat, if they had cared when Ted Kennedy asked the Soviets to intervene in the 1984 Democratic primary, if they briefly interrupted worship at Barack Obama’s feet when he made hot-mic promises to Russians, and so on and so forth, this would be a different story.

Some people just listen to the music of a song, some also listen to the lyrics. Sometimes the music is great but the lyrics are banal nonsense. Speeches are like that. If you just listen to the music of Barack Obama's speeches you could get carried away by it, but if you also listen to the lyrics you have to wonder what in the world he's talking about.

For example he made much of his grandparents' teaching him the importance of telling the truth. You would think he'd have been embarrassed to mention this since the signature achievement of his administration, Obamacare, was founded on claims that were patently untrue. He told us repeatedly that under the Affordable Care Act people would be able to keep their doctors and that their insurance would be cheaper. He had to have known at the time that neither of these promises was true.

He also told us that the Benghazi murderers were motivated by an insulting video made by some guy in California. He knew that that wasn't true as well.

One reason we should always tell the truth is that as soon as we're discovered to have lied the person who discovers it will find it very hard to ever trust or believe us again. Perhaps that's why it's so hard to trust either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton. Indeed, the President also insisted in his speech that Hillary Clinton was the best qualified woman or man ever to be nominated for the presidency.

Maybe it depends on what his definition of "qualified" is, but his claim is, on the face of it, absurd. He was correct, it can be granted, to acknowledge that she's more qualified than he was, he being perhaps the least qualified presidential candidate of the last century in 2008, but it takes an astonishing ignorance of recent political history to declare that no one has been better qualified than Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were both better qualified. Reagan was a successful two-term governor of California, a state that's bigger than most countries, and George H.W. Bush had a resume that included combat pilot in WWII, as well as stints as Congressman, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Envoy to China, Ambassador to the U.N., C.I.A. Director, and Vice-President. Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, was a one-term senator with no real accomplishments, and an ineffective Secretary of State.

I understand why people don't listen to the lyrics of these speeches. In some cases, their silliness and obvious mendacity ruins the excitement and mood set by the music. Just turn off your mind and rock on.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Political Correctness

Political Correctness is the rather clumsy appellation given to the idea that certain political or social sentiments or actions are necessarily to be treated as taboos, the violation of which brings censure and other punishments upon the violator.

Simply put, it's a form of coercion by popular opinion. It's an exercise in macroaggression by a minority against a majority and often works somewhat like a pack of hyenas isolating a single animal from the herd, pouncing upon it, and tearing it to pieces. A hapless student, faculty member, businessman, or public figure who has transgressed in word or deed the small-minded orthodoxies of the pack of thought-predators staffing our media outlets and roaming the halls of our universities and government agencies is targeted, isolated, pounced upon, and devoured.

This is the fate which crushed Aaron and Melissa Klein, the owners of a now closed family bakery, who were ordered to pay out $135,000 for refusing to participate in a lesbian wedding. It's the judgment imposed upon a clerk in Kentucky named Kimberly Davis who refused to sign marriage certificates for gays because doing so violated her religious beliefs, and it has damaged the lives of a host of others. These simple folk were publicly humiliated and/or financially ruined in order to punish them for their insolence in standing on the First Amendment and pour encourager les autres

Professors have been denied tenure and students threatened with dismissal from their colleges for voicing opinions which deviate from the "approved" views on race, religion, evolution, or sexuality. Yet, had they been engaged in speech or deeds acceptable to the left, speech that called for the deaths of white police officers, for instance, they'd be feted this week at the Democratic National Convention.

The larger herd stands apart as the unfortunate victim is mauled by the hyenas. The herd's angry, perhaps, but helpless, unable to do much of anything to aid their stricken member but exhaling in relief that it's not them who was chosen to be dinner.

They're helpless because they don't realize that if they would band together, lower their horns, and charge at the hyenas they'd send them scampering for their lives. Likewise, Americans, if they could bestir themselves, could lower their rhetorical and electoral horns and put the media and university thought-police and inquisitors to flight. We can't stand by dumbly, like the herd, waiting for someone else to speak out against the hyenas. We can start by working to elect people to office this November who believe in freedom of speech and individual justice.

Every American would do well to commit to memory the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote that,
One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.
Indeed, anything that goes beyond this is the herd standing by while it's numbers slowly diminish under the tyranny of ideological predators and bullies.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ruminations on Yesterday

Yesterday's political events stirred up a number of thoughts and questions in my mind, the answers to which may be obvious to those readers with more bountiful intellectual gifts than I possess, but I'll share them anyway.
  • How could people listen to some of the speeches last night and not laugh out loud? There, for instance, was Michelle Obama lecturing her audience to not let anyone tell them this country isn't great. This despite the fact that her husband has for his entire life been telling us that this country needs to be fundamentally transformed.

    It's her husband who has been telling us that America is racist, that we're going to suffer a self-inflicted eco-catastrophe soon, that the principles on which it was founded need to be revised. This is the woman, moreover, who eight years ago told us that until her husband had been nominated she had never been proud of this country, and now she's telling us this is a great country?

  • Then there were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have spent most of their lives condemning the wealthy 1%, economic inequality, crony capitalism, the political corruption big money fosters, and calling for government regulation or even a takeover of the financial sector, throwing their support behind a woman who is the embodiment of all of the things they despise.

    Bernie Sanders, the man who for a year and a half has led a "revolution" that would wrest control of the country from the hands of the wealthy, who was undercut by the supposedly neutral Democratic National Committee (DNC), surely with the knowledge, if not the connivance, of Ms Clinton, now comes out and asks his supporters, who invested so much time, energy, treasure, and hope in his cause, to vote for the very woman who is the antithesis of everything he stands for. It's breathtaking.

  • Why is it that now, whenever there's a terrorist attack, the news media keeps asking whether ISIS was behind it? To repeat a famous question, what difference, at this point, does it make? Why the fascination with ISIS? It's as if the people reporting on these things somehow think the victims are less dead if ISIS wasn't involved. Or is it that they think that if the terrorists aren't affiliated with, or influenced by, ISIS then there's no reason to think that their religion had anything to do with their crimes.

    Perhaps by focusing on whether the perpetrator was associated in some way with ISIS they can elide mention of the things these terrorists all have in common. They're all relatively young Muslim males. Whether they're influenced by ISIS or not is irrelevant.

  • Why are the Democrats and their media spokespersons so eager to implant the idea in the national consciousness that the DNC emails were hacked by the Russians? A tranche of emails were released by Wikileaks a few days ago showing collusion between the DNC and the media to sabotage the Sanders campaign. It would seem that the salient questions would not be who hacked them but what they say and whether the emails were genuine, which no one is disputing and which is why Debbie Wasserman Schultz was ousted as the chair of the party.

    For some reason, though, the media seems to want us to focus on the fact that it was the big, bad Russians who hacked them, probably to help Trump, they're saying, instead of having us focus on the corruption in the Democratic party and in some precincts of the media which, according to the emails, are populated by servile lackeys of the Democratic party.

A couple of concluding thoughts. Why isn't the media focusing on this question: Do we really want to put in charge of our nation's security people who can't be bothered to secure their own email communications? Shouldn't we be having that conversation, especially in light of Clinton's reckless use of electronic communications? I hope our CIA is as good at hacking the emails of our adversaries as the Russians apparently are and as the Chinese doubtless are, but I doubt that either the Russians or the Chinese are as complacent about security as the Democrats have shown themselves to be.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pro-Life Nation

We're sometimes told that a majority of people in the country favor a woman having the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or to terminate it via abortion.

The claim is a little misleading. Pro-choice advocates use it to defend the policy of allowing a woman to tend a pregnancy at any time until just prior to birth, and as is the case with extremists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while the baby is being born and even after the baby has emerged completely from the mother.

This is not, however, how many pro-choicers understand their position.

A recent Marist survey of 1,009 adults conducted July 5-12 found that 62 percent of people who identify themselves as pro-choice want to limit abortion to the first three months. Kathryn Lopez at National Review summarizes the results:
Though 51 percent of Americans say they are pro-choice, about 8 in 10 Americans support substantial restrictions on abortion (78 percent), and would limit it to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy. This number includes 62 percent of those who identify as pro-choice, 85 percent of African Americans and 84 percent of Latinos.
Clearly, there's a disconnect between the average pro-choice individual and groups like Planned Parenthood which want no restrictions at all placed on when an abortion can be obtained. Among other findings of the poll, according to Lopez, were these:
Taxpayer funding for abortion is opposed by 62 percent of Americans. This includes 65 percent of African Americans, 61 percent of Latinos, and 45 percent of those who say they are pro-choice, as well as 84 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of Independents and 44 percent of Democrats.

Concerning the recent Supreme Court decision, Nearly 8 in 10 Americans (78 percent) want abortion clinics to be held to the same standards as other outpatient surgery centers. This includes 77 percent of African Americans and 82 percent of Latinos, as well as 77 percent of women, and 84 percent of millennials. About three quarters of those who identify as pro-choice (74 percent) agree, as do strong majorities regardless of party affiliation.

In addition, 70 percent of Americans want doctors who perform abortions to be required to have hospital admitting privileges. This includes 71 percent of women, 77 percent of millennials, and 78 percent of Latinos, Pro-life and pro-choice adherents are also equally likely to support such a requirement at a rate of 7 in 10 for each group (71 percent).

And by almost 20 points, a majority of Americans (56 percent to 37 percent) do not believe that healthcare providers should be forced to perform abortions against their conscience or religious beliefs. This includes 6 in 10 Latinos (61 percent) and 4 in 10 who identify as pro-choice (41 percent).
Maybe the Marist poll is inaccurate, or maybe the numbers have always looked like this, but if not, there seems to be a tectonic shift in attitudes taking place in this country concerning the practice of abortion, and folks like the Democrat party elites and Planned Parenthood look like extremists occupying the nether fringes of mainstream public opinion.

Maybe it's time to redefine what we mean by "pro-choice" and reevaluate what it means to be "pro-life."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Choice

Jonah Goldberg, who I think is currently America's most brilliant writer on politics, has written a column in the wake of the Republican convention that struck a chord with me. Jonah is a conservative who finds Mr. Trump to be totally unsatisfactory as presidential timber and at one point he laments the fact that many of his fellow conservatives seem contemptuous of anyone who refuses to support Mr. Trump. He writes:
I hate what I’ve learned about my side. I hate thinking the worst of people I once respected — sometimes unfairly and sometimes with adamantine certitude. I hate watching TV and seeing people slowly bend to the alleged new necessities.

Every few minutes another e-mailer or Twitter follower claims that my only option is to board the bandwagon, get with the program, or see the writing on the wall — as if such hectoring were an argument rooted in some kind of principle other than the fascistic glorification of the mob and a new right-wing version of The Right Side of History. The party barge is leaving the dock for Wales and one must jump aboard or be painted the party-pooper or the traitor.

I hate discovering that so many people are disappointed in me for not playing my part in a racket.

Every day, if not every hour, I am told that my true motives are in reality desires, goals, and ambitions that have never once entered my mind. I want Hillary Clinton to be president of the United States as much as I want to be a patient of a narcoleptic proctologist (“Oh, I’m sorry, did I leave that in there all that time?”). I want the Supreme Court to be handed to the Left as much as I want a lap dance from Chris Christie.

I hate that after 20 years of fighting what I believe to be the good fight, so many can’t muster the good will or generosity to consider that I’m doing what I think is right. I’m entirely open to the argument that my analysis and judgment is wrong. But I am resentful, furious and, most of all, contemptuous of the lazy and self-justifying assumption that my motives are malign.

I have nothing but sympathy for those who feel they must vote against Hillary Clinton. But I have scorn for those who think that requires lying about Trump. If you’re a true-believer in Trump, that’s fine. I think you’re making the same mistake that the Left’s 2008 true believers made about Obama. There are no saviors in politics. But when millions of people think there can be, those of us in the Remnant of doubt get treated like heretics.

That’s fine. Indeed, despite my obvious fatigue and anger, I’m actually far more hopeful than you might think. In Cleveland, I met scores of fellow heretics. We didn’t meet in catacombs. But we plotted and planned all the same. We are the anti-establishment now.

We stand opposed to two parties united behind two different facets of statism and identity politics. We are the new rebel alliance fighting against the narrative of a new empire. We aren’t as many as I would like, but we are far from few. We may not win, but one thing is for sure: It’s more fun to be the rebel.
You can read his entire column at the link as well as subscribe to his G-File which is emailed once a week.

From my point of view, among all the reasons why Trump should be viewed with deep suspicion, the fact that Sean Hannity has a man-crush on him is not the least, and among the reasons why it may be necessary to vote for Trump is that as bad as he is, his opponent is much worse.

Indeed, Trump is a cornucopia of vices and faults, but almost any flaw one could find in him could also be discovered without hardly looking in Hillary and/or her husband, who would surely be co-president should she be elected.

I deeply resent that the two major parties have forced us to make a choice between a man who has the emotional maturity of a sixth-grader and a woman who corrupts everything she touches, who is a stranger to the concept of integrity, who puts her own convenience and personal secrets ahead of the national security, and who has given the appearance, at the very least, of influence peddling - not just to American banks but also to foreign governments.

I question the moral judgment, wisdom and intellectual consistency of those who are enthusiastic about either Trump or Clinton. How can one be enthusiastic about the prospect of being led either by a towering narcissist or a felonious incompetent?

On the other hand, I reluctantly disagree with those who argue we should withhold our vote. This came up in an e-conversation with a friend this morning as we talked about Jonah's column and the anguish many conservatives are feeling this election cycle at having no one they can be excited about. Here's an edited version of what I said to him: Trump's candidacy has managed to split conservatives into two factions: Those who place principles above expediency and those who are willing to subordinate their principles to a Nietzschean ressentiment or hostility toward the source of their resentments. The shame of it is that the latter group, in which we find people like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, are showing open contempt for those in the former group like the National Review crowd and Ted Cruz.

For my own part, though I sympathize with the more principled folks among the #NeverTrumpers, I think we have to vote for the least bad candidate. If we don't we're sure to get the worst possible candidate.

Everything people despise in Trump's character, and there's much to dislike, we'd get in at least equal measure in Hillary and/or her husband. But worse than that we'd also get someone who has been proven to be as cavalier about the truth as she is about the safety of American diplomats, someone who has been reckless with national security and shown terrible judgment in Libya, Russia, and Iran, someone who has prostituted herself to the big financial institutions she claims she'll rein in, someone who has never created a business or a job, and who has no significant positive accomplishments to show for her years in public office.

Equally as troubling, in my mind, is that Ms. Clinton embraces the progressive social agenda on abortion, open borders and open bathrooms. Indeed, I think she'd be even more radical on some of these matters than she indicates.

In any case, whether or not I'm right in holding the belief I mentioned in that last sentence, two issues are paramount for me in this election: Illegal immigration and the Supreme Court. On both of these I think it necessary to gamble that Trump would do better than Clinton. Indeed, from a conservative point of view, it's hard to imagine him doing worse, but I'm very far from being enthusiastic.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Saving Lives in Iraq

Last month I did a post on an aid agency called Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC) and the work they're doing in Fallujah, Iraq to save the lives of Iraqi refugees from the horror of ISIS and the turmoil of war.

PLC has recently sent out an update which presents a summary of what they've accomplished in the last couple of months. It's an inspiring account. Here's an overview:
  • Since May 26, you've given more than $751,047.
  • We've spent $421,000 providing lifesaving food, water, and more, as of July 18.
  • Displaced families have received more than 611,000 pounds of food.
  • We're delivering 52,000 liters of water daily.
  • We've provided 1.5 million liters of water total.
  • We've served approximately 43,000 people.
  • Fallujah families are expected to be kept in camps for 3-6 months. Currently we have enough funds on hand to help for one more month.
Over the last several weeks, you’ve helped bring truckloads of food—rice, lentils, beans, cooking oil, sugar, tea, and milk. Each food pack you provide is large enough to feed a family for a month. You’ve also delivered hundreds of portable cooking stoves, tanks to provide a daily supply of clean water,bars of soap, hygiene kits, and more.

These families survived bullets and bombs. Thanks to you, they have a good chance of surviving the desert, too.
You can read more about their work at the link.

PLC is not political, they're not affiliated with any government agency, their work is funded completely by donations, and as of now they're the only international aid group working inside the militarized zone. The need is great and will grow greater as the Iraqi government moves on in another month or so to liberate Mosul from ISIS.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What Sharia Is and Isn't

Despite the title of his recent column in the New York Times, What Sharia Is and Isn't, Noah Feldman doesn't really tell us much about what sharia is and isn't.

He explains the difference between sharia and fiqh (Sharia is the will of God revealed in the Quran and in the life of Mohammed. Fiqh is the interpretation of God's will by scholars applying their reason), but he doesn't say anything about the question to which people attach the most importance nowadays, to wit: What, exactly, is the content of sharia? What is it that most Muslims - not the "radicals," but average devout Muslims who wish to live according to sharia - believe that the Quran teaches?

One thing I think we can say about sharia is that it's not what Westerners would call "moderate."

Suppose you found yourself among a group of people which, it eventually became clear to you:
  • held approximately the same views about gays as the Westboro Baptists, only worse.
  • held approximately the same views about women as Jim Crow era southerners held about blacks.
  • held approximately the same views about Jews as did the Nazis.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of religion as medieval inquisitors.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of speech as the North Korean government
  • held approximately the same views about human equality as advocates of the Hindu caste system.
Would you call the group "moderate"? Yet these are views held by large numbers of mainstream Muslims, not just in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but in Europe and the U.S. A Pew poll found that a majority of American Muslims prefer sharia, and one in four accepts the use of violence against other Americans who give offense to Islam, for instance, by caricaturing Mohammed.

One reason why it seems so easy to radicalize young Muslim men and turn them into murderous terrorists may well be that for a great many young Muslim men the ideological distance they must travel from mainstream beliefs to radicalization is not really all that far.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Creation of the Internet

Al Gore has for eighteen years been saddled with the accusation that he once absurdly implied that he was responsible for the creation of the internet. His defenders, on the other hand, have for as long complained that Mr. Gore has been unjustly maligned by ungenerous critics who misinterpret his words, and that he never intended to suggest that he invented anything.

I'm no fan of Mr. Gore, but I tend to agree with his defenders on this one. Here's part of the interview he gave in 1999 which led to so much merrymaking among his detractors:
A fair interpretation of his words and their context is that he's asserting that he was among the legislative leaders responsible for funding the development of the network, not that he invented it.

Whatever the case with Mr. Gore, though, Ben Tarnoff at The Guardian relates an interesting account of some of the genuinely seminal steps in the evolution of the internet, and, justly or unjustly, Mr. Gore's name doesn't appear in it even once.

Tarnoff's genesis account puts the creation event in a beer garden, of all places, near Palo Alto, California in 1976:
In the kingdom of apps and unicorns, Rossotti’s is a rarity. This beer garden in the heart of Silicon Valley has been standing on the same spot since 1852. It isn’t disruptive; it doesn’t scale. But for more than 150 years, it has done one thing and done it well: it has given Californians a good place to get drunk.

During the course of its long existence, Rossotti’s has been a frontier saloon, a gold rush gambling den, and a Hells Angels hangout. These days it is called the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, and the clientele remains as motley as ever. On the patio out back, there are cyclists in spandex and bikers in leather. There is a wild-haired man who might be a professor or a lunatic or a CEO, scribbling into a notebook. In the parking lot is a Harley, a Maserati, and a horse.

It doesn’t seem a likely spot for a major act of innovation. But 40 years ago this August, a small team of scientists set up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.
You can read the fascinating details at the link. The article dove-tailed, strangely, with something I read in a book I'm currently rereading. It's a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Christian humanist scholar and reformer who was born about 1466. The biography was written in 1924 by historian John Huizinga who makes this statement:
Erasmus belonged to the generation which had grown up together with the youthful art of printing. To the world of those days it was like a newly acquired organ; people felt rich, powerful, happy in the possession of this 'almost divine implement.' ...What would Erasmus have been without the printing press? To broadcast the ancient documents, to purify and restore them, was his life's passion. The certainty that the printed book places exactly the same text in the hands of thousands of readers, was to him a consolation that former generations had lacked.
As I read this I thought that the computer - and the internet and social media to which it has given rise - is in many ways analogous to the printing press. Just as the Protestant reformation and so much else could never have happened prior to the printing and circulation of thousands of copies of books and pamphlets, so, too, could so much that happens in our world today never have come to pass without the internet and social media. The Arab Spring is perhaps a salient example.

At any rate, check out the article at the link if you're interested in the history of this world-changing innovation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Choosing Determinism

Philosopher Stephen Cave writes recently in The Atlantic that the idea that human beings have free will is dying out among scientists. The results of the experiments of neuroscientists, he argues, all seem to support the notion that at any given moment there's only one possible future. Our "choices" are determined by causes of which we may be completely unaware but which make our decisions ineluctable.

I've excerpted parts of Cave's essay below and follow the excerpts with critical comments.

Cave observes that,
In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.
It should be noted that the agreement to which he refers is a tacit consequence of a metaphysical assumption shared by many researchers - the assumption that there are no non-physical, non-material factors at play in the universe or in human beings. If physicalism or naturalism are true then determinism follows, but there's no good reason to think that either are true and lots of good reasons to think they're not.

He goes on to say that,
We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior—otherwise neither alcohol nor antipsychotics would have their desired effects. The same holds true for brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.
Quite so, but it doesn't follow from the fact that changes in the physical brain cause changes in behavior that therefore the physical brain is all that's involved in behavior. A viewer can change the physical settings on his television and thereby change the image on the screen, but it would be foolish to conclude that therefore the image can be completely explained in terms of the workings of the television set.
Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
This is a misreading of Libet's work, a clarification of which can be read here. Libet himself believed that human beings had free will. It would've been peculiar of him to hold this view after he had proven that the view was wrong.
The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.
If the system which produces our choices is indeed "a physical system like any other" then determinism is very probably true, but the assumption that our choices are solely the product of physical causes is an unprovable metaphysical statement of faith. If we are also possessed of an immaterial, non-physical mind or soul, as many philosophers believe, that faculty could possibly function as a locus of free choice. The only reason for thinking that such minds don't exist is an apriori commitment to physicalism.

Cave next addresses the human and social consequences of a widespread belief in the truth of determinism. They're not good:
Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency....This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
Some philosophers have suggested that given the consequences of living consistently with an awareness of the truth of determinism that the philosophical elites ought (strange word in this context) to deceive the masses and just not tell them about it. The elites should foist upon the public a kind of Platonic Noble Lie. Cave, however, demurs:
[F]ew scholars are comfortable suggesting that people ought to believe an outright lie. Advocating the perpetuation of untruths would breach their integrity and violate a principle that philosophers have long held dear: the Platonic hope that the true and the good go hand in hand.
This is a strange reaction, it seems, for if determinism is true, why should scholars be uncomfortable promoting a lie? What would make such a tactic morally wrong if they really had no choice in employing it?
Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.

Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower.
There's something very odd about a metaphysical view - physicalism - the implications of which are so destructive that they can't be shared even among many of those who accept the view. If a belief is such that one cannot live with it consistently there's probably something deeply wrong with the belief.

Physicalism, however, does entail determinism and as Cave points out in his essay, the consequences of determinism are bleak. For instance, if determinism is true then:
  • Praise and blame, reward and punishment, are never deserved since these assume that the recipient could have acted otherwise than he or she did act.
  • There are no moral obligations, no moral right and wrong, since morality is contingent upon uncompelled free choice.
  • There's no human dignity since dignity is predicated on the ability to make significant choices.
It's hard to see how people could live with a belief which has these consequences without falling into nihilism and despair. Yet that's where physicalism - and the closely related views called naturalism and materialism - leads.

Philosopher John Searle offers an antidote to the determinism described by Cave in this Closer to the Truth interview:

Monday, July 18, 2016

Maintaining Speed

R.R. Reno traces the evolution of the Democratic Party from its segregationist, nativist, blue-collar roots to the political home of upscale white progressives that it is today. The key to the party's success, Reno asserts, has been the promotion of a sense of "solidarity-in-marginality" in which disparate groups comprised of individuals who see themselves as living outside the socio-cultural mainstream coalesce out of a shared sense of their own marginality.

In order to keep this coalition together, though, liberal progressives must constantly be producing new demons, bigots, and oppressors against which they can fight the good fight. When they run out of such targets they must invent issues to bait their foes into coming out of the woodwork - transgender bathrooms for example. Reno calls this "bigot-baiting."

He has some interesting things to say about it. Here are a few:
The problem, of course, is that a solidarity-in-­marginality coalition capable of commanding electoral majorities has an increasingly hard time maintaining its plausibility. How long can a coalition that wins elections and exercises power pose as the party of the marginalized? At some point, political success undermines the urgency of a rainbow coalition. The tensions between the One Percent focus of feminism and the LGBT movements and the interests of immigrants and African Americans becomes more visible, to say nothing of the disconnect between the base of the Democratic party from the economic and cultural interests of those who fund and run it.

To motivate their voter base, liberals have invested a great deal in identifying ever-new patterns of discrimination. Notions such as “microaggression” and “intersectionality” reflect second-wave (or is it third-wave?) liberation politics. They gain currency because of the law of political supply and demand. The twenty-first-century Democratic solidarity-in-marginality coalition is held together by anxieties about exclusion and domination by the “other,” which is to say by Republican voters. This ­creates a strong political demand for narratives of oppression, which liberal intellectuals are happy to supply.

This dynamic operates most visibly at our universities, where well-off, mostly white liberals—the post-Protestant WASPs—rule. The legitimacy of this elite depends upon its commitment to “include” the “excluded.” It goes without saying that an Ivy League administrator must manage the optics very carefully to sustain “marginality” among the talented students who have gained admission. “Microaggression” and other key terms in the ever-­evolving scholasticism of discrimination thus play very useful roles. They renew the threats of discrimination and exclusion, and this reinforces the power of liberal elites.

Their institutional ascendancy is necessary to protect and provide patronage to the “excluded.” I’m quite certain that if political correctness succeeds in suppressing “microaggressions,” we’ll soon hear about “nano-­aggressions.” The logic of solidarity in marginality requires oppression, and solidarity in marginality is necessary in order to sustain liberal power.

Outside our universities, life is less theoretical and the rhetoric more demotic. The standard approach has been to renew solidarity in marginality by demonizing conservatives as racists, xenophobes, and “haters.” To maintain loyalty, the Democratic party incites anxiety about discrimination and exclusion. A form of reverse race-baiting, perhaps best thought of as bigot-baiting, has become crucial for sustaining the Democratic coalition, which is why we hear so much about “hate” these days. At the recent gay pride parade in New York, a few weeks after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, marchers held aloft an avenue-wide banner that read, “Republican Hate Kills!”

It’s important to remember a first law of politics for solidarity in marginality: Political success makes it harder and harder to sustain solidarity in marginality, and this leads to bigot-baiting. We’ve seen an increase of harsh denunciations, not in spite of progressive victories on issues like gay marriage, but because of them. When Obama became president, a superficial observer might have con­cluded that the election of a black man to the nation’s highest office would diminish the political currency of anti-­racist rhetoric. But this ignores the symbolic needs of the Democratic party. Black Lives Matter and redoubled attacks on discrimination are demanded by racial pro­gress. Solidarity in marginality needs to be renewed, especially when the marginal gain access to power.

This pattern of rhetorical escalation because of pro­gress in the fight against discrimination is also evident in characterizations of Trump voters as racists and bigots. Leon Wieseltier says of them, “They kindle, in the myopia of their pain, to racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.” No mainstream figure talked this way when I was young—and when these descriptions were much more plausible. Incendiary, denunciatory rhetoric was characteristic of a marginal figure like George Wallace, who spoke of “sissy-britches welfare people” and called civil-rights protesters “anarchists.”

It’s commonplace now for liberals to talk this way. This is not because America has become more racially, ethnically, religiously, or sexually divided. All the indicators suggest otherwise. It’s because the Democratic party depends on a constant bombardment of denunciation to gin up fear. That someone as intelligent as Wieseltier participates in bigot-baiting in such blatant ways indicates how indispensable it has become for maintaining liberal power.
Reading Reno's column I thought of the movie Speed. In the film a disgruntled explosives expert has rigged a bomb to a bus in such a way that if the speed of the bus drops below 50 mph the bomb will go off, destroy the bus, and kill all aboard.

Progressivism is a bit like that bus. It can't slow down, much less stop. It has to keep finding new sources of hate and bigotry to battle against or else it'll perish of ideological inanition. If it can't find these bugaboos in a society which has largely eradicated the old bigotries then it has to manufacture new ones. In any case, progressivism, by its nature, can never reach a point where it can say that we have finally achieved a satisfactory society. Were progressives ever to acknowledge that we've finally attained the ideal society they'd no longer be progressives, they'd be conservatives, and that would be unendurable for them.

Reno closes with this:
The present crusade for transgender bathroom privileges in high schools, like so much of the progressive agenda in recent years, is not about civil rights. It’s about renewing the symbolism of oppression and finding the “haters” that rich, mostly white liberals need to sustain their political power.
Should they fail to come up with something, anything, to point to as yet another example of oppression it'd be like the speed of the bus falling below 50 mph and would be the death of progressivism.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

China's Christian Future

Chinese writer and dissident Yu Jie gives us a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between Christianity and the the Chinese government in an essay at First Things.

His column is a bit lengthy, so I'll just hit some of the highlights and urge you to read the whole thing for yourself at the link. He begins by citing an astonishing statistic:
At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the Communist party defeated the Nationalists and founded the People’s Republic of China, Christians in China numbered half a million. Yet almost seventy years later, under the Chinese government’s harsh suppression, that population has reached more than sixty million, according to Fenggang Yang, a sociologist at Purdue University. The number grows by several million each year, a phenomenon some have described as a gushing well or geyser. At this rate, by 2030, Christians in China will exceed 200 million, surpassing the United States and making China the country with the largest Christian population in the world.

The beginnings of this immense growth can be traced back to two moments in contemporary Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 and the Tiananmen Square massacre instigated by Deng Xiaoping in 1989. Countless innocent lives were lost as a result of these two cataclysms, and the people’s belief in Marxism-Leninism and Maoism was destroyed. These events opened up a great spiritual void, and the Chinese began searching for a new faith.
Jie goes on to describe how these two events changed his parents' views and his own of the Chinese government and system. He also discusses in some detail how the government is seeking to rehabilitate Confucianism and simultaneously harass and persecute Christians. Here's some of what he writes about the latter:
In China, home churches outnumber government-sponsored churches three to one. Against home churches that refuse to cooperate, the government has waged a large-scale cleansing campaign in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, particularly in the city of Wenzhou, known as “China’s Jerusalem,” where 15 percent of the population is Christian.

In two years, more than two hundred churches in Zhejiang have been demolished, over two thousand crosses removed. The scene of the cross being removed from a church in Ya village, Huzhou city, on August 7, 2015, was typical. Migrant workers hired by government officials flipped over the parish car, then the police came.

They arrested the pastor, intimidated parishioners, sequestered church grounds, and pepper-sprayed protesters. They charged into the church with dogs. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests hired by the officials came to chant and perform rites in front of the church. Dozens, including the church attorney, were detained and interrogated.

Zhang Kai, a human rights lawyer who had been providing legal support to churches in Zhejiang province, was taken into custody on August 25, 2015, the day before he was due to meet David Saperstein, United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Six months later Zhang was forced to go on television, stating: “I have broken the law, disturbed the peace, endangered national security, and violated the ethics of my profession. I deeply regret my actions.” Emaciated, his body cruelly bent by torture, he was virtually unrecognizable. In Xi’s China, television has replaced courts of law. Televised confessions are the fashion of the day.

Sadly, the Obama administration sits and watches, reluctant to put more pressure on the Chinese government and push for reform. Despite the oppression and repression, the Chinese church is determined to weather the tyranny.

However, Chinese Christians have refused to give in. One of the phrases I have heard most often among them is: “The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.”...They talk about how during the Cultural Revolution, the Christian population in Wenzhou actually grew many times over.
Nor is the growth of Christianity occurring only among the poor and uneducated:
Since the dawn of the new millennium, Christianity in China has redirected its growth toward a hundred or so central cities throughout the country. Groups of young, well-educated, active professionals have gathered in urban churches, smashing the stereotype in many Chinese people’s minds of Christians as elderly, infirm, sick, or disabled.

These churches are unable to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and acquire legal status, but they are a first step toward Christians assuming leadership in the development of a Chinese civil society independent of government control. They have websites, assembly locations, schedules, listservs, communiqu├ęs, and even publications, which cannot be sold but can be circulated among church members.
Jie was himself heavily influenced by Reformers like John Calvin and the philosophical/political consequences of Reformed theology:
Reading Calvin, the theologian of total depravity and predestination, I have come to see him as a more important Founding Father of the United States than Washington himself. General election, habeas corpus, freedom of contract, equality before the law, jury trial, common law, open market, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion—these are all reinforced by Calvin’s legacy and the legacy of the Bible.

Thus I became a classical liberal or, in American parlance today, a conservative — a rarity among my Chinese peers. Calvin, Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, von Mises, and Hayek are all formative for me, though some are not Christian in the ­traditional sense.

No one’s influence, though, has been greater on me than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.... Bonhoeffer also perceived that Nazism has its roots in man’s betrayal of God and his worship of himself. The same could be said of Communism. Solzhenitsyn has called atheism the central pivot of Communism, and a hatred of God the principal driving force behind Marxist thought.
When man displaces God he puts himself in God's place. Thus atheistic assumptions almost invariably undergird tyrannies. Here's Jie's account of the price he had to pay for his political activism:
On the night of December 10, 2010, as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring [my dear friend Liu Xiaobo, the courageous human rights activist] was taking place in Oslo, I was kidnapped by the secret police and taken to the outskirts of Beijing.

They beat and tortured me for hours, breaking my fingers one by one. I blacked out and was taken to a hospital. A hospital in Changping, a suburb of Beijing, refused to take me, saying I was “hopeless.” Then I was taken to a hospital in Beijing.

My life was saved. For days my wife was under house arrest and did not know my whereabouts, or even if I was alive. She was seized by a sinking feeling and could not eat or sleep. In a few days most of her hair fell out. Before I lost consciousness, I prayed: “Lord, if you take me, then make me a martyr. I am not worthy, but I am willing.”

In that moment, I clearly heard his voice: “As surely as I live, not a hair of your head will fall to the ground.” And: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” God let me live, for he has greater plans for me.

On January 11, 2012, as he did for the Israelites in Egypt, God led my family out of China, on to the capital of the United States of America.

Yu Jie with wife and son (2012)
The secret police had warned me: You are number one on the personal list of “two hundred intellectuals to bury alive” kept by Zhou Yongkang, then secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. Who would have imagined that today I would be writing freely, praying freely, breathing freely, standing on free soil, while Zhou, once nicknamed China’s “security tsar,” would be sentenced to life in prison for corruption by his political enemies? In God’s plan, tyrants count for little.
Jie's is a wonderful, inspiring story. Read it all at the link.

Friday, July 15, 2016

How Will the French People Respond?

M.G. Oprea explains in a piece at The Federalist why yesterday's attack in Nice portends social upheaval in France. Here's part of her column:
As France absorbs the shock of another mass-casualty attack, something dangerous is stirring in the heart of the republic. France’s chief of intelligence, Patrick Calvar, warned members of a French parliamentary commission earlier this week that if another terror attack were to happen in France, or something akin to the New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults in Germany, it could spark a “civil war.”

Calvar expressed concern about a populist backlash that would lead to a “confrontation” between ultra-right groups, such as Bloc Identitaire, and the rest of the country—especially Arab and North African immigrants.

With the revelation this week, due to a botched cover-up, that far more women were sexually assaulted in Germany on New Year’s Eve than was previously known, and the latest tragic terrorist attack in Nice, the possibility of major destabilization in the country seems all the more likely.

But a revolt in France wouldn’t just be a reaction to outside events. It would also come from deep within France’s unique culture and history. Indeed, France is likely to be the first European country to experience societal upheaval and a radical reordering as a result of immigration. There are signs such an upheaval is already underway.
The revelation Oprea was referring to regarding the sexual assaults in Germany were contained in a recent article in the Washington Post which revealed that the New Year's eve assaults in Cologne and Hamburg were far more numerous and widespread than had been previously reported. Over two thousand women were assaulted by approximately 1200 men, most of whom were apparently Middle Eastern or North African. One wonders how close Germans are to the tipping point in their tolerance of refugees.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Hillary Clinton has opined that we're not bringing enough refugees into the country and that if she's elected president she'll raise the number by some 550%.

The Trump people are doubtless going to be turning that into a devastating campaign ad along the lines, perhaps, of this:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Violent Crime at Historic Lows

Amidst all the depressing news of the day there's a bit of good news to share, although you may have trouble believing it. David Harsanyi, senior editor at The Federalist, makes the case that violent crime is lower today than at any time in the last fifty years.

You'll have to follow the link to Harsanyi's essay to see all his graphs, but here's some of his argument:
Homicide rates, for example, have been falling to the point where in 2014 — the last year of FBI data offered — it was at 4.5 per 100,000 people, which is the lowest rate recorded since 1963, when it was at 4.6 per 100,000 people. We know there was a slight uptick in violent crime in 2015, probably making it the second lowest year for homicides in the past 50.

Put it this way: In 1990, in New York City there were 2,245 homicides. In 2015, there were 355. In 1992, Los Angeles County had a record high of 2,589 homicides. There were 655 over the last 12 months. In 1992, Chicago saw 943 murders, or a rate of 34 murders per 100,000 citizens. Although it still owns a far higher murder rate than most major cities, in 2014 there were 432 murders and in 2015 488. Last year, Dallas saw a spike in murders, yet the 10.7 homicides per 100,000 residents was the city’s fourth-lowest total since police started keeping track in 1930. In Denver 95 people were murdered in 1992, 34 in 2014, and 50 (a nine-year high) in 2015.
The graph Harsanyi uses in his essay to illustrate this is remarkable in how vividly it represents this drop. He goes on to talk about gun violence:
After the Dallas shooting of five officers, President Obama, as he always does, talked about more gun control. “We must take a hard look at the ease with which wrongdoers can get their hands on deadly weapons and the frequency with which they use them,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch insisted.

So it’s worth mentioning that this drop in violence has coincided with a spike in the number of guns Americans have purchased. We are told that the availability of guns (not the amount of people who buy them, but the guns themselves) is the problem because they are bought in places with relaxed laws and sold to criminals and terrorists in places with stricter gun control laws.
The graph showing this data is so stunning that I want to share it:

Harsanyi writes:
Despite this reality, according to a 2013 Pew poll, 56 percent of Americans believe gun crimes have risen compared to 20 years ago. This even though overall gun death rates have declined — and let’s include homicides and suicides (most gun deaths are suicide) — by 31 percent over that period.
His next claim, perhaps, may also seem counterintuitive to a lot of African-Americans, particularly young men, so many of whom believe that they're less safe now than ever:
The recent deaths of a number of African Americans at cops’ hands is also highly troubling, but .... [w]hile that debate rages, it’s important to note that African Americans are not only safer today than they were 20 years ago (and certainly 50 years ago), they have benefited tremendously from lower crime rates. Over the last 20 years, crime among African-American youth has fallen by 47 percent.
So why do we have the sense that things are much worse than Harsanyi's data warrant? Perhaps one reason is that the liberal media, eager to confirm the narrative that the U.S. is a violent, racist country, hypes any violence that's gun-related or race-related, feeding it to us 24/7 on cable and creating the impression that things are much more dire than they really are. Perhaps, too, social media reinforces the narrative by showing us actual episodes of violence that we'd never have seen and never have been more than vaguely aware of a few years ago. Finally, there are too many politicians who wish to exploit the occurrence of violent crimes to push their political agendas and who distort and misrepresent statistics in ways that mislead and misinform the public.

It's important that when an incident first occurs we remind ourselves that there's almost certainly more to it than what we see on a video and that it's irresponsible to draw conclusions about the incident until we have a reasonable grasp of the relevant facts. It's crucial that we strive to assess these incidents critically, objectively, and fairly, basing our judgments upon the facts and not upon our prejudices.

When we fail in this basic moral and intellectual duty and allow our emotions to rule our judgment, the initial tragedy is often compounded by even more tragedy as we've seen in Ferguson, Baltimore, and too many other cities.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Playing Dice with the Universe

From time to time we've talked about the argument for an intelligent designer of the universe based on cosmic fine-tuning (okay, maybe a little more often than just "from time to time"). Anyway, here's a four minute video by Justin Brierly on the subject that serves as a nice primer for those not wishing to get too bogged down in technical aspects of the argument:
Brierly is the host of the weekly British radio show Unbelievable which is available on podcast. Each week Justin brings together believers and unbelievers to talk about some issue related to matters of faith. The discussions are almost always pleasant, informative, and Justin does an excellent job moderating them. They're usually what such conversations should be like, but too often aren't.

If you'd like to sign up for the podcast or browse the archives of past shows which have featured discussions on almost every topic related to religious belief you can go to the Unbelievable website here. For those readers who might prefer a slightly more elaborate explication try this post and the debate it links to.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Black Rhetoric Matters

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has dared to go where most politicians have feared to tread. In a recent CBS interview the mayor got on a roll about the race problem in America and said a lot that's hard to deny but doesn't often get said:
It's hard to believe that John Dickerson, the CBS interviewer, isn't aware of the rhetoric at some of the Black Lives Matter rallies. Here, for example, are BLM demonstrators demanding dead cops:
Here are BLM demonstrators chanting "Pigs in a blanket, fry 'em like bacon."
And then there are people like this woman calling for the murder of whites:
As Jonah Goldberg writes at National Review:
[T]here is something particularly vile and disgusting in the way many of the leading masters of sanctimony keep changing their standards. When a registered Democrat and Muslim murdered people in Orlando in the name of ISIS, it was outrageous to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t point fingers at Christian conservatives or the NRA.

When Gabby Giffords was shot by an utterly apolitical schizophrenic, Paul Krugman blamed it on Michele Bachmann’s “eliminationist rhetoric.” The Democratic party almost en masse blamed it on some crosshairs on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page. The Orwellians leapt out of their bunkers and started memory-holing martial metaphors.

But now, I gather, any suggestion that rhetoric from Black Lives Matter influenced these murderers is beyond the pale.
Barack Obama does nothing to help matters whenever he cites statistics like these:
According to various studies — not just one but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years — African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over.

After being pulled over African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched.

Last year African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.

African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites.

African-American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.

So that if you add it all up, the African-American and Hispanic population, who make up only 30 percent of the general population, make up more than half of the incarcerated population.
The problem is not that his numbers are wrong, but that he misleads by neglecting to give them any context. The sentencing stats, for example, make no mention of the circumstances of the arrest, whether the suspect was cooperative or defiant, whether he had a prior record, or any of the other factors taken into account when a sentence is handed down.

In any case, BLM, or at least a lot of people who associate with them, have blood on their hands, five good men are dead in Dallas as a result of rhetoric like theirs, and Giuliani is correct to identify them as haters.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Hillary's Racial Pandering

Hillary Clinton's recent comments in the wake of the Dallas murders seem bizarrely beside the point. She told Wolf Blitzer at CNN that:
I will call for white people, like myself, to put ourselves in the shoes of those African-American families who fear every time their children go somewhere, who have to have ‘The Talk,’ about, you now, how to really protect themselves [from police], when they’re the ones who should be expecting protection from encounters with police.
Despite the impression created by the media, a relative handful of innocent blacks are killed by police each year, and few of these killings rise to the level of deliberate murder. As discussed last week almost twice as many whites are killed each year by police as are blacks. Meanwhile, five hundred blacks, including a lot of children, are murdered annually by other blacks just in the city of Chicago, and if it weren't for the police that number would be far higher. The point is, black parents who fear for their children's safety have much more to fear from other blacks than they do from the police. For Ms. Clinton to suggest otherwise, is demagoguery.

She goes on to say:
I’m going to be talking to white people, we’re the ones who have to start listening to the legitimate cries coming from our African-American fellow citizens.
Unfortunately, she doesn't explain exactly why whites have to listen to blacks or how listening will solve any of the intractable problems blacks face in their lives. How will white attentiveness solve the problem of fatherlessness in the black community, or poor school performance and drop-out rates, or drug and alcohol abuse? What can whites do to bring jobs to inner cities or motivate blacks to take what jobs there are and to stick with them? How can white people listening to black concerns do anything to fill the spiritual emptiness in many black lives?

These are the problems which, when they go unmet, lead to despair, degradation, and crime, but nothing whites can do will solve those problems. Only blacks themselves can solve them, and it's condescending of Ms. Clinton to suggest that blacks are unable to reverse these dysfunctions without white intervention.

She has a history of patronizing blacks, of course. Here she is, for example, evidently of the mind that unless she adopts a black tone of voice her audience won't listen to her:
Hillary's just pandering to the African American community to gin up votes, but set that aside. Let's all, white and black, watch and listen to a talk show host named Stacey Washington. She makes a lot more sense, and says a lot more of value, than does Ms. Clinton.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Racism Is Not Racially Endemic

One meme that the Dallas shooting should put to rest (but won't since ideologues are impervious to falsification) is that racism is a uniquely white vice.

It's common, especially in the halls of the university, to hear racism defined as a form of oppression wielded by those with economic power over those who lack it. Since whites have all the economic power in our society, or so the argument goes, only whites can be racist.

This is, of course, a remarkably tendentious and self-serving definition of racism. A more realistic definition would be something like: Contempt for, hatred of, or bias against someone based upon his or her race. It actually has nothing to do with the particular race of the hater or the hated. Indeed, the two can even be of the same race.

One reason this definition is not accepted by those who adopt the first version is that, if it were, then by all appearances racism would appear to be more rampant in the black community than in the white, and that would be counterproductive to the narrative that racism is not only endemic to whites but also the cause of all the problems in the black community.

Individual examples of black racism may not add up to a valid conclusion that it's a rampant phenomenon, but nevertheless examples are disturbingly plentiful. There are morons, of course, who can be found in any racial group, but aside from them, consider what is taken as normal discourse by educated black professionals:
  • A black professor claimed that whites are programmed to commit mass murder.
  • Another avers that the lesson of Huckleberry Finn is that white people are the problem.
  • Actor Jamie Foxx riffed on how great it is to play in a movie, Django Unchained, in which he gets to butcher white people.
  • Then there are guys like this fellow who simply declares that he hates whites.
Every one of the foregoing would rightly be deemed an instance of racism had the races been reversed, and they're no less racist, or offensive, because they're manifested by a black person.

But more to the present point the Dallas cop-killer told police before they "neutralized" him that he hated white people and wanted to kill whites, especially white cops, which he did. If that's not racism nothing is, and it's too easy to find in the black community people who hate whites because they're white, and worse, are prepared to hurt people just because they're white.

Black racism is a serious social problem, one that needs to be addressed and suppressed, and we do the cause of race relations no favors by pretending it doesn't exist while magnifying every example of white racism that we can find. Indeed, most whites know black racism exists, and it simply embitters people when they're told by their supposed betters that it doesn't, but that they themselves are racist just by virtue of being white.

Friday, July 8, 2016


In the wake of last night's horror in Dallas there's a temptation to indulge in finger-pointing, recriminations, and political blame-casting. These activities are therapeutic, perhaps, and indeed necessary, but they're also inappropriate so soon after the events which elicit them.

On the other hand, it also seems inappropriate to ignore the tragedy altogether, so I thought it'd be good to shine a light on the racial mythology that apparently motivated last night's ambush in Dallas.

Last spring, in response to the widespread belief that blacks are being mowed down by racist white cops like harvested wheat, I cited research done by the Washington Post and ran this post on April 20th:
If a visitor from Mars were to listen to media chatter they might think that young, unarmed black men are being slaughtered in the streets by racist white cops with alarming regularity. The facts, though, are otherwise as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post study reveals.

The WaPo's data is displayed on a chart that reveals a number of facts about police shootings that may come as a surprise to some who take the trouble to check out their findings.

For example: In 2015 there were 990 people shot and killed by police. The overwhelming majority of those killed by police were armed and white. Four hundred ninety four of the dead were white and 258 were black (Hispanics and other races made up the balance). Most of the deceased were showing a weapon, but 93 were unarmed, 32 of whom were white and 38 black.

Among these unarmed individuals 14 of the whites and 15 of the blacks who were killed were attacking, or in some way threatening, the police officer. Of those who were unarmed and not attacking the officer, several of them were shot accidentally, or they brandished a device that was mistaken for a weapon, etc.

In short, there may be a problem with police sometimes using excessive force, but the idea perpetuated by Black Lives Matter and others that African Americans are a deliberate target of racist cops is simply not born out by the facts.
Since posting the above I also came across more data in the WaPo that shows that white cops are murdered by Blacks disproportionately to their numbers in the overall population. Forty one percent of white cops murdered in the line of duty are murdered by black males, a demographic which comprises only 6% of Americans.

That's not a statistic that we hear very often in the media, but it certainly might go a long way toward elucidating, though not excusing, what's in the mind of cops who may be a little quicker on the trigger when they're encountering a recalcitrant black male suspect.

In any case, our prayers go out on behalf of the families of those officers who lost their lives last night because some racist, ignorant of the facts, felt he had a grievance which justified murder.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Of Felonies and Frigate Birds

Since everyone with a computer or a phone is talking about the FBI's inscrutable decision to not recommend indictment for Hillary Clinton, I thought I'd talk about something else instead.

That is, after I say this about that: It's mystifying how FBI Director James Comey could meticulously enumerate a lengthy list of laws violated by Ms Clinton and then deliver himself of the complete non-sequitur that the agency has decided there's no crime being committed because they can't prove Ms Clinton intended to break the law. Yet as numerous experts have pointed out intent isn't even necessary for the law to be broken. It's not even mentioned in the relevant statute.

Even Comey's good friends are saying that the case he made at the recent press conference is utterly nonsensical.

Comey implied at that presser that what Ms. Clinton did with her email server could result in her having her security clearance yanked. But she's running for president of the United States, for heaven's sake. How can someone who shouldn't have a security clearance to review classified information get nominated to run for president? What sort of people are they who'll continue to support her candidacy after this?

As a friend of mine suggested on his Facebook page, her campaign should change their slogan from "I'm with Her" to "I'm with Careless."

When the people are apathetic or morally indifferent the government inevitably becomes corrupt, and when government is corrupt the corruption spreads like a metastasizing cancer to every agency in it, even one as supposedly competent and honest as the FBI.

Anyway, I don't want to give readers rhetorical whiplash, but I actually wanted to talk in this post about frigate birds. These magnificent creatures (The species found in the western hemisphere is even named the magnificent frigate bird) are extraordinary fliers. They're seabirds which, unlike any other bird, can remain aloft for months without ever touching down on land or sea. They sleep in snatches of two to twelve minutes while soaring the on motionless outstretched wings. Their long wings and deeply forked tails give them a majestic appearance as they soar at great altitudes, as high as 13,000 feet, on the thermal updrafts along the coast.

Biologists have been studying a species of these birds off the coast of Madagascar, and have put together a short film that highlights some of the unique capabilities of these birds. I thought I'd like to share it with you:

I've had the experience of watching magnificent frigate birds, which are larger and more graceful than the Madagascar species, in Florida and Central America and watching them soar so effortlessly is like watching the law of gravity being flouted.

Sort of like watching the laws of our nation be so effortlessly flouted by the Clintons and their cronies, now that I think of it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Tour on Abiogenesis

I filched some of the following post from philosopher VJ Torley at Uncommon Descent. He has some interesting things to say about Dr. James Tour's work and views on the origin of life that I'd like to pass on to you.

The technical name for the origin of life is abiogenesis, the emergence of living cells from non-living material precursors. Abiogenesis is a necessary first step for the evolution of higher life forms. Until there was life there was no evolution.

Interestingly, all theories of naturalistic abiogenesis entail mind-blowingly improbabilities, which means that it's highly probable that naturalism, the belief that everything is explicable in terms of natural processes and forces, is false.

Torley introduces us to Dr. Tour who is nothing if not an expert witness:
Professor James M. Tour, a synthetic organic chemist, specializing in nanotechnology, who is also is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, and Professor of Computer Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In addition to holding more than 120 United States patents, as well as many non-US patents, Professor Tour has authored more than 600 research publications. He was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, and he was named among “The 50 most Influential Scientists in the World Today” by in 2014. Tour was named “Scientist of the Year” by R&D Magazine in 2013, and he won the ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society in 2012. As if that were not enough, Tour was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade by Thomson Reuters in 2009.
So how does Dr. Tour say that unaided nature produced the first living cell? He states emphatically that we have no idea whatsoever:
We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins, were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences, and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex system, and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea on how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those who say that they understand are generally wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis.

From a synthetic chemical perspective, neither I nor any of my colleagues can fathom a prebiotic molecular route to construction of a complex system. We cannot even figure out the prebiotic routes to the basic building blocks of life: carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins. Chemists are collectively bewildered. Hence I say that no chemist understands prebiotic synthesis of the requisite building blocks, let alone assembly into a complex system.

That’s how clueless we are. I’ve asked all of my colleagues: National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners. I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professor says, “It’s all worked out,” [or] your teachers say, “It’s all worked out,” they don’t know what they’re talking about. It is not worked out.
In other words, all those people who tell us that the naturalistic evolution of life is a fact and that only nincompoops, Trump voters, and Westboro Baptists are skeptical of its efficacy, are in fact clueless as to how the first step in the process could have ever been taken.

Torley quotes Tour some more:
Let us assume that all the building blocks of life, not just their precursors, could be made in high degrees of purity, including homochirality where applicable, for all the carbohydrates, all the amino acids, all the nucleic acids and all the lipids. And let us further assume that they are comfortably stored in cool caves, away from sunlight, and away from oxygen, so as to be stable against environmental degradation. And let us further assume that they all existed in one corner of the earth, and not separated by thousands of kilometers or on different planets. And that they all existed not just in the same square kilometer, but in neighboring pools where they can conveniently and selectively mix with each other as needed.

Now what? How do they assemble? Without enzymes, the mechanisms do not exist for their assembly. It will not happen and there is no synthetic chemist that would claim differently because to do so would take enormous stretches of conjecturing beyond any that is realized in the field of chemical sciences…

I just saw a presentation by a Nobel prize winner modeling the action of enzymes, and I walked up to him afterward, and I said to him, “I’m writing an article entitled: ‘Abiogenesis: Nightmare.’ Where do these enzymes come from? Since these things are synthesized, … starting from the beginning, where did these things come from?” He says, “What did you write in your article?” I said, “I said, ‘It’s a mystery.’” He said, “That’s exactly what it is: it’s a mystery.”
It's a mystery, he says. If a theist were to give this answer in reply to some question about God the skeptic community would suffer collective side-stitches from laughing so hard, but the cornerstone of naturalism, the belief that life arose from non-life without any intelligent intervention or direction, is an inexplicable mystery. Yet naturalists insist that it's rational to believe in an inexplicable mystery, no matter how improbable it may be, and that it's irrational to believe that somehow life arose as a consequence of intelligent agency.

Let's put this a different way. Which is more probable, that a functioning computer was produced by a series of highly improbable physical accidents or that a functioning computer by an intelligent engineer? We have lots of experience of engineers producing amazingly complex structures which contain high information loads, but we have little or no experience of such things being produced by the random action of natural processes. As with computers so, too, with the first cell.

Thus, the existence of a first cell is more probable given the existence of an intelligent agent than it would be if no such agent exists, and since it's more rational to believe what's more probable than to believe what's less probable, it's more rational to believe that life arose as a result of intelligent agency.

If you've a background in cellular chemistry or an interest in the topic and would like to watch Tour's entire lecture it's here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Deportation Revolving Door

As Congress returns to session after the July 4th break there's some question as to whether the Democrats will renew their sit-in on the floor of the House to try to get some form of gun control legislation passed.

Indeed, many people in both parties are angry that we don't have stricter gun laws to protect innocent people from the deranged and the hateful who walk our streets.

Yet they seem insouciant about the horrors being inflicted upon innocent people by illegal immigrants who've been repeatedly deported and yet, because of lax enforcement under both the Bush and Obama administration, are able to keep re-entering the country. Would that Congress and others were as concerned about keeping us safe from people who are in this country illegally as they are about keeping us safe from guns.

An illegal alien in Oregon recently murdered three people and and wounded a fourth. He had been deported six times since 2003.

An illegal alien who had been deported five times and was then residing in a sanctuary city (San Francisco) where he was safe from arrest for his immigration status, shot a young woman named Katie Steinle in the back on July 1st a year ago. She died in her father's harms pleading with him to help her.

Katie Steinle
Examples of felons committing horrible acts, inflicting immeasurable grief on American citizens, after having already been deported multiple times could be cited indefinitely, but though there's plenty of political will in the White House to get rid of guns there's no political will in the White House to keep out of the country those who have shown they are a danger to the rest of us.

Now we read that violent gangs like MS-13 are recruiting heavily among the thousands of unaccompanied minors that President Obama has welcomed into the country. These young gang members are raping, beheading and stoning their victims, but still the Obama administration waves them in.

Back in 2004 Heather MacDonald wrote an excellent piece on the asininity of our immigration policy at City Journal. As bad as it was then, after four more years of Bush and eight years of Obama the situation is much worse. She opened that essay by noting that:
In Los Angeles ... dozens of members of a ruthless Salvadoran prison gang have sneaked back into town after having been deported for such crimes as murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and drug trafficking. Police officers know who they are and know that their mere presence in the country is a felony. Yet should a cop arrest an illegal gangbanger for felonious reentry, it is he who will be treated as a criminal, for violating the LAPD’s rule against enforcing immigration law.
She goes on to write that at that time in LA,
Ninety five percent of all outstanding warrants for homicide (which total 1,200 to 1,500) target illegal aliens. Up to two-thirds of all fugitive felony warrants (17,000) are for illegal aliens.
The world is a dangerous enough place without our politicians making it more hazardous for our citizens by importing all the dysfunctions, not to mention diseases, that plague the third world.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have knowingly adopted immigration policies that are overwhelming the ability of our police and social services to cope with them. Moreover, as more Hispanic immigrants flood our nation's cities the political pressure they exert against any meaningful reform becomes inexorable making it politically impossible to do anything to stop the flood.

If you want an answer to the question why people support Donald Trump, just ask yourself which of the candidates in the upcoming election is most likely to allow the hemorrhaging along our borders to continue? Hillary has already said she wants to open the borders even more. Trump has said he'll stop it. It's hard to believe either one of them, but in this case there's a chance that Trump will try to return us to a common sense immigration policy. By her own admission there's little chance that Clinton would.