Tuesday, January 31, 2017

More on Trump's Travel Ban

President Trump's executive order calling a temporary halt to travel to this country from countries in which there's a lot of terrorist activity has created a firestorm of anger and protest, and I confess, given what the EO actually says, I don't understand why.

Perhaps it's because so many people are so sure that Donald Trump is the spawn of Satan if not Satan himself that as soon as he signed the executive order declaring a temporary moratorium on refugee immigration his opponents immediately escalated to a psycho-emotional defcon 5, renewing calls for assassination (Can you imagine if people in the media had called for the outright assassination of Barack Obama? See here for other examples), and sundry other forms of resistance.

David French at National Review Online separates fact from hysteria over President Trump's executive order. After summarizing some of the worst reactions to Mr. Trump's EO (See the link above for more examples), French brings some calm, adult analysis to bear on the matter. Here are just a few excerpts from his column:
First, the order temporarily halts refugee admissions for 120 days to improve the vetting process, then caps refugee admissions at 50,000 per year. Outrageous, right? Not so fast. Before 2016, when Obama dramatically ramped up refugee admissions, Trump’s 50,000 stands roughly in between a typical year of refugee admissions in George W. Bush’s two terms and a typical year in Obama’s two terms....Trump is improving security screening and intends to admit refugees at close to the average rate of the 15 years before Obama’s dramatic expansion in 2016. Obama’s expansion was a departure from recent norms, not Trump’s contraction.

Second, the order imposes a temporary, 90-day ban on people entering the U.S. from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. These are countries either torn apart by jihadist violence or under the control of hostile, jihadist governments. The ban is in place while the Department of Homeland Security determines the “information needed from any country to adjudicate any visa, admission, or other benefit under the INA (adjudications) in order to determine that the individual seeking the benefit is who the individual claims to be and is not a security or public-safety threat.” It could, however, be extended or expanded depending on whether countries are capable of providing the requested information.

The ban, however, contains an important exception: “Secretaries of State and Homeland Security may, on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest, issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked”....

Third, Trump’s order also puts an indefinite hold on admission of Syrian refugees to the United States “until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.” This is perhaps the least consequential aspect of his order — and is largely a return to the Obama administration’s practices from 2011 to 2014. For all the Democrats’ wailing and gnashing of teeth, until 2016 the Obama administration had already largely slammed the door on Syrian-refugee admissions....

Fourth, there is a puzzling amount of outrage over Trump’s directive to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, once refugee admissions resume, members of minority religions may well go to the front of the line. In some countries, this means Christians and Yazidis. In others, it can well mean Muslims.

Sadly, during the Obama administration it seems that Christians and other minorities may well have ended up in the back of the line. For example, when Obama dramatically expanded Syrian refugee admissions in 2016, few Christians made the cut: The Obama administration has resettled 13,210 Syrian refugees into the United States since the beginning of 2016 .... and [only] 77 (0.5 percent) are Christians.... As a point of reference, in 2015 Christians represented roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population.

But one thing is clear — federal asylum and refugee law already require a religious test.... An alien seeking asylum “must establish that . . . religion [among other things] . . . was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.” Similarly, the term “refugee” means “(A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality . . . and who is unable or unwilling to return to . . . that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of . . . religion [among other things] . . . [.]”

You can read the entire executive order from start to finish, reread it, then read it again, and you will not find a Muslim ban. It’s not there. Nowhere. At its most draconian, it temporarily halts entry from jihadist regions. In other words, Trump’s executive order is a dramatic climb-down from his worst campaign rhetoric.
French doesn't mention that President Obama himself greatly slowed the influx of refugees from Iraq in 2011 in order to make sure they could be properly vetted, but no one angrily objected that this was an infringement of the human rights of these Iraqis. Nor was there much said about President Obama's suspension last month of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy toward Cuban refugees. Trump's critics claim that Obama's measures differed from Trump's EO, and in the details they did, but the differences are, in my opinion, insignificant compared to the similarities. The most salient similarity is that in each case people ostensibly fleeing oppression and tyranny are/were temporarily prevented from entering the country until we could be sure they have proper intentions.

In fact, the Cubans are not just temporarily prevented, most of them are permanently blocked from obtaining freedom because they must now come into the country through normal immigration channels, which is hard to do when emigrating from a totalitarian state. It's strange, parenthetically, that so little effort was made by Mr. Obama to stop Central Americans and Mexicans from circumventing normal immigration channels, but he had no qualms about stopping Cubans from doing so.

And since we're talking about inconsistency in our attitudes toward immigrants let's not forget the rousing ovation President Clinton got from Democrats for promising in his 1995 State of the Union speech to take steps to curtail illegal immigration from Mexico:
Maybe the left gets upset about measures similar to those Trump has taken only when it's Trump who takes them.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Refugee Problem

President Trump upset a lot of people last week by placing a moratorium on admitting refugees into the country. Many argue that a compassionate nation would bring in people who are fleeing tyranny elsewhere in the world and would not discriminate on the basis of religion. On the other hand, others, like economist James Simpson, argue that admitting refugees is dangerous, poorly monitored, prohibitively expensive, and largely unnecessary. He makes his case in an article at The Federalist where, among other things, he writes this:
Since 9/11 there have been 580 convictions for terrorism in the United States. At least 40 of these were refugees.

Since March 2014 there have been 111 ISIS-related arrests and 60 convictions. There have been nine indictments and six convictions of ISIS supporters in the metropolitan DC area alone. ISIS openly encourages “lone jihadi” attacks, and the State Department now admits ISIS is trying to penetrate the U.S. refugee flow.

Some 250 U.S. Muslims from 19 states have either joined or attempted to join ISIS overseas. Many have since returned with little or no oversight.

Virtually all 580 convictions since 9/11 were Muslim immigrants or American Muslim converts, and the Somali community consistently supplies such malefactors. Yet the Department of Homeland Security has provided tours of airport facilities to groups of Somalis, including explanations of airport inner workings, security protocols, and databases. DHS redacted some of this information as too sensitive to share with the public.
The terrorist threat posed by increasing the population of potential ISIS sympathizers in the U.S. is not the only problem. Another problem is the absurdity of the refugee designation. For instance:
Afghani refugee Ahmad Rahami, the terrorist bomber of New York and New Jersey, originally entered the United States through the asylum program, but then traveled back to Afghanistan, where he apparently became radicalized. How can someone who is supposedly fleeing his home country for his life go back for a visit?

Virtually all U.S. Somalis originally arrived as refugees or asylum seekers or are their children. Many now take months-long trips back to Somalia, contradicting their purported reason for seeking asylum: fleeing Somalia for their lives. Minneapolis actually grants rent relief because Somalis complained about the cost of overdue rent upon their return.
The system, moreover, is, like so many bureaucratic systems, permeated with fraud:
The entire refugee resettlement program has systematic fraud, creating both national security risks and undue fiscal burdens. Refugee advocates claim the vetting process for Syrians is airtight, but U.S. security officials say exactly the opposite. An internal Immigrations, Customs, and Enforcement memo states, “[The] refugee program is particularly vulnerable to fraud due to loose evidentiary requirements where at times the testimony of an applicant alone is sufficient for approval.” The memo goes on to say that “the immigration system is a constant target for exploitation” by terrorists. An Immigration and Naturalization Services assistant commissioner said 95 percent of refugee and asylee applications are fraudulent.

The Obama administration has knowingly and routinely allowed illegal aliens falsely claiming asylum to remain in the United States. A September 2016 DHS Inspector General report found that 1,982 aliens from countries known for immigration fraud or terror-links who were scheduled for deportation were instead granted citizenship using false identities because fingerprint records were missing.

Yet many of the tens of thousands of unvettable Syrians who are accepted don’t meet the refugee definition.

Syrian Christians are facing genocide, and certainly do meet the definition, but represent less than 1 percent of those Syrians resettled so far. Syrian Muslims are more than 98 percent of the total. In the interest of diplomacy we are also resettling populations other countries refuse to take. Most recently, the Obama administration offered to accept 2,465 asylum seekers now being detained by Australia which that country refuses to accept because of their possible ties to terrorism. In response to congressional inquiries, the administration has declared information about this agreement classified.
At least some of the refugees we're accepting have no business coming here as refugees. Simpson doesn't mention this, but Iraqis fleeing ISIS in Iraq are legitimate refugees but most of Iraq is fairly secure. Why shouldn't these Iraqis be resettled in their home country?

Simpson goes on to discuss the economic burden refugee resettlement places on communities. Refugees use welfare at rates far higher than other Americans and since 2009 have cost the taxpayers a "staggering $48 billion." He adds that,
It costs 12 times as much to resettle refugees as to assist them in place. Almost all refugees would prefer to return home than be resettled to a third country. President-Elect Trump’s idea to create “safe zones” in or near countries of conflict is a much more compassionate and cost-effective method of dealing with the refugee crisis. Trump’s State Department should [also] encourage the Gulf States to participate in resettlement, since they currently offer little help.
Read the whole piece. The economic concerns Simpson raises are an eye-opener.

There's no question that we should be helping those fleeing from the horrors of Islamic tyranny, that's not in question. What is in question is the best, most effective, most prudent way to do this. It certainly appears that what we have been doing for the past eight years is not it.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

School Choice

Rebecca Friedrichs, a public school teacher for 28 years and a former leader in her local teachers union, explains what school choice is and why it's good for students, especially poor students trapped in failing public schools:
There was a documentary made in 2010 titled Waiting for Superman which followed several disadvantaged families who tried to get their children into a successful charter school in Washington, D.C., admission to which is done by lottery. The disappointment of the students and their families in the film when they didn't make it was profoundly heartbreaking. Meanwhile, elite politicians in Washington who can all afford to send their own children to private schools do so while at the same time cutting funding for poor children who aspire to attend those same schools.

It's a failure of compassion and our previous president is as culpable, or moreso, as anyone. You can read why here, and you might also check out this post on restoring educational excellence.

In any case, if you're planning on becoming a teacher or are just someone concerned about American education, especially education for the poor, watch Waiting for Superman. It's well-worth the time.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Fashion in Philosophy

A piece in Aeon by J. Bradley Studemeyer makes the case that philosophy as a discipline is often subject to the whims of fashion, not fashion as in wearing apparel but as in fashionable ideas. He writes:
The rise and fall of popular positions in the field of philosophy is not governed solely by reason. Philosophers are generally reasonable people but, as with the rest of the human species, their thoughts are heavily influenced by their social settings. Indeed, they are perhaps more influenced than thinkers in other fields, since popular or ‘big’ ideas in modern philosophy change more frequently than ideas in, say, chemistry or biology. Why?

The relative instability of philosophical positions is a result of how the discipline is practised. In philosophy, questions about methods and limitations are on the table in a way that they tend not to be in the physical sciences, for example. Scientists generally acknowledge a ‘gold standard’ for validity – the scientific method – and, for the most part, the way in which investigations are conducted is more or less settled.

Falsifiability rules the scientific disciplines: almost all scientists are in agreement that, if a hypothesis isn’t testable, then it isn’t scientific. There is no counterpoint of this in philosophy. Here, students and professors continue to ask: ‘Which questions can we ask?’ and ‘How can we ask, much less answer, those questions?’ There is no universally agreed-upon way in which to do philosophy.

Given that philosophy’s foundational questions and methods are still far from settled – they never will be – it’s natural that there is more flux, more volatility, in philosophy than in the physical sciences. [T]his volatility... is [similar to] changes of fashion.

When thinking about fashion in philosophy, there are four basic categories under which texts, thinkers and ideas can be grouped. By considering the interrelation of these groups, we can begin to glean how an idea becomes fashionable. The four categories are the fashionable, the foundational, the prohibited, and the unfashionable.
I'm not sure Studemeyer is correct in what he says about testability being the litmus test of science. Perhaps it should be, but it often isn't. For example, it's difficult to imagine how some of the hypotheses concerning the origin of life, macroevolution, the big bang, the multiverse, string theory, and so on, could be tested. Yet they're all considered by many scientists to be legitimate science. The notion of a "scientific method," despite the fact that it's in the early chapters of just about every secondary school textbook, is not one that many working scientists actually ascribe to.

Scientists like their theories to be testable, but if they aren't they want them to be elegant, and if they aren't they want them to have expansive explanatory power, and if they don't they want them to at least conform to a materialist worldview, and if they're incompatible with materialism, well, then, they're not science.

In any event, the rest of the article is given to fleshing out Studemeyer's four categories. One of the best parts of the essay is a side-bar question, to which readers are invited to respond, which asks what philosophical ideas are fashionable today but won't be much longer. Some of the responses are very interesting although they're not all strictly philosophical.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Alternative Facts

Talk of "alternative facts" has been the occasion for some mockery in the news lately since Trump spokeswoman Kelly Anne Conway used the term to describe press secretary Sean Spicer's interpretation of the attendance figures at President Trump's inauguration. Mr. Spicer's generous estimate of the crowd's size was at considerable variance with other estimates, but he insisted that the audience for the inauguration of Mr. Trump, worldwide, was the largest ever.

When asked about this by NBC's Chuck Todd Ms. Conway declared that Mr. Spicer had access to "alternative facts," a response that Mr. Trump's political foes have been deriding ever since. Mr. Todd sniffed that "alternative facts are not facts" (which is patently false). Others have compared her use of the term to Orwellian "newspeak" or "doublespeak," which is surely a strained comparison. Orwell had in mind the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one's mind simultaneously, but there's nothing contradictory about alternative facts.

Evidently, the concept to which Conway was referring is foreign to those who've been making merry at her expense, but their derision simply puts on display their own lack of epistemic sophistication. There's nothing ludicrous or contradictory about the idea of "alternative facts." Indeed, such facts are prominent in any debate over any issue that anyone might think of.

Take for a simple example an argument over the question whether or not abortion should be legal. On one side of the debate are certain facts about the obligation of society to protect the weakest and most helpless among us, the status of the unborn child as a person or potential person, the effect of abortion on the mental health of the mother, etc. All of these facts might lend themselves to the conclusion that abortion should be illegal.

On the other side are a set of alternative facts, facts about the well-being of the mother, the prospects of a child brought into the world unwanted, the right of a woman to control what happens inside her body, etc. All of these facts support the alternative conclusion that abortion should be legal.

The alternative conclusion is supported by alternative facts. The error Ms. Conway's detractors make, presumably, is that they seem to confuse alternative facts with contradictions, but as the above example illustrates, alternatives need not be contradictory. They are simply different facts which lead to a different conclusion. The facts are alternatives in the sense that one could rely on one set of facts or the other and draw different conclusions depending on which set was emphasized.

This is so obvious that it's hard to imagine how anyone who has given the matter just a moment's thought, or who has ever been in a debate, or who has any intellectual integrity, could scoff at Ms. Conway for her use of the term.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fairy Tales and Miracles

I came across a beautiful video that shows the development of a child from insemination to birth.

As I watched it I couldn't help wonder how the cells, both the sperm and the embryonic cells, "know" where to go. I marveled, too, at how the cells "know" to differentiate themselves into various tissues, and how the tissues "know" to arrange themselves in 3 dimensional patterns of a specific shape. The amount of information and organization this whole process requires, the feedback and control systems that must be deployed, are all enormously complex and ingenious.

The developmental process from sperm to newborn appears to be wonderfully programmed and choreographed, but by what? The laws of chemistry? Natural selection? How does a purposeless, mechanical process like natural selection generate the incredible amount of information - far more information than what's required by, say, a computer operating system - that's needed for embryogenesis, even given a billion years of evolutionary time?

Perhaps some purely naturalistic, mechanical process did produce this amazing developmental sequence, but if so, it's as if a fairy tale has come true. Or a miracle:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Equality, Virtue, and Liberty

Samuel Gregg at The Federalist argues that the American obsession with equality is dangerous and potentially fatal to our democracy. Drawing on Alexis de Toqueville's magisterial study of 19th century America, Democracy in America (1835/1840), Gregg wonders whether American democracy's emphasis on equality might not eventually make the whole experiment come undone.

He writes:
Democracy’s emphasis on equality helps to break down many unjust forms of discrimination and inequality. Women gradually cease, for instance, to be regarded as inherently inferior. Likewise, the fundamental injustice of slavery becomes harder and harder to rationalize.

At the same time, as Tocqueville scholar Pierre Manent has observed, democracies gravitate toward a fascination with producing total equality. Democracy requires everyone to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. We consequently start seeing and disliking any disparity contradicting this equality of conditions. Equality turns out to be very antagonistic to difference per se, even when differences are genetic (such as between men and women) or merited (some are wealthier because they freely assume more risks).
In other words, we've made equality a kind of golden calf to which we bow down and worship. If equality is good, we've decided, then total, absolute equality must be better. Thus, we find ourselves obliterating all distinctions and all judgments of better or worse. We don our social and psychological Mao suits, loath to acknowledge any differences among us.

But this obsession with equality as sameness cripples our ability to inculcate virtue:
The idea of virtue implies that there are choices whose object is always good and others that are wrong in themselves. Courage is always better than recklessness and cowardice. But language such as “better than,” or “superior to” is intolerable to egalitarianism of the leveling kind. That’s one reason why many people in democratic societies prefer to speak of “values.” Such language implies that (1) all values are basically equal, and (2) there’s something impolite if not downright wrong with suggesting that some purportedly ethical commitments are irrational and wrong.
Virtue, however, is inseparable, in the U.S., at least, from Christianity. Thus, if virtue is to be diluted to a kind of bland "values clarification" Christian religion must be emasculated, shrunken to a meaningless series of church suppers and insipid sermons.

This is ironic since the concept of human equality is rooted in the Christian belief that all men are created by God who cares equally about each of us. No naturalistic or secular ground for the doctrine of human equality exists, it's not derivable from Darwinism nor secular reason, and indeed, prior to the rise of Christianity the notion of human equality would've been unintelligible.

The concept of equality before God (and before the civil law), however, has in our secular age been conflated with the concept of absolute sameness which is no part of its original meaning. Unless we return to that original meaning, Gregg argues, we will lose not only the concept of equality, but also whatever remnants of virtue remain as well as the religious belief that grounds both virtue and equality.

When that happens tyranny and the loss of our liberties will not be far behind.

Read more of Gregg's argument at the link.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Some Reflections on the Media

Those who work for our major news media outlets have tried this weekend to make much of the fact that attendance at President Trump's Inauguration was lower than when President Obama was inaugurated, but the importance of this factoid has been left unexplained. It seems, though, to suggest no more than that more people were motivated to be part of the history-making inauguration of America's first black president than were motivated to turn out for one of the two least popular presidential candidates in American history - the other being Hillary Clinton - but so what? Why belabor the point unless it's just to indulge the desire to take gratuitous potshots at the new president?

Mr. Trump's estimate of his numbers at his inaugural address was allegedly false, and the media has been relentless this weekend in reminding us that the president was factually incorrect in saying that the crowd extended all the way to the Washington Monument. Photos I've seen seem to support the media, and Mr. Trump's exaggeration and imprecision is troubling, but when President Obama declared that Hillary Clinton was the best qualified person in our history to run for the presidency no one in the media made much at all of this extraordinarily absurd claim.

Indeed, many people who have run for the office had served several terms as chief executives (governors) of states, which is better preparation for the White House than serving as a minority party senator or secretary of a bureaucracy. Indeed, George H. W. Bush's resume is surely more impressive than Ms. Clinton's, but the media merely ignored President Obama's distortion, and thus make themselves look childish, petulant and partisan when they now criticize Mr. Trump for his.

Our media have also been talking non-stop about the women's marches on Saturday, but are invariably tight-lipped whenever equal numbers of people descend on Washington for pro-life or Promise-Keepers rallies. The numbers of women in the weekend marches were impressive and should certainly be reported upon - although the raunch and vulgarity exhibited by some of the demonstrators certainly tarnished and diminished their message - but then professional, fair-minded journalists should also give as much time to reporting accurately on other, similar, events even if those journalists have less political sympathy for those who participate in them.

Finally, it's astonishing that when Donald Trump stated prior to the election that he might not accept the results if he thought the election was "rigged" he was flagellated by his political opponents. We were told that his renitence was a threat to our democracy and the integrity of the electoral system, but then candidate Trump won the election, and many of those who were so critical of him for suggesting that he might not accept the outcome have now themselves adamantly refused to accept the outcome.

Protestors wear shirts declaring that Trump's not their president. Disgruntled leftists and others riot in the streets, destroying property and endangering lives. One can only imagine what would've been written if, after Mr. Obama's election, tea-partiers had rioted and overtly refused to accept him as their president. In fact, some individuals did say things like this, and were excoriated for it by the press. They were labelled racists and bigots, but scarcely a word of censure has been directed at those who've refused to accept the results of November's voting.

It's this bias and dishonesty in the major media in particular, and on the left in general, that was largely responsible for the backlash that produced the Trump nomination and presidency in the first place, and if these folks think they can destroy his administration by giving us more of the same they're deluding themselves.

All they're doing is confirming in the minds of Donald Trump's voters, especially those who were apprehensive about voting for him, that they were right to give him their support.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

300,000 Lost Jobs

A column by Elizabeth Harrington at The Washington Free Beacon gives at least partial insight into why Republicans are so insistent that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, i.e. Obamacare) be repealed and replaced with something better:
The American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute, released findings Wednesday that rising premiums and regulations under the Affordable Care Act have had “dire” consequences for the labor market.

The report found the law has cost $19 billion in lost wages per year and forced 10,000 small businesses establishments to close their doors. The study covered employers with 20 to 99 employees.

“Research from the American Action Forum (AAF) finds regulations from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are driving up health care premiums and are costing small business employees at least $19 billion in lost wages annually,” the report said. “These figures varied by state, but in 2015 the ACA cost year-round workers $2,095, $2,134, and $2,260 in Ohio, New York, and North Dakota, respectively.”

“Premium increases, a prospect regulators predicted when issuing the first ACA regulations, also significantly diminished the number of business establishments and jobs nationwide,” the report said. “Across the country, small businesses (20-99 workers) lost 295,030 jobs, 10,130 business establishments, and $4.7 billion in total wage earnings. Florida lost 17,950 jobs; Ohio lost 19,000; Pennsylvania lost 15,680; and Texas lost 28,010 jobs due to higher sensitivity to rising health care premiums and the ACA.”
If the report she bases her column on is accurate then the ACA has been a disaster for the middle class in America. She goes on to write this:
Before Obamacare became law, workers still saw an increase in their average weekly pay when health insurance premiums went up.

“After the ACA became law, however, a one percent increase in total premiums was associated with a 0.012 percent decrease in average weekly pay,” the report said.

The numbers add up to roughly $3.9 billion in lost wages for small businesses with between 20 and 49 workers, which account for 20 million workers in the United States. The average worker for those businesses has lost $1,202 in annual pay.

Aside from wage losses and job cuts, Obamacare has cost the economy $51 billion and added 172 million hours of paperwork through regulations, the American Action Forum said.
There must be a better way to achieve an equitable health insurance system without imposing regulations that have contributed to at least $19 billion in lost wages, 10,000 fewer businesses, and nearly 300,000 lost jobs. The challenge for Republicans will be to come up with a better system and get it passed in the face of resistance from Democrats who will be loath to undo the ACA which they devised and passed without a single Republican vote in 2010 and which forms the linchpin of Mr. Obama's presidential legacy.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Deconstructing Social Norms

Donald Trump is a rude, semi-articulate bully. So says David Marcus at The Federalist, and, of course, the evidence certainly supports him. His behavior is not normal, Marcus avers, and a compelling case could be made for that claim as well. He's also correct when he notes that the progressive left is shocked at Trump's deviation from the norms of behavior that have traditionally prevailed in our society. And he's undoubtedly right, finally, when he observes that the left's professed shock at Trump's deviancy from traditional norms of behavior is not a little hypocritical since they themselves have been attacking social norms for decades.

Marcus writes:
Progressives have found a rallying cry in their opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency. Whether in the New York Times, on the John Oliver Show, or in protests in the nations’ streets, they are insisting that Trump is “not normal.” News media and elected officials not considered critical enough of Trump are criticized for normalizing him and his ideas. Suddenly progressives, of all people, are deeply concerned about our culture’s long-held norms and traditions.

The irony in all of this is crystal clear. These are the same people who over the past few years have insisted that five-year-old boys becoming five-year-old girls is normal. They tell us that a guaranteed basic income and running for president as a Socialist is normal. Forcing Catholic hospitals to offer birth control, undocumented immigrants voting in our elections, and abolishing the police: normal, normal, and normal.

In Donald Trump, with his admittedly dangerous, devil-may-care attitude, progressives have stumbled upon the value of conserving norms and traditions. A president just doesn’t say these awful things about his opponents and the media. A president doesn’t tweet attacks at enemies late at night. A President doesn’t put a controversial figure like Steve Bannon a few doors down from the Oval Office.

But here’s the thing: it’s too late. We are way past that now. The Left let its freak flag fly. We all saw it. No normal is the new normal and there is no clear way back from that.
Marcus has quite a bit more to say about this at the link, but he makes an interesting point in what he writes in the paragraphs above. If one is cheered by the deconstruction of traditional norms that has occurred over the last five decades one certainly can't complain about Trump's abnormal conduct in the last election cycle. He's simply doing, after all, the very thing that progressives have been doing for decades which is assaulting the norms that have governed our social interactions for centuries. Whether that's good or bad (For my part I think it's not good whether it's progressives who do it or Trump who does it) I leave for you to decide, but I do think it's at best inconsistent to complain about Trump's flouting of social norms, on the one hand, while applauding progressives who flout and dismantle them on the other.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Scandal-Free?!

Like the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil some in the media are marveling at how scandal-free the Obama administration has been.
Newsbusters' Geoffrey Dickens provides a sampling of recent quotes:
Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, after Obama’s January 10 farewell speech gushed: “He’s been scandal free, frankly, in the White House. We haven’t had that what for a while.” Time magazine’s Joe Klein, back in December declared there has been “absolutely no hint of scandal” during his eight years. And in 2013 reporters first took up this line when the GOP Congress began investigating the myriad of scandals from Obama’s first term. At that time ABC’s Jon Karl noted that this was “a White House that takes pride in being scandal-free.” NPR’s Steve Inskeep asserted “This administration has been described, I don’t even know how many times, as remarkably scandal-free,” and Time’s Rana Foroohar noted “the President has been very rightfully proud of the lack of scandal in his administration so far.”
Maybe the definition of "scandal" employed by these folks differs from the one many of the rest of us have always used, or maybe their definition is that scandal is solely and uniquely a Republican phenomenon. Or maybe something is a scandal only if the major media chooses to cover it in which case nothing unseemly that occurred during President Obama's tenure would qualify as scandalous.

In any event, by any reasonable definition of "scandal" the Obama administration has had more than it's share. Newsbusters lists seven scandals, of which these three are perhaps most prominent:

Using the IRS to target political opponents:
After a partisan report in June 2013 absurdly suggested that progressive groups were just as likely to be scrutinized as conservative ones, ABC, CBS and NBC essentially abandoned their coverage of the IRS targeting scandal. After producing 136 stories on their morning and evening news show during the first seven weeks of the scandal, broadcast news coverage dried up, with just 14 more reports over the next 10 months, as the Big Three ignored numerous damning developments in the case.

The media’s blackout of the IRS scandal continued through 2016 despite more and more developments being unearthed. On June 15, 2016 it was reported the IRS had finally released an almost complete list of organizations that the tax agency scrutinized in the Tea Party targeting scandal, but the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) networks ignored this stunning development.
Illegally selling firearms to Mexican drug cartels:
In 2009, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) launched “Operation Fast and Furious,” which permitted thousands of guns to be illegally sold in the hope of tracking the weapons as they made their way up the ranks of Mexican drug cartels. In December 2010, one of those weapons was used to kill U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

In a Republican administration, such incompetence and stonewalling would likely have been a major story. Yet ABC’s World News and the NBC Nightly News acted as if the scandal did not exist, never once mentioning it on their evening news programs in 2011. CBS Evening News ran a dozen full reports in 2011 exposing various elements of the scandal, thanks to then correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

NBC finally arrived on the story on June 12, 2012, 546 days after Brian Terry’s murder, and then only after the House of Representatives was about to approve a contempt charge against the Attorney General for failing to produce crucial documents. ABC’s World News took another eight days, until June 20, to acknowledge the scandal, dallying until President Obama himself stepped in to claim Executive Privilege on behalf of Holder. CBS, which in 2011 had distinguished itself as the lone broadcast network pursuing this story, also waited until the June 20 Evening News to file their first Fast and Furious story of 2012.

The House vote against Holder and the President’s use of Executive Privilege would ordinarily be the red flare that set the networks to digging deeper on a scandal, but not when it came to Obama’s Fast and Furious fiasco.
Wait lists at Veterans Administration hospitals:
May 22, 2014 the MRC’s Scott Whitlock reported that in nearly four and a half weeks, the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news shows have offered 110 minutes to Obama administration scandal involving secret lists designed to keep veterans from receiving proper medical treatment. Back in January 2014, it took those same network shows just four and a half days to churn that much coverage for Chris Christie's Bridgegate.

When the VA story broke on April 23, 2014 with news as many as 40 veterans seeking treatment at one Phoenix facility died while on secret waiting lists, CBS provided the most coverage, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. NBC allowed 44 minutes and 53 seconds and ABC came in last with a scant 16 minutes and 44 seconds. None of the networks bothered covering the story until May 6, 2014 almost two weeks after it broke. (This is despite heavy investigative reporting by Fox News and CNN.) In just four and half days, from January 7, 2014 through the January 12 morning programs, ABC, CBS and NBC deluged Americans with 112 minutes and 23 seconds of analysis into what Christie knew about an intentional traffic jam created on the George Washington bridge last fall.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest scandals of the Obama years didn't even make the Dickens' Newsbusters article. The scandal that probably cost Hillary Clinton the election, her illegal use of an email server, her attempt to hide her crime, and the probability that foreign governments hacked into her server all occurred while she was Secretary of State under Obama. Moreover, her influence-peddling via her family charity foundation also occurred during her tenure as a prominent member of the Obama administration. Either of these would certainly count as scandals were a Republican in the White House, but some in our media are so desperate to protect what legacy Barack Obama might have that they completely ignore these blemishes on his administration.

It's also a fact that most of the scandals of previous administrations did not cost lives, but both the Fast and Furious scandal and the VA scandal did cost lives, and it's possible that if Mrs. Clinton's emails were hacked that that may have cost lives as well.

None of this seems to have been considered by the aforementioned commentators who, to give them the benefit of the doubt, probably spoke before they thought very much about what they were saying.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unrealistic Expectations

In a recent column Suzanne Venker, an author and cultural critic who writes about relationships, marriage and work-family issues, discusses the top three unrealistic expectations women have about marriage.

Here's her lede:
Albert Einstein once said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably, they’re both disappointed.”

Men and women have completely different expectations of marriage. Men may be slower to arrive at the altar, but once there, they’re typically good to go. They don’t spend the subsequent years trying to change the woman they married, nor do they fantasize about what life with another woman might be like. They just exist.

Women, on the other hand, want to change a man once they’ve married him! Really, when you think about it, this makes no sense. But that’s what they do anyway. When they’re unsuccessful, they begin to imagine what life would be like with another husband. They don’t accept that life is a series of trade-offs and that they can’t get everything they want all wrapped up in one man.

Our culture also doesn’t encourage women to accept trade-offs. They’re taught they’re entitled to it “all” and as a result expect too much. They focus on the “what-ifs” rather than on the what is.
As a result, she avers, women have unrealistic expectations about marriage. Here are Venker's top three:
  1. That a woman's husband should be her soulmate
  2. That her marriage will be based on equal sharing of tasks and responsibilities
  3. That her marriage will make her happy
That Venker thinks these are unrealistic may provoke some modern readers with feminist inclinations to reject her column out of hand, but she has good things to say about each of these. Here's just a bit of what she writes about the first:
Here’s what love is not: being swept away on a white horse by a gorgeous, svelte guy who makes gobs of money and who, miraculously, doesn’t drink or gamble or stay out late but who’s a fully engaged husband and father who cooks, cleans, and plays with his kids for hours.

This man Does. Not. Exist. (Or if he does, he’s taken.) Many women say they know this is unrealistic, but they don’t actually accept it. If they did, they wouldn’t be chronically dissatisfied.

Once again, it’s the culture that did it to them. By the time the average woman gets married, she’s been drowning in “rom-coms,” or romantic comedies. These films are meant to be an escape from real life, but rarely are women impervious to such stories. Women feed off romance—we love that stuff! But the message coming out of Hollywood is totally unrealistic.

Love wasn’t even the original purpose of marriage. It was initially about children and property. Even once love did become a focus, women had reasonable expectations for what marriage could deliver. It wasn’t until marriage became entirely optional, as a result of the Pill and women’s growing economic independence, that marriage began to shift from being about duty and obligation (combined with love) to being about finding a soul mate.
Check out the rest of her essay and see what you think about what she has to say.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Off the Rails

George Orwell was a man of the left who saw clearly that the totalitarian impulse to control thought, speech and behavior of the masses led to dehumanization, repression, and horror. His novels 1984 and Animal Farm should be required reading for every high school or college student, but so far from warning us against the mind-numbing thought-control and censorship that Orwell foresaw in the late 1940s, many schools are actually trying, perhaps inadvertently, to foster something similar to it.

That's not exactly Philipp Oehmke's thesis in his article in Der Spiegel titled "Has Political Correctness Gone Off the Rails?", but much of what he reveals about the trends on the campus of Oberlin College (which it's reasonable to assume serves as a synecdoche for elite schools across the country) certainly has Orwellian overtones.

Here are just a few excerpts from Oehmke's essay.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl "Trump 2016" on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding "safe spaces" where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this "fascist, racist candidate."

In the months prior to the election, "safe spaces" had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments -- a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer's views on feminism represented "microaggressions."

When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a "safe space" during the speech where, as one professor reported, "New Age music" was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also "get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals."

"Microaggressions" are the conceptual cousins of "safe spaces" -- small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also "trigger warnings" -- brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could "trigger" memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.

But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles' "Antigone." The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. "People should have the right to know and consent to what they're putting into their minds," he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.

The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings in addition to complaints about microaggressions all fall under the term "political correctness" in the United States.

[Opponents of PC] consider it an expression of a victim culture, within which the hypersensitive "leftist mainstream" (also used as an epithet) seeks to isolate itself from every deviation from its own worldview. Opponents of political correctness consider it to be an overwrought fixation on the needs of minorities and one's individual identity, on skin color and gender.

In the last decade, however, the obsession with minorities and their victimhood may have gone overboard. In a much-discussed opinion piece for the New York Times last month, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, argued that American liberalism in recent years has been seized by hysteria regarding race, gender and sexual identity.

"The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups," he wrote.

Even as the white working class and lower class flocked to Trump in droves, students at Oberlin were busy organizing a protest against the food served at the Afrikan Heritage House. A few students had pointed out that the dishes there were at most Westernized interpretations of the original recipes, a state of affairs which showed a lack of respect toward African traditions. This offense, too, has a term: "cultural appropriation."

Meanwhile, Asian students complained that the cafeteria served bánh mì using inauthentic ingredients, prompting accusations of cultural imperialism.

The college took the complaints seriously, as it does with all grievances lodged by students. It has a reputation to protect -- and must also protect itself from the lawsuits that many of its students' parents can easily afford.

For some professors, it has gone too far. One of those is Roger Copeland. On a recent Friday afternoon, he made his way to the Slow Train Café, the only place at Oberlin where everybody meets up during the day -- professors, students and activists. He has come to talk about everything he believes has destroyed his profession. He has recently accepted an early-retirement severence package and will be leaving the school in a few weeks. Professor Copeland has taught for over 40 years at Oberlin. He is a theater professor and he looks the part. He arrives wearing a Hawaiian shirt and speaks, even in normal discussion, as if he were reciting Shakespeare from the stage.

Copeland himself took to the streets in protest in the 1970s: against the Vietnam War, against Watergate -- the big things. On two occasions, he was arrested.

Today, though, it's personal pronouns that his students are squabbling over and Copeland has little understanding. He says students no longer want to be addressed as "he" or "she," but as "X" or "they" or newly created personal pronouns. At Oberlin, terms like "Latina" or "Latino" for people with Central or South American backgrounds have been replaced with the gender-neutral "Latinx."

Cisgender is a relatively new word and Copeland only recently became aware of it. He also learned that it is often used as an insult. It describes pretty much to a "T" what he is: a white, heterosexual man who is certain that he doesn't want to be a woman and isn't even a little bit bi-sexual.

Copeland isn't the only victim. Across the country, "social justice warriors," as they are disparagingly called, are leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, attacking professors, artists, authors and even DJs along the way.
Exactly how Copeland was victimized at Oberlin you can read about at the link along with much else about the state of affairs there.

Reflecting on Oehmke's article, it's difficult to think of anything more likely to balkanize us into groups insulated from and hostile towards one another than the inability to interact with each other without having to fear that we'll be innocently doing or saying something that could cost us our livelihood.

Where does it all end, and how and why have we come to this point in the first place?

Maybe one explanation is that many young people need a cause to infuse their lives with meaning, but when all the important battles have been largely won, nothing significant is left for which to fight. So students, and their faculty abettors, find their meaning in the minutiae of "social justice," magnifying these out of all proportion to their real importance, turning them into what they doubtless sincerely believe to be matters of grave urgency, when in fact, to people outside the academic bubble who struggle just to make a living for their families, they often seem trivial. Indeed, the great-grandparents of these students, men and women who confronted real social injustice, would probably find some of the preoccupations and obsessions of their descendants mystifying.

Perhaps for some another explanation is that by successfully intimidating both college administrators and the larger, probably more apathetic, student body into acceding to their demands, they find themselves experiencing a rush of euphoria that accompanies the realization that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they have power over others. That rush can be catnip, it can be addictive, to the spiritually empty or politically impotent.

In any case, it's ironic that so many students are devastated by the election of Donald Trump because it is surely an aversion to the political correctness such as is illustrated in Oehmke's essay and strongly supported by Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, that was at least partly responsible for the electoral backlash the left suffered last November.

The faculty and students on our elite campuses probably don't see this, though. Oehmke closes his piece with this:
A few days after [the election], news of the vote breakdown in Oberlin came in: 4,575 votes for Hillary Clinton against 412 for Donald Trump. They now want to find those Trump voters. And confront them.
What does it mean to "confront them"? Does it mean to bully, harass, and intimidate them into conforming to the majority view? If so, it's another irony that students who claim to be offended by "microaggressions" in the larger culture - who protest against them and demand safe spaces from them - would employ the same tactics, on an even greater scale, against a minority group on their own campus. How Orwellian.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King - An American Hero

Today is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and it would be well to focus on why we do. King was a man of great courage who was resolutely committed, not just to racial equality under the law, but to harmony among all the racial factions in America. His commitment to achieving justice under the law for every American was rooted in his Christian faith as his Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear, and it was that faith which made him a transformational figure in the history of our nation.

It's sad that though his dream of racial equality has been largely realized - the law no longer permits distinctions between the races in our public life - his dream of racial harmony has not.

One reason it has not is that his dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character has been inverted so that the color of one's skin is often the only thing that matters, at least in those precincts of our society still in thrall to identity politics.

For example, students are still accepted into colleges and given scholarships on the basis of their race without having to meet the same standards as those with a different skin color. The same is true of civil servants like police and firemen who are often hired and promoted on the basis of test performance, but who sometimes receive preferential treatment based on race. Our Justice Department has refused to prosecute blacks who deny others their civil rights, and any criticism of our out-going president has been interpreted by some as a racist reaction to his skin color rather than reasoned opposition to his policies.

Sadly, people are judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character as much today, perhaps, as at any time in our history, but that's precisely contrary to Martin Luther King's dream.

Nor do I think he would have been happy that we celebrate black history month as if it were somehow separate from American history rather than, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argues, an integral part of American history. The civil rights movement was not merely a black movement, it was an American movement in which the American people realized that we were not living up to the ideals of equality and liberty upon which America was founded. It was a time when the nation realized that we were not living consistently with the deepest convictions we held as Christians, namely that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

Martin Luther King persistently and bravely held these ideals and convictions before the American people, he refused to allow us to avoid their implications, and repeatedly urged us to live up to what we believed deep in our souls to be true. And the American people, many of whom had never really thought about the chasm between what we professed and what we practiced, responded.

It was an American achievement that involved the efforts and blood of people not just of one race but of all races. Thinking of the great sacrifices and advances of the civil rights era as only a success story of one race is divisive. It carves out one group of people from the rest of the nation for special notice and tends to exclude so many others without whom the story would never have been told.

On Martin Luther King day it would be good for us to try to put behind us the invidious distinctions we continue to make between white and black. It would be good to stop seeing others in terms of their skin color, to give each other the benefit of the doubt that our disagreements are about ideas and policies and are not motivated by hatred, bigotry, or moral shortcomings. It would be good to declare a moratorium on the use of the word "racist," unless the evidence for it is overwhelming, and, in any case, to stop thinking of racism as a sin committed by the majority race only.

Let's resolve to judge each other on the content of our character and of our minds and not on the color of our skin. As long as we continue to see each other through the lens of race we'll keep throwing up barriers between groups of people and never achieve the unity that King yearned for and gave his life for. There is perhaps no better way to honor Doctor King today than to take the time to read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and to watch his "I Have a Dream" speech (below) and then to incorporate his words into our own lives as Americans.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Consolations of Philosophy

The philosophy department at Lehigh University answers the question: Why study philosophy? with a helpful short essay, which includes the following:
“It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” - Rene Descartes

Here’s what some of our students have said about why they study philosophy:
“It’s important to learn about genetics, but it is more important to learn to think. Philosophy makes me think!”
“Philosophy courses give you more than just knowledge of the world; they give you a deep understanding of how the world works, even how it should work.”
“Majoring in philosophy makes me a better thinker and a more well-rounded person.”
“My philosophy senior thesis was not only the best part of my Lehigh experience, but it has helped me tremendously throughout law school and my life.”
“Studying philosophy, I learned to analyze closely and critically, to question thoroughly, and to write and think rigorously. My philosophy skills has made me more valuable to prospective employers and graduate schools.”

Top Five Reasons to Study Philosophy:
1. Fascinating subject matter
2. Wide variety of interesting classes taught by outstanding professors
3. Skill development
4. Great preparation for any career or graduate study
5. Personal development
The Lehigh philosophers then go on to elaborate on the five reasons. Here's what they say about the first one - fascinating subject matter:
Philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand themselves, the world they live in, and the relations to the world and each other. Those who study philosophy are engaged in asking, answering, evaluating, and reasoning about some of life’s most basic, meaningful, and difficult questions, such as:
  • What is it to be a human?
  • What is the human mind?
  • Are we responsible for what we do, or are we just helpless victims of our genes, environment, and upbringing?
  • Is there a God?
  • What is the best sort of life to live?
  • What is happiness? Can we hope to attain it? Is it what matters most in life? Can bad people be truly happy?
  • How should we balance our own desires, needs, and rights against those of others individuals? against those of future generations? animals?
  • What kind of person is it good to be?
  • What sorts of political institutions are best?
  • What do we know and how do we know it?
  • What is truth? Is anything true? How can we tell?
  • What is art? What is beauty? Does art have to be beautiful to be good?
  • Can we justify our judgments about the merits of a film, a book, a painting, a poem?
  • What is it for one thing to cause another thing to happen?
  • Is there a scientific method?
  • How do words come to have meaning?
  • Do mathematical objects exist?
  • What is time? Is time really real?
In studying philosophy, you’ll have a chance to grapple with these questions yourself and to think about what others — some of the greatest philosophers of the past and present, as well as your fellow students — think about them.
There's much more on the benefits of philosophy at the link, including the economic benefits. One of the fascinating facts you'll see there is that some of the most successful professionals in the world were philosophy majors, as were two recent popes.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Most Unpopular Cabinet Nominee

If you were asked to pick which of Donald Trump's nominees for cabinet secretary would be most likely to draw the most criticism and ire from his critics who would you pick? Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State)? Jeff Sessions (Attorney General)? James Mattis (Secretary of Defense)? David Klinghoffer makes a surprising prediction as to who he thinks the recipient of the greatest vilification from Mr. Trump's opponents will be when all is said and done. He predicts it will be Betsy DeVos, the president-elect's choice for Secretary of Education.

He thinks that the president-elect's political foes will pull out all the stops to embarrass and discredit her when her confirmation hearings begin on January 17th:
The accusation will be that she is "anti-science," an imagined thought crime that provokes elite loathing like almost no other. Of course, there's zero evidence for the charge. They will cite her husband's comment on teaching intelligent design, which I addressed already here when atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss pushed the panic button on it in an article for The New Yorker. They will ask her how old she thinks the Earth is, whether human beings rode on dinosaurs, whether she has visited Ken Ham's Ark Park lately. If possible they will seek to humiliate her and cast her in the role of a Neanderthal, which is to say a deplorable.
This may all be so, but why does Klinghoffer think she'll elicit so much hostility?
Why do I say that a special note of seething from critics may characterize her hearing? Well, if you don't understand this point about the cocoon of liberalism, then much of what goes on in politics, science, religion, and entertainment may mystify you.

Liberal elites can just barely tolerate the existence of the deplorables, so long as the latter do not aspire to reverse the power relationship of dominant to subservient. Being deplorable is not about being poor, or poorly educated. It denotes, instead, a whole alternative culture where the cream of the crop in the liberal world are no longer seen as the paladins of enlightenment that they imagine themselves to be.

Hence the fury I think will be aimed more at Mrs. DeVos than at any other Cabinet appointment. Why her in particular? Because science and education are peerless in conferring the prestige from which the cocoon draws its nourishment. Take control of those away from them and they are left in a fit of sputtering rage.

Sure, Mrs. DeVos has said not a word (as far as we know) about evolution or intelligent design. Yes, the Secretary of Education doesn't set curricula for local schools, and ID advocates never sought to push ID into schools. Granted, her critics don't understand what the evolution debate is about anyway. They couldn't care less about the huge distinction between intelligent design and creationism. But anything remotely tied, however unfairly, to the latter is demon spawn to them. Nothing could be more deplorable. Not even Trump.

Let the creationists worship their intelligent designer in their tacky megachurches. The cocoon can live with that, maybe. But install in government, with influence over science education, a woman whose husband once said a favorable word about ID? Never! Oh yes. Watch for it. Given the chance, they will burn her at the stake over that one.
Well, maybe. It's certainly true that probably none of her potential antagonists on the senate education committee who might challenge her commitment to darwinism, or her lack of commitment, are likely to know very much about either the science or the metaphysics involved, much less are they likely to understand intelligent design. Whether Klinghoffer is correct that she'll be the recipient of more opprobrium than any other of Trump's nominees, I don't know, but he's surely correct that the left sees a real danger in DeVos' nomination.

Schools are the most important institution, aside perhaps from the courts, to the success of the left's long march to their goal of a secularist, socialist society. Schools are the nurseries in which the young are inoculated against the perceived evils of market capitalism and Christian religion and in which the dogmas of radical egalitarianism, abolition of the traditional family, and a totalizing statism are most effectively instilled.

The success of this indoctrination requires uniformity of thought and suppression of dissent, particularly on matters vital to the secularization of society (like darwinism) and vital to increasing centralized state power (like climate change). To the extent that DeVos holds heterodox views on these issues she'll be seen as a threat to the attempt to catechize the young in progressive ideology and will doubtless be vigorously opposed.

How vigorously she'll be opposed, and how vicious the opposition will be, we'll find out on Tuesday.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Envisioning a Posthuman World

The movement known as "posthumanism" is gradually being incorporated into the academic mainstream as an interview in the New York Times with philosopher Cary Wolfe of the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University and the founding editor of the Posthumanities book series reveals. Wolfe's posthumanism distills to the belief that there's no basis for making moral distinctions between human beings and animals and that hierarchies which implicitly assume or promote such distinctions should be abolished and abandoned.

In the interview Wolfe says:
[M]ost of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So...what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness.

An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”
All of this may be true, but a vocabulary such as Wolfe enjoins upon us is apparently elusive since he never offers one. Indeed, we might ask why any organism at all merits respect. Is it merely because it's unique and different, as Wolfe suggests? If so, does it follow that individual members of extremely common species, for instance human beings, shouldn't merit the same valuation as members of rarer species, such as timber wolves or snail darters?

And, we might also ask, why shouldn't anyone who has the power to do so exploit other organisms for his/her own benefit? Why is this morally wrong? Wolfe doesn't address these fundamental questions because, I suspect, he holds to a naturalism that offers no basis for his moral commitments. I'm speculating, but I wonder if his ethical concerns are grounded in nothing more than his own personal, emotional attachment to animals. If so, why should others think they're doing something wrong just because they offend professor Wolfe's personal preferences by ranking humans higher and more valuable than, say, rodents?

Human beings have rights that mere animals don't have because, as John Locke wrote over three centuries ago, humans are uniquely created in the image of God, are loved by God and belong to God and no man has the right to harm God's children. Strip that fundamental proposition from a society's assumptions and human rights talk, much less animal rights talk, is rendered groundless, it's just words on paper.

Wolfe adds this toward the end of the interview:
So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation.
Consider the logic of what Wolfe says in this paragraph. Once we "throw out the distinction between 'human' and 'animal'" there remains no argument against granting the same rights to animals as humans enjoy. In a world in which posthumanists had their way, the ineluctable conclusion would be the abolition of raising and harvesting animals for meat as well as owning an animal as a pet. It would certainly be a world in which fishing and hunting game as well as the use of animals in medical research would be banned. It also would seem to follow from throwing out any distinction between humans and animals that any difference or inequality between the rights of humans and other vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles), or even the rights of humans and invertebrates (jellyfish, insects) would be a morally intolerable act of species discrimination.

Perhaps a world like Wolfe envisions will come to pass when the lion lays down with the lamb, but in this world, a world in which people need fish and fowl in order to live, in which they require the labor of animals in order to ensure their own survival, Wolfe's posthumanism seems terribly naive not to mention cruel to the millions of people who rely on that Lockean distinction between human and animal for their very survival.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Repealing Obamacare

The New York Times has a nifty graphic that illustrates the difficulties Republicans face in repealing Obamacare. The architects of the Affordable Care Act made the various elements of the law so interdependent that it's going to be hard to undo some parts of it without, the Times alleges, depriving some 22 million people of insurance coverage, which would be a very unpopular result.

The problem with the Times' graphic, though, is that it nowhere mentions how many people have lost coverage under the ACA because they could no longer afford the premiums and didn't qualify for subsidies. Nor does it discuss the number of people who were able to keep their insurance but were forced to pay higher premiums. Nor does it give any idea how many of those 22 million who are projected to lose coverage would be able to find coverage elsewhere.

All these figures are hard to determine, but without having them in hand it's difficult to measure the impact of repealing a law that even many Democrats who voted for it in 2010 are admitting needs to be overhauled.

Another difficulty in assessing the impact of repeal is that until we know what it will be replaced with we have no way of knowing how many people will be negatively affected. The 22 million figure presupposes that nothing is put in place of the repealed law, but too many Republicans would withhold voting for repeal unless there was a replacement ready to go. The political realities seem to dictate that repeal and replacement will be concurrent.

Allahpundit at Hot Air scrutinizes this problem and provides some interesting insight into the GOP's alternatives.

Meanwhile, President-elect Trump seems to be pushing for rapid repeal so there better be something ready to replace it with or else we could have a situation even less desirable than the current law.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Either Argument Or Violence

Nathan Beacom at The Federalist makes the case that our polity faces two alternatives: Either we can resolve our political disputes through reasoned argument or we can settle them by violence. The latter alternative is the preferred option of totalitarians and utopians who rely on force to impose their will on the populace.

On the contrary, the "Open Society," to borrow the title of a famous book by philosopher Karl Popper, favors the use of argument, but, Beacom cautions, if Americans lose the virtues that make an open society possible, they will soon find themselves under the boot of a tyrant.

There are a number of virtues which characterize discourse in an open and free society, perhaps the chief of which, according to Beacom, is humility:
Humility teaches that we, just like our neighbors, are prone to error, mistakes in argument, and ignorance. Humility is a disposition to recognize that reasoning towards the truth is a difficult process fraught with potential dangers and confusions.

This is actually a perquisite to real argument, for argument is not a matter of beating an opponent, but of working with a partner to come to an agreement about the truth of things. It is clear that the virtue of humility allows us to recognize that we need of others to balance us, challenge us, and fill the gaps in our knowledge. This is how America’s founding figures generally understood the principle of tolerance.

The failure to develop this virtue is an invitation to violence. Indeed, the corresponding vice of dialectical pride is what lies at the heart of a tyrannical ideology. The ideologue is so certain of her rightness that disagreement can only seem to be the result of an evil will, rather than a mere difference of opinion held in good faith. Evil is not to be reasoned with, but mocked and destroyed, so the opponent is not to be reasoned with, but forced into line.
I would add that a second virtue is a willingness to refrain from criticizing the "other side" for behavior one excuses in one's own side, especially when the behavior of one's own side is much worse than that of the opposition.

If, for example, I were to criticize a candidate of the opposing party for his lack of political experience, but enthusiastically support candidates in my own party who have even less experience, then not only do I forfeit the right to be taken seriously, I shut down communication with those in the other party. I lose credibility and no matter how good my arguments may be, few people will be inclined to listen to them.

I think we witnessed this almost daily in the last election wherein Trump and Clinton partisans each heatedly accused the other candidate of offenses for which their own candidate was just as guilty, but whose guilt was overlooked or explained away. The result was that the nation is probably more alienated today than it's been for the last fifty years.

Beacom continues:
The many ways in which the discussions of our own day fail in this fundamental virtue of argumentation indicates a dangerous seed of violence. Calling names, imputing bad motives, mockery, and the anger and emotivism that characterizes many of our public arguments are a failure of humility and fellow-feeling. Those who lack this virtue in conversation also, when in power, commit violence against their opponents.

It is unclear whether social media has accelerated the atrophy of these virtues or merely made it more apparent, but inasmuch as the discussions we see on Twitter and Facebook are typified by precisely the vicious tendencies we seek to avoid, we have reason to be a bit concerned.

Today we see the growing prevalence of radical movements in politics. On the Right there is a pull towards populism, nationalism, and even fascist tendencies. On the Left there is a growing draw towards Marxism and related radical programs. These ideologies are both distinguished by a rejection of the fundamental dialectical virtues.
When people give up on argument, when neither side is willing to listen to the other, first we just stop talking to each other and then we resort to power - of the judiciary, or worse, of the military - to impose our will on the other. Then comes death by strangulation of the open society.

There's more in Beacom's essay. Check it out at the link.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bigger Threat Than ISIL

Dexter Filkins has written a captivating piece for The New Yorker on what many consider to be the biggest threat facing Iraq at the moment, and surprisingly it's not ISIL or any military organization, it's a dam. The dam near Mosul on the Tigris river is mammoth, holding back eleven billion cubic meters of water, but it was built atop water-soluble rocks, and that foundation is eroding away rapidly under the dam threatening the integrity of the whole structure. Here's Filkins:
If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

The U.S. Embassy’s report on the Mosul Dam envisions .... [that] a “tsunami-like wave” would rush through Mosul, carrying away everything in its path, including bodies, buildings, cars, unexploded bombs, hazardous chemicals, and human waste. The wave would almost certainly catch most of the people trying to outrun it. Residents of Mosul, scrambling on foot and by car through a citywide traffic jam, would need to travel at least three and a half miles to survive. In less than an hour, those who remained would be under as much as sixty feet of water.
Satellite View of Mosul Dam
Elsewhere in the article the potential death toll is estimated at a million and a half people:
By the time the flood wave rolled past Baghdad and exhausted itself, as many as one and a half million people could be dead. But, some experts told me, the aftermath would prove even more harrowing. “I am not really worried about the dead—because they’re dead,” Alwash said. “What worries me is everyone else. How do you feed six million people in Baghdad when it’s flooded? How do you give them electricity? Where do they go?”
So, what's the reason for concern about the Mosul Dam?
Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath would wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance.
The maintenance consists of constant, daily drilling through the floor of the dam into the bedrock and then pumping cement into the fissures and cavities, some as big as a house, where the rock has dissolved away.

Even with constant maintenance, a feat made difficult by government lassitude and the fact that the dam is in a war zone, it's not clear that engineers are able to stay ahead of the problem. Indeed, some engineers who have worked for years on the dam are convinced that it's just a matter of time until it breaches and that such a calamity is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

Filkins' essay is very interesting and is worth the time it takes to read. Apparently, if the dam he writes about does collapse it could easily create the biggest disaster, man-made or natural, in human history.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Boom Star

If astronomers at Calvin College in Michigan are correct in five years we should be able to see the aftermath of an event that occurred almost 1800 years ago. Around the beginning of the third century A.D. a pair of stars in the constellation Cygnus spiraled into each other in a cataclysmic collision. No one on earth noticed, however, because the stars were 1800 light years distant, and the burst of light produced by the collision still hasn't arrived on earth. So how do we know this massive event even occurred? Sarah Knapton, science editor at the UK Telegraph explains:
At the beginning of the 3rd century civil war raged in Britain as the Roman emperor Septimius Severus sought to quell unrest in the north. But unknown to the fighting cohorts and Caledonian tribes, high above their heads two stars were coming together in a huge cataclysmic explosion.

Now 1800 years later the light from that collision will finally arrive on Earth creating a new star in the night sky - dubbed the ‘Boom Star - in an incredibly rare event which is usually only spotted through telescopes.

Before their meeting the two stars were too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but in 2022, the newly formed Red Nova will burn so brightly in the constellation Cygnus that everyone will be able to to see it.

“For the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up,” said Dr Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, Michigan, where the prediction was made. For around six months the Boom Star will be one of the brightest in the sky before gradually dimming, returning to its normal brightness after around two to three years.
Knapton goes on to explain how the discovery was made:
In 2013 Professor Larry Molnar and his team at Calvin College noticed that the orbital speed [of the two stars as they orbited each other] was [increasing]. And doing so faster and faster.

It matched the data from another binary star which exploded in 2008 without warning and was picked up by astronomers. When experts went back over data from previous years they discovered that the crash could have been predicted because of the increasing orbital speeds.

“Observations of KIC9832227 show its orbital period has been getting faster since 1999 in the same distinctive way. We arrive at our predicted date by assuming the same process is happening here," said Prof Molnar, who is professor in astronomy.

“The star is around 1800 light years [away]. Hence if we are right about the upcoming outburst, it actually occurred 1795 years ago, and the light from the outburst has been travelling toward us ever since.

“Explosions of this size occur about once a decade in our Galaxy. This case is unusual in how close the star is and hence how bright we will see it shine and unique in that it is the first time anyone has predicted an explosion in advance.
No doubt amateur and professional astronomers alike will be competing to be the first to spot the explosion in Cygnus as the light completes its 1800 year journey and finally arrives on earth. It'll be fascinating, too, to see how close the Calvin team comes to predicting the time of arrival.

We might wonder if our own star, the sun, might ever collide with another star. It's one of the many fascinating properties of our sun that it happens to be located in a place in the galaxy that makes the possibility of a collision pretty remote. Note in the picture below of the Milky Way galaxy that there are vast regions of relatively empty space between the much more crowded spiral arms of the galaxy. Our sun and, of course, our earth are located in one of the regions between the spiral arms where the likelihood of collision is much reduced. So of all the bad things that can happen, collision with another star isn't likely, at least for a couple billion years or so.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Unable to Call it Evil

By now the news of the kidnapping and torture of a mentally-challenged white man by four blacks has been widely disseminated, and most people of good will, black and white, are sickened by what these people did to this man. Even so, there's one aspect of the reaction to the video of their despicable crime that bears more commentary than it's been getting. CNN's Don Lemon's remarks afford us an illustration of a serious problem in our society.

Here's a report from The Blaze on Lemon's on-air commentary:
In the wake of the horrific torture of a white man with special needs by four black suspects — which was live-streamed on Facebook — a panelist on Don Lemon’s CNN show called the act “evil.”

“You just try to wrap your head around evil,” Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller told Lemon on Wednesday night. “That’s what this is. It’s evil. It’s brutality. It’s man’s inhumanity to man.”

But Lemon took issue with that assessment.

“I don’t think it’s evil. I don’t think it’s evil,” Lemon responded. “I think these are young people, and I think they have bad home training.” The host continued:

And I say, “Who’s raising these young people?” I have no idea who’s raising these young people, because no one I know on earth who is 17 years old or 70 years old would ever think of treating another person like that. It is inhumane. And you wonder, at 18 years old, where’s your parent? Where’s your guardian?
Perhaps a more pointed question is, where are their fathers? But that's a question for another day.

In fairness to Lemon he may still be hung over from those New Year's Eve tequilas he imbibed on national television and isn't thinking clearly, but more likely he has, perhaps unconsciously, bought into the postmodern denial of moral categories like "evil," with all the disagreeable religious overtones that attach to it.

Whatever the case, he has inadvertently called our attention to something important. In a secular society the word "evil" is vacuous because unless there is a transcendent moral authority, a God, there simply is no evil. Nor is there any genuine moral content, any right or wrong, attaching to any act. There are only behaviors some people don't like and some behaviors that people really don't like. What's wrong with what was done to the young man by his kidnappers is merely that people find it repulsive. To call it evil is to suggest that it is so reprehensible that it violates some transcendent moral law that's woven into the very fabric of the universe, but if there is no transcendent Weaver of such laws then it's nonsense to affirm their existence.

Thus, one important implication of the increasing obsolescence of the concept of evil in our secular society is that, if we strip away our emotional disgust at what those two men and two women did, we have to admit that there's really nothing objectively wrong with it.

As Andrew Klavan put it in a recent Wall Street Journal column. "If a person is just a chemistry set crossed with a computer then morals are empty." Thus, Mr. Lemon's inability to recognize evil, to try to squeeze the savagery of these four young people into some other category of explanation, is completely understandable in a culture that has swept religion from the public square. Unfortunately, he leaves himself with no vocabulary with which to condemn this heinous cruelty.

We can have a thoroughly secular society or we can still believe there's good and evil, but we can't do both, at least not consistently. The cost of yielding the latter in order to embrace the former is, however, very high. A society that cannot make moral judgments, that cannot call evil by its name, is a society in which behaviors such as the Chicago atrocity will become increasingly common.

The 18th century essayist Alexander Pope once wrote that,
Evil is a monster of such frightful mein,
that to be hated needs but to be seen.
But seen too oft, familiar with her face,
first we endure, then we pity, then we embrace.
For my part I don't want to endure, pity, or embrace acts of barbarous cruelty. I want to say that what these four did to that young man was racist, horrific, and evil. Just as what Dylann Roof did in that Charleston church was racist, horrific, and evil. The only significant difference is that Roof's murders were even more evil than what the four Chicago criminals did.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Critical Thinking (Pt. II)

Yesterday we began to look at a column by Mary Tillotson who discusses eight things people can do to become better thinkers. I'd like to continue with her advice today because she has much to say that's worth reading. Here's one of my favorites of her eight points:
Run This Through Your Experience: I had a college professor who would say this constantly. He would start with an observation about the world, like “People today treat having kids like a hobby.” Then, watching us all nod in agreement, he’d ask us to consider his comment in light of our experience of the world, and we’d quit nodding, look up at the ceiling, and furrow our brows. To this day, it’s one of the best pieces of pithy critical thinking advice I’ve ever heard.

A friend of mine teaches at a community college and one of her [demographic X] students said life would never be fair for [demographic Y] people, because people in demographic X were too “pigheaded.” My friend asked her student: Are you pigheaded? How many pigheaded demographic X people do you know? The student thought about individual people he knew, and having considered his family, friends, and classmates, responded that he didn’t actually know any pigheaded people—despite knowing plenty of people in demographic X.

When you hear a claim, especially a blanket claim, hold off judgment until you can run it through your experience. If you hear that all men are like this or all women are like that, or that conservatives hate this or liberals hate that, that Muslims or Christians or atheists or people of any particular color are problematic in some way, think about who you know. Is the reporter talking about real people or pushing a narrative?
What she prescribes here is an especially good antidote to the sort of claim we often hear to the effect that "everybody knows that -----------s (fill in the blank) are awful people." I have a somewhat liberal friend who frequently insists that no one he knows fits the portrait of liberals that conservatives often paint of them. Sometimes I tell him that he needs perhaps to widen his circle of acquaintances, but most of the time I think using his acquaintances to assess the fairness of the stereotype is a pretty reliable indicator of the fairness of the stereotype.

Here's another sage bit of advice from Tillotson:
Be Aware of Buzzwords: Do you remember your English teacher (or maybe your mom) always harping on you to build vocabulary? This is why: choosing the right word can more accurately convey the emotion you want to convey. Anyone who gets paid to write has built up a considerable vocabulary, and it’s his or her job to use it well. Let’s look at an example.

When people get upset about something and gather together with signs and chants, is it a riot or a protest? That’s a judgment call. A writer who wants you to sympathize will err on the side of protest; a writer who wants you to feel repulsed will err on the side of riot. If you see one of these words, pay attention to the rest of the article and see if there’s any violence against people, damaged storefronts, or looting. Your sympathies should be more influenced by the presence or absence of violence than by the writer’s choice of words.

A reporter’s job is to present the facts and let the reader decide. A reporter who neglects to provide real facts—for example, the presence or absence of violence—is trying to dupe you into believing his narrative. Whether you let yourself be manipulated into believing a lie or the truth, you’re still letting yourself be manipulated. You should decide based on actual information.
Perhaps one manifestation of what Tillotson's talking about here is the confusion, widely disseminated in the wake of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, between a "lie" and an "error." A lie is a deliberate deception and there was no evidence that Bush tried deliberately to deceive the American people about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. He may have been wrong that Saddam possessed WMDs, but every intelligence agency in the world thought the Iraqis had them, and Hussein certainly behaved as if he did, but when Bush used the threat posed by these weapons as a justification for invading Iraq his political opponents accused him of lying about their existence, and the distinction between a lie and an error was often ignored in the heat of the polemical battles.

Another possible example can be found in the debate surrounding intelligent design. Intelligent design is not creationism, but the media often conflates the two, an error which causes a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Journalists have had the difference explained to them so often that when they nevertheless persist in omitting it one can't help but think they're deliberately trying to mislead or manipulate the reader.

In any case, there's much else of value in Tillotson's essay, and I encourage readers to check out the whole thing.