Tuesday, April 30, 2013

When The Civil War Turns Hot [feedly]

When The Civil War Turns Hot

"Which means you have to allow people the right to think freely.  Yes, a lot of them will have stupid ideas.  (What, you think your sh*t don't stink?)  Yes, a lot of them will offend you.  (Communist ideas offend me, but do I come and shut you down?)
"Unless someone actually has the power to send police to your door to enforce their stupid ideas, you can learn to live with it.
"You do not in fact have the right to stop people thinking thoughts you don't like.  No, it's not unfair and bullying if people laugh at you.  Yes, it hurts like hell but there's a reason for the old saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones."   And besides, ladies and gentlemen, you've been aiming ridicule at the other side for years, in the firm belief there was no one here but us chickens.  (Some of us are dragons.  We just also happen to lay eggs.)"

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gay marriage: a case study in conformism | Brendan O’Neill | spiked

Link: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13518/ (via shareaholic.com)

I have been doing or writing about political stuff for 20 years, since I was 18 years old, during which time I have got behind some pretty unpopular campaigns and kicked against some stifling consensuses. But I have never encountered an issue like gay marriage, an issue in which the space for dissent has shrunk so rapidly, and in which the consensus is not only stifling but choking. This is the only issue on which, for criticising it from a liberal, secular perspective, I’ve been booed during an after-dinner speech and received death threats (‘If you’re dead, you can’t talk shit about gay marriage’). It’s the only issue on which both hard right-wingers and the wettest leftists have told me to STFU. It’s the only issue on which even friends have said, ‘Stop writing about it. It isn’t worth it.’

George W. Bush is smarter than you | Keith Hennessey

Link: http://keithhennessey.com/2013/04/24/smarter/ (via shareaholic.com)

I looked hard at the 60 MBA students and said “President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you.”
More silence.
I could tell they were waiting for me to break the tension, laugh, and admit I was joking.

I did not. A few shifted in their seats, then I launched into a longer answer. While it was a while ago, here is an amalgam of that answer and others I have given in similar contexts.
I am not kidding. You are quite an intelligent group. Don’t take it personally, but President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you. Were he a student here today, he would consistently get “HP” (High Pass) grades without having to work hard, and he’d get an “H” (High, the top grade) in any class where he wanted to put in the effort.
For more than six years it was my job to help educate President Bush about complex economic policy issues and to get decisions from him on impossibly hard policy choices. In meetings and in the briefing materials we gave him in advance we covered issues in far more depth than I have been discussing with you this quarter because we needed to do so for him to make decisions.
President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting.
I use words like briefing and presentation to describe our policy meetings with him, but those are inaccurate. Every meeting was a dialogue, and you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.
We treat Presidential speeches as if they are written by speechwriters, then handed to the President for delivery. If I could show you one experience from my time working for President Bush, it would be an editing session in the Oval with him and his speechwriters. You think that me cold-calling you is nerve-wracking? Try defending a sentence you inserted into a draft speech, with President Bush pouncing on the slightest weakness in your argument or your word choice.
In addition to his analytical speed, what most impressed me were his memory and his substantive breadth. We would sometimes have to brief him on an issue that we had last discussed with him weeks or even months before. He would remember small facts and arguments from the prior briefing and get impatient with us when we were rehashing things we had told him long ago.
And while my job involved juggling a lot of balls, I only had to worry about economic issues. In addition to all of those, at any given point in time he was making enormous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, on hunting al Qaeda and keeping America safe. He was making choices not just on taxes and spending and trade and energy and climate and health care and agriculture and Social Security and Medicare, but also on education and immigration, on crime and justice issues, on environmental policy and social policy and politics. Being able to handle such substantive breadth and depth, on such huge decisions, in parallel, requires not just enormous strength of character but tremendous intellectual power. President Bush has both.
On one particularly thorny policy issue on which his advisors had strong and deep disagreements, over the course of two weeks we (his senior advisors) held a series of three 90-minute meetings with the President. Shortly after the third meeting we asked for his OK to do a fourth. He said, “How about rather than doing another meeting on this, I instead tell you now what each person will say.” He then ran through half a dozen of his advisors by name and precisely detailed each one’s arguments and pointed out their flaws. (Needless to say there was no fourth meeting.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dear Gun Control Democrats: 6 Ways to Make a Better Argument | Kontradictions

Allow me this humble suggestion: The best way to convince the American public that you're not interested in taking guns away is to stop talking about taking guns away.

2. You Have To Understand What You're Regulating

New rule: If you don't know how guns work, you don't get to craft legislation about them. There is nothing so embarrassing as watching a Democratic politician who has never held a gun in their life attempt to talk about why and how they should be regulated.

3. Stop Using Children

Most Americans know when they're being emotionally played for political gain, and so do the senators who voted against the barrage of legislation that went down in flames this week. Until you can stop marching children around as your cause celeb for no apparent logical reason, and until you propose legislation that at least has something to do with protecting them, no one is going to listen.

4. Stop Pretending Background Checks Don't Already Exist.

The "gun show loophole" you've heard so much about simply means that private individuals can sell a gun to each other without asking the federal government for permission. Which is to say that I don't have to pay $150 (the cost for a check in D.C.) to ask the FBI whether a family member or friend to whom I would like to lend my shotgun for a hunting trip is a convicted felon.

5. Treat the NRA As What They Are: Other American Citizens

What you're missing is that the vast portion of the NRA's funds come not through corporate donors, but through contributions from average Americans. It was not a coincidence that between December 2012 and January 2013 the NRA grew 10,000 members every day, adding a full quarter-million new contributors to their roster since gun control reappeared in the national discussion last year. That's just what happens when a populace that cares a lot about something gets mobilized. But the NRA – by which the Democratic party should mean "the American citizens who comprise the NRA because they believe in gun rights" – has consistently been characterized as the heartless, monolithic boogeyman.

6. Don't Forget About Us!

Gun policy is not really as partisan a debate as mainstream media would suggest. There are plenty of left-leaning citizens and Democratic voters who love our guns. Some of us are in the south, some of us are out in Colorado, and some of us are right in the middle of New York City. Some of us not only like the process of shooting guns, but actually think that it's important to know how. Some of us hunt to supplement food/income. Some of us believe that the safety of our selves, families, communities and yes, even our nation are our own responsibility as citizens. It's not such a radical thought.

6 Ways to Defeat the Campus Censors

2. Legally End the Slippery Debate about What "Harassment" Really Means.
3. Litigate Aggressively.
4. Make Colleges Certify Free Speech Protection.
5. Not Just Sticks: Provide Carrots to Colleges that Behave.
6. The Broader Job: Let's Work to Change the Culture.
Finally, and most broadly, we must seek ways to overcome the "echo chamber" effect that is prevalent in academia and increasingly in our society at large. This is not something that Congress or lawyers can fix: the change must necessarily be cultural. But if a way can be found to promote the idea that truly educated people seek out discussions with smart people with whom they disagree, it could go a long way to overcoming groupthink both on and off campus.

Too often, people succumb to the temptation to dismiss their political and cultural opponents as ignorant or stupid. And there are many ignorant and/or stupid people out there in all walks of life. If you're looking for one to take on in order to make yourself feel better about your beliefs, you'll find one. But nearly every idea in American discourse that is not utterly fringe has hundreds or thousands of advocates who are perfectly capable of making solid cases for their beliefs. The fact is, if you can't find a person who is capable of making rational arguments on behalf of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, you didn't really try, especially in the age of the Internet.

But you might not get this impression on a college campus. As Penn professor Diana C. Mutz discussed in her 2006 book Hearing the Other Side, the more education you have, the less likely you are to have exposure to people with different points of view.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Best of the Web Today: The Privilege of Not Belonging - WSJ.com

Worth looking at because the White Privilege quote has been making the rounds on Facebook...

"White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation," writes author Tim Wise. "White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don't get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won't bomb Dublin. And if he's an Italian-American Catholic we won't bomb the Vatican."
We suppose it's necessary to point out that this is almost entirely bunk. There have been plenty of nonwhite mass murderers--among them Long Island Rail Road shooter Colin Ferguson (black), Beltway snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo (black and Muslim), Wisconsin mass shooter Chai Soua Vang (Laotian) and Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho (Korean). None were treated as anything other than lone wolves, and it's been decades since America bombed either Laos or Korea.
It's true that Muslim terrorists are often "portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats," but only because that portrayal is accurate. And many important media and other cultural voices go out of their way to argue that not all Muslims are terrorists (which is to their credit) and to play down Islamic terrorists' religious and ideological motives (which is not).
The Sirota piece isn't really worthy of the foregoing rebuttal, but we were drawn to it as a psychological case study. As you can see from the accompanying photo, the guy David Sirota was hoping the bomber would turn out to be bears a striking resemblance to David Sirota. What leads a white person to be prejudiced against "his own kind"?
The answer is white privilege: a phenomenon of which Sirota turns out to be less a serious critic than a poster boy.
It is tempting to dismiss "white privilege" as just another crackpot multiculturalist conceit, and of course it is that. But one evening in 2011 we were chatting with a young black gentleman at a party, and he described for us the difference between being an undergraduate at a historically black college and a graduate student in the Ivy League:
"At Morehouse, I was never aware of my race, and there were no excuses." He said that at Columbia, racial awareness was constant, and when a black student slipped up--say, by showing up late for class--allowances were made because of his race.
It occurred to us that the experience he described was probably rather common among blacks and quite rare among whites. As we summed up the insight: "To be white in America is to have the privilege of being able to go through life without being made self-conscious by one's race." From Sirota's strange essay we shall derive a related insight.
Of course "identity politics" generally refers to the practice of organizing one's politics around aspects of one's identity that are not inherently political, such as race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. (Sex is a separate case, given the biological necessity of alliances between males and females.) Such identities are strongest when they also provide security--or, to put it another way, when the real or perceived need for security is heightened.
Thus, for example, a strong black identity was forged in the face of genuine oppression, and is kept alive by fanning fears of racism. Likewise the distinctive gay identity, which may lose its distinctiveness in another decade or two, if current trends in general public attitudes toward homosexuality continue.
Some largely white ethnic or religious populations--Armenians, Jews, Mormons--have identities forged out of similar adversity. But because being white has never been a source of insecurity, whites as a whole, at least in America, have no such racial identity. That means being white is not a constraint in the formation of one's political identity the way being black is.
Thus today's insight: To be white in America is to have the privilege of being able to define one's political identity in terms of one's own superiority, whether real or imagined, over other members of one's own race.

Media Excuse Themselves on Gosnell Trial Coverage

Link: http://www.aim.org/aim-column/media-excuse-themselves-on-gosnell-trial-coverage/?utm_source=AIM - Daily Email&utm_campaign=d06a070427-email041913&utm_medium=email# (via shareaholic.com)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Legalize polygamy: Marriage equality for all. - Slate Magazine

Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/04/legalize_polygamy_marriage_equality_for_all.html (via shareaholic.com)

"Recently, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council reintroduced a tired refrain: Legalized gay marriage could lead to other legal forms of marriage disaster, such as polygamy. Rick Santorum, Bill O'Reilly, and other social conservatives have made similar claims. It's hardly a new prediction—we've been hearing it for years. Gay marriage is a slippery slope! A gateway drug! If we legalize it, then what's next? Legalized polygamy?
We can only hope."

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Media After Gosnell - John Fund - National Review Online

Link: http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/345564/media-after-gosnell-john-fund

"It's not as if there isn't good reason for pro-choice journalistic sleuths to pursue the story for simple muckraking purposes. It's a stunning tale of bureaucratic neglect and incompetence. Despite its law against partial-birth abortions, Pennsylvania stopped regular inspections of abortion clinics in 1993. But regulators still received frequent — and credible — complaints about unsanitary or horrific practices taking place behind Gosnell's clinic door. And they did nothing."

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Prop 8 Case and the Infertile-Couple Canard - By Ed Whelan - Bench Memos - National Review Online

Link: http://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/344166/prop-8-case-and-infertile-couple-canard-ed-whelan (via shareaholic.com)

As Justice Kagan observed, there will, of course, be some opposite-sex couples whose infertility together may safely be presumed. But to imagine that that fact cuts against the development of marriage as a male-female union is to subject marriage to a level of hyper-exacting scrutiny that can't be justified. (Plus, as Chuck Cooper correctly pointed out—to the guffaws of snarkers like Dana Milbank who don't even have the decency to fairly recount what he said—even for an aged couple it is very likely that the husband retains his fertility, and the marital norm of fidelity operates to help ensure that he doesn't have children outside the marriage.)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage and Evolution

I've been following the issue of same-sex marriage for some years now, and I've been sticking my nose into the debate on a number of occasions.  As in every issue, there are good arguments to be made, and bad ones.

Among the bad arguments are those that involve an appeal to scripture. Another bad argument is "gays are icky".  Both are arguments that will only convince those who are already convinced.

One of the things I've been asking about is what cultures actually practiced same-sex marriage before the turn of the millennium.  (Or certainly before about 1990.)  People have mentioned some cultures, in particular some Native American cultures where "Twin spirit" people will take on the lifestyle of the opposite sex, even marrying people of the same biological sex.  I submit this is an example of a legal sex-change under the laws of the culture involved, and not an example of normalizing same-sex marriages.

Another discussion in support of same-sex marriage was a piece in the Washington Post, "Marriage, An Elastic Institution".  It made the case that a generalized anthropologists' definition of marriage actually encompassed a great deal more than we think of as "marriage". As I mention in this post, the definition Borneman used, "one person leaving a dependency relationship with one group and entering one with a different group", covers quite a variety of things including legal adoption and fostering out.  In this case, same-sex marriage has always existed throughout Western culture.

In practice, I suspect this definition is overlooking defining features of marriage which are very important in practice.

So what does evolution have to do with the topic?  Well, evolutionary processes leave traces which can be used to tell a lot about the underlying biology of a system.

One phenomenon that matters a great deal to evolution is the notion of genetic clocks and of a neutral mutation rate.  Once we wrap our heads around the notion that all living things are related to all other living things, we can figure that any two living things have a common ancestor some distance in the past.  Members of the same species have a very recent common ancestor.  Members of related species, such as wolves and dogs, have a common ancestor in the recent past.  The more distantly related any two species are, the further in the past we have to look for a common ancestor.  Dogs and oak trees have a common ancestor hundreds of millions of years in the past.

As a result of this, when we look at equivalent genes and proteins in related species, we find a lot of similarities. We also find differences.  In the case of closely related species, we can find areas of "junk DNA" and count up differences in the DNA sequences.  Based on the observed mutation rate, we can work out how far in the past the two species' lineages separated.

Now one thing we notice in "working" genes and proteins is that while there will be differences, there will be some parts of a sequence that don't change.  If we compare insulin from humans, dogs, squirrels, and kangaroos, we will find that the proteins have a number of slight differences.  We will also find several areas that are identical or close to it.  As we add more species to the list, we will find that certain parts of the insulin protein just don't change.  They're "conserved".

When we examine the structure and function of insulin across different species, we find that the portions that are conserved invariably turn out to have some essential function.  They form part of a receptor for enzyme activity.  Or they are essential for the proper folding of the protein.  The point is, if we change the amino acids in those conserved areas to something else, the protein works very badly or not at all.  Creatures born without functioning insulin tend not to live very long, so examples of genes where the conservation is broken are quite rare.

Conservation works the other way around, as well.  The fact that proteins in the lenses of the eyes of cave-dwelling fish are slightly conserved is an indication that these proteins serve some function unrelated to sight.  We may not know what that function is, but we can be sure there is one from the fact that their mutation rate is less than the rate for junk DNA.

Now, in order for a system to be subject to the rules of evolution, we need two things.  We need traits that are inherited, and these traits need to have some effect on the system's survival.  When the system is an animal, these traits are things like the make-up of proteins, genes, and their expression in the animal's body.  When the system is a human society, these traits are the rituals, ideas, systems, and processes throughout that society.  Laws against murder are an example of a societal trait, and one that can easily have an effect on how well a society does.  It seem obvious that societies that don't object to people randomly killing each other won't do very well.

Now, marriage is a system that exists in every known society in one form or another.  I suppose it's possible that the form of marriage in a society has no effect on how durable that society is.  I have my doubts.

It occurs to me that marriage is an example of a system with parts that are subject to variation, and more importantly, parts that are conserved.  And the evidence is that the opposite-sex bonding part is very strongly conserved.  It may not be quite universal, but the extreme scarcity of examples of same-sex marriage points to very strong conservation.

If this is so, then it would follow that a mutation – changing the definition of marriage to include bonds between participants of the same sex – could render the system nonfunctional. And if marriage is at all important to a society, rendering it nonfunctional could have serious repercussions.

So what do I expect to happen if marriage is redefined?  I really don't know. It may well be that nothing happens, except that a tiny fraction of marriages will be between members of the same sex.


I have some guesses, based on the assumption that neoDarwinian rules actually apply.  Among them, instead of our society having marriage, we may become a society that has marriages.  Instead of having one institution that most people of most faiths (or none) can compromise on and agree to mostly honor, we may have balkanized marriage, with each church, sect, and interest group having its own version of marriage it finds acceptable.  In extremis, a Baptist family may refuse to recognize a relative's marriage performed in a Methodist church.  And forget about trying to convince your family that a Jewish, Mormon, or Buddhist marriage is a "real" marriage.

Another, related, possibility is that the social acceptance factor inherent in marriage will withdraw to the religious realm.  Religions will continue to recognize each other's marriages, but the civil wedding will be seen as a legal mechanism by which people apply for special treatment under the tax code or in contract law. 

And frankly, if gays find that being allowed to marry does not grant them the social status they crave, if they find that said acceptance retreats from them like water from Tantalus, perhaps they'd best not read the last line of this post where I say:

I told you so.