Category Archives: American Values

Deep in the Heart of Dixie

Last Friday (9 May 2014), Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled that Arkansas’s ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional. Are we going from

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to

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One can only hope. Given the judge’s rank, the ruling will be applied county by county at the choice of the license clerks until higher courts confirm or deny the finding. The attorney general of the state, Dustin McDaniel, will appeal. He claims he supports marriage equality, but is bound to defend state laws.

Those who have read this blog over the years know that I support equal rights. Gay or lesbian couples don’t threaten me. They don’t harm me. So why would I object to them marrying?

With that in mind, here’s the message that I sent to Attorney General McDaniel:

Please do not appeal Circuit Judge Piazza’a ruling that the state ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional. That ruling is plainly correct, given rulings from both the Supreme Court last year and many state rulings in the months to follow. Our ban also violates the Fourteenth Amendment and likely the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Don’t waste our tax dollars defending the indefensible.

I expect he won’t listen, but rights delayed do tend to become rights demanded and asserted. But over the last several years, this country has been recognizing rights more and more, so I remain hopeful.

That Chewing Sensation…

Life occasionally offers us delicious examples of comeuppances to our enemies. Recent events have provided two in quick succession:

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I hope you weren’t eating. But we need a reminder. This is Dianne Feinstein, U. S. senator from the State of California. Those of us who care about rights are well versed in her dedication to tyranny, but just in case some of my readers have missed the memo, here’s what she told 60 Minutes:

More recently, she’s taken time off from pushing gun control to criticize the actions of Edward Snowden, accusing him of treason. She has no problem with the NSA spying on American citizens.

But in the last few days, she’s swung around so fast that I’m surprised her hair isn’t on backward. It seems that the CIA had the nerve to spy on the Senate. And that’s too much for her highness. Has she become a born-again good citizen, ready to protect our rights? I doubt it. But it is pleasant to see her cooked in her own sauces.

This story recalls the tale of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride across a river, and though the frog is suspicious, he allows the scorpion on his back. The scorpion stings the frog in midstream, explaining that such an act is in its nature. The characteristic of spy agencies is that they spy. It’s the job of legislators to provide oversight, not carte blanche, but when someone like Feinstein falls down in her duty, she has only herself to blame when she is on the receiving end of violations.

She’s not alone, though, in experiencing a comeuppance. Blowhard British loudmouth, Piers Morgan–this fellow:

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is set to have his show, Piers Morgan Live, cancelled by CNN. Morgan developed a reputation for telling Americans how we should run our country and for shouting over his guests who didn’t meekly agree with his every comment. And lo! his ratings plummeted.

Now he’s welcome to express himself however he chooses, but at the same time, we’re not under any obligation to listen to him.

These two deserve each other:

With any luck, they can buy an island and inhabit it together, monitoring each other’s activities and explaining to each other how they are superior to the rest of us.

Barring that, we can enjoy seeing them wake up to the chomping sensation in their bums. Feinstein and Morgan, what you’re feeling is called life biting you in the arse. Since sitting will be difficult for you, how about joining us in standing up for our rights?

What to Do

In discussions about gun violence on news sites and gun control blogs, I’m often asked what my solution to the problem is.

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The incident at Newtown, Connecticut brings particular poignancy to this question.

First, let’s put this problem into perspective. The current U.S. population is somewhat over 318,000,000, according to the Census. Adding in non-resident visitors and uncounted aliens and rounding for ease of calculation, I’m calling it 320,000,000. Of that number, roughly 30,000 die per annum from gunshot, of which deaths two-thirds are suicides. That works out to 4.7 / 100,000, a rate that we hadn’t seen since the early 1960s.

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The chart here shows data from 1976 on.

This means that your chances of dying by gunfire in America in raw numbers are one in about 10,600. If you don’t shoot yourself, your chances improve to one in 32,000. The numbers vary from city to city, but in our centers of population, murder victims tend in large percentages to be people with criminal records themselves, so if you’re not a criminal, your odds get even better.

But certainly, 30,000 is too many. The answer to this problem in the eyes of some is gun control, but as regular readers know, that is something that I regard as a violation of the rights of good people. Is there another answer?

Submitted for your consideration are my suggestions for reducing violence of all types, including firearms violence, in this country:

1. End the War on Drugs.

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We’ve had a number of efforts at prohibition of substances, going all the way back to attempts at drying up the nation in the nineteenth century, but our current efforts at banning classes of entertaining drugs other than tobacco and alcohol got going for serious in the 1970s. In the forty years since, we’ve wasted a trillion dollars, and half of all federal prisoners are in for drug crimes.

As we saw in the 1920s during the Prohibition of alcohol, we are seeing again: Banning a substance only encourages criminal smuggling, gang warfare, collateral damage, and the ruining of lives of many who merely possess the forbidden fruit. Addiction should be treated as an illness, not a crime, and all recreational substances should be regulated in the manner that our two legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are. All who were convicted for mere possession should be immediately released and pardoned to remove the stigma of a criminal record.

2. Incarcerate violent offenders for longer terms.

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Once drugs cease to be a criminal matter, we will solve the problem of overcrowded prisons. This will create room for violent offenders. Criminals who use a firearm in the commission of a crime can have extra time added to their sentences.

3. Improve schools.

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As a teacher, I’ve gone on at length here about education reform. To sum up, we need to spend more money to pay teachers what they’re worth, to reduce class sizes, to repair and upgrade facilities, and to offer a wider selection of classes. The goal here is to provide all students with a chance to succeed. It seems obvious, but the more educated a population is, the less crime that population commits.

4. Improve access to mental health services–with the caveat that privacy must be protected.

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In these incidents of mass shootings, some shooters are seeking revenge against those whom they perceive as having wronged them, but the typical case is a young, white, male, loner with mental health problems. Unfortunately, such individuals don’t often see themselves as needing treatment. I suspect that part of their reluctance involves a fear of being reported, so making privacy a guarantee is important. Of course, young men who head down the road to becoming a mass shooter reach a point of no return. That leads me to the next two points.

5. Stop making these shooters stars.

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As author and space scientist, David Brin, argues, we should treat these mass shooters in the same manner as the Ephesians wished to treat the arsonist who burned down the Temple of Artemis. His name was to be erased and never recalled again. This, of course, will require the voluntary cooperation of news organizations, since we cannot do right by violating rights. But as long as America has a love affair with wacko killers, those nutcases will have motivation.

6. Address bullying.

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Here in America, the intellectual loner is not a popular type. But a core value of our nation is that we all should be free to express our own individuality. That is one of the key messages that should be taught until the concept is absorbed. We can be ourselves without demeaning others. At the least, it should be clear that attacking others will not be tolerated.

But there’s more. We’ve created a culture in schools where someone who acts in self-defense is treated the same way as the person who started the fight. One solution to this is to teach martial arts–Krav Maga, for example, since it’s free of the religious overtones of Eastern systems–and make it clear that human beings, even students, have the right to stop physical violence used against them.

These are my answers to the problem, realistically assessed, of violence in our society. We will not eliminate all of it. Violence is in human nature, and Americans are more violent as a culture than other societies, but we can go a long way along reducing it. And we can do so without violating our rights.

How Many Do You Need?

One common meme among the gun control freaks is the idea that a gun’s magazine should be allowed to hold no more than ten rounds. (Or seven, if you have the misfortune to live in New York.) Things like this:

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send them the vapors. And if you have the temerity to say that round limits make no sense, they will sneer that you must be a bad shot if you need more than ten rounds to drop a deer.

There are many things wrong with this point of view:

1. Hunting

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In many states, hunters are limited to five rounds, not ten, indicating what the control freaks would like to see, perhaps–on their way to banning everything, that is. But the constant reference to deer shows a lack of awareness about what firearms are for. Yes, hunting is one purpose. Self-defense is another. To bring hunting into every discussion implies that this use is the only acceptable purpose to which a firearm may be put. However, people defend their lives with firearms, and that needs to be considered.

2. Power

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Not all cartridges are equal, and handgun rounds are much less powerful than rifle rounds. In fact, while a handgun can be used to good effect, unlike what Hollywood wants us to believe, one shot is unlikely to get the job done. A woman in Atlanta, for example, fired six shots at a home invader, five of which hit the man in the face and neck, and he was able to get away, only to be caught later when the cops finally arrived in the area. The woman’s revolver was a .38 Special, a common and worthy self-defense piece. Whatever the typical effect of X rounds of Y caliber happens to be, in this case, five weren’t enough. Had there been a second invader, even more would have been needed.

3. Defense

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The attacker chooses the time and place of the attack. But we as good citizens are obliged to wait. This gives the attacker a tactical advantage. The gun control freaks ask me how many rounds I need. A good answer to that is that I don’t know. That’s precisely the condition that a defender is in. Before the action starts, there is often no way to anticipate how many attackers there will be or how many rounds will be required. The reports that I’ve seen suggest that a gunfight will be over most of the time after three or four shots, which is why I accept necessity and carry only one gun and a spare magazine, typically, but that is not a guarantee. While we all make concessions to what’s practical, I see no reason to tell you how many rounds you may have.

4. Rights

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When gun control freaks ask me why I need X number of rounds, my answer is that the question is wrong-headed. I don’t have to justify to the government why I want so many of whatever. It’s the government’s job to explain what need it has for requesting me to limit myself and beg my permission to enact such a limit.

But since some people are obsessed with limiting magazines to ten rounds, I have a proposal: Let’s make it a separate crime to use a magazine of more than ten rounds in the commission of another crime and apply an extra ten-year sentence for using such a magazine in a criminal act. That way, we all may have as many rounds as we find appropriate, but those who misuse a firearm will receive additional punishment for their evil ways.

On the Origin of Rights

Regular readers will know that I spend a great deal of time talking about rights, particularly gun and marriage rights. But in the course of writing these articles and in discussing the concept elsewhere, I’m often asked where rights come from. There are several typical notions to answer that.

1. Law

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The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest codifications of law that we have. It’s stated purpose is to establish justice in the land. There is also a great deal of talk about the gods, but we’ll get to that later, and it’s not the main point of the Code. The idea here is that the law creates the rights of the people whom it governs. I hear that view expressed by those who tell me that I have no rights that the Constitution doesn’t grant me.

The problem here is that what the law gives, the law can take away. That makes rights essentially no better than privileges. Now certainly, a contract establishes rights held by the parties involved. And civil rights are those that we have by virtue of belonging to a given society. But if we apply that same reasoning to something like freedom of expression, we rapidly will end up in a situation where only such speech as our leaders accept will be tolerated.

2. Consensus

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The Magna Carta arises out of a tradition called common law. That came from the Germanic tribes of northern and western Europe that valued tradition and the agreement of people who were closely related to each other. The notion of a trial by jury is from the same tradition–in other words, a group of one’s fellows must agree on a verdict.

That isn’t unique to Germanic cultures–including English-speaking nations. The ancient Greeks had a similar idea, and there we have examples of how consensus can go wrong. Citizens who were lost popularity were ostracized. Socrates was executed after the public will turned against him. Consensus turns rights into a game of popularity.

3. Divine gift

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This invokes images of Charlton Heston coming down the mountainside. It has the advantage of elevating rights out of political squabbles and implies a permanence to rights. But there are two problems:

If those rights are the will of a divine being, that makes them acts of capriciousness, rather than reason.

If rights come from God or one set of gods, what of people who worship other gods or no god at all?

4. Existence

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John Locke was one well-known exponent of this idea, but it goes back to ancient thoughts of the Stoics and others. The concept here is that we are born with the power of choice. In a state of nature, we have no obligation to take anyone else into account. Living in a society creates expectations of restraining one’s actions for the benefit of others, but a fundamental core of rights always remains with each one of us individually.

The difficulty here is in determining the measure of restraint necessary. But as I discussed before in my first article on Eleutherianism, the principle here is the most liberty possible for everyone. We secure that by first determining whether anyone is harmed by an action and what is the minimum action to rectify or prevent that harm. A gay couple enjoying the benefits (and burdens!) of marriage cannot harm anyone outside that relationship and is, in fact, a good for society by making relationships more stable. Guns, alcohol, and marijuana are more problematic, but simple requirements like prohibitions against driving drunk or discharging a firearm randomly within a city can handle the potential wrongs. We’re often told that we can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, but that presumes that no actual fire is burning, and it ignores the fact that we don’t leave our tongues or brains outside the theater–though many filmmakers wish we would, seemingly.

The idea of natural rights is also connected to the belief in rights given to us by divine will, but not necessarily so. My argument is that we have rights by virtue of our being able to choose. In principle, it is not required for us to justify our actions. It is the burden of government or society to explain why our actions must be restrained and to beg our permission to do that. But fundamentally, government and the law should defend our rights before, above, and beyond all else.

More of my writing can be found here.

Rules for Thee, But Not for Me

On my favorite gun control blog, Mikeb302000, I ran across an article on the latest abuse of power by a mayor in New York. And no, it’s not Michael Bloomberg.

Apparently, the mayor of Rochester, one Lovely Warren:

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has decided that she needs two armed bodyguards, including one who is her uncle. This, of course, is what she needs, but she supported the New York SAFE Act, a gun control measure that places new infringements on the already violated rights of New Yorkers to own and carry guns.

Hypocrisy, much? Abuse of power, perhaps?

And so, with apologies to Alan Jay Lerner, I present to you, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”

All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the unwashed air
In my mayorial chair.
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

Lots of chocolates for me to eat,
Bodyguards all packing heat,
Including Uncle Reggie sweet.
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

Oh, my people abso-blooming-lutely disarmed,
And I won’t ever budge to help
No matter how much they’re harmed.

The people’s rights resting in my hands,
My oath of office flows away like sand,
Corrupted power makes me feel so grand.
Oh. wouldn’t it be loverly?

Loverly, loverly, wouldn’t it be loverly?

Book Larnin’

I’ve had plenty of things to say about education on this weblog. Since I’ve spent the last fifteen years teaching, the subject comes naturally to me. And it’s not just out of self-interest that I support universal and public education. But a recent article on The Huffington Post about Common Core standards that are spreading a layer of varnish over our failing schools reminds me of the need to be clear about what exactly we’re trying to do in education in the first place.

1. Critical thinking

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Another way to put this is logic. Knowing how to think correctly and how to spot erroneous thinking–in others and in one’s own thoughts. That is the one essential skill that students and indeed citizens must have. That skill alone, what the ancients would have called philosophy, makes everything else accessible and useful.

2. Other skills

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These certainly include literacy and numeracy, civics, history, and science, among many other things. Students should have opportunities to find careers that suit them and to learn the skills necessary for those fields.

3. Exposure

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Schools should show students things that they might not otherwise encounter. Not everyone gets to see great paintings, listen to music beyond what’s immediately popular, or hear about the many claims of science and religions at home. To make an informed choice, we have to have some notion of the broad world that we have yet to explore personally.

4. Exercise

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My advisor in college told me that I needed to take a P.E. class–to knock a ball around or something similar. I objected until I saw sailing as one of the options. But in the fine tradition of the Greeks, an educated person improved the body as well as the mind, and given our health concerns in the modern age, that old idea remains valid.

What is the purpose of all of this? For one thing, a wealthy nation should have excellent citizens. But a nation in which citizens participate in their own governance requires an educated population to function. Another article on The Huffington Post decries the influence of money in politics, but with educated voters, money becomes irrelevant.

And that is the point. Citizens make a society in their own image, and I want our image to be an educated one.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

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Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences says that when we do something, results that were never contemplated often occur. This apparently applies even in Oklahoma. This monument was placed on the capitol grounds of Oklahoma City:

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This is clearly a religious symbol. Does it establish a religion or prevent the free exercise thereof? If no other religion is allowed to put up monuments to their own doctrines or deities, the former looks to be the case. And so, the Satanic Temple has sought permission to add this:

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to the same grounds. And good for them. In fact, a look at their beliefs shows the Satanic Temple to be a lot more rational than some groups I could name. Regardless of the theology, if one religion is allowed on state property, all must be allowed. Otherwise, the favored religion is established as the official belief of that state.

And that’s the point. Here in America, we have religious freedom and a long tradition of refraining from making any one faith the state religion. Perhaps as a result, we have rates of belief that are the highest in the First World. Our religions don’t require the support of government to thrive. But if the government starts picking favorite religions, our freedom to choose what we will believe and practice becomes constrained.

The better thing for the State of Oklahoma would have been to keep the capitol grounds a secular zone. But having decided to allow religious monuments, the state must permit everyone. And so this Satanist image is a welcome corrective.

Crossposted at English 301: Reading and Writing.

Fight Like a Girl?

The year of 2013 saw a number of advances in the area of basic rights, including gay marriage and marijuana. Another subject where things are getting better is women in the military.

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That is a picture of the first woman to serve as a combat pilot in the Israeli airforce. Israel is one of several nations that already allow women to serve. The Norwegians even have had a woman command one of their submarines. Here in the United States, we’re in the beginning stages of opening combat roles to everyone.

There are concerns that opponents raise about this. The most basic one is about ability. Some worry about whether a woman will be able to go as far, carrying as much, and fight as hard as a man. The problem with this view is that man and woman aren’t discrete categories in terms of physical capacity. The strongest man may be stronger than the strongest woman with regard to upper body strength, but in the biological and social sciences, it’s known that there is more variability within a group than between groups. This means that an average man will not be as strong as a whole lot of women. This means that the average woman will be stronger than a whole lot of men.

What needs to happen here is to set one standard for what a soldier needs to be able to do. That should be a reasonable standard, based solely on what the mission requires. Anyone who can meet that standard should be accepted.

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Of course, these days, many combat roles are flying an airplane or driving a tank–jobs that involve operating machinery. Still, the standard should apply to all.

But of greater concern are questions about sexual harassment and activity.

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Yes, James T. Kirk is the worry. If he’s in charge of a unit with women in it, how long will it be before combat effectiveness suffers, due to a variety of problems that may, um, arise?

I can see this as a legitimate concern, but the answer is not to give in to the bad behavior of some. Businesses have had to figure these matters out, and that’s life. The military had to learn how to deal with personnel of all races and now of different orientations. Militaries run on rules, rules that often require people to do things that aren’t natural in normal times.

The key point here is one of equality. Rights come with responsibilities, and those include defending our nation. To participate equally, women need to be allowed to serve in the military, just as they are able to vote, to lead companies, and to hold political offices.

Papers, Please

The reports of Michael Bloomberg’s departure from office as Mayor of the City of New York included a bit of information that I hadn’t heard before: a registry of diabetics.

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If this sounds too extreme even for Bloomberg, read here and here. The hemoglobin A1C results of diabetics in the city are being compiled, presumably for the purpose of improving “health outcomes.” Any patient who wants out of this has to fill out this form.

But let’s consider the logic here. If Patient A has diabetes, it should be between A and A’s doctor to deal with A’s blood sugar. Patients B, C, and D may or may not also have diabetes, but the best way to treat all of them is for the doctor to work on lowering each one’s sugar levels individually.

I’m sure that some will call me paranoid here, but I see a trend toward far too much collection of data by government entities. The question we all need to be asking is not how do we keep our information private, but why does anyone else have a right to the information in the first place. Unless you get a good answer to that, refuse to give yourself away.