Category Archives: American Values

Je Suis Charlie

Yesterday (7 January 2015), three pathetic cowards who can’t handle criticism of their beliefs attacked the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Their cartoons can be seen all over the Internet now, showing that the people working there understood–and will continue to understand and practice–the value of comic criticism in a free society.

Words can’t do justice to the rage that all good people feel toward the oozing piles of dogshit that would kill to censor ideas. The best response is to use something from the culture that the attackers claim to defend, but, in fact, are dishonoring:

IMG_0080

Crossposted at English 301: Reading and Writing.

Incomplete

Thanks to the protests after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Harvard Law students requested that their final examinations be postponed, claiming that students of color and their “allies” will perform poorly, being unable to “walk away from their pain.”

The absurdity of this should be clear, but let’s review it for sake of making sure. Students who attend Harvard are in a position of privilege, whether by accident of choosing one’s parents well or by the largesse of the school. People who are graduated from Harvard Law typically go on a variety of positions of power and prominence in this country, including these fellows. These are not jobs for the timid or the lazy.

Now schools do have a system for dealing with people who have personal emergencies. Students can be given incompletes on a case-by-case basis, with the expectation that they return to complete the work soon. The truth is that they often don’t do so, and this is not something that is good to allow willy-nilly. In principle, students should attend the final on the scheduled date to demonstrate their fitness for being called college graduates.

That being the case, I offer the following suggestion to students who feel themselves traumatized by events that they are no more connected to than anyone else.

Test_(student_assessment).jpeg

Notice how those students are wearing warm weather clothing? Students who wish to postpone their fall semester finals may feel free to do so. They may retake the class in the spring and take that class’s final in May.

Call ‘Em As I See ‘Em.

Here we go again. A grand jury, this time in Staten Island, has declined to indict a white police officer for the death of a black man, and protesters are marching against this perceived injustice. Unlike events in Ferguson, MO, the New York protests have been largely peaceful. On the surface, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner look the same–white law enforcement violating the rights of black men. But as with life, things are more complex in these situations than a reflexive reaction would believe.

Some might accuse me of exercising “white privilege” here, and perhaps an objective view requires having distance, but it’s my position that a valid conclusion has to be based on facts and logic and that while societal trends are important in general terms, each case must be treated individually, since people act individually.

With that in mind, we have to consider the evidence of the two cases. There is no video of the Ferguson event, but we do have the testimony presented to the grand jury, and that supports Darren Wilson’s account. In addition, nothing to date has come to light to show that Wilson acted out of racist motives or that he had a history of excessive force. It’s always possible for new facts to emerge that will change the interpretation of the total evidence, but we cannot ignore present data in the belief that the truth is out there somewhere to be found at some unspecified future point.

By contrast, we do have video of the arrest of Eric Garner:

The video of the incident itself starts at 1:04.

I worked for a while in a residential treatment facility for troubled youths and was taught how to restrain someone who is agitated or violent. A chokehold wasn’t allowed. In fact, NYPD officers are specifically barred from using chokeholds. In the video, I see no evidence that Garner posed a threat to the officers or to anyone else. I don’t know if there was a reason to arrest him, but I don’t see any cause to use force in the process. What is more, unlike Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for Garner’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, has a history of excessive force incidents. That doesn’t by itself prove that Pantaleo was wrong this time, but it does show a pattern of behavior that speaks to the nature of the person.

The point in all of this is that if all we do is react without thinking, we jump to invalid conclusions. We lash out at people not responsible for the perceived wrongs, and we champion causes not worthy of our efforts. Michael Brown was a violent criminal. Eric Garner was not. Brown attacked an officer, while Garner simply expressed his frustration with the police. Neither event justifies burning down a city, but protests are warranted over Garner’s death. But rage without reference to facts invariably brings another wrong in response to the first wrong and thereby dims the moral authority of the cause.

Ferguson Burning

The decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO is finally in (24 November 2014), and Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. This is being met with violent protest as I am writing.

B3RCr1OCQAAG_39

B3REZYoCcAAwAUF

Seeing the events unfold, starting with an eighteen year old man rob a store and assault its owner, then attack a police officer and opening out onto protests and riots, reminds me of students I had in inner-city high schools in the Nashville, TN area who were convinced that a life of crime would bring them fortune and ease, while becoming educated was somehow “acting white.”

As my picture at the top of this site shows, I’m a white male. To some, that negates everything I’m about to say. If so, that’s not my problem. I’ve spent the better part of twenty years in education at various levels, and I will call things as I see them.

Life isn’t easy, especially if you live in the depressed and disadvantaged cities of this country. That’s a fact. But resentfully clinging to that won’t get you out. It won’t make things better. The following are what will:

1. Dress like a successful person, not like a thug. If no one around you is doing so, watch television. Dress like the successful people. Visit a college. Dress like the professors. No, you won’t be seen as cool, and you won’t get laid. Those facts are good for you.

2. Attend classes, talk to your teachers, commit to learning and to getting a diploma. Many schools in the inner city are shit. There’s no other way to put it. But at the same time, you can learn something, more than a little something if you’re determined to gain knowledge.

3. College is expensive, but some are less expensive than others. Go to a community college after high school. Or see what four-year colleges in your state accept any residents with a diploma. Spend time with your school’s guidance counselor, and get answers that you want. Research scholarships. First, get a two-year degree, then go on to a bachelor’s degree at a full college. Even if it takes many years of a class or two a semester, keep doing it.

This all may sound like so much pablum, but like many things in life, it’s a simple answer that requires a lot of hard work. It’s also not a guarantee, though the odds will be much better if you do it.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

In marketing, the term, F.U.D., shows up from time to time. Those letters stand for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a strategy used to keep people from accepting a new product or proposal by making people afraid to change from some old and settled way of doing things. But these days, this concept is used more generally to discuss attempts in a debate to sow F.U.D. against an idea without bothering to show any actual errors in facts and logic.

One example of this can be found in debates on-line about gun rights:

1.  What are you afraid of?

Little_Miss_Muffet_2_-_WW_Denslow_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_18546

Say that you carry a handgun for self-defense, and someone will ask you what you’re afraid of. It’s an inevitability, just like questions about penis size and other silly examples of ad hominem fallacies. But in addition to mocking a supporter of rights, the purpose of the question is to create fear in the minds of undecided people about those of us who are exercising our rights. The insinuation is that you wouldn’t want fearful and thus unstable people running around in public, now would you.

But let’s consider the data. Violent crime certainly does occur. The rate is down from years gone by, but attacks on good citizens do still occur. Preparing for a potential bad event is not fear. It’s a rational calculation.

On the other hand, carry license holders commit crimes at rates much lower than the average population. Consider these numbers on people who legally carry in Texas. Year after year, license holders represent a fraction of one percent of convictions. These data match reporting across the whole nation.

2.  But how can we know?

Emperor_Traianus_Decius_(Mary_Harrsch)

How can we know that a person with a gun is a good person and not a bad person? We can spend endless hours debating epistemology, but specifically on this question, the essence of American values is the belief that human beings are good until proved otherwise. Asking how can we trust someone with the exercise of basic rights betrays the kind of attitude found in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a view that we must be strictly controlled to restrain our evil natures. That is a reasonable view to hold–one that I certainly don’t accept, though–but it is fundamentally contrary to the principle underlying a free society.

3.  What if I don’t believe you?

 Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

In many discussions, there comes a point at which someone rejects not only interpretations based on judgements but facts as well. The facts about guns in the United States are mixed, leaving both sides the opportunity to have valid positions derived from their values–freedom or safety–without being compelled to choose one answer or another to be intellectually honest. For example, some 30,000 Americans die each year from gunshots, while something like 80,000 suffer non-fatal injuries. At the same time, hundred of thousands use firearms to defend their lives annually. But facts have an unyielding quality that creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of people not willing to ground their beliefs in reality.

So what do we do? We have to admit that we can’t reach everyone, but we can persuade those who are undecided, and we might persuade some who haven’t thought things through. My choice is to advocate for basic rights, a view I call eleutherianism.

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

450px-Flag_of_Arkansas.svg

to

777px-Gay_flag.svg

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:

405px-Dianne_Feinstein_2010

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:

Piers_Morgan_2012

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.

Police_at_Sandy_Hook

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.

800px-Ushomicidesbyweapon.svg

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.

508px-Cannabissativadior

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.

Alcatraz_Island_at_Sunset

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.

800px-School-education-learning-1750587-h

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.

Sigmund_Freud_LIFE

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.

Temple_of_Artemis

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.

Bullying_on_Instituto_Regional_Federico_Errázuriz_(IRFE)_in_March_5,_2007

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:

604px-Double_drum_magazine_filled.svg

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

Rifle_Springfield_M1903A4_with_M84_sight

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

50_AE_and_32_ACP

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

800px-Penalty_kick_Lahm_Cech_Champions_League_Final_2012

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

Gesto,_David_Černý(sochař),_21.10.2013,_Praha

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

CodexOfHammurabi

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

Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)

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

Decalogue_parchment_by_Jekuthiel_Sofer_1768

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

465px-JohnLocke

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.