Sunday, July 27, 2014

We interrupt this trip to hell in a handbasket

.Gaza.  Ukraine.  Airplanes falling from the sky.  Children at the US-Mexican border.  82 shootings in Chicago in a single weekend.  ISIS sweeping across Iraq.  California on fire.  Yup, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, no question about it.

Or is it?

Fifty years ago, the United States and the USSR had nuclear missiles pointed at each other that could destroy each other, and much of the rest of the planet, in seconds.  They no longer do.

One hundred years ago, many Americans worked 16 hour days in factories and sweatshops and mines, and often died by age 40 from diseases caused by the chemicals they were exposed to.  That mostly no longer happens.

Crime rates are down.  Americans as a group are wealthier, healthier and better educated than we've ever been.  We're living longer.  Elder poverty is significantly down.

Worldwide, there are actually fewer wars ongoing right now than at most times in human history.  If Islam ever actually has a Renaissance and becomes a religion of peace, the number of wars could drop even further.

Worldwide, contagious disease, poverty and hunger are down.  They haven't been eradicated, but the cold, hard numbers show a trend in one direction only.

Maybe we are heading to hell in a handbasket.  It just seems to me that things should be getting a whole lot warmer than they seem to be if we are.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

If it sounds too bad to be true

PZ Myers does not like the men's rights movement.  In fact, it would be a fair statement that he finds it detestable.  On his blog, he routinely castigates it in language that fairly drips with scorn.  So, when someone sent him -- anonymously -- an article claiming to be written by an MRA advocate that stopped just short of endorsing pedophilia, if it didn't actually cross that line, Myers couldn't resist the bait.  He posted it to his blog and made sure that nobody missed the point that a men's rights advocate was also a pedophilia advocate.

Unfortunately, the article turned out to be a hoax.  The person initially claimed to have written it, hadn't written it.  It is unknown at this time if the article actually represents the viewpoint of someone who didn't have the courage to sign his own name to it, or if someone was merely yanking PZ's chain and the whole thing was someone's idea of a joke.  Whatever.

To his credit, when PZ realized he'd been had, he re-wrote the blog post.  You can read the re-written post here:

I'm not writing to criticize PZ (whom I agree with maybe half the time, and whose writing skills I admire even when I don't agree with him).  He fell into a trap that probably all of us have fallen into at one time or another; that of assuming the worst about a person or ideology with whom he disagrees.

It's a powerful temptation, for those who hold strong and passionate views about things, to assume that those on the other side are not merely misguided but evil.  It's a small step to go from there to a willingness to believe anything bad, and the worse the better, about those on the other side.  That's why my email inbox is routinely cluttered with spam from both right-wingers telling me that President Obama is a Marxist Muslim terrorist sympathizer who was born in Kenya and hates America, balanced only by mirror-image spam from left-wingers telling me that Republicans are Nazis who hate women and minorities and want to go back to the days of Dickens when children were chained to factory benches for 16 hours a day and didn't have health care.

Most such claims, on both sides, turn out to be pish-posh on closer analysis.  But it's oh-so-much-fun to believe they are true, and pass them on as gospel.  And oh-so-satisfying to share outrage with other gullible people who actually take such claims seriously.

Most people on both sides of most issues are basically decent human beings who simply see the world differently.  All of us are products of our past, our biases, our experiences and our presuppositions.  And taking the position that I'm right, and everyone who disagrees with me is Satan, not only requires a huge amount of hubris; it is also grossly unfair to honest people who honestly don't see it that way.

So.  You've heard the line that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't?  Well, the same thing is true in reverse:  If it sounds too bad to be true, chances are it probably isn't.  Remember that next time someone tries to turn this or that political or social issue into a battle between good and evil.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An Open Letter to Governor Rick Scott

I see that you and Governor Crist are both running ads about your former legal problems with Medicare fraud.  As a voter, I did not hold that against you four years ago.  I figured that it was unfair to judge you for something that happened a long time ago without looking at what you’ve done in the meantime.

This year, however, is a different story.  This year, I’m inclined to hold it against you and refuse to vote for you specifically because of it.  And I thought it only fair to write and tell you why.

People make mistakes and should be permitted to make a fresh start, but on the condition that they cut other people who make mistakes the same slack.  That is the whole point of Matthew 7:2, which says that you will be held accountable to the same standard to which you hold other people.  And throughout your administration, you have refused to show the same grace and compassion to other people who have made mistakes that was shown to you.

One of your first acts after taking office was to lengthen the time that felons have to wait before they can petition to have their civil rights restored.  We both know that the only reason you’re not a convicted felon is that you had a lot of money to pay some very good lawyers to keep you out of jail.  It would be really nice if you could understand that people who didn’t have the money to avoid the legal consequences of their actions might like a fresh start too, and to give them a speedy opportunity to demonstrate that they, too, deserve a second chance.

 You have opposed restoring the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences, even though giving them a stake in their communities is far more likely to help make them productive citizens than making them pariahs will.  You have supported increasing the misery level for convicted sex offenders even though our ridiculously broad definition of sex offender sweeps up many people who pose no real threat to anyone else.  And you have signed death warrants at an even faster rate than your predecessor did.

 All of these show a common theme:  Everyone except you who screws up is not to be given a second chance, is not to be shown compassion, is not to be permitted a second chance.

 And if that’s your belief – that people who make mistakes don’t deserve second chances – then that’s fine, but that standard then has to apply to you as well.

 So, because of your history of Medicare fraud, I will not be voting for you.  Ever.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A fool's errand

It's a nice thought that people are fair and reasonable, and that disputes can be worked out by sitting down and working out one's differences.  A nice thought, that is, until one realizes that sometimes people aren't reasonable and they demand things that just aren't possible.  Such is the case in the Middle East.

On the one side, the Jews, on religious grounds, are claiming a right not just to be in the Middle East, but to a very specific piece of real estate in the Middle East.  God gave them to it, and that, to their mind settles it.

On the other side, the Arabs don't want any Jews in Palestine at all.

After a few minute of thinking this through, one realizes that it is impossible for both sides to get what they want.  Making one side happy requires making the other side very unhappy indeed.  Further, these demands are central, core demands that neither side considers to be negotiable.

That's why American attempts to bring peace to the Middle East are largely a fool's errand.  There will be no peace in the Middle East until one side or the other loses.  And there's not much America can do about it.

Oh wait, there is one thing America can do about it:  Quit pretending it's our fight.  After trillions of dollar, after spilling hundreds of barrels of American blood, we have nothing to show for it except the enmity and hatred of large numbers of people in the Middle East.  We need to get out of the Middle East.  We need to get out of the Middle East now.  And we need to let them sort it out themselves.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We should have a contest

Whenever I think that some government employee has behaved so badly that no other government employee could possibly top them, another government employee comes along to prove me wrong.  Maybe we should have a contest for the most over-the-top vile behavior by an agent of the state.

Curtis Scherr is a Chicago police officer.  His 7-year-old granddaughter was dying of a brain tumor.  There was some reason to think that medical marijuana might be therapeutic, at least to the point of easing her pain.  So her mother, Scherr's daughter-in-law, began growing marijuana, from which she extracted cannabis oil, which did seem to alleviate some of the symptoms.

Scherr helped.  He helped her obtain the high-intensity lightbulbs necessary for growing pot indoors, and coached her on how to avoid detection by the police.  He helped tend the plants.  Unfortunately, Liza died.

A dispute broke out between Scherr and his daughter-in-law.  Scherr was Catholic; his daughter in law was Protestant, and Scherr was upset that it would not be a Catholic service.  He was also upset that his daughter in law omitted some relatives from the obituary, and even more upset that he was not permitted to take Liza's ashes from the funeral home.

Now, in most families, these disputes would resolve themselves in one of two ways.  Either people would work through them, or they would go their separate ways.  But Scherr was a police officer, and nobody, dammit, was going to tell him no.  So, he retaliated.

Officer Scherr, who himself had helped grow the marijuana, swore out a search warrant for his daughter in law's residence, claiming that he had seen 50 marijuana plants inside.  The judge issued a search warrant and, four days after the funeral, a dozen DEA agents descended on the house in search of drugs.  They didn't find any; since Liza's mother is neither a drug dealer nor a drug user, she discarded the marijuana plants when Liza died.  They did, however, cause intense grief and emotional upset to a bereaved mother who had buried her child only four days earlier.  No charges were filed.

Liza's mother sued Scherr.  The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and earlier this week the US Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.  You can read the decision here:  In a nutshell, under federal law, a police officer cannot be sued for having an ill motive so long as there really was probable cause to get a search warrant.  As a matter of law, I think that's right.  I don't have to like it.  She still has some state-court remedies she may pursue.  I wish her luck.

If I were the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, I would give her immunity from prosecution.  I would then get her to tell a grand jury that he helped with the grow operation, and I would then indict him on drug charges.  Even though I'm opposed to the war on drugs and normally disfavor prosecuting people for drugs, since he's the one who brought in the criminal justice system in the first place, let him answer for his role in the illegal activity.  And if I were the sentencing judge, I'd give him ten years.

Anyone who acts that despicably should share in the misery.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Of this we're very sure

I just finished an interesting column by a theologian I almost never agree with who was castigating his fellow conservatives for projecting milquetoast rather than certainty on controversial issues.  The example he gave is as follows:

"If some Christian is on television and is asked the baiting question as to whether homosexual practice is a sin, he will reply (if he is trying to hold the line in any fashion) that “yes, it is a sin, but all of us are sinners, and God makes no distinction between sins, and I myself am a sinner, and have sinned just this week in ways that are every bit as bad. And it’s only Monday.” What he ought to say is “yes, it is a sin. A very bad one. Kind of gross, if you think about it.”

"Now if he goes the former route, what is he trying to avoid? It is not the identification of homosexual sin as “sin.” He does that. What he is trying to avoid is his own sin, the “sin” of certainty, the sin of confidence, the sin of dogmatic pronouncement. The sin of acting as though God has spoken."

You can read the whole column here:

Please allow me to suggest that that is not the dynamic at work at all.  Not even close.  And it requires a certain amount of disingenuousness to suggest that what's going on is avoidance of dogmatism.

Most people want to be thought of as fair people who treat other people well.  True, there are some people who really do take pleasure in being scoundrels, but I think most people prefer being virtuous to being scurrilous.  And most people understand virtue to include treating other people they way that they would like to be treated.

One of the reasons for the sea change in public attitudes toward gay marriage in a relatively brief period of time was the realization that depriving people in a stable, long-term committed relationship the ability to obtain legal protection for that relationship was not treating people fairly.  Dumping all over people because of their sexual orientation is not behaving charitably.  Suggesting that people whose only real difference from everyone else is the gender of the person they choose to spend their lives with are beyond the equal protection of the law and the respect of their neighbors finally struck people as not being compatible with the American ideal of fair play for all.  And once people actually started thinking through just how unjust anti-gay prejudice is, it became harder and harder to make the case that the law should treat them differently.

And I think that when someone argues for anti-gay prejudice, deep down inside that person knows that he is doing something shameful.  Even if he doesn't think he is doing something shameful, he knows that the culture has shifted and a significant number of his friends, neighbors and relatives will think it's shameful.  And that's why these days there aren't nearly as many people willing to say, "Yes, it's a sin, a very bad one, and it's gross and disgusting too."  What's gross and disgusting is treating people like second class citizens because of the objects of their affection.