Speaking of court cases, thank you Loving vs. Virginia
One of the reasons I support gay marriage is because I believe very strongly that the government has no business telling us we can't marry who we choose.
And one of the reasons I believe that so strongly is because there was a time, in living memory, when it would have been illegal for me and Sushu to get married in California — and fourteen other states.
A mere few decades ago, it was very common for states to have laws against interracial marriage. These laws were openly racist attempts to maintain the "purity" of the "white race". Most common were laws banning whites and blacks from marrying, which existed almost everywhere except the progressive Northeast. Laws banning whites and Asians were less common, but still widespread. From the Wikipedia article on 'anti-miscegenation laws', I learned that I wouldn't have been able to marry Sushu in:
- California until 1948.
- Idaho, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota, or Nevada until the 1950s.
- Arizona, Nebraska, Utah, or Wyoming until the 1960s.
- Georgia, Missisippi, Missouri, South Carolina, or Virginia until June 12, 1967
Back then, anti-miscegenation laws (what a wonderfully cumbersome and archaic phrase) were widely supported. Their supporters used arguments which sound suspiciously similar to the arguments of gay marriage opponents today. For example, appeals to tradition (think "changing the definition of marriage"); appeals to the majority opinion: A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 96 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage; and appeals to the Will of God: Virginia judge Leon Bazile said in 1965,
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
I repeat, >:-O
Today, anti-miscegenation laws would be almost unthinkable. That's how much attitudes have changed in just one generation. What will attitudes towards gay marriage be like one generation from now?
In our time, state supreme courts are overturning gay marriage bans one after another. In 1967, it took the supreme court of the US to overturn the remaining state anti-miscegenation laws. Loving vs. Virignia (legal text here) was the landmark case. The Lovings were a black woman and a white man who married in the District of Columbia (where they were allowed to marry) and then moved back home to Virginia (where they were not). The police burst into their bedroom and dragged them off to court, where they were sentenced to jail time for trying to circumvent Virginia's anti-miscegenation law.
They could have given up, but they kept fighting the system. They took it all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that all state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and invalid. It's thanks to the courage of the Lovings that today me and Sushu can be married in any state in the union. They deserve our gratitude!
Prop 8 upheld? So be it! We'll win this the hard way.
Proposition 8 was upheld by the California supreme court yesterday in a case called Strauss vs. Horton. The full text of the court's decision can be read in this PDF file from courtinfo.ca.gov.
On the one hand, this decision is a scary legal precedent in that it seems to say: "No, actually, in California you don't have any protection against the tyranny of the majority — 50% plus one vote can change the state Constitution to take rights away from a group." In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Moreno said, "The majority’s holding is not just a defeat for same-sex couples, but for any minority group that seeks the protection of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution."
On a national level, we have a constitution that lays out certain rights, and that constitution is very difficult to amend, for precisely this reason: a movement to take away the rights of a minority is sometimes very popular with a larger majority. The difficulty of passing a national amendment protects us all from the whims of such majorities, which at times can resemble vengeful mobs more than rational voters.
So this is another example of how California errs on the side of too much democracy.
On the other hand, I didn't really think this legal challenge to prop 8 would work. The time to challenge the legality of the proposition would have been before the election, and preferably before it got onto the ballot at all. Challenging it after it won smacks of sore-looserism.
And ultimately, I don't want the gay marriage movement to win by judicial decision. Those decisions cause too much resentment on the other side; gay marriage opponents see judicial decisions like the recent one in Iowa as proof that we're trying to inflict the tyranny of the minority on them. Don't get me wrong, the Iowa supreme court decision was a great thing for gay Iowans, but I'd much, much rather see the gay marriage movement win by changing people's minds first, and then changing laws through our representatives in state legislature, like the recent victory in Vermont. (Go Vermont!)
The work begins now to get a counter-proposition on the ballot and make it pass in 2010 or 2012. What a majority took away, a majority can give back. We only lost by 48% to 52% last time. We can swing that! And time is on our side, because the younger generation is far more gay-friendly than their parents — a significant majority of people 34 and under support same-sex marriage.
Yesterday's decision did not nullify the marriages of California's approximately 18,000 existing same-sex married couples, because the court ruled that Prop 8 did not apply retroactively. I'm very relieved about that. Nullification would have been a hateful and petty act with no purpose. I mean, retconning marriages out of existence? Only Joe Quesada would stoop that low.
"California is Essentially Ungovernable"
California had a special election on Tuesday to vote on six budget-related propositions.
In a normal state, the budget is handled by the legislative and/or executive branches — you know, the people we elected to make these decisions, and who we pay to make these decisions. But in California certain budget things have to come to a statewide popular vote.
What things? Why some things and not others? I don't rightly know. I think it's something to do with the idea that any budgeting rule that was passed via a proposition on the state ballot can only be undone or altered by a similar proposition. So, even though the governor and legislature had already approved them, they needed our permission to go through with the changes described on the ballot.
These changes were, collectively, a desperation move by a state government that is broke, deep in the hole, and trying to scrape together money anywhere it can, before more services have to be cut. They were as follows:
- 1A would prevent a recent tax increase from expiring, and change the budget process in arcane ways.
- 1B would secure funding for public schools; it was contingent on 1A and would have no effect unless 1A also passed.
- 1C would expand and modernize the state lottery to increase the take, and borrow money against future lottery profits.
- 1D and 1E would take money that had been collected for particular purposes but had not been spent, and re-allocate it to the general budget.
- 1F would prevent state government employees from getting pay raises as long as there was a budget deficit.
I went back and forth in my head several times. I ended up voting for 1B because I don't want schools to lose funding, and 1A to support 1B. I voted for 1C, 1D, and 1E because they seemed
I voted against 1F because I didn't think it was needed — it's not like there's been a rash of government pay raises; their salaries haven't kept pace with inflation, in fact.
Well, everything I voted for failed, and the thing I voted against passed. (This seems to happen a lot.) Not even close: 1A-1E were voted down with almost a two-to-one margin in some cases, and 1F got 3/4 of the vote.
I see that CNN describes the result as "a budget nightmare".
I understand why 1A failed, since it extended a tax increase. But I wonder about the others. In California we get these info pamphlets in advance of each election, which contain PRO and CON arguments from the supporters and opponents of each proposition. In this election, nobody submitted a "CON" argument for 1B or 1C. Not one person thought it was worth their time to explain the argument against... yet both propositions failed by huge margins.
Are people just in a mood of general rage against the state, such that we automatically reject anything they ask for, even if it's cutting off our nose to spite our face?
Was it just because people are more likely to vote 'no' if they feel like they don't understand the proposition, if it's too complicated, or might not really do what it says it does?
Or am I just being really naiive, and these were all actually horrible propositions?
It got me thinking. What if everything on the budget came down to a popular vote?
- Everyone would vote for more services.
- Everyone would vote for tax cuts.
- Everyone would vote for a requirement that the budget be balanced.
- Nobody would vote to run up more debt.
Total deadlock. Nothing could be done. I mean, this already happens to the extent that people's elected representatives follow the will of their constituents. Republicans fight for tax cuts, Democrats fight for more services, and it's usually the balanced budget and debt that end up taking the hit.
But my point is, there's a good reason we're a republic and not a democracy. Somebody has to make unpopular decisions, especially with regards to the budget.
Now I understand something I read in a Wall Street Journal article the day before the election. It said that the Governator would learn the hard way what so many of his predecessors had learned: "that California is essentially ungovernable".
The Real Estate Market Slump Hits Silicon Valley
And those are just the ones in my immediate neighborhood.
Best of 2008
Aza says people are more likely to read articles if they're in the form of a top-ten list, whether that fits the subject matter or not. Maybe I can make up for barely blogging at all in 2008, now that the year is over, by turning it into a top-ten list.
9. Turtwig and Pokemon trainer
One of my long-term goals is to make sure my sister Aleksa grows up to be a gamer, by exposing her to nerdly board games, role-playing games, and video games. We've even worked on creating our own video games together.
Christmas 2007 Mom got us both Nintendo DSs, so I suggested picking up the latest version of Pokemon; Aleksa was hooked instantaneously, and like a human sponge rapidly soaked up the vast corpus of Pokemon lore required to be a successful Pokemon trainer.
That leads us to Halloween 2008:
She's a Turtwig, I'm the generic male Pokemon trainer character from the Diamond/Pearl edition. (As every kid, and not a single grown-up, in the neighborhood could have told you.)
Group costumes are exponentially more fun than individual costumes. And for 2009? We're talking about maybe "Mega Man and Rush".
Sadly I don't have pictures handy of this one (I'll post some if I can find my misplaced CD) but in August I jumped out of a perfectly good prop-plane some 15,000 feet above Hollister, CA, strapped to a parachute and a 200 pound surfer dude named Mako. (They always make you go tandem diving if it's your first time.)
After a couple seconds you hit terminal velocity, and then it doesn't feel like you're falling anymore; you're just weightless, swimming in the air, with what looks like a very large flat photograph of a landscape somewhere below you, and a very dry 300 mph wind blowing up into your mouth and nose. You know when you're having a flying dream, the way you can steer yourself just by tilting your arms? It turns out that it actually works that way in real life, to my surprise.
Then the parachute comes out and you're violently hoisted up by your femoral arteries, and suddenly the wind is gone and everything is perfectly quiet and still. You can steer the parachute by pulling on two straps, and the idea then is to aim for a flat patch of grass and avoid power lines, highways, and people's backyard fences.
On our way down, Mako and I spotted a balloon that some child had let go, on its way up. We tried to steer towards it and grab it; we missed by about 18 inches.
Imagine if we'd caught it and brought it back to the kid? "Be more careful next time, son." How cool would that have been?
7. Learning Mandarin
I am now working on my third language (not counting those I just did for a couple years in high school), under the expert tutelage of a native speaker (Sushu). Actually her family's from Shanghai, so sometimes she's all "In Mandarin you say "kai shuei", but in Shanghainese it's "ka si" and then I'm like "Whoa, whoa, one at a time!".
Yes, to say that Chinese has dialects is like saying that "Romance language" has dialects called French, Spanish, Italian, etc. It's really different languages.
Since the Chinese writing system was absorbed wholesale by Japan in the 800s, many of the characters are at least partially familiar from Japanese. Often the usage of a character has drifted apart in that time, so the usage will be slightly different, or the modern Chinese one will have been simplified while the Japanese one remains the same, like a fly trapped in amber since the Tang dynasty.
On the other hand, knowing how the character is pronounced in Japanese usually does me more harm than good, since the 8-bit compression algorithm that is Japanese phonetics produces a rendition of the Chinese sound that's about as accurate as "ROKKETTO PANCHI" is as a rendering of the English.
So, learning the meanings of characters is not so bad, but the pronunciation is killing me. I'm having to rewire my brain around the idea that "DZUO?" (rising tone) and "DZUO!" (falling tone) are two different words. Also there are consonant distinctions that don't exist in English, like the difference in tongue position between "shang" and "xiang".
Sushu has been coaching me very patiently, and I'm now getting to the point where I can have the rudiments of a conversation with her family. Huzzah!
6. Learning to Drive
It took me long enough. Due to a combination of eye problems, living in areas with good mass transportation, and sheer laziness, I never got around to learning to drive until 2008, when I was 28 years old.
But once I applied myself, it wasn't too hard. I got some lessons from my mom and my aunt Robin, and passed the driver's test in Illinois in February.
Switching this over to a California license was harder, thanks to a real Modron of a DMV clerk who thought that because my last name (DiCarlo) is spelled "DI CARLO" on my birth certificate, but "DICARLO" in the social security database, that I was some kind of terrorist impostor. I contemplated changing my name to something that's not StudlyCaps, but a simpler solution was just to go to a different DMV office. And now I can legally operate a motor vehicle once more.
5. Cross-country road trip
In March, I packed up everything from my apartment into a Budget rental truck and, like so many before me in the story of America, headed west to seek my fortune.
My sister Kristin and I took turns driving. And picking music. She introduced me to some pretty righteous techno beats.
The Budget truck had horrible gas milage, cost eighty dollars to fill up, and when fully loaded had barely enough engine oomph to get itself up the Rocky Mountains. You can't see out the back of it, it's very difficult to park, and it's so top-heavy that I kept feeling like it would blow over in a strong prairie wind.
It's a long, long way from Chicago to California. It took us three days, going through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada.
Above: Utah. The Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and the Bonneville Salt Flats, respectively.
Dude, Utah is weird.
The cross-country road trip is a quintessential American experience. It's quiet, lonely, and meditative, yet adventurous. You drive through so much nothing, yet there's always something to discover. And when you get to the West Coast this way, you feel really cool, like you've earned something.
It's also pretty cool that we were able to spend that long in a truck together without wanting to kill each other.
4. Finding an RPG group
When people complain that they can't find an RPG group in their area, Ben likes to point out how he started an RPG group out of the English-speaking expatriate community in Shanghai, and if he can do that, then nobody who lives in the USA has a right to complain.
Inspired by that, I started hitting NearbyGamers heavily, and after a couple of false starts, I finally managed to get together four people in the South Bay / Santa Cruz area who could all meet on the same day and were all willing to play the same game.
We did a Primetime Adventures game about a secret organization that covers up extraterrestrial activity on Earth. I started out thinking it would be more X-files, but it quickly turned out to be more Men In Black. (Except with no memory-erasing devices, because we all agreed that would be a lame cop-out.) But I loved Men in Black, so this was fine with me. I created a character with personal issues that were interesting to me, and played them through a multi-session campaign to a satisfying conclusion, for what I think was the first time ever. (Isn't it a bit sad that that seems like such an achievement? But it is.) Next we're going to be starting up a Spirit of the Century game, which I'll be GMing.
Above: Dave's epic win in his spotlight episode of PTA. (The conflict was whether Agent Phil would be able to protect Gertrude's speedboat from the submarine battle without halting the launch of the satellite-interceptor rocket from the undersea base. It was a huge budget spectacular of a season finale action scene. Red cards are success, black cards are failure. Odds of getting six reds are less than 1 in 64.)
The Mozilla thing took me by surprise. It all happened so fast! One day I was thinking only of adding features to the next version of Enso and how Humanized could be successful, then the next day I was flying to Mountain View to interview for Mozilla Labs.
During the interviews (ten of them over three days), many people asked me "Why do you want to work for Mozilla?". In truth, I hadn't even thought about it before. I started trying to BS an answer; but as I said it, I realized that it was the truth.
It took me a few months to adjust and find my bearings. At first I had a bad case of Silicon Valley Culture Shock, isolation, whiplash, and a lingering sense of incompleteness about the Enso project.
But it also seems weirdly inevitable that I would end up here. I don't just like the Web, I believe in the Web. It has already done more to democratize the flow of information than any other invention since the printing press, and it has yet to fulfill its true potential. I believe that it has to be kept free, open, and participatory, and not decay into a one-way corporate-controlled television analogue. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the future of humanity could depend on it. Keeping the web free is Mozilla's reason for being.
There are other companies fully committed to open-source principles, and there are other companies that make humane user interfaces, but Mozilla is one of very very few that does both.
I have a lot of free Mozilla swag. Anywhere I go wearing it, random strangers ask me if I work on Firefox. Then they either tell me how much they love it, or they complain to me about specific bugs that I have no idea how to fix, or both. It's an interesting change to be an unofficial public spokesman for a well-known company. I should maybe start carrying business cards.
Above: the IE team sent us a cake to celebrate the release of Firefox 3. Before you ask, no, it was not poisoned. It was a very good reminder that Microsoft is made of human beings, most of them decent. We may be competitors to the IE team, but we're also colleagues.
Back in March, on that road trip, I found a random magazine in a hotel room in Des Moines, an old issue from before the primaries had started, introducing all the candidates.
It predicted that the general election would be Guliani vs. Clinton, or if the democrats were really smart, Guliani vs. Jon Edwards. It dismissed Obama as a "vanity candidate" who "will not win a single primary".
If Obama seems kind of inevitable in retrospect, it's important to remember that he was an extreme longshot when this thing started.
The Obama campaign for me was more about the movement than about the man himself.
The man himself has a lot of good qualities, or I wouldn't have supported him in the first place, of course. But the movement he inspired was about a lot more than just getting him elected. It was and is about reawakening the dormant spirit of public activism and citizen control of government -- especially among my generation, the most apathetic and cynical one in modern history. The damage that Bush was able to do in just eight years to the fabric of our democracy taught us the high price of being politically apathetic. But we felt frustrated, powerless, angry but with seemingly nowhere constructive to direct that anger.
Obama was like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. A wave of spontaneous organization formed around him. This was the first time in my life I had ever done anything like this. This was the first time I'd even considered doing anything like this. I was not alone. He was propelled to victory by a highly motivated and disciplined volunteer army, of a size and scope that has not been seen in living memory. Many of them were first-timers, like me.
The situation that has been left to the new president is grim. My friends are already starting to refer to the 1930s as " the first Great Depression". Obama may well fail, or he may turn his back on his promises. But the first and biggest obstacle has already been overcome, because we've rediscovered the power of citizens organizing to change the direction of government.
Above: the headquarters of the "Silicon Valley For Obama" team. I did a lot of coding and database/systems admin for them, to run the integrated voters/donors/volunteers database. Which means I spent a lot of time writing debugging dirty PHP and cursing at Drupal.
Above: I went canvassing door-to-door in rural Indiana along with Stephen. I take it as a personal victory that Indiana went blue for the first time since 1964.
On Election Day, I took off my Obama volunteer hat, and became an officially neutral polling place volunteer.
This was a great educational experience. I got to find out how the system works, meet lots of people from my neighborhood who I would otherwise never interact with, etc. I'm going to do a full blog post about it sometime.
We had to keep working until the polls closed at 7PM California time, long after the election was effectively decided, and then work until 10 cleaning up, so we didn't see any of the news coverage. But one guy had an iPhone with internet access, and Sushu sent me text message updates, so I made a tiny map on a scrap of paper and colored in states as they were called.
Above: the precise moment when we knew that Obama had won.
Usually, if you screw up an opportunity, it's simply gone. But once in a while, life does offer a second chance -- four years later and a thousand miles away.
I really hate dating. I wished that I could skip the dating part and go straight into the steady relationship part, preferably with someone I already knew well and was good friends with. That's what I wanted, but I thought it was an unrealistic thing to want.
But it turns out there's no harm in asking. The worst that happens is that the answer is no. And sometimes the answer is yes.
She's asleep and snoring gently next to me right now, while I type this in the dark. She has to get up early in the morning to go teach classes. She's a high school history teacher, and I admire her so much for it. I look at her face in the blue glow of my laptop and right now, I think I would be happiest if I could spend the rest of my life with her.
That was 2008. I didn't know life could be this good.
Why I Don't Like Hillary Clinton
OK, she got Ohio and Rhode Island by big margins, and probably Texas (although so narrowly that it's effectively a tie (and Obama may even get more delegates out of Texas; the rules are weird)).
This is really bad.
Clinton isn't winning either in delegates or popular vote. She hasn't even caught up; she's merely stopped her losing streak. She's still about a hundred delegates behind, with the exact number depending on who you ask. With only ten -- mostly small -- states left, plus Puerto Rico, there's essentially no way she can catch up.
So why is this so bad?
Well, if Obama had won one of the big states, or if Ohio had been a tie too, then he would have been a clear winner going into the convention. But now it's effectively a tie going into the convention; neither can win without the "superdelegates" -- high-ranking Democrats who can vote however they want. That means that in the end the popular vote and the pledged delegates aren't going to matter -- the nominee will be decided by the party elites. (Explanation of Democratic party rules and how they got to be that way.) And backroom deals with party elites are the Clintons' specialty.
So now Clinton has a serious shot again at being the nominee -- even if she loses the popular vote and the pledged delegate count. Very un-democratic. She'd be the equivalent of Bush in 2000. It will play horribly in the general election, where McCain can point out that she doesn't even have the support of her own party. Even if the superdelagates decide to respect the popular vote and Obama gets it after all, it's very depressing that he ends up relying on a farcical aquatic ceremony and not a mandate from the masses, so to speak. That won't play so well in the general election either.
I'm disappointed. I was really hoping that tonight would be widen or preserve Obama's lead, not narrow it, so that Clinton would be compelled to drop out. Because I really, really don't like her.
Why not, Jono? Why don't you like Hillary Clinton? What, are you sexist or something? Shouldn't we have a woman president, Jono? Weren't the Bill Clinton years in the 90s a pretty good time, Jono? Won't Hillary be a lot better than Bush at least? What's the big deal with hating her?
Let me explain.
Sure, I'd support a woman president. Just not her.
I'm sure we will have a woman president within my lifetime. But whether I vote for her or not depends on who she is and what she stands for, not on her sex.
Democrats have a deep-seated need to prove that they're not racist and they're not sexist. In this primary they have to choose between the two. That's why you see Clinton supporters accusing Obama supporters of voting for him just because he's black, and Obama supporters accusing Clinton supporters of voting for her just because she's a woman. It's kind of an encouraging sign that anti-racism and anti-sexism are playing a bigger role in this fight than normal old-fashioned racism and sexism. I think that's why we haven't seen any overt racist or sexist campaign ads; they would backfire horribly among Democrats.
So, let's call Clinton vs. Obama a wash on the "put an underrepresented and previously oppressed group into the presidency" factor. They cancel each other out, as far as I'm concerned. Great! Maybe we can focus on substance then?
Besides, we keep hearing glurge like "no matter who wins, it will make history", bla bla bla, because we'll have a representative of one formerly-oppressed group or the other as president.
Except that we might not have either. Because it's likely that
Clinton would lose the general election.
Many polls show Clinton losing to McCain while Obama wins against McCain. A lot could happen between now and November, and polls are often wrong, but there it is for what it's worth.
It makes sense. The Republicans are scattered, disorganized, factionalized. A significant number of them continued to vote for Huckabee in primaries, even after it was mathematically impossible for Huckabee to win, so I can only interpret this as a protest vote by hard-core religio-conservatives against McCain. The only way they can possibly win is if they face off against the one enemy that would instantly unify and galvanize their base: Hillary Clinton. It's impossible to overstate how much she's hated by Republicans. She's an utterly polarizing figure.
In fact, Rush Limbaugh urged his fans to vote for Hillary Clinton in Texas, precisely for the reason that having her as the nominee is the best path to a Republican victory. It's impossible to know how many people actually did this, but Texas was so close that it might have been influential.
(You can tell a voting system is pretty screwed up when it motivates people to vote for the candidate they least want to win. But that's a rant for another time.)
I think Obama would do better against McCain: he wouldn't win on security, obviously, but he's strong in other suits. Obama's inspirational message, common-sense policies, sincere religion, and lack of 90s-era baggage are all soothing to centrists and moderate conservatives. In every state with open primaries, large numbers of independents and Republicans have been voting for him. It's all anecdotal evidence, but just about everybody I know has told me about at least one conservative relative who supports Obama. So I think the crossover vote for him is genuine, and I think he would do a good job of uniting people. Maybe he'd even break down some of the stupid counterproductive liberal-vs-conservative hatred which has so degraded the public discourse in this country.
I see this primary as a choice between the nominee who unites people and wins, or the nominee who divides people and loses.
And how sad would it be to lose this one? The Republicans have spent the last four years trying desperately to give the 2008 presidency to the Democrats on a silver platter. America is shouting that it hates Bush, that the Republicans are all rotten, that the war was a mistake, and that they people are desperate for change. If the Democrats have all these advantages and still blow it, they are officially the most pathetic political organization on the planet and should be disbanded immediately before they cause any more embarassment. (This is parody -- I think.)
But you know what? Losing isn't the worst thing. If Clinton is the nominee and she somehow wins the general, I fear that might be even worse.
Sure I hate Bush, but not enough to think that keeping Republicans out of the White House at all costs has to trump every other concern. I find it hard to believe that every Republican is pure evil. I want to take a good hard look at what kind of president Hillary Clinton would be before deciding whether I would rather support her or McCain.
And what better way to judge her than by how she's run her campaign?
With financial problems and personnel churn that suggest serious mismanagement, for starters.
Then there's her attitude: Every time Clinton loses a state, she explains why that state doesn't matter. Obama only wins in small states, she says, or only in states with caucuses, or only in states with large black populations. I'm winning among white, registered Democrats! That's what she says. It's being called the "Insult 40 States Strategy. Guess what: You're not running for president of white, registered Democrats. You're running for president of the United States.
Next: She wants to reseat the Michigan and Florida delegates. She agreed before the primary season began that they wouldn't count. Back then, she thought she was going to waltz to victory unopposed. (And in any year when Barack Obama hadn't been running, she probably would have.) Once she started losing, she wanted to change the rules. That's not kosher. In fact, Clinton's name was the only one on the ballot in Michigan. (OK, OK, Dennis Kuchinich was on there, but he doesn't count -- sorry, Jake.) The only way it would be remotely fair would be to have a do-over in those states, since so many people probably didn't even bother going to vote, thinking it woudln't count.
But, since it's a tie going into the convention this year, it's likely we'll see a protracted legal battle over whether Florida votes count or not. Gee, what does that remind you of? Not something I'm eager to relive.
Clinton has also run a much more negative campaign than Obama has. Obama takes every opportunity to praise his opponents' achievements. He disagrees respectfully and explains why his own ideas are better. He's refrained from mentioning any of the items from Clinton's rich, juicy, and incredibly extensive resume of scandals.
(Bookmark that page, because you're not going to finish it in one sitting. As my friend Geoff said of Hillary Clinton: she's a liar and a criminal and she should be in jail. More about this later.)
Up until quite recently, Clinton mainly avoided negative campaigning as well. The few extremely minor attacks that she tried -- like that weaksauce "plagarism" charge -- seemed to rebound against her. I actually started hoping that we might be seeing the start of a new era where negative campaigning is no longer effective. Ha! Silly me! As the Clinton campaign got desperate, it turned to much dirtier over the last couple of weeks, such as apparently circulating this photo of Obama in traditional African clothes, presumably to make people afraid of his scary foreign-ness and Muslim ancesry.
Speaking of backfiring campaign ads, how about that red phone?
Clinton's experience claim is bogus.
Clinton's campaign message of having 35 years of experience and being ready to lead and ready to handle a national security emergency at 3 AM is a mirage. It has no basis in fact, but the media continues to parrot it unquestioningly.
Junior Senator from New York is her first and only elected position, which she has held for eight years. "First Lady" is not an elected position and it carries no official powers or responsibilities. Obama was in the Illinois state senate for eight years before moving to the national Senate, which means he's actually been a legislator two years longer than Clinton has. In addition, Clinton's record of actual legislation sponsored in the Senate is paper thin. Obama accomplished more in two years in the Senate than she did in eight.
Listen to the long awkward pause when Clinton's team is asked "What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary's career where she's been tested by crisis?". The answers they come up with are pathetic.
The truth is that Clinton never had security clearance even when she was in the white house. She's mostly trying to use her husband's national-security credentials as her own. I predict this gambit will backfire instantly as soon as you put her side-by-side with an actual combat veteran.
Obama's credentials are no better than Clinton's in this area, but at least he's not trying to fake it.
Finally, Clinton has been talking an awful lot about universal health care, and how she has lots of experience fighting for it. Um, she might not want to be emphasizing that so much: the 1994 "Hillarycare" plan was an ill-conceived, big-government, bureaucratic horrorshow. Among other terrible ideas, it included criminal penalties for people who tried to pay for unapproved health care out of their own pockets. It was rightfully defeated, but in the process it set back the cause of national healthcare by ten years.
She wants power, but what would she do with it if she had it?
Time for some video evidence!
Here's Clinton being interviewed by John Stewart. Watch carefully. Note that this interview goes on for ten minutes and she doesn't say a single goddamn thing except to repeat what John Stewart says back to him in different words. Typical empty-suit politician: says whatever she thinks you want to hear, and no one will ever know what she really thinks.
She reminds me of Richard Nixon.
Watch this video, where Clinton attacks one of her own supporters who asks her a question about her vote on Iran. She accuses him of being a plant -- says that someone put him up to asking that question.
Nixon-style paranoia. They're all out to get her. There's a vast right-wing conspiracy.
Here's another video. It was posted to illustrate the unnattractive "Hillary Cackle". I don't really care what her laugh sounds like; that's just as dumb as picking on Barack Hussein Obama's middle name. But this video reveals something a lot scarier than her laugh. A transcript:
Questioner: "conservative hitjobs", "right-wing conspiracies": Why do you and the president have such a hyper-partisan view of politics?
Hillary: (laugh) If you had walked even a day in our shoes over the last fifteen years, I'm sure you'd understand.
She doesn't even try to rise above partisanship: she embraces it. Although this video is from the 90s, it reflects an attitude still central to her campaign -- Conservatives are bad, they're out to get her, it's all about her and how unfair people are being to her. It's never been about America or how unfair our government is being to us.
Compare: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
I'm not the first person to compare Hillary Clinton to Richard Nixon. Dana Blaneknhorn does it often: With Hillary Clinton we get to re-live the past of the Baby Boom generation into the indefinite future.
Here's another one: "She helped impeach him; now she displays just as much paranoia".
(That's right: Hillary Clinton was one of the lawyers for the prosecution at the Nixon impeachment trial in 1974. I don't know if it's irony, or destiny, or what, but it's like she killed Sauron and kept the Ring for herself.)
More similarities: Though Nixon was a Republican, the actual policies he enacted were centrist, even liberal. According to some, he didn't care about policies: only about power. The mood of the 1960s was liberal, so in order to win he enacted liberal policies. But once he had won, he abused his power to persecute his political enemies -- the hippies and the war protestors and the democrats. His problem was not that he supported bad policies; he didn't. His problem was a total lack of personal ethics.
I see a strong parallel. Clinton will say and do anything to become president. She doesn't care about policies: like her husband, she'll do whatever is popular. The laws she signs will lean to the right, just as Bill Clinton's did, just as Nixons leaned to the left, because the current political climate is conservative and she has no interest in changing it. "Democrat" is not a statement of ideals for her, or her husband, but merely a political power structure to exploit. With the power that she attains, she will persecute her political enemies -- in this case, the Right, especially anyone involved in the attacks on her husband. She will attack them mercilessly, further polarizing and dividing the nation.
All hypothetical. This isn't what I can prove, only what I fear. But now you know the source of the chill I feel every time I hear her speak.
Richard Nixon founded the modern era of politics, the era of the ideological slugfest, of constant battles between Left and Right, of every new problem being exploited as a wedge issue instead of being solved, of my-side-right-or-wrong thinking, of red-state/blue-state confrontation, of Baby Boomers treating every vote being a referendum over the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.
It sucks and I want it to end already so we can get on with solving real problems, the problems of today. I want Americans to focus on the things we can agree on, compromise, work together, make progress, solve problems. I want us to remember that we're all on the same team here, the American team. Instead, the current state of politics forces us to divide into the egghead-commie-liberal team and the gun-totin-redneck team and battle it out against each other.
Obama, as the first post-baby-boomer presidential candidate, could possibly help to end the era of the ideological slugfest. Clinton would not: she would make it worse. Her administration would be a constant scorched-earth battle between the Red Team and the Blue Team over every single insignificant piece of ground.
Do Not Want!
And that's the Hillary Clinton that people are overlooking when they go and vote for her simply out of name-recognition, or out of nostalgia for the 1990s, or because it's time for a woman president.
Now, I hope, you understand why I think her election would be a disaster.
Does "Momentum" exist?
Apparently, according to the people who write the news, Obama has "momentum" because he's won 10 states in a row. But if Clinton does well tonight, she'll have "reversed the momentum" and it will be hers again. They seem to take on faith that there is such a thing as "momentum" and that it affects how people will vote.
But what does that actually mean?
In an election that's done in stages, like this primary, we have a discrete series of observations of two or more semi-dependent variables. When comparing an observation at one time to an observation at another time, we may find that a lead of one variable over another has increased, stayed the same, decreased, or reversed. To believe that momentum is meaningful, you have to believe that a change in one direction makes future change in the same direction more likely. For this to be true, voters would have to be changing their preference based on their observations of which way earlier votes had gone.
Obviously this happens early on in a race with 3 or more contestants. If there's three candidates in the primary and I see that the one I prefer only got 1% in states that voted before me, I may reasonably conclude that he's not viable and I'd be better off voting for my favorite of the two front-running candidates. That's simply another example of the game-ability of any election with more than two candidates, where I can only vote for one.
But how correct is it to extrapolate this phenomenon to a race that remains close, and/or one with only two contestants? Consider these two scenarios:
Obama wins the first ten states to vote, and then Clinton wins the next ten states, and now they each have 50% of the total vote and delegate count.
Clinton wins the first ten states to vote, and then Obama wins the next ten states, and now they each have 50% of the total vote and delegate count.
In Scenario 1, you can bet pundits are saying that Clinton has staged an amazing comeback and now has all the momentum going her way. In scenario 2 they would say the same thing about Obama. The momentum theory would predict that I should be more likely to vote for Clinton in sceanrio 1 and more likely to vote for Obama in scenario 2.
Yet in both scenarios, the vote totals are exactly the same when it comes time for my state to vote. In both scenarios the race is still competitive, I have reason to believe that my preferred candidate can still win, and there's no third-party spoiler in the race so I have no incentive to try to game the system. Common sense says that when it gets to be my turn, I should just go ahead and vote for my preferred candidate in either scenario.
Why should the order of the victories and losses prior to my state affect the way I vote?
Now, economists have finally figured out that humans are not always rational actors and so we can't always assume they'll do what's in their own self-interest. So it might very well be the case that people do illogical things depending on who's been winning lately.
But can we point to any evidence that this momentum effect exists and is statistically significant?
If not, I think it's reasonable to consider an alternate explanation: Clinton is more popular in some states, Obama is more popular in other states, and because the state primaries/caucuses happen in an arbitrary order, we'll inevitably see a random assortment of periods where where a lead is growing and other periods where a lead is reversed, just as in flipping a coin repeatedly you'll sometimes see a run of several heads and other times see a run of several tails. You might think you see "momentum" in a string of heads or tails, but it's just the natural human propensity to find a pattern where none exists.
After all, political pundits need something to talk about on slow news days, and I'm sure that talking about momentum-reversals is more fun than just reporting how the latest state to vote has changed the relative totals.
Basically, I need something to keep me occupied while I sit in front of my computer all night looking at the primary vote tallies and hitting "refresh" over and over again. Not going to be able to sleep tonight until most of the precincts have reported.
So in the meantime, here's me trying to organize my thoughts.
But first, a warning: In the course of organizing my thoughts, I may link to various articles on various news sites. Some of these articles may have... comment threads.
For the love of God, do NOT read any of these comment threads!
The flame wars going on between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters are vicious. They're full of name-calling and slander, pouty threats to vote for McCain in November if Obama/Clinton doesn't win the primary, and accusations that the other side is sexist, racist, and/or "drinking the Kool-Aid". I made the mistake of looking in some of these comment threads over the weekend and I got sucked in to reading. I could feel myself getting angrier and stupider with each comment I read, yet I could not tear my eyes away from the train wreck. I lost valuable hours that could have been better spent inking my next comic page.
I repeat, do not read the comment threads on any political news articles, blogs, or YouTube videos until this election is over. (Not that there's ever a reason to start...)
If Obama gets the nomination, who do you think would be a good choice for his running mate?
In order to win over those who are worried that he's lacking in experience and/or weak on national defense issues, he should pick a running mate with a proven track record in military, security, and/or foreign affairs.
Many Clinton supporters would be angry that Obama took away their chance of seeing a woman in the White House. It would be a good strategy to pick a female running mate in order to win these people back.
Even better would be if he could somehow do both of these at the same time. Hmm, a woman with experience dealing with foreign governments and a reputation for being tough on terrorists...
Clearly, the only choice is Condoleeza Rice for Vice President!
...OK, maybe not.
What about Vermont and RI?
Texas and Ohio primaries going on today. Also Vermont and Rhode Island but the news seems to forget about them due to their rinky-dink number of delegates. Sniff, sniff; doesn't anybody care about Vermont and Rhode Island? Well, I do, because I used to live in the former and often visit the latter. And seriously, this primary is so close that every state counts no matter how small. It's an epic battle to the finish! I love it!
The last polls I saw were tied to within the margin of error in Texas and Ohio. I shan't speculate on who will win; I'll just wait and see. The voters have confounded the expectations of pollsters and TV talking heads in every contest so far this year, and I hope they continue to do so. People who get sucked into following politics tend to forget that voters are human beings with free will, not just statistics to be sliced up along arbitrary demographic lines. So-and-so is up x% among Hispanics and down y% under those under 50; so what? A million people voting have a million different reasons for making the choice they do. Someone who spends days researching Senate voting records and campaign finance law to make a decision gets a vote which counts exactly as much as the vote of someone who picks the person who looks better on TV. I guess what I'm saying is that there's simply no way of knowing how it's going to go until all the votes are counted. (And even then, sometimes we don't know. Thanks, Diebold.)
A horrible propaganda comic I found
I found this utterly strange comic strip in a stall in the men's room at an In-N-Out Burger in Millbrae, CA last week. (Link not safe for work).
So, what is it? I guess it's supposed to be some kind of slander of gay people, like a Chick Tract or something. Then again, it might be a parody. It's so deranged and hopelessly out-of-touch with reality that I can't tell one way or the other. And where's the punch line, anyway?
When you can't even discern what point something is trying to make, you know it's a failure as propaganda. (At least Jack Chick could never be accused of making that mistake.)
If it's not a parody, it's certainly an "own goal" for whoever made it, since it succeeds only in making homophobia look as stupid as it really is. I can't even get too offended at it, though, since the thought of someone spending time drawing and distributing these is just sad. Or giggle-inducing.
This is pretty cool. Political campaign contributions over $1,000 are legally required to be public. So why not make that plot all that information on a map and make it easily serchable? The Huffington Post has a site called Fundrace 2008 where you can search for people who contributed to a certain candidate or party, or scroll around an area to get the gist of it, or zoom in to the street level and see contributions coming from individual houses. You can even search by company and see who, say, Apple employees are supporting.
It's a little freaky how much personal information you can find on here. But people chose to make it public when they made campaign contributions. And privacy is dead, anyway.
I don't seem to be on here yet, but for the record I donated $250 to Barack Obama earlier tonight.
Curse you Todd Stroger!
The Cook County government led by Todd Stroger just raised sales taxes again which gives Chicago a 10.25% sales-tax rate effective April 1st.
According to the linked article, they're hiring an extra 1000 employees (bringing them to over 28,000, which they need in order to do... um... county government stuff? What does the county government do, anyway?)
Here's a reasonable proposal for how the tax hike could have been avoided.
Everybody around here hates Todd Stroger anyway. He got his position in a very un-democratic way: he was first appointed by Daley as an alderman in 2001 to replace an alderman who had died, and then in 2006 he replaced his father John Stroger on the ballot for Cook County President when John had a stroke a week before the primary.
I vaguely recalled having voted against the guy in 2006. here's what I wrote at the time. Ah, yes, I was conflicted because voting for the opposition, Tony Peraica, meant voting for a Republican, and at the time I just wanted to kick all Republicans in the nuts. But I did end up voting for Peraica and in retrospect it was the right thing to do.
10.25% sales tax. That's absurd. Not only do tax increases encourage people and businesses to move away from cook county, but sales tax increases are particularly bad because sales tax is regressive, i.e. the poor end up paying a higher percentage of their income in sales tax than the rich do. Way to make it even harder to be poor in Chicago.
Candidates' attitudes translated to computer speak
Clinton: "I have 35 years of experience leveraging industry-standard XML and ASP.NET technologies to implement client-centric information technology solutions."
McCain: "In my day we dialed into our BBS at 300 baud, and it only had six phone lines, and we didn't allow any Apple II users because Apples sucked. Commodore 64 forever!!"
Obama: "I've heard from customers that they stopped using our website because it isn't helping them solve their problems anymore. We need a new user-interface that doesn't suck."
Obama is winning! Virginia, Maryland, and DC had their primaries today and they put him about a hundred delegates ahead of Clinton.
Why am I so excited about this? Because this is the first presidential election of my lifetime featuring a candidate I can cheer for (not just tolerate as the lesser evil) who has a decent chance of winning. In fact, I think he will win. Here's why.
A year ago the mainstream media were treating a Clinton nomination like it had already happened; up until the Iowa primary they were still doing it; after Iowa the story was about how This Obama Kid Sure Is Plucky And Idealistic But There's No Way He Can Beat Clinton On Super Tuesday. But now? I don't think Clinton's campaign ever expected to be in second place this late in the race. Do they have a plan for catching up? Meanwhile Obama is gaining popularity with every speech that he makes and every debate he participates in; he's gaining over Clinton with every state that votes; he's increasingly driving the terms of the campaign (note how much the words "change" and "hope" are now appearing in speeches made by his opponents).
By the way, you should be ignoring everything you hear about one or the other person in a Democratic primary "winning" a certain state. The states are not winner-take-all like the general election. Rather, each has a number of delegates assigned proportionally. The news shows just like to report who "won" a state because it makes for good drama. Many states have actually split their delegates almost down the middle.
It must be a depressing time to be a Republican. Turnouts in Republican primaries are low: I think they're not excited about any of their choices. The GOP doesn't know what it stands for anymore; it's splintered into factions. It might not be much of an exaggeration to say that the corruption and incompetence and miserable failure of the Bush administration has mortally wounded the Republican party. Even now that McCain is pretty much it, a lot of his own party still hates him. Even Anne "All Democrats are traitors and should be sent to the gas chambers" Coulter is endorsing Clinton over McCain. If even the threat of the hated Hillary as president isn't enough to get Republicans unified, I get the feeling that a lot of them are just going to stay home. And Obama has done really well in the South and in traditionally red states. And he's constantly preaching a message of reconciliation and unity and rising above party politics and getting beyond the whole stupid red state/blue state divide to represent all Americans. So he might even get a significant crossover vote in the general election.
His enemies will be digging up all the possible dirt on him for sure, but there's simply not much dirt to be had. (It's the upside of his almost non-existent political record.) About the worst anybody has been able to come up with is that he had a Muslim dad ( Fox News has spun this into "Obama went to a Madrassa" which is BS ) -- and that he did drugs as a teenager. Of course Bill Clinton and Bush II both did drugs as a teenager and still got elected; I honestly think this is a total non-issue with voters anymore. And Obama freely admits it; none of this "I did not inhale" stuff. Meanwhile those who use the race card or the Muslim card (and he's not even Muslim, he just has a Muslim name) is just going to make their own side look petty and bigoted.
OK, so that's why I think he can win; now why do I think that's a good thing?
Earlier today I randomly ran across the blog of writer Dana Blankenhorn; I don't really know who this guy is but I like how he writes, especially about politics. He has a theory about how presidential elections follow a pattern of thesis, validated thesis, antithesis, and then deranged parody of thesis, before a transformation occurs that creates a new thesis. He argues that while Clinton would just be another round in a thesis/antithesis argument we're already sick of hearing, Obama could be a transformational president, a kind who comes along only very rarely, who will transcend the arguments over the old thesis and take us in a new direction entirely.
Interesting theory; I'm not sure how much stock to put in it; but I wholeheartedly agree that we need to try something new to get out of the stupid, stupid, tug-of-war between "left" and "right" that has defined politics for my entire lifetime. It feels to me increasingly irrelevant, like an advertising war between Coke and Pepsi when for the sake of our health we should be quitting fizzy drinks entirely. I recommend reading Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J.Dionne, Jr., a meaty and well-researched book that taught me a lot of things I didn't know I didn't know about 20th century American history and how the two-party system degenerated to its present dismal state. The book argues that Republicans and Democrats have basically spent the past forty years fighting and re-fighting the cultural battles of the 1960s. To grossly oversimplify: if you think the hippies were right you vote Democrat; if you think they were just dumb long-haired drug-addled teenage commies you vote Republican. And if you're more interested in the present than in the 1960s then you lose interest in politics because nobody in politics is speaking to you.
You know what's kinda neat about Obama? He's too young to have an opinion about the 1960s. He's the first potential president from a generation which didn't fight in those cultural battles. He belongs more to the present than to the past, and that's why he's so popular among my generation: someone's finally speaking to us and our concerns.
Read Obama's technology platform. While Clinton and McCain are both likely to see the Internet only as "that computer thing my kids use to waste time and steal music", Obama has a coherent policy centered around net neutrality, privacy, broadband infrastructure, and using the Internet to increase participation by citizens in government decision-making:
Obama will integrate citizens into the actual business of government by:
1. Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities. Greater access to environmental data, for example, will help citizens learn about pollution in their communities, provide information about local conditions back to government and empower people to protect themselves.
2. Establishing pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.
There's a lot more -- you should read the whole thing -- but I wanted to hilight "Vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry". Think about that for a second. That didn't come from the mouths of the Wikipedia project, it came from a mainstream politician.
Could this be for real? Could this be the sea-change, the new thesis? The American federal government turned Web 2.0 style?
I've been watching Obama's speeches on YouTube and again and again I'm impressed by his public speaking skills. He's probably the best public speaker of my generation: he speaks with eloquence and conviction and he proves he's the bigger man every time he praises his opponents rather than attacking them. Most of all, he inspires people. I feel inspired. The crowd obviously feels inspired. And what are the contents of his words?
[This campaign] is different not because of me, it's different because of you...
I'm asking you to believe not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington... I'm asking you to believe in yours.
When the american people are determined that something is going to happen then it happens. But when they're disaffected and fearful and cynical and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't.
The cynics can no longer say that our hope is false
Again and again: It's about us, not him. The vast distributed expertise of ordinary Americans. America should be led by the people, not by Obama or any other politician, and this can happen if we let go of the cynicism that makes people drop out of political participation, and let go of the fear that says we have to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Obama's policies themselves, while good, are not that remarkable or that different from Clinton's policies. Where Obama is profoundly different is in this, his philosophy of how government should be run. His message, as expressed in his books and his speeches and his campaign website, is so consistent and expressed with such fervor that I can't help but think it's the genuine thing.
He doesn't want to run the country like a business (as Clinton would) or like an army (as McCain would); he wants to inspire us with his speeches, remove the obstacles to our participation in government, and let us lead.
Does it matter so much that Obama lacks political experience, if he has all 300 million Americans as his policy advisors?
Now lots of people are dismissing this as fantasy, as more empty promises that will leave us disappointed, either because the Washington establishment is too entrenched to change, or because this kind of naivete in a hostile world will make us weak.
But I prefer to look at it a different way: the world is already changing. Humanity is right this moment going through a sea-change, a generational shift, of nearly unimaginable magnitude. The explosion in information and communication technology is enabling an interconnected series of revolutions in every aspect of our culture. It's hard to get a handle on, yet, but I think I'm starting to see the common thread between all these revolutions. We are seeing the open network start to replace the closed hierarchy as the fundamental organizing principle of human society. In the old way, some guys at a television news station, behind closed doors, would decide what we should think about some factoid in an election race, and they'd tell us over a one-way, centralized broadcast, communication medium, and we had no way to argue or check their facts or present an alternative viewpoint. In the new way, anyone with a net connection can create their own media -- including clips of video from the TV along with clips they recorded themselves, along with text quotations and infographics, linking everything to the original sources of information to make their research verifiable, and sharing it with the world. Anybody can easily call public attention to the hypocrisy of a public figure, or point out where the facts don't add up or where someone is lying. They can construct their own view of events and if that view rings more true to people than the official account it will be widely linked to and passed around and paid attention to.
The old way was one-to-many, one-way, boss-to-subordinate; the new way is many-to-many, two-way, peer-to-peer. It's comparable to the changes brought about by the invention of the printing press, except now everyone has a printing press. The whole point of a government is for people to band together to help each other; now that the technology allows people to instantly communicate many-to-many, peer-to-peer across any kind of distances, government can become much more democratized and decentralized. Many of the reasons we used to have to rely on a centralized, authoritarian hierarchy are simply not relevant anymore. The old style of politics, exemplified by Clinton's insider connections and mainstream TV coverage, will be swept away and replaced by something that looks an awful lot more like Wikipedia than like TV.
(I know these sound like half-formed ramblings right now, but that's because it's 4 in the morning and I'm too excited to sleep because of the heady mixture of Obama speeches and technological speculation.)
Because of this transformation that's happening, it's of the utmost importance that we fight to keep the internet free and open, that we reform copyright to allow remixing and commentary and sharing of content for the sake of the free and open exchange of ideas, that we as individuals reclaim our culture from the authoritarian hierarchies that seek to control it; and that we capitalize on the technological possibilities to create a new form of government infrastructure that is more open and participatory.
That's the future. And maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear in some vague hopeful rhetoric, but I think Obama believes in this new world and can help it to be born. That's the new thesis that's going to replace the worn-out left-right narrative.
And that is why I'm so excited about this campaign that I'm still awake at 4 AM writing this, my own small contribution to the open exchange of political ideas.
Research into local races! They're depressing and petty yet somehow fascinating!
I'm not even going to talk about the Presidential race, because there's nothing I could possibly say about it that hasn't already been said by millions of websites with better writing and higher traffic than mine. I'm just going to talk about the bottom-feeder, a.k.a. state and local, primaries.
Why the heck hasn't somebody made it easier to just type in your address and find out exactly who's going to be on your ballot? Here's the site where you can do that for Chicago proper, and here's the one for suburban Cook County.
The latter site has a helpful list of all candidates on all Cook County primary ballots.
So, turns out I'm in the 9th district. (It would be easier to remember this stuff If ever lived in the same apartment for more than one or two years.) The 9th district is mostly the wealthy northern suburbs of Skokie and Evanston but it sends one little tendril sneaking down along the lakeshore to just barely wrap around my apartment complex.
Gerrymandering sucks! I searched for some congressional-district maps of Illinois to see just how bad it really is. Here's the map of Illinois (PDF) (Winner: district 17) and here's a close-up onthe Chicago area (Winner: district 4). These both come from an interesting (if extremely ugly) site called rangevoting.org which argues that congressional districts should be split by an objective and deterministic mathematical algorithm called shortest splitline.
I've decided to take the Democratic primary ballot after all. Now, what positions do I get to vote for besides President?
U.S. Senator from Illinois: Richard J Durbin running unopposed. BO-RING!
U.S. Congressman, 9th district:
Janice Schakowsky (incumbent)
In looking for a place to get more info about these people, I found GovTrack.us, which tells exactly what legislation any given congress-critter has proposed and voted for. It's depressing to realize just how much of its time Congress spends on total fluff: naming buildings after people, designating Official Awareness Months for various diseases, and: "H. Res. 933: Commending the Louisiana State University Tigers football team for winning the 2007 Bowl Championship Series national championship game". I wish I was making that up. Here's the record for Schakowsky. She seems to have sponsored a lot of bills I would generally agree with, but exactly zero of them have ever been passed. (Zero is "average", according to GovTrack.us. Yikes.)
John Nocita's campaign flyer tells me everything I need to know... about why I should vote for his opponent.
State senate. Now we're really getting into the dregs. Few news organizations seem to bother even to cover these races. The best info I could find about
Heather Steans and Suzanne Elder came from a pair of interviews they had with the Windy City Times, a local LGBT newspaper. (Steans interview; Elder interview).
I'd just like to point out that out of all the sites I've looked at in my research today, Suzanne Elder's is the only one that's not eyeball-searingly hideous. It's attractive, easy-to-navigate, intelligently written, and free from the elementary punctuation and grammar errors which seem to plague the websites of everyone else involved in politics below the national level. You'd think that senators and congressmen would make enough money to hire a damn copy-editor but apparently not. Websites aside, I'm leaning towards Elder for being obviously smart and angry and therefore more likely to do something interesting.
Time for my favorite public office, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner! This is a confusing race as there are eight candidates just in the Democratic party, and we're supposed to elect three of them. Rather than read about each one I think I'm going to be lazy and follow the local Sierra Club's endorsements.
Finally, there's one referendum on the ballot, which is whether or not it should be legal to sell alcohol in my police precinct (the 42nd). Apparently this is on the ballot every time, as Chicago leaves it up to each precinct to decide whether to be "wet" or "dry". Naturally I'll vote to keep it wet. I mean come on, my neighborhood is home to the Green Mill, where Al Capone's goons used to hang out. It just wouldn't be right to reinstate Prohibition.
That's all for tonight. Don't forget to vote, everybody!
That time again
Illinois primaries are tomorrow. (As well as those of many, many other states — a whole bunch moved their primary schedules up to be part of "Super Tuesday", so even if you don't think you're voting in your state tomorrow, please double-check.)
Tonight I have to read up about all the state and local races going on — senators, congressmen, state senators, state congressmen, and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner — so I can at least pretend to make an informed choice there. Ah, local races: the most likely to impact your actual life, the least likely to enter your awareness unless you actively go out of your way to look them up. (Where do I draw the line? Am I going to vote for judges? There's always like six pages of judges on the ballot and no way to determine why I should care... I wonder what the results of judicial elections look like, anyway: "15 to 4"?)
I'll try to do another blog post tonight sharing what I learn about the state/local races so that if you 1. care, 2. live in Chicago, and 3. haven't decided already, you might conceivably get a tiny tidbit of useful information.
For the presidential thing, it's rumored that Obama has such a huge lock on Illinois (he's from here, after all) that I'm considering voting in the Republican primary instead. (I love living in a state with open primaries. No party registration needed, you just go to the place and they ask you which ballot you want. You just can't vote on both at once, sadly.)
Speaking of Republicans, have you seen Mike Huckabee's campaign ad starring Chuck Norris? It might even beat out "Jesse Ventura as an action figure" for Best Political Ad Ever. Huckabee is a fascinating animal, and I find myself feeling a surprising amount of affection towards him, but I'm kind of glad there's no way in hell he'd ever win the general election.
No, if I'm voting on the elephant primary it'll be for McCain — he represents the one branch of the Republican party that I can still respect. I'd probably vote for him in the general election if it's him vs. Clinton, but I'd vote for Obama over either of them. (Man, I wish we had instant-runoff voting so I could just list my order of preference for all the candidates, instead of having to think about how best to game the system.)
Have I mentioned how much I love living in a country where we can force our would-be leaders to grovel and pander and beg and humiliate themselves for scraps of our favor? It's pretty cool. I like that this presidential race has been such a hard, grueling slog for the candidates already and it's only February. Getting to be President should not be easy (and nobody should ever, ever get a free pass just for having the same last name as a previous President!!) I want to see those candidates suffer if they want the job. Mush! Mush! (whipcrack noise)
Support our troops!
So, last week I heard about this upcoming Ziggurat Con thing: Some American soldiers in Iraq are trying to have a gaming convention. In a war zone. They're like "We're gonna hold a LARP in the actual ruins of an actual ancient civilization!"
This morning I pulled all the RPG books off my shelf that I don't see myself ever playing again -- that included Vampire, AD&D 2nd ed, and Call of Cthulhu -- packed them in a box along with a set of dice, and mailed them off.
Y'all know how much I was against this war in the first place, but there's no reason to hold it against the troops. They're all volunteers, who got sent in for much longer than they ever expected their tour of duty to last, made to do a job they weren't trained for, getting blown up by car bombs, getting shot at by the people they're supposed to be protecting, with inadequate numbers and equipment, trying to do the impossible.
It's nice to say "Support our troops" but what does that actually mean? What does that corny yellow ribbon magnet on your car do for anyone? I don't have any close friends or family in the military, so this whole thing was kind of abstract. But when I heard about Ziggurat Con it really hit me on a visceral level that some of those soldiers are guys just like me. I could easily have been in their place if I had made some different decisions in life. Here's something simple and concrete I can do.
So, I hope this thing goes well, and I hope it raises everybody's morale and gets their minds off the tragedy for a little while. And I hope nobody gets shot by an RPG* when playing an RPG.
If you have any game stuff lying around that you'd like to donate, you can find the address through that link at the top of this post.
* (rocket propelled grenade)
I'm kind of ashamed to admit this, but...
I ended up not voting because I couldn't make up my mind. Even after doing a bunch of research into both of the candidates, I still honestly liked both of them. I was left with a feeling that either one of them would do an acceptable job. Since I couldn't decide on a preference, my vote would just come down to a coin toss. So instead of waiting in line, I just went straight to the taiko lesson instead. Does that make me a bad citizen?
Helen Shiller won by a margin of just a few percent; that's fine with me. Obviously Daley is still mayor (and if he finishes this term he'll be Chicago's longest-serving mayor) but he got "merely" 71% of of the vote, compared to 79% at the previous election.
So, this means nothing to my friends who don't live in Chicago, but the Chicago elections are today. We're voting for aldermen and we're voting for mayor.
|The Chicago River in February|
The mayoral election is not interesting because the only question is whether Daley is going to win with 80% of the vote or merely 70%. We've had Richard M. Daley
as our mayor since 1981 and before that we had his father Richard J. Daley
for 21 years, 1955 to 1976. So they're sort of an indestructable dynasty. Everybody in Chicago loves to complain about them, but nobody (well, very few people) ever vote against them. We've had a Mayor Daley for so long that one commedian said:
When I was little, I thought that "Mayor Daley" was the generic term for the leader of any large city.
If you think about it, the mayor of a large city like Chicago, or even more so New York, is more powerful than a lot of state governors and evn more than the leaders of some small countries.
But that's not what this post is about. This post is about the aldermanic election.
Yes. Yes, that's a word. "Aldermanic" is the adjective form of "Alderman". Isn't that awesome? I could say "Aldermanic" all day. It sounds like "shamanic" or something.
A few weeks ago, I braved the biting cold night winds to ride over to the "Walt Disney School" on Marine in order to watch the 46th ward aldermanic (tee hee) debate/Q&A session. ("Walt Disney School" just means he paid for it, I think.) I was originally going to write about the debate that night when I got home, but I was too tired, so I said I'd do it tomorrow, and then a bunch of other stuff came up... but this is the day of the election so I finally have to either write a post or forget about it. And this is why "blogging" is not journalism, folks: Complete lack of enforceable deadlines!
When I went in to watch the debate I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know who my current alderman was, who else was running, or what sort of issues they might be debating. The only reason I knew about it was because some teenagers were going door to door in my neighborhood registering people to vote, and I said "Hey, it's great that you're doing that, but I'm already registered, so buzz off." and they said "OK but please come meet the candidates on Wednesday!"
The incumbent is Helen Shiller. She's been alderman of the 46th ward for about 20 years. My first impression of her is that she was extremely frazzled and a terrible public speaker
. She talked way too fast and she rambled on and on about irrelevant details and ran over her time limit every single time
it was her turn to talk.
Challenging her is James Cappleman. He had a nice suit and a slick politician-like demeanor. He was much better at public speaking, but his words were mostly vague generalities and empty cliches. He's currently a family advocate at the University of Chicago hospitals, and before that he was a Franciscan friar(!?!). He's also, according to his bio, a Mac user (ok, instant points there!) and is openly gay.
Interesting: in the 46th ward, being gay is not only something a politician can admit, it's a complete non-issue. After all the stupid, tiresome, endless, irrelevent arguments over homosexuality in national politics, it's refreshing to see a campaign where everybody is mature enough not to drag their opponents' private sex lives into the spotlight. In fact, in this area gayness might even be a slight advantage, since part of "Boy's Town" protrudes into the 46th ward. (Maybe I should say it "penetrates" the 46th ward. Tee hee hee! What was I saying about being mature? That doesn't go for me, obviously. |=`P )
Stepping back a bit, a nice thing about this campaign (and perhaps this is a feature of local politics generally, but I'm not experienced enough to know) is the complete absence of ideological polarization. Policy-wise, the candidates were identical
. The debates were all about personality
. We all agree that we need to get more businesses to move into those empty storefronts on North Broadway, now who's going to do a better job of it?
It was obvious that I was not going to get to ask questions, since all of the questions were prepared ahead of time by various local organizations and interest groups and then read in front of a microphone. I quickly became annoyed because the questions were asking the same thing over and over again. Seriously 2/3 of the questions were some variant on:
How are you going to stop my rent from going up?
Usually this was phrased as "Ensuring continuing access to affordable housing" or whatever but that's just a fancy way of saying we don't want our rent to go up. It makes sense -- that's the whole reason I ended up in this neighborhood in the first place, because I was looking for a cheap apartment. I guess everybody else was too.
|The challenger encourages pessimism|
This explains some things about my neighborhood which didn't make sense to me before. Most neighborhoods in Chicago have a demographic spectrum like a laser beam: everybody there is one ethnicity, one income level. You can tell as soon as you step onto the street and look around. "OK, all the signs are in Spanish and have bars over their windows and there's a Currency Exchange on the corner. Got it.". Or for another example, "Starbucks next to an indie record store, pamphlets stapled to a pillar advertising some theater group, and a couple of white teenagers in expensive clothes." But where I live is not like that. Where I live is everything mixed together. We have real nice new Starbucks and Borders and banks right next to boarded-up windows and scary homeless dudes hanging out under bridges. We've got African, Japanese, Vietnamese, middle-eastern, and carribean resturaunts. We got the currency exchange (those places scream "sketchy") but also famous theaters and jazz clubs. I ride the bus with Mexican immigrants and Nigerian immigrants and muslim women with head scarves and white yuppies. I could never quite figure out the neighborhood until I realized that it's an intentionally mixed-income neighborhood.
|The encumbent encourages optimism|
That means both candidates spent a lot of breath going on and on about "diversity" and how great diversity is and how great it is that we have so much diversity. It also means that whoever wins has to do a delicate balancing act to preserve that diversity. If property values get too low, all the people with money leaves and the neighborhood turns into a slum. If property values get too high, poor people can't live here anymore and they have to move out and the place gets gentrified.
To win, Cappleman has to convince everyone that Shiller hasn't been doing a good job over the last twenty years. So naturally, he emphasizes the negative. At the debates he kept accusing Shiller of slacking off while stores get boarded up and gangs roam around robbing people and selling drugs. His mass-mailings continue the theme. To each of his accusations, Shiller responded by pointing out all the good things about the neighborhood, and describing exactly what she was already doing to fix various problems, describing what was getting in her way and why they hadn't been fixed yet, and what she was going to do tomorrow to attack the problems some more. (And then going over her time limit. Every single time. The moderators started getting really annoyed. "YOUR TIME IS UP, STOP TALKING NOW.")
It was a classic battle of personalities! Every time the optimist and the pessimist clashed, they got more and more animated. By the end of the night, they were really letting it fly. "I don't think my opponent has a clue what it means to be alderman!" said Shiller, to shouts and applause from the audience.
What are the burning issues aside from affordable housing?
|The controversial "blue light"|
- The Red Line train station at Wilson. This station is old and damp and dirty and poorly-lighted and generally scary. People don't want to come to our neighborhood by train because the station is so sketchy and it looks like a place where they might get mugged. So this is a point of contention: How come Helen Shiller has been promising us for years that the station would be renovated, but it still hasn't happened?
- The police surveillance pod. This is a high-tech "Big Brother"-ish device that was installed on a high pole at the corner of Wilson and Magnolia. People call it a "blue light" because it flashes blue whenever it's in use, which is ALL THE TIME. The pro side is that it keeps crime down because anybody who commits a crime within its field of vision will be easily caught. The con side is that hey, maybe police officers are looking into our windows with it or something.
- The proposed "Wilson Yards" development plan. Shiller I think wants to tear down a bunch of old buildings and put in a great big Target shopping center type thing. Cappleman sent us a mailing warning that the plan was flawed and the area was a slum waiting to happen.
- Recycling: Chicago still doesn't have a real recycling program. We're supposed to have something called the "blue bag" program, but it's a total joke. Most denizens of the city have never seen one of these supposed blue bags anywhere, and even if we could get some, nobody's collecting them. This was the big question on my mind when I went to the debate, because I wanted to hear that somebody was planning to start recycling for real in this city. My wish is granted! There will be a new recycling program starting in August on an experimental basis, and ours is one of the pilot neighborhoods. So all I have to do is talk to the landlord of my apartment building to make sure we're participating and that we will have a recycling pickup spot.
|The controversial proposed Wilson Yards project|
Of course the question of the Wilson Yards plan led us into a debate on the so-called "Big Box" law which was such a controversy last year. The city council was trying to pass a law saying that stores with larger than X square feet of floor space had to pay employees a certain minimum wage, much higher than the normal citywide minimum wage, plus lots of extra benefits and stuff. Although it didn't mention them by name, it was clearly aimed at WalMart and Target.
I was against it, because even though it sounds at first like a good thing for the workers, it doesn't take a degree in economics to tell you what the result of it would have been: WalMart and Target would have put stores just outside the city limits, where they could still pay the lower wages, and closed down everything inside the city, and not a single worker would ever have seen the proposed benefits, and I wouldn't have been able to go shopping for cheap junk at the Target on Roosevelt anymore. Anyway, the law was never passed because Mayor Daley vetoed it, earning him even more love and hatred.
Alderman Shiller was being criticized because she spoke out in favor of the increased living wages, but then she voted against the law. She explained herself quite well, I thought: she said the law was badly designed, would not have accomplished its intended purpose, and would have either been overturned on the grounds of unfairness or else tied the city up in expensive lawsuits for years. Cappleman was asked what he thought of it, and said basically the same thing -- it's completely unfair to require WalMart and Target to pay higher wages while not requiring the same of McDonalds and Subway, etc etc. Agreed!
And now, I have no more to say, because it's time to go vote. And then after that I'm going to my first taiko drumming lesson. Later!
Editorials from my subconscious
I guess I've been thinking about politics too much lately because it has started to creep into my dreams.
I had this one where I accidentally got pregnant -- well, sort of -- I had the embryo in a test tube. And it was definitely mine and it had been fertilized without my consent. So maybe somebody stole my sperm or something. I don't know how it happened, but it was effectively like I had accidentally gotten pregnant.
And I didn't want to have a baby, so I thought of aborting the embryo, but the idea felt so overwhelmingly wrong, morally, that I was forced by my conscience to not only keep it, but to become a vocal pro-lifer and start voting Republican.
And then I woke up and I was really freaked out. I'm pro-choice in real life, but since I am a man, the issue can never affect me in the same very personal way that it can affect someone who can get pregnant i.e. a woman. Maybe my brain was trying to tell me that I might feel differently about the issue if I was capable of being pregnant? I dunno.
A week later I dreamed, oh horror of horrors, that I was hugging Hillary Clinton (In a NON-sexual way!!) because she was a robot and I was trying to teach her about human emotions. She slowly got annoyed at me for touching her without permission and I said "Good! Good! Annoyance is an important human emotion! You can use that."
A non-political dream was one where I was sleeping in a crib full of water, and my sister and her friends came in and they were cosplaying as the characters from my least favorite anime, Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, and they did the dance really well. The same night I had one where instead of going to California for the Hackers conference, I made a mistake and ended up in Louisiana at a fundamentalist Christian conference.
So I snuck out and went driving through the bayou and saw like 20 alligators. They were cool. And Steve Irwin was there and he was telling me that the alligator's upper jaw muscle is really weak, so if you just put your hand on top of its nose it can't open its mouth to bite you. I am pretty sure this is false in real life.
I'll be glad when this thing is over
I voted first thing in the morning, before work. My precinct had the optical-scan ballots, with one touch-screen machine in the corner that nobody was using. I wasn't in their book of names, since I sent in my registration for my new address in early October, right on the line of 30 days before the election... They had me fill out some paperwork and then let me vote; I wonder if I can check on whether it was counted or not?
I'm watching the results update in real time at the New York Times' election coverage page. Last time I checked (about 11 PM central), Democrats had gained 3 seats in the Senate and 18 in the House, and 3 Governors. Which means it's very likely that the House will have a Democratic majority, and the Senate will be very, very close. These numbers can still change of course. Don't know yet about the Illinois elections.
It will be very interesting to watch which elections are disputed over the next few days, becaue of electronic-machine-glitchiness or other irregularities. The Virginia senate race between Allen and Webb is insanely close -- the difference is only about 6,000 votes out of over a million, or less than 0.6 percent, so I predict that there will be some very ugly fights over recounts in that state.
Time has an article called Get Ready For the Glitches. I also just got an email from MoveOn.org offering a $250,000 reward to anyone who blows the whistle on evidence of election fraud.
Oh, and for all the hype, I heard the turnout in this election has only been around 40%. Come on people, that's totally lame.
I have a couple more political rants I want to finish up and post, but not until after the Hackers conference this weekend. Once those are up I hope I can focus on other subjects for a while. I'm sick of my page being all politics all the time. I want to post some more drawings and photos and electronics projects.
So I'll leave you with this article for now, about the hideous Military Commissions Act of 2006: National Yawn as our Rights Evaporate".
Stalin: it only matters who COUNTS the votes
I am concerned about touch-screen voting machines. Actually, it's more like "terrified" than concerned. Touch-screen voting machines are horrifyingly easy to tamper with, either by hacking the software (it has well-documented security flaws) or by changing the results stored in the machine. And they leave no paper trail, so it's impossible for anyone ever to tell whether they've been tampered with or not. With these machines installed across the country, it is now a distinct possibility for a small group of conspirators to pull of the ultimate bloodless coup-d'-etat: undetectable election theft.
When you consider that:
- The CEO and board of directors of electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns, and their CEO wrote a letter containing a promise "...to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President.".
- ...And when you consider that one of its competitors has been bought out by Venezuelean company Smartmatic, which has been accused of rigging elections for America-hating socialist Hugo Chavez...
...you start to think that maybe the people designing these machines are not exactly the neutral parties they should be
(thanks to Eric for bringing the Venezuela connection to my attention)
This article is seven pages, but it's a must-read:
How to Steal an Election By Hacking the Vote. Hacker Jon Stokes tries to get us to realize just how severe the problem is by giving us step-by-step instructions for hacking the machines and undetectably stealing votes. Read this! This is horrifying! If Microsoft released a product with this many security holes, that was this easy to hack, they'd be getting sued up the wazoo by business interests. But when democracy is at stake, the government happily accepts this kind of shoddy worksmanship? It's unbelievable.
In fact, election theft might not just be an ominous possibility. There's evidence that it has already happened.
Read this article: Was The 2004 Election Stolen, which documents the massive exit-poll discrepancies, voter disenfranchisement, and other fishiness going on in Ohio in 2004. Ohio in 2004 was at least as fishy as Florida in 2000.
OK, so it's in Rolling Stone, a magazine which put Nevermind by Nirvana in their top 50 albums ever list, so maybe you don't consider them a reliable source. However, that article cites its sources, so if you doubt the evidence, you can check out the original sources it comes from. You can also read the status report of the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff about "What Went Wrong in Ohio", which summarizes some of the same evidence. There's an article about it in Wired too.
Ed Brayton's blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, is another one I read regularly for vaguely libertarian-leaning political news and commentary. He has an excellent post here which pulls together some choice quotes from the Ohio reports.
The number of questionable votes in Ohio election 2004 would have been enough to swing Ohio, and therefore the country, the other way. Before you dismiss me as a sore-loser-for-Kerry conspiracy theorist, I don't even like Kerry. I didn't vote for him, and I think he would have made a terrible president if he had won.
No, what's got me outraged is that our entire electoral system has been thrown into serious doubt. With no paper trail there's no way to go back and confirm or deny any wrongdoing. And the mainstream media ignored it. Why wasn't the Ohio election tampering top of the front page in every newspaper in the country? Why isn't the unreliability of electronic voting machines a major national issue? Every day in the paper's it's all about the latest gay-bashing Republican or religious leader who has turned out to be a closet homosexual and/or pedophile himself. While the irony is kind of amusing, is this really bigger news than the fact that our elections could be stolen and we'd never even know about it?
This is not a partisan issue! This is an issue for anybody who cares about democracy, no matter which party they support!
When you go in to vote on Tuesday, don't use the touch-screen voting machines if you have a choice (I do in my district -- it's choice of touch-screen or optical scan). Make your concerns known to the election judges. Maybe even talk about it to the strangers in line. And no matter what the outcome is tomorrow, we need to start a major national letter-writing campaign. We need to let the people running elections know that this is a major issue. Elections are run at the county level, so don't bother writing to your congresscritters. Look up who's in charge of this in your county and write letters to them. Write to your local newspaper too. That's what I'm going to do. I'll post my letter on this site before I send it, so if you're lazy, you can copy it, change a few names, and send a copy off to your county too.
Oh yeah, who am I voting for?
I just realized it's two days till the election and I don't actually know anything about the candidates for any position except Governor. That's the odd thing about midterm elections: The election is all over the news, and yet the people I'll be chosing between have not been on the news. Not even the Internet news. And almost none of my friends and coworkers are registered to vote in Illinois -- they're all doing absentee ballots for their home states. Even if they were voting in Illinois, they might be in a different congressional district. Is this a sign of how dislocated we've become in the modern age? I have no one to discuss my congressional election with because I don't know anybody else in this distric, and the news doesn't cover it because it's only of local interest.
Bleah. Oh well. At times like these I think back to when I was living in Stonington and I would have interesting philosophical discussions with my friend's mom Dorothy, aka "Spare Mom". One time I tried to justify my political apathy (which I had, back then) by saying that all the choices were just as bad, so why should I vote for one? And Dorothy said, "Maybe you have a duty as a citizen to learn enough about the choices that they don't all seem equally bad." I forget her exact wording but it was something like that. So I've been doing some research.
I've already gone on about Judy-Barr Topinka and Rod Blagojevich at great length (I had a post about them back in March before the primary), and there's not much more to say except that more and more evidence of Rod's corruptitude keeps coming to our attention. But he's probably going to win anyway. Judy is not a very inspiring alternative. I think she comes off to most people like a mean grouchy old lady. There was kind of a cute ad where Rod is sitting under a tree and defending himself thus: "If you listen to my opponent, the world is coming to an end... and I'm the worst person on the planet. But look at the positives!..."
So. Green party it is.
I have heard rumors that Whitney, the Green Party candidate, got somewhere around 14% in one poll. That's unbelievably high for a third-party candidate! It's either a sampling fluke or a sign of how dissatisfied everyone is with Rod and Judy.
The Green Party of Illinois is running a full slate of candidates for state positions, and I'm tempted to just vote for them across the board.
Somehow, in the discussion on this page, politics keeps turning into Magic the Gathering analogies. Here's another one:
The difference in strategy between a two-player M:TG duel and a three-or-more-player free-for-all. In a duel you win by attacking your opponent. In a free-for-all it's often better to build up your own position and encourage the other players to fight among themselves. Or else to form alliances. One of the reasons I think life would be better with more viable political parties is that campagning by attacking the other guy would instantly become less effective, while building up your own qualifications an forming alliances would be more effective.
Cook County Board President
I see more advertising for this race than for any other. I think the race is like neck-and-neck so they're both trying to get any possible edge. However, I had no idea what the Cook County Board President even does, or what the issues are.
When I looked into it, I found out that it's a far more interesting contest than I could have guessed.
Todd H Stroger (Democrat) vs. Tony Peraica (Republican).
You may vaguely recall that during the primaries in March, a guy named John Stroger won despite having a stroke a week before the election. He has not been seen by the public since, and people have been speculating that he's become a vegetable. He had been county board president since 1994 and has a hospital named after him, so I guess he was pretty popular! Shows what I know. Anyway, John was replaced on the ballot by his son Todd. This has caused a lot of grumbling. Did they intentionally hide John Stroger's true health status? Was this a bait-and-switch operation? Etc. So Todd has been campaigning and trying to prove that he is qualified on his own merits, and trying to get everyone's mind off of his father.
As for the actual issues in the race, the best summary is this article here. That's on Tony Peraica's site, but it's a very well-balanced newspaper article by a neutral party which goes into the pros and cons of both sides. Incidentally, mad props to Peraica for having the guts to post something like that on his own site. He doesn't even try to rebut any less-than-flattering things the article says about him. It's like he wants voters to be well informed even if that turns them away from him. That makes me want to vote for him right there.
A one-sentence summary of the article, if you're too lazy to read it, is that Peraica is better on financial issues and Stroger is better on social issues, and the real question is which one you think is more important.
I'm very much on the fence about this. Based on my limited understanding of what the Cook County Board does, it sounds like just the place where we want to have fiscal conservatives and reformers for government accountability, and Peraica is apparently both. But he's a Republican and he's against abortion and stuff. But on the gripping hand, the Cook County Board President doesn't have the power to do anything about abortion, and Peraica has said that although he is against it personally he promises not to make it an issue. And he's trying to distance himself from the Republican party -- notice the party name does not appear on his website anywhere. Or on his signs.
But I believe pretty strongly that the Republican party needs to be punished. As I have mentioned in several rants, it has turned into (on the national level anyway) a corrupt, power-hungry, and ideological organization which cozies up to religious radicals, which won't take responsibility for its own mistakes, which cares nothing for civil liberties or limited government, and which has abandoned everything good about the conservative philosophy. The Republican party needs to be taught a lesson. It needs to learn that it can't keep getting away with this stuff. It needs to lose and lose big on Tuesday . Maybe if it does, it will take the hint, and reform itself or at least adjust its strategy.
So part of me is saying: forget the issues in the local races, just vote Democrat everywhere to help make the message as loud as possible.
But I would feel bad about that. I'm always criticizing other people for being too partisan and not caring about good government. I don't want to do that myself.
I would have no problem voting for Paraica if only he was running as an independent... Drat, this is hard.
I have a different representative now that I live on the North Side. Surprise! In Hyde Park the representative is Bobby Rush, and both he and his opponent are boring nonentities. But where I live now, I'm in the 9th District. My rep is Janice D Schakowsky (Democrat) and she's actually kinda cool. I don't agree with everything she's done, but if you go to her page and look at her record, you can see she's quite active in proposing things and serving on subcomittees and trying to make stuff happen (whereas Bobby Rush struck me as a benchwarmer, if you know what I mean). A lot of it is the typical Democrat stuff like calling for universal health care, which is not an issue that gets me particulary excited (it would depend very very much on the implementation. If you were smart you might be able to come up with a socialized medicine system that would actually save the government money. If you were not smart you could make things worse than they are now.) But hey look! She's pushing for renewable energy sources and stem cell research and phone record privacy and intervention in Darfur. Now she's got my attention.
Running against her is Michael P. Shannon (Republican). He doesn't sound like a bad guy. The 9th district seems to be very blue (it includes the north suburbs) so it stands to reason the Republicans would challenge it with a moderate, not a firebreathing radical. In fact, on this page here he makes a lot of points that I am always making about the ways our system is broken. So I would actually agree with him on a lot of things. But how can I vote for someone who would choose that color of yellow for his web page background?!? Just kidding. Seriously though, I'm considering the Republican for Cook County Board President cuz I don't think he can do much harm there, but I just got done ranting about how the Republicans need to lose Congress, so I'm sure as heck not going to vote for one there.
Two stories of appalling incompetence
Decades from now, when people argue about the legacy of the Bush administration, they will have a long, long list of Bush failures and screw-ups to choose from. It'll be great fodder for historians. They will argue about whether this was the worst presidential administration in American history, or merely the second or third worst. But I think that among all the argument over this lying, WMD-misplacing, federal-government-expanding, national-debt-doubling, torture-legalizing, stem-cell-research-vetoing, hurricane-response-fumbling, vote-tampering, CIA-agent-outing, religious-fundamentalism-pandering, war-starting, war-losing, Bill-of-Rights-destroying administration -- even among this miserable litany of failure and corruption, the failure of the Iraqi reconstruction project will still stand out as as one of history's worst mistakes. Certainly, the worst mistake the US has made in Middle Eastern history since that time we overthrew the democratically-elected leader of Iran.
It would have been really nice if the Iraq invasion had gone anything at all like the administration had predicted. If you remember, they predicted that we would be welcomed as liberators, that the war would cost $50 or $60 billion, and that it would be over in a few weeks. (Rumsfeld is now lying about having made all the above predictions). The theory was that we would leave behind a thriving and peaceful democracy which would then be a shining beacon of freedom in the mideast and which would lead to the overthrow of all the tyrannical regimes bordering it.
If that had happened? If I had been proven wrong? That would have been great! I would have been happy to have been proven wrong! I would have been dancing down the street saying "I take back everything I said before, invading Iraq turned out to be a great idea! Hooray for President Bush!" Believe me, when I read the latest headlines about the number of people killed by car bombs/beheadings/torture in Baghdad, I get absolutely no pleasure from saying "told you so". I would have been happy to have been proven wrong. It's not just the tens(hundreds?) of thousands of Iraqis and the thousands of American troops who have died, and the $336 billion and counting that we've burned on this project. It's also the likelihood that Iraq will remain a terrorist breeding ground and hellhole of sunni-vs-shiite violence for generations to come, permanently changing the course of world history for the worse.
Those future historians I mentioned? They will argue about whether the whole Iraqi invasion project was inherently doomed to failure, or whether it could have succeeded if it had been directed by a competent president.
And one of the pertinent facts in the debate will be this:
"Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq" (Washington Post)
The grand project to rebuild Iraq into a shining beacon of freedom required a civilian army of bureaucrats and organizers and government clerks and experts and so on. When choosing these people, the Bush Jr. administration chose not the ones most qualified for their jobs, but the ones who were seen as most loyal to Republican dogma. Before being appointed, people were questioned about whether they voted for Bush or not, and even about their views on Roe vs. Wade. Seriously, click that link and read that article. It's one of the top three or four most appalling things I've ever read out of all the appaling things that this appalling administration. Are those guys even taking this war seriously?
It sounds like again and again, they passed over qualified applicants in order to choose people with little experience or qualifications who had the right political leanings. What possible relevance does Roe vs. Wade have to the job? It makes no sense unless they are screening people for political leanings. As if they think that rewarding the spread of their ideological virus is more important than the success of this nation-building project which they told us three years ago was so important that we had to start a war over it.
I would be equally appalled if a liberal Democratic government screened people based on their loyalty to irrelevant political dogma. I am opposed to all ideology. I am in favor of picking out the best qualified, most competent people in order to accomplish a mission with the minimum amount of death on either side. This has not happened.
Everything we've done wrong in Iraq -- starting with Bush Sr. in 1991 inexplicable decision to leave Saddam in power after we invaded the first time -- would occupy several books. Here are just a few numbers to summarize how badly Iraq is faring under the total lawlessness created by the incompetent command of George W. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere" Bush and Donald "Stuff happens" Rumsfeld, a couple of losers who seem to think this is some kind of a game.
- Iraqi civilian deaths: Impossible to count precisely. Anywhere from 40,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 comes from a study whose methodology has been questioned, but if the real number is anything like that, it would mean that the civil war we unleashed is killing Iraqis faster than even Saddam could have killed Iraqis.
- Torture: "Worse than under Saddam". This is not the torture that Americans are doing to military captives, mind you (I have another rant lined up about that) but mainly torture that gangs of Iraqi thugs do to their captives because of religious differences or whatever other sick reasons they think they have.
- Refugees: 700,000 Iraqis have fled to Syria. This article hits close to home because Aleppo is the hometown of my Syrian friends from last summer.
- Cost. Way over $336 billion. Not including soldiers' regular pay, future medical care for wounded soldiers, or the interest we're going to have to pay on all the money we borrowed from China to finance the war.
- The amount of that money which has been wasted, stolen, or mysteriously disappeared:$9 billion. See also this article.
- Sunni vs. Shiite violence: A centuries-old religious sectarian conflict, which Saddam's brutal dictatorship was able to suppress, is now exploding with fanatics on both sides blowing up each others' mosques. Anybody with even a basic knowledge of Islam and/or mideast history knew that this was going to be a major problem with holding Iraq together. Many of our lawmakers and FBI agents do not even know the difference between Sunni and Shiite. Until two months before the war, our President did not even know that there were two different kinds of Islam.
- Increased terrorist threat: "The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse" according to the National Intelligence Estimate.
Yes, there was progress in a symbolic sense when Iraqis elected their own government last December (and then it took months after that to actually form the government) but if we can't control Baghdad and stop the civil war, then that might be their last election.
I should clarify here that I do not advocate pulling our troops out! I was against invading in the first place because I thought something like this might happen, and because I thought the justifications were weak. But even from the beginning I knew that if we invaded, we were going to have to stay there and fix the place up, no matter what. Pulling our troops out now will just make the problem worse! We need to win this war first, then build a functioning country instead of leaving Iraq as another Afghanistan, then pull our troops out. However, we cannot win this war unless we have competent leadership, and we're not going to have any before 2009, if then! Even if Democrats take over Congress this year, I am very pessimistic about seeing any real change in strategy. We still have two more years of Bush Jr. In two years time, I predict that Iraq will still be at war, whether our troops are there or not, and its situation may have deteriorated so much that it will have become completely unwinnable and we have no choice but to give up.
A competent leader would have realized within the first year of the war that his strategy wasn't working and he would have changed it. A man admits his mistakes and fixes them. A boy denies them and makes excuses. Bush Jr. is a boy trying to do a man's job. I think that's ultimately the root of all the other problems. That's why I call him "Bush Jr." as opposed to one of the great variety of insulting epithets that I could choose from; I think "Jr" does a good enough job of summing up the main problem Bush Jr. and the yes-men he surrounds himself with are so controlled by party ideology that for them to admit their mistakes is almost unthinkable. I was very shocked when I saw a newspaper headline the other day that said "Bush dissatisfied with progress of war". Well, duh! Every sane human being is dissatisfied with progress of war by now! So if this means that Bush Jr. has finally started paying some attention to reality, then congratulations for him, but it's a little bit late.
Now for the second story.
Read this article about how the military has been dismissing people who are qualified Arabic translators because they are also gay.
I looked it up and apparently, you don't even have to be having gay sex or anything: it's against the rules just to be a homosexusl in the military. A statement that someone is homosexual is grounds for discharge from the military even if there was no sexual activity. Apparently the military is scared that they will be corrupted if people think gay thoughts. I could see dismissing a soldier if he actually sexually harassed somebody, but why should it matter if the target was a man or a woman? And why assume that a gay man is guilty before he does anything?
And when he can translate Arabic?
If you read 9/11 Commission Report, it sounds like one of the main reasons we failed to prevent the attack was because of lack of skilled Arabic translators. We had all these intercepted communications but they didn't do us any good because we didn't understand any of them. It's like, these terrorists don't even need to use a code, cuz their crazy language is already a code, just like how we used Navaho speakers in WWII. The army decided they needed 84 translators minimum and they have only been able to find 42.
Given all that, they dismissed 37 qualified translators for being gay?
When the stakes are this high, I don't care if somebody is a convicted child molester, if he can speak Arabic, you better draft him into the army, keep him there, and make him translate those funny squiggles until his hands cramp up, OK?
I can't actually put all the blame for this on Republicans, of course. Bill Clinton was the one who passed the brilliantly retarded "Don't ask, don't tell" policy (though Colin Powell invented it), under which it's still against the rules to be gay in the military, but we agree to pretend there's not a problem as long as everybody stays in the closet. This is a compromise, but does anybody think it's actually a solution of any kind? (I am not a democrat. I don't think Clinton was some kind of hero. I'll criticize him whenever it's warranted.) The Navy released a report in 1957 finding that there is no increased security risk from having gays in the military. 1957! The military has known since 1957 that there's no rational basis for its policy. This policy is now making us less safe at a time when we need all the qualified people we can get to gather and translate as much intelligence as possible. The policy needs to be changed. It's not going to be changed under the Republicans because they have made hating gays one of the planks of their party platform because it helps motivate religious extremists to vote.
(I don't think that the Republican leadership actually hates gays. Cheney's daughter is a lesbian, and they're reportedly on speaking terms. I think that the leadership has gotten into a position where they have to pretend to support anti-gay legislation in order to keep the all-important bigot vote. That would explain why they hype stuff like that marriage amendment idea which they know has no chance of passing. So their bigotry is dishonest. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse.)
Some people object to the term "homophobia" because they say "I'm not afraid of gays, I just don't like what they do." But when you are so afraid of what a gay man in the army might do that you would rather compromise the War on Terror in order to kick him out? That is so irrational that "Homophobia" is the only possible way to describe it.
Here is a youtube video of the Daily Show where they interview a man named Jason Jones, one of the Arabic translators who was dismissed from the army for being gay.
The video contains much that is completely tasteless, but it needed to be said. Oh yes, it needed to be said.
I put these two stories into one post because they make a common point. Hiring incompetent people to serve in Iraq based on their political leanings, and firing competent people based on their sexual orientation: both are stupid. If you hire and fire people based on anything other than their ability to do the job, then the job will suffer. And we're not talking about an easy job like writing computer programs. If I screw up in my job, nobody's going to die. If people screw up translating terrorist communications and rebuilding the Iraqi government, people will die. People are dying right now. Because of incompetence backed up by dogmatic political ideology. We are not going to be able to win this war -- any of the wars we are in -- until we get new leaders who can forget about ideology and put competence first.
Getting ready for election
I almost volunteered to be a Cook County Election Judge this year. Sounds fancy but it just means I would man the polls on Tuesday Nov 7. But in my daydreams it's pretty cool because I get to heroically foil some villians' evil plans to tamper with election results or something. Anyway I looked at a calendar and realized that it would mean taking off Tuesday of the same week that I'm already taking off Friday to go to Hackers, and I don't want to take that much time off from work.
Our latest estimate of the Enso release date is just after Thanksgiving, by the way. We could have released it already if it were not for the negotiations with dictionary companies, which are taking a long time.
So anyway, I just checked out what the referenda are going to be on the Chicago (actually Cook County) ballot. There are three county-wide referenda, and I quote:
"For the health and safety of children and the entire community, shall the State of Illinois enact a comprehensive ban on the manufacture, sale, delivery and possession of military-style assault weapons and .50 caliber rifles?"
"Shall Illinois enact legislation in 2007 to increase the minimum wage for Illinois workers from $6.50 an hour to $7.50 an hour?"
"Shall the United States Government immediately begin an orderly and rapid withdrawal of all its military personnel from Iraq, beginning with the National Guard and Reserves?"
Ooh, three nice juicy issues! There was going to be a referendum on "defining marriage as between one man and one woman" but it didn't make it onto the ballot.
I will definitely vote no on the withdrawal of troops. I was against invading in the first place and I think the war has been horribly mismanaged, and the situation in Iraq is getting worse by the day, but I fail to see how pulling our troops out now will make it any better, and it could make it a lot worse. I want a total change in strategy so we can win the war, not a withdrawal.
I'm basically opposed to raising the minimum wage, too, because I find the economic arguments against it fairly convincing: when the government says in effect "Hey workers, you are not allowed to enter into a voluntary employment agreement with any company for less than X amount of money", the main effect is to raise unemployment at the lowest end of the wage scale, which doesn't help the poor. Trying to set the cost of labor by fiat in a free market usually backfires. I'd much rather work on improving education in order to help the poor become qualified for better paying jobs, which would help them much more in the long run AND benefit society by increasing the net productivity of the workforce. This is a very bad summary of a very complicated argument which I will probably do a full-on rant about sometime soon.
I'm not sure about the assault weapon ban. (My first reaction to it is "Oh no, my burst cannons and missile pods are assault weapons! At least I would still have my railguns and pulse rifles." Little WH40k humor. Ha ha.) There are some parts of Chicago where I would feel a lot safer going if I was allowed to carry a handgun, not to shoot anybody of course, but just to display prominently so that criminals would leave me alone. The criminals are of course going to have guns no matter what the laws are, because they're criminals. So for my own personal safety I would rather have less gun control in Chicago, not more. But on the other hand, military-style assault weapons? There's really no excuse for making those legally available to civilians.
Next, it has just sunk in that I'm going to have to actually form an opinion on the candidates (thanks Brian) for boring positions like Cook County President and Comptroller and stuff.
I could just leave them blank, but it's better for democracy if we take the effort to educate ourselves about what's actually at stake in races like these, even if they sound really boring. I'll do some research and put up another post here about what I find out.
It's No Fun! Being an illegal alieeeeaaaan!
In the previous post about daytime TV, I promised to rant about immigration. So here goes. I have a theory about the way that different political groups see immigration. To explain it I will have to draw you some crude diagrams. To start, here is a simple diagram showing how you can break people up into four vaguely-defined voting-block quadrants using a coordinate system with two axes, one economic and the other social:
I happen to think that none of these groups is inherently better or worse than the others. Each group has some people with reasonable concerns and other people who are crazy fanatics. Therefore, to be fair, I have given each group a equally mildly derogatory name.
Also, the boundaries between the groups are constantly in flux, both because the defining issues are always changing, and because individuals are always moving between groups. For instance, most college students are Bleeding Hearts, but as they grow up and get jobs they often mutate into Corporate Overlords or, if they're not so lucky, working stiffs. Or they raise families and start worrying about the filth their kids are seeing on TV and they become Traditionalists. An individual can even straddle multiple groups at a time. Like, I used to be pure bleeding-heart but since starting a company I have been drawn more and more towards the corporate overlord camp, and right now I'm sort of straddling that line.
Another oversimplification that's going on is that there should really be more than two axes. There's the Hawks vs. Doves axis, i.e. how willing people are to support war. Each of the four groups I suggest here might have reasons for supporting a war, but they would be different reasons. Each group could also favor stayiing out, for different reasons. So there's a third axis, perpendicular to these two. Picture it sticking out of the screen towards you. There are even more divisions, like globalization vs. isolationism, nature vs. nurture, and belief vs. rationality, which inform political vies and could be argued to be axes of their own. We shouldn't get too caried away, or else we'd end up with an individual axis for every single issue; that would sure classify people accurately, but you'd lose the benefit of making a simplified model, which is to be able to see the big picture.
So, my two axes here are much too abstract and simplistic to be a realistic model of real groups of human beings, but I assert that they are still much better than trying to cram everybody onto a single "left-right" axis.
Next, consider where each of the parties typically draws its support from:
(I know the donkey and elephant suck, but cut me some slack, I drew them in like 30 seconds with a mouse. Artistic quality isn't really important here.)
When you look at it this way, far from being monolithic, each of the major parties is actually a loose alliance of two disparate groups who might not otherwise agree on all that much. The alliance between bleeding hearts and the working class goes back to the early part of the 20th century, and the Progressive movement, Upton Sinclair and the meat-packing plants and the labor unions and all that, because it was about these social progressives wanting to do something about the poverty and horrible conditions of the working class. So they formed an alliacne which had, by the time of Roosevelt and the New Deal, completely overthrown the lassez-faire economic system on which the robber barons of the previous century had prospered. And from then until about the 70s this alliance was usually running the country, and even when it wasn't, it was still setting the agenda of mainstream political thought.
The alliance of corporate overlords and social conservatives is much less logical. Rich capitalists tend to be far more educated, modern, and forward looking than, and have very different lifestyles from, social conservatives. So they have very different viewpoints on a lot of issues. Traditionalists don't really care about lassez-faire economic theories or government regulation of industry. Robber-barons don't really care about flag-burning or homosexuality. Finally, unrestrained capitalism is one of the greatest possible engines for rapid social change. So here you have two groups who could easily have been enemies, yet they have teamed up in the same party, and although some conservative philosophers have come up with elaborate justifications for the fact, I think the real reason for their alliance is just that they want to defeat their common enemy, big-government liberalism.
(Aside: I was born the same year that Reagan took office, which represented the beginning of the Republican revolution which continued with the Newt Gingrich takeover of congress in 1994 and which has now achieved total power. So people my age and younger are used to seeing Republicans as the establishment party; what I didn't realize until I started reading more about 20th century history is that most of the Republicans now in government have spent decades thinking of themselves as party of rebel insurgents, and even now that they control everything they still think that way. And I think a lot of Democrats are kind of still stuck in the 60s and 70s, the golden age of their party; their greatest triumphs were during the civil rights struggle, and to this day they are still trying to fight the battles of that era over and over again. Looking at it this way helps to explain why both parties seem so out-of-touch sometimes.)
So, the point I'm trying to make here is that these two parties ended up with the bases of support that they have now because of a series of historical accidents which could have turned out differently. I can easily imagine an alternate universe where there is still a two-party system, but where the alliances clumped up along the other axes. It would look something like this:
The philosophy which would unite the bleeding-hearts and the corporate overlords is the idea that the government should be minimal: it should stay out of people's bedrooms and it should also refrain from trying to control the economy. Everybody should be free to make their own choices, as individuals, regardless of tradition. Change should be embraced and adapted to, and the government shouldn't try to stop it. What I have described is basically the Libertarian party platform, which is why I have illustrated this grouping with a crudely-drawn Statue of Liberty, the LP's chosen symbol. There would be certain tensions within this group, of course. It would be hard for bleeding-heart liberals and corporate overlords to compromise on whether or not the government should function as a charity. But it's no stranger than alliances currently existing in real-world politics!
Opposing them is an alliance of social conservatives and the working class. This alliance make a lot of sense because working class people very often ARE socially conservative. This is a group that believes in God and family and country and looks to a strong, centralized, patriarchal authority to protect their jobs, guarantee them a certain minimal income, enforce community standards of morality, protect them from foreign competition, and eliminate disruptive influences on society. It could be characterized as Nationalist, or with a less negative connotation, as Populist. It is a collectivist movement where their opponents are individualist. I have illustrated it with an eagle clutching arrows because of the aggressive patriotism that I think would characterize such an alliance. (Note that the warlike eagle has also been used as a fascist symbol in the past. This group would not neccessarily turn fascist but they would probably have some tendencies in that direction.)
So, this is how the two-party system might have broken down in an alternate timeline. Analyzed abstractly, it make more sense than the status quo in some ways, but it would have its own tensions and paradoxes.
Now here's the punch line. At the beginning of this rant I said it was going to be about immigration. Forget any alliances and go back to the original four groups I invented. Picture how a stereotypical member of each of the four groups feels about immigration issues:
Again, this is vastly oversimplifying things. I'm basically doing caricatures here in order to make a point. And that point is that two of these groups are generally in favor of encouraging immigration (for very different reasons), and two of them are generally in favor of restricting immigration (for somewhat different reasons).
Immigration might be described as a "wedge issue", but it's a sideways wedge. It tends to divide Republicans from each other and divide Democrats from each other. It tends to push people towards those alternate-universe alliances instead.
I don't really know what's going to happen. I'm just offering this as an alternate way of looking at the issue, which may make certain things make more sense. For instance: the way Republicans are hitting the immigration issue, in places like the annoying ads I described yesterday. It's pretty clear that a big part of their grand scheme for world domination is getting working-class stiffs to vote for them. And one way to do that is to appeal to their fear of losing their jobs to illegal immigrants. Think about it: it's not like the Republicans ever cared about poor people losing their jobs before. I always thought they saw losses of jobs in unskilled industries as simply the Invisible Hand of the market at work, helping to modernize and streamline the economy.
And it's a difficult balancing act for them to reach out to the working class while not losing their fans in Corporate America. I mean, if they really really wanted to stop people from sneaking into the country, I'm sure they realize that the most effective way would be to aggressively punish companies who hired illegals. But that would go against the "leave companies alone" mentality which they need to rely on to keep the corporate overlords on their side. Also, eliminating government handouts of all kinds would eliminate the possibility that immigrants come here to mooch off the generosity of our government. I'm sure lots of old-school Republicans would love to do exactly that -- but when they're actively courting the working-class stiffs, they have to play down their long-term plans to eliminate Social Security and whatever.
Therefore, even though eliminating the economic incentives would be the best method of reducing illegal immigration, any plan to eliminate ecomonic incentives would anger either one side or the other of the economic axis. So what do the Republicans do instead to make it look like they care about protecting your job from illegal Mexicans? They talk about plans to build an insanely expensive and useless wall along the border, a brute-force solution which will do absolutely nothing about immigrants sneaking in aboard boats and trucks. And they talk about English-as-official-national-language, a purely symbolic action which does nothing.
I don't think it's really this simple, of course. Even within a group that I have shown as a single entity, there are lots of people with lots of diverse opinions. And what makes this more complicated is the fact that there are lots of voters whose ancestors came here from Mexico, and they don't take kindly to a political tactic that portrays their people as an army of criminal invaders! What's more, Hispanic americans for historical reasons tend to fall mainly into the working-class and bible-thumper (catholic variety) demographics -- usually both at the same time. This means that the very groups that the Republicans are trying to appeal to with their crazy wall-off-the-border plan contain the largest number of people on whom the message will backfire horribly!
What about me? Like I said before, I am part bleeding-heart and part corporate overlord. I support immigration from both points of view. I think immigrants deserve to have a shot at a better life in our country and at the same time I think they help our economy out a lot by working hard at jobs nobody else wants. I think the danger of immigrants stealing jobs and mooching off the government have been greatly exaggerated. I think it's a problem that so many people are breaking the law to come here, but I think the best way to address that is to remove obstacles to legal immigration while cracking down on employers of illegals, thus making it more attractive for immigrants to come in through the proper channels.
And yeah, I think they oughtta learn English, for their own good. Learning English opens up lots of opportunities for them. But hey, we should learn Spanish too. More bilingual people is always a good thing.
The horrors of daytime TV
So the comments thread on my long political rant has turned into a fascinating discussion of the political philosophies of the colors in Magic: the Gathering. Scroll down and check it out.
I'll follow that up by describing some of the paid political ads I saw while waiting in the courthouse yesterday. I'm sure anybody with a TV has already seen them all plenty of times, but yesterday was the first time for me.
I got summoned for jury duty and they had daytime TV on in the jury assembly room, so besides political attack ads I got to sit through All My Children and Days Of Our Lives. Oh joy. Soap operas are bizzare. None of these people ever seem to have to go to work, or school, or to the store, and none of them seem to have any hobbies or do anything fun. They seem to have nothing to do all day except confront each other in oddly-lit rooms to accuse each other of having affairs and argue indignantly about other people's reactions to events that may or may not have happened three episodes ago. Do the writers really think that's what life is like? What's wrong with them? Or maybe they make it ridiculous on purpose and then secretly make fun of their own audience.
Um, sorry, I lost my train of thought there. Where was I? Political attack ads. In descending order of frequencey:
1. There were lots and lots of political attack ads against Illinois Democrats, especially Gov. Blagojevich and Tammy Duckworth.
2. There were several postivive ads for various Illinois Democrats.
3. There was one attack ad against Republican cantidate for governor Judy-Bar Topinka.
4. There was not a single postive ad for any Republican cantidate.
These ads are all horribly annoying, of course. Ads for commercial products, even though they're annoying from constant repetition, are at least well-produced and aimed at making you feel good and making products look fun and/or delicious and/or sexy. The ad industry has had years to develop its strategies and polish its techniques. Political ads in contrast always look cheap and slapdash. Especially the attack ads, because the attack ads always have lots of text and still images of the opponent and this MENACING DOOM-AND-GLOOM MUSIC and an ominous voiceover who sounds like he's doing a horror movie trailer. They're just crude and unpleasant and make you want to change the channel. It makes me wonder how effective they actually are and how often they backfire psychologically.
But if you look past the horribility of the ads, it's interesting to see the strategies they're pursuing. Is the lack of positive ads for Republican cantidates simply because there's nothing positive to say about any of them? That can't be right. I have heard that many Republicans in state and local races are trying to distance themselves from the President and the national Republican party, since the party at the national level has had scandal after scandal after scandal in recent years, and are widely percieved as corrupt, and I've heard that Republicans are turning down offers of campaign help from the President because they don't want his unpopularity rubbing off on him. It's really that bad. The way to win, clearly, is to portray yourself as the only alternative to something even worse, and that would explain why Illinois republicans would be trying to remove themselves from the picture and focus entirely on what's wrong with their opponents.
To nobody's surprise, they are putting a lot of weight on Blagojevich's various financial scandals. They want everyone to see him as personally corrupt. The most-commonly played ad in fact ends with the slogan "ROD BLAGOJEVICH: HAD ENOUGH?" which is amusingly almost the same as the bumper sticker I complained about the other day: "HAD ENOUGH? VOTE DEMOCRAT". Pretty sad state of affairs when the only thing anyone has to offer is "I'm not the other guy". I guess it works, judging by 2004, when Kerry got 49% of the vote. Not a single one of those people was voting for Kerry. Kerry was incredibly lame. Kerry had no positive qualities that would suggest he would make a good president. Every single one of his votes was just a vote against Bush. In 2004 the Democrats could have picked a random homeless man off the street and nominated him for President and he would have gotten 49% of the vote, that's how much people hate Bush. Imagine how much the Democrats would have won if they had found a good cantidate! (That statement could apply to a lot of past elections too.) So I guess the lesson that all the strategists have learned from this is that attack ads are now the only form of campaigning that you need. It's always been easier to get people to vote against something they fear than for something they like, but the trend seems to be increasing so that now a party can run a campaign without a single positive ad for any of their cantidates.
More interesting are the tactics used to smear Democratic cantidates for Congress. These ads use the word "liberal" over and over, in a tone of voice like they think that "liberal" all by itself is such a damning insult that you don't need to say any more. Fascinating. "liberal" can be defined in dozens of different and contradictory ways, some of them positive to large sections of the population. That makes it a very strange choice for a slur.
Even funnier was one ad that accused the cantidate of being a "Nancy Pelosi wannabe". I wonder how many people watching soap operas even know who Nancy Pelosi is (the current minority leader of the House of Representatives) and of those, how many think her name is synonymous with evil as the makers of the ad obviously did.
But it's not all just content-free slurs and meaningless comparisons. There were also a lot of accusations that democratic cantidates were soft on illegal Mexican immigrants, i.e. because they wanted to give them amnesty or voted against putting national guard troops on the border with Mexico.
OK. Immigration is a complex issue. It's not one of those 2-sided issues that can just be broken down into "for" and "against". Actually, the more I learn about political issues, the more I think that there are no issues that simple. But immigration is especially multidimensional. Most people agree there must be a problem when so many people sneak across the border, illegally and at great personal risk, and take jobs for illegally low wages in bad conditions with no benefits. Thing is that people don't agree what the problem is let alone what the solution should be. Is the problem that they reduce the price of labor thereby taking jobs away from Americans? Or is the problem that these poeople are being exploited? Or is the problem that these people don't understand or integrate into our culture and language? Or is the problem in the fact that our legal immigration system is too slow and difficult?
I guess what I'm saying here is that even if you think we need to discourage immigration, you might not think that putting guards at the border is the right thing to do. You might think that a better way to do it would be to reduce the economic incentive of easy illegal employment by more agressively punishing companies who hire illegals or pay less than the minimum wage or whatever. I would like to see more discussion of this issue. Or rather, more sensible level-headed discussion of this issue and less accusations. I think the debate gets heated a lot of times because one side of the argument is actually addressing a different issue from the other side, and they don't realize it, so they just yell past each other.
I'll probably do a whole long rant just about immigration and different views on it at some point.
Coming up next: about the trial and the jury selection process. A lawyer eliminated me from the jury early on, and I didn't get picked for any other trial. I'm very fortunate; the trial was expected to go on until next Friday, so it would have been a week and a half of missed work. It was a medical malpractice lawsuit. A boy lost his testicle and the parents were blaming it on a mistake by the doctor and suing. So it would have been a week and a half of missed work AND trying not to giggle while lawyers said "testicle" over and over again.
Election day approaching: Time for a lengthy rant!
Have you registered to vote? I just mailed in my registration from my new address last week. Election day is November 7. If you've moved, or you just turned 18 or whatever, you need to make sure you're registered at your current address. In Illinois, you are supposed to be registered 27 days before the election, which means October 11 (so yeah, this post is about a week too late to be helpful).
Yeah it's not a presidential election. So what? It's really sad that a lot of people only vote in presidential elections, because the state and local ones are more important in some ways -- your vote counts for more, and the result is likely to have a more immediate impact on your life.
In case you live in a cave, we are electing senators, representatives, and governors next month. The choices for Illinois governor are pretty lame. But the congressional elections are especially important, because we have a solid chance to take away the Republicans' majority in one or both houses. Why does this matter? Well... it's time for a rant.
Why I don't write much about politics
In the past, I have mainly stayed away from writing explicitly partisan political rants on this website. I figure there are plenty of political "bloggers" writing "blogs" in the "blogosphere" (oh how I curse the coiner of that stupid word) that you could go read. And anything I have to say about politics has usually already been said better by someone more knowledgable than me, and you might as well go read their page instead of mine.
Also, I never ever want to turn into a partisan hack. You know -- those people who support one party or the other like it's their local sports team; they viciously attack everything the other team does, while defending everything their own team does. Even when their own team does something obviously wrong, they'll make excuses for it.
I don't want to be one of those people. When I was young and naiive (by which I mean 2 or 3 years ago) I used to be a pretty hardcore liberal, like most college students. Gradually I started realizing that the whole liberal-conservative, left-right thing is fundamentally bogus. There are a lot more than two positions on most issues. There are important issues that don't get discussed nearly enough because they don't fit on the left-right axis. If you take a good hard look at the ideas of "leftism" and "rightism", each of them contains much that is hypocritical, and each of them spends far more time attacking the other than proposing useful solutions for problems.
Both "left" and "right" are what Dawkins would call virulent meme clusters -- they're like computer viruses that take over your brain. Each tells you what opinion you should have on all issues. Each makes you see humans carrying the other virus as enemies. Each makes you uncritically accept illogical arguments as long as they support the opinion the virus is giving you. In fact I think "left" and "right" are really two versions of the same virus, because neither one could survive without the other -- each depends on instilling fear and hatred of the other version of the virus in order to motivate their hosts.
(George Washington didn't want to have political parties at all, because he recognized the danger that politicians would be more loyal to their party than to America. This is exactly what I see happening.)
I think I have finally gotten all of the leftist-virus out of my head, but old habits of thought are hard to break. So, part of the reason I don't write about politics much is because politics these days is all about how much Bush Junior is screwing things up. And Bush Junior makes me mad. And anger is an emotion that clouds rational thought. So when we learn that, for instance, the government has been compiling a secret database of every phone call made inside the United States for several years, I get mad, and sometimes I don't know whether I'm mad because I should be mad or whether I'm mad because of habits I have left over from the leftist-ideological-virus. In other words, I don't trust myself to be objective. Therefore, ironically, when I feel very strongly about the news of the day, I usually won't put anything on this site. I'll just read a lot about it and stew in my thoughts, trying to break it down as rationally and neutrally as I can, to try to form my own conclusion, which I mostly keep to myself.
And I usually don't have anybody with whom I can have a serious discussion about it, either. I have coworkers (well, one certain coworker) and family members (well, one certain family member) who I know will disagree with me quite strongly, and the argument would put a strain on our relationship, so I'd often rather keep quiet about it and preserve the harmony. My friends from school, on the other hand, usually already agree with me, so there is very little to say about any of it. So most days I have this maelstrom of thoughts about current events, bottled up in my head, with nowhere to go. I don't think it's healthy long term. So I think from now on I will just let it all spill out onto this page. Because what else is the internet for? And maybe a commenter will help me to understand something better or will correct me when I get something wrong, or maybe just give me some lively debate.
Doonesbury comic, scanned in from the Chicago Tribune, is copyright Gary Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate, used without permission, please don't sue me, I'll take it off if you ask.
We don't need no thought control
How I lost my faith in liberalism is a story for another time. Suffice to say, my basic stance these days is that I am opposed to all ideologies. Following an ideology, even if its contents seem benign, robs you of critical thinking. It makes you search out evidence to support your preconceived conclusions and reject any evidence to the contrary.
I think the biggest lesson we should learn from the bloody history of the 20th century, it's that whenever the followers of an ideology gained total power in a country, the result was inevitably blood and horror on a massive scale. It doesn't matter if the ideology was left, right, center, or unclassifiable; wherever there was a group of people claiming to have the Single-Theory-That-Explains-Everything (Join Us And We Will Build A Glorious New Regime, Oppose Us And You Are The Enemy), millions of people were murdered. Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, Japan, and so on and so on -- seems like most of the world succumbed to this fever under a variety of different names. People join an ideology because it seems to give them easy answers, and it makes them feel like part of something big. They are all too willing to let the ideology override their own consciences, because they think they are justified in making a few "sacrifices" to create a better world.
When the 21st century got started, I was hoping that this stage of history might be behind us; but no, here's a new murderous absolutist ideology -- or rather, a very old one which has only recently gotten our attention: fundamentalist Islam. These guys are sick, scary fuckers. They believe in an evil god who would send them to heaven for killing unbelievers. They're so terrified of anything remotely sexual that they feel the need to hide women away and pretend they don't exist. And stone women to death for showing bare ankle. They have such an overdeveloped sense of honor that they go into a murderous rage because some Danish guy draws a cartoon of their prophet. They have no way of coping with the modern world, so they want to destroy it. They want to die because they think this life sucks so much that they want to get straight on to what they imagine comes next. There's no reasoning with people who are completely controlled by religion.
Of course I'm talking about the fundamentalists, the "Islamofascists", I'm not saying every Muslim is a bad guy. I knew some who were in America training to be doctors, and they were fine people. But the ones who join terror organizations are really, really bad. And their badness cannot be completely explained by the fact that they are poor and oppressed. If you actually try to read the Quran you will understand that a lot of the violence really does come straight out of the book. We can live in peace with Muslims who use their own judgement and ignore the bad parts of the Quran, that is, thoughtful and civilized Muslims who follow their consciences and don't succumb to the ideology. There is no way to live in peace with someone who takes the whole Quran as an instruction book, because that book is full of evil shit. I hasten to add that the Old Testament is full of evil shit, too. Christianity only became civilized when Christians figured out that they had to use their own judgement and ignore the evil parts of the Old Testament. (I grudgingly admit the New Testament is mostly OK, except for Revelations).
It's the 21st century and we're back at war against another murderous absolutist ideology (one that belongs to the 8th century). And the relative peace and prosperitya and more-or-less global cooperation of the 1990s seems like a historical fluke. So depressing. But the pattern is clear: ideology makes people ignore their own consciences. Ideology turns people into killers. Ideology starts wars.
To America's credit, in the modern age we have never let an absolutist ideology take over our country. I credit this to our tradition of distrust of authority, independence of mind, and skepticism. (No I'm not being sarcastic! It might be easy to scoff at the idea of Americans having independent minds in the TV age, but compare us to just about any non-Western-European country and you will see that Americans are much less impressed with conformity, tradition, authoritarianism, etc.)
Additionally, our system of government is based on separation of powers, of checks and balances, etc. It's based on the assumption that power corrupts, human beings are falliable, and therefore nobody should be trusted with too much power. That's why the President can veto Congress, why Congress can impeach the President, why the Supreme Court can find laws unconstitutional, why some powers are explicitly denied to the national government, and most importantly why we get a chance to vote the bastards out every couple of years. From the beginning we have assumed that power-hungry individuals are going to try to take over the government, and so we're supposed to have everybody watching everybody else so we can squash the authoritarian impulse when it arises. (There is a certain similarity to the peer-review system in science, or the code-review system we programmers use at Humanized: nobody knows for sure what's right or not, so instead of a central authority, we have everybody examine everybody else's work looking for mistakes. It's the best way to discover and correct errors!)
Authoritarian ideologies hate checks and balances. They hate criticism and open discussion of alternatives. They thrive on enemies, hierarchies and centralized, unquestionable authority.
Here's my main point: It's the duty of every American to prevent an authoritarian ideology from taking over our country. Don't think it can't happen here! It could. It very certainly could. And it could come from either virus. Both the leftism-virus-ideology and the rightism-virus-ideology need to be opposed. When either one gains too much power, we have to put a stop to it.
At this particular moment it happens to be the rightism version of the virus that is the most dangerous, because it has infected enough people to gain control of all three branches of the federal government. And they have already begun dismantling the checks-and-balances system and dismantling the Bill of Rights.
President as King?
To be specific, the Republicans have subscribed to a peculiar and extremely un-conservative theory of government: the idea that the President is above the law. (Richard Nixon was also famous for holding this theory.)
It begins with the idea that the President alone can declare war (it is supposed to be Congress who makes this decision, but the current Congress has become such a passive bunch of yes-men that all of Bush Jr's wars have effectively been declared by him and then rubber-stamped by Congress). Then, since a state of war exists, the commander-in-chief can invoke emergency powers to override any law that gets in his way -- so goes this theory. This is part of the really quite radical (as in, not conservative at all) ideology that the Republicans now embody. When the president declares certain people to be "enemy combatants", and throws them in jail without trial -- without even charging them with any crime -- that's an application of this theory. Note that he has done this to at least one American citizen, captured on American soil. Note that many of the enemy combatants have languished for years in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, or one of the top-secret Eastern European CIA torture-chambers, without ever hearing the charges against them. The president furthermore claims the right to ignore the Geneva Convention and define by himself what is and what is not "torture", so that interrogators can inflict any torment upon these prisoners that they feel is neccessary, as long as the president defines it as an (ahem) "coercive interrogation technique" and not as "torture". (Remember that since these prisoners have not been tried, we do not know whether they're guilty or innocent, nor do we know whether they have any useful intelligence or not.)
When the president taps your phone lines, without a warrant, and in violation of even the flimsy protections granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he is again acting according to the radical theory that he can just ignore laws he doesn't like. Consider also his use of presidential signing statements, a formerly obscure action where the president, when signing a bill into law, can write a brief note clarifying how he interprets the law. Well, Bush Jr has made orders of magnitude more signing statements than any other president, and in many cases he has used them to completely change the intent of a law. In other words, he's accumulating to himself the power of law-making, which is reserved for the legislative branch. He has also stacked the supreme court with appointees who are friendly to the theory of president-as king, what Samuel Alito calls the theory of the "unitary executive". Checks-and-balances are all but gone. The "USA PATRIOT" act seemed pretty ominous when it was first passed, but it was nothing compared to the government overreach that's happened since then.
Former presidents have, of course, suspended people's rights during wartime. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to challenge the evidence against you in court) during the Civil War. FDR imprisoned Japanese-Americans during WWII. That doesn't mean these things were right, neccessarily. But the main difference is: the Civil War ended. WWII ended. We got Habeas Corpus back and let the Japanese-Americans go free after the war. When is the War On Terror going to end? What are the victory conditions? When all the terrorists are dead? How will we know? And anybody in the world could become a terrorist at any time, if they choose to use terrorism as a tactic. In short, there is no victory. It's not like there's a country we're fighting that can surrender to us. The War on Terror is a permanent state of affairs. That means that the President is using a permanent state of war to justify having permanent dictatorial powers. Will this carry over to future presidents? What guarantee do we have that one of them will not abuse these emergency powers? Merely by using a combination of the powers that Bush Jr has already claimed to have, a future government could listen in on your phone conversations, decide based on what you say that you should be classified as an "enemy combatant" (perhaps simply for criticizing the government), and then lock you up without charges or trial, and torture you indefinitely. We put limits on the power of our president for a reason.
When Bush Jr and friends break these limits, they do in the name of protecting us from terrorism, of course. The Republicans been using people's fear of terrorism as a kind of blank-check excuse for anything they want to do. "We have to invade Iraq or the terrorists will win!" "We have to torture prisoners or the terrorists will win!" "We have to imprison people indefinitely without trial or the terrorists will win!" "We have to tap your phone lines without a warrant or the terrorists will win!" "We have to violate the Geneva Conventions or the terrorists will win!"
Fear is always a tool of authoritarian ideologies. Keep people afraid, and they won't complain when you take their rights away.
Let's review the Republicans' "accomplishments"
Now when I say that they are using fear as a tool, I'm not implying that I think the terrorist threat is imaginary!! It's real, and it's serious! In fact what I'm saying is that, despite their surveillance and expansion of government and so on, the Republicans are not doing a good job of fighting terrorism. They talk a good game, but when you actually look at their record, there is much that they have either failed at or neglected to try.
They have done nothing to secure our ports, where a terrorist could easily smuggle a weapon of mass destruction in aboard a shipping container. They have done nothing to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. They have done nothing about Saudi Arabia, the global center of terrorist ideology and funding. They failed to prevent 9/11 despite growing evidence that the government had plenty of clues it was coming. They have not caught Osama Bin Laden. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Afghanistan. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Iraq. They went into Iraq based on faulty intelligence. They went into Iraq with one third the number of troops that the senior Pentagon staff estimated as the minimum number to hold the country. They went into Iraq with no plan for how to establish order after the old regime was destroyed. The Iraq war, whatever you thought about it in the first place, has been waged incompetently, and as a result, it has increased, not decreased, the terrorist threat, according to the national intelligence estimate. Republicans have failed to make any progress at all on the israeli/palestinian situation, which feeds terrorism. They have gotten us into a situation where Iran is going nuclear and there's nothing we can do about it. They have weakened our ability to respond to threats by overextending our military. They have weakened our global strategic position by breaking treaties, alienating our allies, and making us new enemies.
The recent news that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon is especially troubling. Wasn't North Korea part of Bush's "Axis of Evil"? Didn't he say that our highest priority for national security was to keep weapons-of-mass-destruction out of the hands of the Axis of Evil so that they would not be sold to terrorists who could use them on America? Didn't he stress how important that was? Wasn't that the justification for going to war in Iraq? Hasn't that been the justification for all the lies and secrecy and violation of treaties and circumvention of constitutional limitations on government -- the justification that it was all to keep WMD out of the hands of the "Axis of Evil"?
Well it has obviously failed because one member of the Axis of Evil definitely has nukes, another (Iran) is halfway there, and the third (Iraq) was the only one that didn't have any WMD, but we're still fighting a war there three years after Bush went out on that aircraft carrier with the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" sign, and the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq now exceeds the number of American citizens killed on 9/11, and what did they die for? What the hell has it all been for, now that Kim Il-Jong has the bomb, and he would be more than happy to either hit our allies with it or sell it to Al-Qaeda like a real-life version of the plot of "Team America: World Police"? And our real-life "Team America" never did a single thing about it. Their idea of being "tough on North Korea" was to refuse to have any negotiations with North Korea. Gee that sure worked great.
Bush Jr, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, etc: Your record on fighting terrorism is one of miserable failure. The one, single issue that you said was sooo important that it justified you breaking all these laws? You suck at it. Get the hell out!. Get the hell out of the White House and give the job to somebody who can do it competently!
Those who are motivated by an authoritarian ideology will always fail. This, again, is the lesson of history. Successful leadership requires facing facts and dealing with them. And ideological True Believers do not make decisions based on fact; the ideology tells them the answers and if they engage with facts at all it is only to pick and choose facts to prop up their desired conclusion. It's like Stephen Colbert says: "I don't trust facts, because facts are based on reality, and reality has a well-known liberal bias." The ideology says to invade Iraq, so they look for justification. (There is evidence that certain members of the administration wanted to invade Iraq right from the time they took office, and after September 11, 2001 they immediately said "How can we make this into a justification?") They say Saddam has links to Al-Qaeda. Well, no, he doesn't. We now know for sure that there were absolutely no links. Well, no problem, we'll invent another justification: Iraq has WMDs. Well, no, they don't. We found that out for sure too. No problem, another justification: We're going into Iraq to liberate the people and promote democracy!
And we can see how well that worked. Technically Iraq has a democratically elected government, but it is a farce which is powerless to stop the civil war which is now claiming an average of 7,000 Iraqi civilian lives per month. The country has no functional infrastructure and is now full of secterian militia who roam around every day and night chopping the heads off of anybody they don't like, and neither the supposed Iraqi government nor the American army seem to be able to stop them. Iraq is now a hot-spot for terrorist recruitment. How is this supposed to be better than Saddam?
Although I opposed the Iraq war at first (vehemently), I have eventually come around to the position that a war to remove Saddam's regime and set up a free and peaceful Iraq in its place would ultimately have been morally justified, if it had been waged competently. But the hard work of building a functional nation was never the Bush Jr. Administration's goal: it was merely an after-the-fact rationalization. And so they didn't plan for it properly. And so they failed. Ideology leads people to ignore inconvenient facts, and when you ignore facts you fail. Always.
I want terrorism to be faught competently. The Republicans have proven they can't do it. When confronted with their failures, the Republicans are quick to change the subject, to try to redirect the blame to Democrats. "The Democrats just want to run and hide!" It's true, the Democrats haven't offered any better ideas. While the Republicans have been ripping the Constitution apart the Democrats have, with very few exceptions, been going along with it like cowards, because they are afraid of being branded unpatriotic. Of course, that's lose-lose for them; they ought to know by now that the Republicans will find an excuse to paint Democrats as unpatriotic no matter what they do or say. That's basically all the Republicans have left to offer: "We're bad, but the Democrats would be worse!" It's kind of hard for me, at this point, to see how they possibly could have been any worse.
Where are real leaders when we need them?
But are the Democrats any better?
This essay is my long-winded way of telling you to tell everybody you know to go vote Democrat in November. But I want you to understand why I'm saying that. I'm no fan of the democrats. I'm not saying they're good leaders, or even that they're the lesser of two evils. I'm saying that it's not healthy for America for the government to be completely controlled by one political party, as it has been for the last four years. And the last four years has shown us, vividly, why it is not healthy.
This is much bigger than the question of whether W is an idiot or not, or whether the current administration is competent or not. Our constitution, our rights, and our system of checks and balances are all in need of repair. If we let the Republicans keep a monopoly on power for another two years they can do still more damage to it. Breaking their majority in Congress is merely an emergency stopgap solution; the corruption in Congress runs very deep, and they are not being held accountable. So in the long term, we need to do a lot of housecleaning of our federal government. But until we do, the ideal situation is to have the government divided. If the Congress is divided 50-50, neither party will be able to force stupid laws through just by voting along party lines, and maybe Congress will stop acting as a rubber-stamp department for the out-of-control executive branch. It's not a sure thing, but it's the best chance we have right now.
Slogans seen on cars lately
"Had Enough? Vote Democrat!" bumper stickers seem to be proliferating. I kind of agree with this, but holy moly, is that really the best slogan the democrats can come up with? I guess it is. "Democrats: We're not the guys who have been starting wars, violating the constitution, and screwing up the country for the past six years! We're just the guys who sit quietly in the back and do nothing while the Republicans get away with it because we're afraid of being called unpatriotic! Vote for us!"
Bleagh. I've got a lot to say about this but that's another post. Meanwhile, if I had a car, I would kind of want a bumper sticker that said something like "Vote for the most qualified cantidate regardless of party!" or maybe "My political views are not simplistic enough to fit on this bumper sticker!"
Yesterday I saw a magnetic ribbon on somebody's car that said "I Support The Makers of Ribbon-Shaped Magnets". A couple years ago I joked that somebody should start selling such a thing, and I guess somebody did. This makes me happy.
Another car I saw had a big hand-lettered sign in the back window: "IMPEACHMENT: IT'S NOT JUST FOR BLOW-JOBS ANYMORE".
I don't even like Daily Kos, why are we sleeping together?
I had a dream last night that I had to sleep with Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. Not like having sex, but like we had to share blankets. See, we were both in the Fellowship of the Ring, and we were trekking across Eriador, and we all spent the night in the cabin of this random kindly old woman, and there wasn't enough blankets or floor space to go around, so, sleeping together, and pillow talk about political blogging, and of course I've read Daily Kos, but I don't read it regularly, and I am trying to pretend this is just because I don't want to get sucked in and spend all day reading it, like Slashdot; what I am trying to avoid telling him is that I can't stand his stupid blog, or the partisan hacks and paranoid conspiracy theorists who post there.
Yeah, my dreams are weird.
(Yeah, OK Markos, I hate the Bush Jr. Administration too, but that doesn't mean I agree with you about anything else. Honestly I'd rather read Andrew Sullivan's blog. There, I said it. Andrew Sullivan does a better job of hating on the Bush Jr. Adminstration than you do, Markos, and he's a conservative.)
Iran. Iran so far away.
This is crazy. It sounds like an Onion article, but it's true: Iranian president Ahmadinejad has started a blog. (You can get the English translation by clicking on the little flags on the upper-right). I'm not sure whether this is funny or terrifying.
A guy like Ahmadinejad really makes you put Bush in perspective, you know? The Bush administration may be incompetent and corrupt, but they are nothing compared to Ahmadinejad, who goes on rants where he denies that the Holocaust happens and promises to wipe Israel off the map. Read about Iranian internet censorship. Read about the oppression of women and the horrors of Sharia law, the system that stones women to death for adultery, keeps them in burqas, and gives out the death penalty for converting out of Islam. Ponder the fact that some Muslim groups in Europe are calling for Sharia law to be imposed there as well. Think about how much worse we could have it if a real religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad, of the Islamic or the Christian persuasion, ever came to power in America.
This is especially ironic since back in the middle ages, Persia (=present-day Iran) was far ahead of Europe in science and in human rights. King Cyrus of Persia, in the 6th century, established freedom of religion and abolished slavery. It is incredibly sad and frustrating that a part of the world which used to be so enlightened has fallen so far into its current state of opression and fanatacism.
In the meantime, due to Ahmadinejad's explicit threats against our allies, and his enrichment of uranium, he certainly poses much more of a real threat to us than Saddam Hussein did in 2003. He has claimed the uranium is only for electrical generation. If that were true he should be allowed to have it; but how can anyone trust him when he says that? Yet our military options are limited -- our armies are tied up in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and also Iran is much more of a real country with a real army than Iraq ever was. And bombing their uranium-enrichment sites is likely to just make things worse. At the same time, our current diplomatic approach seems to be going nowhere. I have no good solutions to propose, and I don't hear any from either Republicans or Democrats.
I admit I don't know much about Iran and its glorious history. Most of what I know about Iran comes from comics. (For instance, its national anthem.) But seriously, you should read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It really makes you understand how terrifying it is that a modern country can transform overnight into a state of inhuman, medieval religious oppression. It also makes you understand how Iran is full of young, smart, modern-minded, pro-Western people who hate their regime but are powerless to do anything about it. There has to be some way to reach out to these people and help them take their government back from the scary clerics.
I also know that America has a history of doing really dumb stuff when it comes to Iran. Like Operation Ajax, in which British and US secret agents worked to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister and replace him with the Shah, in order to prevent nationalization of their oil industry. And then there was the Iran-Contra thing, which happened during my lifetime, but I was too young to remember. ("That I don't recall", you might say. "I do not remember any meetings.") Some, like Stephen Kinzer in his book "All the Shah's Men", that Operation Ajax was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes that the United States has ever made, and that by leading indirectly to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it helped to create the conditions for the growth of the Islamic terrorism we are fighting today.
These mistakes do not exactly fill me with hope that we're going to find a good solution to the current Iranian threat. Labeling Iran part of an "Axis of Evil" -- although this is in many ways a completely accurate statement -- only serves to convince the large population of young, modern, pro-Western, anti-Sharia Iranians that we are in fact their enemy and encourages them to vote in hard-line scumbags like Ahmadinejad.
On a less depressing note, a random fun fact about Iran is that the music of Queen has recently become the only rock music to be un-banned there. Freddie Mercury is part Iranian, so I hear he is like a national hero to them. This is the same country where being gay carries the death penalty. But Freddie Mercury isn't gay! Of course not! How could you suggest such a thing?
They also allow Cat Stevens, the crazy British folk singer who converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusef. And is rumored to have supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Wait, I was trying not to be depressing. Oops.
Random goofy links
Here are some links to randomly amusing things to help you waste time on the Internet.
A one-minute TV advertisement for Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, which is one of the best albums ever (I have it on vinyl). This commerical is... wow.
Cookie Monster as Shaft ("Cookie!!") This is an actual Sesame Street clip. See, cookie monster was awesome back before he sold out. "Cookies are a sometimes food" ?!? What kinda BS is that?
Dinosaur Comics is very funny and you should read it every day. You might think that a comic which uses exactly the same artwork for every single strip would be boring, but the way this guy writes dialog is so brilliant that it more than makes up for it!
I was laughing at this comic for hours. That is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Do I have a sick sense of humor?
Order of the Stick is another great comic, but probably only funny if you're a role-player. The people are all stick figures, but they're really well-drawn stick figures... I can't explain it, just go look at it and you'll see what I mean. The characters are all part of a D&D game; and the game is its own self-contained universe -- you never see outside it -- but at the same time the characters are fully aware of the rules of the game. It's a strange blending of reality and fantasy but it works great, especially as the strip progresses and becomes more about the personalities and the story than just about the gaming jokes.
Some joker took Kurt Cobain's (the guy from Nirvana) suicide letter and ran it through Google AdSense to see what ads would be matched up with it. Ouch.
Finally, just to show that I'm equally willing to ridicule those on my own "side" politically: the Gorequiz is a series of quotes from Al Gore's Earth in the Balance and from the Unabomber's Manifesto. Can you tell which ones are which?
(Not that I think this proves anything -- since there's obviously a lot of cherry-picking going on -- but it's funny.)
An essay for the Fourth of July
An admission: I burned an American flag once. On the floor of my
bathroom in Kamaishi. For kindling I used newspaper clippings of
G.W.Bush's face. It was disappointing; modern flags are made of
polyester, so they don't burn so much as melt and shrivel and turn
black and release nasty plastic fumes.
No-one else was harmed in any way by this voluntary destruction of my
I've changed a lot since then, and I no longer have any desire to burn flags, but I would like to share some thoughts about the act.
For some reason, it's very easy for people to forget that the flag is just a rectangle of cloth! It does not have magical powers, people. But people get very emotional about it precisely because it's a nonverbal image with strong associations, and from emotionalism it's very easy to slip into primitive magical thinking, wherein burning a symbol of America causes the real America to burn, just like stabbing a voodoo doll causes pain to the person it represents. This is a flaw in the wiring of the human brain that we really need to work on getting over. Nobody is suggesting that it should be illegal to burn a copy of the Constitution, even though the Constitution actually did have something important to do with the creation of a free country, unlike the purely symbolic flag. But the Constitution isn't a visual symbol, so it doesn't trigger those emotions. Nobody wants to burn one, so nobody wants to stop you from burning one.
Judging by the bills they've been voting on lately, congress apparently thinks
that the gravest threat to America is not Islamic fundamentalist terrorism or
global warming or bird flu or Chinese economic might or a president who thinks the Constitution is "just a goddamned piece of paper" --
no, the biggest threat to America is gays getting married and now
flag burners. Does Congress seriously not have anything better to do? I mean come on, don't you guys have a War on Terror to fight? Isn't it fairly obvious that you only bring up gay marriage and flag burning when your poll numbers suck and you need a convenient scapegoat so you can look patriotic?
Orrin Hatch of Utah says: "The fact is that I was asked this afternoon by a large body of media: Is this the most important thing the Senate could be doing at this time? I can tell you, you're darn right it is.". He fails to explain why.
Never mind that the number of "flag desecration events" occuring within the country per year is small enough to count on your fingers. (This does not count American flags burned overseas, which our laws have
no power to prevent anyway.)
But never mind the facts: to hear the Senate talk, flag burning is a dire menace which requires not just a new law,
but a new constitutional amendment. This comes up every few years, and the latest attempt, just a couple weeks ago, failed in the senate by just one vote.
"Countless men and women have died defending that flag. It is but
a small humble act for us to defend it." says oh-so-ethical Bill Frist.
(Gee, I always thought they were defending the
country, or defending the lives of american citizens, or
perhaps defending freedom in other countries. Silly me, no,
they were defending the flag, a rectangle of colored
cloth, which is obviously more important.)
Sarcasm aside, Bill Frist is guilty of equivocation: changing
from one meaning of a word to another halfway through an argument.
The first time he says "defending that flag" what he really
means is of course defending the lives and the freedom of the
citizens. But in the second sentence where he says "to defend
it", he has switched over to an entirely different meaning, which
is "preventing the physical destruction of the literal
flag". He is hoping you won't notice the switch between
metaphorical and literal meanings. (Any time you listen to a
politician talk, you must be on guard for equivocation and other
logical fallacies. Same goes for lawyers and advertisements.
Practice your skills by reading advertisements and looking for
examples of equivocation; get good at this and you will be much harder
to fool. Now, if only we could train the entire electorate to reject
As a symbol, the flag can stand for many things -- "America" obviously, but does that mean America the chunk of land, or America's human population, or the American government, or perhaps the founding principles of the American system of government? Which founding principles -- federalism? A bicameral legislature? A well-armed militia? This is part of the problem with nonverbal symbols -- they're semantically very fuzzy -- but I think the word that most people would pick next in the word-association game is freedom, specifically freedom of political expression, the idea that the rest of the world thought was a ridiculous idea back in the 18th century, but which has proven to work out pretty well in practice so far!
The ultimate irony of attempting to make flag-desecration punishable is
that it would be protecting the symbol for a thing by way of diminishing the thing itself. Let's restrict freedom of political expression in order to protect a symbol of the freedom of political expression. BAD MOVE.
Of course, it's equally ironic if you look at it the other way -- people protesting by attacking the symbol of their right to protest. That's pretty dumb. (Although, it's a pretty good bet that anyone burning the flag is interpreting it not as a symbol of their rights, but as a symbol of the contemporary federal government. The fuzziness of nonverbal symbols, again.) However, I still come down firmly on the side of should-be-legal, because destroying a rectangle of cloth does nothing to diminish America or to diminish freedom -- but stupid laws very definitely can diminish America and diminish freedom.
"Freedom can't be absolute", you will often hear in response. This is true; you are not free to do things which deprive me of my rights, and vice versa. The question is where to draw the line; and there is disagreement on the details, but I happen to think it's actually pretty easy to draw a first approximation to the line. We all agree that you should not be allowed to harm someone physically, or put someone in danger of physical harm, or steal or damage their property. So yeah, you shouldn't be free to burn a flag in a place where the fire could catch and burn the town down, just like you shouldn't be free to drive drunk. And you shouldn't be free to burn a flag that doesn't belong to you. And you shouldn't be free to have a loud, annoying flag-burning party outside my window at 3 AM. This is because I have a right to have my house not lit on fire, and I have a right not to have my stuff vandalized, and I have a right to sleep through the night in my home. But can I prevent you from saying or doing things which merely offend my sensibilities? Do I have a right not to be offended? (If so, I would start by outlawing gangster rap, new-age bookstores, and "Win a Free iPod" banner ads...)
I would have to say no. There is no such thing as the right not to be offended. If you say or do something that offends me I will certainly complain about it. I'll ask you to stop. If you don't stop I'll get mad and perhaps stop associating with you and perhaps even publically denounce you and your horrible views; but I won't punch you in the face (Mom taught me it's always wrong to escalate from insults to violence). And if you are not hurting or threatening to hurt me or my stuff, and you're not disturbing the peace in the middle of the night, then I must conclude that I have no reason to take legal action.
There are plenty of countries where they do believe in a right not to be offended. Like in the many Islamic countries where it's a crime to denigrate Islam. Many of the actions which are legally punishable in those countries are just as symbolic and harmless as the act of flag-burning. Those countries are not places where I would like to live, thank you very much. Even Europe seems to have decided to draw the line in a slightly different place from where we in America have drawn it; in certain European countries it is illegal to deny the historical fact of the Holocaust (see the recent case of David Irving). I'm not saying Holocost denial is a good thing; it should be denounced and countered with historical evidence wherever possible until it is eliminated from the Earth. But I don't think people should be put in jail just for failing their history lessons. I think one of the reasons that America is better than Europe is that we have decided on the right place to draw that line, i.e. we have the right to speak our minds even if it offends. I'd like to keep it that way.
As a thought experiment, suppose the flag were protected by law. Think of the edge cases.
If I made a flag that resembles the American flag but has 51 stars on
it instead of 50, that's technically not an American flag at all -- am
I allowed to burn that? (How about a historical flag with 13 stars?)
Now, burning my 51-star flag is just as effective a protest (that is,
it pushes just as many emotional buttons) as burning a real flag. If
you do not ban the burning of the 51-star flag, your law has
accomplished nothing; it is a failure. However, if you do want to ban
the burning of the 51-star flag, you have the unenviable task of
trying to define, in precise legal language, exactly what does and
does not count as an American flag. Consider: Would it be illegal to
burn a picture of an American flag? A photograph? A child's
crayon drawing? A realistic, two-sided drawing done on a flag-sized
and flag-shaped piece of paper? How about a T-shirt with an American
flag pictured on the front of it? How about a T-shirt with an
American flag on the tag on the back of the neck? Would it be illegal
to cut into and eat a flag-shaped cake? Can I make a computer
animation of a flag being burned ("no physical flag was
physically destroyed in the making of this animation")? What if
it's photo-realistic and I post it all over the Internet? What if I
simply refuse to salute the flag, like the Jehovah's Witnesses do, an
act considered desecration by some people? What if I accidentally let
it touch the ground, also considered desecration by some people?
Would a flag-patterend bikini be illegal, since you're desecrating the
flag by letting it touch someone's naughty parts? Would it be illegal
to use the flag for advertising some unrelated commercial product?
How about signing
your name on the flag like GW Bush does here?
I don't have answers for any of these questions. I think it's fairly absurd
even to ask them.
I've tried to give fair consideration to the arguments from the other
side, the side that wants Congress to have the legal authority to prevent the physical desecration of the flag. It's hard, though! Mostly their side doesn't have any arguments; they
just have raw appeals to emotion, attacks on the character of
flag-burners, and the logical fallacy of confusing a symbol for the
There are some people I know who say that we ought to respect the wishes of
soldiers with regards to flag desecration; it is highly offensive to military men,
so this line of argument goes, and military men are the ones who give their lives
to defend the flag (there we go again), so we ought to ban desescration according
to their wishes.
I don't think this is a very good argument. Sure guys, let's change
the First Amendment to say "Congress shall pass no law restricting
freedom of speech, except for political expression which offends the
military". Or, we could change it to say "Congress shall pass no law
restricting freedom of speech, except for speech which politically
important minority groups find offensive". We've already seen plenty of examples of where that leads, and it's not a good place.
And, it's not even true that soldiers are all in favor of the flag protection amendment!
Many of them understand that their job is about protecting a real country, not protecting the magical cloth rectangle.
Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a WWII veteran with the Medal of Honor, says:
"While I take offense at disrespect to the flag, I nonetheless
believe it is my continued duty as a veteran, as an American citizen,
and as a United States senator to defend the constitutional right of
protesters to use the flag in nonviolent speech."
If you are still not convinced, consider this startling fact which I
discovered the other day when researching on the web for this rant:
Thousands of flags are burned
every year not in protest, but by Boy Scouts and American Legion
members in a patriotic Flag Day ceremony intended to "retire
worn and tattered United States flags with honor". This is
the only correct way to dispose of an old flag, according to official Flag
It should be obvious at a moment's consideration that the only
difference between the respectful burnings of thousands of
flags each year and the disprespectful burning of eight flags
each year is the intent behind them. In other words, it is
only the thoughts in the minds of the participants that makes one sort
of flag burning "desecration" and the other one "not
desecration". In the same way, it is only the thoughts in the
minds of the participants that makes burning a 51-star flag
"desecration" but eating a flag-shaped cake "not
desecration". Conclusion: the "crime" of flag
desecration that this amendment seeks to punish is a
thoughtcrime. They want to throw you in jail for thinking
bad thoughts about the magic cloth rectangle. Can there be
anything more anti-American than that?
In conclusion: For all these reasons I explained above, I do believe that the proposed Flag
Protection Amendment deserves the honor of being called The single
stupidest idea I have ever heard. I am happy it failed in the
senate, but I am appalled that it failed by only one vote. Whenever I hear an incredibly stupid idea from someone I know, my response
is usually "Wow, that's the second stupidest idea I've ever heard
-- after the Flag Protection Amendment.".
Al Gore for President 2008
Read this New York Times article about Al Gore.
Great Googly-moogly do I hope he runs for president again! Out of all the potential cantidates he's the only one I could support whole-heartedly. A dedicated environmentalist who is pro-science and tech-savvy? Who speaks passionately about the need for action on climate change and the need for constitutional limits on government power? And who, unlike most of the spineless Democrats, has consistently taken a stand against the crimes of the Bush administration? And who took the initiative in creating the Internet? Sign me up!
No, seriously, sign me up! If he runs I will quit whatever job I have in 2008 and apply to work for his campaign, that's how much I want him to be President.
Think about the poetic justice! The guy wins the election, but loses the presidency on a technicality when the Supreme Court votes along partisan lines. He disappears from the public eye. What follows is two terms of the worst presidency in American history. By 2008 the people are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. But the Democrats are weak and leaderless. Then, suddenly, Al Gore returns from exile to lead them to victory! The people have chance to correct the horrible mistake of 2000 and begin fixing everything that's gone wrong since then. Think about the catchy campaign slogans we could use!
...Well, I'm allowed to dream, aren't I? The only problem is that Gore has said he has no interest in running for president again. He hasn't ruled it out, but he basically hates politics and doesn't want to do it anymore. That means he's a human being, not a politician. This is a good thing.
Maybe we just have to draft him.
Here's the trailer to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's new movie about climate change. It shows in Chicago on June 2. I'll be there.
If Al Gore doesn't run, the most likely Democratic nominee (at this very, very early stage -- much will change in two-and-a-half years) is probably Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton hasn't done anything that convinces me she would be a good president. But I don't have the unreasoning hatred that some conservatives seem to have for the woman either. They're all like "OMG Hillary is the Antichrist!". It's kind of amusing.
Anyway, I hope Hillary Clinton doesn't get the nomination. My conservative friend Andrew said to me, "Yeah, you should hope that she doesn't get the nomination, if you want your side to win" or something to that effect. The thing is, he's making an incorrect assumption -- he must think that just because I'm anti-Bush, I want the Democrats to win. I don't want them to win just for the sake of winning. I don't want them to win unless they have a cantidate who would make a good president. Al Gore is the only one I can think of who would make me vote Democrat.
If he doesn't run, I will probably support a Green or a Libertarian, or even -- heck! I'll register as a Republican and vote in the Republican primary for a moderate cantidate. Help the sensible, law-abiding, fiscally conservative Republicans take their party back from the criminal lunatics who have dominated it the past several years. That would be good.
But I'd rather
Re-Elect Al Gore!
Talking to strangers
Crazy marching guy
I ran into that crazy guy again, the one who marches around Hyde Park on Saturday mornings chanting and stabbing the air with his umbrella and holding a piece of cardboard in front of his face and randomly insulting people.
Last time he called me a "grinning mason whore". This time he said to me "Where's your puppy? You coward! You piece of filth!" and then went off to randomly insult more people.Ahh, his mental illness entertains me. I wonder if there is something interesting on his side of that piece of cardboard. Like maybe he has drawn the face of his archenemy there, and he's holding it up between himself and other people so that he can pretend that other people are whoever-it-is that he wants to insult so much. Who knows? If I tried to talk back to him, would he respond in some other insane way or just ignore me and continue with what he was already doing?
I lost my house keys recently. For all the years that I've been using keys I have never lost one (unlike, say, hats or umbrellas, which I lose constantly). The keys are either in my pocket, in my hand, or in the keyhole, so it's hard to lose them. But they were just gone one day. I don't know where or how. So I was inconvenienced for a couple days until I could hit the Ace Hardware and get new copies made.
I visit the Ace Hardware quite often to get prop and costume materials, or tools, or stuff to patch up the horrible apartment. The employees there have always been friendly and helpful, which is a rarity these days, and extra-nice considering that retail jobs at chain stores pretty much suck eggs (I would know!) so resisting the impulse to become irritable is something of an achievement. Anyway... where was I going with this paragraph again? Oh yeah, there's this one elderly, serious black guy at Ace, who I've met a few times before, and he was grinding new keys for me. (They have this cool key-copying machine. I am curious about it. I want to go behind the counter and play with it sometime.) Anyway he had a hat that said "WWII Veteran" so I asked him where he served, if he didn't mind my asking. "South pacific", he said. "Wowww", I said, kind of at a loss for words. "Well, God bless!" He just smiled.
"God bless" sounds weird coming out of my heathen mouth, but sometimes I just can't think of anything else appropriate. Does anybody know a secular benediction with that kind of seriousness? Something to use when "You the man!" just doesn't cut it?
This little exchange also represents something of a turnaround in my attitudes, since I used to be of the opinion that anybody who joins the army must be a bad person, since he is willing to kill, but now... well, it's more complicated than that. The topic deserves a whole long rant of its own, later on.
Last Thursday when I got off the Red Line, there were two guys waiting with clipboards in the station. "Would you like to sign a petition against gay marriage?" they asked as I walked by. I turned and said "I'd like to sign a petition FOR gay marriage.". They didn't say anything. I kept walking. I noticed I was trembling slightly. I've always been the type to avoid confrontation, and it doesn't get much confrontational than looking somebody in the eye and saying "I disagree completely with this thing that you obviously feel very strongly about".
Actually, let me clarify my position. ( I don't have links handy to the statistics backing up my statements, so I am just shooting my mouth off here; maybe I'll go in later and add the links. )
For purely pragmatic reasons, I think we ought to abandon the word "marriage" and focus on "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships".
The M-word is such an inherently religious concept, and is so wrapped up with emotions and tradition for most people, that trying to redefine it generates a lot of ill will, and an uphill poltical battle. Polls show that a majority of Americans support civil union rights for gays as long as the word "marriage" is not used.
My preferred solution would be to do a search-and-replace on all laws, replacing "marriage" with "civil union". There is no reason that the religious institution of marriage should have any legal status. A civil union would legally be regarded as a contract between two people for the purposes of establishing a household as an economic unit, with tax breaks for their dependents. The law should not demand that participants in the contract be of specific sexes, any more than the IRS demands that dependents listed on a 1040 must be biological children of the taxpayer.
This solution enforces separation of church and state by removing the government from any involvement in the definition of marriage. In fact, we should present this as a reason for religious people to support the idea -- emphasize how the proposal means their church, not the government, gets to define marriage! Religious people would do whatever ceremony they desired to become married in the eyes of their church, then sign a civil union contract for legal recognition.
Gay couples get the same rights, and can have whatever ceremony or lack of ceremony they want. This way, gay couples get everything except for the word "marriage". This would be a smart compromise: the cultural conservatives can have the purely symbolic victory, while our side would get the real, substantial victory.
I'm in favor of letting each state decide. (Federalism is a good idea. It decentralizes power and lets each state act as a sort of public-policy laboratory that lets us see what works and what doesn't.) I'll vociferously support civil union rights in my own state, but if Kansas and South Dakota want to remain behind the times, let 'em. Maybe someday the Red States will figure out that the more stupid laws they pass, the more they are crippling their own economies by encouraging their smart people and companies and jobs to flee to bluer pastures.
(Also, if you look at people under 40, a majority support gay marriage. A generation from now, gay civil unions will be such a normal and widely accepted fact of life that most people will probably end up calling them "marriages" anyway.)
Two Cheers for Democracy!
I had a dream the other night where I was conducting a phone interview with Alice. From Alice in Wonderland. For, like, a newspaper bio I was writing about her. Weird.
But enough about my subconscious! Time for election results!
John Stroger, the guy who had a stroke a few days before the election, won Cook County President anyway. It kind of reminds me of how John Ashcroft lost an election to a dead man in 2000.
Debra Shore won the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District thing. Huzzah!
Philip Jackson lost to the incumbent Bobby Rush for the congress nomination. Boo! One of the worst systematic problems with our system of government is the fact that congressional races are so uncompetitive.
In 2004, out of the total 435 seats in the House, all up for re-election, only 22 races were anywhere near close and only 5 challengers beat incumbents. It's really that bad. How did it get this way?
Because of gerrymandering ("legislators use redistricting to choose their voters, before the voters have a chance to choose them"). Because incumbents are in a perfect position to trade favors for campaign funds. Because it costs at least one million dollars to successfully challenge an incumbent. And because Republicans would rather live in the country with other Republicans and Democrats would rather live in the city with other Democrats , people are increasingly sorting themselves into nice, neat, predictable voting blocks, which makes gerrymandering even easier.
Both republicans and democrats are guilty, guilty, guilty. They'll both use any trick they can to make sure incumbents have an unfair advantage. This miserable lack of competition leads to a situation where congressmen can spend their entire lives collecting bribes in a cushy job with no fear of being replaced.
(Strom Thurmond, who retired in 2003, was first elected in 1933!!) It leads to domination of the legislature by party hacks who always vote along party lines. It leads to voter apathy, which makes the problem worse: an uncompetitive election is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why congress is widely perceived as the most corrupt of the three branches of government, why its approval rating is as low as 25% in some polls, and why most young people don't even know the names of their senators or representatives anymore.
In less depressing election news...
Judy-Barr Topinka (she of the awful website) got the Republican nomination for governor, so she'll run against Blagojevich in November. This is good. She is the most sensible of all the Republican cantidates. She is pro-gay and pro-choice. (That link is to a site attacking her for being pro-gay and pro-choice, which are, to me, reasons to support her!)
Meanwhile, I'm less inclined to support Blagojevich since I found out he proposed a poorly-thought-out law against selling violent video games, and as my friends know, I'm strongly in favor of video game violence. Not that I think the law would be likely to have much effect, but the governor's heart is clearly in the wrong place. Thanks to Jeremy for pointing this out to me.
At this point I would be about equally happy with either one of the Republicrats for governor. So I'm free to follow my conscience and vote for the Green Party.
The Federal Election Commission has finished pondering what campaign finance reform should mean on the Internet. This had the potential to be very scary. The government is full of technologically illiterate people who pass really stupid-ass laws like:
To get back to the FEC, they could easily have passed a law that says if I write a message on my website supporting a cantidate, then I am "contributing to the campaign" and therefore I have to get investigated and audited to make sure I'm not breaking campaign finance laws. That's a chilling thought.
Instead, they did something sensible for once, and decided that unless you are selling advertising on your website to a cantidate, campaign finance laws place no restriction on anything you want to say online. (Warning, link is pdf.) Huzzah!
On my more optimistic days, I think that internet-based campaigns could help bring about a revival of actual, real-life grassroots democracy, the kind this country has been sorely lacking ever since the beginning of the TV era. Spreading ideas online is much cheaper than buying TV commercial time, print ads , or billboards, and so it's possible that in the future it might allow a truly independent cantidate -- someone who is not filthy rich and who does not sell out to corporate interests to finance his campaign -- to have a chance in a major election.
The dark side of the internet is that it gives seriously scary people a way to find each other, build support groups, and put out propoganda. Scary people like white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, and pedophiles all have their own internet communities, which I'm not going to link to; you can find them easily enough if you feel like being nauseated.
Free speech means letting these people have their say -- and then standing up to denounce them and explain exactly why they're wrong. The free exchange of ideas should always be encouraged so that the good ones can flourish and the bad ones can be thoroughly ridiculed.
Jono's Guide to the Illinois Primary
Local politics is a lot less depressing than national politics. The number of people voting is small enough that you have more of a chance to swing the result. It's less about party affiliation and more about individual cantidates. And the results are more likely to have an impact on your daily life. So how come only old people bother to follow and participate in local politics? I want to buck that trend. This is why I keep annoying all my friends by reminding them about the approaching Illinois primary election every single time I see them. (A lot of them are registered to vote in other states, sadly.)
The Illinois primary election, on March 21, is for a bewildering variety of city, state, and national offices. I've been researching some of the cantidates and putting together a sort of election guide. Consider this a rough draft; I'll update it with more information over the next week or so.
Where do I vote, and how do I find out if I'm registered?
You can look up your polling place by looking up your street address at chicagoelections.com (but you have to get your street suffix exactly right or they won't find you; this is pretty lame).
You can also find out whether you're registered or not by looking up your street adress on another page at the same site.
What positions are we voting for exactly?
- Lieutenatn Governor
- Attorney General
- Secretary of State
- Representatives in congress
- State senators
- Representatives in general assembly
- Commissioners of metropolitan water reclamation disctrict
- President of cook county board of commissioners
- County clerk of cook county
- Treasurer or cook county
- Sheriff of cook county
- Assessor of cook county
- County commisioners (17)
- Members of the board of review of cook county
- Supreme, apellate, circuit, sub-circuit judges
OK, granted, some of those are kind of hard to get excited about. Probably the most interesting races are the governor, the representatives in congress, and of course the Metropoilitan Water Reclamation District Commisioner!
So this is just a primary, right?
Yes, the real election is in November. But Illinois is such a solidly blue state that for some offices, whoever gets the Democratic nomination is sure to win; therefore the primary is more important than the general election.
According to the page Registering to Vote in Cook County,
"Illinois voters do not need to register by political party or declare a political party membership or preference. However, voters may select a specific political party's ballot at their polling place when voting in a primary election."
I'm not sure, but what I think that means is that on the day of the primaries, you can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries, but not both. (I will have to call someone and ask about this.) This is a good thing, because I want to influence the primaries but I have no interest in joining either branch of the Republicrats.
How do I find out who's running?
A good general purpose site for finding out about the cantidates is USElections.com. That has links to the campaign websites of most of the Illinois hopefuls. Another site, Modern Vertebrate, has the same sort of information with a bit more of an attitude.
The Race for Congress
Neither of Illinois' senators is up for re-election this year, but our representatives in the House are. You need to find out which congressional district of Illinois you live in in order to find out who your representative is and who might be running against him. house.gov lets you look this information up by entering your zip code.
Hyde Park is in the 1st congressional district of Illinois. Our congressman, since 1992, is Bobby Rush. (No, not the blues musician Bobby Rush.) You should read about Bobby Rush's voting record. This is going to sound harsh, but it doesn't seem like he's done anything particularly noteworthy for having spent fourteen years in Congress. I mean, his web page devotes a paragraph to the fact that he passed a bill to name a post office after somebody, so he must not have a whole lot else to brag about. On the other hand, according to this bio he was a co-founding member of the Illinois Black Panther party. Not sure how to feel about that.
Apparently the only guy running against Bobby Rush in the primary is Phillip Jackson, who I happened to meet on the street a couple weeks ago; he was just running around introducing himself to people and giving out business cards. What I know about him is that he used to be the chief of education for the city of Chicago, and so the main issue in his platform is improving public education. He's willing to speak out against the Patriot Act and the NSA wiretap program. Phillip Jackson's website is not so great. It has embarrasing typos in it. Yes, I judge cantidates by how good their websites are. Phillip Jackson probably doesn't have much campaign money or support. But (just going on first impressions here) he seems like a guy who cares about the job a whole lot more than his competition does. Which means he might shake things up a little more if he gets elected. That should count for something.
Whoever wins the primary faces Jason Tabour, a thoroughly undistinguished Republican, in the November election. This guy's website is very sad. It reminds me of somebody trying to get his first job and padding his resume with extracurricular activities nobody cares about. Ooh, you were the wrestling champ in high school, yeah I care. I guess the Republicans aren't seriously trying for this district. Probably it's been gerrymandered beyond all recognition.
The Race for Governor
Until a couple weeks ago I didn't even know who our governor was. Yes, shame on me. Now I know his name is Rob Blagojevich, but I can't pronounce that so I'm just going to call him Blago-man.
Here is all about his proposed 2007 budget. Sounds like some good stuff, but of course it's from his official website so it puts the best possible spin on everything. I especially like the stem cell research, the public education funding, and the tax breaks for college students. But what's amazing about this budget plan is that unlike most Democrats, who seem to think that money grows on trees, Blago-man actually explains where the funding is going to come from and how he's going to pay for everything without raising taxes or running up a debt. I'm impressed. Seriously, click on that link and read that budget plan. It's not as boring as it sounds.
Blago-man is under investigation for possible shady dealings in raising campaign contributions. All the other cantidates are using that as their main angle of attack. Especially Edwin Eisendrath, a democrat running against Blago-man in the primary. He has a campaign ad (quicktime on his website) where he says he's going to juggle chainsaws, but then he doesn't juggle them. He was just lying to get your attention. C'mon man, I'll totally vote for you if you can really juggle chainsaws. But getting my hopes up and then backing out -- man, that's just like every other politician. You suck.
Seriously, though, Judy Barr Topinka sounds like she would be an OK governor. She's a fiscal conservative, not a social conservative. Her no-nonsense platform is entirely about economics (she's currently the state treasurer).
Oberweis, on the other hand, is definitely a social conservative. Some scary stuff lurks under the shiny veneer of his attractive, standards-compliant website. He's for school prayer, for banning abortion, against gun control, against immigration -- oh, sorry, in his words: "against a wave of illegal immigration in which terrorists and violent criminals hide". Does he believe that or is he just pandering to xenophobes? Oh, and he's for "voluntary school prayer". Hello? We already have voluntary school prayer. You can pray whenever and wherever you want and nobody's going to stop you. What guys like him mean when they say "voluntary" is "let's stop the whole school for five minutes for an organized prayer, and kids who don't want to join can just sit there and feel uncomfortable". And then there's this incredibly smarmy pdf in which he makes a big deal out of the fact that he Grew Up On A Farm and is therefore Innately Morally Superior to those city-folks. It makes me sad that people still fall for that lame old schtick.
Moving along, the Green Party (oh, look, the Green Party! Aren't they cute?) is running Rich Whitney. His website is the nicest of all, except for the part where they give you .doc files to download instead of pdfs. If you can get past the format thing, the contents of the position papers are amazingly smart and well-written. Whitney sounds like a highly intelligent guy who doesn't talk down to the voters. Anyway, I disagree with the Green Party on several key issues (I'm totally in favor of both nuclear power and genetically modified crops), but I generally sympathize with them and want to support them. Even if they don't win, if we can get their percentage of the vote above a certain threshold, they could gain major-party status in the state, which would make it easier for them to get on the ballot in the future.
Oh, and speaking of minor parties, Andy Stufflebeam is running for the Constitution Party, who are even less of a real party than the Green Party, and it's a good thing too, because from what I can tell the Constitution Party is for people who think the Republicans are too liberal. Anyway, that website is good for a quick laugh. His... name... is... Stufflebeam! Stufflebeam! Say that three times fast! I am amused.
The Race for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commisioner
You may recall that I wrote about this several months ago, after I ran into a guy on the Green Line who was campaigning for the position, and reading an article in the Sun-Times about Debra Shore who is also campaigning for it. Over the past week I've started seeing signs and even full-sized billboards popping up everywhere for Shore and her main opponent, Dean Maragos. It's bizzare. This is a position which most people have never heard of and most cantidates in the past have barely bothered campaigning for, but suddenly it's turned into a huge fight.
I like Debra Shore. Click on that link and read her website. She has a page where she explains why she thinks that water conservation is so important. She isn't someone who wants this job just as a political stepping stone; she really cares about doing a good job at it. It's largely because of her tireless campaigning and her generally being a thorn in the side of the establishment that the other cantidates, and the public, have started to pay attention to the race at all.
Plus her website is really good.
Clash of Civilizations!
This is in response to Mom's comments on my last post. If you usually have comments turned off, you might want to turn them on and go read that.
Please do not flame my mom. She means well, and although I will probably never agree with her politically, I refuse to let that drive a wedge between us personally.
Mom, you jumped to a lot of incorrect conclusions in your comment. I'm not mad, but a lot of people would be. In the future, I suggest you take a minute to find out the facts about people's relationships before assuming the worst.
Now, about that article, entitled It's the Demography, Stupid. I read it this morning at work. The article is basically a typical right-wing rant against the evils of liberalism, with one interesting and possibly valid point buried deep inside. The interesting point that the more enlightened industrial Western societies have rapidly falling birthrates, while Muslims breed rapidly. So in a few decades, Muslims may be the majority in Europe, at which point they can vote to impose harsh Islamic law on everyone else, which is a bad thing for anyone who loves freedom.
These are topics I've been thinking a lot about lately anyway, so sure, let's talk about it.
First though, I wanna make clear: I am neither "left" nor "right". More than that: I do not think that they are coherent political philosophies. I don't think left and right are the only choices, I don't think they're opposite ends of a scale, in fact I don't think they really mean anything. They're just two self-reinforcing bundles of hypocrasy which spend all their time attacking each other and no time proposing constructive solutions. But lots of otherwise smart people get sucked into this way of thinking. It's in every politician's interest to maintain the illusion that Left and Right are the only two ways to view any issue, because this way all anger against Left gets channeled into votes for Right, and vice versa. Easier to get people to vote for you by making them hate and fear your opponents than by fixing problems or proposing sensible policies or anything. And easier to pick whichever side you hate less, and then listen to everything your side says, than to think for yourself.
I've got a whole political treatise I'm working on, which I'm going to post up here when it's finished, where I go into detail about the essential bogusness of the whole left-right idea. I've got facts and figures and everything. Look forward to it.
So, I try to read rants like this article from a neutral perspective. I'm not the conservative choir they're preaching to and I'm not the liberal enemy they're trying to get a rise out of with all the references to abortion and progressive thought and multiculturalism the "gay agenda" and "cultural elites" and assorted other polticially-charged buzzwords that really have nothing to do with the issue.
So, back to the article's thesis that Islam might take over the world by outbreeding the competition. What does the article say we should do about this? Should we start a world war and kill all the Muslims? No, and I don't think anyone would suggest that. Should we pass mandatory-minimum-childbearing laws? No way! (Any true conservative would be against such government meddling in private affairs). So what does the article suggest we do?
Well, it doesn't really suggest anything.
Because, like most right-wing and left-wing rants, this article is not interested in proposing anything constructive. It's just interested in passing out blame. Left-wing rants are about how the world is going to hell and it's all the right's fault. Right-wing rants are about how the world is going to hell and it's all the left's fault. The article sort of vaguely implies, without evidence to back this up, that the evil liberal agenda of abortion and welfare and socialized medicine is somehow causing the West's birthrate to fall.
If anything, doesn't the evil liberal welfare state make people have more children? After all, the amount of welfare benefits you can recieve is based on your number of dependents; more children means more free money from the government, right? Without that, having kids would be even more un-economical.
And that's what it is, economics. Kids are too expensive. Simple as that. People's everyday decision making is mainly economic when you come down to it. Just like they're not going to switch to electric cars as long as gas is cheap, they're not going to have extra babies as long as babies are expensive. And that's not a bad thing.
So, since the article is not very helpful, let me suggest a couple of things.
First: It doesn't matter whose descendants inherit the earth. Doesn't matter one bit. It matters whose ideas inherit the earth. Down towards the bottom, the article admits this. I agree. If the future world is populated entirely by descendants of Muslims who practice peace, freedom, science, and democracy, then I don't care if white people are extinct.
The most important battle going on in the world today is the battle between the moderate Muslims and the psycho ones. The Muslims who can deal with the modern world and live together with other religions, and the Muslims who just can't deal. What we want to happen is that the good Muslims take their religion back from the sick murderous freaks who bomb subways and send out death threats over Danish cartoons.
And what scares me is that neither the "left" nor the "right" seems to have any clue about how to do this. It's not something the United States can do just by knocking over a petty dictator here and there. And it's not like the Democrats have any better plans. Our foreign policy over the past several decades -- towards most of the world, but especially towards the middle east -- could best be described as random. We change our foreign policy according to the fickle whim of domestic politics and whatever the current president's personal ideology is. I'm going to write a long article about this, too, with facts and figures and everything. Look forward to it. Anyway, I wish America would pick its principles and enforce them consistently. And I wish there was more serious discussion of what our strategy should be in the long term across the middle east and the world. Instead of just "We must invade Iraq right now cuz they have WMD oh wait they don't." vs "No blood for oil! No blood for oil!". Not very helpful.
How do we help moderate Islam become dominant over the evil kind? Liberals will get on my case for using the word "evil" but it's quite apt. There's no other way to describe a culture where honor requires a man to kill his own female relatives if anyone questions their chastity. But the moderate Muslims don't follow that, or similarly barbaric practices, so we need to look at why two Muslims can read the same Koran and come to such different conclusions.
It's helpful to look at the two kinds of Christians -- I don't mean Catholics and Protestants, I mean scary fundie Christians vs. good sensible Christians like my friends Stephen and Andrew and Yasu. We've got some scary fundie Christians in this country, and if we let them have their way they would institute the same sort of draconian laws as the scary fundie Muslims want -- stone the adulterers, stone the gays, cover up the women, burn the science books. The difference is that the scary fundie Christians are generally content to pursue their agenda through voting and making obnoxious TV shows, rather than blowing stuff up. And the good sensible Christians are in charge, for the most part.
But back in the middle ages the Christians did some plenty barbaric stuff -- inquisitions, crusades, witch hunts, and so on. Something changed between then and now. Christianity had a Reformation, and then an Enlightenment, and today most Christians realize: "Hey, we have to share a planet with people who don't neccessarily believe the same way we do. We're right, of course, but no sense starting fights. Maybe we should live and let live and trust to God to deal with the sinners.".
Islam is 700-odd years younger than Christianity. Islam hasn't had a Reformation and an Enlightenment yet. They really need to get started on that.
I was having an interesting conversation on this topic today with Jeremy. One of the things he said was (paraphrasing): "Do we have the right to force our belief system on the Muslims?". And I said, "Absolutely".
Tolerance is such a big part of the core of Western civilization that it's easy to get carried away with it and take tolerance to the extreme where you refuse to make any sort of value judgements at all. It would be intolerant to say that Western civilization is superior to Islam, wouldn't it?
But dude, sometimes you have to make value judgements. I believe there is such a thing as an absolute right and wrong. I think culture is relative, but morality is universal. (That's part of how I define morality, in fact -- the stuff that's universal). You ought to be able to practice whatever culture you want, but if we are all going to live on this planet together without killing each other we need to come to some kind of basic agreement on morality. Muslim women want to wear veils? That's culture, that's fine, wear all the veils you want. Muslim men want to tell Muslim women they should wear veils? That's culture, fine, tell them. Muslim men want to execute women who don't wear veils? Now we're in the realm of morality, and performing such an execution is universally, absolutely wrong.
What I hate about the Right in America is that it so often thinks that its own particular culture ought to count as universal morality. And what I hate about the Left in America is that it so often thinks that there is no such thing as right and wrong at all.
So, you can argue where to draw the line between culture and morality, between personal freedom and social responsibility. My line is that you should basically be able to do whatever you want that does not harm another person, damage that person's property, or reduce that person's freedoms.
This just so happens to be very similar to what the U.S. Constitution says: You have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the government can't pass any laws that would take that away from you. It's not perfect, and there are lots of grey areas to argue over, but it's a heck of a lot better than any other system that humanity has come up with so far. Those founding fathers were either really smart, or they made a really good guess, because our system has been incredibly successful.
So yeah, I belive that a civilization based on ideas similar to the U.S. Constitution is inherently superior to one based on any kind of holy book. Take that, moral relativism. It's inherently an asymmetrical comparison: Muslims can live in the constitutional system and still keep their Prophet and their praying towards Mecca, because we guarantee religious freedom. The same can not be said for someone trying to live in an Islamic society and trying to practice their own beliefs. Like, if I was in Saudi Arabia when I kissed my boyfriend I would probably be facing the death penalty.
It's more than just democracy that they need. People in a democracy can still vote in a totalitarian government -- look at Palestine, electing terrorist group Hamas to be their leaders. The majority in a democracy can get together and decide to take the rights away from the minority. That's no good. You need democracy combined with a constitution that says: the following rights are inalieable; no matter how much of a majority you have, you cannot pass a law that takes these rights away from anyone. It's a brilliant solution, especially to be invented in the 1700s.
Therefore, we have the right, the duty even, to spread these ideas to other people, because they're the best tool we have to let people with different cultures share the planet. We want to survive, we want the Muslims to survive, we want the Muslims to have better lives within their own countries: we need to show them why constitutional democracy is a better way to live, and we need to show them that they can embrace it without giving up their religion or their cultural identity.
(They are going to have to learn to live with derogatory cartoons, though. They need to learn that somebody drawing a cartoon of Mohammed that they don't like does not diminish their religion in any real way; it's just some guy expressing his opinion, and they don't have the right to stifle it. When they understand that, we can all get along.)
So, how are we going to convince them that there is a better way to live? Here's where we get back to genetics and memetics. Monotheistic religions are clusters of memes (or self-replicating ideas) which spread in a couple of different ways: they can spread by war (forced conversions), or by voluntary conversions (memetic selection), or by reproduction, as people indoctrinate their children (memes piggybacking on genetic selection). There isn't a whole lot of forced conversion or voluntary conversion going on in the world today. Forced conversion is rightly frowned upon, and voluntary conversion happens to individuals, but not on any sort of huge scale. The most reliable way for someone to become a member of a given religion is to be born into it. This is why the original article talked so much about birth rates: that is the Islam meme's main propogation strategy at present.
Constitutional democracy spreads mainly by memetics, though. People all over the world look at America, they see that life is better under our system, and they either move here, or they convert their own country to our system. That's globalization. Purely voluntary. We don't have to drop a single bomb. The Berlin Wall fell because people in Eastern Europe knew our system was better than the communist system, not because of birthrates or American military intervention or any of that stuff. One Asian country after another has chosen to follow more-or-less our model, and anyone who looks at the standard of living in North Korea vs. South Korea can see why one choice is better than the other.
The bait, in a lot of cases, is our material wealth, our pop culture, all that shallow stuff; people in other countries hate our "cultural imperialism" for exporting all that stuff, but they're still lining up outside the McDonalds when it opens in their country. Countries start going Western because they want to be rich, but that leads them to try out freedom and democracy and all that. (That's the theory, anyway; it remains to be seen how this will play out in China, which seems to be dead-set on copying our wealth by implementing capitalism while keeping a totalitarian government. We'll see.)
So, there's no need to breed faster if our cultural exports are successful. To grossly oversimplify: People see America on TV, they see a better way of living, they want it, they change their government. If all goes well they become free and rich and start having a falling birthrate of their own. We should be studying this system and figuring out how to make it work better. Figuring out non-obvious ways to give support to the resistance movements in places like Iran, help them change their countries from within.
The scary old clerics in charge of fanatical Islam know this. That is why they fear our cultural exports above all else. That, I think, is the real reason why they freak out and ban our music and our movies and our books. Because they know that memes spread orders of magnitude faster than genes, and that it only takes a single generation of exposure to Western culture in the right form for their children to be "infected" with Western ideas. The current Islamic terrorist movement is mainly, I think, a backlash against globalization. I'm fairly optimistic that it will fail.
It's going to be an interesting century.
Random links ahoy
Have some random links to waste time online!
AMV Hell 3. This is a compilation of the hilights from about 200 AMVs ("Anime Music Video"). AMVs are where fans with twoo much time on their hands cut and paste clips from anime and set them to music. There is a contest for AMVs every year at ACEN, but I don't go to it, because AMVs get old really fast. I mean, usually you laugh at a clever juxtaposition of image and song lyrics, but the joke gets old after about fifteen seconds. Which is why this compilation is great: it shows you just about fifteen seconds of each one. Somebody could write an academic paper about this thing -- it's the ultimate short-attention-span, free-association, postmodern cultural blender. And about half of the videos are from Azumanga Daioh for some reason.
Google has taken a lot of flak for censoring itself in order to do business in China. A dramatic illustration of this is to search for "Tienanman" Square on google.cn and then Search for "Tienanman" on google.com.
An awesome speech that Al Gore gave on Martin Luther King day. Really, read this thing, it's good. Tell it like it is, dude. Where was this fire during his 2000 presidential campaign? (Well, acutally I didn't see this speech, I just read it, so for all I know he read the whole thing in a dull monotone. But it sounds firey.)
The Loli Avenger to the rescue! Scroll down past the part about dresses to read about how Japanese kids were rescued from domestic violence because of timely intervention by my old friend Helena.
Jesse Ventura's campaign ad for governor of Minnesota. Where he is an action figure. This is pretty much the coolest political ad ever. And he won! Horay for America!
Could the partisan hacks keep it down please, I'm trying to think here
The tenor of this health care debate is pissing me off. And stressing me out.
Reforming health insurance is an important issue; it's not one of my personal hot-button issues, but it's what Obama has decided to focus on first and it's a major part of what we elected him to do. So here we go; the fight is on.
If the government is going to reform health insurance, I want them to get it right. Whatever happens, it's largely going to be decided in the Senate. There are two senators there, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, who are supposed to represent me as a citizen of California. I have an opportunity to put pressure on them to get them to vote the way I want. (I think Boxer is up for re-election next year, so I can especially put pressure on her.) But first I have to figure out what it is I want them to vote for. If I'm going to pressure my senators for something, I want it to be the right thing. Right now I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the medical or insurance industries. That means I need to educate myself. I think I have a responsibility as a citizen to educate myself.
But the sheer amount of hyperbole and misinformation and screechy partisan rhetoric out there makes it hard to figure out what sources I can trust.
For example, it is impossible to understand anything about the health care debate unless you understand the differences between the various possible levels of government involvement in paying for health care, e.g. the difference between public option, single payer, etc. I have only recently figured out these distinctions myself. I summarize them in the following table, ordered from least government intervention to most government intervention:
- The government does not get any further involved in funding health care; private insurance companies remain the only option for most people (unless you are old enough for Medicare, or in the armed forces, or a veteran) but perhaps have additional regulations or restrictions imposed on them.
- Public option. There is a new, public (i.e. govt) insurance company to compete with private insurance companies; you have your choice between them. This is equivalent to how the postal service, a government-run organization, competes with private companies UPS and FedEx to provide package delivery service.
- Single-payer. The govt pays for all health care; hospitals remain private companies but compete for government money, like military contractors. Medicare is essentially already single-payer health care, but for old people only. Canada has a single-payer system.
- Socialized medicine. Doctors are all on govt payroll, like policemen, firemen, or the army. Britain has socialized medicine.
This is really basic, beginner, 101-level stuff. If we had a functional news media, one that was doing its job, it would be educating people about these things, and the difference between 1, 2, 3, and 4 would be common knowledge. But instead we have a news media that can only communicate sound bites and emotion and conflict, not facts. It's really good at glossing over the important differences and lumping everything together, and many people seem not to know the difference between 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Essentially all of the plans the Democrats are considering are variants of 1 or 2. 3 and 4 do not even seem to be under consideration. (Which is too bad; 3 is unlikely to happen but I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand.)
Yet it seems that the entire Republican argument against reform is based on pretending that 2 equals 3 equals 4 equals jackbooted government thugs coming to your house and euthanizing your grandmother. It pisses me off, not because they're against health care reform, but because they're making the argument in a fundamentally dishonest way, with fear tactics and hysterical exaggeration, taking avantage of people's ignorance. It would be different if they were making an argument like "We can't afford this plan" or "this plan gets the incentives all wrong" or "There are better ways to control medical costs". Maybe they could even propose an alternative plan, maybe something based on tort reform or increasing competition between insurance companies.
And meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be basing their whole argument on "Insurance companies are evil". Well maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but how about explaining how each of the several possible plans would work to make things better? How would any given plan save users money and/or get us better quality care and/or increase freedom to switch doctors and/or jobs? How would the government will pay for it? What will it do to protect user choice and maintain incentives for quality and innovation? Instead we just hear them saying, basically, "Insurance companies are evil" over and over again. Pointing out that the curent situation is bad doesn't automatically prove that your proposed plan is better.
2010 or 2012?
At some point we're going to have another proposition on the California ballot to overturn Prop 8. and make same-sex marriage legal again.
(I mean seriously, people, we're California. We're not going to let Iowa get away with being more gay-friendly than California, are we?)
The question, for marriage equality supporters, is: do we do it in 2010 or wait for 2012? Are the chances better when there is a presidential election going on at the same time, or when there isn't? Should we keep trying every two years until we get it, or do failed attempts hurt our overall chances for later, in which case we should put everything into one attempt when it's most likely to work?
A few weeks ago I found an interesting, if depressing, article advocating 2012 over 2010. It predicts that we would lose in 2010 by a greater margin than the margin that passed Prop 8. last year. One reason is that in presidential election years "...turnout is higher and when more mainstream, less ideologically committed, voters dominate". It also makes the argument that failed attempts burn donor money and that the longer we wait the more likely we are to win.
Today I got an email from Equality California (EQCA), an organization whose mailing list I seem to have gotten onto after donating money to "No on 8" last year. The email, contents duplicated in this blog post, described how they've been listening to the community make its arguments for and against 2010 or 2012, and has finally made the decision to throw its weight into 2012, for basically the same reasons as the first article. (The blog post attracted comments illustrating the whole range of positions and arguments. Some of them are pretty nasty.)
However, another organization, the Courage Campaign, has decided to go with 2010. So most likely there will be something happening in 2010, and then if that fails, again in 2012. (That would be the Harvey Milk method: keep running over and over again until you finally win.)
I want to do something to help, but with limited time to volunteer for causes, I want to do something when it's most likely to make a difference. What should I do?
I guess the answer is "work to change people's minds", since that will have an affect no matter what year the vote is in. The facts are that same-sex marriage is no threat to my marriage; it has zero effect on any straight person's marriage. It costs nothing. Given that, there's no logical or ethical reason to deny people the right to marry who they want. Live and let live: seems like a common-sense principle to me. But how do we get people in Orange County and the Central Valley to see it that way?
Separation of Church and State
In talking to people about marriage equality, it's helpful to refer to the facts about Catholicism and divorce. Specifically, Catholicism holds that marriage is forever and cannot be dissolved in any way (except by annulment, which requires proving that the marriage was invalid in the first place).
But American Catholics live in a legal system that recognizes and grants divorce. They are able to hold their own religious views even in a wider society that is more permissive. Just because divorce is against the beliefs of one particular religion doesn't mean it needs to be illegal for everyone; just because divorce is legal doesn't mean that Catholics are forced to do it.
Catholics are free to not get divorced, to not recognize divorce, and to believe that marriages are forever. Meanwhile the rest of us are free to get legally divorced. That's how we all manage to live together in a pluralistic society. This is instructive as a model for how same-sex marriage ought to work: the law of the land should make the legal benefits of marriage open to everyone, without discriminating based on sexual orientation; meanwhile religious groups can choose to follow their own moral standard for defining marriage, which may be more restrictive than what the law allows.
This is why, when it comes time to draft the California constitutional amendment to overturn prop. 8, I think that we ought to include language in it that says something like...
"No religious organization shall be required to perform or recognize same-sex marriages if doing so would go against their beliefs."
It's good politics, and it's the right thing to do. (A rare combination.) It's good politics because, by reassuring people that the government is not about to start forcing their church to marry same-sex couples, we may get a couple more percentage points of "yes" votes from people who were on the fence about it. It's the right thing to do because we really don't want the government to force anybody's church to do anything against their beliefs! Not that I think that would happen in any case, but it can't hurt to be explicit about it.
Separation of church and state is a wall that protects both sides. It protects civil society from being legally controlled by the beliefs of a particular religious group, and it also protects particular religious groups from having the beliefs of civil society forced upon them.
"Do you want your insurance provided by the DMV?"
An argument I've heard deployed against government involvement in health care is "Do you really want your insurance provided by the same people who run the DMV??".
The last couple of times I've gone to the DMV I've made an appointment (yes, you can do that), so my wait time was under half an hour. Service was always cheap. Although their rules don't make sense, at least they are clearly explained. The worst DMV experience I've had was a result of an employee not understanding the rules, and was solved by going to a branch in a different town. So while I don't exactly look forward to visiting the DMV, I don't dread it either.
In contrast, I've been trying for the past, like, six months to get my insurance company to add Sushu to my policy and I'm still getting the bureaucratic runaround. This is something that I have been told is within my rights, but I keep meeting procedural obstacles. I blame ClearBenefits, which is some kind of middleman organization between my employer and the insurance companies, which runs a very confusing website.
So no, I'm not convinced that government bureaucracy is inherently worse than corporate bureaucracy. I certainly don't think that replacing one with the other would automatically be some kind of terrifying nightmare.
I found out via Stephen Colbert last night that one of my senators, Barbara Boxer, writes political thrillers. She just published a sequel called Blind Trust in which a thinly-veiled version of herself, "Ellen Fisher", goes up against a thinly-veiled version of Dick Cheney.
Blind Trust has two stars on Amazon.
Boxer insisted to Colbert that Ellen Fisher is not herself but rather "her ideal". Great, so she's a Mary Sue.
I'm represented by somebody who spends her time writing crappy self-insertion fanfics about the Senate.
I... I just don't know what to say.
Some good introductory/background reading for the health care debate
Remember that there's two subjects here. There's the policy issues of how the health care system could be better, and then there's the political issues of how to accomplish that. For the time being, I'm mostly focusing on learning about the policy issues, because I can't really decide where I stand on the politics until I understand how the system works. I've been reading pretty voraciously in an attempt to educate myself.
Here is a "back of the napkin" slideshow explaining the issues involved. It has cute doodles.
The Washington Post has a slideshow primer with voiceover and animation.
The Economist also has an introduction to the topic here. It points out that the U.S.A. spends 16%, or one sixth of our GDP on health care. We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world. Yet in terms of quality we rank thirty-seventh in the world, so what gives?
They also have a follow-up article about the political process of reform, called This Is Going To Hurt. Shockingly for a magazine that's generally quite free-market-uber-alles-rah-rah-rah, the Economist actually likes single-payer best out of all the options.
Health care town hall meeting, IRL
My representative, Anna Eshoo of California district 14, is having a "town hall" meeting about health care next Wednesday night. I'm gonna go to it. My self-imposed homework assignment will be to have a list of intelligent questions ready for her by then.
Why is health care expensive, part 5
Because of fear of lawyers?
83% of physicians surveyed reported practicing 'defensive medicine'. They do procedures they don't think are neccessary because they're afraid of being sued for not doing them. And they pay for malpractice insurance. Predictably, the doctor lobby is strongly in favor of tort reform, while the lawyer lobby is strongly against it.
However, studies show malpractice awards are not the main driver of health care costs, says this article from the Washington Independent. We might save some money by tort reform, but it's unlikely to be the main way to get costs under control.
There's a lot of interesting facts in that article. Apparently the cost of malpractice is calculated as only 2% of overall medical spending, so maybe there's not much savings to be had there. On the other hand, nobody can calculate the ultimate cost of defensive medical treatments. On the gripping hand, Texas already capped pain-and-suffering awards at $250,000 and had "a dramatic decline in lawsuits", but Texas still has some of the most expensive healthcare in the country. 29 other states have also done some sort of capping of malpractice awards, so it's not clear what else could be done in those states. Plus there are concerns that the Texas system makes it hard for people who have been legitimately harmed by real malpractice to get fair compensation for it.
A lot of points of view on tort reform, pro and con, are brought together in this Daily Dish post.
For your information, and as a reference for further discussion, here is a summary of House Resolution 3200 (pdf link), the foremost health care reform proposal. This is a section-by-section summary, so it's a mere 35 pages instead of the 1,018 pages of the full bill. There will be many more changes to it before the final vote.
This was sent to me as an e-mail attachment in a mass-mailing from my representative in the House; I'm assuming that it's public domain and OK to redistribute.
I have a long blog post coming up about Wednesday night's health-care town-hall meeting, which was basically a circus of depressing partisanship.
How to Argue Politics on the Internet
This post is inspired by every political blog comment thread that I've ever made the mistake of reading. I was going to call it "How to argue politics like an angry moron on the Internet" but then I noticed that was redundant.
First, get in the right frame of mind. Politics has only two sides: liberal and conservative. One of those is Your Side, and the other one is the side of Nazis and baby-killers. Some real-life issues may look at first like they complex multidimensional problems with many possible positions that a reasonable person could take, but that is an illusion and you must drive it from your mind as quickly as possible. You have to reduce the issue to a two-sided struggle so that you can begin the important work of proving that your side is right and that the enemy side hates freedom.
1. Psychoanalyze! Dissect the secret motivations of people you have never met and explain in great detail the character flaws that cause all [liberals|conservatives] to hate America and want to destroy freedom. You don't have to prove that they do hate America; just assume it to be true and then distract everybody from your lack of evidence by focusing on an argument over motives.
2. Take credit for anything good that happened when a president from your side was in office. Assign blame for anything bad that happened when a president from the enemy side was in office. Even things outside the president's (or any human being's) power to predict or influence are still fair game. If you're creative, you can imagine a chain of cause and effect that will allow you to blame the other side's president for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and scandals in the private sector.
2a. Unless something bad happened during your guy's term. In that case, it was obviously Congress's fault. Or it was an impossible situation they inherited from the enemy side's president.
2b. If something good happened during the enemy's presidential term, take credit for it anyway by claiming it was a delayed result of laws passed during your side's presidential term.
3. There are only two kinds of sources: sources that you agree with, and sources that are biased. If anybody presents evidence that contradicts what you already believe, it must be from one of the biased sources. Loudly proclaim that the quoted pollster/study/newspaper/academic institute/police department has an extreme and well-known [left-wing|right-wing] bias and is not to be trusted. This will help you maintain a perfect defense against new information.
4. If somebody points out something your side did wrong, and you can't think of any way to deny or evade the blame, just think of something that the other side did that was similar, but soooo much worse than what your side did. (It's sufficient to find something they did that was similar, because anything the other side does is automatically worse than anything your side does.)
4a. Hope everyone is distracted enough by arguing over the new thing that nobody notices you changed the subject without answering the original point.
4b. Advanced version: Call your opponents hypocrites because they're complaining about this tiny, insignificant thing that your side did while they ignored, or supported, a similar but way worse thing that their own side did. Skip over the part where you ask whether or not they did support the thing that their side did; remember, everybody on the enemy side believes in and supports exactly the same things.
5. Make puns by changing a few letters in the name of the opposing political party or politician in order to make an unflattering word. Examples: "Rethuglican", "Demo-rat". This is very clever and shows everyone what a good sense of humor you have.
6. Never allow any criticism of your own side to enter your brain, unless it is to criticize politicians on your side for being too moderate. If they're not fighting as hard as they should to defeat the evil that is the enemy political party, they're appeasers and sell-outs!
7. When all else fails, call the other side Communists, Nazis, Fascists, Socialists, Jihadists, Imperialists, etc. All murderous authoritarian movements in history are interchangeable; they existed for the sake of giving you nasty labels to put on your political enemies, so choose freely and don't worry about understanding history or maintaining a sense of proportion.
8. If for some reason you still haven't won the argument, then describe in detail how you will physically assault your opponents when you see them in real life. Threatening violence proves your argument about interest rates and unemployment is correct! You're never going to meet the other person in real life, so you are free to posture and make empty threats that you could never back up.
Always remember, the object of the game is not to learn about other people's points of view, to improve your understanding of complex issues facing our country, or to find workable solutions. The object of the game is to keep attacking the enemy until you find that one perfect line of attack which is so rhetorically unbeatable that everyone who disagrees with you will go home with their tail between their legs. Then you will be declared The Winner Of The Comment Thread and the Internet will throw a parade to honor you for saving America from the evil [liberals|conservatives].
Why is healthcare so expensive, part 7
Because we rely on insurance too much?
I just made a dentist appointment for this Friday, for a routine checkup and teeth cleaning. Of course, the first thing the dentist asked about was my insurance coverage. I read her a mysterious number off of a plastic card that Mozilla gave me, and then she was happy.
Routine dental checkups and teeth cleaning is an entirely predictable procedure with what should be a low, predictable cost. Have you ever thought of how weird it is to that we use insurance to cover entirely predictable costs?
We don't use auto insurance to buy gas. It would be insane. Insurance is for accidents, it's for unpredictable costs. But people use health insurance to pay for routine checkups or monthly pill supplies. You almost have to use insurance because the price of basic services and supplies is absurdly inflated, under the assumption that an insurance company is going to be paying for it. Imagine if gas cost $50 a gallon but your auto insurance paid for it. That's the situation we have with health care. (It's often been pointed out that Americans tend to take better care of their cars than of their own bodies.)
When you pay with insurance, you're paying with somebody else's money. When you're paying with somebody else's money, there's no incentive for the patient to look for a good deal, and there's no incentive for the doctor or the hospital to economize on their costs, as I've pointed out before. The costs all come back to us eventually in the form of higher insurance premiums and more people dropped from insurance coverage.
Why do we have a system where we pay for everything with health insurance? It started, believe it or not, as a way to get around wage controls during WWII. Health benefits were not covered by wage control laws. After the war the wage controls ended but in 1954 Congress created a tax loophole that makes health benefits tax-free - meaning that it is far cheaper for a company to pay somebody a dollar of health insurance than to pay them a dollar of salary. This is the single biggest loophole in the federal tax code and is considered by many economists to have a massive distoring effect on the economy. (You may recall that during the campaign John McCain proposed ending this tax loophole. Not a very popular idea, but it might actually have been a good one.)
This is a really good article here: How American Helath Care Killed My Father, by David Goldhill. Despite the sensationalistic title, the contents are quite reasonable and thought-through and fact-based. It's long (six pages), but read the whole thing. Then bookmark it and read it again tomorrow. There's a ton of juicy information in there, like the fact that America has one health-insurance-company employee for every two doctors, a sure sign that insurance is too big.
Goldhill estimates that if all the money our employers take out of our paychecks to go to medicare and health benefits was simply given to us as cash instead, the average person would be getting back something like $1.77 million over the course of their lifetime; and that if we put this into a savings account and paid for routine care directly, we'd be getting a far better deal. Prices would come down because we'd cut out the middleman, because people would be spending their own money and so would have an incentive to save, and because providers would be directly competing to serve customers.
We'd still need insurance to cover the truly catastrophic events. So Goldhill proposes a system where everybody has a HSA (Health Savings Account) to pay directly for routine care, and is also enrolled in a single mandatory nationwide insurance program that covers only emergencies.
I think there's a lot of sense in that. But there's no political will for anything like that. Right now the Democrats are only talking about expanding insurance coverage, not cutting it back to the places where it makes sense.
I found out the other day that Mozilla actually offers an HSA (Health Savings Account) plan as an alternative to the Anthem PPO health insurance that I have now. I looked into it a bit to see how it works. The nice thing about the HSA is that I could put money into it from pre-tax income. I pay almost 30% in taxes, so this is quite significant. The HSA comes with a high-deductible insurance policy that only pays for stuff over $5,000 (for the family plan) - in other words, it only pays for the truly catastrophic stuff.
However, the reason that I chose not to switch to the HSA plan is that Mozilla would not be redirecting the money that they're currently using to buy me insurance and put that amount into my HSA; instead, they'd just keep it. If I wanted money in my HSA, I'd have to take an additional chunk out of my salary to put there. Because of that, it doesn't make sense to switch, especially when the PPO alternative is so generous.
This is an example of how it's really hard for one person to break out of the system by themselves. It's a collective action problem. Even if widespread use of HSA plans would lead to a better health care economy overall, nobody wants to be the first one to switch because they'd be losing out by doing so. Switching America onto HSAs would require a complete overhaul of the system, a complete rewrite of the rules for employer/employee health care payments and tax deductions.
Anna Eshoo vs. Hecklers at CA-14 Town Hall (Long)
Two weeks ago I went to the health care "town hall meeting" (actually in a school gymnasium, because what town has a Town Hall anymore?) with the representative for CA-14, Anna Eshoo.
It was a depressing circus of rabid hyper-partisanship and grown adults acting like middle-schoolers in a playground fight.
It's taken me two weeks to write about the town hall just because it was such a weird and disturbing experience. I needed some distance from it.
I'm a very non-confrontational person, you know? Raised tempers, confrontation, and people yelling at each other makes me uncomfortable. Being in the middle of about a thousand people angrily booing each other made me feel threatened. I felt like I needed a detox afterwards.
While I didn't see any signs equating Obama to Hitler, there was a group of people outside with a mix of protest signs more or less focused on opposing government intervention. Standing across from them was a group of counter-protesters who were all little old ladies in crazy flowery hats with signs about how much they love their Medicare, "which is a socialist government single-payer program", and how they wish they could share it with everyone. They sang a song about it. I'm serious.
Inside the auditorium it was jam-packed; there were lots of people who didn't get a seat. We all got a stack of question cards on which we could write our name and contact info and a question, and pass them to one of the moderators, who collected them and brought them to Eshoo on the stage. She answered the first question from each person, with promises to answer the rest later, by e-mail.
It was clear from the moment Anna Eshoo took the stage that it was going to get rowdy. It was hard to tell for sure but I estimated about 1/3 of the crowd were vocally anti-reform protesters, mostly older people, who booed and jeered at pretty much anything positive Eshoo said about health care reform or HR 3200 or Obama, shouted out statements contradicting her, etc. Maybe 1/2 the crowd was on the pro-reform side, judging by the fact that they clapped at all the things the protestors booed at, but they weren't nearly as forceful or organized. Complicating matters there was another small but vocal contingent, maybe 1/8 to 1/6, who were die-hard for single-payer, so they would join in on booing the public option but then start up chanting in favor of HR 676.
I thought Anna Eshoo handled herself quite well in the face of this circus. She knew her stuff; she took questions straight from the pile without filtering them, and made honest attempts to answer them no matter how dumb or how hostile they were. She displayed an impressive command of facts and figures while answering difficult questions off-the-cuff, without notes. She didn't let the vitriol of the hecklers damage her composure. Several times when the audience got too rowdy, she tried to shame them into behaving, saying "I don't care if you disrespect me; I know some of you don't like me and that's fine, I can take it. But please have some respect for your neighbors, who have come here to have their questions answered, and quiet down so they can hear."
Man. Sometimes when people act like middle-schoolers, you have to treat them like middle-schoolers, know what I'm sayin?
Eshoo spent a lot of her answers focusing on the fact that the currently uninsured are costing us a lot of money by showing up in emergency rooms, that emergency care is more expensive than prevention, and therefore that we can save money by insuring the uninsured and getting them preventative care. (The point I made in this post.)
"Californians with insurance pay an average of $1400 on their health insurance premiums every year to help offset the cost of health care provided to the uninsured.", according to Diane Feinstein's website. I'd take that $1400 figure with a grain of salt, though, since I don't know how you can accurately measure these things.
A lot of the questions, I'd say the majority, were hostile, based on false premises, or were questions that were not really questions, like:
"Why do you want to destroy the best health care system in the world?"
"What will it take to convince you the majority of your consituents don't want more government control over our lives?"
It was pretty clear that these people were not against specific details of the plan; they were dead-set against having any reform at all. I mean, how the heck can a public option be described as "more government control over our lives"? That makes no sense. These kind of questions were just trolling, trying to get a reaction out of the audience, which they certainly did.
Some questions that were more about the protesters themselves than about health care reform. There were a couple which basically demanded that Eshoo apologize for mean things that other Democrats had said about the protest movement, like calling them "astroturf" or "angry mobs". This is both off-topic and, um, why should Eshoo apologize for something she didn't say? "I don't agree with demonizing anyone" is what she said.
A lot of the questions were pure right-wing memes. You can find the same memes all over any number of blog comments and forum posts all over the Internet right now. For example, there's a meme going around that says the Tenth Amendment puts any health care reform beyond the constitutional powers of the federal government, and thus it would be illegal for Congress to pass any such thing. (By that logic, Social Security and Medicare would also be unconstitutional... is anybody in favor of repealing them?) I was wondering if this meme would show up in a question at the town hall, and it did! Somebody challenged Eshoo with "What clause in the constitution gives the federal government the right to take over the medical system?"
The answer, by the way, is Article 1, Section 8:
"The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."
Eshoo pointed out that Congress has people whose job it is to check the constitutionality of bills before they're voted on, that opinion in the mainstream constitutional law world is that the bill is legal, and that the Supreme Court is right across the street from Congress and ready to strike down any laws it finds unconstitutional.
This was one of a couple of fun moments when Anna Eshoo schooled the hecklers. Others:
She was asked if she would "promise to read the bill before voting on it". (This is another common right-wing meme: the idea that nobody in Congress has read the bill.) She picked up an actual copy of bill HR 3200 (in a large black 3-ring binder) and waved it at the audience, saying "I never vote on anything I haven't read. Not only have I read it all, I wrote parts of it. Maybe you should try reading it too."
She was challenged on the fact that some of the uninsured are uninsured voluntarily, and that HR3200 would take that choice away by forcing people to buy insurance. (One of the more well-founded criticisms, I think.) She countered by asking everybody in the audience who voluntarily chose to remain uninsured to raise their hand. Not one person did. "Very interesting", she said.
She also said, at one point, "I don't think anybody in this room wants to stand up and defend the practice of recission" ( when an insurance company drops a customer after that customer gets sick and attempts to collect on their policy). Total silence; nobody stood up. She pointed out that aside from the public option, none of the most important things HR3200 (and all the other bills in consideration) does is to make recission illegal, and that this is one of the ways the bill is trying to benefit the currently insured, not just to cover the uninsured.
I like Anna Eshoo a lot. Even though I think HR3200 is a pretty flawed bill (more about that later), I respect how she kept her cool under fire, schooled people with facts, took questions in good faith, and argued both the moral and economic rationales for why we need more coverage for more people. I find myself wanting to come to her defense against the people who were booing her.
Aside from the stupid questions, the other thing that pissed me off was that people just had to politicize everything she said. For example, she mentioned Ted Kennedy, and all the conservatives booed (really? so soon? no respect for the dead at all?), and all the liberals clapped louder to try to cover up the booing. Later she mentioned Ronald Reagan — not to praise his policies, just to establish the time frame of a certain Medicare reform — and all the liberals booed while all the conservatives clapped. Now what was the point of that?
Naked partisanship is an ugly, ugly thing. It's politics as war, as zero-sum game, where winning is not about passing laws that improve people's lives, it's about inflicting damage on the opposing team. It brings out the worst in human beings.
Said naked partisanship doesn't belong soley to the hecklers and anti-reform protestors in the current controversey. It exists on both sides. There was no reason for liberals to boo the name Ronald Reagan, except to, I dunno, express their team spirit, like soccer hooligans. He's dead, and although I don't agree with a lot of the stuff he did, his policies were not the topic of what we were talking about, and booing him has nothing to do with reforming health care.
Similarly, it's easy to dismiss the hecklers/tea-partiers as a bunch of angry cranks who can't get over the fact that their side lost the election last year. A lot of them would be protesting pretty much any serious reform plan by the Obama administration, regardless of its merits or flaws. It's also easy to laugh at them given the absurd falsity and illogic of some of their core arguments.
But you know what? I think it's too easy. For people like me who are generally pro-reform, it is too too easy to dismiss the opposition and, in dismissing them, overlook serious problems with HR 3200 and other proposals. These problems exist. It's fine to point out the stupidity and racism of some of the protest signs the opposition is waving, but doing so isn't going to make HR 3200's problems go away.
I don't know how many other people in the audience were like me — generally in favor of reform, but skeptical on the particulars, not ideologically committed to one particular method, and there because we wanted to ask questions and learn something. But whoever else was in that camp must have been as disappointed as I was that Eshoo had to spend so much time answering stupid troll questions and admonishing people to quiet down.
My aunt needs $10,000 of dental surgery to fix a bone infection in her upper jaw resulting from a botched root canal years ago.
Insurance would pay for fixing the bone infection, but it would not pay for replacing her top front tooth, which would need to be removed. She'd be walking around with a giant gap in her smile.
Missing your front teeth is no fun: it makes you a bit of a social outcast, and makes it hard to eat a lot of things, but the insurance company can't afford to think about those things. Their job is to keep prices down for their customer base as a whole. I'm not just being snarky here: if we want health insurance to be able to keep medical prices down (and what other purpose is there for health insurance?) then we should want insurance companies look at things with a "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" mentality. Using that cold, Spock-like logic, it makes sense to pay to fix the bone infection, which could be life-threatening in the long term, but not to pay for the front-tooth replacement.
In other words, to ration their payments.
We keep hearing objections to any form of government intervention in the healthcare industry on the grounds that it would lead to rationing, i.e. some government bureaucrat is deciding whether you deserve to have your treatment paid for or not.
And you know what? It's true. There is a finite amount of resources out there that can be used for medical treatments. Government-provided health care (public option or single payer) will involve bureaucrats making decisions about rationing of care. Yes.
But, uh... This is different from private insurance companies how? Bureaucrats employed by private insurance companies are making these same sorts of rationing decisions right now, about my aunt's teeth and a million other things.
There is perhaps an argument to be made that private insurance company bureaucrats have incentives to be more accountable to individual needs than government ones do, because it's easier to switch insurance companies than to switch governments. But you try actually switching insurance companies, or try bargaining with them on rates or coverage, or for that matter try getting a human being to answer the phone, and see how much the insurance company cares about keeping one person's business.
It's pure wishful thinking to believe that any system will be able to give free unlimited medical care to everyone. There are a finite amount of resources to be used to pay for treatments. Whoever is doing the paying is going to have to say "no" to some requests. If you want treatment above and beyond that level you're going to have to pay for it yourself. This is true under any system. Thinking that public-option, or single-payer, care will end all need for rationing, as some reform supporters do, is daydreaming. But to claim we don't already have rationing in the current private market, as some reform opponents do, is to be oblivious to reality.
They're voting on gay marriage in Maine right now
...And I'm super nervous about it. I didn't expect it to have this effect on me, since it's a vote that doesn't affect my life in any way. I only care about it as a matter of principle. Nevertheless, I've got a serious case of the jitters as I wait to hear how it turns out.
Maine currently allows same-sex marriage. It was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, like in Vermont; it was not "imposed" by "activist judges" like in Iowa. Question 1 on the Maine ballot would overturn this law, if the "Yes" side gets more than 50% of the vote. It's California's proposition 8 all over again!
It seriously bothers me that a bare 50% majority can pass a ballot initiative that takes equal rights, already legally granted, away from a minority. You sometimes hear of "the tyranny of the majority" as one of the biggest problems with democracy; well, here it is in action.
The polling in Maine makes it too close to call. It all depends on turnout. FiveThirtyEight gives a slight advantage to the NO side (i.e. the pro-gay side).
This blog is covering the "No on 1" get-out-the-vote operation from the inside. It's pretty interesting, full of photos of the entirely unglamorous reality of political canvassing, long hours with phones and clipboards, etc. Quote:
The next generation will remember "Yes on 1" voters the way we remember people who believed black folks should drink from separate water fountains. I absolutely guarantee you that.
ME Q1 = CA Prop8 <:-(
Update: our side lost. Results here.
Looks like the margin of defeat was almost the same as Prop 8 in California, despite the very different population density, demographics, etc. of Maine. Maine is so white that hopefully nobody will try to pin the blame on black people this time, as some did last year.
Also interesting that Maine legalized medical marijuana (by such a large margin), which I approve wholeheartedly, but that's a whole nother blog rant.
FiveThirtyEight has analysis of all last night's races, and ponders why they got Maine so wrong.
Meanwhile, Washington passed a domestic partnership law which gives same-sex couples the same legal rights as opposite-sex married couples. So, that's good. In Washington they'll have marriage in all but name. An acceptable compromise, if you think the legal rights are more important than the symbolic victory, as I tend to do.
On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan thinks the symbolism is important too, because:
"The truth about civil marriage - why it is the essential criterion for gay equality - is that it alone explodes this core marginalization and invisibility of gay people."
He is heart-broken, but points out that:
"A decade ago, the marriage issue was toxic. Now it divides evenly. Soon, it will win everywhere."
Two horrible signs
When I was walking around Mountain View one Sunday, I saw two horrible signs.
The first one was taped to a window and it said:
CORPORATE CAPITALISM IS TO DEMOCRACY AS RAPE IS TO MARRAIGE
Whoa, dude! Calm down there! First: Trivializing rape? Not cool. Second: I'm pretty sure you would fail the analogies portion of the verbal SAT with this one. Third: What do you mean by "corporate" capitalism? Is it different from regular capitalism?
If you wanna say "Industry lobbyists have way too much influence over congress" then I will be the first to agree with you, but rape? seriously? Have you thought this through at all? As I was walking past a little boy saw this and read it out loud and asked his mom what it meant; I didn't stick around to hear her answer.
The second horrible sign was on this PETA car that I've seen around Mountain View a couple times. It was decorated with grisly slaughterhouse pictures. One side of it was all
IS YOUR BODY AN ANIMAL GRAVEYARD?
...and the other side was all...
EVERY DAY IS A HOLOCAUST FOR ANIMALS!
Gee, thanks for trivializing the Holocaust, PETA. Tasteful as always. Stuff like this makes me less likely to ever become vegetarian.
Anyway, I guess these signs are good reminders that craziness exists everywhere on the political spectrum and is not limited to the kind of paranoids who are currently making video games about overthrowing Obama.
I got phone polled on politics!
A couple weeks ago (the weekend when I was sick and moving house, actually) I got a call froma strange number and it was the voice of a little old lady from some research firm doing a telephone poll on a potential California ballot proposition.
My first instinct was to hang up, but then I thought, "Let's stick around and find out what this process is actually like. Who knows, maybe this poll will end up on FiveThirtyEight or something." So I answered her stupid questions politely.
She started with a bunch of generic questions to determine my political affiliation; they were all multiple choice and I kept wanting to answer "None of the above!". Like, who am I going to support for CA governor in 2010? How should I know? We don't even know who's going to be on the ballot in the primaries, let alone the general. Stupid question. (I didn't blame her for the stupid questions; she didn't write the script, she just had a crappy job.)
She also asked how many hours a week I watch local TV news. I said "Zero". She thought I didn't understand the question and started asking it again. I had to interrupt and say "No, I really did mean zero. I have never watched the local TV news at all." I guess for her generation, getting all your news from the Internet is still pretty weird.
Then we got to the real questions, about the potential ballot initiative. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of the really boring ones; it was something about not being able to tax hospitals unless the money was then earmarked for handicapped kids or something.
One of those things which sounds great at first glance, until I started thinking: aren't most hospitals tax-exempt already? And even if they weren't, wouldn't they be taxed like corporations - on profits, not income? And isn't CA in the middle of a horrible budget crisis that will pretty much leave us with no choice but to raise taxes in all sorts of places that we'd rather not? What's really going on here? Is this going to be part of a wave of special interests trying to preemptively protect themselves from shouldering any part of the inevitable tax burden?
That's the point where I realize that I don't know enough to make any kind of intelligent decision about this proposition; to be perfectly honest if I read it on a real ballot, I would probably skim the Pro and Con arguments, get confused, and leave it blank.
I tried to tell the pollster lady that, but she had a script to follow. She went over the wording of the proposition, and the pro and con arguments, clause by frickin' clause, and asking me to rate my reaction to each clause. Seriously! I guess that's the kind of nonsensical focus-group analysis that these advocacy groups use to decide the wording of things they put on ballots. Stupid.
I kept trying to tell her that my opinion could not be traced to any particular clause, that each was literally meaningless without the others, and that I wouldn't vote on this thing at all without doing more research. She was sympathetic but still she had a job to do and couldn't end the call until I had given an answer to each question. By the end I had gone from neutrality to having a strong desire to vote against the stupid proposition because the process was so braindead.
Anyway, the whole experience made me doubt how much any poll you read reflects the actual views of the people in question, as opposed to reflecting how questions were worded and what sort of people are masochistic enough to not just instantly hang up on pollsters.
Why the hell are we subsidizing homebuyers now?
So you may have heard that the government is handing out $8,000 credits to people buying houses for the first time. Certain people have even urged me and Sushu to buy a house while this subsidy is still in effect. (Never mind the fact that the price of houses in Silicon Valley means that $8,000 is less than 1% of the cost of a small house, so it would be a mere drop in the bucket.)
This seems like really bad policy to me. This soon after the housing bubble (combined with epic amounts of speculation with borrowed money) destroyed our economy, when we still haven't finished unwinding and deleveraging all the bad investments from the housing bubble, why the hell would the government enact a subsidy that seems designed to encourage re-inflation of the housing bubble?
It reminds me of this Onion article come to life: Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In.
Anyway, it seems like my intuition was right, because everything I read about it says that economists all pretty much agree that It's a horrible policy that could wind up prolonging, if not worsening, the housing crisis.. And yet, it sailed through the Senate with basically no opposition; it was nearly a unanimous vote. Yes, the Senate, the same body that can't agree on bathroom breaks without a month of grandstanding and obstructionism. From the same article:
This is something where despite bipartisan opposition to it from experts, there seems to be massive bipartisan support for it on Capitol Hill.
Senators know nothing about economics? What a surprise!
We're apparently throwing $35 billion into this housing subsidy despite the fact that the government subsidizing mortgages and making credit artificially easy is part of what got us into this mess in the first place!
Meanwhile The Economist says that even though we probably do want the government to give money away in order to put demand back into the economy, the housing credit is about the least efficient way imaginable to do so since most of the money goes to people who would have been buying houses anyway and are now just buying slightly bigger houses. There are so many better ways we could be spending those $35 billion, such as hiring unemployed people to do public works projects, FDR-style.
Not only that, but people have apparently been committing all kinds of fraud in order to collect the free money.
As if all that weren't bad enough, finally there's the fact that the subsidy is
encouraging evnironmentally harmful land use and energy use patterns, because single-family houses are less efficient to heat and require more driving compared to apartments.
If you ask me, Americans need to get over this idea we have that everybody should live in a house with a yard and a picket fence. There's nothing wrong with renting, and we don't need the government to intervene to tilt the balance of the economy away from rentals towards homeownership. Even more than that, Americans need to get over this idea we have that houses are primarily an investment, a source of free money, that they always increase in value, and that you can always borrow money against them with no risk. Americans lived in this fantasy for decades, and even now after it's been shown to be a fantasy by the near collapse of the economy, people want the government to cast a spell and make them believe in the fantasy again?
Why do people gotta go crazy and shoot people?
On my previous post, Googleshng had a comment about the Fort Hood shooting:
...what was with the crazy terrorism angle getting covered ALL DAY by the news networks there? People don't need crazy conspiracy theories when people snap and shoot up post offices or high schools, and I would kinda think spending a few months talking to people who had limbs blown off then being told you had to go where they all just came from is at LEAST a good enough reason to lose it as the other kids at school never talking to you.
Oh, but people DO come up with conspiracy theories to explain shootings of post offices and high schools. Remember how DOOM was responsible for Columbine? People are desperate to believe there's a pattern or a greater meaning in these tragedies, or at least a group they can blame for it. Anything to avoid facing the fact that formerly sane human beings are capable of committing such great evil of their own free will.
Somebody I know at work said in response to the shooting: "That's the problem with the Army: everybody has guns." I couldn't tell whether he was being sarcastic or profound.
When I first heard about the shooting, when nobody knew who did it yet, I remember thinking "Please don't let it be a Muslim, please don't... oh crap." I knew that people were going to play this up into a whole new round of Muslim-bashing. And now that's just what they're doing.
The fact that a the shooter was a Muslim shouldn't be used as "proof" that all Muslims are dangerous any more than the fact that the Columbine shooters were high-school students should be used as "proof" that all high-schoolers are dangerous.
I am really curious why nobody at Fort Hood seems to have caught the many warning signs about Nidal Hasan. Apparently he was known for giving scary fundamentalist rants in public about how those who don't believe in the Koran should have their throats cut and be set on fire. And nobody saw this as a problem? WTF?
Like I said, most Muslims are not scary extremists and you shouldn't stereotype them as such. But when there's such clear evidence that this particular Muslim, Nidal Hasan, actually is a scary extremist, then maybe you should consider, like, not giving him guns.
Who else has gotten the Nobel Peace Prize?
Like most people, I said WTF when Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Like, for what? He hasn't done anything yet. Certainly nothing Nobel Peace Prize -worthy anyway. Are we now awarding prizes for things people have promised to do? (In which case, I promise to make Israel and Palestine stop fighting. Where's my prize?) Or is this just the "congratulations, you're not George W. Bush" prize?
Anyway I decided to take a look through the previous recipients of the NPP to see what kind of company Mr. O is in. Here's the complete list.
Along with many names you'd expect to see, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, etc. *, the NPP has been given to:
- Theodore Roosevelt, who rose to fame as a war hero in the Spanish-American war, then as President supported a revolution in Panama against Columbia in order to get a Panamanian government willing to cede us the land to build a canal;
- Yasir Arafat, who in 2000 at Camp David rejected an offer by Israel that would have given Palestinians 90%+ of what they wanted, a choice which led directly to the Second Intifada and the current miserable situation;
- Henry Kissinger, champion of Realpolitik, who at the time had just finished secretly bombing Cambodia, a neutral country, to get an advantage in the Vietnam War, a strategy which may have worsened the Cambodian civil war, which led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Many years later Kissinger supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and advised the Bush administration on the details — and we know how that turned out.
Even I have trouble thinking of a snarky comment to describe the irony of these guys getting the Nobel "Peace" Prize.
Also on the list, in the last decade:
- Jimmy Carter
- Al Gore
Noticing a pattern? Well-meaning but relatively unaccomplished Democratic party politicians seem to be a very popular choice with the committee of late.
Ultimately, Obama's prize should be taken as what the Nobel Peace Prize has always been — a relatively arbitrary honor based on the entirely subjective political views of five random Norwegians, and nothing more than that.
* - (They would have given it to Gandhi in 1948 but he died and they decided not to do posthumous prizes.)
Sunlight foundation Hackathon
The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to making information about our government's shenanigans more easily accessible, for the sake of transparency and accountability and all that good stuff. They do great stuff like document all the connections between the pharmaceutical lobby and the members of congress working on health care reform.
They're having a hackathon Dec 12-13. Mozilla is going to be holding one of the events. I'm going to do a project for it.
But what? I don't know yet. I need to think of something cool. Some kind of interactive mash-up or data visualization or cool map based on publicly available governmental info; something that makes a strong point with data and that hasn't been done before.
I'm looking for suggestions, so let me know if there's any correlation you'd particularly like to see.
COUNTRY OF SHEEP GOVERNMENT OF WOLVES!
I saw a bumper sticker the other night. It said "COUNTRY OF SHEEP / GOVERNMENT OF WOLVES". It was obviously hand-drawn and pasted on recently.
Is this a reaction to the health care reform bill passing the filibuster barrier in the Senate? Or what?
Look, I usually try to see political issues from both sides. And I can totally understand people not liking the approach that the Senate has been taking, thinking that the increased regulation will be ineffective or will make things worse. But a democratically elected liberal president and democratically elected liberal congressional majority campaigned on a promise to pass legislation regulating the health-insurance industry and now they're passing it. How the hell does that make us a "COUNTRY OF SHEEP / GOVERNMENT OF WOLVES" ? Trying to understand that point of view just makes my brain hurt.
Eh, maybe the bumper sticker was about something else. Or maybe the guy was just crazy.
I have turned my background green to express my support for the Iranian protesters and their Green Movement.
Shit is real over there right now. They always said the revolution would not be televised. Well, now a revolution is happening, and it's not being televised. The American cable TV news is barely touching it. The revolution is being captured with cell phone cameras and uploaded to YouTube where it is linked and blogged and re-blogged and analyzed. The protesters are organizing themselves through Twitter and text messages. This is the future.
The situation is complicated and keeps changing, but you can find good coverage of the latest developments on blogs like Enduring America, Iran News Now, Informed Comment, and The Daily Dish.
The Iranian regime are a bunch of election-stealing, holocaust-denying, women-hating religious fanatics who attack peaceful protesters with violent thugs. Those bastards need to go down. The protesters are really fucking brave to stand up to them. I hope they win.
Like Obama said:
What’s taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country. It’s about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves.
After all the talk over the last few years about whether we would have to invade Iran to stop them from building nuclear weapons, it's sometimes hard to remember this lesson: The world doesn't revolve around us. People in other countries are not helpless victims waiting for America to come rescue them. They're the protagonists of their own story.
Are we going to look back on Ashura 2009 like we look back on the fall of the Berlin wall? Will this be the undoing of the 1979 Islamic revolution? Or will the protests be brutally put down and the regime tighten its grip even further? I hope with all my heart the Green Movement prevails. If I was a religious man I'd be praying for them.
End the Filibuster Now
I feel a truly epic political rant coming on, this day when the Democrats are poised to once again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, after an excruciating year of farcical political theater that has revealed in glorious detail just how ridiculous and broken our system of government is.
But I can't write that rant right now, because I have to work. So I'll just say this: The Senate must get rid of the filibuster. Permanently. It's not how the Senate was designed to work in the Constiution. Historically it's done far more harm than good no matter which party has used it. It makes a mockery of representative democracy. It prevents senators from being held accountable for their decisions. And it is now clear that America is never going to be able to enact the reforms that everybody knows we need as long as the filibuster is there protecting the status quo.
Write to your senators and tell them you want to see them doing their job, which is voting on bills. Tell them to kill the filibuster.
"Isn't that illegal?"
My coworker Jinghua is from China. She's been here less than a year. I am her go-to guy for asking questions about American culture.
A couple days ago she said, "I keep seeing cartoons making fun of the president. Isn't that illegal?"
So, yeah, I had to explain that whole thing about how Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, and all that kind of stuff.
This was a really interesting conversation both for what it reveals about Chinese attitudes, and also because she kept pressing me on it until I admitted that, yes, actually we do have slander laws, and you can get sued in civil court if you knowingly and maliciously damage someone's reputation by spreading falsehoods about them. And then I had to try to explain the fine legal line between what's slanderous intentional falsehoods, and what's protected speech, and how parody and statements of opinion don't count as intentional falsehoods, and also how if you're an elected official than all bets are pretty much off and your whole life is a legitimate target for any kind of attack.
I realized that a lot of these lines are really complex and fuzzy, and it's not as simple as just saying "we have freedom of speech in this country".
But anyway, yeah, I'm glad it's not illegal to draw cartoons making fun of the president. I'm glad I live in a country where people have the freedom to parade around with signs that have Obama with a Hitler moustache or say "TAXES = SLAVERY".
And I'm glad that I am free to call those people obnoxious ignoramuses with no sense of proportion or knowledge of history, because that's what they are.
Anyway, Happy Fourth of July!
"Waaa! Waaa! Stop censoring me!"
Since there's such an interesting conversation going on in the comments of my previous post about free speech, I thought I'd talk about the most annoying misunderstanding people have of the concept.
Nobody's been doing this on my blog, but people do it ALL THE TIME in online political discussions and it drives me crazy. It goes like this:
- Say something that's stupid, hurtful, racist, hateful, or otherwise just plain wrong.
- Other people in the discussion call you out on the stupid shit you are saying.
- You wrap yourself in the flag and scream about your first amendment rights, censorship, how you are being oppressed, etc. etc.
- The discussion gets massively derailed and never gets back to the content of your original statement, so you are relieved of the burden of having to defend it. Great success!
One example I've seen a lot the past couple of years is conservatives calling Obama a Nazi... and then when people object, whining that they "aren't allowed" to call Obama a Nazi and that liberals want to censor them.
I'm like... Dude, what do you mean you're "not allowed to"? You just did. Disagreement is not the same as censorship.
When you have to watch the content of your speech to avoid *legal punishment*, that's censorship. Facing *social* ramifications for the content of your speech — e.g. the fact that if you say racist shit, people will shun you for being a racist — that has nothing to do with censorship, it's just other people using their freedom of association to not associate with you.
You have the right to say anything you want; I have the right to disagree with you and point out where you're wrong. That's how it works. If you want to convince people you're right, try engaging in actual discussion - asking questions, citing evidence, making better arguments, etc. instead of turning it into a meta-discussion about what you have the right to say.
Making a stirring monologue in defense of free speech in a conversation where nobody is even proposing censorship is as much of a non-sequitur as if you had started listing your favorite ice cream flavors. And it's generally the last refuge of people who can neither defend their statements nor admit when they're wrong.
Why I support marijuana legalization, and why you should vote Yes on Proposition 19
California has a proposition on the ballot this year, Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana.
I voted Yes. Hell, yes!
Not because I smoke the stuff, understand, or have ever had or ever will have any desire to smoke it. In fact, if it is legalized, as I hope it will be, I will be the first to encourage people not to smoke it. It's no worse for you than tobacco or alcohol, but those are still bad for you and so is marijuana. Don't toke up, kids.
So let me explain. I support legalization because I don't think everything that's bad for you needs to be illegal.
Alcohol is bad for you. Back in the 1920s, we tried a "noble experiment" of prohibiting it. What happened? People kept drinking it, of course, but it went underground. This led to consumption of unsafe bathtub gin containing poisonous wood alcohol; the domination of entire cities by gangsters funded by illicit alcohol sales; violent shootouts between said gangs; corruption of the police; mistrust between the police and the people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens but just wanted a drink now and then; etc. Prohibition was such a clear failure as policy that we passed a constitutional amendment to repeal it. The parallels to current drug policy are pretty clear.
Some people want to do drugs; they'll do drugs even if they're illegal; treating this consensual, if unhealthy, activity as a "crime" means empowering the police to be ever more invasive into our lives in order to search for the dreaded plants. The absurdity of the government, in a free country, telling adults what chemicals they are and are not allowed to put in their own bodies, and then throwing them in jail for consuming the wrong chemicals (as opposed to, say, sending them to a hospital to get treatment for addiction, that might actually help them) has led to a disturbingly high incidence of armed SWAT teams bursting in on people without search warrants. Whenever the USA declares war on an abstract concept - drugs, terrorism, DVD piracy -- our civil liberties lose out.
Aside from the civil liberties argument, there's the budget argument. California is broke; enforcing prohibition and keeping all those pot-smokers in jail is expensive. We'll save a ton of money, and go a long way to fixing prison overcrowding, by simply ending prohibition. If we manage to start taxing a newly above-ground marijuana industry, that's even better.
But even if we don't make any tax money off of it, it would still be a good idea to end prohibition. We'd free up police resources to go after real crimes - violent crimes, crimes with victims, rather than "crimes" that are merely voluntary vices.
Another good reason is to make it harder for teenagers to buy marijuana. Yes, that's right, harder. Sounds paradoxical? The thing is, it's already really really easy for teenagers to buy marijuana. Studies like this teen survey from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have shown that it's easier for teenagers to buy marijuana than beer!
Nearly one-quarter of teens (5.7 million) say they can get marijuana in an hour; four out of ten teens (10 million) can get marijuana within a day.
Legalization could actually make it harder for these teenagers to get drugs. Think of it this way - sellers of alcohol and tobacco card hard, i.e. they require photo ID with proof of age, because they can get into all sorts of serious legal trouble for selling to minors. Drug dealers are already in serious legal trouble for selling drugs at all, so what incentive do they have for carding people? They'll sell to anybody with money. But if marijuana was sold at legitimate, legal businesses, with reputations and operating licenses to protect, then those businesses would operate similar to how alcohol and tobacco sellers do today. Teenagers will still find ways to sneak it, of course; but if you think the current laws are preventing teenagers from sneaking it, you're in denial.
When teenagers can buy marijuana more easily than beer, it's time to admit that prohibition has failed. We fought the drug war; we lost. It's time to bring our laws into alignment with reality. Prop. 19 is the best chance I've seen so far in my lifetime to start doing that.
I should address that there's this weird thing going on with the Obama administration. Apparently Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he will "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws even if Prop. 19 passes. People are trying to figure out what he means by this. Is he saying that Californians do not have the right to decide what their own laws should be? Is he saying that he will send federal agents into California to round up pot smokers and try them - where, exactly? Under what constitutional authority? Alcohol prohibition required a national constitutional amendment; why does anyone think the feds could override California's state laws without a similar amendment?
Yes, there's the commerce clause - Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce... among the several States. Which by any sane reading should not apply to somebody growing herbs in California and selling them to other people in California. But apparently the Supreme Court has been interpreting that clause to mean whatever the hell it feels like, lately.
So who knows what will happen between CA and the feds if 19 passes. I think the administration's position on this is wrong, counterproductive, and nonsensical, but will they act on it? Somehow I suspect they're just posturing, and they'll have way more important things to focus on after Nov. 2 than provoking a big ugly showdown with California. The LA Times considered the possibility of said big ugly showdown a reason to vote against Prop 19, but personally I would kind of welcome it if we could actually have this argument and hash out these issues publically.
Aside from the whole Attorney General thing, the counterarguments to prop 19 keep shifting. Shifting the way they do when people are invested in the idea of the status quo and are flailing about looking for logical reasons to keep supporting it. The latest one I've heard is "Oh no, people will be driving stoned and cause traffic accidents". (You may have seen this as a banner ad on the web.) I'm glad to see that they are turning to more somewhat more reality-based arguments instead of "Reefer madness!" type arguments, which seem to have lost their power to scare. However, the "Oh no stoned drivers' argument, like most arguments for continuing the drug war, it ignores two very obvious facts:
- Pretty much anybody who wants to smoke weed is already smoking it. It's not like we're suddenly introducing a new intoxicant out of nowhere.
- Legalization doesn't mean "legalizing in every imaginable context". We have eminently reasonable laws against driving drunk, and against selling alcohol to kids; the common-sense thing to do is apply those same laws to marijuana: it should still be illegal to drive stoned and it should still be illegal to sell to minors.
Notably, the language of Prop. 19 allows for both of these exceptions, as it should.
Maintains existing laws against selling drugs to a minor and driving under the influence.
Maintains an employer's right to address consumption of cannabis that affects an employee's job performance.
So arguing that Prop. 19 is going to lead to a rash of stoned drivers is just disingenuous. So is the argument that it's going to lead to people being stoned on the street -- the proposition specifically allows use of "cannabis in a non-public place such as a residence or a public establishment licensed for on site marijuana consumption".
There are also strict penalties for selling marijuana to anyone under 21. And the proposition allows individual counties to opt in or opt out of allowing commercial sale within their borders, the same way that there are "dry" (i.e. no-alcohol) counties in various states.
In other words, Prop. 19 treats marijuana the same way we already treat alcohol, which is the only reasonable thing to do because the effects of marijuana are very similar to those of alcohol. Except that stoned people start fewer fistfights than drunk people.
Support Prop. 19 not just because it's a legalization measure, but because it's a really well thought-out and written legalization measure.
How I voted on all the California propositions and why
I voted by mail yesterday.
I basically didn't like any of the candidates for statewide races. They are lame and I don't even want to talk about them. I considered voting third party but since a lot of the polling has been pretty close I ended up reverting to "lesser of two evils" mode.
But enough about that. Let's talk about the half of the ballot I was actually excited to fill in. There are nine statewide propositions on the California ballot this year and some of them are issues I care about quite a lot.
- Prop 19: Marijuana legalization
- Prop 20: Anti-gerrymandering
- Prop 21: Charge car owners, use money to keep state parks open
- Prop 22: State can't appropriate local money
- Prop 23: Neuters air pollution control law
- Prop 24: Closes tax loopholes
- Prop 25: Pass laws with simple majority instead of 2/3 majority
- Prop 26: Require 2/3 majority for environmental fees/regulations
- Prop 27: Anti-anti-gerrymandering
The rest of this post explains how I voted and the reasoning behind my choices. If you can vote in California, please read this, and please don't forget to vote on Tuesday!
California, the ungovernable state, the state of perpetual budget crisis, the state of the ever-changing constitution. The state where it takes a 2/3 majority of the legislature to pass a budget, but only a simple majority of voters to modify the state constitution, overriding anything the legislature could do anyway. The predictable result is that we never have a functional budget, and we have a legal regime that lurches drunkenly about at the whims of an electorate asked to vote on an endless series of arcane and poorly-worded technical changes that it barely understands.
Well, at least this year there's a proposition for changing one of those things! (facepalm).
Yes on Prop 19 - Marijuana Legalization, for reasons I've already explained in great detail.
Yes on 20 and No on 27 - the redistricting propositions
These two propositions are so closely related - both have to do with redistricting - that it doesn't make sense to discuss them separately.
Redistricting is a hot topic right now because the 2010 census results are going to be used to redraw all the voting districts in California.
California is one of the most badly gerrymandered states, both for USA congressional districts and for state legislature districts. (I live in a district that doesn't include the next town over but does include random neighborhoods on the opposite side of a mountain range from us.) We have very few competitive elections; incumbents pick their voters to ensure their own safety. This is a big part of why nobody feels Sacramento is accountable.
In the last election we passed a ballot measure that established an independent body of 14 people to draw the district lines around areas of equal population, based on a set of criteria like compactness and preservation of community boundaries, for all the state legislative districts.
Prop 20 would expand the powers of this group to also draw the lines for USA congressional districts as well as state legislature districts. Prop 27, nearly the opposite, would undo the previous measure, disband the group, and give the line-drawing authority to the state legislature.
The Democratic campaign propaganda I got, if it took any position on propositions, was uniformly for 27 and against 20. This was where I had my biggest differences with them. California Democrats benefit a lot from uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts. So of course Democrats want preserve the status quo. The Republican campaign propaganda I got was also for 27 and against 20. Both parties benefit from having safe districts they don't have to compete for. But why should we let them?
I'm pretty sure Prop 27 is a bad idea. It would undo a reform before we have a chance to see whether the reform works or not. Maybe the independent body won't do a great job of creating competitive districts with non-joke boundaries, but it could hardly do a worse job, and I think it's worth giving it a shot. Besides, letting the legislature draw the boundaries for their own districts, as prop 27 would allow, is a pretty clear conflict of interest and a great way to let incumbents protect themselves from voters.
All of the "Yes on 27" arguments that I've gotten (they show up in my mailbox constantly) are very, very disingenuous. They don't spell out what the proposition actually does, because they know it would be a hard sell if they said "We want to let politicians keep drawing their own districts so they can be the ones deciding who will get to vote for them!" Instead the propoganda usually say "Stop wating our money on nonsense!". If you read further, the Prop. 27 supporters refer to the redistricting body as an "unelected bureaucracy", which sure sounds bad, and warns about the cost. But let's be clear: this is a bureaucracy of 14 people who would meet to do a single job once every 10 years. It's not a huge expansion of state government by any means. It's also funny how the yes on 27 website says the voters "grudgingly passed X by a bare 51-49 margin", as if to say "You voted for redistricting commission last time but you didn't really mean to, right?"
So I was very much opposed to 27, but somewhat undecided on 20. Maybe we should just try out the redistricting panel on the state legislature districts before we apply it to U.S. congress districts. I wiffled and waffled and eventually voted for it.
But after reading this article I kind of wished I hadn't. That article points out that buried in the language of prop 20 is a clause that requires a district to include areas with "similar living standards" and "similar work opportunities" which could be interpreted to actually force segregation by income level. That's a pretty bad idea.
Hm. Maybe I should have voted "no" on both 20 and 27. It's too late for me but it's not too late for you!
Yes on Prop 21: Increase car registration fee by $18, use the money to pay for keeping state parks open.
I voted yes for entirely selfish reasons: I love state parks and nature preserves, and I don't own a car. But if I did, I'd be happy to pay $18 to keep protecting awesome California nature spots like Muir Woods and the Big Sur. I think our state parks do important work for species conservation, for allowing scientists to study what unspoiled west-coast ecosystems were like, etc. And I don't see how we're going to keep them open without this funding.
On the other hand I do feel pretty selfish for voting in favor of a tax I'm not likely to have to pay myself. Hmm.
No on Prop. 22: Make it so the state can't raid money raised at the local level
I was waffling on this one, since I can see both sides, but Boriss gave me a link to this San Francisco Chronicle article, arguing for a No vote, which I found convincing enough. It's much the same logic as Yes on 25 - we're in a state budget crisis, we want our legislature to be able to pass balanced budgets on time, so we shouldn't be putting arbitrary restrictions on them, certainly not at a constitutional level, anyway.
No on Prop. 23: Suspends enforcement of air pollution law until unemployment decreases to a certain target
Specifically, Prop. 23 would suspend AB 32 (passed in 2006, set to take effect in 2012) until unemployment is down to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.
OK, so I understand what supporters of prop 23 are trying to say -- "let's get jobs back before passing any environmental laws that might prevent factories from opening" -- but I don't agree with it and I don't like the implementation.
Tying it to a specific unemployment number is really arbitrary. (If we go down this road, what else are we going to make laws contingent on? Dow Jones? Sunspots? Superbowl scores?) And the target they chose is wildly optimistic. There have only been 3 times since 1976 that unemployment was down to 5.5% for an entire year. So it's not like prop 23's trigger is some kind of return-to-the-baseline-condition. It's an "only when the stars align" kind of condition.
Laws against air pollution are important. Air pollution kills! More people - over 3,800 - died from respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution in southern California in 2006 than died from car crashes.
I don't see pollution controls as some kind of odious governmental overreach nor do I see them as a "bonus law" that we should get to have only when "all the basics are taken care of". Pollution controls are an essential part of having a civilized society. We wouldn't be a civilized society if random people were allowed to steal my property, kick me in the face, or put poison in my breakfast cereal with impunity. Why should they be allowed to degrade the air I'm breathing?
In other words, I'm saying that unlike adult marijuana prohibition, I believe the state does in fact have a legitimate interest in preventing people from polluting each others' air. Let me say it again: Air pollution kills!
To let polluters go free essentially means that society is subsidizing the dirtiest possible business models, by letting the business reap all the benefits while spreading the cost across all the people who breathe air. I see it as a more level playing field for competition if the polluter has to pay for the effects of their pollution - with the pollution properly priced into the cost of running any industrial process, less polluting business models have a chance to compete and the market can determine the optimal balance.
Yes on Prop. 24: Close tax loopholes
Specifically, prop 24 closes a loophole that allows companies to use a loss in one year to write down their profits in a following year or a preceding year in order to pay less taxes. That's right, companies in California are allowed to retroactively reduce their taxes by making past years less profitable on paper than they really were.
That sounded really, really fishy to me. So I voted Yes on 24.
I'm starting to vaguely regret this vote, because it's another example of ballot-box budgeting, which I'm generally against. And because I don't have a lot of confidence in my own ability to evaluate corporate tax policy at more than a knee-jerk level. I keep imagining that some fairy accountant will appear and explain to me the reasons why retroactively writing down your profits is actually a completely legit and necessary part of doing business and that I've screwed us out of job creation for no reason.
Argh, too late, I voted Yes already.
Yes on 25 and No on 26 - the legislative majority propositions
The California legislature currently requires a 2/3 majority to pass a budget or to raise taxes. (The only state in the country to require such a large supermajority for both of these things.)
California may be a "blue" state, but it has enough conservative rural areas that neither party is realistically able to achieve a 2/3 majority in the legislature.
That explains why, since 1980, the Legislature has met its June 15 constitutional deadline for sending a budget to the Governor five times. Five times out of 30, did you know that? The other 25 times it's been late because of gridlock.
Prop. 25 would make it a simple majority requirement, instead of a 2/3 supermajority, to pass a budget (but still a 2/3 supermajority to raise taxes).
Prop. 26, a near opposite, would impose a 2/3 supermajority requirement for the legislature to do even more things, namely to impose environmental regulations and fees.
I'm for 25 and against 26 because I think the 2/3 requirement for CA to pass a budget is a pretty silly state of affairs. I mean, why 2/3? A simple majority is the default way of doing things in democratic systems. As far as I'm concerned, the burden of proof is on supporters of the 2/3 majority requirement to explain why it's a good thing. And the last 30 years of budget deadlock pretty clearly refutes the idea that it's working.
CA's budget situation is a huge mess, and we're asking our elected representatives to fix it with one hand tied behind their backs.
Basically I just don't think the supermajority requirement leads to better legislation in the US Senate and I especially don't think it leads to better budgets in California. It just leads to gridlock and forces the state to operate without a legally approved budget for months at a time. It means that the budget we end up with has a wider base of support in some sense, but in practice that probably means more counterproductive compromises and special interest giveaways had to be made to get those last few votes that were needed for 2/3. I mean, it's not like we're talking about votes to go to war here, or to take rights away from people, or other drastic decisions that I could see putting a higher threshold on. We're talking about budgets that have to be passed every year, one way or another. So it's hard to see the 2/3 requirement helps anybody.
I understand the purpose, of course - they're trying to force the legislature to cut spending instead of raising taxes. How's that worked out for us so far? Not very well, I think.
The typical arguments against going to simple majority voting, as made by the piles of propaganda pamphlets that have been showing up in my mailbox, are that it would make it easier to raise taxes and spending.
But, um, wouldn't simple majority voting also make it easier to lower taxes and spending? It would make it easier to do anything, good or bad. If you want lower taxes and spending, shouldn't you, um, elect politicians who are for lower taxes and spending, rather than hobbling the legislature or holding the budget process hostage or trying to run the budget from the ballot box?
I mean we all love to hate on politicians but we live in a system where we elect people (and pay them) to do a certain job, in this case passing budgets. Why not let them do their job? (And then vote them out if we don't like how they do it?)
Heck, imagine if prop 25 passed AND the redistricting thing turns out to be effective. A simple majority voting requirement combined with competitive districts? That would be almost like representative democracy or something.
Still the ones we've been waiting for.
One of the things Obama said a lot during his campaign that resonated with me was "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
I'm sure some people interpreted this slogan as yet more evidence of a messiah complex, but to me it means quite the opposite: it's a message of independence and individual self-reliance; Obama is not the one you've been waiting for, YOU are. It's "Don't wait for someone else (i.e. the government) to make things better better; your life is in your own hands and always has been."
What it means to me is: Be engaged as far as following issues, voting, supporting campaigns, getting involved, but never count on politics to fix things, or to go your way (or even to make sense). Making life better is up to citizens, up to the individual people involved, not the government.
It was inspiring back in 2008, and no matter what you think of how the last two years have gone, it's even more important to remember now. Never count on politics to get a good outcome; it will disappoint you most of the time. At least half of elections, probably more like nine-tenths, will produce results you're unhappy with.
Not that elections don't matter; they matter a good deal, and bad policies lead to real harm to real people. But the vast majority of life lies outside the reach of politics, thank goodness. There are plenty of ways you can work to make the world a better place. There are plenty of ways you can work to make your own life better. And the vast majority of them are not constrained by the need for an electoral majority. They're not opportunities that are taken away from you just because your guy (or your proposition) lost out in the election. Your life is still in your own hands.
We are still the ones we've been waiting for.
Why I'm not voluntering for the 2012 campaign
Yesterday I ran into one of the volunteers I worked with during the 2008 Obama campaign.
He asked me whether I was going to volunteer again in 2012. I was like "Meh. Politics is kinda bullshit. I feel like there's better things to do with my time." He was like "Yeah, me neither."
Volunteer for Obama in 2012? Maybe if he closed fucking Guantanamo Bay like he promised. Or did any of that government transparency stuff he promised. Or undid some of the fourth-amendment-violating, spying-on-citizens stuff in the Patriot Act. Or opposed COICA and the 'internet kill switch' legislation. Or had a serious plan for balancing the budget. Or offered anything on energy independence beyond nice words.
You know, if he actually kept some of the promises that got me interested in supporting him in the first place, I might be interested in working for the campaign again. Otherwise, I got better stuff to do next year. Like try to make things better outside the political sphere, where it's easier to make a difference.
Back in 2008, during the first campaign, I tried -- as an experiment -- suspending my usual cynicism toward politics, and embracing that whole 'hope' thing. And the results of that experiment? Well...
I admit the lack of progress isn't entirely the Democrats' fault. Part of the reason I supported Obama in the first place was because of his "there are no red states or blue states" mantra. He wanted to get beyond phony culture-war issues, find common ground with the other side, and get some serious work done. So did I.
That obviously didn't happen. I was naiive to think it could. It takes two to compromise, after all, and I completely underestimated the vitriol, hatred, resentment, paranoia, illogic, and total scorched-earth obstructionism the Republicans were going to bring to bear. There is no compromise with those guys. If you try to meet them halfway, they just keep moving the goalposts to the right and redefine your new position as anti-American Bolshevism.
The biggest irony of the last two years is that the ACA is very similar to what the Republicans proposed as a conservative alternative to Clinton's health care plan in the 90s, and almost identical to what Romney did in Massachusetts. The Democrats had to spend all their political capital, compromise everything they wanted, face down shameless and pernicious lies, endure being called Nazis, and fight tooth and nail against the most vicious partisan opposition I've ever seen, in order to pass... a Republican-style health care plan. Now who knows if it will even survive to implementation, let alone achieve any of its intended effects.
Seeing how Obama and sixty senate Democrats (the largest majority I'm likely to see in my lifetime) chose to spend their political capital; seeing how badly compromised is their signature achievement; and seeing how little movement there has been on any of the issues that got me involved in the campaign in the first place, has proven to my satisfaction that electing Democrats does not result in the policies that I want. They used the labor of myself and the other volunteers to gain power, but their agenda is not mine and never was.
I'll still vote for them, but strictly in a lesser-of-two-evils kind of way. I'm done hoping that putting Democrats in office will ever accomplish anything positive. At best, they fuck things up less than the Republicans would have. Maybe that's the most anyone ever should have hoped for out of politics: A slight decrease in the rate at which the country goes to hell in a handbasket.
I'm not angry, exactly. Just feeling like, well, my original position of cynicism towards politics was entirely justified, and that my participation in an election campaign was an experiment with a negative result. I haven't become anti-Obama. I still defend him from the absurd accusations the right likes to make ("socialism"? really? where?). I've just accepted that we didn't get the transformation we hoped for. Instead we got a middling-to-OK president who's continuing most of Bush's policies while being somewhat less bad on many issues. And instead of a liberal-conservative reconciliation leading to some kind of working compromise, we've got a more vicious partisan divide than ever.
I don't think I'll support a candidate again. If I'm going to give political participation another try, I think I'll try agitating directly for a particular issue. That may be more effective than supporting a particular candidate (who may or may not do what you want once elected). Maybe there's a cause worth supporting on the state or local level.
Copying Is Not Theft
...no matter how much the MPAA and RIAA want you to believe it is. Unauthorized copying of copyrighted material is illegal, yes, but it is a different and distinct crime from the crime of theft.
If I steal something from you, then you don't have it anymore. Stealing is both morally and legally wrong because it deprives another person of their property.
If you record a song and I duplicate that recording, you still have the original recording. I may have violated your legal rights, I may have marginally reduced the likelihood of you obtaining future profits from your recording, but I haven't stolen your property.
Equating the words "copy" and "steal" makes semantic gibberish out of both of them. It confuses the issue. Which of course is the point. Large copyright-holding industries have been waging a Newspeak campaign to confuse the language in hopes of transferring the moral stigma of theft onto the act of duplicating copyrighted materials.
Plagarism, the act of claiming someone else's work as your own, could perhaps more reasonably be called a form of theft, but plgarism isn't what I'm talking about here. People sharing unauthorized movie files on the internet aren't trying to pass those movies off as their own work.
Calling copying "piracy" is even sillier. Piracy is the act of hijacking a ship by force, murdering, kidnapping, or enslaving its crew, and stealing its cargo. It's a violent crime that leaves people rotting at the bottom of the sea. How is duplicating the bits of a video file in any way comparable?
(If you want a cute name, call it "bootlegging". i.e. making and selling alchohol to people who wanted it but couldn't obtain it legally, a fairly apt analogy.)
Here's what copyright law is. As a society, we want to encourage people to publish their creative work and make it easier for creators to earn a living from that work. To make this possible we set up a law wherein the governemnt grants the creator of a work a temporary legal monopoly over the right to make copies, literally a "copy-right". It was invented in a time when the only form of mass duplication was the printing press, so the original copyright laws are mostly about who has the right to print copies of a book (or a piece of sheet music).
To enforce this artificial monopoly, the government started restricting the right of other people to print copies of that book. Notice what is happening here: normally, I have freedom of the press as guaranteed by the first amendement, meaning if I own a printing press I can print whatever I want. The restrictions placed on me by copyright law are an exception to the press freedom I otherwise have. (This is important to understand now that the Internet has effectively given everyone a printing press.)
As a society we've decided that this restriction on press freedom is an acceptable trade-off because we believe that if anyone can make copies of any book, it becomes too hard for a writer to make a living at writing, and then we won't have any books at all.
And this is probably true. That's why we've applied the same logic to each new form of media that has been invented since the printing press - recorded music, movies, TV programs, software, etc.
So the existence of copyright law is entirely reasonable. I'm not saying abolish copyright law, and I don't endorse violating it. You should think of the potential effect on the livelihood of artists, writers, musicians, etc. before copying something, and remember that you might be trying to sell work of your own someday.
But I am saying: recognize copyright for what it is. It's not some sort of absolute moral law or self-evident truth. It's an artificial government-imposed restriction on our freedom that we accept as the price for supporting a professional creative class in our society.
So when media companies lobby congress to impose draconian blacklist laws; or to keep extending the term of copyright for decades after the death of the creator; or they use legal threats to squash promising student technology projects just because the technology might be used to copy media; or they sue a 13-year-old girl for swapping a few MP3s; or they try to secretly install malware on our computers to stop us from copying files...
When media companies do these things, and justify it by invoking the need to fight "theft" or "piracy"; remember to ask yourself: Is this actually furthering the intended purpose of copyright law? How much further is it restricting our freedom, and is it worth the price? Is it something truly needed to keep creative people in business?
Or is just it an abuse of power by hugely rich and powerful media corporations who don't like facing competition?
SOPA/PROTECT IP: Congress, under orders from Hollywood, wants to kill the internet
Since industry lobbyists basically run Congress, and since Congress is full of human fossils who are confused by any technology newer than a photocopier, Congress is always proposing some horrible new bill to censor, regulate, and/or stifle technological innovation on the internet.
Their latest effort is one of the worst yet, and it has a very high danger of passing. Not only is there a lot of Hollywood and record company money behind it, it also has huge bipartisan support, with like 40 Senate co-sponsors.
(which proves once again that bipartisanship is no guarantee that an idea is any good. Sometimes "Bipartisan" is code for "This idea has enough big-government overreach to please Democrats, AND enough violation of human rights to please Republicans." The Patriot Act had huge bipartisan support, for example.)
Anyway the Senate version of this horrible thing is called "PROTECT IP" (a really awkward backronym). The House version is called "E-PARASITES" (an even more awkward backronym) or "SOPA" (Stop Online Piracy Act).
Full text of SOPA (PDF).
Full text of PROTECT IP (PDF).
The house version is supposedly worse, but the basic idea behind all of them is that the large media corporations who own a lot of copyrights want to be able to force any site off of the internet as soon as they accuse it of copyright infringement. For foreign sites, the copyright holder just has to tell the US attorney general "this site is infringing" and, with no chance for the site owners to defend themselves in court, the site is added to a nationwide blacklist of sites which all internet service providers will be forced to block. For domestic sites, the copyright holder just has to tell credit card companies and advertisers that the site is violating copyright; with no requirement that the copyright holder prove their case in court, the credit cards and advertisers would be required to cut off all business with the accused site within five days. Search engines would have to remove links to the accused site as well.
Even though I personally have my doubts that copyright infringement is morally equivalent to theft, let's assume for the sake of argument that it is. Let's assume that copyright infringement is a really serious problem and that stopping it is important enough that we need a sweeping new law to stop infringement on the internet. This bill still goes way too far. It has enormous potential for abuse.
The way it's written, even a single copyright-infringing post on a site by one of that site's users could lead to the entire site getting shut down. This would make many of the most popular web-based companies, services, and business models effectively impossible. And since the accuser doesn't have to prove in court that the accused site is violating copyright, there's no way to be sure that the application of the law will be restricted to fighting copyright infringement. Not only could a site get shut down for having one infringing file, it could get shut down for having zero infringing files, because a copyright holder made a false accusation. The site is treated as guilty until proven innocent.
By setting up a national blacklist -- it's been called a "Great Firewall of America" -- the proposed law would let corporations use the power of the government to censor any website they don't like, including vast swaths of perfectly legitimate content. If you care at all about free speech on the internet, this bill needs to be stopped or at least hevily modified.
The current law, the DMCA, has a "safe harbor" provision stating that when a copyright holder notices infringing content on a site, they can contact the site owner and request that the content be taken down. If the site owner takes the content down when requested, then they can't be sued for it. Even this compromise leaves room for legal harassment by copyright holders in the form of spurious takedown requests, but it's a basically functional compromise between internet freedom and the rights of media companies which has worked out OK for the last 13 years.
The new blacklist bill does away with safe harbor protection. Meaning if any user of a site posts infringing content, the whole site can get blacklisted. Once it's blacklisted, credit card companies and advertisers have 5 days to cut off all business with the blacklisted site.
There is no way that any site hosting user-generated content can survive under this legal regime, which makes a site liable for anything that any of its users might post. The action of a single user posting a single infringing file can get the whole site blacklisted.
Here's a real example: I posted video of myself singing Happy Birthday (a copyrighted song) on Vimeo. Under the current DMCA law, the copyright holder could make Vimeo take that video down. Under the new blacklist law, the copyright holder could force Vimeo out of business. Vimeo might have the resources to fight the case in court but they might not, and they're treated as guilty until proven innocent. Not only my illegal accordion playing, but all the millions of other completely legitimate videos hosted on the site, would be lost to the internet as part of a disproportionate punishment for the actions of one criminal individual.
This new legal regime would make hosting any user-generated content incredibly risky. No commercial website would dare to risk leting users post their own content when it could get the whole site blacklisted. User-generated content is more or less the backbone of every website started since 2004 or so. Some of the world's highest-traffic websites like Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia never could have gotten off the ground under the blacklist regime. Neither could any discussion forum, any wiki, or any blog that allows posting comments.
Maybe this is what the movie and music industry lobbyists pushing this bill actually want. They don't just want to get infringing videos off of YouTube: they would rather not have YouTube exist at all. They have a long history of trying to stamp out new technologies just because those technologies could be used for copyright infringement, never mind how many beneficial uses that technology has. For example, in 1976 Universal Studios and Disney tried to stifle the VCR by claiming in court that Sony (who had just invented Betamax) should be responsible for any infringement (e.g. taping of movies) committed by home Betamax users. (They lost).
The end of user-generated content on the web would be bad enough. But that's not all! SOPA/PROTECT IP has even worse provisions lurking inside.
The bill makes "streaming" (whatever that means) copyrighted work over the internet a federal felony punishable by up to 5 years of jail time. It's ambiguous whether the poster of the content or the hosting site is the one doing the "streaming" according to the bill. If it's the poster, I could go to jail because I sang Happy Birthday to my sister over the internet. If it's the hosting site, I could go to jail because one of my commenters used my site to sing Happy Birthday over the internet and I didn't take it down fast enough.
So far I've been talking how far the bill overreaches in the case of posts that actually infringe copyright. But because of the lack of oversight and lack of due process, website owners are still going to have to worry even if nothing copyright-infringing ever gets posted on their site. You can get put on the blacklist without a trial. The accuser doesn't have to prove that you infringed their copyright. Once they accuse you, you're assumed guilty until proven innocent. You can take the copyright holder to court to try to get your blacklisting overturned, but by that point the damage to your business has been done, and how many smalltime website operators will have the resources to fight Viacom and Time-Warner in court anyway?
What about the many cases where part of a copyrighted work is used in a way that's legal under fair use doctrines -- like parody, reviews, etc. Are copyright owners going to be able to use this new law to shut down people doing completely legal and legitimate things with their work? They'll be able to shut you down just by accusing you, and the cost of fighting them in court to prove that your use was fair use will be far too high.
They could even accuse you in cases where you've done nothing wrong, either due to honest mistakes or malevolence, and suddenly you have to choose between trying to take them to court or giving up on having a website.
(It's worth remembering why the right to a fair trial, with the burden of proof on the accuser, is such a good legal principle to stand by. It's not just because we believe that imprisoning an innocent person is morally worse than letting a guilty person go free. It's also because without this protection, accusations are a weapon that can be leveled at anyone, based on grudges, unpopular political opinions, anything at all. The way that accusations of witchcraft were used to terrorize women in puritan New England, or accusations of counter-revolutionary ideas were used to terrorize people in communist countries.)
The blacklist won't be restricted to real copyright violations. Once you establish a blacklist there's pretty much no way it won't be used for censorship, repression, and harassment of legitimate sites.
For domestic sites, the blacklist cuts off their sources of income. But for foreign sites, it's even worse: the blacklist would force all American ISPs and DNS servers to prevent the URL from resolving, blocking the site from being seen at all by anybody inside the USA. This is much the same as the way China prevents its citizens from seeing foreign sites like Wikipedia and Blogger.
Again, there's no requirement that the copyright holder prove the site is infringing, and no chance for the site owners to defend themselves in court. The copyright holder just goes to the Attorney General and gets a court order saying "block this", and then all the ISPs are forced to block it.
How long before this gets abused to censor sites for reasons that have nothing to do with copyright infringement? Say some foreign news site like the BBC or Al-Jazeera publishes a story critical of the U.S. government. The government makes a bogus claim of copyright infringement and uses their new blacklist powers to block the BBC or Al-Jazeera from the American internet. Now the U.S. government is controlling what its citizens are allowed to see and hear from other countries.
This is why it's so dangerous to let the government have the power of a national blacklist. Even if the stated purpose of the blacklist is to fight copyright infringement, it is a giant invitation to censorship.
Another small but terrible detail of the bill is that it criminalizes software that would let people get around the blacklist. Software written by American free-speech advocates to help, say, Chinese people get around government censorship of the internet could now, ironcially, be illegal in America.
90 legal professors have signed a letter calling PROTECT IP unconstitutional because it supresses speech without an adversarial hearing -- i.e. the accused gets no chance to defend themselves in court before being blacklisted off the internet.
The letter says the law "represents the biggest threat to the Internet in its history".
We have to fight this thing.
Yay we won the War on Terror, can we have our civil liberties back now please?
OK, so Osama bin Laden's dead! That means the war on terror is over now and we won, right? So can we have our civil liberties back now please?
Today the Senate is voting on S 1867, the Defense Authorization bill, which is a routine bill approving the $663 billion military budget. The enormity of the military budget during a time of huge deficits is a problem in its own right (What we spend on our military is almost as large as what the entire rest of the world spends, put together -- what, are we planning on fighting all of them at once??) but there's an even more pressing issue.
Some legislation snuck into the bill by the Democratic-led Armed Services Committee -- against the President's wishes -- would give the President the power to imprison people, including U.S. citizens, indefinitely, without charge or trial, both abroad and inside the United States.
Who needs that pesky 5th amendment? I'm sure this power will only be used on real terrorists and never abused by the government or applied to the wrong person by mistake.
(note: this post contains sarcasm.)
An amendment proposed by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) would delete the horrible provisions and replace them with something sane.
Meanwhile, there is another horrifying amendment being proposed to the same bill:
If passed, an amendment introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to the Defense Authorization bill would roll back torture prevention measures that Congress overwhelmingly approved in the 2005 McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, as well as a 2009 Executive Order on ensuring lawful interrogations. It would also require the administration to create a secret list of approved interrogation techniques in a classified annex to the existing interrogation field manual.
I'm calling my senators right now and telling them to vote yes on the Udall amendment and no on the Ayotte amendment. You can find out the numbers for your Senators here.
Torture, imprisonment without trial, and internet censorship -- is Congress feeling jealous of 3rd world dictatorships lately?
I used to think that this stuff was all Bush's fault and that when we got rid of him we would go back to respecting the constitution and the rule of law. I was wrong. The desire to use terrorist attacks as an excuse to turn America into a police state, where people can be disappeared and tortured, apparently runs strong in both parties even ten years later. They'll never let the War on Terror be over. It's too useful.
American Censorship Day
The internet blacklist bill I wrote about has sailed through judiciary hearings. This was unsurprising because the hearings were stacked with three witnesses in favor and only Google allowed to represent the opposition.
Several internet organizations declared Wednesday the 16th "American Censorship Day" and used it to launch the counteroffensive. Mozilla put a snippet on our home page with a black censor bar over the Firefox logo to point people at an action page. Our webdev team did a bang-up job of putting that together really fast. Thank you webdev!
Tumblr alone geneated over 87,000 calls to congress in one day.
I called both senators and my congresswoman on Wednesday and was surprised how fast it was to get through and leave a message with a staffer. They don't keep you on hold forever like the bank or the telephone company. The staffers will take your message for the congressperson politely and without arguing.
I also wrote a letter that I sent to Senator Boxer, Senator Feinstein, and Congresswoman Eshoo today. Here it is; if you like it, please feel free to use it as a basis for your own letter to your senators/congressperson.
Dear [Senator Boxer/Senator Feinstein/Congresswoman Eshoo],
I'm a citizen of California and a professional in the Internet industry. I'm writing to express my alarm and dismay at the "PROTECT IP" act that went through the senate judiciary committee this week, and its House version, "SOPA". I strongly urge you to either oppose it or to introduce some changes.
I understand the need to enforce copyright law, but the way the bills are currently written, they give too much power to copyright holders and to the Attorney General to ban websites from the Internet without due process of law. I fear these powers will be used for blacklisting and censorship of completely legal and legitimate websites. SOPA/PROTECT IP needs to be modified to ensure that it is only used to go after lawbreakers. Operators of legitimate websites need to have a chance to defend themselves before being blacklisted off the internet.
As I understand the bills, they would empower the Attorney General, at the request of copyright holders, to put websites on a blacklist which all ISPs would be required to block, and to do this without any adversarial hearing.
As an American who believes in free speech, I don't think our government should be building a national blacklist to block websites from american citizens AT ALL. That's the sort of thing I would expect to see China or Iran imposing on its citizens, and I would expect the United States of America to be criticizing them for it -- not building one of our own!
But if you think that copyright infringement is so serious that we need to resort to building the Great Firewall of America to fight it, then at least give the accused site owners the right to a trial before kicking them off of the internet. Otherwise, if we give the Attorney General the power to unilaterally ban sites without trial, what guarantee do we have that this power will be used only for fighting copyright infringement? It's a small step from there to political censorship of any foreign sites the U.S. governemnt doesn't want citizens to see.
The site owner should have the right to a trial before the government censors their site from the internet. The burden of proof needs to be on the accuser and the accused needs a chance to defend themselves in court. That's the only way we can be sure this power is used only for its intended purpose of enforcing copyright law and doesn't become a tool of censorship.
Besides free speech issues, as someone who works in the internet industry, I'm alarmed at how much legal risk this bill creates for website owners. PROTECT IP/SOPA would make website owners like me liable for any copyright infringement done by our users. Under PROTECT IP/ SOPA a single file posted to a site by a single user would be enough for an entire internet domain to be blacklisted and all its funding cut off. And all of this just on the word of the copyright owner -- they wouldn't even have to prove in court that their copyright had been violated!
I had been planning to use the Internet to launch a startup company of my own, but how can I do so knowing that my entire company could be wiped off the internet by the actions of a single malicious or ignorant user? There's no way that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, Wikipedia, or any number of other internet success stories ever could have gotten off the ground under such a law. They relied on the safe harbor provision of the DMCA, which gives sites acting in good faith a chance to comply with the copyright holder's wishes and remove infringing files before being threatened with legal action. This compromise has worked well for the last 15 years while the Internet has flourished. SOPA/PIPA would end safe harbor and increase the legal risk beyond what small businesses could bear.
Internet businesses are one of the few sectors launching successful startup companies and creating jobs in this grim economic climate, but SOPA/PIPA would shut all that down -- or drive entrepreneurs to build their companies overseas.
We can protect the rights of copyright holders while still maintaining a free Internet. SOPA/PIPA must be modified to ensure that it will be used only for fighting copyright infringement and will not be abused for censorship, repression, or harassment of legitimate sites and legal content.
[Senator/Congresswoman], please either add such protections to the bill, or vote against it.
-- Jonathan Xia
Palo Alto, California
We may be starting to turn the tide. There are hopeful signs. The EFF is cautiously optimistic. The Business Software Alliance, which previously supported the bill, is now backpedaling.
Ron Wyden from Oregon has put a hold on the bill, promising to filibuster it if it gets that far. You can even sign up to have him read your name as one of the opponents during his filibuster (hey, it's better than reading the phone book).
Nancy Pelosi has swung over to our side, and Ron Paul is also opposing it. (Nancy Pelosi and Ron Paul -- is that weird or what? This is one of those issues that doesn't break down cleanly along partisan lines. Sometimes, oddly enough, it's the "centrists" of both parties who are the most authoritarian.)
Here's a roundup of progress against SOPA.
But this is no reason to stop now! We need to redouble our efforts and we need to get personally involved.
Don't assume this is just going to go away. The House and Senate are planning to vote on SOPA/PIPA before the end of the year, and the bill still seems to have majority support. If we all zone out and ignore this thing, it's going to pass, and free speech on the internet will never be the same. In the name of enforcing copyright law, the US government will set up a national blacklist of sites blocked at the DNS level, the same as what China and Iran use to keep information away from their citizens.
The internet industry pretty much unanimously opposes SOPA, but it's an industry unfortunately concentrated in a few congressional districts, and it shares the same two senators as Hollywood. We're at a geographical disadvantage. To have any chance of stopping SOPA we need people all over the country to show their opposition, not just nerds in California.
The Senate is threatening to bring the Senate version, the PROTECTIP act, to the floor on Tuesday. So that's the next round of the fight. Mozilla's trying to get everybody to call their senators on Tuesday the 29th (tomorrow). You can sign up here.
I know that I have friends who read this blog in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon, and Illinois, and I'm sure you all know people in even more states. Please, please, please, call or write to your senators and your congressperson. Go here to put in your ZIP code and find their contact information.
Congress wants your ISP to spy on you
I was just about to write a blog post about CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, aka the latest terrible idea by a Congress that doesn't understand the Internet but heard the word "cyberterrorism" and freaked the fuck out.
I called Anna Eshoo's office today and found out she was already going to vote against it, so that's good. I was going to write a blog post and urge you to call or write your representative and tell them to vote against CISPA.
But then I found out that they voted on it early, sneaking it through with minimal debate when nobody was paying attention. It passed the House this afternoon. Those bastards!
CISPA overrides all existing privacy laws, encourages ISPs and email providers and websites to report your private information to the NSA and other unaccountable government agencies without a search warrant, and gives them total immunity to liability for any privacy invasions they commit. All of this applies as long as it's done in the name of fighting "cybersecurity" threats which the bill defines so vaguely that it could be used to mean anything. Like the PATRIOT act and the warantless wiretaps, it's another step closer to a total surveillance state where innocent citizens are routinely spied upon by our government. Even if these "cybersecurity" threats are real, is there any reason we couldn't fight them with the laws we already have? I have yet to hear any proponents make the case for why the law needs to be changed - only hand-waving and alarmism.
Read more about the details of CISPA at the EFF, Forbes, or Ars Technica.
The White House has said they'd veto it, but they said they'd veto NDAA too, and they didn't, so I wouldn't take their word for anything.
But it hasn't passed the Senate yet, so that's our best chance to stop it. Call and email your senators and tell them you want your 4th Amendment back.
Why you should never read the comments on a political article
Reasonable position A: for example "The ACA isn't perfect, but healthcare costs just keep rising so we need to try something different. It would be a shame if the Supreme Court invalidated it before we got a chance to see how it works in practice."
Number of people in the discussion thread holding this position: About half
Number of people in the thread arguing for this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing against this position: 0
Reasonable position B: for example "Yes healthcare needs fixing, but it sets a disturbing precedent if the government can order us to buy certain products from private companies. I hope the Supreme Court strikes that part down so we can try a different approach."
Number of people in the thread holding this position: About half
Number of people in the thread arguing for this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing against this position: 0
Ridiculous position A: "The government should confiscate all the money from people who earn it to give free plastic surgery and Lamborghinis to people who are too lazy to work!"
Number of people in the thread holding this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing for this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing against this position: About half
Extreme position B: "If you're not a millionaire you don't deserve a doctor and should just die in the street!"
Number of people in the thread holding this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing for this position: 0
Number of people in the thread arguing against this position: About half
It's not just politics that brings out this style of argument. I saw the exact same pattern in a Warmachine forum thread about sportsmanship (of all things) - the question was "should you tell your opponent your maximum threat range if they ask?". Everyone was basically in agreement, yet the thread went on and on with people arguing "I shouldn't be called a cheater just because I don't reveal exactly what I'm planning to do on my next turn" versus "you shouldn't be allowed to hide your cards and keep your model stats secret". The majority of the thread was arguments against positions that nobody held.
It's a lot easier to tear down an idea than to support one, and it's a lot easier to tear down the extremist idea you accuse your "opponent" of holding than to find out what they actually believe and engage with that.
Time travel is banned in China
Chinese censorship can be capricious. Sometimes Wikipedia's blocked, sometimes just certain articles are blocked. Today I can reach the Tiananmen Square Protests 1989 page no problem.
If I do a Google search, half the time it gets routed through Google.com.hk and works fine; the other half of the time I land on some super-sketchy-looking site at http://sh.114so.cn.
Blogger and Wordpress are both blocked, Tumblr gets sporadically blocked or redirected, but amusingly 4chan works fine.
At least I can understand the government's reasons for blocking political content and sites that people use to organize protests. Some of the other things they choose to censor are truly baffling -- like time travel! China has recently banned all movies and TV shows that use time travel as a plot device.
Additionally, you're not allowed to show human skeletons. (They had to redo a lot of artwork for the Chinese version of World of Warcraft.)
I just had the best idea for the ultimate "banned in China" movie: It's about a time-traveling Tibetan skeleton who goes back in time to Tiananmen Square 1989 in order to overthrow the government using secret Falun Gong techniques.
Just sent this to both my senators
Hello Senator [Boxer|Feinstein],
Please do not allow the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (S 3414) to strip away privacy protections from US citizens. I strongly believe that individualized information (such as contents of emails) should require a search warrant for government agents to access. Surely we can find a way to enhance security of power plants and other critical infrastructure against cyber-attacks without violating the spirit of the 4th amendment!
I urge you to vote against amendments by Sen. John McCain (and others) that would strip privacy protections from the Cybersecurity Act. When companies do share information with the government as part of a cyber-security investigation, it should go to a civilian agency, and not to the NSA or other military departments. I do not believe it should be standard operating procedure for the US military to operate against American citizens on American soil.
I also urge you to vote for Franken-Paul amendment. Citizens should not be deprived of the right to seek legal action against companies that have violated their privacy.
The cybersecurity legislation you are considering this week has huge implications for privacy and civil liberties and I will be closely watching your votes.
(Please feel free to copy and send to your own senators!)
Information about the Cybersecurity Act here - it's basically the Senate version of CISPA, which passed the House already.
Most of the bill is entirely reasonable stuff about beefing up security standards at power plants and other places a malicious hacker could cause massive damage. The troubling part is that it overturns a lot of existing privacy law, and makes companies immune to prosecution for violating your privacy if they hand the data over to the NSA and/or military.
Cybersecurity Act defeated for now
The Cyber Security Act failed to get cloture and Congress is going on summer vacation, so it seems dead in the water for now.
This is a bit frustrating, as some of the stuff in that bill is good and needed; my preferred outcome would be for it to have been amended to remove the spying-on-citizens stuff and then passed. But I'll take any victory I can get.
I wish internet activists could take the credit for this one, but it seems the bill was really just the latest victim of standard Republican operating procedure since 2010 : automatically filibuster anything the Democrats want to do, no matter if it's good or bad, even if it's a policy Republicans suppor themselves! Because getting bills passed might make Obama look good, and stopping that is more important than national security. Barf.
Meanwhile the Democratic Party showed once again that it doesn't give a shit about civil liberties. With only a few exceptions (like my hero Ron Wyden of Oregon), Democrats supported the bill including its domestic spying provisions. Just as they were happy to renew the Patriot act and pass the NDAA with its indefinite-detention-without-trial provisions.
Both sides were already at the point of sticking completely unrelated poison-pill amendments (having to do with gun control and banning abortions in Washington DC) into the bill before it failed.
So, um, hooray for democracy?
I can't believe TED gave this guy a podium oh wait yes I can
I don't know if TED has gone downhill or if they were never good in the first place, but geez do they promote a lot of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
A random TED talk has about as much intellectual content as picking a random book out of the non-fiction new releases and reading the blurb on the dust jacket. It makes you aware that an idea exists and that somebody is promoting it; that's about all.
Some individual TED talks are decent and even good -- just as that random book with the interesting dust-jacket blurb might actually be good -- but so many are junk that the TED brand is useless as an indicator of quality.
The marketing around TED is carefully designed to make you feel smart and superior for watching them. The production values, the big-name speakers, the high price of tickets, the illusion that you're part of an elite audience... all designed to flatter the viewer and make the contents seem like something more than the shallow sound-bites they are.
And the Silicon Valley culture seems to have eaten it up. "Did you see the TED talk about..." is a standard conversation-opener at work. People think they're an expert on some topic because they watched a guy give a ten-minute slideshow about it in front of a bunch of rich people. Giving a TED talk is the ultimate status symbol in this culture.
It doesn't hurt that TED has a serious ideological bias towards things that make the target audience of rich, mostly white, industry insiders feel good about themselves for being rich, mostly white, industry insiders.
Case in point: The Six Killer Apps of Prosperity, a talk by Niall Ferguson.
The title alone... Ugh.
He's trying to explain how "The West" got so far economically ahead of "The Rest". He's talking about the importance of social institutions, but he tells his mostly-software-industry audience "you can't understand institutions so I'm going to compare them to something you do understand". Does the audience even realize how badly he's insulting them?
His list is: Competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and work ethic.
It should be obvious that property rights, competition, work ethic, and the consumer society existed in plenty of pre-modern and non-western societies. And "modern medicine" is begging the question of how you get to the point of inventing modern medicine. But even if we let those points slide, there's a glaring ommision from this list. Think for second; can you spot it?
He illustrates the wealth gap by showing how for centuries Europe was relativeley poor, but in the 1850s the UK shot way ahead while China and India got much poorer.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE HAPPENED IN THE 1850s THAT WOULD EXPLAIN WHY THE UK BECAME WEALTHIER RELATIVE TO CHINA AND INDIA? It's a complete mystery, I can't figure it out at all.
So yeah, he's forgetting the "Killer App" where you use your superior military to invade another country, take their natural resources, kidnap their people as slaves, force unequal trade treaties on them, and deliberatly hold their devleopment back with an unequal colonial administration designed to make them second-class citizens in their own country.
The countries that have the lowest human development indices today are almost all former resource-extraction colonies of European empires. The ones with the highest indices are Western Europe itself, its former settlement colonies, a few Mideastern oil states, and Japan -- which did quite a bit of colonialism of its own.
Colonialism isn't the whole explanation because it doesn't explain how Europe achieved its military advantage that allowed it to do all this conquest and extortion in the first place. And obviously some of the wealth gap is due to the Industrial Revolution starting in Europe, which probably does have something to do with science and competition and so on. But I am highly dubious of any explanation for "The West vs The Rest" that glosses over the fact that The West spent centuries literally stealing wealth from The Rest.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHY AM I SO MUCH RICHER THAN MY NEIGHBOR WHOSE HOUSE I JUST ROBBED? It must be because of my superior work ethic and my respect for property rights!
Ferguson brings up imperialism only to dismiss it with a couple of glib sentences. He says imperialism can't be the answer because "Asia had empires too" and because the peak of the wealth gap came in the 1970s, after colonialism ended.
These explanations are incredibly weak. Asia had empires too, yes; and in their day they were extremely wealthy and effective! If there were TED talks in the 16th century they would be attmepting to explain why Ming China and the Ottoman Empire were so far ahead of backwards Europe. All this comparison proves is that the advantage of empire doesn't last forever. Also the Ottomans and the Mings didn't have a military advantage over their neighbors remotely comparable to the military advantage that colonial Europe had over Africa and the Americas.
The wealth gap peaking in the 1970s? A mere few decades after the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the slow process of decolonization? When the rich nations had just finished reaping all the benefits of colonialism and the newly independent former colonies were just beginning their climb out of poverty? This is exactly when we would expect the wealth gap to peak if colonialism was the main reason for it. Ferguson is actually undermining his own argument by pointing out this fact.
And this illustrates the problem with TED: the format of TED videos makes this kind of sleight-of-hand easy to pull off. A couple of pretty slides, a nerdy joke or two to disarm the audience, and an appeal to your authority as a Famous Person are all it takes to paper over fundamental weaknesses in your argument.
There's a lot more to pick apart in Ferguson's terrible TED talk. Nobody should be surprised that he worships Adam Smith, but taking time to insult Gandhi for being poor? Classy.
Then he tops himself, when talking about property rights (which he says are more important than democracy itself: an interesting glimpse into the priorities of the ultra-rich.) He says one of the reasons America was able to "generate" so much wealth is because "most people in rural North America owned some land". Uh, yeah, they had lots of land after fucking stealing it from the American Indians. He's using land taken by force, and taken by broken treaties, as his example of the importance of property rights. Which presumably include the right to not have your property stolen. The audacity of this guy!
Then we get to the moral panic -- "is the west deleting its own apps?" OH NO! Here is a picture of some teenagers wearing hoodies! I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove, unless it's a clever way to invoke racism against black teenagers without actually showing any black teenagers. Ferguson then talks about the rest of the world catching up, which is a wonderful thing, a happy thing, what we should all be hoping for. Then he segues straight into "but Western decline isn't inevitable". Interesting that he equates worldwide equality with Western "decline", like we're only doing OK as long as we can keep the rest of the world poor.
He finishes with a picture of Obama bowing to Hu Jintao to illustrate that the great divergence is over. (Like no world leader ever bowed to another world leader during the last two centuries? It's a meaningless gesture to grease the wheels of diplomacy.) Nice way to invoke both Siniphobia and the baseless right-wing meme of Obama being apologetic for America.
So that's Ferguson's TED talk. That's the kind of thing TED thinks deserves a megaphone.
Ferguson teaches at Harvard. He's not dumb. He's not overlooking the history of colonialism by accident; he's trying to construct an explanation of the wealth gap that very specifically avoids mention of colonialism. This is part of a project to whitewash history, to promote a world view where the rich and the privileged are not beneficiaries of historical injustice but rather deserve to be rich and privileged due to their superior moral qualities.
That TED gave him a pulpit for this project says a lot about TED. Either they share his views, or they just don't care. At the very least, it says that TED doesn't care enough for this massive level of intellectual dishonesty to disqualify anyone from speaking there.
I have written software that has been featured in a TED talk on two different occasions: Ubiquity was shown off in a TED talk by Aza in 2009, and Collusion in a TED talk by the Mozilla CEO in 2012. But after seeing this video, I'm embarassed to have been associated with TED in any way.
How to vote when both parties are terrible?
What a depressing election. (Warning: giant rant ahead.)
We have one party which is dismantling civil liberties, is building a total surveillance police state, is intent on continuing to wage unwinnable wars, is thoroughly corrupted by lobbying, and is in thrall to big banks and other corporate interests.
The other party... is the Republicans.
Everything I just said about Democrats applies double to the GOP, plus as a bonus the GOP is run by racists, homophobes, and Christian supremacists. Or, at best, run by plutocrats willing to pander to all the prejudices of racists, homophobes, and Christian supremacists in order to decrease the marginal tax rate on their capital gains. The Republicans openly support torture and reject science and they're itching to start a war with Iran. They just get crazier and crazier every year; they now seem to have retreated entirely to some alternate universe based on Ayn Rand / Leviticus crossover fanfiction.
I care a lot about civil liberties, OK? They're kind of my main issue. And both parties are terrible on civil liberties. A lot of the stuff that made me so mad about the Bush administration - Guantanamo, the warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot act - is still going on under Obama. Guantanamo's still open, our government is still spying on us without warrants, we're still stuck in an endless war in Afghanistan, and the Democrat-controlled Senate was happy to renew the Patriot act and then one-up it with the NDAA.
I guess what this has taught me is that I was wrong to blame the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11 on Bush specifically. It's bigger than one president or even one party. It's endemic to the whole system. Obama either couldn't change it or he didn't want to.
Here's an article about how the Democrats have retreated on civil liberties in their 2012 platform. Meanwhile, the Obama administration just won a court challenge over his right to indefinitely detain citizens using the NDAA. The CIA is refusing to publicly admit the existence of the drone assassin program that they've publicly bragged about in the past!
And when the Senate Intellignece Oversight committe asked the NSA how many Americans had been spied on, without warrants, under FISA, the NSA refused to comply, saying it would "violate the privacy" of citizens to say if they had been spied on or not. They refused a request from the Senate Intellignece Oversight committe, which you think would have the authority to, you know, oversee intelligence or something? Our shadow government seems to be sending the message that it no longer takes orders from mere elected officials.
How can we have a democracy (or even a republic) if voters are not allowed to know what the government, that supposedly represents them, is doing in their name?
How does a citizen vote to change a bad policy when both parties agree on continuing to support that policy?
There's simply no party to vote for if I want my country to stop killing Pakistani civilians as collateral damage from drone strikes. Or if I want the 4th amendment back, or if I want Habeas Corpus reinstated, or if I think the FBI should get a search warrant before wiretapping citizens, or if I want to close Guantanamo Bay, or if I want the government to stop wasting money imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, or if I think the people responsible for torturing prisoners of war should be prosecuted.
You can vote for a 3rd-party or fringe candidate; that sometimes works in a local election, but in a national election I'm not sure that actually accomplishes anything other than making yourself feel good. I wish third-parties were viable, but the structure of our voting system works against it; until we implement some kind of instant-runoff voting, third parties in national elections will continue to be spoilers and protest votes.
I've got a friend who was a volunteer for the Ron Paul campaign this year, claiming that Ron Paul is the only candidate who wanted to end the war, dismantle the surveillance state, and restore constitutional rights. And while Ron Paul does agree with me on some things, wants to go back on the gold standard, abolish all public education, and fucking repeal the Fourteenth Amendment. And he opposes the Civil Rights Act. Paul isn't pro-freedom; he just prefers tyranny to be implemented at the state level instead of the federal level. This is not even getting into the openly white-supremacist newsletters published under his name.
I look at Ron Paul and other third-party/fringe candidates and it's like, they will never have to seriously face the consequences of their policies, because there's no chance their policies will ever get enacted. They can go on feeling superior due to their ideological purity and never have to make the hard decisions that come with governing a country.
There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin, not wanting to take a bath, screams that he refuses to compromise his principles. Later, in the bathtub, he muses that he doesn't need to compromise his principles, because they don't have the slightest bearing on what happens to him anyway.
Maybe we just need to lower our expectations of politics. John Kenneth Galbraith said, "Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." Mark Twain said "If voting made any difference, they wouldn't let us do it."
Maybe the best we can hope for is to prevent the worse of two candidates from getting into office. In practice, that seems to be how most people vote anyway -- not voting for a candidate, but voting against the party they hate more.
I'm not saying we should give up on changing things. Rather, real change is a long, hard process that takes a heck of a lot more involvement, work, and sacrifice than just voting. Sometimes it even requires being willing to go to jail for your beliefs.
So if the parties are near equally bad on the main issues I care about, then I guess I should vote based on the issues where the parties do differ. For me the big one is Romney's desire to start a war with Iran. Or at least he repeatedly during the primaries that he wanted one; some say he was just pandering to the base and he didn't really mean it, but is there any reason to think Romney would get any better at resisting the warmongers in his party after being elected?
I don't think so. I think there's a real danger he would really do it, having learned absolutely nothing from the disastrous failure of our attempts to remake Afghanistan and Iraq. Tens of thousands could die in a conflict that might not even succeed in stopping their nuclear program, or even delaying it for more than a few years. Obama's policy of containing Iran's nuclear program with diplomatic and economic pressure, imperfect as it is, is probably the least bad option.
There's plenty of other things to hate: the fact that Romney is an elitist scumbag who sees half the country as parasites, that his economic plan ("cut the deficit by cutting taxes on the rich and raising military spending") makes not a lick of sense, and that he's happy to pander to racist birthers by gloating that "nobody's asking to see my birth certificate". (Yeah, because you're white, asshole.) At the same time, he's aspiring to be even worse than Obama on civil liberties, promising to "double Guantanamo".
So as unhappy as I am with Obama's civil liberties record, it's a very easy decision to support the unpalatable (Obama) over the disastrous (Romney), and I'm glad to see Obama pulling ahead in the polls.
Meanwhile, we should use methods other than voting to work for restoring civil liberties. Speaking of that, my representative Anna Eshoo is a cosponsor of HR 3702, the Due Process Guarantee Act, which would undo the indefinite-detention-without-trial provisions of the NDAA. It looks like there hasn't been much movement on it Maybe find out where your representative stands on it and encourage them to support it too? It may not have much of a chance but it's better than nothing.
Voter suppression laws
There's a spirited argument going on in the comments of a previous post about whether it makes sense to vote at all. My current thinking is to vote for the lesser evil while trying to get real change through other means.
And I think, before you decide voting is stupid, it's worth remembering the generations who fought and in some cases died for your right to vote. The women's suffrage movement started in 1848 but the 19th amendment wasn't passed until 1920, after 72 years of suffragette activism! Despite the 15th amendment passing in 1870, Blacks were in practice denied the vote by Jim Crow laws throughout the southern US until the Civil Rights movement led to the voting rights act of 1965, less than 50 years ago. So we're not talking ancient history here; we're talking people who are still alive today. Appreciate the sacrifices they made, and beware of modern efforts to disenfranchise people.
John Lewis, rep from Georgia, is one of those who marched for civil rights in the 60s, facing down deadly white-supremacist violence to do so. He draws a straight line from disenfranchisement under Jim Crow to the new voter ID laws that Republican state legislatures are pushing today.
Which brings me to the thing I want to talk about -- partisan voter-disenfranchisment efforts that come in the guise of "preventing voter fraud".
Of course we should prevent voter fraud! Who could possibly be against that? ... is what they're hoping we'll say, and not look too closely at the likely effects of the laws.
When the Republicans won control of many state legislatures in 2010, one of the first things they did was to start passing laws restricting early voting and requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. 19 states have passed laws along these lines since the 2010 elections.
Who is eligible to vote but disproportionally lack photo IDs? People without drivers' licenses, which is to say people who don't own cars. The young. The poor. People who live in urban centers, which is to say disproportionately minorities. All of these groups reliably lean Democrat.
"More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democraticâ€”including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans."
"These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012."
"So what", you may say, "Go get a photo ID if you want to vote; what's the big deal?"
Well, as an example, more than 5% of Texas voters lack a photo ID, and 1/4 of Texas counties lack a DMV office, meaning some Texans would need a 250 mile round trip to get photo ID! Which is pretty hard if you don't already have a drivers' license. (warning: link has auto-play video about 80-year-old nuns in indiana turned away for not having photo IDs)
Getting photo ID also requires going to deal with bureaucracy during business hours on a weekday, which means taking days off of work, which if you're poor and working to support your family you often can't afford to do. So yeah, for some people, having to get a photo ID (after being able to vote for years without one!) is not an insignificant barrier.
The South Carolina Election Commission Executive Director answers questions about how easy it will be for partisan poll-watchers to challenge every voter they don't like, and how hard it will be for voters to overcome these challenges.
OK, so a lot of poor, young, and minority people will have a harder time voting under these laws. That's too bad, but maybe it's just an unfortunate side-effect of laws that we desperately need in order to save democracy from an onslaught of voter fraud!
Turns out... not so much. The only fraud scenario that photo ID requirements prevent is in-person voter impersonation fraud. Somebody who's not eligible to vote walking into a polling place and pretending to be somebody else.
I've been reading up on election fraud, and everything I've read says that this type of fraud is incredibly rare. Like, a recent study found ten cases of voter impersonation since 2000 rare. Ten.
Election fraud has happened in this country, but not by people walking into a polling place and impersonating someone else. The most effective methods of voter fraud all involve corrupt officials inside the system, involved in counting the votes at the precinct or county level. They can tamper with electronic voting machines, "lose" or invalidate a bunch of ballots marked for the other guy, or get ahold of a bunch of extra blank ballots that should have been thrown away and use them to stuff the box. Or they can simply report made-up numbers.
For instance, many people suspect that Mayor Daley of Chicago stole the 1960 election for Kennedy by tampering with Chicago vote totals enough to swing Illinois. If true, the fraud wasn't based on individuals showing up and voting who shouldn't have been allowed to vote. It was based on election officers who were part of Daley's machine making up thousands of Kennedy votes from thin air.
Individual voter impersonation is just too inefficient to swing an election. It's far more efficient for bad guys to work the system from the inside.Requiring photo IDs or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. You need more independent auditing of the tallying process.
Another way to cheat is buying votes, which is apparently fairly common... but photo ID laws do nothing to stop it. Someone with a valid ID can still be selling their vote.
Theoretically you could also cheat by registering a lot of fake absentee voters and requesting mail-in ballots for them ("Yes, there are ten eligible voters living in my house..."), thus getting a bunch of extra ballots you can fill in yourself. Again, requiring photo IDs at the polling place or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. The way to prevent this one would be stricter checking at the registration stage that someone is a real person.
Is election fraud real? Yes. Should we try to stop it? Yes. Is requiring photo IDs an effective way of combating election fraud? No.
OK, so Republicans got into power in the states and passed a bunch of laws that are ineffective at fighting voter fraud and will have the effect of suppressing voting among democratic-leaning demographics. But maybe that's just a coincidence; none of that proves that Republican state leaders are deliberately trying to...
"Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done", said Pennsylvania state House Republican leader Mike Turzai.
Laws in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania specifically disqualify student IDs. Is there any reason to do this except to discourage college students, who lean liberal, from voting? The speaker of the New Hampshire state house, speaking to a Tea Party group, basically admitted that that's the reason: "foolish" college kids are liberals, "just vote their feelings". So... we should stop them from voting?
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, really lays it out on the table when he says out loud he hopes Blacks and Lations won't show up for this election.
In the same article, a Republican county-level party chair in Ohio says this about closing down early voting: "I guess I really actually feel we shouldnâ€™t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban â€” read African-American â€” voter-turnout machine... Letâ€™s be fair and reasonable."
Hey dude, what exactly is wrong with "the urban - read african-american - voter-turnout machine"? They got a right to vote; what's fair and reasonable about blocking it?
You guys aren't even pretending not to be racist anymore.
Registered voter polls are regularly a few percent more democratic than likely voter polls. Republicans know that if everyone who is eligible votes, they lose. So they are trying to make it harder for the young, minorities, and the poor. They know that their voter suppression laws won't register as problematic to many people thanks to their superficially reasonable terms. "Photo ID? Of course! Who doesn't have one of those?" thinks the middle-class white guy.
Many of the Jim Crow laws designed to prevent blacks from voting didn't explicity mention race. They were couched in terms of poll taxes and literacy tests. History teaches us that attempts at legal disenfranchisement come in disguise; therefore, we should closely examine any law that puts restrictions on voting.
There is good news: Some of these state laws have already been challenged, overturned, or put on hold by the courts. The federal DOJ has been investigating whether several state laws violate the Voting Rights Act. The Pennsylvania one just got blocked today, thankfully; Mississipi's has been put on hold, and early voting is going on in Ohio now.
In the long term, we should all be speaking out against voter suppression laws and opposing them wherever possible.
But for right now, make sure you know the voting requirements for your state and check whether you're registered! (Due to voter roll purges, you might think you're registered but actually not be -- they might have taken you off the rolls because you have a name similar to a felon or a dead guy, and it's not like they notify you when they do it.) Make sure anybody you know in IN, FL, TN, MI, SD, ID, LA, KS, NH, or GA knows that they currently need a photo ID to vote!
The ACLU state-by-state voting rights site and a site called Let My People Vote 2012 have a lot of links to relevant information.
California ballot 2012 - how I voted and why
I filled out my mail-in ballot on Friday. Too late to mail it, so I'll drop it off in person on Tuesday. It's a big ballot: Three national offices, 2 state, 4 local, 10 state propositions and three local propositions - so I'm glad I had time to do my homework.
I'll be working at the neighborhood polling precinct on Tuesday (crossing off peoples' names and addresses, giving out "I voted" stickers, etc.) It will at least give me something to do all day besides obsessively check early poll results over and over again.
There is some big stuff on the California ballot this year. We have the chance to end the death penalty, for one.
Here's how I voted and why:
Not real happy with how Obama turned out on civil liberties. But I'll support him over Romney as the lesser of two evils, easily.
My internal debate ran along the lines of the dueling Atlantic articles Why I Refuse To Vote For Obama and Why I Refuse To Refuse To Vote For Obama, which comes down to categorical imperative versus utilitarianism. I found the latter more convincing.
I'm not in a swing state so I was tempted to vote third-party. But then I look at how the polls are basically tied right now, and how there's a significant chance Obama could win the electoral college but lose the popular vote, and I don't want that. We'd never hear the end of it.
Not happy with Feinstein either, as she supported SOPA and NDAA and other attacks on civil liberties. I voted against her in the primaries.
But I can't justify anything that would increase the Republicans' chances of controlling both houses. There's not even a third-party running. So I guess I'll hold my nose, vote for Feinstein, continue writing her letters begging her to change her positions, and support any Democrat who wants to challenge her.
In the abstract I would love to be one of those "swing voters". But doing so would require Republicans to be substantially less insane.
I actually like Anna Eshoo a lot, so this is an easy one.
State Senator, district 13:
Thanks to the "jungle primary" rule that California passed as a ballot proposition in 2008 (The two candidates with the most primary votes, regardless of party, go on to the general election), we now have two Democrats running against each other for state senator of district 13.
Jerry Hill (incumbent) and Sally Lieber (challenger) are almost identical policy-wise. I voted for Sally Lieber as she is trying to campaign with less money, she has some pretty decent legislative accomplishments and she didn't bury our house under a non-stop flood of obnoxious mail advertisements like Jerry Hill did.
State Assembly, district 24:
Voted for Richard Gordon, the incumbent. He's actually gotten a rather impressive amount of stuff done in just 2 years in office.
Chengzhi "George" Yang seems like one of those increasingly rare non-crazy Republicans, but he also seems like kind of a single-issue guy (his single issue being reform of the state employee pension system).
Oh, and I didn't even realize until now that I had an openly-gay assemblyman. Can I tell you how glad I am this isn't even remotely being raised as an issue by either side? That's how it should be.
(Santa Clara County Board of Education, Foothill-De Anza Community College District, Palo Alto Unified School District)
I've never been enrolled in any of these schools and don't have children enrolled in any of these schools so I feel like these races have nothing to do with me. I literally have zero stake in them so I think I'm going to abstain and leave the decision up to the people who will be affected by the choice.
Palo Alto City Council:
This is one of those "choose four" votes, and there are only 6 people running. So it's the same as choosing 2 not to vote for. I feel like I should vote for this one because I live here, even though I've never really thought of Palo Alto as home or considered what the local issues might be. (Palo Alto to me is generally just "the place I have to get out of when I want to go somewhere fun".)
I voted against the guy who wants to stop new train lines from going through Palo Alto and against the guy who wants to stop low-income housing from being built in Palo Alto. Snobs!
Measure 30: 1/4 cent sales tax hike plus increase on income over $250,000 for seven years, to prevent cuts in public schools.
The fact that this is on the ballot at all is a sign of California's dysfunctional state legislature -- it takes a 2/3 vote to change the budget, which isn't happening, so the only way to get stuff done is to do an end-run around the legislature and go straight to voters with budget questions like this. The governor is practically going door-to-door begging voters to approve this so he doesn't have to
Anyway, sounds good to me. If and when I am ever making $250,000 a year I'll be happy to pay more for schools.
Measure 31: Large package of random changes to state government
Includes a new "pay as you go" two-year budget cycle for state and local governments: anything they pass with new expenditures would also have to include means of paying for those expenditures. Also has 72-hour print rule so that law can't be changed at the last minute without leaving time for people to read it. Allows local governments to override state laws in many cases and allows the governor to unilaterally enact certain budget cuts if there's a budget crisis the legislature refuses to deal with.
OK wow. This proposition is some advanced wonkery. It was the thing I had the most trouble deciding on. So potentially important, and yet so boring and hard to understand! I listened to lots of arguments for and against but still didn't know where I stood on it.
If it was broken into smaller pieces there would be some parts of it I would vote for. But I finally decided to vote no just because I didn't feel like I understood the potential effects well enough. Giant changes to the functioning of state government that I can't understand? I'm gonna default to "no".
Measure 32: Prohibits unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political campaigning.
I don't like this one bit. It's an attempt at campaign finance reform, which I'm generally in favor of, but it's entirely one-sided: it reduces the ability of unions, but not of corporations, to influence campaigns. I feel like campaign finance reform needs to be a mutual disarmament situation. I would support this if it also applied to corporations but as is it seems nakedly partisan.
Measure 33: Allows auto insurance companies to set prices based on driver's history of continuous coverage
The fact that premiums go up if you have a gap in your coverage is one of the worst things about the health insurance system - why would we want to apply it to auto insurance to? No.
Measure 34: Ends the death penalty in California, replaces it with life imprisonment.
I support this one because I'm generally against the death penalty. Unlike some people I don't consider it morally unacceptable; my objection is more based on the practical matter that sometimes we get the wrong guy. Jury trials are not infallible. They make mistakes. Sometimes we find evidence later that exonerates a convict. With life imprisonment, mistakes are reversible; if we execute the guy, it's too late.
Also, the death penalty has often been applied in a racist way: people who kill whites are more likely to get it than people who kill blacks.
The one argument that might get me to support the death penalty in some cases is that life imprisonment is expensive for taxpayers. But even the price argument falls apart when you find out that it costs California an average of $300 million to execute one prisoner, due to the years-long legal wrangling and special facilities involved. We can actually save money -- an estimated $100 million a year, according to the legislative analyst quoted in the voter info guide -- by not executing people.
The argument submitted against Measure 34 for the voter guide is quite horrible. It's a naked appeal irrational feelings of vengeance. They list off horrible crimes while saying "come on, doesn't this person DESERVE to DIE?!?".
I don't really think public policy should be set by whether somebody deserves to die in some cosmic moral sense. We should look at the deterrence effect, the cost of various penalties, the value of removing a repeat offender from society, and the risk of punishing an innocent person, and try to do the thing that makes most sense for society.
I'm a quote Gandalf: "Many who live deserve death, just as many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? No? Then be not so hasty to deal out death in judgement."
Measure 35: Increases criminal penalties for human trafficking
Sounds good at first, but it's written in a really weird way with a very vague definition of human trafficking and a bunch of sex offender stuff tacked on. Human trafficking is already illegal and I haven't heard a good argument for why the current punishments are insufficient -- or why the voters should go over the heads of the legislature to set a harsher penalty. No.
Measure 36: Amends "three strikes law" so that third crime = automatic life imprisonment only if the third crime is serious or violent.
Makes sense to me. The prisons are already overcrowded; I don't think somebody should get life just for taking drugs or shoplifting.
Currently in California a third conviction of any crime gets you automatic life imprisonment. This amendment to the three strikes law returns the power to judges and juries to set the punishment as fits the facts of the individual case. They can still consider the convict's previous criminal record when sentencing, but they're no longer forced into the maximum penalty in the case of misdemeanors.
Measure 37: Requires labeling of genetically modified foods
I see a lot of support for this measure on the lawn signs around my neighborhood. Personally I think the fear of GMOs is somewhat overblown. Isn't basically everything we eat genetically engineered? The wild ancestor of corn was a grass called teosinte with tiny inedible 1-inch ears. It's just that it was genetically engineered by Mesoamerican Indians 5000 years ago.
Sure I think people have the right to know what they're eating, but I'm not convinced a state constitutional amendment is required to give them that information. I already see a lot of food packaging that says things like "No GMO" or "No growth hormones". So if people would prefer to eat non-GMO foods, can't they already do that? Companies are already seeing "no GMO" as a competitive advantage and putting it on their label, without a law forcing them to do so, so I feel like the market is already doing its job sorting this out.
Measure 38: A different tax to fund schools, alternative to 30. If both pass than only the one with more votes goes into effect.
I like measure 30 better (The tax structure in 38 is more regressive) so I voted no on 38.
Measure 39: Multistate businesses pay income tax based on percentage of their sales in California; revenues go to clean energy projects.
Paying California income tax based on the percentage of your sales in California sure sounds fair to me! I was surprised to learn that this isn't already the case; currently companies can choose between tax based on percentage of sales or tax based on percentage of employees in California. Which gives them a perverse incentive to choose the latter and then have as few employees in California as possible.
The fact that the extra revenue from closing the loophole will go to clean energy projects is just a bonus.
Measure 40: Approves the citizens' redistricting commission's redrawing of state senate districts.
In 2008 we voted to have an independent commission of regular citizens redraw all the districts to reduce gerrymandering. I supported this idea. This interactive map shows what the commission came up with.
I read an article about how the Democrats found various sneaky ways to influence the supposedly independent commission and as a result will probably wind up with more safe seats than before, even though the districts are much more geographically reasonable-looking than they used to be.
This vote is to approve their work. If it fails we spend another million dollars on a do-over which will probably have very similar results. The group opposing approval has withdrawn their campaign so no argument against Measure 40 was submitted. Well, if nobody cares enough to argue against it, I'll take it.
County Measure A: 1/8 cent county-wide sales tax hike
No; unlike with proposition 30, the proponents of measure A don't make a good case for the budgetary need for this tax hike. And sales tax is a regressive tax.
County Measure B: Renews a parcel tax that would otherwise expire in order to pay for cleaning up and preserving the local streams and wetlands
Sounds good to me. Confusingly, the counterargument is that the proposed program doesn't do *enough* for the local environment, and they want to send it back and write a stricter one. I ended up voting yes anyway.
Palo Alto Measure C: Allows three marijuana dispensaries to operate in Palo Alto.
Hell yeah! maybe that will make this town less boring.
Seriously though, I support state and local efforts to resist the federal government's illogical marijuana prohibition policy.
Hurricane Sandy: Is this the new normal thanks to global warming?
The day after Hurricane Sandy I called my relatives in Connecticut. They're all OK, though they've lost power and they report major chunks of what used to be the beach are now missing. My family lives on Long Island Sound, meaning they were sheltered from the worst of the storm, but even so it ripped up reinforced concrete and threw boulders up the road. Here's a picture Googleshng sent me from his neighborhood:
I have seen some amazing/horrifying pictures from New York City like this one and this one showing the blacked-out part of Manhattan.
Sandy smashed records for size, water levels, and tied with the great hurricane of 1938 for the barometicr pressure record. It was the worst storm ever to hit New York City.
Here's a page that had live updates of the damage - videos of the jersey shore wiped out, subway tunnels flooded, and over 8 million people without power.
There were a lot of fake pictures (either Photoshopped, or real-but-not-actually-from-Hurricane-Sandy) circulating. The Atlantic ran a guide to telling real pictures from fake ones. The one with the shark swimming down the street, and the one with the scuba diver int he subway, were 'shopped. It's not like the real ones aren't bad enough!
I've heard estimates of 20-50 billion dollars worth of damages, or about ten billion per day. (That's still less than Katrina!)
The thought that came to me as I watched the destruction unfold: Is this the new normal? With ocean levels rising and ocean temperatures increasing and extreme weather getting more common, are we going to look back on this decade as the start of the era of continuous, massive flooding of coastal cities and a never-ending refugee crisis?
The Onion read my mind with a non-fiction piece masquerading as satire: Nation Realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.
Three-quarters of the Arctic ocean melted this summer. We had a massive crop-destroying drought throughout the central USA. It's really hard to keep denying that the earth is warming, though some still argue that it's a natural process and not caused by humans. However, even a "natural process" can still kill us.
Bad Astronomy talks about how Sandy was made worse by warmer ocean temperatures. He calls it "The world's largest metaphor" and says it should be "a shot of adrenaline to the heart".
"We have a 100-year flood every two years now," said New York Governer Cuomo. "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination."
NY Mayor Bloomberg says "anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality".
The sea level in New York harbor is already about a foot higher than it was in 1900. That's not a prediction, that's a measurement.
And yet, we have a candidate running for president (Romney) who openly mocks the idea of sea levels rising.
He also wants to de-fund FEMA, the federal agency that responds to disasters.
FEMA, which I hear has been working a lot better under Obama than it did under Bush. Enough that New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been campaigning for Romney all along, stopped to praises Obama's leadership of the hurricane response. Because, surprise, when you staff a federal agency with competent people instead of partisan flunkies, and when you're trying to make the government work instead of trying to prove your "government-is-always-incompetent-so-cut-everything-to-pay-for-tax-cuts-for-millionaires" ideology, then an agency like FEMA can do its job.
Yeah, I know, I should feel dirty even to be thinking "how will this hurricane affect the election" -- but look: responding to, and preventing, tragedies is one of the important functions of the federal government and the candidates have very different ideas about this function. Disasters are already political, whether we "politicize" them or not. Disaster preparedness/response is relevant to the election and vice versa. Far more relevant than, say, how many horses Romney's family has or whether Obama is going to show Donald Trump his college transcripts or any of the other stupid, stupid stuff that the media used as News-Like Filler Product all year.
The longtime predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and if Manhattan being underwater is the new normal, I would really like to have a government that's not in denial about it.
Election day 2012 in Santa Clara county
Election Day starts at 6am for poll workers, and doesn't end until we're done counting down all the ballots, packing away all the booths, and marking off all the checklists; we finished at 10pm.
Monday night I didn't hardly sleep at all; a combination of election nervousness and "gotta wake up before dawn" nervousness (the same thing I get when I have to wake up early for a flight) meant I couldn't relax. Got up at 5:30, took a shower, biked to the Eichler Swim & Tennis Club, met up with the three other poll workers (two Chinese-American folks and one nice old white lady) and tried not to think about Romney winning.
Yeah, I know Nate Silver had Obama at 90% chance to win, and I trusted he was getting the polls right, but that only matters if the polls are accurate and turnout is as predicted. All day long I was mentally preparing myself to hear the news: that voter suppression tactics had held down turnout enough to turn Obama's poll lead into a tie, that it had all come down to a recount in some wretched Ohio suburb where everybody was arguing over the validity of last-minute voting tabulator software revisions, and that Romney would be named the winner via politicized courtroom shenanigans.
I guess Florida 2000 just scarred me for life?
Anyway. No news media or political discussion is allowed in a polling place -- nothing that might influence voters -- so I was in a news blackout all day. Didn't know what states were being called or anything.
We had one voter complain about the news networks calling Eastern states before the polls are closed in the West, which might make people in Western states decide not to bother showing up. I agree with her, it would be nice if they quit doing that, but the news networks have a prisoner's dilemma - nobody wants to be the last one to report results.
Several people were voting for the very first time, with proud parents taking pictures of them. It's illegal to take a picture that shows how someone is voting -- that could lead to vote-selling -- so I kind of hovered around making sure they were only taking pictures from a distance. One 18-year-old girl had literally wrapped herself in an American flag, like a cape. If I remember Boy Scouts I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to do that with a flag, but whatever, I'm a godless heathen, I don't care.
I have no idea who my fellow poll workers supported. You just don't ask. You're not supposed to say or do or display anything that might influence any voters, which means no talking politics inside the polling place. Besides, you don't really want to find out that your fellow poll worker is rooting for the other team; it would make it seriously awkward to work closely with them for the next several hours. You'd rather just not know.
(One of the Chinese folks had brought a bunch of copies of "While America Sleeps" by Russ Feingold to gift to the rest of us, though, so that's a pretty big clue.)
California ballots use this system where you connect the two ends of a broken arrow with a line of ink to mark your choice. The arrow ends are fat but you're supposed to use just one thin line to connect them, as i explained over and over again. When counting ballots at the end of the night I saw that at least half of the voters had ignored instructions and scribbled in the whole arrow. This is a classic UI failure called a misleading affordance - whatever the instructions say, the shape of that arrow somehow makes you really wanna fill it in all th way. Connecting it with just one thin line looks wrong.
The ballot box itself, which used to be a cardboard box with a slot in it, was replaced this year by this orange duffel bag thing with a zipper slot. It's really hard to push ballots through a zipper. It was frustrating for everybody.
We had one electronic voting machine, but we hoped nobody would use it. Not because we think it's untrustworthy, so much, but just because it makes a ton of extra work for us. If there's zero votes on the electronic machine we can just turn it off and pack it up, but if there's one or more votes we have to do this whole song&dance where we print out copies of the records three times on three different printers that go into three different sealed bags so there's a verifiable paper trail. But the machine's audio mode is the only good way for a blind person to vote. So we need to have it. But we stick it in the back corner and don't encourage any non-blind voters to use it.
Also, if there's just one vote on the machine, then that vote is no longer secret -- we saw who used the machine so we now know how that person voted. To preserve anonymity, if one person uses the machine, we want at least five people to use it. So in that case we'd pull it from the back corner and put it up front. But it didn't happen.
Besides crossing names off the main roster, we also cross them off a duplicate roster that is periodically hung outside the polling place for public reference. It's used by the campaigns' get-out-the-vote efforts; their volunteers can drop by to check which of their supporters hasn't voted yet and go call them.
The duplicate roster has party registration info, which showed me that besides the Rs and Ds and NPs we had a couple of AIs.
AI is the "American Independent" party, a remnant of George Wallace's white-supremacist party. So it's a little odd to see, like, Asians registered as AI members.
I assume they joined by mistake. Lots of people want to register as independents, and it's an easy mistake when filling out the CA voter registration form to think checking "American Independent" means "independent" and not, you know, "Segregation Forever!" (The box you want is "Non-partisan / Decline to State").
We don't require photo ID in california, but lots of people presented their drivers licenses without asking. Some of us told them it wasn't needed (but it is handy to have the address in writing.)
If you're not on our registered voter list, you're probably in the wrong precinct, so we try to find the right one and direct you there. By far the most common irregularity that would prevent people from voting was showing up in person when you're registered as a permanent vote-by-mail. That means that a ballot was already mailed to their house, so if we give them another ballot at the polling place, that's 2 ballots. Gotta make sure nobody votes twice, so we ask them to go home and find the ballot they were mailed. Then they can either cast that one, or they can surrender it to us, we mark it destroyed, and give them a new one. If we mailed you a ballot and you show up without it asking to vote, we make you cast a "provisional ballot" in a pink envelope that you sign; in theory it gets counted, but only if your mail-in ballot doesn't also show up at county HQ. We had about ten people fall into this category.
Our precinct was L-shaped, and the polling place was at one end, so lots of people who lived in the long leg of the L were closer to another precinct's polling place than their own. Some people arrived confused, annoyed, and tired after going to the closer polling place and being turned away.
Most people were patient, though. Only 2 voters got mad. One was mad because she saw a Russian woman get her husband's help with reading the ballot. She confronted me angrily, claiming the husband shouldn't be allowed to be in the voting booth with her. I felt my face get hot as I wondered if I had seriously screwed up. I said that people are allowed to request a helper if they need one; the angry woman said that's what the foreign-language ballots are for; I pointed out that we don't have Russian ballots. She escalated the issue to the Field Inspector, who thankfully backed me up. Thought I was in real trouble for a minute there.
The other one was mad that we asked her daughter her address 3 times. (I don't know what she read into that, but we asked lots of people their address more than twice just to make sure we heard it correctly and marked it right on all the forms.)
One sad old man told me "I forgot to vote by mail. I was too busy burying my wife." :-(
I mumbled some condolences while wondering if that will be my future. Good thing me and Sushu plan to die at the exact same time. Holding hands. (flute solo)
Most people voted early in the day; a few stragglers showed up after 7pm, expecting to have to wait in line, and were surprised to be the only ones there. We had about 1,000 registered voters in the precinct, but 3/4 of them were registered vote-by-mail. We had 201 in-person votes plus about 160 drop-off mail ballots, so (assming the others mailed them in) it was a pretty solid turnout.
Didn't find out Obama won until after we were done closing the polls down at 10pm Pacific time. Sushu texted me "yay, Obama won" and I was actually surprised that it was such a clear win and not an excruciating near-tie.
"I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist"
Mark Lynas, who was a leader in the British anti-GM (genetically modified) food movement, has changed his mind and is now renouncing his former position. (Video is about an hour long including Q&A session, but there's a transcript if you wanna skim.)
He says that arguing with global-warming denialists taught him the importance of reading the original scientific research on a topic, and when he applied that method to the GM debate, he found that the fears he'd been propogating had little evidence to suppor them. He now says that GM crops, by feeding more people from the same area of land, and thereby preserving wilderness from agriculture, have been a net positive for the environment, and that trying to ban them is counterproductive.
The whole thing is worth reading, both for his description of his personal journey and for the details of the argument he presents. I respect somebody who is willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Far too many people, when faced with evidence that they're wrong, look for excuses and double-down on their challenged beliefs.
I think this is pretty important for anyone who wants to call themselves an environmentalist. Not just the facts about GM, but the philosophy of applying intellectual rigor to your pet issues. Good intentions are not enough.
Lessons from Martin Luther King
I've been reading A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It tells the story of the USA from Columbus to the War on Terror, from the perspective of the downtrodden: Indians, slaves, women, poor tenant farmers, immigrants, factory workers, etc. It contrasts the "official" story, the one based on presidents and other powerful people, with the first-hand accounts of the people on the bottom who lived through these events.
What I like about the book is that most of it is quotations from original sources. So even if you don't like Zinn's commentary, you can read for yourself what people were saying about the times they lived in, and draw your own conclusions. There is a lot of powerful, defiant, inspiring stuff written by people who were ground down for centuries.
I spent most of yesterday on buses and airplanes, so I had a lot of time to read. Since it was MLK day I decided to flip forward to Zinn's chapter about the Civil Rights movement.
Confession time: When I was younger I was one of those sheltered white kids who didn't really understand why Martin Luther King was such a big deal. The story we hear in school is heavily sanitized: The south had segregation, it was unfair, but then MLK made a lot of inspiring speeches, and now there's no segregation anymore, hooray!
To understand the true extent of Dr. King's heroism you have to understand the evil and brutality of the entrenched power structure the Civil Rights movement was working against.
Zinn analyzes the roots of racism as a strategy by elites in the early days of American colonization: plantation owners knew that if poor whites ever teamed up with slaves, they'd have the strength to overthrow the aristocracy. By teaching poor whites to hate blacks, the elites pitted the two groups against each other and secured their own position on top. Not sure that's the only explanation, but it sure is thought-provoking.
By winning the Civil War, the North could force the South to end official slavery, but it couldn't end the hatred of black people that whites had had drilled into them for centuries. The Fifteenth Amendment could guarantee voting rights to blacks on paper, but without sustained federal intervention it couldn't guarantee them in practice: As soon as the Reconstruction governments went home, whites started using mob violence to stop blacks from voting (this was the period when the Klu Klux Klan was first formed) and southern state governments went to work re-implementing every part of the white-supremacist power structure except slavery.
(Sad fact I discovered: California voted against ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, because it was afraid of having to give the vote to Chinese immigrants. True story. Shame on you, California!)
And this system of white supremacy, enforced by violence, was still in force by Dr. King's time. Jim Crow wasn't just about having to go to different schools and drink out of different water fountains: it was about the fact that a mob of white vigilantes would beat you up, or lynch you and hang you, if you were a black person trying to claim your equal rights. And the police would watch and do nothing. Or join in the violence. Or arrest the victims. And the courts (where you weren't allowed to serve on a jury) would acquit the murderers.
So the story of the Civil Rights movement is the story of standing up to this violence. When activists peacefully staged sit-ins at the counters of whites-only diners, they were beaten and arrested. When activists boycotted segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, white supremacists firebombed Martin Luther King's house. When activists registered black people to vote in the summer of 1964, white supremacists murdered them. When the Freedom Riders rode through Birmingham, the white local police joined with the KKK in attacking them. When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington, white supremacists retaliated by bombing a church, killing four innocent girls.
And the Civil Rights movement appealed to the federal government to protect them from racist violence, and the federal government paid lip service to the idea, but they had the FBI infiltrate and subvert Civil Rights groups. They put Martin Luther King under illegal FBI surveillance, all as part of a heavily-classified program called COINTELPRO, under the pretense of suppressing Communist activity. Meanwhile conservatives in Congress staged the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights bill.
Somehow the version of Civil Rights history we got in school glossed over the extent of the murderous evil they were up against. Possibly on purpose, to avoid offending the powerful.
Against all this evil, Dr. King didn't just have courage, moral imagination, charisma, and inspiring speeches. Those are all important, but they're not enough to end a system of oppression as entrenched as Jim Crow. But Dr. King had something else: He had a strategy. A smart one.
The strategy was to, by peaceably demanding their rights, provoke a violent backlash from white supremacists, and then to turn the other cheek and maintain the moral high ground. Thus they'd show to the world the violence, brutality, injustice, and evil of the forces maintaining the status quo. And by so doing, get public opinion on their side, in order to create the needed political pressure to get civil rights legislation passed and (more importantly) actually enforced by the national government.
In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King says:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored...
...and then later...
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Some say this was naiive, that non-violent resistance alone would have led only to more lip-service (e.g. the earlier civil rights acts which congress had passed but were not enforced at the state level) without Malcom X and the Black Panthers to be the "bad cops" and show America that black people were ready to fight violence with violence for their equality if they couldn't get it through nonviolent pressure.
Nevertheless, Dr. King kept going out in public and organizing and making speeches and doing his thing even though he knew people were literally gunning for him. When your strategy involves provoking a violent reaction from the forces of evil, you have to be prepared to get beat up, to go to jail, to get shot. Dr. King was ready to die for his cause, and he would not be intimidated into giving up, because he wasn't going to let the terrorists win. (Yes, terrorists. White supremacists were using murder and assassination to scare black people away from political action: that's the definition of terrorism.)
Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and if you really want to change the power structure, you're going to be looking down the barrel of that gun sooner or later. The American power structure talks a nice game about equality and peace and democracy but when it feels itself being seriously challenged, the velvet gloves come off and the iron fist comes out, just like any other government.
It's interesting to contrast the civil rights movement against, say, Occupy Wall Street. The civil rights movement, at great cost, achieved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. (not to say that prejudice is over or that everyone has equality of opportunity - there's clearly far to go.) Occupy may have injected some much-needed ideas back into the national conversation, but it didn't exactly accomplish concrete political goals.
I'm not sure anybody knew what its goals were. Lots of people agree that banks have too much influence over the government; but what, exactly, do you want us to do about it? There was a moment when I think a lot of people had sympathy for Occupy (Something about passively resisting students getting pepper-sprayed in the face by cops). But unlike Civil Rights, Occupy wasn't able to channel that sympathy into anything. It lacked a strategic and charismatic leader like Dr. King. It lacked a forceful message like "End Segregation" to rally people behind.
Occupy Wall Street really should have learned more lessons from Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. (It's not like this is ancient history: there are still Civil Rights veterans alive to learn from, if Occupy was willing to listen.) Anybody who wants to change the world today should study these lessons intently.
One more quotation from Birmingham Jail:
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation....We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Guanatamo: Still open, still violating basic human rights
Here's something that makes me madder than Bitcoins and iPads put together: America's ongoing, illegal, indefinite-detention-and-torture program.
Iâ€™ve been detained at GuantĂˇnamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.
-- from "Gitmo Is Killing Me", related by Yemeni prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel through an Arabic interpreter.
The number one reason I supported Obama was because I thought he would end this. I was wrong.
Remember how in 2011 he tried to transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a prison in Illinois? It would have technically kept his campaign promise to "close Guantanamo", but the issue is whether we're torturing people and holding them without trial, not whether we're doing it in Cuba or Illinois.
And anyway, Congress voted to block funding for the transfer. Remember that? The scare stories about how if we let them off of Cuba they would surely escape and do more terrorism? Like, somehow no prison in the USA was strong enough to hold them?
It was total bullshit; terrorists do not have super-powers. They're not going to burn through the prison walls with laser-vision. They're no harder to keep locked up than any other criminals. Never mind that most of the people in Guantanamo are not terrorists; they're regular middle-eastern dudes with beards who were standing in the wrong place when the Bush administration decided to make a big show of getting tough. Most of them are innocent scapegoats.
Sure, there's some terrorists in with them. You know how we could tell which ones are which?
By reading the charges against them, presenting evidence, and holding fucking trials, like we do with every other crime.
How Cop Shows Legitimize Torture
Sushu was watching one of her crime procedural shows last night, and there was a scene where the "hero" tortures a suspect (off-camera). His daughter has been kidnapped by the bad guys in this episode, and the suspect isn't talking, and the narrative purpose of the torture is to show that the hero cares so much about his daughter that he's willing to break all the rules.
And I think about why America started torturing prisoners of war after 9/11, and why even after it was exposed the people responsible for the policy were never punished. And why Guantanamo is still open. And yeah, in my last post I blamed Congress, but there's more to it than that: there's a disturbingly large number of voters who support torture. To some degree, Congress is just doing what the people want, scary as that thought is.
Maybe it's partly because their image of torture comes from the way it's portrayed on TV cop shows: where it's something the heroes do for the greater good.
On TV, when the hero tortures a bad guy for information, the audience already knows the bad guy did it. Most of the time, they saw him do it on screen earlier in the episode. Because of the narrative structure of these shows, there's never any doubt that the police have the right person. So it's always like "Well, torture's bad, but this is the only guy who knows where the ticking time-bomb is, so if you don't torture him, lots of innocent people will die." So the heroes have a bit of a moral dilemma but quickly decide that saving those lives is so important that they're going to "break the rules" for it. Torture is shown as (apologies for falling back on D&D alignments but I don't know how else to describe this) a "chaotic good" action under certain circumstances.
What happens in real life, that you never see in the cop shows, is that they've captured a suspect, but nobody knows whether he's the culprit or not, and they torture him and he screams that he doesn't know anything, and they keep torturing him and he keeps screaming that he doesn't know anything, and nobody knows if it's because he's really good at resisting interrogation or because the real culprit is still out there somewhere and they're torturing an innocent person.
Or they torture him and he tells them an address, but it turns out to be wrong, because he really didn't know anything and he just made up an address to get them to stop torturing him.
Like, "innocent until proven guilty" isn't just some bleeding-heart liberal slogan; it's a good policy because police make mistakes. They're only human, and they're required to act on incomplete information most of the time. The chance that you've picked up an innocent person, and the real culprit is still out there somewhere, is pretty high.
But cop shows never end with them getting the wrong guy. They never cart someone off to prison who's still protesting his innocence. The real bad guy always confesses right after the detective explains how she saw through the one mistake in his perfect crime, so the audience can have a sense of closure.
Given that real life never gives us the certainty of a TV show, we should reject the "chaotic good" view of torture. It's not a choice between torturing a guy and letting innocent people die. Some large fraction of the time, torturing the guy gives you worthless information or no information at all, the innocent people die anyway, and you tortured a guy for nothing.. It's not a grey area, it's not a moral dilemma, it's not a difficult choice. Resorting to torture is like selling your soul to the devil for a wooden nickel.
By the way, this is why you shouldn't listen to anybody who tells you that writing fiction isn't important. Storytelling is how you create and influence culture, and culture influences values, and values influence how people vote and what people fight for, which influences history. Not to say you should set out to write polemical fiction: beating readers over the head with a political message makes lousy storytelling. But the values at the core of your work are sure as hell going to find their way into the reader's mind.
What American TV shows of the past few decades had portrayed torture as something the innocent hero suffers at the hands of a villainous government after being mistaken for an enemy of the state? Would there still be as many people supporting it?
Government whines that spying on citizens is too hard, demands new backdoors in internet software
Also wow is this a lot of depressing links to see in one go. You need to spread these things out. Also, possibly balance out your reading of depressing stuff with some positivity.
Hahahaha, nope! The depressing links are JUST BEGINNING!
Obama May Back F.B.I. Plan to Wiretap Web Users - NYTimes.com
The F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, has argued that the bureauâ€™s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects is â€śgoing darkâ€ť as communications technology evolves, and since 2010 has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies like Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders.
Lawfare - Susan Landau on Obama Administrationâ€™s New Wiretapping Proposal
On the face of it, the new FBI proposal to fine companies that donâ€™t comply with wiretap orders seems eminently reasonable. Â If law enforcement satisfies theÂ Wiretap ActÂ requirements for a court order, surely the communications provider should deliver the goods... This view of wiretapping is mired in the 1960s, when each phone was on a wire from the phone companyâ€™s central office, and a wiretap consisted of a pair of alligator clips and a headset.
This proposal, if enacted, would essentially make it a crime to develop a secure communications technology. Software developers would be required to build in a back door for the government to spy on their users.
Also, notice the FBI's logic: unintended flaws of telephone tachnology (you could stick alligator clips on a phone line and hear what they were saying) used to make wiretapping easy, so we made laws restricting when it could be done. But oh no, improvements in communication technology have made wiretapping harder, so we demand that you replicate the flaws of the old phone system (at your own cost, for the FBI's benefit).
Of course, they're saying that they'd only use these backdoors with court approval... while at the same time, they're also arguing that they don't need court approval to read your e-mail!
DOJ: We don't need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats | CNET News
The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI believe they don't need a search warrant to review Americans' e-mails, Facebook chats, Twitter direct messages, and other private files, internal documents reveal. Government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and provided to CNET show a split over electronic privacy rights within the Obama administration, with Justice Department prosecutors and investigators privately insisting they're not legally required to obtain search warrants for e-mail.
So the ACLU filed a Freedom of Informatoin Act request to the Justice Department to find out about the government's warrantless snooping, and...
Most Transparent Administration in History Releases Completely Redacted Document About Text Snooping - Hit & Run : Reason.com
Here's what they got back:
A memo header: Â â€śGuidance for the Minimization of Text
Messages over Dual-Function Cellular Telephonesâ€ť and thenÂ 15
pages, completely blacked out.Â
Reminds me of that guy from the NSA who said they can't tell the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee (!) how many Americans they've spied on, because telling would "violate their privacy".
So, the government gets to know everything about what we're doing, but we don't get to know anything about what the government is doing. Hmmm. Sounds fair, right?
The whole idea of a representative democracy is that, in theory, if the citizens don't like what their representatives in government are doing, they can vote them out.
What happens to that when the citizens are not allowed to know what the government is doing in their name?
Apple and Google's income tax evasion strategies
For anybody who still somehow thinks of Apple as some kind of fuzzy, benevolent company:
Apple Avoided Billions in Taxes, Congressional Panel Says - NYTimes.com
In 2011, for example, one subsidiary paid Ireland just one-twentieth of 1 percent in taxes on $22 billion on pretax earnings from various operations; another did not file a corporate tax return anywhere and has paid almost nothing on $30 billion in profits since 2009... Over all, Appleâ€™s tax avoidance efforts shifted at least $74 billion from the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012, the investigators said.
Of course, Google does it too:
Google Revenues Sheltered in No-Tax Bermuda Soar to $10 Billion - Bloomberg
In Googleâ€™s case, an Irish subsidiary collects revenues from ads sold in countries like the U.K. and France. That Irish unit in turn pays royalties to another Irish subsidiary, whose legal residence for tax purposes is in Bermuda. The pair of Irish units gives rise to the nickname â€śDouble Irish.â€ť To avoid an Irish withholding tax, Google channeled the payments to Bermuda through a subsidiary in the Netherlands -- thus the â€śDutch Sandwichâ€ť label. The Netherlands subsidiary has no employees... Last year, Google reported a tax rate of just 3.2 percent on the profit it said was earned overseas, even as most of its foreign sales were in European countries with corporate income tax rates ranging from 26 percent to 34 percent.
It's really weird for me to read comment threads where Apple fanboys and Google fanboys cheerlead their chosen team, as if either of them was anything but a typical rapacious multinational corporation.
This is all completely legal, too! They've got teams of lawyers making sure of that. (Teams of accountants to find loopholes, teams of shareholders demanding the exploitation of loopholes, teams of lobbyists pressuring government to create new loopholes...) That's the power of a multinational corporation in the modern age: the ability to pick and choose which sets of laws they want to apply to each subsidiary at any given time. Ala carte, from out of all the nations of the world. Which, of course, causes the race to the bottom in worker and environmental protection laws.
If fiscal conservatives really want to balance the budget and reduce taxes on the middle class, maybe they should take a look at all the behemoths who aren't paying their fair share? Just a thought.
(Extra irony: Google was built on the back of a technology initially developed by taxpayer-funded research initiatives.)