Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Sunday, June 21, 2015

How Bias Tilts

Apparently, there is some gate-keeping going on with bias studies...

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Emails


Last week the story broke that the Clinton foundation accepted rather large donations from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.  At least one of those donations appears to have violated the ethics agreement that was put forth by the Obama administration.  All of the donations present ethical questions, though.  Is it really possible for a Secretary of State (or other cabinet level official) to receive a large amount of money from a foreign government and somehow keep strict neutrality when dealing with that nation?  It seems unlikely, if not impossible.  That's why the ethics guidelines are in place.  Even if Hillary Clinton somehow kept her actions pure, why did she not think that these rules applied to her?
This week's story is of a similar, though more disturbing vein.  While she was Secretary of State, Clinton exclusively used a personal email address.  From appearances (and the story is still developing), the Clintons set up their own domain and servers.  There are reports that her personal aides also used the private email set up.  This was a set of deliberate actions.  When Clinton accepted the post, she decided that she would bypass the government email set up.
The most obvious reason to do so would be to avoid Freedom of Information requests.  Emails from State officials are subject to request (with limitations based on things like sensitivity).  Private email servers would be beyond the reach of government IT officials.  The Clintons have released some of those emails but only ones that they have decided are germane.  Again, she decided that the regular rules didn't apply to her.
Even more disturbing is the security risk that this presents.  Government emails are given top level encryption to protect against hackers.  A personal domain and server obviously isn't.  There is reason to fear that governments all over the world were able to read all of our Secretary of State's emails.  General Patreaus was just given a (rather light) legal sentence for being too loose with confidential materials with his girlfriend.  Clinton took a larger risk.


Goodness knows that the last six years have put a strain on the 'Hope and Change' theme that Democrats embraced so heartily in 2008.  How they deal with these twin scandals from the Clintons will tell us a lot about their general approach to clean government.  If ethical actions count more than raw power, they'll demand some answers.  Otherwise, they'll try to slip past this with faint condemnation and some attempt to pin this on Republicans.
If they're serious, they won't allow Hillary Clinton to make one more step towards running until she gives some lengthy and serious answers to what happened.  This will mean revealing some technical details of what happened.  It will mean taking questions from potentially hostile questioners.  It will mean an honest accounting of what happened, regardless of what that means to her election chances.
Will Democrats actually do such a thing?  

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Like a Girl

A shortened version of this video appeared as a commercial during the Super Bowl.


The ad is undeniably powerful but it didn't quite set well with me and after some thought, I came up with three reasons why.
1. There is a basic dishonesty in the premise.  Assuming that the video is truthful (not edited out of context), it looks like a group of actors were called in for an audition and then asked to act for a director.  "Okay, so I'm just going to give you some actions to do, and just do the first thing that comes to mind."  The actors agree and when asked to run/fight/throw like a girl, they create a caricature.
They could hardly have done anything different.  From what we can see, each one is being given a chance to sell their acting skills in a brief moment without any context.  They then reach for a quick and negative portrayal.  The same thing would have happened with most any instruction they were given.  If they were asked to speak like they were English, they would said things like 'pish posh', 'cherrio' and talked about tea and crumpets.  Those things are certainly stereotypes but how else would they convey 'English' in a brief moment?  This is true of almost an adjective.  If they'd been asked to 'talk like a guy' would they have escaped stereotypes?
In fact, think of what would have happened if one of the women had thought 'well, I'm a girl, I'll just act normally and play it straight'.  They then would have run in place normally and almost any director would have dismissed them as terribly boring.
This wasn't fair to the actors.
2. It's not cool to shame children.  Look at the boy at the 1:08 mark.  He's what, ten or eleven years old?  He's asked if he insulted his sister.  He says "No, I mean, yeah...insulted girls, but not my sister."  He obviously doesn't understand exactly how to untie a person he knows well, like his sister, with a wide ranging stereotype, like 'girls'.  In time hopefully, he'll have a better grasp on this.  And it isn't hard to see how this exact example will help him out.
I've got three young kids and they run into these teachable moments all the time.  If they see someone using a powered cart at Target, they loudly ask what's wrong with them.  I quietly tell them that it's not polite to point or yell and then explain what the situation is.  This is normal parenting and you can hear stories like this from virtually every parent.
What parents don't do, is correct their children in a commercial that airs during the most watched television program of the year.  Let's hope that this commercial doesn't lead to years of teasing and bullying and therapy sessions.  This isn't a fair thing to do to someone that young.
3. The message isn't quite right.  I've got a seven year old daughter and I worry about her future.  I don't want her to face a plummet of confidence in her teens, as the ad suggests.  But I doubt that making 'like a girl' into an amazing phrase will help.  In fact, reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her more vulnerable to other dangers.  I'm not especially worried that she'll come home crying on the bus because she couldn't hit a ball well but I am worried that she'll be crying because someone told her that her outfit wasn't girly enough.
I think that the ad makers hearts are in the right place, I truly do.  We should all want girls (and boys!) to escape having their spirits crushed as teens.  The mistake they make is by trying to fight against this by drawing a line around a group and trying to elevate it.  This will always a) reinforce stereotypes within that group and b) create hostility from those outside of it.  I don't want to a) have to tell my daughter to dress a certain way because that's how girls do it and I don't want to b) alienate her brothers by defining successful things as  girl-like.  Instead of emphasizing her wonderful girlness, I'll emphasize how wonderful she is as an individual.  In the end, that's obviously the best way forward.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How To Handle Dictatorships

We're in an odd moment here in the West.  After the cold war was won, we wound down, leading some to declare that we had reached the 'end of history'.  That obviously wasn't true and we've now been at war for more than a dozen years.  The odd thing is, despite many military victories, we have no idea how to actually win. 
Foreign policy under Obama is, well, hard to define.  It places a high value on international consensus.  It avoids conflict, especially conflict that would put US troops on the ground.  It cherishes 'soft power' approaches.  And it really hasn't changed the world for the better. 
Not that the Bush approach worked any better.  The military did its part in conquering forces in the field but then things fell to pieces.  Nations refused to be built and the world decided that the US was the bad guy.  No one looks to the Bush years as a model on how to move forward.
So what do we do?  Allow me to spitball some ideas.

Tie foreign aid to reforms.  One of the reasons why the situation in so many poor countries is so helpless is because the political structure is rotten and corrupt.  What if we made foreign aid conditional on reforms to fix those systems?  We could attack bribery pretty easily.  We could also include things like freedom of the press and other basic rights.  Figure out the top priorities and very publicly tell the dictatorships that unless they clean up their acts, the money stops.
Pay dictators to retire.  Another enduring problem is that once an autocrat takes power, they hang on to it until death.  Sometimes, like in North Korea, that means the family takes over and there is little hope of peaceful regime change.  On some level it's galling, but the world would be better off if some of these despots were given a pile of cash and the deed to a Mediterranean villa.  One of the prime strengths of the Western world is that countries periodically trade power to other countries without bloodshed.  We should do what we can to encourage that.
Threaten cultural retaliation.  If you've read 'The Looming Tower' by Lawrence Wright (and you really should!), then you'll know that Al Qaeda and their spiritual brethren are motivated by the idea that non-Islamic ideas are decadent and will corrupt the soul.  What would happen if we found a way to tell leaders of terrorist groups that we would use culture to retaliate to any attacks from them?  What if we threatened to broadcast our most decadent channels, say Bravo and MTV, onto every TV in their country?  What if every radio picked up station after station of pop music?  Would that give them pause?
Outsource nation building.  If we do find ourselves again in the awful place of having to force regime change, we should break it into two distinct phases.  The US (and any probable coalition) can handle the military side.  The big problems come after.  The people there rightly fear imperialism and resent the foreign troops.  So we call in someone else.  Ask the UN to rebuild.  That takes away the imperialism fear and allows the foreign troops to withdraw. 
Confidently assert pluralistic values.  If we really want a future world where conflicts over race, religion and creed are rare, then we need to show how that's done.  We need to push examples of how different people can live comfortably together.  This will mean less searching for specks in our own eyes and some bragging about the areas where we do a good job.  It will mean standing up for principles like free speech without the depressing 'but' that so often follows.  It will mean reasserting assimilation and the melting pot. 

These may not work but our current ideas aren't so hot.  They might be worth a try.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Points are numbered to make responses easier.

1. Let's start with the basics.  This image should not justify murder. 
It may be disrespectful and distasteful but in a free society, drawing and publishing such a picture should not carry a death sentence.  It also should not carry a fear of prison or fines or any such thing.  Possibly it will bring social penalties but that risk is up to the artist and publisher.
2. A free society depends on the ability to dispute, criticize and ridicule members of authority.  This can be messy but it's necessary.  As Voltaire said, 'To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.'  No person or institution is granted that position in a free society.
3. Not everyone agrees with the second point.  Here is Anjem Choudary in the US Today, writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.
Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
That last sentence seems to say, 'they were warned and they had it coming'.
4. I have no idea how widespread this thought is among Muslims.  Obviously some millions of Muslims live in the US and other countries that share our notion of free speech.  The vast majority of them seem able to deal with the prospect that something personally precious to them may be ridiculed.  Hopefully Mr Choudary's viewpoint is held only by a tiny minority.
5. It would be good for us, and the world as a whole if we could help make that minority even smaller.  As J.S. Mill said, 'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.'  We are better off with more and more speech, not less.  Even if that speech makes others uncomfortable or offended.
6. I don't know how good of a job we do really explaining the concept of 'free speech' to the rest of the world.  Of late, we've done a really terrible job of explaining that a commitment to free speech means that listeners just might hear some terrible things.  You might hear things that make you conclude that the speaker is a terrible human being.  You might hear things that make you angry.  You might hear things that make you feel a little sick inside.  Freedom isn't always pretty.
7. What's the alternative?  The only way of avoiding all of the bad stuff is to wall off sections of speech.  This means (per Voltaire's point) figuring out who is in charge and must not be criticized.  It also means (per Mill's point) that minority points of view must be silenced.  An adult society rejects those choices and deals with the possibility of being offended.
8. So how do we communicate this to those who aren't convinced?  By being steadfast in our defense of allowing people to talk.  If someone makes art that is anti-X, we stand up and defend their ability to do so.  We stop looking for ways to tell each other to 'shut up'.  That means terms like 'micro-aggression, mansplaining and privilege' should be used to open up avenues of conversation, not bring it to a halt.  It means a rather thorough reexamination of the concept of 'hate speech'.  Any time we are telling someone else that they must shut up, we give credence to the arguments of someone like Mr Choudary and his belief that people should stop talking in ways that bring him offense.
9. None of this should be taken as saying that people shouldn't criticize speech that they don't agree with.  If you see obscene art, tell the artist and gallery that you find it offensive.  If you read sentiments you disagree with, talk back and explain why you disagree.  This may get messy and loud.  So be it.  That's better than the alternative.
10. Of course, another way of dealing with offensive art and the like is to simply roll your eyes and ignore it.  This is another way that mature, pluralistic societies work together.  They avoid the worst arguments with a sort of 'live and let live' attitude.  We could use more of that.  We'd be better off if we could comfortably go to a restaurant even if we disagreed with the politics of the owner.  We'd be better off if bakers could simply bake cakes without worrying whether they were topped by two brides or two grooms.
11. Large numbers of people can live together with other people who say and do things that they find disagreeable.  We've proved that.  We should be exporting these ideas to any of the rest of the world that will listen to them. 

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Political Dynasties

Why are political dynasties ok?

WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton defended American political dynasties — including her own — arguing some families may just have a “predisposition” to become presidents.
In an interview published Tuesday with Der Spiegel, Clinton batted down the notion that a succession of Bushes and Clintons in the White House would turn American politics into a monarchy.
“We had two Roosevelts,” the former secretary of state told the German publication. “We had two Adams. It may be that certain families just have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to want to be in politics.”
 I'd like to see someone defend this type of sentiment and then explain to me how inequality is a prime problem for our country.  Oh, I have no doubt that the same person could do both, but they'd have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to do so.



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Racists!

I need a system where I can stick posts that I want to refer back to later.  This one, from Matt Welch, about casual assumptions of racism is a prime example. 
This isn't just bad journalism, it's bad tolerance. Attributing a single set of personality traits to scores of millions of people whose only commonality is age and race is the opposite of judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It's also a cheap way to wave off the substance of anti-Obama criticism—why bother figuring out why a majority of Americans have consistently disliked the flawed Affordable Care Act when you can just roll your eyes and assert that the real reason is white anxiety and worse? There is nothing tolerant about assuming that those who have different ideas than you about the size and scope of government are motivated largely by base ethnic tribalism.
 The casual assumption is a lazy excuse to avoid answering real arguments.  As a bonus, it gives the accusers some unearned virtue so that they can beat up their opponents.  Of course, it's also become a signal that the speaker should simply be ignored . . .

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