well, as long as your intentions are pure.

Back in college—meaning “a few years ago” for me—my English teacher was a pleasant older woman who was married to an Iranian national. I had many discussions with her on politics, education, and the general state of affairs in this country.

Once, we were talking about the different mindsets in the Middle East, and the American tendency to go into a place and expect the folks there to think like we do. She told me of a student from an Arab country she once had. One time he didn’t show up for an exam. When she later marked his grade down for the absence, he protested.

“You weren’t there, so I had to mark down your grade,” she told him.

“I was at the library and I was running late. I meant to come to class.”

“Well, you still weren’t there, so I really have no choice. You missed the exam.”

“But I meant to come,” he insisted, quite upset that the teacher wouldn’t change her decision.

When she later discussed the incident with her husband, he explained that it’s a cultural thing. He explained that in the student’s native culture, intent is as important as–and sometimes more important than–results. He missed the exam, but his intentions had been good, so to him, the teacher marking down his grade was profoundly unfair.

I find that this explanation helps me understand the ability of so many people to dismiss the negative effects of certain policy decisions. In some ways, they have adopted the same sort of mindset that intent trumps results. That’s how we end up with rising food prices because so much of the country’s farmers are now growing government-subsidized corn to turn into fuel ethanol, for example. The intent was to help the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The results are the aforementioned rising global food prices because of all the crop acreage that is now re-purposed for fuel. (The net result for the environment has been negative in the end, because the agricultural runoff from the nitrogen fertilizers needed for all the corn has a bad impact on the Gulf of Mexico.)

That’s how we ended up with egregious systematic abuses of power like RICO and asset forfeiture excess–because the intent of the law was good (reducing or eliminating the negative effects of drugs on society), the people who voted that kind of stuff into place can hold fast to it because the actual results of the policy are not as important as its intent. Conversely, measures specifically designed to eliminate the negative results of the War on Drugs don’t stand a chance of success with the same crowd if the intent of the measure is perceived wrongly. (“You want to make cannabis legal to stop stuffing the jails with non-violent drug offenders? Are you insane? What kind of message does that send?”)

How many public policy measures have been kept in place even though they have achieved the opposite results of those desired because they were well-intended? The list is a long one, and it’s not limited to only liberal or only conservative hobby horses. Gun control, welfare, drug policy, defense policy, education, health care…it seems that too many politicians (and voters) of either party are more interested in doing what sounds right than what’s actually effective. The system is set up to favor the sound bite and the “common sense solution” because it gets more votes—and is more defensible in a campaign debate—than the ideas that are focused on producing results without giving a handy “perceived intent” adapter for the proponent.

That’s how voters can re-elect a guy accused of taking bribes or diddling interns—because his public policy efforts have the proper intent, his private transgressions are irrelevant. And that’s why they can dismiss the good results achieved by the Other Guy’s public policy efforts—because those policies don’t have the proper intent, their results are irrelevant.


the aesthetics of bedtime.

Here’s Lyra’s pick for last night’s bedtime story:

Picture 007

What could possess a three-year-old to pick such heady material?

  1. She’s genuinely interested in 500-page treatises on aesthetics.
  2. She finds Plato boring and chose this book to put her to sleep faster.
  3. She thinks that Daddy will take the bait, and read a bedtime story for twelve hours, thereby delaying bedtime.
  4. She likes the rainbow on the cover.

Right now, I’m leaning toward option 4, but knowing my (already clever and devious) girl child, I have a sneaking suspicion that option 3 may also be a contender.

that s-word, i don’t think it means what you think it means.

This wired.uk snippet claims that 20% of Americans believe socialism is superior to capitalism.  That’s just a jaw-dropping figure, and one that has me shaking my head in stunned disbelief.

Socialism is an inherently flawed system, because–unlike capitalism–it makes no allowances for rewarding effort.  Actually, there are many more reasons why socialism isn’t even a good system “in theory”, like so many empty-headed college commies assert.  It’s a shitty system in both theory and practice, one that aims to achieve the impossible goal of economic equality by actively discouraging productivity.

Equality is a good thing when it comes to access and opportunity.  It’s a horrible thing when it comes to economic status, because it needs to create a baseline for productivity and personal achievement, and then use the guns of the state to make everyone conform to it–by chopping down the smart and industrious, and then using the trimmings to prop up the underachievers and the ones unwilling to pull the cart.

Take it from someone who has seen socialism–true socialism–first-hand, in all its gray and drab, hopeless, soul-sapping misery: In the history of socialism, no country that has ever tried it has ended up with the desired goal of equality, and the only way to put everyone on one level economically has universally been to impoverish everyone equally.  Except for the ruling class, of course, who always grow fond of their privileges and their powers.  Regardless of how long the lines at the store become, the Politburo and those loyal to them usually eat well, even when the country crumbles to dust around them.

(And if socialism is so fair, uplifting, and equitable, why is it that every single socialist country ever established had to break out the barbed wire and the machine guns sooner or later to keep its own citizens in?)

The only way you can be a fan of socialism is if you’ve never seen it operate in practice, or if you think you’ll be one of the intelligentsia calling the shots in the Better World(tm) you want to build.

(Mind that we’re talking about real socialism here, not the center-left populist wankfest practiced by even the most pink-hued members of the Democratic party, so let’s not have a comment thread full of “OBAMA IZ TEH SOSHULISM!!!!11!, hmm-kay?)

you keep using that word. i do not think it means what you think it means.

Yesterday morning, on my weekly sojourn into town for Dadcation Day, I spotted a bumper sticker in the Borders parking lot that had me shaking my head:


Now, health care is certainly an important commodity.  I sure like being able to see a doctor when something ails me, and to get my teeth cleaned and fixed on occasion.  I’m also a big fan of antibiotics, x-rays, vaccinations for the kids, and all the other medical advances that have doubled human lifespans in just a few generations.  Health care is great, and I wouldn’t want to be without access to it.

But a “human right”?  Hippie, please.

I have no doubt that the owner of the thusly-stickered car considers him- or herself to be educated, informed, and thoroughly on top of things.  By proclaiming health care a “right”, however, he or she demonstrates a rather galling unfamiliarity with the nature of rights.

Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way first.  You cannot have a right to something that necessitates a financial obligation on someone else’s part. 

When you look at our Bill of Rights, which enumerates (not “grants”) a bunch of rights, you won’t find a single Amendment in there that recognizes the right to receive a material commodity, free of charge or otherwise.  In order for me to let you enjoy all the rights enumerated in that fine document, all that’s required of me is to leave you the hell alone, which doesn’t cost me a penny.  Your rights to free speech, to free exercise of your religion, or to be free from unreasonable search and seizure do not make the slightest dent in my wallet or my schedule.  The Second Amendment refers to a physical commodity (arms), but it only recognizes that you have the right to own a gun if you have the desire and means to acquire one, not the right to get one for free from the rest of us.

If you promote health care to a human right on the same level with freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, or freedom of speech, you face an interesting quandary.  Health care, unlike all those other things mentioned, is a commodity, exactly like the bread and milk on the shelf at your grocery store.  That commodity needs to be created and distributed by other people.  Doctors aren’t made by waving a Magic Government Wand, they are educated at medical school.  Penicillin and Tamiflu don’t grow on trees in some publically-owned grove, they are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.  If you have a right to all those things, then those doctors and medical companies have the duty and obligation to provide you with it.

Now picture every single doctor, hospital, and pharmaceutical plant in the country closing overnight.  The doctors are sick of piling on a quarter million in student loans just to work sixty-hour weeks for crap pay and the risk of ruinous lawsuits.  From sea to shining sea, every single doctor in every specialty just closes shop, and takes up basket weaving or Slabovian folk dance instead.

What happened to your “right” to medical care? How are you going to claim that right when nobody is able to provide that exam, or make you that blood pressure medication?

Oh, I know that the argument put forth by the owner of that bumper sticker would be something along the lines of “government has/should have the duty to provide it.”  The problem with that, of course is that government doesn’t actually produce anything to provide.  Government isn’t in the business of creating stuff, it’s in the distribution business—widget A shuffled to consumer B, for a not-so-small cut of the profits to feed all the people working in the distribution center.  Government takes a resource from someone, allocates or transforms it (tax dollars to asphalt to roads, for example), and then redistributes it.  The government cannot provide you with health care directly, it can only take someone’s money and pay some doctor or pharmacist to do the job.  What would the government do if all the doctors in the country just didn’t want to be doctors anymore, and all the medical students followed suit as well and dropped out?  If health care is a human right, shouldn’t the government then be able to arrest all those doctors and bring them up on federal charges of human and civil rights violations?  If health care is a human right, shouldn’t the government be able to charge any doctor thusly who refuses to treat a patient for free right now?

In fact, why stop there?  If health care is a human right, surely food has to be bumped to the same status?  I mean, lack of health care means you’ll die sooner, possibly in a decade or two—but lack of food means you’ll die in a few weeks.  Why don’t we just make food a human right, too, and seize the means of production over at Wonder Bread to make sure they won’t profit from their bread while people starve, deprived of the inalienable human right to stuff themselves with free starchy carbs?  And why stop there? Is the all-you-can-eat buffet over at CiCi’s Pizza a human right, too? Can we bring up the folks at Denny’s for human rights violations if they dare present us with a check at the end of the meal?

Health care is important, and awesome, and I’m a huge fan of it.  It is not, however, a human right.  It’s a commodity just like any other product and service, and thus cannot be a right by definition.  Calling it a “human right” sort of makes a mockery of the term, since actually treating it like a human right would make a whole class of professionals slaves to the rest of us.

toy gun control.

I know there are parents out there who refuse to buy toy guns for their kids.

As a responsible gun owner, I’m of two minds on the issue.  On one hand, I don’t want to encourage or even tolerate picking up the habit of unsafe gun handling.  On the other hand, I don’t believe in the “pretend it doesn’t exist” prohibitionist approach to anything—guns, drugs, sex, or what-have-you—because those methods don’t work.

I got an object lesson in the futility of toy gun control the other day, when Quinn got up early from his nap, and caught a few scenes of Eight-Legged Freaks, the silly Giant Spiders movie I was watching at naptime.  For the rest of the day, and the entire next day, he was reenacting those scenes, shooting imaginary giant spiders, and talking about how “the spider wanted to eat the woman, so the woman shot the spider with her gun.”  He doesn’t own any toy guns, so he just used other objects as substitutes, even toys that bear no physical resemblance to any firearm, shooting the imaginary spiders with wind-up toys and Matchbox cars.

Isn’t it futile to “keep kids from playing with guns” by not buying them toy guns, if they can use any object and pretend it’s a gun?  Hell, they don’t even need objects—all they need to do is to make a gun with thumb and forefinger.

Now, what’s a responsible parent to do in this case?  He wants his own gun, and just yesterday, he was lamenting that he doesn’t own one.  The way I see it, there are several courses of action for me at this point:

  • Total Prohibition: Don’t buy any toy guns, don’t let him play with anything that resembles a gun, rigorously watch his movie intake to screen for any use of firearms, and punish him every time he pretends to be shooting at something.
  • Weak prohibition: Don’t buy a toy gun, but ignore the use of other objects as “guns”, because they don’t look like guns, and because rigorously enforcing the Total Prohibition would take up most of a parent’s day.
  • Directed Interest: Buy him his own toy gun, but tell him that he is not allowed to aim it at people.  Teach him the basics of safe gun handling, trigger discipline, and stress that he is only to shoot pretend spiders and the like, not people.  Confiscate the toy gun if he violates the rule.
  • Total Acceptance: Shrug, say “boys will be boys”, get him a toy gun, and let him go to town defending the homestead from imaginary monsters.
  • A combination of any of the above.

So—what’s the right thing to do for a parent who believes in the value of responsible gun ownership, the futility of prohibition measures, and the right to self-defense (even if it’s against imaginary giant spiders?)  How do I reconcile my personal beliefs, the rules of gun safety, and my kid’s inability to fully understand the concepts of death and killing?

(For the record—the kid in question just turned four years old in February, and I fully intend to teach him how to handle and shoot a real gun when I consider him to be old enough to understand and internalize the basic safety rules.)

on self-deception.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.  –Bertrand Russell

I largely agree with the quote above, but I have to amend it a little.  Humans have an amazing ability to rationalize their prejudices and preferences, to the point where they will refuse to believe something despite a mountain of evidence, or fervently believe something not only in the complete absence of evidence, but in the presence of a mountain of contradictory evidence.  (That’s why so many religions make unquestioning faith the highest of virtues, especially when that faith contradicts “worldly” knowledge.  That’s how Tertullian could proudly proclaim “I believe because it is impossible.”)  To modify yet another famous quote, I’d say there are only two things that are infinite: the universe, and the human capacity for self-deception…and I’m not so sure about the former.

Case in point: the Casey Anthony case, and the brand new “Craigslist Killer” case.

Craigslist killer accused’s friends say police “have the wrong man”.

The friends and relatives of the man arrested in connection with a slaying and several robberies of women advertising services on Craigslist are in denial about the situation, because the admission that their friend/fiancee is a robber and murderer would upset some of their core beliefs about themselves: that they are good people, and that they are good enough judges of character to not hang out with (or be engaged to) bad people.  His fiancee sent an angry email to ABC News, insisting that the whole thing is just “cops trying to make money off accusing an innocent man.”

“Unfortunately you were given wrong information as was the public,” Megan McAllister wrote to ABC News in an e-mail. “All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling this false story to the TV stations. What else is new?? Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life so if you could leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share and wonderful, meaningful life together.”

In the Casey Anthony case, her parents still insist that she is innocent and a victim of malicious prosecution, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  When they were in court to respond to a civil lawsuit recently, they lashed out at the lawyers and reporters, claiming all these people had destroyed the Anthony family and ruined their lives.  When they left the deposition, Casey’s mother shouted, “You have to have faith!  If you don’t have faith, you don’t have hope!”

That, of course, cuts right to the heart of the matter.  When people are faced with accepting a reality that is just too fundamentally threatening to their most dearly held beliefs, they have a vested interest in denying that reality just for reasons of mental self-preservation.  They will deny the evidence for that reality, and latch on to anything that will enable them to continue their self-deception.  It’s a natural–and very effective–defense mechanism.  The alternative would be to admit that you are indeed capable of making friends with (or getting engaged to) a murderer…that your daughter did indeed kill your granddaughter…or that demographics and geography have far more to do with your chosen religious affiliation than its inherent truth does.

The trouble is that humans are wired for seeking out truth, and that even the most elaborate act of self-deception can’t ever suppress the knowledge that it is, indeed, self-deception.  That knowledge sits in some corner of the brain, and its presence causes discomfort through cognitive dissonance for as long as its bearer refuses to match their world view with the facts. 

the things we inherit.

I grew up in Germany.  Naturally, I was a soccer—–properly: fussball–fan.  When we were kids, we played fussball, because that was what you played.  There were other youth sports, of course, but I was only vaguely aware of them.  Swimming, running, basketball, and handball were something you watched other people do on TV; fussball was what you played with the neighborhood kids outside.

We played fussball in any kind of weather, even in rain and thunderstorms.  When a match was underway, nothing short of a major natural disaster (or a parent angry enough to actually come down to the pitch instead of just yelling from the apartment window) could end that match.  We all played fussball every day, and naturally, we all thought we were going to be the one kid on the block good enough to make the Bundesliga, playing for our favorite team.

We had favorite teams, of course.  Asking a kid about his favorite soccer team and getting an “I don’t have one” in return was as unheard of as asking someone their religion and receiving the same answer.  Everybody had a favorite team.  You wore their colors, knew the names of all the players down to the third tier reserve bench, watched their matches on Saturday afternoon TV, and got into fights with the kids who pledged allegiance to that other team, the local and traditional rival of your team (something that every sports team in the world seems to have.)

In our house, we were Schalke 04 fans.  There was simply no debate about this.  We wore the Royal Blue of Schalke 04, and we got into arguments with the neighbor kids who were dumb and misguided enough to like Bayern Muenchen, or 1.FC Koeln, or (worst of all) the blood enemies of Schalke, Borussia Dortmund.  (My brother will to this day not speak the name of that team out loud, and instead use the traditional Schalke insult of referring to Dortmund as “Doofmund”, or “Eintracht Luedenscheid”.  “Doof” means “dumb” or “thick” in German, and Luedenscheid is a small town near the location of Dortmund’s home stadium.)

We were Schalke fans, no doubt about it.  I am now far removed from the fussball-crazed turf of my childhood home, and I only take a mild and passing interest in the trials and triumphs of Schalke o4 these days, but my brother is still part of the Royal Blue culture.  He goes to most of the home and away games, and he’ll travel to Spain or Scotland to follow his team to important international matches.  (His wife is very patient and also very tolerant–she takes care of their three kids while he’s out for two days on a bus trip to a fussball match halfway across Europe.)

It never really occurred to me just why we were so solidly in the Schalke camp from the time we could kick a ball and pronounce the name of the team.  That was just the way things were.  Schalke is no more successful than most of the other old fussball teams in the Bundesliga–in fact, they haven’t won the national championship in fifty years.  There’s nothing about Schalke that makes them markedly different from, say, Bayern Muenchen, or even the loathed Borussia Dortmund.  Every team has its own history, but all those histories are strikingly similar in many ways.  Every team has its own culture, but those are just as similar.

These days I know precisely why we were Schalke fans, and the answer is quite simple: because our father was a Schalke fan, and he preached the gospel of Schalke to us when we were kids.  He was a Schalke fan because our grandfather was a Schalke fan, too.  We inherited a lifetime of tribal allegiance to a fussball team simply because our father and grandfather passed it on to us.

That got me to thinking:  how many allegiances that are profoundly serious and integral to our lives are simply the way they are because we inherited them from our parents without question?  How many beliefs and preferences we hold dear are merely factors of geography and familial heritage?  If you grow up near Gelsenkirchen in Germany, chances are exceedingly high that you will be a.) a Catholic, b.) a Social Democrat, and c.) a Schalke 04 fan.  If you grow up in the greater Boston area, chances are pretty good you’ll turn out a Red Sox fan.  If you grow up in Baghdad or Tehran, chances are you’ll grow up a Muslim. 
We like to think that we arrive at our convictions by choice, and that our particular choices are superior to all others.  (Why else would we have picked them?  And why else would our parents, the people we hold most dear in our youth, have picked them to pass down to us?  Wouldn’t questioning the inherent superiority of those choices constitute a rejection of one’s own family history?)  I did have the option of choosing allegiance to some other fussball team, or some other religion, of course, but how often do people go against the grain when it would mean that one’s entire family and circle of friends would consider it strange at best, and heretical at worst?  (In the case of choosing Dortmund over Schalke, it would have been all the way at the heresy end of that scale in our house.)

How often, then, do we then use our rational faculties to not examine our beliefs, but instead rationalize our emotional preferences, and then tell ourselves that we would have arrived at the same conclusions anyway because of the superiority of our choices above all others–in sports, religion, political philosophy, or even consumer brands?

People don’t like to think of themselves as being led around by the nose.  We all like to think we’re independent thinkers who arrived at our philosophies, beliefs, and preferences by way of reason and independent thinking.  Too often, however, we’re either denying that we were led to those beliefs, or we’re telling ourselves that we would have ended up at that particular destination, anyway.
For some people, it’s heresy to even consider that their religion or sports team allegiance is largely an accident of geography.  But when you think about it, it’s deplorable to see people argue with each other–or worse, kill each other–over matters that were largely decided by the location of their birth, and the preferences of their parents.