Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jerusalem. The Capital That Isn't. Except That It Is. Sort Of. Depends On Who You Ask.

Yet again, I’m fascinated (in the way that watching a train wreck is fascinating) by the assorted stunts and resulting crybaby antics of the public debate.  Several times over the past several days, the subject of whether or not Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel has come up.  Something guaranteed to piss everybody off.

I’ve always been a fan of the two-state solution.  It’s been around since the forties.  Make Jerusalem an international protectorate, partition lands amongst Israelis and Palestinians, and have everybody recognize both states.  This may not make everybody happy, but it gets the fewest people killed.  If we can ever pull it off.  But this is unlikely, because the status quo is just too valuable as a source of controversy and demagoguery.

It starts with Jay Carney, White House Press secretary.  Some reporter asked him if Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and he ducked it.  Big shock, he ducked a loaded question.  Instead of answering, he just endlessly repeated that the position of the U.S. hasn’t changed.  Not long after that, the BBC caused a stir by not listing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on its Olympic coverage website.    This apparently resulted in angry people all over the internet in spamming the BBC with complaints.  Shortly thereafter, it listed Jerusalem as the “seat of government” which is not quite the same thing.  In other words, it’s a total weak-ass dodge.  Finally, Mitt Romney stated that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.  His statements about the Olympics may have been overblown, but this was just a tad more serious.  Try to stay out of trouble in Poland, will you?

This series of misadventures highlights the primary flaws with politics today: brazen pandering, lily-livered attempts at diplomacy, and people more interested in stirring the pot than fixing problems.  And we wonder why nothing of significance ever gets done.

I can’t blame him Jay Carney for ducking the question.  This wasn’t a serious question.  This was a reporter/political operative asking a damned if you do/damned if you don’t question.  When a press secretary does a dance like that, it just means his boss won’t let him give a real answer.  Of course, this also means his boss needs to come up with a real answer.  The buck stops there.

The BBC was pandering to its audience.  Muslims aren’t the largest population in the UK, but they’re growing rapidly.  The BBC also has a large international audience, many of whom are Muslims.  It doesn’t want to lose ratings, so it avoids calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel.  Of course, it had no problem listing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

Romney is pandering for votes.  Anyone in America who would be angered by his assertion that Jerusalem is the capital wasn’t going to vote for him anyway.  Some Jewish people in Florida might, though.  This pandering may get him votes, but it also earns him some diplomatic badwill if he ever gets elected.

Here’s a funny idea.  How about the BBC and Jay Carney just say something like “we support the two-state solution proposed by the UN over 70 years ago which establishes Jerusalem as an international protectorate”?  Sure, you’ll annoy some people.  Israel calls Jerusalem their capital and lots of other people don’t.  Just give up trying to make everyone happy.  Take a stand, maybe something will happen.  As long as both sides claim Jerusalem, this doesn’t end.

Here’s another funny idea.  How about the BBC and Mitt Romney knock it off with the pandering?  It makes you dumber.  If Romney gets elected now, he’ll have to walk back everything he said if he wants peace in the Middle East.  Although it wouldn’t be the first time he flip-flopped.  The BBC recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine is a tad ridiculous, since even the UN won’t do that.  Probably has something to do with the fact that the UN doesn’t even recognize Palestine.

These appear to be our options these days: weak-kneed or dumb-ass.  What’s the outcome?  Romney looks like a guy who’s willing say anything to be president, even if those things actually damage his ability to be a president.  AKA dumb-ass.  Obama looks like a waffler, because his deputy can’t come up with a strong answer.  AKA weak-kneed. 

The BBC manages to be the biggest screw-up.  It looks like a news organization more interested in ratings than facts when it recognizes Palestine and names East Jerusalem as its capital.  It’s also too chicken to take a stand on Jerusalem.  It’s not a hard stance to take.  You’d just be agreeing with most of the international community.  So the BBC is both weak-kneed and dumb-ass.  What do we pay these guys for?

And what’s-your-name reporter for the whatever-newspaper-or-magazine-you-work-for, knock it off with the useless scandal hunting questions.  You’re a troll; a troublemaker.  We don’t need reporters causing trouble; we have politicians for that.  You’re supposed to help limit the damage they do, not add to it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Noise Pollution from Manufactured Outrage

Yet again, I am amazed by the marvelous, extraordinary, collective dumbassitude of both sides of the political debate.  In the past week, both candidates have been slammed for committing terrible gaffes.  One small problem.  There were no gaffes.  Both made bland, reasonable statements.  Then nutty reporters and political operatives (frequently the same people) turned them into earth shattering scandals.

First, the president stated that nobody is successful on their own.  “Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business you didn’t build that.”  Meaning, you didn’t build the roads and bridges.  No business exists in a vacuum.  Nobody makes it entirely on their own.  No kidding.  All true.  So true it’s boring and obvious. 

He was (yet again) accused of socialism.  This is not a socialist remark.  It’s purely capitalist.  It’s Adam Smith capitalist.  Division of labor.  Because someone else does things like generate power, provide water, collect garbage, deliver mail, and build roads and bridges, you have more time to do what you do best.  That's old school, retro, roots capitalism.

The right seized on the “If you’ve got a business you didn’t build that,” part, and ignored the rest.  Fox and Friends even went so far as to play the lead up to the quote, then edit out the part that puts everything in context, and then play the “gaffe” line.  Nice edit, geniuses.  Do you know what happens when reporters do a hatchet job like that?  Let me refresh your memory.

Not too terribly long ago, someone at NBC chopped up a piece of a phone call between George Zimmerman and a 911 operator.  In the full call, the 911 operator asks for the race of the man Zimmerman is following.  NBC edited that part out, making it sound like Zimmerman mentioned that the Trayvon Martin was black without any prompting.  This made him look like a racist.  When the edit came to light, people at NBC got fired over it.  Who are you firing, Fox and Friends?

And now, on to a similar non-gaffe by Mitt Romney. Apparently, he insulted the London Olympics. One minor problem. He did not even remotely say anything offensive.  Here are his exact words.

Brian Williams: In the short time you’ve been here in London, do they look ready to your experienced eye? 
Mitt Romney: You know it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out, there are a few things that were disconcerting, stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.
So far, he mentioned that he can’t see the future (like about seven billion other people) and that not having security and customs people show up to work so that they can help protect the athletes is “disconcerting” and “not encouraging”.  Okay, maybe the Brits don’t feel great about that, but that’s because they screwed that part up.  That’s valid criticism.  They don’t get to blame Mitt Romney because they dropped the ball.  Words like “Disconcerting” and “not encouraging” are actually fairly mild language for a couple of impressive breakdowns. But he continues:
Mitt Romney: Because in the games…there are three parts that make games successful. Number One, of course, are the athletes, that’s what overwhelmingly the games are about.
This is a boring statement of the obvious. But I guess Obama gets in trouble for those too.  Next, he says:
Mitt Romney: Number Two are the volunteers, and they’ll have great volunteers here.
Actually, sort of a compliment. I know compliments make Irish people uncomfortable, but not English, Scots, and Welsh. Sorry, you can’t take offense at that. But he’s not quite done:
Mitt Romney: But number three are the people of the … of the country do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment, that’s something which we only find out once the actually games begin.
In other words, the games only work if the people make it happen.  Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.  Another bland and obvious statement.  The only thing bad you can say about that is it’s a little noncommittal.

Apparently, that last bit was very quickly interpreted by everyone involved as a presumption that the United Kingdom is incapable of pulling off the Olympics.  I actually find this a bit heartening.  It is trendy for people to claim that Americans are dumb.  I’m glad to see that the British are just as capable of stupidity.

This election is increasingly abhorrent.  We focus on gaffes when they happen, and invent them when they don’t.  I guess I won’t hear anything on the news that’s actually relevant.  You know, the kind of stuff that I could make a decision with.  I guess I’ll just get drunk on election day and pull levers at random.  Drunken voting can’t be much worse than uninformed voting, and the press and pundits seem committed to ensuring that I am not at all informed on anything that’s actually useful.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No Free Speech on the Freedom Trail

According to the mayor of Boston, Chick-Fil-A can’t open stores there because they’re run by Christians who think homosexuality is a sin.  This is because the owners of the chain made their opinions clear in an interview.  Please stop acting shocked that some Christians don’t approve of homosexuality.  This isn’t new.  You don’t have to like it.  I realize that gay is fashionable (forgive me if that seems a tad redundant) and that politicians like to score points by siding with gay rights activists.  But that doesn’t excuse abuse of power.

Personally, I don’t agree with the opinions of the Chick-Fil-A owners.  I have friends who are both gay and gay married.  I don’t see why so many people have a problem with it.  But that’s not the point.  Everyone gets to have their opinions.  I know that strictly speaking the first amendment only applies to the federal government, but the spirit of the first amendment is about creating a free market of competing ideas.  The ones that suck will eventually go out of style; we don’t need government intervention.  The mayor isn’t in the business of enforcing the U.S. Constitution, but he should at least pretend to know why it exists.

But I’m not sure very many people truly understand how the first amendment is meant to be applied.  It lets us speak out against people who annoy us.  We can change their minds; we don’t have to hurt them or intimidate them.  When we do speak out these days, we’re more likely to troll the offenders on the internet than to say something intelligent.  That’s free speech, but it’s juvenile, weaksauce free speech that just makes the country dumber.  We also frequently intimidate their sponsors or business partners in an attempt to shut them down.  That’s just cheap backstabbing.  We refuse to take the ideas we don’t like head on.  Decent people should try to avoid being stupid and gutless.

This is a disturbing trend in America these days.  How many people have we seen crushed in this way?  Major media figures who have lost jobs because they annoyed the wrong people include (in no particular order): Helen Thomas, Juan Williams, Bill Maher, Don Imus, and Pat Buchanan.  And Rush Limbaugh just barely dodged that bullet.  Some of them said things that I thought weren’t a big deal.  Others said things I thought were kind of stupid.  Still others said things I found truly offensive.  But I didn’t start crying and screaming at their bosses to fire them.

I remember something from when the Supreme Court recently overturned the Stolen Honor law.  The opinion (totally paraphrasing, don’t expect me to memorize this crap) said that when confronted with speech we don’t like, the solution is “counterspeech”.  That’s something we all need to think about.

If you don’t like Chick-Fil-A, tell them you won’t frequent their store.  Tell your friends not to eat there.  Pass out flyers.  Or whatever.  Counterspeech.  That’s how adults solve problems.  Don’t get some government guy to shut them down or prevent them from opening.  Don’t try to intimidate them out of business.  Just make it clear that they won’t get your money.  If Chick-Fil-A believes they won’t find enough customers in Boston, they won’t go there.

Any son of the South (like me), knows that you can’t get proper fried chicken if it doesn’t pass through Christian hands.  In the same way, proper bagels must pass through Jewish hands, and proper hummus must pass through Muslim hands.  Otherwise, you’re just getting a cheap knockoff.  Next time you have truly good fried chicken, odds are that the person who made it isn’t a fan of gay marriage.  If that bothers you, just don’t eat fried chicken.  Or just don’t eat the good stuff.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why we need to politicize guns and gun control after the Aurora shooting, and how to do it right.

Immediately after a mass shooting, half of the politicians and media personalities start pounding the drums for gun control.  Then the other half says now is not the time to address this; the “too soon” argument.  Then the first half says now is exactly the time, while it’s fresh in our memories.  Then the second half accuses them of exploiting a tragedy to push a political agenda.  They’re both kinda right.  They’re both kinda dumb.

Now is exactly the right time to wonder why things like this happen and how to prevent them.  It’s also the time to wonder why other murders happen (frequently for relatively mundane reasons, like an argument over money), and how to prevent those. But we should not dive automatically into gun control. 

There were approximately 15,000 homicides in 2009 in the United States.  This is according to the UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime), in their 2011 report which is available here.  But I know that millions (if not billions) of bullets were fired in the U.S. that year.  That means most people are responsible with their guns.  I’m not inclined to limit everyone’s rights when a relatively small number of people abuse their rights.  Think of it like Substantive Due Process in the Constitution; there must be a compelling, overriding reason to limit someone’s rights.

Homicide is a compelling reason, but not an overriding one.  This is because gun control is not the only way to reduce homicide.  I’m not even convinced that it would be effective at reducing homicide.  Gun control proponents like to point out the relatively low crime rates in Australia and Canada and many Western European countries, where guns are strictly controlled if not outlawed.  True, but how do they explain Russia?

In 2009, there were 16,000 homicides in Russia, according to the same UN study.  Their population is slightly less than half the size of the U.S. population.  This makes their murder rate slightly more than twice ours.  And their gun control laws are very strict.  Handguns and automatic weapons are outlawed.  Shotguns and rifles are heavily restricted, requiring citizens to go through a strict and extensive licensing process.  All of these rules don’t appear to do a damn thing.  Nice work, tovariches.

There are other examples I’ve heard in the news that make me wonder why we fixate on gun control.  Gun bans have been removed in D.C. and Chicago.  Murder is up (way up) in Chicago, but down in D.C.  Violence has been on a consistent decline in the U.S. and gun ownership is on the rise.  Presence or lack of guns and gun control laws doesn’t appear to have anything to do with anything.  We have a murder problem, not a gun problem.  So why the hell do people want to kill each other?  If we figure that out, we’ll actually make some progress. 

Sadly, every time we try, we stray into a minefield of political correctness.  Murderers tend to come from poor neighborhoods.  Murderers tend to come from single parent homes.  Mentioning facts like these tends to manufacture more outrage than results.  There are plenty of other possible causes, some controversial, some not.  But they all have to be explored if we ever expect to make a real change, even if we risk hurting someone’s feelings.  Hurt feelings are preferable to more dead people.

So the left wing is right for saying we need to talk about this now, but dumb for knee-jerking its way into gun control.  The right wing is right to dispute this, but dumb when they accuse the left of exploiting a tragedy.   Exploiting a tragedy to prevent future tragedies is an entirely worthwhile exercise.  Just exploit it in a way that gets actual results.

The political agenda that needs pushing is that we need murder control, not gun control.  Focusing on gun control is just taking our eyes off of the ball.  It’s times like this that I’m happily and thankfully non-partisan.  I hope they eventually get it together.  Before anyone dies or anything.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bail Out, Nattany Lions

Penn State got seriously smacked down today, and they had it coming.  All too often we’ve seen child molesters protected by bureaucracies that are more interested in preserving their reputation and the reputation of their institution than in doing what’s right.  For while, it seemed like only Catholic priests did this stuff, but I guess now we see that any institution that works with young people is susceptible to this.  And they never learn.  Eventually the truth comes out, and everyone who covered it up gets burned. 

Sixty million in fines.  Scholarships disappearing.  No bowl games for four years.  Paterno’s statue heading for a trash heap, or maybe a blast furnace.  The football program isn’t dead, but it’s in a coma for a while.  We’ll see if it ever wakes up.  If it doesn’t, I don’t know if I’ll feel bad for the administration or the football program.  It’s good when programs that show this kind of arrogance and irresponsibility get burned.  It’s even better when they’re programs with great national standing.  It reminds us that no one is above the rules.

The downside is when a big organization goes bang like that, lots of people who had nothing to do with it get caught in the blast.  Businesses near Penn State will suffer.  Some will go out of business.  Some people may even leave town due to the loss of opportunity.  The whole town will be hurt by this.

And what of the students who worked like mad to get into Penn State?  Is the future they invested in tarnished forever, or at least for long enough that their resumes will bear a stigma every time they apply for a job?  Will the football players who joined hoping for a shot at the big time suddenly see their chances dashed by the douchebags who did this?  The NCAA has already told the players they can bail out and play for other teams.  My advice: do it.

Sure some of the diehard fans and boosters will call them selfish sellouts.  But screw them.  Seriously.  Few things are more selfish than the actions of the leaders of this institution.  Rather than come clean early (something which would have stung the school’s reputation, but not left it in tatters), they chose to protect themselves.  Now the entire student body and the community will pay for it.  They put their trust in the reputation of Penn State, and Penn State let them down.

Football players, play for another school.  Preserve what chance you may have for a bowl game or a professional career.  Students, transfer anywhere else.  Do what ever you have to do preserve your own reputation.  God knows your school wasn’t bothering to do it for you.  You don’t need a black mark on your record.  Certainly not in this economy.  And don’t feel bad, you’ll be protecting yourself because other people who were supposed to didn’t bother.  Penn State will be radioactive for a while.  Everyone involved should think about getting out of the hot zone.

Just another guy who suddenly felt the urge to write/vent on the internet

Let me first be clear about one thing.  I call this website a blog under protest.  One has little choice when making a website through Google Blogger.  I abhor the terms “blog”, “blogger”, and “blogging”.  To me, “blogging” sounds like a dirty sex act one performs in a back alley behind a strip club. 

So what’s the point of starting yet another (gag) blog?  Another blog that focuses mostly on society, culture, and politics?  I see people screaming at each other on television, the internet, or maybe out in the street.  Everybody seems to think they know what’s best.  Worse, they think anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot, or perhaps an evil genius intent on destroying the country.  But I’ve seen enough to see that both sides frequently have a point.  And I’m sick to death of all of it.  So most of what I post here will be an attempt to cut through the drek spewed from the minds of the crazy.

I’m a fairly ordinary guy.  I’ve got no problem being ordinary.  I’ve seen enough to develop a healthy respect for ordinary people, and I never make the mistake of confusing ordinary with mediocre.  Let’s face it, America is a country founded by peasants, outcasts and nobodies.  Ordinary people who turned it into the largest economy in the world.  Despite all of our failings (some more recent than others), we still give people hope all over the world.  I know, because they come here to visit, or even stay, all the time.

I’ve seen a lot.  I’ve lived high on the hog and also had times where I barely scraped by.  I failed out of one university, but graduated with near perfect grades and a master’s degree from another.  I’ve had great jobs for great employers, and I’ve been forced to work in lousy jobs for little pay just to squeeze by.  I’ve had some great careers, but I’ve also been laid off twice in my life.  That’s why I had to switch careers so many times.

This gives me somewhat unique perspective.  I’ve seen the value of hard work and know that I couldn’t be where I am without taking responsibility for my own life.  I also know I couldn’t have done it without help, including occasional government help.  I make more than most people do, and I know I’ve earned it.  I deserve it, because I’ve worked hard for it.  But I’ve also seen people who make more in a month than their employees make all year with overtime, and that occasionally pisses me off.

In other words, I’ve seen that both of the opposing ideals in America have value.  Usually, they both have a point.  And it’s infuriating to see either side treat the other like it’s composed entirely of idiots.  If they can’t even be in the same room, nothing’s ever getting done.  The problem with America isn’t the ideals; it’s the idealogues.  In my own way, I’ll try to bring back a dash of sanity.  Or maybe I’ll just rant and rave about random stuff.  We’ll see.