Thursday, August 30, 2012

Racism, the New Terror Alert

Every ten to fifteen seconds, I hear some pundit on the news or Twitter or something accusing Republicans of racism.  I take a look at the Republicans being accused, and I just don't see it.  I don't see clan robes or swastikas.  I see what I always see, pundits and politicians spewing talking points.  Not only is that not racist, it's not even unique to Republicans.

These claims seem increasingly ridiculous.  Republicans note that Obama seems angry, and suddenly Toure' accuses them "niggerization", a new word he invented.  Noting that the president angry is actually an attempt to paint Obama as an "Angry Black Man", which is totally racist.  Then an MSNBC panel notes that the Republicans mention Chicago a lot, and there are lots of black people in Chicago.  Therefore, each such reference is racist.  It couldn't possibly be a reference to the corruption Chicago is known for (and has been known for since the early 20th century), it must be racism.

I had an epiphany after the umpteenth accusation.  In the 2004 race, every time John Kerry made a speech or a public appearance or did anything that might give him momentum, then Homeland Security director Tom Ridge would appear, on cue, and tell the country there was a terror alert.  I suppose this can't be proven, but the timing was a little too convenient.

Now Republicans are accused of racism in a similar fashion.  Mitt Romney goes to New York and give a speech, and some protester is constantly screaming that he's a racist.  Mitt Romney makes a wisecrack about his birth certificate and he's a racist.  And now that the convention is on, accusations of racism seem to be drowning out everything.

That appears to be the point.  Drown out the convention, distract attention, render any momentum useless.  Just like the way terror alerts were used in 2004.  A mild jibe about a birth certficate isn't racist.  Calling the president "angry" or noting that he's from Chicago isn't racist.  All of these accusations of racism prove one thing:  Democrats are working double shifts at the outrage factory.  I'm getting sick of it. 

I haven't yet decided who I'm going to vote for.  I'm not a partisan, because partisans do stupid stuff.  Like invent reasons to be offended.  These constant questionable accusations do nothing to change my opinion of Mitt Romney.  If anything, they make me question the integrity of Democrats.  I'll still be reserving my final decision until after the debates.  But the manufacturers of race outrage are really making it difficult for me to give the president a fair shake.  Keep it up Dems, and you're just going to make your guy look bad.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Porn Pandering

The RNC has decided to alter its platform so that all existing obscentiy laws on the books are enforced.  It's certain to appeal to the Republican base, especially the religious right.  It's also certain to accomplish almost nothing.

There are plenty of things that I find obscene and that I wish there was an effective way to outlaw.  Certain darker corners of the internet contain things so deviant that I wonder what kind of person would even begin to have an interest in it.  I also know that attempting to outlaw some of these things always risks endangering free speech.

The problem is the law on obscenity is vague and a bit subjective.  The standard was set in the Miller v. California ruling.  It requires that to find a work obscene:
  1. the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  2. the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  3. the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
I'm no lawyer, but I've picked apart a few laws in my time.  Here's the layperson's breakdown.  The first one just means that someone figures that it must be material designed to arouse someone.  The second one just means that something depicts sex as defined by state law, depending on which state you're in.  The third a son of a bitch.  Whether or not something has serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value is frequently a matter of opinion.  Prosecuting an opinion or legislating opinion is inherently dangerous territory.  This is a fine way to run afoul of the first amendment.

Let's face it, some people are more prudish than others.  John Ashcroft famously (and ridiculously) covered a statue of the Spirit of Justice, because one of her breasts was exposed.  He had a problem with it, but many other people would not.  Opinions vary.  Nude art is not uncommon, and has never been considered obscene.  It's entirely possible that other works might be nude, and perhaps a bit provocative, but not obscene.

There's the problem.  Provocative things frequently do have artistic or literary value.  In a sense, the first amendment is designed to let us be provocative.  So where does someone draw the line between provocative and obscene?  Answer: they don't.  Former Justice Potter Stewart stated that he just "knew it when he saw it".  Apparently, they can't even draw a line between what is erotic and what is obscene.  I'm not sure what the difference is either, I just know that erotic material is considered protected speech and obscene material is not.

All of these things seem to imply that obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.  So a prosecution on that kind of case would have to obtain mountains of evidence showing that something had no literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.  The jury's own subjective opinions would affect the outcome.  In the event of a guilty verdict, this sounds like an appeal waiting to happen.  This is why there is so little enforcement.  It's too much work, and the outcome is always uncertain.

If the Republican's were proposing a new law that more clearly defined obscenity, that's something I could consider.  But they only seek to enforce the vague laws that exist.  I think they're pandering to the base.  Posturing like this is not uncommon in campaigns.  I predict nothing will come of this; this is just a vote grab.  And if there is an attempt to prosecute these kinds of cases, it will just be a colossal waste of time and money at a time when we can ill afford to waste either.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why New Media Doesn't Suck as Badly as Old Media Thinks

I read a column by Dan K. Thomasson earlier this week entitled "All the News Fit to Tweet?".  Although I frequently read his work, and usually like it, I could see where he was going with this right off the bat.  This was going to a be a "shut up, stupid internet" column.  I've seen this before.  It wasn't too long ago that Juan Williams, another reporter who I have great respect for (why do people say that just before they're about to take a swipe at you?), snarkily implied that Michelle Malkin  (whose work I also frequently enjoy reading) was just a blogger, not a real reporter.  The tone of Dan Thomasson's article is similar to this.

Now I want to be clear that I'm not trashing the whole column.  Most of the column is dedicated to mourning the loss of four great journalists who died over the past year or so.  They were David Broder, Jim McCartney, Bill Raspberry, and Jim Naughton.  We lost some greats, and his column is primarily an homage to them.  But his column also implies that the next crop of reporters is incapable of taking over where they left off.  I don't buy it. 

Here's where he went wrong in the column, I think:

It is hard to imagine how reporting on public affairs has been enhanced by the art of blogging or tweeting without the benefit of measured thought or the vetting of facts. But that is the future, God help us, of a profession once proudly dedicated to the proposition that the best defense of liberty is an informed populace. All the news that's fit to tweet – you have to be kidding.
The first sentence seems provably false.  Bloggers made their way into the media spotlight by ... vetting facts.  That's blogger patient zero - the fact checker.  Bloggers are not necessarily reporters by trade.  This frequently is a benefit.  For example, a reporter may misspeak about a matter of law, medicine, or finance.  When that happens, a blogging lawyer, physician, or financier can correct them.  After all, these professionals are experts in their fields.  The reporter isn't necessarily.  Bloggers can actually add something that regular reporters can't, because they may have greater knowledge on certain subjects.  And people like this are quite capable of "measured thought."

Bloggers like this may not be typical.  I understand that the blogosphere may be primarily a cacophony of uninformed voices.  I don't know this for certain, but I've seen some ignorant blog posts.  Even if dumb bloggers aren't typical, they're common enough.  But I don't see it as a problem, merely a stage of evolution.  This is because I know how the print press got started in this country. 

There was a time where the print press was just any random jackass with a printing press.  This goes back to colonial times.  These early journalists came in all forms: biased and unbiased, liberal and conservative, smart and stupid, sane and crazy.  Some of the early papers were not news so much as propaganda.  Like many blogs, these early newspapers frequently lacked credibility.  But from that early chaos, a few great ones emerged.

These days, a blog can be started by any random jackass with bandwidth.  Also known as...any random jackass.  Everyone has access to bandwidth.  Seriously, I've seen homeless people in internet cafes.  Although they could have just been hipsters.  It's hard to spot the difference.  Anyone can start a blog, and there are plenty out there.  Blogging is still in its infancy, and has the potential to develop into something that can enhance mass media.  In some ways it already has, but the jury's still out.

Tweeting is a different animal.  Many tweets are just sound bites, and they can exacerbate the sound bite culture of the media.  Sound bites were a problem long before tweeting, and we don't want to make it worse.  Other tweets are just mini-rants.  Bill Maher once referred to tweets as "brain-farts", and I think these are the tweets he was talking about.  Tweets aren't long enough to capture big ideas and they're far too short to be considered "measured thought." 

Fortunately, most bloggers and online reporters that I see tweeting don't use them in either of these ways.  Most of the tweets I see are from columnists and news websites with the title of a new piece and a link to follow to the site.  This is just the e-commerce equivalent of a newspaper boy standing on a corner yelling "Extra! Extra!  Read all about it!"  There's nothing offensive about that kind of tweet.  It's just the 21st century incarnation of a practice that's as old as the business.

Occasional condescension from newspaper reporters is unavoidable.  When television journalism first came out, newspaper reporters didn't consider it real reporting.  Now that internet journalism exists, both print and television reporters occasionally turn up their noses.  This isn't unique to journalism.  When movies first came out, theater actors thought it was crap.  Movie actors frequently think themselves better than television actors.  But these are just stages of evolution for the acting profession.  So too are newspapers, television, and the Internet stages of evolution for media.

So relax, Dan-o.  I know that there is a fear that internet reporters don't necessarily do the same type of in depth reporting that newspapers do.  Maybe they don't.  At least not yet.  But as long as there is a demand for that type of reporting, bloggers will adapt to meet that demand.  I miss the likes of David Broder, Jim McCartney, Bill Raspberry, and Jim Naughton as well.  But the new crop of reporters, even if most of them are bloggers, will fill their shoes.  It may be messy and ugly for a while.  Evolution is like that.  But eventually, I believe, it will mature into something that can inform the public as well as any newspaper.

Wanted, Stupidectomy

Being independent means I am frequently a bit ambivalent about the outcome of election season.  It's kind of like watching a Superbowl where I'm not a huge fan of either team.  It's not important to me who wins, I just want the game to be good.  My life will not be noticeably affected by a win for either team, but I figure that a game that is a hard fought cliffhanger is better than a blowout.  If both sides put up a good fight, it's good for the fans and for the league.  People will remember the game and be excited about next season.

Elections work the same way.  I've lived during Republican and Democratic administrations at national, state, and local levels.  I lived through good times and bad times, and whether or not times were good in my life didn't seem to have much to do with who was running the country.  It was not important to me that one party or the other be in charge.  As long as both sides sent their best, I could be confident that the business of government would be handled.  How good my life was (and is) has more to do with me than with them.  But this only works if the best candidates are running.

Enter Todd Akin, and his screwy junk science theories.  He said, with a straight face, that women have some sort of natural defense that prevents pregnancy when they are raped.  Damn.  Dee-amn.  How does a guy who hasn't lived in a cave for decades come up with that?  I'm aware that there are partisan bubbles, but Akins inhabiting a bubble doesn't explain things.  The evidence of that is that all Republicans of any significance, even those who are confirmed bubble-dwellers, have called for him to step down.  But he didn't.

It's not the first time a politician refused, at least initially, to bow out after a major screw-up.  Anthony Weiner got busted sending dirty tweets to assorted women to whom he wasn't married.  He denied it initially.  When the truth was known, he refused to resign despite urgings of party leaders.  It wasn't until after weeks of wrangling that he eventually decided to call it quits.  And he should have.  This sort of thing robs politicians of their credibility.  Besides, I like it when politicians are occasionally forced out of office.  It reminds other politicians just how expendable they are, which can help keep them honest.

But this is nothing compared to Akins' misdeed.  Anthony Weiner is guilty of being horny.  This is an affliction that men are frequently affected by.  Check that.  This is an affliction that all men are affected by, unless they're dead.  Or eunuchs.  Akins' is guilty of mind-blowing stupidity, a far more serious condition.  Horny politicians can still do a good job (I'm sure we can all think of at least one that did), but stupid politicians are a problem.

Earlier today, a friend of mine argued that he may not actually be stupid.  He just believed some quack scientist with a loony theory.  Okay, maybe.  But that just means he's gullible, not necessarily stupid.  Gullible politicians aren't a good thing either.  I imagine there are a few people in Washington who might love to take advantage of a gullible politician.  Washington is full of quasi-conmen who would consider him an excellent mark.  Let's not give them the chance.

Stupid or gullible, he's not fit for service.  He doesn't really have many supporters in this, but there are a few who point to a long record of service.  Why should we throw that away?  Because politicians must realize that they're expendable, even ones with long records of service.  He's shown himself to be stupid, or at least gullible.  We can find someone better.

When second-rate players play in the Superbowl, the result is one side blowing away the other.  It makes the game less worthwhile.  It can damage the entire league.  Viewers lose interest.  Akins is a third-rate benchwarmer who's been moved to the starting lineup.  Let's not do this to ourselves.  I can live with either Republican or Democrat.  Neither is better to my mind; they just have differing strengths and weaknesses.  What I can't live with is stupid politicians.  If either side provides cover for their chumps, we have second-rate politicians.  Republicans have asked Akins to bow out and take one for the party.  He should take one for the whole country.  We're all better off without him, even if his pulling out means the other party wins.

I've learned one lesson from this.  The Republican voters of Missouri haven't deserted Akins.  They should.  Every time a politician does something this stupid, I'll be a deserter.  In every election for the rest of my life I'll automatically vote against any candidate who displays this level of ignorance, even if I was initially a supporter.  A smart politician can be dealt with when elected.  If the ideas of the smart politician are distasteful to me, I can work against that.  I don't necessarily have to wait for an election.  But a dumb politician can drag down the system.  I call this policy "Stupidectomy".  If I can eliminate the stupid from the political mix, the quality of both parties will improve.  Then we're all better off, no matter who wins.  Because the game will have been a battle of the best there is.  We might not always get our preferred candidate, but we'll never get a lousy one.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Americanized, F-ck Yeah!

I was at a lunch with some former co-workers the other day.  One of them, a Vietnamese guy I worked with a couple of years ago, wanted to go to a new Vietnamese restaurant.  I normally don’t have a problem experimenting with various cuisines, and I know from experience that virtually every item on a Vietnamese menu, when pronounced correctly, sounds like an English word or phrase for a dirty sex act.  So even when the food is nasty, it’s entertaining.  For example, every decent sized town in North America seems to have at least one restaurant names Pho Quyen.  Guess what that sounds like?

The food at this restaurant was decent, but not so great that I’ll hurry back.  But my little Vietnamese buddy couldn’t help but snark about how “Americanized” it was.  Of course it was Americanized.  My dad was drafted during the Vietnam war, and he’s told me about how authentic Vietnamese tastes and, more importantly, smells.  Nobody would buy that here.  Sorry.

It’s not just the Vietnamese guy.  A Mexican friend of mine once complained that Taco Bell wasn’t truly Mexican.  Damn right.  It’s Texican, pendejo.  He also rolled his eyes when I once pushed the lime down into a bottle of Corona.  He then treated me to a lengthy lecture about how Mexicans put limes in the top of their beers to keep flies away.  Apparently, we’re not supposed to put the lime in the beer.  I told him that I was just doing it American style.  Strangely, I haven’t heard from him recently.  I wonder why that is?

“Americanized” is commonly used as code for “cheapened”.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  This is one of my many pet peeves.  People from all over the world come here and bring their cuisine with them.  It’s only a matter of time until American foodies (like me) try their food and tell our friends.  Then Americans with a little cooking skill (not like me) combine it with other things.  You see these restaurants all over; they’re called “fusion” restaurants.  I generally avoid these, though.  These are usually overpriced yuppie hangouts where you pay twice the price for half the normal portion.  But if the price is so damned high, I’m not sure how “Americanization” can be likened to “cheapening”.

There are many non-overpriced examples of this.  My high school French teacher used to make snide remarks about “Croissandwiches.”  She wasn’t French, but she managed to affect that stereotypical snootiness that the French are renowned for.  She would haughtily say that the French would never do this; this was strictly an American (Read: cheap, redneck, or low-brow) way of doing things.  Hell yes, it’s an American way of doing things.

Here’s how it works.  One day, some French person makes a croissant for an American.  The American thinks “Isn’t this just adorable!  But it needs protein.  I’ll slap an egg and some cheese and bacon or sausage on this sucker.”  Suddenly, it’s a French breakfast pastry with a full English breakfast crammed inside that you can eat while keeping one hand on the wheel!  A monument to the melting pot; fine foreign cuisine meets American ingenuity.  How can this be cheap?  If it was cheap, hipster cafĂ© type places (Panera Bread, Atlanta Bread Company, etc.) wouldn’t have adapted it from Burger King.  They may give it stuffier names (like “breakfast soufflĂ©”), but it’s the same thing.  And yet, this is still considered an American bastardization of European cuisine, and is therefore inferior.  Sigh. 

Fine.  Here’s the ultimate example of American fusion: Southern food.  I’m more than happy to experiment with various types of food, but I still like to indulge in the cuisine I grew up with.  Like fried things and dead pigs.  But it’s not limited to that.  Southern food includes things like grits and cornbread and barbecue (originally Native American), chitlins (originally English), tripe (French and Italian), fried chicken (Scottish), and okra and black-eyed peas (brought from Africa).  This is just a sampling; I could go on all day.  This most noteworthy and uniquely American form of cuisine is the combination of dozens (if not hundreds) of ingredients and cooking styles from dozens (if not hundreds) of cultures.

Only in America is this possible.  I see tourists from all over marvel at this thing we’ve created.  It’s one of the things that makes the South special.  Admittedly, it’s also the reason the South is the fattest part of the country, which is why I’ll occasionally eat stuff like Vietnamese food.  But let’s stop pretending Americanized food is cheap.  We haven’t taken away value; we’ve added value.  So f-ck yeah, it’s Americanized.  Eat it, b-tches.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why a Real Independent Hasn't Decided Yet

There are a lot of partisans out there who are continually amazed when I tell them I haven’t yet decided who to vote for yet.  Mostly they can’t conceive of anyone not voting for their guy.  They made up their mind the second there was only one candidate with an “R” or a “D” after his name.  They have a habit of assuming I’meither stupid or indecisive. Occasionally, they perceive it as a form of arrogance, as if I relish the fact that I will be one of the few who truly decides the election.  They just don’t understand non-partisan voting.  It’s about who screws up my life the least.

Neither candidate is particularly impressive.  The president’s results are lukewarm, at best.  Admittedly, he inherited a handful of trouble, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done better.  The other seems the better one to produce jobs and spur economic growth (he used to do it for a living, sort of), but he has some serious communication issues.

If neither is an obvious winner, how do I decide?  Campaign commercials are…not the way.  Every campaign commercial these days is a pack of lies, or at best half-truths. Even the ones that are approved by the candidates.  I found it strangely comforting when the candidates were required to approve their own commercials verbally.  Even the most powerful men in the world can be forced to jump through regulatory hoops. I once thought that would make a difference and result in more honest ads.  But even the ones they approve seem like brazen political hackery.

Lately, there have been several dubious ads, such as Romney killing a woman with cancer by taking away her insurance when her husband lost his job and Obama claiming that no one builds their own business. Except that the woman lost her insurance when she lost her job, not when her husband lost his and that Obama was talking about roads and infrastructure.  Fortunately,facts are unnecessary to the country’s political operatives.  Context is for wusses.  They gleefully chop up sound bites and feed them into the boob tube for all to see. Then pundits repeat the pre-chewed nonsense for all to hear.

I could always go see a candidate at a campaign stop.  If I could find parking.  Screw that. So I’m forced to watch the highlights of the campaign on the news.  Sadly, these highlights are just as mangled as the campaign ads.  So that’s no help whatsoever.  Woe is me, what to do?

At this point, I’ll wait for the debates.  Two titans will face off in the field of honor and one will be found worthy and the other will be found wanting.  If only. More than likely, two old guys will wonk out for a few hours, and one will be found slightly less wanting than the other.  I won’t pretend that I’ll see the unvarnished truth; I know how much prep goes into these debates.  But at least I can see everything, and not have to deal with some sound-bite, chop-job ad or news report.  Hopefully that’ll be enough to make a decision.

I’ll be looking for two things: economic policy and foreign policy.  Economic policy is more immediately important, but the stakes are lower.  When economic policy fails, people are unemployed.  That’s not fun; I’ve been there twice.  But when foreign policy fails, wars start.  Romney is stronger on the economy, but his foreign policy is disturbingly hawkish.  I’ve had enough of that for the time being.  The president is stronger on foreign policy, but hasn’t produced economic results.  So the decision will ultimately be about who is more likely to make the economy grow without starting any more wars.  We’ll see how that works out.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter that much who wins.  Despite what the pundits say, the fate of the country isn’t on the line, because the president doesn’t decide that.  Not by himself, anyway.  The government’s impact on my life is minor to moderate.  It paid for my education (and now I pay interest for it) and it provided unemployment payments.  It also takes taxes from me, so I don’t feel like I owe it anything for the loans and unemployment checks.  Most of what I have came from my own hard work.  And the direction of Americais determined primarily by the work of ordinary Americans.  Good governments can accentuate that, and bad ones can detract from that.  It is very unlikely that one will be so bad that it destroys that.

Even if the person we elect is truly horrible, I’ll keep in mind that the vote is the weakest weapon in the arsenal of democracy.  If the president does something I don’t like,I can get out in the street, write a congressman, sign petitions, or even blather on endlessly on a blog.  I can give a president power with a vote, but I can take it away if he annoys me.  I don’t have to wait for the next election; I just have to make noise.  So I’ll see who does best in the debates and vote for that guy. And if I guess wrong, I’ll start raising hell.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chik-Fil-A and Kiss-Ins and Everything That's Wrong With America

Several days ago, when Chik-Fil-A came under fire because it’s CEO spoke out against gay marriage, there was an outpouring of support for the chain.  Some of the supporters were opposed to gay marriage.  Others, like me, were supportive of their right to free speech.  Then gay rights proponents organized kiss-ins, presumably to annoy Chik-Fil-A customers by exposing them to G-rated homosexual acts.  More recently, a supporter of gay rights harassed a Chik-Fil-A employee in a drive-thru and posted a tape of it on YouTube. 

I’m amazed at how many people believe that annoying people accomplishes anything.  I’ve see examples on both sides of the debate berating, mocking, or irritating their adversaries.  It’s a fine way to waste time.

I saw several examples of this in my college days.  I’ve been to several universities, both as a student and a visitor.  These universities were in the south, and therefore quite naturally had a Baptist student union.  The Baptist student union is effectively a frat house for students (like some Baptists) who don’t drink, or for students (like most Baptists) who pretend they don’t drink.  I came across an unusual gathering near one such union.

Late one night as I was returning to the dorms, and I noticed a group of students gathered outside across the street from the Baptist student union.  They were dressed somewhat flamboyantly (dare I say, fabulously) and were facing the union.  They were mostly talking and smoking cigarettes, but occasionally engaging in, ah, intimate contact.  It didn’t take long to figure out that this was a group of gay students, given that the various shenanigans were either between two men or two women.  I also noticed that their assorted groping and grabass activity became somewhat more pronounced when someone was walking in or out of the union.  In other words, they were pestering the Baptists (admittedly, one of the more prudish and severe denominations) with overt acts of gayness.

Although I’m generally not a fan of public displays of affection, I don’t begrudge people, gay or straight, the right to occasionally demonstrate fondness for each other.  It doesn’t take much effort to ignore them.  As long as they aren’t so mushy and sentimental as to make me violently ill, I’m fine with it.  But I’m not a fan of annoying people to make a political point, because it’s an exercise in futility.

The Baptists are not innocent in this either.  Behold, I give you the Baptist street preacher, a common fixture on southern college campuses.  These fearless servants of the Almighty valiantly dispense God’s wrath verbally at unsuspecting passersby.  They’re easy to spot; they’re the only ones within miles wearing a suit, and they don’t smell vaguely of marijuana or alcohol.  Also, the Bible in their hands that they thump repeatedly is a bit of a giveaway.

They mostly make a habit of telling college kids why they’re going to Hell.  For example, using alcohol and smoking are hell-worthy offenses.  Wearing revealing clothing is also a no-no, which is why cheerleaders with skirts that show their knees are common targets for the street preacher.  Typically, the street preachers are little more than sources of amusement.  Invariably, a large crowd of students gathers around to giggle and trade jibes with the preacher.  Occasionally, they do manage to aggravate one of the cheerleaders.  Or perhaps one of the football players the cheerleader is with, resulting in an amusing foot chase.  But the one group they annoy more than any other is other Christians.

More sensible Christians want to grab street preachers by the collar, shake them, and say “Dude, you’re not helping!”  They know that conversions using tirades about hellfire and damnation have been ineffective since the Middle Ages.  Even back then, such diatribes had to be supplemented with more tangible (if less eternal) tactics, such as torture and threats of gruesome death.  But this doesn’t deter the street preacher.  In his mind, he’s merely facing down oppression.  Other street preachers view him in higher regard when he’s ridiculed or yelled at. 

This is also why a group of gay people would troll the Baptist student union.  It does nothing to convert Baptists to their way of thinking, it just makes them more popular with people already sympathetic to them.  Baptists and other Christians call this “preaching to the choir.”  It’s another way of saying “wasting time.”

This, I believe, is what’s wrong with America.  This is why we’re so divided.  The point of debate and activism and public discourse is for one person or group to convert people to their way of thinking through persuasion.  This rarely results in full conversion, but often results in compromise that heals the divide between people who disagree.  That is rare.  Instead, today’s activists seek to aggravate people who disagree with them in order to win the respect of people who already agree with them.  And the divide between opposing parties grows larger, not smaller.

Many of the people who supported Chik-Fil-A did so because they cherish free speech and abhor the statements of politicians who threatened to ban Chik-Fil-A in their cities solely because of the opinions of their management.  But others were simply trying to annoy gay people.  And the kiss-in and the drive-thru incident were just examples of gay people and their supporters annoying them back.  The kiss-in is particularly infuriating to me, because I know that if you want to spend your idle time performing amorous acts, there are far more diverting things that can be done in private.  Smooching in public seems … unambitious.

Word has it that gay rights activists are organizing a countermove involving gay people going to Starbucks.  I realize that Starbucks is one of the all time greatest places to waste time and accomplish nothing, but I hope they’ll ignore that temptation.  I hope they’ll try to be more like the Chik-Fil-A free speechers.  If they’re doing it to stand up for civil rights, it’s a worthwhile thing.  If they’re just going to stand in a Starbucks and say nasty things about Christians, they’re squandering valuable oxygen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Harry Reid Managed to Lie Without Technically Lying.

Harry Reid is in the news saying that an unnamed source at Bain Capital claims that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for ten years.  Politifact has given him the dreaded “Pants on Fire” rating, because he has nothing solid to back that up.  Historically, unnamed sources have occasionally been unreliable.  This is because they can’t be fact checked by their accusers and because they frequently have their own reasons for talking to people.

If Mitt Romney wasn’t a public figure, this would be slander.  Unless the slanderer can prove that it’s true.  So Harry Reid has no choice but to prove it or shut up.  This should be a no-brainer, right?

Wrong.  Stunts like this are all too common in politics.  The response is fairly typical.  Republicans are outraged (although rightly so, I think), and Democrats are insisting that Romney should release his tax returns to prove Reid wrong.  Guilty until proven innocent; something that can typically only happen in the court of public opinion.  Ironic side-note: the only other place I know of that someone can be guilty until proven innocent (sort of) is tax court.

But I digress.  Reid has made no effort to retract or qualify his statement.  Some Democratic supporters have even gone so far as to suggest that the people at Politifact are being unethical, because there is no basis for the accusation.  Amongst others, Matt Yglesias at Slate has slammed Politifact for saying they don’t know, because they haven’t seen the returns.  Politifact's basis for the accusation can be seen hereBoth Yglesias and Reid have admitted that they don’t know if the accusations are true.  Neither side can prove anything, so no one is lying.  But Mitt Romney is being dishonest because he won’t release returns that he might not have paid taxes on, even though that can’t be proven.  I’m getting dizzy.

Is it possible for Reid to be a liar, even if we can’t prove he’s lying?  He appears, at the very least, to be guilty of willful disregard of the truth.  Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University defines this phenomenon as “bullshit” in his essay entitled “On Bullshit”.  But he states a bullshitter isn’t a liar.  A bullshitter is someone who says whatever is convenient, and isn’t interested in facts.  Is Harry Reid just a bullshitter, not a liar?

Maybe not.  It certainly wouldn’t make sense for a Democrat to believe that.  When George W. Bush took us to war in Iraq claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (something that we know now is false), Democrats called him a liar.  Bush claimed that based on the intelligence available at the time, he had reason to believe it was true.  But Democrats claimed administration officials ignored evidence from intelligence officials.  This would make Bush a bullshitter by the Frankfurt standard.  So which is it?  Either Bush and Reid are both liars or both bullshitters.

What made Bush a liar in the eyes of Democrats is that he knew or should have known there were no WMDs.  Based on that logic, if Mitt Romney did in fact pay taxes, then Reid is a liar because he should have known before leveling the accusation.  Under the standard set by Democrats, Harry Reid is almost certainly a liar.  I know this because I know that it’s virtually impossible that Romney did not pay taxes.

Here’s what is known.  We know that Mitt has paid taxes before.  In 2010, Romney owed about 3 million in taxes.  He actually paid the government about 4.6 million, meaning he was owed a 1.6 million dollar refund.  Instead of taking the refund, he applied the 1.6 million to his 2011 taxes.  This improves Mitt Romney in my eyes a bit.  He effectively gave the government a 1.6 million dollar loan, interest free, at a time when the government could use some extra scratch.

So how could he have not paid taxes at all over the course of ten years?  If a Bain Capital source claims this, it almost has to have happened when Mitt Romney was involved in Bain Capital between 1984 and 1999 (or maybe 2002, the end year’s somewhat controversial).  Here’s how that could happen:

Option one:  Mitt Romney failed to earn taxable income, or had income that was so low that he wouldn’t be subject to income taxes.  Given how much he earned in 2010, his net worth, and the fact that he founded a private equity firm, that seems a tad unlikely.

Option two:  Mitt Romney had income entirely from investments (not impossible, for him) for ten years and his investments lost money over those years and therefore resulted in no dividends or capital gains.  In short, Mitt Romney of Bain Capital is the worst investor of all time.  Also seems unlikely.  And it implies he received no ordinary taxable income from Bain Capital.  If I’m the founder of a private equity firm, you’re paying me a salary.  This all seems a bit far-fetched.

Option three:  Mitt Romney earned income, but had so many deductions that they wiped out his income.  When people start to take a few too many deductions, a funny little law called the Alternative Minimum Tax applies.  Don’t ask me to explain that; my understanding is a bit weak.  As far as I know, everybody’s understanding of the AMT is a bit weak.  CPAs struggle with this one.  What I know is that the law effectively says “you’re too rich to have that many deductions, so we’re ignoring some of them so that you still pay taxes.”  So even if Mitt had deductions out the Yin-Yang, he still pays taxes.  I rate this one very unlikely.

Option four:  Mitt Romney actually evaded taxes for ten years, a serious crime.  And the IRS didn’t notice.  That’s so unlikely that I just got dumber for writing it.  Anyone who reads that will get dumber.

Option five:  Romney used a confusing maze of loopholes and tax shelters to dance around paying taxes.  Tax avoidance as opposed to tax evasion.  Avoidance is legal, although many see it as a bit dickish.  When the IRS sees someone not paying taxes over the long term, they have a habit of changing tax laws to close loopholes and outlaw certain types of tax shelters.  So it’s doubtful that it could last ten years.  Highly unlikely.

Mitt Romney has paid taxes before (in 2010), isn’t a lousy investor, isn’t the type of guy to work for free, and almost certainly couldn’t dance around the tax law (legally or otherwise) without the IRS noticing.  This doesn’t prove that Mitt Romney didn’t avoid paying taxes for ten years.  But it makes it so astronomically unlikely that to accuse him of it is a level of disingenuousness so extreme that it might as well be a lie.  I think the “Pants on Fire” rating is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s probably safe to say Harry Reid is a liar.  But at the very least, he’s full of bullshit.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal and the Never-Ending End of American Civilization

Gore Vidal died today.  The left is in tears today.  They’ve lost one of their giants.  Certain members of the right may be jumping for joy.  I’m not the type to dance on graves.  But I get why Gore Vidal was frequently irritating to the right and to independents like me.

Gore Vidal believed he was presiding over the end of American civilization, an oft repeated and tiresome canard.  Typically, we hear this from the left, but occasionally from the right as well (Pat Buchanan, for example).  The fact that America is crumbling has been constantly regurgitated by doomsayers for decades.  Let’s face it.  Some people want America to fall.  They seem to be in love with the idea.

Nikita Kruschev claimed communism would bury America.  Instead, America eventually just bought out communism.  In the seventies, we were apparently falling apart again.  Leftover radicals from the sixties sneered and snickered.  Then we turned it around in the eighties.  In the early nineties (not long after we finished buying out communism), we hit another recession, and everyone lectured us about how Japan would blow past us.  Then came the nineties, where America took off and Japan hit a wall.  After 2000, we had a dot-com bust, followed by a 9/11 nut-punch, which was followed by steady (although less spectacular) growth.

And now we have the Great Recession.  Gleeful radical pundits love to claim that the free market has finally failed.  Just as they claimed several times before, demonstrating their ignorance about how America works.  It’s capitalism.  Up and down.  Boom-and-bust.  It’s not perfect, but it produces better long-term growth than any other system.  That’s why the Chinese switched to a form of state capitalism and even Cuba is instituting capitalist reforms.  We’re not dying, we just ran out of breath.  We’ll be back.  We were in worse shape in the 1930s.  Our debt exceeded our GDP in the 1940s, by a greater margin than it does today.  Every time someone predicts the end of America, it tends to just be a pre-cursor for economic growth.

Despite these past trends, when the economy took a hit Vidal seemed gleeful that the “American Empire” was “falling”.  I find it peculiar that he thought of America as an empire, mostly because I’ve never received a penny in tribute from anyone.  Also, we have no subject nations, merely allies who we treat as equals.  Even when they’re not.  America isn’t interested in ruling the world; we just want to make sure no one else does. 

He called us an empire because believed in an American isolationist policy.  This is an antiquated idea that America should stay in its own hemisphere.  It made sense 70-100 years ago.  And we practiced it.  That’s why we had to get dragged into both World Wars.  But after the second one, we were the only free country not in rubble.  Somebody had to lead the free world.  We didn’t do this out of a need for conquest.  We did it initially to deter would-be conquerors (Soviets), then we grew simply as a result of the hard work, ingenuity, and initiative of our own people.  Now we’re 22 percent of the global economy.  We can’t help but be involved in the entire world.  But that’s not an empire.  We don’t control the world.  We didn’t conquer the world.  We made what we have; we didn’t take it.

Despite being unlike any empire ever before, Vidal married himself to the flawed “American Empire” doctrine and took every opportunity to trash America.  He famously claimed that America brought 9/11 on itself.  “You brought it on yourself,“ is the excuse of a husband who beats his wife.  That’s like Jeremiah Wright saying America’s chickens came home to roost.  If that’s true, then the invasion of Iraq must be Saddam’s chickens coming home to roost.  The invasion of Afghanistan must be the Taliban’s chickens coming home to roost.  That’s a cheap argument made by the intellectually lazy to justify whatever they want.

He also claimed that FDR invited attack at Pearl Harbor to justify a war with Hitler.  How did he do this?  He cut off oil and other supplies to Japan, thus requiring that they attack us.  We brought it on ourselves.  Maybe FDR actually cut off oil to Japan because they were wreaking havoc in China?  And by havoc I mean they were trying to out-Nazi the Nazis.  Seems like a good reason to cut ties.  Ironically, he claimed much later in life that our reason for invading Iraq was for oil, but that wasn’t justified.  Sure, why not?  Consistency and logic are just a waste of time.

Vidal’s presumed that he was the last of the greatest generation of America.  That’s a tad short sighted.  Last time I checked, we haven’t stopped procreating.  His may have been the best so far, but it’s only a matter of time until we churn out a better one.  I’m a member of the generation that decides whether or not this America gets better or fades away.  And I say we’re not done yet.  Sorry buddy, but you blew that call.  Better luck in the next life.  Wait, you don’t believe in that.  Oh, well.

Gore Vidal considered himself the last of a dying breed.  He was.  But the loss of that breed is not a tragedy.  Just a natural extinction.  His is a breed that we’ve evolved past.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Random Accusations of Racism, Spurious Accusations of Socialism

Yesterday, Mitt Romney managed to annoy the Palestinians.  Previously, he got in trouble for giving criticisms of the Olympic games that were so mild and understated that you could call it…well…British.  Now he claimed that Palestinian culture is inferior to Israel’s.  Which is sort of true, since Israel is a free country and Palestine only pretends to be.  The mistake he made was in comparing Israel’s superior economy with Palestine’s and ignoring the fact that Palestinians have a bazillion sanctions that ever so slightly impede economic growth.

Then he made another mistake by claiming later that he wasn’t insulting Palestinian culture.  Right.  You just got done saying that Palestinians were poorer because of their culture.  But you’re not insulting their culture.  Just make up your mind.  Either criticize someone, or don’t.  Stop criticizing and then backing down.  It doesn’t help your image as a flip-flopper.

The only thing dumber than that little backpedal was the Palestinian response.  Mitt Romney was accused of (wait for it) racism.  Something that happens with alarming frequency to him and other Republicans.  It’s the epithet du jour for the left.  Not too long ago, Mitt did a thing with Rudy Giuliani in New York and some loud chick in the crowd kept screaming “Mitt Romney, you’re a racist”. 

Now, I realize that the left has a number of reasons not to like him.  He’s big business, big money, rich white patrician.  The left only likes that when it’s a Kennedy.  But I can’t think of any truly racist remarks he’s ever made.  The closest anyone ever came to painting him as a racist was Chris Rock.  There was a time I the past where the Mormons treated black people as second class citizens.  But this is something that’s changed.  Sorry, you don’t get to blame people for mistakes they used to make that they’ve corrected now.

The spray of accusations of racism is alarmingly common now.  Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona puts her finger in the president’s face and she’s a racist.  The Stand Your Ground law is racist.  The Tea Party is racist.  And electing a black president has apparently made the country more racist.

Sigh.  Perhaps Jan Brewer was just angry?  The president did criticize her fairly harshly a few days before.  I live in Florida, so I’ve read the Stand Your Ground law.  It says, in a nut shell, if some douche takes a swing or a shot at you, you can swing or shoot back.  Nothing racist there.  I’ll probably write more on that later.  The Tea Party is 80 percent white non-Hispanic and the Republican Party is 90 percent white non-Hispanic, according to Gallup polls.  So how can the Tea Party be considered a racist offshoot of the Republican party?  Did the racists split off and take all of the blacks and Hispanics with them?  And the country isn’t more racist after the election of a black president.  What happened there is that those people who are still racists got louder and angrier than they used to be.

The right is equally guilty of similar nonsense.  How many right-wingers have been spewing accusations of socialism these days?  The first problem Republicans have with socialism is that they don’t know what it means.  Here’s a quick rundown.  Capitalism is free markets.  Communism is state ownership and control of everything.  Socialism is somewhere between those two.  By that definition, virtually every major economy in the world is socialist, because every major country has at least a few safety nets and social programs.  Social Security is socialist.  So is Medicare.  So is the military Tri-Care system.  Many Republicans are fond of these programs.

America is a socialist nation by this definition, but it’s just barely socialist.  We’re on the side of socialism that’s very close to capitalism.  Some other countries (frequently European and Asian countries) lean the other way.  And that’s what Republicans are implying when they say “socialist”.  They’re using it synonymously with communism.  But the American left is no where near communism. 

For example, President Obama is apparently a huge socialist (or communist or whatever), despite the fact that he’s chummy with GE CEO Jeff Immelt and has had all sorts of complementary things to say about Jamie Dimon, the boss of JP Morgan.  Although not so much since that credit default swap snafu.  A communist doesn’t like corporations, because they are an example of private citizens who own their own property.  A communist’s wet dream would be a giant centralized bank that doles out money as it pleases.  Sure, the Fed is kind of like that, but in a truly communist economy, there would be no private banks, only the central bank.  A real communist would have nothing to do with a banker like Jamie Dimon.

So, enough already.  This is grade school name-calling.  From now on, every time I hear an accusation of racism or socialism (or communism or whatever) I will assume it’s a bunch of crap.  The words no longer have real meaning because they’ve been abused.  Too bad.  There are actual racists and communists out there.  The former are dangerous, and the latter cling to an obsolete economic system (and may also be dangerous) but I won’t know who they are because there are so many faux racists and communists thanks to all of the false accusations.

Fifty or so years ago, Joe McCarthy caused a bit of a stir by creating a Red Scare and implying that communists were taking over.  Certainly, they were making inroads, but most of the people who were communists in the sixties were too high to be a real threat.  Maybe now there are some Republicans pushing for it again.  Only this time, the left is creating a scare of their own, trying to imply that the country is being overrun by racists.  You can relax, fellas.  The country can’t be overrun by racism or communism, because it’s too busy being overrun by childishness and stupidity.