Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I am not Pro-Slavery. Are you?

Senator David Vitter (R-LA), in Senate debate today, said in support of denying abortion coverage to women, “This should not be of any great controversy. abortion is a deeply divisive issue in this country, but taxpayer dollars being used to pay for abortion is not.”

He is simply wrong on this point.

“There are no political answers,
   only political questions.”

  —Kent Pitman
(in a technical forum, 2001,
    and Open Salon post “Rule of Law”)

It cannot be the case that a question exists such that one possible answer to the question is political and another possible answer is not political. If one answer to a question is political, then all are. And if all are, then the question is.

And so if it's political to spend money, it's political to withhold money.

Not divisive? We are divided regardless of how you frame the question. That's a fact.

Senators were sounding hot under the collar this morning about their tax dollars going to abortion. Well, I've written already explaining how this slicing up of the pie is wrong. It is not their tax dollars going to this, it is mine. I'm not getting pregnant, but my tax dollars still go willingly to the support of women who get pregnant. Many of us want that. The Republican Party already brought us an immoral war in Iraq, so let's have no further indignant talk about people's tax dollars being spent unfairly.

But beyond that, I want to make one more point of substance:

Opposition to abortion goes far beyond the mere issue of who pays for it. This issue of tax dollars is a tactic, not an end. Even if there were no tax dollars involved, these same people—people who allege to be all about personal liberty and small non-invasive government—are all about expansive government and removal of individual liberty in this case.

If they had their way, they would deny all access to abortion. And they think they have the moral high ground.

But to deny access to abortion is to force pregnancy.

Having sex is not consent to have a baby any more than driving is consent to be killed in a car accident. Whatever fiction the Religious Right may want to spin, there is more sex being had in the world than for the purpose of procreating—even by Christians.

Nor is getting pregant proof of lack of birth control. Even if it were, to suggest that the penalty for such a simple mistake should be months or years of servitude is disproportionate.

Birth control methods fail. Abstenance would avoid birth control, but again it's out of the bounds of appropriateness to be telling people they should abstain just because other birth control methods are not perfect. The Pope's proscription of the use of “artificial” birth control notwithstanding, it is essential that people be allowed and even encouraged use birth control. There's a population explosion ongoing, if you didn't know. Even married people need birth control to keep from having babies at a time they're not prepared for, to keep from bankrupting their families, and to keep our finite world from being overpopulated. But birth control fails and the penalty must not be slavery.

So let's sum up, shall we? Sex is a human need. Having sex, even with birth control, risks pregnancy but is not consent to have a child. And yet some would insist women carry even unwanted pregnancies againt their will.

Well, we can talk until the cows come home about whether a fetus is “a life” or “a person.” It is to some, it isn't to others. The fundamental morality underlying this differs person to person. To me, an abortion is not murder because a fetus is not a person. But while we're wasting our breath pretending it's worth debating that issue, another argument goes overlooked:

Forced pregnancy is enslavement. We often speak of it in the polite terminology of “choice” but that apparently doesn't help the pro-Life community to understand the passion in reverse. [universal symbol for 'no coat hangers'] They seem only to be able to imagine some bloodthirsty passion for killing little babies and so they see the argument as one-sided. But there is another side, a side involving a very personal choice that is simply not the business of lawmakers to do anything other than unconditionally support in the name of personal liberty.

We speak sometimes in shorthand, referring to the time of back alley abortions, using coat hangers. We say we don't want to go back to that. Perhaps that possibility seems abstract and unlikely to some people. Perhaps they think not everyone will be driven to that. But so what? Does that make it ok? A woman was forced to consider whether to find a guy in a back alley and risk her life to stop a pregnancy, but she decided no, she'd rather be enslaved against her will. Is that really what we're saying is ok? No muss no fuss? As long as the coat hanger remains on the rack, there was no trauma involved?

Or are we saying maybe, like Patty Hearst, she'll get used to it—perhaps come to like it? Does that make it any less enslavement? That given time she comes to accept the choice that was made for her, the fate that was scripted out for her?

Forced pregnancy is brutal whether one goes along with it or not, just as sure as rape is brutal whether one goes along with it or not. And let's be frank: If you support removing the right of a woman to make this decision for herself, then you should understand that you support a policy that is nothing less than brutal to women. Forced pregnancy is not a kind loving act that you're thrusting upon a woman with an unwanted pregnancy. It is enslavement, nothing less. And to many women this choice has been seen to be so horrendous that they will risk their very life to get out of it. What right is it of yours to make such a decision for her?

I'll say it again: Forced pregnancy is enslavement.

Forced pregnancy co-opts a woman's body against her will. Forced pregnancy subjugates a woman to a term of imprisonment within her own body, forced to do the bidding of others, creating a child she has not elected, in order to satisfy the morality of another. Forced pregnancy insists that a woman yield her basic right of self-determination to powers beyond her control.

Forced pregnancy means risk of medical harm with no input from the woman. There are conflicting claims as to whether a woman is safer having a baby or having an abortion. Naturally I have a belief about that, but let's not get side-tracked by that because it doesn't matter. Forced pregnancy means she doesn't get to make that decision, so she has no choice of how to navigate that risk.

Forced pregnancy reduces the status of a pregnant woman “autonomous adult citizen” to “lesser person.” It says she is not worthy of the full rights of an ordinary citizen.

Forced pregnancy is a verdict or judgment, but without due process of law. The crime is sex—it was done in a manner not authorized by some Church, in many cases not the Church that the woman herself attends. The judgment is automatically one of “guilty” Individual circumstances are not considered. Matters of personal individual faith are not considered. The lack of due process, on its face, is immoral.

Self-determination is about the woman electing her fate, and if she's forced to carry a pregnancy, her fate has not been elected.

Held to a fate against her will. Deprived of the right to get out of the situation. Unable to refuse the work involved. Receiving no compensation. That's the very essence of slavery.

Call it involuntary servitude if you prefer a more sanitized phrase. It makes no difference. It's still wrong. And it's not just wrong—it's unconstitutional and violates the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which the United States has signed).

I'll close by casting Senator Vitter's remarks quoted above into a point of view that reflects my own feelings on the matter: This should not be of any great controversy. We are indeed divided over how we would handle the very personal choice of abortion in this country, but withholding taxpayer dollars that might free women from slavery or involuntary servitude should not be something we are divided over. No one is requiring any given woman to to get an abortion, but denying those who choose one the means to make a difficult but responsible choice is not a morally neutral position. Denying access to safe and legal abortions amounts to leaving a woman trapped by circumstance into a life not of her own choosing—in short, in favor of slavery.

Stop asking your Senators if they are pro-choice. Ask if they are anti-slavery instead, and insist they vote that way.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  —The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution

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Originally published December 8, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): clash of absolutes, divisive, political answers, political questions, anti-slavery, anti-enslavement, pro-slavery, pro-enslavement, pro-abortion, pro-life, pro-choice, choice, risk, health, medical, service, servitude, involuntary, voluntary, enslavement, slavery, abortion, politics

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Slice of the Pie (Again)

I thought I had written this already, but apparently it was stem cell research I'd written about back in March, not abortion. Since the observation I have to make applies identically to both issues, I just copied the old article and changed the nouns in two places.

Ever pooled money with a group of people for pizza? Five bucks a head and someone calls out a big order. It can be a little tricky since not everyone likes the same toppings, but with a little effort, it can be made to work. A veggie pizza here, a pepperoni there, maybe the chicken pizza has olives only on one half of it. Pretty soon everyone who's pitched in their five dollars is satisfied.

Of course, the guy who wants the veggie might be irritated that someone in the group was eating meat. But what's he going to do? Force his ethics on others? No matter how morally sure he is of his beliefs, it wouldn't fly for him to try to control what others are doing. His $5 hardly buys him the right to tell everyone else what they can or can't eat. Chipping in buys him the right to ask that a little bit of the pizza is something he'd enjoy, but it doesn't give him the right to veto what others might like.

So now let's talk about another kind of pie: The national budget.

Why do people say silly things like “I don't want my tax dollars going toward abortion”? Why aren't they laughed out of town for such a ridiculous statement? It's fine for them to say something like “I want a few of my tax dollars to go to funding something I do like,” but unless they're paying a lot more than I'm sure they are in taxes, they just haven't bought the right to control what others are chipping in for.

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Originally published September 30, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): taking responsibility, overpopulation, pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, pro-choice, pro-life, anti-choice, anti-abortion, pro-abortion, short-sighted, selfish, separately coded, separate account, federal funds, state funds, tax deduction, tax credit, my tax dollars, single payer, health care, public option, abortion rights, abortion, sharing, pizza, economics, funding, pluralism, politics, family planning, planned parenthood

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Erik Naggum, R.I.P.

A friend of mine died recently. His name was Erik Naggum. He lived in Norway. [ Erik Naggum, 1999 ] I knew him primarily via the net, through his professional reputation, his posts to internet newsgroups, and through occasional personal email on matters technical and philosophical. And we met once at a conference in person.

His death was probably of complications due to ulcerative colitis¹. But I want not to speak of his death, but his life.

He was a controversial soul because he was technically brilliant, and to put it much too mildly, he was not graceful in his handling of people he perceived as dumb or foolish. In point of fact, he would decide in a moment that he was talking to such a person and would become instantly excruciatingly intolerant of them, using harsh language that was at best colorful and at worst really outright mean. His posts online were a mix of cordial, thoughtful, and actively insightful prose with pointed barbs, laced with expletives and accusations that someone was insane or deserved to die. His tendancy to shift gears and go negative was not my favorite trait in him.

At the one conference where I spent time with him in person, by the way, he was pleasant, polite, and soft-spoken, and nothing like his online persona. I have read accounts by others that say the same.

In researching this, I ran across the following attempt to lighten the mood:

On Sat, 05 Jan 2002 00:29:41 GMT, Erik Naggum wrote:

> ... fucks like that frog-eating vermin ...
> ...Fuck you....
> ... Shit-for-brains ...
> ...that French fuck ...
> ...scumbags...
> ... the fucking retards...
> ...just go die...
> ...reeking French moron ...
> ...Get the fuck out of here...
> ...you pricks ...
> ...pussballs...
> ...sick fucks ...
> ...stenching filth ...

You are becoming repetitive.
How about some nice norwegian swear words ?

But I hope to make the case that he was worth the trouble.

The posts about him since the announcement of his death have been a mix of warm remembrances and shrugs of good riddance. It's not often you see discussion of someone's death accompanied by so much bitterness. I remember many such send-offs for Jerry Falwell, for example. But in defense of his detractors, Falwell had quite an army of disciples primed to carry out political missions that many considered hateful. By contrast, while Naggum was a difficult person to talk to sometimes, he didn't enlist armies of people to go out and be mean to others. He just spoke his mind.

On a reddit discussion forum after Erik's death, one person wrote, “He flamed me for my spelling, suggesting that there should be a spellchecker in the NNTP server (or client, not sure) that rejected postings with so many mistakes. But it helped - I learned to use a spell checker. His form was sometimes crass, but his intentions were good.”

He was frequently called upon to defend himself as to his personal style. Once, for example, he wrote, “Why so many of you fucking losers have to read what I post and work yourself up like cats in heat, and then ask me not to post as opposed to they not reading what they do not like, I have not figured out.”

And, indeed, the forum from which this text was taken, the primary forum in which I came to know Erik, was an unmoderated forum that was part of USENET, a distributed discussion technology that dates back to the ARPANET, the net that predated the Internet. An important aspect of unmoderated USENET forums was their free speech aspect, and there really was no recourse in such forums if you didn't like what you read other than to stop reading. So he had a certain point, which I came to believe and defend.

He was well-respected for the pioneering nature, the meticulous quality, and the beauty of the code he wrote. In addition to his technical accomplishments, he was a deep thinker on many issues, well-read in traditional philosophy but with his own very definite opinions.

He sent mail to the New York Times, condemning George W. Bush's actions subsequent to 9/11. I don't know if it was published; the copy I have was sent me directly by Erik at the same time he wrote to them. The letter he wrote was long and made many points highly critical of both Bush and the citizenry of the US for having tolerated Bush. However, one small aspect caught my eye and stuck with me, so I went back to that old email to retrieve the exact text. He had written, “But there is still one thing that America has taught the world. You have taught us all that giving second chances is not just generosity, but the wisdom that even the best of us sometimes make stupid mistakes that it would be grossly unfair to believe were one's true nature.”

This stuck with me in part because Erik's detractors are so quick to be unforgiving of his faults, and yet he could see clearly the need for people to be allowed to mend. And I often sometimes wondered when he was in his more abusive modes, condemning others for a suspected insanity, whether he was really talking to someone else, or talking to himself. He seemed to be plagued somewhat by demons of his own, and to project them onto others. But looking back on it, it seems so harmless, and his intent so good, in spite of all.

Perhaps I see in him a bit of me. I try not to do the verbal lashing out thing, or not as harshly certainly. But I certainly understand the frustration with people who don't see my point. And I've been known to be abrupt with people. Yet I'm always just trying to improve things, and forever surprised at how hard it can be for people to see that. So perhaps it's easier for me to look for good intention in someone like Erik.

I learned a lot from talking to Erik on matters technical and non-technical. But one thing I learned, not from what he said, but from the meta-discussion which was always there about whether to tolerate him, is that I think we as people are not all the same. We make rules of manners and good ways to be that are for typical people. But the really exceptional people among us are not typical. Often the people who achieve things in fact do so because of some idiosyncracy of them, some failing they have turned to a strength.

In a discussion on reddit, someone had suggested that we should say: “Erik Naggum was a contributor to the HyTime standard who had a nasty habit of flaming people and driving them away from great technologies.” My reply was that, no, we should say “The great endeavors of mankind are often done by people with this or that weakness.”

For example, the Republican Party in the United States has consistently suggested that somehow the US would be better if it were run by someone with flawless moral character. Jimmy Carter fit that bill and yet when inflation went into double digits, Republicans hated him just the same. Bill Clinton, for all his flaws, was a more effective president.

So I liked Erik. Does that make him a role model? I think the answer is “in some ways, not in others.” But isn't that true for all people? Telling our youth that they must be perfect and pointing them to people who we offer as examples of perfection seems like rigging the game for everyone to lose. Eventually it will be found that the models of perfection are not perfect. And the people we're pointing to these models will either be disillusioned or will have protected themselves with cynicism. We want neither. Better to identify people as people, and to say “there's a trait [or achievement] to emulate.” Or even, “there's a person from whom you can learn a great deal.” No need to say, “Be everything that person is” nor “Be do everything that person does.”

Michael Phelps is a perfect illustration of this. People of great accomplishment, being human, do have flaws. Even after the bong incident, he can still be a role model for swimming, and the hard work it takes to succeed.

Growing up, and starting out in the world, one's flaws can keep one from getting noticed, and it's well to teach our youth to work on minimizing them. But at some point we must not rewrite history and pretend that we had the choice to do all the great deeds that have been done by only encouraging and revering people for whom there is nothing bad to be said.

A great many people practicing Computer Science in particular are great as a consequence of their obsessive nature of one kind or another. The ability to be focused, meticulous, intolerant of deviation from spec are all qualities we programmers need, and sometimes the personality types that are attracted to the field of computer science are going to show effects in other areas.

In Erik there was at least a person who died having dared to speak his mind. I so admire that. But more than that, he had things to say. And they were things that made the effort worthwhile. I'd rather that than endless blathering of no consequence delivered in oh-so-polite tones.

I will miss him greatly. But I am thankful I had a chance to get to know him.

I had to laugh when someone anonymous wrote:

Erik Naggum
He hated stupid people

I don't even know that he hated stupid people, though. It seemed to me he just didn't like wasting time with them.

But either way, it is perhaps more appropriate to allow Erik to write his own epitaph. On his own web page, Erik offers his explanation of the meaning of life. It's not long. I recommend reading it. But I quote here a single sentence, which I offer as evidence that he accomplished what seems like a reasonably stated mission:

“The purpose of human existence is to learn and to understand as much as we can of what came before us, so we can further the sum total of human knowledge in our life.” —Erik Naggum

¹ Kjetilho posted to reddit, “the autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a massively hemorrhaging stomach ulcer. my take is that it was probably caused by the large amounts of NSAIDs he took for his bad back, which he in turn got from too little physical activity. so in a way, the root cause could be said to be UC.”

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Originally published June 24, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Photo cropped from a photo by Kevin Layer,
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Other Remembrances of Erik
Tobias Rittweiler's Blog
Ruben on VoIP
Arve's Post (and Discussion) on Reddit
Kjetil's Post on The Subclass Explosion
Zach's Journal Entry

Vintage Erik
Defending his occasional outbursts: [1] [2] [3]
Discussing Common Lisp: [1] [2] [3]
Discussing abstract concepts: Asking for references

Erik, Posthumously
Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged

Tags (from Open Salon): personal, erik naggum, erik naggum eulogy, death, erik naggum death, r.i.p., erik naggum r.i.p., friend, politics, personal style, manners, controversy, controversial, role model, personal flaw, character flaw, legacy, epitaph, philosophy, meaning of life, commentary, abuse, abusive, foul language, common lisp, sgml, contribution, fools, foolish, intolerance, abruptness, free speech, excellence, insight, michael phelps, jimmy carter, bill clinton, jerry falwell

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Secret Shame: Confessions of a Republican Wannabe

On a site like Open Salon, it's often assumed one is a Democrat. I'm not. I'm an Independent. I do admit it's hard to tell the difference sometimes, but is that my fault? The Republicans seem never to offer me a credible alternative.

Of course, you could make the claim I should be checking out the Green Party or the Libertarian Party. Nice try, but no dice. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I'm old enough to have thrown away my vote on third-party candidates before; been there, done that. Voting on principle is nice, and I'm all for changing our voting system to use preference-order voting, but absent that, I'll vote where my vote can make a difference, thank you.

And, frankly, I think the thing that holds these third parties back is their stubborn insistence on principle. Principles are great, but as I discussed in The “Two Unprincipled Parties” System, it's the unprincipled nature of the Democratic and the Republican parties that keep them in active contention. That nature allows the parties to dynamically adjust their platform in order to respond to changes in public sentiment. Contrast this with the Green Party or Libertarian Party which are wedded to ideas and hence incapable of changing in order to acquire more votes.

There are occasions where I've gone so far as to call myself a “Republican Wannabe,” not because the Republican Party of late (by which I'm afraid I mostly mean “within my lifetime”) offers much of anything I'd ever “want to be” but because the words the Republicans often say they are about don't sound bad. I wish there really were a Republican Party that was about small, fiscally responsible government that cares about personal liberty and privacy. They sometimes spout such words, but their actions don't match, and I just can't bear it.

I did actually vote for Bill Weld, a Republican, to be Governor of Massachusetts. He was socially liberal, compassionate, strong on crime, and fiscally responsible. A good mix, I thought. But, alas, not typical of what the Republican is selling these days.

Also, my desire for small government is not dogmatic in nature. So while I liked how Jesse Ventura borrowed from Lincoln in saying that government should only do for people what they can't do for themselves, I find it's not always so easy to say exactly what people can and cannot do for themselves.

For example, it might seem that health care is something people can arrange for themselves. But I've watched health care play out over a lifetime, and it's clear to me that health insurance has gone from a well-meaning pool that protected people from unknown health risks to a cynically and scientifically run system that tries to most efficiently separate people from their money, maximizing profits while minimizing its own responsibilities. Saying health care is something people can do for themselves depends on whether you just mean that there are insurance policies for sale or whether you mean that people have a legitimate and compassionate set of choices. So just because I favor small government over large doesn't mean I favor it for arbitrary reasons; there are a lot of reasons to suppose that the smallest workable and fair government really does need to address health care, and to believe that this cannot be left to the individual.

So please don't assume when I say I'm for small government that I mean to say I oppose some particular set of issues. What I mean, rather, is that if all other things are equal, I prefer small to large. But sometimes small doesn't work, and I'm open to discussion on some matters that others might not be.

What I want from the various parties is to provide me a different perspective about how to think about problems. I want options I can evaluate freely without regard to where they came from. I assume that the very different perspectives of each party will provide me with a rich variety of options. What I care about is workability to really solve the stated problem, not some idealized notion of a problem. And there are two things that really catch my eye a lot with Republican options: First, they seem to go out of their way to be mean-spirited and to make life miserable for people who are just trying to get by—they're forever trying to sell their policies by demonizing someone, and in the process they often don't actually solve the problems they set out to solve. And second, their solutions are often very fragile. They work really well if you make the right assumptions about the people involved, the order in which things happen, etc., but they leave people helpless if they deviate even a little from the norm (often, but not always, a norm characterized by being economically well-off, healthy, white, straight, male, and Christian).

The Republicans say they're about family values, but that turns out to be code for something much more sinister. To me, family values means something that promotes the notion of people helping people, of people treating each other kindly, of people within a family loving one another, of people wanting children to grow up happy and healthy. But many gay families pass this requirement and yet are shunned by the so-called party of family values.

The Republicans say they're about fiscal responsibility, yet they orchestrated the worst economic catastrophe in the history of the world. And why? Because they effectively enshrined the notion that “greed is good,” a claim that is so obviously ridiculous it's a wonder it wasn't laughed out of the room the moment it was first said. But, of course, people who desperately want to believe a selfish thing will find themselves highly motivated to stretch in what they are willing to believe.

The Republicans say they're about the Constitution, but when attempts are made to enforce privacy rights or free speech rights, we find them making exceptions. In fact, I honestly think that before the neocons took over the party, the Republican Party really was about this one. And there are a few lonely voices even now within the Republican Party that pay lip service to this issue. But when push comes to shove we see party line votes on matters that do not uphold free speech and privacy rights.

I really just don't like the idea of aligning with a party; I fear the notion of “toeing someone's party line.” I like independently evaluating issues on their merits. When I voted for Weld in the Massachusetts primary, I was going to be out of town and had to vote absentee. To do that, I had to declare a party and was temporarily a Republican for a few weeks near the election. I recall worrying that I would die in an accident and that my tombstone would read “he died a Republican.” So maybe it's not fair to say I actually want to be a Republican. But I do covet the issue space that the Republicans allegedly care about, and I do think they're falling down in their duty to offer me options that fit in that space.

I refuse to give in and simply call myself a Democrat. I continue to hold out the hope that the Republican Party will surprise me one day with good ideas that will give my preferred status as an Independent a legitimate sense of identity distinct from being a member of the Democratic Party. But some days keeping that hope alive is like trying to keep a candle burning in the winds of a hurricane.

Here I sit, trying to decide what I think of Judge Sotomayor. In spite of her being the clear choice of Obama and the Democrats, I'm really quite annoyed by that controversial ruling Judge Sotomayor has written about controversial free speech rights of school children, the one Paul Levinson has written extensively about. The details of that ruling trouble me a great deal. I'd like to ask her a great many questions about it.

But even as I'd like to consider the ruling, and the candidate, with an independent eye, I have my television tuned in to all kinds of ridiculousness from the sitting Republicans that once again threatens to embarrass me if I go that way. I am incensed about the petty set of things the Republican Party has chosen to make into talking points, stupid issues that are not at all good reasons not to make this woman a Supreme Court Justice.

Quiet down, Republicans. I can't figure out if this candidate is a good choice for the Court, but if you don't stop saying completely idiotic things in opposition, I'm going to feel driven to side with her merely because you have once again made it utterly unpalatable to ever even consider the possibility of an opposing point of view. For once, please don't be your own worst enemy. Just once, I'd like to feel I had a choice.

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Originally published June 1, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, republican, independent, democrat, republican wannabe, own worst enemy, shooting itself in the foot, republican party, sonia sotomayor, sotomayor, supreme court, court, justice, appointment, supreme court justice, candidate, bill weld, jesse ventura

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Over the Edge

In 1990, I visited Marriott's Great America and rode on the ride called The Edge. [ 1990 The Edge #1 ] It's a thrill ride designed around the notion of free fall.

The basic idea is that you get into a steel cage and they drop you on a track. Initially you just fall but the track is curved so it gradually takes your weight back and slides you down to where you end up landed on your back. The ride accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.8 seconds, hitting 3.5G, and then decelerating in 5 seconds back to a stop.

I'm not really a roller coaster person, so I'm not sure what was in me to do this. [ 1990, The Edge #2 ] I'd usually be the one getting up to the door and then taking that conveniently placed exit for people who chicken out at the last minute. But that day I got in. And the door clanged shut.

Now the thing to note is that just about as soon as I was in, I was thinking “No, maybe not.” But the problem is that by that time you're locked into a steel cage and there really just isn't any backing out. At that point, there's just physics and destiny waiting. No more control. The cage was going down whether I liked it or not, and there was no more time to think.

It came out fine, as it happens. Since then I've had other chances to repeat the experience, but I don't do it any more. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, as they say.

Still, I'm glad I once did. Sometimes other things happen in my life, or in the lives of others, where there's very little control. It gives me a framework to understand the sensation I'm feeling, or to empathize with the feelings of others.

There are times where in an instant, life changes and there's no looking back.

Some years later I was sitting with a friend at her house when her dog decided, pretty much out of nowhere, to jump up and sink his teeth into my face. One moment we were just sitting there amiably chatting, the next I had a dog—a Jack Russell terrier, if you're curious—hanging off the front of my face, teeth sunk into my upper cheek. It was really kind of bizarre and disconcerting. [ 1990, The Edge #3 ] I think it disconcerted the dog, too. He seemed kind of embarrassed about the incident after the fact. I remember thinking to myself that I was probably going to be disfigured for life, like the clanging of that door.

As it happened, we went to the ER and they didn't even want to do anything with it—they said it would heal on its own. It had by some amazing quirk of fate missed all the nerves he could have injured. One or two people have noticed there are some tiny scars but there really hasn't been any observed problem. Just lucky. Like the ride coming to a smooth glide at the end. That time, anyway.

Still, one never quite knows. Life always has new challenges waiting. And always the sound of that clanging door. One way only, please, just forward.

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Originally published May 28, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): belief and religion, philosophy, belief, religion, health, family, deep breath, taking the plunge, diving in, head first, out of control, milestones, autopilot, cruise control, lack of control, loss of control, free fall, thrill ride, roller coaster, locked in

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Freedom to Hear

I have come to believe that the Founding Fathers blew it when they wrote The First Amendment. They shouldn't have spoken of “free speech” but instead should have spoken of unfettered access to information—that is, “the freedom to hear.” [Liberty Bell] The two are similar rights, but the right to hear is the more important one.

As I see it, the right to stand on a soap box in the park is not a right to stop others who might pass by and hold them hostage, forcing them to listen to one's message. It is not a right of coercion. Rather, the power of the right is the opportunity to place oneself passively in a place where others, if they so choose, might elect to listen.

Democratic Need: The Fuel of Change

It's critically important in a democracy that the majority is able to hear about things that are not popular with that majority. That is how open-minded people change their minds. They take in information about less-popular ideas and consider whether to change their mind and admit new ideas.

In a well-functioning democracy, the status quo will represent the majority viewpoint. As a result, any possible change will occur due to a minority viewpoint taking hold. For that to happen, it's critical that the populace have access to unpopular views. On the other hand, forcing them to receive unpopular views would be tyranny by some minority. So the process must be voluntary, and must involve a conscious decision by enlightened members of the populace to hear what might change their mind.

Tie-Breaking the Golden Rule: Spam and Telemarketing

In some ways, one might think the matter symmetric and the choice of how to express it merely a variation of wording. Communication involves a speaker and a listener, so to say conversation is about speech is to say it's about listening. What's the big deal?

Well, for one thing, if the speaker and listener are not in agreement, there becomes the question of who should win. Those of us who believe that the Golden Rule is the dominant meta-rule that drives all politics find ourselves in an uncomfortable position when one person wants to, even has an articulated right to, speak while another has no desire to listen, and has no corresponding articulated right to assert. Something feels unbalanced about that. Tour right to speak pushes out at me and I need a corresponding force I can balance with. Saying my only right is to speak back, and not merely to assert a right of silence, seems unfairly coercive to me. At minimum there must be a balance of power between speaker and listener.

And yet even then, ties will still occur. In matters of telemarketing and spam, the answer seems clear to me, even before the imposition of rights and laws, just on the basis of common sense. In fact, I was first alerted to this issue at all by receiving email spam that contained a patriotic-sounding passage about free speech which seemed to have the purpose of saying “I have the right to send this and you don't have the right to complain about that.” I don't think that's so. I think the rights of the listener must dominate over the rights of the speaker. In the case of a conflict, the term “free speech” appears to give dominant power to the speaker, while an alternate phrase like “freedom to hear” shifts control to the listener.

Publishing and Censorship

There is also the matter of speaking generally, passively, to no particular person—the matter of publishing, if you will. Publishing speaks out, but with no identified listener.

But publishing does not intrude. Published material can sit patiently and wait, in a library or repository. This process is voluntary, and while it might seem an act of “pushing” information out, that's mistaking advertising for inventory. Inventory is the passive receipt of information to a waystation, awaiting a consumer who will tune in.

Publishing is curious, too, because it actually speaks not only to everyone now existing but to people who might not yet be born. It would be unrealistically difficult to poll everyone who now exists, but when you add those who might exist in the future, it's a definite impossibility. No one can know who might be interested and who might not. And yet publishing speaks to all such people.

And so when it comes to the possibility of censorship we find someone intervening in the wending, passive, voluntary path from speaker to would-be end-listener. But whose rights are denied? The speaker's? I would allege not. The speaker has spoken and even if the speaker's words might reach the intended audience, I've argued he has no right to impose them. It's the listener who has the ultimate right to receive the information. If the chain is broken, it is the listener who is infringed.

In fact, in the impossible situation that it could be shown in advance that there could not possibly be any person interested to hear, one might theoretically argue it was not only rightful but merciful to ask that the speaker desist. But given that no such argument could reasonably be constructed, because there is no science capable of predicting what future people will or won't want to hear, organized censorship has no place because it denies the ultimate rights of listeners, not the rights of speakers.

The Complexities of Public Speech

Recently in the news is the question of whether Obama should be permitted to speak at Notre Dame, given his position on abortion. Under my formulation, I claim it should be clear that this is the wrong question. The right question is not Obama's right to speak, it's whether there is any person at Notre Dame who wants to hear what he has to say, because it is the need of those who might be open to his message that is at issue.

Of course, Public Speech poses a particular difficulty if you assume that any possible reader should have a right to deny speech. Here there are two ways to break things down. One is to say that this argues that Free Speech is the core right and that in order to argue Obama's right to speak I have to go back to that. But I'm not trying to argue based on an ideology. I don't begin with the notion that he must have a right to speak and then bend all law to suit my Machiavellian end goal. Rather, I begin with the simple question: How will that one person in the audience who would hear Obama get the information if Obama is not allowed to speak?

Certainly, if Obama is invited he must be allowed to speak because that's in the nature of the contract. Let someone who doesn't want him to speak not invite him. So this beef by certain would-be audience-members and onlookers is not with Obama, it's with the conference organizers.

And, further, it seems clear that if someone trying to enlighten themselves at a university wants the information, they should have access to it. This goes back to the censorship issue. It seems clear that it serves the rights of the audience to permit controversial speakers. Such speakers' goals may be served by speaking, but in my view they ought enjoy no right to speak if there are no listeners who would hear.

What makes the issue of Obama a problem is not that he might attend and speak but that an audience who wants to be there for other reasons is put in an awkward position. Their choice becomes to attend an event where they would not voluntarily listen, or not to attend. But to not attend means missing an event that is significant for other reasons. This bundling of two unrelated events is the real cause of the difficulty. A structuring of the event to allow those who would do so to attend the main body of the event and then to leave, perhaps in protest, would probably have resolved this. So much the better if their leaving provided seats for others who would like to hear the lecture because I suspect there were not seats enough for all who had wanted to attend and that if those who don't want to hear the lecture were to leave, the gathering place would quickly refill with people who did want to hear.

Avoiding the “Least Common Denominator”

The problem of public speech is also tricky for another reason. There is a temptation by some to manipulate the system in order to say that all public discourse must be a kind of “least common denominator”—permitting only the most conservative of speech, that speech which is acceptable to all. Or, at least, that speech alleged to be acceptable to all. Who even knows if there is any such speech.

The freedom to hear must not be confused with a right of the individual to control what others may say in a public venue by asserting their right against others' rights to publish. The recourse in that case must be a right of individuals to opt out of situations that will thrust arbitrary messages at them in unwanted fashion. I have some sympathy for someone not wanting to see offensive billboards in a public square, for example, since opting out of using certain public areas may be difficult. But the notion that a speech or an internet page must not exist because there is someone somewhere not interested in it misses the entire point of what it is for information to be passively conveyed.

As long as there is a simple, cost-free, rational way to opt out, that should be the final recourse of the party who wants to use their freedom to hear as a mechanism for stopping speech they do not like. Causing the speaker not to speak means potentially infringing another's right to hear. Better to just avoid the venue where the unwanted speech is ocurring.

Just Plain Noise

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: At the point where you're playing your music too loud or blocking my path to a building or any of a variety of other so-called speech acts, you're not exercising what I see as free speech, since you're not entertaining my need to hear, you're just a force trying to invade my space. Making your message available to me is fine, but making it impossible for me to ignore your message is not fine, and certainly ought not be your right.

Sometimes in a society when there are injustices, one takes actions to get attention that are beyond the scope of their rights; but civil disobedience is not a right, it is a calculated sacrifice.

Information from Foul Sources

A particular case of interest is the question of whether murderers should be allowed to write books. Some would say these people have lost their rights and must not be allowed to speak. Perhaps. But I claim that the interesting question is whether the would-be readers of such things have lost their right to hear from a murderer. Do law enforcement officials, psychologists, and even just ordinary citizens sitting at home have no right to know what makes a murderer tick? I think not.

If necessary, cut off the convicted felon's right to the money or even to media notice or fan mail or other benefits of he publication. But if the murderer will offer useful information to those whose enjoy full rights in our society, I see no reason to keep a murderer from writing. The real victim will be a free society who will not be able to prepare for the next such murder.

In September 1997, Salon's Table Talk forum hosted an interesting extended discussion on one of its threads about the question of whether the reader of literary works should make a decision about what to read or not based on the moral character of the author. I was proud to participate. It was entitled “She boiled squirrel nutkin, he diddled girls -- does it spoil the message?” Alas, Salon has retired those pages and the discussion is no longer available as a cross-reference.


There are two parties involved in a communication. If both are willing, the communication should proceed. But when there's a dispute, who wins? Using terms like “free speech” appears to give the favor to the speaker, which I think is wrong. I prefer the term “freedom to hear” because it gives final say back to the person who would be receiving the information. In my view, the right to free speech ought not be a right to impose one's message on another, only about making messages passively available to others who would hear them.

Free speech is a way of guaranteeing that we in a democracy and in a free society have access to a free flow of ideas. It isn't supposed to be a way of forcing us to endure a free flow of noise or indoctrination. That's not freedom, it's slavery.

I'm not suggesting a Constitutional amendment, although if I were doing the Constitution over, I would ask for a balancing “freedom to hear.” However, even within our present society, with the Constitution as it presently is, I often find that reformulating problems of free speech as problems involving a freedom to hear yields important insights in how to think about those problems in fresh and empowering ways.

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Originally published May 21, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, rights, Constitution, freedom to hear, right to hear, freedom to listen, right to listen, speech, free speech, freedom of speech, spam, censor, censorship, telemarketing, protest, civil disobedience, democracy, democratic society, information exchange, golden rule, publishing, speech, obama, notre dame, infringed, murderer, rights of felons, right to publish, publication rights, right to write, right to author, rights of felons, dumbing down, least common denominator, coercion, oppression, oppressive, controlling, noise

Saturday, May 16, 2009


When I was around the age of five, my parents gave me a little stuffed bear, [George]" who I named George.

He was no ordinary bear, of course. He had eyes that seemed very deep and knowing, and for a while he had a felt red mouth, though that fell away at some point.

Inside, he had a music box. There was a metallic key extending from his chest—the kind that's probably unsafe and illegal in the modern world where doubtless they must be made of fireproof, non-toxic, biodegradable, nerf-like sponge foam. But this old-fashioned key just jutted out harshly with a piece of metal like a penny that attached to the pole allowing you something flat to hold while you twisted it to wind him up. Thus armed, he would play a bit of the song Around the World in Eighty Days, which I came to like quite a lot.

One day the music box broke, though. I must have been in first or second grade and wasn't sure what to do. Twisting it didn't manage to catch something it needed to catch, and when you let go after twisting it would just play all the notes really fast in a kind of single quick metallic zing sound that took only a second or two to complete. It was quite disappointing.

So I did what kids do. I threw George against the wall. To my surprise, that fixed him, and the music box played again. I was thrilled.

Sometime not too long after, though, he broke again. But fortunately, I was now a skilled bear repairman. Or so I thought. Sadly, no matter how many times I threw George against the wall, and I tried it quite a lot before giving up, it just didn't seem to help and mostly seemed to be scratching up the wall with that bit of metal that stuck out.

Later in life, I'd had more school and learned that there were “best practices” for fixing broken things, and that bashing them against the wall mindlessly was not among them.

And yet, sometimes I look at the way certain people approach the world and think it sad that they never had a George to teach them this lesson. Failing to understand science and causality, they resort to mysticism and a belief that if something once worked, even by accident, it will somehow find a way to work again, even without knowing why it ever worked or whether that reason is still in play.

Periodically I hear people referring to Climate Change as a natural process, as if that implies it will fix itself. They say the climate has corrected itself before, and so they seem comfortable that it will happen again. They don't say how or why or even when this will happen, so I must infer they are expecting it to happen by magic—and just in time to avoid any inconvenience to mankind.

Maybe it's just my personal experience that leads me to say this, but ... I'm just not so sure we can rely on either repeated good luck or outright magic.

It's time for some serious science.


I still have George. He's threadbare here and there, but still loved. My parents tried to get me to throw him away when they thought me too old for him, but I refused. I'm glad I still have him. His music box still doesn't work on its own, but if you help him by holding the key just right and refusing to let the key unwind faster than it should, you can still get him to play his tinny tune. It still makes me smile.

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Originally published May 16, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, climate change, global warming, science, mysticism, engineering, best practices, mindlessly, koan, lesson, childhood memories, lessons learned, bear, teddy bear, george, teddy bear named george, hypothesis, test, growth, experience, trust

Friday, May 8, 2009

Haiku: Mom Watched Over Me

[ Mom watched over me 'til I could manage myself. I still hear her though. ]

If you enjoyed this haiku, please “rate” it.

This is a response to Just Cathy's post on Mother's Day Haiku.
She notes the original open call came from Texas Bubba.
The effects we have on one another are both direct and indirect.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published May 8, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): celebration, family, greeting card, greetings, haiku, i love you, mom, mom haiku, mother's day, open call, personal, social, thoughts, too cheap to send flowers, tribute, wishes

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fresh Thoughts on Kissing ... and Beyond

I was pretty nerdy in my youth—unlike now, of course—and so my parents confronted the issue of sexuality with me by doing the obviously right thing: They handed me a four-volume encyclopedia on the subject and told me to read up.

I wish I could remember the name of the thing, but alas I don't. A lot of it was stuff that was boring to me at the time, like the details of reproduction. I skimmed it but didn't really care a lot about the details. I never really resonated to biology—it always seemed messy and imprecise.

There was a section on dating, though, and I read through that pretty thoroughly in case it had any useful tips. It did. It's funny the kinds of things that stick with you over the years, but this did because of the practical and specific nature of it. It defined the confusing term “fresh” (a sort of interjection that was supposed to get uttered just before you got slapped in some mysterious circumstances) in the only detailed, serious way I've ever seen anyone try to define it. I checked the dictionary just now and it merely says very vague things like these:

15. informal forward or presumptuous
Random House Dictionary

15. Informal Bold and saucy; impudent
The American Heritage ® Dictionary

12. improperly forward or bold; “don't be fresh with me”;
WordNet® 3.0

This encyclopedia, instead of offering just a word or two, offered a full description of how things were supposed to work and why the word was significant. It was highly specific in a way that I doubt people will readily agree with—many will quibble that the numbers are arbitrary, and I suppose they are. But I was able to read past that and to get the essence of what it was getting at.

The article just came straight out and said that it was permissible for a boy to try to kiss a girl on the second date and to try “petting” on the eighth date. I have no idea where they got these numbers. They seemed arbitrary and unmotivated to me, and I knew even at the age of 11 or 12 when I read this that they were probably not universally agreed upon. But the point was that there was some such number. What was interesting was that the article was very clear on the notion that you had no entitlement to succeed in these things. It did not encourage you to be pushy. It didn't say that someone must submit. What it seemed to imply was that there was a time at which it was not out of bounds to think it might be proper.

So, as the article explained, it might be that a girl will kiss a boy on the first date, but he ought not try. The relationship is too fresh. After the first date, he may try, but she may still decline. Likewise, it might be that the girl would engage in petting on the eighth date, but maybe not. The relationship was too fresh before that to really consider the matter.

By the way, I'm recalling all of this from memory, but I don't recall it talking about discussing, only trying. It might be I was just reading selectively, but more likely they were just acknowledging the obvious truth that it's enough trouble having to be a bumbling adolescent without having to be articulate about what you're bumbling about.

And that was a lot of dates out—I don't think I ever got to that many dates. I did count, though, even knowing that my date probably didn't have access to my encyclopedia and that all my counting was probably for nothing. I wasn't going to feel emboldened after that time, more likely just like I was timidly missing out. Being a kid is rough. It's a wonder any of us survives to adulthood.

Anyway, I think my encyclopedia's definition of this obscure word highlights an important detail that is often lost in a lot of dialog between the sexes at any age. Lessons in interpersonal communication rarely distinguish between the correctness of a bid for doing something and the entitlement to do something. This leads to the magical and unrealistic notion that people will “just know” when it's right, and that if either party tries something when it isn't “just known,” that's wrong.

Great emphasis is placed in our society on how important it is for men to respect a “no” answer from a woman. And I agree. But equally great emphasis should be placed on giving respect to the fact that there will be questions that, in due course, need asking, even if the answer will ultimately be “no.” Whether by word or by wordless bumbling deed, the mere asking of those questions at the proper time and without attempt to pressure is not disrespectful, and the need to ask them must be respected in the same way that the answer must. Respect between caring individuals goes in both ways.

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Originally published April 26, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): language, linguistics, vocabulary word, usage, word usage, meaning, semantics, definition, terminology, fresh, dating, kissing, petting, caress, touch, felt up, feel up, felt out, feel out, getting to first base, get to first base, getting to second base, get to second base, encyclopedia, dating, social, advice, manners, etiquette, polite, politeness, impudent, bold, saucy, sex education, sex ed, first kiss, first time, sexuality, kissing on the first date, kiss on the first date, first date, eighth date, appropriate, inappropriate

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disobedience, Civil and Not-So-Civil

Disobedience of the Civil Kind

I have a beef with certain people who enagage in civil disobedience and then expect to be treated as if they did nothing wrong. Should they be treated with human decency and respect? Of course. But should they be treated as if they did nothing at all? No, I don't think so. I want to say why.

It's not the idea that people should be allowed to walk free that bothers me. There are reasonable arguments made about why we might sometimes not want to punish someone who commits an act of civil disobedience. We all know that's true. We tell people not to kill one another, but there are times when we all agree that it's legitimate to do so—certain cases of self-defense, for example. So my gripe here isn't about that.

“Non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment are often regarded as marks of disobedients’ fidelity to the legal system in which they carry out their protest.”

  —Civil Disobedience

(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

My gripe is that people who commit acts of civil disobedience seem to have come to expect to be let off. It's almost as if they see civil disobedience as a right, and they are morally indignant (not to mention surprised and terrified) if they are arrested.

When I was in college at MIT, I attended a meeting in which activists who were concerned about the Seabrook nuclear plant trained others on how to protest. (I think I was there as a reporter covering the event, by the way. I wasn't especially political back then.) Among the things they explained was how to behave if people wanted to be arrested. That wasn't the main thrust of the protest, it was like an extra credit aspect they said some might want to do. In fact, it was pretty carefully explained that not everyone should do this, that only people who really understood the consequences of being arrested and were willing to pay that price should do. They weren't planning anything violent, but they did think it was a legitimate choice to be more-than-average obstructionist if the person was willing to pay that price of being arrested and having a mark on their record. In fact, it was the price they would pay that made the action noteworthy.

Refusing to move when instructed by the police was not seriously going to keep the nuclear plant from being built. But their willingness to spend time in jail peacefully might get them time on the news, since it would arouse sympathy in the population, who might think it awful they'd had to make such a sacrifice just to be heard. But once such a penalty is removed, or routinely waived, why is it be noteworthy? Sacrifice is only sacrifice if you lose something, and if you're assured you won't, you're not making one.

Disobedience of the Not-So-Civil Kind

I want to turn now to another issue that I will ultimately tie in with the above, and that's the issue of ticking time bombs. And no, in case you're worried, I am not going to suggest that these are some good form of civil disobedience. But the discussion of their existence at all will set up something else that I want to talk about.

As you probably know, the ticking time bomb scenario involves the notion that there will be imminent harm to many people very soon, that you are the one who must interrogate a suspect, and that everyone is depending on you to avert a catastrophe. “What would you do to get the needed information?”

And, indeed, on Open Salon, DJohn posted such a question just the other day in a thread to which I responded. I've lifted my response to him into this post here (with very light editing) to make sure my thoughts on the matter didn't get lost in the shuffle.

The fallacy here is that you think this problem is unique to torture. It is not. Consider any law we have. There are laws against driving fast on highways, against breaking into buildings, and against killing people. We know, for example, that there are sometimes extraordinary reasons why good decent people need to drive beyond the speed limit, break into buildings, and even kill other people. And we do not say, therefore, that there must not be laws against driving beyond the speed limit, against breaking into buildings, and against killing one another. Rather, we expect brave souls to do in extraordinary times what needs to be done, consequences be damned. In some cases, we will exonerate them afterward for breaking a rule because we agree that circumstances warranted it. In some cases, we will not, and we will hold them accountable and they will console themselves knowing that they sacrificed themselves for something they believed was more important.

The situation of national security is no different. Were there really a case where millions could die and there was a chance torture might work, I expect someone would try the torture. If it worked, I imagine he'd be found a hero and forgiven. If it failed, I imagine he'd be court-martialed for his foolish notion. That's not much reassurance, but it ought not be. That's what it is to be illegal, to say that the risk of doing the thing is entirely to be engaged at a personal level. It's what we heard every week in Mission Impossible growing up: Should you or any of the IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge.

It's an uncomfortable truth but an honest one. It doesn't just give a wink to someone saying “it's ok, we know you'll need to do this and we'll forgive you later” it says “if you think this is your only option, you'd damn well have examined every other one and it better really be because this is not one we'll forgive lightly.” For things that are truly (rather than merely rhetorically) one's only option, who asks for permission?

Anyone who tortures should never do it as a matter of process. He should do it as a last resort knowing that he is potentially sacrificing his life or freedom. That's a nice high bar that I'm comfortable won't get misused. Anything less, I'm not so sure.

Kent Pitman
April 19, 2009 01:22 AM

Checks and Balances

The traditional argument goes that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Fair enough. That's a theory that goes quite a ways back in history, well before its recent formulation in words. But it was always about “above board” (pardon the unfortunate waterboarding pun) action. The problem isn't that the Bush administration wanted to change the policy, the policy is that they did so without informing the public and without subjecting themselves to trial. Having seen the need to do it, they should have done what they needed to and then marched straight to court demanding a trial. In the worst case, they should have told the public what they were doing so that the public could decide.

The claim by Bush echoed claims made by Nixon, who in turn quoted Lincoln when he was interviewed by David Frost: “Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation.” I don't even propose to debate that here; it might well be right. Let's assume it is. The critical difference between Lincoln and Nixon on this point is that Lincoln's actions were public and subject to scrutiny by the electorate. Nixon was secretive, and so was Bush.

Secrecy matters a great deal because the Constitutional foundation of allowing the Executive this much power is not that we like trusting the Executive with this much power, but rather we understand that some decisions must be made quickly, before the populace or perhaps even Congress could offer advice. And some decisions must be made coherently to avert the effect of Congress tearing our nation limb from limb by each Congressperson going in a different direction. A President must know when he acts on his own that he is still doing so at some risk of being judged harshly, and if he does it in secret, that risk is averted. The essential check on Presidential power is the option to impeach or at least not to re-elect. And even for those who will not be re-elected, we have the option to publicly discuss with new candidates for the office whether they subscribe to such doctrine. We are robbed of all of that when such actions are taken in secret, and we end up making decisions about the Presidency without critical information that would allow us to make good decisions.


And so I'll close with the point I opened with, that there is a relationship between civil disobedience as it has become and this kind of not-so-civil disobedience. In both cases, the actions have become so comfortable that the high bar of sacrifice has been removed. With that bar removed, the acts in question are too easy to do and too hard to later judge. We must repair that.

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Originally published April 25, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, civil disobedience, unjust law, conscientious objector, CO, war, ticking time bomb scenario, torture, ticking, time bomb, 24, abraham lincoln, lincoln, nixon, frost, frost/nixon, bush, george bush, george w bush, cheney, dick cheney, checks and balances, democratic rule, we the people, democracy, election, re-election, informed electorate, impeach, impeachment, recourse

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rule of Law

“Rule of law.” I like the sound of that. And yet, what exactly does it mean? Wikipedia suggests it is a “general legal maxim according to which decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws, without the intervention of discretion in their application.”

Personally, I would sum it up by contrasting it with “might makes right.” Rule of law isn't about having a powerful leader do something and then just defining that something as right; it's about following pre-established rules and procedures even if you're the leader.

I applaud the situations in which Obama has, in fact, returned us to the rule of law. But I'm starting to believe there are a number of cases where Obama exercises as much discretion as Bush in questionable areas and where he seems to seek to distinguish himself by using better judgment, by coming to a better conclusion.

“There are no political answers,
   only political questions.”

Kent Pitman
(in a technical forum, 2001)

I've evolved a tool to help me sort out certain tricky kinds of political issues. The tool is embodied in my claim that “there are no political answers, only political questions.” What this emphasizes is that there is no such thing as a neutral position on a political matter, there are only positions that people hope will not be spotted as equally political. And so when one spots an answer to a question that seems political, it's important to backtrack in the conversation to find the question itself, and then to explore its other answers (including the status quo), and to view each of these as a political outcome as well, not as somehow intellectually neutral.

In this case, it would seem that Obama either thinks or wants us to think that pursuing a prosecution of Bush and his administration for war crimes (waterboarding, for example) would be politically motivated—but that not pursuing it is not politically motivated. Cynics and conspiracy theorists might say he's trying to fool us; I'm not so sure he's not fooling himself as well. But either way, the objective truth is that it's the question that is political, and the question definitely exists already and cannot be avoided.

Bush may have violated the law. Has he? We don't decide such things as matters of fact within the US except by application of a court of law. And how would we proceed to do that? Well, we do employ an Attorney General. The US Department of Justice explains that the Office of the Attorney General “evolved over the years into the head of the Department of Justice and chief law enforcement officer of the Federal Government.” You'd think his job was to enforce the law by invoking the appropriate legal mechanism. But apparently not.

And so we return to that pesky phrase “rule of law” because the question is how much discretion is exercised by the Attorney General. Because on a matter of this magnitude, which is, appropriately enough, the metaphorical elephant in the room, to exercise discretion is to say that there is no rule of law.

Ironically, one of the most offensive things about the Guantánamo situation is that we don't even know if the people there are innocent or guilty, because they have never been offered a trial. It seems likely that many are guilty, but it's the trial that decides. One of Bush's greatest offenses is to substitute his judgment for a court's. And some would like to say that Bush was a criminal for having done this, but we can't say that either. A trial is needed. And now a different President is substituting personal judgment for due process.

There exists a political question. That fact cannot be avoided. Having the President turn a blind eye is not a process. There is a notion of “due process” for resolving matters such as these. The prosecutorial trial system is a process, one that's due.

due   -adj

3. Such as (a thing) ought to be; fulfilling obligation; proper; lawful; regular; appointed; sufficient; exact; as, due process of law; due service; in due time.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

If the trial system cannot be trusted to resolve such matters as these, at least have the decency to change the process to say what the rule is. If it's “in certain matters, the President just decides,” then do us the courtesy of changing the law so that we can know and discuss the policy. We purport to be a nation of laws, so let's make the law and the practice of law align. If we can't do that, have we improved since the previous administration?


Don Geddis observes that there is still a place for prosecutorial discretion, and I certainly didn't mean to suggest otherwise. He suggests, as an example, that where there is insufficient evidence, it might be appropriate not to prosecute. I agree. But the places where I want to see such discretion exercised should be on the technical merits—is there sufficient evidence to bring a case (which I think has to meet the standard of “probable cause” or some similarly preliminary level of proof sufficient to build a prima facie case); that indeed requires some human discretion. But where I don't want to see prosecutorial discretion used is in the style of a Jedi mind trick where someone says to an official “these are not the people you should be prosecuting” and then suddenly there is nothing to prosecute or defend. I'll have more to say about that in another post sometime soon, I hope.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published April 17, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Other articles on the topic of prosecuting war crimes:
Obama Administration Releases Torture Memos (Saturn Smith)
The Memos Don’t “Shock the Conscience” of Obama (Christine Smith)
The Ethics of The President's Decision on Torture (Monte Canfield)
Take Action: Demand Justice for Torturers w/NUDITY (Behind Blue Eyes)
Torture: Principles and Practicality (Tom Cordle)
Obama and Torture: Did He Say Just Following Orders? (Libertarius)

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, rule of law, attorney general, prosecutorial discretion, political questions, political answers, might makes right, obama, bush, war crimes, torture, guantanamo

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hollow Support

When I was in seventh grade, there was a playground near my house that served the kids of about ten families in our very tiny community. It had the usual kinds of things—a swing set, a sandbox, and perhaps a few other less memorable items. However, it wasn't the fixtures that call this scene to mind just now, but the use we put them to and a concept I learned about which I get occasional senses of deja vu.

For example, someone brought some good sized tires, perhaps from trucks, and we made up a game where some people would swing on the swings and others would roll the tires at the people on the swings and the game was to dodge the tires rolling at you or to hit them just right to knock them back in the other direction. It was a very dynamic game, not for the faint of heart, perhaps reminiscent of Rollerball or American Gladiators, though a lot more low tech and presumably less safe.

A short distance from the battleground area that the swingset came to be was the sandbox, where we played more cerebral games. As I recall, we had some little vehicles, probably Tonka® or some such thing, and we'd dig tunnels under the sand for them to drive through. The game in this case was to make bigger and bigger tunnels, almost like a game of Jenga®, but with sand. We'd reach into the tunnels and find a handful of sand to remove and cross our fingers that by removing that particular bit, the entire structure wouldn't fall in.

The game got harder as more was removed because there was less holding things up—and also because it was just hard to reach all the places you needed to without pushing on them. It became more and more intricate to manipulate, and through the eyes of a kid, quite beautiful.

We used terminology that denied what we knew to be the obvious truth, that we were weakening the ceiling above the area we were making. The goal, of course, was to make a giant underground cavern for the trucks to move around in, unimpeded by vertical columns. No one really thought that by removing all the columns, it was becoming stronger. We just loved when it stayed up at all as we used ever bolder techniques that by all rights should have knocked it down. And we tempted fate further by emboldening our terminology to match.

We called it “hollow support,” both as a noun and a verb. I guess it was a kind of cartoon physics thing where if we didn't admit it was getting weaker, maybe it wouldn't. “We need some more hollow support over here,” someone would call out, and another would rush to yank out another bit of supporting structure, all in the name of coming as close as possible to what we all knew was unachievable. All in the name of perfecting the hollowness of the support.

It was beautiful up to the end. And after that? Well, it collapsed, of course. It was just for fun—it wasn't going to affect our lives, after all. If there were little guys driving those Tonka trucks, we were pretty callous about their fate, but that's the nature of the game. We'd just pat each other on the back and talk about what great hollow supporting we'd done and how we should do it again sometime. Then we went home and didn't have to care. The next day would just be another day, like any other. At least for us.

As I look at the US economy these days, that concept pops back to mind a lot. The people running the show, those who devised the complex pyramids of economic sophistry that became our banking system were playing with just so much sand in a sandbox. They were seeking to build something fun, not something secure, and pressuring it ever closer to collapse. Then off to dinner like any other day, not having to care. Over a nice wine, they'll talk about the great things they achieved, and then moan about the great loss they, too, suffered in the Big Collapse. Perhaps they'll think of a few supportive words to offer the little people who were crushed in that collapse.

Hollow support—it was so obviously ridiculous even as we were doing it as children, who could have ever guessed I'd find use for such a concept again as a grown-up?

Author's Note: Originally published March 27, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): little people, jargon, terminology, fragility, fragile, lack of support, support, digging, building, collapse, fantasies, illusions, delusions, daydreams, dreams, goals, hollow support, metaphor, lessons learned, childhood memories, swing set, sandbox, economy, economics, politics

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rethinking Mega-Corporations

When the Microsoft antitrust case came along, the issue seemed to be that Microsoft controlled too much of a market that needed to be substantially more free. But the problem was that people didn't like the government deciding how to partition up the space. [Scales of justice] The problem is that government intervention in how to divide up market spaces is too subjective, leaving open options for corruption, bad understanding of a market, etc. The sense was in some that this is something best decided by vendors, and yet the problem was that if you left it to Microsoft, it didn't seem to be deciding the issue well.

“EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti could never build Microsoft Windows or successfully sell it, yet he and his antitrust regulators get to decide if a great American corporation may or may not improve its products,” said Nicholas Provenzo, chairman of The Center for the Advancement of Capitalism.

I thought about this a lot at that time and have continued to ponder it since. I always come back to the same conclusion—that there probably needs to be something like a maximum size company or at least an incentive for not creating ever larger companies. I don't quite have the entire idea fully fleshed out in my head, but I'm confident enough that there's a good idea in there that I think it's time to at least throw it out for discussion, even knowing it will be controversial. But the point is to have some objective measure or incentive that leads to the desire of a company to stop growing.

No matter how smart the leader of a company is, we should be encouraging that person to teach others his or her skill, not to acquire ever-more power for himself alone after the company is above a certain size.

As companies grow super-large, the number of them necessarily grows super-small. This implies reduced competition, which eliminates the exact reason we allow markets and competition in the first place. We need to incentivize companies to seek an intermediate size for many reasons; in light of recent events, one way to express this is as a need to avoid the “too big to fail” phenomenon.

It's my understanding that increasingly in recent years antitrust legislation is not pursued in cases where consumers seemed to be seeing lower prices, on the theory that no matter what the structure of the industry, lower prices for consumers is always unconditionally good. That sounds wrong, and the recent fiasco in the marketplace seems an illustration of why that might be.

The problem seems not just to be the inappropriate manipulation of markets, but merely the reliance on a single company at all; because this implies that really only one human mind—or a small number of human minds—is making decisions for too many people at once. In effect, it implements a kind of corporate dictatorship, or at best rule by a very few people.

In the best case, that leads to a single person having the power to make something extraordinary that others might not think to make. But the problem with that is that if any such individual fails, they bring their company and everyone in that company down with them. There is, of course, a risk that these super-leaders are truly unique souls and that no other person could possibly cause what they did to come to pass; but, if so, there will be huge confusion once they're gone. Worse, our structure also allows them to pass on the power they have amassed to someone who did not earn it. The company does not go back to being disorganized after they leave, the power they perhaps rightly assembled is now a simple commodity to be passed along to someone who didn't earn it by being truly unique. And yet there may be many people, not just one, who are at the next tier waiting to shine.

To see the problem, suppose a person could reliably be said to have ten times the combined intelligence and insight of five people who report to him. And so we allow him to be their leader for a time. Now it becomes time to step down. By definition, this same is not true of the five who stand to rise to his position. It may be that they are capable of stepping into the mechanics of the original leader's position, but the original justification of giving them this position based on the extraordinary thing that only they could do is no longer there. And certainly if it's the case that any one of them was close to the insight and intelligence of the person who dominated, the world would be better off with both of those people at the helm of a company rather than with only one.

Of course, you could iterate this truth all the way down and find that there was no justification that was ever a reason to make a company. And that would be wrong, too, but mainly because it isn't really objectively knowable who is the right person to lead. It's a gamble. And so having many companies of intermediate size allows a compromise between gambling on no corporate organization and on total corporate organization.

Perhaps individuals should be limited to having a majority share in only one company, and minority shares in other companies, again encouraging many human minds to have a serious say in the market. Underlying this thought is something I call my “many minds hypothesis,” that the world will work better if there are a lot of smart people competing rather than just a few. [Big fish eating little fish] In effect, the current practice in the market involves big fish eating little fish until there is really only one fish and no remaining competition.

A company that has no competition is stifling the creative power of the people within it, who are asked to be conformists to a particular way of thinking. I don't think it's healthy for the individuals, for the company that has come to dominate, or for society.

Since establishing a maximum bound on a company size is hard to do, it seems to me that a possible alternative might be to allow tax rates on a company to increase as the company size increases, creating the possibility of companies consolidating to improve efficiency, but only if the efficiencies are really important.

People sometimes claim that we must have market efficiency, but I think the ultimate efficiency will come when we're all replaced by robots. I don't think that's going to do a lot of good for us or for the environment. And at some point, we may even find the robots think humans are superfluous. But, for now, we have a lot of people who need jobs, and it seems to me that a bit of inefficiency in the market, especially in the form of redundancy and competition, would help a lot.

We've been hurt very badly by the present super-banks losing. If they had been kept from ever getting this large, we'd be in much better shape because there would have been more brains involved and more chances that at least some of those banks would have protected themselves.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published March 15, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

See also my related post Fiduciary Duty vs. The Three Laws of Robotics.

Tags (from Open Salon): inefficiency, market efficiency, singularity, ai, robots, free market, market, robustness, diversity, many minds, many minds hypothesis, competition, maximum size corporation, maximum size company, megacorporations, politics, economics, business