Monthly Archives: November 2011

Sam Brownback blows a lot…

…according to some high school chick in Kansas.

The story, from NPR, says that Emma Sullivan tweeted “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot” while at a Youth in Government event sponsored by her high school. Someone in the Governor’s office saw the tweet and contacted the program; her principal demanded a written apology; Sullivan has refused to write one.

Honestly, I think there are two moderately appalling aspects of this story–the total lack of content/ingenuity in her tweet, and the apparent fact that Kansas pays someone with so little actual work to do that they have time to whine about stupid tweets from high schoolers.

Since the content of the tweet is so lame, I’m really only posting this to commend Sullivan (and her mother) on refusing to apologize–and particularly on refusing to be coerced into apologizing. The principal was probably out of line in demanding an apology, and certainly out of line in suggesting talking points for it. That, I think, bespeaks his disregard for honest public expression–it comes off as the bush-league equivalent of a Soviet pre-written confession. Props to Sullivan for rejecting it, and to her mother for standing behind her.

That said, I expect that the school does have some legally acceptable punishment that they could impose, if they want to be anti-free-speech dicks. I think the tweet could be not-unreasonably interpreted as disruptive/inappropriate conduct at a school event, and so they would be legally in the clear if they chose to restrict her participation in such events. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I do think it’s Constitutional.

If I were the principal, I’d go a different route: ask Sullivan to write up her own talking points for what she’d like to discuss with the Governor, and send them to his office. If she has reasonable ideas and got a meeting, even with someone on his staff, she might be inclined to apologize sincerely–not for disagreeing, but for doing it in an unproductive way.

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Mitt Romney Loses All Of My Respect

The Republican primary has been, I think quite clearly, a national embarrassment, and it doesn’t look likely to get better anytime soon. At least until after the New Hampshire primary (and probably for a couple after that), the media will continue pretend that there are credible, qualified candidates in the race who are not Mormon. Every ‘major” candidate has somehow thoroughly pissed me off or disappointed me at some point so far.

Mitt Romney just outdid all of them.

The other candidates are, barring Huntsman, incompetent and deeply embarrassing. Romney, it seems, is neither of those–instead, he is simply a liar.

I’m talking, of course, about Romney’s first TV ad, in which he uses a clip of Obama commenting on what John McCain’s campaign was telling itself. The quote: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” There is no excuse for the blatant misrepresentation of Obama’s words. If Romney wants to contend that the Obama campaign is avoiding an economic debate, let him make that argument himself, and provide evidence–not a false confession.

I really don’t have more to say on the issue. It’s simply dishonest, and utterly without honor or respect for the debate. Romney should be ashamed to show his face in public.

Addendum: NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s tweet captures the most damning aspect of the whole debacle (and links to a good article on the subject): @jayrosen_nyu “The political press has no answer to this. http://j.mp/skSLVQ It won’t develop an answer and doesn’t care that it has no answer. So deal.”


Munk Debate: Chris Hitchens vs Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world

Great podcast from a really cool series of debates. I might actually consider paying for membership to get access to the old debates.

Hitchens and Blair were (as usual in public debates with this format) arguing more with the audience’s priors than with each other, so they were talking very slightly past each other. I have rather a lot of issues with the arguments made, but here are the two things that seemed most obvious and important:

First, there’s a framing issue within the question that ought to have been clarified, which is whether the question deals with if religion makes a nonzero positive contribution to human welfare, or whether it is a net positive. Hitchens clearly, and I think reasonably, assumed the latter. I am thoroughly (and rather obviously) biased, but it seemed to me that Blair was making a rather silly attempt to argue for the proposition that religion simply has positive aspects (i.e. makes some positive contribution to life that may or may not be outweighed by its negative effects). Of course it does (I would offer up the music of J.S. Bach alone as proof). At one point, though, Blair out and out rejects the idea of trying to total up the positive and negative aspects and come up with an answer. I wouldn’t want to be in charge of making that calculation (OK, fine, that’s a lie–I totally would), but if you reject the premise that such a determination is the goal of the discussion, the whole thing becomes a slightly pointless argument to have.

(Blair also seems to think it serves his argument to argue that horrible repression of difference is not the sole province of religion–non-religious and even anti-religious movements have done the same!–but that seems such a feeble argument as to be barely worth mentioning. I can’t fathom why he decided that such a point was worth making, without even an attempt to show causality between “nonreligion” and “repression.”)Second (and this is the more important one), they were defining “religion” in different ways. Essentially, Hitchens made arguments about institutions; Blair made arguments about people. And thinking about it briefly, that distinction ends up being rather informative as to the negative and positive aspects of religion. The personal motivation to do good things, to help one’s fellow man, to seek meaning and behave responsibly, can be perfectly well derived from individual faith in an omnipotent, loving creator (or, for that matter, an omnipotent plate of spaghetti).*

By contrast, the institutions of organized religion create the overwhelming majority of religiously-derived harm and few of the benefits. Hitchens includes such harms as the subjugation of women, the condemnation of scientific inquiry, and sowing of hatred for members of other religious groups; to that list I would add the condemnation of just about everyone who has ever enjoyed sex in any form and the general tendency to tell everyone exactly how to every little thing in their lives, regardless of whether they asked, and the total disregard for human autonomy and independent reason that motivates it.

Many questions obviously remain open at the close of this debate: whether religious faith would thrive in an environment where religious organizations were somehow prevented from consolidating influence; whether a faith that did survive in such an environment would resemble the forms that exist today; whether the existence of widespread individual-level faith (without strong public institutions) would produce a net social harm or good; whether there would be less private benevolence in a world without religion, or whether humanist reasons would emerge to justify an inherent desire to do good for each other in the absence of supernatural inspiration (either through punishment or reward). Those are important questions, and relevant to the discussion of what we might do (if anything) to make the world better, but they are distinct from the central issue here. And while he failed to make the institutions vs. individuals argument explicit, in my (obviously biased) opinion Hitchens’s points carried the day. His focus on the harms created by religious institutions demonstrated that religion–as practiced today–is a net harm to the world.

*I can’t entirely stand by the idea that faith in the supernatural, even if it motivates good behavior, is costless to society. A cultural acceptance of belief unfounded in evidence is, at the margin, deleterious to forming accurate beliefs about the world (and thus to making good decisions). However, without religious institutions insisting that unverifiable nonsense must be true as a matter of religious dogma, those effects are (I expect) significantly blunted.


Good Sentences: Karl Smith on Tyler Cowen

Karl Smith:

“Tyler Cowen looks at the massive scale of ECB bond buying and asks

There is a longer discussion here.  One way to read this is: “That’s not yet a lot.”  Another is: “Oh my goodness, they’ve already been doing quite a bit.”  Another is: “Lots of buying without a credible signal of future intent isn’t worth a whole lot.” I would stress the point that credible long-run signals don’t exist for Europe right now.  No one knows what “the game” will be like a year now, or less.  That makes all possible solutions harder to pull off, since announcements can be shrugged off as idle chatter.

My obvious position is that you can buy all the bonds you want and it means less than a promise to buy bonds.”

Also: ” …while I definitely see the ECB as the type of institution that would dither while Europe burned and don’t at all see them as the type of institution that would give in to a speculative attack. I feel pretty confident that they would double down against the speculator and ruin him or her as a matter of principle.”


Good sentences

Karl Smith:

“[Common sense] does not depend on reason itself. People don’t have to have any understanding of why they believe what they believe for what they believe to be usefully true.”

I think that has a lot to do with my general distrust of common sense. However, the post as a whole (here) poses a challenge that I should take up at some point (hopefully on this blog)–that is, why has common sense lasted, if it’s not informative or causes people to make systematic errors? There’s probably a pretty basic evolutionary psychology argument, but worth thinking about.


Incredibly poor form

I just lost a LOT of respect for Philip Klein. Here’s his Twitter stream from about an hour ago:

“Ugh, somehow I missed this video of Newt kissing up to the vile Jew hater Al Sharpton. bit.ly/nOGpiV

I despise Al Sharpton. He should be as toxic as David Duke, and yet even allegedly conservative Newt kisses his ass.

Newt may love Al Sharpton, but some of us will never forget the Jewish blood that’s on his hands.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Rudy was that he saw Sharpton for who he was. Refused to meet with him.”

I don’t claim to know much of anything about the Crown Heights riots, or Al Sharpton’s position on Jews, or prominent Jews’ positions on Sharpton. Moreover, I don’t care. Unless there is some sort of country-wide mass amnesia about a murder Sharpton committed, there is no excuse for the phrase “Jewish blood on his hands.”

  1. Saying “blood on his hands” is tantamount to accusing the target of being responsible for someone’s (in this case violent) death. As such, to do so without solid proof is vile, repugnant, and slanderous. To do so as part of a random spurt of political whining about an irrelevant candidate is even more so.
  2. If someone does have blood on his hands, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference whether that blood is Jewish–or black, or, for that matter, Oompa-Loompa. Klein’s phrasing both accuses Sharpton of deliberately targeting Jews, and suggests that without such targeting, being responsible for someone’s death would be somehow more acceptable. The first is, once again, a serious allegation and, without evidence*, completely indefensible. The second is patently absurd.

Poor form, sir. I expect better.

*Unfortunately, it will not be taken as obvious that Sharpton’s purported anti-Semitic statements do not constitute evidence that he targeted Jews for violence. There is a vast chasm between any of Sharpton’s statements I can find and inciting violence on ethnic or religious grounds.


Stand strong, SCOTUS

CSPAN and Sen. Chuck Grassley are pushing the Supreme Court to allow TV cameras in the court for the first time during oral argument over the Constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

I’m generally against allowing televised oral arguments, for pretty much the same reason most of the Justices are: it would show the court only in the most sensationalist of lights, by only reporting on its most politically charged cases. That ignores the overwhelming majority of the docket and presents a skewed vision of the Court’s purpose. It also makes the court more political–TV clips of the court would inevitably be excerpted into seconds-long sound bytes, and I have every reason to believe that networks would use that to tell their easiest, most compelling-to-the-clueless story: that the court is a radically partisan institution, making close 5-4 decisions on party lines.

And honestly, I like the element of mystery around the Court–I think it preserves the gravitas of the institution to have its official actions be its main public face, rather than the Justices-as-reality-TV-characters. It strikes me as an institution that benefits from such mystery, especially looking at what happened to the Presidency after Watergate (when public/media scrutiny increased dramatically).

So, given my objection to cameras in the court more generally, it should be pretty clear that I think televising the ACA oral argument is a terrible idea. It’s precisely the wrong kind of argument to televise in that it’s already a hot partisan issue, it’s reasonably likely to be 5-4, and you know damn well that nobody is going to watch all 5 1/2 hours on CSPAN. They’ll get 5 1/2 seconds of Scalia disagreeing with Kagan, and that’ll be the ball game.

So stand strong, SCOTUS. If you decide to let cameras in, do it right at the beginning of a term. Have some boring arguments first. Televise unanimous opinions. Make the first footage something that reflects the real work of the court–not the partisan side.