Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Get A Little Dirt On Your Hands


Another old rule-of-thumb of mine. If something has to be given a wonderful-sounding title, there is a good chance that it is more sales job than actuality.  Thus, organizations or legislation with peace, justice, or fairness in their names should be held at arm’s length and examined before embrace.  This is especially so for the word “truth.”  If you see a book entitled The True History of the Catholic Church, the best you can hope for is a one-sided history.  Probably, not even that.  Or “The True Cost of Obamacare,” may not – how shall we say this? – follow generally-accepted principles of accounting. When of my patients starts an answer “Can I be honest with you?” it is a tell that they are about to say something self-serving they know others might not like, but expect to be unchallenged.

“Truth” is a large word, and people using it lightly, without embracing the responsibility for it, are likely not being all that honest with themselves.  They are unable to make the more modest claim that they are presenting another side, or information you may not have.  Why are they unable to do that? There are instances where one might legitimately say this is true.  I saw it…I know it…I proved it… But those things invite evidence rather than merely assert.

Items which advertise themselves as true or just may indeed include a great deal of things worth knowing or acting on. Very occasionally, they may be largely true or just.  But red flags should go up when you see the words.


Just to review an older idea of mine, in determining how to evaluate an economy.  Technological and worldwide events are the largest factors, but we all unreasonably ignore those.  As for the politics, the composition of Congress has about twice the weight as the occupant of the White House.  Changes in either can do a great deal to change perceptions in the populace, however, which in turn creates changes in the economy.  Confidence matters.

Then, an 18-24 month delay should be applied between dates of taking office and practical changes.  Legislation takes time, and even executive orders don’t play out immediately. 

Feel free to disagree, but I think this gives a clearer picture of what’s happening than our usual tracking of the economy from the day our public servants took office (or even the day they were elected!) until the day they left.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bias Contrast - Small Sample size

I have had two conversations each with intelligent liberals and conservatives, and a whole lotta FB sharing and blogreading added in this week.  Small sample size, but I think I notice something.

When something is reported in liberal media and conservatives read it, their response is "this is one-sided...this leaves out important facts...this is trading on what things can be made to look like, not what is actually so..." and then degenerates into the usual rants that partisans engage in.

When something is reported in conservative media and is read by liberals - and this seems to be entirely in the context of an item reported by a liberal site quoting a conservative site in limited context - the response is "this isn't true...this didn't happen...I can't believe how ridiculous/bigoted this is that anyone would even believe this..."  At best, there is the suggestion that this is a one-off event, which conservatives are putting an enormous amount of emphasis on. Then there is no rant, just dismissal, down the memory hole.

If even mostly, rather than invariably true, this would still be a profound difference.

For the record, this is on the following currently-fashionable topics: Syrian refugees (there are no others, it seems), the unraveling of Obamacare, and campus racism.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

McWhorter On English

Instapundit never does anything on linguistics, so far as I recall.  But they linked to this excellent piece, English Is Not Normal, by John McWhorter, a great favorite of mine. I have seen much of this material in other essays and lectures of his, but much is new to me.

What's HAPPENIN' in Social Justice

It is good to remind yourself why irritating things occur.  Seeing them as part of a larger, explainable pattern defangs them a bit.  A reader sent an article from last year by Scott Anderson over at StarSlateCodex, The Toxoplasma of Rage.

She thought of it in reference to the current universal brouhaha about resettling migrants from Syria and other Muslim places.  A whole lot o' posturin' goin' on.  Her comments are similar to my own thoughts
This refugee issue is a study in how many things become news solely because of a desire to slam the other side. I am actually stunned how many people I know are posting about this. Guys, this all existed in the same form last week. Not one of the images you're sharing of the refugees was unavailable prior to this. If this is the great moral issue of our time, where were you 7 days ago? Yes, there are millions of refugees, and a week ago we were all ok with the US taking 10,000 over the next year or two. The difference between Barack Obama and Chris Christie's plan is 10,000 out of about 4 million.
I'm not against taking refugees, but the posturing is really irritating me on this one.
I'm not against taking some refugees either, but the way this is playing out bothers me as well. When a cause becomes more fashionable this week than it was last week, I get curious as to why.  In this case, there was already some mid-level complaining about Obama's declaration we were going to take some of these migrants, without consulting with anyone else.  The terrorist acts in France escalated that, as conservatives ramped up over it. "See?  See?  We shouldn't be doing this! Obama is endangering the country.  He refuses to acknowledge that Islamic extremism exists." Predictable.

That in turn gave liberals a chance to ramp up, claiming that the conservatives were only objecting because they are racists and bigots.  As their entire electoral hopes for the last thirty years have depended on painting conservatives as bigots, they couldn't let that go by.  "We're not going to be that kind of nation.  Not on my watch.  We are going to be generous and openhanded, pretending that 99% of the migrants are persecuted and desperately poor. We are going to call them refugees, and bully the media sources into doing the same. We will also claim that you are calling all of them terrorists."

Cue pictures of bombed-out buildings and cute children with sad faces.  Other causes can go pound sand, the eyeballs are going to This Week's Social Justice Cause.* Liberal Christians are going to get on it, because hey, you wouldn't want to be devoted to some loser cause that no one's talking about, would you?  That's Jesus there that you're rejecting. We've got Jesus on our side, because we love him and you don't. I find that evil, and don't mind stating it that strongly.  The people writing these things doubtless have many good intentions - I don't call them evil to the core or beyond redemption or anything like that.  But that particular tactic is evil.  It is arrogant. It sets up a hierarchy of popularity of which causes will get our attention, forcing causes into an arms race for headlines. Worst of all, it pretends that God has told Charles what James should do. Very dangerous.

*Missouri students protesters know the rules and picked up right away that they were going to be pushed into second place or worse, and they didn't like it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

College Protests: Life Is Hard

My second thought.

We tend to pooh-pooh how difficult college life is, because in its externals it is very much a golden ghetto. I worked very little at it except for a few weeks at the end of every semester, and there is something very nice about having your food paid for, even if it is cafeteria fare, housing you don't have to worry about, and a whole social life installed around you.

Yet the internal difficulties of moving from childhood to adulthood can be miserable while you are going through it.  After one has developed the strength of personality to choose whose opinions you will value and whose you will shrug off, it looks easy.  Why should you care what they think?  Ignore them. It looks easy now. For some, it was never a big deal.  Whether by inborn personality or good upbringing, some young people never had serious doubts about finding a place in the world.

For others, moving out of the house leads to the questions Will I have friends?  Will I be able to get some good job, one that is useful and pays me enough to live on?  Will someone want to marry me? Will I screw it all up and always be some lowlife or failure, like some others in my family/neighborhood/community?  Do I have what it takes to become a ______?

One of Jonathan's highschool classmates asked me out of the blue "Mr. Wyman, are these really the best years of our lives?" I was quick to say No.  You may have your best memories from your high school or college years, but the insecurities of them can make them difficult.  And your impulsive, emotional biology is against you as well. I used to say half-seriously that the teen suicide rate may stem from adults telling them "These are the best years of your life." That's just not true.  To reason back that you could breeze through the workload and expectations now is to miss the point.  Sure, after you learn to walk it's easy.  After you have passed Algebra II, adding fractions looks trivial.  After someone has proposed marriage, your fear of never getting asked on a date looks silly.

So I take some of what the protesters say at face value - they are just blaming all the wrong people.

They do feel inadequate and rejected. I think a certain amount of that feeling is just going to happen to you. And it does feel awful. If you are smart, you will think others reject you because of that.  If you are poor, you will put all your sense of rejection into that basket.  If you are black or have a foreign accent, or are the Wrong Sort Of Kid, or were abused, or have some disability, or have some unattractive feature, those will become the explanation why the world isn't fair and you are always one down and trying to stay afloat.

That is not all imaginary.  Of course there are bigots out there, and some soft racism that undermines your status.  Of course people are jealous because you are smart. Of course being in a wheelchair can make you socially invisible and adds an extra layer of difficulty to even the simplest acts. It's just not everything.  Some of it is just you, and you would have felt that way anyway.

Because sometimes life is hard.  It really is. I'm sorry no one told you that, or if they did, you weren't listening. Adults, especially conservatives, tend to wave that off because...you shouldn't be feeling sorry for yourself, children in Africa are starving, etc. They are in a sense right because that is the eventual answer.  If you look around, you will find that others have it much tougher than you, and they get through the day somehow anyway.  They envy you. (I think foreign mission trips can be hugely important for the Christian growth of children, for that reason if no other. Life is hard, yet people with much harder lives get through. Go and do likewise.)

Try being old.  Try being schizophrenic. Try having a chronic illness. Try finding a parent who committed suicide.  I'm not saying this to tell you that you aren't feeling real pain.  You are. Finding a place in the world is hard for 90-99% of humanity. Always has been. The good news is that if you accomplish getting to moderately responsible adulthood, you deserve real credit for that.  No one's going to give you a medal, but you actually have accomplished something.

I thought Buddhism was popular at colleges these days.  Have you never heard that Life Is Suffering, or do they leave that out of the new, improved American Buddhism? It's true, and your pain is not just something you made up in your head.  You might be a whining baby, but not necessarily. Some of it's real.  Insofar as we can improve society so that racism or lookism or whatever don't add to your problems, we should do that.  But don't hold your breath.

And even if we do, life is still going to be hard.

Beirut Bombing

There is a quote by Karuna Ezara Parikh - famous Indian movie and bikini star - going around on on FB on a b&w poster. The sense of it is "Okay, Paris, bad thing, but you all ignored bombings in Beirut and Baghdad because those those people aren't white. And calling all those Arab people coming into your country over the border "terrorists" instead of "refugees" is worse.  And those people are poor and you don't welcome them. So you suck. Pray for Paris if you want to."

It would have been simple, and fair to say "There were bombings in Beirut and Baghdad. Those people also deserve your prayers."  I suspect most people passing the sentiment along mostly mean that, without any specific intention of accusing their political competition in their own countries.  They are accusing themselves a bit as well, saying "We could do better still.  Let us expand our love more." There are folks I know personally who shared this along, and they are nice people, soft-hearted, simply wishing the world were better.  They don't necessarily read that closely or think things through. If someone is suffering, they reflexively want everyone to stop and help.  They might theoretically understand that some kindnesses kill, because mercy to one often involves injustice to another, but they just can't get past the emotional response. It is this phenomenon from whence comes the old phrase "knee-jerk liberal."

I have others, however, who never miss an opportunity to turn any tragedy into a chance to show off their own superior morality compared to their evil political opponents. When I see that happen a dozen times or more, I stop giving the benefit of the doubt. Such things are evil. When one reads enough Chesterton, Tolkien, and especially Lewis, the idea that good appearances might mask deeper and deeper evils becomes second nature.

For the record: The people in Lebanon and Iraq might be startled to learn that they're not white. This is the sort of projection from the left I most hate, even when the conservatives are acting embarrassing and loony. They are sure whiteness must be the reason Americans don't care.  Except of course, when a Russian airliner went down, those people were pretty white and we didn't pay much attention to that either.  The fact that France had much more involvement in our country's settlement, founding, development, and culture is apparently not the reason.  It's just racism. Which tells me That's what it would mean if it were you.  You pretty much just gave that away. As an additional irony, it is France, not Iraq, that liberals point to as in our peer group among nations whenever they are discussing health care, gun control or funding colleges.

As to refugees, I don't know of anyone who calls the whole group "terrorists." I think that will turn out to be a lie.  Invaders or economic migrants , which are certainly negative terms, are pretty frequent. "Carrying their few possessions on their backs" is supposed to elicit sympathy, but hey, you could say the same about the Mongol Hordes. These are people who paid smugglers to get themselves across Turkey.  The Lithuanians offered to resettle 2,000 of them, but they couldn't find takers in the resettlement camps in Italy and Greece.  Are there real, deserving refugees, persecuted people who are risking all because home is so dangerous?  Absolutely.  I'm figuring about 15% of the migrants fit that description, and another 15% fit it sorta close enough that we should overlook the bad parts of their story.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


It is certainly true that much of our mythology about the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together at harvest time in the 1620's is not quite right.  Multiple events have been fused into a single story, and some of the difficult bits have been taken out.  The cooperation and bonhomie were likely related to the near-starvation of the early settlers and the horrendous death-by-disease which many of the northeastern tribes experienced just prior to the arrival of the Europeans and all their cool technology.  Sometimes groups turn on each other in such situations, but for others, mutual benefit can be a bond, even among people who have little intuitive understanding of each other.

There is a dramatic truth which does emerge from the story, however.  For fifty years they lived together in remarkable peace.  Compared to how people were getting along back in England, and England vs Continental Europe, the Puritans now had remarkably good neighbors.  Compared to the tribes inland, the Mohawks vs the Iroquois Confederacy and even some of the very local other tribes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the natives around Plimoth enjoyed comparative peace as well.

There were terrible things done, more by the Europeans to the natives than the reverse but not all one-sided. But as is often the case, many Massachusets or Wampanoags considered the English safer and more reliable than Mahicans, while the English in their turn liked those natives better than the Dutch or French traders that happened by.

There is another revealing point as well.  Bradford and other diarists record that when the groups got together, the younger people had competitions and games, the women compared various works and skills of hand, and the adult men sat together and talked. Race and religion are perhaps not as reliable dividers of people as sex and age, at least in social situations.

College Protests: One Thought

 One of my responsibilities at the psychiatric hospital is to gather the testimony for involuntary commitments, which I pass on to the legal department to submit to probate court. There are two things we must prove: mental illness and dangerousness*.  I solicit information from potential witnesses - hospital and statewide ER staff, family, police, case managers, neighbors.  Inexperienced witnesses often focus entirely on how ill the person is. Oh, he's talking to himself all the time (so am I).  She's out-of-control, sleeping with lowlifes (so are thousands of other women in the state).  He's obsessed with swords, he's got dozens on his wall (so does the State House). She thinks someone is releasing gas into her apartment while she's at work (she does _what_ about that?) I often have to repeatedly redirect people into identifying for me what actual dangerous thing they have seen the patient do.

She yells at the neighbors. Meh.
She pounds on their doors at one in the morning.  Okay, now we're getting somewhere.  She could get punched or even shot.
She said she's going to buy a gun and shoot them. Yep, that we can use.  Did she say this in your presence?
No, she said that to her sister last summer.  Eh, that's probably not going to hold up. What's your sister's number?

Well, it's very sad.  Usually it's mostly true, and the frustrated relatives quite properly want their loved one to have the best life she can.

Yet sometimes, when one digs deeper, we find it's not all that true. In the case above, the patient had never said anything about a gun to her sister.  The sister had heard that from other family members, but no one seemed to know where it came from.  The pounding on the door happened once, when she smelled smoke, and there was smoke. What turned out to be the real problem was that the patient acts like a little girl.  On her own time, not at her job.  She has crayon drawings all over the kitchen (Dora the Explorer, not the new adult fad).  She buys lots of barrettes, and stuffed animals, and flowered underpants. It creeps people out when they visit and they complain at her, so she doesn't let anyone now.  So there may not actually be any stuffed animals anymore.

We're not going to become the underwear police, either.

Is she ill?  Maybe. But telling me that it's not only Dora but Disney Princesses and playing with dolls doesn't change things.  Tell me what's dangerous. Give me an example of what is provably dangerous.

I think of this when I read the college reports of racism, of parties that black girls aren't welcome at, of the KKK being on campus at Mizzou. "Rape culture" seems to have a very flexible meaning. Any of these things could be. But you have to give some hard evidence.  Statistically, it must be true that there are at least some racists at Missouri.  But some people are awkward. And sometimes people don't hear correctly. And sometimes the story turns out to have no identifiable origin.  Or worse, is a hoax, of which there have been many. In fact, I assume the dramatic incidents on college campuses are probably hoaxes at this point.  Regular bigots usually just shout things or show up after dark with a spray can.  If there's anything more creative than that, I'm suspicious.

There is something that is very troubling in the complaints/demands from protest groups at the schools.  I don't know what percentage of students they represent. 1%?  90%?  Dunno. I would like to think that it's hardly anyone, just some troubled people who are congenitally resentful, with the rest of the campus going about their business.  Yet it's enough that administrators take it seriously.  But the complaints far too often focus on administrators (and professors, students - and Society?  The World?) having to validate their world-view. Other people not simply taking their word that they are being harmed is itself considered an additional harm. Any pushback is considered further evidence that the whole place is invalidating, requiring even more apology. It's a bottomless pit.

*Technically, we must show that the dangerousness results from the mental illness, but that's a refinement we needn't bother with here.

I have a second thought.

Friday, November 13, 2015

College Protests

I think I'm not looking at this quite the same way others are.  I'll get something on the page this weekend.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Star Wars Villains

MikeD over at Grim's brings up the discussion of who the good guys are in Star Wars, and links to a not-very-good article about the same at The Federalist.  I am not much interested in the series other that the first three movies, which are episodes 4, 5, and 6 in the canon.  I saw Episode 1 and found it mostly irritating, albeit with some interesting moments.

At one level, I can't believe this needs explaining. The Rebels are the good guys.  The Jedi are the good guys. The music and the costumes didn't give that away?

But, but, but, you say.  Guys who destroy whole planets get instantly accepted back into the Jedi fold just for renouncing evil to be pals with their son?  An hereditary elite gets to play by different moral rules than mere commoners?  Jedi can lie, deceive, and manipulate if it's in a good cause?

Let me explain this to you. The whole morality of the tales is ambiguous and contradictory because Lucas's moral core that he really believes is different from what he would say out loud.  He doesn't know that because he is not very sophisticated, morally.  He tells hero stories.  He is really, really good at that, among the best ever, across genres and decades.  He shows the good guys as good and the bad guys as bad, and can show moments of uncertainty and temptation that are not very complicated.  That's his job.

The Force is sometimes rather Christian, sometimes rather unChristian, sometimes rather Eastern, sometimes more Western, because Lucas has not really thought these things out very clearly.  He wrote the first story with some idea what else he wanted to do in the next two movies, and even vaguer ideas of what had happened in the prequels and sequels.  But there was always a chance that the original Star Wars would not take off and be a stand-alone adventure forever.  As he actually got to make those movies, all sorts of contradictions started arising, and he had to rewrite and rework.  How good people can turn evil is very messy, because he doesn't have the theological grounding to understand that.  So he just does cool story stuff instead.

Related:  In the Piers Anthony Xanth novels, the underpinning of the meaning and magic of Xanth is explained in the first book with a reveal at the end.  A demon is sitting and playing some fully arbitrary game with other demons, and where he sits, magic comes off him and affects a region of our little planet.  A very arbitrary, meaningless universe, complete with demons who are not actually evil evil, just rather unsympathetic to anything but themselves.  There's a bit of slap-in-the-face to Christians in this picture, but as it is only a bit of the book, it did not prevent many young fantasy geeks who happened to be Christians from enjoying it.  Piers kept writing.  As he wrote adventures, the heroes kept needing causes and obstacles, and the obstacles had to be villainous because, well, the heroes were heroes. He likes puns, he likes humor; the evils only gradually became evil.

Until we get to Ogre, Ogre, and Night Mare, where Anthony starts finding himself over his head, with his cute characters suddenly facing real sacrifice, real oblivion, and in spite of himself, a real vision for what evil actually is. No meaningless demons playing mathematical games anymore.  He has to confront what he really believes.  (Don't worry, he mostly runs away from it in fear. Back to puns and sex jokes again in just another book or two.) 

So Lucas doesn't really know what he believes, he just has some things he sort of intuits, and roots for good guys. Trying to discern what the real morality is is looking for mare's nests.  The Good Guys are the good guys, and if that doesn't stand up to analysis, it's not meant to.  It's just supposed to be magic, and heroic, and courageous.  And about as good at that as anyone has ever been.

It's Goethe's Three Questions all over again.