What do the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween and Homer’s Odyssey all have in common?

Here’s my take on it.

  1. The Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings

Someone recently said to me, “Joe, you were a lawyer once.  You understand evidence.  You can see that all the evidence supports my position on this.”  The person who said that to me could have been talking about the Kavanaugh hearings.  Like so much media coverage of the hearings, this fellow thought of a trial as the evidence all points in one direction or the other .  My answer to him was that if I’d learned anything in thirty years of bar membership it was that my mother was right: there are always at least two sides to a story, and the truth is generally somewhere in between.  If juries heard only one side’s witnesses and arguments, every verdict would be unanimous.  Is it any wonder that if you tell me what news source you follow, I can pretty well predict how you feel about the world?

In years of practicing law, I saw over and over again how witness testimony polarized over time.  From the plaintiff’s perspective, the size of the wrong and the depth of the injury always grew, while from the defendant’s perspective, the strength of the alibi and the sense of indignation always did likewise.  Add the way politicians and the media frame a case as pitting good against evil, and you have everyone asking which of the witnesses is lying.  In this view, it has to be one or the other.  When I said, about the Kavanaugh hearings, that I thought both witnesses were telling the truth as they saw it, people looked at me like I was some sort of crazed lunatic from outer space.  The hearings, and especially the media coverage of them, left me shaking my head about what made them so typical of polarized American politics today: namely, a complete inability to empathize with the other side.

  1. Halloween

Yesterday, I came across a piece published last year in USA Today titled “5 Halloween Myths and Urban Legends, Debunked.”  Myth Number 3 was titled, “Satan is the Reason for the Season.”  While acknowledging that Halloween can be traced back to ancient Celtic harvest festivals, the article argued that the modern event has nothing to do with Satan, and never could have, as Satan is a Judaeo-Christian character that would have made no sense to the ancient Celtic polytheists who started those harvest festivals.  The article also points out that All Hallow’s Eve is the first of three days Christianity devotes to remembering the souls of the Christian faithful.  The religious origins of the modern holiday have to do with honoring the good dead, not the immortal Satan, the embodiment of evil

But when it comes to Halloween, like the Kavanaugh hearings, people are polarized.  To many, Halloween will always be about pure evil.  For many on both sides, there’s a complete inability to empathize with the other.

  1. The Odyssey.

My first exposure to the Odyssey was probably Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of the classical hero in 1954’s Hollywood version, Ulysses.  While I don’t remember much of that movie, I feel sure that Kirk Douglas’s character must have been very heroic, in the modern sense of that word – which is to say, a particularly good and capable guy fighting the good fight against evil.  My sense of the story has always been that the Cyclops, Poseidon and the suitors were monstrously bad while Odysseus wasn’t far shy of sainthood.  I want to take this opportunity to rave about the new translation I just finished reading by Emily Wilson.  It manages to be an amazingly easy and accessible read while maintaining the strict metrical qualities of the original.  For the first time, I didn’t have to “study” the epic, I could just read it, and do so at the same pace I might read John Grisham or Dan Brown.  As a result, I acquired a sense of the whole as I never have before.   I strongly recommend her translation, whether you’ve read the epic before or not.

Wilson’s excellent and engaging translation gave me several new perspectives about the story.  One is that the very name Odysseus can be translated as “hated” or at least “disliked.”  He’s easy to hate because he’s not just duplicitous, he’s multiplicitous.  There’s something for everyone to hate.  In Wilson’s words, he is “a migrant…, a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero.” Wilson gives much attention to how a person can be so complex and multi-faceted, at once so hated and so loved.  Her Odysseus is anything but the one dimensional champion of goodness that I grew up admiring. Perhaps we see ourselves in him.  Perhaps that’s what allows us to empathize.

It has become common to dismiss the pagan gods as amoral and often wicked libertines that no thinking person could believe were real.  Modern criticism of the Greek gods generally amounts to the argument that they are no better than us human beings.  Wilson points out they’re essentially the same as powerful human beings except that they live forever, but morally and ethically, they’re no better than us.  This strikes me as a natural criticism of deity if you’re comparing it to a God conceived of as morally perfect and all knowing.  But have there been unintended consequences to conceiving of God as the embodiment of perfect goodness and omniscience?  What have been the consequences of living with the aim of achieving such righteousness ourselves?  What have I done by measuring my self-worth by comparison to a single, homogeneous and absolute goodness who has revealed Himself to me?  Has it worked to make me self-righteous?

One reason I’ve always been attracted to Greek myth is that the gods DO behave like human beings.  I’ve long felt that such portrayals allow us to see the consequences of our foibles in archetypal ways that can help us to avoid mistakes as effectively as a lot of sermons I’ve heard.     At their cores, the modern worldview suggests that the difference between good and evil is apparent, and that life is simple: if we choose correctly, we’ll live forever in the home of the gods.  In the old pagan worldview, life is a constant struggle to sort out the difference between good and  bad; that even in the home of the gods, it can be hard to distinguish right from wrong; that sometimes, what seems good to one person (or god) seems bad to another.  In this worldview, there isn’t any Grand Commission of Justice to tell us which is which.

There’s little doubt in my mind that most of us would choose to live in a world where good and evil are clearly defined and labelled. But is the real world more nuanced and dependent on point of view than that?  Wilson points out that Odysseus is offered a perfect and immortal life by Circe, but turns it down, choosing instead his mortal home in his mortal world.  Is that why we can love him and hate him at the same time?  There are good reasons the Bible has stood the test of time.  I think there are good reasons the Odyssey has too.

So: What similarities do I see between the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween, and the Odyssey? For me, all three tell us something about the extent to which Platonic thinking about absolutes has changed the world.  In the pre-Platonic, polytheistic world of Odysseus we could celebrates diverse and multiple perspectives; in the modern world, there must be a single and absolute truth distinguishable by its righteousness.  In the Christian Era, we’re used to hearing the gods of Greek myth dismissed as either “immoral” or “amoral.”  But in the Odyssey, Zeus is the god of justice and of hospitality toward strangers.  One of the most constant themes is that the gods will not approve of mistreating strangers.  It’s not that the Homeric gods don’t care about what’s good and right, but that (just like people) they don’t share a singular and unchanging view of what “goodness” consists of.

Of the many epithets applied to Odysseus (apart from being godlike),  most begin with the prefix “poly-,” meaning multiple.  Odysseus is “poly-tropos” (multiply turning), poly-phrona (multiply-minded), poly-meganos (employing multiple devices), poly-tlas (multiply enduring), poly-penthes (multiply-pained), poly-stonos (multiply-sorrowed) and poly-aretos (multiply prayed for.)  In a sense, this multiplicity makes him all things to all people.  It’s a big part of why he’s hated.  He is also incredibly adaptable, assuming different guises and characteristics in different situations.  His understanding of right and wrong is neither absent nor irrelevant – it is simply changing.

All our modern religious and political instincts tell us to condemn such inconstancy.  We’re trained to think in terms of Platonic absolutes, of clear and perfect Goodness on one side and clear and perfect Evil on the other.  We’re told we can identify the Truth and that we’re bound to adhere to it.  If Professor Ford was telling the truth as she saw it, then Judge Kavanaugh had to be lying, as he saw it.  If Halloween is not a glorification of the Judaeo-Christian God, it must be the work of Satan.  If Odysseus is inconsistent from one day to the next, he must represent an inferior state of being because perfect people have to be constant, unchanging and right.

But is there a difference between being constant, unchanging and right, and being rigid, intolerant, and set in our ways?

I’m not advocating for a rudderless, amoral view of the world.  Goodness is certainly worth striving for.  But how can I know for certain I’ve found it, when others disagree with me about what’s good?  Once again, I’m reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is worth a read for many reasons, but the concept I found most thought-provoking was Haidt’s view on the evolutionary origins of human reason.  The traditional view is that the capacity for reason and logical analysis evolved in human beings as tools for reaching the best conclusions.  In reality, Haidt suggests, human beings wouldn’t have survived unless they could form immediate judgments about things without reasoned analysis.  (You can’t conduct a reasoned analysis of whether to run from a saber-toothed tiger or not.)  But we are also social animals whose early survival depended on the ability to work together in teams.   And to act as a team,  we needed coordinated approaches.  Haidt says our social survival depended on leaders able to persuade others to follow their judgments.  According to Haidt, reason and logical analysis arose about the same time as language did, and they evolved for much the same social purposes: that is, not as tools of decision-making to help an individual determine what’s right, but as tools of persuasion to help convince others to go along with our judgments.  (In the process, we convince ourselves that our judgments are right, too, but that’s a result, not a cause.)

In this view, all of human reasoning has its origins in persuading others, in post-hoc justification to support judgments already formed.  If Solzhenitsyn and Haidt are right, then all the arguments between Professor Ford and Justice Kavanaugh, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, NPR and Fox News, Halloween enthusiasts and its enemies,  and indeed, between you and me, have to do with persuasion, not with what either one of us has always revered as “reason.”

In this sense, maybe Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s truths are similar.  Last year, I blogged about liking Halloween because it invited us to try out the worldview of a character we normally think of us strange, monstrous, or even evil.  Maybe it isn’t bad that we put ourselves in the shoes of terrible others on Halloween.  Maybe it’s okay to change our understanding of right and wrong at times, to try out new perspectives, just like Homer’s Odysseus did.  Maybe multiplicity helps us empathize.

After listing the many (contradictory) traits her Odysseus exhibits, Emily Wilson  writes, “immersing ourselves in his story, and considering how these categories can exist in the same imaginative space, may help us reconsider the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world.”

Maybe she’s on to something there?

– Joe

Digesting Reality

After I gave a short talk on We May Be Wrong, one man who heard me suggested I might want to read “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott.  Along with Scott’s more recent book, “Against the Grain,” it has had a profound effect on my thinking.

Scott is a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale.  His subtitle, “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” gives a clue to his thinking.

Seeing Like a State begins with a description of forestry practices in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony.  The forest, Scott reminds us, was a complicated, diverse ecosystem, consisting not just of varieties of trees, but of bushes and smaller plants, of foliage that was useful for fodder and thatch, of twigs and branches from which bedding was made, of bark and roots for the making of medicines, of sap for making resins, of fruits and nuts available for consumption, of grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, and vines – not to mention being a habitat for fauna from insects and frogs to birds and foxes and deer, and a place human beings used for hunting, gathering, trapping, magic, worship, refuge, poetry and (he didn’t mention it, but I will –) love.

But the German state was focused on a single aspect of the forest – the commercial value of its timber.  In a series of steps recounted by Scott, the German state essentially redesigned its forests in order to maximize timber production and increase the wealth of the German state.  The consequences ultimately proved disastrous – for the state, its citizens, and the forest itself.

From this and a variety of other examples, Scott generalizes:  “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” State action has frequently failed, says Scott, not because the particular state is politically leftist or rightist, wise or inept, forward or backward-thinking, but because its focus is the sort of abstract overview a state must adopt in order to manage a complex system based on whatever fundamental principles it chiefly values.  The connection to WeMayBeWrong  is suggested most strongly when Scott writes, “If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of the forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect.  Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis (my emphasis).

If Scott’s next book is called “Thinking Like a Human Being,” I suspect I’ll like it, too.  For isn’t some level of abstraction necessary, not just for all forms of state action, and all forms of analysis, but  for all forms of communication?  For all forms of thought?  Isn’t it true that to make sense of things, we have to select certain attributes to focus on, to the exclusion of others?  Aren’t we compelled to categorize?  To deal in types rather than specifics?  To oversimplify?  Surely we can’t possibly think in terms of every dachshund on every street in every town in every country of the world, not to mention all the individual dogs of every other breed – especially if we’re going to start comparing them to cats and birds and lizards and apes.  We can only get our mind around such large numbers of unique animals by lumping all those breeds and individuals together, ignoring all their differences,  and speaking of “dogs.”  How could it be otherwise?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.”  Or, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention – difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.”

We aggregate.  We categorize.  We stereotype.  We oversimplify.  As I see it, group unique things together based on certain similarities – despite other differences – is fundamental to the very way we think.

The lead story on the front page of last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was about a twenty-six year old man named Ted.  According to the article, Ted had gotten into hard drugs including opiates, cocaine, and heroin.  He’d been fired from his job and had stolen from his girlfriend.  He’d spent time in jail periodically for assault, grand larceny, and violating probation.  A few days after release from jail, he entered a “sober house” for addicts seeking to beat their addictions.  He signed a contract with the facility that laid out the rules, including curfews, twelve-step meetings, and a specific provision that use of drugs was grounds for immediate expulsion from the house.

As one official was quoted as saying, “These sober homes are not locked down jail cells.  The kids come and go.”  When Ted showed up at his sober house a week later acting suspiciously, a required drug test was positive for cocaine and morphine.  When asked to submit to a drug search, Ted refused.  In accordance with the contract he’d signed, he was told he had to leave the house.  Together with another resident, he did.  That was late on a Friday night.

On Saturday, Ted and the other man did some work for a landscaper.  Saturday night, Ted was exchanging text messages with a girlfriend in Florida and with the landscaper, who was asking about Ted’s plans for Sunday.  But on Sunday, Ted’s body was found on the side of a country road not far from where we live.  He had died of an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, presumably consumed later that Saturday night.

Alright – it’s a tragic story, but what does it have to do with Seeing Like a State?  Or with WeMayBeWrong?

Ted’s picture was printed, rather large, on the front page of the paper, along with a headline that read, “The System that Was Trying to Help Him Crumbled.”  The article’s subtitle was “Death in Chesterfield Highlights Gaps in Care for Addicts Living in Sober Homes.”  According to the article, Ted’s grieving mother was “strongly critical” of the sober house’s conduct in telling him he had to leave, rather than releasing him to someone who could give him “proper care.”  What that might have entailed and how it might have worked is far from clear to me.  Apparently, calling a probation officer late on a Friday night is problematic.  Even had he been reached, would Ted’s probation officer have been able to locate Ted, or do anything that would have led to saving Ted from his final overdose?

But what I find interesting is the acclaim of “experts” calling for a standardized fix to the system. Interviewed for the article, the head of an unrelated recovery program said “operators of recovery homes need to have policies for making sure residents get the care they need when they test positive for drugs.”  The grieving mother posted a letter on another website to the effect that recovery facilities “MUST have a protocol, a plan of action” in such cases.  When interviewed for the article, the President of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences said that all fifty states should have laws requiring all sober houses to be certified – by them (state affiliates of the N.A.R.R), or by organizations like them.  Such certifications, he said, would be based on “clear policies,” “trained staff” and “approved standards.”   The grieving mother’s complaints that the “system” had “crumbled” became the headline the Times-Dispatch gave to its coverage.  That newspaper’s attention had caused the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (V.A.R.R.) to schedule a vote, this coming month, “to create a uniform policy for what operators of sober homes should do when someone relapses.”

No less so than central governments, private organizations like the N.A.R.R. and V.A.R.R. meet, and analyze, and sometimes vote (depending on how democratic they are) to determine the best method of dealing with categories of problems.  Once these entities identify “best methods,” they seek to encourage or require others to adhere to them.  Hence the call for uniform policies, approved standards and “certifications” by these organizations.  But in Ted’s case, amidst all the calls for uniformity, written policies, standards and certifications, I fail to see the connection between such proposals and the conduct of this particular house, and this particular drug addict.  And I wonder whether all the sober houses of the world should be treating all the drug addicts of the world in a “uniform” manner when they relapse, as if all members of the category ought to be treated the same.

Understandably, the grief-stricken mother believes that releasing her son to “proper care” would have made a difference.  Understandably, she believes that the “system crumbled.”  It’s harder for me to understand why a newspaper headlines its story about Ted with that same diagnosis – that  the lack of – or deficiency in – a “system”  was the cause of the tragic event two days later.  And I wonder why organizations like the Virginia and National A.R.R.’s see written policies, uniform standards and certificates of compliance as the answer to problems like Ted’s – until I remember that those same organizations would be the ones setting the standards and issuing the certificates – in other words, “thinking like states.”

But I don’t think it’s just states.   Gilbert, again: “[M]uch of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of [our] penchant for control.  Before our butts hit the very first diaper, we already have a throbbing desire to suck, sleep, poop and make things happen… Toddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their forehead.  Why?… The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control…”

The questions raised by Ted’s tragic death and by Professor Scott’s books include whether uniform standards and systems imposed by any central authorities, public entities or large private corporations or associations,  are capable of fully addressing the complexities and fluidity of the world.   Large organizations, says Scott, can only operate based on uniform standards applied to categories shaped along lines that are capable of centralized, standardized administration.  By their nature, standards are uniform across whol categories. They are also meant to be relatively permanent in the face of constant change – permanent in the sense of controlling things until some newer, wiser “standard” is discovered and deemed worthy of taking its place.   But if the lack of uniform standards is the answer to Ted’s problems and the rest of the world’s problems, what do we make of the German approach to forestry?  Of the widespread use of DDT?  Of the failure of the Soviet Union?  Of the unbridled use of petrochemicals by private industry?  Of the increasing tendency for “superior” (but genetically uniform) corn to be planted all across America?

These days, science has become acutely aware of the dangers of monoculture when it comes to crops, wildflowers, bees, viruses, and all species of living things.  It was standardization that killed the forests of Saxony.  Diversity in the gene pool of flora and fauna is recognized as the best long term protection against an ever larger list of catastrophes – both the few that we’re aware of and the many we’re not.   The Supreme Court has before it a case in which Harvard University stresses the importance of diversity in its admissions practices, and most of the universities in the country support Harvard as to that importance.  . More and more, I hear scientists and psychologists speak of the impossibility of predicting the future, so that any scheme designed to protect us from the most visible threats may well subject us to others not yet perceived.  Yet in the face of growing concerns about monoculture and the importance of diversity, cries for standardization and uniform solutions continue from people convinced they know what’s best for us all.

According to Scott, the tendency of authorities who’ve decided they “know what’s best” to impose those ideas uniformly, in a “one-size fits all” manner, is a serious problem, and whether those authorities are private or public, totalitarian or democratic, they do so only after over-simplifying the world.   They design their systems like monocultures, giving precedence to a few priorities in an extremely complex and inter-dependent world that is, in the end, a forest (of one sort of another).   “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” “Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis.”

Or, to borrow a thought from Jean Paul Sartre, quoted by Scott: “Ideas cannot digest reality.”

Perhaps, yet another reason that we may be wrong.

– Joe

Loaded Words

My starting place today is the word “ostensible.”

I came across it recently in a newspaper article here in Richmond – not an Op-Ed piece, but a “straight news” report about current events.  The article was about a public meeting.  In inviting the public to attend, the meeting’s sponsor had stated its purpose.  I count myself among the strong critics of the outcome of the meeting..  But to my way of thinking, while the outcome deserved criticism, the announced purpose of the meeting had been bona fide.  To my knowledge, there was no reason to question the honesty of the announced purpose, and the article itself certainly offered none.  Yet the news report had referred to the “ostensible” purpose of the meeting, as if to suggest the negative outcome had been the sponsor’s intent.

“Ostensible” is one of those words lawyers use when writing legal briefs,  which are intended to be the most one-sided (i.e., biased) types of writing known to man.  In their legal briefs, lawyers intentionally use words with multiple shades of meaning, some neutral and some “loaded.”   Dictionary definitions of “ostensible” include words like “apparent,” “surface,” “seeming,” and “pretended” – but there’s a difference between “apparent” and “pretended.”  If a lawyer writes that the weather was apparently pleasant the day an accident occurred, there’s no reason to think the word means anything but “apparent.”   But if she writes that the plaintiff’s injuries were “ostensibly” caused by the accident (though they were only noticed after the visit to her lawyer), well, everyone knows that “ostensible” means “pretended.”  Faked.  Using a word that could simply mean “apparent” becomes a subtle way of calling the plaintiff a good-for-nothing, bold-faced liar and all-around scoundrel.

Closing statements to a jury, like advocacy in legal writing, are full of such loaded words – words the lawyer who uses them can defend as objectively accurate on the basis of the facts proven at trial, but which, tucked into their underbellies, carry belittlement, accusation, or condemnation.  (If the reference is to one’s own client or witness, of course, the words are loaded with suggestions of reliability, honesty and wholesome character.)

When commercial advertisements boast about revolutionary new products that will make you feel young again and are “free” for the first hundred callers, most people recognize the hype for what it is.  But lawyers addressing judges and juries have to persuade their target audiences more subtly, which is to say, while seeming to be neutral.  Words like “ostensible” fit their needs well.   And that, I believe, is where they have a great deal in common with news reporters.

The field in which I spent most of my life was labor and employment law, a field which is practically all about bias.  Decades in that field convinced me that the vast majority of bias in the world – I mean well upwards of 95% – is unconscious.  Hardly anyone thinks they are biased.  A person who acknowledges, say, being anti-Semitic, doesn’t think he’s biased – he thinks Jews deserve his scorn.  Members of the KKK generally think blacks, Jews and Catholics are lesser beings, or dangerous, or whatever – their own thinking on the matter is clear-headed and objective – anything but biased.  And obviously, liberals don’t think they’re biased against conservatives, nor do Republicans think they’re biased against Democrats.

I defended hundreds of people during my legal career who were accused of bias of some sort, and every one of them expressed sincere outrage that anyone could accuse them of being biased.  I see precisely the same reaction when members of the news media get attacked for their perceived bias.    Indignation!  Sincere outrage!  Journalists pride themselves on not being biased, period.

So in considering media bias, I don’t think in terms of rooting out the journalistic equivalents of Klaus Barbie or Adolf Eichmann.   Sure, there are a few hack journalists who purposefully express outrageous opinions in order to appeal to only one side of the political spectrum while inflaming the passions of the other.  But there’s far more unconscious bias in the media.  It appears on all sides of the various political spectra.  Indeed, I’d like to know how it could be any other way, bias being a natural product of culture.  (Talk about loaded words  – “culture” is a good thing, “worldview” neutral, and “bias” bad.  But for our purposes, what’s the difference?)

Even in the face of Herculean efforts to escape its influence, I doubt it’s ever possible to be bias-free, to escape the influence of one’s culture, or to have no world-view at all.  I’m waiting for some reporter to answer an accusation of bias with, “You’re right, of course, but I’m trying really hard to change.”  (Now that would earn my respect for objective reporting.)

Where am I headed with all this?  I have a proposal.  In this day of fake news and counter-accusations of same, we now have a plethora of “fact-checking” sites.  Snopes.  Politi-Fact.  Etc.  My excitement for them quickly wore off when, time and again, the analyses supplied by the fact checkers struck me as containing the same sort of unconscious bias I see in the media.  A politician claims that “taxes have been rising lately.”  Is it true?  The “fact-checkers” interpret the meaning of “taxes” to mean federal income taxes, interpret “lately” to mean the past five years, decide to look at grosses, or averages, or families or individuals, and based on all those interpretations and assumptions, declares that the politician’s assertion that “taxes have been rising lately” is “true” or “false” as if they’re God handing tablets to Moses.  Personally, I don’t mind when a politician phrases things to support his or her position – as I see it, they’re supposed to advocate for what they believe.  But when self-appointed guardians of objective truth betray their biases, my blood pressure starts to rise.

After avoiding the news for ten years, I decided some months back to pay regular attention again.  I subscribed to the newspaper and I decided to record the evening news on my DVR.  I tried BBC, Fox, the three major networks, and others.  It was no surprise to me that Fox was different from CNN – even with my head in the sand all those years, I’d heard about their reputations – but of greater surprise to me was the difference between the evening news on ABC and CBS.  I didn’t compare them long enough to notice a single instance in which either “choice of story” or “facts reported” caused me to conclude that one was more accurate or objective than the other.  (As far as I know, Polit-Fact would have concluded that everything both networks said was true.)  But I noticed a marked difference in the use of “loaded” words, even down to the subtlety of calling a three-day-old story “breaking news.”  I wish I’d kept a notepad at hand to record examples, but night after night, story after story, I found one network using language I’d have been proud to use as a lawyer advocating a particular point of view, trying to arouse emotions through word choices, while the other did not.

So, can anything be done about media bias?   Back when I was practicing law, I aimed for enough ostensible accuracy to come across as objective while intentionally loading my arguments with as much advocacy (bias) as I could muster.  I exploited language to support my cause.  My sense is that news reporters do very much the same thing as lawyers, albeit (in most cases) unintentionally.  And my question is this: Can we not investigate this phenomenon more scientifically?

I’ve always thought that the way we speak is one of the most reliable windows into how we think.   As I understand it, part of textual criticism is a sub-discipline of linguistics that analyzes the subtleties of word usage and style in order to do things like identify authors – to show, for example, that the Book of Genesis was written by multiple people with different writing styles.  Hollywood, at least, depicts experts who analyze ransom notes and diaries to generate profiles of serial killers, based on patterns of word usage.   I propose that in some school of journalism, linguistics or political science, there are scholars who might explore the feasibility of doing the same sort of textual criticism of news coverage.  Not to pronounce whether a particular story was accurate or not, but to come up with a way of assessing the frequency of “loaded” words or phrases, or other subtleties of language  — patterns or other characteristics of speech which  suggest a tendency to “color” stories.

A panel of philologists might create a list of a thousand words like “ostensible” which have a neutral meaning but are loaded with pejorative connotations.  They might create another list of words with both neutral and positive connotations.  A third list might contain words with no “load” at all.  With modern technology, it ought to be easy to scan every news report written in the New York Times for the past year, or to transcribe every report on Fox or BBC World News Tonight, getting a huge sampling of word usage, and a resulting take on how much the reporter, or network, or other news source, injects positive or negative connotation into their stories.

Or, say, scan a thousand articles from Newspaper X dealing with indicted or scandalized politicians.  Group them according to the political affiliation of the accused.  Then count how frequently the political affiliation is mentioned.  If scandalized Democrats are identified as Democrats three times in every five hundred words, while scandalized Republicans are identified as Republicans only once, that might be pretty good evidence the newspaper has a Republican slant.

I’d find it very telling to see that one ostensibly objective news source used “loaded” words three times as often as another.  Or that words like “ostensible” are used to describe politicians in one party more than those in another.  I feel sure that my examples suffer from the fact that I’m not a professional linguist, but I feel sure we have the technology and scholarship to engage in a more scientific study of bias in news reporting.  I’d find it a far more objective method of assessing media bias than any I’ve heard about elsewhere.

— Joe

Is it Still the 4th of July?

I thought I’d update my post of July 4th on the subject of immigration — where I pointed out I had no strong views on the subject, decried the media’s exclusive focus on pure emotion to fuel an already acrimonious debate, and described the beginnings of my request for data.

As I said then, I found that the United States has below-average population density compared to the rest of the countries in the world.

Since then, I’ve looked at the U.S. population as a percent of estimated world population, over time.  In 1776, the thirteen colonies accounted for about one quarter of one percent (.25%) of the world’s population.  By 1800, it was over a half a percent; by 1850, nearly two percent; and by 1900, it had reached 4.61%., as the vast open country experienced westward expansion.

For most of the twentieth century (1910 to 1980) U.S. population remained between 5.09% and 5.92% of world population.  Then, in 1990, it dropped to 4.7%.  In 2000, to 4.6%.  In 2010, to 4.5%, and in 2016, to 4.4%.  The population of the world has been growing, it seems, but for the past half a century, the U.S. has accounted for an ever smaller part of the whole.

I subjectively selected thirty-seven countries to look at, from the CIA’s World Factbook,  comparing their immigration rates for the five year period from 2007 through 2012. In choosing my subjective sample, I tried to include a variety of rich and poor, high-density and low-density counmtries, etc.  I included both Switzerland and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both Hong Kong and Greenland.  But I intentionally over-included the countries of North and Central America, and the more industrialized countries of the world.

Of these countries, the U.S. immigration rate was somewhere in the middle – gaining 15 immigrants for each thousand people during 2007-2012.  That was a lot more immigration than countries like Honduras, Ireland and Spain (which lost 10, 30, and 12 people per thousand, respectively) but a lot lower than countries like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and Lebanon (which gained 74, 28, 33, 45, and 253 people per thousand, respectively.)  Hmnnn…

Yesterday morning, a good friend forwarded a link to an animated graphic on the subject of U.S. immigration since 1820.   I wasn’t sure what to make of it, at first.  The graphic made clear that immigration numbers have grown a great deal between the 1820’s and the decade from 2000 to 2010 – from a total of 128 thousand immigrants in that early decade to a total of over ten million in the most recent one.  Does that enormous increase in numbers mean that immigration to the U.S. has skyrocketed?

It seems not.  Compared to the size of our population, the immigration rate is within historical norms.  Between 1830 and 1900, average annual immigration ranged from a low of 4.2 people per thousand in the 1830’s to a high of 10.5 in the 1880’s.  The rate peaked during the 1900-1910 decade at a rate of 10.8 per year, then dropped significantly to 6.9 during the 1910’s and 4.1 during the 1920’s.   During the 30’s and 40’s when Depression and World War reigned, it dropped to a very low 0.6 immigrants per thousand, but in the 50’s and 60’s it rose to 1.8, and by the 1980’s it had risen to 2.8.  It then reached another peak, in the 1990’s, of 3.9.  In the first decade of this century, it dropped to 3.7, and between 2010 and 2013, it fell again to 3.3.  Hmnnn…

This morning, with all these numbers swirling in my head, I finally located the CIA’s data on Gross Domestic Product per capita – one simple indication of wealth – and added this data to my tables.  The comparison bore out the assumption that immigration rates are higher in wealthier countries.  The “wealthiest” ten of my thirty-seven countries had an average immigration rate of nearly 25%, while the poorest ten had an average immigration rate of negative 7 percent.  As expected, people apparently leave poor countries to go to wealthier ones.  Imagine that.

I was particularly interested to see how the U.S. immigration rate compares to the other “wealthy” countries I included in my sample.  Here’s what I got about the wealthiest dozen of those countries:

Country Pop density/ sq. km. GDP per capita Net Immigration rate per thousand over 5 yr period 2007-2012
Singapore 8,188        90,500 74.91
Ireland 71        72,600 -30.52
Switzerland 199        61,400 47.8
Hong Kong 6,490        61,000 20.97
U.S. 33        59,500 15.94
Saudi Arabia 13        55,300 28.82
Iceland 3        52,100 1.18
Sweden 22        51,300 28.64
Germany 225        50,200 15.54
Australia 3        49,900 45.01
Canada 3        48,100 33.84
U. K. 265        43,600 14.13

I have no idea why people are leaving wealthy Ireland.   Having spent a few hours in Iceland, I can guess why people aren’t flocking in droves to get there.  But of the rest of these dozen wealthy countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany have the lowest immigration rates.  The U.S. ranks eighth of twelve.  And our population density is far lower than the U.K.’s or Germany’s.

Maybe the data don’t provide clear and compelling answers about immigration policy, but the data I’ve been looking at make more sense to me than only thinking about grieving mothers and crying babies.   The population of the world is increasing faster than the population of the U.S.  There are more people wanting to enter the U.S. than the U.S. currently allows – or has allowed, for quite some time.  We are not alone in this, among wealthy countries.  Whether due to population densities, economic opportunities, cultural attractiveness or dangers at home, people want to move to wealthier countries.  I feel lucky that I live in one.

But I’m starting to feel I now have enough data to start thinking about the answers to questions that I think should guide immigration policy.

1) Should U.S. policy be driven by what’s best for Americans, or best for the world?

2) U.S. population growth resulting from birth rates and death rates has been declining of late.  Might higher rates of immigration in some sense replace a desirable growth rate resulting from native births?

3) Should we, rather, be trying to limit immigration, as well as the domestic birth rate, with an eye toward creating an enclave of stable low population in a world destined for over-population calamity?

4) The figures above relate only to legal immigration.  Estimates of illegal immigration raise different questions. Is there an analogy to Prohibition here?  That is, does the U.S. have a high rate of illegal immigration because we have a relatively low rate (compared to other wealthy countries) of legal immigration?

5) Is it time to bar entry to criminals and terrorists, and otherwise open our borders?  What would happen if we did?

6) Is it time to create a two-tiered America, a citizen class and a non-citizen class, with a managed means for earning passage from one to the other over time?

I’d welcome thoughts from any quarter about such questions.  Meanwhile, I have to close by thanking my daughter for the quotation from Epictetus that I added to the WeMayBeWrong website yesterday: “It is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”

— Joe

Feeling Blessed on Independence Day

On the fourth day of July, I tend to reflect on how lucky I am.  Having been born in America, I enjoy  prosperity, security and opportunity to a degree that surpasses the vast majority of other people, whether born in past centuries or the present one.  Tears have come to my eyes upon hearing a band play the Star Spangled Banner, or upon reading the words of the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal;” that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle all people to “equal station;” that our common Creator has endowed all of us  with certain inalienable rights, which include “the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Feeling much the same way I do, we Americans will celebrate our love for our country today with hot dogs, beers and fireworks, not to mention speeches and tributes paid to the land we’re so blessed to call our own.

This year, as I count my blessings once again, immigration policy is much in the news.  I find myself reflecting on the accident of birth that puts me in this privileged place.

The concept of citizenship began in the ancient world as a set of rights and responsibilities attaching to those born in places like Athens or Rome where democracy was born.  Later, there came a time when a non-citizen could gain the privilege of citizenship by serving in the army.   It has always made sense to me that a person willing to put his or her life on the line for a country should earn the benefits of citizenship in it.  If veterans feel a degree of pride in their country, I get that.  They defended it; they deserve to be proud; it’s easy to agree they deserve to benefit from membership in that society.

But I am not one of them.  As I approached the age of military service in 1970, a new system was instituted in which conscription depended on the accident of one’s birth.  I was lucky again.  My birthday was so far down on the list, I knew right away I’d never be drafted to fight in Viet Nam.  I could have volunteered,  but I chose instead to finish school, get a job, and start a family – reaping the benefits of the prosperity, security and opportunity my country offered me.  It’s easy to thank those who’ve fought for this country; but it’s hard for me to conclude that I, who did not serve,  deserve to be here.  I mean, some of my ancestors fought for this country.  They arguably earned their citizenship.  Did they earn mine, too?  Or was mine simply an accident of my birth, like my lottery number?

We’ve been hearing two types of news stories on immigration policy these days.  From one side, we get Donald Trump meeting with the mother of a youth murdered by an illegal alien; behind her are crowds waving banners, demonstrating  for “zero tolerance,” anxious to build walls on our borders.  Some of us wonder if our President believes that people born in other countries are mostly criminals, anxious to steal our jobs and our welfare money, if not our wallets outright.  From the other side, we get photographs of crying babies separated from their parents; behind them are politicians proclaiming that children belong with their families, and protesters waving banners, pointing fingers at the statue of liberty and wanting to abolish I.C.E.  Some of us wonder if they believe everyone in the world should be eligible for American food stamps, health care, and taxpayer-funded schools.

There aren’t too many issues about which I have no opinion, but I can genuinely say that immigration policy has long been one of them. Frankly, I’ve never thought about it much, until recently.  But seeing the photos of crying babies and grieving moms, I questioned whether I could form an opinion about our immigration policy on the basis of the news our media outlets share.  For me, the answer was a resounding no.  I mean, a lot more Americans get murdered by American citizens than by illegal aliens.  And we separate children from their parents all the time, through mandatory education, custody hearings, foster care, imprisonment of criminals, and (at times) military conscription.  How could I decide my position on our immigration policies based on a barrage of soundbites of crying children and grieving mothers?

After reflection, I decided I was wrong.  Emotional appeals do have a place in the debate.  But surely not the only place.  If I’m going to form an opinion,  I want to have data.  Even to have a civil, intelligent conversation  about immigration, I feel a need for data.  How much immigration do we currently allow?  How much immigration do other countries allow?  How does the rate of immigration to the U.S. compare to U.S. population growth stemming from the accident of birth in this country?  Genuinely lacking any opinion on the immigration debate, I want answers to such questions.  I  value them at least as much as the emotional soundbites the news media showers me with.    But no one in the media, and no one on either side of the debate, seems interested in giving me that sort of information.  So finally, last night, I started to do, for myself, what I think more responsible news media should be helping me with.    I decided to look for a few basic facts.

The first things I Googled on were population density and population growth.  Oddly enough, in both cases, Google took me to information maintained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  (Hmnnn.  Think about that for a while.  Then check out the CIA’s “World Factbook,” at and  Should a country’s immigration policy have anything to do with population density or current population growth?  I had a gut feeling it might, or I wouldn’t have Googled on population density in the first place.  But if population density is relevant, why?  How ought it affect my thinking? I didn’t know why,  but  my taste for data about populations led me to the CIA.

I haven’t finished my search for data by any means, and I still haven’t taken sides about immigration policy, but here’s what I’ve found so far:

The planet has a land mass of 129,721,455 square kilometers and a population of 7.6 billion people. Global population density is therefore, on average, 58 people per square kilometer.

The United States has a land mass of 9,158,160 square kilometers and a population of 325,700,000 people. U.S. population density is therefore, on average, 33 people per square kilometer.  In other words, America is only a little more than half as densely populated as the world as a whole. “Is this relevant?” I ask myself.

The world’s highest population densities are in countries like mostly urban Singapore, with its tiny land mass and a population density of 8,188 people/  The lowest densities are in mostly uninhabited countries like Greenland, which has only .03 people /  Does the fact that Greenland is a vast, sparsely populated area mean that Greenland ought to be able to accommodate more future population growth than urban Singapore?

Despite the enormous existing difference between Greenland and Singapore, the population of already-crowded Singapore is growing by 1.82 percent every year – while the population of Greenland is growing by only 0.03% every year.  Hmnnn…   Is it because urban Singapore has greater natural resources and so can support more people?  Is it because more people want to live in Singapore?  Should the answer to either question have a bearing on Singapore’s immigration policies?  Or on ours?  (Come to think of it, should all countries base their immigration policies on the same set of values and goals?)

Obviously, there are differences of climate, topography, and natural resources between all countries. Should such differences be considered in comparing the capacity (or obligations?) of countries to grow their populations? If a country has more natural resources and more habitable land than its neighbors, should it absorb a greater share of the world’s population, or should its current citizens do what they can to keep those resources and that land for themselves?

With such questions in the back of my mind, I decided to do some more comparisons, using the CIA data on population density and annual growth rates for about 235 countries around the world.  (Notably, the CIA data combines net population changes from immigration and emigration with changes from births and deaths, to come up with a single figure for population growth rate.   I’d be interested in breaking the total growth rates into separate components, but haven’t yet found a source for that sort of breakdown.)  In the meantime, with the data already found, I began by comparing the United States to the world as a whole:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth


58 1.06
Average country (of 235 total)




United States

    9,158,960 33


Does this bare-bones data bear on what U.S. immigration policy ought to be?  Does it suggest additional inquiries that ought to be made?

I then compared the United States to the other major economic powers that comprise the G7.  In descending order of population density, they are:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
Japan 366,700 334 0.21
United Kingdom 241,930 265 0.52
Germany 349,130 225 0.16
Italy 294,110 206 0.19
France 547,566 104 0.39
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Canada 9,093,510 3 0.73

Compared to the other G7 countries, the United States and Canada have by far the lowest population densities; they also have the highest rates of population growth.  What factors contribute to this?  Why is the U.S. growing so much faster than Germany, Italy, and Japan?

I then compared the United States to other countries arguably in the same league as the U.S. in size, modernity, culture or prosperity.  This one, too, is in order of population density:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
South Korea 96,460 513 0.48
Israel 21,649 399 1.51
India 2,973,190 389 1.17
China 9,388,250 143 0.41
Spain 500,210 96 0.78
Ireland 68,890 71 1.15
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Brazil 8,358,140 24 0.73
Sweden 410,340 22 0.81
Argentina 2,736,690 16 0.91
Saudi Arabia 2,149,690 13 1.45
Russia 16,389,950 8 0.08
Australia 7,682,300 3 1.03

Countries like Israel, Ireland, and India are already far more densely populated than the U.S., yet are growing far faster.  Russia is far less densely populated than the U.S., and it is hardly growing at all.  What is driving these differences?

Finally, because so much of the current attention is on immigration through Mexico  from Central America,  I decided to compare the U.S. to those countries:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
El Salvador 20,850 293 0.25
Guatemala 107,160 141 1.75
Costa Rica 51,060 96 1.16
Honduras 111,890 80 1.60
Mexico 1,943,950 63 1.12
Panama 74,340 49 1.27
Nicaragua 120,340 46 0.98
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Belize 22,810 15 1.80

With the exception of Belize – which is less than half as densely populated as the U.S., but growing more than twice as fast – all the countries in this table have significantly higher population densities than the U.S., and all but one are growing substantially faster.

There’s a lot more data I’d like to have.  GDP and per capita income comparisons might be relevant. (I have a pretty good idea that the U.S. would be at the top, but how strong a correlation exists between a country’s prosperity and its population growth, more generally?)  I’d also like to break population growth into separate numbers for birth rates, death rates, and immigration.  (Is all that growth in Guatemala coming from babies, or are people immigrating there?)

You may question why I started with population density, and population growth, at all.  Should immigration policy be driven by entirely different considerations?  Maybe so.  But in the mean time, the data I’ve collected has already started influencing my thinking more than media sound bites.  More than 75% of the countries in the world are already more densely populated than the U.S.   Meanwhile, the populations of more than half the countries in the world are currently growing faster than ours.  It doesn’t seem to me we can base immigration restrictions on an argument that we’re overcrowded, or already growing too fast, compared to other countries. Or is there some reason we still could?

Without any data comparison at all, my gut tells me that among the nations of the earth, our climate is among the most habitable, our land among the most fertile, and our economy among the most robust.  In fact, along with the ideals on which our country was founded, those blessings have a lot to do with my tears on the Fourth of July.    I’m therefore ready to ask whether the right immigration policy – whatever it might be – should be judged on what most benefits the people lucky enough to be born in this country, or the policy that we’d counsel other countries to adopt if we made a swap — if they had our land, population  and natural resources, and we had theirs.   Our Declaration of Independence declared that all men share the same inalienable rights.   Is it fair to ask whether we’ve become like passengers on a crowded lifeboat, deciding who most deserves a seat?  Would an argument that immigration policy should be designed to benefit only those already here boil down to anything more than lunch counter’s policy of “First come, first served”?

Since the news media has no desire to give me anything but tears and protest signs, crying children and grieving mothers, I’d be interested in hearing reasoned opinions about stricter or more lenient immigration policy.  But meaning no offense to the individuals in media soundbites, and (I hope) no lack of sympathy for their personal trials, I believe the media has shared enough of the partisans’ appeals to passion and emotion.    I want more data!  And along with it, I want more civil discussion about what the goals of any immigration policy ought to be — ours included.

Meanwhile, I’m still feeling blessed to be able to call myself an  American, still feeling lucky to have been born here.

To all (whether lucky or not) I wish a blessed Fourth of July.

— Joe

The Militia

I promise, this will be as short as a snub-nosed revolver — maybe even shorter.

The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Now, I’ve never cared much about gun rights or gun control, one way or the other. I’ve never owned a gun (unless the B.B. gun I bought to scare rabbits out of the vegetable garden counts).  While I have no problem with my friends who hunt larger game, I cried the last time I shot a rabbit myself.  (He was just a little bunny, and I shot him in the eye by mistake, and he…  Well, you get the picture.)  So my support for  gun rights has had nothing to do with deer hunting season, or even of defending my home against a burglar.  Rather, I’m a constitutional geek, a strict constructionist, and I’m intent on honoring the wisdom of the founding fathers.  And back when I was studying constitutional law, I thought a lot about the importance of militias.  Ever since, my support for the Second Amendment has always been based on the idea that having a militia is pretty doggone important to protect us (the people) against a standing army controlled by a tyrannical government.

I was surprised recently to hear a liberal friend of mine agree.  With our current President obviously in mind, she opined that having a militia is a very important safeguard against tyrannical government.  (You never know.  Maybe, if my belief in the importance of the militia catches on, the Trump presidency will convince more liberals  that having an effective milita is important .)

Anyway, in District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held (5-4) that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms regardless of the individual’s connection to any organized militia.  Ouch.  That decision was a blow to my strict constructionist roots, since the Court acknowledged that the ability to field a militia was a major part of the purpose of the Second Amendment.  As a strict constructionist, that, for me, is what the Amendment has always been about.

So here’s my question: to the extent that anyone, left or right, thinks militias are important to protect us from the possibility of a tyrannical government in Washington, what impact has two hundred years of military spending had on the issue?

I mean, back in the 1780’s when the founding fathers were cooking all this stuff up, the average homeowner owned a musket and a fishing knife – essentially the same weapons used by General Washington’s federal army.  True, Washington’s army also had a few small cannon here and there, but clearly, if the federal army had fallen under the spell of a hated tyrant, a crowd of angry citizens, armed with muskets and fishing knives, could have taken on that army.  And they would have stood a pretty decent chance of preserving their rights.  For me, the Second Amendment is all about achieving that same ability today.

But today, our standing federal army has more than rifles and fishing knives.  Now, it has not only automatic weapons, but tanks, aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, ICBM’s and of course nuclear bombs.  So the current debate about gun control has me thinking again about what it will take to have an effective militia.  (Always a dangerous undertaking, especially now that I’ve grown tired of being wrong all the time.) It occurs to me that what’s important, from a constitutional perspective, hasn’t changed since the 1780’s.  I mean, it doesn’t matter whether we have advanced weapons or old-fashioned ones, as long as the people themselves have firepower roughly similar to that of the standing army.  To achieve that, it seems to me, one option would be to give school crossing guards RPG’s.  Every qualified Neighborhood Watch Association could be assigned a tank.  Local yacht clubs could share entitlement to battleships or aircraft carriers, and local flying clubs could be equipped with fully armed B-52’s.  Of course, they’d all be well trained.  I should think that would give the people a fighting chance against a tyrannical government.

You may think I’m kidding, but seriously, I think I may finally be right about something.  Having an effective militia is important, and to have one, we the people need to have as much firepower as the Pentagon.  So: either we can equip our selves like the Pentagon does, OR, we could get the Feds to limit their own armaments to what homeowners are allowed to have.  Maybe everybody could be limited to a handgun — teachers, students, homeowners, and the Joint Chiefs themselves — handguns,   flintlocks, fishing knives, whatever — as long as  the standing army is no better equipped than the average homeowner.  To have an effective Second Amendment, the standing army could be required to get rid of all those M1 Abrams  tanks, guided missiles, and other unfair advantages that would put down a popular insurrection in the bat of an eye.  From a constitutional perspective, I’m convinced that rough parity is all that’s essential.

So. Am I the only one left who champions the Second Amendment on the basis of the need for an effective militia?  I mean, I know there are some who claim to , but those I’ve met also support a stronger federal military.  Given that such a huge imbalance between the parties already exists, I don’t see how such people can really claim to support the Second Amendment and an increase in federal military spending at the same time — not if having an effective militia is really important to them.

Anyway, thinking about this effective militia idea, and pondering the fact that it’s really about keeping  parity between the citizens and their army, I started to wonder how much money could be saved if we restored parity with everyone having smaller weapons, rather than bigger ones.  I mean, it would probably be expensive if I had to have my own launch pad in the attic; and an Abrams tank would probably do serious damage to my front yard.  So I was pleased to discover that the always sensible Swiss may have the answer.  They’ve come up with a real handgun that’s only two inches long.

They’re available for only a little over $6,000 each — far less than the cost of an M1 Abrams, for example — and if we made sure that everybody had one, the demand would probably drive the price down to the truly affordable.  See

Seriously, I’m still not sure where I stand on gun control and the right to bear arms, but as a strict constructionist, I think I’ve finally found a principled basis for addressing the issue.  We clearly need to choose between one of the solutions I’ve mentioned if weapons parity and an effective militia are to be maintained.  Otherwise, I’m thinking that having an effective militia is a battle we’ve already lost, and we’re soon to be chum for the tyrants.

Thoughts?  Help from any quarter would be appreciated.

— Joe

Knowing Right from Wrong

Two items I heard on the radio yesterday struck me as worthy of comment.

First was the news of Sunday night’s tragedy in Las Vegas.  Questions of motive apparently loom large. President Trump first called the shooter  “pure evil.” Now he’s saying the shooter was “very, very sick.”

I also heard yesterday that the Supreme Court would soon be deciding a case involving a woman sent back to jail because she tested positive on a drug test, which positive result violated the terms of her parole.  Her lawyer is apparently arguing that the action amounts to re-incarceration due to a “disease” (addiction), and is therefore unconstitutional.  My own reaction is that the woman wasn’t incarcerated for having an illness (her addiction) but for something she did (use drugs, and test positive on a drug test).  But the fact that the woman’s conduct arguably sprang from her illness/addiction leads me to compare her to the Vegas shooter.  Ultimately, the question becomes whether an offense that results from “sickness” is excusable, and whether it can be distinguished from an offense that results from something else, something that is not some sort of sickness –“evil”perhaps.  If so, then all we have to do is figure out the difference between evil and sickness.

While I’m at it, allow me to throw in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, just to round out the analytical field.  By the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I mean both the killing he ordered and the killing that finally brought him down.  Premeditated.  Innocent lives lost in the process.  Evil?  Justifiable?  Sickness?  Other?

There’s nothing particularly new about such questions.  They take us back to the legal requirements for justifiable homicide.  To the religious doctrine of the just war.  To the philosophical question of whether an end ever justifies a means.  To the debate over determinism and free will.  All these issues have defied resolution for centuries.  I have my opinions, but instead of advancing them here, I’d like to use them as the background for raising two other matters that have been on my mind.

The first, I’ll call the question of knowledge.  When I studied Latin in school, I learned the distinction between two Latin verbs, cognoscere and scire.   When I studied French, I encountered  the same difference between two French verbs, connaitre and savoir., which evolved from the Latin.  All four verbs are translated into English as “to know.”  But in both Latin and French, a distinction is observed between knowing in the sense of being somewhat familiar with something, and knowing in the sense of being aware of a fact or a field of knowledge, authoritatively, or with certainty.  In Latin and French, if you want to say you “know” your neighbor, you use the word cognoscere or connaitre, because you really only mean to say you’re somewhat familiar with her.   But if you want to say that you know your own name, or where you live, or the words of the Gettysburg address, you use scire or savoir, to assert that you have essentially complete and authoritative knowledge of the subject.

These two types of knowledge seem rather different from each other.  For many years, I thought it a shame that the English word “to know” gets used to cover both types.  I thought it important to distinguish between those situations in which we really know something and those in which we simply have a passing familiarity, and I found English lacking due to its failure to make that distinction.   But now, I think differently.  Now, I question whether we really know anything with certainty.   If we can’t see all four sides of a barn simultaneously, how can we say we “know” the barn, as opposed to being familiar with just one aspect of it?  Is the most we can ever say about anything  that we are somewhat familiar with it?  If there really is just the one sort of knowledge, then maybe we’re right to have just one word for it.  Maybe the Romans and French were wrong to think both types of knowledge possible.

Meanwhile, what do we mean by right and wrong?  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about politics in this regard, not drug use or homicide.  I’ve been wondering whether terms like right and wrong should be abandoned altogether when it comes to politics.  I mean, every political issue I can think of seems to me to be more easily analyzed in terms of what (if any) group benefits, versus what (if any) group gets hurt.   Is it more accurate to say that a policy or practice is “right” when viewed from one group’s perspective, and “wrong” when viewed from another?

Take, for example, immigration reform.  You might argue that tightening controls favors those who already live in a country, and disfavors those who want to enter it.  Assuming that’s true, would that make the tightening right, or wrong?  Doesn’t it depend on whose perspective you’re adopting?

Arguably, capital punishment hurts convicted murderers while benefiting taxpayers who would otherwise bear the costs associated with long prison terms.  We can argue about deterrence, and whether capital punishment deters future criminals and therefore benefits potential future victims.  But what does it mean to argue that capital punishment is “right” or “wrong”?  The simplistic precept “It is wrong to kill” either condemns all killing, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden,  or it provides no answer at all because the real question is when it is right to kill and when it isn’t.  I have the same question about higher taxes, about the Affordable Health Care Act, about environmental regulations, and about every other political issue I can think of.  “Right” and “wrong” seem too absolute to be helpful in understanding complex tradeoffs which may well benefit some groups while hurting others.

I can follow a discussion pretty well when it’s phrased as a discussion of what groups will arguably benefit by some policy or proposal, and what groups (if any) will be hurt.   But I have difficulty when the same debate is phrased in terms of what’s “wise” or what’s “sound policy,” because it seems to me always to come back to “wise for whom?”  Immigration reform might be good for the American economy, but is it good for the rest of the world?  Obamacare may benefit those with preexisting conditions and are poor and unhealthy, but not those who are healthy or wealthy.  Is a Pennsylvania  law “wise” if it helps Pennsylanians but hurts New Yorkers?   Is an American policy “wise” because it helps Americans, even if it hurts Russians, Filipinos, or Cubans?

It may help us express how disturbed we are by the shooting in Las Vegas, if we call it “pure evil,” but I don’t see it that way.  (Frankly, I don’t know what “pure evil” means. ) Rather, it seems to me we all have personal points of view, which is to say, minds that tell us stories.  In those stories, we ourselves are often the unappreciated heroes.  In some other stories, we may be the victims.   But in how many stories are we purveyors of unadulterated wrong?  I believe that the Vegas shooter told himself a story in which he was a hero, or a victim, or both.   And if we do things because they make sense to us, in the context of the people, values, religion or nation with which we identify, and in the context of the stories we see ourselves acting in,  then do we have anything more than a subjective point of view, a limited perspective incapable of assessing a more objective or universal wisdom about right and wrong?  I think we all suffer from genuine mental impairments – if not anything as egregious as sociopathic aggression or drug addiction, then more common ailments like self-interest, self-delusion, arrogance, bad habit, confirmation bias or simply poor judgment resulting from our fallibility.  At best, we have a passing familiarity with right and wrong, not authoritative knowledge of it.  At worst, we are all sick, and so occupy ground not entirely unlike that of the Las Vegas shooter or the drug addict.

Maybe it’s time to stop the litmus test of good versus evil.  To recognize instead that what benefits one person may hurt another.  That when our government incarcerates an addict, storms a deranged mass shooter’s hotel room, or takes the life of a militant dictator, we are not making God-like moral judgements that one person is “good” and another “pure evil,” but simply making practical tradeoffs to protect certain interests at the expense of others.  And maybe, in the next political discussion we have, it’ll prove helpful to stop talking about who and what are wrong, but who will likely benefit and who be hurt.

My hunch is that the Vegas shooter saw something as pure evil – and that whatever it was, it wasn’t himself.  His idea of evil was likely different from ours.  Indeed, he may have considered us as examples of pure evil. We’re wired to think we’re somehow different from him;  that, unlike him, we know the difference between right and wrong.  At times like these, in the face of senseless atrocity, it’s easy to feel that way, to see a fundamental difference between him and us:  After all, we say smugly, we would never indiscriminately kill scores of people.

But we killed over six hundred thousand in our civil war.  We killed a hundred thousand at Hiroshima. We’ve killed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In a few weeks, when the Vegas shootings are no longer front page news, we’ll be calling each other stupid, or evil, or just plain wrong, as if we have nothing in common with the Vegas shooter.  As if we have the unerring ability to identify what’s right and wrong, and to do so with the full understanding the Romans and French called scire and savoir.

Different as we may be in other respects, I say we all suffer from that disease.

Families of victims in Vegas, you’re in our thoughts and prayers.

– Joe

Asking the Ad Hominem Question

I generally wince when someone debating Topic X starts talking about his opponents, giving reasons he thinks his opponents believe as they do, trying to discredit their position by psycho-analyzing the reasons they hold it or expressing his disapproval of “the sort of people” who hold such positions.    It’s typically a variant of a thought analyzed well by Kathryn Schulz in Being Wrong: “I think the way I do because all evidence and logic support me; the only reason you think the way you do is because you suffer from… [here, fill in the blank.]”As I see it, such ad hominem arguments are often resorted to by those unable to make a good argument on Topic X itself.  Moreover, by making the debate personal, the ad hominem debater usually comes across as insulting, and that’s a sure-fire recipe for things to get ugly quickly.

I think it’s quite different to pose an ad hominem  question to oneself.  Asking ourselves why we believe what we do, when others don’t agree with us, can be a mind opening exercise.  (In case it’s not clear, “I believe what I believe because its true, and others disagree because they’re stupid” doesn’t count.)

Allow me to offer an example.  Having gotten some flack from readers for my thoughts about Charlottesville, I decided to ask myself the ad hominem question in an effort to understand why I favor removing statues of Confederate generals from public squares, when others don’t.   What is it about my background that causes me to favor such removal?

I’m pretty sure it was my career as an employment lawyer, a capacity in which I was often asked to advise employers on diversity issues and strategies for legally maintaining a dedicated, harmonious, loyal (and therefore productive) workforce.    Many of my clients experienced  variations on a problem I’ll call cultural conflict in the workplace, by which I don’t mean conflict between employer and employees, but among employees themselves.

The conflict involved was often racial, religious or gender-based.  For example, one company piped music from a radio station into its warehouses, only to discover that one group wanted to listen to a country music station, another a Latin station, and a third an R&B, Hip-Hop or Motown station.  Each group claimed it was being discriminated against if it didn’t get its way.  Another variant of the problem was when assembly line workers came to work wearing T-shirts that other employees found offensive —one T-shirt featured a burning cross; another the picture of a person wearing a white sheet and hood while aiming a gun at the viewer; another featured the “N” word; others were donned featuring raised fists and the words “Black Power” and shirts implying a revolution against “white rule.”

A frequent variant on the “culture conflict” problem  involved office environments where employees shared cubicles and wanted to decorate their cubicles with words or images that their neighbors or cubicle-mates found offensive.    In one case, one Christian employee began to hang skeletons, ghouls, devils and demons all over a shared cubicle, beginning in August, in preparation for Halloween; her Christian cubicle-mate believed that celebrating Halloween at all was the work of the devil; she countered  by hanging crucifixes, pictures of Jesus, manger scenes and Bible quotations on the shared cubicle wall, saying that devil worshipers would go to Hell; a third resident of that same cubicle corner — the one who actually complained to management — had religious convictions that prohibited the celebration of any holidays or the use of any religious imagery at all, on the grounds that all of it was idol-worship; she wanted it all removed.

Perhaps the most common variant of the culture conflict was in workplaces where male employees wanted to hang calendars or other pictures of naked (or scantily clad) women, while  women (and some men) objected on the grounds the working environment was made illegally offensive as a result.

In one case, there was already a racially charged atmosphere: a group of white ‘good ole boys’ always ate at one lunch table while blacks ate at another.  There’d been some mild taunting back and forth, but nothing too serious, when one day, several of the white employees started “practicing their knot tying skills” by making rope nooses in plain view of the blacks at the other table.  The blacks saw an obvious message which the whites of course denied.

In all such cases, the employer was left to decide what to do.  There were difficult legalities to deal with.  Some employers tried to address the problem by declaring that employees could post no personal messages on company property (like cubicle walls), but could post what they wanted on their own property (their  lunch boxes,  tool boxes, T-shirts, etc. ) But the public/private property distinction didn’t end the problem.  Someone who brings a Swastika and a “Death to All Jews” decal to work on his lunchbox is an obvious problem for workplace harmony, regardless of what the law says about it.

Surely, my background in this area shapes my views about cultural conflict regarding statues in public squares.  And I think what decided my position on statues was that such problems arose among my clients scores of times, yet never once was it the employer itself that wanted to post the material, wear the T-shirt, celebrate the holiday, practice tying knots, or whatever.  It was always a question of playing referee in the conflict between opposing groups of employees.

I believe it’s by analogy to that situation that I instinctively consider the problem faced by a government body deciding what or who to memorialize in the public square.   I don’t claim it’s an easy task.  But if a company or city had ever asked me if I thought it ought to hang crucifixes in its cubicles, display a picture of the devil in its lunchroom, hang a Confederate flag or a Playboy centerfold  in the conference room, or have its managers fashion nooses during an employee meeting, I’d have been flabbergasted.   It’s not that Robert E. Lee is like Satan, or Jesus, or a Playboy Centerfold, if we’re talking moral qualities, or what OUGHT to be offensive.  Rather, it’s the fact that, in my experience, all that mattered to the employers was that some of their employees considered the displays offensive.  When the display was controversial , it was viewed as a problem.  And without exception, my clients took pains not to introduce controversial images themselves.

In abstract theory, I can imagine that some symbols or ideas might be so important to the common good that an employer (or city council) should celebrate them, despite their being divisive.  (A statue of the sitting President?) But in the case of Confederate generals who fought to preserve an institution that has been illegal for 150 years now, my own cultural background — including my work experience —gives me no clue as to what their countervailing importance might be.

Anyway, I really do wince when people make ad hominem arguments against their opponents, but I like asking the ad hominem question of myself.  Whatever you think about Confederate generals, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve given the thought-experiment a try, especially if it has helped you understand differences in points of view between yourself and others.

— Joe

Thoughts About Charlottesville

Last week’s tragedy in Charlottesville  has touched close to home here in Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy.  Lt. H. Jay Cullen was one of two police officers killed in the effort to restore peace.  His viewing is tonight; his funeral is tomorrow.    My optometrist is attending because she serves as a delegate to the state house.  My daughter is attending because she’s a former co-worker and friend of Lt. Cullen’s wife.  Amidst the grief and mourning, the firestorm of what passes for debate regarding the whole affair cries out for a WMBW perspective.

A few months back, when the removal of four confederate statues in New Orleans was in the news, my own thinking distinguished among the statues.  I thought the removal of some made sense, but not others.  I was struck by the fact that no one else seemed to consider them as separate cases.  Everyone seemed to have adopted an all-or-nothing posture: either you were for, or against, the “removal of the statues,” as if alignment with one side or the other mattered more than considering the merits of each statue on its own.  Was I the only one in my circle who saw a middle ground?  I still worry about a group-think tendency to align entirely with one side or the other.  Such polarizing alignment seems to me precisely what led to the Civil War in the first place.   But in the meantime, Charlottesville has caused me to consider the matter anew – and I’ve decided I was wrong about the statues in New Orleans.

I approved of the removal of most of the New Orleans statues, but felt otherwise about the statue of Robert E. Lee.  My opposition was on the ground that Lee was a good (if imperfect) man and that to remove his statue did an injustice, both to history and to him personally.  Now, I believe that I was wrong about the Lee statue, and I’m moved to explain why.

First, let’s consider what history tells us about the man in relation to slavery.  While historians disagree on certain details, it seems clear that Lee personally ordered the corporal punishment of slaves who resisted his authority.   Today, all but the most extreme white supremacists can agree that this was wrong.  Of course, Lee’s treatment of his slaves was not remarkably better or worse than the racism of thousands of other white men who owned slaves in those days; he apparently believed what most white Southerners  (as well as many in the North) believed: that the Bible made it their Christian duty to “look after” African Americans.  And for Lee, as for most slave-owners, this paternalistic attitude included both kindness (especially as a reward for loyalty and good work) and infliction of severe corporal punishment (as a deterrent to disobedience).  These days, it’s extremely hard to understand how so many people could have been so wrong, but hundreds of thousands of Lees’ white peers thought and acted as he did in their relation to black Americans.   This conduct was widespread; it shames us all.  While being widespread doesn’t justify what Lee did, it makes it a lot easier for me to recognize that Lee was much like the rest of us: i.e., capable of well-intended conduct that future generations may condemn as fundamentally, grievously wrong.

My admiration for Lee – which continues — comes despite his participation in the injustice of slavery.  I also admire slave-owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (despite the fact that Jefferson described African Americans as having “a very strong and disagreeable odor,” a capacity for love limited to “eager desire” more than sentiment, and a capacity for reason he insisted was far inferior to that of the white man.) I admire these white men for the good that they did, despite my recognition that they were so grievously wrong about African Americans and slavery.

Lee, the man, was more than a participant in the repugnant institution of slavery.  He was a great military strategist.  He was a man who sacrificed his personal welfare for what he saw as his duty to his country.  And perhaps most importantly for me, he became a significant force for reconciliation after the war.  When the government of the Confederacy collapsed and its armies surrendered, many Southerners wanted to continue the fight for slavery, on an underground, guerrilla-warfare basis.  This stubborn, “never-say-die” sentiment led to formation of the K.K.K., and to the worst atrocities of the Reconstruction era.  Indirectly, it led to the current existence of hate groups like the Nazi group that marched in Charlottesville.   In the face of such atrocities, Robert E. Lee advocated against continued resistance, calling repeatedly for reconciliation with the north, for fair and decent treatment of the freedman, respect for the law, and the putting aside of past hatreds in order to restore unity, harmony, and civility.  True, he didn’t support giving blacks the right to vote, and I fault him for that, but he lived in an era when that was viewed as an extremist position.  And if one looks at his postwar record as a whole, he was primarily a peacemaker.   A man who sought a better life for blacks and whites alike, and had to swallow a great deal of personal pride to do so.  Indeed, I think he might have been an early supporter of WMBW, had it been around in his day!  Chiefly for that reason, I count myself as a fan and supporter of the man.

And because I admire the man, I was, until recently, opposed to the removal of statues honoring him.

But what now?  Sadly, it sometimes takes jarring events, close to home, to get us to change our minds. And in this case, I have changed mine.  Many of those opposed to removal of Lee’s statues say that removal is an affront to history.  That was my own thinking just a couple of months again.  But now I think I was wrong.  Whatever we may think of a particular person, good or bad, is there not room to distinguish between our sentiments about the person and the reasons to erect (or take down) a statue? And aren’t the reasons for erection or removal of a statue important?   Let’s consider, carefully and dispassionately, the possible reasons for removing Lee’s statue.

First, if Lee’s participation in the atrocities of slavery oblige us to take down his statue, it seems to me consistency would require us to demolish the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.  Can a consistent standard for statues limit us to memorialize only those leaders who were entirely free from wrong? Limiting statues to perfect people may put a lot of sculptors out of work…

What about the assertions of Anderson Cooper, the Los Angeles Times, and others, who claim that Lee’s statute should be taken down because Lee (unlike Washington and Jefferson) was a traitor to his country?  Anderson Cooper asserted that Washington fought for his country, and Lee against his.  The Los Angeles Time’s headline said that Washington’s ownership of slaves was not the equivalent to Lee’s “treason.”  But didn’t George Washington lead an army against his mother-country (England)? And didn’t Lee lead an army that defended his homeland (the Commonwealth of Virginia) against an army that had invaded it and was bearing down on its capital?    In labeling Lee a traitor, or Washington a patriot, I believe it important to distinguish between today’s perspectives and those at the time these men lived.  Washington and Jefferson were subjects of the British Crown, and readily admitted that they were engaged in rebellion against their government, for which they’d be found guilty of treason if they lost.   Washington and Jefferson were among the rebels who embedded slavery in the Constitution in the first place.  And by the time Lee threw in his lot with Virginia, the Supreme Court of the United States had upheld slavery as the law of the land.  Today, we think of our primary patriotic  allegiance as belonging  to the United States, which we regard as a single, unitary country.  But our pledge of allegiance to such a unified country resulted from the Federal victory in the Civil War (which is to say, in large part, from Lee’s willingness to give up the fight to preserve slavery, and to accede to the prevailing egalitarian view.)  Prior to that war, we had been a confederated union of sovereign states.  The very words “commonwealth” and “state” reflect the idea of nationhood to which patriotism was generally believed to adhere.  (As but one example of the perceived sovereignty of the individual states, when Merriweather Lewis went west in the early 1800’s, meeting with native American tribes who knew nothing of the new government in Washington, he gave the same prepared speech to all of them, a speech that referred to President Thomas Jefferson as the great chief of “seventeen nations” (the number of sovereign states then comprising the U.S.).  I believe strongly that Lee’s sense of allegiance to his homeland, the Commonwealth of Virginia, was an honorable, patriotic position – moreso, by far, than Washington’s taking up of arms against England.  As I understand history, it was Washington who was the traitor to his country; Lee was the dutiful servant of his.

Is the difference, then, that the 1776 war for American independence was a morally “just war,” and the war to preserve the southern Confederacy and slavery an unjust one?   A lot of historians question whether the atrocities allegedly committed by England really were sufficient to warrant rebellion against them, but assuming you think Lee’s war relatively wrong, compared to Washington’s, I see Lee’s status, in this regard, as similar to the status of thousands of soldiers whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial.  As a people, we have adopted the principle of honoring servicemen who have fought for their sovereign government, even when the war in which they served is judged by history to have been wrong.  If we remove the statue of Lee because he served his homeland in an unjust war, what are we to do with the Vietnam War Memorial?

What about the argument that most attracted me, that to remove the statue of Lee is to rewrite history?  It’s undeniable that Lee played an important part in history, but so did Lord Cornwallis, John Wilkes Booth, and Lee Harvey Oswald.  To have no statues honoring them is not to rewrite history, nor to deny the place of these individuals in it.  It is simply to recognize the difference between preserving history and the reasons to honor praiseworthy individuals by erecting public memorials to them.  A public statue is a symbol, intended to celebrate an idea.    If we ignore what the subjects of our statues symbolize, we risk celebrating the wrong things.  So, the right question, I think, is not whether Lee was a great general, or played an important role in history, or owned or punished his slaves, or was a traitor or a dutiful servant.  The right question to ask, I would suggest, is what does his memorial symbolize?

In considering that question, I think the key consideration is that while Washington was a traitor to his country, he did fight for ours.  And while Lee was a loyal, dutiful patriot who fought for his homeland, he did fight against the unified country that arose from that war.  It is not to demean the man’s character, or his service, or history itself, to recognize that he fought to divide what has (since) become the nation to which we now pledge allegiance.  If our public memorials are intended to remind us of our public principles, then it is the principle of unity, as a nation, that seems especially in need of attention these days – not the division for which Lee fought.  I have no idea whether Lord Cornwallis owned any slaves.  And he may have been a fine and honorable man, even a role model.  But we Americans don’t erect public statues to honor him.  In one sense, Lee symbolizes the opposition to the current American government every bit as much as Cornwallis does.  I see no loss in failing to memorialize either man.

AS for the many arguments in the nature of “If we remove this statue, what next?” I believe there are matters of institutional purpose to consider. I doubt the NAACP will ever erect a statue to George Washington, the white slave owner, nor should they, because he was a white slave-owner and as such is inimical to the interests of that organization.   The racist Louis Agassiz’s name has, thankfully, been removed from schools named to honor him, but I believe his name properly remains as the name of Agassiz Glacier, in Glacier National Park, because Agassiz remains respected for his pioneering scientific work on glaciers.  As abhorrent as I consider the Nazis to be, if they want to erect a statue of Adolf Hitler on their own property, they’d have the right to do so.  As for Washington and Lee, I do not believe that the college bearing their names should feel compelled to change its name or remove the statues I presume exist on its campus to remember them.  Washington saved the school with his financial support; as the college’s president, Lee greatly expanded the school; I believe the college should honor these men for that institution-specific history, and if that includes maintaining statues to both men, I support that.  In that context, Washington and Lee would symbolize, and be accorded honored for, their service to that institution.   In 1962, the United States Military Academy named one of its barracks after Lee.  I think that appropriate, because Lee was a brilliant military strategist and because he had served as that school’s commander.  And I think George Washington should (and will) properly remain on our dollar bills, and be honored in our national capital, because despite his racism and ownership of slaves, and despite his being a traitor to his sovereign country, he was still instrumental in the establishment of this country.  By this reasoning, even a statue of John Wilkes Booth might be appropriate at Ford’s Theater.  My point is that there’s a proper role for institutional purpose in the choice of who an institution recognizes through its memorials.  Even if we get to the point of tearing down his memorial in Washington, a statue of Thomas Jefferson will always be appropriate at Monticello, and a statue of Lee appropriate at Stratford Hall.  To remove some statues of Robert E. Lee does not require the removal of all of them, and certainly doesn’t mean to erase him from history; much depends, I think, on the institution and its purposes.

So where does that leave us?  The City Councils of New Orleans and Charlottesville are institutions, and institutions of a particular type: they have been elected to represent all their citizens.  They should be celebrating the current government (American, not British; the USA, not the CSA).  And they should be choosing memorials that symbolize the current ideals of the people they represent – the ideals of a diverse nation that has come together in peace. In these divisive times, it is as important as ever that they choose symbols of tolerance and inclusion.   By virtue of his position as opposition commander in an effort to divide the union, Robert E. Lee necessarily symbolizes opposition to the national government that won the war.  He symbolizes a divided country, one in which the north would have been free to abolish slavery as long as the south was free to continue it.  That’s not an ideal any government in the United States should want to memorialize.   It is past time to stop celebrating it, or anyone who represents ethnic, racial or ideological division.

Right or wrong, those are my views.  But this week, as I watched our president, and our news media, address the issue from opposite sides, I was struck again by the all-or-nothing positioning on both sides.  Trump and the media both talked about “the two sides” – those for, and against, removal, and sometimes, as if all those who opposed removal were white supremacists or Neo-Nazis.  Are we no longer capable of a more nuanced analysis?  Must every individual be vilified by association with the worst of the people on the other side? Must people classify me as a Nazi, if I utter a single word of respect for a man like Robert E. Lee, or a liberal destroyer of history, if I support the removal of his statue?

Changing people’s minds will only happen when people starting listening to each other.  These days, it seems, no one is listening to anybody; people seem interested in knowing whether you’re for them or against them, and that’s it – not your reasons, not the finer points of what you have to say, or the reasoning behind it.  The scary thing is, it’s remarkably like the situation in 1860, when the polar opposites took their corners and came out fighting, leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties in their wake.  In my view, the only way to avoid a repeat of such violence is to be alert to the possible faults in ourselves; and to be willing to continue looking for the good in people even after we see the bad in them.  We have to be willing to learn from those we think are wrong.  Otherwise, I believe, we will all share responsibility for the violence to come.

So though I join the call for removing his statues from public places, I still think we can learn from Robert E. Lee.  In an 1865 letter to a magazine editor, he wrote, at the end of the war, “It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.”

How I wish that Lee himself had been in Charlottesville last week, to make that point to all those present.   I wonder if any of those whose acts led to violence had any idea of that side of Robert E. Lee.  Or did both “sides” simply think of him as a symbol of an era in which white supremacy was the law of the land, and align themselves accordingly?

The next fight close to home will no doubt involve the statues of all the confederate generals lining Monument Avenue here in Richmond.  The very short video attached, courtesy of our local TV station, offers a message I think Robert E. Lee would have approved of.


Rip Van Winkle Returns

Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle.  A career in civil rights and employment law kept me in the midst of political issues and controversies for over thirty years, but upon my retirement in 2003, I decided to enjoy a less stressful life:  to do so, I would isolate myself from the news.  So I went into a deep sleep.  For sixteen years now, I’ve been dreaming of beautiful things.  During my slumber, I played with grandchildren, I gardened, I wrote historical fiction, I read some of my daughter’s old college psychology texts – nothing that would raise my blood pressure.  I especially enjoyed reading about the psychology of human error, and confirmation bias.

In Being Wrong (Harper Collins, 2010) Kathryn Schulz quotes the French essayist Montaigne as asserting that people “are swept [into a belief] – either by the custom of their country or by their parental upbringing, or by chance – as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion.”  In keeping with that view, Schulz asserts that the single best predictor of someone’s political ideology is their parents’ political ideology.  That had certainly been true in my case, and as I researched the actual lives of the players in my historical fiction, I had discovered how true it was for them as well.  I was forced to ask myself the difficult question of whether I believed what I did, not because it made objective sense, but because of an inherited or at least culturally-guided confirmation bias of my own.

Now, even when asleep, our bodies can sense the presence of heat, cold, or other stimuli, and in a similar way, though I was asleep, I did hear snippets of the outside world from time to time.  The classic movie I’d recorded (so I could fast-forward through campaign ads) having ended, I’d be startled when the TV screen suddenly defaulted to the late news on TV.  In the car, entranced by Smetana’s Moldau or Charles Mingus’s rendition of “I’ll Remember April,” I’d be jarred awake by a piece of headline news before my hand could turn the radio off.  So I wasn’t totally asleep; not totally unaware of what was going on in the modern world.  Just mostly so.

Now, think what you will of him, few will deny that Donald Trump makes for engaging theater.  So no surprise, occasional sound bites of last summer’s slugfest between Donald and Hillary began to intrude on my dream, appealing to my own interest in politics the way a voice whispering “one little drink won’t hurt you” might appeal to an alcoholic, even after sixteen years on the wagon.  And – no one will be surprised to hear this – since awakening from my sixteen-year political slumber, I’ve been  feeling like old Rip Van Winkle himself, rubbing my eyes in disbelief at how much has changed during my absence, aghast at just how divisive this country had become while I slept.  My conservative friends had become so opinionated and cocksure that I found myself trying to articulate liberal replies in response, in an effort to moderate their extremism.  My liberal friends had become so arrogant and dismissive of their opponents that it seemed I had to join them, or become their enemy.  Two months ago, I started this blog as the only response I could think of to a world that seemed to have gone out of control as I slept.  And because of this blog, I have started, once again, to be sucked into the vortex of the news.

I still know little of what went down during my reverie.  As I emerge from my slumber, I imagine myself having something like Van Winkle’s naivete.  Perhaps that naivete will be apparent to others, as I dare to comment on the modern political scene.  But let the chips fall where they may, I’m going to comment – because I’ve decided my long slumber may actually be of help to the mission at hand.

My brother James alerted me today to an article I found most interesting, and this article is actually the focus of my post today.  But before I get to it, I’m afraid that, for some on the right, it might be an immediate turnoff to mention that it came from Vox.  Vox is a news source I’d never heard of until today, as it was created during the period of my deep slumber.  From what I’ve been able to gather this afternoon, it’s apparently viewed by the right as being very left.  So I feel constrained to offer, first, a word of caution about sources.

In Kathryn Schulz’s catalogue of the types of non-rational, illogical thinking to which we human beings are prone,  she points out that “[i]nstead of trusting a piece of information because we have vetted its source, we trust a source, and therefore accept its information.”  That’s understandable in some cases, but not a good thing for one aspiring to real communication across the political divide.  And in this case, I feel I have an advantage – having never heard of Vox before, I hold no biases for or against the source.  I neither trust it nor distrust it.  I can only consider what I read in it on its own merits.

Anyway, I hear today that Ezra Klein launched Vox in the eleventh year of my slumber with an article titled “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.”  I haven’t read it, but it apparently focused on the scientific work of Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School whose earlier work showed that the ability to reason soundly, particularly about political subjects, is undermined by the need to protect one’s core beliefs.  Hence, “how politics makes us stupid.”  Now, lost as I may have been in the land of Nod, that came as no surprise to me:  it sounded like run-of-the-mill confirmation bias, and I had digested the concept of confirmation bias years ago, before ever going to sleep, along with half a package of Oreo cookies.  But of greater interest to me is what appeared in Vox this week.   Klein has now reported on the work of Professor Kahan again, this time to report a way to escape our human susceptibility to confirmation bias:  CURIOSITY.

Apparently, as described by Klein (, Kahan’s new research shows that some of us – on both the right and the left – are more scientifically curious than others.  And that those of us who are scientifically curious are less prone to confirmation bias – or, to use Kahan’s phrase – less prone to let our politics make us “stupid.”  The point appears to be that confirmation bias interferes with sound thinking on both the left and the right, but that curiosity – a trait that exists on both the left and the right – is the common predictive factor that makes us less susceptible to the “stupidity” toward which confirmation bias pushes us.

Now, I haven’t vetted the source.  I haven’t even read Kahan’s actual findings.  I know better than to rely on the second-hand report of any mediary, trusted or not.  But I have to confess, I’m doggone interested.  For  the past several weeks, I’ve been asserting that political debate is for people who want to prove that they’re right in the eyes of a judge – not for people who want to convince people with whom they disagree.  In a debating class, there’s some sort of third-party judge.  In a courtroom, there’s a judge or jury.  In a political debate, there’s the undecided viewing public that is the effective judge.  In every case, the efforts of the debaters are designed to win points with the third-party judges by making the other side look erroneous, ignorant, or (best of all) just plain foolish.

How surprised I was, upon waking from my slumber, to discover that modern internet discussion is conducted the same way – as if there were some third party judge present to determine a winner.  After a thirty year legal career, I can tell you that I never saw a plaintiff convince a defendant she was right, nor a defendant convince a plaintiff that he was.  Rubbing my eyes of my sleepy dust, I had to wonder what these internet debaters thought they were doing in their efforts to “win an argument” (by showing how stupid their adversaries were) in the absence of any third party judge.  Weren’t they quite obviously driving their opponents deeper into their convictions?  In Being Wrong, Schulz describes exactly that phenomenon – how such efforts to “persuade” actually have the opposite effect.  And I’ve been saying that, surely, it makes more sense to conduct political discourse with a sincere attitude of wanting to learn from one’s adversaries, rather than proving (to ourselves?) how stupid our adversaries are.  I’ve been asking whether, paradoxically, a sincere desire to learn from someone else isn’t more likely to result in his or her learning from us at the same time.  And I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some psychological study that backs up that theory.

So here, today, comes my brother James, providing me exactly the sort of scientific study I’ve been looking for.  A desire to learn — curiosity — could it really make us less susceptible to confirmation bias?  Perhaps this is all just confirmation bias, on my part, fitting as well as it does with what I already suspected. So I want to check into it further.  I will check into it further.  But in the mean time, doggone it, it seems clear to me that curiosity must be the remedy, just as Kahan and Klein say.  If being curious isn’t close to being open-minded, and if being open-minded isn’t essential to learning, and if learning isn’t something we should all strive to experience, then what is?  And how come there’s all this debating and berating that has been shown to keep us from ever learning anything?

The world has changed a great deal in my years in the land of Nod.  Now that I’m awake, feeling (like old Rip Van Winkle) a good bit naïve and ill-informed, with no real clue about the strange new world I find around me, I am very, very thankful for that slumber.  For after thinking over what Kahan’s research has apparently shown, I believe my deep sleep may have done me a huge favor; by being politically asleep for these sixteen years, what strikes some (myself included) as naivete may be just what I need to be curious about what’s been going on in the world; curious about who’s right, and whose wrong; and ready, and willing, to learn from people who aren’t already my mental clones.

I’ll close by applauding another website I learned of just today: The Lystening Project.  The Lystening Project is an innovative approach to fostering open-mindedness and civility in political discourse, conceived of by a class of San Francisco high school students in what is surely a kindred spirit to that of We May Be Wrong.  Check out their website for yourself, but from what I gather, their idea is to assess participants’ political leanings through a short survey of opinions, and then to pair them with people of opposing views for dialogue across the divide.   I especially like the “oath” that participants must take before undertaking such paired dialogue:

“The Lystening Oath”

I will take a moment to connect with the other person as a human being first.

I will enter this conversation with the goal of understanding, not convincing.

I will not vilify, demean or degrade others or their views.

I will enter this conversation with goodwill and I will assume goodwill on the part of the other person.

 I will do my best to express my own views and how I came to believe them

Reminds me of the rules for the WMBW Forum.  I can’t imagine a better oath to ask people to take, and I thank the students’ advisor, Elijah Colby, for bringing their project to my attention.  Check them out for yourself at Help if you can.

— Joe