Bad People?

Two years ago, I started this blog with the aim of being different from the usual internet sites where people hurl insults at each other.  I hoped for a forum where people who admit their fallibility could strive for humility and civility towards those they disagree with — where they could learn from each other, or at least effectively explain themselves for the sake of mutual understanding.  To do this, I thought it wise to keep my own political views out of it.

I’ve long been one to play devil’s advocate, trying to spur self-reflection by questioning strong convictions.  As a result, many of my liberal friends consider me a real right-winger, and many of my conservative friends think of me as a leftist.  It’s the price I pay for playing devil’s advocate — for thinking that, through discussion, analysis, and genuine listening, I might  better understand those who see things differently than me. That I might profit from remembering the sign I once put on my office wall:

“Agree with me once and I’ll like you.  Agree with me all the time and I’ll think you’re a fool. Convince me I’m wrong and I’ll be in your debt forever.”

In today’s polarized climate, advocacy for the devil is a risky business.  In a conversation last May, a liberal friend asserted that no thinking person could support Donald Trump.  I offered a few examples of people I thought of as “thinking people” who did.  This fellow promptly dismissed me as a Trump supporter.  In the same way, but from the opposite side, when I’ve told some of my conservative friends that there may be good reason to be concerned about climate change or gun violence or celebrating confederate warriors, I’ve been written off as a liberal and everything I have to say (on any subject) is thereafter dismissed as political correctness. Real discourse shuts down. The devil’s advocate is shunned as the devil himself.

After much reflection, I’m coming out of the closet.  Once and for all, I’d like to assure my conservative friends that I am no liberal, and to assure my liberal friends that I am no conservative.  PLEASE don’t label me just so you can dismiss me.  Meanwhile, I wonder if there are others like me who feel that partisans on both the left and the right are making the same kind of mistake — namely, cutting off their noses to spite their faces with respect to people “in the middle” like me.

The Dictionary of Cliches (James Rogers, Wings Books, 1985) defines that old expression about cutting off noses as “seek revenge for some pain or injury to oneself: a self-defeating action.” I like this definition because I think it usually is pain or injury that makes us seek revenge and renders us likely to disfigure ourselves.

The left and the right both want to win converts, right?  Why is it that, from my perspective, both sides do more to alienate those of us in the middle than to turn us into converts?

I suggest this Einsteinian thought experiment: start with a population of 100 people. Try to arrange them by the extent to which they agree or not, so that you get a sort of continuum in which  #1 and #100 disagree with each other about nearly everything.  While none of them think exactly alike, imagine that #32 and #33 agree on a lot of things, as do #75 and #79.

Now, as I see it, the nose gets cut off this way: #1, who doesn’t agree with #100 as to whether the sky is blue, sees the similarities at that end of the continuum and lumps everyone from #95 to #100 together as idiots.  She offers statements or behaviors by #98 and #100 as proof of how idiotic those above #90 are.  Because#92, #95 and #96 actually disagree with #100 about some of those statements and behaviors, they take offense.  

So they criticize #1 for lumping them together on the basis of things they don’t identify with.  But #1 lashes back, pointing to other things that they DO agree with #100 and #94 about.  #1 reiterates her point: everyone above #90 is indeed an idiot.  She then adds, “now that I think of it, a lot of those in the 80’s aren’t much different either, and by their silence, I have to imagine some of them are idiots too.”  

So now a response comes from #84, taking offense and pointing out the many points of difference among the 80’s and 90’s crowd, and lashing back at #1 for being oblivious to those important differences.

#2 and #5 come to the defense of #1.  As they see it, the charge of being “oblivious”amounts to calling #1 (and anyone who agrees with her) “stupid.”  #2 and #5, in agreement with #1,  resent being called stupid.  They demand  “Are you on our side (that of righteousness), or on their side(that of indecency)?”  

Seeking to restore civility, #65 says, “I’m not really on either side, or more precisely, I agree with some things from each side.”  But the answer comes back from #2 and #5, now joined by #8 and #11, “You admit you agree with #100 about things?  An intelligent person cannot agree with #100.  You, too, are therefore an idiot.”

Over time, this lumping together under derogatory labels has an inevitable effect, and it is not the one intended.  It does not win converts. Whereas people in the 80’s and 90’s formerly thought a lot about their differences with each other and with #100, pretty soon, they come to agree with each other that the “bigger problem” is the threat from “those stupid people below #30.”  They start to label them all together, solidifying them, so that #22 and #28 resent being thrown in with #1 under the label “stupid,” decide that those above #60 are the “bigger threat,” etc.   

Both sides end up with placards and microphones, parading through the streets chanting,”If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Your silence condemns you.”  And pretty soon, #45 through #55 get squeezed out, compelled to side with one side or the other in order to avoid being trampled by both.  At this point, everybody is somebody else’s deplorable.

Presenting this purely as numbers, as I have here, I’m curious how many people, right and left, would say, “well, of course that happens,” but not recognize  their “own side’s” role in the process.

Suppose, for example,that I mention one small part of my personal political beliefs: namely that Donald Trump has done a good job of representing American interests in negotiations with China, North Korea, and Mexico.  Or what if I mention that I approve of his judicial appointments?  Does that anger my liberal friends?  Am I now an “idiot” or a “Trump supporter” or a neo-Nazi because I approve of those particular actions?  

Frankly, I suspect so, in the minds of many.  Because of that realistic possibility, now, out of the closet I must come.  I started WMBW in the autumn of 2016 because I was aghast at the degree of polarizing rhetoric and incivility I saw in the country.  I wanted to work toward harmony between combatants.  The primary impetus was what I saw coming out of candidate Donald Trump. And while I hardly thought he had started the centuries-old process of polarization, and while I hardly thought he was the only arrogant and uncivil public figure around, I did think that some of his statements were among the most arrogant and uncivil  I’d ever encountered.  So I resolved not to vote for him. 

I mention my extreme distaste for the way Donald Trump campaigned –and I now add my extreme distaste for a number of divisive statements and actions he has made since his election — only because of what comes next: namely, my appeal, to my liberal friends and readers, not to cut off your nose to spite your face by driving me into Trump’s camp.  Please don’t alienate me, please don’t turn me into your enemy, by demonizing me as a “Trump apologist” just because I see some good in him and haven’t demonized him with all the venom you have.

Somewhere between #40 and #60, I feel like both sides treat me as their enemy.  The side that’s likeliest to win me over to their thinking is the side that’s going to treat me with respect, to listen to my thoughts, to share their own and to see if we can reach some sort of mutual understanding about the issues (not the people) that separate us.   What I don’t understand is why neither side does that.  What I hear from both sides seems, at times, to insult me, to treat me as an enemy because I sit somewhere in the middle.  Both sides demand my 100% loyalty.  Both sides tell me, in effect, that I’m either with them or against them.  Neither side respects my desire to engage in open-minded discussion of specific issues, whichever side of it I happen to be on

A few weeks back, I posted on this site a piece I titled “The Corruption that Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  The piece contained a number of posters created by graphic artist Jeff Gates.  I’d been attracted to the posters by their message that divisiveness and polarization were doing great harm to the country.  But my deeper look into Mr. Gates’s work revealed that the vast majority of his wrath was directed, not only at President Trump, but at the Republican Party as a whole — and that his attacks on them were highly insulting. 

This past Saturday afternoon, Mr. Gates posted a comment on this website in response to my piece.  His comment included a reference to an article he’d written last year, “Choking on Our Words,” which he said would explain his perspective in greater detail.  You can find his comment and its link to “Choking on Our Words” here on this website.   I encourage you to read both for yourselves.  Meanwhile I have my own observations to share about them.

First, there is much in them I like.  When Gates draws a distinction between “debate” (it “means you’re trying to win”) and “dialectic” (it “means you are using disagreement to discover what is true,”) he gives voice to the raison d’etre for WeMayBeWrong.  (Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.)  When he writes, “Like many, I’m tiptoeing through a cultural minefield.  Both the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the right’s intransigence are corrosive,” I feel I’m reading the work of a kindred spirit. When he criticizes the right and left for using phrases like “political correctness” and “racist”as marks of scorn that shut down intelligent dialogue, I want to cheer.  When he writes,“I’m fighting hard to make my way to higher ground, out of this filthy, smoggy air, to a place where we can communicate more constructively,” I want to ask him to dinner — or at least to create another poster, giving visual life to that feeling he has had that I so strongly share.

But there was a reason I titled my post “The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  Those of us who feel aghast at many of Donald Trump’s arrogant statements, who deplore the derisive and polarizing way he insults his opponents and detractors, who feel we’re performing an act of justice by criticizing those specific offensive behaviors — can be corrupted, I believe, by the very self-righteousness our condemnation of such conduct inspires.  We can feel so pained by the behaviors we deplore that we want to strike back, and we do – and that, I think, is when we risk cutting off our noses with tactics designed to win debates rather than get at truth through dialectic.

Mr. Gates writes that the bipartisan posters I liked were “from those early years when it seemed that bipartisanship was possible.”  He writes that there is “no equivalence between the behavior of the GOP and the Democrats.”  He writes that “the fact that the rest of the GOP is silent … is the saddest of all.”  He writes that, as a result, not only Mr. Trump, but the GOP as well, are “valuable subjects for critique and criticism” in a way that he apparently believes is not just a difference in degree, but in kind, from the excesses and failures of various Democrats.

I think it sad that Mr. Gates seems to have given up on bipartisanship. I and many Republicans who remain interested in bipartisanship feel many points of difference between us and our current President.  But the fact that we still agree with some of the things he has done and don’t demonize him in every possible respect, puts us at risk of being lumped together with him in every respect, due to our alleged “silence,” i.e., our lack of complete and total condemnation.  So the Gates posters now attack the entire GOP — and, may I say, insultingly so. To the extent that I (sort of) still consider myself a Republican, he has attacked me.

Am I to mourn the loss of someone who seemed so recently to aspire to bipartisanship?  Or, if Mr. Gates still really desires bipartisanship, should I wonder whether his insults directed at all Republicans are meant to bring them around to his point of view?  If so, I suspect he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.  I don’t see how the insulting criticism of one’s opponents — and even those who occupy a middle ground between one’s self and one’s opponents — gains converts, rather than more enemies.

On November 26, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg titled “Maybe They’re Just Bad People.”  In her piece, Goldberg wrote, “Trump is hardly the first politician to attract self-serving followers…  But Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him.”

Really?  What is the sole basis Ms. Goldberg offers for finding Trump  “unique”? Because “decent people won’t associate with him.”

Well, well. I gather that how many people are”indecent” or just plain “bad” because they associate with Trump depends on how you define “associate with.”  Maybe, Ms. Goldberg is only calling all of Trump’s immediate family bad.  Maybe it’s just everyone who works in the White House, or anywhere in the administration.  Or, more broadly, maybe it’s everyone who ever voted for him, worked for him, or said hello to him on the street one time.  Maybe I’m bad because I’ve approved of some of the things he has done.  Who knows? I know only that, according to Goldberg, decent people simply don’t associate with him, so if I do, I’m bad.

The wide broom that sweeps together anyone who even “associates with” your enemy is the tactic that energized the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, and the worst excesses of McCarthyism — all movements I’d venture to guess Ms. Goldberg deplores.  It’s the wide broom of animosity toward all Muslims that drives some Muslims to become terrorists.  And since Mr. Gates says that Trump is woefully ignorant of the constitution, maybe he can remind Ms. Goldberg that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of association — and that inclusiveness is all about associating with people you may not agree with.  If liberals are so self-righteous in their condemnation of President Trump that they can’t look in the mirror and see this wide broom in themselves, then maybe Mr. Gates is right, maybe there’s no hope left for bipartisanship.   Gates writes that you can’t achieve bipartisanship “when one party refuses to participate.”  I wonder what he’d say about the example Ms. Goldberg appears to endorse.  

In my view, one way to combat polarization is for people on both sides to stop sweeping with such wide brooms.  To stop blaming entire political parties, or religions, or movements for the excesses of individuals among them.    That’s what drives moderates into the opposing camp.  If we don’t like Mr. Trump, or any other politician, let’s start talking about the specific statements and behaviors  we disapprove of — that is, the issues, not the people, or the “team,” we support or deplore.   When people of one party see polarization entirely as the fault of the other — and certainly when they suggest that anyone on the other side may just be “bad people”— then my question is, is any one party to blame, or is it just the difficulty we all have of seeing ourselves as others see us?

Best to all this holiday season,


The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice

More and more, it seems to me that the problem with the extreme left is precisely the same as the problem with the extreme right: an inability to realistically self-reflect, an inability to see ourselves as others see us.

My case in point today is the Chamomile Tea Party.

I came across a reference to it in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (A book that’s definitely worth a read, if we want to understand why so many people disagree with us.)  At page 320 of the Vintage Books paperback edition, Haidt offered two images designed to express the  reaction many of us are having to increasing polarization and lack of civility in politics.  Haidt identified the images as posters created by graphic designer Jeff Gates for the “Chamomile Tea Party.”

Stop This Bickering

We're Losing Our Competitive Edge

I loved both posters.  The messages about disunity, about cessation of bickering, seemed right up my alley.  “What is this Chamomile Tea Party?” I wondered. “Have I finally found a civil, respectful, harmonizing, unifying political party I can identify with?”

Finally, this morning, I googled on the Chamomile Tea Party. At first, my reaction was positive.  I liked the tagline I came across, a quotation, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress. – Joseph Jouber.”

As I read on, I started thinking how much the Chamomile Tea Party had in common with WeMayBeWrong.  Both seemed focused on restoration of civility.  I found more posters I liked.

Call Congress!

Your Animosity Hurts the Country

I was ready to join their fight to combat arrogance and incivility in the political process.  Ready, if I could, to register as pure Chamomile for the next election.

But as I continued to peruse the posters on the CTP website, I began to get a different impression.   As I looked deeper, it began to seem that the CTP has very clear views about where all the blame lies.  If you’re interested, check out some of the other posters with which the Chamomile Tea Party is working to restore civility to American politics.  Here are just a few:

Tie His Hands Tight: VOTE!

GOP, We'll Remember...

Trump: More Than an Inconvenient Truth

Visit the Isle of Anger and Unmet Promises


2017 National Scout Jamboree


Hell Yeah He Colluded!

A Xmas Card from the GOP

There are plenty more on the website, but I’ll end this small sampling with my personal favorite:

Avenge Donald Trump

If posters like these will help to restore civility and close the political divide by assigning all the blame for today’s incivility on Trump and the right, I don’t get it; I must not have that “superior intellect” they’re talking about.   (Actually, the posters don’t put all the blame on Republicans.  There are also a few posters that put the blame on lobbyists, corporations, and capitalists.)

What is it about the offensive arrogance of our opponents that causes us to adopt offensive arrogance ourselves?  Can’t we see that “we” come across to “them” exactly as “they” come across to “us”?  That both sides were becoming increasingly hostile long before Donald Trump?   How are “our” attacks and insults intellectually (or morally) superior to “theirs”?

I mentioned above  how much I liked the quote I found on the CTP’s website, so I wondered who this Joseph Jouber was who pointed out the difference between victory and progress.  The brief Wikipedia article on the man (an 18th century appointee of Napoleon Bonaparte whose name is actually Joubert) included another quote by the man.  Maybe, having read nothing else of what he said, and maybe, not seeing these quotes in context, I misunderstand Monsieur Joubert completely.  But, standing alone, his other quote may tell us much about why  incivility on one side seems to induce reciprocal incivility on the other.

According to Wikipedia, Joubert also said, “There are some acts of justice which corrupt those who perform them.”  If I had to guess, Joubert, writing in the Napoleonic era,  was talking about the corrupting effect on executioners of letting guillotines fall, or something of that sort.  Maybe being an executioner leaves a person heartless and insensitive to death?  Maybe being responsible for punishing wrongs leads to arrogant self-righteousness?  Whatever Joubert meant, it strikes me that the same may be true of many who find Mr. Trump’s style of leadership so offensive.  Have they been so outraged by him, have they become so self-righteous in their condemnation of him, that they’ve become blind to how they come across to his supporters?

I’ve heard some vocal critics of Mr. Trump say their reaction is justified because “Trump started it.”  I disagree.  I think the Trump/Clinton election campaign was an escalation, not a beginning.  True enough, those of us who hoped Mr. Trump would become more presidential if elected have been disappointed, in at least some important respects.  (Calling a reporter’s question “stupid” doesn’t strike me as a path to unifying a divided country.)  But that doesn’t mean he is somehow solely responsible for the invention of political incivility.  And if the act of condemning him makes us feel self-righteous and superior, how far off can our own arrogance be?

So, no, I guess I won’t be joining the Chamomile Tea Party after all.  At some point, if we’re ever to escape from the downward spiral we’ve fallen into, someone has to rise above  insults.  I’m willing to bet that it won’t ever be “them” that do so, so if it’s going to happen at all, I think it will have to begin with us.

— Joe



This Week’s Remarkable Arrogance

Regardless how you feel about the outcome of this week’s midterm elections, you  have to admit it’s been a great week in some respects. The mid-terms seemed to bring out the electorate rhetoric in record numbers.  For me, it was like watching a meteor shower. I mean, as far as I can see, it was a perfect week for reflection about the meaning of arrogance.

Did we see arrogance in others, but not in ourselves?

Personally, I thought the President was unusually insulting this week.  When he said to a reporter, “That’s a stupid question,” then repeated the comment a second time, then told her she had asked a lot of stupid questions, I saw that as extremely rude and insulting.  It was for that type of comment that I did not vote for him regardless of my expectation that I might agree with a lot of his policies.  When he answered a question about releasing his tax returns by saying that tax returns are complicated documents that most Americans would not be able to understand, I found the comment insulting to the American people.  But was either comment arrogant?

When Steven Colbert devoted his Wednesday night Late Show monologue to insulting the President, I thought him completely unfunny and boorish.  But was he arrogant?  If so, was his arrogance different from that of the President?

Many would say that Trump this week was even more arrogant than he usually is, while Colbert was funny, rather than arrogant.  Others would say that Trump was not arrogant, just “telling it like it really is” and that Colbert was an arrogant snob or an arrogant traitor (whichever is worse).  Bottom line, I think, is that we tend to find arrogance in the passions, attitudes and statements of those we disagree with – pretty much the same places we find stupidity.

Is the concept of arrogance capable of being objectively assessed?  Put another way, if Jack calls Jill arrogant, does that really tell me anything about Jill, or does it only tell me about how Jack himself feels about her?  Is it possible to define the word “arrogant” so that it gives me more reliable information about Jill than it does about Jack?

This has a lot to do with why I think the President may not be the only one who exhibited arrogance this week.

My edition of Webster’s defines arrogance as “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.”  The O.E.D. defines it as “the taking of too much upon oneself as one’s right.”

Both definitions are highly subjective.  When President Trump said this week’s midterms were largely a referendum on him, would it be right to say the statement was arrogant if you didn’t consider it “offensive” (Webster) or “too much” (OED)?  But what is offensive to one of us doesn’t seem to offend the other.  Many observers have opined that the President of the U.S. is the most powerful person on earth.  If a president acts as if he’s the most powerful person on earth, is that offensive?  Is it taking too much on one’s self?   If a 2002 news analyst said that midterm elections have traditionally been referenda on whoever the sitting president is, we might have agreed.  Could we agree, yet still find Trump’s 2018 statement  arrogant?  When spoken by oneself, about oneself, can an accurate statement ever be arrogant?  I have the sense that it can, but only when I think it “offensive.”  And when Jack finds Jill offensive, I’m back to feeling it tells me as much or more about Jack as it does about Jill.

When Wednesday night’s Late Show moved from the monologue to Colbert’s conversation with CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett, their conversation centered around the arrogance of “Trump.”  I had previously noticed how the news media now tends to refer to the president as “Trump.”  (With Eisenhower, it was sometimes Ike, with Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson it was FDR, JFK or LBJ.  But even with Nixon, and up through Clinton, Obama, and even the first year of the current presidency, I also heard the President called “the President.”  I haven’t heard the media call Donald Trump “the President” for months now.  Touting his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” Garret explained that when Trump began to campaign for President, his staff made very clear that they wanted him to be called “Mister Trump.”  Given Garrett’s explanation, it sounds to me as if the media’s repeated reference to him as “Trump” without the Mister is an intentional avoidance of Trump’s expressed desires, as if to irritate or disrespect him the way he irritates and disrespects them. Whatever one thinks on that subject, can the media’s statements about the people they cover ever reflect media arrogance?   Can their reporting imply an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance?”  Can their reporting of news suggest the taking of too much upon themselves, as their right?

During Wednesday night’s show, Garrett told Colbert that Trump’s attacks on the media had become so aggressive that it was time for the news media to ”lock arms” and support each other “because collectively, the First Amendment is what unites all of us.”  I am curious whether Garrett’s reference to “all of us” meant all Americans, or just all of us in the institutional news media.  Garrett was talking about the widely-viewed scene in which Trump told another reporter to sit down, he hadn’t been recognized.  The reporter refused, holding onto the microphone when a staffer attempted to take it away from him.  Was Trump arrogant for telling the reporter to sit down?  Was the reporter arrogant for refusing to yield the microphone?  Who was taking onto himself more than was his right?  Does your answer depend on your subjective views about politics, or Trump, or the news media?  Or is there something more objective involved?

Since Garret’s comment about “all of us” came in the context of saying that White House journalists had traditionally been in it entirely for themselves, but now had good cause to “lock arms” in dealing with Trump, I tend to think that by “all of us” he may have meant the White House Press Corps, and I was reminded of a question of law that has long bothered me.

Since my law school days in the 1970’s, I’ve heard the argument that because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech AND freedom of the press, the latter gives rights and privileges to the institutional media (“the press”) that the rest of us do not enjoy.  I think of journalists refusing to divulge their confidential sources and citing other privileges based on “freedom of the press.”   Some states give specific rights to professional journalists (such as a refusal to disclose sources) that us common folk don’t enjoy.   Is that what the Constitution really means?

I remember one childhood day when a VW beetle in which I was riding was stopped for speeding.  I had joined my friend’s family en route to a folk music festival.  When my friend’s father (the driver of the beetle) pulled out his press badge, he was quickly waved on by the trooper, who apparently assumed that the flashing of press credentials gave the man a free pass to exceed the speed limit – never mind that his children were packed into the back seat with a bunch of banjos, guitars and a neighborhood kid named Joe.  When this man joked about his success – at a tactic he acknowledged employing before – was he taking too much, as his right?

More generally, to some, “freedom of the press” seems to protect only those who carry such credentials. I don’t see it that way.   Thomas Paine, the revolutionary icon who authored Common Sense,  was a corset-maker, sailor and school teacher before publishing the pamphlet that helped birth our nation. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule explicitly on the question of whether the protections it has extended to the institutional media also protect the rest of us.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2014 case that an untrained, un-credentialed private blogger enjoys the same constitutional privileges as the institutional press.  It was good news for untrained, un-credentialed private bloggers like me.   I remain hopeful that, someday, the Supreme Court will agree.  As I see it, employees of big media corporations who get press passes to White House Press Conferences have no more right to insist on holding microphones than I would have, had I been invited to the White House.  I feel that if I’d been allowed into the briefing room and refused to give up the mike, I’d be taking too much on myself, as my right — which is to say, arrogant.  But I have the feeling that much of the institutional press – now “locking arms” against the President – would disagree.

So, yes.  while I may be wrong, I am one of those who thinks Donald Trump is at least as arrogant as any President before him, and very possibly moreso, which is saying a lot, since I can’t recall a president who didn’t seem arrogant.  But at the same time, I think that many institutional journalists have reached their own pinnacle of arrogance in this divisive time.  (I, for one, will refer to the President as Mr. Trump, if that’s what he wants, even as I plan to vote against him the next chance I get.)

I voted in several races and on two constitutional amendments this week without much confidence that I was voting the objectively “right” way.  Yet there was one candidate for whom I cast a very confident vote, and for a reason I don’t regret.  While I didn’t agree with her on every issue — maybe not even a majority of issues – her campaign ads shared a single theme: that she would work with any president, and any Congress, for what was best.  She ran no “negative” ads slamming her opponent.  She cast herself as someone who might listen to, and even respect, those she disagreed with.  When a buddy of mine asked if I thought she really would act that way, if elected, my reply was “Probably not; but that won’t change my vote.  We’ve got to start somewhere, and politicians will never behave with civility unless they’re willing to campaign that way.”

“Arrogance” comes from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to ask.”  The Romans gave certain tribes the privilege of making requests (voting) first, a practice that gave rise to our word for all sorts of “pre-rogatives.”  A press pass, or credential, is essentially such a privilege or prerogative – not a God-given right.  To insist on keeping something you don’t have a right to is to “ar-rogate” something to yourself, which is the etymological core of arrogance.  Yet Colbert and Garrett spoke of news reporter as if he were the victim of injustice — which I take as a sure sign of the media “locking arms.”  So, to members of the press (including those of us who are untrained and un-credentialed): for us, my prayer is that as we rail against the arrogance of others, let us be ever alert to our own.

“Be kind,” said the philosopher.  “For everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

From where I sit, it’s been that sort of week.



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