Monday, October 31, 2005

Alito is a Statist Parasite

I am looking at the resume of Sam "Little Fat Tony" Alito, just nominated as GW Bush's second choice behind Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. The guy has worked his entire career for the federal government. He passed on the honor of serving in Vietnam, although he appears to have been in the army reserve, and attended Princeton from 1968-1972. He studies law at Yale from 1972-1975, and it is unclear what he did for the first year after he graduated.

He clerked for Judge Garth of the Court of Appeals in the 3rd Circuit, so I guess he wasn't connected enough for a Supreme Court clerkship. He was assistant US Attorney in New Jersey from 1977-1981 and "Assistant to" the US Solicitor General from 1981-1985. He then became Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in which capacity he served from 1987-1990. Bush the Elder nominated him to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1990 where he has been ensconced ever since.

Basically, he has never done any productive work in his entire life. He probably has very little experience of what it means to be an ordinary working person trying to get by in this country today. He is a parasite dependent upon the state and likely in every case to advance the prerogatives of the state on which he feeds.

Just what we needed. Another nail in the coffin of liberty.

Update: I was inspired to take a look at the resumes of the other luminaries on the Supreme Court other than O'Connor. All but one, Stevens who went to Northwestern, got their law degrees from the Ivy League. Souter, Thomas, Breyer, and Scalia were career government employees and, therefore, have never done any productive work, either. Ginsburg was an academic. In contrast, Stevens and Kennedy were lawyers in private practice, and Roberts spent at least 15 years in private practice in between government gigs. All in all, the Supreme Court is close to being packed with people who have always depended on the state.

A Random Thought on the Religious Right

The ideology of the religious right (RR) is, in many ways, the polar opposite of libertarianism. The aim of the RR is to gain political power and compel people to live as the leaders of the RR dictate. Today, the dupes of the RR are motivated and mobilized around abortion and the “homosexual agenda”, but if the RR is ever victorious in these areas it will have to crusade against some other “sin” or category of “sinners” until the minutest details of our lives have been regulated. The cycle will continue until society has achieved perfection as perceived by the leaders of the RR. Think Taliban on steroids.

The RR is all about limiting preferences; therefore, the ascendancy of the RR will eliminate the problem of central planning in the economy. Since the state will decide what everyone needs or ought to need, the state will have perfect knowledge to direct and plan production. There will be no need for wasteful competition or risky enterprise. Is that what the business interests that use the GOP as a political vehicle had in mind when they built a coalition with the RR?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Child Custody

As I promised, I have given some thought to how child custody and visitation might be handled in a free society. Murray Rothbard considered children to be the "property", in a peculiar sense, of their mothers as their creators or homesteaders, and it makes some sense to grant paramount parental rights to mothers in the absence of any agreement to the contrary. This would be consistent with the requirement that the system for dealing with child custody and visitation be as unintrusive and as inexpensive as possible. Disputes over child custody and visitation (CCV) are problems for the disputants, but the disputants have no right to make their private disputes the responsibility of third parties. If you or your ex-mate cannot be adults about CCV, there is no reason that I or any other disinterested third party should be required to pay for an expensive dispute resolution bureaucracy or an intrusive child welfare agency.

Having mothers as the default custodians has at least two advantages. Firstly, maternity is rarely in question. Secondly, it appears to be the societal norm that mothers are the primary caregivers of their children even in the case of mothers with full time jobs.

Of course, parents (and others) could contract for different CCV provisions, and these agreements should be enforced. For example, a father might contract with his mate to share parental rights or for the father to have sole rights.

This leaves out those fathers who fail to contract for rights but who later wish to have CCV privileges. In many cases, the mother will afford such privileges voluntarily or in exchange for financial support. Most women who truly love their children will want them to have healthy relationships with their non-custodial fathers. In some cases, spiteful mothers may deprive their former mates of access to their children, and the system I propose will afford no remedy in such cases. Men will have a powerful incentive to stay on the good sides of their wives or baby-mommas, to avoid reproducing with spiteful women, and to make contractual arrangements for parental rights. Men who love their children and find themselves cut out of their lives will be SOL under my proposed system, but this can't be helped without undue expense and imposition on the rest of society. I might point out that this injustice already occurs routinely even with an elaborate and expensive family court system.

Why not choose fathers as the default custodians? Firstly, paternity is sometimes at issue. Secondly, it is an unfortunate social fact that many fathers are entirely disinterested in and are more or less incompetent at being primary caregivers. This would be especially true in the case of men who did not have the foresight or interest to make advance contractual arrangements for parental rights. Frankly, in my experience in divorce cases, child welfare and as a children's advocate for 20 years, I have seen a lot of men use CCV proceedings as power plays rather than as manifestations of a genuine desire to take on more parental responsibility. This is especially true in lower income families where the default provisions are most likely to come into play. No good can come of tilting power relations in these families more in the favor of men.

What if the mother or the party with contractual parental rights is unfit? I would permit any person to petition for custody of any child on the basis of abuse, abandonment or neglect. The burden of proof would be on the petitioner. To keep these cases to a minimum, I would make it relatively difficult to establish unfitness. There would be no need for any publicly funded child welfare apparatus.

This system would not be competent to determine the best interests of children, only the respective rights of various adults, but the present system that purports to apply the best interests standard does not, in fact, succeed in doing so in any meaningful way. Let's save ourselves a lot of time and money by abandoning this unattainable standard.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Judas' Day

Today is the feast day of, among others, the Apostles Simon the Zealot and Judas (not the betrayer, the other one). They are said to have been martyred while evangelizing in Persia. Jude is known as the patron saint of “desperate causes” or “the saint of last resort”. This is perhaps because of the similarity of his name to the other Apostle Judas.

I guess Harriet Miers should have tapped into the powers of St Judas. GW Bush is probably thinking about the other Judas when he contemplates his treatment by the religious right. What should a spiteful, mean spirited little spider of a man do now? He should get even with the religious righties by nominating the wingnuttiest wingnut that he could find. When the nomination goes down in flames because the nominee scares the crap out of most sane people, he can then nominate one of his buddies.

My recommendation, in case I miss GW's call, is:

  • Pat Robertson: He has a law degree and can redirect hurricanes. He has said a lot of nutty things (eg 9/11 was God's doing) and will never be confirmed. He looks pretty judicial to me in this photo.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

Wendy McElroy posts at LRC ( and at Liberty & Power ( about the concept of “Parental Alienation Syndrome”. I agree with her that it seems unproductive to characterize the phenomenon of parental alienation as a psychological condition. Much as “Battered Spouse Syndrome” framed as a psychological condition contributes little to understanding the phenomenon and dealing with it, framing parental alienation in such terms is unlikely to lead to more just handling of custody and visitation matters. It just means more money for psychologists who hold themselves out as experts.

The main issue I have with Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is that it seems a gratuitous way of “medicalizing” a series of interactions among family members. None of the participants in these interactions may be said to “have” the syndrome; rather, the interactions comprise the syndrome. The criteria for “diagnosing” PAS include: access and contact blocking, unfounded allegations of abuse, deterioration of the relationship with the non-custodial parent, and an intense fear reaction in the children as to the non-custodial parent. Access and contact blocking will occur in almost every case, and deterioration in the relationship is almost inevitable. The critical issue for courts is to distinguish between cases of abusive non-custodial parents and cases where allegations of abuse are false. Whether an allegation is "unfounded" is a factual determination, not a clinical one.

It is uncontroversial that it is better for children of divorced parents if their parents can act like adults and consider the interests of their children in what is, in any event, a difficult transition. It is damaging to children, emotionally and socially, for either parent to alienate the affections of the children for the other parent, and in extreme cases this might be considered emotionally abusive. It greatly increases the probability that the non-custodial parent will withdraw from the lives of the children and even neglect financial obligations.

Courts and others involved in custody and visitation issues are well aware that custodial spouses often attempt to alienate the affections of children toward their other parent for any number of reasons, spite being quite common, and this phenomenon is supposed to be considered as one of many factors in determining custody and visitation. The problem is not that the phenomenon is poorly understood; rather, the problem is that courts are ill equipped to do anything about it other than order parents to make nice. Moreover, where there are allegations of abuse, courts are generally going to err on the side of protecting children rather than the alleged abuser. Calling the phenomenon a “syndrome” is not going to be helpful if there is no just mechanism for investigating and evaluating allegations of abuse. If I were a judge, I would not be satisfied with just an “expert” opinion that a situation was PAS rather than actual abuse. I would want an old school factual inquiry.

On the one hand, PAS is a phenomenon that is driven by spite and anger. On the other, it is driven by the nature of the family court system in that there are strategic advantages to be gained from making false allegations of abuse. There are rarely any negative consequences for the false accuser. For a variety of reasons, there is a veritable presumption that accusations of abuse are true, and as a practical matter the sometimes impossible burden of disproving them falls upon the accused. Courts generally do not have the resources to investigate allegations of abuse, and child welfare agencies are not in a position to distinguish between real abuse and false accusations. What child welfare bureaucrat is going to go out on a limb and rule out abuse when the safer course is to believe the accuser or take no position? What judge is going to risk public wrath and diminish his reelection prospects by siding with an accused with the possibility that the accused really is abusive? The rational choice for the judge and the bureaucrat is to assume that the accused is abusive. Sure, the non-custodial parent and the children may be harmed by this, but the judge and the bureaucrat won’t be. The best interests of the state trump all.

The trouble is that there are abusive parents and false accusers, and resources are needed if courts are to be more discriminating. Social and political priorities are at issue. Do we do justice to families at the expense of exposing some children to abuse in case of error and where abuse is hard to prove? Or do we protect as many children as possible from abuse at the expense of screwing up the relationships of some children with their falsely accused parents? How can we do justice and protect children at the same time?

I come down on the side of having family courts insist on evidence and on allocating resources to investigate such allegations independently. The burden should be on the accuser, and there should be no presumption as to the truth or falsity of any accusation. Every case must be evaluated on its own merits. In order to insulate judges and investigators from political and social pressure, custody and visitation should be subject to default provisions which may be deviated from only by agreement or upon proof that deviation would be in the best interests of the children. The burden would be on the party seeking to deviate from the default, and the court would be required to make specific findings of fact justifying its orders. Every litigant in family court should be required to sit through classes in how to act like an adult and how to make the process less damaging to children. Every child should be represented by counsel to advocate his or her own interests.

False accusers should face consequences, and their lawyers should be subject to sanctions if they advance allegations for which they have no basis.

This would increase transaction costs in custody and visitation proceedings, but justice may be more closely approximated only if adequate resources are devoted to it. Mistakes will be made. Abusers will get away with it, and false accusers will prevail, but such errors will be significantly less likely if family courts actually tried factual allegations presented to them. As long as the state is in the business of dispensing justice (and I am not sure that it should be), it might consider actually trying to do it.

How would a free society deal with disputes over custody and visitation? One way might be to recognize one parent or the other as having paramount rights in the child. Perhaps the parent who broke the marriage contract would lose parental rights. This would require very little in the way of a dispute resolution process. The dynamics of power within families would have to be considered to ascertain what would be most consistent with liberty, and I plan to devote some thought to this issue. The views of my imaginary readers would certainly be of interest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Martyred Soldiers' Day

Among the non-clergy saints whose feast day is today are St Maurice and St Demetrius. Both men are said to have been soldiers in the Roman army and murdered by the authorities on account of their Christianity. St Maurice commanded an entire legion of Christians who refused to recant and who were all executed. So Maurice is known as "St Maurice and his companions".

Demetrius was killed by being stuck with multiple spears. His kerchief and ring were used by his servant to perform miracles after his death, and he appeared to sick people in their dreams and instructed them on how to be healed. He was a patron saint of the Crusades along with St George and is often pictured mounted and poking a dragon with a spear or lance like St George. In the icon museum in Bardejov, Slovakia, I was hard pressed to tell apart the icons of George and Demetrius (Michael was also similar in motif).

2000 American soldiers and possibly more have already been killed in the Iraq misadventure. GW Bush has tried to characterize them as martyrs to democracy in the Middle East and has said that to honor them we must consign even more young men and women to their deaths in his pet project. Even in death, GW Bush dishonors them and misuses them. Sadly, they are martyrs to Bush's lust for power. In a better world, their deaths would be lessons of what damage evil men in power can do, and we would pledge to make sure that not a single drop of blood would be shed in vain in the future in such adventures. We must never again concede such power to any man.

The Deadly Innovation Hypothesis

Today Steve Sailer links to an interesting article by Linda Gottfredson. Gottfredson advances the “deadly innovation hypothesis” as the driver for dramatic increases in human intelligence over a relatively short period of time. In a nutshell, the hypothesis is that less intelligent humans are significantly more prone to accidental death and that innovations in technology and culture increase complexity and the risk of accidents. Each innovation introduces a new level of complexity and more opportunities for people to kill themselves accidentally. Even a small disadvantage for humans of lower intelligence would result over time in a significant culling of such individuals and their genes from the population.

You can’t get killed in a car accident if there are no cars, and you aren’t as likely to get trampled by a mammoth if your band hasn’t developed mammoth hunting as a provisioning technique.

This idea contrasts with some of the prevailing hypotheses that attribute rapid gains in intelligence to social factors such as sexual selection or the need for increased “social intelligence”. I have always been skeptical of these other hypotheses, although these factors undoubtedly played a role, because of my personal experiences with my conspecifics. Female humans are not necessarily attracted to the most intelligent males, many of whom have a high “geek coefficient”. Also, “social intelligence” does not in my experience correlate strongly with general intelligence.

One of the aspects of social intelligence that I have observed most is empathy, or the ability to put oneself imaginatively in the circumstances of another. This is one of the most important skills in negotiation and permits the negotiator to anticipate opposing positions, to understand the needs underlying positions, and to develop a successful negotiating strategy. Many of the most intelligent people I have ever known are severely retarded when it comes to empathy, and far too many lawyers, who tend to be of above average intelligence, are wanting in negotiating skills as a result of low social intelligence. These non-empaths, as I have decided to call them for no particular reason, are limited to purely competitive negotiating strategies and almost inevitably reach early impasse or other suboptimal outcomes. They anticipate their opponent’s positions solely through projection whereby they attribute their own motives and tendencies to others, and they are incapable of imagining that another human being might think differently. It is unsatisfying to negotiate with non-empaths, even though it is relatively easier to manipulate them. It is intolerable to have a non-empath on your negotiating team because he will inevitably sabotage the process.

Some of the most empathic people I have ever known have been on the left side or the middle of the Bell Curve when it comes to general intelligence. I have known people who were borderline retarded who were quite charming and thoughtful and well able to empathize with the feelings and needs of others.

My interest in conflict management and dispute resolution coupled with my interest in evolutionary psychology has caused me to be on the lookout for correlations between intelligence and skills needed to deal with conflict/disputes. So far, although I have made no formal study of this, I am initially inclined to believe that such a correlation would be weak and possibly spurious. I have only begun to consider what a formal research design might look like.

Of course, my own experience may not be representative since my exposure to humans of low intelligence has in my adult life been relatively infrequent and skewed toward people in some kind of trouble (I was generally prosecuting them or defending them or dealing with them in the wake of some tragedy or misfortune). I cannot say whether less clever people are more apt to resort to violence to deal with conflict or whether, if this is so, this is due to existential factors rather than social intelligence.

That said, I am intrigued by the deadly innovation hypothesis. The posited selective mechanisms would be at work in the modern world even more than in the EEA. Every innovation, and these are coming at an ever increasing rate, may put a large part of the population at increasing risk and disadvantage at the same time that it contributes to prosperity for the more well endowed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Have a Happy Shoemaker's Holiday and a Hilarius Day

Today, like every other day, is a saint’s day. In fact, today is the feast day of a number of saints. See for a partial list. I have taken to checking what saints are associated with each day out of idle curiosity. (Note to self: come up with desk calendar idea pitch, Saint A Day Calendar). I never heard of most of the saints to be honored today, but the brothers Crispin and Crispianus rang a bell. They feature in my favorite Shakespeare speech from Henry V:

“This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:
'Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.
'Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

Crispin and Crispianus are the patron saints of bootmakers and shoemakers, and today is the Shoemaker’s Holiday. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to have shoes made. They were rich men from Britain who had to flee into Gaul and work as shoemakers. They evangelized by day and made shoes by night until they were arrested by the Roman authorities and ordered to recant their Christianity. The authorities put millstones around their necks and threw them into a river, but the brothers miraculously did not drown. They were thrown into a cauldron of boiling lead, and when this did not kill them, the authorities tried boiling pitch, boiling water, boiling fat and boiling oil, all to no avail. Finally, decapitation did the trick.

Saint Hilarius interested me because the name seemed funny (I will never grow up). I wish that he were the patron saint of clowns or comedians or something, but he isn’t. He seems to have gotten in on his resume as I have found no tales of miraculous happenings. He was a hermit on the River Tarn, a monk and then Bishop of Mende.

I became interested in saints' days when my friends in Poland told me that they celebrated both their birthdays and their "saint's day", i.e. the feast day of the saint for whom they were named. I hold St George in special esteem and resolve to celebrate St George's day in style from here on out. I'm not Catholic, and I really don't know what sainthood is all about, but the legends of the saints are pretty interesting and can serve as exemplars of faithfulness.

GW Bush as Evidence that We Inhabit an "Alternate Reality"

There’s a lot of speculation about how the whole Traitorgate and Iraq catastrophe came about. Wasn’t there some adult supervision of the regime? Some may hold that the current troubles are all part of a cunning evil plan whereby the Bush crime family seizes even more power, but I am doubtful. Some other possible explanations are more attractive to me.

Amanda at Pandagon explains the apparent rank stupidity of the Bushites by speculating that Bush thinks he is in a movie ( Specifically, he thinks he is the president played by Bill Pullman in Independence Day. It’s all a game to him. He is utterly delusional and surrounds himself with people who go along with the delusion.

David Brin ( speculates that the whole world is just GW Bush’s holodeck fantasy and that his future self is living out the life that Bush dreams that he would have lived if he hadn’t squandered his real life on whiskey and whores. He is living out a sophisticated simulation, and we are all just subroutines. Given his complete lack of character and skills, it is improbable that a real universe would be configured to allow GW Bush to live his seemingly charmed life.

I’m drawn to the “many worlds” scenario where every possible event that could have happened did happen in some universe. That way, I get to be more than a bit player in GW Bush's elaborate fantasy. There is an infinite number of alternate universes, some of which differ trivially but some of which contain what appear to us to be extremely improbable configurations, like the universes in the TV show Sliders. My consolation is that our universe in which GW Bush and his ilk prosper is an outlier and that in the “mainstream” universes he is a hobo or institutionalized.

More evidence for the many worlds scenario may be found in instances where we seem to move between closely related universes, such as when I slide from the universe where I put my keys on the dresser to one in which I placed them elsewhere. Apparently, Senator Hutchison has experienced a slide out of a universe where she has never considered perjury a serious offense. Dick Cheney slid in from the evil alternate universe from Star Trek where he pushed for a full on occupation of Iraq back in 1992.

No other explanation works!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Another Right Wing Abuse of Science

I occasionally read Steve Sailer’s blog, because I am interested in human biological diversity. Today he links ( to an article by John Derbyshire at NRO ( I do not know whether he does so approvingly, but I found the article to be a piece of utter claptrap.

The truthful part of the article is that recent discoveries about human diversity in the genes that influence brain development show that people in different racial categories are differently endowed and that it may be desirable to consider differential endowments in formulating public policy. The rest is just so much bulls**t. In describing the significance of the findings, Derbyshire writes:

“but if different human groups, of different common ancestry, have different frequencies of genes influencing things like, for goodness’ sake, brain development, then our cherished national dream of a well-mixed and harmonious meritocracy with all groups equally represented in all niches, at all levels, may be unattainable.”

I beg to differ. There are no human “groups” based on different common ancestry (with the possible exception of some organized families or clans, and these are generally limited to a few generations back with not much chance for big evolutionary leaps). What we have are individual human beings who, for certain purposes, may be classified into categories based on their ancestry. Derbyshire has impermissibly reified the concept of “race”. In the context of the scientific publications to which he refers, the concept is legitimate and meaningful and is part of what is being studied. It does not, however, follow that the concept is equally applicable in a discussion of the moral or political implications of the findings.

One may infer that Derbyshire believes that people ought to be regarded in terms of racial “groups” rather than being treated as individuals, but the motivation for doing so is unclear. Perhaps Derbyshire believes that doing so might inure to his advantage somehow. This is textbook racialism.

The findings to which Derbyshire refers may well have little or no moral or political significance since, as is well known, there is no way to get from “what is” to “what ought to be”. If racial category A is inferior to racial category B on average on some dimension, this does not signify anything about the moral or political worth of individuals in either category.

Derbyshire goes on to write:

“…science is, I shall always believe, a fundamentally conservative profession. Pseudoscience and wishful thinking — they are usually the same thing — have their natural home on the political left, Marx’s “scientific socialism” being only the best-known example. True science doesn’t care what we believe or what we wish for. It just tells us what is, and leaves us to come to terms with it as best we can. Science is a Daddy discipline, not a Mommy discipline.”

This is a gratuitous slur on anyone who might disagree with Derbyshire and ought to embarrass anyone who understands how science works. Science is neither “conservative” nor “liberal” in the political sense of those terms, and Derbyshire again misapplies terms from one sphere, politics, to another, science. I suppose that science is “conservative” in the sense that it moves deliberatively, but it can also be seen as “liberal” in that it is not wedded to preconceptions or traditional views. The characterization of science as conservative and conservatives as being allied with science are ridiculous assertions in light of the right wing’s assaults on science and any form of reality testing.

The right appeals to “science” when it is perceived that science supports a right wing position. In this case, Derbyshire implies that social programs are pointless, and as authority he cites findings that he suggests show that the beneficiaries of social programs are probably too inherently inferior to benefit from them.

Derbyshire also writes:

“in his working hours a scientist owes devotion to only one deity, the one Rudyard Kipling called “the God of Things As They Are.” That God is, as Kipling himself was, profoundly conservative in all His works, and conservatives, religious or otherwise, have nothing to fear from Him. To judge from history, in fact, His greatest delight is to make fools — or slaves, or corpses — of pacifists, family-breakers, sexual liberators, dispensers of unconditional welfare, love-the-world purveyors of Uplift, Scientific Socialists, and deniers of unpleasant truths.”

Here Derbyshire claims that science and even history back up “conservative” views. Moreover, the universe itself is “conservative”? And the universe loves to enslave or kill people who disagree with Derbyshire. I suspect that what really thrills Derbyshire is that he gets to claim that his apparently racialist views are "scientific".

This is the only thing by Derbyshire I have ever read, and I am convinced from this one piece that he is completely off his nut.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Who Is a Neo-Confederate?

James at Independent Country anticipates that Cindy Sheehan may be called out for associating with "neo-confederates" because she writes for Lew Rockwell. I see this label bandied around frequently and have occasionally been on the receiving end in blog comment threads. I am not sure whether I am a neo-confederate or not and whether I should be even be concerned when someone calls me this.

Here are the things about me that appear to inspire others to label me as a neo-confederate:

  • I am a southerner with ancestors who served in the Confederate military, and I am proud of and honor those ancestors for what they thought they were doing. I am not about to stand by and let anyone piss on their graves and attribute motives to them that they probably did not have. The war in which they fought was about freedom and defending their homeland, from their perspective, if family history is any guide. For some others, it was probably about slavery. The war was "about" as many things as there were people who experienced it. My ancestors had no slaves and had little love for southern elites; therefore, it is unlikely that slavery was a motivating factor for them.
  • I think that symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag mean different things to different people and that the meaning of such symbols is subject to negotiation and discussion. Don't tell me that it has a single meaning.
  • I like to refer to the "Civil War" as "The War Between the States" or "The War of Northern Aggression" or "The War to Prevent Southern Independence". These terms are more descriptive, in my opinion.
  • I believe that the Union's actions in the WBTS were not constitutionally permissible, that the states had (and still have) the right of secession.
  • I believe that, legality aside, the WBTS was arguably immoral and unnecessary and that slavery could have been eliminated without so much bloodshed, destruction and oppression.
  • I believe that these issues are legitimate and appropriate subjects of discussion and historical interpretation and not absolutely settled by some standard of official history or political correctness.
  • I believe that the checks and balances in the federal system were an important safeguard of liberty and that the loss of these has increased the likelihood of tyranny. This is a cost of the WBTS that should be discussed and considered.

Yet, and here is where folks who call me a neo-confederate have me all wrong, I am anti-slavery and deplore racial discrimination. The views I have listed above say nothing about my views on race. Southern heritage and culture and history are not to be defined solely by the deplorable history of slavery and oppression of blacks. I don't seek to minimize this by any means, but I decline to condemn my ancestors for the social structure and environment in which they found themselves and over which they had little or no control. I am not proud of slavery or segregation or discrimination, and I am sorry if any of my kinsmen participated in any of it. I am proud of my family and my heritage otherwise (except for the stealing land from the Indians thing), and I will not shy away from saying so.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Happy Accident Day

When the future Mrs Vache Folle and I were dating, we were involved in an automobile accident on Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Vice Presidential Palace. She was driving toward downtown DC when an outbound van turned left in front of her and hit us head on. I was not wearing a seatbelt and ended up smacking into the windshield and losing consciousness. The future Mrs VF's car was a total loss, but she was thankfully uninjured. I had a concussion, lacerations, contusions and tons of soft tissue damage. I was more or less disabled for several weeks and in pain for several months. I thought I would have to withdraw from school and go home to be taken care of, but the future Mrs VF nursed me back to health. I fell in love with her, and we were married in the chapel at school nine weeks after the accident of October 20. This is on my internal calendar as Accident Day, the day that sealed my destiny as the husband of Mrs VF. It has worked out pretty well from my perspective, although Mrs VF could have done better.

Thoughts on the Afterlife

I attended and sang in the choir at the funeral of an acquaintance yesterday. She was a woman of remarkable faith and courage who struggled with illness for many years. She was a source of inspiration and joy, and the church was completely full. The service was a celebration of her life and contributions to the community, and I was honored to be a part of it. I wish that I had known her better.

On such occasions, I tend to wonder why it is that such a righteous and loving woman had to experience so much suffering and premature death while many evil men prosper and walk about in perfect health. God’s plan for the universe is beyond my understanding, and I have to trust that it will all make sense on that great getting’ up mornin’.

On such occasions, I tend to think too much about the mechanics of the resurrection. It is my understanding that the dead “sleep in Christ” until the resurrection at which time everyone who has ever died is brought back at the same time. Accordingly, the dead are not currently in heaven looking down upon us. Nevertheless, God’s complete knowledge of the pattern of matter and energy that comprises us is not lost and must exist in the “mind” of God. Do those patterns have awareness as they await the end of days, or is the knowledge stored in the universe itself in the form of each moment of our lives forever preserved and existing from God’s timeless perspective?

And in what iteration of myself will I be resurrected? I am not the same man that I was ten years ago or will be ten years hence. I imagine that our resurrected selves will be an amalgamation of all our earthly selves but that this will in time be superseded by what we become during eternity. Possibly after a thousand years or so we will start to forget earlier parts of our lives unless our memories are enhanced somehow.

Most folks I have spoken to have as poorly developed a sense of what the afterlife will be like as I do. Descriptions of heaven are usually pretty thin compared to the robust descriptions of hell. I sometimes think of the hereafter as something like Riverworld except with more awareness of what’s going on.

I struggle with the idea of hell. There is some satisfaction in the idea that some evil folks who prosper now will get theirs in the end. But what is the point of punishing the wicked forever? What if the wicked are reformed after a few eons of hell fire? Perhaps hell is a metaphor for what it will be like for the wicked to have to be themselves for eternity. The thought and memory of every wrong done or hurt inflicted will burn like fire.

I have probably committed a dozen acts of heresy in this post.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Creation Science Is Not Just For Biology

If the folks pushing creation science and intelligent design in biology classrooms in America really want to make sure that American students are complete ignoramuses (and that is surely their aim), they should try to get creationist teaching into the physical sciences as well. Heck, if my Bible is a science text, I have been misinformed about a lot of things in astronomy.

First of all, we need to start looking for vast quantities of water that surround the universe since the sky is said to separate the waters below from those above. I don't think anyone is doing this right now. Secondly, none of the stars in the heavens can be more than about 6000 light years away, and we need to come up with explanations for why they appear to be more distant than they really could be Biblically speaking. Thirdly, my Bible seems to suggest that the moon is a light source independent of the sun and that light antedated the celestial bodies in any event.

I have just begun to look at the Bible as a science text, and I am sure that I am missing a lot of astronomical "truths". It's not too late to keep America's children asronomically illiterate if we act now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Star Trek Series Pitch

Before the Star Trek people came out with Enterprise, which I grew to like, I thought that a good Star Trek series could be based on those sub-space corridors that Voyager came across toward the end of the series. Seven of Nine, Commander Data, and a few other characters (if Subcommander T'pol's hot descendant was on the crew, that would be fine) could volunteer for a mission in which they map the corridors. This might put them in other galaxies or universes with all kinds of possibilities for stories outside the restrictions of the usual Star Trek universe.

It May be Rude to Make a Virtue of Necessity or Choice

Pseudo-Adrienne at Alas, a blog
posts about a young Christian woman, Jennie, who decided that it was wrong for her to try to make it on her own and that she was meant to be taken care of by a man, either her father or her future husband. Now, I respect young Jennie’s right to make this lifestyle choice, and I would not ordinarily even criticize it, but Jennie goes so far as to say that her choice is the godly choice and that it is wrong for any woman to try to take care of herself. It is those evil feminists who had her confused and are confusing all the other women who are not completely dependent on their fathers or other male keepers.

Jennie makes her choice a virtue and all other choices vices, and this seems to me to be utterly gratuitous. If she were comfortable with her choice, it would suffice for her to declare that it is the right thing for her and might not be the right thing for anyone else. I suspect that Jennie is fending off being considered a parasite and is nervous about making an unpopular choice (or at least being explicit about it). I hear this kind of argument all the time, often when it comes to women’s roles and lifestyles. The stay at home mother declares that no decent mother would leave her children in day care to go to work, and the working mother declares that only a complete idiot would want to spend all day with mewling infants. It would suffice for both these women to declare that they are doing what they must do under their circumstances or what they want to do, and there is no good reason to tell people who live differently from you that they are sinners while you are a saint. (I tell such women that studies have shown that children with nannies do better than children without them and that it would be irresponsible to have children until I could afford a nanny. This is met with blank stares.)

Most people’s big choices are dictated by circumstances and subjective preferences, not abstract principles. The abstract principles are just there to deploy when we are called upon to explain ourselves, and I think that most of the time it would be more polite, if an explanation is called for, to say that we are doing what pleases us, if we are, or what we are compelled by circumstance to do, if we are. No need to dress it up it in virtue-speak. Doing so just kills the dialogue and makes it harder for us to understand each other.

That said, here’s what’s wrong with Jennie’s plan (she is fair game thanks to her claim to righteousness). As a back up, she might want to learn to take care of herself just in case her father dies or gets tired of her mooching, in case she never marries an adequate provider, in case she gets into a bad relationship and needs an escape route, and in case she changes her mind later on. There is no guarantee that a suitable man will be interested in keeping Jennie or that she will not find herself divorced or widowed with inadequate means. And a husband who wants to keep a willingly dependent woman might turn out to be abusive, a situation from which escape is made much more difficult if the woman has no ability to fend for herself. Her dependency keeps her with her abuser. Finally, Jennie may not always feel that her purpose in life is man-pleasing and mooching. A big gap in the resume may be hard to explain, and starting late means lower earnings later. I’m not saying that Jennie’s choice is immoral, just that it may be imprudent in today’s world.

Libertarian Class Theory

Wally Conger ( posts about the need for a libertarian class theory. One idea has been to define classes along the dimension of net benefit from the state. In one class, we place folks who benefit from the state; in the other, those of us who have to pay for the state. I am fairly certain that this device would be useful for many kinds of analyses, possibly to demonstrate a connection between the receipt of state largesse and support for the state. In other cases, the device may obscure more than it reveals as we find schoolteachers classed with Halliburton executives, trash collectors classed with legislators.

One of the most important things to remember in constructing a libertarian class theory is that the classes are devices and that they do not necessarily reflect any actual social phenomena. It is easy when thinking in terms of classes to fall into the trap of believing that classes actually exist outside of your model. We tend to reify concepts such as the “working class”, the “underclass”, the “middle class”, the “parasite class”, etc. In fact, there are just individuals who may, when it is convenient for some analytical purpose, be aggregated along one or more dimensions. For some purposes, it may be useful to think of “ice cream eaters” as a class distinct from “frozen yoghurt eaters”, but this does not mean that there is or ever will be an organized collective entity comprised of members of either posited class.

Socioeconomic classes are especially susceptible to reification because members of the class can appear similar on so many dimensions, e.g. working exurban men who enjoy NASCAR and who don’t like to spend too much time with their wives. The predictive power of the class designation is such that one begins to feel that it tracks a subspecies of human beings when all it really does is account imperfectly for existential similarities among individuals who react predictably to similar events taking place within their similarly limited spheres of life.

What does this admonition add to the quest for a meaningful libertarian class theory? I hope that there will be a multiplicity of libertarian class theories and that the intelligentsia will not get bogged down in the quest for a single “correct” theory of class. It may be useful to construct classes along any number of dimensions to make different points. In many ways, Marxism was hampered by a dogmatic attachment to particular kinds of class analyses. Moreover, I hope that this admonition will free the intelligentsia to consider class theories that seem counterintuitive. Remembering that the classes are heuristic devices and not necessarily descriptive of the world should facilitate thinking about classes in less obvious ways. The aforementioned “tax-eater versus tax-payer” model is somewhat counterintuitive, but it may well turn out to be quite robust.

Monday, October 17, 2005

What's Wrong With Pennsylvania?

Mrs Vache Folle hails from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She is one of the most intelligent and reasonable people on the planet. Apparently, intelligent and reasonable people move out of Pennsylvania as soon as they can (as Mrs VF did). I feel confident in saying this based on one fact: Senator Rick Santorum. Pennsylvanians elected him; therefore, the majority of Pennsylvanians must be idiots.

It's not as if he were a Congresscritter elected from some backwater district in a process almost guaranteed to produce the nuttiest candidates possible. Santorum was elected by the whole Commonwealth in a statewide election. Santorum is among the nuttiest of the wingnuts, as nutty as one of those 55 gallon drums of mixed nuts that you can get at Costco or Sam's Club. He is so nutty and presumably so confident of the nuttiness of his constituents that he feels free to wax philosophical in public and reveal that his is a 13th Century mindset. Santorum is up for a vote next year and is not polling so well lately, but I am confident that Pennsylvanians will, when push comes to shove, go nuts and reelect him.

What's up with Pennsylvania?

Racism in Lord of the Rings

In passing, Gil Guillory at LRC ( remarks that Lord of the Rings was falsely characterized as racist. I devoured Tolkein's books when I was younger and caught the movies on opening week, and I even played Dungeons and Dragons regularly in college and law school. I like Tolkien and some other fantasy literature, but I have to admit that there is a streak of racism in them.

Let us take the case of orcs. These are clearly sentient beings and are said to be related to elves. They are always portrayed as absolutely evil and lacking in any redeeming qualities. You never see an orc mom with her cute orc baby or a family of orcs in their hovel. They have been twisted by Sauron, it is said, and they are beyond redemption. The only good orc is a dead orc.

This is classic racism, albeit directed at an imaginary race. I see the orcs as victims ruled by the tyrant Sauron and his totalitarian regime. They are his catapult fodder, and all you ever see are orc soldiers doing their duty for their overlords. In this they do not differ from the Rohirrim or the fighting elves or the folks of Gondor. They have been dehumanized/de-elfitized/de-dwarfitized/de-hobbitized and set up as the evil "other". Someone should tell the story of the Lord of the Rings from the orc perspective.

When I played D&D, I wanted to be an orc, but the other players, none of whom would want to think of himself as racist, dissuaded me by pointing out that orcs are inherently evil and that their characters would be bound to kill my character. The same kind of thinking goes on all too often in science fiction as well. Commander Ryker could plausibly trash the Ferengi as a species even while The Next Generation decried racism in its story lines.

No harm done, you might say, since there are no orcs or Ferengi to be offended, but the kind of thinking that lets you demonize imaginary races can be called upon to permit you to demonize real people, Iraqis for instance. It is appropriate to point out the issue even at the risk of taking some of the fun out of the fantasy.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I Love Debbie Norville

Debbie Norville is co-anchor of the Channel 5 Good Morning New York show, and I couldn't be happier. I never miss the show now, because I Love Debbie Norville. I always have admired her. She was my classmate in high school and the only one of the class who ever amounted to anything. What's more, she deserves every good thing that ever happened to her because she has always been a hard worker, a professional and a decent person. (She makes her own clothes, for crying out loud!)

Debbie was always attractive. Moreover, she was smart and kind to others, including socially retarded geeks like me. I think she was Junior Miss of Georgia or something like that, and her broadcasting career got off to a pretty quick start with high profile jobs in Atlanta and Chicago (no long small market hell for her). Debbie got the nod to replace Jane Pauley on the TodayShow, and some folks blamed her for Jane's departure. Her tenure on Today was woefully brief, but she turned up as the anchor of Inside Edition. I don't know if the New York gig is a step up or not, but I am glad to see her all the same and hope that she continues to have professional success.

Time and Baseball

As is often the case, I take my blogspiration from James at Independent Country who posts about baseball and why there is a seven game series instead of a one game playoff.

I am reminded of former Jamaican Prime Minister Manley’s observation about the length of cricket matches versus baseball games. To those who marvel at the five day duration of Test matches in cricket, Manley countered that baseball can be thought of as a marathon game as well. Even though there are discrete games of about three hours, baseball is often thought of and talked about, at least by aficionados, in terms of series. When the Red Sox come to the Bronx, fans and commentators think and talk in terms of the 2-5 games that these teams will play. We also think and talk in terms of “road trips” and “home stands” as well as “season series” with particular opponents. Ultimately, baseball can be thought about and talked about in terms of entire 162 game regular seasons. In a real sense, baseball takes 162 days to play!

The individual game may or may not be the appropriate unit of thought or discussion any more than an individual inning, at bat, or pitch. Baseball is all about the long haul, and blind chance and luck tend to even out in the game. To the initiated, any particular at bat must be seen in the context of all the previous encounters between the pitcher and the batsman as well as the current situation. This is why baseball fans are seemingly obsessed with “statistics”. The stats are proxy for the history embedded in the moment. And this history may well extend beyond the present season. The entire spans of history between teams, even where all the personnel are completely changed, can also matter. The storied history of the Red Sox and Yankees matters and is reflected in recruiting and team building as well as its impact on the players. Baseball can be about generations as well as seasons.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Imaginary Dotted Lines

JL Wilson has a thought provoking piece at Independent Country on open borders. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the issue. Since I don’t recognize the legitimacy of the borders in the first place, I am hard pressed to argue that they be closed. Libertarians sometimes face a dilemma when thinking about issues in that while we do not concede the legitimacy of the state and its characteristics, e.g. borders, the illegitimate state is nonetheless there all the same, and the borders are really there in the form of checkpoints and controls and the like. In a perfect stateless world, borders would probably not be an issue as each property owner would control who settled on his land. And each community might well have voluntary covenants about entry and deal with newcomers as they see fit.

Alas, we do not live in that perfect world, and immigration policy is imposed on communities by the central government and the interests that control it and benefit from it. When I left my ancestral village about 30 years ago, I doubt if there were 500 people of Mexican descent in the whole county. I certainly didn’t know any or go to school with any. In the last decade, tens of thousands of Mexicans have moved to the county, recruited by business interests. This has been a benefit to the industrialists in that wages and benefits have arguably been depressed by competition from an influx of poor people willing to work for less than native workers. It has been a benefit to apartment building owners who have seen an increase in rental applications.

In the short term, much of the earnings of the immigrants has been remitted to Mexico rather than enter the local economy. Moreover, the costs of immigration have been socialized and are borne by the taxpayers rather than the industrialists. The schools have had to increase their budgets significantly to accommodate thousands of additional children, and it has been necessary to have bilingual education programs on an unprecedented scale. There has been increased demand on all public services such as public health, policing, courts, parks, etc. without a proportional increase in the local tax base.

The immigrants themselves are by and large fine people with strong families and good values. The soccer teams in the schools are better than ever, and you can get great Mexican food. It is probably a good thing that the folks of the county are exposed to another culture and to Roman Catholics (whom we always distrusted without actually knowing any). In the long term, I reckon that there will be kids named Billy Bob Martinez or Miguel Gassaway, and that a lot of Mexicans will become Baptists or Pentecostal. They’ll eat grits with chile peppers and drink home made tequila.

I suppose what I am getting at is that immigration policy is complex and that, as JL Wilson would probably agree, it is time to discuss it in frank terms as to who benefits and at whose expense. It’s not simply a question of bigotry versus tolerance, and framing the issue in that way serves to obscure some genuine problematic aspects of immigration.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Indictment Fever

ReddHedd at has a great post today on why the outing of Valerie Plame was not a trivial matter. The outing had a potential impact on everyone she worked with at the front company and every "asset" they had developed. It is a very big deal, and doing it for petty political revenge says a lot about the wise guys in the Bush crime family.

I am keen for some indictments of the made men in the family, and I would absolutely love it if Cheney were charged. I will break my mainstream media fast to watch Turdblossom and Scooter twisting in the wind. Perp walks would be nice, but I would be satisfied with scenes of bookings and mug shots.

There is a lot of buzz about WHIG, the White House Iraq Group and its deliberate and cunning plan (perhaps Baldrick was in the WHIG) to spread propaganda, mostly false, to justify the invasion of Iraq. If that was not a crime, it ought to be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Reading Habits

Our move to Stormville entailed a killer commute for Mrs Vache Folle, most of which is on a Metro North train. This provides Mrs VF, already a prodigious reader, with lots of reading time. She reads three books or so at a time: her train book, her bed book, and her living room book. She has sent a couple of real winners my way recently: Out of the Flames and The Volcano Lover. She has a pretty good sense of what I might like.

I usually have two books going: my bathroom book (currently McCullough's John Adams) and my bed book (this is my main book and the one I take on aircraft with me when I have to travel). My current bed book is God's Playground, a history of Poland to 1795, by Davies. I am also rereading Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained but temporarily misplaced my copy.

My tastes are fairly eclectic and range from history to science to literature. I have only in the past couple of years discovered good contemporary fiction. I have been working my way slowly through the award winners (National Book, Booker, Pulitzer) and have not been disappointed. I kick myself that I went so many years without exposure to writers of the caliber of Chabon, Franzen, Sonntag, and so on.

One of my greatest pleasures is historical fiction. I wept when I finished the last Patrick O'Brian Captain Aubrey novel. I moved on to Horatio Hornblower and wept again when I finished that series. Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic era rifleman, has provided a lot of entertainment, and there is always the hope of yet another installment to fill in the gaps in his military career. Cornwell also has good series set in the 100 Years' War and in Arthurian Britain. I could not get into his Civil War series for some reason. Mrs VF turned me on to Sharon Kay Penman and her historical novels about the English royal family in the middle ages.

The top three books of all time in my life (in no particular order):

Goedel, Escher, Bach - mind blown, a must reread.
Life of Pi - surprising impact on me spiritually.
Swiss Family Robinson - read 5 times in one summer when I was about 12.

Things I regret having read because I will never get those wasted hours of my life back:

All those Ludlum spy novels.
Tom Clancy novels.
Anything by George Will.

Out of the Flames

I grew up among Arminian heretics and struggled mightily with the notion that I was responsible for the intensity of my belief in the saving grace of Christ in order to earn that grace. It was too much for me, and I wallowed in apostasy for many years, even dabbling in (gasp) Unitarianism. Belief is involuntary, and you cannot will yourself to believe in anything, let alone control how intensely you believe. The whole Arminian scheme is insupportable. When I discovered Calvinism, and its doctrine of predestination, I was liberated. Belief is the gift of God, and you don't have to do anything to receive grace. If God chooses you as one of the elect, it is God that works an inner transformation.

Mrs Vache Folle is a former Roman Catholic, and I talked her into embracing the Dutch Reformed Church and Calvinism. We are both pretty happy with our church, mainly because of the wonderful people. When it comes to lofty theological ideas, we are pretty tolerant of different points of view. Aside from the notion of salvation by grace, other theological principles do not really have an impact on our Christianity as we live it. Ours is a somewhat childlike faith in that the most important aspect of it is how it helps us to live day to day and interact with others. Our feeble understanding of such concepts as the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the like have no impact on us.

Mrs VF and I both read (I did so on her recommendation) Out of the Flames by the Goldstones, a book about the unitarian Michael Servetus, a man whom John Calvin persecuted to death.

The main issue that inspired Calvin, who was evidently a complete jackass, to work to have Servetus burned at the stake was the trinity. For Servetus, the concept of the trinity was unscriptural and superfluous; for Calvin, it was central and indisputable and anti-trinitarianism was vile heresy. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how believing in the trinity or disbelieving in the trinity would make any difference whatsoever in how one lived one's life as a Christian or even how the church would be organized. It is, in my view, wanting in practical import. And yet, it was deemed so important that Calvin had Servetus burned to death because of the disagreement. Calvin was not very Christlike. Neither man could conceive of being wrong, and Servetus might have recanted and lived if he had not been so arrogant.

I recommend the book for its insights into the Reformation and academia at the time. Servetus was a physician as well as a religious scholar and is recognized as the first to describe the human circulatory system accurately. The Goldstones' writing and scholarship are impressive, and the story of Servetus and his career as a heretic, physician to the rich and famous, and scholar are fascinating.

I am still grateful to Calvin for his doctrine of salvation by grace, but I see him for the tyrant that he was. He never meant to liberate anyone; rather he meant merely to replace the decadent Catholic hierarchy. Geneva under Calvin was a hellish place to live and as far from the Kingdom of God on earth as I can imagine.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Bloggers Lost and Found

I really miss salty pig and Arthur Silber. Both of them seem to have succumbed to despair, but I hope that this is temporary and that they will reappear in the blogosphere. I am jonesing for some of their commentary.

I am glad to discover that Tim Swanson is back abloggin' after a hiatus.


Author and journalist Chris Hedges was on Morning Sedition today. He remarked that totalitarian systems attack any kind of truth discernment with the effect that the masses will be more likely to buy into the mythology that legitimizes the state. He sees the assaults on science by the right in this light.

This led me to think about the right's attacks on cultural relativism, something that had always confused me given that they are otherwise committed to a very postmodern view of the elusiveness of "truth". That is, the right believes that it creates reality and determines what is "true" based on its own shifting requirements. Cultural relativism, however, is a heuristic for discerning sociological truths or "social facts". Insofar as it is possible to do so, it permits social scientists to compare and analyze different cultures dispassionately and without the distortions of value judgements. Accordingly, attacks on cultural relativism may be seen as attacks on attempts to discern sociological truth.

Cultural relativism is a methodological tool, a stance that the social scientist adopts in his work. The adoption of such a stance does not entail adoption of a normative view that all cultural phenomena are, from a moral standpoint, equally valid. I suppose that you could adopt such a stance, but I don't see how you could enact it in your life. At some point as long as you are not in a coma, you will have to express preferences.

To some extent, I adopt a weak form of relativism as a libertarian in that I believe that other folks ought to live more or less as they please free from my meddling. This does not mean that I approve of their choices or even care about them; it just means that I am unwilling to impose my preferences on others. I am not so arrogant that I would presume to know so well how others ought to live that I would be right to compel them to follow my strictures.

Whenever I have heard lay folks using cultural relativism in political discussions, the proponent of relativism is advocating a permissive stance toward some lifestyle choice or behavior. The other side argues against cultural relativism in this context in support of regulating the lifestyle or behavior at issue. Both sides usually accept the premise that the state may and ought to regulate a wide range of preferences and behaviors, and they simply disagree on the particulars. In my view, this is an unfortunate abuse of the concept and an ineffective argument for liberty. What is really being argued is the moral validity of the lifestyle or behavior in question.

This kind of argument plays into the fear of the masses of uncertainty about morals. It allows the right to attack relativism on yet another level aside from its use as a truth finding device. The right appeals to the masses by affirming their need for objective moral truth, and the right governs the masses by determining what that truth is or by coopting popular moral concepts.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Favorite Movies Ever

I was talking today with one of my conspecifics, a real movie buff, about favorite movies. We agreed that our favorites were not necessarily the best movies but that there were some films that we could watch over and over again and that we try to catch whenever they turn up on the tube. I can think of several that fall into this category for me (in no particular order), but I can't even begin to tell you why I am so drawn to them:

1. A Face in the Crowd: Andy Griffith portrays a drifter that becomes a beloved media personality. In the end, he is exposed as something of a sociopath. This film was way ahead of its time in treating the power of the media and its abuses.

2. The Best Years of Our Lives: This film, Best Picture in 1946, follows several WW2 veterans as they attempt to reintegrate into civilian life. The process is not easy for them.

3. Dr Strangelove: "I never said we wouldn't get our hair mussed."

4. Starship Troopers: Loosely based on the Heinlein classic, the film depicts a future when humanity in a militaristic state is at war with aliens.

5. Goodfellas: Best mobster movie ever.

6. Persuasion: Mrs VF is Pride & Prejudice all the way, but for my money this flick is the ultimate Jane Austen fix.
7. Outlaw Josie Wales: Classic Clint Eastwood.

8. The Day the Earth Stood Still: Klaatu barada nikto!

9. Seven Days in May: Burt Lancaster plots a military coup in the USA. I would probably root for the plotters these days.

10. Strictly Ballroom: An Australian gem of a comedy about competitive dancers.

There does not seem to be a pattern that I can discern, and I just can't say what it is about these movies that appeals to me. Perhaps the list reveals some deep psychological truth to which I have no access.

New Justice

Aside from the cronyism thing, I do not regard the fact that the new nominee for the Supreme Court has never been a judge as a strike against her. It is probably high time that the Court got a little more diverse in terms of life experience. Having the Court packed with law professors and appellate judges makes it too far removed from human experience and too apt to think in ideological terms rather than in terms of deciding individual cases.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that a non-lawyer might be an interesting and appropriate choice. I'm not endorsing the current nominee by any means as I am sure she is a statist through and through, but I think the hue and cry over her lack of judicial experience is unwarranted.

Rebuilding New Orleans

Occasionally, some of my conspecifics debate how, or even whether, "we" should rebuild New Orleans. I never take sides in this because my position is that I really should not have any say in the matter. As far as I am concerned, the property owners get to decide what they do with their property. Individuals get to decide whether they want to live in New orleans or run businesses there. If some central planners/social engineers get too much involved, boondoggles will be certain to follow, and a few well connected businessmen and politicians will line their pockets and build up political points at everyone's expense. My conspecifics are appalled at my view because leaving rebuilding up to individuals will be chaotic and messy, say they.

What should the new New Orleans look like? To me, it should evolve through the operation of countless individual decisions without any overlord's imposing a grand design. Is there an overlord out there who is all knowing and able to design a city for maximum happiness? I doubt it, but I am sure that there are lots of folks who think their own vision of a perfect city fits the bill. What we are likely to see is a city designed in large part by political means, and individuals minding their own business will be forced to take these political decisions into account in making their own plans.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Tiger Patrol

The dismal record of the Bush regime has led a number of my statist conspecifics to begin to question their assumptions about the state. Today, one expressed her concern that Americans seemed willing to expend unlimited sums on anti-terrorism but relatively little on more concrete concerns, such as schools and infrastructure.

She had a theory to explain this, to wit that homeland security was like setting up a "tiger patrol" in her New York City neighborhood. People are appalled and horrified at the idea of being mauled by a tiger or having their children eaten by one, and the authorities might well play on human irrationality in fearing unlikely threats to get approval and funding for an expensive and intrusive tiger patrol. The authorities know that the threat is almost nonexistent; therefore, they don't have to worry about accountability or accomplishing anything. They can spend the tiger patrol money profligately and to political advantage, and they can use the tiger threat to get people to agree to all kinds of restrictions, such as a curfew during "peak" tiger hours. When no tigers are sighted, the authorities can smugly claim success, and if a tiger should show up, as unlikely as it is, they can attribute it to the inability to stop every tiger and secure additional funding for the patrol.

On the other hand, an infrastructure project requires a plan and results in a tangible product. There are way too many opportunities for accountability to be had, and crumbling bridges and levees do not incite as much irrational anxiety as tiger maulings. Look at Siegfried, or was it Roy, for crying out loud! Who wants to suffer an attack like that? My conspecific's analysis was dead on.

I was reminded of one of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons where a bear shows up on Evergreen Terrace. Homer lobbies for a bear patrol ("We're here, we're queer, and we don't want any more bears") which the city of Springfield provides, complete with state of the art helicopters.

The Biggest Loser

I have managed to reduce my TV watching considerably and will go out of my way to watch very few programs: Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, The Daily Show, Lost, House. But I confess to a guilty pleasure at watching "The Biggest Loser", a show where teams of obese people compete to lose the most weight. Maybe this is because I struggle with weight myself and understand how hard it is to lose weight in the face of the steroids I have to use for my COPD and my twin vices of sloth and gluttony. But my wisp of a wife is also fascinated by the show. Here are folks that are radically changing their lives and outlooks and losing as much as 17 pounds in a single week. How, I ask myself, is this possible? If I exercise faithfully and eat sensibly, I can drop an average of 2 pounds a week. If I go on a crash diet, I can lose 2.5-3.0 pounds a week over several weeks.

I get the sense that the contestants are on a full time weight loss regimen and that they exercise several hours in a day and have rigidly controlled diets. I, on the other hand, work a sedentary full time job, have responsibilities at home and in the community and have to find time to exercise (luckily, a gym is less than 10 minutes away). And I love to eat, especially really fattening foods.

A few years ago, before we moved to New York, I exercised faithfully and dieted and lost 75 pounds over 6 months. I felt great. I was in grad school and controlled more of my time and had lots of conspecifics to exercise with me and lots of great places to run or work out. When we moved to New York, I had less time because I was in a PhD program and had to scrounge for money in ad hoc employment. I gradually gained back every last pound because I never developed any sustainable habits. Now, I am advised to get in shape to minimize my risk of heart disease, and I need to make permanent changes in my habits and lifestyle. I need to be reasonable and recognize that I will never have time to work out more than 45 minutes to an hour a day. I need to learn to eat better in a way that I can stick to forever.

I hope the disincentive of potential premature death will be effective.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

New Justice A Beacon of Hope

George "Not as Bad as Pol Pot" Bush's selection of one of his cronies to the Supreme Court has given me new reason to hope that I, too, may one day fill an important position despite my lack of qualifications or ability. My dream is that an old college friend will get elected president and, because we smoked pot together, he will be moved to make me a judge or an ambassador. Heck, I could even be head of the CDC of Homeland Security. It's not as if the political appointees there do anything anyway.

Monday, October 03, 2005

More Impressions from the Carpathians

Mrs VF's Carpathian kinfolk reminded me of my own Appalachian kin in many ways, especially with respect to material culture and spirituality. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the similarities would have been striking with people in both mountain ranges living in log houses and following similar subsistence strategies. Like my Appalachian forebears, the Lemko people of the Carpathians just wanted to be left alone to work their farms and raise their families and live their simple lives in freedom.

Unfortunately, the Lemkos were not allowed to live in peace for very long. Even in their mountainous refuge, some king or other laid claim to them as subjects and parcelled out the right to tax and exploit them to various "nobles". Such nobles were said to "own" entire villages and towns, but what they really owned was an exclusive right to the labor and produce of the population. The land was plentiful and of no value unless worked by the peasants. The peasants owed a substantial portion of their crops and stock to the noble and were required to work as much as three days a week for the noble. On top of this, they had to eke out a living for themselves and their families.

In general, each peasant family had land and resources allocated to it, and farming was not collectivized, but the extractions of the nobility were so great that there was precious little incentive for peasants to work any harder than they had to to get by. This phenomenon has been discussed at length by sociologists and is part of what makes someone a "peasant" versus a "farmer". The explanation that one's work is subject to being appropriated by the nobles seems pretty straightforward to me.

In principle, I suppose that a savvy noble might have provided his serfs with more freedom and the right to keep more of their produce, and this would have resulted in more production and even more wealth for the noble. Moreover, he would attract more settlers to his territory and put more land into productive use. It did not work this way, however, and the nobles simply took as much as they could short of actually starving the serfs. And there was no competition for serfs because they were tied to the land and could not move off the farm if they wanted to vote with their feet and find a more benevolent noble. Serfdom was abolished in 1848. Before then, nobles took great interest in the affairs of their serfs even to controlling when and to whom they might marry. Even after emancipation, the relationship was transformed into that of landlord and tenant such that the "owner" still got to exploit the peasants and extract rent. The family now owns its land, and I am not sure how this came about, but I bet they had to pay for it.

Mrs VF's branch of the family migrated to Pennsylvania, but the state was not finished with those who stayed behind. The patriarch of the family was conscripted into the Austrian army in World War I and spent four years in the Balkans. The Eastern front ran over the region and brought death and destruction in its wake. The area is remarkable for its many cemeteries from the war. After the war, there was a brief period of independence for the region, but it was soon absorbed by Poland.

In World War II, Germany occupied the area and put many of the residents in concentration camps. Others, like Mrs VF's great uncle and aunt were enslaved and sent to Germany to work. For five years they toiled for the German state and risked annihilation in Allied bombings.

After the second war, the Communist puppets of the Soviet catastrophe decided to eradicate the Lemkos by dispersing them to other parts of Poland to encourage their assimilation. The Polish state destroyed entire villages and moved almost all the Lemkos to Silesia and other parts of Poland newly vacated by ethnic Germans. Mrs VF's one great uncle was permitted to stay because he was married to a Pole, but the rest of the family was forcibly relocated. In 1957, Poland relented in this policy and permitted the Lemko diaspora to reverse itself. Many returned, but they were required to buy their homes from the state and to buy off the squatters who had occupied them. Many families have yet to have their lands restored to them. Now, the EU encourages ethnic diversity as a draw for tourism, and Poland promotes Lemko culture to some extent.

Despite all this interference and persecution, the Lemkos are thriving. God bless them. They have great hopes for Poland and its new democratic system and for the EU. Why this is so in view of their experience with states is a mystery to me.