Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Archive for February 2016

Feb/16

25

Special snowflakes

I suppose we are all aware of the ferment on various college campuses these days. Students demanding “safe spaces” when life hits them too hard and they need a place to curl up in the fetal position and sob their hearts out at the manifest injustice of the world.

A few weeks ago Brown University issued the final version of its diversity and inclusion action plan.

The Brown Daily Herald noted the plan could not have been completed but for the exhaustive efforts of student activists, and how they’ve suffered for their work on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed of the Ivy League.

“My grades dropped dramatically. My health completely changed. I lost weight. I’m on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills right now. (Counseling and Psychological Services) counselors called me.

I had deans calling me to make sure I was okay,” said one anonymous student.

As part of his activism, according to the Herald, “…he struggled to balance his classes, job and social life with the activism to which he feels so dedicated. Stressors and triggers flooded his life constantly.”

Worse, according to some students unsympathetic professors are not accepting activism as an excuse for unfinished classwork.

Worse still, activism on behalf of causes such as BDS (Boycott Divest Sanction) against Israel, or sexual assault awareness, students find themselves “triggered” by unpleasant memories, or disagreement with their cherished opinion.

The Herald mentions that college deans are present at some of these demonstrations not only to monitor, but to offer support.

Because students, “might be impacted, something might be triggered or they might suddenly remember more at that event they were protesting,” according to Ashley Ferranti, assistant dean of student support services.

The idea that a dean’s time might be better spent with say, academics or administration is just too crass evidently.

Suggesting that university is supposed to give you the tools to face the problems of the world and come up with workable responses to them is soooo last century. Students are supposed to start changing the world right now while they still know everything.

OK, it’s easy to make fun of these people. It’s easy to forget that campus activism is not new. I can remember demonstrations at my Midwest alma mater, and I might even recall who put the toothpicks and glue into the locks of the administration building door. (They had them opened on time anyway.)

History buffs might remember the Oxford University town and gown riots used to involve cudgels and even swords way back when.

But there’s a few things about college these days that bodes ill for the future.

One is that there’s a vicious side of this. In my day college activists would take over buildings, perhaps vandalize them. You could do tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage simply by dumping all the card drawers of the library card catalog. (Remember them?)

That’s bad for sure. But what we see now are things like false rape accusations resulting in summary suspensions and expulsions without anything resembling due process.

And when they are disproved, they are justified as “raising awareness.”

There’s a sinister “ends justify the means” aspect of this that’s worrying. Particularly when you wonder how many of these activists are going to become lawyers, judges, government administrators, or academics themselves.

On the other hand, given the number of students graduating with degrees ending in –Studies, perhaps we’ll have a lot of formerly affluent unemployable running around – or running for office.

Because what really strikes one about these activists is what a bunch of sissies they are! Back in the day we were rowdy jerks, but we weren’t wimps.

The Ivy League schools were once openly the academies for a governing class. No they weren’t “inclusive” but you could fight your way into them and fight to stay in them. Because back then everyone knew that a governing class had to be tough and smart to stay on top.

Nowadays you have to be “sensitive,” and “check your privilege.”

Get ready, they’re going to be running things very soon.

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Feb/16

23

What’s the appeal of Trump?

I don’t care for Donald Trump. I think he’s a blustering blowhard whose loud mouth covers his screaming insecurity.

I haven’t like him since I saw him diss his first wife Ivana in an interview.

He’s had three beautiful wives, each of whom he likes to wear like an expensive watch rather than truly appreciate. And wife number two really played him for a sucker!

He inherited a sizeable fortune – and has increased it at a rate no greater than a conservative investment fund.

He started a scam “real estate college” that promised to teach people to become rich like him, neglecting to tell them the requirement that your first inherit a fortune.

He’s a builder, but what does he build? Housing? Ships? Factories?

Casinos!

And by the way, as a builder of casinos in New York and New Jersey, you don’t think he’s mobbed up?

He’s petty, petulant, and vindictive. And he’s leading the pack right now for the Republican nomination even though he’s flipped on every issue important to conservatives.

I’m not even sure he started as a serious candidate. I think it’s possible his good friends the Clintons put him up to running just to split the right-wing vote. And I think Trump had an epiphany.

“Hey! I could really win this thing!”

What the hell is his appeal?

I think it’s the appeal of a demagogue in dangerous times. In my lifetime I’ve seen figures like Pat Buchanan and David Duke tap into it, but the most successful in recent American history was before my time, Governor Huey P. Long of Louisiana.

There come times in history when there are truths everyone knows, but few dare utter.

Like it or not, we are at war with radical Islam.

Like it or not, we are being overwhelmed by the illegal immigration beyond our present capacity to assimilate.

A skillful demagogue will speak the truths no other politician dares to, and win accolades for his courage.

And a people so desperate for a leader to say what they know to be true, what they know to be a clear and present danger, will cling to the hope he offers and not allow themselves to see that everything else he says is nonsense or lies of convenience and he has no character at all.

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Feb/16

22

Scalia’s passing

Judge Antonin Scalia is dead, though not cold yet.

As we probably should have known, some people are dancing in the streets singing, “Ding dong the witch is dead” while others are howling, “Foul play!”

I think Scalia would have enjoyed the controversy over his death as he enjoyed the controversial issues he grappled with in life. He by all accounts enjoyed the good life and had a robust sense of humor. A trait he shared with friends in the legal profession, both liberal and conservative.

You see, Scalia lived his life by the precept first written in the Jewish scriptures that a man’s duty in any issue is first to hear your opponent out. He made a practice when hiring legal interns to include at least one liberal in every batch.

Yet a great many on the left are vociferously happy to see him go. Because Scalia was an originalist. He despised the idea of a “living Constitution.”

“The constitution is not an organism. It’s a legal text,” Scalia said at a talk at Princeton University. “It means today what it meant when it was adopted.”

Scalia opposed the idea of the judiciary deciding issues that he thought ought to be settled legislatively. For example that the court cannot rule the death penalty unconstitutional because the judges think it ought to be. His position was that if the Constitution doesn’t require abolishing it, it must be sent to the American people to be abolished in the legislature.

This is anathema to those who demand injustice be remedied RIGHT NOW.

Scalia knew what seekers of justice with a capital J lose sight of, that how a thing is done in a free society is at least as important as what is done.

And this is why I think originalism is important, and why I fear the vacancy in the Supreme Court left by Scalia. Because the left hates originalism, and the right often doesn’t understand it.

Why should we cling to legal precepts enshrined in a document written by men who could not possibly have foreseen the technology of today? When the First Amendment was adopted no one could have imagined the Internet, they barely understood there was such a thing as electricity!

For an originalist, there is a process by which the courts can adapt established law to new circumstances, but without inventing new law and imposing it by judicial fiat. And in extremis there is a process by which the Constitution can be amended.

Surprisingly for me, Scalia thought the process of amending the Constitution should be made easier.

There is something conservatives didn’t always like about Scalia, his respect for stare decisis, a fancy Latin word for precedent. Even when he thought an issue had been wrongly decided in the past, it is not a good idea to attempt to turn back the clock and undo long established precedent without dire necessity.

This is why I think it is important to have originalists on the bench. A common trait of extremists from the totalitarian left to the libertarian right is a burning desire for perfect justice.

There is no such thing this side of the grave. Since the time of Socrates philosophers have been trying to come up with a definition of justice, without getting any closer to universal agreement.

Beyond a certain minimum, it is more important that the law be consistent than it make perfect sense or be perfectly just. There are any number of inconveniences and stupidities we can put up within our system – if we know what to expect from day to day.

To make plans and investments, to establish careers, we must know that the rules we play by are not going to change capriciously. When laws and regulations are in a state of constant flux, we defer planning and hoard our resources rather than investing them productively.

This is not to say nothing should ever change. It means we have an established and reliable means of adapting to change, according to law and not the passing whims of men.

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“It’s hard to believe that the United States, having resisted the siren song of socialism during its entire 20th century heyday, should suddenly succumb to its charms a generation after its intellectual demise.”
-Charles Krauthammer

Well it has come to pass. After years of taking umbrage at being called socialists a great many Democrats have now embraced the term and supported a man who wears the label proudly.

I hasten to add, not most Democrats but a significant minority. As high as 42 percent by some polls. And oddly there are some sources that say a lower but still significant number of Republicans think socialism is a good idea.

And that’s “think it’s a good idea” not “think it’s part of the inevitable downfall of the United States.” I know of a prominent conservative former congressman who privately thinks America will have to endure a generation of socialism before we come to our senses. He does not however think it’s a good idea.

Why should anyone think it’s a good idea? Socialism arose as a utopian dream in the 19th century. During the 20th century regimes which called themselves socialist murdered more than 100 million people, and that’s not counting military casualties. In the latter part of the century socialist economies collapsed, revealing that once advanced and cultured nations had fallen to the level of third-world slums.

Even more significantly, those countries recovered economically with breathtaking rapidity once they’d abandoned the socialist model of planned economies in favor of market-driven economies.

How in God’s name do they deal with that?

That’s what I’ve been asking a number of people who wear the label.

One answer is, “Those countries really weren’t socialist,” i.e. communists weren’t socialists, Nazi didn’t really mean “National Socialist German Workers Party,” and the Italian Fascists were lying when they said they were socialists.

Sorry guys, you’re outvoted. They said they were socialists, and there were millions of them, ruling at their height about a third of the world’s surface.

Another answer is, “That’s not what we mean by socialism. We mean building roads, schools, libraries and taking care of people.”

You’re still outvoted. Taking care of people who can’t do it for themselves is what’s called a welfare state or “social safety net” and Ronald Reagan was perfectly fine with it. We can argue all day about how much responsibility the state should assume, at what level of government, and whether to means test – but it’s still not socialism and the Prime Minister of Denmark recently told
Bernie Sanders that in no uncertain terms.

Infrastructure is what every government in the world does, and was listed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations as one of the four duties of a sovereign. So unless you want to call Adam Smith the first socialist…

“Socialism is the political expression of Christianity, to care for the poor and weak, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.”

I am not the best exemplar of Christian virtues, but I know that though Jesus said to pay your taxes (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”) he enjoined his followers to dig into their own pockets to do good to their fellow-man.

Socialism, according to its major theoreticians is government ownership of the means of production. Or ownership by “The People” which means the same thing because though “The People” may be the name on the deed, the day-to-day running is going to be done by bureaucrats.

Is anybody in favor of that? Doesn’t look like it to me. Even countries such as the UK and Sweden which went half-way towards socialism are backing off and re-privatizing nationalized industries.

So if they’re not socialists, why are they wearing a label associated with misery and mass murder?

I don’t know. But one reason could be they’re lying about their long-range intentions and do favor a totalitarian dictatorship.

I don’t believe that about my friends, or at least I don’t want to.

Another reason might be that “socialist” carries a kind of tough-guy cachet. A “We mean business!” kind of image people fed up with a corrupt system like.

We’ll return to this subject later.

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Feb/16

14

Can we disagree like free men?

“The spirit of liberty is one which is not too sure it is right.”
– Judge Learned Hand

This is something I posted on a Facebook discussion thread vis-a-vis our political differences in this country:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the other side might be merely wrong?
For example that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the measures you think necessary for the welfare of poor and working class people are in fact actively bad for them?
The right-wing equivalent is the belief that people on the left want to impose a totalitarian dictatorship on the American people.
This is what I’m talking about – there seems to be a deep felt need in a great many people to believe that those who they disagree with are not just wrong – but evil.
I saw this when I was young and hanging out with the anti-war movement in the ’60s. There were young people then who would tell you straight up that a great many people in this country had to be killed to achieve a just society.
All of this looks very familiar to me.”

The reply contained the comment “you can’t see…” concerning what the writer called my “false equivalence.”

Perhaps I see too much. And what I see is beginning to scare me.

Though there is really no politician or party with which I agree 100 percent, yes I think one side is right on more things, or rather has a viewpoint more in accordance with reality than the other.

But I could be wrong, and I’ve changed my mind on some substantial issues in my lifetime.

Moreover I think most people never consider it’s entirely possible that on some pretty contentious issues that both parties could be right.

The example I use sometimes is the social welfare issue.

On the left people argue that private charity is not enough to meet the needs of the chronically poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill and that the failure to maintain social welfare services will produce social instability.

On the right they tend to argue that the welfare state has created learned dependency, destroyed initiative, forced us into unsustainable spending, and weakened social capital.

I have not met anyone willing to concede these might both be true, that the choice might be between bad and less bad alternatives. It goes against the grain of the American world view that there might be problems with no completely satisfactory solution.

That’s why we have people saying, “you can’t see,” which all too easily becomes “you refuse to see” implying malice or self-interested motives.

I think this is why each side sees, not what the other side believes, but a caricature of it. And yes I think it’s more pronounced on one side than the other, but that could be sample bias.

There really are people that believe roughly a third of their fellow-citizen actively want poor people to starve in abject misery, want women to be semi-chattels, want rich oligarchs to make war in distant lands to enrich themselves over the bodies of their children.

Too many people these days do not seem to get that disagree is what free men do.

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Feb/16

4

Doing the work of the world

Not long ago I was shooting the bull with a friend I don’t get to see very often, so to make up for lost time our bull session lasted about three days.

“Have you ever killed and eaten anything?” he asked at one point.

“Yes,” I said.

“Have you ever had to kill something to eat, or you didn’t eat?” he inquired further.

“Can’t say that I have,” I replied.

That gives you some idea of the tenor of the conversation. Both of us have read a lot of books. We refer to them, and we recommend them to each other, just like a lot of educated people in this country.

What’s different is, we’ve both done the gritty work. I have finished a shift covered in thickened sewage, he I suspect in other organic fluids. My youthful work experience involved disposing of the end products of consumption, garbage and sewage. His in telling people who routinely use violence to accomplish their goals, “No, not here and not now.”

Our work experience overlapped in areas like truck driving and operating heavy equipment.

Now as friends shooting the bull will do, we discussed the Problems of the World.

What the heck is wrong with people these days?

I could cite the candidates for the upcoming presidential race, but let’s go with a simplified version of the underlying issue.

We have two parties representing people who want a lot of different things, with some overlap. More things than we can possibly pay for with the current tax revenues.

The rational thing to do, the thing families do with their own incomes every day, would be to figure out how much we have to spend then argue about what to spend it on.

Instead what we do is give everybody pretty much what they want and put it on the credit card.

This does not make everybody happy, because human wants are endless. Once fulfilled, new wants arise. Which we intend to put on the credit card.

A smaller scale example.

A few years back I covered the story of a small town in the northern Midwest which faced a water problem. They were looking at three alternatives.

One was to put up with sulfide contamination of their drinking water from an upstream lake. Mostly harmless except that the naturally occurring sulfides give you diarrhea until you get used to it.

Needless to say visitors would get La Tourista. Not a ringing endorsement for tourism.

The remedy was to build a new water treatment plant at great expense to remove the contaminants. Which would mean special assessments on every homeowner, including retirees living on fixed incomes.

The third alternative was to do nothing, refuse to drain the lake into the river, and run the risk of a coulee break creating a wall of water that would sweep down the narrow river valley wiping away the houses and towns built on the banks.

I talked to any number of highly-educated people who said, “We shouldn’t have to make this choice!”

(In the end they found a way to get the fed to pay for the new treatment plant. See example one.)

So here’s what we wondered. As our civilization has become richer and more technologically advanced, fewer and fewer people are directly involved in the primary factors that create wealth. Which are basically growing stuff, making stuff, and moving stuff around.

The advantages are wonderful. Few people have to make a living at hard, dirty, and dangerous work anymore. More people are freed to create culture and the toys that delight us.

The downside is that Americans think food comes from a supermarket, clean water comes from a tap, and garbage and sewage go… away.

The problem we saw is if the large majority of people have no concept of how their civilization works, how can we expect them to make the hard decisions necessary to maintain it?

The best answer we could come up with is, we can’t.

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