Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Archive for October 2016

It has all the ingredients of a Great Cause. Native Americans versus corporate greed with jackbooted company thugs and sinister militarized police forces.

Wasn’t there a Steven Seagal movie with this plot a few years ago?

But say it softly… there’s something that isn’t adding up about this story.

We heard the evil corporate greedsters were running Dakota Access Pipeline though sacred Indian land and across the Missouri River where it would promptly poison the water and despoil Mother Earth.

But it turns out the builders did in fact jump through all the regulatory hoops and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe made no protests at the time the public hearings were held.

For those who care about hearing both sides I refer you to Rob Port of North Dakota and the Say Anything blog. Port is looking at the other side of this contentious issue and taking the heat for it so I don’t have to.

Instead I’m going to tell you about something that happened in Oklahoma long ago. The following account was dredged from my memories of the news reports at the time, which differ significantly from what you can find about the case today on various political websites.

On September 19, 1979, a Native woman Rita Silk Nauni got off a plane at Will Rogers World Airport with her 10-year-old son. She was reportedly fleeing an abusive relationship and bound for Lawton, Oklahoma, a few hours’ drive away.

Nauni and her son began walking down the airport road. She was reportedly whacked out of her mind on airplane booze and possibly pills.

After discarding several items of clothing from their baggage along the road two airport rent-a-cops, one elderly man and his female partner contacted them about a littering complaint.

Remember in these pre-9/11 days airport police were pretty much night watchmen not real cops.

They arrested Nauni, who started to struggle with them, possibly after her young son attacked one of them. In the struggle the female officer’s firearm retaining strap broke, Nauni seized the gun and killed the old guy and wounded the female officer.

She was taken into custody soon after, and that’s when the circus began.

Native activists brought a medicine man to the jail as her spiritual councilor, and the county sheriff got stupid enough or angry enough to deny access. Round one for the activists.

Understand, there was nothing in this case that was remotely political or a civil rights issue. Nauni just happened to be Native and local activists seized on the opportunity.

Feminists quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

“Self-defense is a woman’s absolute right!” they proclaimed.

Nauni’s case went to trial, but the defense had no case. At literally the last minute they changed their plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, a defense that has a long history of not working in Oklahoma.

I ran into a feminist friend soon after, who confided she felt betrayed.

The only possible effective defense would have been a “Let’s have some mercy for a screwed up human being please.” But her legal team sacrificed her to make it a political issue.

Ordinarily she’d have been out in time for her son’s high school graduation. Instead a ticked-off judge threw the book at her and for Manslaughter One she got 150 years. An appeal was denied.
According to Oklahoma DOC records she was released in 1998.

What you can find about Rita Silk Nauni these days is mostly on left-wing websites where she is called a “political prisoner” who was imprisoned, you know, because racism.

My observation: nobody has more legitimate grievances against the United States than the First Nations. They are a conquered people who first lived on sufferance, and then on charity – which turned out to be far more destructive of their native culture.

The problem has always been that at a time the dominant culture is inclined to listen and address them, they are not very good at articulating their grievances. Perhaps because there are so many it’s difficult to focus.

The consequences have been terrible for them and well-meaning attempts to help often have the opposite effect. Especially when white activists jump on board to attach their own agendas to theirs, because Indians!

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In two short weeks America will simultaneously be destroyed as a nation and saved from the brink of disaster depending on who you listen to.

Obviously someone is going to win this election and someone is going to lose. Passions are running high, and however it goes some people are going to be… upset.

Something I noticed just this past week on a road trip from Oklahoma to Minnesota through Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa much of it on state and county roads. I saw at most a half-dozen yard signs. (all for Trump by the way) and very few bumper stickers. (One for Hillary, one for Trump and one for Johnson.) After thinking about it I realized I have not seen a single yard sign in my own neighborhood.

I like to think this is because sensible people, realizing how high feelings are running, have decided not to make an issue of it with their neighbors.

I’m afraid to think people might be concerned about the possibility of vandalism to their homes and vehicles. Or God help us, even assault.

And I’ve realized there are things I fear more than either a Clinton or a Trump presidency.

I’m going to list some of them here but I’m not going to give examples. Right or left, Democrat or Republican, pick your own. And consider that you could both be right.

I’m worried that after the election a critical number of people will be convinced the election was stolen, either through voter fraud or voter suppression.

On the right a great many people believe ballot boxes are being stuffed and votes discarded.

On the left there is a belief in a conspiracy to suppress minority voting.

I have my own opinion on which accusation is credible, but again it doesn’t matter. What matters is what people believe.

Governments remain stable as long as they are viewed as legitimate. Once the perception of legitimacy is destroyed the ability to govern cannot be maintained for long.

We can survive a bad presidency and we have, many times. America is bigger than any leader. We cannot long survive the perception of illegitimacy.

Wealth inequality.

In spite of dire warnings from academics, vast differences in wealth are not the problem. Americans by and large neither hate nor envy the rich – as long as they feel the game is being played fairly.

John Steinbeck once said Americans will never be socialists because here the poor regard themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Even inherited wealth is not generally resented, because after all we know we’d do it for our own kids if we had it.

But I think we’re seeing a growing feeling that the game is rigged. Men and women who enter politics with moderate means quickly become rich beyond our dreams of avarice. We look at the wealthy and see not men who invent or produce, but the well connected.

Equality under the law.

Yes everybody knows that a good lawyer costs money. As they say, America has the best justice money can buy. That’s not quite the problem.

The problem is that we see the wealthy and powerful accused of major crimes and are either never charged or if charged, tried, and convicted receive a slap on the wrist for what you or I would do hard time for and left with a record that would bar us from a long list of professions, provided we could find work at all.

When men see justice is not blind, what incentive do they have to seek justice?

Intolerance for different opinions.

We have deep-seated disagreements in this country about what kind of country we are, and what kind of country we wish to be.

But disagree is what free men do.

More and more we hear that disagreement comes from self-interested and evil motives. That those who disagree with them are not merely wrong, but evil.

How long can we remain a country when so many believe so many of their countrymen actively and maliciously wish them harm?

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Oct/16

17

The national question

If anything good comes out of this election, it may be that we’ll finally approach some sensible dialog about what some call “the national question,” immigration.

The question is, what kind of a nation are we and what kind of nation do we want to continue to be – if we do want to continue.

The answers boil down to, either a nation with an acknowledged common culture or a polyglot mega-state something like the European Union if you like the idea. Or Yugoslavia if you don’t.

What we have is W.E.I.R.D. Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.

The United States is one of the weirdest of the W.E.I.R.D. Here is where the people Edmund Burke called the most protestant of Protestants and the most dissident of dissidents settled.

What they created was a national culture almost unique in the world. An identity based not on blood ties, but on our relationship to a body of literature.

Among peoples of a book, Jewish identity is based on a centuries-long literary discussion about man’s relationship to God. Icelanders identity is defined by the tales of heroic ancestors in the Sagas.

Americans are defined by our relationship to a literary discussion of the relationship of men in society. The canon is not well defined but certainly includes the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Federalist (a kind of operating manual for the Constitution) plus influential works such as John Locke’s treatises on government and the nature of property.

The result was a radical departure from all previous ideas of national identity. The notion that you can become an American, as much an American as anyone born here.

That would seem to settle the question. Come on board it’s really great!

Except it isn’t working that way.

For most of the history of our nation immigration came overwhelmingly from Europe. Though they had to learn what it means to be American, they came from cultures sharing a common origin which was like it or not Christian. That is, a religious tradition that taught you were personally responsible for the state of your soul.

The outliers were Jews, who nonetheless shared certain crucial assumptions about the dignity, worth, and inalienable rights of the individual. They worshiped a God of liberty and justice.

During the Western expansion we first accepted large numbers from non-Western cultures, Chinese and Japanese. And it appeared to work well. Who would have thought the insular Japanese would assimilate so thoroughly?

Forward looking Americans began to believe in our ability to assimilate any number of exotic foreigners, perhaps presaging a worldwide age of liberty and universal respect for the rights of man.

And it was precisely at this point that two things happened that called it all into question.

Wealth and industrialization made world travel easy and cheap. Technology fed images of the wealth of the West into every corner of the world. Soon masses of people were clamoring to come and share in it.

That’s not the problem. We’ve done this before. The famine Irish were more wretched than any Syrian or Somali refugees we’ve seen so far.

The first problem is these people come with no conception of what it is that made us this wealthy: free enterprise, sensible laws governing labor and business, and a general acknowledgement that what you make is yours to keep minus a tolerable levy for the upkeep of the country as a whole.

We’re now accepting people who appear to believe what we have is the result of luck – or worse, theft. People who do not care to assimilate, and in fact reject the idea out of hand.

The second problem is we appear to have lost the will to insist on it. That native-born Americans have lost sight of what created this outpouring of wealth unprecedented in human history.

We can’t bring ourselves to say anymore, “Come and bring the richness of your culture. We welcome it. But you must leave behind your old loyalties and your old hatreds. You must learn a new way of thinking about yourself and become a new kind of person. We ask much, but in return much is given.”

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Oct/16

5

Questions of words and deeds

If there is anything this election is doing it’s bringing certain fundamental differences in the way people think into sharp focus.

Some of the issues that illustrate what I’m talking about.

One is the question of Trumps alleged history of sexist remarks, including what is called fat-shaming these days. He apparently told a Miss Universe contestant that she needed to lose some weight. He wasn’t subtle.

Said contestant was once involved in a plot to murder a judge and allegedly bore a child to a drug lord but fat-shaming!

Hillary on the other hand has a long record of supporting women’s issues.

She is also married to a man who has been credibly accused by quite a number of women of unwanted groping and rape. At least one, Juanita Broaddrick has claimed Hillary behaved towards her in a way she thought was threatening, presumably to insure her silence.

Others Hillary dismissed as “bimbos,” “narcissistic looneytoons,” and “trailer trash.”

Another issue, taxes.

Media is all a-twitter with revelations that Trump may have dialed his taxes down to as little as zero through the bankruptcies of a few of his companies and other provisions of the tax code.

The Clintons however have done the same through the establishment of an allegedly charitable foundation which maintains that official status by setting aside a pittance for charity from their enormous income from favor-seeking donors. But it’s technically a charity.

What Trump did was perfectly legal, albeit unpopular these days.

Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) said, “Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.”

It is interesting how many people react to that quote with mixed shock and scorn, yet cannot say what is scandalous or wrong about it. Better still, ask them how much they tipped the federal government when they last paid their tax bill, if they did pay any income tax that is.

Yet another.

I recently posed a question to an academic who is a Hillary supporter (almost a redundancy).

How do you think the Clintons went from “practically broke when we left the White House” in Hillary’s words, to a personal fortune estimated at somewhere between $100 and 200 million?

He answered that he didn’t know but however it happened it was better than Trump’s inheritance.

Well yes, Trump inherited money from his father, i.e. his father freely gave his son money that was his to give.

Trump used this fortune to build tangible things such as hotels and casinos. The former are out of my price range and the latter not to my taste, but it’s his money not mine.

The Clintons sold access to and favors from an ex-president and then-current Secretary of State – but magic words “public service.”

And there I think, is the difference.

Let’s step outside the election shenanigans for a moment and consider something.

By now many readers are probably thinking I’m about to accuse Clinton supporters of hypocrisy.

But what if it’s not hypocrisy at all? What if it’s not just political tactics?

What if for a substantial number of people in this country, words are far more important than deeds, gestures more important than sound policy, stated intentions more important than results?

We’ve seen a generation of students demand safe spaces where they can hide – from words!

We’ve seen people who believe magic words such as “racist,” “Islamophobic,” or “homophobic” have such power they must be accepted uncritically, without proof.

We’ve seen a sitting president and one who would be president say “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism” as if saying it makes it true.

Our fat happy country has enemies who are men of deeds. How will we fare when our rulers are men of words?

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Oct/16

3

Why are smart people so stupid?

Some time back after I had returned to the United States after living in Eastern Europe I was invited to speak to a local chapter of Mensa about my experience living abroad during an exciting time in history.

Mensa is the international high-IQ society founded in 1946. Its only criterion for membership is an IQ in the 98th percentile. In other words, in a group of 100 people you’re one of the two smartest people in the room.

The first time we tried to get together they sent me to the wrong address. So we rescheduled.

The second time they’d forgotten there was a scheduling conflict so I wound up going out for a beer with the three people who did show up.

So how come the smartest people in the room couldn’t arrange something every Cub Scout den mother does on a regular basis?

I think all of us probably know some pretty smart people who have dumb ideas. And the stereotype of the unworldly impractical genius has been around for a long time.

An article in the New York Times Sunday Review of Sept. 16, by David Z. Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and graduate student Alexander P. Burgoyne, summarizes research that confirms what some of us have suspected for some time.

Smart people can be pretty dumb.

“As the psychologist Keith Stanovich and others observed… some people are highly rational. In other words, there are individual differences in rationality, even if we all face cognitive challenges in being rational. So who are these more rational people? Presumably, the more intelligent people, right?

“Wrong. In a series of studies, Professor Stanovich and colleagues had large samples of subjects (usually several hundred) complete judgment tests like the Linda problem, as well as an I.Q. test. The major finding was that irrationality — or what Professor Stanovich called “dysrationalia” — correlates relatively weakly with I.Q. A person with a high I.Q. is about as likely to suffer from dysrationalia as a person with a low I.Q.”

So it turns out that people with high IQs are just as prone to bias, prejudice, and rationalization as anybody else. No matter how smart we are, it’s difficult to think objectively about things we are emotionally invested in.

It’s depressing.

Though perhaps not surprising. How many smart people do you know who can be spectacularly stupid about for example, their romantic affairs? Money? Car repairs?

In fact, it seems really bright people are capable of much larger scale and much more harmful stupidity than your average-bright person.

Worse news, it doesn’t seem that higher education has an effect on how prone to cognitive bias we are. So much for those freshman logic classes.

The good news Hambrick claims, is that computerized training can affect long-term improvements in people’s ability to think objectively.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I haven’t looked at the experimental results in detail, but I’ve seen a lot of a tendency to label something “objective” when it seems to mean “agrees with me.”

That however could be my own bias in favor of a classical liberal arts education where logic and rhetoric are taught early. Logic is about objective thinking, rhetoric is about persuasive speaking, and the study thereof is about knowing the difference between them.

Perhaps we will find, or rediscover ways to teach objective critical thinking. One may always hope.

But one thing is for sure, we have every reason to be skeptical about the ability of other people to run our lives for us based on the argument they are smarter than we are.

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