Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Godwin and the Witch

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%." That was the humorous way Mike Godwin described what happens in many discussions. It may be humorous but there is a lot of truth in his statement. People of all political persuasions have a tendency to accuse their opponents of Nazism or being like Hitler. What a wonderful way it is of casting aspersions without having to provide any actual facts or reasoning!

My only disagreement with Godwin is that he failed to make his law inclusive enough. Yes, lots of computer discussions end up with someone being called a Nazi, but today the phenomenon is much more widespread. It is not limited to on-line discussions. Both the president and the Tea Party group have been called Nazis, along with lots of people in between. Not only that but “Nazi” is not the only word used in such name-calling. People call their opponents “racist,” “simplistic,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” etc. The effect is similar, it tends to end rational discussion and leave the impression that the person is actually what the label says.

The problem with this type of name calling-is that almost never does the name caller provide, or his audience request, evidence that the name fits. Too often the mere accusation is regarded as proof of guilt. This places the accused in the same position as women accused of being witches back before the 18th century. The accused witch had no right to presumption of innocence. Instead she was considered guilty until proven innocent. She could prove her innocence by sinking and drowning when bound, right thumb to left toe, and thrown into a convenient body of water.

Today we have many accusatory words with effects similar to “witch” in the early second millennium. I call them “witch-words.” Call somebody “racist,” “simplistic,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” or “Nazi” and the burden of proof seems to be on the accused to prove innocence. That is wrong and it interferes with reasonable public discussion of the issues.

How can we stop this? The first step is awareness. When we hear someone accused of being a Nazi, racist etc. we should stop and think. Is there evidence to support the charge? Then we should ask the accuser to support his accusation with something beyond name-calling. If the accuser cannot do so, ignore the accusation.

I would go one step farther if the accuser cannot support his accusation. That is evidence that he has no evidence so let's do a bit of name calling of our own. Our name calling will be backed up by that evidence. If someone thoughtlessly uses witch-words, call him a witchworder.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Hornets' Nest

The reaction to Arizona's recent laws to regarding illegal aliens reminds me of when I was a kid and stepped in a ground hornets' nest. That was a memorable experience to say the least. The hornets were as angry as opponents of that legislation are today. I suppose any comment I make here will risk a similar reaction no matter which side I support. However I shall attempt to inject some reasoning into what is now a very emotional topic.

First, we should agree on two things:

(a) Border control should be a federal responsibility, and

(b) The federal government has shirked that responsibility. A sieve holds water about as well as our southern border stops illegal entry.

Some those who enter the country illegally are hard workers and are the type of people we should want as immigrants if we could only provide them a good way to come here legally. However others are a danger to our country and our way of life. They import methamphetamine and other drugs, and many are criminals. The MS 13 gang, imported from Central America, is one of the most violent gangs in the country today. We don't need imported criminals, we have too many of our own already.

This situation cries for solution. Unfortunately neither party has the guts to take the necessary action, and that has been the case since the Reagan Administration. That administration presented a plan of getting control of the border while providing a path to citizenship. The government promised that the borders would be controlled and that illegals who entered the country after that time would not be granted legal status. The plan was reasonable and became law. However just planning does not get things done. Only the path to citizenship was ever put into action. Illegal aliens continued to ignore both the border and U.S. law. Congress again tried to legalize the illegals, a proposal stopped only by massive citizen opposition. The federal government broke its promise to the citizens.

Justifiably we as citizens feel betrayed. Why should we trust the government to do it any better now?

Is the Arizona law an act of desperation? Probably. Many residents of that state are desperate. The drug cartels control many of the “coyotes” who smuggle illegals through that state. This is no longer a few men crossing the border to find work picking fruit or milking cows. Yes, some of the illegals will do that but much of the traffic involves drugs and gang members. The coyotes are now often armed and willing to use force. U.S. citizens living in that area fear for their property and their lives. This amounts to an armed invasion.

What is to be done? First we have to face the fact that it won't be easy. Both parties fear a backlash from Hispanic voters if they take effective action. Only a massive citizen movement has a chance of forcing congress and the president to act. That action should start on two fronts:

1. We must get control of our borders. That must include something beyond the “catch and release” program too often used today. And we must deal effectively with the coyotes, the people smugglers who help with illegal entry. Even their customers regard them as the scum of the earth. They enrich themselves with human traffic and often regard women customers as fair game for rape.* People smuggling should be treated as a serious offense with appropriate punishment. In fact it is likely that the Mexican government would cooperate with us in attempting to put the coyotes out of business since those smugglers cause plenty of problems in Mexico as well.
2. We must provide a reasonable immigration path for the type of people we want to admit. Today, someone in Mexico or Central America can wait ten years for approval to immigrate here legally. Meanwhile his less scrupulous neighbors hire coyotes and enter illegally. That keeps out the best while allowing the worst to come here.

If the federal government will move effectively to control the border and to provide a reasonable path for the immigrants we want, Arizona will have no need to institute its own program. Then after a couple of years of watching that effective program, we might be able to trust the government to do something with the illegals already in the country.

We must insist that our representatives deal effectively with this problem.

*I speak fluent Spanish and have talked with many in the Hispanic culture. I find that they mistrust the coyotes and call them “mala gente,” bad people. It was from them that I learned of the propensity of the coyotes to rape their female customers.

Monday, April 19, 2010


“But he is so sincere, he must really mean it.” Those words are applied to politicians, lovers, abusive boy friends, people asking for loans, and many others who want us to believe them. Sometimes he really does mean it and sometimes he can even do what he says he will do. Sometimes the slower horse wins the race but that's not the way to bet.

The fact is that words are cheap. No matter how persuasive someone is, no matter how much we want to believe him, no matter how much he himself believes them, the words are meaningless if actions say something else. How many abused women take the guy back because he promises faithfully to change his ways? He almost never does. (Men can fall for that as well but women are the more common victims.) How often do politicians promise they will get spending under control, then turn right around and increase spending and the deficit?

We need only look at President Obama for an example. One day he emphasized the need to control deficit spending. Then the very next day he announced that he intended to subsidize building high-speed rail lines. Yes, those rail lines were already planned but you don't cut spending without, well, cutting spending.

More recently, yesterday in fact, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has claimed that Obama administration is paying more attention to deficit and spending concerns than the Bush administration did. Such a claim would not be very difficult to live up to since the Bush administration spent like crazy. Should we believe Geithner's words? Anybody who does will probably be interested in a good deal on this tower I know about in Paris.

The fact is that while administration officials are talking about deficit reduction, projections are that deficits will top a trillion dollars per year under Obama, compared to a $458.6 billion deficit in Bush's last year.

Believe the actions, not the words.

In other areas we should also believe actions, not words. The battered woman should ignore the sweet words and promises intended to lure her back to an abusive situation. His violent actions tell the truth while his words are misleading. Yes, those words sound good. Yes, he may even believe them himself. That will last until the next time he gets upset. Then the actions will be right back, telling the truth.

How about the young woman (and some older women) hearing the sweet vows of love? What are the actions that back up those vows? Sadly, there are many men who tell women what they want to hear in order to have sex or get something else. Young women are often lured to bed while older women may lose money if they listen to such a line. If he really wants to spend his life with you and raise a family he should treat you right and make the legal commitment called marriage. Only the actions are believable.

The deadbeat friend or relative asking for a loan is another case. Helping people is good but helping them remain deadbeats only keeps them down while harming everyone they cheat. Remember the saying: If a dog bites me once, shame on the dog. If he bites me twice, shame on me.

I could go on. Salespeople who lie once will lie again. Advertisers who mislead will continue to do so. The car company that failed to report dangerous acceleration should not be trusted, regardless of what the ads promise. That company needs years of living up to its promises before we can consider it trustworthy again.

While there are many trustworthy people in the world today, there are many who are quite otherwise. Our personal and public lives will be greatly improved if we fire the lying politicians and sales people and if we ignore the words of anyone whose actions contradict those words.

Beware the silver tongue.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hiring a Supreme Court Justice - Reprise

With the impending retirement of Justice Stevens from the Supreme Court, I’m going to post a re-working of something I posted here before. The selection of his replacement is so important to our freedom and way of life that I believe it justifies some repetition.

I ask all readers to contact their senators and urge them to commit to oppose any court nominee who fails to meet the criteria set forth below.

Hiring decisions can be difficult or relatively simple, depending on the nature of the job. It can be easy to hire someone to pick up litter in a park; almost anyone can do that. Even if the person hired does a poor job no long-term damage is done and it’s easy to replace him. However as the job gets more complex, the difficulty of finding the right person increases, as does the potential damage he can do. A corporate chief executive officer can ruin a company in a hurry. Furthermore there are not many people available who can and will do the job right. For that reason companies looking to hire a CEO usually take a long time and carefully evaluate potential candidates.

The hiring of a justice of the Supreme Court is more important than hiring a corporate CEO, maybe even more important than hiring a president of these United States. Justices receive lifetime appointments and are essentially accountable to nobody. A vote of five justices decides a case, making it the law of the land. There is no appeal. That makes each justice effectively one fifth of a dictatorship. It is a position of extreme trust and with the ability to do a lot of damage. This is not a position for which we can take a chance and replace the person in a few years if we don’t like the outcome. Selection of justices has to be done right, and done right the first time.

That means we should not just make sure there is no evidence against a potential justice. We must make certain that the person is qualified. This is not a criminal trial in which the appointee is innocent until proven guilty. Instead all candidates should be considered unqualified until shown beyond reasonable doubt to be qualified. The burden of proof is on the candidate and his or her supporters. I repeat here the five requirements I regard as mandatory for such justices:

1. Absolute integrity.
2. Commitment to the constitution and constitutional law.
3. Ability to subordinate personal belief and preference to the constitution and the law.
4. Intellectual ability to weigh issues and to decide wisely based on evidence, fact, and logic.
5. Sound knowledge of the law and the constitution.
Those should be requirements of any judge but especially of those on the high court since there is no appeal from their decisions. These criteria are critical to a good judiciary and I believe their importance is in the order listed.

Integrity: We must have integrity in any government official but especially in judges. Without integrity, other ability becomes a means to abuse the powers of office. A corrupt judge with great ability will use that ability for his own benefit and against the good of the country. We’ve had one justice (Abe Fortas) who resigned in a bribery scandal, we do not need another.

Commitment to Constitution and Law: Justices must be committed to our constitutional form of government, and to constitutional law. We have a representative republic with carefully crafted protections against abuse of power and the court must uphold that form of government. Substitution of its own wisdom for the constitutional law of the land would put the court the position of a dictator. Legislation should be left to senators and representatives who are accountable to the voters; the court is not a super-legislature.

Subordination of Personal Belief to Law and Constitution: Justices must subordinate their own beliefs and desires to law and constitution. One mark of a good judge is to set aside personal preference and judge according to the law. To do otherwise would again be putting himself in the position of dictator, imposing his own will on the electorate. We need justices who can say, "I dislike this law. I think it is dumb. However it is the law and it is constitutional so I must let it stand." Justices must recognize that they are "hired hands," employed to serve the people according to the "contract" set forth in the constitution. They may think that a law is stupid, and in this they may be right. However they must recognize that voters and their representatives have a right to make laws, even stupid laws.

Intellectual Ability: Justices must have the intellectual wherewithal to deal with the issues they will face. This seems obvious. Not only are the issues themselves often complex, but there are smart lawyers arguing each side. A justice must be able to consider all aspects of a case, cut through the intellectual fog, and decide on the basis of fact, logic, law and constitution.

Knowledge of Law and Constitution: Judicial nominees must have a sound knowledge of the law and the constitution. They must know and understand the basis on which they are to decide.

The president must reject the temptation to appoint justices who will advance a political agenda, instead seeking those who meet the above requirements. Justices should be judges, not politicians.

You will notice some characteristics missing in the above requirements. I have said nothing about having a balance between races, sexes or any other such thing. We don't need female judges and we don't need male judges. We don't need black judges, white judges, yellow judges, or brown judges. We just need judges who can and will do the job as it should be done, be they male or female; black, white, brown or yellow.

We should all contact our senators and urge them to carefully evaluate the beliefs and judicial qualifications of any nominee. If the nominee fails to meet, beyond reasonable doubt, any of those criteria, he or she should be rejected.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Parable of the Pigs

One night a dozen hogs escaped from a farm. The farmer was busy and didn't have time to go after them for two days by which time they had found a nice swampy area near the river and decided that they liked their freedom. The farmer could only catch three of them. The rest soon established themselves in their new home where they did what came naturally. Within a couple of years they and their offspring became a potentially valuable amount of pork on the hoof. Hunters and trappers converged to claim that prize.

The hogs, however, refused to cooperate with the hunters and trappers. They had become wise to the ways of their enemies, to the point that it was a lucky hunter who managed to take even one of them. After a few months of that, word got around and few even tried.

Then one day a stranger came to town. He got a local lad to show him the area where the hogs lived, then went to a trucking company and reserved a large cattle truck for two months later. Everybody laughed. If he wanted to waste his money on a truck reservation that was OK with them.

The stranger hung around town for two months, leaving every day for some errand unknown to the locals. Then he told the truck driver to go to a certain location the next day. The truck made two trips to the slaughterhouse. The stranger turned a nice profit and there were no more hogs running loose, he had captured every one.

As the stranger was celebrating with a thick steak someone asked him how he did it. “It's no big secret,” he said. “I just went and put some corn on the ground in the area. For a couple of days the hogs ignored it, then a young pig approached and timidly ate some corn. The next day there were three young pigs eating my corn. Within a week some of the older hogs started taking advantage of the free lunch. Finally after a month I had every hog in the area eating my free meals every day. In fact they started to get used to me.

The next step was to build my pig pen. First I put posts in the ground, but only along one side of the food and with several feet between posts. The hogs were nervous but within a day they were used to the posts. Then I put in more posts, all around the area. I made sure to put some gate posts where I wanted the gate. They got used to that so I put poles on the ground between some of the posts. After another couple of days I added more poles, all around the food except for the gate. Then I started adding another layer of poles each day so the fence height grew slowly. The hogs got used to going in and out of the gate.

Day before yesterday the fence was high enough and strong enough to hold the hogs. I let them eat and leave that day. Then yesterday I just put more poles in to close the gate and I had myself a nice herd of swine. The interesting thing is that they didn't really try very hard to escape, just made themselves comfortable like regular domestic hogs. In fact when the truck came it was pretty easy to put down a ramp with barriers on each side. I had baited the truck with more corn and they just walked up the ramp into the truck.*

That story has obvious applications to our lives today, from politics to borrowing money. How often are we tempted to take the easy way, the free lunch or other shortcut, especially when we see others doing it? That way lies danger and it matters little if the provider of the free lunch has our best interest at heart or is laying a deliberate trap. What matters is the result, what happens after we become complacent and dependent. And I'm not talking only of going to the slaughterhouse here. Even if the hogs in the story had been kept as pets they would have lost their freedom. Likewise becoming dependent on others saps our freedom and humanity.

That is the most obvious lesson, we should not become dependent on others as long as we are able to care for ourselves. However we should also consider how to avoid that dependence. The pigs in the story were suspicious but still fell for the trap. That was because the trap was constructed gradually so they became accustomed to the fence little by little. Even then the older, wiser hogs might have stayed away except that they saw others taking advantage of the free corn. “Everybody is doing it” was the apparent perception. Well, everybody went to the slaughterhouse.

Businesses seek to sell us something on time. Lottery agencies seek our money on the implied (and very false) premise that we have a reasonable chance to win. Governments seek to help us at taxpayer expense. All make their promises look very attractive, just like the corn looked attractive to the hogs. And in all those cases it is easy to think that everybody is doing it. However all can lead us down the path to loss of freedom and sometimes worse.

*This is based on a story I read long ago. Unfortunately I cannot remember the source so cannot give credit where credit is due.