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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, August 30, 2013

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE: Syria

"Syria is geographically and politically in the middle of the Middle East."
-Bashar al-Assad

The nation of Syria is one of the oldest on earth in terms of human habitation.  Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited place known of in the world, with history stretching back at least twelve thousand years.  Syria was once a mighty world power, thousands of years ago.  These days its a small country in a very volatile, troubled region that has for a long, long time been led by a succession of kings and dictators.
And Syria is in the news a lot recently.  Always a problematic area with a dictator that despised the west and supported terrorism, Syria was an ally of sorts to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and that's where Hussein sent a huge convoy of trucks the night before the Coalition of the Willing invaded in 2003.  There's been a lot of speculation about what was in those trucks, but whatever it was, its still in Syria.
Bashar Assad is the dictator of Syria and he's fighting very hard against rebels to retain his position.  These rebels are at least partly funded by al`Qaeda and Hezbollah, so they are quite wealthy and well-equipped.  They have gotten weapons from Libya, including some US equipment, and are doing very well against Assad's military.
As the fight has continued on, some very horrible things have taken place.  In April 2012, the military fired on civilians to quell protests.  In September 2012 we had a report that the military was cluster bombing areas where rebels were hiding among civilians.  In October 2012, Syrian forces fired mortars into Turkish border towns, killing civilians.  In November 2012, after months of sporatic shelling from the Golan Heights into Israel, Israel returned fire.
In March of this year, the UN investigated a report that the Syrian air force used fuel air bombs to attack the town of Qusayr.  In June, people danced and cheered in the streets as al`Qaeda rebels cut the head off a Roman Catholic priest.  Also in June, the Syrian air force shot down a Turkish jet that had strayed into Syrian airspace and helicopters fired on suspected rebel sites in Lebanon.   By July, the death toll has reached an estimated 100,000.  This month a Jesuit missionary was reported dead at the hands of rebels in Ar-Raqqah.
And most recently, there are reports of some kind of chemical gas being used to kill rebels by the Syrian government, killing hundreds; the Syrian government accuses the rebels of using the weapons..  Most of the free world's governments have officially backed the rebels and their elected leader Ghassan Hitto.  However Ghassan Hitto resigned his position in July, stating that he could not get anything organized and could not form a government.  Saudi-backed Ahmed Jarba is in charge now.
This Syrian Conflict involves at least seven middle eastern countries or more in various ways, either from support and rebel leadership or in direct military conflict.  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel are all involved one way or another.  And the fighting threatens to spread from there to other areas.
So how does a Christian respond to this?  Well that answer is a bit tricky.
For some, mostly American, Christians this is a matter of a huge overarching system of prophecy and Biblical interpretation.  Premillennial pretribulation dispensationalists will likely argue that this is a fulfillment of a long complex prophecy in Daniel about Gog and Magog and the end of the world, that Israel fighting against the entire world in a battle at the end of time is what is unfolding and so on.  Any time there's any conflict in the middle east this seems to come up.
Now I find that whole system to be at best suspect and very damaging to scripture, but that's not really important to the basic Christian response to these horrors.  Whatever your eschatology (view of the end times, essentially) is, all of us should respond to the Syrian conflict in the same sort of manner.
The first is to hit our knees on the floor and pray.  No matter where war happens or who is involved, no matter what the conflict is over or who the fighters are, its a horrible, terrifying thing to go through.  Most people in a war torn region are stuck, they cannot get away.  They can only pray and hope that those fuel air bombs, chemical weapons, and bullets.  Families who have nothing to do with rebels or the government or fighting have to live their lives, raise their children, find food and water and shelter and what work they can as the war goes on.  And they need our prayers.
Further, the leadership on either side needs prayers to be shown wisdom, compassion, restraint, judgment, integrity, and righteousness.  They all need prayers and God's guidance as much as anyone else does, so that peace and justice may triumph in the region instead of war, treachery, and evil.  We must pray for justice, that the evil may not go unpunished.  We must pray for strength for those Christians trapped in the area, that they show God's glory and love through the fighting and terror.  We must pray for the families of people living and working in the region.  And we must pray for ourselves to be good and true and right when we think and speak of the events, and for forgiveness when we do not.
This is going to be a bit controversial to some and politically incorrect I suppose, but all Christians should pray for a growth of Christianity in the region.  The gospel and the love of Jesus Christ is the only possible long-term hope for peace and stability in the country.  A transforming wave of Biblical, loving, humble Christianity would be tremendously good for the area, and we all should pray for it to take place, that God would show mercy on the people there and bring salvation and the gospel in a mighty way to the whole region.
Further, we must do what we can to help those in need.  Relief and aid groups that are sending food, clothing, medical supplies, and so on to people in the area all can use our donations, assistance, money, and prayers.  It is a simple act of Christian charity to help those in need in far away countries that has long defined America's response to any events.  The generosity of the American people is world famous and justly praised, and we must continue to help those in need.
Also, we have to consider who is in government and what they are doing.  How do they react to these situations, what is their response, their rhetoric?  Are they acting out of genuine concern for justice, peace, and truth?  Do they lead the nation and the military in a manner that is consistent with US law?  Are they spending US treasury and the lives of soldiers wisely and properly?  If so, they deserve our support in this.  If not, they deserve only opposition and removal.
Finally we should be conscious and aware of those in our midst who have family, friends, and colleagues in the region.  Do they need our help, our love, and our support?  What can we do to show God's love to them, our neighbors?  We should carefully guard our tongues and our typing to display the glory of God rather than petty snark and bitterness.  A cruel barb might be initially fun or earn the praise of others, but it could cut very deep for someone with a loved one trapped in the area.
God be with the people of those nations, and may He bring us peace in the region soon.  I do not subscribe to the whole dispensational system of prophetic interpretation, but I certainly share their longing for Christ's return, and we should not only pray for it to be soon, but live our lives as if at any moment the Master will step through our door and into our homes.
*UPDATE: Another thought: when we look at Syria, what do we see?  Groups of people so filled with their goals and desires that they are willing to slaughter innocent people to achieve them.  People so driven by their ideology or wants that there seems to be no limits to the horrors they will commit.  Bashar Assad wants to stay in power so bad he'll kill for it.  The rebels want him out of power (and them in power) so badly they'll kill for it.
Now, in this life, as Ecclesiastes teaches, there's a time and place for everything, even death and war.  But we must always be sure that the time is fight and the cause is just, that what we do, we do for the cause of justice, righteousness, and the glory of God, not to meet our whims or ideology.
So each of us as Christians must sit back and consider what we are doing and why.  We all should pray for humility and patience, pray for wisdom and obedience to God.  Because how many times in our lives have we said and done wrong out of a political motivation or out of a desire for our ideas or goals to be successful?  We must repent of our sin, our cruelty, our greed, our hunger for power, and our lack of humility and love.  Each of us, and all of us as a body of Christ in the churches and the church universal.
Because while its easy to point the bony finger of condemnation at others for their wicked deeds, we must first look in the mirror and see ours.  Yes, that chip of wood in their eye is why they're in such misery, but what about the plank in ours?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: POTPOURRI III

Burt Reynolds: Yeah well, why don't you give me, ah.. why don'tcha give me Ape Tit for $200.
Alex Trebek: It's not "Ape Tit." It's A Petit.. [ shakes head ] ..never mind!

Its time for another batch of smaller misconceptions, myths, and distortions that don't warrant an entire post of their own.  We start off with one you might not have heard of but has been passed around in the Christian community more than the common cold in an elementary school lunchroom.  Evangelical atheists like to throw it around, too.
Christians get divorced more than non-Christians!  Amazing, huh?  This comes from a study by pollster George Barna, who does a lot of studies and polls on Christian topics.  Pastors trot this one out regularly in sermons to bemoan the lack of piety among the faithful.  Is it true?  Well, only if you define "Christian" in the vaguest, most broad and meaningless sense possible.
Barna's definition of Christian was basically people who believe in the existence of God and ever attend church during the year.  That's it.  Among that broad slice of humanity, 60% have gotten a divorce, versus just over 50% in the general population.  Cue the mockery of "traditional marriage" and giggling about how homosexual "marriage" will ruin the nation.
Now, putting aside how misleading this statistic is on divorce (for a closer examination of that topic, consult the previous Common Knowledge post on divorce), this is such a broad definition of Christian as to be meaningless.  Have you been to church ever in the last 365 days?  For a wedding, perhaps, Christmas?  To see the kids in a skit?  Hear your friend sing?  Do you believe that God, however you define it, exists?  According to George Barna, you're a Christian!
When you dial down that definition to be more specifically faithful, suddenly the numbers plunge.  Just limiting to people who regularly attend church drops the divorce numbers to 38%.  The more specifically Christian you get, the lower the chance of divorce becomes.  Professor Stanley at the University of Detroit did a study with a group of high-profile sociologists and they found the opposite of what Barna's study suggests:
"Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced."
But that's not good sermon fodder, I guess.  Still too high a rate, but significantly lower than the general population.
Less gun control leads to more gun crime and murder!  This seems like a no-brainer, having too many guns around makes it more likely people get shot.  If only we could get those guns off the street!  Like many things in life, what seems obvious on the surface becomes quite different with some thought.
Of all places, Harvard University did a study on guns and violence and found quite the opposite of what is popularly believed.  For example, they discovered that Russia, with much tougher gun laws than the United States, has four times the murder rate (with roughly half the population).  Keep in mind, this is Harvard University, not the Heritage Foundation or the NRA.  Overall, they found that in general, the greater the gun ownership, the less murder and violence a nation had, while areas with heavy gun control had more problems. 
The study further noted that the nine European nations with the lowest rate of gun ownership rate have a combined murder rate that is three times greater than the nine European nation with the highest rate of gun ownership.  Why?  Maybe Robert Heinlein is right, an armed society is a polite society.  Certainly if I'm a mugger I'll think twice about robbing someone if I think there's a decent chance that they're armed.
In the last five years, gun purchasing and ownership in the United States has absolutely exploded, selling like crazy.  Yet violent homicides with firearms have dropped almost 40% and other crimes involving firearms by nearly 70%.  B-b-but the US is the world leader in gun violence, right?  Wrong.  Yes, the news and entertainment industries work hard at portraying that, but it isn't true.  The United States is #1 in the world in gun ownership, and yet it is 28th in the world in gun murders per 100,000 people.
In short, gun ownership and the freedom to own weapons does not lead to greater crime, violence, or murders.  In fact there's a lot of evidence that it tends to prevent these horrors.  If you thought that gun crime was up in the US, don't feel bad.  According to polling data, most people think so, even though the opposite is true.
There are more blacks in jail than in college!  Both Jesse Jackson and President Obama have claimed this, and if you see any show on prison, you might think that its true.  But it just isn't.  The Washington Post editors wrote:
According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the male African-American population of the United States aged between 18 and 24 numbered 1,896,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African-Americans in this age group were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. … If you add the numbers in local jail (measured in mid-2006), you arrive at a grand total of 193,000 incarcerated young black males, or slightly over 10 percent.

According to the same census data, 530,000 of these African-American males, or 28 percent, were enrolled in colleges or universities … in 2005. That is five times the number of young black men in federal and state prisons and two and a half times the total number incarcerated. If you expanded the age group to include African-American males up to 30 or 35, the college attendees would still outnumber the prisoners.
Are there too many black men in prison?  Well I'd argue anyone in prison is too many, but that doesn't mean they don't belong there or haven't committed any crimes.  In any case, this presumption that everyone should go to college is flawed to begin with.
The War on Drugs is filling our prisons with black men!  There are a lot of horrible things blamed on the War on Drugs, and some of it has some validity at least.  This one doesn't.  Larry Elder puts it this way:
Not true. In 2010, blacks were 31.8 percent of all arrests for drug crimes. But arrests for drug offenses are only 12.4 percent of all non-traffic arrests in the country and accounted for 14.2 percent of the offenses for which blacks were arrested.
The truth is, the War on Drugs isn't actually responsible for as many arrests or imprisonments as people claim, and its not jamming our prisons with blacks.  Black criminals are doing that.
Blondes are going extinct!  Blonde hair is a recessive gene, we're told, and as the world becomes more multicultural and people move around more, blondes are being bred out of existence.  The BBC first reported this, and many other sources picked it up over time.  German researchers working for the World Health Organization determined that the last blonde to be born will be within the next 200 years - probably in Finland, which has the highest percentage of blondes on earth.
But, of course, that's ridiculous.  How can it be wrong, you ask, after all Germans were involved, and they're the most sciencey people on earth!  Well, first off, as the professor in Edinburgh noted in the BBC report, genes never totally disappear, at most blondes would become quite rare.  But as Lawrence Altman in a later New York Times story explains:
There was only one problem, the health organization said in a statement yesterday that it never reported that blonds would become extinct, and it had never done a study on the subject.

'W.H.O. has no knowledge of how these news reports originated,'' said the organization, an agency of the United Nations based in Geneva, ''but would like to stress that we have no opinion of the future existence of blonds.''
Genetically speaking, its nonsense, but it was one of those stories that was too good to bother checking on.
Mass shootings are on the rise!  There are more mass killings and school shootings than ever.  It seems like every time we turn on the news, there's another report of some lunatic shooting up a school or business.  Things are going crazy!  Clearly, we need stronger gun and anti-bullying laws.
Except that's just not true.  An Associated Press report in 2012 explains:
"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices.

The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer.

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.

Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.
Of course, the bulk of the AP piece is about how gun violence is so awful and we need more gun control with lots of emotional pull quotes, but the facts remain.
Nobody requires ID to vote in other nations, only hate-filled right wing bigots trying to disenfranchise minorities!  OK so that's a bit of a leading statement, but you'll hear that kind of thing from folks every time the idea of voter ID comes up.  But guess what: just about everyone requires ID to vote but the US.  In the last election, lots of observers from around the world came to the US to make sure President Obama got reelected observe the election. What they saw amazed them.  Josh Rogin reports in Foreign Policy:
The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there's often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there's no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.
...
Many of the visiting international officials noted that there were no observers at the polling places to ensure that proper voting procedures were being followed.
Frankly these voting observers were astounded that no ID was required.  After all, its an election, its so important, why wouldn't you require people to prove who they are?  In fact, the general response in this article is amazement at how trusting and without checks and security the American electoral system is - and probably ought not be, in my opinion, given how easily it can be defrauded.
I used to be a leftist, pretty far left on most issues.  I was terrified Reagan was going to destroy the world, I knew for a fact that he was responsible for tens of millions of homeless on the streets, and so on.  I voted for Dukakis in 1988.  I kept running into facts that got in the way of what I believed to be true, things I was certain about, but the evidence kept disproving.  I would respond with angry dismissal, claiming fraud, bias, manipulation, and cry that you can't trust that source.
But eventually, the facts got to me.  I couldn't brush away the truth that kept interfering with what the left told me was true.  And now I try to be more cautious when I hear something I want or believe to be true, and more willing to check on things that I don't care to hear.  Because the truth matters more than my politics, beliefs, or hopes.
And that's why I like this kind of thing, why I write about it, and why I hope lots of people read it.  Because there's so much out there that we take for granted or believe that's simply not the case.  And in almost every instance, we're told these myths because someone gains from our belief.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE

"b-b-but Miley Cyrus!!!!"

Certain events or experiences change our perspective.  After 9/11 all the sudden Survivor wasn't quite as compelling.  After you are almost hit by a car, that frustration you had with your cell phone coverage seems less significant.  Its a matter of perspective bringing reality to the front instead of our petty problems.  Combat soldiers understand this well.  I got this in the mail, thought I'd pass it on to you all.

When a soldier comes home, he finds it hard...
...to listen to his son complain about being bored.

...to keep a straight face when people complain about potholes

...to be tolerant of people who complain about the hassle of getting ready for work.

...to be understanding when a coworker complains about a bad night of sleep

...to be silent when people pray to God for a new car

...to control his panic when his wife tells him to drive slower
...to be compassionate when a businessman expresses a fear of flying

...to keep from laughing about anxious parents afraid to send their kids to summer camp

...to keep from ridiculing someone who complains about hot weather

...to control his frustration when a colleague complains about his coffee being cold

...to remain calm when his daughter complains about having to walk the dog

...to be civil to people who complain about their jobs

...to just walk away when someone complains that they only get two weeks of vacation a year

...to be forgiving when someone says how hard it is to have a new baby in the house.

Now imagine being married to or being the child of one of these soldiers, being their parents, a loved one. Knowing what they go through and fearing for them every day. It isn't that none of these things are valid concerns, some are real problems. Its that if you have a proper perspective, they shrink in importance and it helps us think a bit less about ourselves.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TAXING CHURCHES

"The right to tax is the right to destroy."
-Thomas Jefferson


Churches do not pay taxes, as long as they register as a certain sort of organization with the federal government.  Thus, tithes and offerings collected by the church are completely controlled by that church and the government gets no part of them.  Some churches don't file and pay taxes normally, but also are under no restrictions whatsoever (they can be openly political, for example).
This has long been a source of annoyance to many, especially those on the left, and recently two articles were written about the idea of taxing churches.  Matthew Yglecias at Slate wrote:
Let’s tax churches! All of them, in a non-discriminatory way that doesn’t consider faith or creed or level of political engagement. There’s simply no good reason to be giving large tax subsidies to the Church of Scientology or the Diocese of San Diego or Temple Rodef Shalom in Virginia or the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion church around the corner from me. Whichever faith you think is the one true faith, it’s undeniable that the majority of this church-spending is going to support false doctrines. Under the circumstances, tax subsidies for religion are highly inefficient.

What’s more, even insofar as tax subsidies do target the true faith they’re still a pretty bad idea. The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there’s no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn’t really work this way. Upgrading a church’s physical plant doesn’t enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy. You just get a nicer building or a grander Christmas pageant. There’s nothing wrong with that. When I was young I always enjoyed the Grace Church Christmas pageant. But this is just a kind of private entertainment (comparable to spending money on snacks for your book club—and indeed what are Bible study groups but the original book clubs?) that doesn’t need an implicit subsidiy.
And in response, Dylan Matthews wrote in the Washington Post that this would be a revenue enhancer for the government:
Cragun et al estimate the total subsidy at $71 billion. That’s almost certainly a lowball, as they didn’t estimate the cost of a number of subsidies, like local income and property tax exemptions, the sales tax exemption, and — most importantly — the charitable deduction for religious given. Their estimate that religious groups own $600 billion in property is also probably low, since it leaves out property besides actual churches, mosques, etc.

The charitable deduction for all groups cost about $39 billion this year, according to the CBO, and given that 32 percent of those donations are to religious groups, getting rid of it just for them would raise about $12.5 billion. Add that in and you get a religious subsidy of about $83.5 billion.
Both refer to this tax exemption as "government subsidy" and say that “You give religions more than $82.5 billion per year.”  They argue that this is unreasonable, because it means that the taxpayers are forced to give people they disagree with or find offensive money!
Now, I'm sure you can see a few flaws in this immediately.  For instance, we're forced as taxpayers to literally give money to organizations such as Planned Parenthood money directly in the form of loan guarantees, grants, and government funding.  Funding organizations such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which routinely annoys half the political spectrum happens every year.  Yet neither of these would even consider cutting any of that funding.
In fact, if you look closely, neither one seems to want to end tax exemptions for anything but churches.  Matthew Yglecias mentions Scientology and Judaism at least, so he's more inclusive of religious bodies (Mosques are conspicuously avoided), but what about all the other tax-exempt nonprofits?  What about People for the American Way and NPR and Planned Parenthood?  The NAACP and the ACLU don't pay taxes, either.
Yet these men argue only for religious organizations to lose their tax exemption.  Nothing else.  Which means they're targeting these bodies specifically for a reason. Its hard to avoid the suspicion that behind this call for ending tax exemption for churches is not merely an atheist bent, but an attempt to disarm the calls for defunding places like Planned Parenthood.  One of the standard techniques of Alinskyite tactics is to disarm your opponent by calling for schemes that kick their legs out from under them.  You want to defund our groups?  Well how about we do it to you?  Except what we call for is not the same as what these men argue for.
See when conservatives talk about ending money sent to organizations that are overtly political (and radically leftist) they are against the funding of these groups, not the tax exemption.  Some clearly violate their nonprofit status in violent and regular ways, which would mean they should lose that exemption, but in principle, conservatives aren't opposed to the tax exemption.
Hidden in their arguments are a few other problems and faulty presuppositions.  First off, both assume that all money belongs to the government and we raise it for the central planners.  That's how they come up with the "subsidies" and "you're paying for religion" lines.  The presumption here is that if a body does not pay taxes, its taking money away from the federal government - and you as a taxpayer, in the process.
This is flawed for several reasons.  First off, money we earn is ours, we earned it.
We give some of our money in taxes to the community for shared benefits, such as police and fire protection. Taxation is a reasonable and proper expense to pay for the proper and constitutional role of government that all citizens should be willing and proud to pay.  
Further, a church is not taking money from anyone by keeping theirs; each individual person in the church pays their taxes, even if church as a body does not. So the taxes are paid, just not by that particular body.  And why don't non-profits pay taxes to begin with?  To understand that, you have to understand the purpose of taxation.
Taxes are to fund proper use of government, and that's it.  It is not to shape behavior, encourage certain economic activity, or to fund good ideas and well meaning efforts by the government.  Taxes do not exist to fill the endless need of politicians to spend in their home district nor to fund grand schemes, but the bare minimum of government activity.  Anything more is tyranny, forcing money out of the public to fund the whims of a small group.
The entire principle behind tax exemptions is an understanding that these non-profit organizations are providing a benefit to the community which the government does not have to.  If a church has a food bank, helps the poor in their community, volunteers at the local free clinic, and so on, that means the government does not need to spend tax dollars there.  If a non-profit lab tests dairy products for quality, that means the government does not need to.
Thus, non-profits are tax exempt because they save the government money, provide a general benefit to the community, and are a positive influence on society to such a degree that they offset any potential revenue loss.  Whether you happen to personally agree with the philosophy behind these organizations is utterly irrelevant.  What they do is what makes them tax exempt.
Further, if you tax these organizations, they are unable then to provide these services.  They won't have the money to pay to help others, and they'll have to charge more for any services they do charge for in order to afford to stay open.  Thus, the general benefit of these groups is reduced or eliminated - negating any benefit the tax revenues might generate.  If your local church has to shut down or reduce its neighborhood benefits, then the government has to take up the slack.  And since the government's ponderous bureaucracy and inevitable corruption makes it significantly less efficient than a small non profit, that means it does less good for more cost.
This is something that Dylan Matthews cannot seem to see around the dollar signs in his eyes.  He only sees potential tax revenues for the federal government.  Imagine what we could do with all that cash!  We could build high speed rail!  We could fund more schools!  We could create a Department of Peace!  The cost to these non-profits and society at large seems to elude him entirely.
And consider Matthew Yglecias' approach toward non profits.  He sees their work not in terms of communal benefit but in terms of productivity.
The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there's no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn't really work this way.
Now we've already dealt with the canard of "subsidized religion," so we can put that foolishness aside.  But note: productivity is his focus here.  This is an all-too familiar reductionism of everything into economic terms.  Churches are an economic system because everything is an economic system in this worldview, and since a rich church is no more productive than a poor one in terms of spiritual economy, then who cares if they're poorer?
This is the language of Marxism, the reduction of all the world into economic concepts; its what the entire Manifesto was based on.  Its amusing to see someone be so blatant about it, but these days the delusion of Communism being no threat or matter of concern has spread pretty wide.
In the end, both of these men suffer from basic misconceptions about economics, culture, taxation, and the point of non profits to begin with.  And what's worse is that they would predictably oppose any taxation of any non-profit that benefits the leftist political machine, such as the Southern Poverty and Law Center or International A.N.S.W.E.R..  Yet if your entire concept is based on "we could raise more tax revenues" and "but I don't agree with all these guys, why take my money" then by definition you must extend this taxing non-profits concept to all of them, not just the religious ones.
The only conceivable explanation to why this seems remotely reasonable to these men is because of their innate hostility toward religion in general (and Christianity in specific).  Its not just them, they're children of a culture which is increasingly hostile toward religion.  This proposal only seems proper with a background of atheist, humanist hostility.  That, combined with the rank ignorance explained above makes a foolish idea seem quite reasonable to the fool.
*Short Version: there's a good reason non-profits don't pay taxes, and wanting only some to says more about you than it does these organizations.
*Stories via Gene Vieth's blog Cranach.

Monday, August 26, 2013

CHOOSING WINNERS AND LOSERS

"It is perfectly safe to say that George Selden has never advanced the automobile industry in a single particular...and it would perhaps be further advanced than it is now if he had never been born."
-Henry Ford


Dating the first car ever made is difficult.  Many different people were working on the concept of a horseless carriage at the same time and developed their version all around Europe and America.  The first known internal combustion engine as we'd today recognize it was built by Robert Street in 1794:
Inflammable gas was exploded in a cylinder and drove up a piston by its expansion, thus producing the first example of a practical internal combustion engine. The gas was obtained by sprinkling spirits of turpentine or petroleum at the bottom of a cylinder, and evaporating them by a fire beneath.

The up-stroke of the piston admitted a certain quantity of air, which mixed with the inflammable vapour. A flame was next sucked in from a light outside the cylinder, through a valve uncovered by the piston, and forced down the piston of a pump for raising water.
These very early ones tended not to use refined gasoline as it was rare and expensive.  Alternative fuels such as benzine, turpentine, and coal oil were used, but the concept was the same.  The first use of this for an actual vehicle is generally recognized as being 1886, with the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.  Over a century before that, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 had built a steam-powered, four-wheeled self-propelled vehicle called the Cugnot Steam Trolly, but the design was impractical and never caught on.
But the strangest epoch in car-creation history is the story of George B. Selden, who almost destroyed the auto industry even before it got started.  In 1879, Selden filed for a patent on a four-wheeled self-propelled vehicle driven by an internal combustion engine.  The engine didn't work, but it was a concept that could, with enough time and effort.  It took 16 years to get the patent actually accepted due to continual modifications and amendments, but many car enthusiasts consider the initial filing the birth of the automobile.
Selden never did get a real car built, but his story doesn't end here.  In 1899, the Electric Vehicle Company filed for rights to build a car from Selden, believing the patent to be owned by him.  However, their cars didn't work very well or sell much, so by 1900 they came up with another idea, contacting other investors such as Alexander Winton, owner of the most successful car company at the time Winton Motor Carriage Company.
They approached Selden with the idea that they could get every car manufacturer to buy rights to the patent and charge a .75% licensing fee for every single automobile sold in America.
This would have added up to hundreds of billions of dollars in no time.
Selden and the men influencing him filed suit to stop the fledgeling auto industry in Detroit.  There, the Dodge brothers Horace and John, Walter Chrysler, Henry Ford, Clement Studebaker, and several others who are now long forgotten were all working on building their first cars for sale.  Ford had failed several earlier attempts but now had a solid concept and design he could build.
Why Detroit?  Because it was the home town of several of the men, and because it was a spot where all the raw materials could easily be accessed and brought together.  Steel, rubber, glass, fabric, leather; everything needed to construct an automobile could be easily and more cheaply brought to the city.  At one point, Ford Motor Company had in its vast manufacturing facilities everything needed to build a car, down to a steel refinery on grounds.  Raw materials went in one end of this machine and cars out the other.  Courts considered this an unfair monopoly and forced the company to break up the rather obvious system of providing all his own parts.
So Selden's coalition called the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) met these men with court orders, injunctions, and demands that they stop their work using his patent.  They could continue to build and sell cars only by licensing their automobile from ALAM.  After all, they argued, the patent for the automobile was filed in the last century and Selden owned it.
The problem is, the patent was flimsy to begin with.  The Selden car never was built, the engine was unworkable, and its difficult to say you own a product that never was made or functioned.  Yet ALAM pressed on.  They showered auto companies with legal pressure, and ran an advertising campaign warning people that if they bought a car from a company not licensed with ALAM, they ran the risk of being sued themselves.
Most of the companies caved.  They were just getting started and had little in the way of sales or product.  A mere .75% seemed like a reasonable cost for business, and one by one Chrysler, Dodge, and other companies fell in line.  Not Henry Ford.  Ford was determined to start, run, and own his own business.  Having tried in the past to build cars with other companies and failing, he was determined to own and run it all.  Other small companies fell behind Ford and formed a coalition of sorts.
Ford's approach was different than the others.  They viewed the automobile as a luxury, a fancy sort of carriage for the very wealthy.  Henry Ford wanted to turn the car into a necessity, with cars built fast an inexpensively so they could be sold for low cost and reach a larger market.  This time around, it worked.  In his first 15 months of business, Ford sold 17,000 Model A cars.
At first, Henry Ford applied for a license with ALAM, but they turned him down thinking his 3 previous company attempts meant he was just a failure.  Henry Ford determined to go on, ignoring ALAM.
A brutal public relations battle matched the legal fight in courts.  For six years the fight went on, with ALAM advertising the dangers of buying Ford cars and Ford saying things like the quote at the top, which was probably accurate.  Certainly nobody who worked on building a car at the time even bothered to look at Selden's work to make their own.  Henry Ford believed that his car had been his idea, and thus he owned it without anyone else being able to rake off his profits for his work.
In September 15, 1909, Ford Motor Company seemed doomed, when presiding judge Charles Merill Hough ruled in favor of ALAM.  Ford's attorney had been nervous from the start, as the judge did not seem to understand the technical aspects of the case.  Judge Hough ruled that even though the vehicle didn't work, it presented a "harmonious whole capable of results never before achieved." 
Alexander Winton declared "Nothing now remains but to exact from all trespassers a share of than income they have enjoyed for years without letters patent."  Most of Ford's supporters abandoned him, including Billy Durant, founder of General Motors.  Auto manufacturers resigned themselves to paying royalties on their cars at least until the patent expired in 1912.
Not Henry Ford.  He took the case to a federal appeals court and argued it again.  By this point, Ford was quite wealthy, his new Model T's selling like hotcakes.  He could have easily been able to pay back royalties, but he wanted to own his car outright, and by all accounts was an incredibly stubborn man.  He put aside his own money to indemnify investors and owners of his cars from lawsuits and bore down to continue the fight.
The three-man federal court took the case in 1910 and examined the evidence, heard the arguments, and studied the case.  On January 9, 1911 the court ruled.  All cars built to Selden's specifications - which wouldn't run a car more than a few thousand feet before being ruined - belonged to Selden.  Any other vehicles were their own design and were not subject to the Selden patent.  Henry Ford had won.  
By this point, auto manufacturers had paid $5 million in royalties (Selden himself only got about $200,000 of that, which helps explain why the investors were so eager to help out).  In modern dollars, that's almost $110 million dollars.
What can we learn from this?  Well at the very least any new idea is going to be preyed upon by unscrupulous and greedy parasites.  And certainly as Melvin Barger writes:
One lesson is that no elite group, whether government or private, can really determine winners and losers in an emerging industry. (But even if they could, the market should be open to all contenders.)
...
A second lesson is that the market has a mind of its own when it comes to rewarding or punishing specific producers. The eccentric Henry Ford ranked low in the esteem of other early carmakers and was one they wanted to weed out in advance of any actual market test.
This is one of the most interesting historical events of the 20th century that nearly no one knows about.  I first read about it in the Loren Estleman book Thunder Road which dramatizes the events and the early auto business and I recommend it highly.  Interestingly enough, the Wright Brothers tried the same thing with airplanes.

In the end, Ford was so popular and successful that by the 1920s, Henry Ford was building half the cars sold in the US.  Ford to this day is one of the most successful auto companies on earth, with brands in several other nations and is the only US auto manufacturer actually doing well.
As for Selden?  ALAM had started up the Selden Motor Company and built a few cars to lend their ownership of the patent some legitimacy, but when the federal court ruled, ALAM fell apart.  Selden turned his business into the Selden Truck Sales Corporation, and did pretty well selling trucks.  Bethlehem steel bought it in 1930 but Selden died quite wealthy of a stroke in 1922.
Nobody has any business telling other companies who should win and lose, not a private group, not some cabal of the elite rich, and certainly not the government.  No company should be propped up either; no business is "too big to fail" and no business is too important to let go bankrupt, even the automotive industry.  Stepping back and letting it go might be rough in the short term, but let them go the natural way of business and things will work out much better.

Friday, August 23, 2013

DIRTY LOOK AT JOBS

"12 million people are looking for work and 3 million jobs can’t be filled? How come nobody is asking questions about that?"

Mike Rowe is one of the hardest working men alive today.  He's held more jobs - hard jobs - than anyone alive, I suspect, and revels in them, no matter how hard or nasty they may be.  His perspective on work and life has been shaped by this experience, but he always had a very strong respect for the value and importance of work, which is why he started up the Dirty Jobs show to start with.
A column in the Muskegon Chronicle recently used Rowe's image without permission with a piece about bad jobs and the economy, and Rowe responded on facebook.  I'd like to post the entire bit here, because it seriously is worth looking over.  I'd only post a portion but as near as I can tell its only on Facebook, and while I recommend "friending" Mike Rowe on facebook, not everyone can, because of the limits on friends.  So here you go:
Over the years, the Dirty Jobs Code of Conduct has kept me from saying stupid things in the press. Today, it’s used primarily to assist writers like you with the approved use of my name and likeness. Obviously, you have never seen or heard of the Dirty Jobs Code of Conduct, since most of your article violates every clause and restriction therein. I must therefore take a moment to assure your readers that the appearance of my face in such close proximity to your headline is in no way a personal affirmation that certain types of jobs are in fact “bad.”
Here, then, are a few basic guidelines on the proper use of my name and likeness, pulled directly from the most current version of the DJCC. Since your Question of the Day is clearly not rhetorical, I’ll attempt to answer it here, with a level of detail that could only occur on a cross-country flight with no movie, no crossword, and a dead Kindle.
(I have no expectation that anyone with an actual job will have the time to read much further than this.)
Steve Kloosterman, MUSKEGON, MI Most of us can tell a story about a job from hell somewhere in our past. There’s the first job, the one we took because our parents said, “You can’t hang around the house all summer long.” Maybe it was at a fast food place or in a retail outlet.
MR - First of all, Steve, the Dirty Jobs Code of Conduct contains a Damnation Clause that clearly and unequivocally states that my photo “can not be used in conjunction with any satanic reference, including but not limited to Lucifer, Hades, Old Scratch, Hell, Perdition, Beelzebub or Honey Boo Boo.”
Secondly, jobs don’t come from hell. They come from people with money who are willing to pay other people to work for them.
Thirdly, I have worked in both fast food and retail, and neither one reminded me of the Netherworld. (Although the Taco Bell drive-through at 2 a.m. does smell vaguely of brimstone and sulphur.)
SK - None of us expected these jobs to lead to a career, but we did them anyway because we wanted spending money, needed to build a work history, or just plain needed something to do.
MR - Jobs are different than careers, but when you suggest that one is subordinate to the other, you diminish the value of ordinary work. According to the Work Is Not the Enemy Clause in the DJCC, my image may not be used in conjunction with “any statement or action that disparages the value of hard work, regardless of nature of the job or the amount of compensation involved.”
SK - There’s the desperate job, the one we had to take because the price of gas shot up, or we bought a new car and had to make payments on it, or needed to pay college tuition. Maybe it was a second job, or something informal on the side, like fixing up and selling cars.
MR- You make the option of working a second job sound like the problem, not the solution. Under the Personal Responsibility Clause of the DJCC, my image “must not be used in association with any language or expression that attempts to portray hard-working people as helpless victims.” The DJCC maintains that meeting one's financial obligations is an act of responsibility, not an act of “desperation.”
SK- And then there’s the kind of job we wouldn’t take again under any conditions, no matter how desperate or bored we were. The conditions were unpleasant if not dangerous, and the pay didn’t make up for it.
MR - I understand that some jobs are beneath you. Specifically, those jobs that you find to be “unpleasant” and “low-paying.” Unfortunately, under the Hubris Clause of the DJCC, I am forbidden from endorsing “any third-party comments that could be interpreted as elitist, judgmental, haughty or condescending.”
SK - We can all agree that jobs falling into this last category aren’t worth having.
MR- This one, I’m afraid, is in direct conflict with the Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot Clause of the DJCC. You see, Steve, when your air conditioner breaks, or your toilet explodes, or termites set up shop in your home, the solution to your problem will almost certainly require people who are willing to do something ... “unpleasant.” (When you find yourself in need of these people, you’d better hope they haven’t read your column.)
SK- But let’s talk about the first two categories of jobs.
MR: OK. Fast-food workers, retail clerks, auto mechanics, car salesman and part-timers. The “jobs from hell.” Let’s talk.
SK - Are they good for the people who work them?
MR - Of course they are.
SK - Are they good for the economy?
MR - Of course they are.
SK - Tell us what you think in the poll and comments below.
MR - I did. I voted and then I checked the results. Then I threw up in my mouth. Apparently, most of the respondents see no value in the kind of work you’ve described. That’s a seriously bleak outcome, and a blatant violation of all the aforementioned clauses, including the Glass Half-Empty Restriction of the DJCC, which forbids me from lending my name and likeness to anything “heartbreaking, dismal, grim, pessimistic, soul-deadening or just plain depressing.”
SK - The Muskegon Chronicle and MLive.com just finished the second segment in a months-long series of articles about jobs in the Muskegon area. In the most recent segment, we wrote about low-paying jobs, and the “shadow” economy of people who hack out a living by mowing lawns, scrounging odd jobs, and anything else that comes their way.
MR - I read it. Nowhere does the writer congratulate anyone for their resourcefulness or self-reliance. Instead, you wrote that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” a clear infraction of the Hyperbole Restriction. According to the DJCC, desperation means selling a kidney to ransom your wife and kids. Desperation is not a $10 an hour construction job with no benefits, as you suggest. That’s just work.
SK - Not all, but some, employers of low-wage workers give their employees opportunity to advance, we wrote.
MR - I have never seen a job that didn’t come with the opportunity for advancement. Union, non-union, high pay, low pay, part-time, full-time, freelance or salaried. Any worker who consistently shows up an hour early and stays late will quickly become indispensable on any job site. That’s still a great truth in the wide world of work. Unfortunately, you didn't mention that. Instead, you implied that a worker's only hope of advancement lies with the employer, another screaming inconsistency with the Personal Responsibility Clause.
SK - People working odd jobs or doing day labor for money under the table sometimes do so because it’s the only option they have, we wrote.
MR - Agreed. But nowhere do you suggest that having one option is better than having no option. Certainly, these people are struggling, but they have not given up. They have not become wards of the state. They are looking for and in many cases finding a way to get by in a brutal economy. Certainly not ideal, but the Glass-Half Empty Restriction and the Context Clause of the DJCC both prohibit my endorsement of all “one-sided comparisons that fail to illustrate how things could always be much, much worse.”
SK - Some people might take an optimistic view of these jobs.
MR - Of course. Some people still see hard work as something to be respected in all its forms. The point is, fewer people share that view than ever before. The majority of people in your poll voted "no" to every question. They believe that whole categories of jobs are "bad" for the worker and "bad" for society at large. That’s a clear infraction of the Work Is Not the Enemy Clause of the DJCC, and a radical departure of the attitude I encountered in my previous visits to the great state of Michigan.
SK- Some people might say the work needs to be done and the workers are filling that need.
MR - I would hope so. Your own paper reported that 2 trillion dollars is being generated by this “shadow economy.” That’s 8% of our GDP. I’m no economist, but I’d wager an 8% drop in the GDP would start the next Great Depression. And while the Dirty Jobs Code of Conduct doesn’t address it directly, I’d prefer that my name and likeness avoid any direct association with the any type of economic collapse.
SK - Some will say that nobody forced people to take these jobs. That these jobs enable these people to earn money and pay for things that matter to them. These jobs may mean that individuals are able to rely more on their own earnings, and less on taxpayer-funded assistance programs.
MR - Now those people sound more like the Michiganders I remember! The Soo Lock workers in Sault Ste. Marie, the log cabin builders in the U.P., the mobile butchers in Holland, the Bone Black workers in Melvindale, the many good folks on Mackinac Island (in those "hellish" retail and food service positions), the craftsmen at Novadai Furniture right there in Muskegon, and of course the maintenance workers on The Mighty Mac. Those people would never look down their noses at an honest day's work. No way.
SK - Others might take a more negative view. Advocates of living-wage policy might say that low-wage jobs are hurtful to the people working them.
MR - The world is full of well-intended people who believe that prices, wages and rents should should have nothing to do with pesky things like supply and demand. While I applaud their intentions, I’m afraid the Common Sense Clause of the DJCC does not allow my name or likeness to be associated with any views or expressions that could be interpreted as “unrealistic or childlike.”
SK - Some might say that people working in a “shadow economy” are part of the symptoms of an economic system breaking down.
MR - I have no idea if the economy is breaking down or just evolving, but regardless, low-paying, part-time and off-the-grid jobs are here to stay. We can either talk about these jobs with a measure of dignity and respect, or we can adapt your labeling system of “Bad, Unpleasant, Dangerous, Not-Worth-Having, and Hellish.” Honestly, I don’t see the point of attacking honest work under any circumstances (although the Futility Clause of the DJCC prohibits me from expecting a cogent reply from those who do.)
SK - A few might even quote the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
MR - That’s very sweet. Unfortunately, the Delusional Thinking Restriction of the DJCC is very clear on this: “under no circumstances will artist’s name and likeness be used to declare or proclaim anything that might suggest the endorsement of a utopian or fairy-tale state.”
Too bad, really. If it weren't for the Delusional Thinking Restriction, I might very well petition the UN to declare and demand “protection from the ever-widening skills gap.” According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 3.7 million jobs are currently available that companies can’t seem to fill ... 600,000 positions in manufacturing alone.
All of these jobs pay more than the “living wage.” Many provide free training and benefits. None of them are “off the grid.” They’re available right now to anyone willing to learn a new skill. Unfortunately, no one seems to want them.
SK - What do you think?
MR- Well, Steve, I’m no expert (and the Hubris Clause of the DJCC forbids me from pretending to be one), but after a lot of careful reflection, I think we might have our head up our ass.
There’s a trillion dollars of college debt on the books, and we’re still pushing a four-year degree like it’s some sort of golden ticket. Dozens of states are facing massive shortages in the skilled trades, but we still talk about trade schools as “alternatives for the academically challenged.” And now, with record high unemployment and Detroit flat broke, you want to focus on the problem of ...“bad jobs?” Can you imagine our grandparents bemoaning the existence of “unpleasant” work? Can you imagine the greatest generation agreeing that some jobs were just “not worth having?”
Look, I don’t want to sound like the cranky neighbor on the front porch, screaming at the kids to get off his lawn. (And yes, the Cranky Neighbor Clause of the DJCC expressly forbids this.) But come on -- 12 million people are looking for work and 3 million jobs can’t be filled? How come nobody is asking questions about that? Why is no one taking a poll on whether our expectations have replaced our common sense? Why do we talk only of “job-creation,” when we can’t even fill the jobs we have?
On Dirty Jobs, I met hundreds of men and women who found success and happiness by doing the “unpleasant" thing. I remember a guy in Washington whose first job was cleaning the grease trap in a Mexican restaurant. He moved on to washing dishes and then waiting tables. Today, he owns the restaurant, and six more just like it. I'd like to read more stories about people like that, and I bet I'm not alone.
Don't get me wrong, I care about the people you write about. For what it's worth, I run a modest foundation that's focused on scholarships for those who are willing to learn a useful skill. But let's not forget about the people who did it the hard way. People who took the jobs you dismissed as "not worth having" and then prospered. People who didn’t shy away from the “bad jobs,” and ultimately learned to love them. If you ever write a story about them, please feel free to use my image. According to the spirit of the Dirty Jobs Code of Conduct, that’s what it’s there for.
In the meantime, give my regards to the maintenance men next time you drive over The Mighty Mac. And if the bridge is still standing, tell them I said thanks!
Yes, that's a lot to read but its all well worth it.  Included is the part about how there's a lot of unfilled jobs out there - something I've written about in the past - and lots of people looking for work.  Yes, the economy blows, yes only 58.7 percent of working age Americans have a job.  But there are jobs available... and people aren't taking them.
That says something about the state of the country, something bad that has nothing to do with economics as such.  More than 100 million Americans are on some form of welfare, and American households are pulling in more from the US government than they pay in taxes.  That's a pretty profound image of American culture.
There are real problems with the federal and state governments in their economic policies.  But the US has more problems than just in government - in fact, the problems we see in government come from the basic cultural rot and fixation on comfort, ease, happiness, pleasure, and health.  In a nation where about a third of the population lives off the efforts of others, shame no longer is a factor when it comes to lack of work or charity. A job isn't something that stands in the way of you having fun or being what you were "meant to be," its how you get there

Thursday, August 22, 2013

REBOOTING HATE

"He doesn't seem to realize tolerance is a two-way street."


Imagine, for a moment an absurd situation.  I know this story sounds ridiculous, but bear with me, as it is to help illustrate a point which increasingly people seem to not understand.
Imagine you live in a society where slavery over the last twenty-five years or so has become increasingly mainstreamed and normalized.  A culture where slavery isn't just shrugged at, but is depicted in popular media as beneficial, proper, and good.  Imagine you are someone who believes this to be wrong, that slavery is not just a bad idea, but morally evil.  Imagine that you understand slavery to be a sin against an absolute, objective standard of behavior.
Now imagine further that your stance against slavery becomes not just ridiculed or disagreed with, but attacked, that you are considered a horrible person for holding this position.  You're called intolerant, hateful, bigoted, and wrong for disagreeing with slave owners and calling for the practice of slavery to end.
Imagine that people respond so strongly and society is so dominated by this viewpoint that almost everyone under the age of 30 thinks you're horrible and hateful for holding this position, so much so that you hesitate to even mention it in public.
Sound crazy?  Orson Scott Card has found himself in this sort of position.  A brilliant and once-admired science fiction writer, Card is the author of Ender's Game, a fascinating story examining hard moral choices and the essence of warfare and what it takes to be a warrior.  Its a psychological drama with an interesting twist that people have long thought the work of genius.
Then Orson Scott Card indicated that he though homosexuality is not a good thing and that society should stop endorsing it.  Suddenly, overnight, he went from beloved writer to hateful pariah and people keep vowing to never watch the film.  Cracked Magazine put out an article recently about Card in their usual crude style:
The sci-fi master behind Ender’s Game thinks the gays and their marriages are destroying the fabric of society. But they should still go see his movie - in the name of tolerance.
See, Orson Scott Card is calling for people to tolerate his ideas on the topic of homosexual "marriage" and he's attacked by people who think he should tolerate the behavior of homosexuality.  This is a pretty typical flaw with modern comprehension of tolerance.  Orson Scott Card likely has no problem with people thinking homosexual marriage is a fine thing, he has a problem with the carrying out of this idea.
This is true tolerance: you put up with people who believe things you disagree with.  Today's false tolerance is partly a belief that you cannot question certain activities, and partly that you have to adhere to a certain set of approved concepts and beliefs or are hateful.  Tolerance has been destroyed by a systematic effort to redefine the term from something essentially beneficial to society to a tyranny of ideas.
Don't care for Card's thoughts on the matter, don't want to see the film?  Fine.  Just don't pretend its in the name of tolerance.  Card is right: if you are someone who calls for tolerance and multiculturalism, then his ideas about this should not even factor into your decision to watch the film.
The problem is, the entire debate on homosexuality has been so expertly and successfully twisted from a moral one to a political one that the idea that someone might be principled in their opposition is inconceivable.  No one even seems to stop to ask the question whether this is right objectively, only whether its nice or emotionally comfortable. That was the point of the slavery exercise at the beginning, to try to help reboot people's thinking on this topic.
Because the entire debate was reduced to slogans, emotionalism, and cries of hate.  Which, as I've written many times before is a perfect template for damn near everything.  You can get almost anything to be mainstreamed by this system, no matter how horrific or ghastly it might presently be.  It wasn't that long ago that homosexuality was seen as mental illness by the psychiatric community.  After all, it is awfully bizarre in terms of human sexuality and biology.
Not that long ago it was perfectly normal for people to go "eww" when they viewed homosexual activity, and state it openly and without any shame.  Today, if you do so, you're attacked as homophobic and hateful.  Most people still feel that way, they're just being trained to keep silent about it.
What other presently insane or disgusting behaviors are next on the docket?  I expect you know, even if its something you don't care to think about.
*Shorter version: tolerance is toward ideas, and if you claim to be tolerant, you can't pick and choose.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Columbine Killings

"Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance."
-George Bernard Shaw

The Columbine High School shootings of April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado terrified and shocked the world. Two teenagers armed with guns and bombs wandered the halls and murdered 13 people and wounded 24 others.  They were cold and callous, shooting without remorse or any apparent feelings whatsoever, and were eventually gunned down by police.
Such a shocking, horrific event was so hard to understand and deal with that the furor took over a decade to calm down.  Every time a school shooting is reported in the news, Columbine comes up again.  The high school is forever now associated not with beautiful Colorado vistas and the students who study there but a ghastly day of murder and terror.
Immediately after the event, calls for gun control erupted, debates in congress about limiting access to weapons were held.  The news had stories about "Goth" culture, rock music, the internet, anti-depressant medication, video games, bullying, and even neo-nazis.
Michael Moore turned his small success with the film Roger & Me into a second film he called a documentary, this time about Columbine High School, called Bowling for Columbine.  In it, Moore portrayed the situation as a terrible tragedy involving basic American culture and gun fanatics.  Gun culture and American society was to blame, Moore argued.
The basic story we were told went like this: The two young men, disaffected youths bullied by others, took revenge on their school using guns that sensible laws would have kept out of their hands to kill other students.  These young men were twisted by violent video games, goth culture, and music by bands such as Marilyn Manson and Rammstein.  Outcasts, depressed and oppressed by athletic types, the young men were driven to despair and insanity. They killed student after student, targeting Christians, blacks, and jocks, until they were gunned down by the police.  This is happening more and more and America clearly has a gun problem.
What really took place?
Well it took a while to puzzle out the real events and sift out rumors and distortions.  Meanwhile, as the story was hot, the media and legislators went crazy.  Gun control legislation was called for, "experts" were on TV discussing the damaging effects of video games, certain kinds of music tagged with newly invented titles like "Dark Rock" were attacked.  Huge anti-bullying campaigns were started in schools and continue to this day.
One of the problems with major news stories, particularly in the modern age, is that the news channels such as CNN are in such a rush to get the story out and are under pressure because they have 24 hours to fill that they will report rumors and tips without checking them out carefully and simply fill time with whatever they've heard latest so that you have some reason to keep watching.
When the Columbine shooting took place, it was the first major event of its kind in which cell phones were so prevalent. There had been school shootings before, but not on this scale or type, and never before had so many people so easy access to phone lines.
Terrified kids and teachers were texting and calling out with scraps of eyewitness information and the news jumped on it as a ready source of reporting. The problem, as any police officer or court lawyer will tell you, is that eyewitness doesn't necessarily mean accurate. Particularly terrified, hiding, and panicked eyewitness.
Another factor was that the school was equipped with cameras, which made for exciting television and lots of images of sinister gun-toting bad guys stalking the school halls.  It was a parent's worst nightmare and people ate it up.
Folks wanted to know why this could have possibly happened, and how they could protect their children from the same thing at their school.  Lots of people (such as Moore) with an axe to grind or a personal agenda capitalized on that.
So we had a perfect storm of bad information, desperate people seeking answers, and folks willing to take advantage of all that.  And the result was as bad as the later Hurricane Katrina coverage: full of rumors, false stories, distortions, and people exploiting the events for their gain.
As the real story slowly came out over the years, the "answers" were already well-established and the coverage of corrections and real info didn't get nearly the attention or news time that the story originally did.  Spread out over years, it was largely missed by people.
For example, the two kids were not part of the "Trench Coat Mafia," they just wore trench coats.  Why?  Well they cover up guns pretty well and look badass.  But the catchy name and the images of kids in trench coats was too good to pass up, and the media went with it.  The Trench Coat Mafia was a little group of gamer kids in school who had pictures of their mafia and the two shooters were never in any of the images.
Although portrayed as being loners and outcasts mocked by others, later research revealed that the kids had friends, went to the prom, and were not unpopular outsiders.  They suffered from depression like... oh, 99% of teenagers in high school.  One of the kids (Harris) was prescribed Zoloft because he seemed especially down, and one of the side effects of this drug can be lack of remorse and aggression.
But it seems from reading his writings (he had a blog on AOL) and talks with psychiatrists that Harris was a psychopath before even starting on the medication.  By the time the shooting took place, Harris wasn't even taking the Zoloft, according to the police.
These kids were bullied some, but later research found that they tended to be the bulliers, not the targets of bullying.  Both bragged in diaries and blogs about bullying freshmen, calling them "fags."  And as anyone who went to school before 1990 can tell the world: bullying did not start nor is it worse today than back then.  If anything it was more brutal and widespread in the past.  And nobody shot up schools over it then.
Neither of the two killers were Goths, they weren't even part of that subculture.   They had an "enemies list" but nobody in the school was on it: all of the names on the list had graduated nearly a year before.  They played video games, but not excessively compared to other students.
They were good students, taking advanced placement classes.  They weren't hated or disliked by the school, nor did they have any special hate or dislike for the school its self.  These weren't loser geeks, Harris had contempt for geek culture, writing things like "YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STAR WARS FANS!!! GET A FaaaaaaRIGIN LIFE YOU BORING GEEEEEKS!"  Both were quite intelligent. 
They weren't targeting jocks, Christians, or blacks, they were targeting everyone, even friends.  The truth is, this wasn't about revenge against specific enemies as it was a coldly calculated terrorist attack by insane kids who built up their plans for a year.  Dave Cullen has written a book about the events, and he writes in Slate:
School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as "collateral damage."

The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television.


It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
These guys didn't have any agenda other than to shock and horrify the world at their awesome act of destruction and killing.  They wanted to go down in history.  And if the bombs had gone off, if their year of planning had succeeded, they would have been successful.  As it is they are pretty infamous.
Would gun control have stopped the kids?  Its hard to see how.  The guns they used were already illegal for them to own.  The bombs were also extremely illegal to own and manufacture.  Carrying firearms onto the school campus was illegal.  Shooting people is illegal.  What additional laws would have prevented this?  What the law could accomplish, it already had.
The problem with modern news reporting is that it relies too heavily on immediate, fast information which is almost always at least a little bit wrong.  In the haste to get a story out, first, and to fill a 24 hour day with information to keep people watching, the media tends to use whatever it can scramble to gather, and most of that is just not very reliable.
By the time the truth comes out, well the story is not so hot any longer so they aren't willing to devote much time to the accurate story as they did the misinformation.  And viewers don't have the patience or interest in the news to find it out.  And nobody likes admitting they got it wrong, so that gets downplayed or not even covered sometimes.  There's a reason the bone head mistakes get on the front page in giant font size and the corrections are tucked into a little section on A-17.
Columbine was used by a lot of calculating, callous people for their political and personal ends.  Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is a festival of Leni Riefenstahl-esque distortions and outright falsehoods.  He uses non sequential quotes, splices different quotes together, cuts out significant portions, misleads when things took place, adds misleading and even lying captions to images, and more to present an almost totally false impression of the NRA and guns in America.  The kids didn't even go bowling the day before the shooting as the movie claims and the title came from.
The anti-bullying campaigns are from the right sort of sentiment, but are absurd.  Kids bully each other, that's not only part of life, its actually helpful if in a controlled, limited manner.  Consider it like puppies play-fighting; its teaching later life skills to deal with real problems.
In the end, the Columbine shootings started an especially twin ugly trend in America: excessive, super hyped coverage of shooting events, and the perception that this never happened in the past and is getting worse.  But that's for another Common Knowledge bit.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.