Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Al Gore's use of electricity

There's been a bunch of garbage in the blogsphere because Al Gore has apparently been using a lot of electricity in his home in Tennessee. Coincidentally, this was timed to release right after he won an Academy Award, which shows that it was intended to hurt him, to try to put a bad news story on the wires to try to counter the good press he'd receive for his work on promoting awareness of global warming.

Okay, let me get one thing clear starting off.

I wish Al Gore used less electricity.

I'm trying to build my life around a "live simply" philosophy, to minimize my footprint on the world.

But I am not Al Gore, and Al Gore is not me.

Al Gore is not preaching that one should reduce one's contribution to the waste stream. Al Gore is not preaching that one should reduce one's use of non-polluting energy. Al Gore is not preaching that one should give up some of the luxuries that money can buy and use that money to help others.

Al Gore is preaching that people should reduce their CO2 footprint.

And he is living up to that standard. He is walking the walk, in addition to talking the talk.

His talk is not mine; that means his walk doesn't have to be mine either. If he talked my talk, he'd have to walk a different walk, but he's not.

Part of what he's been saying all along is that we don't have to be harmed by a commitment to reduce carbon emissions; that he can have a really nice house, and use a lot of power, and still have a neutral carbon footprint proves that he's telling the truth.

Yes, not everyone can buy carbon offsets and afford to buy green power. Yes, he's using money to do something that other people can't do as easily. If you find that horribly unfair, well, I've got some bad news for you: life is unfair. The rich are able to do things that the poor can't do, for lack of money.

I wish Al Gore wasn't using as much electricity as he's using; I think he could be a better example.

But he is living up to the standard he set. Those who call him a hypocrite are liars.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Framing and Iraq

Being a weirdo can be a problem, sometimes. I can find myself out of step with other folks in ways that surprise me. Something that seems obvious to me turns out to be hard for other folks to see, and something that "everyone knows" is something I don't.

That means it can be frustrating when dealing with talking points, because sometimes you can't tell if a person is repeating talking points (as in, intentionally repeating talking points, because they are talking points) and when someone is saying something that they sincerely believe.

Well, how about I mention some talking points that everyone should recognize are talking points... things just made up to sound good.

"Iraq is the main front in the war on terror". Yeah, I know, top al Qaeda folks are saying this. But what it means isn't what folks are trying to imply. The top al Qaeda folks are saying that we've moved a lot of valuable equipment and over a hundred thousand of our soldiers into Iraq, and painted a big target on them.

They're not attacking us in Iraq because they think we can cause a crushing defeat if we win in Iraq. They're attacking us Iraq because it's easy! That's what makes it the main front in their war! If we weren't in Iraq, al Qaeda wouldn't be there either. They're a Sunni organization, but the Sunnis in Iraq hate them. When they were in Iraq before, they were in the Kurdish areas, and the Kurds are only about 20% of the population.

"If we leave Iraq, they'll follow us back to America". Look... it seems rational, I suppose, to think we've got our enemy pinned down in a battle, but we don't. We don't have the borders to Iraq sealed, we don't know who all of the bad guys are, and we don't have the boots on the ground to round them up if we did. They can come to America just as easily with our troops in Iraq as they could if our troops were safe once again.

Both of these are pure talking points; they're not believed by anyone who understands the situation on the ground in Iraq. Oh, sure, there are folks who will say these things; the military commanders are under orders to support their commander in chief; of course they'll say what their boss wants them to say. But they are fully aware that they are targets for attackers, and that they do not have the terrorists in Iraq pinned down so they can't leave.

There was one talking point that frustrated the blazes out of me. Bush claimed that you don't increase terrorism by fighting terrorism. Now, that's just ridiculous, isn't it? I hope you don't have to be weird to see how meaningless this is.

I mean, okay, you don't increase illegal drug trade by fighting illegal drug trafficking, right? But terrorism isn't like illegal drug trafficking. People don't get angry about a false arrest for drug trafficking and decide to start selling drugs!

But terrorism is caused by people who are angry and hateful enough to want to hurt and kill us. Of course you can make terrorism worse if you do something stupid in the name of "fighting terrorism!"

The final talking point that gets tossed around is the one that's the most bothersome. Several times, I've had people tell me, when I'm angry about the war, that I'm angry over "political differences".

Going to war is not a political decision; it is a moral one.

War is terrible; people get hurt, maimed, and killed, families get broken up, lives get disrupted, property gets destroyed.

It's true, George W. Bush ignored the moral questions of this war, and the Republican Party was willing to let him. But the decision wasn't political; it was moral.

Given the threat that faced us, was it right to cause the deaths of thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people?

And given that the threat was almost nonexistent, we know that the answer is "no". Morally speaking, war could not be justified.

Like I said, I don't know how to tell when someone's just parroting a talking point to me that they don't believe themselves, or when they've heard it so many times that they've come to believe it. I can tell this: the Republican Party is not the party of warfare, of needless deaths, and of human suffering. The difference of opinion I have about the war has nothing to do with party affiliation or with "politics". It has to do with morality. And when the Republicans wake up and realize how the moral issues have been clouded for them, I think they're going be awfully angry, just like I am.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Recently spotted BS about detainees

I don't use the phrase "bullshit artist" lightly, and when talking about a state department legal adviser, I try to be even more careful. Nevertheless, here, there is no other proper description of the role John Bellinger is taking.

Now, that's a harsh judgment to make, but we're talking about an accomplished attorney here. You can't get into law school, much less pass the bar exam, if you can fail basic tests of critical thought. As such, if a competent attorney says something that illustrates a basic logical flaw, you know that it's intentional. You know it's not their true belief or their true thoughts on the matter; they know better than to support their positions with flawed thinking. You know that they are saying what they feel needs to be said to establish a predetermined position, regardless of the truth of that position.

They are, in a word, bullshitting.

Let's take some of John Bellinger's words apart here, and demonstrate how we can tell he's bullshitting.

First, there's this little admirable gem:
So we found ourselves in an armed conflict in Afghanistan starting in October 2001. In the course of that conflict, we detained members of al Qaida and the Taliban, some of whom are now in Guantanamo. U.S. or allied forces captured the majority of these detainees in late 2001 or early 2002 in or near Afghanistan.

Isn't that a wonderful bit of distraction? See, not all of the detainees at Guantanemo were captured in or near Afghanistan.

Ah, but I bet most people thought he was saying "the majority of these detainees were captured in late 2001 or early 2002; they were captured in or near Afghanistan". No, there are no separators. He is describing the majority as " late 2001 or early 2002 in or near Afghanistan". The Bush administration's talking points are that these were "battlefield captures" and "the majority" could be described that way. That means 50%, plus at least one additional captive. It leaves 50% minus one captive undetermined.

This is a clear attempt at a distraction from the main issue. It's not exactly a logical flaw; it's an attempt to cause other people to make a mistake in understanding.

Two paragraphs down we see the first big fallacy... another distraction attempt, but one that goes beyond trying to be tricky:

Equally important, however, we believe that the United States was and continues to be in an armed conflict with al Qaida, one that is conceptually and legally distinct from the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It cannot reasonably be argued that the conflict with al Qaida ended with the closure of al Qaida training camps and the assumption of power by a new government in Afghanistan. Al Qaida’s operations against the United States and its allies continue not only in and around Afghanistan but also in other parts of the world. And because we remain in a continued state of armed conflict with al Qaida, we are legally justified in continuing to detain al Qaida members captured in this conflict.

This is a fallacy known as "begging the question". It asks, or answers, a question that can only be properly asked/answered if another question has already been asked and a particular answer given. The common joke form of this fallacy is asking a married man "have you stopped beating your wife?" It assumes that the question "have you ever beaten your wife?" has already been asked and answered affirmatively.

He is asserting that we have the right to hold wife beaters (al Qaida members), based upon a yes or no answer to "have you stopped beating your wife?" ("Yes? So you used to beat her, and we get to hold you. No? Then you're still beating her and we get to hold you.")

The question about holding detainees in the war on terror (or the war against al Qaida and the Taliban) is not "can we hold a dangerous terrorist?" The question is "how do we determine who is a dangerous terrorist?"

The Bush administration, and their bullshit artist-of-the-day, John Bellinger, are trying to assert that we have already answered "how do we determine...?" when we haven't. They are doing this because no one wants to defend "the rights of terrorists". They want to shift the debate away from "the rights of innocent people caught at the wrong place at the wrong time" because they don't have a good answer for that... and they've already been caught holding innocent people.

Later on the page, Bellinger demonstrates that this is not an accident.

Ultimately, we think we are not legally obligated to try al Qaida combatants under the laws of war, but have set up military commissions to prosecute those who have committed the most serious violations of the laws of war.

This is an awe-inspiring bit of mental legerdemain; first, he begs the question of who is an "al Qaida combatant" again. Then, he speaks as if the Military Commissions Act has given the detainees something. What it has actually done is taken away their rights to demand that the United States show cause to hold them, or release them. It does give people convicted by the commissions a right to appeal, but it does not mandate a hearing or trial. The President can hold someone indefinitely, and has claimed that no court has jurisdiction to say otherwise.

We finally have this large, steaming pile further down; at this point, I don't have any appetite for going any further:

Second, she suggests that detainees in this war get inadequate review before being detained. Admittedly, identifying members of the Taliban and al Qaida is difficult, because—among other things—unlike in a traditional war, the Taliban and al Qaida do not wear uniforms and insignia. Nevertheless, our forces worked hard to detain only those individuals who were part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaida forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. To ensure that we are holding the right people, every detainee in Guantanamo has his case reviewed by a formal Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which determines whether a detainee is properly classified as an enemy combatant. The detainee has the assistance of a military officer, may present evidence, and may appeal the determination of the CSRT to our federal courts. Nearly 40 detainees have been released as a result of this process. It is simply not correct to say that detainees do not have meaningful review of their detention.

"It is simply not correct to say that detainees do not have meaningful review of their detention."

However, in the status hearings, there is no presumption of innocence, the government can not be compelled to release any person because the burden of proof has not been met, the detainee can not compel testimony, and evidence can be hidden from the detainee.

One could say that this is a shell game, an attempt to a word's meaning in one context, in hopes of having it accepted in another context.

"Look at all the stuff we do! Isn't that meaningful?"

Well, it certainly has some meaning... it's not "meaningless" if 40 people have been released.

But if you were kidnapped, and told you could be released if you could prove that you were innocent of the crimes you were accused of, without being told what those crimes were, you'd be pretty upset if you were told that you had a meaningful chance to be released!

Bellinger knows this; he's an attorney. But he also has a job to do, and that job is to represent his client's interests, and that can include spewing bullshit in hope of promoting his client's interests. So, he spews his bullshit, believing himself to be faithful to his duties. But he knows.

He's lying to us, just like the Bush administration is. He, and the Bush administration, both know that the question is not "is it fair to hold terrorists?" but "is it fair to hold people without proof that they've done something wrong?", they know that they are essentially engaged in kidnapping people, and holding them until they can prove their innocence, and they know that what they're doing is not right, that they should not be allowed to hold people, who may not have done anything wrong, indefinitely.

But they'll keep pushing the lie. What do they have to lose?

After all, they don't think that the American people are about a gross injustice against a bunch of foreigners.

I think it's long past time that we started doing our damnedest to show them they're wrong. Let them keep holding the people against whom they have solid evidence; let them release the rest.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Supporting the solders...

I've been sick for the past week, but I know I'm getting better now, because I'm feeling just a tiny bit of glee.

I despise people who talk about logic without having done some deep thinking on their own, and I love shredding pathetic arguments.
Jeff Jacoby has provided me witha nice target.

Mr. Jacoby claims that one can't support the troops fighting a war without supporting the war itself. Now, a moment's thought should provide proof that this is idiotic. After all, a mother or father of a German soldier during World War II could certainly hope that his or her son came home safely, and be angry if the German government failed to keep its promises to its soldiers. But it was also clearly possible for Germans to recognize the immorality of military conquest.

But let's go a bit deeper than this.

First, nation will tend to need a standing military force; maybe not a large one, but there are situations that can arise too quickly to allow a nation to build an army from scratch. This is doubly true of modern fighting forces that require precision equipment and people trained to use it.

Second, while people can join the military for many reasons, in the end, the job description is the same: when there's a big ugly threat coming towards your home, and anyone with any sense is running away, you'll be the one who runs towards it, to stop it, or die trying. Whether this is exactly what an individual soldier wants, this is what soldiers signs up for, to risk injury or death defending their home.

Third, while members of the military are bound to disobey illegal orders, they are similarly bound to obey lawful ones. Unless an order is clearly unlawful, a soldier can be subject to court martial for disobeying orders. Further, even if a soldier has moral questions about a mission, one of the things soldiers are picked for is a desire to be part of something bigger. Anyone who has been in the military for a while is going to want to deploy to help take care of the rest of the team.

Take it together, and what do you get? The military is a group of people who are necessary, and who must give up some moral autonomy in order to have the chance to defend their home. They don't get to pick their mission; once the mission is picked for them, they have to go out and do their best to get it done. Even if they think the mission might be morally wrong, they're in a position where they must be willing to put aside their doubts, both pragmatically, and out of a sense of duty to each other.

For people like Mr. Jacoby, I'll provide a further translation: you can't blame the soldiers for their mission, so long as they fight honorably and well.

If you want to blame someone for, say, invading Iraq, you don't blame the soldiers, because they didn't get to decide to invade Iraq. Their decision was to join the military and follow orders, not to invade.

No, if someone gets the blame for Iraq, it has to be the people who gave the orders for the military to go to Iraq.

Much though I'd like to say "... and that's the Bush administration," I can't. Because, in the end, we're the ones responsible for this country. If we, the people of the United States, had stood up and shouted "no" loudly enough, Bush wouldn't have invaded. It might have required an act of Congress, but he would have been stopped. Bush and his administration bear much more responsibility than any of us, but in the end, we're the ones who decide what missions the soldiers get sent on.

And that's all the more reason for us to be upset when we feel that the soldiers are being misused. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq; I, as a US citizen, own a small piece of that. Thousands of our military people have been killed or maimed, and I, as a US citizen, own a small piece of that, too.

How can I not support the troops? They're not the ones who bear the blame for what has been happening in Iraq. They bear exactly as much responsibility for having that job to do as any other voter has. Any member of the military who fights honorably and well has my respect, and my gratitude... in spite of what people like Mr. Jacoby might say.

He goes on to suggest that folks like me (who think the war in Iraq was immoral and foolish, and, in addition, horribly mismanaged due to poor leadership) are hoping for "defeat". No, Mr. Jacoby, the problem is, we've already been defeated.

Remember? We were going to sweep in, install a government, and *bam*, we're outta there, ready to tackle the next dangerous dictator. We were going to make an object lesson of Iraq. Anyone (read as: North Korea or Iran) who didn't do what we told them to do was going to be scared to death of American military might, and realize that their days as dictators were numbered.

We've already been defeated. And it's not just a tiny little "whoops, our plan didn't go the way we wanted it." No, we've got close to 150,000 troops locked in place, more ready to deploy, more recovering from deployment, our military readiness is a shambles, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars, we've watched hundreds of thousands of Iraqis die, and watched many thousands of our own die or be maimed.

What men like Bush and Jacoby want is not to prevent defeat, but to create a face-saving situation where they can issue a dishonest victory proclamation, where they can say "see, we were right, we could accomplish the mission!" and hope we've forgotten that Bush set the goals, and failed to reach them.

No. There's no support here. A true leader, a true supporter of the troops, would have brought them victory, or brought them home. People like Bush and Jacoby have done neither. I don't want to hear them tell another lie about supporting the troops.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Duke University sexual assault case

There's been a bit of talk about the rape case involving the Duke University lacrosse team. Part of it is in response a deleted blog post by a person I respect highly. She mentioned being angry hearing people talk on CNN about the charges of rape being dropped from the case.

I get angry when I hear much of the talk about the case too. So should most people.

Let's lay out the facts of the case, okay?

Two strippers go in with a contract to perform; they are treated in a manner that makes them feel afraid, and they leave. One goes back inside. The other dancer reports that she's not gone long.

When she comes back out, her fellow dancer claims she's disoriented - maybe drugged or drunk. Let me note that most people are not aware of what deep withdrawal from the world is like; it can appear to be some form of intoxication. So, the other dancer sees behavior consistent with being hurt and scared enough to cause withdrawal.

Later, when a police officer confronts her (thinking she's drunk or on drugs), she reports having been raped. The attack she describes was vicious and brutal. She's given a rape exam; the defense claims it's inconclusive, but the results have not been released, so we don't know what, exactly it shows.

Interviews with witnesses included this tidbit, per an online Newsweek article: "The neighbor, Jason Bissey, says that before the woman went back inside, he heard one of the partygoers repeating urgently, "Guys, let's go." He also says the party broke up within five minutes after the women left."

A e-mail, sent prior to the party, turns up, and it jokes about harming the strippers when they arrive.

A search of the house reveals personal items belonging to the stripper, including her purse, artificial fingernails, and $160. One artificial fingernail was found in the trash of one of the suspects, and had some DNA on it. It might have been his, it might have been someone else's.

So, what makes me angry? There's been a lot of talk about these poor, poor boys facing an accusation of rape. I've seen people speaking scornfully and contemptuously of the accuser. I've seen her flat out called a liar by someone who must have failed "Critical Thinking 101".

Well, let's take a look at what we know, and see what model fits, 'kay?

Null hypothesis: "these boys did nothing wrong! Okay, they were yelling some racial epithets and stuff like that, but it was just words."

I'm sure "just words" put her into such a panic that she left her purse and a good bit of cash behind, eh? And I'm sure she was "disoriented" because she was, in her devious mind, coming up with a plot for revenge against those nasty, racist boys who said nasty things to her. She'll accuse them of rape! Yes, that will work, even though *nothing happened*, and she knows *full well* that no DNA will show up in a rape exam because *nothing happened*.

She's smart enough to play the victim spot on - even though most people wouldn't recognize the appearance of deep withdrawal! - but stupid enough to make a false accusation that's bound to fall apart.

Yeah, right. I'll skip heaping scorn on that pathetic scenario because I can't think of words scornful enough.

Alternate hypothesis: those men did something nasty, and terribly frightening, to her. She ran out in a panic, causing them to believe that they were in danger - she might call the police! - so they cleared the area as quickly as they could. She appeared to be disoriented, and then later, reported being raped. This would be understandable - she was surrounded by a large number of college atheletes, and if anything was done to her, with those other folks nearby ignoring the situation, she'd be in real fear for her life.

Now, what gets me really angry? People are speaking as if this is a hoax, a lie, a made up story.

I grant, no laws of physics would be violated if it turns out she wasn't raped. Hell, no laws of physics would be violated if she wasn't even manhandled, groped, and/or scared out of her wits. But the facts all point strongly to "something happened."

And the lacrosse players want us to believe that nothing happened... that she's just making up a lie out of whole cloth. And there's whole bunches of people willing to talk about how terrible it is to accuse this poor innocent young men of rape! And none of these people seem willing to dig into the story, and apply as much skepticism to the lacrosse players' stories as they are to the woman's story.

We know rapes occur much more frequently than false accusations of rape. And yet, when the time comes for skepticism, it invariably is pointed at the accuser.

And yes, that makes me angry.

Since all the evidence points to something ugly having happened in that house on that night, none of those men who had a chance to prevent it is "innocent", and everyone who knows what really happened, but refuses to come forward is guilty of helping cover up a crime.

Anyone want to whine about "innocent until proven guilty"? Whine away. I'm angry, and anger doesn't require a jury verdict. Those lacrosse players should and must be treated as if they are innocent by the courts and the government. That doesn't mean I have to abandon common sense, and think that nothing happened.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Bullies, bullying, and rape (part 2)

What is it that makes a person a bully? What is it about a person that makes us willing to attach that label to them?

Well, in my mind, a bully is either someone who enjoys hurting people (not necessarily seriously), or who is willing to hurt people if it's necessary to get his or her way. You can look at both as being a sense of entitlement. Both feel entitled to hurt other people if and when they decide to. That's a bit oversimplified, but it's enough to give you an idea of where we're going here.

Now, I think one of the troubles in talking about rape is that few people can imagine someone who would commit rape. Aren't rapists supposed to be, you know, monsters? Shouldn't they have distorted features, and maybe horns or hooves? You might not think you know any rapists... but I bet you can think of at least one, two, or a few people you know who might qualify as bullies.

Do you know someone who might say "if someone gives me shit, I'll give them back ten times as much"? Someone who also seems to start giving the shit back before actually receiving any?

Do you know someone who can't compete in a friendly manner, someone who always goes for the throat, and doesn't just want to win, but wants to see his or her opposition lose, preferably in a humiliating manner?

How about people who get unreasonably angry when they don't get their own way, because of something someone else did?

How about that person who tells vicious gossip and plays backstabbing office politics?

You probably know people who are willing to hurt people, maybe callously, maybe maliciously, either because they get off on hurting or humiliating people, or because they feel they have a right to cause that person some hurt - to get their own way, as revenge, or who-knows-what. You probably know bullies; you probably have some level of understanding of bullies.

Well, that means you have some level of understanding of rapists as well. Some are people who enjoys seeing someone hurt or humiliated (not necessarily battered and bloody, but maybe shocked and horrified), and some are people who are going to get their own way, who won't take "no" for an answer, and who will use force in order to get what they want.

If you think of rape as an act of bullying, you probably have an easier time imagining it happening than before.

It also might help if you think of something from the guy-perspective. If you're revving along, hot and horny, and think you've just gotten lucky tonight, and then have a hurt, or angry, woman tell you to stop, it's one of the worst feelings in the world. You might feel stupid, or hurt, or humiliated (to say nothing of frustrated as all hell); you had a running dialogue in your head saying something like "She's hot for me, I'm going to (umm... just fill in the blank here), because I'm a sex *GOD*!" and suddenly you're finding out that, whoa, she's not hot for you (or not hot enough), and hurt or pissed off at what you just did, while you were suffering from horniness-induced wishful thinking.

I'd like to be able to say that most guys handle this well, but I can't. It can be a really nasty thing to have happen. When a guy's hot, horny, and thinking he's about to get laid, he's riding on top of the world. Suddenly, he's being told to stop right now, and maybe the beautiful lady he was going to have sex with is angry or hurt, or even just emphatic, and telling him to back off, and it's a real shock to the system.

A guy can get defensive, or angry, or say hurtful things. That's not okay; it's rude and immature. But again, being stopped at the wrong point can be a big shock... if there's anyone who in never an asshole when getting such a disappointment-whiplash, nominate that person for sainthood.

Okay, so I'm saying that, in that situation, even a relatively decent guy can get emotional, and act rudely and immaturely, right? Now imagine a bully in that situation. A guy who feels he deserves to get his own way. A guy who's willing to be nasty, if that's what it takes, to get his own way.

And let me stir in one more fact of human nature.

If someone does something to you, and you feel really bad, the natural human response is to feel "that person hurt me". Sometimes it's true, sometimes it's just a chance coincidence... like, for instance, when a woman tells you "stop" when you're hot and ready to roll. A sensible guy realizes that it's his own disappointment that's hurting him. Do bullies tend to think of things like that? Or do you think a bully will go right for the "she hurt me" explanation?

And what does a bully do if someone hurts him? It doesn't matter if you're dealing with a bully who has to have his own way, or a bully who gets off on seeing people hurt or humiliated, there's a good chance that this bully is going to try to bully the woman he sees as having hurt him.

I'm not going to pretend that this is how all rapes happen. What I hope I have done is helped some people understand the rapist's mentality a little bit better, and get a better idea of what might have happened to a woman who reports that she's been raped.

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