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Let’s Blow It Up

 

In a recent comment, Ricochet member @DonG wrote, “The drug industry in the US is a giant racket enabled by a corrupted regulatory system.” After over 20 years of working in medicine, and doing occasional part-time work for pharmaceutical companies in the cardiovascular field, I find that statement to be precise and accurate. Fascism is […]

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Cambodia: The Times They Are a-Changin’

 

Cambodia’s sixth general election came and went on July 29. Unsurprisingly, Hun Sen, the world’s longest ruling prime minister (33 years and counting) and the ruling CPP won in a landslide. The result was never in doubt given the crackdown on civil society and independent press leading up to the election. This culminated in the […]

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Quote of the Day: Masterful Character Sketching

 

“She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha.” — The opening lines of Educating Young Gussie by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse is doubtless familiar to many Ricochetti, but perhaps there are some among us who have not yet encountered the magic of the master. With these opening words, Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha is perfectly captured. Even readers who have just met her for the first time understand completely the kind of woman she is. Energetic. Firm. Early rising. Filled with plans for improvement that require instant and utter submission. In short, a horror.

Wodehouse is expert with these character sketches. I always want to savor him slowly, aloud with someone else if possible, just so I can share the laughter. His use of metaphor and descriptive language is pure delight. Meeting his friend Rocky’s, or Rockmeteller Todd’s, supposedly invalid aunt, Bertie sees a woman who:

looked less like an invalid than any one I’ve ever seen, except my Aunt Agatha. She had a good deal of Aunt Agatha about her, as a matter of fact. She looked as if she might be deucedly dangerous if put upon; and something seemed to tell me that she would certainly regard herself as put upon if she ever found out the game which poor old Rocky had been pulling on her.

Later in the story, we encounter the aunt in a nightclub in New York. She is:

sitting bolt upright, as usual. It certainly did seem as if she had lost a bit of the zest with which she had started out to explore Broadway. She looked as if she had been thinking a good deal about rather unpleasant things.

“You’ve met Bertie Wooster, Aunt Isabel?” said Rocky.

“I have.”

There was something in her eye that seemed to say: “Out of a city of six million people, why did you pick on me?”

“Take a seat, Bertie. What’ll you have?” said Rocky.

And so the merry party began. It was one of those jolly, happy, bread-crumbling parties where you cough twice before you speak, and then decide not to say it after all.

Fortunately, Bertie is not forced to endure the struggles of life alone. His valet Jeeves is his stalwart help and one of the true wonders of the world. When Bertie first meets Jeeves, he has just found out that his previous man was:

…sneaking my silk socks, a thing no bloke of spirit could stick at any price. It transpiring, moreover, that he had looted a lot of other things here and there about the place, I was reluctantly compelled to hand the blighter the mitten and go to London to ask the registry office to dig up another specimen for my approval. They sent me Jeeves….

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I’d have preferred an undertaker, but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes [the sock thief] had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in. He had a grave, sympathetic face, as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed to get all right. The sun shone in the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You’re engaged!” I said, as soon as I could say anything.

Fortunately for humanity, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, after initially deciding against acting in the BBC’s 1990s series adaptation of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, realized they had an obligation to do the show since they knew they were the right players for the roles. God bless them for it.

.

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“Be Evil”

 

About two years ago, I posted a comment suggesting Google and its Obama-supporting workforce and management might have the power to redirect searches and control information in a way that favored one political point of view. My point was it does not take very much to influence an election outcome. The tools and temptation are there.

As many are aware, Google’s management and staff helped put together the indomitable Obama big data, drill down, finite, targeted social media, voter mobilization effort in 2012. I proffered that Facebook might do the same. My thoughts were dismissed very quickly by some knowledgeable people on Ricochet as impossible given that Google so carefully controls its search algorithm and no such hanky-panky would be tolerated. Who believes this is not possible today?

Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks or downloading services are private. They are not subject to the First Amendment and therefore can arbitrate what is transmitted over their private networks. To police this and behave in a responsible way, they label any material which they deem inappropriate as “hate speech.” There is no way to know if they are limiting access, turning off the flow, or simply cutting out points of view that they deem “hate speech” unless they announce their intention to do so.

Republican politicians and conservatives have accused such companies of turning down the flow of Tweets, hits, and search results. There is clear evidence this has happened, whether this was intentional or not. If it happens at a critical moment in a campaign, in a particular locality, might it make a difference in the election outcome?

Removing or restricting “hate speech” seems like a good idea when applied to ISIS or pedophiles. But it gives those who censor some room to decide what users can say, publish, and indirectly, express or think. These companies are now exercising this power and doing so in concert. The protection of the herd confirms and diffuses criticism. Two weeks ago, Apple ostracized Alex Jones (I have never read anything he published), and the other internet content providers soon followed. Alex Jones may be a good example of someone who should be called to task. But censorship is a rough-edged tool. Was he advocating violence or acting like a provocateur to gain followers? Is he simply offering kooky interpretations of events to sell podcasts and coffee cups? And how far is it between Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, or … other outspoken Conservatives? If censorship had existed in 1989, would Rush Limbaugh have developed such large, wide, and loyal following? Censorship weeds out nonconformity.

And what about those like Bernie Sanders who might threaten the election of a more electable or “chosen” progressive candidate by sapping away votes or enthusiasm from a rightful heir? Should such voices be included under the ban of hate speech for giving speeches to rowdy crowds that might shout, “Throw her in Jail!” about an opponent? Crowds can scream awful things. If Bernie’s presence and ideas lead to such vehemence by supporters, should access to his ideas be restricted?

Now for those who are from Missouri, it was revealed just a few days ago that Google is actively creating a censored search engine that will comply with China’s requirements for “accurate” information. Google, the “Don’t Be Evil” company, is willing to help the Chinese regime be, well, evil. The list of human rights abuses against citizens in China is too numerous to mention — so the Chinese government makes sure they are not mentioned on the internet in China. The situation in China is far worse than Iran, simply because so much happens in darkness and there are so many points of contention inside the disparate Chinese nations, regions, ethnicities, and faiths that make up the Middle Kingdom.

It was reported that Google management even told lies or misrepresented their involvement in the software development project to create a censored search engine for China. They hid this from their “Co-Founder” Serge Brin who is a strong advocate of freedom of expression. And, they lied to their employees – you know, the smartest people on earth. Well, well, well. Now we see how the best intentions oft go awry. The Google fiasco is clearly worse than the incompetence of Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to bring people together — provided they are the right people saying the right things. Zuckerberg has shown himself at times to be an unappealing, arrogant, and venal clown.

Here is how the great Google, Apple, Facebook, or Twitter formula is playing out: Create the most powerful connectors or locators of people or information the world has ever seen, turn it into a money machine by forcefeeding advertising or selling data, and add a dose of censorship to protect the franchise or advance its stakeholders’ interests. Of course some stakeholders hold a more important stake than others and therefore get more say about the network. China with its immense market is one such stakeholder. There is no telling what highly moral people will do for market share. And sooner or later, someone might see a way to tamper with the software to “Don’t do Evil” by helping evil be evil.

When massive internet companies get into the business of determining what is ‘hate speech’ and are willing to apply censorship or limit distribution, who will decide what is the hate speech to be censured? Silicon Valley, Facebook, liberal software engineers, the users, the Environmental Defense Council, pathetic Russian hackers, a new bureau in Washington, or the Chinese Communist Party? Pair these idea exchanges with the trove of data these companies have on their users’ (or can easily acquire) about their searches, purchases, travel, and lifestyle activity, and … presto. Monetize goes nuclear.

Thoughts may not need to be controlled, they might simply be “directed” with a gentle nudge, an occassionaly “check,” and some selective information feeding to make sure users Don’t Be Evil.

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The Trump administration is different than the Clinton or Sanders administration would have been…

 

The Trump administration has been heavily scrutinized, with good reason. It’s easy to find something to criticize, especially for those who fear disruptions to the status quo in Washington. Trump seems to create chaos, sometimes seemingly for its own sake. I’m starting to think this may be a rational approach. This chaos sometimes leads one […]

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Preparing for a Job Interview

 

Back in the early 1990s, during one of my job-hunting periods, I sat down and wrote a brief article summarizing some of the advice I’d learned about interviewing. I think these ideas are as valid now as they were then.

It’s always a good idea to research your prospective employer before interviewing for a job. You might be surprised how much of a difference it can make to go into an interview knowing, for example, the company’s name, or perhaps what it is they do.

Equally helpful is researching the actual person with whom you will interview. After all, this person might make a decision that dramatically affects your life! Let him know that you know a little about him, such as where he lives, or perhaps what school his children go to, and whether they are ever home alone. Check into his background for anything you might want to bring up during the conversation: evidence of financial improprieties, maybe, or an affair with a coworker. Anything that might give him a reason to give your application special consideration.

Don’t forget to ask questions at the interview. Not just how much the job pays, but other important considerations, such as the company’s policy toward illegal drugs, or how many sick days you can get, or whether embezzlers are typically prosecuted. Questions like these show that you are interested in the company, and they help you discover whether it is the sort of place you’d like to work.

Go to the interview dressed appropriately; this varies depending on the employer. As a rule, you should be dressed similarly to how the interviewer is dressed. If possible, buy the exact same clothes from the same store, and copy his hairstyle. Mimicking his posture and mannerisms can add an effective touch as well.

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Exploratory Bite

 

This week, a man in Cape Cod was bitten by a shark and is in critical condition. The untrained, like myself, might be tempted to use the phrase “shark attack,” but the experts tell us it is not an attack. In fact, “It’s nothing to get alarmed about.” This was not an attack but an “exploratory bite.”

OK, I get it … sort of. If the shark had wanted to eat the man he easily could have. Here on the Cape, we’re seeing more and more what Great White Sharks are doing to seals right off the shore.

But here’s the thing, do we really care about intent? The shark that left a man in critical condition wasn’t trying to eat him, he/she was just trying to see what he tasted like and then decide whether or not to eat him. Again, nothing to be alarmed about, right?

I understand what the shark apologists are doing. They don’t want people to panic and go out and kill off these amazing creatures. Wild animals are wild. On the other hand, as seal populations grow, encounters between people and large sharks are becoming more likely and this can be very dangerous, whether the sharks intend to hurt you or not.

Anyway, I guess I just found the phrase “exploratory bite” to be amusing. I imagine similar phrases like “exploratory punch” and “exploratory gunshots.” If you bleed out from an exploratory bite you are just as dead as if you were killed in an attack, right?

Since this is a political site, let me mention the recent rise in the number people willing to try socialism in America. I do not believe they are looking to destroy the economy and individual liberty, but then an exploratory bite on our freedom should be taken just as seriously as an outright attack.

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Our new Nuremberg laws

 

The newest scandal that supposedly will end the Trump administration is the allegation that he used the N word. We have Obama in public using that word. That’s OK because he’s only half white. So a white person can’t use the word but a half white person can. What’s the dividing line? 70%. Carly Simon […]

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Moral Obligations of Personhood

 

Elizabeth Warren has a big idea. She wants to nationalize a large swath of the economy. No, really. She has introduced the “Accountable Capitalism Act” [pdf] a bill that will surely go nowhere, but — were it to become law — would require companies with more than $1B in revenue to obtain charters as United States corporations. The charters would create all sorts of batty legal obligations for big corporations. I recommend at least reading the one-page summary linked. This thing is a doozy.

Matt Yglesias at Vox is obviously excited over the idea because this monstrosity would “redistribute trillions of dollars from rich executives and shareholders to the middle class.” Kevin Williamson is less sanguine about the proposal because “it would constitute the largest seizure of private property in human history.” I see it as neither the great hope of humanity nor the end of America as we know it because there is no way something like this could happen in one bill. I’m curious, however, about this statement from the explainer:

American corporations tried to balance the interests of all of their stakeholders, including employees, customers, business partners, and shareholders. But in the 1980s, corporations adopted the belief that their only legitimate and legal purpose was “maximizing shareholder value.”

Yglesias refers to this shift back to a fanciful state of egalitarianism as “the moral obligations of personhood.” As he further explains:

The conceit tying together Warren’s ideas is that if corporations are going to have the legal rights of persons, they should be expected to act like decent citizens who uphold their fair share of the social contract and not act like sociopaths whose sole obligation is profitability — as is currently conventional in American business thinking.

The idea that corporations focus only on profit to the detriment of everything else is where the error of this thinking can be found. It fails to recognize the synergy (I really hate that word) between corporate behavior and profit. Amazon didn’t get as big as it is by enslaving its workers or abusing its customers. Warren and company think corporations serve only their shareholders at the expense of the “public interest,” but they utterly fail to see that the only way corporations can deliver the goods to their shareholders is by discovering and slavishly serving the public interest. As Kevin Williamson explained eight years ago:

Private enterprises, and businesses especially, usually do serve something that might deserve to be called the public interest or the common good, because they create social value. How do we know they create social value? Mostly because of this so-obvious-it’s-ingenious, but still kind of counterintuitive, idea that comes from economics: If people in society did not in fact value what these businesses were producing, they would not give them their money. Social value = the stuff society actually values. The counterintuitive part, at least for you guys who graduated near the top of your classes at very prestigious law schools and made a lot of money in litigation or bond-counsel work or whatever but have not spent a lot of time selling hotdogs or landscaping or painting houses, is this: Profits are evidence of the creation of social value, not deductions from the sum of the common good

Businesses do not create social value because they really want to, usually…

But normally, businesses create social value as a byproduct of the relentless Darwinian pursuit of profit — and the ones that fail to create much social value do not achieve much profit.

The socialists on the left (one might reasonably refer to them as fascist because they now propose implicit rather than explicit control of the means of production) miss the main point of capitalism: mutually beneficial, voluntary exchange. No corporation is using the threat of violence to engage in trade with individuals against their will. That authority resides only in government, and government is the entity Warren wants to bring to bear on these voluntary exchanges. She wants to remove the one motivation corporations have to serve the public interest. We see how well that worked with healthcare. It turned out that both parties to the transactions required a government mandate for the exchanges to occur.

I don’t fear this bill passing. There are too many structural safeguards in our system to prevent spectacularly bad ideas from becoming law barring extraordinary events like the Dems controlling all elected branches of government with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. I do, however, fear these ideas taking root. Yes, corporations should always strive to be better “persons.” But, the way to bring this about is more capitalism, more mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges between individuals and corporations, not the arbitrary hand of government.

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Never Going Back

 

Juan was late to work on that Monday, a very rare occurrence. He had been working for me for over a year, doing the hard, hot, messy work of making low pressure injection molded poly-urethane branches for cell phone towers (in order to dress them up to look like trees). It was early 2012, and telecom was one of the few, still booming industries (as opposed to my native construction, which was still trying to get back up from a beat down by the Great Recession).

I had hired Juan on a hope and a prayer. His past was no secret; most of it was scrawled or stamped across his body in tattoo form. He had Oakland Raiders logos, scantily clad ladies, Spanish quotations, and a few other pictures and landscapes coating his hands and arms. A cryptic code was stamped across his knuckles, the tail of some kind of lizard or snake curled up from his shirt collar and wrapped around his left ear, and two double digit numbers marked his face, just outside of both eyes. He was about 5’6” with a muscular build, dark skinned, kept his black hair buzzed short, and when he was concentrating, his face rested to an intimidating scowl.

Juan had gained an interview through the intercession of his supervisor in a faith-based addiction recovery program who happened to be a friend of my mother’s. His supervisor had been working with him for several months, and had seen what looked to be a real willingness in him to leave his twelve years of methamphetamine addiction and gang violence behind and take up the mantle of a productive member of society. When my mother’s friend heard I was in need of entry-level labor, she called right away: our work was perfect for giving Juan the second chance he needed. The pay was not great, but it was hard, steady work that would look good on a resumé after two years of consistent performance. Furthermore, outside of basic safety apparel, appearances in our messy warehouse did not matter, and the tattoos that would keep him out of most other jobs were a non-issue. She also knew that I held a great respect for those who show a true willingness to change for the better and might grant a chance where another employer might not.

When Juan first walked in, it was difficult to see past the tattoos and the obvious signs of past gang involvement. But his collared shirt and pressed pants were clean and well fitting, his handshake was firm, and he spoke clearly and directly; understanding and answering all of my questions promptly and honestly. Without my knowledge of his past, I might not have pondered at all, but brought him in immediately. But I was still responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment, tooling, and sales. Sure we had practices to protect ourselves from potentially thieving employees, but I needed to build some sort of reconciliation between my desire to give Juan the chance he needed while providing my boss the security and productivity he needed.

But that reconciliation was soon swallowed by a massive work order with an impossible deadline. Juan was in, for no other reason than the fact that I needed bodies, and I needed them yesterday. The following days mocked my hesitation, as I was constantly rewarded by my decision to hire Juan. He learned quickly and accurately – needing one clear explanation and little other guidance. He had an aptitude with tools that allowed him to work quickly and safely, and within a month his productivity rivaled the top workers in the shop. He arrived early every day to stretch and sip coffee half an hour before the doors opened, and was always eager for an opportunity to work overtime. For the first three months of his employment, we had to deal with state-mandated random drug tests as a result of the penance he was still paying for his past drug use. He would receive a text on his phone, and if he was not at the government office within an hour, he was in some sort of violation. These were inconvenient when they happened mid work day, but Juan was happy to come to make up hours whenever possible, and eventually, these tests petered out as he passed them and fulfilled his requirements.

Over the next year and a half, Juan became my top warehouse worker, eventually becoming a supervisor of our most difficult manufacturing department. The rest of the office staff and I had the privilege of helping Juan navigate through the process of gaining custody of his kids from foster care (their mother’s whereabouts unknown; still deep in addiction). Life for Juan was much tougher once he brought his boys home, but he had some help from his mother and was determined that his kids should have a father who was active in their lives. We did what we could to help him out wherever possible; giving him extra hours, personal projects, and help in planning for the future. He was advancing rapidly through the warehouse ranks, and all of us quietly wondered where he could go from here.

It was in this time that Juan hit a plateau. He had made supervisor, but that was the top position we could offer him; the next jump was to warehouse manager, which was one of the several hats I currently wore, and at our growth rate we would not be able to turn that role into a full-time position for another couple years. In the meantime, the cost of living in California as a single dad on warehouse wages kept him from developing any kind of financial stability and security. He continued to grind, but the effects of the constant effort were beginning to show, and his positive attitude that was once so easy and free became a product of strength and will. I watched carefully. I have worked closely with folks who have battled various forms of addiction, and I know that these plateaus are the moments when relapse is the easiest. I encouraged Juan any chance I could get, and sought opportunities to lighten his load and push him through the grind wherever possible, while still honoring his personal autonomy.

Juan was in the middle of this plateau when he showed up late to work on Monday with no notice. My radar went up immediately. He was quiet when he arrived; apologized, promised to make up the hours, and went straight to work. On Tuesday he showed on time, but his quiet, brooding temperament, that was so out of character, persisted. That afternoon I checked his production numbers and saw he was clearly lagging from his normal pace. He did not act like someone in a drug relapse, but he was clearly off for some reason. As I sat pondering how to best address this, Juan stuck his head into my office.

“Can I talk to you boss?”

I invited him in and asked him what was up. He was clearly not himself. His shoulders slumped, and his face was locked in the concentration of someone in deep pain. Quietly, with as little movement as possible, he explained that he had a severe toothache, and it was difficult for him to perform to his full strength. Methamphetamine is notorious for wrecking the teeth of its users, and 12 years of consistent use had left Juan’s teeth in bad shape. On Sunday night, two of his molars had literally disintegrated in his mouth midway through his meal. The nerves were fully exposed and every movement was excruciating. He had not eaten anything, he hardly talked, and drinking water was blindingly painful. I immediately leapt to my feet,

“We’ve got to get you to a dentist”

“I can’t afford it, boss. There’s a CHC dental clinic on Saturday that is free. Aside from that, I can get painkillers from the Emergency Room. That’s it.”

While Juan sat silently with the vacant look of someone resigned to great pain, I spent the next hour on the internet and phone to friends and acquaintances, trying to find someone who would let Juan into their office. I would vouch, I would pay; we would figure it out. I have a thing about teeth. I have been haunted by dreams of my teeth crumbling in my head, and have had plenty of chipped teeth and cavities myself; and I could not stand the thought of someone having to sit in this condition for the rest of the week. After at least an hour of effort, I had exhausted all the resources I could think of and we were no better off.

“I guess we’ve got to get you to the ER”

“I already went boss. The wanted to give me Norco. I told them I can’t do that. It’s habit forming, and I’m an addict.”

His sentences were short and chopped. The words squeezed out with as little movement as possible. He continued,

“They brought another painkiller. The one they give that isn’t habit-forming. I told them I can’t do that one either. For some people, it works. But I’ve had that drug before, and for me, it’s habit-forming. So they gave me ibuprofen. It helps a little.”

I pressed him.

“Come on man, you’ve got to get something. I’m sure they know what they’re talking about. Are you sure that stuff would be habit-forming with you?”

There was a long pause. Juan had been staring vaguely over my shoulder for most of the conversation. Obviously the pain was of far more concern to him than this conversation. But after my last question lingered in the air for a moment, he shifted, and he looked me squarely in the eyes; the dead look of pain completely evicted by the cold steel of resolve.

“I’m never going back boss. I ruined my life once, and I’m not doing it again.”

The words dropped like a rock and sat. Humbled, I let the weight of that truth resound through the room for several minutes before I could bring myself to respond.

“What can I do?”

“I’m ok boss. I can make it to Saturday. I just might be a bit slow this week. I can make up production for free if you need. I’m sorry, I’m not full strength, but I just need the money.”

“No worries. We will make it work”

As the week went on, either the pain reduced a bit, or Juan got better at dealing with it, but after our talk, his countenance improved a bit. Eventually, Saturday came, and by Monday, he was back to his usual self; singing, laughing, joking, and cranking out product – in all ways behaving like a man delighted to be free. And free indeed.

I wish this story ended right here. I worked with Juan for two years, and aside from this one incident, he was always positive, and always grateful. Positive despite the fact that he would get pulled over at least once a month, presumably for his looks, and as a result suffered two or three tickets a year – for low tread on tires; for no registration sticker, even though the fee was paid; for a crack in the windshield, etc. Positive despite the fact that while he worked for me, his cousin, who was still in Juan’s previous lifestyle was brutally tortured, murdered, and dismembered by a rival gang. Positive despite the fact that he was wading through custody battles for his kids, fighting the State who wanted him to still pay crippling amounts of child support to their mother, even while he had full legal custody of the kids; court date after court date he argued his case, each iteration robbing him of valuable time and resources. Occasionally I would challenge him on how he was managing to handle these difficulties. He’d just shrug and tell me that after the mistakes he had made, he was just grateful to not be dead or in prison. Yet from an outside perspective, it seemed to me the barriers set in place to encourage and enforce good behavior had become barriers to change as Juan tried to straighten his life out; requiring superhuman strength to overcome.

About a year after this story, Juan got pulled over while giving his brother a ride. Juan’s brother had a warrant for his arrest. The car was searched, and the officers found methamphetamine and an unregistered firearm in Juan’s brother’s bag in the trunk. How much Juan was directly involved was never clear to me, but both of them ended up in jail. At Juan’s request, I wrote a letter vouching for his character in the context that I knew it, but that was the last I heard of or from him until just about a month ago. A friend of mine who is a Sheriff’s deputy working at the county jail told me he had a ‘customer’ who said he knew me. It was Juan. I haven’t found out how to make contact, I don’t know what I would say if I did make contact, or if I even can. But I was happy to hear from my buddy that Juan is still sober and clean (to the best of his knowledge), and is one of the best guys in the jail to work with. He extended greetings, and I asked my buddy to extend them back in the most heartfelt way possible. I wish him nothing but the best. Juan showed me a will to change like I have never seen. I hope one day he really can find a way break free from the chains of his past.

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“Blurred Lines”: Scandals in Bohemia and Ecclesia

 

“And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl / I know you want it… / I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it… / But you’re a good girl…” Unlike in Thicke’s hit, the “it” youth seeking mentorship want is hopefully not sex. Nonetheless, decent people have long suspected that among more bohemian sorts — actors, musicians, academics, etc — the blurring of lines between mentorship and sexual grooming, coupled with the impulse to save face, risks fostering a climate of sexual abuse. I’ve even heard decent people argue that those who go into bohemian fields ought to know what they’re getting into, and if they’re abused, it’s really their fault.

Decent people don’t want bohemian clergy. Nonetheless, religious callings have more in common with the bohemian than decent people might like to think. It’s appropriate for spiritual mentorship to be intense (possibly even more intense than intellectual or artistic mentorship). It’s normal for charismatic spiritual leaders to attract groupies (also known as disciples). Great good can come from both these dynamics. But also great evil. Decent people are properly sensitive to the great harm false accusations can do, and it feels awful to suspect those called to holiness of perverting these dynamics. Nonetheless, perversion has obviously happened — especially, it seems, in Catholic seminaries.

Sexual exploitation, provided everyone involved is of age, is often not a crime. It may be immoral for mentors to sexually groom their non-minor proteges, it may be against institutional policy to do so, but it’s usually not criminal. Vast amounts of sexual grooming appear to have taken place in America’s Catholic seminaries, especially between the sexual revolution and the 2002 exposure of abuse among Catholic clergy. American seminarians have completed high school, so seminary sexual grooming is unlikely to exploit minors. Rather, it exploits youth eager for mentorship, fostering a culture of sexual predation and duplicity which then makes it all the easier for those who do go on to exploit minors to get away with it.

***

I attended college for the same reason I imagine many seminarians attend seminary — for deeper education in the transcendent things. While my idea of transcendent things wasn’t focused on religion, or even a classical education, it included my unformed Christian faith. My first real exposure to Evangelical culture came in college. It was a minority culture at my college, but more vibrant than I would have guessed. Even a purely secular college, I found, could still be a place where youth grows in wholesomeness. Granted, youth must be exceedingly careful as well as lucky in order to pull it off. My own interests meant half my friends were Jesus freaks, and the other half were bohemians. Luckily, most bohemians I knew still maintained an affectionate regard for blatant innocence and proved quite easygoing — at times, stunningly courteous — in accommodating my distaste for debauchery. We have some power to make our own luck in these matters, but I had some real dumb luck in my peers, if not my mentors.

Some kids go through their pre-college years with a huge, if invisible, “kick me” sign pasted above their heads. I came to college with a giant, invisible-but-still-flashing-neon “mentor me” sign. Challenges I didn’t recognize at the time hindered my attempts to secure stable mentorship, which provided even more opportunities for would-be mentors to proposition me. To this day, I can’t be sure how many really propositioned me, or whether I missed out on some perfectly innocent mentoring through sheer skittishness. Enough offers involved a bed, though, to make it implausible they all weren’t propositions.

I admit, I wanted “it.” It’s just that the “it” wasn’t sex: it was mentorship, though I wasn’t confident I’d manage to avoid Faustian bargains in my thirst to find it. One missed Faustian bargain began with a plotline straight out of a cheesy romance novel, but that’s a story for another time, a story bohemian enough I knew to keep my guard up. Another vividly memorable miss involved a layman of some elevated authority in my church, and that miss was narrow enough to cause some scandal. I did let my guard down more around a man I imbued with Christian authority than I would have around the more bohemian, and my greater trust was nearly my undoing. If that was my experience at a secular college, how much worse must be possible at Catholic seminaries, where all those in authority over you are presumed to be Christian authorities?

***

Complicating matters, what counts as sexual grooming in an exploitative relationship overlaps with what would simply be courtship in a more equal relationship. Even among those who manage to remain virgins until marriage, courtship typically entails the bolder lover persuading the shyer lover to shed sexual boundaries, much as a groomer does to his victims. While those called to a life of celibacy ought to know they’re not called to courtship, mentors often do favor their proteges by treating them more as “equals”, and when a man has you convinced enough you’re his equal, it becomes easier to forget the real power he has over you if he comes “courting”. Is the story of Abelard and Héloïse a tragic story of doomed love? Or is it a story of mentorship gone horribly awry?

“But Héloïse was a woman. You’re a woman. Aren’t you missing the fact that sexual abuse among Catholics is usually male on male?” No, I’m not. But I imagine young women seeking mentorship in male-dominated fields risk their chastity in ways not too dissimilar from how young gay men seeking mentorship in male-dominated fields risk theirs. Furthermore, it’s difficult to insist that spiritual formation take place without mentorship. While Christian discipleship means following Christ, not merely someone purportedly speaking for Christ, the body Christ left for His disciples on earth is the church, and the more hierarchical the church, the more the line blurs between following Christ and following your superiors in the hierarchy:

If your superiors in the hierarchy are themselves sound members of the body of Christ, this blurred line might prove more helpful than harmful. But what if they’re not?

***

I have seen the following quoted more than once in recent days:

Important clues exist in the genealogy of abuse. I have been able to trace victims of clergy and bishop abuse to the third generation.

Often, the history of clergy abusers reveals that the priest himself was abused – sometimes by a priest. The abuse may have occurred when the priest was a child, but not necessarily.

Sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or young priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are in line also for recommendations and advancement.

The dynamic is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women, too, are bound together by draconian links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the American hierarchy and the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships.

Secrecy flourishes, like mushrooms on a dank dung pile, even among good men in possession of the facts of the dynamic, but who cannot speak lest they violate the Scarlet Bond.

While those with a duty to report criminal abuse become accessories to the crime if they fail to report it, complicity in abuse among Catholic clergy appears to have gone as far as it did not just because some reprobates kept each other’s dirty criminal secrets, but because clergy, in general, were keeping each other’s dirty secrets, period.

The nasty dirty sex secrets most commonly kept among the nominally celibate probably aren’t crimes. Still, keeping them secret fosters an environment of looking the other way, even when actual crime is involved. Moreover, when would-be mentors sexually exploit their younger disciples, even if most only exploit disciples above the age of consent, it makes it all the easier for those who do exploit the under-aged to get away with it.

***

I hear that, since 2002, the worst lechery in the seminaries has been mitigated. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, if it takes decades for a church to grow past such malformation (literally, mal-formation). Clergy formed in a culture where lechery is an open secret can’t be expected to change their ways as soon as the worst lechery is stopped. Those in the know are habituated to keeping each other’s dirty secrets. Those not in the know are habituated to giving more benefit of the doubt than they probably should.

Many might be half in the know, hearing of some allegedly great scandal through the grapevine, but not knowing with confidence whether the scandal is worse than relatively minor scandals they’ve personally witnessed. Being more mortified by one’s own sins than one is by rumors of others’ sins is usually the right thing to do. Moreover, because the sin we personally witness is much more vivid to us than that which we don’t, it’s easy to wonder whether scandals elsewhere are no worse than the scandal we’ve witnessed personally:

“Oh, that seminary. Ridden with scandal nobody likes to talk about.” “Huh. Well, over here, it’s an open secret the hermeneutics professor sometimes hooks up with the religious history professor. I guess we’re a seminary ridden with scandal nobody likes to talk about, too. How bad, really, can the other place be?…”

How much worse can the scandal we don’t know about be than the scandal we do? Decent people aren’t usually much surprised to discover the scandalous behavior of bohemians is even worse than they suspected. Decent people ought to be outraged, though, by news that scandals among the clergy are worse than they suspected. Outraged, but perhaps not wholly shocked, since the blurred lines leading to a scandal in bohemia needn’t be so very different from the blurred lines leading to scandal among the pious.

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1973: What Happened?

 

Some recent posts about Chelsea Clinton’s reference to 1973 brings me back to a remarkable chart. Average real wages vs labor productivity. Since the ’40s, real wage growth was in lockstep with productivity growth. Then something changed dramatically in 1973. Starting then and ever since, real wage growth has disconnected from productivity growth.

What happened in 1973? What paradigm shifted under our feet? And it is a paradigm shift. The break from what went before is crisp and clear. But what caused it? Women entering the workforce? The dawn of computers and automation? Energy shocks? What?

Looking for ideas.

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Group Writing: Shaping the Political Will: Abortion

 
23 Jan 1995, Washington, DC, USA — Young Pro-Life Supporters at March for Life Rally — Image by © Mark Peterson/CORBIS

I stumbled across the home of the Teen Wire Drama Club but sheer providence. The Teen Wire Drama Clubs are sponsored by Planned Parenthood to put on skits and shows about the joys of abortion, the glories of protected pre-marital sex and to promote all the good that Planned Parenthood does in the world.

I felt like I found buried treasure. I had been a Christian for a little over a year and became very active in my local pro-life movement. I became Republican when I was eight but I had only become pro-life when I was 15. I went to school and in the government class, and two female teachers had given us the abortion argument with both barrels. Their main line of argument was that it was a woman’s body and a woman need to control her own body and it was not the government’s business to tell a woman what to do with it. Their argument was a libertarian argument: that government was bad, and I thought the government was bad. I was sure I needed to be pro-choice. My pro-choice phase lasted about five hours. Once both my parents were home they began talking about the news and I volunteered that I was pro-choice now. My Dad put down his paper in shock. My mother’s jaw dropped and she asked me in a pained, anxious voice, “Brian come here for a little while we need to talk with you.”

About an hour later I was in moral shock that I had ever considered being pro-choice and I was crazy with anger that my teachers tricked me. At school the next day they nearly had to remove me from class I was so angry. I was pro-life but I did very little with it or about it, besides voting Republican, until I was 26 and a brand new Christian. I was full of zeal, excitement and power and I had a cause no; a Crusade to wage! I was meant to stop abortion.

I joined my local pro-life group, populated by a bunch of retired Catholics, an amazing Nun who though sick and mostly crippled, just rippled with the power of the Holy Spirit and a righteous fire for the unborn. The only other Protestant in the group was a very overworked Presbyterian Pastor, a very good man. When I joined them, a fiery, radical Protestant anxious to take the fight against abortion, they were all enthusiastic. After getting my feet wet in the group I began making plans and like I said I had discovered the meeting place of the Teen Wired Drama Club. I began calling friends and members of my church’s local Youth group and made a plan. One day when the drama club gathered we would show up with our placards and our signs and protest them and let them know there would be no more lies.

I knew the area around the club very well and I knew exactly where we should wait. Many of my crew were late in coming to the protest and so we waited until the Drama club had finished practice, and we would be ready when they came out. The club came out chatting away, totally unaware what was waiting for them. Five young women, two young men and an old hippie looking fellow soon exited and faced our group. Our posters went up picturing destroyed babies, ripped from the wombs, our pro-life signs were there as well and our chant, “NO MORE LIES!” Bellowed from our throats. There were eight of them and about 20 of us and we obviously scared them. We were perfectly legal, the older Catholics were veteran protestors and had schooled me in how to do a legal protest. The Old Hippie cursed us like a veteran sailor on an angry bender. Several of the girls in the club cried and the two boys admirably moved toward us but I stood directly in front of them and they were just unsure what to do. They all eventually got into their cars and drove away with our shouts ringing in their ears.

Man, I was pumped! It was thrilling to confront the enemy and show them that advocating for the killing of children came with a price. In my new convert zeal, it was crystal clear to me that the only reason anyone supported abortion was the fact that too many of us were too afraid to confront them with the evil of abortion. Once confronted surely they all would quickly repent and change their minds about killing babies. We made this Drama club move their meeting place the very next day, a center of our protest movement was getting their productions canceled and attacking their funding. I was one happy man when I saw on the Teen Wired website the Club in my county was no longer active.

Stepping back, I can see now what I did. I organized a mob and we intimated and terrified some young people that held wrong opinions. I thought of myself as brave at the time and there is some truth to that I suppose, I was taking risks, but to be so proud of scaring a group of mostly young women, with 20 people behind me? I would soon learn that no matter how much zeal you have, someone else has more, and that zeal will carry them to a very dark place.

It was during a new protest I was organizing with students that would take place in the area schools that I met him. I was using a network of youth groups to recruit high school pro-lifers to have a Day of Silence in their schools. Since thirty million members of their generation would never have a voice, they would go for a day without talking. We had t-shirts, special training, and everything. I put more than a few youth pastors in a tough spot: I had gained a reputation around the community already for being a zealot and the youth pastors were concerned about hurting their relationships with the schools they ministered in; they did not want me to address their youth groups directly. They were also afraid of getting tagged as soft on abortion, so they compromised and gave me a real gift: they would allow me to talk to students after youth group. So here I was a Christian too edgy for youth group but fighting for a worthy cause, the young people came to me in droves.

We Need to Kill the Doctors

Two young men approached me: Kevin (not his real name) was 21 and Yates (need I say…) was 19 years old. They were friends and had come to a few pro-life meetings, but we had not spoken before. They talked to the Nun that led us and the Pastor in the group as well, and now they came to me. Kevin was convinced that we needed to take more extreme actions and he needed my help. He argued the older Catholics and the Nun were old and afraid now, or so Kevin thought. The Pastor was weak. But me? Wel,l Kevin thought I was a fighter. My position to not compromise, no backing down after my recent activity Kevin was sure I was up for doing something really big. What was his plan? His plan was straight forward: let’s kill the abortion doctors until all doctors everywhere are afraid to perform abortions. No need to change the law or protest or convince; and it wasn’t even murder in his mind, we were just defending the lives of innocent children.

Kevin wasn’t kidding: he had prepared, he knew the doctors that served the local clinic and had firearms. He and Yates would practice shooting quite a bit, and even used pictures of the doctors in question. Yates was just along for the ride and he was hoping to see Kevin do something crazy, but didn’t have the guts to do anything himself.

Not knowing what else to do, I told Kevin to sit down with me and the Bible and walk through the issue together, and determine through the Scriptures if killing the abortion doctors was the right thing to do. If we found it was, I would help him, but if the Scriptures told us that it was not right to kill the doctors, he had to drop his plan. For the first time since I met him, Kevin looked relieved and agreed to my proposal. He said he was a Christian and had no church at the time but had come from a fairly fundamentalist Baptist church background.

I have rarely known fear as I knew it then. I was a new Christian and not mature in my faith at all. I did not know the origins of my own theology and had not yet read the Bible from cover to cover, But I was about to embark on Bible Study and effort at moral reasoning where lives likely hanged in the balance. I ran to find advice and the sweet, sweet Catholics helped me and gave me advice about how protesting in love and persuasion was better than violence and offered to show me writing of some very smart Priests about why we must protest abortion with love and not violence. This gave me a thread to pursue but neither Kevin nor I were Catholic and popery, and so, even lovely and wise popery could not help me. The Pastor helped me the most but I don’t think he understood the burning zeal that Kevin or I felt for stopping abortion. He seemed to start out with the idea that Kevin’s plan was obviously wrong, and so we did not have to take it too seriously.

That was not going to cut it for me. I wasn’t even sure that Kevin was wrong maybe I was being the coward and refusing to see that only extreme actions could save children from death? Maybe I was just too afraid to do what it took to save lives and I was looking for a reason to justify my cowardice? The Pastor gave me a very important key: “Ask Kevin this why does he want to kill the doctors, for vengeance, for justice or to save the lives of the innocent babies?” If I didn’t know the answer to that question my study with him would go nowhere. Everyone agreed if I could not convince Kevin to change his plans I needed to alert the police. But I wasn’t yet sure Kevin was wrong; did I need to turn myself in too?

The Debate

I could write about his debate for pages and pages but I won’t bore you with the details. Here is what it boiled down to: I used the key the Pastor gave me. I said we have to determine why it would be right to kill to save the unborn: Vengeance, justice or to save the lives of the unborn? We determined we were not authorized to bring justice to the abortionists; so that was out. Vengeance was something the Lord had reserved for himself, and so that was unavailable to us. Saving innocent babies that looked very promising; to save an innocent human being seemed like a good reason to kill.

Kevin agreed we could only kill if it would save the life of a child. Then we looked at all the complicating factors, like the fact that the babies were trapped inside of women that wanted to kill them. I made some utilitarian arguments about how killing a couple of abortion doctors would not stop abortion, nor would necessarily save any babies since the mothers could get abortions elsewhere. Kevin rightly rejected those arguments as insufficient: we had not tried his plan so we didn’t know if it would not work or not. It did no good guessing. I turned again to Bible and pointed out that killing could avenge previously aborted babies, killing could be a form of justice, but the Bible explicitly said that Kevin and I had no right in this case to be the avenger or the arbiter of justice. I then proposed that our real problem was the brokenness in a woman’s heart that could move her to kill her own child.

The Bible has a lot to say on Changing Hearts

Once I got to the problem of the hearts of women who wanted to kill their own babies, I was on much firmer ground. The Bible has a lot of information on how to change hearts and minds and none of it involves gunplay. I had been staying up late at night reading everything I could find on the subject of violence, protest, and just war. My work suffered, and my long-suffering boss actually heard this excuse, “I am so sorry I was just absorbed by this article on Augustine and Just War Theory and didn’t realize what time it was…” I had not read the entire Bible from cover to cover before meeting Kevin but during this time I read the New Testament books four times and read nearly the whole Old Testament once. I was losing sleep, but Kevin had always seemed kind of cool about the debate. He confessed later he was sure he was convincing me to take up violence and I was just afraid to admit it.

As the debate turned to the broken hearts of women, Kevin was very agitated and even angry about our talks. He hated the example of Jesus and how he sought to change the minds of those that hated him. I think we actually talked about Peter defending Jesus during his arrest for close to eight hours on one Saturday. Kevin walked out on me twice and then finally one night he called me over and we prayed together, he repented and by his own admission was Born Again. No longer would he look for violent solutions, he would instead follow Christ.

How We Shape the Political Will in the Real World

In the real world this is how the political will is shaped. Real people meeting one-on-one or in small groups and working out what they are going to do and how they are going to act on vitally important issues. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on there are people around contemplating violence and other extreme actions. People do it all the time.

We all sometimes allow ourselves to mock the people who write ideas and put out books. As Napoleon asked in slightly different ways about the Classical liberals and the Pope “What armies do they have?” What armies indeed?

Still, while it seems useless to sit down and write very deep articles about Just War Theory I can say thank you for all the serious thinkers who bothered to write them because without them a young man may have destroyed his life and others along with it. The ideas that are out there and opinions that are expressed are fuel that fan the flames of belief in people. You want to know why the pro-life movement did not become violent or a real domestic terrorist threat? It was because people cared to write about why we should not be violent, theologians, philosophers and thinkers hammered it out in Human Events, newsletters, National Review, websites and articles and books of all kinds. It was because people translated Saint Augustine and Francis of Assisi and John Calvin. I won the debate with Kevin because I cared not only for the end we sought but about the means of achieving our end.

If you want to shape the political will for the better read about ideas, take the good ones, know your theology and think deeply about your beliefs; and when the time comes and lives hang in the balance you too can make your argument and save people from terrible, terrible tragedy.

Whether we care about it or not, the political will of our nation is being shaped all around us. We can either be the ones that shape it or leave the shaping to others; but whatever our choice, we and our children will live with the consequences.

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Wisdom from America’s #1 Upper-Class Twit

 

Now we know the economic value of every abortion, thanks to the highly credentialed, brilliant Chelsea Clinton:

It is not a disconnected fact — to address this t-shirt of 1973 — that American women entering the labor force from 1973 to 2009 added three and a half trillion dollars to our economy. Right?

The net, new entrance of women — that is not disconnected from the fact that Roe became the law of the land in January of 1973.

Wow! That comes out to about $53,300 for every life snuffed out. I bet even slavery wasn’t that remunerative.

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Multiculturalism Is Naive, Cowardly, and Continues to Kill

 

It’s been a busy and challenging week for the adherents of multiculturalism. A few days ago, one Salih Khater, originally from Sudan, ran over pedestrians with his car near the Houses of Parliament in London. Not the first such terrorist incident in the UK, where to speak openly about the murderous mandates in the Quran is considered bigoted and rude and is likely to get one labeled as a racist or member of the far-right by politicians, pundits, and news anchors. Then there’s this headline from The Daily Wire: “American Couple Believing ‘Evil Is A Make-Believe Concept’ Bike Through Territory Near Afghan Border. ISIS Stabs Them To Death.”

A young American couple who took a year-long bike trip around the world, believing that evil was a make-believe concept, took a fatal route through ISIS territory in Tajikistan, where alleged ISIS terrorists stabbed them to death.

“Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own…” – Jay Austin, vegan who worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

Apparently, the values and beliefs of the ISIS murderers were very different than those held by the naïve American tourists. It’s not really a complex notion that evil people do exist and that it is not a make-believe concept.

In New Mexico, Judge Sarah Backus, a Democrat originally from San Francisco (need I say more?), came to the startling conclusion that a group of Muslim men engaged in training young children to shoot up schools and other soft targets, and notwithstanding the discovery of the corpse of a young boy at the training compound site, posed no apparent threat to the community. The judge has since been receiving a torrent of criticism and backlash for her decision to grant nominal and deferred bail to the suspects.

On a somewhat happier note, in Texas, one Ali Irsan has received the death penalty for the honor killings of his son-in-law, a Christian, and his daughter’s close friend, who Irsan believed were responsible for converting his Muslim daughter to Christianity.

It takes a special type of childish multiculturalist faith to ignore mountains of evidence, not just of the rampant murderous acts perpetrated by ISIS and other radical jihadis in the last several years, but also to ignore the eons-long history of heinous and/or murderous acts perpetrated by known serial killers, child abusers, child rapists and torturers and any number of humans on the planet who were not only willing to torture and kill but happy to do so.

This sort of extreme naivety is akin in many respects to the diehard beliefs of people firmly convinced that the earth is flat. Unlike the flat-earth adherents (enjoy the video), who generally pose no threat (unless they’re radical Muslim jihadist flat-earthers), the naïve multiculturalists seek to make all of just as blissfully ignorant of the dangers of accepting murderous ideologues who have no desire whatsoever to assimilate, choose to live in no-go zones in many of the west’s major metropolitan areas, and who actively march and protest calling for the downfall of their new host governments.

Let me leave you this. Jordan Peterson was asked to speak about free speech in response to the incarceration and continued flogging of Saudi dissident, Raif Badawi. From Wikipedia:

Badawi was arrested in 2012 on a charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and brought to court on several charges, including apostasy. In 2013 he was convicted on several charges and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. In 2014 his sentence was increased to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a fine. The flogging was to be carried out over 20 weeks. The first 50 lashes were administered on 9 January 2015. The second flogging has been postponed more than twelve times. The reason for the most recent postponement is unknown, but the previous scheduled floggings were delayed due to Badawi’s poor health. Badawi is known to have hypertension, and his health has worsened since the flogging began.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, who took refuge in Canada after her life was threatened in Saudi Arabia, has said Badawi will not be able to survive further flogging. Ensaf Haidar has given a series of televised interviews about Badawi’s plight, including at the 2016 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

.

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Proud of our Eagle Scout!

 

Linda  and I are so proud of our Eagle Scout, Gil Stephens! Gil passed his Board of Review tonight for Eagle Scout. Great job Gil!

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Will Smith and the Will to Succeed

 

As the summer reaches peak heat and humidity, my overheated brain turned to the interaction of Will and will. Will Smith’s greatest artistic work was about the will to succeed. It blew apart the dominant cultural narratives, of black men as economic losers, and of American capitalism as a rigged system. At the same time, Will did not sugarcoat reality, faithfully conveying Chris Gardner’s autobiographical story about the pursuit of happiness.

Will Smith leveraged a middle-class safe-rapper persona into the starring role in a situation comedy, from which he launched into Hollywood stardom. In the late 1980s, he performed as The Fresh Prince with DJ Jazzy Jeff, achieving enough success to attract the attention of television studios. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” was a play on the old Beverly Hillbillies, updated with a streetwise kid from Philadelphia being sent to live with relatives in Bel Air.

Six seasons of television success postured Smith for comedy roles on the big screen and he became a money-making machine. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, his movies have generated:

Adjusted Total: $4,917,025,000
Average: $196,681,000

Along the way, he also managed to flex into deadly serious roles. The 2006 film Pursuit of Happyness, in which he acted with his young son, stands out among his serious roles, including Ali and Concussion. The title comes from the Declaration of Independence, while the spelling comes from a sign Chris Gardner saw while homeless.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Note that we are not endowed with happiness, or entitled to happiness, only endowed with the right to pursue happiness. That pursuit, for Chris Gardner, included an enlisted stint in the Navy, followed by a struggling career as a medical device salesman. Instead of settling, even with a toddler son, Gardner seized on a dream of great success.

That dream was sparked by a curbside encounter with an older white man, in sharp but not flashy attire, stepping out of a gleaming red Ferrari. “Two questions: what do you do and how do you do it?” The first answer was the man was a stockbroker. The second answer turned out to be an unpaid course of training, that would put Chris Gardner and his toddler son in homeless shelters or the BART bathroom stalls for almost a year. Those scenes are harrowing without any exaggeration.

At the end of the day, Chris Gardner kept his promise to never abandon his son, and got very rich, and has done a great deal of good in this world. He praised Will Smith’s portrayal in the book’s acknowledgments, published shortly before the movie was released. If you have not watched the movie, do so, watching an indomitable will, tempered by an unyielding morality.

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I Came To Chew Bubble Gum and Execute Clerical Heretics

 

And I’m all out of bubble gum. In 1960, Evelyn Waugh wrote a letter to the editor of the (UK) Spectator on the controversy surrounding the death penalty, which, he said reveals a sharp division between the heathen, who believe that physical survival, even in conditions of degradation, is preferable to extinction, and Christians who […]

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By Request: This Time, We’ll Win, Honest, We Will!

 

A rather enthralling bit of reading suggested by my muse, facilitated by another friend, (who graciously lent the print book, and shared this invaluable timeline of events) and augmented by several conversations here, here, and here led me to these ruminations. Peter Hopkirk’s masterful survey of “the struggle for Central Asia” The Great Game, takes us from inter-tribal raids [ca. 711] to a conference table in St. Petersburg [in August, 1907] where representatives of a nearly-toppled Czarist regime and a cash-strapped England sign the “Anglo-Russian Convention” to bring this phase of “the Great Game” to a close.

The book’s cast of larger-than-life rulers, adventurers, diplomats, and military men (sometimes rolled into one) has a sweep from perpendicular sand dunes to uncharted (until then) mountain passes blanketed in snow, to lavish palaces paid for by raids – and tribute exacted from conquered peoples. It has a cinematic feel. David Lean and Maurice Jarre might well have done it justice. To put the scope in perspective, when the contest began in earnest – early in the 19th century – the frontiers of the two imperial powers lay two thousand miles apart. They wound their way across vast deserts and almost-impenetrable mountain ranges. As the Game anticlimactically ended – early in the 20th century – a mere 20 miles separated the two rivals. As I read, Hopkirk’s vivid word-crafting brought me along. Sometimes in ways that made reading at bedtime inadvisable.

I won’t opine from a geopolitical standpoint here about this contest between the British Empire, largely under Queen Victoria (where India is the strategic and commercial linchpin) and Czarist Russia’s quest to fulfill a supposed dying wish of Czar Peter I to dominate the Asian continent. (What one commentator called: “Russian ‘Manifest Destiny’”), but I can relate to the allure of the exotic and romantic aura that has surrounded these lands for centuries. Hopkirk satisfies this yen with suspenseful anecdotes around the possibility of the English ‘gamers’ often-flimsy cover being blown by their limited ability to engage with their Muslim hosts in prayer/discussion, to react with pleasure to the offer of somewhat bizarre local delicacies at a meal – or to recognize the “official seal” on an intercepted, purportedly Russian communique – as identical to the brand logo on a bag of sugar in the local market!

He also (in repetitive, mortifying and nearly-overwhelming) detail reminds his readers that: As high as the strategic stakes may be, the human cost is incalculably-higher. We might put the willingness to keep paying it down to several factors: a “Boy’s Own”-fueled thirst for adventure. (A partnership with the Royal Geographical Society eased the British Crown’s financial burden early on.) It’s easily attributable to largely-commercial motives, too. (The East India Company’s “President’s Army” commanders figure prominently in the Game, as well.) These are both facets of the recurring motif: risk dancing with reward on the knife’s edge. No question. However, dear reader, I’d add a third variable to the equation; one with which I’m personally, intimately familiar: What one of my college-era mentors referred to as “enlightened denial”.

This phenomenon is not quite Adam Savage’s beloved dictum: “I reject your reality – and substitute my own.” Nor is it the mulish: “Don’t disturb my reality with your facts!” Instead, it’s “reality, breathed on”, (as a dear friend and Ricochet alum described the time-honored tradition of the Marines and seafarers everywhere – the “sea story”). This concept of reality that encourages imagination and consideration of alternative scenarios in both strategic and mundane situations is the seed-bed of hope, it seems to me.

The late, much-loved Dr. Charles Krauthammer, titled a column (written in May, 1997, for Time magazine) “FDR: The Dignity of Denial”. The column was a response to the outrage in the ‘disability community’ over FDR not being depicted (as part of his national memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC) in an easily-recognizable wheelchair*. Knowing whereof he wrote, Dr. K. opined:

“Roosevelt’s denial of his disability was more than just a denial of crushing adversity, more than a jaunty, smiling, damn-the-torpedoes refusal to dwell upon– indeed, fully acknowledge – his physical reality…His [was] an ethos of bold denial. Roosevelt’s life had a grand outer directedness….Leave him as he is.”

This same ethos and external focus animated the participants in “The Great Game”. May it continue to inform and impel us, as it did Dr. K., and does yours truly on a daily basis. (More to come, on related reading, soon.)

*Note: A glance at the opening banner of the FDR memorial page on the National Park’s website, shows that the original, more-ambiguous seated statue of the 35th president has been updated/replaced “in response to concerns expressed by the disability community” in 2001.

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Why Asian-American Academic Success Is a Problem for the Narrative

 

These questions may need to become the norm for college-level exams in the near future to eradicate the problematic nature of STEM education:

  1. If you could be a molecular bond would you be covalent, polar covalent, or ionic and please share why?
  2. How does the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle make you feel? [If you are offended by the overt eerie whiteness of the term “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,” discuss your feelings about that instead.]
  3. If humans stopped dictating what plants grow where and let natural forces take back the fields and forests, how would your favorite plant species fare?
  4. How does the impact of whiteness on the environment make you feel?

It turns out that white supremacists have been pretending to laud the performance of Asian-Americans students in STEM fields as a sneaky way to justify white power through the neoliberal racial project. I confess to often being surprised by the sheer malevolent genius of white people.

The neoliberal racial project means that by imposing meritocracy, white people can preserve existing power. Successful Asian-Americans are presented by devious white people as simultaneous proof that (a) their racialist power structure does not really exist and (b) that blacks and Hispanics are indeed inferior.

It is all explained in “Of models and myths: Asian(Americans) in kind of STEM and the neoliberal racial project” in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education (hat tip Campus Reform):

By integrating interdisciplinary lenses for analyzing race, politics, and labor, we build on prior conversations to illustrate that the promulgation of meritocratic and producerist ideologies within the STEM system relies on the shifting racialization of Asian(Americans). This shifting racialization functions to: (1) secure advantages for White Americans, often at the expense of Black, Latinx, and Native Americans; and (2) justify the supposed natural supremacy of White Americans, both of which are key to sustaining racial oppression.

For me, the most fun feature of the article was encountering the word “producerism” for the first time. It means a belief that a person’s social value is based on economic contributions (a deliberate caricature of the notion that one should be paid what one is actually worth or actually producing). I confess to adhering to the old, presumably racist (what isn’t?) notion that there is equality before the law but that we are all entitled to proportionate compensation for what we actually contribute to the economy. Turns out that we really need to eliminate private property and establish equal powerlessness before whoever is in charge before there can be social equality, kind of like non-Party members in the old USSR.

This penetrating intersectional analysis teaches us that the only way to free ourselves from the racialist tyranny ushered in by malignant “meritocratic and producerist ideologies” is to stop teaching STEM in ways that reward ability, relevant understanding; and instead move to education stylings more like those reflected in the questions at the beginning of this post.

What I did not see in the article was a way to convince Asian-Americans that it is in their interest to dilute STEM teaching to the point where their culturally imparted comparative advantages with respect to work habits and values are made to disappear. Would the joy of dissolving white supremacy offset the frustration of no longer being able to excel to live out producerist forms of success? Somehow I doubt that Asian-Americans are going to endorse that project. If STEM education really were reduced to the same Gramscian drivel as the social sciences, my guess is that tiger moms would immediately start telling their kids to be the best expounders of Gramscian drivel in their class to get ahead.

This is all so cosmically stupid, I keep wondering when it ends. Professors in politicized nonsense fields like Transgender Studies and campus ideology commissars are now paid on average more than faculty in STEM fields. The comparative economic advantage of a bachelor’s degree continues to drop even as tuition skyrockets. And the human products of these institutions are increasing, conspicuously defective (see, for example, the astonishing economic ignorance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, BA cum laude Boston University 2011, economics). Every time I think we are at the cognitive, moral, and intellectual rock bottom, there is a new low.