Manufactured controversy – Christmas Edition

Its the holidays again and time for the annual “war on Christmas” crap.

There is no war on Christmas.  This is a canard intended to whip people into a frenzy when there is no need.

1. No one is telling you that you cannot say “Merry Christmas”.  It’s just not happening.  Because someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” doesn’t mean that this is an affront or stifling your practice of your religion.  It is them trying to respect everyone’s beliefs and not assuming that because you happen to be alive at Christmas in America that you are automatically Christian.

2. If a business says that the appropriate greeting to a customer is “Happy Holidays” or put a neutral message on their cups this is them doing business and wanting to be inclusive to the most broad group of customers.  If you are an employee of that business, it is your duty to your employer to speak to their customers how they direct.  The First Amendment does not hold in a private business.

That one I find particularly amusing because the same people that don’t want to serve certain customers because of “closely held religious beliefs” are now saying that other businesses cannot express their beliefs without offense.  A little hypocritical, don’t you think.

3. Schools have Holiday parties now because there is a diverse population and not everyone celebrates Christmas.  Why exclude small children who’s families do not hold the same beliefs?

The manufacturing of controversy absolutely exacerbates the divide within this country.  We have a diverse population, like it or not.  Christians will soon be a minority in this country.  I’m sure that is uncomfortable for many that are used to the privilege of being the majority belief system.  We all need to recognize that everyone’s beliefs matter and respect these differences.  Don’t take offense where none is intended.

If I wish you “Happy Holidays” I still am expressing that I am thinking of you or complying with social convention.  If I know you celebrate Christmas I may say “Merry Christmas” instead, but if I use the generic greeting I am not trying to offend you.  Taking offense at a polite greeting has more to do with you and less to do with the person delivering the greeting.  You might want to think about why you are offended.  Not everyone is out to get you.

Things I want in a candidate

I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about what I see coming in a Trump presidency.  I thought it might be helpful to talk about what I want in a candidate instead of talking about what I don’t want.

I would love to see a party or candidate that is pro-education, pro-women, pro-balanced budget, pro-science, anti-getting in my business, with support for a social safety net and elimination of those in governance positions defining morality via a set of religion based ideals for everyone

This is an idealistic position, I know.  Here are more specifics about what I want.

1. pro-education : Now more than ever it is critical that we are making good choices about how to make sure our children are given the tools they need to maintain progress in STEM fields.  A strong public education system is critical to everything we hold dear.  Out sourcing this to corporations that are motivated by profit instead of providing good education is the wrong approach.  I view that public funding of religious education violates the First Amendment.

2. pro-women : It is sad that this needs to be said.  Fully half of our population is not afforded equal protection and we have a lot of people in power making decisions about women’s health, jobs, compensation, family choices without really taking into account the realities of what it is to be a woman or their perspectives.

3.pro-balanced budget : beginning with Saint Ronnie the US deficit spending has gotten completely out of control.  We spend way more than we bring in and we are literally mortgaging the country and our decedents will pay the price.  We need to get back to more reasonable spending levels and that will take both budget cuts and tax increases to get things back under control.  Cutting taxes to spur economic growth has been shown not to work, and only results in those at the top making more money and not letting it “trickle down”.  Both of the major parties want to spend money we don’t have, the biggest difference is what they want to spend it on.

4. pro-science : Going along with #1 on the list, we need to make sure that we are teaching science in science classes, not made up bullshit without any basis in fact or commonly accepted understanding of the universe and how it works.  This extends into public policy because we are making political decisions by manipulating scientific findings instead of acknowledging the facts and then making policy decisions, even if they go against the scientific consensus for political reasons.  We undermine all confidence in science by manipulating it and it shows in the discourse over things like climate change.

5. anti-getting in my business : The government shouldn’t be focused on what i do in my personal life unless I am creating harm for someone else.  Who I sleep with, what I believe, how I spend my time, what I read… all of these are my business (and my family’s) and no one else’s.  There need to be social norms, but unless I am hurting another, why is the government involved?  There are lots of examples of what the government should do: military, currency, fire codes, building codes, tax collection, traffic management/enforcement, etc. but there are more examples of what shouldn’t be managed, the gender of your spouse, medical decisions, etc.

6. social safety net : Everyone needs help sometimes.  As a rich country, there is no reason that we shouldn’t be there to give everyone a helping hand.  I didn’t fully appreciate this until I was unemployed.  It took way longer to find a good position than I expected and we would have been in dire straights if it wasn’t for unemployment.  There are many families I know that have two working parents and still need help because their wages are low.  The picture of the “welfare mother” or “dead beat taking advantage of the system” is one that helps people absolve themselves when they choose to oppose these programs, but like anything, you will have those that abuse the system while the majority are trying to support themselves and get by.  We don’t look down on those that avoid paying taxes if they are rich businessmen because they are viewed as “smart” but I really don’t see this any differently from a welfare cheat.  Fortunately the majority of us play by the rules as much as we can and we shouldn’t punish the majority for the actions of a few.  Private charities do a wonderful job in this regard, but we shouldn’t outsource all of this because we don’t need to.

7. defining morality based on a single religion : For a long time there has been a swing in American politics to give special treatment to some religions and disparage others.  This is appalling because this was exactly what our founders and early immigrants were trying to get away from.  We do not have a state sponsored religion and specifically have the right to religious choice.  Claiming discrimination because of equal treatment for all, and trying to legislate special treatment for some, is distinctly un-American.  It is an affront to everything our soldiers have died to defend.  This is one of the key drivers of the divisions within our country.  The problem is those wanting special treatment for one religion would lose their minds if another religion was given special treatment.  We need to come back to original views on this topic.

The problem I have with what I want is there isn’t a single party today that advocates all of this.  Some are closer than others.  How do we create a new thing that addresses everyone’s needs both now and for the future instead of playing to special interests that don’t have all of us in mind when making policy?

Gerrymandering is bullshit

There has been a lot of talk about the electoral college, gerrymandering and other built in impediments to fairness in our current system.  Lets start with an explanation of gerrymandering here and its history.

It seems like a reasonable thing to do, sort of.  You need to get roughly equal populations together and this is an interesting problem when there are wildly varying population densities.  The question becomes do you want a diverse group in each district or do you want homogeneity based on some set of factors?  This turns into a big philosophical problem because there are merits to either. I am firmly against it being based on the political party, because like gerrymandering, they are bullshit also.

Just to use a concrete example of the problem in Ohio.  In ohio 3 of 16 US Congressional districts are “Democratic”.  In the most recent presidential election voting split 52%-43.5% in Republican favor; this is similar to other elections and so on average I’m comfortable with a 50-50 split, but the exact number in this respect isn’t relevant to the argument.  If the proportion of people were reflected in congressional representation it should be more like 7-9 or 8-8.  Ohio has very different population densities because of the few cities and lots of farm or forest land.  Of the 88 counties the top 9 have > 50% of population.  Much of state is very sparsely populated.

I would argue that any system that can be manipulated by the incumbent party to ensure they maintain control is bad and any system that is neutral to race, political affiliation, income, etc is preferable.  I’ve thought a lot about this problem.  I would favor a system to most tightly group based on geography and provide for equal representation in each district my going just on population.  Make it so that the tightest packing of districts, minimizing the boarders would be fair in most respects and you couldn’t really manipulate the results.  A computer program to solve problem already exists.

We need to get back to a point where things are roughly equal instead of skewed by whoever happens to control the redistricting efforts every 10 years.  It exacerbates the bad feelings and doesn’t represent the population as a whole.

Objective Reality

So, last week a Trump surrogate went on the news (Diane Rehms specifically) and argued that there is no truth and everyone can have their own version of reality.  This flies in the face of everything that modern, democratic societies depend upon.

How can we have a reasoned discourse to agree on a path forward without at least agreement on FACTS.  We can have our own interpretations and opinions on the meaning of the facts, that is expected, but we cannot have our own facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

This is a dangerous place to be.  If we can say whatever we want, don’t back it up with facts, we really are in a dystopia.  This gets into the realm of organized propaganda and revisionist truth that totalitarian communist regimes practices in the 20th century and Orwell warned about in Animal Farm and 1984.  This is where we need the press, in a non-partisan way, to start fact checking things, calling politicians of all stripes out on manufactured truth, and provide references on their facts.

The funny thing it is the Republican party’s leader (or surrogate) that is saying that there are no facts.  This is the type of relativism that historically they have accused the Left of embracing, and now they are taking it to a whole new level.

It is a failure of the American Public that we take everything that anyone says as truth if it is on TV or FaceBook or some random blog.  The Internet and World Wide Web are wonderful tools but they don’t have built in mechanisms to weed out random crap.  With print media, because there is limited space for content, only the strongest pieces make it forward.  Fortunately/Unfortunately anyone, literally anyone, can publish what looks like a professional website and put whatever content they want on it.  This fuels the perception that they are legitimate news outlets and often they are very biased in what they report (at best) and/or manufacture whatever sounds good knowingly or purposefully.

This gets back to things I’ve said before.  We need to work on educating our youth.  We also need to get back to putting standards on news content and clearly differentiate what is news and what is opinion.  For example, Fox News has about an hour of news a day and the rest of their content is largely opinion which leads to confusion for many.  

I am not saying by any stretch that Fox should be restricted in what they can say, it is their right, but I do think that we should have a requirement to mark things as “not news” very clearly.  Just like we restrict what can be said on medications and you need to be able to back up health claims on a medication, or warning labels on cigarettes, we need warnings that information doesn’t rise to the level of fact checked so we can maintain the health of our reasoning faculties.

Public shared infrastructure

Roads are a wonderful thing.  So are Police and Fire departments.  Great examples of why we have taxes.  We all benefit from shared infrastructure, it enables commerce, thereby allowing us all to prosper.  They make modern cities and economies possible.  Without this shared infrastructure, paid for by all of us, we would live in a very different world.

If someone suggested that they didn’t like our roads, police or fire departments, how would we address the problem?  We’d probably suggest that we look into why we have problems and, if necessary, provide additional funding through tax increases.  We have levies like this all the time.

In no rational society would we suggest that it is reasonable for citizens to setup their own roads and police departments, run them along side of the existing ones, and take their portion of tax money for this shared infrastructure to fund the building of this parallel infrastructure just like we wouldn’t fund setting up a second currency (printing money is paid for with taxes).

But when it comes to education, that is exactly what school vouchers are doing.  Let me be clear, if someone wants to setup a private school, religious or not, go right ahead.  My issue is with using the tax dollars that are to benefit everyone through educating our children for private institutions.  They take money from schools that already have shortages of the resources they need and further reduce those funds. We are setting public schools up to fail, and reinforcing the perception that private or charter schools can do better.

Education shouldn’t be a money making enterprise.  It should be about providing the best education to all of our children.  If people want to opt out of what is offered they have that right.  They shouldn’t get to take their taxes away from that because they don’t like the service.  They still benefit from the economy built by everyone else’s use of the education system.

Let’s say I don’t like how much money our military is spending.  Should I get to pull my tax dollars out to fund something I like better?  I get the benefit of everyone else paying for it but I can do something else.  Should we each be able to opt out of paying for any government services we don’t like?  If I don’t drive, should I get a rebate on my road taxes?  If I use only credit cards, can I stop paying for printing of money? No rational person would suggest this is reasonable.

There are many things that the private sector does better than government. But let us remember that the private sector is enabled by the common infrastructure that we all pay for.  It is our duty to pay for these common services so that we all benefit.  Privatization of public services only leads to a profit motive for the use of the public services and results in a very unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t focus on the welfare of the public, but on the welfare of the corporation.

I am all for corporations.  I’ve worked for a number of them and am proud of the things that I have contributed to making them successful.  I invest in corporations and am a wholehearted supporter of capitalism.  But a corporation’s primary purpose is to create wealth for its investors, not to be altruistic or look out for the good of others, unless it serves their profit motive.  To suggest otherwise is naive or disingenuous.

We need to make sure that we make reasonable choices when privatizing services.  It is not always going to be cheaper when you look at the whole picture, it may not provide the services we thought we’d get but it will always make a profit for the corporation that takes over the job.

On integrity and pragmatism

Among the multitude of things that I’ve been thinking about the entire election cycle is the role of Integrity vs. Pragmatism in decision making.  This is something that I think about a lot in general but it has come up a lot lately.

When I was younger I used to feel that Integrity almost always trumps Pragmatism.  I have come to realize that the world isn’t like that and we are often put in a position where a more nuanced approach is necessary.

I view that Integrity is an ideal set of behaviors we strive for, that we are self consistent, that decisions are based on a core set of values that we adhere to.  There are times where this is possible and is always the desired outcome.  Holding onto your Integrity is one of the most important things in life.  It is easy to make decisions, it is often hard to make them with integrity because of the ramifications.

Pragmatism is where we take into account all of the impacts of possible decisions, especially where we are forced to make unpalatable choices.  If I’m making a decision that doesn’t match what i would view as the ideal choice, I should at least have a reason for doing so that is carefully considered.  This is different from rationalizing because there should be data and a rational thought process to bring you to a pragmatic solution.

Back to the election cycle.  I am not a partisan voter for the most part; I try to vote for the candidate that matches with my views or at least thats my goal.  We were presented with less than ideal choices at every step of the process.  On the Democratic side we had two career politicians, one that viewed that she was owed the nomination and the other a pretty far left choice that did better than most thought.  On the Republican side it was a set of lots of bad choices, all on the scale of pretty far Right and differing value sets that don’t match up with my values.

To be completely transparent, I wanted Bernie out of all of these choices.  I was willing to accept Hillary.  On the GOP side there were lots of candidates that I didn’t want Cruz and Trump being the ones that I disliked the most.  As with the rest of the population, I thought Trump was a joke.  I though Cruz was a religiously driven nut job that would want the Christian version of Sharia Law if he had his way.

When it came to the primaries my vote was not driven by who I wanted but rather by trying to deny the nomination to someone that was truly scary.  I voted for Kasich.  I think Kasich isn’t a great candidate but (a) he is from my home state (b) he could conceivably get the nomination and (c) he wasn’t Donald Trump.  Between the Democratic nominees I could live with either.

In the general election:

1. I didn’t like Hillary as a candidate.  Her history is questionable.  I felt that her nomination was manipulated because she was “owed” the nomination and she worked a long time for it.  That is not the reason to give the nomination to anyone.

2. I wanted to like the Libertarian candidate.  This was the year that they could have made a real showing.  Then instead put up a nut job with no real foreign policy experience and became a running joke.  I think if he’d made it into the debates it would have been much more interesting.

3. Donald Trump scared me.  I won’t go into all of the reasons for why because they are too numerous for this post.

This is where integrity comes into play.  The choice with integrity would have been for the Libertarian candidate because I didn’t feel Dem or GOP candidates were good for the country.  The Libertarian would have caused the least damage.  The problem was there was no way he was going to win and living in a swing state it would be almost as bad as not voting.  If the electoral college didn’t matter or were somehow proportional the math may have worked differently.  The problem is you need a critical mass of voters and Johnson wasn’t strong enough to pull in the necessary votes.

The Pragmatic choice was Hillary because she was way more qualified than Trump. She knows how to work in DC and while she isn’t ideal she wouldn’t take things completely off the rails.  Trump is a loose cannon and dangerous.  Too bad the pragmatic choice came up too little.

This is where I start to question Integrity in the rest of our elected officials and whether partisanship is going to take precedence to Integrity.  A number of GOP politicians have denounced Trump, have tried to make sure he didn’t get elected because they viewed him as dangerous, and were vocal in those opinions.  That took courage and showed some level of Integrity.  The question is whether they will continue to show that Integrity to protect the values we hold dear and do their duty to uphold the Constitution.

The electors, in some cases, are showing integrity by questioning what the electoral outcome was.  The purpose of the electoral college system was specifically designed to avoid the election of a demagogue or someone unfit for the office.  There is supposed to be a deliberation and avoid putting the wrong person in office.  This was a safeguard because this situation was foreseen as a possibility.

One of the Texas electors resigned because he said he couldn’t vote for Trump.  I applaud this position.  The problem I have is that he resigned ensuring that someone else did the vote.  This showed a lack of integrity because while he himself avoided it, the net result is as if he did vote for Trump.  The choice of Integrity would have been to go to Washington and voted his conscience.  Instead he took the easy way out so he didn’t need to make the hard choice.

It is a dream of mine that other electors will do their duty.  It is unlikely to happen because it is hard to do the right thing when everyone expects you to do something else.  You will take heat for doing the right thing.  People will say you are being selfish.  I disagree, you are showing that you know what is right and you are sacrificing your own comfort for the greater good.  If only…

The First Amendment

One of the greatest expressions of our rights is the First Amendment.  It gives us the ability to speak our minds, to assemble, to petition the government and free expression of religious ideas.

an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is one of our most important rights and should be taken seriously.  Peaceful protests have led to huge social change in our country.  The protection of speech we find uncomfortable or offensive is protected specifically because we want the freedom to speak things we don’t find offensive or uncomfortable.

This right was enumerated because there was a restriction of rights under King George.  In England there is a long history of persecution of religious minorities because there was an official state religion.  People were killed because they held different religious beliefs.  Many of the early settlers came to what would become America. It is disheartening that we seem to have forgotten this and if you are not Christian many believe your right to religion is lesser; there is an unconscious, or conscious, bias towards “Christian Values” that is, for some reason, hard for people to see unless you are not Christian.

The right to petition the Government was specifically added because King George, and other monarchs, consistently and regularly ignored communication of grievances from their subjects.  One of the reasons for the Revolution was directly tied to the fact that the colonists had legitimate concerns that were not being addressed, and when they expressed this in writing, speeches, etc they were hindered or imprisoned for sharing their ideas.  When they gathered in groups or met to discuss their ideas they were forcefully prevented from doing so.  Ironically, this is not too different from protests today and how the police are regularly called out to prevent protests.

We need the freedom to speak.  We need a free press in order to know what our government is up to.  It is disheartening to see that our press is so worried about profit and not offending advertisers or political figures that they pull punches, don’t do the leg work necessary for a story and have become so partisan.  You can tell what news you are going to get, and the spin on it, based on the network you are watching.  Gone are the days of a free press and we need to get that back.  We need less propaganda and more news… but I digress.

Other countries have freedom of speech but America is generally the most free.  Any restriction of that speech, e.g. changing liable laws, will have far reaching and unintended (hopefully unintended) consequences.  In Britain they have a different take on liable laws and the result is there is less ability to call someone out on bullshit.  In Britain the burden of proof of the veracity of a statement lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff; the plaintiff only needs to show that their reputation was hurt.  This results in a chilling effect on freedom of speech and saying anything potentially harmful must be backed up with mountains of facts.  This has resulted in questionable practices in science, business, etc to continue because of a fear of lawsuits directed towards anyone that tries to point it out.  You need to figure out if your evidence is enough to convince a court and it becomes a huge gamble.  Many people aren’t up for the challenge.  Here is an example.

Since the subject of flag burning has come up, lets address that for a minute.  This is protected speech.  It has been ruled so by SCOTUS.  It is unambiguous that this is completely and totally legal, unless you are of course using the flag as tinder to set fire to a building, but then burning the flag isn’t the illegal part, arson is.  Threatening loss of citizenship or imprisonment for protected speech goes against EVERYTHING that the US was founded upon and it very disturbing coming from the President-elect.  I think that Penn & Teller summed it up nicely (BTW, its great to see in person).

We have rights.  We shouldn’t give them up.  It may appear, on the face of it, that it would be nicer to restrict what others say.  The problem is, how would you feel if it was your speech being restricted instead? In America, the ruling party can change and next time around you may not like the winner, but you want the ability to say so.  We do not want a world like 1984 where what you think and say is dictated to you.