Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question.

Teachers like to tell kids that there is no such thing as a stupid question.  If understood as an exaggeration, that's fine:  it makes a point which is particularly important for schoolchildren.  That, however, is no excuse for adults to mindlessly repeat it as though it were a fundamental truth with no exceptions.

For the sake of clarity, let's call the person asking the question Quincy and the person who hears it (whether or not it is addressed to her) Heather.

A question might be stupid because it reveals too much about what Quincy knows or does not know.  For example, if Heather is trying to sell something to Quincy, it might not be in his interest to let her know he does not understand all the details about what he is buying; she might try to persuade him to buy features he does not really need or charge him more than the fair market price.

Alternatively, a question can make an unfair insinuation.  These are particularly obnoxious, because they allow Quincy to cause all the harm of a direct accusation while still providing him cover under the excuse, "I was just asking a question!"  A friend of mine has suffered a good deal recently due to just such a hateful question -- in this case, a very intrusive, personal question from someone who was no more than a casual acquaintance, and who has used it to spread hurtful gossip across the dog park my friend has been using.

A question can also be stupid if it predictably and unnecessarily brings up painful memories for Heather.
 This has also been brought home to me by recent events.  A few days ago I discovered that a friend I had known many years ago, but with whom I had not been in regular contact, has passed away.  The last time I communicated with this friend, she made a comment that was shockingly out of character.  The comment did not in any way involve me, but the friend would have undoubtedly known that it would disturb me.  In fact, I did not believe the comment could be taken at face value; I suspected it to have been an indirect message to get lost.  Not knowing how else to respond, that is what I did.  So now, if I am troubled by uncertainty about what exactly was going on near the end of this friend's life, I must live with that uncertainty.  The opportunity to ask my friend is gone, and it would be massively inappropriate to ask for clarification from anyone who was closer to her in her last days -- both because it would bring up painful memories of her loss, and because it might appear I was trying to besmirch her memory.

An old standard piece of spiritual advice is to speak only when necessary.   For most people under most circumstances, I don't think that needs to be interpreted very rigorously, but I do think it makes an important point.  After all, we are told that we must give an account for "every careless word".  Some of those careless words are formed into questions that really are stupid.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Regarding Immigration

As the election season progresses beyond any hope of being salvaged, it is probably appropriate that I explain my thinking regarding immigration.  This is one of the issues for which no party has a satisfactory policy.

To start with, let me say that immigration policy is entirely unlike abortion policy.  If the fetus is in fact a human person (which it is), then it is wrong to murder that person, with no exceptions, and it is matter of public interest.  If the fetus were not a human person, abortion would be as much a personal decision as a haircut, and it would be the business of no one but the woman seeking the abortion.  The in-between positions are just nonsense.  These include the assertion that only women should have a say about abortion -- all women, not just the woman seeking the abortion.  That doesn't work: it's either everyone's business, or no one's business; either it's public, or it's private.  Likewise with the "politically moderate" exceptions to abortion of rape and incest.  They make no more sense than it would to criminalize the abuse of five year olds, except for those children who were conceived through rape or incest.  Most things in politics are not all-or-nothing in the way abortion is, and immigration policy certainly is not.

Immigration policy is more like economic policy.  In economics the two extremes might be taken to be a planned economy under the total control of a central authority, as in Communism, and a complete Laissez Faire Capitalism, governed only by supply and demand.  We know from history that both are prone to enormous abuses, and that neither really works.  Economies under central control lack the creativity and flexibility needed to thrive, and unimpeded Capitalism is unstable, subject to both cycles of booms and busts and to monopolization.  As a result, even the most enthusiastic supporters of Capitalism now generally accept the necessity of bankruptcy protection and federally insured deposits, and usually prohibitions on price gouging, dumping, and insider trading; as for Communism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption by China of more-or-less free markets, it is hard to find anyone except North Korea seriously advocating that system.  There is practical unanimity that the best system must lie between the two extremes, although plenty of squabbling remains about exactly which compromise solution is best.  And, of course, the compromise that works best for Texas might not work best for Sweden.

On one extreme of the immigration debate are those who seem to think that each country has an obligation not only to let in anyone who wishes to come, but also to assist them in their travels, ensure them food, clothing, shelter, medical assistance, and a job as soon as they arrive, give them full citizenship, and expect absolutely no conformity to the culture of their new country.  Although this position seems to be popular with many clerics, it is still obviously hogwash, since it would mean that no nation could defend itself from being washed out of existence by an invading horde -- and the diversity of cultures we get from having separate and distinct nations is a good that should not be casually and carelessly discarded.  It should also be pointed out that it is naive to assume that the people who make use of the generosity of others will necessarily show generosity in turn -- particularly if they have not been asked to accept the culture of their new homeland.

On the other extreme are those who are willing to give the government absolutely anything it needs or says it needs to prevent illegal immigration and to deport illegal aliens who are already here.  Absolutely.  Anything.  That's the sort of talk that makes any would-be dictator's mouth water, because to get rid of 11 million illegal immigrants we would need to become a full-fledged police state.  That is far too high a price to pay for the 96.6% of American residents who are not illegal aliens, let alone the 3.4% who are.

Just because the best solution must lie between the extremes does not mean that every solution between the extremes is good.  In fact, our current system is between the two extremes, and it is perhaps the worst possible solution.  We make it only moderately difficult for people to cross the border illegally -- just hard enough that they are invested in being here when they arrive, having either endured hardship or paid what to them is a substantial sum of money, or both.  Once here, as long as they do not draw attention to themselves, they might be able to stay for decades, meaning of course that they put down roots.  If they attract the attention of law enforcement, though, they are subject to deportation.  Deportation may not sound like such a bad thing if your picture is of being deported from a holiday destination after violating a local taboo while on vacation, but think instead of the deportation from Anatevka at the end of "Fiddler on the Roof".  For those who have made substantial investments or put down roots, it is a real punishment indeed.

What this set of circumstances means is that illegal immigration is not seriously impeded, providing a steady supply of low-income workers to industries that choose to pay wages that do not attract American workers.  Even "better", because illegal aliens do not want to attract the attention of law enforcement, they are not likely to report unsafe working conditions, missing pay, or other abuses, allowing their employers to cut even more corners.  There is no way I believe all this is a coincidence.

My preferred alternative would be the polar opposite of what currently exists.  We should make it very difficult for anyone to enter the country illegally, but we should be much more lenient on those who have already come and put down roots without engaging in violent crime.  If someone does meet the criteria for having "put down roots" -- perhaps by having been in the U.S.A. for 10 years without being charged for a violent crime -- he should have the option of renouncing his foreign citizenship and becoming a permanent U.S. national.  As a national, rather than a citizen, he would be ineligible to vote or hold elected office, and unlike those born in American Samoa, he could never apply for citizenship, but otherwise he would have all the same rights as a U.S. citizen.  Or perhaps he could also be banned from holding any government job other than serving in the military, although I would probably allow that to be upgraded to full citizenship if he serves 6 years in the U.S. military.

We have the right, even the duty, to control our borders, but we need to do so in a way that avoids doing more harm than good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Three New Planks for the Republican Platform

  1. Crush your enemies.
  2. See them driven before you.
  3. Hear the lamentations of their women.
This is what happens when they put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the platform committee. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Passing of the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors

The recent news of the death of Elie Wiesel reminded me of Mike Jacobs.  Mr. Jacobs, who founded the Dallas Holocaust Museum, spoke at the university where I taught about a dozen years ago; sadly, he passed away almost two years ago.  I am ashamed to say I have only skimmed his book, Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs' Triumph over Tragedy, but the title very much conveys the tone of the talk he gave.

In fact, the title is too much of an understatement.  "Triumph over tragedy" can mean many things, including revenge, but in the case of Mike Jacobs, it meant something much more rare:  triumph over bitterness.  Given what he saw, what he experienced, and what he lost, I do not think it would be possible to forgo bitterness without cooperating with divine grace to the extent of heroic virtue.  If an Armenian monk not visibly in union with Rome could be declared both a Saint and Doctor of the Church, perhaps Mike Jacobs is now a Saint, though one who will never be canonized.

It will probably be another ten, fifteen, or even twenty years until the last of the death camp survivors passes away, but we are clearly at a point where their numbers will be falling rapidly.  When we lose them, we will lose a sense of the reality of the horrors they endured.  If you want to know what I mean, compare how we think about World War I with the effect it had on the course of history over the past hundred years.  It brought about the end of many of the traditional structures of Europe that made Europe the center of Christendom, including the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the fall of the Tsar; it set up the conditions for both Nazism and Communism; it made nations reluctant to intervene against Nazism before it was too late; and it triggered a boom in decadence and occultism that would be more obvious were we not experiencing an even bigger boom right now.  How do we think about it, though?  Merely as a quaint prelude to World War II and "the Greatest Generation".  We think of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.  We have photos, documents, and artifacts that testify to the horrors of World War I, but without human witnesses, it necessarily feels somewhat imaginary.  That will soon be happening to the Holocaust, and the world will truly have lost something when it happens.

When I see articles written in response to the death of Elie Wiesel saying "now it is up to us to remember", though, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that too few people understand what the point is, what is the thing that we really need to remember.  Many people think what we should remember is, to quote Donald Duck, "Oh, boy!  Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" ... where such things presumably cannot happen.  Gratitude and patriotism are good things, but they are NOT the lesson the Holocaust teaches, and a naive American exceptionalism is in fact close to the polar opposite of what it teaches.  Many others see the lesson as being that if we are not vigilant, others may do terrible things like this to us.  I will concede that at least this is one of the lessons of the Holocaust, but not one of the more shocking or important ones.  There are two of those.

To understand the first lesson, consider that although some people can obviously run faster or jump higher than others, human physiology limits how fast anyone can run and how high anyone can jump.  We may not know exactly where these limits are, but the current world records are probably pretty close to the maxima, and we would expect, say, the average speed of all adults in any given city in the 100-m dash to fall within the range of speeds for people we know.  

It is natural to expect an analogous situation to apply to evildoing.  We know that people can do some pretty terrible things, but surely human nature must provide a limit to how evil a person can be, and we have a pretty good feeling for where that is, right?  Well, even if such a limit does exist, it did not prevent Mengele from performing abominable experiments on children that he met and knew -- demonstrating a magnitude of evil that is entirely beyond my comprehension.  Well, what about nations?  Surely in any large nation the good people and the bad people must average out to pretty much the same value everywhere, right?  Again, the answer is no.

So the first lesson is that we have much more freedom to choose good or evil, both as individuals and as nations, than we might have reasonably expected.  We cannot trust to human nature to keep things from becoming too bad; we must instead actively and consciously restrain ourselves.  

The second lesson is closely related to the first.  It is not just that if we are not careful, we might suffer horrible deaths.  Whether we are talking about leprosy or Ebola or any of dozens of other horrific diseases, that possibility has been known for ages.  No, the lesson is that if we are not careful, we run the real risk of becoming more evil than we can fully comprehend.  It can happen here, unless we prevent it.  It has already happened in a "civilized" nation with a culture nearly identical to ours.

It would be wrong to close on a note that is so grim it might sound hopeless, so let me instead leave you with a quote from Jesus in John 16:33b:
In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.
EDIT:  It occurred to me after submission that there is another lesson, this one slightly more reassuring:  There is a suicidal component to evil.  This can be seen time and time again, but Nazi Germany is perhaps the most outstanding example.  If the Reich had stopped at being nasty and discriminatory, it would not have become the most prominent symbol for evil in the modern world.  If the Reich had been content with annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, it would probably still be around today, and it might have survived if it had merely held onto half of France and half of Poland without also attacking the U.S.S.R., but of course it did.  Germany even declared war on the U.S.A. when America might well have been content to confine our war to Japan after Pearl Harbor!  And of course the theory of Aryan supremacy was most thoroughly disproved by the very test the Nazis chose to put it to:  world war.  Evil sews the seeds of its own destruction.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Naive, Passive, Navy Seal?

The first death of a "driver" in a self-driving car on public roads has just been reported.  That was an eventual inevitability, so in that sense not much of a surprise.  What is a surprise, though, is that the "driver", Joshua D. Brown, had spent 11 years as a Navy Seal.  I've known a couple of Navy Seals, and I can think of ways they might die after retirement:  in a skydiving accident, or a cave diving accident, or a climbing accident, or a motorcycle accident.  A Seal might have a parachute fail to open properly, but you can dang well be sure he would have packed it himself.  He might have a line break while climbing, but it would be one that he had chosen and inspected first.  In other words, I would expect that if he dies early, it will be because he is doing something active and placed too much trust in himself; otherwise he is likely to die of a more humdrum cause, like too many cigarettes.  He would know from experience not to put too much trust in technology, because he would have seen technology fail and would have been trained to adapt when that happens.

So when I read that a veteran Navy Seal has died due to placing too much faith in a self-driving car, and that (according to the truck driver's account) he had felt that a Harry Potter movie was a better use of his time and concentration than driving ... something just does not add up.  No, I'm not claiming foul play and a cover-up; I'm just saying it does not add up.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Revolutionary War Ancestors: George Richards

As a prominent Virginia Colonial family, George Richards (1727-1818) was with Washington at Braddock’s Defeat (1755), and with his sons in the Revolutionary War (1776). -- Historical Marker at the Site of Richards Cemetery, Florida

There are a number of difficulties with this inscription.  Even the Richards plantation cannot be placed in Virginia. According to an online message board post,
Mrs. Susan Bennett Wester, then of Hokes Bluff, Alabama wrote up the history of her ancestors. The following is given as this history in her own words: "My great-grandfather, George Richards and his brother James, came from Nansemond County, Va., before the Revolutionary war and settled at the Richards homestead, about five miles Northeast from Louisburg. The place was then Bute County, and under British rule; after 1779 it was in Franklin County and under colonial rule; later still it was and now is within the jurisdiction of the United States Government. Thus it will be seen that George Richards lived in two different counties and under three different governments and yet lived in the same house all the time. All I know of my Richards ancestors, I learned from my grandmother, who died 1844, when I was twelve years old..."
It is important to note that this is entirely consistent with other records, such as his will.  I had hoped that either the plantation or its cemetery would be indicated by a North Carolina historical marker, but such is not the case.
As for George Richards being a Revolutionary War soldier, that is also almost certainly untrue.  Contrary to what is claimed on some Internet sites, his obituary did not state that he was himself a Revolutionary War soldier, but only that six of his sons were.  (Thomas Cupples Richards, from whom I am descended, was born in 1774, so he had no part in that war.)  Furthermore, if George Richards had been in the Continental Army, his experience and social position would undoubtedly have made him an officer -- his son James was an army captain.  There are many men who answered to the name of "George Richards" and participated in the Revolutionary War -- for example, a naval chaplain from Rhode Island, whose literary accomplishments include a (mediocre) poem about the Declaration of Independence, an "Indian spy" from Virginia (who seemed to be a very promising lead, given that "my" George Richards had a son, Stephen, who was an important Indian translator in early Florida), the unrelated George Richards Minot, but most importantly, his own son, George Richards, Jr.  However, there are no good matches to the place and rank where "my" George Richards should have been expected, which is among the officers from North Carolina.

There is a wonderful extended family story from the descendants of Micajah "Cage" Davis about his adventures during the Revolutionary War with a "Capt. George Richards", and how Cage came to marry Capt. Richards's sister Martha "Patty" (or "Patsy") Richards as a reward for obtaining some cattle for the starving troops at the Battle of Cowpens.  The story includes the note
This account is in conflict with the tree that describes Capt. Geo. Richards as Patty’s father, who was a known Revolutionary War soldier born in England and it would also be unlikely that a brother would betroth his sister.
I suspect that this story somewhat exaggerates Cage's role in starting the Battle of Cowpens, but it certainly does confuse George Richards, Sr., George Richards, Jr., and James Richards.  The captain who had his hand cut off in a duel was James Richards.  George Richards, Jr., was about the same age as Cage, and since they were both privates from the same part of North Carolina (though not, it seems, in the same companies), they may well have been friends.  It is likely that when Cage's descendants heard him talk about a "Captain Richards" and about "George Richards", his friend and eventual brother-in-law, the two became confused, particularly since James Richards died in 1781, unsurprisingly not long after losing his hand and six years before Cage married Patty.

A great deal can be learned from George's will, which I give here in full.  
In the name of God, amen. 
I, George Richards of the county and state aforesaid, being of sound mind and memory, do think proper to make this my last will and testament in manner and form following: 
Item 1st: I give and bequeath unto each of my sons: Joshua Richards, Stephen Richards, and George Richards, the sum of one dollar each.
Item 2nd: I give & bequeath to my Daughter, Patsy Davis, one bead and furniture her choice, one bound tea table, her choice of my chests, my loom, & all the thereunto belonging and also one third part of all my personal property of whatsoever nature or kind it may consist in, with the exception of my Negro woman, Hicksey, to her, and her heirs, assigns for ever. 
Item 3rd: I give & bequeath unto my son, Thomas C. Richards and unto my Grandsons, John & Jeter Hog, sons of my Deceased daughter, Jane Hog, the remaining two thirds of all my personal estate of whatsoever nature and kind it may consist in except the aforesaid Negro woman, Hicksey, that is to say, I give to Thomas C. Richards the one half of the two thirds of my estate hereby given to him, his heirs and assigns for ever. The other half to be divided between John & Jeter Hog on their arrived at lawful age and in the event that of them should dye before they arrive at lawful age, it is my will and desire that the survivors share the whole estate,hereby intended to be divided between them, to then, their heirs, and offspring for ever. 
Item 4th: It is my will and desire that my Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave, be liberated and set free and I hereby request and enjoin it on my Executor after named to use all lawful means in their power to have her emancipation and set free, but should my desire to have the said Negro woman, Hicksey, set free prove abortive, it is my will & desire that my son, Joshua Richards shall have the said Negro woman, Hicksey not doubting, but he will endeavor to comply with my will or maintain my said Negro woman, Hicksey on easy terms and not on the of real bondage and that he will act towards her the part of a friend more than that of a master. 
I hereby nominate and appoint my friends, Amus Jones, John Perry (_____) and _______ Gordon executors to this, my last will & testament. Whereof I have hereunto set my hand this 17th June, A.D. 1818. 
Witness Present, 
Nath Hunt 
John Thomas 
George Richards seal (his mark) 
There are a number of hints that make me think I would not have liked George Richards, Sr.  For one thing, there is this from DAR records:
Patty Richards married Micajah Davis in 1784, despite not having the approval of her father. George was a wealthy man and wanted a more affluent husband for Patty. 
The year is off, but that is no reason to suspect the thrust of the statement. It is backed up by this:
In 1784 Micajah married Patty Richards. Her father being a wealthy man, opposed the match on the grounds that young Davis was a poor man- -though he owned a good plantation- - and was so enraged that he never gave her anything until his death, at which time she received the old homestead and several negroes, besides other property...
Allowances must be made for the age and the culture of the day, and whatever breach may have opened due to the marriage was clearly closed by the time of his death, as his will is generous to Patty; but he still comes across as a bit of an arrogant jerk.

One other factor bothers me more than it would most people.  George Richards was a Freemason, and Masonry requires oaths that can only be made flippantly by disregarding God as a reality, but which if taken seriously make Masonry a distinct religion.

Finally, not only did George Richards own several slaves (the 1800 census shows him with 13), but the obsession in his will with his "Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave" has a distinctly creepy feel to it, one that brings to mind the "relationship" between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  If George were really so solicitous for Hicksey's freedom, I see no reason he could not have freed her during his lifetime, but he no more did that than Jefferson gave Sally Hemings her freedom.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tragedies and the Genetic Fallacy

Q:  Suppose you were an Israeli living in 1995, and that you thought that Yitzhak Rabin's take on the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.  What should you have thought about it after Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Admir, who violently opposed the process?

A:  You should have thought that the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.

The reason is simple:  nothing changed that should have affected your conclusion.  You would have based your assessment of the Peace Process not on the personal virtue of Rabin or Admir, but on the trustworthiness of the two parties, the terms of any agreement, the ability of the leaders to ensure that their sides lives up to their obligations, etc.  The assassination might make a Palestinian question the ability of Israeli leaders to prevent outrages by Israeli citizens, but -- in spite of the shock, outrage, and even metaphysical horror the assassination created in the hearts of so many Jews (whether in Israel or elsewhere) -- it should not have changed the opinions of Israelis with regard to the Peace Process.

Yet in the real world, it certainly did affect Israeli opinions to an extent that I found utterly astonishing.  I do not approve of everything Israel does, and also I see a distinction between Israeli interests and American interests, but I give the Israelis a lot of credit when it comes to certain things, such as understanding the importance of air power and making rational decisions in matters related to their national survival.

Ultimately, this is a mixture of the genetic fallacy, which judges an assertion based on who supports it rather than on its own strengths, together with the modern cult of the victim.  Regarding the latter, society is all over the place when it comes to "blaming the victim".  Usually, for example, there is no hesitation in blaming a drunk driver who drives into a tree, let alone another vehicles -- unless the driver happened to be a celebrity, or the room is full of family members claiming that society is to blame for not protecting the driver from his addictions.  As a rule, though, it is taboo to claim that a victim was less than perfect, and doubly taboo to claim that a victim shared any responsibility for his own fate.  Even so, it is just silly to pretend that disagreeing with a victim's political opinions is "blaming the victim"; but that silliness is commonplace.  The reaction to the assassination of Rabin is just one example among many.

This was brought to mind, of course, by the shocking member of British MP Jo Cox.  It is right to condemn her murder, and it is right to mourn her death, but I hope that Britons who vote to remain in the EU (which I expect would have won the vote anyhow) will do so for reasons related to the good of the UK, and not as some misguided memorial to Jo Cox. 

EDIT 24 JUNE 2016:  The British have in fact voted to leave the EU.  This surprises me a great deal.  I really thought Scotland was more likely to leave the UK (which did not happen) than Britain to leave the EU.