Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Flag burning

Donald Trump tweets that he believes flag burning should be against the law, and now everyone is in a tizzy.

Personally I have always been a little uncomfortable with the idea that burning the American flag is just another free speech issue, deserving of no special consideration.

Of course there are legal arguments, both for and against, and I understand them, to the extent that any layman can understand them.

I just don't find them very persuasive. And I don't find them persuasive because it's not just an analytical legal issue to me. It's visceral. It's visceral to a lot of people, most of whom, as it turns out, are not lawyers and don't really care what the legal arguments may or may not be.

To people like me, the flag represents more than freedom, it represents battlefield bravery and sacrifice and honor and heroism. Good people have died for it.

It represents generations past, who had no inkling of my future presence on this planet, but fought anyway, because they fought for the idea that freedom is worth fighting for.

It represents what is good about our nation and our culture. It reminds me that I'm proud of my country, and how lucky and thankful I am to have been born here.

It makes me think of immigrants who cherish freedom enough to emigrate here, and embrace the very uniquely American ideals of God-given freedom, and who have to wait years to become citizens and then take an oath of citizenship that makes them better citizens than many of us who are born here.

It reminds me of the several hundred thousand U.S. military graves in foreign lands around the world. Their loved ones have no grave to visit, without traveling overseas.

A flag is many things, but it is primarily a symbol. Symbols are physical things. They are not speech, technically speaking, so that entire line of argumentation using the First Amendment to protect burning the flag doesn't really make sense to me.

Symbols are vitally important within a culture. They endure when we do not. They represent something much larger than the self: history, culture, pride, legacy. I don't see what we as a nation gain by purposefully allowing people to publicly destroy our national symbol. Is it just so we can hold up the First Amendment that was almost certainly not meant to protect burning the flag in the first place? This seems a stretch. And there are already plenty of exceptions to the types of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Allowing people to act out like spoiled children provides us with nothing of value. I don't really care what the penalty is; make it a cash fine and move on. We don't need to publicly hang these morons, but they can damn sure pay a fine. We fine people for speeding. Is protecting our flag less important?

Sorry if that doesn't line up neatly with arcane legal arguments.

We have already endorsed the idea of exceptions to protected free speech under the First Amendment: inciting violence, libel and slander, obscenity, copyrights, and others. It's not a tiny list.

Can somebody explain to me why all of those things deserve exceptions to an "absolute" freedom, that isn't absolute at all, but the flag that our fathers, brothers, and sons have died for does not? I'm having trouble with that one. Forget the legal arguments, I need a moral and ethical argument on this one.

Exceptions to free speech already exist. So:
  • If you disagree with the concept of exceptions, and believe free speech is an absolute freedom, then you need to give all the reasons why you don't support any of those already existing exceptions. That's a lot of case history. Get to work.
  • If you agree with the concept of exceptions, and believe that free speech is not an absolute freedom, then you need to explain how all those other things are important enough, but our flag is not
That last one is the case that nearly every advocate of flag-burning is making.

I have some trouble with it. Boiled down, they are saying: "free speech is not absolute, because we cannot allow inciting violence and other exceptions, but flag-burning is okay".

I just cannot buy that. And burning our national symbol that we fought wars to protect is not really "speech", to begin with. Does this look like speech?

The legal reasoning for exceptions to absolute free speech are apparent:  we must make those specific exceptions because protecting some types of speech as absolute freedoms could cause anarchy, injury, and infringe on the rights of others. In very limited cases, it's worth some restrictions to gain some public good. This is pretty easy to comprehend.

And the flipside is that in all other cases, we gain more public good by having no limits on free speech. Again, easy to comprehend.

But what do we gain by allowing people to burn the flag without a penalty of any kind? It's not like there are no ways to protest the government or make your opinions known. That's what the freedom of speech is for. That's why it's there, right there in the First Amendment. That's how you do it.

While you're pondering that, ponder this: does a nation have a right to preserve and protect its cherished symbols, or not? It seems to me, that's what we're really talking about. We've been dancing around that larger question, using the flag burning debate as a proxy for it. My answer is yes, of course it does, it's long-term national suicide to do anything else, and if you're looking for a reason to support an exception to First Amendment protections, there's a good start.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wanting to be liked

A GOP or conservative politician who wants to be liked is a fool, guaranteed to lose elections, given the climate of ad hominem hate directed against every non-Progressive from Democrats and their PR wing, the media.

We saw this in 2012 with Mitt Romney - who I liked and voted for, and who would have made a very good president. His fatal flaws: being too nice and non-combative and not realizing he was surrounded by hostile forces a.k.a. "the media".

One cannot cede this territory and expect to win unless one is a charismatic candidate that people like on a visceral level. Romney was not that guy, for the crucial voters he needed to win over.

Likewise, voters make a mistake if they worry about how well-liked their candidates are by others, especially foreigners - it is much more important to be respected, and seen as a leader, for any head of state, and most of all for an American president.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving is about giving thanks to God

I first wrote a version of this blog post 10 years ago, in 2006. The situation has gotten worse, not better.

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 to set aside “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

This should surprise no one, really; the act of giving thanks requires someone to give thanks to.

Unfortunately, some of the un-educated lightweights running our school systems are dedicated to burying the truth above. Some teachers cannot even mention the word Thanksgiving because ‘the pilgrims offended the Indians’ and ‘Thanksgiving was never intended to be thanks to God.'”

Look, it’s just historical fact, it isn’t pushing anybody to convert. Learn to distinguish between two unlike things. It’s useful sometimes, especially for an education professional.

The article from which I pulled the above quote, "Taking the 'Thanks' out of Thanksgiving", goes on to make a larger point:
We have allowed ourselves to become controlled by our fears. Rather than risk offending someone, we would sooner toss our rich history and traditions on the pyre of political correctness. But such an approach is destined for failure. Indeed, even if you breathe, you are sure to offend someone. What is the result? We gain nothing. We water down and suck the life out of what once gave meaning and direction to our lives. In the end, our children will be the ones who lose out, left with little clue as to where they came from or where they may be going in life.

We have also lost our sense of reverence. Too many Americans have little, if any, gratitude for the liberty and material comforts we enjoy—both of which were made possible through great sacrifice. Heedless of our many blessings, as a nation, we are tempting fate.
My job as a parent, because schools are unwilling to do it, is to fight this anti-American trend that obscures our true history and origins. I educate my kids on the powerful role religion played in guiding the Founding Fathers and the resulting documents that have guided us well for 200+ years, and how the freedoms we enjoy today are unique in the history of mankind, and were earned by the blood of some of our best young people on various battlefields throughout the world.

Because all of the above is true, and even more importantly, we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore it, or pay homage to others instead.

Does that mean I think we are a perfect nation? Of course not. There are lots of things I’d like to see changed; but just because we aren’t perfect does not imply we aren’t pretty damn good.

We provide the freedoms necessary to any person born in this country, or who legally emigrates here, to do just about anything they like, limited only by their desires and capacities.

For most people, that’s all they really want. But most areas of the world are ruled by corrupt thugs and criminals, who have no interest in providing anything approaching a useful economy or the rule of law or the right to own private property to their subjects.

The very least we can do, to honor both those who died to protect us from those horrors, and those who designed the documents that protect us from those horrors, is to frankly and honestly assess their contributions throughout history.

Monday, November 14, 2016

We must reject the politics of personal destruction

We are going down a very dangerous road lately, and it is vital that we put a stop to it.

As consumers of news, and as citizens of a country built on freedom, we must not tolerate the politics of personal destruction.

All it takes to destroy a person publicly, these days, is an unsubstantiated. unverifiable allegation with little or no evidence from many years ago. This should immediately set alarm bells ringing in everyone's head.

These kinds of "he said, she said" stories are nearly impossible to verify independently, yet many of us fly right past that little detail and instantly decide -- irrationally -- that it must be true, based solely on this incomplete and unconfirmed information, about other people's private lives, which are really none of our business in the first place. The flaws with this thinking, I hope, are obvious.

And somehow, these stories always revolve around the political enemies of Democrats. Imagine that.

A perfect example of this type of ruthless Chicago gutter politics involves -- surprise! -- President Barack Obama in 2004 when he ran for U.S. Senate.

His campaign leaked rumors to the Chicago Tribune and enticed them to dig into the private lives of not one but two opposing candidates, and to convince judges in a court of law to demand the public release of previously-sealed records of their personal lives, including in one case, a custody order for the couple's children.

The alleged intent of all this, we were helpfully informed, was to provide the public with important details to inform their votes for an elected office, even though these details are not really any of our business, since people are still entitled to have private relationships that judges and media busybodies and campaign managers are not privy to.

The actual intent was to destroy these people in a very public way, using information from their private lives, in a naked partisan political ploy, to defeat their candidacy. And it worked.

Nice job, Chicago Tribune. Nice job, citizen mob.

The first victim was Blair Hull, Obama's opponent in the Democratic Party primary. The other was well-regarded GOP candidate Jack Ryan. Somehow the Obama campaign convinced the media to destroy the reputations of two good men, including dragging their ex-wives and children through the mud, all for a supposed public interest in their private lives. See more of the ugly details here.

The story created a mob mentality, and soon the mob's frenzied outcry forced both Hull and Ryan to drop out. Obama won his precious Senate seat with these slimy tactics that helped his campaign but destroyed two families, plus all those who could have benefited from the election of either clearly superior candidate. Instead, we got Obama. Four years later, the whole nation got him. Good and hard.

And none of that was any of our damn business.

People's marriages and relationships with their children do not magically become an essential piece of public information at election time. People's private lives are exactly that, and we news consumers need to recognize that, and reject the politics of personal destruction. We have shown an increasingly disturbing tendency to become an out-of-control mob, in search of a head to stick on top of a pike at the edge of town, as a warning to the next band of invaders.

Outrageous, salacious stories from the past, with no other witnesses and no independent way to verify them, should immediately cause three obvious questions to enter one's mind: (1) can I verify if this is true or not, and (2) even if it is, does it matter in some essential way to my task of selecting a candidate to vote for, and (3) even if it does, am I a sucker who is being played right now, by cynical political operatives?

And yes, you probably are being played, if you automatically believe all of this stuff.

A story like Trump "groping" some random woman we've never heard of might be true, it might not. That's the whole problem:  how could we ever really know? Maybe some Democrat slimeball paid some woman to make such a claim, and then sat back and watched the media circus take over. You don't really know, do you? You *cannot* know. That's the point. That's how it works on you. That's why you need to be more suspicious.

The flip side, of source, is that some accusers might be truthful. So what are we to do about this? Participate in character assassination in all such cases because some of them might be true? That bar is way too low.

If you were the victim of such a vicious, slimy attempt to destroy you, and you knew it was bullshit, what would you say then? That's the clue as to what the right answer is here.

We're nominating for political office, not the sainthood. People still have private lives, and it is in all of of our interests to defend and protect that, because we really don't want to live in a world where it becomes common and accepted to personally destroy any potential candidate based on something from 10 or 20 years ago, in their private life, that we cannot possibly know the truth about, and that doesn't really impact us or our future in any way.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Statistical Mumbo-Jumbo

After Game 4 of the World Series, some guy at said "The Cubs Have A Smaller Chance Of Winning Than Trump Does".

15% chance, he says.

Well, they won, didn't they, and so did Trump, so everybody who believed this meaningless mumbo-jumbo got burned. But there is another reason to dismiss this "percent chance" business.

Assigning a 15% chance to a single event with a discrete outcome - either the Cubs win, or they don't - is quite meaningless.

It's one event with exactly two potential outcomes: win or lose. No other type of result is possible; you cannot end up with "15% of a win".

The concept is nonsensical. So what possible use is it to say a team has a 15% chance of winning one World Series?

Try placing a bet in Vegas on that.

Now it's possible to look back in history and feed all kinds of data into a computer and come out with a number like 15% because you have hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of historical events to draw from.

When looking back at such a series of discrete outcomes, using percentages is somewhat useful, to understand how often it has happened before.

They are not useful at all with a single discrete outcome in the near future.

I also think people make the mistake of thinking of everything as if it were just like flipping a coin ten times. Percentages may help (but not always) predict the result of a series of discrete outcomes: heads, tails, tails, heads, heads, heads, tails, tails, heads, tails. 10 flips, 5 heads, 5 tails. 50%, just like you'd expect. But even then, it's not always right. Flip a coin 1000 times, and see if you get exactly 500 heads. The percentage says you should. Maybe, maybe not. It's far from a certainty.

But predicting a winner of a single World Series is nothing like predicting 10 coin flips. It's one "flip", not ten. It can only result in this outcome or that, win or lose, nothing in between like "15% of a win". And it isn't a flip at all, it's a game contested by people who have both successes and failures, and big emotional ups and downs, impacted by impassioned leadership, from guys like David Ross (after that same Game 4) and Jason Heyward (in Game 7).

Historical data alone is never the whole picture.

If you want to rely on percentages for things like this, go ahead, but only to describe events in the past, a way to understand history, which is interesting but when you really think about it, has almost no bearing on these players, on these teams, playing these games, today.

via Ann Althouse "The Cubs Have a Smaller Chance of Winning Than Trump Does"