Sunday, July 28, 2019

The midsummer edition of the ICBW podcast is now available for sweaty, overheated consumption.  In part 1, we discuss Antifa and women's athletics, while part 2 covers the recent US Supreme Court decisions on gerrymandering and the census.  Perfect poolside listening!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The June edition of the ICBW podcast is now available.  Part 1 covers Brexit and the EU, with an unexpected digression into PEDs in sports, and then touches on the homelessness epidemic on the US west coast, which leads into part 2's discussion of how society handles (and mishandles) the problem of mental illness.  As always, listeners are encouraged to post their reactions as blog comments below.  Caution:  failure to listen and comment may cause an escalation of promotional efforts on our part--obviously something we all want to avoid...

Monday, June 10, 2019

The bizarre internecine war between the "Sohrab Ahmari" and "David French" factions of the US conservative movement that was kicked off by Ahmari's condemnation of "David French-ism" is likely completely incomprehensible to those not expert in the idiosyncrasies of American political debate.  But two bits of background, one contemporary and the other more historical, can help readers make sense of it.

The current-day context for the dispute is the breakdown of the Reagan-era alliance between the white working-class and commercial-class wings of the conservative/Republican coalition.  As I explained four years ago, the rise of Donald Trump signified that this alliance, which had rested on an exchange in which the white working class gained commercial-class support for its traditionalist social views, and in return supported libertarian pro-business economic policy, was in serious jeopardy.  The white working class, I argued, was no longer satisfied with this tradeoff, and their economic plight, severely exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008, necessitated, in their view, a greater say for them in the combined coalition's joint economic direction.  This dissatisfaction placed them on a direct collision course with their pro-business allies, who naturally have their own very firm ideas regarding economic policy, as well as interests that are significantly in conflict with those of their blue-collar alliance partners.

Trump's victory, and his subsequent enactment of working class-friendly policies on trade and immigration, have further alienated libertarians and pro-business conservatives. Many of them have responded by declaring political war on Trump--and implicitly, on his working-class supporters, some of whom in turn have declared such "never Trump" conservatives to be traitors on a par with their arch-enemies, the white-collar professionals in the liberal Democratic alliance's "progressive" wing.  (The irony, of course, is that virtually all of the prominent commentators on both sides of this debate are, demographically speaking, highly educated professional writers and journalists--that is, a perfectly natural fit for the "progressive" cohort.)

Ahmari's attack on French, then, is best viewed as a Trump faction supporter's call to arms against his recalcitrant libertarian allies, who, he claims, have betrayed the alliance with their insufficient anti-progressive militancy.  Now, Ahmari is a firebrand Catholic, and his focus in his manifesto is cultural, not economic:  he accuses anti-Trump libertarian conservatives of treating progressives not as bitter enemies, but only as political opponents, in the battles over cultural issues such as abortion and religious freedom.  But then again, French, an outspoken Christian and cultural conservative who has been a tireless legal advocate for conservative free speech rights on campus, is an extremely odd target for Ahmari's cultural broadside--or, rather, would be an odd target, if his true preoccupation were cultural activism rather than tribal factionalism.

Why, then, does Ahmari couch his attack on French in terms of the latter's allegiance to "classical liberalism", rather than fire off a straightforward partisan attack on pro-business conservatives' refusal to embrace wholeheartedly the working class-centric Trump economic program?  The answer lies in the second, more longstanding element of this dispute's context:  American political culture's ambivalence about (if not outright hostility to) democracy.

In most of the world's democratic nations, democracy itself takes center stage in political debate:  factions argue about policies on the understanding that the electorate are the ultimate and proper arbiters of government's direction, and that their interests and preferences (however unsophisticated) are necessarily paramount.  But American democracy was founded over two centuries ago, when democracy on a national scale was still a new and somewhat ill-understood concept.  And to America's revered founding fathers, the essence of democracy wasn't so much the basic principle of ensuring government accountability through popular sovereignty as it was the art of defining a delicately engineered system of political mechanisms which, if designed to perfection, could produce optimally wise, efficient and effective government--irrespective of the inevitable defects and perverse wishes of a selfish, ignorant, fractious democratic rabble.

Unfortunately, American political culture has enshrined this oddly abstract vision of government into a kind of dogma, with the result that (a) most educated Americans have little use for democracy, and incessantly seek out means to suppress or circumvent it in the name of one or another public good, and (b) arguments about policy take the form of grand philosophical debates about the ideal society, and the ideal structure of government to implement it--again, irrespective of the will of the people as expressed through their electoral choices.  The result is what one might expect of policy debates untempered by the moderating influence of the democratic spirit:  all the noisy pomposity of clashing abstract absolutes, replete with the sort of extreme pronouncements and radical calls to action that make normal citizens cringe.

And so it is with Ahmari's jeremiad:  to him, it isn't radical progressives with their ludicrous, freedom-crushing policy proposals--or even wealthy, selfish plutocrats with their libertarianism and accommodationism towards popular opinion--that are the problem, but rather "classical liberalism" itself, whose political neutrality and respect for democracy fail to prohibit a priori the enactment of morally repugnant (in Ahmari's eyes) laws and policies.  Now, Ahmari never quite gets around to explaining what he would replace democracy with.  But the mere fact that he is arguing on this structural level about what amounts to some factional bickering between two ostensibly allied conservative cohorts, illustrates just how badly American founder-itis has infected the nation's political debate, obscuring the democratic essence of partisan disputes and eliding discussion of the obvious democratic approach to resolving them.




Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Why The Higgs Boson Is like Pornography

I few years ago I wrote about my scepticism concerning the CERN Large Hadron Collider and the discoveries they are supposedly making. I pointed out that the OPERA group was getting results by fiddling with the equipment, so how do we know that CERN isn't generally doing the same thing? This is important since no one else can build their own LHC and replicate experiments. One would hope that CERN would announce that the maintenance of their equipment is done at arms length from the people who run experiments on it, but I haven't seen this.

It turns out, however, that the situation is a good deal worse than I thought. I had naively assumed that equipment fiddling was the only source of human subjectivity in these experiments. I imagined that the experiment to find the Higgs boson would work as follows. The experiment would involve two programs, both of which would have been vetted by physicists across the world. Program 1 would run the equipment, collecting certain data (it's impossible to keep ALL the data). Program 2 would then run on the collected data, concluding the presence or not (or perhaps a probability) of a Higgs boson. A more complicated version of this would have a single program running the experiment and collecting data in an interactive fashion. In any case, once the program(s) had been written (and the equipment certified), humans would be out of the loop: there would be no subjectivity.

Apparently, it turns out that humans have to be in the loop. Apparently, the Higgs Boson is much like pornography: you know it when you see it. The process of identifying the Higgs Boson is completely subjective, but physicists will know it when they see it. But instead of scrapping the whole project, they come up with an absurd, barely comprehensible type of "blinding" that supposedly stops experimenters from consciously or subconsciously cheating in some way. They don't know what the Boson is supposed to look like in the data, but they know that they can't get away with identifying just any old stuff in the data as the Boson, so they have a complicated way of making sure that experimenters agree on what looks Bosonish without cheating somehow.

This all reminds me a bit of "climate science" (not to be confused with climate science). Some very clever people are able to detect a "human signal" in just about any weather they don't like, as well as in any small amount of warming. They cannot reliably predict any such signal, but they know it when they see it.


Friday, April 19, 2019

It's been a long time since I've seen such a completely wrongheaded interpretation of current events gain as much popularity as this Atlantic article by Caitlin Flanagan on college admissions fraud.  Flanagan exhibits multiple colossal misunderstandings of the political and social conditions leading to the fraud, which she attributes to affluent parents' sense of "entitlement":
Huffman, like all of the other indicted parents, was expressing an attitude I first encountered not in the great books, but in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, when Sally dictates her endless list of toys to Charlie. “All I want is what I have coming to me,” she tells him; “all I want is my fair share.”
Now, there's a sense in which all criminals demonstrate reprehensible arrogance by acting as if they're above the law.  But Flanagan isn't referring to their lawlessness:
These parents—many of them avowed Trump haters—are furious that what once belonged to them has been taken away, and they are driven mad with the need to reclaim it for their children. The changed admissions landscape at the elite colleges is the aspect of American life that doesn’t feel right to them; it’s the lost thing, the arcadia that disappeared so slowly they didn’t even realize it was happening until it was gone...They pay thousands and thousands of dollars for untimed testing and private counselors; they scour lists of board members at colleges, looking for any possible connections; they pay for enhancing summer programs that only underscore their children’s privilege.
  Apparently, in Flanagan's eyes, affluent parents express their sense of entitlement not through languid decadence, or arrogant condescension, or expectation of effortless success, but rather by applying themselves with frenetic, single-minded determination (not to mention extraordinarily lavish spending) towards securing their children's future.  (She describes their efforts as "campaigns undertaken with the same level of whimsy with which the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor".)  Presumably she attributes similar smug entitlement to equally determined but less affluent parents--say, Asian "Tiger Mothers"--as well.  In fact, she even attributes it to, of all people, working-class white Trump voters:
They were experiencing the same response to a changing America that ultimately brought Donald Trump to office: white displacement and a revised social contract. The collapse of manufacturing jobs has been to poor whites what the elite college-admissions crunch has been to wealthy ones: a smaller and smaller slice of pie for people who were used to having the fattest piece of all.
A couple of decades ago, Flanagan's lumping together of affluent Californian "Trump haters" and hardscrabble Midwestern Trump fans might have made slightly more sense.  As ICBW readers are well aware, the alliance between wealthy entrepreneurs (though not the professionals and showbiz types who figure so prominently in this scandal) and working-class whites used to be quite strong.  But it's been deteriorating for some time now, and the rise of Trump signaled its complete dissolution.  For Flanagan to treat both cohorts as linked enemies today is not just hyper-partisan nastiness (poor whites "were used to having the fattest piece of all"?), but also seriously outdated politics.

On the other hand, her disdain for her erstwhile liberal allies--the affluent professional class--signals her much sharper awareness of the deep schism in her own tribe's ranks, between those same professionals and more radical progressives like herself.  While she derides the former for constantly "bitching about admissions", Flanagan, a dedicated English teacher whose family's "god was art, specifically literature", extols elite colleges' "deep attention to the issue of enrollment management; the more elite the institution, the more likely it is to be racially and socioeconomically diverse."  (It's unclear whether she counts those colleges' flagrant discrimination against Asians as a form of "diversity" or just good "enrollment management".)

This allegiance to progressive academia explains the huge blind spot evident throughout the article:  Flanagan's stubborn denial of the obvious moral parallels between admissions fraud and its perfectly legal cousin, "enrollment management".  Flanagan stoutly defends universities against claims that their avaricious leeching of billions of dollars from wealthy (and not-so-wealthy) parents desperate to see a prestigious degree bestowed upon their children just might be disturbingly similar to what certain corrupt athletic coaches were doing:
  As off-putting as most of us find the role that big-ticket fundraising plays in elite-college admissions, those monies go toward programs and facilities that will benefit a wide number of students—new dormitories, new libraries, enriched financial-aid funds are often the result of rich parents being tapped for gifts at admissions time. But the Singer scheme benefits no one at all except the individual students, and the people their parents paid off.
 To most of us, of course, spending money on a whole classful of entitled children of exactly the parents Flanagan has been roasting for so many long paragraphs doesn't seem all that much more altruistic than spending it on a single such child.  But the real difference is who, in practice, gets a cut of that spending, in the form of increased income and comforts: not a single scamming coach, but rather a bunch of professors, graduate students, college staff and administrators--that is, people very much like Caitlin Flanagan.  Most of them no doubt share Flanagan's progressive politics, as well as her devotion to her family's cultural quasi-religion.  They no doubt also see their comfortable academic sinecures as the perfectly natural and merited fruits of the "generosity" of the many parents collectively extorted out of their savings by a voracious academic cartel, in return for nothing more than a job credential certifying that their children have demonstrated their suitability for white-collar employment--primarily by successfully navigating a grueling, corrupt admissions process.

And if one dares even suggest that these academic types' social contribution might not necessarily justify their (and their institutions') stranglehold on the nation's pocketbooks, or that perhaps they haven't always been the most high-minded and selfless stewards of their incredibly valuable and lucrative collective credentialing authority?  Expect to hear an outpouring of outraged indignation from Caitlin Flanagan and her educator friends, of the sort that bespeaks a far deeper and more unjustified sense of...entitlement, than any wealthy Beverly Hills parent of a high school senior could ever hope to muster.

Monday, April 08, 2019

The April Fools' Day edition of the ICBW podcast is now available to foolish listeners everywhere! In part 1, we discuss the recent academic admissions fraud scandal; part 2 covers Jussie Smollett, the Mueller report, and the logistics of terrorism; and part 3 revisits LTEC's current romantic obsession, Elizabeth Holmes.  Listeners are as always invited to participate belatedly in our April Fools' festivities by leaving their comments, foolish or otherwise, below.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Valentine's Day edition of the ICBW podcast is now available (apologies for the delay).  In part 1, we discuss various recent and not-so-recent incidents of public figures getting into hot water, including the Virginia follies and Ilhan Omar's tweets, as well as a selection of "me-too" cases.  In part 2, we discuss the Green New Deal in the context of partisan realignment, and ponder what competence means in various high-status jobs.  As always, listeners are enthusiastically encouraged to prove they exist by commenting on this post.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

It's time for the entry you've been waiting for all year (hopefully while doing other, more productive things in the meantime):  the annual ICBW predictions post.  As always, we begin by reviewing last year's predictions:

  • The long-awaited stock market crash and resulting recession (or at least one quarter of negative growth) will finally arrive this year.  The main market indices will end up below their levels of January 2017, thereby retroactively validating my prediction for this past year.  Real estate and oil prices will fall as well, although not by as much, since their markets aren't nearly as frothy.  And there will be no massive financial near-meltdown this time, since stock market asset ownership isn't particularly highly leveraged.
No recession, but the market is indeed down for the year.  The Case-Shiller real estate index peaked this summer and has been falling since, while oil prices are down substantially on the year.  Overall, not a bad performance (for once)...
  • In addition, blockchain-based monetary instruments will completely collapse, never to recover (although more bubbles in similarly worthless ad hoc quasi-currencies will no doubt occur at some point in the future).  Megan McArdle has written a nice pair of summaries of why Bitcoin and its imitators are doomed to fail, whether as payment systems or as currencies.  I would add only some history: these technologies are actually the hybrid offspring of two previous failed ones--anonymous "e-cash" of the 1980s and peer-to-peer ("P2P") distributed data storage systems of the 2000s.  Both of these predecessors fooled a shocking number of advocates into believing in the viability of systems whose only remotely plausible attraction was the promise of evading government regulation and law enforcement, and that are otherwise in every way inferior to more mainstream alternatives.  Blockchain-based currencies have merely followed in their footsteps.
Not sure if a two-thirds decline in Bitcoin prices over the course of 2018 (to less than a quarter of its peak early in the year) counts as a complete collapse, but the end is certainly impending.
  • Donald Trump's popularity will bounce around (or just below) the 40% level throughout the year, defying predictions of inevitable collapse but nevertheless staying well below the break-even point.  Parallel investigations into both the current and previous administrations' alleged interference with law enforcement investigations will result in either bombshell revelations of scandalous malfeasance or overhyped non-issues, depending on one's partisan allegiance; in any event, neither will generate consequences of any legal significance. However, a political consequence will be a massive defeat for the president's party in the November midterm elections, similar to those experienced by his predecessor:  Democrats will take both houses of Congress by small margins--gaining hugely in the House, and narrowly in the Senate despite having far more seats up for election in the latter chamber.  This will of course intensify legislative gridlock, which in any event will have existed since at least the first midterm election of the previous administration.  (A possible exception is an immigration compromise this year, in which a limited amnesty is traded for enhanced border enforcement.)
The GOP managed to keep the Senate, and even increase its holding by a couple of seats, and the possible immigration compromise was discussed, but ultimately failed to materialize.  Otherwise, this prediction held up pretty well.
  • The Iranian regime will suppress the domestic protests against it within weeks using ruthless violence, but the extent of the unrest will push the regime to restrain its foreign adventures somewhat in order to focus on internal security.  For example, the mop-up operations in Syria will continue and be largely complete by the end of the year, but the shift towards anti-Israel (and anti-Jordan) activity will be put off for this year at least.  Hamas, on the other hand, will try mightily to instigate conflict with Israel, without enough success to ignite another full-scale "grass-mowing" operation.
This one was strikingly on-the-mark, I'd say.
  • Meanwhile, North Korea will quickly fade back into irrelevant obscurity, as will the Jerusalem embassy move, which will make leisurely progress without being officially completed by the end of the year.  Instead, attention will shift to the conflict between Turkey and the various Kurdish entities along its borders, with the US increasingly aligning itself against an increasingly assertive, belligerent and anti-Western Turkey.
Donald Trump was the clear wildcard in this one--his affection for Turkey's Erdogan, reminiscent of his crush on Putin, has apparently motivated him to side against the US' traditional Kurdish allies.
  • Concern about academia will shift from its toxic politics and chaotic environment to its dire financial straits, as the economic downturn causes a collapse in enrollment, particularly at expensive private colleges, with alternatives such as community college, apprenticeship and online education beginning to look comparatively far more attractive to prospective students.
This trend has clearly begun, but as an annual prediction it may have been a bit premature.  Look for it to become more conspicuous in future years, though...
  • The NFL will experience a bounce-back season in the fall, with attendance and viewership recovering markedly despite (or perhaps partly because of) the difficult economic situation.
A rare spot-on prediction about popular culture...

And now for my guaranteed-predictable 2019 predictions:
  • The US economy will slow markedly starting in early-to-mid 2019, though not into recession territory.  The stock markets will continue to decline throughout the year, rallying late but not by enough to prevent an overall negative year.  Real estate prices will also continue their decline, but oil prices will rebound modestly from their recent lows.
  • President Trump's approval ratings will continue their stable modestly-underwater trend throughout 2019.  There will continue to be multiple non-stop investigations--this time including Congressional ones--of the president's activities, but they will result in no immediate legal jeopardy to the president himself, nor will he be impeached by the House of Representatives.  Numerous White House staffers and cabinet members will be investigated and prosecuted, however--including by politically ambitious state prosecutors unconnected with Congressional or Department of Justice investigations.
  • The frontrunners for the Democratic Party presidential nomination at the end of the year will be the most viable candidates from the party's "mainstream" (read:  minority) and "progressive" (read:  upper-class/would-be upper-class) wings.  Kamala Harris and Kirstin Gillibrand are the current favorites for these respective roles.
  • In Europe, "Hard Brexit"--without a negotiated deal--will come to pass, with far milder consequences than opponents are predicting.  As a result, British PM Theresa May will survive in office through 2019--partly out of Tory fear of the electorate, and partly out of the inability of her divided party (mirroring the pre-Trump US GOP's business/blue-collar split) to coalesce around an acceptable alternative.  Meanwhile, the EU will calm its many internal rebellions by acquiescing to greater immigration restrictions across the union.
  • Justin Trudeau will win a comfortable majority in the coming Canadian federal election.  (Canadians usually re-elect their prime ministers at least once if they don't completely screw up on the job.)  Likewise, Benjamin Netanyahu will win re-election and remain in office through 2019, although a corruption indictment will be delivered against him, and its resulting legal process will drag on through the year, hanging over his political career without actually ending it.
  • The combination of US withdrawal from Syria and increased Turkish intervention there to suppress the Syrian Kurds' territorial ambitions will turn the Syrian conflict into a Turkish-Iranian one, with the two would-be hegemons unable to work out an acceptable partition of the now-recolonized country.  Russia will recapitulate its historic rivalry with Turkey by siding with Iran, and the US will thus be pushed by its NATO commitments and geopolitical interests into siding with Turkey, despite the many tension-generating issues dividing the two countries (which may in turn be assuaged somewhat by this partnership).  Meanwhile, the US will reduce, if not eliminate, its involvement in Afghanistan, and refocus its energies on other geopolitical threats, such as China.
  • Louis CK's comeback will spark a minor explosion of politically incorrect comedy, as stand-up comedians escalate from complaining about politically driven constraints on their material to actively rebelling against them.  The change will mark a tipping point in cultural acceptance of leftist censorship, since comics are by nature conformist barometers of consensus opinion, rather than the daring vanguards of forbidden ideas they are often portrayed as being.  (Laughter, as I've explained in the past, is a product of comfort and reassurance--often following surprise and/or discomfort--and comics must therefore provide reassurance in their punchlines to succeed.  They do so, in most cases, by catering to audiences' consensus beliefs and prejudices.  Thus if comics feel confident in mocking and flouting the rules of political correctness, then rejection of those rules must have achieved a high threshold level of consensus among comedy audiences.)
As always, readers are enthusiastically invited to comment on these predictions, perhaps providing their own in response.  If yours turn out to be more correct than mine, then I promise to turn over all my earnings from this blog to you!

Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Thanksgiving edition of the ICBW podcast is now available, with apologies for the delay in posting it (and for my annoying cough throughout the recording).  In part 1, we discuss the recent election and populism; in part 2, we delve into the oddity that is the White House Press Corps; and in part 3, we cover "Sokal 2.0", plus a bonus topic:  US Middle East policy.  As always, readers are invited to join in the discussion via the comments link, or by shouting very loudly and angrily while listening.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The all-new, 100% Kavanaugh-free September edition of the ICBW podcast is now available.  Part one covers recent revelations about backroom goings-on in the Trump White House, and part two, inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, discusses mainstream political movements' willingness to forge alliances with groups exhibiting highly unsavory characteristics such as anti-Semitism.  If you need a break from sordid accusations against judicial nominees, we're here for you...

Monday, August 27, 2018

British Jews are growing increasingly alarmed as evidence mounts that British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and many of his circle of high-ranking party allies have engaged in virulently anti-Israel statements and actions, some of which have at least plausibly been labeled as crossing the line from anti-Zionism over into anti-Semitism.  Corbyn and his defenders have generally stood their ground, denying the anti-Semitism charge while acknowledging their support for various stridently anti-Israel organizations--including ones, such as Hamas and PFLP, that are openly and unabashedly terrorist (not to mention anti-Semitic).

This nitpicking debate over at what point these Labour activists' virulent Israel-hatred becomes anti-Semitism quickly becomes tedious, all the more so given that it's essentially beside the point.  Hamas and the PFLP aren't evil merely because they're anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic--they're also violent, totalitarian and terrorist, and treat both Palestinians and Westerners with exactly the same ruthless, cavalier brutality that they mete out to Israelis every chance they get.  And the Corbynistas in the Labour party don't lavish their affections solely on Palestinian terrorists--they're also unstinting in their love for the brutal dictators ruling Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Russia and numerous other countries.

In fact, their anti-Israel animus is only one minor facet of an entire worldview that supports violent anti-Western totalitarians both abroad and at home, with the aim of undermining the stable, capitalist, democratic order that stands in the way of their real ultimate goal:  limitless power.  Uninterested in standard democratic politics, in which they'd have to woo British voters by promising and delivering on broadly popular, successful policies in order to earn power, they instead imagine themselves seizing control of the country much the way their Venezuelan friends did, and their other radical allies hope to do--by infiltrating and bullying unelected institutions, both government and private, into subservience; courting identity-based client constituencies particularly amenable to undemocratic (and even violent) political methods; and suppressing political rivals, by fair means or foul, to limit the alternative options available to other voters.  And that is why British Jews--and everyone else, for that matter--are well-advised to take note of Corbyn's unsavory anti-Semitic international allies when deciding whether or not to support him.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Texas senatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke's spirited defense of NFL players who kneel during the pre-game national anthem echoes the now-standard argument that the players' actions are merely intended to call attention to the important issue of police violence. This is pure gaslighting, of course:  kneeling for the national anthem has a clear symbolic meaning--refusal to show respect for the country and its symbols--that no flood of grandiose invocations of the police-violence red herring can ever negate.  If a group of counter-protesting NFL players decided to burn a cross on the field before a game, for example, claiming that they were simply expressing outrage at disrespect for the flag by fellow players, nobody would be fooled about the hideous, racist meaning of their gesture.  Likewise, to claim that it's a mere coincidence that original kneeler and Fidel Castro supporter Colin Kaepernick happened to choose refusing to stand for the anthem as his form of protest, rather than some other gesture that might have been a bit less overtly and unmistakably anti-American, is simply preposterous.

A somewhat more plausible argument in the kneelers' favor is to invoke the players' free speech rights.  After all, nobody doubts that ordinary citizens have the legal right to congregate in a public place and join together in kneeling for the national anthem, however insulting it may be to patriotic observers.  But do they have the right to do so without retaliation from their employers--in this case, the NFL and its teams?  And does it matter whether their protest occurs at their workplace--an NFL field, prior to a game--or away from it?

The answer to these questions is in fact far from a matter of consensus these days, as the Eich and Damore cases in the information technology industry have amply demonstrated.  My own preferred convention would be for (private) employers to be considered free to regulate employee speech in the workplace as they see fit, as long as they treat any non-work-related speech as none of their concern.  Hence, in my view, The NFL should declare that players are free to protest police violence--and kneel for the anthem, if they choose--off the field, on their own time, with no employer-imposed consequences.  But the league should also be free to set rules for on-field behavior, including during the national anthem before games.

Reasonable people can, of course, differ on the right balance between the value of individual free speech and an employer's prerogative to set criteria for employment.  Unfortunately, thoughtful debate about that balance is in this case largely drowned out by transparently dishonest rhetoric about the plain meaning of an unambiguous gesture.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Canada Day edition of the ICBW podcast is now available, with part one covering the US Supreme Court (LTEC for, Dan against), part two covering immigration and children in cages (LTEC for, Dan against), and part three discussing various frauds and grifters, with a very obvious, natural jump to the topic of research funding (LTEC for, Dan against).  As always, responses via comments on this post are most welcome, as possible evidence that someone might actually be listening...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I have argued in the past that rioting and similar forms of mass violence are almost always a matter of license--that is, that a certain fraction of the population are generally eager to riot if the opportunity arises, and will gladly do so if law enforcement authorities start showing signs of being unable or unwilling to catch and punish them for it.  An excellent analysis of this phenomenon can be found in Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs", an account of the author's personal experience hanging out among British soccer hooligans during the 1980s.  Buford describes the elaborate instinctive dance that a mob of ruffians would collectively engage in with the police, constantly probing and testing to gauge the response, and seizing on any slight failure to keep the crowd completely in line as a chance to break out and begin wreaking mayhem.  His key point is that such violence doesn't arise from desperation, or righteous anger, or personal anguish over unhappy circumstances, but rather from many young males' strong visceral attraction to it, combined with the lack of sufficiently forceful efforts on the part of the authorities to stop it.

This exact same dynamic applies to the non-physical battles being fought across partisan political lines these days in the US.  Pundits are fond of attributing such events as the mobbing of Republican power couple Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao, the expulsion of Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant, and harassers disrupting the (separate) restaurant meals of Trump administration officials Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen, to the desperation of Democrats unjustly deprived of power, or characterizing them as a natural response to Trump's and his followers' own frequent displays of incivility.  What these interpretations miss is that incivility is like thuggery:  there is no need for an explanation for why people indulge in it, because in fact plenty of people naturally take great pleasure in it.  If they are indulging in it today where once they wouldn't have, it's because they believe that they now have license to do so--that is, that their incivility will result in no significant negative consequences for them.

And where does that license come from these days?  Primarily from the country's political polarization.  In a nation so divided, both sides are "cocooned" with a uniformly like-minded cohort that protects them and even cheers them on while they direct their worst incivilities at the "other side".  In other words, like all wars, this one has broken out because both sides, in their insularity, believe they can win.

Of course, at most one side can be correct on that point, and it will likely take some sort of resolution--either a victory by one side, or an unmistakable, prolonged stalemate--to persuade one or the other side to sue for peace.  Until then--or until the extreme isolation between the sides somehow begins to ease of its own accord, perhaps for economic or demographic reasons--we can expect plenty more and far worse outbreaks of incivility, egged on by like-minded partisans on both sides.