Archive for August, 2014

Combating Fundamentalism

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Islamic Fundamentalism has reared its ugly head again in the Middle East.

This latest version is so radical and violent that the established radical and violent fundamentalist movements have disavowed it. So that checks the first box of the well-worn conservative criticism of Islam. Other Muslims ARE speaking out against this latest perversion of their religion.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) was born in the ugly proxy war going on in Syria. It has its roots in the AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) group that the US defeated in the Iraq war in what has been called the Awakening Movement. It has gained some traction in Iraq lately because of the failure of the al-Maliki government to share power with Sunni’s. Their military leaders come from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party that was ousted in the overthrow the Iraq government.

ISIS forces have been bolstered by up to 3000 foreign fighters. Somewhere around 1000 came from Chechnya. Another 500 have come from Europe (primarily France and Britain). Sunni prisoners freed from areas in Iraq and Syria that ISIS controls also have added to their forces.

ISIS is primarily internally funded. None of the claims for connections to Qatar or Saudi Arabia have been proven. They fund themselves through extortion, kidnapping, and looting the resources of the areas that they occupy. Since that includes oil and electric power that they control in northern Syria, they have sufficient financing to fund their operations.

Between Saddam’s weapons stockpiles that were left unguarded during the US invasion, weaponry captured in Syria, and US weaponry left behind as US forces left; ISIS does not appear to need an outside arms supplier to accomplish its military goals either.

Conservatives like McCain and Graham are advocating a military solution. They haven’t said how they will finance it. The current air strikes in Iraq cost approximately $7.5M a day. They also acknowledge that:

It is a truism to say there is no military solution to ISIS. Any strategy must, of course, be comprehensive. It must squeeze ISIS’ finances. It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis, rather than pushing them toward ISIS. It requires an end to the conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. A strategy to counter ISIS also requires a regional approach to mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.

Let’s parse this a little more.

As listed above, it is going to be difficult to “squeeze ISIS’ finances” because they are not dependent on outside sources of income. They also have a healthy kidnapping industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year in worldwide ransom payments. The US and Britain are the only governments refusing to pay ISIS ransom demands.

It is hard to imagine what additional pressure the US can exert on Baghdad to form a more equitable government. We accelerated our troop withdrawal in part because Baghdad refused to reform itself.

It is unclear what else the international community could do to “end the conflict in Syria”. Syria is a client state of Russia. The international community has been unable to keep Russia from dismantling Ukraine using its own soldiers. What could the US or the international community do that they haven’t already done, short of military action, which would cause the Russians to act differently in Syria?

As far as military action is concerned, the US is able to carry out air strikes in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government. How would that happen in Syria?

It is unlikely that we are going to get a request from Assad for help. If we did, accepting that request would legitimize the same government that we said no longer has a right to rule.

If we go in unilaterally, we are almost certainly going to cause a strong response from Russia. The nature of that response could lead to a much larger conflict that no one wants.

The ONLY way that we can justify any military action in Syria is with the overt support of the international community and the covert support of Russia. Last time I looked, there weren’t many in the international community supporting our much more modest efforts in Afghanistan. There isn’t much appetite among our friends to go another round in Iraq and Syria. The only way Russia is going to agree is if ISIS threatens the overthrow of the Syria government. While that may be ISIS’ long term plan, in the short term, ISIS is not expanding their territory in Syria. They are much more interested in Sunni sections of Iraq.

The larger truth is that, just as there was no military solution to Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and Afghanistan – there is no military solution in Syria.

You don’t defeat an idea with a gun, particularly in revenge cultures like the Middle East. ISIS would like nothing more than a shooting war with the US. That helps validate their claim that the US is at war with Islam.

You can only defeat a bad idea with a better idea. That better idea is all of the western corruption and consumerism that fundamentalist Islam abhors. That better idea is equality between the sexes and economic opportunity. Those ideas have peacefully transformed China into a capitalist powerhouse. Those ideas are slowly dismantling the Islamic state that took power in Iran in 1979. Within a generation, those ideas will coopt and transform ISIS too. That’s because the children of these fighters, will be less willing to live the fundamentalist lifestyle than their zealous parents. They won’t fear or despise the west as a long as the west hasn’t spent the last 20 years killing their relatives.

The isolation strategy that eventually gave consumerism time to work its magic in Iran can also work in the new defacto Islamic State. They will find that governing is way less interesting to foreign jihadists than fighting. The west will find that isolating the Islamic State is going to be a far more effective strategy, even if we have to endure a small number of terrorist attacks, than attempting to defeat them militarily.

Root Cause – Ferguson Riots

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The death in Ferguson of an unarmed teenager and subsequent unrest raise a couple of basic questions.

The first is obvious. There is no question that a police officer shot an unarmed citizen multiple times. The teenager died from his wounds. What happened in the moments leading up to gunshots being fired are still in dispute. We have a legal process that assumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. A grand jury has been empowered to determine whether or not the officer should face charges. Until that grand jury brings back a verdict, there is not much more useful to comment on the incident.

The other equally obvious question is why did the residents of Ferguson react as they did?

The sad reality is that police are killing people at the rate of about 400 a year for the past five years according to the FBI. These are “justified” homicides. There aren’t any FBI statistics on unjustified homicides where police offices are put on trial and found guilty of a homicide.

An independent report assembled from media, obits, and facebook pages provides a little more detail.

ferguson graphic 1

There are additional statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that also have bearing.

44% of the contact that an African American has with the police is for a traffic stop. But African Americans are three times as likely as white drivers and two times as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched during a traffic stop. Statistics also show that this higher rate of searches doesn’t result in the discovery of any more drugs or guns than the any other traffic stop.

These same statistics (compiled by fivethirtyeight.com) show that African Americans are three times as likely to be threatened by force during their encounters with police and twice as likely to actually have force used against them. A majority of those who reported force being used against them felt it was excessive. But the interesting final statistic is that when you break down all of those people who feel that they were subject to force, African Americans were the least likely of all of the racial divisions to regard that force as excessive.

ferguson graphic 2

But this is happening in communities across the country. Ferguson is no different than any of the larger cities profiled in these statistics. Why is it that only Ferguson burst into flames?

Here are some more statistics from Politfact.

Ferguson is 67% African American. Four decades ago Ferguson was 99% white.

The Ferguson police department is 94% white. The police chief is white. The mayor is white and the local prosecuting attorney is white. The judges are white. The school board is mostly white.

Even this isn’t that unusual in communities that have experienced rapid demographic changes. It takes a while for the new majority to assert itself politically.

Ferguson is special in a way not obvious from all of these statistics.

They are a classic speed trap complete with a predatory court system. But as the demographic in Ferguson changed, so did the targets for traffic enforcement. Instead of targeting out of towners, Ferguson targets its own population of poor African Americans. Fines and court fees are the second largest source of Ferguson’s revenue. According to a white paper by Arch City Defenders, in 2013 Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants for unpaid fines in 12,018 cases. That is the equivalent of 3 warrants per Ferguson household.

How can that happen?

Because the court system is rigged to benefit those who can afford a lawyer and punish those who can’t. According to the report, “the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late receiving an additional charge for failure to appear.”

NPR goes on to report that those who can’t afford to pay the thousands of dollars in fines and fees associated with a single violation, are put on payment plans by the courts with interest rates sometimes as high as 12%. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled that people can’t be jailed for failing to pay their bills, Ferguson regularly issues arrest warrants for those who miss payments. It also requires those on payment plans to appear in court monthly. This inevitably results in missed court dates which create additional fines and arrest warrants. When people get arrested, they lose their jobs, which makes it all that much more difficult for them to pay their fines.

A community group has been organizing arrest warrant amnesties for these non-violent offenders. Earlier this month 3000 people in Ferguson, 15% of the total population of Ferguson, lined up to participate in the program.

The result is a deeply polarized and isolated community. Because so many residents of Ferguson have open arrest warrants, they fear getting stopped, resent the police, and feel imprisoned in their own homes.

“It’s a risk to go to the store,” says Ahmed. “Outside of that community, it’s a risk to go to any educational institution, to get a job, to go for job interviews. Especially since most of the jobs are maybe 5 to 10 miles away. So some of them just don’t even try anymore.”

The African American population in Ferguson not only distrust the police, but also the courts. They feel the system is deliberately rigged against them, and statistics suggest that it is.

It’s against this backdrop that two teenage African American boys were stopped by a white Ferguson police officer for walking in the street. They all knew what was going to happen next. The officer was going to check to see if the boys had any warrants. He would arrest them if they did, and issue them a jaywalking ticket if they didn’t. That ticket would cost each of them money that they didn’t have. They were going to end up in jail either way. These kids just kept walking. It may have been foolish, as young men often are, but they likely felt that they didn’t have many other choices. They challenged the police officer’s authority because they regarded it as illegitimate. According to one account, they also asked if he was going to shoot them for jaywalking – an obvious reference to Ferguson’s “speed trap” justice system. The officer responded by backing up his vehicle and confronting these two boys. That confrontation resulted in one of them being shot to death.

That death caused an outpouring of frustration, violence, and crime from a community that felt that it had no other options. Unfortunately, it is what humans around the world do when they feel their governments give them no other options.

That’s the root cause.

We believe in Science

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

“We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.” Elizabeth Warren

This was part of a longer list of progressive values that Elizabeth Warren listed in a July speech to Netroots Nation.

I agree with her list, but I thought it interesting to dig into why progressives believe in science. It might also be interesting to compare those beliefs with the implied opposing conservative view. Since this is just my opinion, I’ll change this perspective from “we” to “I”.

Why I believe in Science?

Science is inherently about the search for truth. While any human endeavor is vulnerable to bias, the scientific community celebrates revolutionary thought rather than suppressing it.

These claims are the result of the modern scientific method.

That method employs what we would now call crowd sourcing as a protection against bias.

Science, at least the hard sciences, depends on mathematics. Mathematics has no bias.

There are two types of scientists in the world – theoretical and experimental. Theoretical scientists rely on mathematics to create new models to explain or predict experimental results. Experimental scientists test these theories through experiments.

All scientists publish the results of their work in peer reviewed journals. The scientific community engages through these journals to verify the math, confirm experimental results, and comment on new theories.

If the math behind the theories survives review by independent groups, the theories gain credibility.

If the theories accurately predict experiment results, the theories gain credibility.

If the experimental results can be duplicated by independent groups, they gain credibility.

As theories gain support in the scientific community, more scientists engage in exploring the boundaries of those theories. As the experimental evidence accumulates and the boundaries of the theories emerge, those theories become accepted by a majority of the scientific community.

That’s where we are with climate science. The boundaries are still evolving, but the basic assumption that the current changes in climate that we are seeing are caused by human activity is accepted by 98% of those qualified to have an opinion.

I believe in science because I believe in the purity of mathematics and reliability of the peer-reviewed crowd sourced model.

Why do liberals believe in science?

The answer here is more nuanced.

The facts are that we are all fundamentally emotional decision makers. That’s what moral intuitionism is all about. The difference is that when it comes down to a choice, it is easier for liberals to alter their views in the face of contradicting facts than it is for conservatives.

We’ve also talked about how liberals and conservatives operate emotionally from two different sets of moral foundations. Liberals focus on fairness and care. Conservatives share those foundations but are also concerned about liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Science is inherently fair. Liberals view science as a tool to determine how to best address the problems of those who need care and protection.

That isn’t to say that liberals don’t also have their biases and areas where these emotional moral foundation-based decisions cause them to be science deniers. Vaccinations, though not exclusively a liberal issue, is a good example.
Finally, studies also show that liberals are fundamentally accepting of change while conservatives fear it. If science has any bias, it is toward change. Scientists are motivated toward answering the unanswered questions. That inevitably leads to upending accepted theories and replacing them with new ones.

Why are conservatives science deniers?

Conservatives weren’t always science deniers. The coalitions created by Nixon and Reagan, aligned conservatives with Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians ARE science deniers. The result has been the politicization of science because it calls into question beliefs that spring from a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Big Tobacco developed the political tools to cast doubt on mainstream science. It was the only way they could continue to sell a product that killed people. A long line of conservative political operatives have refined those tools to create wedge issues, build conservative coalitions, and attack liberalism.

Conclusion

Mathematics is one of the few things in our existence that is pure, absolute, and rational. That is not an indictment of emotion or belief. Science, because it is based on mathematics, simply stands in stark contrast to belief.

Those who attempt to base their lives on belief, for example, have no choice but to deny science. Science isn’t specifically attacking their beliefs. Science is simply creating theories to explain experimental evidence that is being discovered. Any damage that any particular belief suffers is generally unintended.

Here’s just a simple thought experiment to illustrate the point. If at some point in the future, science discovers that there WAS evidence of some “creative event” that could only be explained by intervention from a higher power, liberals would have no problem accepting that theory. Liberals would find themselves more closely aligned with conservative Christian beliefs on this particular topic. Atheists would then find themselves in the curious position of denying science in order to defend their position.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way and that’s the basic challenge of this age.

For liberals, science largely guides belief.

For conservatives, belief trumps science.