Archive for December, 2014

The Human Condition, Faith, Facts, and Truth

Friday, December 26th, 2014

First a brief review of the difference between fact and truth.

A fact is something that can’t be logically disputed or rejected. Within the base ten system, two plus two will always equal four. That’s a fact.

Truth on the other hand has within it the quality of judgment. That’s because pointing out what is “true” immediately also identifies what is “false”.

Truth is something that must be discovered or created. Here’s an example. The observable facts are that the path that light from a distant object takes can be curved by the presence of another large object (the sun). This observable fact supports Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We accept that theory as a true description of how the universe works because it explains all of the observable facts that we can assemble.

The search for meaning (truth) has always been part of the human condition. In that search, we assemble observations. Some of those observations are facts (mathematics). Some are not (religion).

The challenge of course is that all humans are also susceptible to accept those observations that agree with our point of view as fact and dispute those truths that call our favorite “facts” in question. Scholars from Johnathan Haidt to Aristotle have wrestled with this question of whether there is an absolute truth that can and should be universally shared.

Science has moved the furthest in the direction of separating fact from belief and true from false. The way that they do that is through a version of crowd sourcing called the scientific method.

When someone discovers something that they propose as a fact, they share it with everyone else in their scientific community. If others can duplicate that observation, it is affirmed as a fact. Others in the community can challenge that fact, but they have to produce their own observations that can be duplicated that demonstrate the the original observation was inaccurate.

Only after accepted facts are established, do members of that community attempt to discover or create theories which explain why those facts occur. Those theories get tested and re-tested as new facts are discovered. Eventually some subset of theories emerge as accepted truth because a majority of the scientific community agree that these theories accurately explain all of the applicable observed facts.

That doesn’t mean that these truths are absolute. As our knowledge expands, there is always the possibility that new facts will be discovered that force a re-evaluation of previous theories. This process of enhancement is what improves theories. Occasionally, observations require a radical change to theories. But usually the change is more gradual. That gradual change is currently underway in improving the climate models that we have. But one of the accepted truths in climate science is that the atmosphere is warming at a rate that exceeds what can be explained by natural phenomena.

What makes all of this work is that this scientific method is BIASED toward crowd sourced peer review that is eager to discover and prove new facts. The claim by some that the scientific method suppresses facts in an effort to prevent contrary theories from emerging is self serving FUD. Those who voice that opinion are attempting to discredit the process because they oppose the results of the process – not because they have any proof that the results of the process are flawed. If anything, exactly the opposite is true. The scientific community gives fringe opinions too much respect. This provides those who practice “science for hire” undeserved legitimacy. One example of this junk science were the tobacco-funded researchers who for years tried to disprove the fact that tobacco caused cancer. The fossil fuel industry invests in similar research today in an attempt to muddy the water regarding the real causes and likely results of climate change.

The challenge of trying to live a fact-based life, however, is that it often fails to satisfy our basic need for meaning. We have a gut feel that there is a God, even though it can’t be proven. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with dependency, but we can’t explain why. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with discrimination, but we can’t explain why. There are some human activities that we feel are revolting or depraved even when it only involves willing adults.

We long for a connection to a higher power who can help us resolve these conflicts, provide us direction, and give us purpose.

This is a belief-based life.

Those who live belief-based lives are sometimes vulnerable to intolerance, bias, discrimination, and even fanaticism in response to those who don’t share their beliefs.

The problem is that those who claim to live fact-based lives are no less vulnerable to the same temptations.

So where does this leave us?

Confirmation bias clouds our vision, confuses belief with fact, and causes us to take positions on an emotional basis and then attempt to defend those positions with junk science or conspiracy theories. In other words, facts no longer have an objective quality. Instead every fact gets evaluated against the filter of how it affects our view of the truth. Truth constructed from beliefs can’t be questioned even when there are no facts to support it. Climate change is a perfect example of this phenomena.

While no one has a monopoly on facts or the truth, the further we drift away from respect for facts and the certitude of science, the more difficult it becomes for us to find the common ground that we need to allow our Democracy to work.

Aristotle summed it up best.

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of all things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.

The universal truth may be that we are all human and in that shared humanity are the seeds for transcendence and destruction. This holiday is the celebration of our shared hope that we can overcome our weaknesses and build a better future where we all can live in peace.

Brief History of Torture in this Country

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Torture has been routinely practiced by both European and Native American people in this country.

In the 1890’s, the Supreme Court ruled that torture as a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

That did not slow the use of torture by private individuals, law enforcement, and the military.

Lynching black men for being “uppity” began in 1882 and continued through at least 1981 accounting for somewhere around 5000 deaths.

Police forces used “third degree” tactics which met current definitions of torture to elicit confessions for the first half of the 20th century. In the 70’s and 80’s, Chicago police use electroshock, near-suffocation, and excessive beatings on suspects. A Texas sheriff in 1983 used waterboarding. Two San Bernardino officers were convicted of torturing suspects in 1997. Prison abuses have been wide spread for decades including electroshock, sexual slavery, rape, and forcible tooth extraction.

The US military tortured German U-boat crewmen during WWII. The CIA emerged as the primary sponsor of torture during the Viet Nam war with the South Vietnamese Army acting under their supervision. During the 70’s and 80’s the CIA trained members of South American right wing governments in torture techniques to repress populist reform uprisings. Brazil’s National Truth Commission blamed the US government for teaching torture techniques to the Brazilian military that was in power from 1964-1985.

In 1948 the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibiting torture. The US was one of the countries that participated in drafting this document. It was in direct response to the treatment of US POW’s at the hands of the Japanese and Germans. This was followed by the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both signed in 1977 in direct response to the excesses of the Viet Nam War. These conventions are the foundation for International Law which mandates that any person involved in ordering, allowing, or even failing to prevent or prosecute torture is criminally liable.

Ronald Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This was when Reagan was admonishing Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall. China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution, but was still communist in structure and ideology. There were plenty of fingers that Reagan wanted to point regarding oppression and torture.

The difference in all of this was that until 2001, torture (though widely practiced in this country) was illegal. In 2001 all of that changed.

In 2001 in the wake of 9/11 attacks, the President Bush gave VP Dick Cheney responsibility to gather whatever information he needed using whatever methods he required to prevent another attack on US soil. Cheney instructed his lawyers to redefine what the word torture meant, turned the CIA loose, and the rest is history.

Cheney belligerently defends the choices that he made even today, but his protests ring hollow.

He continues to insist, as President Bush did, that the US did not engage in torture – but that method of Big Lie politics no longer works with a majority of the American people.

His second defense is that he did what he had to do to keep the country safe. His definition of keeping the country safe was that there has been no repeat of 9/11. Instead we are left with the legacy of two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

Instead of being welcomed as liberators, the invasion of Iraq dangerously destabilized the region. Cheney’s neocon vision of a democratic transformation morphed into just another puppet government in Iraq. That government pursued the same old sectarian divisions as Saddam. Those continued sanctioned oppressions provided ISIS an opportunity to mount what in effect is a Sunni revolt against the Maliki government in Iraq and the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

The US invasion of Iraq and the promise to establish a US client state that would transform the whole region also raised alarms in neighboring Iran. Iran felt that the only way it could defend itself from a similar US invasion at some point in the future would be to develop a nuclear weapon.

All this in the name of “keeping America safe”.

If you parse Cheney’s responses to questions closely, he defines torture in the context of the 9/11 victims.

“Torture to me,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “is an American citizen on a cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.”

Some attribute that to just setting a high bar for just about any retaliatory action. In other words, unless you kill thousands of innocent people, you haven’t committed an act of torture. He says this with a straight face even though the war in Iraq killed well over 100K civilians.

But that wasn’t his primary purpose. His primary purpose was to advocate a particular world view held by Neocons. That point of view suggested that the US was the sole remaining super power in the world, but the only way that US could remain in that dominant position would be to regularly demonstrate its superiority through the unilateral exercise of force.

Here’s Paul Krugman’s explanation.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated, but let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?

The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.

The willingness to do whatever it takes is where Cheney makes his stand.

This philosophy allows Cheney to posture as a macho-man and criticize those who oppose him as “soft”. But when you look past the rhetoric at the man, you discover that his actions don’t match his rhetoric. He’s all talk and no walk. This is simple solipsism of a self-centered egomaniac.

The results are easy to point out.

When he was in office, Cheney was one of the loudest proponents of expansion of executive power. Torture, domestic spying, black site renditions, outing of a CIA agent to punish her husband, the Patriot Act, private meetings with Oil companies to set the energy agenda, and outsourcing the Iraq war to contractors like Halliburton are just a few examples.

Yet when Obama has exercised the same executive power, Cheney said that the President went, “far beyond what was ever intended.” He has consistently called the President weak on terrorism, but by his own measure, this President has also prevented a repeat of a domestic 9/11 attack. Employing the same logic, shouldn’t Obama’s methods be graded on the same “results are all that matters” scale as Cheney’s?

So it isn’t really the substance of the action that interests Cheney and his supporters, it is the intent of that action. If the goal is something that neocons support, no action is unreasonable to achieve it. In fact, the more extreme the action, the better because it demonstrates the deep commitment to principle of the actor. If those same actions are employed by a progressive President, however, to further his agenda, the means and the ends are both illegitimate.

Putin is the foreign leader Cheney does appear to admire. This is the same Putin whose annexation of Crimea led to the collapse of the Russian economy and a run on the ruble. That collapse was accelerated by the sanctions that a “weak” Obama put in place and the oil exploration boom that Obama supported. Less noticed were the dire predictions of the “Cheney” crowd of an expansionist Russia that failed to materialize.

Instead we have a more compliant Russia supporting US actions in Syria and Iran. Not surprising that we have heard little from Cheney about any of this.

This brings us back to the question of torture.

Torture is wrong whenever it is practiced.

Even if it did result in useful information, it is wrong and can’t be justified. The reason it can’t ever be justified is because we are a nation of laws based on a shared constitution. Neither the law nor the constitution are relativist documents. No end justifies a means that includes unconstitutional or illegal activities. Fortunately it has again become illegal for anyone to use torture in our military or our intelligence services.

Cheney and his crew may claim to be strong, but they were not willing to put themselves at risk for the principles they supported. They also made sure that a law was passed in 2006 to shield them from future prosecution as a result of their actions.

When push came to shove in Cheney’s personal life, his actions consistently failed to reflect his speech. He actively avoided military service. He strongly defended his daughter’s right to marry her same sex partner. He let Scooter Libbey take the fall for his plan to punish Joe Wilson for questioning the facts around Iraq’s claimed nuclear program. He leveraged his insider position as Secretary of Defense into a CEO job with Halliburton by laying the groundwork for a massive outsourcing of military operations to private companies. During his time at Halliburton, the company went from 73rd to 18th in the list of government contractors. It was also ultimately fired by the GAO for over-billing. Cheney retired from Halliburton to join the Bush ticket in 2000. They gave him a $33.7M retirement package. About that same time they were rehired by the defense department. Haliburton went on to make $39B off the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Cheney’s significant holdings in Halliburton where placed in a blind trust during his time in office, but did very well. Cheney did donate a significant amount of the money he made from his association with Haliburton to charity, but donating money obtained illegally or at least immorally does not cleanse the method by which that money was obtained in the first place.

The strong are those who are willing to stand up for our values and willing to take the risk that those values may leave us vulnerable in some way. They believe in the principles on which this country was founded. Those who claim that they only way that we can defend our values is to abandon them are the real cowards. God and history will hold them accountable much more effectively that I ever could.

The New Party of NO

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

“We need to quit, you know, kind of rattling the economy with things that are perceived by the voters as disturbing,” Mitch McConnell

A funny thing just happened.

After six years of obstruction, the Republican Party is finally in the position where they can be blamed for their own misconduct.

The result is that they are starting to change their behavior.

History
Mitch McConnell has acknowledged that he is the author of the obstructionist strategy that Republicans adopted in 2009. They were fresh off an historic loss to the nation’s first African American President. At the time, there was plenty of discussion of a post-partisan post-racial era that would recapture the golden New Deal age of Democratic dominance.

McConnell’s insight was that if Republicans refused to participate in the process of government, they could convince enough of the public that this new charismatic leader was at least partly to blame. He recognized that when an idea enjoys the support of both parties, it also receives the equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from mainstream voters. Anything that passed without that seal was suspect.

Republicans rode that suspicion to a 2010 victory.

Effectively grinding government to a halt was risky. It meant that Congress would fail at even routine tasks. It created the most dysfunctional government since the Civil War with historically low approval ratings for Republicans. But it also succeeded.

Republicans intended to destroy the American legislative process, and they did. Republicans set out to exacerbate partisan tensions, and they did. Republicans hoped to make Obama less popular by making it vastly more difficult for him to get anything done, and they did. Republicans hoped to parlay public discontent into electoral victories, and they did. Republicans made a conscious decision to prevent the president from bringing the country together, and they successfully made the national chasm larger.

Obama went from a figure of hope and change to the president who hasn’t signed a major bill into law since 2010. In 2014, Democrats were running for cover and Republicans were rewarded for their strategy.

Now What
The real reward from the 2014 elections is an opportunity to govern. On closer investigation, voters did not reject Obama’s policies. Many of those policies either in direct ballot initiatives or exit polling reports are very popular.

Voters also did not endorse McConnell’s obstructionist strategy.

Quite the opposite. Voters want a government that works and they have now put Republicans in a position where they have to demonstrate that they can do a better job.

Obama again has demonstrated his acute political sense. Rather than play the traditional role of powerless executive, he realizes that he is finally free to enact large portions of his agenda. He is betting, just like Mitch McConnell did, that the voting public will reward whichever party gets the most done in the next two years, and he has a head start.

He has already taken landmark action on immigration and the environment. He has a huge Pacific Trade agreement in the works. There is also the possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The economy is recovering faster than the rest of the world and the Saudi’s will keep oil prices low for the next two years to discourage competition. He can’t move on things that require appropriations like infrastructure or legislation like tax reform. But there are plenty of other areas where he can and has been active, all the while calling out the Republican majority to do their job and pass something substantive that he can sign.

The incoming Republican majority now has a choice. They can focus all of their energy on slowing Obama down, or they can take up the challenge that Obama has given them and begin passing their own legislation to address the issues that concern voters.

Both strategies have risk. In the first case, they are ignoring voters and hoping that there is still some life in the obstructionist strategy. In the latter case, they have to demonstrate that government CAN be a force for good, but only if Republicans are in charge. To accomplish that, they will need the same thing that they have withheld for the past six years from Obama – bi-partisanship.

Summary
Actions speak much louder than words. The actions of the incoming Republican majority suggest that the message of the last election was not a rejection of Obama’s policies as they have said. It was instead an opportunity to demonstrate that they can in fact govern, and a warning that they will be punished again in 2016 if they fail.

While it is interesting that John Boehner can describe a nine month spending bill as “long-term”, what it does say is that the new Republican controlled Congress will forgo holding the government hostage at least until September, 2015. That is a good sign.