Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stray Thoughts on Language

I was helping my son with spelling words today, and a thought occurred to me. I had thought it before, but it comes back again and again, whenever I think about the changes in pronunciation that take place as languages grow older. For instance, Greek underwent what they called ioticism, that is all the vowels tended to sound more like short i sounds. Similarly, I notice in my own version of English (a relatively generic mid-Atlantic accent) that short e and i tend to blend, with gem and Jim becoming very close, and the same with pen and pin. I have also noticed a tendency to turn all e and some a sounds into schwa type sounds, such a "thuh" which replaced "the", or "uh" which replaced "a", allowing the elimination of "an" before many vowels, at least in conversation.

None of this is new, in fact it has been spelled out in excruciating detail not just by linguist, but by amateur pedants and IPA fanatics on wikipedia ("The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Grind Those Axes, WikiEditors!"), and I don't wish to add to all the needless pedantry.

What occurred to me, and what seems curious, is, while there is a tendency toward simplification, toward the elimination of cases, the unification of vowel sounds, and all the rest, time and again the simplified languages end up being replaced by more complex forms with more numerous vowel sounds. So, if all languages have a tendency toward simplified cases and sounds, then where does this renewed complexity arise? It can't all be from conquest and immigration, as , presumably, the conquerors and immigrants have a language gaining in simplicity as well. So, who revives the locative and instrumental cases? Who reintroduces dative? Who restores the distinction between short e and short i? Where does the renewed complexity come from?

Oddly enough, while I have read volumes on the simplification of languages, I have never seen much scholarship on how languages regain complexity.

Isn't it interesting, no matter how much scholarship is dedicated to a question, the one issue which interests you seems to have attracted no attention?

POSTSCRIPT

Please pity my poor son. Having asked me why sausage is spelled as it is, yet sounds like "sawsij", I unintentionally launched into a long boring rant about the great vowel shift, the Brothers Grimm and tendency toward vowel simplification. I don't think he listened to all of it, but he was polite enough to at least look like he was listening. On the other hand, he may not have gained much from my lecturing, but at least fear of a repeat will probably ensure he never misspells sausage again.


Television News

I made the mistake of watching a few minutes of the local news, specifically the economic reports, and, as expected, I was terribly annoyed.

The report tonight was "the stock market fell, even though consumer confidence is high." This is the sort of economic thinking I just cannot understand. Or, I suppose I do, but I wonder why it continues to exist. I get it that newscasters are not economically erudite sorts, and they work on simple formulae such as consumer confidence drives the stock market or government spending equals jobs, but you would think, after a few years of reporting they might develop some sort of more nuanced understanding. (Then again congress has meddled in the economy for over a century, and they still have only the most primitive understanding, so maybe not.)

So, for the benefit of news casters, allow me to explain. The consumer confidence index is a snapshot of a single instance, on the other hand, those buying stocks tend to look at the long term. So, while present consumer confidence might be high, if it is expected that consumer spending will drop, then stocks may still fall. In addition, there are factors other than consumer confidence, such as inherent weaknesses in the economy, like inflation, and if it is expected that they may cause future problems, then the stock market may fall even if consumers are dancing in the streets. For example, if it is expected that the massive expenditures on ObamaCare may place undue strain on the economy, forcing massive government borrowing which dries up capital markets -- just to give one hypothetical possibility -- then consumer confidence is rather irrelevant. If there is no money, consumers can be optimistic about everything and it won't make a difference.

I could go on, but hopefully those few small examples show that the simplistic concepts used for television news reporting (and, sadly by government agencies and even some academics) do not provide very useful insight into the actual workings of the economy.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Brief Note

Thanksgiving has passed, but I am spending much of this long weekend with my son, so I may not be writing much. I posted a few stray thoughts, as you can see below, but beyond those, I doubt I will write much. I have finished about a third of my comprehensive essay on bureaucracy (combining "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads", "Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "The Wrong Solution to Bureaucracy", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Adaptability and Government", "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "In The Most Favorable Light", "With Good Intentions", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)"), but that will likely not be completed until sometime next week at the earliest.

On the other hand, I find often when I say I won't write, I end up posting a half dozen new essays the same day, so it may be worth checking later this weekend to see if I really managed to avoid writing, or if I could not help myself and posted a number of random musings.

One final note. I am really trying to complete all the posts I promised in "Upcoming Posts" and "More Upcoming Posts". Though I seem to be having an easier time with any essay other than those I intended to write, I do plan to get back to completing that list very soon, and hope, if nothing comes up, to complete the list long before Christmas.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The Civil War

I just recently began reading Jefferson Davis' history of the Confederate government, and it has caused me to think about a number of somewhat touchy issues. Specifically, the questions of secession and slavery. And, more importantly, the many ways in which the Civil War is used, in overly simplistic ways, to create spurious arguments. For example, the tendency of many to equate states' rights with slavery and argue any who support states' rights are covert racists. (As was done most notoriously to Ronald Reagan.) On the other hand, many also take the opposite extreme, arguing, as did Davis (though only after the war) that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, which then allows them to use it as a symbol of the government's hostility to states' rights and federalism. Unfortunately, in doing so, many end up unknowingly, or sometimes knowingly, climbing into bed with white supremacists and other less savory extremists, doing incalculable harm to federalism, states' rights and conservatism in general1,2.

So, rather than allow myself to be painted as some caricature rightist, I suppose I should start with the more difficult issue, and discuss slavery.

Slavery is one of those issues, or rather was, where states ran into terrible difficulties maintaining consistent positions. As with modern drug laws3, or laws concerning alcohol both during prohibition and since4, the state suffered from conflicts between pragmatism and idealism, though, at times, even idealism seemed to argue for supporting both sides, as, for instance, when many deplored the abuses of slavery, yet worried that free blacks would fare worse than they did without liberty, or worried the effect of a number of newly freed slaves upon the republic5. Nor was this unique to the US. England had banned slavery much earlier, and spent a good deal of effort fighting the slave trade. However, at the same time, many British businessmen also financed the slave trade, and many ships with English owners and crews continued to carry slaves. Thanks to the involvement of many wealthy and prominent individuals, the laws against slavery were often treated with some flexibility, and, despite the efforts of a number of very zealous commanders in the Royal Navy, the campaign against the slave trade was inconsistently pursued as well.

Similarly, the US has a number of ardent abolitionists, and even managed to ban the importation of slaves early in our history. However, as with England, the law was not consistently enforced, and many slaves were imported after the ban, not to mention the many slaves born in the US who also provided a source of servile labor. And it was not all an issue of money, or political influence, there were also practical concerns. For example, the very real fear that forcing the issue might tear apart the union (as it eventually did). And also the question of the political influence the south, and some northern states with continuing interest in the slave trade, had in congress. It was not just a question of the south leaving the union, there was a question of whether it would even be possible to force abolition, as well, as we shall see, the question whether the federal government had the right to force individual states to abolish slavery6.

So, it was not an easy issue at the time, and men on both sides had mixed feelings. Even today, it is questionable whether the solution which eventually came about was a good one. Granted, black slaves were freed, and, on paper, granted all the rights of citizens, but at the same time it also created a very hostile atmosphere in the south which continued to cause problems for another century, and the flight of many blacks to the north produced many isolated black communities, as well as hostility in some northern communities which had previously been in favor of abolition. So, while the final outcome was desirable, it is arguable whether the approach taken, both during the Civil War and then during Reconstruction, was the best approach possible7.

On the other hand, it was something which had to take place. Had the Civil War not taken place, sooner or later the question would have been forced in some other way. The keeping of slaves was simply too much at odds with the concept of individual rights, as was recognized even as early as the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Slavery was a fact, and slave holders, as well as slave traders, were unlikely to easily surrender their property in other humans, but slavery itself was too much of an aberration, given our other political principles, so that, unless we were to give up our most fundamental beliefs, slavery was destined to eventually disappear.

And that is, most notably, one of the issues which seems to get the least attention. Many complain that "white men fought to be free, while owning black men" and make other such comments, but they overlook the fact that it was those very principles, that declaration of individual rights, which formed the basis not only by which slavery was ended, but also formed the basis for the later civil rights struggle. We can argue whether it was a mark against the founders that they did not settle the slavery debate right away, but, whatever we may think of that issue, we cannot ignore the fact that their beliefs were at the root of the eventual end of slavery in the US8.

Moving on, I suppose it is time to look at states' rights, and the question of secession. Secession being the more difficult question, and so I shall deal with it first.

Many of a conservative or federalist bent argue that Lincoln was wrong to fight the southern states over secession, that they had every right to secede, and that the Civil War was an improper war, and, though it opens me to misinterpretation, I must agree, at least in part. The Confederate states has every right to leave the union, and the United States had no right to act against them. However, the Confederate states, as all foreign lands, were also under an obligation to respect the rights of citizens of the United States, including their property rights, even property held within the Confederate States. And so, the Confederate States were not within their rights to attack Fort Sumter. While it may have been uncomfortable to have a foreign military presence within Confederate territory, that property was owned by the United States, and the Confederates were obligated to negotiate its purchase, or in some other way obtain a peaceful transfer of title. By attacking, they provided a perfect justification for the United States to attack, and so, though I fully support the right of secession, I also argue the Union had every right to declare war9.

And that brings us to the final question, that of states' rights. I know for many this somehow has become a code phrase for white supremacy, and the blame rests equally on those who do use it in precisely that way, and on others who hope to tar any discussion of state autonomy by confusing it with racial questions. The fact remains that the division of power between the state and federal government is in integral part of our government, and something which must be discussed. However, since the Civil War, it has become a difficult issue to examine, as it has come to be seen as the position of white supremacists, neo-Confederates and others who have questionable motives.

That is quite regrettable, as the division of power, the vesting of power in the states rather than the federal government, the funding of the government by individual states rather than direct taxation, and so on, are all perfectly valid tools for protecting individual liberty. And yet, because these issues somehow became tied up with the question of slavery and a war a century and a half ago, many refuse to even consider this possible solution to many of our problems, and instead consider only those answers which rely upon a single, central federal government.

And that is yet another sad consequence of the Civil War.

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1. Sadly, the "conservatives are racists" argument is even more popular than the myth that Nazis were on the political right. (See "The Political Spectrum" and "NSDAP Follies". I would also recommend this blog, which at least argues for redefining the political spectrum in a somewhat more useful way. In many ways it reproduces my arguments in "The Political Spectrum", though with a different focus. Then again, I would disagree with his pro-libertarian, slightly anarchist bias, see my "The State of Nature and Man's Rights" for a rebuttal of neo-anarchist/extreme libertarian positions..) And, in this case, there is at least some basis for the argument, though it is being misunderstood. As I argued in "The Political Spectrum" the Democrats and Republicans were very different creatures prior to 1890, and the Republicans were largely the home of anti-immigration forces. Though southern Democrats were equally intolerant, being the home of the Klan, northern and western Democrats became the party of Catholics, immigrants and, eventually, northern blacks (who had, for a time, been loyal Republicans). Though the parties changed dramatically between 1890 and 1950, the image of the Democrats as the party of minorities remained, reinforced by their role in the civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's (though, oddly enough, the Democrats were prominent on both sides, with Republicans, though not so prominent, actually playing a larger role in passing the Civil Rights Act than Democrats.)However, in truth, there is no clear way to see either party as friend or enemy of minorities or immigrants, as it is quite easy to argue that the Democrats' patronizing attitude does more harm than good, and shows a rather condescending perspective. (See "I Don't Get It. Actually, I Do, and It Is Horribly Insulting", "It Is All In How You Say It", "Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All", "The Condescention of "Understanding"", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 11, 2012)" and "The Racism of the Left".)

2. It is interesting that the same mechanism occurs in other issues as well. For instance, I am quite critical of modern psychiatry (cf "The Politics of Psychiatry", "Mental Illness" and "The Right to Die Revisited") and often find myself agreeing with individuals such as Peter Breggin and Thomas Szasz. However, at least in Szasz's case, his opposition to modern psychiatry has often lured him into siding with Scientologists and others who hold equally suspect beliefs. Similarly, many libertarians often fall in with rather dubious groups such as LaRouchers, white supremacists and others due to a common position on a handful of issues, leading them to ignore many more significant fundamental differences. And, of course, to be fair, on the left, many who support racial equality end up siding, because of a common opposition to discriminatory practices, with black nationalists and others who hold ideas completely anathema to racial harmony and equality. (Sadly, when individuals become passionate about a small number of issues, they often develop terrible tunnel vision. See "Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion", "Single Issue Voting" and "The Solution".)

3. For example, while decrying the harm done by drugs, and the need to take a tough stand, the awareness that their friends and family, as well as the children of the same, may eventually be caught with drugs has led to creating a "treatment" path for supposed criminals, leading to a highly discordant approach, in which it is a crime to buy and use drugs, but a crime sometimes punished with jail and sometimes with therapy, unlike any other crime on our books. Similarly, it is a crime where, if two parties conspire, that is one to buy and one to sell, one might go to jail for many years on a felony, while another might end up spending some months with a therapist. Conspiracy is normally treated with much greater symmetry in our legal system.

4. During prohibition, alcohol had many of the same problems I just mentioned as existing with drugs. Since many politicians were drinkers, or knew drinkers, the law favored the user over the supplier. And since prohibition has ended, there has existed the other inconsistency that alcohol, which is a substance used to alter mental states, with an effect similar to many drugs, is legal, while other drugs are not, even while we pass laws specifically making illegal any previously legal substance which has an effect akin to illegal drugs. Though, were we consistent, its similarity to stimulants would make coffee -- and nicotine -- illegal as well.

5. This was not an unfounded concern. First, slaves were,f or the most part, poorly educated, and it was a very real concern they might fall prey to all manner of demagogues, leaving the southern states subject to terrible political turmoil. In addition, there was also the concern that slaves may continue to listen to those who had previously owned them, and thus grant a tremendous amount of political influence to the former plantation owners. Even if they did not, by increasing southern representation, they did present the very real risk of giving the former Confederate states significant political power. And, if blacks followed their former owners, or even if they were simply apathetic and did not vote, it would give a great deal of influence to states which had very recently seceded. (Or, in earlier debates, which had supported slavery.)

 6. This is not an idle question. The limits of the federal government's power over individual states is a valid issue. Of course, if one were to argue that slavery was a violation of individual rights, then it would be possible to argue that the states were acting contrary to some sort of natural law, and thus the federal government had a right to act. However, legally, it would seem the proper approach to such a question would be to challenge those state laws in state, and then federal, courts. Whether individual rights could be enforced by federal law is arguable, and at the time would certainly have seemed a suspect approach.

7. I must admit, I have no better suggestions. The idea put forth by some of repatriating American blacks to Africa was completely unworkable. Likewise, establishing some sort of American black enclave would likely have simply created a massive ghetto, which would have left blacks isolated from the mainstream culture. Sadly, there probably is no really good solution to integrating a largely uneducated and unskilled population, one which is easily identified, into a culture which is not particularly well disposed toward them. Add in the bitter feelings following a civil war and things are simply unworkable.

8. Some Marxists, and others of an economic determinist bent, argue slavery ended because it proven too inefficient for an industrial economy, and in a way they are right. Slave production cannot compete with free labor, and certainly not with modern mechanized agriculture. (As we have seen when comparing Soviet agriculture with capitalist nations.) However, at the time of the Civil War, the difference was not yet great enough to force the collapse of slave based agriculture. And, even if it had been, the collapse of slavery would have come through economic failure of plantations, the collapse of the market for slaves and other economic events, not warfare.

  9. I realize this probably puts me at odds with everyone on earth, as I disagree with the pro-secession groups over the validity of the war, and those who agree with the war over the reason it was valid.

================================================================

POSTSCRIPT

I have written quite a bit about federalism, but my main arguments can be found in my posts "The Case for Small Government", "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Government Intervention and the Purpose of Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "The Single Greatest Weakness" and "Minimal Reforms".

POSTSCRIPT II

On reflection this is a bit rambling, and not as coherent as my usual posts. Blame it on post-Thanksgiving lethargy. Too much food is the enemy of concise writing. Likely, as I read more of Davis' history, I will find more to discuss about individual issues, so perhaps some more coherent essays will follow.

 POSTSCRIPT III

In discussing the tendency to malign the right of today by equating it with the nativist Republicans of the 19th (and early 20th) century, I think my comment about the equation of the right with Nazis may be appropriate. As I argued in "NSDAP Follies" (quoting "Revelation From Bottom Feeding"):
No, the "right" in the US today has as much to do with Nazism as walruses have to do with the Crimean War.
And, using the same logic, the right of today has as much to do with nativist Republicans of the 19th century as a whelk has to do with a supernova. (Yes, a very slight Douglas Adams nod in there should any uber-geeks drop by.)

 

The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution

Let us suppose you are young and single. One night, while out on the town, you meet a young lady (or gentleman) who agrees to come home with you. Over the course of the evening, your companion mentions that if she (or he) is going to leave her (or his) friends behind, she'll need a cab to get home, and asks if you can help pay the fare. Or, perhaps, she mentions that staying out all night will mean having to pay the babysitter more, and asks if you can help with the cost.

Is this prostitution?

How about if this person makes it more explicit? Say, saying something along the lines of "You want me to sleep with you, and you won't give me $20?" Or "you expect me to go home with you, but you won't pay for my sitter?"

How about if this other person does not make even that explicit a demand, but does something a bit more subtle, such as acting in such a way that it is obvious she assumes you will pay for her drinks? Or maybe a little more forthright, and actually asks you to buy her a drink? Or maybe asks you to take her out to eat first?

Not enough to be prostitution?

How about if she asks you to pay to get her car out of a parking lot? Or instead says she is short and asks to borrow money to pay for parking?

I know, this is an old question, at least in some circles, with many who do not care for traditional relationships asking what is the difference between demanding dinner and a movie and demanding cash up front. However, I think these questions are important, and, to be honest, they are asked many times a month in our modern world, as police often have to wade through such questions when trying to make cases for prostitution.

For example, assume a young lady joins you, makes it clear she is interested in you, even agrees to go home, then asks, as you are now friends, if you might loan her a small sum? It could be a description of a relatively innocent, if a bit rapid, relationship, or it could be a dodge to cover prostitution, in fact a rather common one, as, by separating the promise of sex and the request for money it makes the case a little harder to make. On the other hand, for those of us who grew up in these more promiscuous times, especially those who moved in circles where sexual mores were rather liberal*, how often have we been asked for money by someone we were either sleeping with, or in whom we had an interest? How many times did the pattern which could be concealed prostitution occur in more innocent, or at least less mercenary surroundings?

But, were they? If the other party was implying she would trade sex for money, while you simply thought she was asking for a friendly loan, as well as expressing interest in you, then was it prostitution or not?

This is the problem I wanted to discuss, as it shows quite clearly how our modern view of sexuality has made prostitution even more difficult an issue than it was in the past**. You see, in the past, sex was seen as properly taking place within marriage, or, if not only within marriage. Men might have mistresses, or might chase after "loose" women, but that was seen as improper. Of course, not all improper sex was prostitution. Some was simply the domain of immoral men and women. However, when sex took place, and money exchanged hands, it was pretty clear that it constituted prostitution. Be it a street walker or an established mistress, asking for money was prostitution.

But that simply does not work today. With sexual relations being viewed as not just acceptable, but normal, between people with little previous connection, it is quite possible for people to meet, agree to have sex, and also exchange some sort of money, on any number of grounds, without any intent to pay for sex. And, if we allow for some previous contact between the parties, then it becomes even more common, and even more probable the incident was entirely innocent. Because sexuality is no longer limited to marriage, the coincidence of some sort of financial exchange and some sort of sexual connection is not at all uncommon, and so what was once prima facie evidence of prostitution is now nothing of the kind.

Of course, as many will point out, most prostitution is still of the plain "sex for money" kind, and just as easily proven, and they are right. My point is, once we allow for some degree of sexual freedom, we also must accept that many exchanges which are indistinguishable from prostitution will arise in entirely innocent ways, meaning that many will continue to find it puzzling that explicit exchanges of sex for money are disallowed, while many exchanges which are almost indistinguishable are allowed.

Some may take this argument and draw thew opposite conclusion, that we do not need to reexamine our stand on prostitution and the law, but instead should return to those times when society and the law  were more intimately involved in personal sexual matters. I would disagree, at least in part. As far as individual and societal morality is concerned, I cannot object to those who wish a more traditional view. I do not necessarily agree with their position, but I believe if we are going to enforce individual ethics, that social controls are the way in which it must be done.

Which is why I say they are wrong, in part, as the other half of their argument, that of restoring the law's role, I believe entirely incorrect. As I have said repeatedly, the place for the law is in protecting our rights from violation by others, it is not to ensure our behavior follows any pattern, other than respecting others' rights. Society is free to apply pressure to change our behavior, others are free to ask us to act in certain ways, and to call us to task when we violate collective norms, but the tool to use is not the law, or the state. Society is free to expect certain behaviors, but those expectations must still be enforced through non-coercive, private means. Force must be reserved for the protection of rights.

Which actually explains why I am opposed to laws about prostitution as well. Whatever can be said about prostitution, it clearly does not violate anyone's rights, and so, whatever we may think, it is not a fit subject for legal action. Which, now that I think about it, makes all the preceding arguments rather pointless, as a better argument was available all the time. Still, it never hurts to take a look at something from a different perspective, so I will leave the essay as it is. Futile it might be, but at least it offers yet another argument for why we should limit the state, and keep its out of a lengthy list of matters.

===============================================================

* Without providing a lengthy personal history, I spent much of my teen years as a punk rocker, associating with like minded souls. I was later involved briefly with the late 80s hippie revival, after which I began to associate with collegiate art students and philosophy majors, two groups with which I would remain in contact throughout my twenties. So, as should be obvious from that description, I spent a lot of my early life around those who professed the most liberal views on sexuality.

================================================================

POSTSCRIPT

Of course, none of this is the basis for my argument that prostitution, among other "victimless crimes" should be decriminalized. My primary argument is, quite simply, that an action which does not violate the rights of another should not be illegal. The state should limit itself to protecting against force, theft and fraud, and the rest should be controlled, if at all, through the reaction of the community, with private disapproval serving in the place of the present laws. In this way I think it would be quite easy for most communities to keep themselves free of overt prostitution. (Quiet, discreet prostitution will likely, as it does today, continue unnoticed by most.) And we shall enjoy the benefit of having police free to better serve us in pursuing criminals who represent a real danger,  while the state will have that much less power over us.

Of course, I doubt this will prove a popular argument, as most conservatives tend to disagree with me. And, unlike most libertarians, who charge forth waving banners for NORML, I recognize prostitution and drug decriminalization are not wildly popular causes, and I would not make them my primary focus. However, I find I do have to mention them from time to time, if only to remind us that sometimes defending liberty means defending causes with which we have little sympathy, and yet that is the price we must pay. Freedom includes the freedom to do things we find distasteful, to adopt stands with which we disagree, and otherwise to do things we find disagreeable. Or, as I put it elsewhere, freedom is the freedom to be wrong, stupid and obnoxious. But it is important that we defend the rights of those we find so offensive, if for no other reason than that, to someone, somewhere, we are just as obnoxious and offensive, and so, unless we defend the rights of those we detest, we may one day find we are the detested minority being forced to do "the right thing" by others.

POSTSCRIPT II

Many liberals, and some libertarians, try to argue this point with the slogan "you can't legislate morality", which is a completely nonsensical position. Laws are nothing but legislated morality. What other basis exists for insisting we respect the rights of others?

I think they mean something along the lines of "you cannot legislate personal morality", but even there they may run into issues, as private morality clearly plays a role in those moral codes which govern interaction with others.

No, what they should argue is that the law has but a single purpose, and that is to protect individual rights. Thus, to use the law to try to protect us from our mistakes, or our bad decisions, when those choices in no way threaten the rights of others, is to misuse the state.

But, saying that would involve explaining quite an elaborate view of government, and one not much in vogue today, so perhaps it is best that they stick with simple soundbites, no matter how erroneous.

For those interested in a more thorough examination, I suggest "The Case for Small Government" and the many essays it cites. I would also recommend "The Problem of Pornography" and the series of essays "In Defense of Discrimination", "A Statute of Limitations for Race", "How to Handle Idiots", "Back Again", "Best of the Web gets It Very, Very Wrong" and  "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas""", all of which deal with relatively unpopular positions, while explaining why it is important to take a stand which so many emotionally oppose. And finally, I would suggest "Contradictory Beliefs and Practices", which takes a short look at why those who claim to oppose state control of the conscience, so often take steps that encourage just that.

Addendum (2012/11/24): I noticed that, in a few places, I apparently stopped writing for a while and picked back up without finishing the first thought. At least one sentence, the one about sexual relations being seen as properly taking place only within marriage, was left clearly unfinished. However, as I do not remember what my thought was, I cannot easily go back and fix it. So, flawed as this essay may be, I don't see an easy way to fix it. Thus, I will simply point out its flaws and admit to my mistakes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Geographic Determinism

It is time for me to make an embarrassing admission. I was taken in, albeit only partly, by Jared Diamond. When I first read Germs, Guns and Steel, I thought there was something to it. Or, to be more precise, I thought there was more to it than there is, as a few of his points are valid, though some for reasons completely different than he assumes. Since then, having thought about this more and more, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what makes Diamond so effective is what once allowed me, though at a much younger age, to be taken in by other authors, his conversational tone and relatively modest approach simply makes it too easy to agree with him. Though he often provides more anecdote than evidence, and sometimes contradicts himself, you are so caught up in his convivial writing style that you just don't notice.

Before I proceed, let me make a slight detour to point out that, while I have found any number of flaws in Mr. Diamond's arguments, I am not an ardent supporter of the book most often opposed to his, Carnage and Culture. While that work does have a number of points in its favor, I think it too has a problem with oversimplification, the very same problem as exists in the book it rebuts. Though, if forced to choose between the two, I think Carnage falls closer to the truth than Germs, but both are a bit too reductive to actually provide a useful understanding.

Perhaps it would help if I pointed out some of the random issues which caused me to see the problems with Mr. Diamond's work. The few I am going to use are not important in themselves, but they do serve to show how Mr. Diamond's arguments, while having the appearance of plausibility, often come up short when examined critically.

For example, at some point in the work, the author was discussing why some plants were adopted as food crops, while others were not. It was part of the larger argument about certain continents, and specific regions within them, were more favorable for the development of complex culture. However, one of the specific points I recall was the discussion of oak trees, and why, though acorns are edible, and there even exist some genetically "sweet" acorns, lacking the tannins that make most acorns bitter, the oak was never cultivated. Mr. Diamond argued that the oak was a poor candidate as the genetics producing the sweet acorns was complex and thus not easily selected by breeding, as well as the fact that oaks had a growth cycle of decades, making them unappealing as crops.

And it sounded pretty good, until you recall the story he told of the cultivation of maize (corn for my fellow Americans),  and the incredibly complex genetics involved both in moving from the small unappealing ancestor to modern corn, and even involved today in producing corn which is fertile and capable of producing a new harvest. I will grant that the genetics of corn is still less complex than the genetic behind tannin free acorns, but, on the other hand, acorns containing tannins are still edible, while sterile corn will produce nothing, so even if one failed to get the desired results from oak cross breeding, the results would be better than failed breeding of corn. Likewise, the long life cycle sounds impressive until one thinks of the many modern fruit trees which take quite a considerable time before yielding anything like an edible product, as well as some species of grape which require years of cultivation as well. While they may not reach the same time span as oaks require, it is obvious that humans have been willing to spend long periods cultivating crops.

All of which makes me think that Mr. Diamond's argument about oaks is rather less sound than it first seems, and, if it is faulty, then I have to ask, what about the many analogous arguments about similar crops in other lands? Is it not possible that those arguments are equally flimsy, and that the crops were not cultivated for reasons completely different from those put forth by Mr. Diamond?

 A similar problem exists when he discusses domestication of animals. It is his contention that African civilizations never domesticated zebras or gazelles because they are notoriously difficult to capture or train. And perhaps that is true. However, is it not likely that they are so because they are wild? And is it not likely that the ancestors of our present horses and goats and other animals were just as wild and hard to break? However, rather than consider this and say that perhaps there was some other reason animals were more widely domesticated in one region than another, he looks at the modern domesticated animals and, as they are more docile than completely wild animals, assumes their ancestors were equally docile, which is quite a leap to make.

And then there are his more substantial arguments, those relating to geography and politics. For example, he argues Europe benefits from an east-west axis, while Africa and the Americas have a north-south axis. in his theory, by being largely in the same latitudes, Europe has a uniform climate, allowing crops and discoveries to more easily spread, while the north-south orientation of other continents prohibit the same sharing of discoveries. Which sounds fine until you think about the differences between the climates of, say, England, Italy, Poland, the Ukraine and Finland. While largely in the same latitudes, the mild winters and summers of the western oceanic zones differ markedly from the warmer Mediterranean, and both have little in common with the extremes of temperatures in the more inland areas of eastern Europe and the beginnings of the Eurasian steppes. And that is not even considering the differences caused by elevation and weather patterns. While it is true that there is probably less difference Helsinki and Madrid than between Cairo and Kinshasa, there is still a considerable difference, more than enough to produce completely different clothing, construction and, yes, foodstuffs, giving lie to Mr. Diamond's premise.

A similar problem occurs when he speaks of the problems that beset China. He argues that the uniform coast of China allowed for a single government, which then meant single decisions, such as the withdrawal from expansion and exploration, would effect the entire region. on the other hand, he argues that the valleys and mountains of Greece allowed for many small states that could make many different decisions and avoid uniform bad decisions. Which is right in one regard. Singular governments can make bad decisions, that is the basis for my arguments for federalism. My only argument would be with the supposed role of geography. After all, China, despite its supposedly favorable geography, has, at many times, been split into multiple states. And, despite geographical barriers, both the Gauls and Romans unified large parts of Europe, and Greece, the model he uses for a divided region, has been united multiple times as well.

I could go on, but rather let me close this by making one essential point. Mr. Diamond often argues that those who write about the development of European culture often seem to find in the development of that culture signs of some innate European superiority. And, if anything, it is to debunk that assumption that he wrote his work. And I would like to agree with him on this one point, there is nothing inherently superior in European genetics. Nor is there any inherent superiority in European culture, at least in its early stages. In fact, we can see in Africa, in Mesoamerica, in Asia and elsewhere many cultures which followed a very similar early pattern. Some which even followed many of the later developments. They simply had the misfortune to either start much later than those in Europe, to fall to other powers, to collapse for one reason or another, or otherwise fail to develop. What makes Europe noteworthy is that the cultures there made some very beneficial decisions at the right times, which opened many doors, and they made those decisions before many other cultures. Of course, there is much more to say to elaborate upon this, but in essence, Europeans spread to the corners of the earth, and had their cultures emulated worldwide because they made these decisions first, and they managed to survive where others did not. There is nothing inherently superior about European races, but, having developed as they did, there was eventually something quite admirable about the way those races developed into European culture.

Bar Fights, Riots and Drug Markets - The Limits of Law

I know that I am in a very small minority, those who argue for limiting government entirely to questions of protecting individual rights, and leaving all other matters, such as prostitution, drugs, public intoxication and the rest to social controls. However, I think, if people really thought about the issue, they might see it is not as implausible a position as one might think.

It struck me while I was reading about the border reivers on the Scottish-English border in the 16th and very early 17th century. In that case, there was quite a bit of law, not just the laws of each nation, but three wardens on each side, keepers of Liddesdale, Tynesdale, Redesdale and elsewhere, as well as land sergeants, lords of various strong points and so on, and yet, despite all that law the land was subject to constant theft, kidnapping, extortion and murder. All because the society itself had little objection to such a system.

And that led me to think about our system. We have a tendency to rely on laws, to think laws will protect us, but that is, in some regards, an illusion. I pointed this out when writing of gun control, though at the time I did not notice the larger significance. In "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding" I wrote:
I have long made a simple argument about gun control's ineffectiveness. If you have something valuable, say the contents of a bank vault, and wish to protect it, do you put up signs saying "please do not rob me"? Or do you hire armed guards? If the latter, then why do you think gun control, which effectively amounts to putting up a sign, would work? And the same applies to the FDA. If someone is already going to risk arrest by knowingly selling fraudulent cures, then why would it deter them to add another law? They already know they are breaking a law, why would it make them uncomfortable to know they are breaking another? Especially when the original fraud statutes carry long prison sentences, while the regulatory codes usually have nothing worse than a fine, or a minimal jail term.
If gun control laws have very limited utility, and I assume most conservatives will agree with my analysis here, then what of our other laws?

Well, we can see how thin a protection they are, whenever we look at a riot. Riots are nothing more than society at large deciding to cast off the fetters of the rule of law. The laws are still there, the police still try to enforce them, but without general public support, the relatively small number of police provide a very weak control, and we can see how little distance separates us from chaos, as well as how weak a defense laws alone can be. Without public support, laws are little more than empty words.

The same can be seen in any instance where the law breaks down. Bar fights are possible, not because the laws allow them, but because in certain bars, at certain times, the public no longer cares for the laws. And the same carelessness makes possible things such as Baltimore's notorious open air drug markets. It is not a lack of law enforcement, or a particularly bad police force that allows them, it is that certain neighborhoods have simply accepted that drug markets will exist.

If you doubt this, then ask yourself, why aren't there suburban drug markets? There are plenty of middle class suburban kids who would love to buy drugs on their street corners, and others who would love to sell them. Everything that exists in the urban drug markets exists in the suburbs. Perhaps the suburban kids are not quite as comfortable with the risk of death, but the many school shooting show us not all are completely opposed either. And, to be honest, urban kids became comfortable with death because of drug shootings, they did not start shooting because they were unconcerned with death. Give us a decade or two of middle class drug markets and the middle class kids will be as fatalistic about death as the urban kids.

So, why are the middle class drug markets not to be found?

The suburbs have not yet given up on law. There are still enough who would stand against such a situation, who would not just call the police, or provide evidence, but would simply oppose the creation of such markets. And, as I am arguing, that social disapproval is stronger than laws alone. People may be willing to stand against social disapproval from time to time, and a few might be willing to face disapproval all of the time, but most people simply lack the will to be constantly ostracized. And so, while it seems a weak defense, the truth is that social stigma is much more powerful than we imagine.

Of course, were we truly liberated from the restraints of law, we would also have more ability to show disapproval. We could refuse service in stores and restaurants, deny access to hotels, and generally deny any entry into polite society to those who met with disapproval, and that would be an even stronger force. But even with just this minimal disapproval, we can see how much power it holds. And how little power laws alone hold. Laws without support are powerless, while disapproval, even without laws to back it, is often enough to control large crowds.

Clearly, this topic deserves much more discussion, and I am equally sure many will find reasons to disagree with my position. So, for the moment, I will leave my argument here and wait for replies, while I give some thought to other examples, as well as the mechanisms by which we exercise this control. In a few days I shall come back and expand upon what I have written here.

POSTSCRIPT

As with my arguments for gun control ("Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding"), history offers suggestions that social control might be more than adequate to control various societal problems. For example, until relatively recently in history most drugs were legal, not even regulated, and yet they were not an uncontrollable plague. Similarly, drinking has been legal, illegal and regulated, and yet the problems related to alcohol seem to bear little relationship to the amount of regulation. As I said, I will approach this subject again soon, I just wanted to forestall some of those who would argue that once you legalize drugs people would all become addicts. (If that were true, then why would not eliminating gun control laws lead to everyone going on shooting sprees? The logic, or lack thereof, is largely the same.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hunter-Gatherer Mistake

I wrote before about Jeremy Rifkin's Entropy ("A New Look At Intervention", "Liberal Tolerance"), and, while it is a rather old and mostly forgotten work, it is still of interest, as it set forth many decades ago errors that seem to be enjoying a renewed popularity today. For example, the foolish idea that somehow environmentalism is supported by the laws of thermodynamics. Or, a mistake I have seen popping up among the "Occupy" crowd and their ilk, the idea that we only work so much because of our evil capitalist system, and that happy hunter-gatherers manage to survive quite well with very little labor. (See "The "Occupy" Mindset" for a recent mention.)

Well, let us start with a simple point, and one which may seem to cut the legs out from under my argument. Modern hunter-gatherers, in the few places they continue to exist, often do manage to survive with only a few hours of work a day hunting for game and gathering food. That much is true.

The problem here is that we are looking at a remnant of an older way, and the only reason that remnant survives is that they occupy the areas best suited to hunter-gatherer life. In other words, if we wanted to reproduce this lifestyle world-wide, even with reduced populations, we would see massive starvation. The few remaining hunter-gatherers continue in that lifestyle because they occupy the "sweet spot" of that style of life, an area where food is abundant and easily procured, weather is favorable, producing infrequent famine, and so on. If they were to try to expand this system to nearby regions, or if their population were to increase significantly, we would see them undergo the crises that led to the adoption of agriculture, that is massive famines, or, in the best case, the need to work very hard to merely survive as food supplies diminished.

Let us think about this. If hunting and gathering was so easy, and left so much free time, why did we turn to agriculture? There are some silly popular historians who argue things such as the appeal of beer led us to settle down, but even that is idiotic. If we truly wanted beer, wild grains can be fermented by roving tribes (as proved by the Celtiberians during their guerrilla war with the Romans during the late Republic), in fact many migratory tribes have some variation on alcohol, be it fermented honey or fermented milk. No, we adopted farming for a simple reason, food was in short enough supply that farming either provided more food for less labor than hunting and gathering, or else it avoided famines that were frequent enough they made farming appealing1.

Or, to put it in the most simple form, we moved from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture because, initially, it provided food more reliably with less effort, at least when viewed over an extended period of time. Not that that was the sole benefit. By providing a surplus of food, in a way hunting and gathering could not, it allowed us to establish some specialization. People could give up total individual autonomy, or the very limited specialization possible under hunter-gatherer existence, and allowed for full time specialization, which provided us with more good for less effort. With specialized hunters, specialized leather workers, specialized carpenters and so on, we could have more goods, and more services than we could as hunters. And, beyond that, we could have goods and services we could not have at all under hunting and gathering2,3.

And the same is true with every step along the path to our current level of development. We have adopted changes because they provided some improvement upon our earlier stage. Yes, in a few cases they were responses to shortages, such as the change from wood to coal, but in many cases, though the new resource was more difficult to obtain, or required improved technologies, the change actually proved superior. (Eg. Coal, while harder to obtain than wood, provides a superior energy source in many regards.)

Thus, it is foolish to speak of our modern society as being driven by some artificial desire for consumption or some sort of system which tricks us into working more. Hard labor is a fact of life in all but the most underpopulated and food rich environments, and those cannot exist long, as population growth, or simple chance changes of weather can eliminate them rapidly. We have progressed to where we are because the steps we took were beneficial to us4. We either obtained more for less effort, or obtained greater security. Whatever the reason, we were not tricked into abandoning paradise as many absurd primitivists would have us believe. We left behind the primitive for a very good reason.

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1. There was obviously in many cases an intermediate pastoral stage, where man had flocks but may or may not have practiced settled agriculture as well.  It did not seem worthwhile to consider this intermediate stage in any detail as the arguments are the same. Man gave up hunting for herding, and then herding alone for herding and farming or just farming, all because it provided greater security or less effort. The specific forms this agriculture took seem irrelevant to the larger argument.

2. If anyone doubts the superiority of settled agriculture, we need only look at how elements of settled agriculture appear in almost every culture world wide. Most hunter-gatherer tribes, at some point, developed some elements of settled farming, even if it was only a seasonal settlement, or the intermittent and irregular tending of especially productive regions. There exist, and have existed, very few groups which remained exclusive hunter-gatherers, without a trace of herding or farming.

3. Hunter-gatherers must, of necessity, migrate. Without settled agriculture, settled life is impossible. And without settled life, accumulation of wealth is difficult. In addition, without settlement, many professions become quite difficult. It is, for example, difficult to conceive of migratory libraries, or extensive scholarship and teaching on the part of migratory tribes. Similarly, metalworking, beyond the most basic crafting of near pure ore found in shallow deposits is impossible without some sort of settlement.


4. not that all changes are always beneficial. My point is that we make changes because we see them as providing benefits, and, if we persist in them for a very long time, then they usually have proven their value. There are some exceptions. For example, our adoption of fiat currency, which we thought would enrich us while it actually makes us continually poorer. But, in that case, there are two other factors. First, it is hard to identify the root cause, and, second, we have yet to persist in this foolishness long enough for the collapse to come and force us to rethink our policies. However, with long term changes, such as our move to settled agriculture, or the adoption of capitalism, it has been long enough for us to decide the value of such changes.

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POSTSCRIPT

Some similar arguments can be found in my posts "A Beast's Life", "Contradictory Positions", "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy",  "Opinion Masquerading as Fact" and "Deceiving Themselves?".


A Passing Thought

As I was walking around Yorktown I was struck by something I should I have realized long ago, but which, for whatever reason only occurred to me today. We have a tendency to think of the American Revolution as something unique, but, in reality, it was, in many ways, just one more colonial war between Britain and France. In fact, viewed objectively, without French support, while we might have eventually won, we definitely would have been fighting for many, many more years than we were, with much less adequate artillery, and with much more ill equipped troops.

I only mention this because it is often informative to realize how much our perception of history is skewed by our individual perspective. Nor is this limited to failing to recognize that our war of independence was largely just another battle in the ongoing struggle between England and France, but even something as important as the outcome of the war. While we tend to think that we won the revolution by our repeated victories over England, convincing them we would not stop fighting, in truth, a far larger factor was simple expense. We did not so much convince England that they could not win, as we convinced them that winning would cost more than our colonies were worth. It is a small point, but one which we tend to ignore.

I will probably write a bit more about this when I have time to think more about how our perspective changes our perception of things, but I would like to mention one amusing bit of reading I came upon a while ago. In his Flashman series, Fraser has his Flashman character speculate about the United States, and especially our Civil War and ruminate that we might have been better off had we never fought our war of independence. As England had abolished slavery early in the 19th century, we likely would have never had our own divisive civil war, and, as England was already granting greater autonomy to many of her colonies in the mid 19th century, it was likely we would have been both independent and united before the 19th century ended It is an arguable point, but it is an interesting thought.

Well, more on both thoughts later. Just thought it was an interesting passing thought, and, as it reminded me of the Flashman quote, decided to share that as well.

Addicts?

I am often amused to hear people talk about how "pathetic" smokers are. How they crowd outside in the rain and cold to feed their habit and so on, completely forgetting that the reason smokers have to cluster outside is because others force them to do so. Think of it this way. There is another habit that fills people's bodies with stimulants, stains their teeth, forces them to constantly feed their habit or undergo withdrawal, and the users often say they cannot function without it. Yes, it is coffee. If we made coffee drinkers do it outside, they would look much like smokers, clustered in the cold and rain. yet since coffee is an accepted drug, we do not mock them the way we do smokers. A large part of what seems so "pathetic" about smokers is forced upon them by a society which has decided they are somehow less deserving of sympathy than actual criminals.

And that brings me to my point. Smoking, for all the opprobrium we heap upon it, is not much different than drinking alcohol, drinking coffee, even eating meat. All have some negative health connotations, and yet are enjoyed by those who engage in the activity. However, some of these are viewed as socially acceptable and others are not, and so we pretend that those addicted* to coffee are somehow different than those who smoke. Yet, in truth, both are doing things that differ very little**.

Of course, some may hear this and take it as an invitation to ban alcohol, coffee, meat and a host of other "dangers", but I would ask the opposite. By what right do we ban actions of others that are no threat to others?*** By what right do we say "This activity seems unacceptable to me, and I recognize no benefit, and so no one can do it"? If we were to consistently apply this logic, then atheists could ban religion, as they see it as harmful and find no benefit in it. Those who find the ideas in the writings of Jefferson or Madison dangerous could ban those books, as they bring no benefit. Likewise, those who think coffee is harmful without benefit could ban that.

And the list could go on.

I know, many will think this is a small matter, and wonder why smoking is such a big deal. The same argument was offered when I spoke about drug laws, but the point is significant. If the government can decide what is "worthwhile" and what is not, if it can decide what is "of no benefit" then where do we draw the line? The whole point of freedom is to allow every individual to decide what is worthwhile for himself, regardless of the opinions of others. Once we accept that the values of some are not worthwhile, or that some individuals can force their values on others, we no longer have freedom.

But, as with my writing on drugs, I am sure some will find reason after reason to argue against this. The health risk, the "societal cost" all the dodges used remove freedom time after time. How about this? We stop paying for others' health care, and then let them decide whether or not they will accept the costs if they find it beneficial. And, if you worry about smokers forcing others to breath their smoke, why not allow every business to decide whether or not to allow smoking, then nonsmokers can avoid those places which allow smoking, while smokers are not driven out of every store by government fiat?

Or have we forgotten freedom to such a degree, that the values of the majority can be forced on the minority even when there is no question of rights being violated? And, if we have, then what is there to prevent the state from doing anything at all?

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* I argued before ("Some Stray Thoughts on Drug Laws", "Emotional Appeals Are Not Proof") that addiction is used too freely in our culture and applied to situations where there is no physical withdrawal syndrome. However, in this case, nicotine and caffeine both do cause some withdrawal syndromes, so the term is, for once, completely appropriate.

** I know society has been sold on second hand smoke having near mythical potential for harm, but most reasonable studies show the risk is quite small. (It is quite amusing watching people in cities, inhaling the exhaust from a bus, then curling their lip at a cigarette passing fifty feet away from them. As if the incredibly diffuse particles from that single cigarette could match the concentrated carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other fumes from the buses and cars passing less than 10 feet from them.)

*** Yes, nonsmokers talk about second hand smoke, but then try to ban smoking even in private homes, or in tobacco shops where only smokers enter. And, when confronted with the small risk of second hand smoke, they then turn to the "foul smell". However, until we ban cheap perfumes and enforce rules about bathing, I think the "foul smell" argument a rather weak one, to say the least. As I recall, there is no constitutional guarantee against unpleasant odors.

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POSTSCRIPT

Clearly the same argument applies to drug laws as well, and I would argue that drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pretty much any other private activity which violates no rights falls into the same category. It probably will meet with disapproval from some, but whether you agree or not, you must answer the question, if the government can ban drugs to "protect you from yourself", then what can't the government do? If we are to be treated as if we were all wards of the state, to be protected from our own supposed ignorance, then what justification exists for us asserting any sort of independence? And what limit could there logically be drawn on government power? (Cf  "Who Does It Harm?", "It Doesn't Matter to ME...", "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of "Social Costs"", "Drug Legalization", "For Your Own Good", "The Right Way", Utopianism and Disaster", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "The Threat of Perfection", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "In Defense of Discrimination", "The Problem of Pornography", "Free Speech, Absolute Rights and the Absurdity of "Balancing Tests"", "The Case for Small Government", "Inconsistent Reasoning", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, And Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency" and "In Praise of Contracts".)

UPDATE (2012/12/30): I forgot my older post "Socialism on the Installment Plan", which describes quite well the step by step attack on smoking, from international flights, to all flights, to smoking rooms to smoke free buildings to outdoor smoking bans and beyond.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Unpublished Reply

I was reading through a variety of articles today, on a number of essentially random subjects, when I followed various links discussing the question of whether or not Patton held antisemitic beliefs, and whether those beliefs had any influence on the conduct of the Second World War. It was an interesting debate, though I am not going to discuss it here. What was particularly interesting was the question of whether or not it played a role in our handling of the middle eastern and north African moslems.

Given our modern obsession with "stability" over all, including Foggy Bottom's willingness to embrace almost anything coming out of the middle east provided it won't produce any significant change, if Patton was responsible for maintaining the Vichy era antisemitic laws in former French colonies such as Morocco, it would make him responsible for quite a lot of future suffering, though, as I said, the debate is far from conclusive, at least from what I have read so far. (While hardly a Patton fan, and knowing that he was definitely somewhat eccentric to say the least, I am still not convinced that some of the claims put forth have been adequately established.)

But, what inspired me to write was not the Patton debate, but rather a link which I found while following that debate, one leading to a site linking to an article written by the Anti-Defamation League,  discussing the repugnant Mr. Carto and the Liberty Lobby.

Before going any farther, let me put forth a traditional disclaimer. Despite the claims of many Holocaust deniers and other "revisionists", I do not reject their beliefs out of some sort of knee jerk reaction, nor because I am some sort of agent of the Zionist Conspiracy for World Domination. I am completely open to any argument. I gave fair hearing to the argument that FDR provoked Pearl Harbor, though the evidence proved lacking. I was, for a time, willing to give the birthers a fair hearing, until their evidence proved less than compelling and they began to ask me to take too much on faith*. I even gave the truthers a chance, despite the fact that their initial claims sounded so far fetched. I admit, I am critical of conspiracy theorists**, but I do not just dump groups into that category. I wait until I have heard their arguments, and then decide whether or not they are trying to work from conclusions back to evidence. ("Backwards Logic") If so, then they end up being called conspiracy theorists, and, as far as I have seen, the Holocaust deniers fall into this category. They are not seeking the truth, they find the Holocaust unacceptable for any number of reasons and seek to find ways to disprove it. That is the methodology of the lawyer and the polemicist, not the historian, and so, when I dismiss them, it is not because I am close minded, but because I want evidence, not propaganda.

But I am getting rather far afield here. Interesting as Holocaust deniers, and claims of antisemitic generals might be, that is not why I wrote. No, what inspired me to write this was a single, very simple, statement in the article I read, and one that most would have passed over without a thought. And that statement was, quite simply, the author's insistence that the Liberty Lobby was "on the far right", or made up of "right wing extremists."

Now, I have written before that I find our present political spectrum absurd ("The Political Spectrum"), and have pointed out many times that one could just as easily argue nazis were creatures of the left as the right. ("A Nonsensical Debate", "A Few Stray Thoughts From My Reading", "NSDAP Follies", not to mention the classic "The Mystery of Fascism") We even have quite a bit of contemporary evidence that many Israel hater and Hitler fans fall on the left as on the right. (See "I Found Him!") After all, how many times have we heard left wingers talk about the "Israel Lobby", Jewish "neocons", and all the rest? Not to mention the fact that the one nationalist group which is closest to acceptable in American politics, the Nation of Islam, is clearly on the left. So it strikes me as insane to categorize Nazis and their fans as somehow politically "right" just because that was the way they were categorized in 1920's German politics.

And, as you can tell, it is a matter which makes me rather upset. And so, when I stumbled upon it, I was tempted to write a comment on the site, to let them know how absurd I found their description. A comment I will reproduce here:
As a conservative Jew, I have to object to characterizing neo-Nazis as part of "the right". The Nazis and their successors have no more in common with modern American conservatism than, say, modern American liberals have in common with Stalin and his gulag system, if anything, less. Yes, there are those who claim to be conservatives and express Nazi sympathies, but I have seen an equal number who express left wing sympathies and the same views (Nation of Islam comes to mind as a politically leftist group with virulent antisemitic and nationalist beliefs.) I know it is traditional to consider fascism and Naziism as "the right", but in truth, that absurd political spectrum running from communism to fascism with freedom as some sort of compromise between two evil extremes is just laughable.

Sorry, I know this sounds like a bit of a rant, but I hate to see, say, the Cato institute and the Liberty Lobby thrown together as somehow identical. Would those on the left like to be continually associated with Pol Pot and Stalin? Even as a shorthand, or traditional description, associating Nazis with conservatives is just insulting.

The Nazis do not fit comfortably in the spectrum of modern American politics. Their economics, though masked with betriebsfuehrer, were essential those of the socialists and communists, while their political agenda was the nationalism of the mid century German conservatives. Neither position has a real corollary in modern American politics, and so to call them "far right" is to unfairly associate modern conservatives with a completely alien political belief.
However, the moment I wrote the final word, I wondered why I had bothered. I have had a number of encounters with the ADL, and its supporters, and it is pretty clear that they represent the liberal end of Jewish political opinion. Extreme as they may be found by some, they certainly are not well disposed toward conservative political causes. Nor are most who spend their time arguing against "fascism". Strangely, despite the fact that in modern times as many on the supposed left as on the supposed right have committed genocide or other atrocities (Pol Pot, Stalin, Ceausescu, Mengitsu, etc.), it seems many cannot get over their preconception that conservatism leads to totalitarianism, while the left would lead to freedom, if only they found the right people.("An End to War", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "The Wrong People")

And so I did not bother to post. I know, I probably should have, if only in the remote hope that someone with an open mind might have stumbled across it and maybe been led to ask if they might be wrong. But I didn't. Given the current climate, far more likely, I either would simply be moderated out of existence, or swamped with irrelevant comments arguing that the left is the only true liberator and making irrelevant arguments and personal attacks. Perhaps the experience of the Idiot Twin trolls has worn me out, but I don't have time for such debates, especially when they have so little hope of becoming anything more than childish "You are/you aren't" squabbles. Sadly, in the current climate, it seems I am destined to do little more than preach to the choir and hope for a random open minded stranger. Both sides seem to have dug in their heels and have little time to listen to the arguments of the other. And so we see little more than childish criticisms and irrelevant sound bites.

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* See "An Interesting Question", "A Small Update on the Birth Certificate Controversy", "Birth Certificate Controversy Revisited", "One More Post on the Birth Certificate Controversy", "Really, The Last One on This Topic", "Wrong is Wrong", "A New Take on an Old Topic", "A Brief Follow Up", "Slate Imitates Me, But I Really Don't Mind", "Legislative Intent", "Not A Smoking Gun", "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "An Impossible Argument to Lose", "While I am Away... (A Question on "Natural Born")" and "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida".

** See "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Logic", "False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Tips for Conspiracy Theory Buffs #1", "Rewriting History Concerning World War II", "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small", "Slieght of Hand", "Just... Wow!".

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POSTSCRIPT

In college I knew someone who worked as a relatively low ranking gopher for The Spotlight. I think he may have been sympathetic to some of their views (and I know of at least one of his friends who certainly believed some of the Holocaust denial position they espoused), but I never really pressed the issue, as I felt vaguely embarrassed when I heard him putting forward some quite dubious historical assertions. (Recall, this was in the 1980's, when we still thought it bad manners to engage in political fights in polite company.) Before anyone assumes this means there is some tie between conservatives and Nazis, despite my claims to the contrary, my friends at the time were, as was I, politically far to the left. If anything, I was left of my friends, being at the time a full fledged Bakuninist. I admit it was but a short while later that I underwent my change of heart and became a short-lived member of the Rand cult, but at that time I was certainly no conservative, and my friends who were so open to The Spotlight were at least very liberal politically, if not socialist/communist in their outlook. So it would be a mistake to read too much political meaning into this small personal disclosure.

POSTSCRIPT II

I know this runs directly contrary to the argument I made in "The Demand for Villains" and elsewhere, that we should try to reach those on the other side, and persuade them of their errors, but time has made me wonder if there is much hope. Yes, I made the jump from far left to far right, and I know a few others who did as well, but it seems as time goes on, more and more of us become such strident extremists that no amount of evidence will sway us from our chosen point of view. But, perhaps I am wrong, maybe I will go back and post a slightly less strident and confrontational post, try to persuade them that there is a world of difference separating the modern right and the Nazis who they think reside there. But then again, as should be clear by now, I am hardly the model of diplomacy, so maybe I should wait to find someone with better people skills to carry that banner.

Administrative Note

I have a little free time tonight, as my son is visiting his mother for a few hours, so I may start transferring some old blog posts once again. If I do, please note the small print at the end of the articles saying when they were originally written. Otherwise, it may seem I am a bit crazy, writing today about Obama's chances of winning in 2008, or why McCain is preferable to letting Obama win. I promise I will do my best to make clear what is a reprint of an old post and what is new material.

I am sorry to interrupt my new material to copy over essays from 2008 to the present from my old blog, but I cite those essays frequently and I worry that Townhall is getting ready to completely dismantle their blogs. I would hate to have to find links for my articles on archive.org, especially since archive.org is such an unreliable source. It is great for those things it did archive, but, unfortunately, what it archived is a bit hit or miss, made worse by the robots.txt files put up by some sites. And so, while I could probably get by with archive.org and a handful of essential reprints, I feel more secure having all of my old material copied here.

That being the case, please bear with me while I move over old material. I promise it won't take forever (though with about 3000-4000 old posts still to go, it will take some time), and I do promise to break up the monotony of old essays with a number of new posts, to keep things interesting.

And who knows? Some of my old essays were quite good. Maybe my readers will find some real gems among them, maybe even prefer the old stuff to my new writing.