Tuesday, August 27, 2013

No War in Syria!

The US government is preparing to go to war against another country.
Assuredly the situation in Syria is dire. But in order to avenge the killing of Syrians by poison gas, our government proposes to kill more men, women, and children. Is there any justification for that? I have not seen it so far.
The Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction” scam is still vivid in memory and so one may be forgiven for being slightly skeptical of the claims being made about the use of poison gas in Syria. But let us assume that it is indeed true that Pres. Assad of Syria has used poison gas against his own people.
There seem to be five reasons that are offered for our attacking Syria.
1. President Obama has repeatedly said that if the Syrian government uses poison gas there would be retaliation from us. Nevertheless in spite of serious evidence that poison gas had been used, we did nothing. Defenders of the proposed attack on Syria claim that this inaction has made the US lose credibility. We need to attack Assad now in order to retain our credibility.
We are going to kill men, women, and children to regain our credibility? Credibility as what – mass murderers?
One would think that the great caution with which Pres. Obama has approached the prospect of more killing has earned us more respect than sending off a bunch of missiles into Syria.
2. Secretary of State Kerry, with his customary self righteousness, declared that using poison gas was a “moral obscenity.” Assuming, apparently, that it is our job to punish moral transgressions, he hints that this obscenity will not go unpunished.
One would like to have two questions answered about that defense of attacking Syria. Is it really our job to punish moral transgressions committed by other nations? If so, why are we not bombing China for the treatment of Tibet, or Russia for their destruction of Chechnia?Our moral policing of the world is clearly quite selective. One would like to hear Sec. Kerry defends that selectivity.
The second question is obvious. The US has done horrible damage to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Vietnam. Should we not refrain from setting ourselves up as the world's arbiter of political morality?
3. The proposed attack on Syria is defended on the grounds that the continuing civil war in that country tends to destabilize all of the Mideast. For a layperson that is a difficult claim to understand, let alone verify. But suppose it is true, will sending cruise missiles into Syria help to stabilize the region?
This third reason for attacking Syria is as hopelessly lame as the previous ones. If we want to stabilize the region, we need to support the dictator in Syria and help him to put an end to the uprising as quickly as possible, never mind the lives it will cost.
4. Sending missiles into Syria is thought to deter future uses of poison gas. Now the threat of such retaliation clearly has not deterred the president of Syria. Will he be deterred when we actually send missiles into his country? That is by no means obvious.
Other countries clearly are not going to be deterred from using poison gas. They have no reason to think that the United States will attack any country anywhere at any time for use in poison gas.
The deterrent argument is feeble.
5. This last reason comes from the recently elected Senator from Massachusetts, Joseph Markey, who proclaimed that it is essential that the United States “be a leader on this issue.” Should the United States really be a leader in killing civilians, or on escalating a difficult military situation by getting into the middle of a civil war?
Think before you speak, Sen. Markey.
If there is a good reason for killing more people, let us see it.

As it stands the proposed actions are completely unacceptable.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Were They Thinking?

You may recall the presidential election of the year 2000. The election was very close, the winner would have to get a majority in the State of Florida. According to some observers, there were a good number of irregularities in the Florida voting. The governor of Florida was the brother of the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. The secretary of state, Kathleen Harris, was a high level Republican functionary. A conservative Supreme Court threw the election to the Republican candidate, George Bush. The Republicans stole the election.

This story is widely accepted, although, obviously, not everybody believes it. There was then, and still is, disagreement about that presidential election.

Now imagine this scenario. The then president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, sends two of his trusted advisors to the United States. They talk to various notables, particularly in Florida, and make a number of public statements such as: "The status quo is unacceptable. Some things got to give" and "Our purpose is to try to encourage our friends towards a process that can avert a very serious situation that can affect not only the United States, but also [the entire Western Hemisphere.]"

What do you think public reactions in our country would have been to these Egyptians coming here and being critical of our political process and telling us what we should do? Public protests, burning the Egyptian flag and the picture of Hosni Mubarak? Without doubt. Would some people have gone so far as to smash shop windows in stores owned by Egyptians? Very possibly. Might there have been an attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Washington DC? Who knows.

You get the picture. We would have been terribly upset if Egyptians had interfered in our domestic affairs and in our presidential election. That is surely obvious.

But that does not stop Pres. Obama from sending Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham to Egypt to comment publicly on the military takeover of the government and the arrest of the previously elected President Mohamed Morsi. The statements I ascribed to the imaginary Egyptians coming to the US after the 2000 presidential elections were actually quotes—suitably edited-- from what McCain and Graham had to say what they were in Egypt. In international diplomacy – if you can call it that – the Golden Rule does not apply. We do not hesitate to do to others what we should definitely resent if it were done to us.

No doubt, the United States is a larger country than Egypt. Our military is more powerful – read that as 'is capable of much greater destruction' – than the Egyptian military. We are richer and, of course, have a much larger public debt than Egypt. But does any of this justify this bullying, this acting the big brother who knows better, this being the people without whose good advice other countries will make horrible mistakes?

What were they thinking?

Pres. Ronald Reagan used to refer to Mexico and to all of Latin America as "our backyard." Has Egypt and the entire Mideast become our backyard because we brought death and destruction to two countries in the region? If we need to meddle in the affairs of other countries, do we need to do it publicly by trying to humiliate them while actually seriously embarrassing ourselves?

The whole episode is terribly awkward. It does not make one proud to be an American.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Sex Offenders" 

The diligent reporter of a local weekly publication discovered that sex offenders live in some of the larger apartment buildings in the city. He went and interviewed a few residents, building owners and managers, as well as local politicians. He was clearly trying to be fair and stressed that protecting the public was important but so is protecting the rights of convicted felons.
But the entire discussion used the prevailing stereotypes which make it impossible to discuss these problems usefully.
In order to see this, ask yourself these questions
1. Who are these sex offenders? When the media discuss sex offenders they never fail to mention protecting our children in the next paragraph. The implication is clear: all sex offenders are pedophiles. But that is of course completely false. Among sex offenders are adults who prey on children and others who force sex on adults. But there are also exhibitionists, there are consumers and purveyors of child pornography, (only a very small percentage of consumers of child pornography ever molest anyone sexually), there are stalkers and gropers, and persons guilty of sexual harassment, and, of course, persons arrested for urinating in public.
2. How dangerous are unknown pedophiles to our children? The threat of sexual harm to children and adults from strangers are relatively small. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults or molestations come from people the victim knows, their relatives or acquaintances of the family.
3. What are the criteria for being labeled a sex offender? A certain number of people are called sex offenders for quite bizarre reasons. Being arrested for urinating in public will end you up as a sex offender. If a 16-year-old boy has sex with a 14-year-old girl, he will spend the remainder of his life labeled a sex offender. The global label of "sex offender" is applied widely and wildly and sometimes quite inappropriately. This practice stirs up unnecessary fears and hatred.
4. Can sex offenders ever put their crimes behind them and become regular citizens? If arrested, tried, and convicted, sex offenders in these different categories spend many years in prison. Having once served their time, they emerge from prison only to have to register as sex offenders. In many states their faces will show up on sex offender websites with their address and other information. Not surprisingly many convicted sex offenders have serious difficulties finding a job, and frequently need to keep changing their address because they are expelled from their current apartment. A few have seen their houses burned down. Their punishment never ceases.
5. Is that fair? We live in a dangerous world and have good reasons to fear for our children. It is important to know where the dangers lurk. But the registries of sex offenders have to do with more than the safety of our children and ourselves. After all we do not have registries of murderers or those guilty of armed robbery. We do not have registries of men convicted of family violence. We do not have registries of men who have abandoned children they fathered and the mothers of those children. It would surely be important for women looking for partners and for love to know that this attractive guy spent time in prison for beating up a previous partner and her children, or to know that this hunk has fathered children elsewhere and abandoned them.
Scams victimizing older people are quite common. It would be helpful to seniors to be able to check out a list of persons convicted of taking advantage of the elderly before trusting someone with their hard-earned money.
This morning's paper reports that banks still foreclose on mortgages illegally. It would be very useful for those looking for a mortgage to know which banks ignore the laws governing foreclosures. It would protect many sick people if there were a registry of compounding pharmacies selling unsafe products.
But we only have registries for sex offenders. And those registries includes a significant number of persons who should not be punished anymore than they have been already.
6. How dangerous are convicted sex offenders? Registries of sex offenders are often justified on the grounds that sex offenders tend to reoffend. In recent years there have been many studies of this. - “Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense –– 43 percent of sex offenders versus 68 percent of non-sex offenders. But sex offenders were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison –– 5.3 percent of sex offenders versus 1.3 percent of non-sex offenders.” (http://ac360.blogs. cnn.com/2009/08/28/recidivism-rates-for-sex-offenders/). Not only is the recidivism rate for sex offenders lower than that for some other categories of criminals. But many sex offenders are arrested a second time not for sexual crimes but for some other infractions of the law. The sexual threat they pose is relatively small
By using a general category of “sex offender” we tar very different persons with the same brush; we thereby do serious injustices. Some of the people included in the registry provisions should not be there. A significant number of people who were in prison for sexual offenses have since their release led blameless lives. They should be taken off the registries. We should drop the general designation "sex offenders" and differentiate between consumers of child pornography, for instance, and exhibitionists, and pedophiles, and those guilty of incest.

Journalists should resist using misleading stereotypes even if that titillates their readers (and therefore sells newspapers) because it perpetuates existing injustices.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Do we have a race problem?

The Boston Globe reports a Pew poll which shows that in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, nine out of 10 African-Americans believe that there is not enough discussion of racial problems in the United States. Among whites two thirds believe that "the issue of race is getting too much attention."
And now there is the study coming out of Harvard and Berkeley that shows that upward mobility in the United States differs sharply in different locations. "Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data show, with the odds notably low in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis; Raleigh, N.C.; Indianapolis; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. In contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains, and West, including in Boston, New York, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and large swaths of California and Minnesota.”
The factors that seem to make a difference are identified as follows "All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups. Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.”
That last sentence made me sit up. The researchers, as presented by a NY Times reporter, are at pains to minimize the effects of race on upward mobility. The fact that white and black residents of Atlanta both have low upward mobility shows no more than that race is not the only reason for differential mobility. But look at some of the other reasons given: poor people living in neighborhoods where people are better off, are more likely to be upwardly mobile. Now ask yourself: are African American poor people as likely to be mixed into a neighborhood of more affluent white Americans as white American poor? The obvious answer is no.

Another hindrance to upward mobility is the quality of schools. Schools in black neighborhoods in many cities are a lot worse than they are in the white neighborhoods.
Another factor of low upward mobility has to do with families without a father. Again that is a much more frequent occurrence in black communities.
Without seeing this study and examining at in detail, I cannot say anything with certainty. But looking at the reports in the newspapers, it is difficult to resist the impression that once again the importance of race is being minimized—if not by the study itself, at least as by its presentation on the internet. We have here one more example of the majority of Americans not wanting to face up to our racial problem.

It is high time that we did.