Friday, August 16, 2013

Visit my new sites!


This blog is now obsolete.

My author website (For "A Sneak In A Slide") may be found here: www.BranTheWriter.com

My freelance writing website may be found here: www.JamesBran.com

All current blog posts that are not already published elsewhere will someday be migrated over to one of my websites.   This blog will probably remain up for as long as it has a higher search engine ranking in google than my actual websites do.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Paleo Diet: Debunking the Debunking


A response to Christina Warriner's TED Talk

In the TED talk, "Debunking The Paleo Diet," Christina Warinner makes a lot of excellent points that Paleo enthusiasts can take to heart. However, she ultimately comes out in favor of more natural foods and fewer chemically processed foods - something that sounds very familiar to any Paleo dieter. 

And she does make an excellent point: The paleo diet is often branded as "trying to eat like a caveman" or "trying to each like hunter-gatherers" - and, in fact, this is not at all how most Paleo dieters eat. It would, in fact, be almost impossible to eat like actual hunter gatherers because virtually every item available in most grocery stores is a cultivated crop of one form or another that is substantially different from its wild cousins. 

Warinner, furthermore, makes an excellent point when she says that this is a good thing. As Warinner explains, a lot of cultivated fruits and vegetables have substantially better nutritive value than their wild counterparts. Wild fruits and vegetables also frequently contain phytotoxins that are bred out of their cultivated cousins - Nightshades are an excellent example of this, although there is some debate over them within the paleo community

Paleo Isn't Atkins


However, Paleo isn't what Warinner seems to think it is. At its worst, her TED talk dismisses Paleo as a "diet fad" that is similar to Atkins. I think Warinner ultimately misses the point: The Paleo diet is far more frequently something that people arrive at while trying to address diabetes, stomach problems (as in my case), and auto-immune problems

So what is the paleo diet? As Professor Loren Cordain explains, it isn't a diet so much as it is a new underlying theory for the science of nutrition. In his own video Professor Cordain explains that he has even changed his opinion on several bits of his diet advice in merely the last ten years because of some recent scienctific studies. Cordain's approach is far from a fad, and the Paleo diet isn't about weight loss: It's about nutritional health and applying the science of evolution to nutrition. 

So although it is true that the fruits and vegetables Paleo dieters eat are not, in fact, the foods our cave-dwelling ancestors ate, it is still true that the Paleo perspective is valuable. Cordain explains that the central idea of the Paleo diet is to give to Nutrition what Biology has had, as a science, for decades: A central theory that drives scientific thought. Evolution is already a central tenent of biology, a guiding theory upon which so much of modern science is based. (Skeptical? See Evolution: It's a Thing) It explains similar structures appearing among unrelated animals, as well as the reason why whales possess finger-like bones in their fins. 

So even though the fruits and vegetables that Paleo dieters are eating are not the same ones cavemen were eating, analyzing nutrition using evolution is still incredibly valuable, especially when you consider the following facts: One: Humans have a uniquely long small intestine. Two: Current medical science can only see about four feet of the the fifteen feet that makes up the small intestine (see here for more information). A large part of human digestion is, therefore, a mystery to us. We're still working on trying to figure out exactly what IBS is and how it functions - and although SIBO is a good working theory in some cases, it, too, has its limits, especially because of the lack of information about how the vast majority of the small intestine functions in living humans. 

Our uniquely large small intestine presents us with some unique challenges. Because we don't know exactly what is going on down there, the paleo perspective is our best shot at trying to judge, using something based in science, whether or not a food is likely to treat this mysterious, long tube kindly. Even "Leaky gut"is merely a theory - but, as Paleo Mom proves, a theory that jives quite well with a lot of the claims the Paleo diet makes. This is unsurprising: When it comes down to it, the paleo diet makes a lot of sense. Trying to eat in way that worked for humans historically is a pretty sensible solution to the mystery of the unknown small intestine, especially when we know so little about what causes digestive problems. 

And, of course, trying to change your diet is a much better solution than what many people, including myself, encounter from medical science when you have an undiagnosable digestive problem: prescriptions for drugs that either induce constipation or diarrhea, depending on which unpleasant symptom the sufferer experiences more of. 


So what?

It is fair for Warinner to point out that the Paleo diet isn't all about trying to eat like a cave man. Our digestive systems have, in fact, already proven that they can evolve in response to the new foods we are eating in the post-agricultural era. For example, we have had livestock for a mere several thousand years, and yet many people have already evolved the capability to break down lactose as adults, something that people did not have before humans had access to domesticated livestock. This also explains why the ability to break down dairy is connected to genetic heritage. 

So where does this leave us? (Spoiler alert: The answer is "with the Paleo approach and the best scientific surveys we can get our hands on) We can't look at monkeys for hints on how our own digestion works. Digestion is something that can be influenced by evolution rather quickly - in mere thousands of years. Because they have never had access to fire like humans have since before the historical epoch (when people first started recording history) monkeys make poor models for human diets. And, unfortunately, we don't know any ethical way to find out what is going on in the vast majority of human's uniquely large small intestine, although some have theorized that it evolved in response to the innovation of fire. It is possible that we have giant small intestines because of technological innovation: cooking our food! Really, it isn't that crazy a suggestion - after all, we evolved the ability to process dairy in response to the domestication of milk cows. Isn't evolution neat? 

And so, because we have to try to guess what foods are good for us based on something concrete, until we have more data or better tools to see further inside the small intestine, looking at what humans ate before agriculture is a good clue. It is perhaps the best clue - which is why Professor Cordain believes it is destined to become the central guiding theory of nutritional science. 

And when you dig into it, a lot of the paleo experts are in fact very well versed in science. Just look at Cordain's video, and if you think scientific literacy is rare in the Paleo Community, think again. Warinner's talk is insightful and entertaining, but ultimately I find myself wishing she had been more diligent in researching Paleo dieticians. Her understanding of the Paleo community is skin-deep , and her frequent comparisons with the Atkins diet reflects that. 

But, ultimately, she comes to the same conclusions as many Paleos: More whole foods, fewer processed foods. That message is ultimately something many people interested in nutrition science can agree on. Warinner could do a whole lot worse -- none of her audience, one would hope, will come away from her talk thinking that eating packaged factory farmed foods with tons of additives is superior to eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and grass-fed animals. 

Although I take her to task, Warinner is simply entering into the debate about the best way for humans to eat. And healthy debate is what good science is all about.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Ballad Of The Nissan Altima!

Everyone, gather round.  I'd like to tell you the story of my first car.

Pictured: My First Car.  Image by Me.

In RHYME!  

The Ballad of the Nissan Altima

O Listen Traveler to my tale of woe!
It's worthy- True!- of Edgar Allen Poe.
The fable of my poor car is grotesque,
It's tragic, sad, disturbing, Kafkaesque.
It's not a happy story; please be smart,
And click away before you let me start:

With shaken hand, the sale is now complete,
The car is mine; I lounge in the front seat.
I dream about the glory that awaits,
Such possibility this car creates!
Then, sensing joy, she promptly starts to die.
On highway then the coolant’s tank is dry,
The radiator cracked! White smoke does fly!
If driven now the car’s insides will fry!
She barely got me home with her best try.
Sing Threnody!  “Five months, ran she," I sigh.

Forgotten then was emotional swill,
I went to those with mechanical skill.
They charge a ghastly sum, my wallet aches,
I drive away, again my luck forsakes.
No turn of key awakes the metal lump.
Now broken: alternator, water pump.
Then I with sad and woeful smile wry,
Sing Threnody, "too soon, fell she!  Goodbye!”

My friend then comes and tells me to be brave,
"With help we'll strain and haul her from the grave!
Forsooth we will not let her rest in peace!
Forsooth there is no need to get a lease!"
A lease?! New parts are more inside my grasp,
I pay large sums and bring them home agasp.
We pop the hood, we disassemble, pray
That, parts replaced, my car will be okay.

Undressing her, it somehow seems risqué-
Now personification gives dismay!
Disturbing thought – but I digress indeed.
My friend, Sir Riedel takes the book to read,
Directs then me proceed install the part!
As bid, I do it with a doubting heart.
My car won’t start because of my mistake.
I know not what— Turn key! She starts to shake!
The rubber belts – They spin and do not squeal,
I drive around – I can’t believe it’s real!

O hear me reader this may be the end!
Take heed! I do advise you to pretend
That happily the story ended there.
Take heed! Now grasp below this line and tear!

------------------------------------------------------------ 
Pictured: The Devil.  Image by me.
------------------------------------------------------------ 

Still more? You take in tragedy grim joy?
If true, the rest of this you will enjoy.
If you find my tale comic, please refrain
From laughing without pity for my pain.
Perhaps my rhymes make these events unreal?
So you don’t see the horror they conceal.
But I’ll complete my story nonetheless
It’s fine if it is humorous I guess.

As time goes on a building sense of dread
Foreshadowing my car will soon be dead.
Another five she drove around just fine,
At midsemester started to decline.
Again then did the radiator crack!
Again I wish I had my money back.
I took her in for diagnostic then.
I did exclaim, “That is a lot of yen!”
As for repair, I did not even try.
“It’s time,” I said, “For this car just to die.”
I threw good money after bad in cash
Its worth is ash, and my teeth gnash, “What trash!”
For pittance then to sell her I agree.
Sing Threnody! “Farewell, Banshee!” I cry.

But now she’s gone I guess I can’t dismiss
The feeling when I think on her—
What a horrible horrible car!  That sucked! I’m glad it’s gone! I never ever ever want to see that damn thing again!
Farewell to Altima.  Image by me.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Abort Satan! Satanists Versus Righteous Christians

"Hail Satan" was trending today on twitter.

Why?  Well, Joe of JoeMyGod explains that :

"All of Teabagistan went into an uproar last night after a handful of pro-choice activists allegedly chanted "Hail Satan" as a group of anti-abortion activists sang Amazing Grace in the rotunda of the Texas Capitol. I've watched the video several times and as far as I can tell only one woman says it to the camera"

I watched the video too and saw the same thing.  I had to watch it multiple times, in fact, because the people singing Amazing Grace drowned everything else out.

Though if you read LifeSiteNews, the "abortionists" were the ones drowning people out.

"...pro-life activists gathered in the rotunda and started singing a rendition of "Amazing Grace," only to be drowned out by an angry crowd of pro-abortion counter protesters, some of whom repeatedly shouted “Hail Satan!”
The bizarre and chilling episode was captured on camera."

So this is business as usual.  Two groups are screaming at each other so loud that each has turned the other into something monstrous.  We have the irrational wingnut Teabagistanners versus the godless Satanist Abortionists.


Matt Barber certainly isn't going to be having a rational discussion with anyone pro-choice any time soon.

Neither is this guy.  He just learned once and for all that Abortionists are Satanists.  They have declared their "their team."

These two twits sound pretty full of themselves, feeling far superior to the crazy conspiratorial wingnuts who just made up this whole controversy.  

Oh wait.  One of them is me. 

I totally watched that video, missed the girl in it who does, in fact, say "Hail Satan" and then went into a public forum to talk about how the whole occurrence is clearly just a crazy made-up conspiracy.  

My bad. 

But let's be very fair to Kilgore - ever since he tweeted back at me, I really like the guy. [1]  Ed Kilgore isn't interested in debating the truth of what really happened.  He is simply distressed to be labeled a satanist for being pro-choice.  Just like me.

And, really, Kilgore is actually being pretty fair - it isn't all pro-lifers who will "[take] their joke very seriously" - just the "wingnuts."  Which, when you've only got a small number of characters to work with, is a pretty good shorthand for "right wing conservatives who aren't good at reading things in context."

And as you see below, well, Kilgore's defensive crouch against people who misrepresent news is pretty valid.



Them's pretty strong words.   But I disagree - It would be malpractice TO report this occurrence, because it i is neither a) newsworthy nor b) something you can report on fairly.   

I'll let the following tweet start filling you in on why:


The girl in the video clearly seems to be a teenager.  She sticks her tongue out at the cameraman in that "I'm sooo damn young and rebellious!" sort of way only teenagers can.

When a group of teenagers make a catcall at some protesters, it isn't newsworthy unless it also is newsworthy if those teenagers key a car or sneak into a movie theater.   They aren't representatives of anyone but themselves, their harassment, while obnoxious, unwarranted, and irritating, isn't really something that is out of the ordinary for teenagers.

Remember high school?  I do.  I remember a kid giving the finger to a teacher while her back was turned.  Not for any reason, either: he liked the teacher, he liked her class, but he just felt full of unexpressed rage and didn't have much self control or an outlet for his crazy pent up feelings.  Now, I'm inclined to think teenagers act like crazy assholes perhaps partly because we lock them in high schools and restrict their choices and not solely because of their raging hormones, but that is a topic for another time.

The thing I find distressing about this entire controversy is that neither side can effectively communicate with the other.  And yeah, let's be fair here:  I am on the pro-choice side.  I'm one of these people who can't effectively communicate with the people across the aisle.

We're working from two completely separate sets of facts.  The information age is the misinformation age.

But what's really distressing is the impulse that caused me to immediately dismiss the evidence I was presented with before I even looked at it carefully.  I made a wisecrack about playing records backwards, in essence saying "those crazy people hear 'hail satan' everywhere!" before I had to tuck my tail between my legs and admit, "Okay, well, someone DID say 'hail satan' but that doesn't make me or other pro-choicers devil-worshipers."


And across the hall, this twitterer has perhaps done the same thing: equating the small group with the larger whole.

So what do we do?  We're all human - we're all worthwhile as individuals - and yet politics in America has become so insanely divisive that we're all constantly trying to score points against each other.

It's always the same basic story.

"Oh look!  A single individual who disagrees with me has done something dumb!  Ha-HA!  That just goes to show that all people who disagree with me are dumb!"

Maybe that is the thing we need to scale back.

We need to do a better job of debating arguments instead of individuals.  And of representing the opinions of those who disagree with us more fairly.

Let's slow things down.  Be more fair.

Otherwise we'll just embarrass ourselves.


For example, you might be embarrassed by following someone without actually reading their tweets.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Legalistic Argle Bargle: More Scalia Thoughts

I'm still stuck on thinking about Scalia.   Am I the only one who laughed when I heard the phrase "Legalistic Argle Bargle?"

It reminded me of when he answered a question about the Bush / Gore election court case with, "Get over it" when he was at Wesleyan.

Let me first state clearly that I disagree with both of Justice Scalia's recent Supreme Court decisions.

One thing that can be said for Scalia is that in his dissent, he didn't make a blanket opposition against same sex marriage as much as he opposed the Supreme Court being the institution that allowed same-sex marriages to get federal recognition.

"We might have let the People decide," he said. "But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent." (Huffington Post)
The phrase "robbing the winners of an honest victory" really implies that the guy does kind of believe in democracy.  This fits in with what he argued at Wesleyan: essentially that the court's place is to be extremely conservative and to resist change.  Congress can do whatever it wants, but change should happen through Congress and the Presidency, not the courts.

But of course when it comes to his own politics, Scalia did support intervening and striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.  In a country divided between two warring political brands Scalia has to know that what he was doing resulting in helping the Republican party maintain its power in currently Republican districts.

But I can imagine a perspective (one I don't share, mind - I disagree with Scalia's decisions on both counts) where opposing the striking down of DOMA is an issue of keeping the authority to do so in Congress instead of in the courts.   And that perspective isn't necessarily antithetical to giving states more power to write their own voting laws.   Both involve, essentially, a similar act of removing power from an aspect of the government and displacing it elsewhere - from court to Congress and from federal to state.

I think if Scalia is guilty of anything, it's John Green's cardinal sin of failing to imagine others complexly.  Scalia feels that it is unfair that his opposition to rights for homosexual couples result in him being labeled a homophobe, bigot, and "enemy of the human race" (Huffington Post) because he fails to understand the reality of people's problems.   When some same-sex couples are being left destitute when a partner dies and inheritance law refuses to recognizes the spouse's right to their own home, or when same-sex couples are forbidden from being in the hospital room of their spouse as they lay dying, that is real harm that is being done to people.

I do think it's wrong to call anyone an enemy of the human race for their opinions.  I think seeing someone as monstrous fails to recognize their humanity.  I kind of think either every human is horribly monstrous or no one is, and I know which version I prefer.  But calling Scalia a bigot and failing to acknowledge his humanity is definitely a much more venial sin than the harms DOMA has done to couples.  It's definitely less wrong to be hateful of Scalia than it is to allow Texas to pass a restrictive voter ID law.

But the phrase "legalistic argle bargle" is funny.  This guy is capable of being funny.  He's a human being just like the rest of us.  That is, somehow, both terrible and wonderful at the same time.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Imagining People Complexly: Antonin Scalia Edition


Image: Stephen Masker, Wikimedia Commons

Justice Antonin Scalia: 
Asshole or Human Being?  
(Both?  Neither?)

So in the past few days, there has been a lot of Supreme Court action.  DOMA was repealed, making it possible, for example, for a same sex couple of ten years living in Dubai to emigrate to the United States.  At roughly the same time, however, the Supreme Court also struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.   That’s right, everyone, welcome to post-racial America.  Where, uh, Texas passes a stricter voter ID law within hours of no longer having to come under federal scrutiny for possible bias against minorities.

But let me shelve that for a moment and tell you a story about the time I met Justice Antonin Scalia.

Okay, so, I didn’t actually meet him, meet him, but I was present for Justice Scalia's Hugo Black Lecture at Wesleyan University.  The experience was a strange one.  I sat in an auditorium watching Scalia on a TV screen, because the venue was so full.  Scalia was introduced by a professor who practically roasted him.  The introduction caused many people watching to laugh as the introducer -whoever he was - mixed a report of Scalia's successful career with several little jabs.

Scalia took the jabs good-naturedly.  My first impression of the man himself was of a squat man with thick glasses.  He didn’t look like the sort of person who had an impressively successful law career.  He looked like someone who worked at the DMV.  But when he started speaking I immediately started to like him.

Image: United States Mission Geneva, Wikimedia Commons
This is not a picture of the Hugo Black Lecture. This is from the Wikimedia commons because
of copyright but an image of Scalia from the actual lecture may be found here

I was not at this time very familiar with Scalia's opinions or even many of his decisions.

So when Scalia opened his mouth and started talking, he seemed like a nice guy.  He said a lot of good things.  His approach to the Constitution, he explained, is a lot more reasonable and fact-based than other ‘judicial activists.’  As an example, he cited his interpretation of the First Amendment (one I happened to like) and argued that “Back in 1791, nobody thought that ‘the freedom of speech’ encompassed the right to libel public figures. We wound up with this ‘actual malice’ standard, according to Justice Scalia, essentially because the Warren Court thought it would be good for democracy and good as a matter of public policy.” (quote from David Lat’s report).

Sounds pretty good, right?

Let me tell you this: Scalia has a silver tongue.  I'm not just saying that: I am convinced that when Scalia dies, someone will notice something incredibly shiny inside of his mouth.

Scalia explained that his approach to the Constitution is rooted in historicism - in something concrete and fact based.  He stated that some people might disagree with what the law of the land is, but that in a democracy, the responsibility of the court is to uphold the constitution and the only way to interpret it without imposing modern-day values upon it is to make sure you are interpreting it in the context of colonial America.

Everything the man said sounded great to me.  Halfway through the speech, several students walked into the room in orange jumpsuits with trash bags over their heads - they were doing their best to imitate the appearance of Abu Ghrab prisoners - and they stood in silent protest.

But Scalia was talking too fast for me to really process what was going on.  He explained that there were a number of approaches to the law, and he spoke highly of democracy. He explained that he simply believed it was Congress's responsibility to pass laws that would change the country, and not the Judiciary's.  I wasn't sure that I agreed with this view, but I definitely respected it.  Scalia made it sound like the only reasonable viewpoint to have.

It wasn't until after the event was over, when I was talking to the friend who had invited me to attend, that I realized how political Scalia's ‘fact based’ and ‘concrete’ approach was.  Scalia had argued that, unlike activist judges, his approach was rooted in the historical record, which divorced it from politics.

The Originalist approach kind of neglects to consider that in 1776, only white property-owning men were allowed to vote.  Saying that this is the era the Constitution must be interpreted in the context of is, in fact, very political indeed.

So every time Scalia does something crazy, I think of it in the context of the first moment when I really got to know the guy.  At least as much as hearing someone speak counts as getting to know them.
And I remember that I kind of liked him for nearly three quarters of an hour.

So when Scalia called the voting rights act a "racial entitlement" I heard that in the context of knowing that Scalia is a living, breathing human being who had been to my hometown (technically I grew up one town over, but home is where the heart is, and my heart was captured long ago by the restaurants on main street.)

What sort of human being says something like that?  Anyone who is reasonably intelligent has to know how inflammatory that sounds.

Scalia is extremely intelligent.  That much is abundantly clear from hearing him speak.  Furthermore, he's apparently the sort of person who, when invited to Wesleyan - the very liberal-est belly of the beast - attends.

Scalia smiled at his rather barb-filled introduction.  He took it with good humor.  He was respectful of people who disagreed with him.  He spoke highly about free speech and democracy.  These are all pretty admirable qualities.  To top it off, then he explained why he thought it was more honest and fair for Congress to change society than it was for the courts, noting repeatedly that members of the Supreme Court are not elected and are not accountable to the people.  He was very fair in his criticism of this aspect of our democracy - and he made it clear that he was against judges deciding what the country should be like.  That should be left to elected representatives.

And meanwhile, of course, he's doing things that change the country a great deal, like passing Citizens' United.

So Scalia has to know that the phrase “racial entitlement” is an insane, inflammatory thing to say.  And we also know that this is a guy who jumped at the chance to speak to a room full of people who disagree with him.  So what the hell is he up to?  Is the man TROLLING us?!  (For the record, Rachel Maddow suggested this first)

Image: Steve Petteway, Wikimedia Commons
Troll!Scalia says, "i's in ur constitushun, takin away ur rights"

Rachel Maddow seems to think so.  In an interview with John Stewart, she said:
"He's a troll. He's saying this for effect. He knows it's offensive and he knows he's going to get a gasp from the courtroom, which he got, and he loves it. He's like the guy on your blog comment thread who is using the n-word. 'Oh, it made you mad? How about if I say this? Does it make you mad? Did it make you mad? Did it make you mad?' He's that guy! He's that kind of guy! When we're all shocked that he said something so blatantly racially offensive while talking about the cornerstone of the federal Civil Rights Act, he's thinking, 'Oh yeah!" (Huffington Post)

So is Scalia just an asshole who loves saying asshole things because it's fun to be an asshole?

I think we must try to imagine other people complexly.  The minute you write someone else off as an asshole, you’ve prevented yourself from ever uniting with them in the sort of collective action that can fix the world.

If you want to get really depressed, you can find statements reacting with anger to gay organizations celebrating the striking down of DOMA because they are not expressing enough anger about the repeal of Section 4.

“Time and again, members of the Black community have felt the brunt of angry white LGBTQ persons who have declared we are the reason such legislation as Prop 8 gets enacted… I find it disheartening as I compare and contrast yesterday and today’s response from LGBTQ organizations. The decision by these groups not to issue individual statements leaves them vulnerable to criticism such as mine and to the more serious question: ‘Are you really concerned about injustice for all people?’”

I want to note that the author of that piece is not angry at LGBTQ organizations for saying something bad or dismissive when asked to comment about the repeal of section 4.  The LGBTQ didn’t say anything at all, and THAT is why the author is outraged – because they didn’t specifically release a statement about Section 4 getting repealed.  What we have here is, I think, another failure to imagine other people complexly.  I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that many if not most of the people who are celebrating the repeal of DOMA are furious about the loss of Section 4.  Being pleased about one thing does not negate anger about another.  But it is unfortunately all too easy to take failure to make a specific statement saying that the repeal of section 4 as a bad thing as confirmation of racism that stretches back to blaming black people for passing Proposition 8.

But let’s imagine the author of that last piece complexly, too.  She is really angry about Section 4 being repealed –justifiably so – and isn’t in the mood to celebrate.  So seeing other people celebrating is probably depressing her.

That’s sort of the point I’m trying to make here.  Nobody’s a monster.  Everyone is either a good person in their own mind or has a very complex relationship to their morality and their own behavior.  Car thieves might feel they live in a dog-eats-dog world where survival of the fittest rules, and therefore taking someone else’s property is justified, for example.   No one is simply an asshole.  If someone really does lack empathy, that is potentially a very serious and isolating mental illness.

Okay, so I lied when I said all I was going to do with this article was tell you a story about Scalia.
 So getting back on topic, if I may, I’d like to try to imagine the sort of person who used the phrase “racial entitlement” complexly.

Scalia isn’t stupid.  And he isn’t tactless, either.  He knows how to charm a crowd.  When he used the phrase “racial entitlement” he did it with the full intention of sounding inflammatory.

Image: The Oyez Project, Wikimedia Commons
I heard you have to be pretty smart to pass the Bar exam.

He's daring people to be mad at him.  He's kind of, in a way, expressing contempt for his own job.  He's got enormous power and he hasn't been elected and isn't accountable to the people in any way.  He knows this, and he knows that the Supreme Court wields perhaps more power than it should, and as someone who earnestly seems to believe in the idea of Originalism – I think he thinks the court should have less power.

I think he’s daring us to take his power away.  I concede maybe his decision is sincerely motivated and he thinks that now that a black man has been elected president it is unfair and partisan for some states to have more scrutiny in how they count votes than others.  Maybe he thinks that everything is so gerrymandered already that Republicans and Democrats should be allowed to cheat equally.  I mean, this is, after all, a man that signed Citizens’ United.  I think maybe Scalia read Plato’s Republic and took from it the idea that the general citizenry is too stupid to govern themselves and must be governed by the elite instead.

Scalia can’t possibly sincerely believe racism is over.  I think he’s too smart for that.

Spoiler alert:  Just as an aside, racism isn't over.  I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri.  I've toured apartment buildings where the managers openly express their preferences for "good tenants" and explain how they "try to keep urban people to a minimum" in that "Hey, we're all white people here, and that means we're all racist, right?" sort of way.

But Antonin Scalia is a human being.  That's what I still can't quite wrap my head around.  He has friends and family.  He seems like a pretty smart guy.  He's definitely a really skilled rhetorician.  Skilled enough to know that saying "racial entitlement" is the sort of crazy thing that infuriates people.

The only motive I can possibly imagine for this is that he wants people angry at the Supreme Court as an institution.  He must want it to wield less power than it currently does. This totally fits with something Scalia really does seem to believe in: that the Supreme Court should be Originalists.  That the court started going bad right after its inception, way back in the eighteenth century.

So I think maybe he thinks the only way the Supreme Court will ever lose some of its bloated power is if he makes it plainly obvious that he is not a good representative of the will of the people. He IS trolling us.  He'a acting out, rubbing his unaccountable power in everyone's face, and sleeping soundly at night because he believes that if the public really were worthy of governing themselves, he wouldn't be able to get away with it.  And when he does get away with it, it just validates his opinion that the public isn't capable enough to govern themselves.  So he repeals a key part of the Voting Rights Act and signs Citizens United because both of these actions pull power away from the ineffective public and puts it more into the hands of the worthier - in his mind - elite.

And if I’m giving him too much credit... then, well, at least I’m doing a better job at imagining him complexly than political cartoonists are.

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All images found above are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and are used in compliance with Creative Commons.

James Bran is an aspiring writer and this is his blog.
Inspiration for this post draws on Philosopath's excellent "Vengeance Against the Violent"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Snowden's PRISM: On the Importance of Having Faith in Humanity

Is Snowden a hero or villain?  What's so bad about living in a surveillance state?  A response to the PRISM leak.  

Snowden (from The Guardian, used under Wikimedia Commons licence)
My girlfriend's car was stolen the same day Edward Snowden gave his famous interview about the PRISM surveillance program [1]. Snowden, of course, is the whistleblower involved the PRISM leak who informed us that the NSA is exercising the PATRIOT act to the tune of going through US citizen's private data without obtaining search warrants in advance.
I did not react well to the car theft. I danced the hokey pokey all night: I put my left foot in the apartment, put it out again, ran out the door and down the stairs to the window to check on my own car, ran back, put my left foot back into the apartment, and shook all about with paranoid anxiety. I checked on my car so often that I might as well have just sat in it all night.  It would have been more relaxing, if less comfortable in the St. Louis heat.

My girlfriend and I are both unemployed former graduate students. We're terrified about trying to squeeze marketable skills out of English degrees, and sometimes it feels like having a car is the best thing we have going for us.
So when I learned that Snowden had warned that the United States of America was in danger of becoming a "surveillance state,"[2] I must admit, my first reaction was not outrage. In my state of obsessive paranoia, the police officer who we gave a statement to yesterday having the ability to search every private citizen's email for information about a '96 Chevy Cavalier in poor condition sounded, well, nice.
If security cameras lined the streets, I could sit back and perhaps eat something or drink a glass of water instead of obsessively running out of the apartment to check on my car every fifteen minutes.
What if we did live in a society without privacy? Who would dare to steal a car if every traffic light sported a camera to watch the car driving away? Who would dare to commit murder in a world where traffic cameras can allow police to reconstruct who was at the scene of the crime, for every crime? Weren't the crowd-sourced images just so recently part of a triumphantly swift capture of the Boston Bombers?
Of course realistically, a utopic crime-free panopticon is perhaps less likely than an Orwellian nightmare, but like I said - I didn't react well to the theft. The car wasn't even worth all that much, although being as broke as we are makes it seem that way. The car's true value was sentimental. His name was Galin, and he had carried a young girl from Indiana to and from college and all the way to graduate school. He had been slowly trying to die for years, but every time he failed to start, he made a miraculous recovery within a week.
Galin was worth far more to us than he was to anyone else.
I couldn't help but remember the last time I'd felt this way. About ten years ago, I had the money in my wallet taken during a trip to Kentucky to help LINKS with low-income housing projects. I haven't had a life completely untouched by petty crime or anything, but losing Galin felt a lot like losing those forty dollars.
At that time in my life, forty dollars was a fortune. So in my grief for the loss, I failed to realize just how polite having the wallet returned minus the cash was.
I'll never forget what happened next. It was one of those moments that just sticks with you.
I had just been ranting my frustration to the only person who would listen to me - the friend who had invited me on the trip in the first place. I had hit a crescendo when I sighed, "I've lost my faith in humanity."
An instant after those words had passed through my lips, I felt a hand press two crisp twenty dollar bills against my chest.
I looked up, aghast, and saw one of the chaperones, who also happened to be a pastor, walking away without at word. Again, let me emphasize to you that in my childish mind that did not understand money, forty dollars was a fortune. I had no concept of how many months of electricity the kindly chaperone had given up, but I was pretty sure it must be a lot.  How could the guy afford to feed his family when he threw money around like this?
We should never lose our faith in humanity. Not when money is taken from a child, nor when a rusty old friend vanishes from the street. It must be noted, however, that this is exactly the attitude that is required to convince us to abandon our right to privacy.  In a world where every stranger is a potential threat, we damn sure want someone watching them.  If every other person in the world is a potential car thief, there's no way I can protect myself completely.
But I don't want to live in that kind of world.
I won't take it upon myself to argue that a society where people trust each other is superior to a surveillance state. I'll leave that to Orwell, John Cassidy, [3] the ACLU, and others. I will say, though, that I could spend the rest of the summer checking on my car every fifteen minutes, but I'm trying to kick the habit. I have decided to accept that the cost of keeping myself completely safe is just too high. It makes it impossible to live.
Image by James Bran
Hey, at least I got clever enough to move the car within view of the window
And furthermore, I'll say this:  Edward Snowden made a really good living.  Whether it was two hundred thousand or one hundred thousand [4], it was the sort of sum that boggles my mind.   I lived fairly comfortably off of an eighteen thousand graduate student stipend last year.   I can't even imagine what you would DO with that sort of money.  You could live in an apartment twice as nice as mine and buy two spare cars just as nice as mine and you would STILL have money leftover.  You could buy twenty Galins, easily. 
Seeing a young military contractor forfeit a job that pays so generously that the salary boggles my mind isn't quite as powerful to me as that gift of forty dollars was, but it's enough.
It keeps my faith in humanity alive.

[1] Admittedly, we aren't sure exactly what the time frame of the theft was, but it was at least within twenty-four hours of the June 9th interviews.
[2] Gellman, Barton; Markon, Jerry (9 June 2013). "Edward Snowden says motive behind leaks was to expose 'surveillance state'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
[4] http://www.kansascity.com/2013/06/12/4288716/edward-snowdens-pay-gap-and-why.html I think too much is made of Snowden's claim of a 200,000 salary.  Has no one considered that he was talking about  sacrificing his future career, where his current ~120,000 salary would someday hit the 200,000 mark?  That is, to me, the obvious source of the number.  If you're abandoning not only your current job but also your entire lucrative future career, of course you're going to think in terms of future salary and not just current salary alone.  It seems like our media's business as usual "invented controversy" to me.