Thursday, December 22, 2011

Things I've Learned This Year: Part II

More things I learned this year:
  • Fermentation -- I have been reading Cooking for Geeks, which has taken me down a long road of learning about food.  One of the things that fascinates me is fermentation, which I was long aware of as a source of alcohol, of course, but which is also used in a number of other aspects of food preparation.
  • Fungi -- fermentation can be accomplished by bacteria or yeast, and I was amazed to learn that yeast are a type of fungi.  This led me into something I have long wanted to know more about, namely the various types of unicellular organisms.
  • Onychomycosis -- My other encounter with fungi was not so theoretical:  I learned that I have toe fungus, which sounds so much better when you use the scientific name.  It's one of those common ailments that medicine has somehow not devised a simple cure for, so I have been soaking my toes for 10 months now.
  • Fermentation also led me into learning about the many products that can be made from milk.  I think I have a little better grasp of them now, but this chart will give you an idea of how complicated it all is.  Even the simplest aspects of our lives involve incredible complexity, most of which is hidden from us.
  • Stretching works to relieve back pain, if you do the right kinds.  I have had terrible back pain for about 15 years now, and the kind of stretching that I had done until now -- lying flat and pulling my knees, one at a time, to my chest -- was not effective beyond a certain point.  There are so many back stretches that it is intimidating to consider them all, but I felt I needed to try something.  I found that sitting with my legs stretched out in front of me and reaching for my toes was the one stretch that I really needed to add.  I can't express how much better I feel now.
  • I have a wonderful family.  That isn't really something new, but I keep rediscovering it all the time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Democratic Hate Speech of the Week

Apparently, irony is unknown in liberal circles.  That's why the same people who blamed Republicans' inflamed rhetoric for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords are capable of saying of News Gingrich, "He's a political killer, a gun for hire."  This is Chris Matthews, who added that Republicans are "about to begin the nomination for President of a figure who represents the Mephistopheles of what they preach.  He is nasty, brutal, ready to fight and kill politically."  Besides the violent images, naturally he accuses Republicans of being "ready to bow down before this false god of hatred."

Yeah, Republicans are haters.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Things I've learned this year: Part I

Learning is one of my great pleasures in life.  I don't mind doing just about anything as long as I get to learn something new from it.  Sometimes I manage to turn even that on its head by thinking, "How could I be so stupid as not to know that sooner?"  I long ago stopped making New Years' resolutions, but I thought the end of 2011 might be a good time to contemplate what I have learned in the last 12 months.
  • Look first, then back up.  This is my big lesson.  It seems obvious, but for some reason I have a bad habit of starting to back up before looking behind me.  After smashing the rear window in my van last spring, as well as ruining a mailbox, I hope I have finally learned my lesson.  And I am thankful that I have not hurt anything worse in the meantime.
  • The Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets.  I only learned the Arabic consonants, and I've probably forgotten many of them by now, but it was nice to be able to make out some basic letters.  I hope I've retained more of the Cyrillic alphabet, which, unlike Arabic, actually comes in handy sometimes even if you don't know Russian, since there are many loan words in Russian that one can make out.
  • A lot about computer security, which I picked up recently in order to get my Security+ certification.  I've never worried too much about security in the past, but if I approach it from the point of view of, "How would I go about breaking into my network?", it's much more interesting -- and scarier.
  • I can do a lot more than I thought I could.  I was amazed to discover that I could lose 30 pounds this year just by going on the "don't eat too much" diet.  To think I paid hundreds of dollars for a weight-loss program about 10 years ago to do the same thing, and I gained all that back in a short time.
  • Invisible fences are wonderful.  They allow my dog to run around the yard to her heart's content, and still be able to see everything that is going on, and they are much cheaper and easier to install than physical fence (which might be against neighbourhood policy in any case).
  • Publishers are not interested in my book topic.  I say "book topic" because no one has bothered to look at the book -- the topic alone is enough to determine that "it does not fit into their list."
  • This blog has been attracting far more visitors than I realized.  I've been getting over a hundred hits a month, which isn't much, but it is if you consider that I've only posted a few times this year.  I was also surprised that the most popular post, by far, is the one on Hume and Popper.  The second most popular is the one on offensive mascots.
  • What I had in storage.  When we moved into a house this summer, we got all the stuff out of storage that we hadn't seen for over 2 years.  Some of it I could do without, but much of it I am glad to see.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

McQueary's Reaction

With my usual timeliness, I would like to comment on the Penn State situation now that it has been out of the news for several weeks.  What struck me most was how hard people came down on Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who witnessed some sort of inappropriate behaviour between Sandusky and a young boy in 2002.  I'm used to this sort of thing from sports news columnists, but I was surprised to see it at the usually calmer National Review.  The gist is this:  McQueary witnessed a rape in the PSU showers in 2002, and did not stop it, even though he was physically larger and stronger than the assailant.  Why did he wait until the next day to report it rather than intervening immediately?

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with David Brooks in this case.  His position, and mine, is that people have overestimated their own probable response had they been in McQueary's position.  I have read a number of comments to the effect that "I would have intervened immediately and stopped the rape," which, while it seems like a reasonable reaction, is rather too self-confident for my tastes.  First, as Brooks points out, no one knows what he will do when confronted with such a bizarre and disturbing scene.  One of my chief lessons in life has been that it is easy to condemn cowardly or stupid behaviour when one is hearing reports of what someone else did; actually being in that situation, however, is another thing entirely.  McQueary was in his mid-20's, and Sandusky  had been on the coaching staff during his (recent) career.  The mere fact of seeing an older authority figure in such compromising activity would have caused brain freeze in virtually all of us.  That's not to say that we shouldn't or couldn't have overcome it, but if his first reaction was to go somewhere else to gather his wits, I hardly find that surprising or greatly reprehensible.

Second, we don't know exactly what McQueary witnessed.  The more egregious the crime, the greater the responsibility to react immediately.  If Sandusky had been beating the child to death, no doubt we would expect McQueary to stop it.  Anal rape would warrant reaction on a similar level, but was that what he saw?  What kind of inappropriate behaviour did he witness, and was it so inappropriate and damaging that it required immediate action?  What were the consequences of the action continued?  Is it reasonable that McQueary might have needed to think through his reaction?

Clearly, McQueary did respond eventually, reporting what he witnessed to the appropriate authorities.  What we have to criticize him for, if anything, is only his spontaneous reaction to a single incident.  Paterno, however, is another matter, and here I differ from Brooks.  As an authority figure himself, and one responsible for Sandusky and everyone else associated with the football team, Paterno's burden was to act on the information.  Moreover, Paterno had time to consider his response -- nearly 10 years, in fact.  There is no excuse for his continuing to tolerate Sandusky's presence with the Penn State football team, and arguably he should have done more to make sure the accusations were investigated and, if appropriate, punished.  But this is also dependent on what Paterno heard, and we don't know that for sure, either.  He may have heard something that should have stimulated a strong response, or he may not; and that may reflect back on McQueary.  However, we are in no position to judge that.  The information will come out, I hope, at the trial, and the guilty will be held responsible.  In the meantime, we can only outline hypotheticals.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What if the economy improves?

In my last post, I argued that Obama could win re-election -- and it wouldn't be miraculous -- if the economy only continues to improve gradually between now and next November.  But how is it possible for the economy to improve?  From what we've heard from Obama, Paul Krugman, and others, the economy is stuck in a rut that it cannot jump out of except by massive government debt spending -- more stimulus.  And since the last stimulus was too small, I can only assume that something as puny as Obama's latest jobs bill, which is only a fraction as large, would have even less of an effect.

What, you think the economy might be able to recover on its own?  That is a very serious admission if you are a Keynesian.  That changes the argument from "We absolutely must have stimulus spending for the economy to improve" to "We need stimulus spending if we want the economy to improve fast enough."  Since even Keynesians (or many of them, anyway) admit that we have a serious debt problem (at least, when there is a Republican president), we would have to balance the faster improvement of the economy against the greater debt load our country would be taking on.  If the economy is capable of working unemployment down to 8% in the next year, I would argue that our economic problems are not so serious that they require us to dig an even deeper hole that we will have to find some way to get out of later.

But what if the economy does not get better?  Does that prove that a stimulus was necessary?  No, because we have other things dragging on our economy that we have not had in the past:  the new health care mandate, along with ever greater regulations.  I am confident that our economy would grow out of even these problems eventually; people are amazing, and they have managed to improve economies under some of the most repressive regimes, of which ours is not even close.  But there is a cost to these regulations, of course, and that is slower growth.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Obama Can Win

In my usual timely fashion, I am here to present yesterday's news.  It has been clear to me for some time that Obama's defeat in the next election is not the foregone conclusion that some people think it is, and not because Republicans don't have worthy challengers.  Obviously, some of the Republican candidates would stand a better chance against Obama than others, but I don't think this is a case of a large number of mediocre candidates.  It is, rather, the usual short-sightedness of analysts.

When the Republicans won big in the mid-term elections, many were justifiably concerned that they not repeat their mistakes in 1995 and 1996, which allowed Clinton to win a second term even though it seemed hopeless in 1994.  Even though a similar scenario played out with regard to budget issues this year, Republicans have not taken a big hit.  Their position is not much weaker than it was last year, when they won big in the election.  Why do I think they might not win next year, then?

It's the economy, stupid.  Admittedly, the economy still isn't great, and I doubt if Obama would win if the election happened now.  However, it may be turning around.  The recent drops in the unemployment rate suggest that things are getting better -- only marginally at the moment, but project that out over the next 10 months.  Could unemployment be below 8% next November, as Obama has suggested?  That would be a drop of less than 0.1% per month.  If the recovery accelerates, unemployment could conceivably fall close to 7%.  At that rate, people might start to think that Obama's economic program wasn't so bad after all.

To be clear, I'm not saying the economy will improve that much by the next election.  We might be dawdling around 8.5-9.0% unemployment still.  I'm also not saying that Obama necessarily will win re-election even if unemployment does improve significantly.  We still have large numbers of discouraged workers, an unprecedented national debt, illegal immigration, and a war in Afghanistan, among other issues.  But we're out of Iraq, which has been a sore point for liberals since Obama was elected, and we are scheduled to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.  People could easily look at that and conclude that Obama has well begun the process of pulling America's forces back, even if he wasn't as fast as he promised.  If the economy is also starting to recover, and more people are finding jobs, there could be enough optimism for the future to carry him into office.  It would certainly make for a very tough campaign for his challenger.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Anyone following the debt-ceiling debate who is old enough to remember 1995 is bound to be thinking about it.  The Republicans had just won big in the off-year elections of a Democratic president, and their very first budget resulted in a showdown.  In that case, the Democrat won big, and was able to get re-elected in 1996.

As a Republican, you have to be worried about this.  I am surprised to see them challenging Obama in a way that mirrors the negotiations with Clinton 16 years ago so closely.  Their position isn't even as strong now as it was then:  at that time, they controlled both houses of Congress.  Moreover, they did exactly what I would have recommended, which is to pass a budget and dare the president to veto it.  Then, I thought, the resulting government shutdown would clearly be Clinton's fault, and he would get the blame.  Instead, Clinton simply said that the Republicans needed to send him a bill "that I can sign," and for some reason the Republicans ended up taking the bulk of the blame (although they did retain Congress in 1996).

Now, the Republicans can't even send Obama a bill because the Senate won't pass the budget approved by the House.  Moreover, the Republicans seem even more likely to get the blame this time, because they are absolutely refusing to negotiate on a key point, which is raising taxes.  If a deal fails, it seems they are set up to take responsibility.

Of course, things rarely repeat themselves that closely.  This scenario could happen, but something quite different could also occur.  I wonder, for example, if Obama's failure to present his own budget will be a serious liability in the event of failure.  Then, too, spending has unquestionably gone through the roof during his administration, even not counting the stimulus.  It would take massive spending cuts just to bring the budget back to where it was in 2008, so it's not as though Republicans are proposing gutting the government as it has long been.

Still, I think any Republican would have to be nervous about how the debt ceiling negotiations will play out.  I know I am.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Monoceros

I have always liked the word "unicorn" for some reason that eludes me.  It just sounds beautiful.  And yet, why do we call it a unicorn?  The name is from Latin, "unus" = one, "cornus" = horn (e.g. cornucopia).  Every other animal, it seems, gets its name from Greek roots.  Thus, we have the hippopotamus, not the equuflumen, and the rhinoceros, not the nasocorn.  Dinosaurs have Greek names, too:  stegasaurus, "roof lizard," brachiosaurus, "arm lizard," and triceratops, "three-horn face."  (Although I should mention the oddity of tyrannosaurus rex:  tyrannosaurus is Greek for "tyrant lizard," but rex is Latin for "king."  Tyrannosaurus basileus, anyone?)  Even other mythical creatures usually have names of Greek origin, such as the phoenix and the chimera.

According to Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, the unicorn originated in Greek myth.  Why, therefore, does it get a Latin name, unlike almost every other real or imagined beast?  Did someone just decide that "monoceros" sounded too lame (I would agree) and therefore went with the more mellifluous "unicorn"?  Or did the name get changed some time in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the West knew Latin but Greek was uncommon?  Oddly, there is a constellation named "monoceros" (discovered in the 17th century), so it's not like the idea never occurred to anyone.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Maybe Next Time He'll Think Before He Tweets

I was reading some Democrats lamenting the loss of such an obviously great guy as Anthony Weiner as a public servant just because he cheated on his wife.  But wait, they say, he didn't even cheat; he just flirted.  And I had to ask myself whether what he did was worthy of losing his seat in Congress.  (Whether we are talking about removal by Democratic leadership or by his constituents is immaterial to me; I just want to establish whether we would want someone in Congress who did what he did.)

Weiner has made it easy on us because of his reaction to the affair's discovery:  not only denying it (that is natural, albeit wrong), but actively accusing Andrew Breitbart of smearing him.  Anybody who can lie so baldly definitely deserves to be out of Congress, Republican or Democrat.

Then there is the question of whether he knowingly flirted with underage girls, as it appears he may have come on to a high school student that he met at a rally.  Then there is the question of whether he might have done anything besides just sending pictures and lewd texts, or whether he intended to do anything...

But let's leave those questions to the side and focus on the issue of whether a married Congressman who flirts with other women deserves to lose his seat.  There is flirting and there is flirting.  I tend to think of flirting as things like being overly attentive to someone or making sexual innuendo, and while those things are dangerous to a marriage, they don't rise to the level of cheating, or at least they might not, depending on the context.  Saying "you make me hard" and sending close-ups of your groin clad only in underwear is a different sort of thing.  To me, it clearly expresses the desire to cheat, and, even if the person never intends to follow up on the desire, I would not trust him (or her) alone with the flirtee for 10 minutes.  I would not trust him alone with any member of the opposite sex for 10 minutes.  The other kind of flirting may be the same thing by a more discreet, or just plain scared, person, but it could also be just playful -- again, the context matters.

Still, neither is quite the same as cheating; it is certainly worth making a distinction between having sex and talking about having sex.  How does this rate in the scale of transgressions?  It is certainly a transgression, although many Democrats have tried to dismiss it by pointing out that Weiner has never tried to regulate other people's morality.  They overlook, or willfully ignore, the fact that Weiner took an oath of fidelity to his wife (and not all that long ago, from what I gather).  If he were single, or if he had an open marriage, the "no hypocrisy here" defense might work.  In his case, it certainly does not.  Politicians tend to be married, and they tend to derive political advantages from their marriages, or at least they think they do.  I think we are certainly entitled to consider a person's fidelity as part of an overall evaluation of his fitness to serve.

Weiner's shameless and tasteless self-promotion -- sending out pictures to unwitting women to see if he could get a positive response -- make this a more egregious case.  I cannot, however, say that I would always disqualify a politician for flirting, even of the flagrant variety, nor even necessarily for cheating.  It would count against him.  But our hearts lead us in strange ways, and I would not want to rule out an excellent legislator solely on the ground that he broke his marital vows.  Things like self-control, and, failing that, discretion, would also enter into my assessment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Birth Certificate

Obama finally decided to end the controversy about his birth by releasing his birth certificate.  This can only mean one thing:  he felt it was hurting his popularity.  He had a legitimate birth certificate all along.  Being an American citizen is a requirement for the presidency, and some people were questioning whether he qualified.  He was actually spending money to defend himself against lawsuits that requested him to prove his citizenship by releasing the birth certificate.  I thought the most likely explanation for his stubborness was that there was something embarrassing on the birth certificate -- perhaps it named him a Muslim -- that he didn't want made public.  Since there isn't, the only logical explanation is that he refused to release it because he wanted to keep alive the meme that his opponents consisted, at least in part, of nut cases.  (Well, everyone politician's opponents consist in part of nut cases, but let us say, a larger proportion than usual.)

Imagining myself in his situation, this seems like an extremely cynical policy.  Sowing seeds of doubt when he knew the situation to be clear -- and could have made it clear by a simple step -- is political calculation at its most Machiavellian.  But whereas he could ignore questions about his birth when his approval rating was running 60%+, he apparently feels he cannot now that it is in the 40's (and the next election is approaching).  I can't say that his actions are morally wrong, but they certainly are not the kind of behaviour I prefer in our national leaders.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Conservative Case for the Confederacy

It's the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War (actually earlier this month, but it is being celebrated the whole year), and with it comes a whole new debate about the Confederacy, the right of secession, and the use of the Confederate flag today.  While most people probably associate Southern apologists with conservatives, I have been seeing many attacks on the Confederacy and the flag from conservative sources, one of which goes so far as to nominate Jefferson Davis as the worst person in American history.  It probably is true that most Southern apologists are conservative, but it is apparently far from true that most conservatives are Southern apologists. This is unfortunate, because the case for secession is at the core a case for liberty.  This is, of course, a controversial statement, but I think a defensible one -- in fact, the only logical one.  Here, then, is a brief but long-considered defense of the Confederate States of America.

The CSA starts with two strikes against it, because it was created in defense of the institution of slavery, which is universally (and rightly) condemned today.  It's hard to overcome that, and I'm not going to pretend that South Carolina or the other Deep South states seceded for any reason other than the desire to preserve slavery.  But that's not the end of the issue.

Slavery is bad, and it was as bad in the 1860's as it is today.  It was not, however, as clear to everyone at that time that it was bad.  As hard as that may be to accept, we have to take it into consideration.  Remember that few people in the 17th or 18th centuries condemned slavery.  Remember that all colonies and states permitted slavery at some point.  Remember, too, that many slave traders came from the North prior to independence, and that no Northern state actually freed any slaves owned by its citizens -- they all allowed the institution to die out by declaring anyone subsequently born to be free.  I'm not trying to set up a moral equivalency between the North and the South on this issue, but it is important to establish that the country was not always divided.  The North was not born in innocence; it developed a conscience regarding slavery over time, and it did so without a large slave population to create economic and social problems with emancipation.  Slavery was not an issue that Northern states proposed to abolish in their own borders by any sudden measures, and indeed their were still slaves in the free state of New Jersey as the Civil War began, not to mention those in the slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.  This is significant for two reasons:  one, the Civil War was not a crusade to end slavery, even though it ended up with that result; two, even though many (probably most) Northerners opposed slavery, they were unwilling to take drastic action where their own property was at stake.

I think it is a good idea to think about slavery from the perspective of a modern issue about which people are divided.  One obvious case is abortion, because, like slavery, it involves the question of whether certain beings qualify as human.  A good portion of the country thinks abortion is nothing less than killing a baby; another portion thinks it is the equivalent of removing bodily tissue.  There is not much room for compromise between these views.  Opinion is not sharply divided geographically, as it was with slavery, but let's suppose it was.  Suppose the New England states, along with New York and New Jersey, were strongly pro-abortion, and the rest of the country was pro-life.  Suppose the national government passed, or threatened to pass, legislation outlawing abortion.  Would it be permissible for the pro-choice states to secede to preserve what they viewed as a human right?  If they did, would the rest of the country be justified in invading to take away that right?  Would we applaud the country if, after the deaths of millions of people, they finally managed to win and preserve the rights of fetuses?

The trick about this case is, of course, that there is no consensus on the morality of abortion as there is on slavery.  There may never be.  That's what makes it a good analogy, because there was also not a consensus over slavery in 1861.  You have to think about your answer to the abortion question as though we could look back on it 100 years later and all agree that abortion is bad.  (Or, if it would make the analogy resonate with you, imagine it the other way around:  pro-abortion states invade and conquer pro-life states to preserve the woman's right to an abortion.)  If anything, the case for enforcing abortion rights is even weaker than that for enforcing slavery, because slavery was endorsed in the Constitution.  That doesn't make it morally right, of course, but it does make it a part of the legal foundation for the union of the states; removing it would, therefore, remove part of the basis by which the states had agreed to form a nation in the first place.

At what point does a moral issue become so clear that it overrides all legal concerns?  I don't know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure that it stops short of changing the fundamental nature of a society to which you agreed to be a part.  The North, in other words, had no right to end slavery because they had agreed to join with slave states in the first place.  They would have had a right to secede -- to divorce themselves from what they viewed as an iniquitous society -- but not to forcibly remove slavery.  They would also have had the right to work for the ending of slavery, via constitutional amendment or via some sort of compromise proposal that would have led to, say, the federal government buying slaves.  There were plenty of Southerners who were uncomfortable with slavery and who would have been happy to find some way to get rid of it if they could do so without creating massive social and economic disruption.  It may have been that, over time, something could have been worked out.  But thundering invective and cheering on John Brown's attempt to lead a slave revolt were hardly the sort of thing that were likely to build bridges to the moderates in the South.

There is also the matter that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.  Yes, I conceded above that the South seceded in order to defend the institution of slavery; there is no question about that.  The North, however, did not attack the South to end slavery, but rather to preserve the union.  This is well enough documented that I don't think it needs much elaboration here.  Lincoln's oft-quoted sentence, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also so that" is evidence enough of his own views on the subject.

The case of Virginia, a Confederate state but not one of the founders of the Confederacy, demonstrates the difference.  Virginia preferred to remain in the United States rather than join the Confederacy, but it changed its position in response to Lincoln's call for volunteers for an invading army.  There is no question that Virginia (along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) joined the Confederacy not to defend slavery, but over the Constitutional and moral issue of the right of states to secede and the wrong that Lincoln was doing by trying to keep them from leaving by force.

What about the firing on Fort Sumter?  Didn't the South initiate the fighting?  It is true that the South Carolina militia attacked the relief ship bound for Fort Sumter and then the fort itself, but this was merely the beginning of hostilities that Lincoln had made inevitable.  Already in March, he had announced that he intended to enforce the laws of the United States in the Confederacy, including collecting taxes.  South Carolina had been trying for months to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter from the United States; and, as Stephen Douglas pointed out during debates in Congress, what purpose could the United States possibly have for holding a fort in Charleston harbour but to keep Charleston under control?  Lincoln cleverly maneuvered so that the South would fire the first shot, but his stated policy is what made conflict unavoidable.

I have heard people ask whether the Union could not have attacked the Confederacy as a foreign country.  Even supposing secession was legal, what would stop the rest of the United States from attacking the now-independent country to its south?  This is a fun game for armchair historians, but it has no basis in reality.  The Union insisted from the beginning that the South was not a separate country, and it staked its diplomacy entirely on this viewpoint.  If the South had been an independent country, the North could not have legitimately complained to England about supplying military equipment, especially commerce raiders, to the South.  Moreover, it would have been inconceivable for the North, having once defeated the South, to try to occupy the territory and bring it in to the United States.  Reparations, a forced end to slavery, some favourable trade agreements:  these would have been likely, but not an outright conquest.

This brings us to the crux of the matter:  how could a collection of free states justify forcing others into its government?  Less than a hundred years previously, the United States had been formed by a secession movement of the 13 colonies against the British government.  Somehow, now, secession was not justified, even though the government of the United States was a voluntary union and that of the British crown an acknowledged empire under a hereditary monarch!  George Washing was a hero; Jefferson Davis, a traitor.

Attempts to justify the distinction based on the supposed justice of the cause in 1776 versus that in 1861 are doomed to failure, for when will a government ever accept the separation of a large part of its territory voluntarily?  The one thing that is essential is the will of the people, and no one can doubt that the legislatures and, in many cases, the populations of the Confederate states had legitimately voted in favour of separation from the United States.  This was not the case of an individual, group of individuals, or a city attempting to withdraw from its legitimate government, but of the acknowledged sovereign units of a government deciding to revoke the power that it had voluntarily (but, as Thomas Jefferson argued, always conditionally) conceded to the central authority.  The United States violated its own most sacred principles of government in ignoring the South's wish to form a separate government.

I will close with, once again, the qualification that this is in no way an endorsement of slavery, racism, or anything associated with it.  Slavery was ended after the Civil War; without the Civil War, it would doubtless have continued longer; to that extent, the Civil War was clearly good.  But do we justify bad actions by pointing to their positive results?  There is no point in hiding behind the pretense that the North was engaged in a noble enterprise to end slavery, because that was not the motivation of most of the participants, least of all the revered leader of the Union.  It was engaged in what it saw as a noble enterprise to preserve the republican government of the United States -- a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" that it was prepared to defend by killing hundreds of thousands of people and forcing millions more into a government that they had voluntarily chosen to leave.  It set a terrible precedent, that good results could justify practically any government action no matter how bad its motivation or its other effects.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


What is it with Qaddafi?  He's been dictator for over 40 years, and he's still only a colonel?  Did it never occur to him to promote himself to general?

I enjoy issues like Libya -- not for their content (killing is bad), but because neither liberals nor conservatives have pre-conceived notions about what should happen.  Therefore, both sides are divided and everyone is scrambling to come up with a coherent position.  It gives everyone a chance to think, which is nice for a change.