Log in

Previous 10

Feb. 12th, 2017


So what would it mean if life began at conception?

Let's take the "pro-lifers" at their word and assume they (or a significant fraction of them) honestly believe that full human life begins at the moment an egg is fertilized. What happens if we insert that axiom into the rest of an ethical and legal system?

[Note: for purposes of this thought exercise, "woman" is defined in terms not of birth certificate or appearance or self-identification, but of the physical ability to get pregnant.]

A fetus, embryo, blastula, zygote, or fertilized egg is a full human being with the same rights as one who's already been born. Any intentional termination of the pregnancy, even days or hours after conception, is therefore murder. No "exceptions for rape or incest", because we wouldn't consider a child fair game for murder just because of its parentage or the circumstances of its conception. Likewise, no exceptions for crippling or life-threatening genetic defects, unless we as a society would be willing to actively kill a born child for having those defects. Even an "exception to save the life of the mother" is dubious: it amounts to choosing which of two human beings to kill. Terminating a pregnancy to save the life of the mother would be permissible only if the alternative was both mother and child dying; in that circumstance you're choosing to kill one person rather than two. In all these cases, it seems clear that both the mother and any medical personnel involved would be criminally liable.

What about unintentional termination or harm? It could be argued that conduct (e.g. strenuous exercise) that accidentally leads to the termination of a pregnancy is manslaughter or negligent homicide -- which typically get a lighter sentence but are still felonies. Conduct that leads, or could reasonably be expected to lead, to harm to the fetus, such as drinking alcohol while pregnant, is reckless endangerment of a minor, and could again be punished under the criminal code. Even allowing a spontaneous miscarriage without taking heroic measures to prevent it could be considered criminal medical malpractice -- negligently allowing a human to die who could have been saved.

Once you're pregnant, you no longer have full jurisdiction over your own body, because you share it with another human being who has the same rights as you, but no decision-making power. Indeed, if there's a realistic chance you might be pregnant, you should probably (to stay on the safe side) assume you are. In short, if you're a sexually active female of reproductive age, you have less autonomy than a sexually active male of the same age. Unfair, yes, but that's just the way the world is -- like menstruation.

A woman who has sex is giving up part of her autonomy for at least a few months until she's sure she isn't pregnant, and possibly for years to come. A man who has sex is not giving up anything unless it turns out she is pregnant and he's the father. So having sex is a much bigger decision for a woman than for a man. A woman who has sex "lightly" is therefore irresponsible and morally suspect, while a man who has sex "lightly" is normal.

If you're female and want to retain independence and autonomy, you need to avoid sex, at least any form of sex that could lead to pregnancy. Males, of course, don't face this dilemma -- indeed, they can express independence and autonomy through sex. Again, it's unfair, but it's just the way God made us: women have to choose between (hetero) sex and autonomy, while men get both at once. If you've chosen (or been forced) to live on the "sex" side of the divide rather than the "autonomy" side, your every action henceforth has to be assessed from your perspective as a growth medium.

If a woman is going to willingly risk her autonomy in order to have sex, she'd better get something in return, like financial security, so it is appropriate to consider most (hetero-)sexually active women as prostitutes, although the "respectable" ones get to call it "an advantageous marriage".

Which implies that in the natural order of things, there are two kinds of women: autonomous but (heterosexually) celibate ones, and sexually active ones financially supported by their male sex partner(s). Men can be autonomous, sexual, and financially independent, in any combination they wish, because these are orthogonal questions for them. If they don't want to take on the long-term financial responsibility for a wife and children (or if they get bored with their long-term partner), they can get their sex a la carte from short-term prostitutes and mistresses instead. Again: unfair, but that's just the way things are.

For women on the "sex" track, their main saleable assets (to be exchanged for financial security) are sex and physical attractiveness; a man's main saleable asset (to be exchanged for reliable access to sex) is his money-making ability. So it is entirely appropriate for women to be extremely concerned with physical appearance, and to spend whatever money (or eyelash-batting) they have on clothes, makeup, cosmetic surgery, etc, while it is entirely appropriate for men to concentrate their energy on their careers. Men earn money, men give it to women in exchange for sex, and women spend it on their appearance so they can keep getting paid for sex. That's the natural order of things; objecting to this model makes as much sense as objecting to the law of gravity.

And it's understandable that employers would be reluctant to hire women, or to promote women, or to pay them as much as a man: this particular woman might be on the "autonomy" track now, but both she and her employer know that she has another option, and could switch to the "sex" track at any time. Since she doesn't really depend on her job, you can expect her to take it less seriously than a man would, and her employer will accordingly take her less seriously.

In short, we can live in a society in which women have roughly the same rights and freedoms as men, or we can live in a society in which zygotes have roughly the same rights and freedoms as born children. We cannot have both.

Our new President and Vice President, in their different ways, have both made clear that they prefer the latter. The President has had three wives, whom he married at the fertile ages of 28, 30, and 35 respectively, and (I think) cheated publicly and repeatedly on all three of them, because he is just that oversexed. Their role was to be beautiful and fashionable and sexy and spend the money he made, as a sort of scoreboard to show off his supreme manliness (including, but not limited to, earning capacity). He's made abundantly clear that he values women primarily for physical attractiveness; the worst cut-down he can think of for a woman is to insult her appearance. Grown women are unimportant except as sex objects. Meanwhile, the Vice President has taken every opportunity in his career to assert the importance of unborn children from the moment of conception on, and to keep women in their rightful places as sex partners, housekeepers, and child-rearers. In short, zygotes are more important and have more rights than grown women.

Most of the conclusions I've drawn above aren't really about abortion: they're really about the equation of sex with pregnancy. Anything that breaks the "God-given" connection between sex and pregnancy -- whether abortion, contraception, or even homosexuality -- is a threat to an equally "God-given" social model built on the assumption that women can't have sex without risking their autonomy for months or years to come, and men can.

Feb. 7th, 2017

devil duck

Who knew he had it in him?

President Obama took years after entering the White House to publish a paper in a refereed academic journal.

President Trump seems to be on his way after only two weeks, with an illuminating example of the Alternative Facts approach to mathematical proof.

Feb. 5th, 2017

devil duck

Got an e-mail from the White House...

Somehow I got onto whitehouse.gov's e-mail list, and my first e-mail from the Trump administration asks me to sign a petition supporting Justice Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court.

The e-mail includes this bit: "Judge Neil Gorsuch follows the same principled approach espoused by Justice Scalia. He carefully applies the statuary text and he follows the Constitution’s original meaning."

Seriously -- "statuary text"? I've heard of people viewing the law as an edifice, or as graven in stone, or as fixed and unmoving, but not literally as a statue.

Feb. 3rd, 2017


On ISIS and Trump

I asked myself the other day "What does ISIS want?" The answer is right in their name: they want to be recognized as the Islamic state, as the legitimate representatives of Islam on Earth. They're not the first to have this ambition: al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein before them had the same desire (although Saddam was hardly a religious ideologue himself, he still saw himself as the representative of Islam to the secular world). They dream of restoring the Caliphate of a thousand years ago. They hunger more than anything for legitimacy, recognition, and glory. As with al-Qaeda and Saddam, their path to this goal is to convince the world's Moslems that the United States (first among other enemies) hates them and wants to destroy them, and the only thing standing in its way is ISIS.

What does Donald Trump want? He dreams of restoring the America of sixty years ago. He hungers more than anything for legitimacy, recognition, and glory. And his path to this goal is to convince the American people that Islam (first among other enemies) hates them and wants to destroy them, and the only thing standing in its way is Donald Trump.

Both ISIS and Trump have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from encouraging the belief that the U.S. and Islam are inevitably at war with one another. Which side "wins" any given battle is almost irrelevant, as long as ISIS and Trump get to be the leaders of their respective sides. As long as one can "make Islam great again" while the other "makes America great again", Trump and ISIS are natural allies in a conspiracy against their respective constituencies.

Interestingly enough, what most distinguishes ISIS from previous Islamic-terrorist groups is its skill at making money, whether through taxes and fees, protection rackets, drug and oil exports, or antiquities smuggling. A fitting bedfellow for our first billionaire President.

ETA: article in The Intercept that reaches a similar conclusion, pointing out the long history of U.S.-Islam relations.


For anybody who hasn't already read David Frum's recent Atlantic article, go do that.

My summary: Donald Trump is taking us not towards an ideological dictatorship in the style of Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, or Castro, but rather towards a kleptocracy in the style of Orbán, Chávez, Zuma, Suharto, Marcos, Milošević, Duvalier, Putin, .... There is certainly ideology among his allies -- Bannon, Pence, Ryan -- but as long as Trump himself is at the helm, they will get their ideology enacted only in exchange for their help in furthering Trump's profits and glory. The biggest loser in all this is not oppressed minorities but America's idealistic beliefs in the existence of sincere public service and non-partisan criticism. Once the American people have accepted that "they all do it", that the only reason to vote for one leader or party over another is which one has promised you a patronage job, and that the only reason to believe one news source over another is which one supports your party, it'll be extremely difficult to ever restore the faith that democracy can work.

Feb. 2nd, 2017


Religious Freedom

There are rumors and leaks of an upcoming Trump (presumably really Pence and/or Bannon) executive order about religious freedom, which he defines as the right to discriminate against gays, transgendered people, and anything else that offends your religious sensibilities, without fear of government penalties such as losing your tax-exempt status. It explicitly applies to non-tax-exempt organizations too, such as "closely-held private companies" such as Hobby Lobby.

There's an intuitively appealing argument that any economic transaction is supposed to be by mutual consent: I shouldn't have to hire you, buy something from you, sell something to you, etc. unless I actually want the transaction to happen.

But what's the difference between refusing to serve gays and refusing to serve blacks or Jews? The executive order is specifically about religious views, but there are certainly people whose sincerely held religious views are anti-Semitic, and if religious views are recognized as a legitimate loophole, there will shortly be people claiming that their sincerely held religious views forbid serving blacks.

The executive order avoids this slippery slope by going in an even worse direction. It doesn't say all religious views are a legitimate basis for discrimination: only specific ones, such as that marriage is inherently between one man and one woman, or that sex belongs only inside such a marriage, or that gender is an innate and immutable characteristic determined at birth. In other words, we're going to privilege the religious views regarding sex of a certain segment of socially-conservative Christians over the religious views of anyone else.

So if this order goes into effect, it will (and should) be challenged on establishment-and-free-exercise-clause grounds by people who say their sincerely held religious views forbid serving Jews, blacks, heterosexuals, or Republicans. The only way to preserve the order while beating back these challenges is for the courts to say "That's not a legitimate, sincerely held religious view," a question which the courts have generally considered beyond their competence for the past 240 years.

Or, I guess, they could just repeal the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment....

Feb. 1st, 2017

devil duck

Immigration, Swedish style

We can all use
a note of humor regarding immigration policy....

Jan. 31st, 2017


What problem does Trump's refugee-and-immigration order solve?

In any security system, the central policy question is how to balance false positives against false negatives. Any chucklehead can come up with a system with no false negatives: don't let anybody in. And any chucklehead can come up with a system with no false positives: let everybody in. The tricky stuff is in between. So in a sense, Trump's order simply weights the danger of false positives less, and the danger of false negatives more, than the previous system, as everybody would expect of a Republican, "law-and-order" administration.

But if you were really trying to "make America safe from terrorism," you would start by examining the existing vetting procedure and any bad guys known to have slipped through it, and adjust it accordingly, while maintaining whatever balance you've chosen against the danger of false positives.

I don't think that's Trump's goal. If he really is the infantile, ignorant narcissist most people think he is, the goal of this order is to "keep his campaign promise": he said on the campaign trail (as usual, with no evidence) that the current vetting system is inadequate, and that he would impose "extreme" vetting, much stricter and stronger and manlier and más macho than the current system. I suspect he has very little idea what the current system is, but his is going to be more. Without actually analyzing the current system, the only policy guaranteed to be more than it is the first chucklehead's system -- don't let anybody in -- so that's what he's ordered temporarily. The way the order was issued, with little or no consultation with the departments and secretaries who would need to implement it, makes this very plausible.

On the other hand, if he (or, more likely, Steve "Wormtongue" Bannon) is sufficiently Machiavellian, the goal may be to instigate Moslem terrorists to attack the U.S. in order to justify a state of emergency giving him dictatorial powers.

The latter is of course a wacky paranoid conspiracy theory, and I honestly think it's less likely than the former. But the two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

Jan. 29th, 2017


In fairness (recognizing the irony of that term in connection with the Trump administration)...

There's been a lot of discussion of the list of seven countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen) covered by President Trump's order on immigration and refugees of last Friday, noting in particular that, although citing the 9/11 attacks as partial justification, it doesn't include the home countries of any of the 9/11 hijackers, and that it doesn't include any terrorism-wracked countries with known Trump Organization investments such as Turkey, not to mention non-Moslem-majority countries like France, Belgium, and the U.K. whose Moslem citizens have committed major terrorist acts.

The text of the order doesn't actually name any specific country except Syria, but rather refers to "countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12)". This is a section of law (existing at least since 2015) dealing with the "Visa Waiver Program" under which short-term (under 90 days) visitors from certain countries can enter the U.S. without meeting the usual visa requirements. In particular, section 12 says the visa waiver is not available to people who are "nationals" of, or have visited since March 1, 2011, a certain list of countries. The only countries named in the law are Iraq and Syria, but the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security are empowered to add other countries to the list on grounds that

  • "the government of [the country] has repeatedly provided support of acts of international terrorism;"

  • "the presence of an alien in the country or area increases the likelihood that the alien is a credible threat to the national security of the United States;"

  • "a foreign terrorist organization has a significant presence in the country or area;"

  • "the country or area is a safe haven for terrorists."

I can only assume that, as of Friday, the list of countries thus designated really was the seven we've been hearing about.

Anyway, my point is that Donald Trump didn't pick the list of countries; it already existed, having been created by Congress in 2015 or earlier, and fleshed out by the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security, probably under the Obama administration (since Trump's Secretary of State hasn't been confirmed yet, and his Secretary of Homeland Security has been in office only a week).

I'm inclined to suspect that he decided to use this existing list in part because it already existed, and people from these countries were already subject to heightened scrutiny for short-term visits to the United States; he didn't have to do the work of deciding which countries to put on the list.

The fact that he chose an existing list rather than just naming a couple of countries he'd seen on the TV news may actually be a good sign that he is, ever so slightly, tempering his shoot-from-the-hip instincts in favor of decisions made by people who know what they're talking about.

That said, one has to wonder why the existing list doesn't include Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt, Lebanon, or Pakistan: the criteria of section 12 seem to apply to those countries. That part isn't Trump's fault.

And one has to wonder about several things that are Trump's fault:

  • whether this action is an attempt to solve a real problem, i.e. whether there's reason to believe the existing refugee vetting procedure is inadequate;

  • whether criteria originally developed to apply to short-term visitors should also apply to refugees, applicants for long-term residency, and even people who already have long-term residency and have been living here for years;

  • whether criteria originally used to revoke a special privilege, so people meeting the criteria had to go through the usual visa process, should also be used as a ban, so those people can't go through the usual visa process;

  • whether suspending all refugee applications from all countries in the world is compatible with American ideals;

  • whether there's any evidence that refugees from Syria pose a special risk warranting indefinite suspension;

  • whether restrictions on Moslem-majority countries that explicitly favor non-Moslems from those countries will serve as a propaganda coup and recruiting tool for ISIS far outweighing any direct security improvement.


Jan. 21st, 2017

devil duck

Da March

We didn't go to Washington, DC for the Women's March; we just hopped a commuter train into Manhattan for New York's version. We arrived around 9:30 AM, early enough to get into the rally area, where there was a women's choir (which nobody could hear) and various speakers, including Cynthia Nixon, Helen Mirren, and Whoopi Goldberg. I saw Senator Chuck Schumer in the crowd about twenty feet away from me, but (remarkably) he wasn't on-mike. At 11:30 the police closed 2nd Avenue to traffic; the march wasn't officially supposed to start until noon but I think it actually started at 11:30 (I couldn't tell, because we were half a block away at the rally). At noon the rally officially ended and people started moving towards the march route half a block away. It took us 2-1/2 hours to move that half block and join the march route, by which time 2nd Avenue was packed with demonstrators from at least 51st Street down to 42nd, where the march route turned west so I couldn't see how packed it was. We marched slowly down 2nd Avenue, then across 42nd, then up 5th Avenue to 55th Street, reaching Trump Tower around 6:30 PM; I'm not sure how far behind us the crowds stretched at that point. But the march was a bit under two miles long, filling streets about 100 feet wide, which sounds like a few hundred thousand people (consistent with official estimates that vary from 200,000 to 500,000).

There were a lot of humorous signs, some tasteful and some otherwise. People made signs about a wide variety of issues:

  • pussy-grabbing by the President

  • corruption and incompetence among cabinet nominees

  • abortion rights

  • oil pipelines on Native American land

  • childish tweeting

  • environmental protection and global climate change

  • the President's apparent love affair with Vladimir Putin

  • LGBTQ rights

  • Obamacare

  • immigration crackdowns and fantasy border walls

  • the President's 3-million popular-vote deficit

  • the President's hands and hair

  • Black Lives Matter

  • etc. etc.

Some people, overwhelmed by the number of things to complain about, wrote simply "So many issues; not enough cardboard". I didn't see any violence or even any negative interactions with police. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits, and one police officer I talked to said "It's been great: everybody's been so nice."

"Thou shalt not mess with women's reproductive rights -- Fallopians 19:73"

"I'd call Donald Trump a cunt, but he lacks the depth and warmth"

After the march, we stopped at Grand Central Terminal for dinner and a potty break. In every men's urinal was this:

soap cake sculpted as Donald Trump's face

Tired, sore, dehydrated, sorta wired. Bedtime.

Previous 10