Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Gentleman: Libertarianism

Today's post comes to us courtesy of K. Cerqueira, an educated gentleman who will today teach us a little more about the philosophy behind Libertarianism.

"There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal." - Hayek

Quick philosophy lesson kids, you've probably heard this one. Say you're standing next to a train track shortly before a fork junction. On one side, 5 people lay tied up, and on the other side there's this fat guy. There's a switch in front of you that you can pull to flip the fork, sending the train to kill the fat guy while saving the other 5. What do you do?

Well there was this guy called Kant who didn't precisely have an opinion on this question (it was devised later by dumber philosophers who write useless papers for a living, in between giving puerile lectures at diploma mills) but he did have this to say about it: every action you take should be in accordance with some universal law which is applicable in all situations. A set of such universal moral laws is called a deontology because it proscribes a set of duties. So if your deontology says something like, thou shalt not murder, then the particulars of the situation, i.e. the very contrived way in which the consequences are set up, don't really matter. You'd be killing a guy by pulling the lever, so you can't contradict yourself by doing so. There are further complications in this example but we aren't philosophers playing fucked up language games, so let's keep it simple.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


At the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, a masked gunman later identified as James Holmes kicked in the emergency exit, threw down a smoke grenade, and created the worst mass shooting in American history. 12 dead, dozens more injured. There are no words of condolence strong enough, no way to empathize with the victims who were in the midst of the horror.

Those injured in the attack included a 3-month-old child and a 9-year-old girl. Most of the patrons of the theater that night were teenagers or young children and their parents. Children as young as 6 lost their lives to an incomprehensible act of violence. It's the kind of insanity that, struggle as we might to make sense of, more often than not we simply can't.

Not that we won't try. The news cycle will be dominated in the days and potentially weeks to come by coverage of the shooting. James Holmes will be picked apart by the press. His friends and relatives will be interviewed, and those interviews replayed on a constant cycle. The survivors will be heavily sought after to retell their harrowing stories of being inside the theater when the shooting began. 

They'll wonder about drugs. They'll wonder about the internet. They'll wonder about the influence of violent comic books, video games, and movies. They'll do anything to find out what makes Holmes tick.

And of course we'll see the conspiracy theories. It's a plot by the government to suppress the Second Amendment. There's a method to the madness. That makes it easy to explain, easier to digest. We can't understand how someone could behave in such an inhuman manner, so we create a story. A planned act, a shadowy conspiracy - that sparks the imagination. That gives us a narrative we can break down and comprehend.

Because it's just easier than facing up to that there is insanity in the world, and insanity does things we can't understand. Having a reason we can wrap our heads around somehow makes us feel safer than facing the reality that some things are beyond our understanding. Especially when it seems we hear the same story repeated a different way so many times, over and over again. Aurora. Fort Hood. DC. Virginia Tech. Tucson. Columbine.

Inevitably, the conversation will take a turn towards gun control. Questioning how we can prevent this from happening again in the future. For the victims of the Aurora theater shooting, there is little we can do at this point except offer our sincere prayers and sorrow. For the future, maybe there is something we can do and maybe there isn't, and that's what I'd like to spend a moment talking about now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Corel and the Magical Instant Insurance Policy

"Dammit," I swore, realizing that the touch screen on my phone had once again become completely borked for no reason. What had been working fine an hour earlier had inexplicably decided to cease acknowledging any touch anywhere on the screen except the bottom, and insist that I was ALWAYS pressing whatever was on the bottom. After preventing it from sending out twenty or so blank text messages, I resigned myself to the fact that I had to go get it fixed. Counting down the days in my head once again until my contract runs out and I toss this thing away forever, I sighed and drove out to the phone store in the mall.

Despite the line being long, they managed to shuffle through the people ahead of me quickly. This was a relief as I recalled the previous two times something had gone wrong for no reason with my phone and I'd needed to wait in line for an hour before I was even seen. Soon I was at the counter, and next to me was a woman who appeared to be in early middle age, but perhaps aged a bit more by the two children with her. While her son, who was perhaps as old as 6, sat somewhat quietly by her side, her daughter, a tiny blond bottle rocket who couldn't have been much older than 3, was talking up a storm to no one in particular.

"So yeah, we should be able to put on a new touch screen," the guy behind the counter explained. "Let me just go make sure we have this model."

While he was in the back, the 3-year-old managed to get herself out of her stroller and hopped up into the chair beside me. "Spin, spin!" She shouted towards her mom, who was talking with another sales clerk about buying a new phone, and began twirling around in the chair. "Spin, spin, spin," she sang, as her mom tried her best to ignore her and finish what she was doing.

The guy helping me emerged from the back, a package in his hand. "Got it," he declared, "we can go ahead and put this on for you, but it will cost $35."

I strummed my fingers against the counter. "Are you sure about that price? This is the third time I've had to come in and get this phone fixed since I got it, and it's always the touch screen. I haven't gotten it wet, I don't pound on it, it just stopped working."

"Yeah, I can see it's in good shape," he conceded, "but you don't have any insurance on it or anything. Even the 1-year plan is gone. I can't give you a $35 part from Sprint and then not charge you for it, because then the store eats the cost. Well, hold on, let me check to see what I can do."

He then went to do the same thing I would do when I worked in insurance, or a few retail jobs I held. Pretend to check the computer and actually just reread all the same customer information, arbitrarily clicking your mouse now and then, so you can say with more authority and some empathy, "Yeah, I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do."

But when he started looking at the screen, the girl spinning in the chair next to me suddenly stopped and looked right at me.

"Hi!" She effused.

"Hi there," I returned.

"What's your name?"

"I'm David."

"I'm Corel."

"Nice to meet you," I smiled at her. She turned away, giggling. The guy behind the counter cracked a smile as Corel turned back around.

"You can't touch me," she declared, shaking her head.

I put my hands out towards her, pretending to struggle against a force field surrounding her. "Ghhhhhhaaa . . . nope, you're right, I can't."

"I can touch you!" She shouted, and promptly slapped me in the shoulder.

"So you can," I replied, but as she moved to hit me again, my cat-like reflexes moved me out of the way. She swung again, mightily, but I was too quick for her. This went back and forth for a bit until she finally got a solid strike in.

"Ahh, you got me," I lamented, clutching my stricken shoulder.

"Corel!" Her mother, attention finally drawn, rounded on her daughter with the kind of constant low-simmer anger only a parent can display. "You can't just push people you don't know!"

"But it's David!" Corel protested instantly.

"Yeah," I told her mom, "we go way back."

At this point the woman helping her mother was laughing loudly. The clerk helping me and the girl beside him were both unsuccessfully trying to stifle their own mirth. Corel's mom was so taken aback she gave up the fight almost instantly, shaking her head. "Just sit still," she said finally, knowing she wasn't going to win this one. Corel's attention was already drawn to someone outside, and she shouted that he had a weird hairstyle, causing everyone to start laughing all over again.

"Hey," the guy helping me said suddenly as I turned back to him. "Tell you what - don't tell Sprint, but I'm going to give you insurance on this phone - for just today, and then take it back as soon as we get this new touch screen on."

"Wow, really? Okay, yeah, let's do that."

"Just come back in 45 minutes, it'll all be taken care of."

So I went and had lunch, came back, and a few minutes later my phone was as good as new. No charge to me whatsoever.

Thanks, Corel.

Incidentally, Corel and her mom were back in the store at the same time I was, only this time a very disgruntled Corel was strapped firmly in her stroller, angrily demanding "Let! Me! Out!" Sorry, Corel's mom.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Romney Reward

I've been spending a portion of my summer thus far working for Organizing for America, the campaign to re-elect Barack Obama. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my job, I was under a strict media blackout - a restriction that included blogging. Fortunately, after weeks of speaking with my supervisor and looking to renegotiate exactly what it is I do, I'm now able to write somewhat freely. My campaign work is still off-limits (honestly, it's not that exciting, they just don't want anybody even remotely associated with the President saying something stupid to the media), but I'm allowed to use this and other public forums to discuss my opinions about the upcoming election.

So here goes. First off . . .

I am not a Democrat.

I'm registered as a Democrat. I've voted for Democrats in the past. I share a lot of ideology which is commonly held to be "liberal" in nature.

I am not a Republican.

I've supported Republicans and conservatives in state and local elections. I share a lot of ideology which is commonly held to be "conservative" in nature.

With that in mind, I had one person I usually looked towards as a role model for politicians. John McCain.

However, in November of 2008, as I stood at the voting booth staring at the two names in front of me, I was locked in place.

John McCain, whom had been a hero of mine for almost a decade. A veteran, an established politician, and a good man with a long history of working for what he believed in. A long-serving Senator with a history of working across party lines on important subjects, rising above petty politics, and connecting more than any other candidate with actual issues and the concerns of America.

Barack Obama, who . . . was handsome?

Then I looked down at the Vice Presidential nominees. Joe Biden, a Democratic analogue for John McCain. Well-spoken (as long as he doesn't speak too much), experienced, well-respected, and deeply involved and dedicated to working with fellow members of Congress, regardless of their political affiliation, in order to do the work that needed to be done.

Sarah Palin, who . . . was pretty? Or was that Tina Fey?

Barack Obama pitched a good game. He never had any of the "gaffes" media outlets scour every speech for along the campaign trail. Just by virtue of his being black he represented a paradigm shift from the establishment of American Presidential politics. Whenever the mud was slung his way, he seemed to rise above it. He inspired people with his presence, got millions of young people out to the voting booths, and had everybody talking about his meteoric rise.

However, it was all predicated on a keynote speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After that he had a single, somewhat unremarkable run as a Senator from Illinois, and then immediately rode the wave of public interest built up around him all the way to the Presidential nomination. All in all, he hadn't really done much, he just talked a lot.

McCain got down and dirty. He steamrolled over Mitt Romney in the primaries with every attack on his record and character he could come up with. When the general election came, he let campaign ads run demeaning Obama's character, his friends and associates, and his experience (justifiably, in that last case). He played on the fear of terrorist attacks and illegal immigrants taking over our jobs. He allowed people associated with him paint Obama as a non-American Muslim.

He did everything I never thought he would do. He became a typical dirty politician. He abandoned decades of good work in Congress so that he could ensure his nomination, and once he had it he couldn't back down from those platforms. His loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary taught him a lesson - you want to be President, you play ball with the Party, and he never let that go.

But the fact remained - I knew John McCain was the person he was, the person I had admired, and I believed that once in office he'd do an about-face, flip off Bush's neo-cons, and run the White House the way he wanted to. I didn't know anything about this Obama character.

Yet, I checked his name, not McCain. Because under John McCain's name was Sarah Palin.

At the time of the election, McCain was 72 years old. Being President is an incredibly stressful job. The thought of John McCain dropping dead one day in office and Sarah Palin becoming President of the United States was not a reality I wanted to encourage, even taking into account the potential face-off with Putin.

Sarah Palin represented something I didn't want in office. Forget the idea that she was uninformed or ill-prepared, or even the notion that she only got the nomination to try and woo Hillary supporters. As Vice President (or President!) Sarah Palin stood for . . . whatever it was the party told her to stand for. She never demonstrated an original thought or idea, she never strayed from popular talking points, she never tackled anything that the Republican party, and specifically the most conservative elements of its base, didn't have a prepared statement for. I didn't want this woman anywhere near the White House, and she cost John McCain my vote.

I think time proved that to be the right decision for other reasons, as I've written about before.

So now it's four years later, and this time around Mitt Romney wisely sat back and let his opponents destroy themselves before calmly marching up the wreckage of their campaigns to claim the Republican nomination. It's still some months out from Election Day - though closer than you think - and so far I have yet to see anything from Romney that sets him apart from Sarah Palin. The man makes me think someone had a powder somewhere in a package that read "Instant Republican Nominee: Just Add Water" and they just doused that thing.

He hasn't deviated even one syllable from party-line rhetoric. He hasn't expressed a single idea which could be controversial to his constituent base. He hasn't done anything to make himself seem like an individual running for the highest office in the land instead of a mouthpiece for the monolithic entity backing him.

But let's put that aside. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Mitt Romney was the greatest possible candidate available. Let's ignore Bain Capital, his own Health Care reform in Massachusetts, his stance on the middle class, all of it. I want you to imagine the most perfect Presidential candidate you can think of, and then pull the image of Mitt Romney over it.

He still shouldn't win.

Here's why.