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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is it really asking too much…?

Blogger Lorenzo has some relevant thoughts about the conflict between moral sensibilities and modernity for some groups of people:

So, religions do not only matter as generators of rituals and doctrines, they also matter in the way they deeply influence moral sensibilities, attitudes to time, ways of looking at the world; and do so even without regular attendance to the rituals or strong adherence to doctrines. The sensibilities, temporal orientations and other framings can remain after belief and participation has departed.

Of the existing civilisations sharing this planet, only one is prominently having an extended temper tantrum about modernity; an extended temper tantrum with a distinctly homicidal edge.

The West essentially invented modernity, Japan has long since embraced it; China et al are very much up for it (the Beijing regime would just like to indigenise a congenial-to-it version); Russia et al ditto; Latin America is trying to get there (despite an unfortunate institutional legacy and outbreaks of really bad policy ideas); sub-Saharan Africa is struggling under bad boundaries and poor institutions but is also trying.

It is only Islam that is producing significant murderous insurgencies against modernity (and especially against the egalitarian cosmopolitanism which is such a strong strain within modernity--there is nothing like attacking schools, universities, cafes, soccer matches, rock concerts, along with beheadings, crucifixions and killing bloggers while re-introducing slavery to say "we hate modernity").

One needs to be aware the Salafism comes in various flavours (quietist, activist, jihadi) which overlap with Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf). Moreover, its "quietist" tradition is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism--political Islam--has Salafist versions. Islamism also comes out of the later C19th but does not reach much in the way of organised form until the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. This confusing welter of responses is itself a sign of the difficulties modernity poses for Islam as religion and as a source of normative framings.
A reasonable estimate for Islamists is about 10-15% of Muslims. There are about 1.6bn Muslims, so that suggests 160m to 240m Islamists (most of whom are Salafis, Wahhabis or Deobandis). Thus, Christian revivalist movements have considerably more adherents than Muslim revivalist movements (revivalism whether as purification or as political activism). But the Christian revivalism goes largely unremarked and un-newsworthy because Christian revivalism does not have remotely the homicidal edge Islamic revivalism does. For what one is attempting to return to, makes a difference.

The jihadis are the most dramatic manifestation of the tension between Islam and modernity, yet they are far from the only manifestation thereof. The grounding of morality so thoroughly in revelation creates a profound gulf between believers and non-believers; between those who accept the revelations which are the only true grounding of moral judgement and those who do not. This is the basis of an Islamic supremacism or triumphalism that has seeped into the moral sensibilities of Muslims over the centuries. It is why, for example, there is so much persecution of religious minorities across the Muslim world; persecution which follows recurring patterns.

Attitudes that do not magically disappear simply by migrating to the West. Particularly when migration to the West cuts people off from the various evolved mechanisms for softening the harsher elements of Islam.

The US and Australia are unlikely to experience similar problems because their Muslim minorities are less than 2% of the population: at that level, it is rational for Muslim communities to cooperate with local security forces. There are still the problem of "lone wolf" attacks, as there is significant jihadi social media activity aimed as recruiting and grooming such. But, as the US in particular already has a home-grown mass shooter problem, that is a comparatively minor law-and-order issue.

Once Muslim minorities start heading towards 10% of the population, then enclave problems are much more likely to develop and cooperation with security forces is likely to be much patchier and resistance to the agents of the state is likely to develop. Accepting a Muslim minority of that sort of size is also, effectively, a decision to export one's Jews.

The notion that there are no issues specific to Muslim migration is nonsense on stilts. Of course there are: it is very different, religiously-defined civilisation with very different presumptions and framings. Yelling "racism" does not change that, although it does close down debate: so is precisely the sort of shouting polarising that is not in any way helpful.

No, it is not merely a matter of Islamic doctrine, though that has plenty of problematic aspects. It is also the effects of centuries (indeed, over a millennium) of Islamic doctrine, ritual and teaching on the moral sensibilities and framings, the cosmological outlook, of Muslims, of people of Muslim heritage: the notion that their religious identity is at once terribly important to people of Muslim heritage yet has no problematic content is nonsense--it is turning people into abstractions for moral points-scoring between Westerners.

As the experiences of Europe in its various difficulties with Muslim migrants and migrant communities demonstrate, you cannot just wish that heritage away and shouting at people because you don't wish it to be so may be satisfyingly childish but does not change anything except to make the development of intelligent, well-grounded responses that much harder and leave far more ground for political entrepreneurs to garner support from frustrated, concerned and angry voters left with nowhere else to go.

Even if a majority of Muslims are not supremacists there are still good reasons to take the matter seriously.  The search for identity and meaning are very powerful human motivations:
It's a commonplace to anyone who's studied the rise of fascism, of which Islamofascism is the most recent variety.  The main problem with democratic capitalism is that it's so successful, and therefore very boring.  A generation or two of European intellectuals bemoaned the great triumph of science and industry, which they portrayed as relentlessly stifling the human soul, burying us under a hill of material things.
 The 20th-century fascists were largely secular, substituting their own rituals for traditional religious ones;  Islamofascism turns it around, substituting religious rituals and beliefs for the largely secular ones that defined the "modern world."
This problem is likely to be with us for a long time.  Military action may be appropriate at some points, aiding others such as the Kurds may also help.  Our screening process needs meaningful improvement:
Our screening system is badly broken, and we have an administration that is more concerned with enforcing political correctness than protecting the American people. We know that terrorists use social media to spread propaganda, recruit operatives and plan attacks. Yet MSNBC reports that in 2011, officials in the Department of Homeland Security proposed a policy of scouring social media of visa applicants to look for terrorist ties. The proposal went through a year-long review and was about to be issued as official policy — when it was quashed by senior officials. 

 According to a retired DHS  employee, efforts to possibly prevent attacks were thwarted:

During my 13 years at the Department of Homeland Security, I worked tirelessly to identify and prevent terrorism in the United States. As a recognized “founding member” of DHS, it was among my responsibilities to raise concern, not only about the individuals primed for imminent attack, but about the networks and ideological support that makes those terrorist attacks possible.

I investigated numerous groups such as the Deobandi Movement, Tablighi Jamaat, and al Huda as their members traveled into and out of the United States in the course of my work. Many were traveling on the visa waiver program, which minimizes the checks and balances due to agreements with the countries involved. But the scrutiny we were authorized to apply was having results. This investigation could possibly have prevented the San Bernardino jihadist attack by identifying its perpetrators, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, based on their associations with these groups.

Almost a year into this investigation, it was halted by the State Department and the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. They not only stopped us from connecting more dots, the records of our targets were deleted from the shared DHS database. The combination of Farook’s involvement with the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah Mosque and Malik’s attendance at al Huda would have indicated, at minimum, an urgent need for comprehensive screening. Instead, Malik was able to avoid serious vetting upon entering the United States on a fiancĂ© visa and more than a dozen Americans are dead as a result.

The investigation was not stopped because it was ineffective, it was stopped because the Administration told us the civil rights of the foreign nationals we were investigating could be violated. When did foreign nationals gain civil rights in the United States, especially when they are associated with groups we already know are involved in terrorist activity? Based on what I have seen in the Department of Homeland Security, I no longer have the confidence this administration can adequately vet or screen refugees or immigrants from Islamic countries.

That same retired employee, Philip Haney, provided a very good interview at The Daily Caller:
With nowhere else to turn, he went to Congress to see if they would listen. He became a “whistleblower” facing further consequences and investigations. Consequences he promises to tell later. He is optimistic that investigations in the House and Senate appear poised to be launched, and he stands ready to help in any way he can to protect this nation, and take the handcuffs off law enforcement.

Asked whether the motivation to stop his work was political correctness or something more nefarious, Haney said, “I think the players are pretty obvious at this point. Islamic-based influence groups definitely play a role in controlling the narrative. The administration side definitely plays a role in submitting to that narrative. And combined together they create a potent force that has shattered our ability to do our job.”

The administration and their supporters have complained about the irrational fear of terrorism voiced by some people in this country.  I would suggest that if they really wanted to quell those fears that they should take their national security responsibilities seriously.  Is that really asking too much?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Near perfect communication

Communication is a tricky thing.  Sometimes the connection is derailed because people use the same words to mean different things or common usage changes for some people but not others.  Even when word confusion is not a problem, differences in life experiences and intellectual background can lead to different perspectives.  Differences in temperament, individual personality and worldview can also present communication problems.  But there are rare instances when you can express an idea in terms that are so clear that the other person exhibits unmistakable and immediate recognition of your point.

I have now had several chances to tell the following story.  Every time the response has been a look of total recognition of the point accompanied by an affirming nod of the head:

Earlier this year I was reading about an instance where the president was clearly not acting in the broad interest of the public.  I blurted out a comment along those lines.  Let me mention that my wife is one of the least political people that you will ever meet.  She is all about family and friends.  Of course, if you step on her toes by telling her what she can and cannot do you might get some pushback.  Because she does not have a strong interest in politics I generally make political comments on rare occasion only.  When she started to respond to my comment I was expecting a question asking for further clarification of what I had said.  Instead, she really surprised me by asking, “do you think the president loves the country?”  I didn’t want to give a knee-jerk response.  But after a long pause and thought I simply replied, “no.”  She shrugged and that was that.  A few months ago, the same thing happened, I commented and she questioned.  This time my response was a little different.  I said, “honey, I love you, now I want to fundamentally transform you.”  Then she shot me a look of totally knowing that I was right, that the president doesn’t love the country.  No further questions needed.

As I said earlier, everyone seems to get this instantly.  The exceptions will be few.

Disclaimer:  Not responsible for any person who gets clobbered while reproducing this communication experiment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Parents and Education

I've never once censored what my two daughters watched or read. That I never had to was based on my attitude and one single gamble. At the age of three, my older daughter wanted to watch a movie (I can't even remember which one it was now) that was definitely inappropriate for her age but that I decided probably wouldn't cause any long term emotional damage. I said, "well, you can watch it if you want, but I think you'll find it very scary, so I strongly suggest that you don't watch it until you're older." She ignored me and chose to watch it. Sure enough, she found it very scary and disturbing. After that, if I simply suggested that something was going to be well beyond her comfort zone, she would not watch or read it. She also let her younger sister know that listening to Dad on such matters was a really good idea. They're both grown now, so my days of potentially restricting content are definitely over.

On the other hand, I'm not claiming for even a nanosecond that such an approach will work for every parent, every child, or every parent/child combination. I stumbled into it and it happened to work for my family. Other parents may find it critically important to heavily restrict what their children are exposed to and they absolutely need to have the right to do that.

I think that right also applies to education. Ultimately, I think it should always be up to the parents what schools should and (especially) should not teach.

For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being banned by a growing list of school districts:
Today, Mark Twain's classic - about a boy who flees his abusive father and travels down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave - is still sometimes challenged in American schools, but for nearly the opposite reason: its liberal use of the N-word and perceived racist portrayals of black characters.
A colleague of mine who's a teacher is displeased because of the book's alleged importance:
Huckleberry Finn is a significant work for several reasons:• It transformed the American novel as a literary form, using the lingua franca rather than The King's English• It documented, in novel form, rather definitively, as did other, later works, the state of American race relations, class issues, slavery, growing up, and the capacity (and incapacity) of America to accept change.• It is an engaging story.
He further thinks that teachers should be "entrusted to choose materials for their classes (perhaps in consultation with department leaders, perhaps not)." Note that parents are nowhere in his equation.

I think that's wrong. While I have a copy of Huck Finn on my bookshelves and I believe that both my daughters have read it, if parents think the book inappropriate for their children (even their high-school age children), then no, teachers shouldn't be able to override that and be able to force it down the students' throats. Especially, if multiple parents think the book should not be part of a class.

Teachers and educators are experts and should certainly provide advice and guidance as to what should be taught. Indeed, what they suggest should be taught by default. But nobody knows an individual child better than his or her parents and they should get to make the final decision on what their child is taught.

Of course, the same applies to other topics as well including things like the Theory of Evolution. If a lot of parents don't want that taught at a given school, it shouldn't be taught. It's not like the other parents can't expose their children to the topics that the school doesn't teach. They can borrow the book from the library or find a free online course.

I think this conclusion sums it up best: "We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book [Huck Finn] in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits." And that's rightfully the decision of the parents comprising the community and should not be completely left to the teachers and educators.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Preserving Humanity

Let's say that we knew for a fact that in 200 years a large meteor or other heavenly object was going to strike Earth and blow it to smithereens and that there was nothing we could do to prevent the impact and that all life on Earth would die, including all humans on the planet.

What action should we, collectively, take if faced with this information?

My answer: we should collectively take no action at all.

I seem to be in a tiny minority who thinks that. Most others, it seems from my observations, would want to deploy a substantial part of humanity's resources to colonizing other planets (via Instapundit) in order to preserve humanity.

Why? I don't get it, being a "Dust in the Wind" kinda guy.

What is so important about the survival of this DNA based creature call homo sapiens? It seems that we're kinda nasty, brutish, and some of us are short. All currently living people will already be dead at the time of impact. Why should they make sacrifices for those unknown in the future? Does it objectively matter if we go extinct in 200 years or 200 million years? If so, why?

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Phony moral posturing is such a mainstay of SJWs.  Dinesh D'Souza schools a student at Amherst College.  Worth the time.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Math of Muslim Mass Murders

A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attack, a group of friends and I went to see a comedian named Ahmed Ahmed (he said he's the only guy on the no-fly-list ... twice!). He noted that in a poll shortly after the 9/11 attack that muslims were the 3rd (or maybe 4th - I can't remember) most hated group in the United States. Given that the carnage on 9/11 didn't do it, he wondered what on earth muslims had to do to be number 1!

Well, it looks like muslims may get a shot at Ahmed-squared's coveted top spot of being hated given the recent suggestion that muslim immigration to the United States be restricted. Yet, to me, the recent attacks seem incredibly lame compared to 9/11.

Here are some numbers: in the United States, around 7,500 people die each day (all causes); approximately 30 of those die from gun based homicides (less than 1/2%); about 1% of murders are from mass shootings; a tiny fraction of mass shootings are bona-fide muslim terrorist attacks.

We never hear about the vast majority of the approximately 30 people who are murdered by guns each day. 30 people is simply not newsworthy in a country of more than 300,000,000 people. We don't really care, nor should we - it's simply too unlikely to happen to you or those you know to be bothered with and it's too small of an impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans to put more energy into worrying about it.

On the other hand, we can probably all name quite a few mass shootings even though 2 orders of magnitude fewer people die in those than in plain-vanilla gun homicides. It seems to be an inherent innumeracy of the human psyche to be oh-so-ho-hum about 30 gun homicides a day but be terrified, terrified I tell you, of the much rarer mass murder like the recent one in San Bernadino. And if that mass murder is of the even rarer type perpetrated by someone of a different tribe (for example a muslim), then it is all the more terrifying.

I would hope that terror doesn't overwhelm all reason though, for example when it comes to reasons for restricting immigration. On the topic of terror, religious freedom, and immigration, in a recent post by Scott Adams (the author of the Dilbert comic strip), he wrote:
But if the risk is more than tiny, can you put a price on your love of religious tolerance? In other words, how many dead Americans are you willing to accept? I’ll go first. 
Personally, I would accept up to 1,000 dead Americans, over a ten-year period, to allow Muslim non-citizens to enter this country. My calculation assumes we are better off accepting some degree of tragedy in the name of freedom.
One-hundred dead Americans a year? When 30 are already murdered using guns each day? A no-brainer, in my opinion, being less than 1% increase.

Unfortunately, I suspect the indirect deaths alone will be far higher. While Obama and others push for gun control after each of these incidents, a large number of people rush to gun stores and buy weapons and ammo. After all, they're terrified and want to defend themselves and I don't blame them. But there are already several hundred accidental firearm deaths annually. More guns may or may not mean less crime but they almost certainly mean more accidents and more accidental deaths. My guess is that each terror attack will cause more Americans to die because of increased gun accidents than die in the incidents themselves. That's not inherently bad. I can understand the argument that it is better to die defending oneself or even just preparing to defend oneself or in the process of preparing to defend oneself than to live in fear. I think the numbers say we shouldn't be living in fear anyway, at least not yet, but that's clearly just my subjective opinion.

Will (muslim) immigration increase the number of terror attacks? Well, it certainly won't decrease them. That's why I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to have a debate about restricting immigration of muslims, even though my vote (at this point) is to not have such restrictions.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Obama's Muslim Cat and Other Irrationalities

I was having an interesting discussion with someone about perspectives on other people's religious affiliation (or lack thereof). I'd like to share and pontificate on that discussion.

The easiest starting point is the question: am I jewish? The answer is that it depends who you ask.

Let's start with my opinion. On one hand, my mother is jewish and in jewish culture, if you're mother's jewish, at minimum, you start out being jewish. On the other hand, I never had a bar mitvah, I wasn't really brought up to be jewish, I don't believe in god and the related dogma of the religion, and rarely attend services. On the third hand, I enjoy jewish holidays (Chappy Chanukkah all!), have a jewish extended family, have more jewish friends than statistically random, and while the kids were interested in the religion thing, we took them to jewish services and enrolled them in a jewish Sunday school. Waving all those hands, my internal perspective is that I'm non-religious but culturally somewhat jewish. I feel comfortable in jewish settings, have a bit of natural affinity for jewish events and gatherings, and sort of feel a slight attachment to jewish history and myth.

But it doesn't matter what I think when it comes to others' perspectives. Some of my family and friends think I'm jewish; some think I'm not. Some have bothered to ask what I think, but, in general, what I think doesn't seem to much matter to them as far as whether or not they think I'm jewish.

It's sorta like Schrodinger's cat. I'm simultaneously jewish and not-jewish until somebody observes me. However, my observed state of jewishness is completely dependent on the perspective of the observer and not really tied to any objective or quantum reality.

Now let's switch topics a bit.

Is Obama muslim? Some say yes, most say no (including Obama). Many who say no say that those who say yes are delusional but I think that's inaccurate. Each person observes and then forms a belief based on those observations and his or her perspective. Just because our beliefs are wrong doesn't mean they're delusional.

My observations lead me to believe that it's exceedingly unlikely that Obama is muslim. However, I won't say it's certain that he's not a muslim. Why? Because I don't trust anything he says and I can't get inside his head and heart so I can't completely eliminate the possibility that he is somehow a secret muslim by some definition of muslim. Extremely unlikely, but not absolutely, positively impossible. Therefore, it's almost, but not quite absolutely provable that Obama is not a muslim.

But who cares, anyway? Well, the person I was having the discussion with certainly cared. It's only a small exaggeration to say she considers it a great evil that some people think Obama is muslim because, in her opinion, irrational beliefs like that can lead to great atrocities (like the holocaust, for example). I think it's a bit of a leap from believing that Obama is muslim to a genocide event, but hey, what do I know?

She's an atheist (self-described). So I asked, "which belief is more evil, belief in god or belief that Obama is a muslim?" She wasn't sure and said she would think about it. I'll let you know if she gets back to me on the matter.

I think that if great atrocities occur even a small fraction of the time a group of people has an irrational belief then we wouldn't've made it this far. That's because each and everyone of us is full of irrational beliefs all the time, even if we're unaware of those beliefs. And that's ignoring the fact that rational beliefs sometimes cause us to do atrocious things as well.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Inequality and Danger

I recently wrote in a comment that "the three most dangerous types of people, in my opinion, are those with extensive resources, fanatics and those with little or nothing left to lose." The last two groups don't mind and perhaps even welcome death making them difficult to deter. In addition, they can be organized in a fighting and/or terrorist force to the detriment of civilization.

So why do I think that those with extensive resources (i.e. those that are very "rich") are dangerous? They are able to do several things that others cannot including the following:

  • They can build and maintain a network of thugs to do their bidding;
  • They can provide substantial bribes to law enforcement and key witnesses to find them not guilty;
  • They can hire excellent defense attorneys to eloquently argue their case and find every legal loophole; and
  • They can affect the political system, for example getting pardons for their crimes, using their resources.

Even the non-rich can do some of these things to some extent, but there's no doubt in my mind that with greater resources the richer someone is, the better able he is to do those sorts of things.

That's not to say that I think that every or even many rich folk have bands of roving thugs going around murdering people or performing otherwise heinous crimes. I'm only claiming that they can do such things and that makes them relatively dangerous. Just like using fire is dangerous but people rarely get burned by it even though they do occasionally.

So reducing inequality, even it if created even more people with little or nothing left to lose, might reduce the number of dangerous rich people.