Archive for April, 2009


Swine Flu Hyperventilation

   Posted by: Robert    in News

It’s been all but impossible to go anywhere in the past few days without hearing about the Swine Flu.  It’s been in the news.  It’s all over the blogosphere.  The Department of National Security has declared a national emergency.  It’s even got the President spending his time suggesting school closures.  And despite his admonition that the swine flu is “not a cause for alarm,” the sheer volume of chatter about this disease is itself a fair bit alarming.

From a research standpoint, I suppose that it is fair to say that the Swine Flu is potentially quite interesting.  As its name rather directly indicates, a primary characteristic of the Swine Flu is that it owes its lineage to swine, including the average farm pig.  In the pork farming context, it seems that this bug is a disease that we’ve known about for a rather long time.  It gets into farms, it infects pigs, and usually stays there.  This one, strangely enough, didn’t.  Plus, in an additional and even more interesting twist, this version of Swine Flu seems able to jump from human to human; a trait which, I gather, is fairly rare.  For people who want to know more about the animal to human pathway for disease, or who are into viral research in general, Swine Flu has all the makings of a very interesting case study.

Things all start to get a lot less interesting when you get down to the people whose only interest in the flu is a desire to not get sick from it.  For those of us out here in the larger world, all indications seem to be that the Swine Flu is, well, the flu.

For the average American, the flu is a pretty easy thing to understand.  If someone near you  has the flu, you should probably stay away from them and wash your hands a lot.  If you have the flu, you should probably stay away from other people, drink plenty of water, avoid doing things which are physically demanding, and try to sleep.  If you are at increased risk of complications from the flu because you are very young, old, or have a weak immune system, you should probably see a doctor, just as you would for any other illness.  If you work in a place where diseases spread easily (like a school), you should certainly wash your hands more often and encourage the people around you to do the same.  If things do start to get out of hand, we have effective antiviral drugs.

In all, this is the same game we play every winter when “flu season” rolls around.  Except that it probably isn’t even that bad; the World Health Organization tells us that “human infection with swine influenza was generally mild but is known to have caused severe illness such as pneumonia, ” and that “[n]one of the confirmed cases in the United States have had the severe form of the disease and the patients recovered from illness without requiring medical care.” (emphasis added)  Indeed, to date, the only reported death in the United States is a toddler visiting from Mexico.

Of course, this would all be so much entertainment if not for the looming specter of big government intervention to “manage” the “public health crisis.”  Egypt has already declared it intention to kill all the pigs, despite the international health community saying quite plainly that such measures are entirely unnecessary.  A bit closer to home, the operation of at least one school district in Texas has already been brought to a screeching halt as state authorities descended in response to two students contracting an illness that “hadn’t seemed that bad,” especially when compared to their winter flu season which dropped attendance among “roughly 11,000 students to 89%.”

Knowing that Obama feeds on public fear and crisis to advance his radical government expansions, is it even debatable that a beautifully manufactured health crisis is not the perfect vehicle to push forward his healthcare agenda?  It may be that the media was a bit too quick with this one, as most of the health bureaucracy’s top seats are still vacant, but it does appear to have helped shuttle at least one nominee through the process to confirmation and it is an educational experience in any case.  It is, if nothing else, just one more excuse for the federal government to spend money.

I see no health crisis here.


Love and Gay Marriage

   Posted by: Robert    in Uncategorized

I recently got into a brief exchange with someone I believe to be another conservative over in the comment section of one of the blogs I follow.  The subject came up on gay marriage and one of the things the comment author posted struck me as being very wrong, but likely representative of a very common belief.  I rather liked the exchange, and I’ve reproduced the interesting bit below.

to deny a group of people the right to love one another

You know, this is a rather stunning non sequitur, if you really stop and think about it.

While love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, nobody in their right mind would say that a horse is a carriage or that a carriage is a horse. So too with marriage and love.

How many married couples can you think of who stayed together after the flame had worn out, either because divorce wasn’t worth the trouble, or because they had kids, or for any of a number of other reasons? How many people have you loved but not married? How many people do you love but have not married? And does the lack of a marriage somehow make that love less sincere?

I haven’t seen anyone — anyone — say that gays can’t love each other, or that it should be illegal for them to do so. Marriage is but a single facet of the overall picture. To be sure, it carries certain symbolic and legal implications which may or may not be borne out by domestic partnership.

There are many good arguments to be made in favor of gay marriage. There are even good conservative arguments for it. However, fallaciously equating love to marriage is not among them, and you could probably do better by finding an argument with a bit more logical consistency behind it.

Now, it occurred to me sometime after posting this that I was actually wrong to say that I haven’t seen anyone say that gays can’t love each other.  In fact, I have.  Once.  The result of which has done more emotional violence to the family than any harm I could imaginine arising from homosexual relationships as such.

To be sure, the destruction of families runs directly contrary to any conservative value I recognize.  That someone would allow a matter of homosexuality to destroy a family strikes me as being entirely incompatible with conservatism as a whole.  That, I think most would agree, is a travesty regardless of one’s political persuasions.


DHS Extremism Reports: [citation needed]

   Posted by: Robert    in News

In a letter which is the formal equivalent of the entirely too well known Wikipedia decoration bemoaning the statement of unverified facts, Senators Coburn, Brownback, DeMint, Burr, Murkowski, Inhofe, and Vitter point out a comparative element in my previous analysis which I had neglected to mention.  That element is the citation of sources to back up the claims made by the DHS to back up their statements on domestic terror.

In fact, neither the Leftwing nor the Rightwing report do a very good job with citation.  Even granting that Wikipedians can be a bit unpredictable at times, I find it doubtful that either report would survive the Wikipedia review process.  The reports are conclusory, largely unquantified, and appear to offer no authority other than the judgment of the Department itself for most of the statements offered.  The reports, to be sure, contain sufficient information to assist the efforts of law enforcement in identifying and resolving potential terrorist threats.  They lack, however, sufficient transparency of source material to allow for independent review.

That is not to say, however, that the reports are equally poor at citation.

The Leftwing report contains a “Source Summary Statement” which, while not identifying any particular sources, manages to outline the various types of sources that the DHS looked to in producing the report.  The sources apparently include “field agent reporting,” support from “subject-matter experts,” examination of “leftwing extremist media,” and other “open source data” including “business journals and research institute reports.”  Interestingly, “[g]overnment crime data” is expressly mentioned as being “unavailable.”

However poor the Leftwing “Source Summary Statement” is at providing a substitute for actual citations, it is still more than the Rightwing report contains.  Indeed, the Rightwing report contains but a single reference to a document identified only as “a 2007 study from the German Institute for Economic Research.”  The reference, however, is not general in nature.  Its purpose is to backstop a comment made inside an information box which points out a disagreement among “[s]cholars and experts” “over poverty’s role in motivating violent radicalization or terrorist activity.”  The report apparently shows “a strong association between a parent’s unemployment and the formation of rightwing extremist beliefs in their children.”  There is nothing else citation-like in the entire document.

With luck, the DHS will take Obama’s much campaigned on desire for government transparency to heart and respond with specific citations to available data and research or to publish some of the source documents on which they relied in the report.


Compare and Contrast: DHS Extremism Reports

   Posted by: Robert    in News

The news has been spending a fair bit of time recently talking about the recently released report from the Department of Homeland Security regarding Rightwing Extremism.  Following a short sentence at the bottom of a news report mentioning a similar report on Leftwing Extremism, I spent a few minutes searching for the text of that report as well.  When placed side by side, the two are interesting in a number of ways.  The mere existence of the Leftwing report, and its apparent commission during the Bush administration, seems to suggest that if the DHS is playing politics, it is at least playing them on both sides.  Reading the reports turns up some interesting similarities, and some stunning differences, which will be outlined below.  Please note in reading on, however, that my purpose here is not to point out logical or factual errors in either report and, as such, I write assuming that everything written is rational and true.

Beginning at the surface level, both reports are largely similar. From their visual formatting to their tone and tenor, it is clear that both reports were cut from the same cloth.

Both reports also seek to cabin the scope of their analysis to apply only to certain subsets of the left or right wing groups. This is, of course, a necessary step if the reports are to be taken seriously as discussions of actual extremists, and not merely as people with divergent opinions. The Leftwing report states in its declaration of scope that its targets of interest are “the animal rights, environmental, and anarchist extremist movements.” The Rightwing report, in a footnote on Page 2, seems to suggest that its target group is “those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment.” Rightwing groups of interest “may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration,” and antigovernment may include those who “reject[] federal authority in favor of state or local authority.” Interestingly, anarchits would appear to qualify as both Leftwing and Rightwing extremists.

Also interestingly, while the scope of the Leftwing Extremist report explicitly states that it is talking only about “extremist movements” in “the animal rights, environmental, and anarchist” domains, the Rightwing report offers no such qualification.  Indeed, the Leftwing report is even more narrowly tailored, as the scope statement does not end where I sliced it previously, but goes on to say that it only covers those “extremist movements that promote or have conducted criminal or terrorist activities.” (emphasis added) In stark contrast, the Rightwing report plainly states that there is “no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence,” and that “[t]hreats … have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts.” (emphasis added) The difference in scope is nothing short of the difference between those who have committed acts of violence and those who have not even suggested doing so.

Of course, violence itself is hardly the best lens through which to view these reports.  While the Rightwing report certainly is focused on violence, its primary focus is on recruitment.  The Leftwing report is explicitly focused on economic attacks, examples of which include “animal releases, property theft, vandalism, and cyber attacks … which extremists regard as nonviolent.” Both reports indicate that the greatest threat comes from “lone wolves and small cells” within each respective extremist group. Both reports also offer examples of the type of violence inflicted; the Leftwing report indicated three attacks, at least two of which caused economic damage of over $1 million, while the Rightwing report indicated a single example which occurred shortly before the report’s publication which caused the death of three police officers.

Ultimately, neither report made particularly strong recommendations to decrease the threat level from their respective extremist groups.  As near as I can tell, the Leftwing report made no recommendations whatsoever.  The Rightwing report, in contrast, pointed out that increased government oversight on militia and paramilitary organizations led to decreased enrollment, and also obliquely hinted in the scope declaration about the possibility of “federal efforts to influence domestic public opinion.”

While it is likely that the Leftist report will be held up to demonstrate that Obama’s DHS was, at worst, doing nothing that Bush’s DHS had not done, I think it proper to view any such claims with the utmost skepticism.  The scope of the reports is so astonishingly different that a serious comparison of what the two have to say borders on impossible.  The ebb and flow of conservative thought, and the “recruiting” which most would regard as the ordinary process of persuasion inherent in a society founded on popular soverignty, simply bears no resemblance to the commission of criminal acts which result in legally cognizable damage.


America’s Latest Gay Marriage States

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

It’s been an interesting week or so for gay marriage in America, with two more states jumping on the bandwagon in fairly rapid succession.

The first state, Iowa, has picked up gay marriage as the product of a story which is all too familiar.  The Iowa Supreme Court, in a grand act of contempt for democracy which is consistent with other judicial impositions of gay marriage, did not appear to break any meaningful new ground in their writing.  The Iowa is perhaps (but only perhaps, for I do not know Iowa law on this point) different from other recent cases only in that this decision may have affected substantive rights, in contrast to the decisions of the California and Connecticut courts which mandated, only, that one particular term for a set of rights be used rather than another.  If indeed there was a difference in fact and substance between the legal protections available to homosexuals as compared to heterosexuals, then the ultimate outcome of the case is likely far less egregious than the line of reasoning used by the court.

The line of reasoning makes clear, however, that legal inequality was not the court’s primary concern, if indeed the court cared about it at all.  The tragedy of legal absurdity to follow was foreshadowed early on by the court as it listed off several things which unmarried “couples” have no entitlement to in Iowa, with the capstone being “the inability [of homosexuals] to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage.”  Such an affirmation, however, cannot be conjured into being by the courts.  In a society characterized by representative government, the law typically reflects those things which are currently accepted by society and are typically neutral or hostile to things which are not; in other words, laws embody the beliefs of the people.  As we should have learned from the Jim Crow era following the Civil War, people seldom embody (or follow) the beliefs underlying laws with which they disagree.

Changing the people, as we have been seeing in the nation generally and now showcased in Vermont in particular, is a purely democratic endevor.  Although proponents of gay marriage remain a minority when compared to opponents of the practice, the numbers have tended to level out with time.  I have little doubt that within the next decade or so, the balance will shift and proponents of gay marriage will outnumber those opposed.  An unfortunate consequence of judicial activism today is that it will take several decades to build a sufficiently strong gay marriage majority to overturn the constitutional amendments which now restrict the practice.

While it is impossible to say whether Vermont would have approved gay marriage had they not had civil union imposed upon them years ago by their courts, their grant of marriage now is an outstanding example of how the process ought to run.  By building a democratic consensus strong enough to survive a veto, the acceptance of gay couples in Vermont by their fellow citizens — the people whose acceptance actually matters in the end — will be far greater and more stable than it is likely to be in Iowa.  Vermont now actually has something to be proud of, as the first state to voluntarily grant marriage rights to gay couples.


Bed of Hope

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

In one of its most memorable phrases, George Orwell’s 1984 sounds out a ringing indictment of how to transform a society.  “If there is hope,” he tells us, “it lies with the proles.”  As Winston discovers, what hope may lie there is more illusory than real.  The proles are too misdirected and disconnected to rise, united, against Big Brother.  Cheap beer and ficticious war are all that it takes to keep the most populus class from doing anything particularly remakrable.

This week I spent some time talking to some friends who, like me, are basically American proles.  Like our storybook counterparts, we have little if any impact on the political structure of our nation.  Sweet drinks and the manufactured wars broadcast on television are enough to keep us distracted.  However, from these conversations and by remarkable coincidence, I got onto a subject which Orwell’s masses and even Winston himself likely could not understand: The power of community.

As history has shown us time and again, people are at their strongest when they are interconnected in a meaningful way.  The number of connections need not be numerous, and the people involved need not be politically powerful, to have a major impact on a person’s life.  Ask any teacher and they will tell you that the children who excel are almost invariably the children with a parent who gets involved in the education process.  Ask any psychologist and I’m sure you will find that many of their patients leave feeling better simply from having had someone to talk to.

Americans have always had an interesting relationship with community.  We are highly individualist, a reflection of the principles of independence which mark the founding of our nation.  At the same time, we also recognize that no person can be truly independent; school shootings tend to be done by “lone wolves”, violent criminals in general are often social outcasts, and there is a growing consensus that inner-city poverty can be traced in part to the weak family ties which characterize much of urban life.  We are suspicious of government, with its power to create and destroy communities on a whim, tempered, we like to pretend, by the government’s commitment to justice and our own ability to check government misbehavior through the ballot box.  But we are also suspicious of individuals; the manipulative, self-serving creatures who seldom care about anyone but themselves, even when helping others.  The contradictions animate much of American politics.

And so, what were the ideas that prompted this chain of thought?  A faith based community centered on supporting families, and a school centered on creating a communal family for kids who have none of their own.  Both, I think, would be shining examples of how to improve a society.  Hope never requires all of the proles.  A revolution can begin with two.