Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saul Alinsky's Rules

In the right-wing blogosphere there has long been a theme that says that Obama is a disciple of the old lefty, Saul Alinsky, and that he and Hillary Clinton are (literally) playing from his rulebook, an actual book called Rules for Radicals. Hillary's senior thesis at Wellesley was on Alisnky, so they say. I'm not interested in that issue. BHO's behavior won't look any worse (or better) to me depending on where he learned it. But some quotes from that book interested me.

I don't really know anything about this guy, except that leftists often mention him as as a sort of wise, lovable old coot, a sort of leftie Yoda.

I found an electronic copy of the book and read (most, I think) of a chapter titled "Tactics." My jaw dropped. The core of the chapter is thirteen tactical rules for changing the world (in good ways, supposedly). Most of them belong with the sort of tactical advice you can read in The Prince or Mein Kampf.

Yoda he is not. Look at this. (And as you read, try to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Thoreau saying any of this.)

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."

One thing this seems to mean, if we read it in connection with some of the rules that follow, is that his goal is to intimidate those who disagree with him, controlling them through fear, and not to convince them of something by appealing to their mind or conscience. Note also that this power seems to be based on deception of some sort.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.Rule 2 is actually good advice. Base your arguments on your own experience and that of your audience. Knowing that your case is based on solid evidence increases confidence and dispels fear.  But notice that he applies this valid principle in reverse against others. Spreading this disabling fear far and wide is just what Rule 3 advises.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

This rule might have been defensible if it meant that you should expose hypocrisy or take advantage of the impracticality of your opponent's moral code. But that is not what he has in mind. He says that everyone is vulnerable to this tactic, not just hypocrites. And the example he gives, of answering every letter, is actually a decent and sensible rule. He is advising you to take advantage, not of your opponents' hypocrisy and foolishness, but of their decency and their ideals.  And to take advantage of the fact that they can't do something that, according to him, nobody could do anyway.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force [note his word choice here] the enemy into concessions.

I take it the idea here is something like this. Instead of engaging in a debate with Dick Cheney about the ethics of torture -- where you'll end up dealing with a mass of theories and supposed facts -- make fun of him for shooting his friend in the face on a hunting expedition.. If you do it right, people will just start to snicker when he shows up on TV. They won't hear a word he says. It will be just as though you have turned off his microphone. If you are really lucky, he will lose his temper and look even worse.

As with Rule 13, below, the basic strategy here is the respond to speech by delegitimizing the speaker. I can't think of a single practice (short of the use of threats and violence) that is more deeply inimical to the basic principles of civilized discourse.

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

In other words, disable his opponent's capacity to reason.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

Need I say more?

RULE 10: The major premise of tactics is the development of operations that will maintain constant pressure on the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.

Translation:  Provoke your opponents to doing irrational things that are not in their interest, but are in yours.

RULE 11: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

Get them to abandon reason altogether and resort to violence. Now you are a martyr. Yay! you win!

RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

I think this rule is the most evil one of the lot, partly for the reason I gave under Rule 5. But there is more.

I have long been convinced that the problems in the world are due to bad institutions and not ultimately to bad people. Bad institutions reward bad behavior, punish good behavior and distort people's ideas. When bad people are at the center of things, it is generally because we have created an institution in which the only people who can flourish are ones with certain moral vices.

This truth, that "it's not the people, it's the system," was one of Marx's most distinctive ideas, and it is responsible for what is true in his doctrine.

It makes it hard to reform the world, however, because people don't get energized about "institutions," and even find them difficult to think about. The issue has to be personalized somehow.

What Alinsky is recommending is that you personalize the issue in the cheapest, most duplicitous, and cruelest way: pick out hate figures and demonize them.

If old Saul's disciples are indeed in the saddle, we are headed straight for Nastyville. I'm not going to enjoy the ride one bit.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ban Big Ammunition Magazines?

The other day I posted about something I call the weapons line drawing problem:  Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle that separates the permissible from the ban-able?

The principle I offered was "the ultra-hazardous weapon principle":  A weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it cannot be used safely.  The idea is that if you are using such a device, it is too likely that you will eventually be subjecting those around you to an unreasonable level of risk from which they gain no benefit.  Since you have no right to do that, banning it would not violate your rights.

I argued that civilian "assault weapons" pass this test and my not be banned without violating individual rights.  What about large ammunition magazines and clips -- ones with more that 10, 20, or 30 (different limits exist in different states) round capacities?  Obama is pushing hard for Congress to act quickly, I would even say precipitately, and it's likely they will place some nation-wide limit on magazine and clip size.(From now on I'll say "magazine" to refer to both, though that's technically not correct.)

Clearly, such a ban is not supported by the ultra-hazardous weapon principle.  It is easy to use a large magazine safely.  Millions of responsible citzens use them on shooting range and (where legal, I hope) for hunting with no one getting hurt.

But notice that my principle only rules things in as candidates for banning -- it "may be banned" -- and doesn't rule anything out.  Maybe large magazines may be nominated as candidates for banning on the basis of some supplementary principle.  One reason I have seen given by talking heads lately as a reason for banning these things is that they "serve no legitimate purpose."

 I would flesh this out like this:  a weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it has criminal uses and serves no legitimate purpose for which there is no perfectly good substitute,  

I have some sympathy for this a s a general principle.  The intuitive idea, I guess, is that such a ban would interfere with criminal acts and, though it would coercively deny the object to innocent people, the coercion involved does them no harm.  I'm not generally keen on coercing (ie., threatening) the innocent at all (it violates the libertarian side constraint), but it if does them no harm, I'm at least willing to consider it.

There is another problem with this principle, though.  It's not so easy to think of an object currently in use in the civilian population that has no legitimate use for which it lacks perfect substitute.  Some years ago, I was working on a paper on gun owners' rights (this one) and I tried to propose an example of a weapon that would fail this test and could well be banned:  in fact, it already is more or less illegal throughout the US.  The example was sawed-off shotguns.  This weapon, I said, emits a spray of projectiles, any one of which can cause a nasty injury, and cannot be controlled very well by the shooter (I could have argued just as plausibly, or implausibly, using the ultra-hazardous weapon principle, but I had not thought of it yet).

Anyway, my editor for that paper, Samuel C. Wheeler, pointed something out to me.  This weapon could be very appropriate as an answering-the-door gun for an elderly gentleman who, say, lives in a dangerous neighborhood (it's the best he can afford) and has had his Social Security check stolen and been mugged, and so has legitimate concerns about his safety.  At close quarters, like ansering the door in and apartment building, the projectiles can be controlled quite well enough.  Plus, the pellets will not pass through the opposite wall of the hallway, injuring the innocent.

I deleted that part of the manuscript.

Another problem with the "no legitimate purpose" principle:  grading or ranking purposes.  After all, there is one legitimate purpose that is served by a big magazine, and there is no conceivable substitute:  reloading avoidance.  Not having to reload so often.  Nothing illegitimate about that.

Obviously, the principle has to include a qualification about how the purpose has to be "important" enough to qualify.  Maybe the fact that it serves mere convenience is not enough.

I don't know about you, but I'm still enough of a liberal to get queasy about deciding whether a purpose -- someone else's purpose -- is "important" enough to exempt them from heavy fines or a jail sentence. It is something the law has to do from time to time, but I would like to keep it to a minimum.

Finally, to get back the the big magazine issue itself:  I believe these things do pass the "no legitimate purpose"test."  To see why, take a look at this compelling essay by history professor Clayton Cramer.  You'll see that not having to reload can make a life or death difference in situations that civilians do find themselves in from time to time.  Indeed, this feature might be more valuabe to the law-abiding than it is to mass shooters.  Further, not only can they save innocent lives, but they can even enable you to safely spare the life of your assailants.  If that sounds impossible, just read the essay.  Please.

On a somewhat related not, here is a very interesting post by my old friend, philosophy prof and sci fi aficionado Kevin Hill.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ban "Assault Rifles"?

Okay, so most of us can agree on two important things: Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle?  This is a very important question, and I've thought about it a lot.  The answer I've come up with was heavily influenced by American tort law.  Case law has evolved organically under the guidance of some very smart, well-meaning people who have guided it while in full-frontal contact with reality.  They are dealing with cases, not their own fantasies.  So it deserves to be taken seriously. 

There is a concept in the law that is useful here:  that of "ultra-hazardous" activities, also know as "abnormally dangerous activities."  Both terms are a little misleading, because what makes an activity ulltra-hazardous is not so much the degree of danger as the lack of control you have it.  Classic examples are:  crop-dusting, drilling for oil, transporting gasoline by truck, blasting.  I think of these as activities that can't be done safely.  What the law does with these activities is this:  if it produces some economic good that goes into the marketplace and people find it worthwhile to pay for, you may do it, though if things go wrong we will hold you strictly liable for the results (look it up - it's different from the rule that applies to normally dangerous activities)  If it does not produce such results, you may not do it.  So, even if playing involuntary Russian roulette on your neighbor's head is less risky than drilling for oil, you may not do it.

There is an important distinction to be made between the abnormally hazardous and that which is normally hazardous.  I think a related idea applies to weapons, and with similar reasoning.  Some weapons cannot be used safely.  And since your neighbors are not being compensated, by means of some economic good being made available to them, for the risk they are subjected to, there is no reason they should put up with it.  That means you can't have nuclear weapons, bazookas, hand grenades, incendiary grenades, or a machine gun.

Notice, and this is very important, that a modern gun, as such, is not (to coin a phrase paralleling the above legal one) an ultra-hazardous weapon.  In fact, it is in one way the opposite of that.  If used at the range at which it was intended to shoot, a modern firearm, in contrast to the old muskets and flintlock pistols, is a precision instrument.  I like to tell my students that if I had a good pistol I could dot the "i" in that exit sign at the other end of the lecture hall.  (Some of them look startled.)

An AR-15 is a precision instrument and not an ultra-hazardous weapon, in my sense.  It is not a machine gun.

This brings me to the reason I put "assault weapons" in scare quotes, above.  True assault rifles were invented for the military during WWII (in Germany and Russia).  The military definition is: (a) a medium range rifle that (b) has a selector that switches the weapon between fully automatic and semi-automatic.  Select "fully" and it becomes a machine gun.

The latter clause is why the AR-15 (pictured above) such as the one the Sandy Hook murderer used, does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle.  It lacks this switch and only has the semi-automatic mode of functioning.

What "semi-automatic" means is this.  When you fire a bullet, the mechanism uses some of the energy expended to do three things:  expel the spent cartridge, move a new bullet into the chamber, and cock the firing pin (this is called cycling).  To fire, all you need to do is pull the trigger (this is called single action trigger).

In a semiauto weapon, only the cycling is automatic.  The firing is not:  ie., the gun does not keep cycling and firing, both, if you just hold the trigger down.  

A typical revolver, like the S & W .38 I inherited from my Dad, accomplishes somewhat the same effect of a semiauto by means of a double action trigger:  as I pull the trigger, it rotates the cylinder, moving the spent cartridge out of the way, presenting a fresh round to the firing pin, and cocking it.  (I just timed myself and got up to four shots per second.  The gun was unloaded, of course.)  Doing all that work with your trigger finger makes the weapon less accurate, unless you have a really fine, smooth-shooting revolver like the Colt Python, but that would run you around $1,500.

Hm.  Maybe you'd rather have a semi-automatic pistol, like the classic Colt 1911 (named for the year it became standard issue in the US Army).  This highly esteemed weapon is just as automatic as the AR-15, except for one thing:  before the first shot you fire, you must cock it manually by pulling back the slide.  Thereafter it cycles automatically.

Or, if you want to avoid that one little hitch, you might try one of the many kinds of semiauto pistols where the trigger is double action on the first shot, single action thereafter, and auto cylcing throughout.  These weapons are exactly as automatic as the AR-15.

Now you can probably guess what my point is:  These "automatic" weapons have been extremely common for a long time.  They have been standard military issue for a century.  They are carried by virtually all armed police officers.  There are millions and millions of them in the possession of civilians who use them for entirely legitimate purposes.

As a matter of fact, they are the weapon of choice of mass murderers, overwhelmingly preferred to weapons like the AR-15.

It's easy to see why.  These weapons, as I have said, are made for medium range shooting:  shooting at enemy coming over the next hill.  Not for long range sniping, and not for shooting somebody in the same room with you.  Hell, it has a 20-inch barrel, for medium range accuracy.  What do you need that for, when your victim is in the same room with you?  You've accepted the weapon's bulkiness, clumsiness (at close quarters), and conspicuousness, and gotten nothing in return.  You are better off with a 1911 and a bag of loaded magazines over your shoulder.

[I don't mean this in a crass way.  Innocent lives are at stake and to figure out what we should do about it we have to take no-BS way about what these demented dirtbags are actually going to do.]

The "automaticness" of these "automatic" weapons does not make them "ultrahazardous," in the sense in which that could justify banning them, and they give the mass murderer no advantage they couldn't get from weapons that are extremely common and obviously legitimate.  It is no reason to ban them as a response to mass shootings.  None.

There actually is another issue here that I have not touched on.  There is one difference between AR-type weapons and pistols like the 1911:  magazine size.  The magazine in Lanza's AR may have held as many rounds as 30 (the max allowed in the state of CT).  Magazine size of a 1911:  6.  Is that a reason to limit the size of magazines (in effect, banning all larger than the limit)?

I'll try to post about that later.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why Can't These People Say "Christmas"?

 I was startled to notice this morning that I first posted this five years ago --- five years ago yesterday, to be exact.  Startled because the Food Network is still doing the kind of weird crap I describe here, and because I can republish it with minimal revision.  I have changed the style a little to elevate the tone of moral disgust, also to add a new item at the end.

Watching the Food Network a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I noticed something that gave me the creeps. None of the regulars seemed to be able to say "Christmas." (No, this is not some Bill O'Reilly war-against-Christmas BS! At least I hope not. Please read on!) Tyler Florence pours red and green sauces on on enchilada and Guy Fieri says, "Boy those are some holiday colors!" Sandra Lee is wearing a red sweater and making evergreen-tree-shaped cookies, and she keeps calling the "holiday cookies."

Right away I got this weird feeling. These people are not free. Someone off-camera is pointing a gun at them. The evil gnomes who run the Food Network Corporate Borg are compelling them to speak this weird jargon, probably just to degrade and humiliate them. (This could also explain those creepy claymation figures -- see the picture above.) Is this going on at other channels? Has the whole world gone insane while I was paying attention to other things? I really don't know, as Food Network is almost the only channel I can stand to watch (and it sucks, but I won't go into that now).

What could possibly be the problem with saying the word "Christmas" in public? Below are some more or less random observations on this baffling question. Most of what I am about to say is pretty obvious and far from original, but I think it is worth saying anyway.  Apparently, it is not obvious to some people.

Yes, not everyone celebrates Christmas. And it might, conceivably, just barely conceivably, be unpleasant to be wished "Merry Christmas" when you do not. As a university professor, I sometimes find myself in a room full of people who are talking about how bad conservatives, Republicans, or libertarians are, as if they assume I am a Democrat like themselves. So I have some sympathy for people in that situation. But not very much. After all, the people in my roomful of Democrats are saying that people like me are morally or intellectually inferior to people like them. They are insulting me. The person who wishes you Merry Christmas is not. In fact, he or she is wishing you well. They are trying to be nice.

My Golden Rule is: Never, ever make someone sorry that they were nice to you.  Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes said that this is one of the most basic rules of civil society.  He was right  Violating it is one of the most ignoble and stupid things you can do.

The problem is not that there are other holidays at this time of the year. You can celebrate more than one. In our house, we always celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Holidays don't exclude on another, religions do. By wishing somebody a Merry Christmas, or using the word to describe a cookie, you are not excluding anybody from anything.

Admittedly it is true that Kwanzaa was invented by the Marxist Prof. Ron Karenga as an "alternative" -- his word -- to Christmas. He did intend his holiday to be exclusionist. But apparently, the African-Americans who celebrate it today do not see it that way. (As often happens, the hearts of "ordinary" people have proved sounder than those of the supposedly wise men who seek to lead them for their own good.)

Nor is the problem that not everyone is a Christian. Even atheists love Christmas. As I have said, the problem, so far as there is one, is merely that not everyone celebrates Christmas. So try avoid wishing Merry Christmas to someone who does not celebrate it.

Often, banning the C-word is simply hypocrisy. None of the FN "holiday" specials that I saw contained a single reference to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything but Christmas. By banning the C-word, they are pretending to an inclusiveness that they do not practice. To the minor sin of non-inclusiveness they add the major one of lying about it.

If you are talking about a holiday, and the holiday in question is indeed Christmas, there is no possible harm in calling it that. There is no excuse for saying "holiday cookie." None. If it is shaped like a dredl, call it a Hanukkah cookie. If it is shaped like one of those trees, call it a Christmas cookie. If you don't, you'll just sound like an idiot.

Please join me this "holiday" season in trying to avoid this canting hypocrisy.

Update:  And now, here is fellow atheist Penn Jillette, with a different take.  Notice that he is not answering the sort of argument I am giving here.  He is answering the O'Reilly notion that this is an "attack on Christianity."  That of course is not what I am saying.  On the other hand, he does seem to be saying one thing that I have been arguing against:  that refraining from "Christmas" is being inclusive.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mass Shootings Are Irrelevant to the Issue of Gun Control

In the approxaminately 1/3 million words I have written in this blog (not counting comment section!) I fear I may have said everything I have to say about everything that interests me.  In the space of two days we have had two horrific mass shootings by horribly disturbed people -- the shootings placed occuring, with a symbolism worthy of the Prince of Darkness himself -- on the opposite coasts of this country.  Since both shooters used "assault weapons" renewed calls for banning such weapons have arisen everywhere.  (BTW, if I get time tomorrow, I will write a new -- yes, new! -- post explaining why I put scare quotes around "assault weapons.") After the "Batman shootings" last Summer, I wrote a blog post arguing that such horrors are the weakest possible reasons for gun control, and that those who think otherwise are actually not being moved by reason, but by emotion.  Except for correcting some typos and making a few other small changes, I stand by it as written.  So here it is (with those changes: ----

In the wake of mass shootings like the one in Aurora Colorado, there are always renewed calls for gun control.  This familiar phenomenon is a testament to human imperviousness to facts and logic, as such shootings are. of all gun-related deaths, the least likely to be deterred by gun laws. The worst such shooting, ever, happened in Norway (death toll 77) and the worst K-12 school shooting [until yesterday] happened in Erfurt Germany (18 dead).  Both countries have gun laws that are far more constraining than those of the USA.  As John Lott points out here, four of the five worst school shootings ever happened in western Europe, within the boundaries of gun control heaven. The harsh, stringent gun laws of these countries failed to save the lives of the victims of these atrocities.

Possibly the oldest utilitarian argument against gun control was voiced by Cesare Beccaria in 1764

(HT to Charles C. W. Cooke):
The laws of this nature are those which forbid one to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent.  Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and more arbitry injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance.
This argument applies best of all to mass shooters like James Holmes.  Like most such people, Holmes did not suddenly "snap."  He planned his atrocity well in advance, beginning at least four months ago, with great patience and determination, accumulating an arsenal of weapons as well as elaborate body armor, and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment.  It is obvious that someone who will shoot seventy completely innocent and defenseless strangers in a darkened theater is not going to be deterred by "oh, I can't buy that weapon -- it's illegal," and it's also pretty clear to me that Holmes would have had the determination to get weapons from an illegal source.  Like drug laws, gun bans do not make the banned item disappear, rather they drive it into the netherworld of criminal commerce.

If you are going to advocate a law based on a single horrific case, then that law has to be one that would have prevented that horror.  Otherwise, that one case is, logically, completely irrelevant to whether that law was a good thing or not.  And gun bans would do nothing to prevent and atrocity like Aurora.

Having said this, I have to admit that the principle I have just placed in italics, which makes perfect sense to me, seems to have no effect on most my fellow human beings.  When Oswald murdered Kennedy with a gun purchased through mail order, Congress responded by passing a law that banned such purchases.  Even at the time, as a teenager, it was obvious to me that, whatever the reasons for such a law might be, the Kennedy assassination was not one of them.  Who could think that Oswald would not have killed Kennedy, or tried to kill General Walker, if he could not have gotten his cheap Mannlicher-Carcano through the mail?

Mass shootings like Aurora are not good reasons for weapons bans; they are emotionally powerful symbols of violence.  Those who are moved to ban a weapon by such incidents are acting on emotion and not on the basis of reason.  Especially in the realm of the law, that is a terribly dangerous thing to do.*


*  This is why laws that are named after people -- such as "Megan's Law" -- are usually a bad idea.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Death Penalty: Bad Arguments on Both Sides

I just learned that Troy Davis has been executed by the state of Georgia.  The last time there was a wave of public discussion of his case, I wrote this. It still makes sense to me, though as I point out here, this is only half of the story.

In the wake of the Troy Davis (pictured) case a lot of people are thinking about capital punishment, including some arguments that seem silly to me. I just read a column by Jonah Goldberg that gives an argument for the death penalty that I find stupefyingly unconvincing.

Before I get to that, I want to point out that he says something about arguments for the other side that is simply not true:

Opponents of the death penalty believe that no one deserves to be executed. Again, it’s an honorable position, but a difficult one to defend politically in a country where the death penalty is popular. So they spend all of their energy cherry-picking cases, gumming up the legal system, and talking about “uncertainty.”
Well, I'm against the death penalty and, to be blunt, the idea that "no one deserves to be executed" has never made any sense to me. It seems to mean that nothing a human being can do is bad enough to deserve death. There seem to be so many obvious counterexamples to that claim that I would feel like I am taking cheap shots by citing one. I'll tell you what: please think of the most loathsome murder you have ever heard of. Surely if the person who did that were to be put to death as painlessly as possible, it would be no more than they deserve: in fact, a lot less.

If it can be just for the state to punish someone at all, if they may rightly in some cases take away all of a person's liberty and property, and for the rest of their lives at that, and subject them to the degradation of life in prison, then why on Earth is it necessarily unjust if they also take a person's life? If they can take away everything that makes life worth living, what is so special, as far as desert is concerned, about taking that extra step? I have never understood that.

... So why am I against the death penalty? And what is the argument of Goldberg's that I think is so bad? I'll try to post about that tomorrow.

BTW, you can find my reply to Goldberg here.