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Honoring Tyrants

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

A Saudi blogger has just received the first 50 of 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” He’s got 950 lashes and ten years of prison to go.

That’s the sentence the Saudis imposed on Raif Badawi last May for criticizing clerics. His blog is shuttered and — because 10,000 lashes and ten years behind bars just isn’t enough — Badawi (pictured with his children) must also pay a cleric-criticizing fee of a million riyals ($266,600). He was spared execution.

The motive for the sadism? Critics of the royal family say that if you do anything to possibly undermine the country’s religious establishment, you’re also threatening Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, of which recently deceased King Abdullah (ruler since 2005) was one member. And the government is ruthless about protecting its turf.

For controversial reasons, our own government thinks it’s important to maintain a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia’s. Even if that dubious proposition were correct, to cooperate on specific questions of foreign policy and to especially sanction the shapers of such a regime are two very different things. Yet with flabbergasting obtuseness, the U.S. military has just announced its sponsorship of an essay competition “in honor of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz” (who was alive in May). (Yes, seriously.)

The contest is a fitting tribute to the now-defunct monarch, according to General Martin Dempsey; it’s an “important opportunity to honor” his memory while also encouraging scholarly research, all at the same time.

Think it through, General.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Through a Glass, Tinted

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

One day last year, Slate Star Codex blogger Scott Alexander “woke up” to discover that “they had politicized Ebola.”


It was, he explains, more than just a series of partisan cheap shots. Though there were plenty of those. It was something more startling, and in its own perverse way impressive. Everybody seemed awfully certain about what should be done, immediately, and along ideological lines, red and blue:

How did both major political tribes decide, within a month of the virus becoming widely known in the States, not only exactly what their position should be but what insults they should call the other tribe for not agreeing with their position?

The answer to the question?

Each tribe has its myths, er, “narratives,” and members of each concentrate on those stories that seem to demonstrate the truth of their . . . narratives. How you cover Ebola depends on other beliefs you already hold.

“Ideas are forces,” 19th century writer G. H. Lewes put it. “Our acceptance of one determines our reception of others.”

The result of sticking to one’s in-group mythos can have negative consequences, however. You can end up in Silly Putty Country, “saying ISIS is not as bad as Fox News, or donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the officer who shot Michael Brown.”

Conservative journalists see everything through red-tinted glasses, liberal journalists refuse to look at the world through anything but blue-tinted one. And too many people follow their lead.

Occasionally, we could try on lenses of different colors.

But perhaps I speak so confidently because I come from another tribe. Green? Orange? Purple?

What color is liberty?

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Pot, Kettle; Obama, Putin

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

President Calvin Coolidge looks more like a sage every day. Confucius would’ve been proud of Silent Cal. Today’s top politicians might take a cue from the man: When you don’t have much to say, say nothing.

President Barack Obama, whose popularity in America up until recently rested, in part, on his sounding more intelligent than his predecessor in office, had the reckless temerity — the audacity of dope, perhaps — to float the notion, in an interview the other day, that Russia’s top banana Vladimir Putin had made a “strategic mistake” by annexing Crimea, and said the latter-day Tsar was “not so smart”:

Those thinking his Russian counterpart was a “genius” had been proven wrong by Russia’s economic crisis, he said.

For my part, I hope that a collapsed economy in Russia is the least we have to fear. The story isn’t over, and I wouldn’t be gloating over a half-hatched batch of eggs just yet.

Which brings to mind the title cliché: pot and kettle, each calling the other black. Here we have a world leader with a horrible economic track record, in addition to a chaotic diplomatic strategy, calling his chief competitor for public adoration (yes, Putin’s acolytes are just as besotted as Obama’s) something of a fool.

Well, the man so involved with a disaster to have it named after him, Obamacare, and who hailed extravagant “stimulus” as a cure for a depression that still lingers — reminding us again of the longest Depression, the Great, and the wrong-headed policies of Hoover and FDR — should know when to keep mum.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Preposition Is “Of”

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from (disliked) speech. One contradicts the other.

Not that legal strictures against “offensive” speech would be consistently enforced even if the First Amendment were formally rescinded. In practice, whoever had the most political pull would be issuing the shut-up edicts. Although victims might well be offended by the uttering of those edicts, censors would be undeterred by the contradiction.

These thoughts are occasioned by Greg Lukianoff’s new book Freedom from Speech, and the review of same by Allen Mendenhall at Liberty. Lukianoff heads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which fights the good fight for civil rights on campus. His book, says Mendenhall, is “a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended.”

Lukianoff agrees that hypersensitivity to controversial speech in private institutions, too often punished by private sanctions that are arbitrary and unjust, does not per se violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. It nonetheless undermines the cultural tolerance needed for open discussion. “Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.”

That is to say, cultural values and political values are not two isolated realms. One influences the other.

Who can disagree? I wouldn’t dare.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Not Witches

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

We all know about the Salem Witch Trials.  But much more recently another, not-dissimilar-enough anti-witch craze plagued us. Remember “recovered memories”? Mass child sex abuse? Satanic rites?

Most of it was nonsense.

Frances and Daniel Kellar operated a day care business, and found themselves on the wrong end of this particular crowd madness. They were successfully prosecuted, as a fascinating Austin-American Statesman article relates, without any real evidence,

after three young children accused them of dismembering babies, torturing pets, desecrating corpses, videotaping orgies and serving blood-laced Kool-Aid in satanic rituals so ghastly, their names became synonymous with evil.

It was the early 1990s, when a cottage industry of therapists, authors and investigators argued convincingly — and, in hindsight, absurdly — that a national network of secretive cults was preying upon day care children for sex and other horrors.

Why fall for such tall tales?

Over at Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown characterizes the age in which the Kellars were railroaded as “at the height of American moral panic over just who was watching the children.”

So: guilt. Parents rightly feel a duty to care for their children. Outsourcing that job makes us uncomfortable. Those who feel guilty tend to lash out at others, imputing a far greater guilt.

It’s a theory, anyway.

The truth is that the Kellars were not guilty. Their accusers recanted; the evidence against them proved spurious or mistaken.

Released from prison last year, they now seek to be completely exonerated, declared innocent. It’s hard to get folks in government to admit they were wrong.

We, on the other hand, can honor their innocence by not allowing mass hysteria to corrupt justice under our watch, today and tomorrow.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Dead Document?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Could it be? We do not live under the Constitution of the United States. The document has been a dead letter for a century, maybe longer.

Ours is a Post-Constitutional America.

Surely, there have been great moments of executive usurpation.

Andrew Jackson, in defiance of the Supreme Court, and against all normal principles of law and justice, removed the Cherokee from their agrarian holdings in Georgia and contiguous southeastern United States, sending them marching to Oklahoma. The Supreme Court said his order was unconstitutional. Jackson’s response? Not really much different from “nyah nyah, nyah nyah, nyah nyah.”

Much of the Civil War and Reconstruction was undertaken on the shakiest of constitutional grounds. And then came the “great progressive” presidents.

Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson defied the explicit intent of the Constitution’s authors — as written in The Federalist as well as in the state houses that adopted the new compact. Both presidents construed the Constitution as authorizing the federal government to do pretty much darn near anything not explicitly forbidden in the document.

That was not the original understanding.

And then there is war. The U.S. Congress hasn’t declared an explicit war since World War II. But we’ve been in a never-ending string of wars.

With Obama, the post-constitutional prevarication has reached new . . . effrontery. The current president says that, though he had previously declared the “Iraq War” a done deal, over, finito, he now says his new attacks upon ISIS are constitutionally justified by 2002’s Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq.

“Post-constitutional”? It means our leaders are liars, beyond the law.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Against Protester Brutality

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Most people agree about the wrongness of police brutality, if not about whether a particular police action is an example of it.

But what about protester brutality? Again, most oppose it. Still, skeptics on this point have been particularly loud and insistent lately. Some even suggest (or scream) that violence against the innocent is fully justified if that’s what it takes to protest injustice.

But the existence of police brutality does not justify protester brutality, protester vandalism, protester indifference-to-evidence, or any other violence or irrationality.

The grand jurors in Ferguson were not dealing with injustice in the abstract, but with a particular incident and the relevant evidence. They were not asked to determine whether police ever wrongly shoot or kill, but whether there was evidence that a particular officer had done so, enough to justify a trial. Even assuming legitimate grounds to disagree with their conclusion, too many commenters declaim as if the evidence is irrelevant and the jurors’ motives not possibly honest. The man had to be indicted regardless.

Of course, had Officer Wilson been tried, on this assumed-guilty approach only one outcome would have then been deemed acceptable, regardless of evidence: conviction. Absent that conviction, violence against the innocent would still have been rationalized.

No injustice is properly fought by either sweeping aside facts or by attacking the innocent in the name of protecting the innocent. If we ignore the requirements of justice in order to advance a Cause, how can that Cause be justice?

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.