IT MAY BE VULGAR, BUT IS IT INACCURATE?

By Mike Cronin

The commentariat are in an uproar over President Trump’s alleged use of the term “shit-hole” to describe Haiti and parts of Africa.  They say it’s a racist slur.

If the president did indeed use that word in a public setting, it’s noteworthy for its vulgarity, but is it really a racial slur? Is it even wrong?

Let’s consider Haiti. It is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Right next door to Haiti – on the very same island – the Dominican Republic has the largest economy in Central America and the Caribbean, and it enjoys a much better standard of living. Why?

When the January, 2010  7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, nearly a quarter of a million people died because something like 60-70% of all the buildings were severely damaged or collapsed outright, including the presidential palace.  Compare that to the exponentially more powerful earthquake that hit Chile that same month, where less than a thousand people died.  What accounts for the different results?  Form of government, property rights, building codes, and insurance. Chilean citizens have a semi-capitalistic country, a decent economy, property rights, and insurance, so they built their buildings to be earthquake resilient – and survived the more powerful quake in much better shape.

What is now Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola, was the first place Christopher Columbus landed during his first voyage in 1492.  Within the first decade, the Spanish began bringing in African slaves, and within 25 years, much of the natives were either enslaved by the Spaniards or killed by diseases brought by them…and the Spaniards were themselves being killed by tropical fevers. Before long, the Spanish were more concerned with conquering the mainlands of North and South America, and began to lose interest in Hispaniola. Haiti became a haven for pirates in the interim, but by the late 1700s, France was a power, and Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to the French. (To this day, Spanish is spoken in the Dominican Republic, while French-influenced Haitian Creole is spoken in Haiti.)  Napoleon sent French troops to enforce French rule, but many of them succumbed to tropical fevers, and in 1804, after a successful revolt against the weakened French forces, the slaves declared themselves free and named their nation Haiti.  It was one of the few bright spots in the history of this place.

While Haiti began as the first nation founded by slaves who had “freed” themselves via revolt…they never truly freed themselves. The leader of the revolt, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared himself Emperor Jacques I in 1804. The first “free” Haitians simply traded their physical chains and European masters for a succession of Haitian masters and the chains of varying degrees of dictatorship. Except for a brief period around the last two decades of the 19th Century, Haiti has never been a prosperous country, partly because Haitians themselves have never maintained the kind of rights-respecting government that allows prosperity, and partly due to massive foreign debt.

Indeed, at the behest of US banks to whom Haiti was deeply in debt, the US military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The US occupation had mixed results.  There were some republican reforms to the government and much improved infrastructure, which was often accomplished by impressing locals into labor gangs in lieu of charging taxes, which of course generated resentment and resistance from the local population. Between the end of the US occupation in 1934 and now, the history of Haiti amounts to a succession of “presidents” with dictatorial powers enriching themselves and their cronies on the backs of the Haitian people and at the expense of Haiti’s natural resources, peppered with coups and revolts and foreign interventions.

The history of Haiti is one of slavery, disease, dictatorships, piracy, environmental destruction, foreign intervention, abject poverty, neglect, exploitation, corruption, and natural disaster. Shit-hole may be a rude word to describe it, but is it inaccurate? And how is it racist?

Battlefield Christmas

xmas battle

By Mike Cronin

Note: This piece was first posted in 2015. I’ve edited it a bit since then.

Like many wars, the so-called War on Christmas is senseless. The flames are being fanned by ogres on both sides.

To hear non-Christians tell it, Christians are trying to impose their religion on everybody else with the greeting “Merry Christmas,” nativity scenes, and the like, or they say that the predominance of Christian trappings are offensive to non-Christians, and that any such displays set on government property constitute an official “establishment of religion,” in violation of the First Amendment. The most vocal anti-Christmas militants are just looking for attention more than resolution.  If this argument were settled, they’d be stirring a different pot.

The most strident Christian voices aren’t any better. They’re driven by the same motivation as the anti-Christians.  To hear them tell it, they are being persecuted for their beliefs. They argue that the true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the son of the one true God, who is acknowledged (at least as a prophet if not the messiah) in Judaism and Islam; thus Christmas should be no more offensive to adherents of those faiths than Hanukkah or Eid al-Fitr is to Christians, and that accommodation to atheists, pagans, and other non-believers is not a factor due to their relative scarcity in our society.  Extremists argue that Christian decorations on government facilities do not violate the First Amendment because the adornments acknowledge the most prevalent belief system of the people, but do not compel anyone to adopt those beliefs.  If they won this battle, they’d be tilting at a different windmill.

Let’s see if we can shed some light into this dark corner.

The termChristmas” certainly does pertain to the birth of Jesus Christ. But humans have been having winter solstice festivals with lights, gift-giving, gathering to make merry, and breaks from labor since before the current calendar existed and even before Jesus was born.  Our ancestors were celebrating the end of the fall harvest and chasing away depression during the darkest time of the year.  The Romans called these seasonal celebrations Saturnalia or Natalis Invicti. Norsemen celebrated jól (Yule), a similar pre-Christian winter solstice festival, and origin of the seasonal term “Yuletide.” There are a host of other winter solstice traditions and festivals around the world.

The fact that winter solstice festivals pre-date Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is not seriously disputed by Christian scholars.  Christians that insist that Christmas pertains only to the birth of Christ and, by extension, that the true meaning of Christmas commemorates his teachings, are right about the term “Christmas” at the literal level and wrong about the celebration at the historical level. They are evading the larger fact that there is no hard evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th (or any specific date, for that matter). They are also evading the evidence that the Church has a history of absorbing and re-purposing the festivals of other groups, including solstice celebrations, renaming them, and calling them holy days (i.e. “holidays”).

Yet the mystery of the exact date of Jesus’ birthday predates this phenomenon. The bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth.  According to biblical historian Andrew McGowan, celebrations of Jesus’ birth were not recorded until about 200-300 years after his death. In fact, early Christians avoided attempts to celebrate Jesus’ birth because they associated birth celebrations with paganism.  Even today, exact date placement varies among various Christian sects.  For example, Eastern Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas on or near January 7th.  Western Christians refer to this date as the Epiphany and place it on January 6th. There are 12 Days of Christmas between the December 25th and January 6th!

Specifying December 25th as the precise date of Jesus’ birthday was more likely an attempt by the earliest Christians (who were being persecuted) to either rationalize joining in the existing celebrations and/or to use those celebration to provide “cover” for their own. Constantine converting to Christianity in the mid fourth century marks the time when Christianity began to gain supremacy as the religious tradition of the west, and pagan festivals and feasts were subsequently “Christianized” as a matter of policy. In this way, strident Christians are susceptible to the accusation that their religion re-branded solstice festivals as Christmas and bent it to their own ends.

G vs S

The so-called war on Christmas is being waged in ignorance – from both sides. Anti-Christian scrooges would have us believe Christian greetings, decorations and sentiments are offensive and even illegal. Christian grinches would have us believe Christmas only exists to celebrate Jesus’ birth and teachings, and all other interpretations are wrong, offensive to Christian values, and even heretical. Both are right…to a very shallow point.  The power behind each side’s argument is not derived from superficial facts that evade historical context, it is generated by your willingness to listen uncritically and act on their messages.  I choose not to do so; I’ll be too busy celebrating the season with friends and family.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

ANOTHER LOOK AT NET NEUTRALITY

By Mike Cronin

So, the FCC decided to end Net Neutrality, and now there is an uproar. The main objection seems to be that now internet service providers (ISPs) like Cox, Comcast, and Verizon will be able to charge whatever they want for their services, block whatever sites they like, and throttle unprofitable traffic in favor of profitable traffic.   Net Neutrality prevented ISPs from doing this…at the cost of allowing the government to decide what private businesses did with their own property – namely the cables, switches, servers, and fiber optic lines they send their signals over. When people are allowed to own private property, but it can only be used in a manner specified by government, you have fascism.

Ending Net Neutrality is taking a step back from fascism, but it does not alleviate the concerns of individual/residential ISP customers.  Now we are back to the big private ISPs being able to run roughshod over us and treat us like our business doesn’t matter, right?  How can our business not matter to them? (Actually, it does matter, just not so much at the individual level, but as a mass.)  Even so, that’s not the real problem.

The real problem with internet service is that the ISPs, through agreements with various governments and established back in the pre-broadband days when they were just cable TV providers, usually have local monopolies.  That means if you want broadband internet service via cable, you usually only have one ISP option in your area.  That means you generally can’t take your business elsewhere if you are dissatisfied – which means you have little or no leverage over the ISP, unless you are willing, and financially prepared, to take them to court.

In short, Net Neutrality was a hackneyed, fascist government intrusion necessitated as a “solution” to a more basic hackneyed, “crony-capitalist” (i.e. corporatist) government problem.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you buy your groceries at Safeway.  They disappoint you in some fashion, so you decide to shop at Super Walmart instead, then you switch to Fry’s (or whatever).  If grocery stores were like ISPs, there would not be any other stores in your area. Safeway (for example) would be in cahoots with your local government, and you would only have one choice. Now, suppose more and more people complain to the government about how terrible the service is at the local Safeway store. The store charges different prices based on whether a given customer buys in bulk or not. In other cases, the Safeway refused to carry some customers’ favorite items, because they are obscure or hard to obtain and don’t sell at a profit. The local government decides it has to do something about the problem.  They enact “Grocery Neutrality.” They tell Safeway that they can’t discount prices to customers who buy in bulk (or they must sell to everyone at the bulk discount price, regardless of how much they actually buy). They also tell the Safeway that they must order anything a customer wants, unless it’s illegal, regardless if it will generate profit or not. Would it not be simpler and more in keeping with the spirit of a free country for the local government, instead of dictating to Safeway what it can and cannot do with its own property, to simply end Safeway’s monopoly and let in any grocery company?

The same is true of ISPs. The solution to the problem of ISPs treating smaller customers poorly (because the ISPs have a government-sponsored monopoly over the local market) isn’t more government interference in the form of Net Neutrality, it’s monopoly dissolution!

ACCELERATING DISRUPTION

By Mike Cronin

You’ve probably heard of the concept that computer speed doubles roughly every 12-18 months. This concept is called Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of the computer chip company Intel. He made his observation in 1965, and it has largely been accurate.  Moore’s law is part of a larger phenomenon, something called the accelerating rate of change.

Think of it this way:  A farmer from the 1500s transported 200 years into the future would not have been amazed by the technological advancements to farming in the 1700s. For the vast majority of people, technology simply didn’t change during their lifetimes.  Fast forward to the late 1800s: My maternal great grandmother crossed the plains in a covered wagon in the 1890s and settled in what is now the little town of Kiowa, Colorado. Steam technology existed then; she had probably heard of, or may have even ridden on a steam locomotive.  She might have sent and received telegrams.  But most of the new technology of the day was concentrated in the coastal cities. Pioneers and settlers were still using wagons and draft animals. A Roman Centurion from 1800 years in the past might have been amazed by a steam locomotive or a telegraph, but he would have found her Conestoga wagon unremarkable.  This same great-grandmother lived to watch men walk on the moon.

In her lifetime, gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks replaced the horse as the primary means of personal travel.  The automobile industry disrupted the horse culture; now horseback riding is primarily a hobby for people who can afford to keep horses. Telephone, radio, and television grew to become the primary means of sending and/or receiving information. These technologies disrupted (but didn’t eliminate) mail service. She was born at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution and lived through the Gilded Age, the Jet Age, and the Space Age.

She died in the early 1970s.  Since then, the rate of change has only accelerated.  The computer network that would become the internet was just getting started in the 1960s when Moore made his observation; now it is the predominate feature of modern life. Television and radio gave rise to the “mainstream media,” i.e. the big three networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Satellite and computer technology allowed cable upstart CNN to join the club in 1980, followed soon after by other cable networks.  CNN disrupted the status quo and initiated the 24-hour news cycle.  The “big three” had to play catch-up.  Advances in internet speed and the invention of “hypertext mark-up language” (HTML), gave us the World Wide Web.  Within a decade of CNN disrupting the existing main-stream media, “the Web” enabled even more disruption. News aggregators. Blogs. Online magazines. Email and RSS feeds. And now: Streaming media. Smart phones. Wi-fi. Digital currency. AI. Fusion. Nano-tech. DNA editing. Laser weapons. Robots. Self-driving cars. With the accelerating rate of change has come the accelerating rate of disruption. In our lifetimes, we will experience more technological advancement than has been accomplished in the previous 20 millennia – if we can successfully ride the waves of disruption!

TOOTIN’ MY HORN

By Mike Cronin

This blog has been a great laboratory for honing my writing, but it is not the only place I write.  If you like what I do here, I invite you to check out my work on Quora.  I am also elated to post this link to my first bit of paid writing:

https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2017/12/dont-draft-women-dont-draft-anyone/

Please enjoy and share!

 

ACT LIKE A PREDATOR, GET OSTRACIZED; ACT LIKE PREY, GET PREYED UPON

By Mike Cronin

With all of the celebrity sexual misconduct coming to light in recent weeks, you might be tempted to believe that all men are created predators.  Certainly, some prominent figures want you to believe exactly that. But is it true? Let’s look at it.

To start with, homo sapiens are indeed predators – the most successful predators on the planet. In a very real sense, we are animals: vertebrates, mammalians, primates, at the very top of the food chain. Or at least we still have all of the genetic traits of animals, including the drive to survive – both as individuals, which we fulfill by eating, seeking shelter, etc., and as a species, which we fulfill via the individual drive for procreation. With a few specific exceptions, we use the same physical equipment and engage in similar behavior for both drives: We use our senses and our appendages to seek out suitable “subjects.” This makes it is easy to equate predation for food with “predation” for sex.

Much more recently we evolved the capacity to reason. Some animals can adapt their surroundings to themselves in very limited fashion. A variety of animals make nests. Termites can make temperature-controlled mounds.  Various other animals have some rudimentary problem-solving skills. They can use a stick to dig, or a rock to smash open a nut. Some very bright primates can even use sign language to communicate with humans. But no other animal can derive abstractions from concretes and principles from abstractions. No other species has mastered fire, or the ability to make more complicated tools out of simpler ones, or to make written language, or to do any of the myriad other things that only humans do.

This highest function has given humans something no other animal species has: the ability to consciously override our most basic drives. In contravention of the drive to survive, humans can commit suicide, go on hunger strikes, and take crazy physical risks.  In contravention of the drive to procreate, humans can be chaste, or they can resist the full force of the sex drive in subtler ways, such as monogamy and self-restraint, for example. Holding our animal natures under a degree of restraint has enabled the rise of civilizations.

On the other hand, the actions of sexual predators are easy to interpret: they are the actions of people (usually men) that have chosen to give in to their animal urges. Some of their actions are completely natural in the context of animal behavior, but they are abhorrent in the context of civilization, and absolutely destructive in the context of rights-respecting societies. Perpetrators of such acts deserve to be ostracized and punished.

In the case of the ongoing sexual misconduct revelations in the mass media: clearly, many powerful men have either chosen to stop being civilized, or they felt entitled to take such liberties as reward for their prominence, or both. Dozens (and perhaps hundreds, by the time the dust settles) of men will be implicated. This is not typical of all, or even most, males. If most males engaged in such behavior, there would be no such thing as civilization; we would be stuck at the hunter-gatherer stage of technological advancement.

So, what about women? Just as surely as men, women have animal drives. In females, the drive to procreate manifests in attraction to males who are best suited to ensure their offspring achieve physical maturity.  The preferred indicators of such suitability vary among women, but they boil down to “Alphaness.” A suitable male might be regarded as such for his dominance (not domineering) behavior, wealth, physical appearance, intellect, confidence, prominence among others, or some combination of such factors. Regardless, a male with a high degree of “Alphaness” will be more attractive to more women than a male with less.

In the context of cases now being played out in the media: There are women who are naturally attracted to prominent men for their “Alphaness,” such as the ones now being revealed for their sexual misconduct. While it is true that no criminal liability should attach to the victims of sexual misconduct, it is fallacious to think that any and all such victims were selected completely at random. Predators look for easy prey. So, what was it about these victims that screamed “prey” to these predators?  Youth/inexperience. Incapacitation/innebriation. Low situational awareness. Low confidence. Isolation. False or misinterpreted willingness signals. It could have been any combination of any of dozens of factors.  If sexual predators can notice these “victim signals,” they are ipso-facto noticeable. We can identify them and teach people how to avoid giving them – or to mitigate their effect.

So, what can we make of this?

  1. Most men are not sexual predators, but a few are.
  2. Sexual predators choose to ignore civilizing restraint and act on baser animal drives. This often results in criminal conduct.
  3. Most victims of sexual assault are not random. They were selected based on giving some combination of “victim” signals the predator found enticing. The victims might not have been aware they were giving off such signals. “Victim signaling” is not criminal. We shouldn’t blame or punish the victims for it. But it’s not undetectable; we can identify it and teach people to avoid it.

ON NET NEUTRALITY

By Mike Cronin

Net Neutrality is in the news again.  What’s the big deal?

The current FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai (A Trump appointee) has proposed to roll back Net Neutrality rules. Net Neutrality is a legal doctrine that says that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, such as Cox, Comcast, or AT&T, must treat all data equally, i.e. neutrally. In other words, it bans ISPs from blocking, slowing down, or accelerating some internet traffic over other traffic.  Some examples:

  1. Net Neutrality bans a provider, such as Comcast, from blocking or “throttling” (i.e. slowing) traffic that originated from a competitor.
  2. Net Neutrality bans a provider from blocking access to political sites it might disagree with.
  3. Net Neutrality prohibits ISPs from prioritizing streaming media over email.

Advocates of Net Neutrality believe that such laws are necessary to ensure “freedom of access” to information, i.e. that we consumers should all have exactly the same amount of access to “get on the web,” and we should all have exactly the same access to bandwidth while we are there. As a consumer, that sounds pretty good, right? (76% of Americans believe it does.) So, what’s wrong with that?

The advocates are evading context. Regardless of how important, useful, and even critical the internet has become, it just isn’t theirs, nor is it the government’s, to control. As it turns out, what we think of as the “Internet” has both “public domain” and private components.  The computer languages and protocols used to create and link websites and to transfer data “packets” are in the public domain, i.e. their creators gave them to the world.  On the other hand, all of the computers, servers, cables, fiber optic lines, modems, routers, etc. that data is hosted on and travels over belong to their owners – the ISPs, web hosting companies, content providers, etc. and consumers – us. In other words, the physical components of the Internet are primarily composed of private property.

Imagine that in 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, the government instituted Publishing Neutrality right along with the First Amendment. Publishing Neutrality says that publishing firms can’t prioritize publishing large corporate orders (such as text books for a school system) over small orders (such as an obscure book on pet lizard grooming), and they have to charge the same amount per page for each book they print (regardless of the economy of scale or the material used).  Such a law would have destroyed the publishing industry, and would have done nothing to further the right of free speech.

Advocates fear that without Net Neutrality, ISPs will act unfairly and consumers will pay the price. I’m not in a hurry to have worse service or higher prices myself, but the alternative, Net Neutrality, is the government, primarily in the form of the FCC, telling ISPs what they can and cannot do with their own private property. That is a hallmark of fascism. For that reason alone, we should seek to end it.

Suggested reading:

Pro Net Neutrality bias:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/technology/fcc-net-neutrality.html

https://www.savetheinternet.com/net-neutrality-what-you-need-know-now

Anti-Net Neutrality bias

https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2008-winter/net-neutrality/