Taking a Knee (to the Face)

By Mike Cronin

After several highly-publicized shootings of young black men by white police officers in 2015 and 2016, San Francisco ‘49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem at the beginning of football games. In one post-game interview, Kaepernick explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Since then, Mr. Kaepernick has lost his job, but several players, and in some cases entire teams, have begun emulating his actions. Many fans have been outraged, including President Trump. Both attendance at stadiums and ratings for televised games are way down. This story is vitiating the country.  So, what gives? Let’s unpack it a bit.

First and foremost is whether the protests are having, or can have, the desired effect: eliminating racism, especially alleged police brutality driven by alleged white racism against blacks. That will be hard to measure, since each and every case of alleged racially-driven brutality must be judged against the context of the situation and the facts of the incident that precipitated it. We cannot rationally, automatically infer that just because a young black man is shot and killed by a white cop that there was any racial bias (or injustice of any kind) involved; that has to be proven.  In some cases it is, in many more, the opposite conclusion is reached.

Second is the issue of context and message delivery. While Mr. Kaepernick told the press his actions were taken in protest to police brutality, in his statement above he conflates police brutality with the entire country being oppressive against blacks and other minorities: “I am not going to…show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people…” This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of the entire affair. Mr. Kaepernick may have been the subject of racism and police brutality himself at some point (I have no idea), but as someone who made more money in a single game than most NFL fans will make in several years, he is at best an unlikely spokesperson against oppression. He brought further ambiguity to his alleged anti-oppression message by wearing socks depicting a pig in a police hat during training camp:

And by attending as press conference wearing a pro Fidel Castro T-shirt:

That tone-deafness has now been amplified by entire teams of seven- and eight-digit salary earners “taking a knee” for the anthem (in stadiums often built with the aid of tax subsidies) to protest the “oppression” of the nation that gave them the opportunity to become one-percenters, while the people that defend that opportunity in some cases don’t even make enough to buy groceries without resorting to food stamps.

Maybe Mr. Kaepernick really is just trying to turn the national conversation towards the elimination of police brutality and racism. Or, perhaps Mr. Kaepernick hates cops and hates America. Or both, or neither. The trouble is: his message is mixed, and those who are emulating him are diluting it further. Are we to accept that our entire country is racist and oppressive? Racism and oppression have certainly existed and will continue to exist, in this country and elsewhere, as long as humans refuse to treat others as individuals, instead of as units. Even so, I don’t think we have to accept the premise that the entire country is that way now. After all, every racial barrier to high office or position has been broken: President of the United States. Senator. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State. Ambassador. CEO. Doctor. Lawyer. Astronaut. General. Police Officer. Professor. Sports Star.

That leaves police brutality. Are we instead to infer that all police are brutal, racist thugs? That’s a ludicrous proposition that I won’t even dignify with a rebuttal.

Third: Rights. The players protesting the anthem absolutely have the right to do so, but they do not have the right to usurp someone else’s platform to spread their message, nor can they reasonably expect that they can piss off their employers’ customers and keep their jobs.

Lastly: Importance. In the grand scheme of things, the NFL, its games, its ratings, and its stadium attendance are irrelevancies, but the issues of racism, police brutality, and patriotism are not. I don’t know, or care, what Mr. Kaepernick really believes or what message he thinks he was really trying to get across, but he certainly started a national conversation about…something. To borrow from Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy:

If you cannot treat your fellow Americans with dignity and respect, then get out.

Stop The Hurricane Blame Game

By Mike Cronin

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Those are the words of Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff under President Obama. Plenty of people are taking him up on that advice by exploiting notable natural disasters (presently, Hurricane Irma is their wellspring) to further their own agendas. Curiously, people on (supposedly) opposite spans of the ideological spectrum are finding ways to blame Irma (and Harvey before her, and Katrina before both) on human activity they don’t like:

The first variety are stories that repeat the oft-heard statistic that Hurricane Irma is the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history and that she is a result of human-caused global warming. Let’s break this down.  First, whether or not a given natural phenomenon is the “most powerful” in recorded history makes good headlines, but it’s almost irrelevant – because recorded history is a vanishingly small slice of time on the geologic clock. If we scale the lifetime of the earth to be represented by a human lifespan – say eighty years, then all of recorded human history represents the span of an eyeblink or two.   Indeed, reliable recordings of meteorological phenomena such as hurricanes have only been commonplace for perhaps the last 150 years or so.

Another angle: Right now, there are three hurricanes: Katia in the western Gulf of Mexico, Irma, and Jose east of the Caribbean. Some articles are noting this as another bit of evidence that global warming is to blame – but there have been at least two recorded occasions when four hurricanes existed at one time, and the earliest of those dates to 1893.

Then there are the religious extremists who claim that natural disasters are God’s punishment for our sins, especially homosexuality and abortion. This pastor claims Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment of Texas for failing to pass an anti-LGBT law. Actor Kirk Cameron claims Harvey and Irma have been sent by God to teach us humility and to make sinners repent. The same tone was on offer from some of the more extreme branches of the religious right for Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.

Bottom line: We have no way to know whether Irma is in fact the most powerful hurricane in Atlantic history, ergo we can’t possibly know if her notable strength is truly the result of human-caused global warming, or of natural climate change, or if she is merely a “normal” large hurricane among the millions that have crossed the Atlantic over the eons. Since the conditions that cause hurricanes pre-date human industrial activity, we can safely assume the sin of emitting too much carbon dioxide is not the cause of Irma. What about biblical sin?  As the late Christopher Hitchens once pointedly observed, Hurricane Katrina, allegedly sent to punish us for the sins of homosexuality and fornication, destroyed almost every part of New Orleans except the French Quarter, wherein lies the red-light district!

The jury is out on the effects of humans on climate change, but the fact that the climate is changing is irrefutable – it is always changing. Likewise, the idea that God punishes us through disasters is ancient, but “disasters” only result when humans are affected by specific incidents of naturally occurring phenomena that have been occurring since before the rise of humanity.  The real tragedy of disasters is that we continue to put faith ahead of reason. Reason tells us that if you occupy a place that is in a hurricane zone, you are at risk. You can either mitigate that risk by being well-prepared to evacuate or to survive, or you can deal with the consequences of failing to make such preparations. Neither God nor global warming are responsible for that, you are.

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Q: What is an idiotic thing to do to a country?

A: Drag it down from being one of the strongest economies in Latin America to being on the verge of failed state status, all under the banner of “Bolivarian” Socialism. Hugo Chavez started the process in Venezuela (with plenty of help from the Castro brothers from Cuba); now Nicolas Maduro is overseeing it. How can these men destroy their own countries? What tools do they use? Hatred and envy. It is human nature to lay blame on others for one’s own failings; charismatic leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez master the art of convincing the masses that their troubles are the result of the machinations of the rich and powerful, then ride the wave of popular support to positions of…wealth and power, while their countries burn around them.

Q: What is an idiotic thing to do “for” a news audience?

A: Provide them convenient (but not necessarily accurate) labels for the apparent factions involved in the Charlottesville, VA riot. Attendees of a “Unite the Right” rally were protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. Because some part of that crowd contained white supremacists, KKK members, and “neo-Nazis,” the mass media took an accuracy short cut and simply branded the entire crowd as “white nationalists.” Another crowd was protesting the first crowd. This second crowd contained “antifas” (anti-fascists) and “Black Lives Matter” supporters; yet the  media neglected to apply a hot-button label to this crowd, simply referring to them as “activists” and  “counter-protesters.”  The facts are that one crowd containing some people hanging on to irrational hatred clashed with another crowd containing some people clinging to their own hatreds. Because drama and conflict get better ratings than cold facts, the media turned the riots into the Battle of Charlottesville in a nascent Civil War II, with the heroic leftist crowd battling the evil right-wing crowd. There’s nothing quite like fanning the flames so one can report on the fire, eh?  It’s almost arson.

Q: What is an idiotic thing to do with your time?

A:  Indulge in hatred or envy; especially in hatred or envy that others tell you to indulge in.  Think for yourself when charismatic leaders peddling vitriol try to attract you into their orbit, and think for yourself when the media shows you burning conflicts in-camera, while what is left unreported may be the more important (if less sexy) part of the story.

No Fun on the Day of the Sun

By Mike Cronin

Disclaimer: I currently work for the US Air Force. The opinions expressed below are mine alone.

What’s all the fuss about with North Korea? They are always making threats.  Why do things seem more dangerous this time around?

Every year on this date (April 15th) while Americans are contending with getting their tax returns postmarked on time, North Korea celebrates “Day of the Sun,” in commemoration of the late Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Kim Il-sung was the founder of North Korea, and is still the Head of State and officially revered as the “Dear Leader,” a god in all but name.  The birthday celebration is the biggest “holiday” in North Korea, and is celebrated with military parades and usually some form of demonstration of military might, such as missile test-launches.

North Korea has announced it will do something spectacular this particular Day of the Sun; the concern is that the “something spectacular” will be the underground detonation of a nuclear device, in violation of UN sanctions.

In addition to celebrating the “Day of the Sun,” North Korea also has a habit of stirring up diplomatic and military trouble to see what they can get away with whenever there is a new US President. The current North Korean regime, led by Kim’s grandson, Kim Chong-un, has been testing Mr. Trump’s administration by launching missiles over the Sea of Japan.  Given that North Korea is believed to have chemical weapons and has allegedly test-detonated nuclear devices before, and that they claim to have produced nuclear warheads that can fit on a missile, these launches have been extremely provocative to South Korea, Japan and the United States.

You may recall the recent launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for the Bashad Regime’s use of chemical weapons against rebels, and the use of the “MOAB” bomb to destroy an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan.  Those actions have not escaped the North Koreans.  The first demonstrated that President Trump favors action over diplomacy as a direct response to aggression, and that US cruise missiles can hit their targets, even when they have to go through heavily defended airspace (such as North Korea’s).  The second demonstrated that tunnels and underground bunkers (such as the North Korean military favors) are no guarantee of safety from conventional US weapons.

USS Carl Vinson battle Group Steams Towards Korean Waters

Kadena AB “Elephant Walk” 

Osan AB “Elephant Walk”

A US aircraft carrier battle group is steaming towards the Korean Peninsula, and there have been two no-notice “elephant walk” show-of-force exercises at Kadena and Osan air bases in recent days.  On top of that, the rhetoric is escalating, making for a tense situation.

Perhaps the most serious indication of trouble is that China has announced it will move 150,000 troops to the region of its border with North Korea, and is calling for cool heads to prevail.

The North Korean regime is like a crime family headed by the selected Kim heir.  They are hideously brutal to their own people and bellicose to the rest of the world. I would not mourn their loss. The trick is to demonstrate US resolve while leaving Kim a way to de-escalate without losing face. Not that he deserves to be let off the hook, but if we leave the North Korean regime with no options, their response could leave our administration without options – and that could ultimately put us into conflict with China.

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More Comfortable Lies and Painful Truths

By Mike Cronin

Comfortable Lie: Healthcare is a right. The US is the only developed country without universal healthcare. Obamacare reduced the gap. We must close that gap, but the Republican just tried (and failed) to open it back up.

Painful Truth: We have the right to life, but not the right to live at the expense of someone else. We have no more right to use the coercive power of government to take our neighbors’ money than we do to rob our neighbors in person, regardless of whether the loot is to be used to pay for healthcare.  Universal healthcare has been made to sound wonderful by the people who stand to gain the most power by implementing it; and it has been made to sound ghastly by the people who stand to gain the most by not having it. The fact that the US is the only developed country that does not have universal healthcare is irrelevant. We have been the first, or only, country to do, or not do, many things – one of which is to be the first nation established on the principles of individual liberty and freedom – which require individual responsibility and self-reliance. Reliance on the state leads to stagnation and mediocrity and the erosion of liberty and freedom.

Comfortable Lie: “fake news” and “alternative facts” are a recent phenomenon born of the 2016 election and social media.

Painful Truth: All news is fake; some news is useful.  This has been the case since the days of the town crier and before. Events that make the news involve, and/or are witnessed by, people – some of the least effective or reliable data recording and play-back devices known! (Remember the game called “telephone” from grade school?  Line everyone up and whisper a story into the first kid’s ear, then have him whisper it to the second kid, who whispers it to the third, and so on.  By the time the story gets to the last kid, it’s unrecognizable.) Sometime the “fakeness” of the news is due to misconceptions; sometimes it is deliberate, as mentioned in previous posts.  Sometimes the reason for the deliberate fakery seems not worth the effort, as when, in the days long before Photoshop, Life magazine retouched this shot of the infamous 1970 Kent State incident. Were they worried that somehow the public would assume the girl is screaming because a fence post seemed to be growing out of her head (right) in the original, and not because her friend lay dead in the street?

Or: What return on investment did the publishers of TV Guide gain by grafting Oprah Winfrey’s head onto Ann-Margaret’s body?  Did they think a genuine picture of Oprah would not sell as well at the check-out stand?

Comfortable Lie: The “experts” know when to raise interest rates, “inject liquidity,” or otherwise enact some control over the economy.

Painful Truth: An economy is an incredibly complex interaction between independent agents, the items they wish to buy and sell, and the relative scarcity of those items. “The economy” is impossible for even the most brilliant humans to understand at a level sufficient to make effective control decisions.  Invariably, those that try end up making small problems bigger and big problems into disasters. They also manage to steal from us by devaluing the currency we have left after paying taxes.  Consider: The humble candy bar cost a nickel a century ago, now it costs $1.25. The chocolate didn’t become 25 times more valuable in that time; our dollars have lost 75% or more of their buying power!

Not so Random Matter?

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By Mike Cronin

I started out thinking I had several disparate items for this week’s post, but they all seemed to tie together:

It’s science-project season at my son’s school.  He brought home an information/instruction packet.  He had to get a parent to sign the first page – which is a letter to parents explaining that the kid has to do the science work on his own, but parents can help with the non-process portions of the project (e.g. helping the kid get materials) etc., etc. On the reverse of the first page is a progress tracker.  The kid has to get his parents to sign each time he hits a milestone on the project.  My son got dinged on the first milestone because I didn’t sign it.   The first milestone is to have a parent sign the letter to parents.  Yes, that’s right: The purveyors of the science project’s hand-out material failed to notice they are requiring a parent sign the back of a form in order to certify that the parent signed the front of the form…and they make the kid take the hit if the parent doesn’t jump through the hoop.  On a science project. You know, Science?  The subject where they teach kids logic, critical thinking, precision, peer review, attention to detail, right? Little things like that.

Speaking of science, I work in a small office with five other people. All five are scientists and/or engineers. Our office serves as a kind of internal think-tank. We do quantitative and qualitative analysis, among other things. I am the only one in the office who does not have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  My colleagues can run rings around me on any kind of math-based reasoning or problems.  On the other hand, I usually get the better of them when it comes to verbal expression.  I like to tease them that they are all experts at qualitative reasoning, while I am the quality. At any rate, our work sometimes involves (mathematical) models and simulations. Someone in the field once quipped that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Given the public’s current fascination with the phenomena of “fake news,” I think an adaptation of the “models” aphorism is apropos as a guidepost for judging the efficacy of anything in the media: “All news is fake, but some news is useful.” Two cases in point:

Some right-wing media sources are reporting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, as much as revealed that the UN’s plans to combat climate change are really a set of blinders to hide the real agenda: the destruction of capitalism. While the UN is no friend of capitalism, context matters, as does the thing that is not being said.  Figueres undeniably advocates for the alteration of the global economy when she says:

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,”

Note that she stops short of stating that the current global economic development model that must be changed is capitalism (it isn’t, by the way – it’s a mix of capitalism and controls), or describing what model should obtain.  I would not be surprised to learn that Figueres is indeed anti-capitalist, nor would I be surprised to learn that UN efforts to combat global warming are indeed a smokescreen to hide the destruction of capitalism, but Figueres’s statements fall short of being a smoking gun – more like an eyebrow-raiser. The subject bears watching.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the fake news spectrum, we have the New York Times’ headlines for Friday’s attack at the Louvre in Paris by a “lone wolf” Islamic jihadist. Their first headline read: “Louvre Museum Evacuated after French Soldier Opens Fire.” At best, this headline leads you to believe the incident revolved around the actions of a French soldier. At worst, it leads you to believe a French soldier went nuts and started shooting up the Louvre.  A few hours later, the headline had changed to read: “Assailant Near Louvre Is Shot by French Soldier” Again, the French soldier’s actions seem to be the focus.  As mentioned previously, context matters, and what is not being said matters. What the vaunted New York Times neglected, or purposely refused to highlight in their headlines, was that a man shouting “allahu ackbar!” (i.e. “God is great” in Arabic) and wielding knives attacked some French soldiers and was shot by one of them in response.

It would not do to depart from The Narrative by highlighting yet another attack by a Muslim against Western targets, even as the militant arm of the “tolerant” left is convulsing over President Trumps’ recent “anti-Muslim” immigration restrictions, now would it? Instead, the “Newspaper of Record” felt it must mislead readers with deceptive headlines. I’m not suggesting the Times should have gone with “Islamo-Fascist Nut-Job Takes Knives to a Gun Fight in Paris; Wins Darwin Award Nomination,” but something like “Assailant Shouting in Arabic Shot by Soldier At Louvre” might have hit the right balance between not jumping to conclusions about the attacker’s religion, intentions, and connections, and the response of the soldiers.  All news is fake, some news is useful.

Three Tips for Filtering the Feed

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By Mike Cronin

Last year I wrote about the war on Christmas. This year the election of Donald Trump has overshadowed the usual brouhaha over nativity scenes at City Hall. So this year I thought I’d go with something a little more practical. The guiding purpose of this blog is to make sense out of the vast array or “manufactured truth” that we are constantly bombarded with. Here are a few tips and tricks to deal with it every day:

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  1. Consume news skeptically: the first thing you need to remember about the news media is that their first concern is to sell advertising. Their second concern is often to reinforce a narrative or advance an ideological or even partisan agenda. Running in third place is actually informing you about the new events of the day. There has been much ado recently about fake news. Given the first and second criteria just outlined, almost all the news is fake to one degree or another. When there is some crisis happening, such as 9/11, and the news “breaks in” to tell us about the event as it’s happening, they haven’t had much time to adapt it to their preferred narrative. In those cases we are usually getting real news, even if some of the details are inaccurate while the debris is still falling or the smoke is still rising. As soon as one of these stories acquires its own theme music, it’s no longer breaking news. At that point you must start taking it with a grain of salt. In reality, the best way to glean something of the truth may be to examine headlines from multiple news sources, to include some foreign outlets such as the Economist, BBC, and perhaps even Al Jazeera or Xinhua.  Even so, while those sources may tell you what’s happening and why, they seldom articulate what it means and what will likely happen because of it. Personally, I like to scan the news headlines, but I also like to read intelligence. One of my favorite sources is StratFor; a private “intelligence” firm that uses the lens of geopolitics to explain the world.

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  1. Geopolitics, as you might have guessed, is not just about geography or politics, but about how geography enables or constrains political and/or economic action between nations and other actors. For example: The United States is largely regarded to have the largest economy and the most powerful military, and we are generally thought of as being the world’s only superpower. But it is not only our military might or our form of government that has led us to this condition. The United States is this way in part because of where it’s at and what it has. The most striking example of this is our river and coastal waterway system. “The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.” (From StratFor’s “The Geopolitics of the United States.”) Give these advantages, it would have been a shock if the US had not become an economic powerhouse! By way of contrast, consider the difficulties faced by a landlocked country. Afghanistan, for example, is estimated to have over $1 trillion worth of natural resources in the form of valuable ores and minerals. Yet owing to the difficulty of getting to and from Afghanistan and navigating within its borders, and the fractured nature of its tribal society, Afghanistan has never realized its economic potential, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Where the United States has abundance of access, Afghanistan has a dearth. Geography has dealt a difficult hand to landlocked countries, but there is at least one way to overcome that difficulty: adopt a Western form of governance that recognizes individual rights and promotes liberty. Switzerland is the epitome of a country that can overcome geographic isolation by staying neutral in the conflicts of its neighbors and giving its people freedom.
  1. Like most, I’ve had geography classes, and classes on US. Government, but I never had a “geopolitics” class per se in my formal education. Our schools are set up to teach material as discreet subjects, but our brains are not set up that way. We learn and make memories by association. Another example might be economics. The word economics conjures up thoughts of central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, changing interest rates and conducting “quantitative easing.” Those elements of economics were among the set popularized by John Maynard Keynes, and “Keynesian Economics holds sway among the vast majority of economists today.  9i7jfxdepbiuxmllhv6wxoykazrjmeynuapn20ngnu0But in a broader sense, economics is the study of human activity. This goes hand in glove with geopolitics, as does history. Come to think of it, so does psychology. What if there was a way of learning economics (and other subjects) in a way that more closely mimics the way the human brain learns? Under such a rubric, there would be far fewer barriers between what we think of as the traditional subjects. Such a field exists.  It’s called “praxeology.” In short, praxeology is the study of volitional human action, and it is a basis for the Austrian school of economic thought.  We can borrow the concept to help us understand the world without trying to become economists ourselves.

Using these three tools (skeptical news consumption, understanding how geography can enable or constrain political and economic action, and removing the artificial barriers between “subjects,” and examining human action holistically), we can better learn to Filter the Feed.