Friday, June 19, 2015

Crush the Enemy!! A Glimpse of American Fast Carrier Leadership in the Pacific War

Charles Pownall was not a bad carrier admiral. In James H. Belote and William M. Belote’s Titans of the Seas, he appears as a solid administrator and a tactically sound but overly cautious commander, who commanded the main American carrier task force in the Pacific WWII Theater--Task Force 50--for a short time. With the awesome power of six heavy and five light aircraft carriers under his tactical command to defend amphibious landings on Betio (Tarawa) and Makin islands in the Gilbert Islands, he did so adequately. The subsequent raid on Kwajalain with a six-carrier task force cost him his job.

Pownall did not lose a battle; he merely did not win one. He saw the carriers as raiders, which they had been on both sides until that point in the war. Their job was to get in, drop bombs and torpedoes, and get out before the land-based air counterattacked.

In the words of the Belotes:

“The Air Plan devised by Pownall was the product of a cautious nature and defensive-mindedness. In it Pownall specified that the Cowpens and Belleau Wood [light carriers] air groups should be reserved entirely for defense. In addition the plan withheld nearly a third of the embarked Hellcats on the big carriers for CAP [Combat Air Patrol]… The Task Force, he thought, would not achieve surprise and probably would be attacked. Therefore, ‘We will plan for the worst and hope for the breaks’. “ (246)

The first American air strike was inconclusive, destroying 32 Zeros (fighters) and 9 Bettys (bombers) and damaging 20 more aircraft, but the runways were left intact and plenty of planes remained. Pownall cancelled a planned second strike and hit one of two secondary targets instead. The Americans got away at the price of a torpedo hit on one carrier.

Pownall’s losses were moderate and his results equally so, but in the philosophy of a world war, cautious, moderate men are not winners. He was canned after the battle for “his apparent predilection for seeing the dangers inherent in a carrier strike rather than the opportunities”. (249) He was replaced by Marc A. Mitscher.

Mitscher was a winning admiral, a “pilot’s admiral”, a man who believed that the best way to win battles and keep one’s ships safe was to destroy the enemy. “To him carriers were primarily offensive weapons, and he believed in neutralizing enemy planes by making sure they never left the ground. Command of the air as a prelude to bombing strikes was to Mitscher as sound a principle as command of the sea to an amphibious landing.”

Mitscher’s first carrier raid for the next invasions in the Gilberts was devastating. He planned to hit three airfields simultaneously, making significant tactical changes as well. “A fighter sweep would strafe first, bombers would then shatter the fields, and standing fighter patrols would continue to orbit and strafe until every last grounded airplane had been destroyed.” (252) That way, the carriers wouldn’t have to run away; they could seize control of the airspace and hold it! This was done, and the Americans maintained absolute air supremacy for the remainder of the invasion. A similar plan worked soon afterwards in a devastating raid on Japanese base Truk, destroying over 150 planes on the ground. After the task force had “shattered aerial resistance” (262), Mitscher’s planes wrecked what shipping and warships remained in the bay.

Mitscher would continue in command of the fast carrier force right through to the end of the war. The outstanding record compiled by his pilots and crews has to be attributed in some part to increasingly superior American tactics, weaponry, training, and numbers, but some credit must go to the man. Commanding the same carrier task force with largely the same people in it just a few months after Pownall, Mitscher got far more out of it. If Pownall was a shield, Mitscher was a sword; instead of merely defending, he crushed the enemy! This is why Pownall is forgotten today and Mitscher is one of the great American admirals’ names in the Pacific War.

We don’t remember the timid generals or the conservative ones, except when listing the minor players that passed before the great men entered the scene. Having just reread the first book in Bruce Catton’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, one cannot help but think of George McClellan, who always demanded more men and additional surety. Robert E. Lee was bold, daring, willing to do outrageous things when necessary with ragged, footsore soldiers, and beat the stuffing out of McClellan’s well-shod troops everywhere but at Antietam because he had a penthouse suite in McClellan’s head, just as the threat of Japanese retaliation occupied Pownall.

You need aggressiveness to win wars; not mindless violence, but controlled violence, for a purpose (to quote Robert Heinlein). Bull Halsey, George Patton, Troy Middleton—the list goes on. Catton wrote a long ode to the Confederate generals that is worth quoting from:

“There was a crippling deficiency in the [Army of the Potomac] command… a lack of the hard, grim, remorseless, driving spirit that must be on tap if wars are to be won.” (200) Later, he calls it “the indefinable something which can best be summed up as a positive taste for fighting” (203) and “the driving, slashing, fighting type of general” (206). Mitscher was aggressive with purpose and brought out the best in his subordinates, say the Belotes, even though he was the quietest and least bullheaded of men. Having this type of general does not guarantee final victory—the decorated list of strong, creative Confederate generals is proof enough of that—but a lack of it all but guarantees defeat.


I’m currently studying Thomas E. Ricks’s massive but very readable The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today. It tells the story of how in the prewar and WWII years, George Marshall canned or transferred dozens of generals and hundreds of lesser officers not because they were corrupt, stupid, or lost battles, but simply because they were more Pownall than Mitscher, more McClellan than Lee. I’m only in the WWII section (75 pages in), and it promises to be depressing—as the years and wars slope towards the present, apparently the US Army grows less and less willing to can the middle-management generals in favor of bringing fighters to high command. There may be another post on this topic when I’m done.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Senator Rubio on the NSA

Dear Senator Rubio,

If not now, when?

That is the question that immediately comes to mind upon reading the headline of your May 10th op-ed in USA Today, which is “Sen. Rubio: Now’s no time to end NSA program”. You go on to assert that we now face “a greater threat of terrorist attack than any time” since 9/11/01, to claim that tools including the NSA’s illegal bulk metadata collection program have been “a major contributor” to our success in not suffering a major attack in the U.S. over the last 14 years, and to call for the renewal of the program as it currently stands.

Senator, although you allude to “recent court rulings”—i.e. the three-judge appeals court of the federal Second Circuit Court unanimously finding the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program illegal a few days ago—I’m not sure you fully appreciate their meaning. At the end of your op-end, you urge Congress to renew the program as it stands, but do not acknowledge that those judges found the current program illegal under the Patriot Act as it stands right now. You rejoice that at least it was not found unconstitutional, but obscure the fact that the judges declined to rule on its constitutionality because the violation of the Act itself was so blatant.

Think about what that means, Senator; even under the extraordinarily open and embracing aegis of the Patriot Act, this program went too far. It went so far that it wasn’t even necessary to rule on its constitutionality to judge it illegal. It goes far beyond what even its primary author wanted. And according to no less an authority than former NSA director Keith Alexander, the program is responsible for stopping only one or two threats since it was enacted, which is down from the over 50 he originally claimed.

Although you point to FISA court opinions that repeatedly affirm the program’s constitutionality, let me remind you that that is a court where the rulings are secret unless they are declassified, at which witnesses for the defense are not permitted to argue and where the public has no voice. Only the government is allowed to present its case. The court approved 1,816 government applications in 2012, modified 40 and denied none. Does that seem like a good environment in which to find something unconstitutional?

Moreover, the FISA court ruled in 2011 that the NSA had illegally collected domestic communications for three solid years, and found the program unconstitutional unless changes were made. From 2011 to 2012, the NSA violated privacy rules at least 2,776 times. Most of those happened by accident, but the NSA can use data that was inadvertently collected, according to the FISA court. NSA officers have spied on their love interests, and not even your colleague, Senator Grassley, has been able to obtain an accounting of how they were punished. Oh, and the GCHQ, Britain’s spy agency with whom we work, is perfectly aware of how to obtain personally identifiable information from metadata. So are we, and at least during the program’s years of secrecy, we did it all the time.

As for email accounts and credit card companies, Senator, there is a crucial difference between the NSA’s bulk collection and a private company’s: You give your data to the company by choice, and by law, you are allowed to opt out.

Senator, the world will always be dangerous, and there will always be people calling it more dangerous than it was at a previous time. There will never be a point—I think we know this after fourteen years of war—where the U.S. will be free of the specter of terrorism. There will always be some reason for people like yourself to call for surveillance in the name of security. So I ask you, Senator, sincerely: if now is not the proper time to stop, then when will ever be?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Defensive Gun Use in Politico Magazine: What to Believe

Recently, two authors--Evan DeFillipis and Devin Hughes--published an article in Politico Magazine criticizing a two-decade-old study by Gary Kleck and Marc Getz. Kleck just published a response. (The remainder of this post assumes you've read both.)
Let's look at what DeFillipis and Hughes said and what Kleck said in response. 

D & H: 

"In 1992, Gary Kleck and Marc Getz, criminologists at Florida State University, conducted a random digit-dial survey to establish the annual number of defensive gun uses in the United States. They surveyed 5,000 individuals, asking them if they had used a firearm in self-defense in the past year and, if so, for what reason and to what effect. Sixty-six incidences of defensive gun use were reported from the sample. The researchers then extrapolated their findings to the entire U.S. population, resulting in an estimate of between 1 million and 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year."

Kleck does not refute this. 

When presented with a list of reasons why his survey respondents might have had reason to exaggerate the number of times they used guns in self-defense--social desirability bias, awareness of the political context of the questions, and "telescoping"--Kleck does not refute any of these things, either. He doesn't say they don't matter; he doesn't argue against them, or even address them. 

His approach is, instead, to criticize DeFillipis and Hughes's credentials, say he's heard all of this before, question their motives, and pooh-pooh the very idea of criticism. 

His sole argument against DeFillipis and Hughes is this: "The authors’ discussion of possible flaws in survey estimates of DGU frequency is conspicuously one-sided, addressing only supposed flaws that could make the estimates too high—but none that could make the estimates too low."

In other words, 'It may be wrong one way, but it could be wrong the other way, too!'

He also makes numerous claims about supporting evidence, mentioning the "well-documented failure of many survey respondents to report criminal victimization, gun ownership or their own crimes" and saying "at least 18 national surveys have confirmed that DGUs are very common", but unlike DeFillipis and Hughes, he does not include specific results from other surveys that corroborate his beliefs, or include links to his supporting evidence. This is not persuasive. 

Finally, he postulates that DGUs would be underreported instead of overreported, because survey respondents could be admitting to criminal activity, and people are unlikely to report their own crimes. 


This seems to me to be nonsense, because Kleck and Geis conducted a presumably anonymous phone survey to get their results in the first place. They didn't ask people to march down to the local police precinct and confess. There would be no consequences for someone saying they used their gun in self-defense, even if it was illegal. 

Obviously, we're now getting into the heads of the survey respondents, and asking whether the biases DeFillipis and Hughes pointed out would have outweighed the tendency not to report a crime. But again, it's telling that DeFillipis and Hughes point to well-understood biases that have been confirmed by studies from other organizations. Kleck does not back up anything he says with links or the names of other organizations who have conducted studies to corroborate him. 

Ultimately, however, the question is whether a sample of 66 'yes' results out of 5,000 people can be fairly extrapolated to the whole country, what those unnamed eighteen studies Kleck said confirmed his results actually said, and what to make of the Arizona study, the NCVS data, and the Gun Violence Archive data in DeFillipis and Hughes's column that all provide reason not to accept Kleck's numbers at face value. 

On the face of it, there is much more reason to believe DeFillipis and Hughes--who seem to have made considerable efforts to survey the state of research in the field of defensive gun violence and account for biases--than to believe Kleck, who does not back up what he says with supporting evidence or other organizations, and who spends much more time bad-mouthing his critics than he does actually refuting what they have to say. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Letter to Christian Schneider

Dear Christian Schneider, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Columnist,

It seems to have escaped you, in your haste to pooh-pooh the New York Times’ coverage of Walker’s attempt to rewrite the century-old Wisconsin Idea, that Walker did not make a drafting error; he made a deliberate attempt to change the University of Wisconsin’s mission from “the search for truth” to “workforce development”. This has been covered in detail by the Journal Sentinel. It is hard to see how you could continue to refer to that as a drafting error without a heavy dose of sarcasm. (Either that, or Walker has shockingly little control over his staff!)

It’s also rather telling that you seem to admire Walker’s straightforwardness (“actually practices the conservatism he preaches”, yet you mention two incidents in which he completely failed to own his beliefs. The clumsy attribution of his intent re: the Wisconsin Idea to a drafting error was one. Declining to answer whether he believed in evolution was another. And despite being on the stage at one of the world’s most respected foreign policy think tanks, he declined to answer any foreign-policy questions of consequence. That doesn’t bother you at all? (Also, you called the evolution question a ‘political question’, which puzzled me. There are questions asked of a presumptive presidential candidate that are not political in nature?)

This is a pattern for Walker; he declined repeatedly to state his beliefs on the issue of Wisconsin’s since-overturned gay marriage ban, although he continued to order his attorney general to defend it in court. That is not very forthright behavior, nor is it in line with the image he attempts to promote. It is simply the behavior of someone who is unabashedly seeking higher office and attempting to make himself seem more electable by emitting nothing but anodyne bromides and misleading or false information. You lament liberals’ potshots on the aforementioned social issues and for taking shots at Walker’s status as a college dropout. Very well; let us examine his real qualifications.

Walker falsely claimed during his reelection campaign that he had given the state a $535M surplus instead of a $1.8B deficit, which was measured as such using the same methods that resulted in the $3.6B budget deficit he hammered Jim Doyle for after taking office. But now that that method of calculating the budget is inconvenient for him, he repudiates it entirely. He cherry-picks the numbers to make himself look good, and he is wrong, and he doesn’t appear to care. He has demonstrated that he has no considered opinions on US foreign policy in an issue as important as Syria. In seeking to validate his stance on unions as a foreign-policy issue, he made up Soviet documents that never existed.

His much-touted jobs agency has not only failed to hit its job-creation marks, but has done everything wrong that a job-creation agency can do. Per Reuters: “State legislative audits have found that WEDC has mismanaged taxpayer funds and handed out awards to companies that should not have been eligible for them. The agency also didn't follow up to ensure that jobs were actually being created and failed to track whether businesses were paying their loans back on time, according to reviews in 2012 and 2013. Lassa said the agency had improved its performance somewhat since then.” (You didn’t mention this one in your roundup of recent Walker coverage. Perhaps it hit too close to home.)

He has declined hundreds of millions of federal dollars in money to build a high-speed rail line and to expand public health care in Wisconsin. And he just kicked $108M in loan payments down the road, just like Jim Doyle did… which will hurt more in the long run, as any responsible fiscal conservative will tell you. By declining federal money, kicking debt down the road, setting up a shell of a job-creation agency, and now attempting to gut the UW-Madison system—which will be bad for state business as well as state education—he is attempting to make himself look good for primary voters at the expense of the state that is unfortunate enough to host him.

I’m glad you’ve noticed that liberals are angry about what Walker is doing to Wisconsin.

Why aren’t you?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Biking in New Orleans

Two things before we start. One: I’m completely unharmed, for friends and family reading this. Two: There is no hyperbole in this post.

I just started work at an IT consulting company in downtown New Orleans, about three miles down St. Charles Avenue from where I live. Since it was 50 degrees a few mornings ago, I decided to bike to work.

The first major intersection between my house and downtown is Napoleon Avenue. Around that area, St. Charles has a boulevard where the streetcar runs, one lane of traffic and a curb lane. Bike lanes run from approximately Octavia Avenue all the way west to the riverbend, but there are no bike lanes going east (downtown) from where I live. Because of this, I usually stay fairly close to the parked cars in the curb lane.

I waited for the light to change and crossed Napoleon Avenue, getting up to speed as I did so. There was a bright blue car, possibly a minivan, possibly a sedan, sitting on the curb about 20-30 feet past the intersection. As my front wheel passed the car’s left rear wheel, I saw the driver’s door begin to open, perhaps five or six inches outward, directly in front of me. 

What happened next was pure instinct; the thinking part of my brain was not involved. I had less than a second to react. I yanked on the handlebars as hard as I ever have. The bike slewed crazily to the left and out into the middle of the driving lane. I cleared the edge of the car door by no more than two or three inches. Thankfully, the car coming through the intersection behind me either threw on the brakes or was already pretty far behind me, because I was not hit.

Less than a second.

At this point, I started thinking again. My bike has road tires, which are not built to grip the road during violent 45-degree turns, and it was wobbling like crazy and still going at a pretty high speed. I’m going to crash in the middle of the street, I thought, imagined myself falling, and started preparing to take the blow on my forearms.

Again, my body had other ideas. Without orders from the top, I slammed both my forearms down on the handlebars, which were weaving back and forth. That stabilized them, the bike stopped weaving, and I began to guide it back towards the curb lane. I turned around and looked back during this process and heard a woman shout “Sorry!” This all took place in a second or two but seemed much longer.

As I got back out of the driving lane, I shouted “Jesus! Fuck! Christ!” On “Christ”, the car behind me—a white SUV—pulled alongside me, and the man inside hollered “Are you okay?” I said something reassuring, I don’t remember what, and he drove off.

That was the end of it. I wasn’t hurt. I stopped a few blocks later to adjust my clothing and whatnot, but that was it. I missed it entirely. I went to work, did work things, and eventually got out of work. 

Around 5:35 that evening, I was biking home on St. Charles, having just passed Lee Circle and passed under the freeway bridge. Again, I was biking fairly close to the parked cars. I was wearing grey pants and a dark green sweatshirt. I had my red taillight and white headlight on, although they were not flashing so that any idiot could see them. Apparently that’s necessary here.

I never saw the black sedan until it pulled up alongside me. Its lights were on, and so was its turn signal. It began to turn directly into my path. I have no reason to believe he saw me.

This time was different. Instead of an instant of pure reflex and a violent change, everything seemed to be happening in pleasant slow motion. I pulled back on the brakes, again instinctively, but I had time to lazily contemplate the movement of the car. It didn’t register that I was about to hit it. It was moving ponderously into my path, and I remember thinking that the driver was cutting it pretty fine.

I was lucky again. We were in the middle of a block. Instead of turning onto a street, he turned into a driveway that happened to have a gate. That meant he was slowing down almost as much as I was. The angles kept changing as we raced to the bottom.

Because of this, instead of hitting him at full speed, I only nudged his right rear door with my left handlebar as he finished cutting me off. We came to a stop.

I was too disgusted to say or do anything. I remember being completely unsurprised that this had happened again. There was no noise from the car, so I pulled off the sock that served me as a glove, gave a big smile and a sardonic thumbs-up, and got back on the bike, shaking from the waist down.

I can think of three possible explanations for me not hitting the first car. Either the driver paused in the middle of opening the door, or she realized what was happening and pulled it back in a split second, or I simply dodged it entirely. Whatever it was, that was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I have no doubt that if I’d been just a touch slower to recognize and react to what was happening, I would have smashed into the car door and suffered serious injury. The same goes for the second car. If I hadn’t recognized what was happening and slowed down, I would have plowed into its side at a considerable speed.


I’m very glad I can do that. I hope it does not prove necessary on every single commute. Who needs coffee when you have a heart attack?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Breaking Down the Red Cross's Response to the Damning ProPublica Report of 10/29

As someone who served as an Americorps volunteer with FEMA in the five months following Tropical Storm Sandy, the waste, mismanagement of resources, inadequate treatment of volunteers and prioritization of "looking good" over "doing good" described in ProPublica's article is completely unsurprising. FEMA was guilty of all of these sins, so it is not surprising that FEMA's close partner organization is also guilty of those sins.

When a large organization is guilty of bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, the last thing you would expect them to do is make a honest accounting of their sins and own up to what went wrong. The Red Cross, in this respect, is no different from any other agency that has been caught out.

Let's parse their anodyne, noncommittal, deeply outraged response, shall we? Actual lines from the press release (which is here) will be in bold, commentary in regular text.

It is regrettable

Translation: We wish you hadn't aired our dirty laundry.

that ProPublica and NPR have used the two-year anniversary (sigh) of Superstorm Sandy's landfall to paint a distorted and inaccurate picture of a Red Cross response that helped tens of thousands of people who urgently needed our services with hot meals, shelter, relief supplies and financial support.

No doubt the Red Cross did indeed do this. ProPublica even mentions in its article that the Red Cross, when challenged, likes to throw out huge numbers of people it says it helped--and that shouldn't be discounted or underplayed. At the same time, doing a lot of things right does not obliterate the things they did very, very wrong--like allowing sex offenders into childrens' play areas, for example, or wasting 30% of available meals ostensibly for disaster survivors. Just because you did a lot of good is not a valid argument that you didn't also do some bad. It's more a PR shield than an actual response--note that their objection is to "the inaccurate picture" painted--and the Red Cross doesn't respond directly to most of the specific charges from ProPublica.

Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency. [Italics theirs]


This is the exception. They say this so boldly--alone--but then why is there an internal Red Cross document that alludes to Red Cross Headquarters "diverting assests [sic] for public relations purposes"? Why is there an email from a Mass Care officer, a guy on the ground, from 11/18/12, reporting that 15 of 37 trucks were diverted at one point for public relations purposes? Not responding directly to these pieces of evidence--which come, again, from within the Red Cross--seems a lot to me like the "ignore it and hope it goes away" approach to PR, which is an idiotic way to approach the problem. Repeat after me: The existence of the ProPublica article is not a PR problem that you have to solve. The problems within your organization that lead to poor service are the real problems that you need to solve.

We are proud of the work of our 17,000 Sandy workers – nearly all of them volunteers– who served more than 17.5 million meals and snacks, distributed 7 million relief items, and provided 74,000 overnight stays in shelters. Two years after Sandy’s landfall, the Red Cross has spent or committed to spend $310 million, which is 99 percent of the $311.5 million raised for our Sandy response. 

Yes, true, but how much was wasted? And given the Mass Care officer's testimony that 30% of meals were wasted, one wonders if that 17.5 million number covers meals actually served, or merely the total number of meals ordered, without accounting for waste and inefficiency? How do situations like the one described in the article, where a Red Cross kitchen serving 22,000 meals was ordered to scale up to 220,000 the next day, count? Would you count the number of meals that actually made it into the mouths of disaster survivors (something like 70,000 Danishes delivered, half of those wasted, according to ProPublica) or would you ring up 220,000 on your balance sheet and say you did that? This is a real question because the internal report revealed that the size of the disaster "crippled" the Red Cross's ability to tabulate what it had accomplished, and apparently the Red Cross is unusually opaque when it comes to telling the public how it actually spends its money. That $310 million that was spent lost some percentage to administrative overhead and waste, but it's impossible to tell how much from the numbers they provide the public.

And our surveys show that the overwhelming majority of the people we served had a positive experience with the Red Cross and the services we provided.

Will you make those surveys, or aggregated numbers from them, available to the public? What was your surveying methodology? Who was asked, and when? Is it possible that survivors rated you well on the whole because you fed and sheltered them during and after the storm, but nevertheless had concerns about your management? What is an "overwhelming majority", on a percentage basis of the people asked? Do the surveys contain leading questions? Is there a place for survivors to provide suggestions, and have you taken those suggestions into account? Again, as a random schmuck, I have no reason to reflexively believe you when you're in full cover-your-ass mode and won't make the details that back up what you're saying available to me.

In the chaotic first few hours and days after a disaster, it is impossible to meet every need, especially on a disaster as big as Sandy. When problems occur, we try to fix them quickly, and we always strive to do better. 

This is true, and should not be underplayed (although that is their job). But there is a difference, as my fellow FEMA Corps members and I learned in the FEMA response, between problems that are inherent to the crazy post-disaster environment and problems created by bureaucratic mismanagement, lousy priorities (I point again to the food trucks diverted for photo opportunities), and infighting. I'm glad that the Red Cross says it fixes problems, but since it has not acknowledged in this release that any of the problems outlined in the article actually exist, that tends to make me pessimistic about whether those problems were actually fixed.

As we do with all major disasters, the Red Cross proactively sought feedback from hundreds of volunteers, staff and others as part of a thorough review of its response to Sandy. Based on that feedback, and our own evaluation, we implemented changes to continuously strengthen our service delivery. 

'Continuously strengthen' is such a mealymouthed phrase; it describes fixing problems without ever acknowledging that there were problems that needed to be fixed. I don't have much to say about this part; it's simply impossible to judge its veracity until the next major disaster. It is possible that the Red Cross made some changes, as the internal review conducted away from the cold light of the press was far more honest and candid than the Red Cross was willing to be in this release. However, when the first item on the list of "Hinderances" [sic] is the Red Cross National Headquarters, whose sins include "Direct involvement in Service Delivery decisions without local understanding" and "Diverting assests [sic] for public relations purposes"... well, I don't feel like the public has much reason to be optimistic. If the senior leadership is part of the problem, what are the odds that they spontaneously became part of the solution without any outside pressure to change, up until this point? It smells to me like there's plenty of work to be done here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Brave Crusaders and Amoral Idiots

I have not seen very many Hollywood movies about the days of slavery, or the days of the civil rights movement. The only one I've seen recently is Steven Spielberg's Amistad, where the focus of the movie is the legal question of whether rebelling slaves aboard a slave ship can be legally considered people. Of course, the good guys win, against great odds. But what struck me most about the movie was the character and tenor of the opposition. To the early-21st-century white liberal viewer, like me, they appear hopelessly backwards. Their arguments don't make sense. There's nothing they can say that would make their side of the case, denying legal personhood to rebelling slaves, okay.
Immediately after the movie, I wondered what modern-day issues of civil or women's or sexual rights are going to look equally one-sided in the Hollywood movies of fifty years from now. I feel like it's common among my friends to look forward and say "Well, the people fighting gay marriage are on the wrong side of history. Boy, aren't they going to look like idiots in a generation or two". And they probably are.
Something that's been on my mind for a few days, though, is the opinions of the other side. By virtue of being young and liberal and socializing mostly with young liberals who share my views, I don't often run into anybody who disagrees with me on issues like 'Should gay people be allowed to get married?'. There was a column, however, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, right after the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeals of several states whose bans on gay marriage had been struck down. The column was by a supporter of the bans, and you can read it here.
I disagree completely with this column, but that's not why I'm posting it. For the first time in a considerable time, I was reading the genuine, unfiltered opinions of The Other Side. And for the first time in a considerable time, I began to understand why they believe what they believe. You read through the column and see lines like these: "Marriage is not a creation of the state — it existed before the state. The state appropriately seeks to protect it. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and it matters to the state because that's the only sexual union naturally capable of producing children — Wisconsin's future taxpayers, workers, leaders and more."
Again, I'm not arguing in favor of this statement. I disagree with it. I believe marriage is a human institution created for human reasons, and it is up to humans to decide when to change the laws that govern us; I also believe that the state does not have a compelling interest in regulating marriage, as expressed by the judge who rejected the State of Wisconsin's arguments on those grounds.
But I read that paragraph, and I read that column, and for the first time in a considerable time I began to understand the internal logic that goes into the arguments with which I disagree. Of course if you believe marriage exists above the state, you disagree with a legal effort to change what it means. Of course if you genuinely believe that kids are better off with one man and one woman as parents, studies be damned, you'll structure your beliefs based on that. That's why the author believes what she believes, and that is where the opposition comes from. It's a popular pastime among liberal columnists (well, columnists on both sides, really) to pick at the underlying reasons why people believe what they believe; well, conservatives are afraid of change, so of course they oppose gay marriage. Well, liberals can't rely on themselves, so of course they support big government. It's a popular sport. This is something different: actually trying to understand why the opposition believes what they believe.
It's fair to say that I'm too far removed from this issue and too dispassionate about it to really hold this view. After all, if the state restricted my right to marry, or sit at a lunch counter, because of my religion or skin color, it's fair to say I'd be less interested in understanding why the Other Side believes what they believe, and more interested in overturning the real-world consequences of those beliefs that interfered with my life.
But this is important because, regardless of the Hollywood version of events where the Amistad opposition is reduced to helpless flabbling and eventually melts into the background while John Quincy Adams orates magnificently about the rights of man, there is always going to be opposition to what we like to call "progressive" social changes. There are always going to be people who dig in their heels to it, based on tradition, religion, or some other reason. I was just reading the Supreme Court decision in a case called Lombard, et al. vs. Louisiana, a civil rights case from the sixties, involving the state of Louisiana trying to punish four activists (three black, one white) who sat at a whites-only lunch counter and asked to be served. The opinion, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, contained the following quotes from Louisiana authorities:
"The Superintendent of Police issued a highly publicized statement which discussed the incident and stated that "We wish to urge the parents of both white and Negro students who participated in today's sit-in demonstration to urge upon these young people that such actions are not in the community interest. . . . [W]e want everyone to fully understand that the police department and its personnel is ready and able to enforce the laws of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana." 2 On September 13, [373 U.S. 267, 271] four days before petitioners' arrest, the Mayor of New Orleans issued an unequivocal statement condemning such conduct and demanding its cessation. This statement was also widely publicized; it read in part:
"I have today directed the superintendent of police that no additional sit-in demonstrations . . . will be permitted . . . regardless of the avowed purpose or intent of the participants . . . .
. . . . .
"It is my determination that the community interest, the public safety, and the economic welfare of this city require that such demonstrations cease and that henceforth they be prohibited by the police department." 
After Lombard, et. al. won the case, these people didn't just go away, right? That's the Mayor and the Superintendent of Police. The Mayor was a three-time candidate for Governor of Louisiana; the Superintendent of Police was active in public life for decades afterward, eventually becoming a member of the New Orleans City Council. You read a retrospective like this about white parents rushing to pull their children out of newly integrated schools. The parents didn't just go away when the court case was won, right? They presumably were still out there, grudgingly living with the new reality, fighting tooth and nail every change for the betterment of black New Orleanians. 
Community interest. Public safety. Economic welfare. There are always going to be these kinds of respectable veneers for racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and all the other evils. I'm suggesting that without giving in to those evils, it is worth our while, once in a while, to shed the Amistad perspective of the progressive liberal side of things as brave crusaders opposed by amoral idiots and adopt a perspective of people opposed by other people who happen to be wrong. I truly believe that the way to change peoples' minds is to understand what they believe and why. Only then can you effectively argue against it. It's so much more effective than just yelling at each other. Remember, the Other Side thinks you're crazy, too, and they're not going away. They don't shamefacedly walk offscreen at the end of the movie and disappear forever. They're going to keep resisting and resisting and resisting. If your view is that they're all hopeless old lunatics and eventually they'll all die and young liberals will reign supreme, well, that's great. In the meantime, they're going to be here, and we might as well try to understand what they believe. Not, for the umpteenth time, because we agree, but because "it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it", as the quote attributed to Aristotle goes, and because understanding the Other Side's views will help you engage with them and hopefully change them. That's how you move beyond partisanship, that's how you get off cable news and late-night television, that's how you get people to talk to each other, that's how you change minds.