Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Friday, December 30, 2005

This Never Gets Old…

This Never Gets Old…
© 2005 Ross Williams

Facts are neutral things. The sky is blue; clouds are white; rain is wet; snow is cold. These impart absolutely no partisan agenda. It's only when you get into politics does the sky turn pink, clouds magenta, rain becomes dry and snow tepid.[1]

Yes, we’re doing Iraq again.

I've had a series of recent conversations with Iraq protesters, regrouped and on the hunt, who have decided that Up is Down and 2+2=6.5. I laughed; I stood gape-jawed; and, because such displays of Extreme History Makeover are just so farcical, I laughed again.

The New and Improved History goes something like this:

1] Iraq never attacked the US[2]

2] Iraq never "seriously threatened to attack" the US

3] Really, all the claims that Iraq was "bad" are grossly exaggerated; all the mass graves? from the Iran-Iraq war – even those which pre- and post-date it, and besides, the Kurds were gassed by Iran

4] Cease-fires can't be unilaterally enforced; and the US has never done so, especially with regard to Iraq

5] Even though Hussein was an odious tyrant[3], we don't go around deposing odious tyrants, ever

and the clincher, from a self-described Liberal Democrat: 6] Come to think of it, Clinton's Desert Fox operation in 1998 really was a Blue Dress War.[4]

Add these to the standard canards of:
illegal war
permission is required to enforce cease-fires
Iraq never supported terrorism
even if Iraq supported terrorism, they didn’t support al Qaida, so that changes everything
the nations which supported al Qaida are our “friends”
so why aren’t we fighting them
…and you come away drunk with delusion. No wonder many of these people think Up is Down.

Where do you start with folks so intent on deceiving themselves? “Oh, Bush lied to us!!!” And you’re going to make it all better by lying to yourselves? How does that work?

Yes, Bush played politics. Bush played politics on war to a nation full of people who mostly do not understand war, or the diplomacy behind it. It is understandable that these people, ignorant of war and diplomacy, believed the politics they were fed; it is even further understandable that these people got frustrated and outraged once learning that they were politicked by a politician.

But none of that leads inevitably to the solution of: let us now lie to ourselves and invent our own fantasy world to make up for being duped into living the politician’s fantasy.

The opposite of fantasy is not more fantasy.[5]

Bush played politics. Wow! Stop the presses!

Bush played politics; millions of non-experts fooled. What are the odds?!

Non-experts fight politics with more politics. You don’t say!

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the hypocrisy involved. Politics is the process of ruling through expedient lies. Millions of people hate being lied to so much that they respond by lying right back. I’ve got kids, they do that too; children of all ages do. Even voting-age children. Here’s my foolish idealism slipping out: I consider such childish and petulant nanny-booing to be beneath the honor and dignity of adults in America. Silly, silly me.

But we’re still left with millions of militarily non-expert voters righteously indignant that they were politicked by a politician, calling that politician a liar for playing politics, and they’re politicking right back. And – get this – they’re doing it in the interest of “honesty”. It’s almost enough to make the truly honest turn hermit.[6]

Almost. This honest man doesn’t turn tail. So here we go again[7]:

Iraq never attacked the US. Patently false. Iraq attacked US aircraft patrolling the No-Fly Zones on an average of 4 to 5 times per year between 1991 and 2002. Under international protocol, a nation’s warships and warplanes are sovereign parts of that nation, no matter where they are on the planet; ditto a nation’s diplomatic missions.[8]

Iraq attacked our aircraft[9] by actually shooting at our planes – they always missed – hence they attacked the US. Iraq also attacked the US by locking their integrated targeting radar onto our aircraft. This is the radar that is connected directly to their surface-to-air missiles. Essentially, they pointed a gun at us. Ask a cop what the standard procedure is when someone points a gun at him. He doesn’t ask if it’s loaded; he shoots.

We shot. We hit.

But now we get to the subtext: we shouldn’t have been there in the first place because our job isn’t to be the world’s policeman. What can I tell you? I largely agree with that opinion. But my agreement with an opinion doesn’t alter the factual reality: we are the world’s policeman. Whenever there’s a squabble between two nations, to whom does the world usually turn to make sure they stop squabbling? The US of A.

The US was implored by The World Community® to stick around Korea after the truce there – we’ve been there over 50 years and can’t leave. We are continually asked to go and “keep the peace” in Haiti; we’ve come and gone so often that we no longer bother with Change of Address cards, we’ve rented a Post Office box; and we’re there once again. We were asked, separately, to referee the Serb-Bosnian truce [for the UN] and the Serb-Kosovo truce [for NATO]; we’re still there as well. And we were asked in 1991 to provide the main muscle in the UN’s “containment” of Iraq following the 1991Gulf War cease-fire. The way it was shaping up, we would have been babysitting Iraq for 50 years as well.

Whether we should be the world’s policeman or not, the fact is: we are. Pretending otherwise is dishonest.

…which leads to the subtext under the subtext: the No-Fly Zones are illegal, and we had no right to impose them. Remember when the UN asked us to be the main military force in the Iraqi containment? We gave conditions: one condition was a Northern No-Fly, another was a Southern No-Fly. The UN Security Council – including France and Syria, by the way – voted on that and approved it. We didn’t “impose” No-Fly zones; we said that we’d babysit Iraq only if there were No-Fly Zones, and the UN wanted us to guard Iraq so much that the UN imposed them.

Iraq never seriously threatened to attack the US. This is qualitative. It’s a judgment call. What do you consider “seriously”? besides actually shooting at our military, of course. In 1993 al Qaida declared war on the US. The US, for all intents and purposes, laughed. Who the hell was this “Al Qaida” anyway? Izzat short for “Albert”? “Alvin”?

Turns out it was just one of dozens of groups of hotheads sore because Iraq lost a war and the UN required someone to babysit. The US was the babysitter, and we sat in Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca, which is like a mecca to Muslims.[10]

Iraq did threaten the US. As did al Qaida in 1993. Even Bill Clinton declared that ignoring Iraq’s threats after 9-11 would have been irresponsible. He did not go so far as to state that addressing those threats required a full-scale invasion of Iraq, though. He strongly suggested a more moderate military response.

“Moderate”, to Clinton, from all the evidence to be culled from his two terms, would very likely have been to fling cruise missiles at one of the many Hussein palaces, and then run off to hide behind the bushes[11]. But perhaps, if left to conventional military minds, something both moderate and effective might have been thunk up.

All the claims that Iraq was bad are grossly exaggerated. Compared to what and according to whom? There isn’t a single human rights group in the world – including the UN, which now boasts Cuba and Libya on its oversight committee – which considered claims of Iraq’s tortures, gassings and disappearings to be “exaggerated” in 2003. Not one. The most conservative estimate of Iraqis killed by Hussein for sport was 500,000, and they topped out at 2 million. Those estimates are now coming down to the range of 100,000 to 250,000, with a few tens of thousands found.

There isn’t a single one of those organizations which is dismissing the mass graves as Iran-Iraq war casualties, or the gassed Kurds as Iranian action. The Iranian connection to the gassed Kurds originated entirely within the US anti-war movement citing speculation-as-fact for its evidence. Fragments of metal found at the gassed Kurd cites had markings which the US, among other nations and including France, Russia, China and Germany, puts on its military shells – a stray letter here, a common symbol there. Iran had Shah-era US shells.

Now, jump with me to the conclusions they leap to: Even though dozens of nations have these specific markings on its shells, only American shells could possibly have been used, because it is convenient for them to believe so; because it is convenient to believe they were American shells, they obviously came from Iran. Ergo, Iran gassed the Kurds.

The obvious problems with this theory are the hundreds of Kurdish survivors who named the Iraqi soldiers who gassed them; Iraq was known to have had Russian chemical weapons and French, German, Russian and Chinese shell casings [mostly French] – which used the same markings that were found. Even if they were US shells, they could just as easily have come from Turkey, which also had US shells as well as a severe dislike of the Kurds. But in the final analysis, it is simply fun and easy to pile onto Iran today, which is the most plausible reason for the American war protesters doing so.

The UN dislikes Iran; the European Union dislikes Iran. American war protesters have spent the last three years parroting both the UN and the EU, and they’ve adopted the UN/EU worldview: the US is always wrong, Iraq is blameless, and Iran is bad. Hence, the shell casings which had markings to be found on any number of nations’ artillery shells have been winnowed, through craven desire, to be American shells used by Iran.

How convenient.

The US has never unilaterally enforced the Gulf War cease-fire. This is simply preposterous. The US has unilaterally – that is, by itself and on its own – enforced the Gulf War cease-fire dozens of times between 1991 and 2002. There is only one cease-fire enforcement which was not unilateral, and that was in March of 2003 when the US, the UK, Australia, Poland, Spain, Italy and a handful of other nations invaded.

The largest number of unilateral cease-fire enforcement incidents ordered by a US President was ordered by Bill Clinton. Clinton was president for 8 of the 12 years of the UN’s Iraqi containment operation, so it would stand to reason he’d have the most cause – and therefore the most opportunity. He did. He used it. Often.

Even though Hussein was an odious tyrant, we never go around deposing odious tyrants. Sure we do. And we have for years and years and years. Crack a history book.

We deposed odious tyrants trying to re-rule Texas in the 1840s, thus permitting Texas to remain independent of Mexico as well as liberating other Mexican territories – possibly not coincidentally.

We deposed the odious Spanish tyrants ruling Cuba and the Philippines in 1898.

We deposed an odious Hitler and an odious Tojo in the 1940s.

We deposed the odious Noriega in 1989 and the odious Cuban usurper to the Grenadan throne a few years before.

We deposed the odious Slobo Milosovic who was tyrannizing the upstart and quarrelsome Kosovs in 1999.

We deposed the odious Taliban in 2001.

And we deposed the odious Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The US has a long and storied history of deposing odious tyrants. So much so, in fact, that it’s become trivially easy for us. Time was, the deposition of an odious tyrant took months of warfare and years of occupation. The US was never big on occupation, so we would normally settle on depose-only. The exception was the Philippines, which took years of war to completely wrest from Spanish colonial hands, and then decades more to wrest from local odious-wanna-bes. It’s not a coincidence that Douglas Macarthur was in Manila in December of 1941 with a few thousand US soldiers and vowed to return after being evicted by the Japanese.

If the criticism is that we don’t depose all odious tyrants, then that is indeed a fact. We don’t depose all odious tyrants. We’d be deposing day and night if we were to try, and 90% of the world would end up deposed. And thereupon pissed off. For odious is in the mind of the beholder, and that which we find odious may not be odious to others, and is certainly not odious to those we claim are.

The Taliban undoubtedly considered itself the model of moral rectitude, wanting only what was good for all its subjects – which is to say, strict obedience to Sharia and strict islamic punishments for disobedience. How much more moral can you get than beheading adulterous women? I mean, really; it’s a slam-dunk.

Saddam Hussein, odious ex-tyrant that he is, on those days he actually goes to his own trial, is shouting at the top of his lungs that it is the United States and its zionist puppeteers who are odious and not himself. Iraq, being blameless and all, he must be right. Right?

Slobo made a post-odious career out of shouting at his trial, only with him it was not merely the US which was odious, it was all of NATO. How dare the odious NATOists interrupt his non-odious, neo-Titoist obliteration of ethnic minorities?

But the critics are right. We don’t depose all odious tyrants, so therefore the critics conclude that we shouldn’t depose any, and especially not the one we just deposed. Well, happy day! we’ve finally struck honest difference of opinion, as opposed to the intellectual land mines of false “facts”. Not deposing certain odious tyrants can be national suicide,[12] while deposing other odious tyrants can be for bald-faced and rapacious self-interest[13] as well as for noble high-mindedness[14], or anything in between. But before the honest discussion of opinion differences can occur, an acceptance of fact must be met.

The most pertinent source of fact for discussions relating to history is from History itself. And History dictates that nations who can do so will depose certain odious tyrants and not others. The US will never depose all odious tyrants. Just those who piss us off. Which makes us no different from any other nation at any other time in history who had the ability to depose odious tyrants.

Clinton's Desert Fox operation in 1998 really was a Blue Dress War. This baffled me. I’m used to partisan dopes chasing their own tails in circular logic, and I’m used to seeing political winds reversing course over the span of a few generations – today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives – but this is truly a first for me. A partisan dope has gotten so confused that he’s taken to chasing his current ideological opponent’s tail in order to rationalize his current fantasy.

As near as I can figure, this is how it goes:
1] It is critical to believe that the US could not take unilateral action against Iraq[15]; the allowance for unilateral action means that the US might have been allowed to invade Iraq irrespective of the claims made by Bush. Hence, argue against all legitimizations for unilateral action.
2] Clinton took notorious unilateral action against Iraq in late 1998. The Clinton Administration claimed the action was in response to Iraq refusing to guarantee the safety of UN weapons inspectors as required by the cease fire, and allowing those inspectors to be threatened, harassed and assaulted while in Iraq, thus causing the UN to vacate Iraq. Many Republicans claimed that the operation was a “wag the dog” diversion from Clinton’s domestic problems – namely, he was being impeached.[16]
3] There isn’t an American Liberal Democrat alive who did not support Clinton’s Desert Fox campaign at the time it was occurring. The common top-of-the-lung statements made were: Iraq violated the rules; the bombing has nothing to do with the impeachment; you’re just jealous of Clinton, you neo-con.

Contrast that with today. Someone who claims to be a Liberal Democrat is denying everything Liberal Democrats believed only seven short years ago: Clinton was not allowed to engage Iraq for something as trivial as the cease-fire-violating expulsion of the UN, therefore it was a “wag the dog” and the Republicans were right – in 1998.[17]

He’s either not a Liberal Democrat, in which case he’s lying. Or he’s dishonestly changing his story to cover his current beliefs, in which case he’s lying again, but to himself mostly. Politics make strange bedfellows, and this guy’s in bed with the memory of the folks who impeached his beloved Clinton because he hates Bush more than Clinton’s impeachment.


In the end, it’s better to stick to facts. Facts will sometimes be used to prop up policies you don’t like. Just as often, though, the same facts can be used to argue against those disliked policies. Inventing facts is an anti-intellectual shortcut. What happens when you take the shortcut to supporting your notions is that, like these people, you come away looking and sounding like an idiot.

[1] Don’t laugh; listening to many of our Global Warmers, snow has gotten much warmer and rain considerably drier.
[2] a common factual error, and not new; just reinvigorated. Reinvented, if you will.
[3] this was offered by a different person than proposed that Hussein was really not bad at all
[4] a Blue Dress played a particularly prominent role in Clinton’s impeachment, and Desert Fox was sardonically known, in certain circles, as the Blue Dress War – alright, I called it that to whomever I spoke with
[5] unless it is. In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is thought insane by popular opinion. But I’m used to it by now.
[6] Diogenes, meet Thoreau
[7] Diogenes, meet Sisyphus
[8] Iran attacked the US in 1979 when they allowed their citizens to invade the US embassy and detain the US diplomatic staff. Carter could have started military action… Real military action; not Desert One.
[9] Iraq also attacked Great Britain a few times, too, and they responded as we did.
[10] Go figure
[11] …or behind the Bushes, perhaps…
[12] Ref. WWII’s Hitler and Tojo
[13] Ref. Mexican-American War
[14] Ref. Kosov campaign and Grenada
[15] Never mind that the action – i.e., the invasion of Iraq by upward of a dozen nations – was not unilateral; this is my best interpretation of his thinking process, such as it may be, and I am obliged to use his terms.
[16] The Iraqi expulsion of the UN and the Articles of Impeachment coincided most serendipitously from a cosmic irony perspective
[17] Partisan Politics Rule #17: the other party is only right in the past

Friday, December 23, 2005

American Sausage

American Sausage
© 2005 Ross Williams

"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." - Otto von Bismarck

I've got good news and I've got bad news. And then I've got what should be non-news, but isn't.

The good news is that Geo. W Bush isn't playing politics this time. He’s actually being candid and forthright. It isn’t often that happens; enjoy it while you can.

The bad news is the subject on which he isn't playing politics: domestic espionage under executive authority.

The non-news that isn't is the same as the bad news.

In case you missed it, the New York Times [motto: All the news that's fit to embarrass Bush] printed a story in the past few days saying that Bush authorized wiretaps "of Americans" after 9-11.

Rather than denying it and explaining why black is white, Bush said, "Yeah? and?" In a way, this is a relief. I'm of mixed emotions on the subject. First, I don't like the notion of citizens being wiretapped in this country. But I draw a distinction between J Edgar Hoover wiretapping his political enemies to find out who is likely to publish the pictures of him in a cocktail dress and fishnets stockings, and wiretapping those who have known connections to individuals and organizations who have attacked the United States.

The courts have traditionally drawn similar distinctions as well. This is the reason for the "Executive Privilege" which Bush invoked to do it. Such privilege has been invoked before with very few slapped presidential paws. FDR did all kinds of civil anti-libertarian things during World War Two – including tapping wires – and only a scant handful of them are drawing criticism even today; the only one that most people can even think of is the concentration camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Wilson violated the Bill of Rights with the full blessing of virtually every American during The Great War. Lincoln did ditto during the Civil War, and only his suspension of Habeas Corpus got rebuked.

Bush wiretapping? Historically, it's small potatoes. Teeny tiny potatoes. Mashed potatoes.

Personally, I still don't like it. But I just can't get worked up over it.

For Bush's part, he explained:
1] yes I did;
2] I'd do it again;
3] it's my job.

Then he called the New York Times out onto the carpet – where they really belong – for being a naive prissypants in a real world that is a lot more dangerous than its ivory-towered editorialists are willing to concede.

The government’s main job is to protect Americans from those people and nations which want to hurt us. At this particular time, “those people” consist largely of pan-islamist blockheads who have a 1,300-year chip on their shoulder. As tough as it may be for New York’s editorial boards to accept, some people want to kill Americans – even the stalwart editorial defenders of the oppressed oppressors.

You know it’s a tough world when the people you praise still want to kill you. Giuliana Sgrena needs to be an object lesson on the realities of islamist extremism. Molly Ivins, take note.

Also noteworthy, and also long understood, is that in protecting us from foreigners who would do us harm, the government needs to be able to do things that we don’t know about. If we know about it, then our rights are being preserved. But if we know about it, then so do the people who would harm us. If they know about it, then they can harm us more easily, and our preserved rights won’t protect us from harm.

That’s part of the cat-n-mouse game between cops and robbers, and friends and foes. Secret-keeping is essential. For someone like the New York Times, which has a pretty-much stated loathing of the President, to tell our enemies that the President’s government has been listening in on their telephone calls by order of the President they hate, they are, in very succinct effect, telling al Qaida and all it’s splinter groups, feeder groups and independent consultants to change all their plans they’ve cooked up since late 2001. “Pssst! Dummy up, you dummies! Da fuzz is on to yuz!

Free and independent press … aid and comfort to the enemy … it’s a fine line at times like these, and one that I’d usually conclude on the side of “aid and comfort”.

And yet, I still don’t like the idea of the government having secret wiretaps. I am still ambivalent. On the one hand, I don’t want it happening to me; on the other, there’s no real likelihood it will. …which brings the rationalists of all stripes out from under their slimy rocks and the dark recesses of their cobwebbed corners to pollute the discussion with illogic and irrelevance.

On one side, you’ve got the police-statists declaring “if you aren’t consorting with terrorists you’ve got nothing to hide … you should welcome such secret spying.” These are the people who rationalize the nazi-stands at airports: if you aren’t a hijacker, you shouldn’t mind being searched and stripped and groped by civil servants with 3 hours of training to guide them.

If you aren’t guilty of hoarding or distributing child porn, you also shouldn’t mind the FBI busting down your doors to find out for themselves, either. Should you? There’s a 4th amendment for a reason. I suggest we recall what that reason is, and apply it.

And then you’ve got the ultra-Libertarian weenies making their perpetual claim that it doesn’t matter what the justification is, civil rights are inviolable at all times. …and the Constitution has just been turned, by self-righteous fiat, into a straightjacket.

The Constitution was written to “…provide for the common defense … to ourselves and our posterity”. For those on the local train, this means that the purpose of the Constitution was to ensure that, more than having something worthy of defending, we are able to defend ourselves for many, many, many generations to come. A necessary corollary of our future defense is that when specific details of our defense-worthiness interfere with our self-defense, our self-defense must come first.

You can babble from now until hell freezes over that a United States without civil liberties isn’t a United States you would want to live in, but a United States that chooses to defend civil liberties at the expense of defending itself isn’t going to be a United States at all. Civil liberties can always be restored – and have several times. National identities … not so much. The Roman Empire doesn’t have a seat in the UN General Assembly. Nor does Byzantium, or Babylon, or Persia, or the Iroquois Nation, or the Incan Empire, or Prussia, or the Mayan Kingdom, or, or, or.

The nations which are dust-covered entries in long, boring history books are far more numerous than those which exist on top of them today. If the United States goes away, another country will be built on the same ground, but it won’t be the United States. Congratulations, nose-cutting face-spiters. Civil liberties must have been really important to you.

But that’s only the good news and the bad news. There’s still the non-news. Show me someone who is truly surprised that the US government is doing secret things, and I’ll show you someone who needs to visit reality a bit more often.

Yes, the United States does things that its formal Hoyle rules don’t really allow. And then they don’t tell us about it until wa-a-a-ay afterwards. There’s a 50-year moratorium on the findings of the Warren Commission into the JFK assassination. Why isn’t the New York Times digging around and publishing those findings? Maybe someone from the Bush family was involved – it did take place in Texas, after all. It’s possible, in an X-Files way. We have A Right to Know®.

JFK’s administration planned and started [but failed to carry out] an invasion of Cuba in complete contravention of all international law – there were no cease-fire violations for Jack to fall back on. JFK ordered international law-breaking violations of Cuban territorial sovereignty while collecting photographs of Soviet missiles sites being built so that Adlai Stevenson could take them to the UN and impress the rest of the world with unlawfully-gained intelligence. The impulse to contrast illegal-but-accurate against legal-but-inaccurate UN presentations is overwhelming...

Every President from FDR to Nixon gave J Edgar a wide berth, essentially condoning by silent complicity the domestic political espionage and extortion of the FBI’s head honcho. Nixon then thought it was such a good idea he created his own “enemies list”. He also bombed Cambodia for months before anyone knew about it.

Gosh. The government does secret things that break the rules.

Yeah? and?

What is your point?

Mostly, they just want to be indignant. The government shouldn’t do certain things. Well, wuptiding; they still do, and likely always will. It is the way of government. Stop being a putz.

I can understand people who like this particular secret policy and find nothing wrong with it – I tend to think they are police-statists, but I can understand them. I can understand people who don’t like this particular secret policy and find nothing right with it – I tend to think they are naïve simpletons, but I can understand them as well.

What I can’t understand are those who are absolutely flummoxed that the government does things that they don’t tell us about. Being ignorant of specifics is no excuse for being an ignoramus.

Postcard From a Hellhole

Postcard From a Hellhole
© 2005 Ross Williams

Column background: I don't smoke, and dislike more or less intensely being around those who do. I know, rather, I have met, the principal characters involved here and bear them no particular personal ill will; the only animosity I bear them has to do with their profession, and then, because of circumstances, my animosity is tainted with gratitude in at least one instance.

I live in Madison County Illinois. The notorious Judicial Hellhole® you've heard so much about. I largely agree with that assessment. It is, for all practical purposes, accurate.

Madison County has the reputation – deserved – of having a courthouse that mistakes its purpose for being a transient shelter. If a down-on-his-luck litigant can manage to make it to Edwardsville IL by hook or by crook, he will be welcome in its courts.

Most courts in this nation follow the rules of legal jurisdiction: you actually need to live in the county in order to use its courts, or the person you're suing needs to live in the county. Or something. There has to be someone connected with the case – apart from the lawyers arguing it – who have some connection to the county.

Not so Madison County courts. "Oh, you've heard of Madison County? That's good enough. File your case with the Clerk, room 206." "You've seen the Collinsville Ketchup Bottle on a postcard? You qualify. Clerk, room 206." "You studied the Lincoln-Douglas debates? The most famous occurred in Alton, which is in Madison County ... Clerk, room 206." Madison County is the horseradish capitol of the world. Three-fourths of the horseradish on the planet is grown within a few miles of us. If you've ever had horseradish on your corned beef-on-rye, come on down and sue someone. The more the merrier. Room 206.

A few years ago a whole bunch of people who smoke and now feel stupid about it sued Phillip-Morris, claiming that they smoked "light" cigarettes which made them just as sick as "heavy" cigarettes would have made them, the cigarette maker knew it would, and calling the cigarettes "light" was deceptive advertising.

A couple of things happened here. Because cigarettes are smoked by people all over the country, all the lawyers would need to do was find someone in Madison County who smoked "light" cigarettes to join the lawsuit and voila! you've got a Madison County class-action suit. Then, because Madison County was starting to get negative publicity and the citizens of the county might react to such negative publicity by siding with defendants [like cigarette companies, or asbestos manufacturers] while on juries, the lawyers dropped the "health claims" from the class-action, leaving only the deceptive advertising claim; deceptive advertising doesn't get a jury trial.

So a case was heard in Madison County, in a courthouse not 3 miles from my house, in 2003, pitting a whole bunch of I'm-a-dumb-smokers against they're-the-meanies-who-sold-me-what-I-wanted. Honestly, I don't have an awful lot of sympathy for either party. If you smoke, you deserve it, whatever "it" happens to be. If you profit by giving "it" to others, and you've known about "it" for decades, then you deserve it, too.

The judge was Nicholas Byron. An old guy. He was the guy who was tagged to hear a complaint my ex-wife made against me when she wanted to eliminate all contact between me and my children. Her complaint? I had a horse, and horses can kill people. As if that wasn't bad enough, I had strung an electric fence to keep the horse in and coyotes out, and electric fences kill people too. To prove it, she came over one afternoon to touch the fence, got stung, started crying and declared that she didn't want her babies to feel that. Ergo, the fence could kill.

We replayed this in Byron’s courtroom one afternoon and he informed my ex-wife that he couldn't protect children from every pain or discomfort that they might ever run across. In short: go away and stop being petty. Despite Byron being a judge, I have a soft spot in my heart for him.

Three years later, Byron ruled that Phillip-Morris was guilty of deceptive advertising and owed everyone under the sun $10.1 billion. The cigarette scofflaw filed an appeal. This required that they put up cash and notes with the county, from which the county is entitled to reap a share of the interest until final ruling. The cash and notes handed to Madison County by Phillip-Morris exceeded six billion dollars. Madison County has been getting around $2 million in interest every few months since.

...and the appeal went forward. The smokers' argument was, "Hey! They're lying about "light" cigarettes being less dangerous, even though they never said that." The Phillip-Morris position was, "Hey! If the federal government creates the rules by which we advertise our products, and we followed their rules, how can we be guilty of breaking the rules?" Frankly, they have an excellent point.

The Illinois Supreme Court also thought they had an excellent point, and reversed Mr Byron. Phillip Morris didn't owe anyone anything.

Byron is being mum on his reversal.

The judge who's yammering about it is the county's Chief Judge, Edward Ferguson. When I was doing jury duty earlier this year [for an asbestos lawsuit], he was the pleasant, affable, "large, santa-ish gentleman" who came to give us a pep talk on our first day. He is a likable fellow in person, and one you'd appreciate having as an uncle or grandfather, but he yammers periodically in the press about Madison County’s reputation, complaining about how it is all undeserved. As a judge, a role in which I do not appreciate him, he is a whiner and a rationalizer.

His comments on the Phillip-Morris reversal were that it just proves that "the process works".

It's flabbergasting. It's cynicism at it's finest. In a crass way, it does prove the process works. A contrived lawsuit, shoehorned into a forum-shopped courthouse, politically manipulated into financial windfall for everyone but the corporate bad-guy du jour gets reversed so that the right answer comes out in the end. Yes. Congratulations. Theoretical success.

In practice what we find is that stupid plaintiffs who do stupid things and then want to blame someone else for it get their hopes up and their pockets picked; a corporation which does stupid things deliberately but legally follows the rules while doing it has to spend millions of dollars to demonstrate what any low-level clerk in the Federal Trade Commission already knows; and only the lawyers and the judges make money... if that's the process working, then the process needs a visit from Guido and Rocco to do a little breaking.

Alright, technically, the judges don't make money from the process "working" like this. The county does. And the county politicians get to spend the money that the judges "earn" by certifying dubious class-actions for trial, awarding strained-in-law-and-logic financial rulings which require huge cash and note appeal bonds from which the county derives a substantial interest income – around $10 million of a county budget of slightly over $100 million. And the county politicians then recommend which judges should be retained. Everyone’s back gets scratched eventually.

Yep, the process works, alright. As long as there's some higher court which can come in behind Madison County and undo whatever stupid things Madison County judges do, the process works great.

Once again, my courthouse got caught doing what it does worst: dispense justice. Byron has it right: when they catch you being a lousy judge, keep quiet. Judge Santa needs to follow suit. We’re embarrassed enough already without him making it worse.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Fundamental Differences

Fundamental Differences
– or –
Praise God and Pass the Ballots
© 2005 Ross Williams

I'm reading a news article this morning.[1] The University of Kansas has a Religious Studies[2] professor who wanted to teach a class on the "mythology" of christian fundamentalist notions of Creationism and the new-fangled "creationism in sheep's clothing" – Intelligent Design. Kansas has a state school board that continually gets hijacked by fundamentalist christians and wants to eliminate science classes in Kansas public schools and teach religion instead. So this Religious Studies prof at KU – who would seem to not be too devoted to his subject – wanted to give a "nice slap“ in the “big fat face" of his state’s fundamentalists.

I'm typically leery of college perfessors; they tend to be smart people with few brains and an overriding need to redefine the world in theoretical abstractions such that the center of this new world becomes the college perfessor.[3] And the Religious Studies prof in question seems to display some of that talent himself. But only some.

Paul Mirecki apparently thinks what I do about Creationism and "ID". Anti-science masquerading as academic inquiry. A huge leap down the road to intellectual incompetence, and thereupon to economic irrelevance. Teaching a course outlining the historical disputes at the boundary between science and religion has value. Science has always won; always. Religion has always had to retreat. The religious usurpers of Science ought to be reminded of exactly how many times they’ve lost, and the soft-headed dinks who think it is “fair” to include Intelligent Design in the curriculum need to be apprised of Religion’s 0-for-Eternity won-loss record.

Olympus is just another mountain in Greece, and has no resident Immortals spinning webs and siring tragic heroes and other genetic abominations. Thunder is the shock wave caused by static discharges ripping the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, and not the hammer of Thor pealing in Valhalla. Diseases are caused by bacteria, and not evil spirits, in the blood; you don't get rid of the disease by getting rid of the blood, you get rid of the disease by getting rid of the bacteria in the blood.

Generally speaking, the judeo-christian view of our cosmological origins is an adequate outline. A template. An allegorical-metaphorical synopsis. If you were creating Existence from the bottom up, how would you do it? First, you'd create the universe, then you'd create stars, then planets, then oceans, then atmosphere, then plants, then fishes in the oceans, then birds in the air, then creatures that walk on the land ... and if you were seriously into intelligent design, you'd finally design an intelligent creature. Pretty much as the first chapter of Genesis says[4] – absent the understandable geocentrism ... and the presumption that Man is, in general, intelligent.

Anyone who's ever looked at any "Executive Overview" – such as Genesis – knows, it isn't a detailed blueprint or a design document. To mistake it for one is to use a sales brochure from the auto showroom as a repair manual. It's fine only if you aren't trying to make any repairs.

Creationism and Intelligent Design are just such an exercise. It's non-scientists attempting to explain science in Crayola terms – and not even the 64-box. They are using the 8-box. The fat crayons for little hands. It's just too complicated to figure out, so we shouldn't try...

If Professor Mirecki wants to teach a course on the boundaries between science and religion, it'd be a worthwhile project. But it would need to be done objectively, and civilly. And not as an attempt to put "fundies" in their place, or give them a "nice slap in their big fat face."

Here's a hint to the good Professor: a person's religion is like his wife; it is beautiful and sacred and beyond gratuitous insult. It is never a good idea to slap anybody in their face, big, fat, or otherwise, for believing something you don't or that is objectively false, or calling him names for it. You don't change minds; you only breed resentment. Resentment tends to come out in socially unacceptable ways.

Such as getting beaten along the side of the road by persons you gratuitously insulted.

I am happy to hear that Paul Mirecki apologized for being a putz and insulting christian fundamentalist unnecessarily, and I'm sorry to hear he was waylaid by ruffians. I'm also sorry to hear that his class won't be given – it is a worthwhile project.

Considering that this perennial grievance against christian fundamentalism is still occurring in this post-9-11 world, and considering that there hasn't been any real comparative analysis between various religions' fundamentalisms, I think it's time to start. The religions with the most renowned fundamentalists are christianity and islam.

Fundamentalist christians tend to be judgmental. Some are extremely so. They clearly delineate between right and wrong, between moral and immoral. Their world is black and white.

Fundamentalist muslims tend to be judgmental. Some are extremely so. They clearly delineate between right and wrong, between moral and immoral. Their world is black and white.

Fundamentalist christians call the people who do wrong or immoral things names. The names they use are "secularist", "humanist", "atheist", "liberal".

Fundamentalist muslims call the people who do wrong or immoral things names. The names they use are "zionist", "infidel", "western", "America".

Fundamentalist christians tend to act on their judgmentalism. What they do most often is preach on television for hurricanes to hit godless cities, organize boycotts of television shows, theme parks or department stores that advertise with "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas". They also get politically active against gay rights and abortion, and in favor of Intelligent Design school boards. They badger women who want abortions. Once in a while a fundamentalist christian will bomb an abortion clinic or kill an abortion doctor. There may be as many as a dozen who have done this, and the rest of them are usually aghast.

Fundamentalist muslims also tend to act on their judgmentalism. What they do most often is preach on Middle Eastern television for death to Israel and America, organize recruitment campaigns for muslims who will do so, and strap the C4 to his chest so he can. They bomb buses and schools and sidewalk cafes, burn cars, hijack planes, kidnap people and cut off their heads. They also get politically active against homosexuals and women, not merely their rights, and kill those who violate the fundamentalist muslim religious dogma. Thousands have done these, thousands more are lining up to follow, and the remaining millions are cheering.

As far as fundamentalism goes, the christian variety is awful namby-pamby. A lot of what it stands for is not an objective truth, but a metaphysical belief, and what it does about those metaphysical beliefs in our temporal reality is – let's be honest – a whole lotta whining and carping and political maneuvering. Not, in fact, very different from their ideological opponents, the secular humanist atheist liberals they love to hate.

The muslim version of fundamentalism, on the other hand, and with its own metaphysical beliefs which defy objective proof, does its own share of whining and carping and political maneuvering, but is a bit more hands on. Hands on and heads off. ...and limbs scattered...

To the Holy Roller Reverend, "stoned" is the indication of immorality, and ends up as the topic for a sermon condemning liberal hyper-tolerance. To the Grand Mullahs of Sharia, "stoned" is the cure for immorality, and is its own end, without the sermon. Or even a trial.

It’s understandable that one would want to be free from both of these rigid ideologies. But that’s not realistic. Ideological absolutism is a natural phenomenon within human societies; some people are always willing to go to extremes to tout their own ideas, toot their own horns, beat their own drums. In a relatively free society, opposing absolutisms tend to spring up together. Opposites attract. Or, as Isaac Newton might have said if he were a sociologist instead of a physicist, "Every -ism has an equal and opposite -ism."

If you are a secular humanist atheist liberal carping and whining nonstop about the extremist christian fundamentalists, then it would seem that you are the equal-n-opposite extremist – effectively, the secular humanist atheist liberal you are viewed as. If you think secular humanist atheist liberals are extreme, then it would seem that so are you in reverse. That's pretty much the way it works. The great conservative gasbag anti-icon of Rush Limbaugh wasn't created in a vacuum. He was a response to something.

Frankly, I'd take fundamentalist christianity over fundamentalist islam any day of the week, and twice on the sabbath. And since we're going to be subject to extremist -isms anyway, it is, in a very real sense, a choice between them.

Would you rather have religious fundamentalism that goes on television and whimpers about South American banana republicans, and nags school boards, and boycotts "Happy Holidays", and badgers pregnant women, and scolds dissenters? or would you rather have the religious fundamentalism that preaches death in the pulpit, and blows up your kids' school, and bombs your favorite cafes, and stones adulterous women pregnant or otherwise, and beheads infidels?

We got it lucky in this country, and I don't think there's many of us who understand that. Too many of us are grousing about how hard we have it because fundamentalists have targeted our school district for school board-packing. These bozos can be defeated by ballots; so vote. Other fundamentalists can only be defeated by bullets, because they don't allow votes.

Better the devil you know.

[1] http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,177793,00.html
[2] People often believe things that cannot be proven; we call some of these beliefs “religion”. Test tomorrow.
[3] Why else would they continually republish their textbooks and require next semester's students to buy the 47th Edition? If the first 46 were so wrong that they are unusable, wouldn't that tend to indict the professor as a poor scholar?
[4] And in just about as many words.