Saturday, December 22, 2007

The new baby arrived safely

It has been a hectic week. David arrived safely, everyone is home. Another post should come soon, possibly even tonight.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Eugenics Is Not A Four Letter Word

Quick note, the baby is not here yet, though momma is bursting at the seams. We are incredibly busy all around, preparing for the baby, preparing for Christmas and preparing for our adventures into the world of homeschooling. I have managed to find some work to cover a little break that I didn't need, which should keep us afloat. On to the posting at hand then.

I have paid little attention, as I have been busy, but Seed's SciBlogs have been been hammering away at one Jim West of the Discovery Institute, a “think” tank devoted to pushing the teaching of creationism into U.S. Public schools. Suffice to say that DI is nothing more than a PR organization, rife with dishonesty. PZ Meyers started in on West a while ago with this post, which I admit I haven't actually read (I include the link for context only).

Lately, sciblogger Greg Laden joined in the fray, ruffling the feathers of sciblogger Orac. In short, Laden made some rather outrageous claims about the origins of forced eugenics programs, both those that happened in the U.S. (dark enough themselves) and those of the Nazis (i.e. The extermination of millions of Jews and other undesirables). Orac corrects the mistaken notion that the intellectual propagators of these atrocious eugenics programs were mostly Christians. In comments on both Greg's and Orac's posts, Colugo adds a lot of very interesting information to the mix.

Now I am not going to argue that the early part of the twentieth century was not to a strong degree, a world gone mad with some truly frightening notions about eugenics. From forced sterilizations, to mass exterminations, forced eugenics was a very ugly, fundamentally bigoted beast. But that is not the whole picture, not by a long shot. There is something important missing in this discussion of eugenics, that is the notion that not all eugenics is bad. Indeed, much of what falls under the heading of eugenics isn't even controversial. Unfortunately, some of it is controversial. Some of it skates very fine, ethical, dare I say, moral lines. The problem with making eugenics into some bogey man, is that it inserts a certain hysteria into a very important discussion.

So what is eugenics?

Let me start with this simple exercise. When you were choosing a mate (assuming you are a breeder of some sort), did you ever consider what your children might look like, if this person or that, was the mate you chose? Did you ever consider their intellect, for the same reason? In short, was one of the factors in choosing your mate, what they might contribute genetically? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, congratulations, you practiced a very basic form of eugenics. Not the least bit controversial, evil or unreasonable.

Lets then up it a notch. I have gotten to know quite a few folks in the world of neurodiversity. Many of them great folks. Several of them have made the conscious decision not to reproduce, because they do not want to pass on what are likely genetic disorders (at least influenced by genetics) to the children they would produce. I.e. They have identified some genetic trait that they believe it would be best not to propagate and therefor chosen not to reproduce. This too, is a form of eugenics.

Now we get to some meat. Herein lies a more controversial aspect of the discussion of eugenics, one that I will state outright, I don't have a problem with. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who have serious objections, including readers of this blog. Right now, today, medical science has progressed to the point that we can identify many disorders and congenital diseases, in vitro. My partner and I had a bit of a scare, when the nurse called about an elevated risk for downs syndrome, with the baby that is due any time now. Lets just say that she handled it badly – leading us to believe it was a significant risk, rather than a less than three percent risk.

We want this baby. Our whole family is excited (no matter how I whine about it). But with a child already, who has followed in his papa's ADHD footsteps, there is no way that we could raise a child with those sorts of special needs. Not without seriously undermining the care and attention that the son we have now requires. Nor would we find it reasonable to burden society with such a child. It would have been a hard, but simple answer; abortion. For those who have rather profound objections to the notion of abortion, please do not judge me too harshly. Yes, this decision was reached without very much discussion. Mostly we just looked at each other, already knowing the way it would be. It took little time to consider it. This is because we are all too aware of the implications.

Nor is this limited to down syndrome. There are a host of disorders that can and routinely are diagnosed in vitro. While it is not a frequent occurrence, this does lead to decisions to terminate pregnancies. This too, is eugenics.

Finally, we come to even more controversial aspects of the discussion; where is the science going?

Our understanding of genetics and DNA, is increasing at an exponential rate. Already we have developed many gene therapies for treating certain disorders, Tays Sachs being a huge one. We are very close to viable therapies that can be started in vitro (I believe some already are). The question becomes, what is acceptable? What can we reasonably eliminate from our society? For instance, what about ADHD? Bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia? Autism? What about homosexuality?

The flip side of this, is the discussion of enhancements. What if it becomes possible to enhance certain characteristics, such as intelligence, endurance, fine motor skills, or spacial reasoning? What about absolute engineering, such as Aldous Huxley describes in Brave New World? A vast panacea is opening up before us, right now. Unfortunately, we are too busy freaking out over the terminology to actually have a serious, coherent discussion. Eugenics is not a four letter word, but it does carry rather serious implications, that require their time in the limelight.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lots going on...

Wow, it's been a while. Sorry about that. I am still waiting on a connection at home and dealing with a lot of things at once.

We are having a baby in a matter of weeks now. Not really prepared enough but working on it. Unfortunately, I am going to have a break from working that I really need not to have. I will probably come up with something, but it's very stressful timing with Christmas and a baby coming quickly.

On top of it all, my five year old is really having issues at school. We have bent over backwards and jumped through hoops to make it work, to create continuity between school and home. His counselor has also gone the rounds to help us create a workable solution. Part of the problem is the school, part of it is his ADHD. So we are pulling him out at the semester turnaround. As much as we hoped to avoid it, we will be teaching him at home.

To a certain degree, this is kind of exciting. There will be many advantages to home schooling. Ultimately, I think it is probably the best way to educate someone with severe ADHD. One on one teaching would have done a lot for me. But it is also very intimidating. It will all be in our hands and on our heads.

It also means that we are going to have to make some serious changes to the way our household operates. This in itself would not be such a problem, but it comes at a time when we are already going through serious changes, what with the baby and all. It also means that there is little possibility of momma going back into the workforce (not that this was likely to happen in the near future anyways).

On the upside, it is motivation to write more about education. I have been wanting to get a forum going to discuss parental supplementing and home schooling. We are actually getting a new internet connection soon, which will get me back to doing more blogging. We will also probably both be getting into writing about our experiences, both good and bad, with educating our son. I am also interested in hearing from others who are either home schooling or actively supplementing their child's education. I am also keen on hearing from parents who are done (or mostly done) with that sort of thing. Educators are also of interest, as are those who just have an opinion about it all.

I will probably be starting a new blog for this endeavor. Expect it after the holidays. I don't intend to blog less here, indeed with a home connection, it should go on the upswing again. But I will probably do more on the new one, as I hope my partner will too.

Again, I am sorry that it has been so sparse lately. But as you can see, I've been busy.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Putting it All Together

Thanks to Kurt for finishing his series on rights. I would like ot apologize to those stopping by for my post on the vice war. It will be up when I get the time. I just picked up a last minute, pre-holiday bathroom remodel. Between this and no internet at home for the moment, I just didn't have time.

So far, we have looked at a Theory of Culture, and then various tests to its validity, including the Right to Life. We have concluded as a result of this study that Inalienable Rights do not exist in any positive sense. At least in the real world, rights exist only to the degree that a culture grants said rights.

From this point, what follows is pure speculation and wishcasting. Admittedly, I am doing so based upon a solid model, but all this means in reality is that the speculation is theoretically provable (or falsifiable, depending on which side of that particular philosophical nit you pick).

The Founding Fathers had no idea of the Leviathan they were creating. The intention was merely to bring the quarreling states together for purposes of defense and foreign affairs, and to coordinate efforts which required a national scale, such as providing for a postal service amd a national currency.

But one of the things about markets (and politics is a market, albeit a very inefficient one) is that over time they do tend to favor greater efficiencies, especially of scale. And one of the rules of economy of scale is that regularity and predictability must be present to take advantage of the efficiency. Thus we see two trend lines beginning in Medieval Europe and then rapidly growing through the Rennaissance and into the Enlightenment. First, the size of states grew larger, incorporating growing and often diverse populations. At the same time, the complexity of the legal system grew. Things which were once regulated (if at all) by custom became covered by Guilds. These later gave way to Statutes of the King, which were in turn supplanted by legislative management. Finally, a permanent beaurocracy was created.

One aspect of regularity and predictability that the states did not intend to create was "rights" for individuals. I think it is safe to say that until the Declaration of Independence no state or would-be state had ever recognized such rights willingly. Power for the individual meant less power for the King, or so the thinking went. One of the great leaps forward of the Enlightenment was to recognize this as a logical fallacy: Power is not a zero sum game, and by ceding power to the people (or some component of the people) the government could vastly increase its own authority over time.

Increased freedom brought about increases in the things people care more directly about: More food, sex, leisure, etc, at least as measured by the sum total of people enjoying these things. And hence the paradox I have mentioned earlier but not discussed: The more personal freedoms grow, the more they are constrained by government regulations. The more regulations, the more power government has also, and hence the more power to interfere with those freedoms. It's an interesting circle.

There are two ways to take this state of affairs. First, it will always be in the interests of some "Faction" (in the Federalist 10 sense) to use the regulatory power of the society to increase its own position at the expense of others. This happens all the time through the political process. Just look at how Federal spending changes in the US according to whether a Democrat or Republican is President.

The second approach is to take the view that maximum freedom for all individuals will bring the maximum return in terms of meeting the culture's wants and needs. Loosely speaking, this is the Libertarian philosphy. In a sense, this was Bentham's position, and it underlays Marx's arguments as well, as has been pointed out in the comments to prior posts. Marx' logic, of course, was that to lead to a state of true freedom, an intermediate period would be required. He didn't use the term "Philosopher Kings" to describe his Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but it is clear he had Plato in mind.

I see no particular reason to distinguish between a Dictatorship "of the Proletariat" from one "Not of the Proletariat." The extremes of either approach are unattractive, in the sense that for the majority they suppress the very freedom which is helping to generate the abundance.

Before I continue, I need to knock down a major fallacy that often bogs things down at this stage of the argument: Cultural evolution is not a continuum, nor does it have any intelligence of its own. There is the idea in most racist writings (for instance) that some cultures are superior to others. This is no more true than the scientific theory that a human is a higher order of being than a sea anemone: All we can say is that both are exquisitely adapted for their current ecological niches. Just as biological evolution is best viewed as a bush, rather than a tree, social evolution likewise is best viewed as cultures adapting in different ways to different circumstances and environments. There is no plan or order to any of it, and certainly not an over-riding intelligence directing developments.

Culture is not a moral agent. Our society is not superior to hunter-gatherers because we have perfected the cheese-flavored microwavable snack. In many measures, the hunter-gatherers have the best of it. In most studies by anthropologists, hunter-gathers work less, eat a healthier diet, and get more sex than the average American. Most of them have never even heard of Britney Spears or Ann Coulter. There are downsides, too, such as a lack of dental care and the inability to mitigate natural disasters or the aggressiveness of neighbors. Still, the pursuit of happiness is available equally in both.

That being dealt with, I also need to address another problem that my whole argument seems to raise, which is this: If I define rights functionally, ie, as the package of behaviors which a given culture permits, how do I avoid the trap of legal positivism? The topic has not been raised so far in this series, but I am hugely critical of legal positivism elsewhere on the blogosphere, particularly on DuWayne's brother Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars. gives a pretty good definition:

Legal positivism is the legal philosophy which argues that any and all laws are nothing more and nothing less than simply the expression of the will of whatever authority created them. Thus, no laws can be regarded as expressions of higher morality or higher pinciples to which people can appeal when they disagree with the laws. The creation of laws is simply an exercise in brute force and an expression of power, not an attempt to realize any loftier moral or social goals.

My argument against this is not that the statement is incorrect: I agree wholeheartedly that this is how law has operated for most of human history. Rather, my complaint is that it is incomplete, failing to take into account ideas of political philosophy and government -- and also religion -- that have been around since at least since the Sixth Century BCE, the time of Gautama, Confucius, and Pythagoras.

Yes, cultures are mostly shaped by economic forces. But ideas matter, too, and have consequences. At the margins they may be powerful forces themselves. For instance, I have no doubt that the Arab population was under great stress and perhaps greatly wanted to sweep away Byzantine control of Egypt and the Near East. Yet it took Mohammed and the idea of Islam to set the flood in motion (Note: There are historians who dispute this and argue that Islam only became a factor after many of the conquests were complete; I'm not convinced). Likewise, it is pretty clear that Buddhism was initially a reaction to overpopulation in the Indus valley and the resulting deforestation and ecological crisis. But the ideology clearly played a part, too, shaping the responses that the culture adopted.

My second objection is that the definition of legal positivism has another flaw: It assumes that because cultures are not moral agents, that we cannot make values-laden statements about them. This is preposterous. No, we cannot make statements such as, "That law is unjust because it violates the right to free speech." No such right exists. But we can make the statement, "That law is counterproductive because it infringes on free speech and free speech brings the following benefits to the culture:" with a list to follow. In other words, there would be no particular reason to favor free speech in the abstract if free speech did not bring tangible benefits to society. And many cultures have put restrictions on speech for precisely this reason: They see no benefit to it.

This approach also allows us to apply a framework to ideas which challenge liberty. I am a free speech absolutist, for the most part, and strongly oppose efforts to ban "hate speech," for instance. In general, it is best to oppose bad speech with better speech. However, if it could be shown that "hate speech" (however defined) has absolutely no utility to the overall culture, that would be a strong argument as to why it should be banned. A very similar argument, for instance, lies at the restriction on speech known as copyright: We guarrantee a writer exclusive rights to her work for a period of years in order to encourage new works to be produced.

This, then, is the solution to our paradox of power: As cultures become more complex. it is always in the best interest of the overall society to allow greater freedom, if not to all, at least to a certain class. Cultures evolve freedoms because greater freedoms allows for more good things, both materially, and increasingly, idealistic. I need to add that Marx was correct, religion is, indeed, a commodity, as much a part of a culture's happiness as many material components. And one very hopeful sign in the "New Atheism" of recent years is the understanding that a wholistic worldview that focuses on more than the self is compatable with atheism. Sam Harris seems ahead of the pack here.

I haven't read Mill's On Liberty in over 20 years. If I am recreating a lot of his arguments, I fully acknowledge the debt here. I am sure I also owe a great deal of my argument to Milton Friedman, Christopher Lasch, and my favorite professor at UNC Asheville, Bill Sabo. I've thoroughly enjoyed working on this series, and haven't had this kind of intellectual thrill in a long time. I imagine I'll be back to visit Inalienable Rights soon. Thanks to all for your patience, your comments, and just caring about the topic to begin with. Blessings.

Kurt A. Ehrsam

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Homeopthic Thuggery Thwarted

Aww, that poor SoH. Us nasty old bloggers are just too mean. From the SoH;

The Society of Homeopaths took the content of the 2006 BBC Newsnight programme on malaria very seriously and responded via press statements and media interviews promising action if it were required. We contacted the programme makers directly to ask for their evidence that any Society members had given dangerous or misleading advice to members of the public. They were unable to provide a single example. The Society's professional conduct procedures cannot be invoked without a specific complaint, an alleged offender or any evidence. In these circumstances, The Society was unable to investigate a specific case. Nevertheless, as a further precaution, we reissued our Guidelines on advice for the prevention of malaria and sent a copy to every member within a day of the programme being aired.

The Society instructed lawyers to write to the Internet Service Provider of Dr. Lewis' website because the content of his site was not merely critical but defamatory of The Society, with the effect that its reputation could have been lowered. Dr Lewis, in his article, stated as fact highly offensive comments about The Society and it is for that reason that The Society decided it had no option but to take action. The very crude abuse posted on various websites and e-mailed to The Society since our action suggests that these bloggers/authors are not people who are interested in a real debate on the basis of either science or the public good but who simply want to attack homeopathy, for the very sake of it.

Due to the unpleasantness and surprisingly vitriolic nature of the postings on the Quackometer website and others, The Society has taken a conscious decision not to respond to these bloggers.
As a commenter at Orac's opined;

It's kinda like my five-year-old whining about me sitting in her imaginary friend's seat.
I think that sums it up nicely.

I will have a post up soonish, about this and other methods of chilling speech. But as my last post mentioned, I am without a connection at home right now, so it could be a bit.

Sporadic to the Extreme

I am currently without the internets at home. I will hopefully have changed this in the net few weeks, but until then, things will be really sporadic, including responses to comments. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Nationalism, is an infantile disease."

-Albert Einstein

I have meant to write about this for some time. I know that I have other, pressing things to write about, but I believe that this is important too. I would like to start out by clarifying that, while I agree very strongly with the above quote, I am a patriot. I am not proud to be an American, not because I don't think that being an American is a good thing, but simply because I never had to make any sacrifices to be one. I was born an American, because my German grandmother made love with an American G.I. and brought my mother here when she was a young child. I never had to work at becoming an American, it was an accident of birth.

I do not love my country either. I have a profound and deep seated passion for the ideals upon which this nation was founded. I have a passion for the nation that I learned about in school. But I do not love even that. My country is not a person, nor is it a religious faith, it is nothing more, or less, than an attempt at freedom that at the time of it's founding, the world had never seen. Neither is my country, the country I learned about in school. It never really was. So why the melancholy and mirth?

A few weeks ago, I learned that another nation of recent greatness, Russia, has developed a great big bomb. A devastating and dangerous bomb. I also learned that Russia is starting to build up her military again. For the last few years Russia has been moving headlong into fascism. I suspect that this really began with the fall of communism and the end of the Soviet Union. Chaos ensued and while many Russians suffered under communist totalitarianism, toto is in many ways preferable to chaos, especially in the minds of Russians. The problem is that as Russia has begun to slowly stabilize, nationalism has reared it's ugly head. A super-power made largely irrelevant in the world arena, is rattling sabers, hoping to be somebody again.

So why the melancholy and mirth?

I would like you to pause for a moment, if your an American, and think long and hard about the questions I am about to ask.

Who are we, to the larger world community today? What makes us relevant in the global community? What does our super-power status really mean? Can we really be legitimately called a super-power? (if so why?)

Underlying it all; Why are we really in Iraq? Are we pulling the same sort of games that Russia is, just far louder and prouder? Even worse, does this not just speed up our drive into decadence and decline?

We embark on "noble" efforts of spreading democracy and "freedom" to other nations, while we have rampant poverty and killing in our own streets. While our leaders lie and attempt to destroy the bulwarks of liberty and freedom that have made this a nation worth having a passion about. While the power lies not with the people, not with the voters, but with those who can afford to influence power. While we the people practically beg our leaders to protect us, by taking away our privacy, by taking away our sovereign rights - by taking away everything that makes us Americans.

Decadence becomes us, a bitter, hollow existence. Spread the mediocrity and hope that the world only notices that we are making others like us, no matter how little like us we become in the process. Spread the mediocrity and lie to ourselves, pretending we are who we know we are, no matter how far down the path of decadence we go, no matter how much we give away, for an illusion of safety.

That silly big bomb the Russians made? So last year, when we tested our own. Sure the Russian bomb's bigger, but hey, we can build one that's bigger still, right? After all, we're Americans. And everybody knows that we have to have the biggest bombs. Everybody knows that we just won't be safe, without the power to blast the face of this planet into oblivion. The power to do it seconds before they can blast it into oblivion first. Because everybody knows that the country that annihilates the planet first, wins. Everybody knows that being a super-power means having the best ability to destroy us all. So you tell me;

Why the melancholy and mirth?

Throw me down into your lies, throw me down into your truth,
I just realized that I'm not God, the same could happen to you.

Comment Rules

I hate to do it, but here we are. When I have time online, I will try to sidebar this.

First, pick a name. I don't care if it's a pseudonym. If you post as anonymous, your comment will be deleted out of hand.

Second, I will not tolerate certain denialism type comments. They will stay or go at my sole discretion, but if you say things along the lines of HIV/AIDS do not exist, or HIV doesn't cause AIDS, do not be surprised if your comment disappears. You are welcome to comment in other places, such as Aetiology. You are not so welcome here. People like you, have killed someone I would really have liked in my life for many more years. I have no tolerance for it.

Finally, please try to be polite to each other. By all means, express yourself, but try to keep the profanity to a minimum (I use it too on occasion, just keep it reasonable). And please, attack the statements or ideas, not the person.

Thank you very much. As always, comments stay up at my sole discretion. It is rare, but occasionally blogger eats comments. Sometimes, if a comment is off topic, I might delete it. If I do and you leave an email address, I will save it and let you know why I deleted it. I am happy to start different threads, if things want to wander. I am also happy to let people write a new post to start a thread off. If you don't leave an address and your comment disappears, please email to let me know. If I deleted it, I will either start a new thread or let you start one.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Perfect WInter Storm Developing

I would like to thank Tara Smith, of Aetiology, for kindly giving me permission to disseminate this information to my readers, by posting it here. I think the information posted is very important and hope you will also take the time to click over to Orac's post on the topic as well. I do have some other crossposts to put up as well, I apologize but they will get up asap. This is rather important and took precedent.

My own short take on this, is simple. People who do not wish to vaccinate their children, should be allowed to make that decision, for whatever reason. But if they decide not to do so, they should not be allowed to send their children to public schools, nor should private schools be required to accept them. There are those kids who do not develop anti-bodies after being vaccinated. They depend on herd immunity to keep them healthy. They should not be put at risk, due to someone else's bad choices, religiously motivated or not.

From Aetiology;
Tara C. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology. Her research involves a number of pathogens at the animal-human nexus. Additionally, she is the founder of
Iowa Citizens for Science and also writes for The Panda's Thumb. Please note the views expressed on this site are Dr. Smith's alone and may not be representative of the groups mentioned above.

A few news stories hit my inbox all at once yesterday--and the combination of them doesn't bode well for childrens' health; more after the jump.

First, despite several years now of banging the drum for having kids vaccinated against influenza, they're still being overlooked when it comes to pandemic planning:

Children would likely be both prime spreaders and targets of a flu pandemic, but they're being overlooked in the nation's preparations for the next super-flu, pediatricians and public health advocates reported Wednesday.

The report urges the government to improve planned child protections, including how to care for youngsters if a pandemic closes schools.

"Right now, we are behind the curve in finding ways to limit the spread of a pandemic in children even though they are among the most at risk," said Dr. John Bradley of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which co-authored the report with the Trust for America's Health.

The story brings up 3 issues that haven't been addressed: no masks available in childrens' sizes (and even if they were, would kids leave them on? Certainly it's tough enough to get even adults to use them effectively). What about vaccine doses for--and efficacy in--children? There has been some investigation already into H5N1 vaccine for adults (with not-so-great results thus far), but to my knowledge, nothing has been done yet in kids. (And of course, that's assuming H5N1 would be the pandemic strain, which is far from certain). Also, they mention something I'd not even considered regarding potential school closings: what happens to kids who rely on the school lunch program, if the schools are shut down in the event of a pandemic?

In a second story which comes as little surprise, parents are increasingly lying about their religious beliefs to avoid vaccinating their kids, due to autism fears:

Sabrina Rahim doesn't practice any particular faith, but she had no problem signing a letter declaring that because of her deeply held religious beliefs, her 4-year-old son should be exempt from the vaccinations required to enter preschool.

She is among a small but growing number of parents around the country who are claiming religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children when the real reason may be skepticism of the shots or concern they can cause other illnesses. Some of these parents say they are being forced to lie because of the way the vaccination laws are written in their states.

"Forced to lie." Right. Meanwhile, because she's worried about discredited research suggesting a link between vaccines and autism, she's putting everyone's kids at risk:

"When you choose not to get a vaccine, you're not just making a choice for yourself, you're making a choice for the person sitting next to you," said Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division.

(Orac also offers his take on this topic).

These two stories also feed back into what I wrote on Monday about regarding methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) increasing in the community, and specifically, recent outbreaks in schools. Following reports of a recent MRSA outbreak in a Virginia school comes news of another one in Texas.

So, more explicitly, how do all these stories tie into each other?

You may remember a few years back that there were reports of a spike in influenza deaths in children in the U.S.. These weren't due to influenza alone, but like many influenza fatalities, were caused by influenza complicated by secondary bacterial infections, including MRSA--which proved to be a highly fatal combination. Last year's flu season wasn't too bad, but still the combination of influenza and MRSA proved to be deadly for a number of children.

Kids still aren't getting influenza shots at the rate recommended, despite being in a high-risk group for influenza deaths (and being efficient little spreaders of the virus). Add in the resistance to vaccination that many parents are expressing (including to voluntary shots such as influenza), and the winter cold-and-flu season has the potential to be even worse than usual for kids in the coming years. Many schools are already increasing awareness regarding Staph infections, but as the article notes, they're incredibly difficult to control:

Rappahannock Superintendent Bob Chappell said school employees also followed a local hospital's advice to mop hallways and classrooms with a bleach solution. The cost of the cleanup: more than $10,000.


"What's clear to us is that this bacteria is coming into our schools from the community because the cases are so widespread, and there appears to be no pattern," said Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Edwards.

As always, washing hands and doing everything possible to keep one's germs to oneself are critical, but even our best efforts can be unsuccessful (as I can currently attest, suffering from a bad cold that unfortunately my son also caught). Once mainly a hospital pathogen, MRSA has become far more common in the community: as they note, it's widespread, and the isolates they've examined so far don't appear to be from a common source (which would likely be easier to get rid of). And of course, missed vaccinations don't only put children at a risk of serious complications from influenza, but a host of other diseases as well. I hope we don't need this kind of resurgence to make people remember how serious these diseases can be

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Want To Silence Your Critics, Go After Their Kids

Addendum, the technorati search now turns up nothing, but it was there earlier, when I clicked over to it.

Another one from Orac. For those who don't click over, in short, a scum called John Best, managed to get a great voice for neurodiversity, Kev of Left Brain, Right Brain, to close up shop. Not through lawsuits, not through direct threats of physical violence, but by attacking Kev's daughter. Real class act, our Mr. Best. I will not link to Mr. Best, or his anti-neurodiversity screeds. But here is a quote that was found via technorati, by two of Orac's commenters;

1. Hey Dad, if you stop treating me like a monkey to teach me how to perform some simple tasks, you might find out that I'm very ill mentally. I can't learn those things you want me to learn because my brain just won't work right. You're a real horse's ass Dad, for defending the drug companies who scrambled my brain. Any decent father...celebrating, Dad. Being autistic sucks. Not being able to talk sucks. Not having friends sucks

2. Hey Dad, Weren't you listening to me? I didn't ask you to attack that nice Mr Best who wants me to enjoy my life. I asked you to help me. How does attacking a parent who helps his son help me, Dad? I don't care about this neurodiversity crap, Dad. I just want to be like normal kids. Please Dad, I hope you won't be mean

Calming down now. I have autistic friends. My five year old has autistic friends. This makes me very angry. Beyond the pale kind of pissed. If you have read me for long, you might have noticed my discussion of ADHD and bipolar, which touched briefly on neurodiversity. I will discuss it again soon, as it is obviously needed. But this post is meant to illustrate yet another tactic that is quite handy for stifling criticism, a theme lately.

This is probably the most common tactic used to stifle dissenting views. The use of personal and familial mocking and abuse. It is huge in the blogosphere. Not mere taunting or parody, but harsh, hard attacks on one's family. Sometimes it is taken too far and reaches the level of threats, that go a little past insinuation. But usually, the practitioners of this vile practice stay just this side of legal. Making it no less repugnant.

As I am way behind on all sorts of posting, I have to apologiuse, but those posts will probably be a while in coming. I am working on a few important pieces that are taking precedence. One is a longer post on methods of silencing critics and chilling free expression. Another is a long overdue discussion of neurodiversity that will probably encompass the end of my story about my life with ADHD and finally, I am working on a article about "alternative" medicine, that is intended for publication in one of the Portland weekly papers, here in the heart of CAM country. All that and I am still working a big job. I will try to get more short posts, referencing other bloggers and articles, but for the heavy writing, I am busy.

This would also be a good time to reiterate that I welcome guest and crosspostings. Just email me if you are interested. And as always, don't hesitate because you're afraid that I'll disagree with you. Unless you want to perpetrate denialism on my blog, dissenting views are welcome here, as long as they are civil (on the front page at least, try to keep it reasonable in comments, but there is a lot moree leeway there)

Reconstructionists In Michigan

To put a quick break to the free speech posts (don't worry, there's another one coming shortly, again via Orac @ Respectful Insolence), I thought I would cross-post from my brother's blog. First time and on his birthday no less. While I am linking to Ed, I would like to attract your attention to this great article he wrote in the Michigan Messenger, about the Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights project. (yes, I will eventually get to posting about marriage equality, for now, please read that article and while your at it, catch this great commentary, much better than my own in that thread)

I have spent little time reading about reconstructionists, except to understand that they're a bit on the loony side. Just how nuts, I was not aware. Of especial interest is the commentary on North's affinity for stoning as punishment for crimes. Talk about fostering a sense of community, I guess that
could be an advantage of stoning. So without further ado, thanks to Ed, for making clear he wouldn't sue me for copyright infringment, for the repost.

From Dispatches;
Ed Brayton is a freelance writer and speaker. He is the co-founder of
Michigan Citizens for Science and The Panda's Thumb. He has written for such publications as The Bard, Skeptic and Reports of the National Center for Science Education, spoken in front of many organizations and conferences, and appeared on nationally syndicated radio shows and on C-SPAN. (static)

I was having a discussion with the pastor of a relatively liberal (in both the theological and political sense) Christian church in Lansing recently and I asked him if he was familiar with the Okemos Christian Center. He replied that he was not. I was a bit surprised that he was unaware of this fast growing congregation, also known as the Living Water Church of God, that had made the local newspapers as a result of its lawsuit against Meridian Township for denying a permit to build a new 35,000 square foot facility that would house a Christian school for nearly 300 students. I was not surprised, however, at his reaction when I mentioned that I had brought them up because they are a reconstructionist church; his eyes got big and he was clearly a bit taken aback by this news as he simply muttered, "Wow...."

In order to understand the pastor's reaction, we must first ask the obvious question: what is reconstructionism? This term is often used interchangeably with other terms like dominionism, theonomy and theocracy. Let me offer two definitions at two different levels of analysis.

Longer, more detailed definition: Reconstructionism is a particular type of reformed, or Calvinistic, theology that is based primarily on the work or RJ Rushdoony, who drew on the work of Cornelius Van Til. Theologically, it is defined as presuppositionalist (meaning they argue from the position that no argument can be coherent without being based in Christian epistemology), post-millenialist (meaning they believe that Christ will only return after the establishment of genuinely Christian societies on Earth through massive conversion of the population, and theonomist, meaning that they believe in establishing God's rule as a matter of law.

Shorter, simpler definition: Reconstructionism is the belief that the Bible should determine the civil and criminal law of the nation.

It's also important, I think, to spell out what reconstructionsts are not, or perhaps more accurately, to distinguish between what we might call the mainstream religious right and the Christian reconstructionists. Your average religious right follower of, say, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, are likely not reconstructionists. They may refer to the Bible in order to support their political views on gay rights, for example, but that alone does not make them reconstructionists for two reasons.

First, because most of the religious right is premillenialist, not postmillenialist; that is, they believe that Christians will be raptured (taken up to heaven) before the terrible end time events happen; reconstructionists, as mentioned above, are postmillenialist and believe that they must work to establish Christian rule on Earth before the end times can begin. Second, because even most of the rank and file followers of religious right ministers like Falwell and Robertson would not accept the establishment of the entire Mosaic law in this country. They may look to the Bible to support their views on some legal issues, but they won't go as far as to institute the death penalty for the vast array of things the Old Testament commands.

It should also be noted that reconstructionists do not advocate any sort of coup or violent overthrow of society. They take a very long term view of how society is to be reconstructed and they view evangelization as the primary means of achieving their goals. Their goal is to convince enough people to believe as they do that they will eventually be in the majority and in a position to pass laws that will create a Biblical theocracy in the United States. As the Okemos Christian Center website says:

The Christian believes the earth and all its fullness is the Lord's-that every area dominated by sin must be "reconstructed" in terms of the Bible. This includes, first, the individual; second, the family; third, the church; and fourth, the wider society, including the state. We therefore believe fervently in Christian civilization. We firmly believe in the separation of church and state, but not the separation of the state-or anything else-from God. We are not revolutionary; We do not believe in the militant, forced overthrow of human government. We have infinitely more powerful weapons than guns and bombs-We have the invincible spirit of God, the infallible word of God, and the incomparable gospel of God, none of which can fail.

Let us not, however, make too much of this. That is simply a matter of means, not ends; and it is the ends they seek that should be feared by anyone who values freedom. Theocracy is the polar opposite of a liberal democratic society that values individual rights and the reconstructionists don't hide their intention to use the means of democracy to acheive their goal of destroying the very idea of a pluralistic and free society. Gary North, one of the most influential Christian reconstructionist leaders, minced no words in a 1982 article:

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

The notion that there is no neutrality, no pluralism, is a key idea in reconstructionism. From their perspective, a society is either Godly or anti-God, period. If a nation does not follow the Biblical law, they are condemned by God. Imagine for a moment the sort of society we would become should they succeed. Homosexuals would be stoned to death (Leviticus 18:22). So would women who are not virgins on their wedding day, blasphemers, heretics, witches and a whole host of others.

Indeed, stoning is advocated with disturbing glee by North, who wrote an article listing enough reasons why we should start stoning criminals again to make the Taliban beam with pride. First, he noted, "the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost." Well that's fiscally conservative, I suppose, but more importantly he liked how it brought communities together, noting that "executions are community projects--not with spectators who watch a professional executioner do `his' duty, but rather with actual participants." But he's just warming up. Finally, he says, "by far the most important reason is that stoning is literally a means of crushing the murderer's head by means of a rock, which is symbolic of God. This is analogous to the crushing of the head of the serpent in Genesis 3:15. This symbolism testifies to the final victory of God over all the hosts of Satan."

The Okemos Christian Center has close ties to North and to Rushdoony, the founder of the reconstructionist movement. Pastor Craig Dumont has written articles for the Chalcedon Foundation, the most influential reconstructionist organization in the country. He was a senior fellow with the Center for Cultural Leadership, run by reconstructionist pastor Andrew Sandlin. The Center frequently brings in reconstructionists, including Gary DeMar, Sandlin and many others, to speak.

Perhaps most disturbing is that Rep. Mike Rogers sent a letter last year (see it reproduced here) praising the Okemos Christian Center on its 15th anniversary. In that letter he praised them as a "bright light of hope and faith" and a "shining example of caring for others." He further praised them for their "fiften years of ministry and promoting God's word and for being "an example to people everywhere that that a commitment to God and ministry can overcome the perils of the world."

Pastor Craig DuMont of the Okemos Christian Center was invited several times to respond to questions and to state his beliefs in his own words. He agreed to an email interview and was sent a list of questions. Three times over the course of several weeks he promised to answer them, but apparently decided not to do so. Calls to Rep. Rogers' office went unreturned as well.

Of further interest, was this article in Reason linked by a commenter on the original posting. I also recommend clicking over to the comments there.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

While We're Discussing the Chill on Expression in the West. . .

Check out this piece, at the Advice Goddess Blog.

This should send a shudder of fear, to anyone who values free expression throughout the west. The Dutch made a promise of security to Ms. Hirsi Ali, in exchange for her willingness to run for office. They have a responsibility to follow through on that promise, rather than leaving her in the cold. We all should be encouraging the advocacy of women's rights in the Muslim world. We should all be encouraging the brevity it takes, for people like Ms. Hirsi Ali, to speak out against the vile repression that radical Islam perpetuates.

We should all tremble, when these brave people are left to the murderous wolves. In effect telling the wolves, "go ahead and kill her, we won't stop you, not now, probably not ever."

We have come so far, only to fall so far back. Freedom of expression is important, it's time we acted like it. Fight the chill, advocate for freedom of expression.

Homeopathic Thuggery Redux

Many have chosen to repost The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing in full, but more should. I have already emailed the SoH about this and the furor their threats have caused. I would love to see more people post it, so that I can send them a long list of articles about their moronic actions. I think it is very important that people realize that when they threaten lawsuits, to silence their critics, it will backlash on them. That the very act of trying to silence their critics thusly, will send that very message to far more people. I want to see this article posted on every blog that has an interest in freedom of speech and expression. There were no lies told in this article. Everything written is verifiable. Indeed, this is exactly why the SoH wanted to quash this. The truth makes them look bad.

Please help me send a strong message to the SoH and our community in macrocosm, that these kind of tactics will only backfire. That attempts to stifle criticism, will only draw more attention to that criticism. This tactic was attempted against sciblogger, PZ Meyers and the same attorney in that case, even threatened my brother and legal scholar, Peter Irons, who had this to say about the suit. While Seed magazine provides strong support for it's scibloggers, many indy bloggers are not so fortunate and even knowing they can win, can be intimidated into silence.

It is important, not just in this case, but every time this sort of thing happens. It is not ok to try to shut down speech we may not like in this manner. It is one thing if someone is committing acts of liable, that are intended to dishonestly damage the reputation of another. But the circumstances in which this is actionable are rightly, very narrowly tailored in the U.S.

So please, help me in a small way with this issue. Post Le Canard Noir's article in full, or at least write about it and link others who have. Write to the SoH a short note, explaining your feelings about the tactics they used to shut down their critics. Make it clear to them that it was their tactics that spread this story much further, to many more people, than it would have gone, had they just left it alone. This is important to all of us and it behooves all of us to get involved.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Homeopathic Thuggery, via Orac

I know, I know, I have other things to post. But after discovering this gent's ISP made him pull this post, because of a threat of a lawsuit, I felt the need to post it here. Found it via Orac's Respectful Insolence. Orac has plenty to say about it, so I recommend clicking over, but here's the post in full; (I also recommend checking out the quackometer, where it was originally posted, interesting site - sort of a brit Denialism Blog)

The Gentle Art Of Homeopathic Killing

Originally Posted by, Le Canard Noir

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48 • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority.
• No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72 To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.

The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,

Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.

Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. ... The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs...
Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,

The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.
This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that 'she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics'. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,

introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.
I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for 'treating' various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,

is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.
This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let's remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.

there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won't find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.
Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the 'immediate priority' to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

So the lesson is, if someone says things that might make you look bad, sue. At least in Britain. Because apparently, the truth is rather hard to deny, so it should be silenced. What I would like to know, is why don't they just, I don't know, actually stop their members from breaking there rules.

This also touches on the issue of denialism. Please go to the original posting site, where the comments are still up. You will see yet another fine example of denialism in action. Rather than actually respond to the article, commentors felt the need to attack evidence based medicine. Because EBM isn't perfect, it somehow makes the quackery ok. The reality is, in this case, quackery kills.

Note from the post. Mosquito net, impregnated with an insecticide; works. But to the average Kenyan, the fifty cent difference in cost, is a big deal. This is akin to HIV/AIDS denial, err, oh yeah they got the HIV woo too. So this boils down to some serious death woo. Go Society of Homeopaths, good on you for being complicit in murder, you bloody moronic cowards. Feel free to write them a letter about their tactics for dealing with members who don't follow their guidelines.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Baby is coming SOON!?!?

We have a register at Target, if anyone's interested (cause I'm so on top of the postings here). . .Due December first, as of the last appointment. The last known date, was December fifth. I am opting for no more appointments with the doctor, or we'll be knee deep in poo, even sooner. Momma doesn't agree. (The original date was given as the end of December.)

Diapers, lots and lots of diapers. Yes, I know they are eternal, if we could afford the biodegradable or a service, we'd be all over it. Alas we cannot, really not sure about the cheap ones. However, momma did find an article in a baby mag, about toilet training at as young as six months. Miracles do happen. I should add that if anyone wishes to contribute to our registry, momma said that registry gift cards are the way to go, as we can pick it up from the store, rather than throwing shipping costs into the equation. Not sure when the actual shower will be, but for our long distance friends, any day can be baby shower day.

Not on the list; Valium, Librium, maybe Thorazine, I'm not too picky. . .(not for baby, for me, I wouldn't do that to an infant. The five year old . . .nyah)

STOP!! Vote for Shelley Batts

The amazing, remarkable Shelley Batts (ok, a little thick, but Ed's threatening painful death, so it could be worse) who wrote the great piece on the neuroscience of ADHD, that I loved so much, is in the running for a scholarship to help with her PHD. So click here, even if you don't actually take the time to go to her blog, click the dot next to the name Shelley Batts and click on vote. Seriously, she's a poor grad student with a hungry parrot to feed. If you're even questioning whether or not to even care, please, click over to her blog. Look at that sweet, hungry parrot (probably not actually hungry, I imagine if given the choice between her and the bird, the bird would eat, but still, Shelley rocks)

Sorry for the creative tags. The more searches the better. If you got here through a search, Vote For Shelley, it's worth it. Then come back and read some of the pieces, they're worth it too, some of them anyways.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rights 2.5 A digression; Abortion

I have created a monster! Kurt has seen to give me the second part of part two, inspired by comments from Beth apparently. As I am too busy (lazy?) to write much lately, I am pleased to add this to the ongoing series on rights, by Kurt. Thanks.

This is an expansion on a section I had in Part 2, but deleted because the article was getting too long, and I wanted to avoid a bit of controversy. As the discussion is moving in that direction, here it is.

It is difficult to discuss the right to life without touching upon the abortion question. Like any other aspect of culture, we can analyze this based upon human wants and needs, as constrained by environment and technology.

In a purely agrarian society, the average child has paid for his upkeep by the time he is twelve or younger if male, or around fourteen if female. From that point until emancipation, it's pure profit. In other words, all things being equal, a child is a blessing in such a situation.

Once again, it is a matter of satisfying wants and needs. To know how many kids an individual family is going to have, we really only need to know these things: 1. How valuable is each child at each stage of life; and 2. What is the death rate among children in the culture. A third variable which only affects highly affluent societies is the cost of a child vs disposable income. I don't spell this out later, but I think it is pretty clear how it works.

Lets take a village family in rural India as our example. Lets say they are in the north of the country, where wheat is the principal crop, and even today much of the labor is performed by men and beasts. A boy child is a great prize in this culture. As previously mentioned, a boy will pay for himself in terms of work by the time he hits puberty, and the family may get a dozen years of labor beyond that before he marries and moves away. Where land is plentiful, there is every incentive to have as many boys as possible.

Girls, on the other hand, are not so valuable in this environment and level of technology. Just as there are vastly more oxen than cows in north India, there are many more men than we would predict. Girl babies simply haven't been surviving, in the same way that female calfs have a habit of dying. On the other hand, families have many more sons than are needed, because the family has to overshoot in case a male child dies young. Overpopulation results, of a peculiar shape, with too many people and too little land, and too many men, and not enough women. The predictable result is endemic warfare, and, indeed, the region has been awash in blood since the time of Gautama.

Technology has had two thoroughly surprising results in the region. First, the reduction in infant mortality has made the necessity to "overshoot" disappear. Second, the option of raising a second son (or daughter) and getting them education allowing for a profitable career has changed all the math. Every family still wants a son to carry on the family farm. But they also now want an extra son or two to go to college and enter into civil service, or move to America and open a Subway, or Seven-Eleven.

Back in the USA, abortion has been legal nationwide since Roe v Wade in 1972. In the peak years of the late 1980s, about 1.6 million abortions were being performed annually, or about 40 percent of total pregnancies. [Figures are from memory; I might be off a little. This really doesn't affect my argument.] Abortion and infanticide are no different, from a philosophical perspective; it is just a matter of choosing when to end the life. Given this what can we conclude of a culture which is killing almost half of its babies? One of two things must be true: Either the society is too poor to feed further mouths, or else the costs of child-rearing have risen to astronomical levels.

As the richest society in history, we obviously are not straining to feed the extra odd baby. But if you follow readers' Digest, at least once a year they run an article under the banner, "Cost of raising a child through college now over $250,000 (or some other large figure; the number isn't the point). The cost of raising a child today are not just economic, although there is that as well. There are also soccer games (and practices) to attend, giggling overnight parties without sleep, and a wedding with a crushing amount of responsibility and bills. Who would possibly want to subject themselves to that? Not Americans, is the answer.

Simultaneous with our loss of millions of potential productive citizens, we are outsourcing jobs to that Indian viallage and importing millions of undocumented immigrants. Both of these trends point in the same direction: In a very real sense, we are arbitraging expensive US babies for cheap foreign babies. Keep in mind my central theory of culture: This is a choice we have made on a cultural level, based upon the expectation that millions of mothers have made at the individual level.

Here in Asheville, we have had an explosion in the last decade of both the Hispanic population and Ukranians from the former Soviet Union. Like immigrants of the past (my grandfather Ehrsam swam ashore in New York harbor in 1905) they are thrifty, hard-working, and ask for nothing more than a chance at happiness. But there is a very real question, how would our present nation look if more than 40 million babies had been born, rather than aborted? What different policies might have been followed; what different results might have occurred?

I am certainly not a dogmatist on this issue. In general, I think abortion is a mistake. But I cannot divine the thoughts of the women who chose the procedure, nor can I refute the basic economic logic of the situation. When you look at our culture through the lens of my analysis, the question is not why so many abortions, but why so few? After all, most babies will not grow up to be Hedge Fund managers, or physicians, or NBA stars. Yet if that is not the case, there is no way that the average child can pay her own way. Until we see a dimpled cheek and a smile.

Peace to you all.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rights, Part 2: A Brief History of the Right to Life

I am happy to finally post the second part of Kurt's series (I whined about it last night, here it is) on rights. I will try to post again myself, as soon as possible. I have been and continue to be very busy right now. I will also have to consider a good response to Kurt's series, something that provides an increasing challenge, as he continues the discussion.

In any case, I really appreciate his getting this to me, so soon after I (jokingly) whined about my sadness and increasingly rapt anticipation for this piece. . .Thank you Kurt.

In Part 1, we covered my general theory of culture and how rights have never been framed as absolutes until modern times. Today, we will look at how different cultures have interpreted the right to life.

If there is any inalienable right, it is the right to life. If you don't have that right, there is no good way to exercise any of the others. So if life is not an inalienable right, then no such thing as inalienable rights exist. I am going to tautologies here because this is an absolutely vital point for my argument: And there is no such thing as a blanket, overarching right to life.

Every known culture has rules for dealing with intra-group conflict and killing. But there is a catch: It only applies to those within the group, and not everyone in the culture is even defined as being in the group. Arctic peoples used to leave behind the elderly and disabled when they moved camps; in a similar vein, Herodotus lists several Mediterranean cultures which killed people who reached retirement age. Most cultures have practiced some form of abortion or infanticide, usually infanticide since abortions had the unpleasant side-effect of frequently killing the mother. Jews and Roma (Gypsy) in Europe have been defined by the fact that they possess little or no rights.

The Sixth Commandment famously says, "Thou shalt not kill," but the word in Hebrew means murder, not kill. If you kill the servant or slave of someone else, that is dealt with separately, and is only a monetary fine. Most Greek states allowed the abandonment of infants. The story of Oedipus is not atypical: His feet were pierced through with a bronze spike and then he was abandoned in the countryside.

Things changed a bit with the advent of Christian rule. Infanticide could now be punished by death. However, it almost never was. The general practice was termed "overlaying," in which the mother would "accidentally" roll over during the night and crush or suffocate the child. This accident occurred with alarming frequency throughout Europe and then Colonial America for a thousand years. Strangely, it occurred most often within families that could not support an extra mouth.

Approaching modern times, cultures increasingly adopted Death by Institution. In early 19th Century France, for instance, mothers could drop their babies off at foundling hospitals, workhouses or orphanages. The mothers surely knew that the infant stood a less than ten percent change of surviving their first year. As one contemporary put it, "These mothers know their [ie, the child's] fate as surely as if they dropped them in the river." These proved so popular that institutions in French cities invented the revolving "deposit box" to ease late-night dropoffs. Think about that the next time you go to a drive-through.

In the 20th Century, the Third Reich adopted a special diet devoid of fat for inmates of mental hospitals; they could thus provide useful work almost up to the moment of death. In Ireland, the last Magdalene House closed in 1996. Placement in both Nazi insane asylums and the Magdalene Houses were almost entirely voluntary, with the approval of the families.

All of these are examples of what cultures did to their own people. Imagine how they felt about outsiders. Even here in the US, we have groups that define various other groups as racially inferior, believe in race purity, and teach that not just cultures but cultural groups should be kept strictly segregated. A video appeared on Youtube recently which purported to show a white vigilante shooting an illegal immigrant near the Mexican border. The video was a hoax, but the message was clear. And not unusual.

Let's move on to the death penalty. The US is a world leader in judicial executions. The state of Texas recently petitioned a judge to not allow DNA testing that might exonerate a man who has already been executed. Might bring bad publicity, donchaknow. For most of Western History, the only curb on capital punishment was that Ecclesial Courts did not have capital authority (hence the Benefit of Clergy; the first murder was free). However, the Church could and did turn "heretics" over to the civil authorities, who were under no such restrictions.

There is one constant in all of this: Life has been incredibly cheap throughout human history. Infant mortality was high. Peasants are fungible. Even noble families sufferred their losses in silence. In Tudor England, a man was supposed to "Make a good death," part of a cult of death that has lingered since neolithic times, if not before. Thus, Charles I wore two shirts to his beheading, because he did not want people to see him shiver and think he was afraid.

Where in all of this is the Right to Life? Obviously, it is not. We recognize such a right today, but not for everybody, and purely for our own purposes. It still doesn't mean that we always provide needed medical care for those who cannot afford it, or shelter to the homeless woman in danger of freezing. And life is still cheap: How much per life for Bhopal, for instance? How much should the cigarette makers be forced to pay? How long should a hospital be required to run a ventilator for a man with no insurance?

No, there is no Right to Life. Fortunately, that is not altogether bad. I'll try to get Part 3 posted soon.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Remembering Ken Lane

I just found out that someone I respect and love dearly, lost his battle with heart disease today. Ken exemplified his faith, in ways matched by few. He gave selflessly, working in charities and as a leader of our church. In everything he did, he gave to others. From organizing great children's parties to providing food and clothes to those in need, he truly led a life reflective of the very best that Jesus taught. He was dearly loved and respected, his contribution to his community and church family will be sorely missed. I truly hope that I can make even half the contribution to my community, that Ken made. For those of you who believe in such things, please remember Ken's family in your prayers. He leaves behind a wife, daughter and grandson, in his immediate household, as well as a son.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Rights; Part I

I would like to thank Kurt for writing what will be a series of posts about rights. He does a fine job of introducing himself, so I will be minimal. I have enjoyed Kurt's wry humor and insightful comments, at Dispatches for quite some time. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Many Thanks to DuWayne for asking me to write a piece for Inalienable Rights. As he did not suggest a topic, I decided to put together an argument I had been working on anyway, the question of the origin of rights. This may be broadened to include the question of morality (assuming this to be a different subject), or when you get down to it, the structure of societies in general. The question of whether morality must be based upon religious revelation has received a lot of attention in the blogosphere lately (see Balkin, or Volkh or Andrew Sullivan, for instance). My contention is that this formulation has the process backwards, as I intend to show. Unfortunately, this will also show that DuWayne's title is incorrect: There are no such things as Inalienable Rights. As it turns out, this is not as depressing as it seems at first sight.

First, a bit about me. My name is Kurt Ehrsam. I comment on a number of blogs under the name kehrsam (pretty clever alias, I know). I am 43, divorced, and live in the mountains of North Carolina with my 85 year old father. My undergraduate degree was in Political Economy and Foreign Relations, with minors in History, Philosophy, and Biology (I stayed in school a long time). I have a law degree as well, so I will be coming at our topic primarily from an economic and legal approach. I have worked as a lawyer, a car salesman, a teacher, and a Congressional aide, thus single-handedly demonstrating the dangers inherent in a Liberal Arts education.

I was raised in a militantly atheist family, but have somehow ended up a moderate Christian. I attend a Southern Baptist church, but really don't fit into their theology; my ex-wife was a Wiccan priestess, so I speak that language as well. I am moderate in politics and have worked for a number of Democratic politicians and campaigns over the years. I am not a particularly community-minded person, nor am I a joiner, so I often miss out on the local angle of issues. I can be too impersonal, standoffish, or brusque; that is part of the package, too. Hey, I was a lot worse twenty years ago, so I'm working on it.

Let's get to the argument:

Jonathan Haidt writes,

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you've got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

Wow, menstruation, Procrustes and Durkheim in the same paragraph! I encourage everyone to read the entire essay, by the way. Don't worry, I'll wait for you.

I'd like to start with that question, "Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods?" because that is where morality starts, at the level of culture. My contention is that this is an analytical problem, in the sense that we could create a taxonomy of culture showing evolution just as we can for (say) species Canis. For that we will need a few axioms, or at least solid premisses:

1. Humans have basic needs which must be met, such as the need for food, water, and oxygen. Beyond these absolute needs, humans also desire other things, such as sex, prestige, leisure and the desire to see Britney Spears humiliated. Humans may rank these desires differently, such that sex may be elevated to the level of an absolute need, or may be more or less suppressed.

2. The "purpose" of human cultures is to maximize these needs and desires for its members. Elements of culture which greatly contribute to meeting needs and desires (fire is a good example) will be universally adopted by all cultures. Elements which have little impact (clamshell hamburger packaging, for instance) come and go at random.

3. In general, the individual culture is not aware of the decisions it is making. Rather, the choices of individuals are being summed as the general culture. Market forces are thus brought to bear in deciding what elements of culture will be propagated.

4. Culture operates in the context of environment.

5. Culture seeks relative stability. In other words, market forces, over time, will tend towards sustainability of the current culture. If the current culture is unsustainable, culture will gradually recede to a sustainable level. And finally,

6. Culture is defined by the technologies a society chooses to adapt itself to its environment. Technologies are learned behaviors which may be both material (such as agriculture or metallurgies) or social (such as language or religion).

Given these assumptions, it is pretty clear how I am going to analyze most situations: I'll define what technologies are involved, and given the environment, predict whether that increases or decreases the overall levels of satisfaction of some or all of the population. For instance, take the policy of turning Midwestern corn (or cheap European wine) into ethanol. While there is one population in favor of the practice (Midwestern farmers and communities) the negative costs and externalities will eventually lead to the policy being canceled by the rest of society that is currently bearing those costs.

I chose that example because it is a case where an elite adopt a technology based upon their needs, but which conflicts with the greatest good of the overall society. This is often a problem in the short-term. Longer term, the needs of the overall society generally prevail to some extent. There is a widespread assumption in the West these days that new technology will spare us from this type of conflict in the future. This is possible, of course, but current US standards of living are so unsustainable that it will take some doing.

What about Inalienable Rights, then? First, we have to define a moral system as a technology which is adopted by cultures because it provides order and predictability. Let's start with a small society, such as a solitary tribe practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Their needs for a moral system turn out to be highly complex: They need to minimize intra-tribe conflicts (especially killing), secure personal property (so that it will be created), regulate sex (to prevent inbreeding and for political purposes), and come up with a means by which group decisions can be made and enforced (politics). If other tribes are nearby, issues of trade and intra-group conflict arise.

A look at Leviticus shows us how this works in practice: The Lex Talionis, for instance, marked a great leap forward from the prior practice of inter-family feuds. The moral bounds are highly ritualized, thus ensuring two things: First, morality is taken out of an individual context, such that killing someone is an offense against God, not just the dead man's family. Second, the law becomes highly stable, thus locking the culture into a stable, sustainable form as well. It is, in fact, so stable that we still have people today seeking to invoke Leviticus, despite the fact that the environment and culture are completely different from the First Millenium BCE context in which the law arose.

As cultures get more complex, so does the social technologies necessary to hold them together. Lets take the right of private property as our example. We first come to a major question: Who actually "owns" a piece of real estate? In Western cultures since the age of Charlemagne, the answer has been "The Sovereign," which is to say the King or the state (which may be synonymous). The Sovereign is said to hold "Allodial Title" without restriction; all others hold their title from the Sovereign, subject to four "uses" or restrictions, which are taxation, the police power, escheat and eminent domain. So the individual never fully owns his property; instead, he holds a number of rights which may vary based upon the situation: The more complex the society, the more regulation of the property.

In other words, the "right" to pribate property is nothing more or less than what the society grants for its own purposes. A hunter-gatherer tribe has no use for private real property at all, unless there is some outside agency (for instance, in the 17th Century several Canadian tribes developed ideas of private hunting territories based upon interaction with French fur traders). In a highly complex society such as ours, private property is a necessity, but is hedged about with restrictions and zoning regulations, public rights of way, etc.

Inalienable Rights are thus nothing more than the boundaries beyond which the culture has decided not to go. As cultures have evolved, they have been able to gain more benefits for more people by granting greater individual freedoms, but these freedoms are constrained by a web of ever more complex regulation. The right does not exist outside of the context of the culture.

In Part 2, I intend to analyze the development of a particular right, the right to life, following its definition from earliest times to Western society. In addition, I will flesh out more fully any ideas from here in Part 1 that draw particular attention in the comments. I will probably also comment on the inter-relation between religion, government, and the overall culture, although that may require a Part 3. Cheers to all!