A Niger news round up

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch

First, for those of you not up on Niger, it’s worth noting who Niger’s neighbors are. Niger is bordered by Libya to the northeast, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, and Algeria to the northwest.

Next, just to give you a general feel of recent news from Niger, here are a few recent stories that have nothing to do with the four American soldiers recently killed there:

From last month: Niger Floods Leave Tens of Thousands Homeless

From just this week: The president of Sudan and the president of Niger held talks (particularly about free trade zones and the African Union, as well as immigration and developments in neighboring Libya).

A story about Spain beating Niger at soccer.

If you look at top stories from Niger’s neighbors, you’ll find that Chadian news is still focused on their inexplicable inclusion in Trump’s travel ban, Nigeria hopes that its new DNA lab will embolden rape victims (yes, Boko Haram is also operating there, but the DNA lab story popped up first), conflict-ridden Mali is seeing rising malnutrition among children, and African Union leaders are concerned that the lack of a ceasefire in Libya is destabilizing the Sahel. And I’ll skip the other neighbors today.

Now for the recent clash.

From the International Crisis Group, a Q and A between Deputy West Africa Project Director Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Research Assistant Hamza Cherbib on the Niger clash that killed US and Nigerien troops:

While international attention focuses on jihadists and sees their ideology as the source of the problem, there are other important dimensions. Indeed, attacks against military personnel represent only a small part of the problem as armed violence exacts a heavy albeit underreported death toll among civilians in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, especially among isolated nomadic communities.

In July 2017, alone, local representatives of the Fulani community – one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa comprised mostly of herders – claimed that militias of rival ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Doosaak (a nomadic group close to and often confused with the Tuaregs but with a distinct language) killed some 46 civilians, purportedly as part of counter-terrorism operations. Conversely, Tuareg representatives repeatedly accuse local Fulanis of murdering members of their communities with jihadist support.

In reality, jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking, making it difficult to distinguish the real nature and motives of many incidents.

More, including questions about spillover from Mali, what jihadi groups may be operating among the Fulani, talk about tensions between herders and farmers in West African countries, and the question of whether the latest attack will change US policy on “the G-5 Sahel, a French-backed regional military operation comprising forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad.”

CNN on What we know and don’t know about the deadly Niger attack.

In what is the deadliest combat mission of Trump’s short presidency to date, the Defense Department has identified all four service members killed in the ambush that occurred near the Niger-Mali border by up to 50 fighters from ISIS in the Greater Sahara, a US official said.

Now, point and counterpoint on Niger and the Chad travel ban.

Point, from CNN’s David A. Andelman:

The timeline begins on September 24, when the Trump administration suddenly and inexplicably added Chad to the list of countries whose citizens would be included in the latest iteration of the president’s travel ban. Chad and its leaders were utterly blindsided as there was no sense whatsoever that this nation has harbored or even encouraged terrorists — certainly no more culpable than such nations as Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, or for that matter Chad’s neighbors Mali, Niger and Nigeria, none of which were included on this list.

Au contraire, Chad’s troops have for some time served as an effective ally in the region — the best fighting force deployed in nearby Niger and Mali, with the best intel and best-trained warriors. They were the best because they were trained by the French and its redoubtable Foreign Legion. I know, because I was there in Chad in 1983 when the French had to send in their forces to backstop them when they thought Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi might invade from the north.
Over the next 30 years, the French turned them into a first-rate fighting force, utterly allied to the Western anti-terrorist effort in the Sahel — itself a desperately critical part of the success of our war against ISIS and against the spread of Islamic terrorism that is threatening to overrun Africa….

Background, from Alex Thurston in Foreign Policy, America Should Beware a Chadian Military Scorned:

In the wake of the new travel ban announcement on Sept. 24, Chad has withdrawn hundreds of troops from neighboring Niger, where up to 2,000 of its soldiers were part of a coalition battling Boko Haram. The Chadian government has not yet offered an official explanation for the pullout, but Communications Minister Madeleine Alingué condemned Chad’s inclusion on the travel ban, saying that it “seriously undermines” the “good relations between the two countries, notably in the fight against terrorism.”

Despite its relative poverty, Chad plays an outsized role in African security and politics. Its troops are considered some of the most capable in the region, and its president, Idriss Déby, has won considerable influence with the African Union, France, and, until recently at least, the United States by deploying them to clean up others’ messes. In addition to leading the fight against Boko Haram, Chad’s military is busy countering al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadis in the Sahel, a volatile region that includes parts of Mali and Niger….

Regardless of the rationale for including Chad in the ban, the decision was a mistake. The partial withdrawal of Chadian soldiers from places like southeastern Niger, an area that has been heavily targeted by Boko Haram in recent years, could result in swift and serious consequences….

But I’ll note that Thurston is speaking in general about the consequences of the travel ban on Chad rather than specifically about the recent death of US soldiers in Niger. This brings me to …

Counterpoint, from Laura Seay in Slate, urging liberals not to turn this into Trump’s Benghazi:

First, there is simply no evidence that the withdrawal of Chadian forces from Niger had anything to do with the ambush. Examining the basic geography of the crisis makes this clear. Chad’s involvement in Niger was limited to the fight against Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based extremist movement that terrorizes civilians in northwest Nigeria, southeast Niger, southern Chad, and northern Cameroon. The Chadians were deployed to the Diffa region, where they fought effectively against Boko Haram and restored a semblance of stability to communities the extremists had terrorized. Their withdrawal has upset communities in the Diffa region, who (rightly) believe that their own government’s forces are incapable of protecting them from a renewed Boko Haram threat.

As you can see from this map, Diffa is on the opposite side of Niger from Tongo Tongo, where the ambush occurred. Nigerian forces and their American advisers in this region of Niger were not dealing with Boko Haram but instead were working to protect communities from other extremist groups that are active in the region where Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. One of these groups, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is suspected of perpetrating the Niger attack.

Seay also provides more information on what US troops were doing in Niger.

American forces have been in Niger since 2012. Currently, there are about 800. Their primary mission is to advise and assist Niger’s armed forces in their fight against terrorist groups that attack their citizens. This means that American soldiers are not technically at war with the terror groups; they are there to assist the Nigeriens with tasks like locating the enemy, developing strategies and tactics, and building relationships with local leaders, whose knowledge is essential for getting accurate information about terrorists’ activities in a very remote part of the world.

The Niger mission is part of the growth of the U.S. military presence in Africa that began under the Bush administration and greatly expanded under Obama….

Finally, since I mentioned G5 Sahel at the beginning of this post, I want to supply a little information about that force.

From Jazeera, West African and French leaders launch Sahel force.

The new regional anti-terror force is set to include as many as 5,000 soldiers, with one battalion from each of the so-called G5 Sahel countries: Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad….

France’s president said his country would contribute $9m to the new force this year. He also mentioned a contribution of 70 vehicles, without saying whether that was included in the sum.

The European Union has also pledged $57m towards the new force, and France is seeking additional financing from partners, including Germany and the United States.

From Sarah Jones at the Diplomatic Courier:

Mali says the G5 Sahel Joint Force to Combat Terrorism should be fully operational in the next few months, despite its current budget shortfalls. The task force is a regional effort to address terrorism and violent extremism which includes five member states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Members say they can’t do it alone.

The Chief of the Malian Armed Forces General M’Bemba Keita say international efforts have been “hampered by an inadequate mandate to fight terrorism and limited capabilities in an extensive area with little state control.” He hopes the new joint force will help fill in the shortfalls by focusing on transnational crime and terrorism.

From Stratfor: Mali: Africa’s Newest Fighting Force Battles for Funding:

Africa’s Sahel region is prone to political instability and has historically been a hotbed for terrorism. In recent years, Western nations — particularly France, a former Sahel colonizer — have intervened to help stabilize the region. But France has been trying to reduce its international defense burden and has poured resources into the Sahel Force in the hopes it can takeover security efforts. It has also worked to convince other Western countries to do the same. Some progress on that front was made when the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution financing the Sahel Force, but, because of U.S. objections to additional U.N. spending obligations, the resolution passed was a watered-down version of the one France originally proposed.

Yet, the incipient force is not without hope. Recently, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres released a report that outlined three options for future international support for the force….

From the UN web site, I find that the resolution discussed above was adopted in June, 2017.

Unanimously adopting resolution 2359 (2017), the Council welcomed the joint force’s strategic concept of operations, saying it intended to review the deployment in four months’ time. It requested that the Secretary-General, in close coordination with the Group of Five (G5) Sahel States – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, as well as the African Union – provide an oral update within two months.

Also by that text, the Council urged the joint force of up to 5,000 military and police personnel, as well as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and French forces in that country to ensure adequate coordination and exchange of information regarding their operations, within their respective mandates. In that regard, it reiterated its request that the Secretary-General enhance cooperation between MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel States through the relevant intelligence and liaison officers.

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Thoughts on a thought experiment

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2017 filed in News and Commentary

Jake Tapper has a thread on Twitter that begins with the Tweet

Thought experiment: let’s try to assume for the sake of argument that everyone in this story had the best and noblest of intentions.

The thread is, of course, about a particular story, describing particular possible “best and noblest intentions,” and heading toward a particular conclusion. But I want to abstract from that story just to the first tweet.

I like the idea of adopting as a thought experiment the possibility that everyone in a story has the best and noblest intentions. Why?

  1. By making this kind of interpretation a thought experiment, and not a rule, you’re giving yourself permission to conclude that, no, in this case everyone doesn’t have the best and noblest intentions. This is important, because sometimes people don’t have the best and noblest intentions, and sometimes it may even be dangerous to assume that they do.
  2. At the same time, sometimes, when you do the thought experiment, you may realize that the “best and noblest intentions” version of the story is more likely than the one that’s making you angry. Worth at least imagining it, with the understanding that imagining it doesn’t mean making yourself guilty if, once you’ve imagined it, you realize that your gut doesn’t believe it (your gut could be right).
  3. Adopting as a thought experiment the assumption that everyone in a story has the best and noblest intentions can clarify when an argument about giving people the benefit of the doubt is one-sided, and is really an insistence that one person be given the benefit of the doubt by damning, unheard, another.
  4. It can be a clarifying thought experiment. Suppose that everyone did have the best intentions.
    Does it matter? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it really doesn’t. I’ve heard way too many “he had good intentions arguments” in cases where a man’s actions were clear rape, for instance. (He really thought she would welcome being penetrated while she was asleep! She had been flirting with him!) Here the answer to the “assume that everyone had the best and noblest intentions” thought experiment is, OK, so what if he thought what he was doing was OK? Anyone can learn the clear rules “no means no” and “unconscious doesn’t mean yes.” And no one’s safe if those rules aren’t followed. By making “OK, let’s assume the best intentions and follow this scenario through” a thought experiment, rather than a moral obligation to the people involved, you’re freed to see when, yes, intentions really do make a difference (I really do care whether you stepped on my toe just be accident), and when they shouldn’t, can’t be allowed to be a decisive argument.

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Two pieces of good news on Chad and the travel ban

Posted by Sappho on October 18th, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Law

Two pieces of good news yesterday on the Chad front. The first was word from the State Department on Chad Visa Restrictions; apparently the State Department is trying to get Chad off the travel ban by finding some changes that could be presented as Chad improving vetting capabilities (not that Chad ever belonged on a travel ban list to begin with – but hey, I’m all in favor of the State Department trying to recover from a bad situation that wasn’t their doing). And McMaster spoke with Chad President Idriss Deby on October 13, trying to repair the damage (“repair the damage” is, of course, my phrase, not his or that of the State Department).

The second bit of good news was ever better: Federal judge in Hawaii blocks Trump’s new travel ban.

Watson also said the ban “contains internal incoherencies that markedly undermine its stated ‘national security’ rationale. Numerous countries fail to meet one or more of the global baseline criteria … yet are not included in the ban. For example, the president finds that Iraq fails the ‘baseline’ security assessment but then omits Iraq from the ban for policy reasons.” Iraqis are instead subject to additional vetting, a provision the judge did not block.

Notably, the judge largely avoided claims that the ban violated the Constitution by mostly targeting Muslim-majority nations. Watson said his court did not need to address the matter since it had already found the ban in violation of immigration law. Unlike prior court decisions blocking the travel ban, Watson’s ruling only sparingly quoted Trump’s statements that opponents have said were directed against Muslims, such as his campaign promise to suspend Muslim immigration.

He did, though, include some of Trump’s tweets in footnote 9.

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On Autonomous Vehicle Ethics

Posted by Sappho on October 17th, 2017 filed in Computers, News and Commentary

German ethical guidelines for self-driving cars (reported this summer): Kill animals to avoid killing people.

Crowd sourced ethical guidelines for self-driving cars: It’s better to kill homeless people than people who aren’t homeless. This is based on an AI system crunching the numbers from “trolley problem” style moral dilemmas answered by whoever happened to respond to a web survey.

Some of its answers were intuitive. If the choice comes down to running over one person or two, it will choose to kill just one.

At other times, its answers seem to hold a dark mirror to society’s inequities.

If the AI must kill either a criminal or a person who is not a criminal, for instance, it will kill the criminal.

And if it must kill either a homeless person or a person who is not homeless, it will kill the homeless person.

On customizing self-driving cars for local laws and ethics.

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A round up, on electric vehicles, gun control, and other things

Posted by Sappho on October 8th, 2017 filed in Blogwatch, DNA, Environment, News and Commentary, Peace Testimony, Theology

Seven western governors aim to charge up electric vehicle network.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as well as the chief executives of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming signed a memorandum of understanding supporting the plan. The goal is for the states to work together when locating charging stations and other infrastructure to reduce drivers’ worries about running out of juice on the road.

The seven states cover more than 5,000 miles of highway and already have more than 20,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the road.

rootietoot writes about her encounters with online dating, as a widow, in Does this picture make me look stupid?

CAHYGUY proposes changes to the Constitution in It’s So 18th Century.

Benjamin Haas, at Just Security, thinks that Gun Violence Deserves as Robust a Response as Terrorism.

Cheryl Rofer on Undermining the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Jim Burklo on Route 91 to Universal Health Care.

Johan Maurer on Labels, part three: radical.

Holly Norton on How the female Viking warrior was written out of history.

Roberta Estes on Promethease 2017.

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The Ultimate Gun Buy-Back Program

Posted by WiredSisters on October 4th, 2017 filed in Guest Blogger, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony

Here in Chicago, and probably in a lot of other cities with gun violence problems, the police every so often set up gun buy-back programs.  If you happen to have a gun on your premises (whether it’s legal or not, apparently), you can bring it to your local police station and get a Wal-Mart gift card or cash or a check in some amount over $50.00 (as much as $150 in some places, for some kinds of gun.)  The NRA has succeeded in requiring the police to put those guns back onto the market, rather than destroying them (or turning them into art work, as has occasionally been done.)  This suggests that we’re going about buy-back in the wrong way.  We don’t need the police to buy back guns.  We need to buy back our lawmakers who have been bought by the NRA.

There are a bunch of conjectural statistics out there on which lawmakers have received money (“campaign donations”) from the NRA in the last year or three years or ten years, and how much money was involved in each case.  We mostly don’t know how accurate these figures are.

(See: National Rifle Assn: Summary | OpenSecretswww.opensecrets.org , www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/nra-congress: National Rifle Assn: All Recipients | OpenSecrets www.opensecrets.org ›: www.theguardian.com › US News › NRA: List of politicians funded by the NRA. | elephant journal  https://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/01/list-of-politicians-fundedhttps://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/nra-donations For lots more of this useful information, just Google NRA donations to politicians.)

What you, and the responsible gun control organizations in your state/locality, need to do, is find your own Congresscritter on one of these lists, and then set out to raise an amount of money equal to what s/he has received from the NRA in the last year.  Once you have that money in hand, your organization can send him/her a letter saying:

It is our understanding, from (list source), that you have received ___________(amount of donation) from the NRA in the last calendar year.  Please feel free to correct our figures if they are inaccurate.  Our organization now has available the same amount for a donation to your campaign fund.  If you are interested in representing the _______(number of organization members and their adult family members, donors, and other sympathizers) in our group, rather than an organization located outside your district, in Virginia, with interests opposed to those of our group of your constituents, please sign the following gun control pledge, which will be published ____________(newspaper or online media, date for publication.)  We have raised the sum of (amount of NRA donation) to support your campaign and replace the gun lobby funds you will be giving up next year, and are prepared to donate it to you once this pledge has been published.  (Follow with text of your organization’s proposed gun control pledge.)

If you get no reply, or a snarky or unhelpful one, publish it, along with your original letter and the proposed pledge, and let nature take its course.  Your lawmaker’s job isn’t to represent a bunch of rich white gun dealers headquartered in Virginia.  It’s to represent you and your friends and neighbors, and to serve your country and its people.

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A new co-blogger

Posted by Sappho on October 3rd, 2017 filed in Blog maintenance

I have added an account for a new co-blogger, Sapphire. No telling when she’ll start posting, as she is a busy mother. But whenever she does, please welcome her.

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A clerk’s life: Irvine Global Village

Posted by Sappho on October 3rd, 2017 filed in Quaker Practice

For several years, Orange County Friends Meeting has had a table in the World Religions tent at Irvine Global Village. But I had conflicts on other years (one year I was across the country), so the Saturday before last was the first time I got to join in staffing the booth.

I arrived at the festival an hour before I was scheduled to staff the table, to give myself time to wander, to eat Iranian kebobs while I listened to Scottish bagpipes, and then pick up a lassi and visit the booths, taking cards from people whose services might be useful to other people I knew.

Then I went to the World Religions tent. There were a mix of tables: Jews sat near Muslims in one corner, Buddhists and Taoists and Eckankar mingled with Baptists. On one side of the Friends’ table were Mormons, on the other side teachers of some form of meditation, all dressed in white. There was a center stage, where, when I arrived, the Taoists demonstrated Tai Chi, soon to be followed by a Mormon choir.

Some of the people passing our table knew little about Quakers. Others came by to remind us of our common bonds: a Unitarian Universalist, a Bahai. We got some flyers for the upcoming CROP hunger walk, which will take place in Newport Beach on Saturday, October 21. We had trinkets for children and pens with our address for adults.


beinghere353, a retired professor of French and a member of my Quaker meeting, is now in Tijuana, volunteering with the non-profit legal aid organization, Al Otro Lado, which works with cross-border immigration issues. She writes on her blog about What Am I Doing Here?

Quaker blogger Johan Maurer on Your obedient servant.

You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf

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How to help Puerto Rico

Posted by Sappho on September 27th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary

1.5 million Americans (44% of the 3.4 million population of Puerto Rico) are without drinking water. 11 of the 69 hospitals in Puerto Rico are without power.

How can we help our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico in their time of need?

First, Puerto Rico should get a shipping waiver for the Jones Act. The Jones Act is a shipping law which, briefly, mandates that any shipping of people or cargo between two U.S. ports must be done with an American ship to avoid tax and tariff penalties. It was passed shortly after World War I to help sustain the American shipbuilding industry after devastating losses in the war. A waiver to the Jones Act was granted to Texas and Florida, both accessible by land, after they were hit by hurricanes, but such a waiver has not been granted to Puerto Rico, an island, after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico’s governor has asked that for a Jones Act waiver, and Senator John McCain notes that Puerto Ricans may have to pay twice as much for food and water without such a waiver.

Second, Senator Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, has been tweet storming suggestions for how to help Puerto Rico. Here is his tweet storm:

1/ Expand disaster declaration for the whole island. Trump’s original order only covered part – whole island needs immediate relief.

2/ Attach supplemental relief funds to must-pass FAA reauthorization bill this week. FEMA disaster money runs out in a few weeks. Why wait?

3/ Waive matching funds requirement for relief money to Puerto Rico. Th entire economy is crippled – no way for PR to come up with match.

4/ Dramatically expand military personnel count in Puerto Rico. Problem right now isn’t money – it’s man power to clear roads, rebuild, etc.

5/ Quicken food assistance by using the Disaster SNAP program – fastest way to get nutrition to thousands of hungry kids and parents.

6/ Extend 26 wk limit on Disaster Unemployment benefits – entire ag economy is ruined, cities devastated. Rebuild will take more than 6 mo.

7/ Lift cap on Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico – federal underpayments to PR weakened economy, made Maria’s impact worse. Time to remedy.

8/ This isn’t entire list of what needs to be done. Point is to start acting boldly NOW. End the double standard of disaster relief!

I urge Americans: Call your Senators and Rep and urge assistance to your fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.

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Why the hell is #Chad on the new travel ban list?

Posted by Sappho on September 26th, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch

Readers of my blog may remember that I have family from Chad. I used to do regular news round ups, on this blog, about Chad and its neighbors. I know this country well enough to know that it is a load of bullshit that it is now placed on Trump’s new extra special list of terrorist threat countries whose citizens are outright banned from traveling to the US.

But don’t just listen to me. Listen to everyone who knows anything about Chad. Counter terrorism experts are mystified by Chad’s inclusion on the new updated travel ban. Here are a few responses to the addition of Chad to the list.

From the Washington Post:

For years, the United States and its European allies have praised the central African nation of Chad as a helpful partner in the fight against terrorism.

From Newsweek

ut Chad has played a leading role in fighting Boko Haram. The Nigerian jihadi group once controlled territory equivalent in size to Belgium, but since a regional joint task force was established in 2015—which is headquartered in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena—the group has been driven back and now operates from Lake Chad and northeast Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest.

Chad also assisted French and other African forces in taking back northern Mali after a rebellion in 2012 that was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. The Chadian capital is now the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, a French military force that was set up in 2014 to fight militants in Africa’s Sahel region.

From Foreign Policy magazine

“I’m scratching my head about this decision,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic International Studies. “I’m not going to even try to make sense of this one,” he added.

The central African nation, bordered by countries mired in conflict and revolt such as Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, plays a big role regionally in the fight against terrorism. It houses the headquarters and provides troops for the multinational task force fighting the terrorist group Boko Haram. Additionally, Chad houses the headquarters for the French counterterrorism mission in the region and is a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a U.S.-led project that aims to address “terrorist threats and prevent the spread of violent extremism” in the region.

From NBC News:

President Donald Trump’s decision to include Chad in the latest travel ban has baffled experts who are wondering why the African nation was chosen over others in the region.

“It’s a head-scratcher and also strange for diplomatic reasons,” Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said. “In terms of security, Chad is actually relatively capable.”

From Paul Williams, expert on peace and warfare in Africa:

Just FYI #Chad currently deploys over 1,400 UN #peacekeepers in #MINUSMA #Mali, is HQ for #MNJTF vs #BokoHaram & part of #G5SahelJointForce

Trump might just as well have set up a map of Africa and thrown darts at it, to pick which countries to ban. There is no sensible reason to include Chad on this list. And the fact that Chad is on this list shows that the list is arbitrary, rather than formed from any rational assessment of risk.

For crying out loud, you don’t counter terror by arbitrarily picking on your strongest counter terrorism allies.


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Life as a clerk

Posted by Sappho on September 19th, 2017 filed in Quaker Practice

The Sunday before last, we had high school students with a comparative religion assignment. They were girls from a local Catholic high school, and their task was to visit another faith community and interview the pastor. As the nearest pastor equivalent, I took the interview, with the help of three other Friends who joined the discussion at one point or another. What were our beliefs? Did we have sacraments or rituals? What kind of support did we offer for our pastor? Etc.

Meanwhile, in the other room, a Quaker Explorations discussion of Myers-Briggs took place. I missed that first half, in favor of the conversation with high school students, but caught the second half last Sunday. I learned that most of us are introverts (definitely not including the clerk who preceded me, a wonderful woman who has the Myers-Briggs type of Commandant). We discussed what we did and didn’t like about the opposing type. (Me, on extroverts: I like that they talk, so I don’t have to.)

This Saturday, we have a booth in the world religions tent at the Global Village festival in Irvine. I am looking forward to being there. I am told that the other religions will include Yazidis.

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Rohingya links

Posted by Sappho on September 13th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary

The International Crisis Group writes

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened….

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants….

Further background on Myanmar from the International Crisis Group.

Amnesty International writes

The formation of a new civilian-led government did not lead to significant improvements in the human rights situation. The persecuted Rohingya minority faced increased violence and discrimination….

… Aung San Suu Kyi remained constitutionally barred from holding the presidency but in April was appointed State Counsellor, a role created especially for her, which made her the de facto leader of the civilian government. Despite this, the military retained significant political power, with an allocated 25% of seats in Parliament which gave it a veto over constitutional changes, and control over key ministries. The military remained independent of civilian oversight.

The situation of the Rohingya deteriorated significantly after attacks on border police outposts in northern Rakhine State in October by suspected Rohingya militants. Nine police officers were killed. Security forces responded with a major security operation, conducting “clearance operations” and sealing the area, effectively barring humanitarian organizations, media and independent human rights monitors from entering….

Most Rohingya people remained deprived of a nationality. Government efforts to restart a citizenship verification process stalled, with many Rohingya rejecting it because it was based on the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law….

From Global Voices: Violence in Northwest Myanmar Sparks an Information War Online with Anti-Rohingya Hate Speech and Fake Photos

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Link round up: Kenya election and other news and posts

Posted by Sappho on September 3rd, 2017 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Blogwatch, News and Commentary

Improving Electoral Cybersecurity in Kenya

Kenyatta Threatens to ‘Deal With’ Judiciary if Re-Elected

Syrians in a Besieged Town Are Learning to Grow Mushrooms to Survive

That “evangelical” label

Fall of Giants (on the fall, and defense, of statues, in Russia and in the US)

My Day with Sheriff Joe

Durham DNA – 10 Things I Learned Despite No Y DNA Matches, 52 Ancestors #167

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A few Justice Department links on Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department

Posted by Sappho on August 29th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Copying this from my Facebook feed, where I pulled these links together in response to a discussion:

Here is the full 2011 report of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office: https://www.justice.gov/crt/investigation-maricopa-county-sheriffs-office

For example:

Our investigation uncovered a number of instances in which immigration-related crime suppression activities were initiated in the community after MCSO received complaints that described no criminal activity, put rather referred, for instance, to individuals with “dark skin” congregating in one area, or individuals speaking
Spanish at a local business. The use of these types of bias-infected indicators as a basis for conducting enforcement activity contributes to the high number of stops and detentions lacking in legal justification.


MCSO detention officers discriminatorily punish Latino LEP inmates who fail to understand commands given in English by, for example, locking down their pods (which increases the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence), or imposing disciplinary segregation (solitary confinement).


B.B., a legal resident of the United States, and his 12 year-old son, a U.S. citizen, are both Latino. In May 2009, a group ofMCSO deputies conducted a raid of a house neighboring B.B.’ s home that the deputies suspected of being a “drop house” for human smuggling. At some point during the raid, two of the MCSO deputies involved entered AA’s home after obtaining consent to enter. Without obtaining consent to search, the deputies searched the home without a warrant. Although they found no evidence of criminal activity in the house, the MCSO deputies proceeded to handcuff both B.B. and his son with plastic zip-ties and remove them from their home. The deputies directed both to sit on the sidewalk next to approximately ten other individuals who had been removed from the neighboring house. MCSO released B.B. and his son without any citation after detaining them with restraints for
more than an hour.


Third, detention officers punish, directly and indirectly, Latino LEP inmates for their iinability to fully understand or fluently speak English. For instance, the inability of one Latino LEP inmate to understand a command given in English can result in the confinement (“lockdown”) of an entire house or pod. Lockdowns are sometimes in effect for as long as 72 hours. When a lockdown is ordered, inmates must return to their cells and are denied access to the visitor area, canteen recreation area, television, non-legal telephone calls, and inmate programs. Punishing other inmates for a Latino LEP inmate’s inability to understand English commands endangers the LEP inmate. A Latino LEP inmate’s inability to understand a detention officer’s English language instructions also can result in the detention officer sending the inmate into disciplinary segregation, commonly referred to as being sent to the “hole.” Inmates sent to the hole are confined 23 hours each day, and are denied non-legal telephone use, regular visits, television, program participation (including church services), and access to the canteen (except hygiene items). Such disciplinary actions are especially troubling when considering that many Latino LEP inmates reported that they never received a copy of the Inmate Rules and Regulations, or did not receive a copy in a language they could comprehend, denying them a basic understanding of jail policies.

Lots more, including retaliatory arrests of people who exercised their First Amendment rights to criticize Arpaio and MCSO.

This report was the result of an investigation that began in June, 2008, and, on December 15, 2011, the Justice Department announced its findings that MCSO has engaged in a pattern or practice of misconduct that violates the Constitution and federal law.

Here is a shorter letter summarizing the findings in the full report: https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2011/12/15/mcso_findletter_12-15-11.pdf

Here is the news release in 2012 announcing a civil action lawsuit by the Justice Department against MCSO: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-files-lawsuit-arizona-against-maricopa-county-maricopa-county-sheriff-s

The lawsuit follows a comprehensive and independent investigation initiated, in June 2008, under Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On Dec. 15, 2011, the department issued a 22 page letter of findings, which found reasonable cause that MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio were engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law. Following the issuance of the letter of findings, the department attempted to reach a resolution with MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio and provided them with a comprehensive draft settlement agreement. The proposed agreement contained a number of key reforms that had been successfully implemented elsewhere. However, negotiations were unsuccessful, primarily because MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio refused to agree to any independent oversight by a monitor.

Here is a permanent injunction issued by a court in 2013, ordering MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio to cease discriminatory practices against Latinos: https://www.justice.gov/crt/file/785476/download

Here is the Justice Department’s announcement, in 2015, of a settlement agreement reached in their lawsuit against MCSO: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-reaches-settlement-civil-rights-lawsuit-against-maricopa-county-arizona

Here are findings of fact in a District Court in 2016 (https://www.justice.gov/crt/file/890346/download), finding that MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio had

intentionally failed to implement the Court’s preliminary injunction in this case, failed to disclose thousands of relevant items of requested discovery they were legally obligated to disclose, and, after the post-trial disclosure of additional evidence, deliberately violated court orders and thereby prevented a full recovery of relevant evidence in this case.

You can find more news releases, etc., by searching the Justice Department web site for “Arpaio.”

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“Will the Nazis take our ribbons?”

Posted by Sappho on August 20th, 2017 filed in Daily Life, News and Commentary, Quaker Practice, Race

The question came from a boy, to his mother, as I was leaving the Laguna Beach counter protest, yesterday.

As news had spread, this week, that Charlottesville would be followed up by neo-Nazi protests around the country, we had warning, here in Orange County, California, of two upcoming white supremacist protests. One of them, we heard, was to be a burning of “degenerate literature,” such as Teen Vogue, in Huntington Beach. The other was to be an anti-immigrant protest in Laguna Beach. As the weekend approached, we got word that the Teen Vogue burners had cancelled their protest, grumbling that they had gotten threats that interfered with their freedom of speech. This left the anti-immigrant protest today, something to do with highlighting crimes committed by immigrants. It wasn’t clear whether it would just be a homegrown affair, or whether Nazis would be coming on buses from all over. Why Laguna Beach? That part was clearer. Orange County is becoming more blue, but even during OC’s most Republican days, Laguna Beach has been a blue city.

Plans were made for a variety of counter protest events. Saturday morning, in a park in Tustin, people would gather to discuss what we should do post-Charlottesville. At just about the same time, also on Saturday morning, was a counter protest in Laguna Beach scheduled to draw people at a different time from the anti-immigrant protest. The Laguna Beach PD, understandably preferring not to keep too many people separated on a beach that’s not that large, would have preferred this to be the larger counter protest. But Democratic Socialists of America had already planned a counter protest for Sunday evening, the same time as the anti-immigrant protest. A local church scheduled a nonviolence training for people attending that protest. That same church also had a gathering scheduled for those who didn’t want to be at the beach at that time. And, in Rancho Santa Margarita, a Methodist church planned a vigil for Sunday evening (that would be today, and also at the same time as the anti-immigrant protest). There was also a web site where people could make donations to anti-racist groups for any white supremacist who might show up on Sunday.

I went to the Saturday morning protest at Laguna Beach. My only confrontation came from a homeless woman who was mentally ill; she mistook my efforts to get help from a couple of other protesters in finding a parking space for the three of us pointing at her for some nefarious purpose. She quieted once I moved on to park my car in a longer than 30 minute spot (parking near the beach is tight even without a demonstration). I then got to the beach half an hour before the official start of the demonstration. Dozens of people were already there, with one lone anti-immigrant protester heckling from across the street. By 10 am (the official start), there were more than 100 of us; news media estimated the crowd at its height at maybe 300 to 350. I ran into one other person from my Quaker meeting; otherwise I didn’t see anyone I knew (thought that’s no guarantee no one was there). I did get to borrow a sign (“No to White Supremacy”), and had some good conversations about voter registration and who would run against Mimi Walters. (In a sense, demonstrations are the political activist equivalent of what after work networking events are to IT employment.)

T-shirts ranged from the political (“It’s Mueller time”) to the personal (“Chapman MBA program”). Someone was passing out gluten free cake. Cars gave many supportive honks, and only one heckling cry of “Losers”; it was clear where Laguna Beach sympathies were. Signs were mostly about white supremacy and Charlottesville (“Heather Heyer. Say her name.” “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” A picture of MLK with “I have a dream.” Etc.) There were, though, a few about things like climate change, probably re-purposed from earlier demonstrations (such as the March for Science – it was only after I had walked from my parking space to the beach that I realized I could have brought and re-purposed my “Mad Scientist” sign from that march). Ribbons festooned poles and parking meters everywhere around the beach.

My niece Alex had told me she was planning to go to the Sunday counter protest, and her mother was going with her. I thought of going to keep them company, but after the protest yesterday, a hike yesterday evening, and a sick dog waking me up twice in the middle of the night, I wasn’t up for the traffic. Highway 1 makes for narrow passage to and from the beach, and it had been bumper to bumper traffic coming home yesterday. So I decided to give myself more time with the recovering elderly dog, and opt for the vigil in Rancho Santa Margarita, closer to home.

Quaker Explorations before meeting for worship was Lection Divina. K., who led the Lectio Divina, has led previous Lectio Divina based on the Bible. This time, though, the text was a Jain one. When we got to the point in the Lectio Divina process where we notice which text resonates with us, some of us were drawn to pages that spoke to us, while others of us were drawn precisely to the phrases that didn’t speak to us. What spoke to me was, “The doctrine of ahimsa is nothing but the observance of equality, ie the realization that just as I do not like misery, others do not like it.” How often does failure to see others as really our equal make “do not unto others as you would not have done unto you” meaningless? Something to give lip service to, but not act on?

The vigil at the Shepherd of the Hills Methodist Church was at 6:30pm, after the demonstration at Laguna Beach would have started, so I messaged Alex on Facebook before heading to the vigil. How was it going? Great, she said, the counter demonstrators easily outnumbered the Trump side.

I got to the Methodist church, and introduced myself as the clerk of Orange County Friends Meeting. (I figured that, in the interest of interfaith ties, I’d make that known.) I met the pastor and his wife, and others from the congregation, and heard about their cooperative relationship with a local synagogue and a local mosque. All three faith communities had responded together when swastikas were put up in a local park. The church had decided on the vigil rather than a presence at the demonstration at Laguna Beach because they wanted an event that their children could go to. There were lots of children present, and home made signs, of which, judging from the lettering, I’d say that both adults and children participated in making them. We gathered on the lawn, where we heard a song written by a member of the congregation about the meaning of love and a reading of a Psalm. Then we passed the mike to whoever wanted to share, after which we had a prayer by the pastor, a period of silence, and another prayer. It was a lot like a Quaker dialog. Afterwards, we hung out on the lawn and talked for a while, before going our separate ways. I talked with a woman who came to the vigil from Tapestry Unitarian Church and with some of the Methodists. It was good to share concerns about how we could respond to hate.

I checked the news on events at Laguna Beach. The report was that only homegrown anti-immigrant protesters had showed up, with no one bused in, and that the counter protest outnumbered the protest about 40 to one (with thousands at the beack). I messaged Alex. It went really well, she said. There was a drum circle, and she even danced.

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Blessed Are the Hypocrites

Posted by WiredSisters on August 15th, 2017 filed in Guest Blogger, Whimsies

So the President Who Shall Not Be Named took three days to get around to deploring the violence in Charlottesville, and then did so in the most lukewarm possible tone.  It didn’t make me think any worse of him—nothing much could have done.  And now people are saying it didn’t matter much anyway, since we all know he didn’t deplore the incident in the slightest.

I seem to remember having a similar discussion many years ago, about the guy I worked for in a County Court agency.  He doesn’t bad-mouth women, my colleagues said, but everybody knows he’s a sexist pig underneath that politically correct exterior.

And then there’s the ritual script required of every defendant who pleads guilty pursuant to a plea deal: “Has anyone offered you any benefit or threatened you with any harm to induce you to enter this plea?” “No,” says the defendant, having just spent two hours hashing out the deal with his attorney, and weighing the potential price of going to trial and losing against the various benefits in confinement time, probation conditions, immigration issues, and place and conditions of incarceration, offered by the prosecution, in order to decide that the deal is worth taking.

“I’ll respect you in the morning.”
“The check is in the mail.”
“…till death do us part.”
“I had a lovely time.  Let’s do this again.”
“Thank you for coming in for this interview. We’ll call you in a few days.”

All of these locutions have two things in common: we all know they’re lies, and the one thing worse than hearing these lies and having to act as if we believed them is not being told these “performative” statements in the first place.  None of them implies what it says, but all of them imply at least a minimum respect for the person who hears them. There is a genuine difference between “I’ll respect you in the morning” and “your ten dollars is on the dresser,” even if both statements are preceded and followed by precisely the same behavior.  The john who respects his “date” enough to lie to her really is more pleasant company than the one who doesn’t.

The French writer LaRouchefoucauld says that “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”  Often, it is the only homage virtue gets.

I don’t really know that George W. Bush is a nicer person, in the privacy of his home and the solitude of his soul, than our current president.  But if he asked me to go out for coffee with him, I’d go, even if I had to pay for my own donut.  I would cross the street—or the city, or the country–to avoid shaking hands with 45, because he doesn’t even respect me, or women, or Jews, or people of color, or the American people, enough to pretend good manners.  Similarly, I didn’t really care whether my ex-boss lusted after me, or at least my younger and prettier colleagues, in his heart, as long as he kept his hands to himself.  And the only reason I really hate the plea bargain script is that it is often imposed on young, poorly-educated defendants whose ideas about truth and falsehood will be shaped forever by the experience.

45’s supporters claim to like him because he says what he thinks, and isn’t “politically correct.”  The belief that he says what he thinks, of course, rests on the presumption that he does think, about which nothing further need be said right now.  They like him because he is willing to call a spade a spade, you should pardon the expression.  But the political correctness they decry is the only thing that keeps him from calling the white working-class voters ignorant unwashed hillbilly trailer trash.  If he drops that mask (that’s what the word “hypocrite” originally meant), they’re fair game as much as their non-white neighbors.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that is that they vote for him.

So I’m all for hypocrisy, if the only alternative is trash-talking.  It would be nice if the trash-talkers could clean up their minds and hearts as well as their language.  But I’ll take what I can get.




Small groups, Friendly Eights, and Loving a Variety of Hymns and Worship Songs

Posted by Sappho on August 15th, 2017 filed in Quaker Practice

The other day, someone from Saddleback Church was telling me (and others) something about their small groups. These are smaller groups that allow people within the mega-church to get to know and regularly see a small group of people.

As he was talking, I realized that my Quaker meeting has the same thing. It just had never occurred to me to think of it as the same thing, because we aren’t, after all, a mega-church, but rather a small Quaker meeting where it’s easy to know everyone’s name. But we do have small groups; we just call them Friendly Eights.

The way Friendly Eights work is that people who want to be in a Friendly Eights group tell whoever is organizing the Friendly Eights groups – perhaps the clerk, or perhaps someone on Ministry and Oversight – and get matched to a group. We look at things like geography and other constraints when forming the groups. And every so often, maybe after a couple of years, the groups get reshuffled. Some people, instead of Friendly Eights, have some other sort of smaller group that they get together with regularly. For instance, we have a book discussion group now, and there’s also a crafts group that meets Monday mornings at our meetinghouse.

That’s it. You may or may not be in a Friendly Eights group (I am not, as I’m trying to conserve evening time with my husband, and he’s not involved in the meeting). But if you want one, we can match you with one.

Now, for the music, not my post but one by my friend Keith Gatling: Fed Up with Being Fed Up with Bad Church Music.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena when it comes to music…people seem to think that if they happen to like one particular style better than another, it behooves them to belittle the form that they don’t like. It can’t just be a matter of different tastes; one has to be good and the other has to be not worthy of even being considered….

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Edelweiss, Edelweiss …

Posted by Sappho on August 14th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

I meant, this weekend, to talk about the Google memo, following up my earlier posts with a discussion of gender differences and nature/nurture.

Then #Charlottesville happened.

Heather Heyer, paralegal and champion for others, is not the first person to be killed, within the past year, by white supremacists. She joins Army veteran Ricky John Best and Reed College graduate Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, killed for defending a fellow train passenger. There was also the unarmed IWW organizer who was shot and critically wounded outside a Milo Yiannopoulos speech in January. And don’t forget Richard Collins III, the black US Army lieutenant who was stabbed to death in May.

Still, if Charlottesville isn’t a brand new thing, it is an escalation. Neo-Nazis with torches surrounding a church while worshippers, many of them black, were still inside. Neo-Nazis with torches marching to a college campus. Neo-Nazis with helmets, shields, and assault rifles confronting peaceful counter-protesting clergy. A young man “infatuated by Nazis” ramming his car into a crowd of protesters, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer.

This isn’t free speech. Free speech doesn’t show up with its own private militia and start attacking people.

I’ve heard some arguments that this crowd shouldn’t be called Nazis. Some of it is well meant. “Calling them Nazis suggests that they’re foreign to this country,” some say, “but you can’t say #ThisIsNotUs and ignore our own history of violent white supremacy.” “Don’t call them Nazis,” say others, “because you have to face that these are your friends and family.”

But Nazis, too, had friends and family. And I won’t counter bothsidesism and whataboutism with some generalized responsibility for a white supremacist past. I’ll counter it by naming exactly what these white supremacists, here and now, have done and are doing. And if you assemble with torches and an accompanying militia to march, geared up in swastikas and T-shirts with quotes from Hitler, shouting “Blut und Boden” and “Jews will not replace us,” then you’re a Nazi. And, as the granddaughter of a man who died fighting the Axis in WWII, I’m going to name you as such.

Mike Godwin, creator of Godwin’s Law, said today

By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis. Again and again. I’m with you.

I’m with him.

Jewish partisan song Shtil di Nakht sung and lyrics.

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A note on the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorder

Posted by Sappho on August 11th, 2017 filed in Science

As I said, I totally made up the population example in my last post, where autism spectrum disorder was more common in Silicon Valley than in Iowa. There are, however, observed population differences in autism spectrum disorder (higher prevalence among white people than among black or Latino people, in at least one study). Consistent with my position in my last post, I’d argue that, though it’s in principle possible that these differences are the result of some predisposing genes being more prevalent among white people,

  1. Before you jump to that conclusion, check whether the study I just linked is actually replicated. It may be an outlier. (Yes, I know, I take a risk in sharing it without checking that myself, because you may just not bother, and may believe the finding without doing that check. Please don’t do this. Single studies often prove not to hold up to further research.)
  2. Before you jump to that conclusion, check, check, check the possibility that what’s actually being observed is a difference in diagnosis rates, and check, check, check for environmental factors. In any observed “racial” difference in psychology, my bet would be on environment over genetics.

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On Nature, Nurture, and Different Meanings of What a “Blank Slate” Would Be

Posted by Sappho on August 11th, 2017 filed in DNA, Feminism, Race

It’s common, in nature/nurture discussions, to talk about a “blank slate.” As in, “we’re not a blank slate.” It’s important, though, not to muddle different meanings of what a “blank slate” might be. Let’s consider several possible meanings:

  1. Human Nature: There’s a certain inherent human nature, that may resist particular utopian projects. For instance, the Oneida Community, a 19th century utopian community, discouraged special attachments between mother and child. Are we enough of a blank slate that we can be shaped to flourish in such a community, one where “You have evidently got sticky to your mother” is something for which a child can be chided?
  2. Individual differences: We all differ in our psychological traits and aptitudes. How much of my husband’s intelligence, or his bipolar disorder, or his gift for poetry, is caused by genetics, and how much was shaped by environment? (If we were, in this sense, pure “blank slate,” then none of our individual differences would be genetic.) And how far might this answer differ, from one trait to another. Is the answer to “how far is sexual orientation genetic” the same as the answer to “how far is introversion/extroversion genetic” and the answer to “how far is perfect pitch genetic,” or are those three different answers?
  3. Gender differences: How far do the sexes differ, and, in the areas where they do differ, how much of that difference is innate? And is this answer the same, when we’re talking about, say, differences in how frequently men and women masturbate, as it is when we’re talking about, say, what proportion of biology majors are male and what proportion are female?
  4. Population differences: Suppose, hypothetically, that a study found that the rate of autism was higher in Silicon Valley than in rural Iowa. The difference could be one of measurement: People on the autistic spectrum are more likely to be diagnosed if they live in Silicon Valley. It could be one of environment: There’s some key difference in children’s early environment that predisposes kids in Silicon Valley to be more likely to be autistic. Or it could be that for some reason, people with a genetic predisposition to autism are more likely to cluster in Silicon Valley. Note that I am making this entire scenario up. My point is, if it were the case that autism rates differed in the way I describe, the way to answer the question, “Which of these three scenarios is true?” would not be to revert to the answer to my question 2, “How far is individual variation in autism determined by genetics?” Because you might then be missing a major difference between the communities, either in diagnosis rates or in environment.

Now, since the above “Blank Slate” questions are four different questions, I feel no obligation to give the same answer to all four. So my answers are:

  1. Human Nature: Yes, there’s such a thing as human nature, and no, humans aren’t so infinitely malleable that they flourish equally in all social environments. (This is how we know, among other things, that slavery is wrong.)
  2. Individual differences: Human psychological traits are a complex mixture of genetics and environment,
    with heavy doses of both (and generally multiple genes and multiple environmental factors). How much of which depends on the trait, and also on the environment.
  3. Sex differences: Men and women are overwhelmingly more alike than not on approximately 80% of the traits studied. Where they differ, culture has a significant influence, but there may be significant innate differences as well in some areas.
  4. Population differences: Human populations differ from each other through a combination of natural selection and genetic drift. Those differences are stronger where natural selection strongly applies (e.g. traits like skin color and disease resistance), or where genetic drift has more scope because the trait relies on only a couple of genes (e.g. blood type) or because a particular population is small and inbred (e.g. the Saguenay du Lac population on an island in Quebec). None of these factors really applies to mental or psychological differences between whole genetically varied continents of people, and there are huge environmental influences on the traits most discussed. Evidence points to the genetic factor here being so small that we can, for practical purposes, treat it as 0%.

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Thoughts on the Googler’s anti-diversity manifesto

Posted by Sappho on August 9th, 2017 filed in Uncategorized

OK, so I read the whole ten pages. With footnotes. And footnotes don’t make a thing scientific. The guy cherry picked his gender differences to fit his argument, as you might expect (rather than doing the thing you’d want to do if you really wanted to understand the role of nature and nurture in gender differences, which is to look for review articles that give you an overview of the field).

For just one example, he argued that women deal with stress less well than men (and hence, there’s a reason that we’re less often in management, or in jobs with long hours, all the jobs that he wants for guys like him). There’s an actual research finding that he’s referencing here: women score themselves higher on Neuroticism than men do, in the self-scoring OCEAN test of five personality traits.

(If you cherry pick your studies, you can find that women sometimes score themselves higher on conscientiousness, which could mean that you want to hire more women in engineering, if you’re going to apply the argument in the manifesto for why we need to hire more conservatives, who tend to rate themselves as more conscientious than how liberals rate themselves. But that would be cherry picking gender research. At least I admit that it’s cherry picking. Over all, Big Five gender differences in conscientiousness are actually not high.)

The problem is, first, this research finding is subject to multiple interpretations. Are women really higher on Neuroticism than men, or are women simply more willing to admit to being anxious on a self-scoring test? Even if women are higher on Neuroticism, have you proved an innate difference, rather than one driven by social roles? And what does it even mean to say one sex is better at dealing with stress? Men commit suicide more often, and are more prone to alcohol abuse. Women report higher levels of anxiety, and are more prone to eating disorders. Which gender you pick as handling stress better depends as much on what you think it means to be tough in the face of adversity as it does on the actual differences (whether nature or nurture) between men and women. So it’s easy to pick the study that will give you the result you want.

Then, having cherry picked your studies, define the traits that you think software engineering requires to be the ones that you’ve shown your sex to be good at, in your cherry picked studies. Ignore the fact that the proportion of women in computer science varies hugely from one country to another. Ignore the fact that computer programming used to be women’s work.

This cherry picking of what skills James Damore thinks a software engineering career requires is as comical as his cherry picking of gender research. At one point in the manifesto, he allows that diversity may be useful in design and testing, but not in less user facing areas. Hello? What kind of software engineering doesn’t involve design and testing? Do you think the business analysts throw the design over the wall to you, and you code, and then throw your code over the wall to quality assurance to test? All without any need for people skills to coordinate with the rest of the team? If so, I sure wouldn’t want to hire you.

But I also want to talk about the firing. As soon as Damore was fired, I saw a chorus of protest on LinkedIn. Some of it, from men whose profiles indicated that they were seeking IT jobs, suggested that the fact that Google fired Damore, rather than arguing with him, proved that they couldn’t refute his claims, because they were true.

It’s important to make some distinctions here.

First, when should people argue with a claim that’s false? I’d say, any time they want to. There is no claim so obviously false that it shouldn’t be debunked, by people who want to debunk it. Want to argue, for instance, that there are no inborn racial differences in IQ? Go ahead, knock yourself out. I’ve done so, and may do so again. (But if I do, people who want to argue against me will have to do so on their own blogs, and not in the comments section of mine.)

But people also have limited time, and aren’t obliged to keep debating every claim. If, like black science fiction writer Steven Barnes, you have argued the IQ debate for years, and are now done, and are barring the “blacks are stupider than white people” argument from your blog and Facebook page, that does not “prove” that you’ve surrendered the argument, or are afraid to face the truth. It simply shows that you’re making your own decisions about how to allocate your time. Myself, I’m a firm believer in the rule of three rounds. If I’ve engaged with someone on a topic for three rounds, and we’re now repeating ourselves, I quit. One of the reasons I now bar the “black people are stupider than white people” argument on this blog, as well as the related “why can’t I argue that black people are stupider” argument, is that it went way beyond the “three rounds and you’re not telling me anything new” point. I do still allow discussion of “how much gender difference is nature and how much is nurture” on this blog, on both sides of the argument, because some areas of that discussion may include stuff that hasn’t already been beaten to death. But that’s my choice. If you get a blog, you get to make your own choice.

Second, what are the boundaries of free speech, where the government is concerned? Very broad. Obviously the Googler’s manifesto, however factually wrong, is within those bounds. Likewise, if the government shouldn’t suppress something, you shouldn’t go punch someone for saying it, or incite others to go attack someone for saying it.

Third, what are the boundaries of discussion in the workplace. This is a way more complicated question than the free speech one.

Most of us tech workers are “at will” employees, and so can be let go for a broad range of reasons, or no reason at all. Right now, I am in my six month probation period at a new job. As far as I know, my company could legally let me go for posting Glenn Campbell songs (here’s one of my favorites) on the occasion of my death. They’d be idiots if they did so, but there’s no law against it.

There are, however, some boundaries on what they can fire me for, even as an “at will” employee, and even as an “at will” employee who is on my probation period. My co-blogger, WiredSisters, would, as a lawyer, have a better idea than me about what those limits are, but it’s my understanding that, for example, organizing with my fellow employees to improve our working conditions is a legally protected form of speech, for which my company can’t fire me.

On the other hand, there are some boundaries on what I can legally say, in the workplace, that may be narrower than what I’m legally allowed to say outside the workplace. There’s such a thing as “hostile work environment” lawsuits, and my employer may not take kindly to any expression, on my part, that may put them at risk of one of these. (It may be relevant, here, that Google is already being sued for sex discrimination in pay. Not a criticism of Google, here, as I don’t have enough facts to have any opinion one way or the other about whether that lawsuit should succeed. Just a comment on their legal incentives.)

So the answer to the question “should Google have fired Damore” is a little complicated. Not everyone who thinks he shouldn’t be fired is in the silly “if you don’t argue with someone that proves he’s right” camp that I dismissed earlier in this post. Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufkci, for instance, tweeted

My likely unpopular opinion. Google manifesto guy should not have been fired. Doesn’t solve the problem. Punishing a single person isn’t it.

She has also offered sharp tweets on why the guy was wrong about the nature of engineering. For example (resorting tweets so earliest comes first):

Zeynep Tufekci?

Look, tech problem isn’t just discrimination against women+minorities. It’s hostility to ESSENTIAL skills that/because many engineers lack.

Zeynep Tufekci?

That manifesto, had it been written by someone with real insight and deep smarts, would have ended with calling for hiring tons of women.

Zeynep Tufekci?

The manifesto essentially argued that women have stronger collaboration skills & better sense of empathy. THAT IS WHAT TECH NEEDS MOST NOW.

On the other hand, Yonatan Zunger, who is on the same page as Tufekci about what Damore gets wrong about software engineering, has a very different opinion on whether he should have been fired.

Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

If you hadn’t written this manifesto, then maybe we’d be having a conversation about the skills you need to learn to not be blocked in your career?—?which are precisely the ones you described as “female skills.” But we are having a totally different conversation now. It doesn’t matter how good you are at writing code; there are plenty of other people who can do that. The negative impact on your colleagues you have created by your actions outweighs that tremendously.

Tufekci and Zunger actually both have a point. Lots of people think like Damore, and so it’s reasonable to have a public debate and engage where his thinking is wrong (both about gender and about the nature of technology). And having a debate at the office about which groups of people are, in general, innately not up for the job doesn’t exactly help workplace collaboration.

Not being a lawyer, I can’t (as WiredSisters perhaps can) give an informed comment on the legal ramifications of Damore’s comments. If I were his manager (and I was a manager at my last job), I’d be headed to HR for advice. Because I’d want to be really sure I stayed on the correct side of whatever employment law might apply, both regarding Damore’s rights and regarding what might constitute a “hostile workplace” for his coworkers. I couldn’t just act on my own feelings; I’d have to consider the welfare of the company. And that would probably mean consulting the company’s legal department before jumping to conclusions about my best course of action.

What I can say is, when you’re writing a manifesto and circulating it at your company, maybe think about how it’s going to affect your ability to collaborate with your fellow employees?