Elitist? Moi? A confused excursion in moral philosophy

Posted by WiredSisters on June 28th, 2016 filed in Democracy, Moral Philosophy, Queries, Theology

I’ve spent the last several years reading about why liberals are elitist, because they disagree with Joe Sixpack.  Or because they use the term “Joe Sixpack.”  Or because they stubbornly refuse to concede that Joe Sixpack was right about [whatever.]  Or because they like classical music and go to art museums instead of NASCAR races.

In the light of the recent successes of Donald Trump and Brexit, should we be repenting of our errors?  We went through that in 1980 when Reagan beat Carter.  Should we have to do it again?  Can we at least wait until after the election to see whether Joe Sixpack has wised up in the meantime?

And why am I focusing my attention on these rather petty personal-political questions in the middle of what many people think is the most important election in our lifetimes?

Let’s deal with the last question first.  Yesterday I was in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade and (along with a million other people) had a perfectly wonderful time.  We lefties don’t get too many fun celebrations.  No hangovers, not even a sunburn.  (BTW, we Chicagoans have a pretty good idea whose side the Big Guy is on: Passover is usually windy and/or rainy; Latin Easter [the one most of you guys celebrate] is so-so; Greek Easter, which comes a week or two later, is quite nice.  But the best weekend weather of all happens on Gay Pride Sunday, year in year out.)  So I don’t want to harsh my mellow too soon.

Anyway, so far as I can tell, liberals get a bad rap because we are not only elitist but opinionated.  An elitist is somebody who is proud to have gone to school long enough to know that 2+2=4.  He’s opinionated if he thinks he’s right to believe 2+2=4.  (I’m not sure what the opposite of opinionated is—maybe somebody who says “I think 2+2=4 but I could be wrong”?)

“Political correctness” figures in there someplace, too.  It’s “politically correct” not to sneer at people whose education didn’t last long enough to get to 2+2=4.  But it’s “elitist” to think that “2+2=4” is true.

I used to worry about this stuff.  I have made a conscious effort to extend my tastes to include country music and occasional baseball games (preferably minor league—cheaper and a lot more fun.)  I celebrate Hank Williams’ yahrzeit with a good round of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” I bragged about my cooking skills (unfortunately that coincided with the flowering of elite foodiness.  Sometimes you can’t win.)  Now I brag about my craftiness, and carefully avoid telling people I learned most of the ladylike arts at a girls’ boarding school.  This is all pretty much okay, because life is always more pleasant if one can enjoy more of the things in it, even if one wasn’t brought up with them.

What I can’t make myself do is flutter my eyelashes and say “but that’s just my little ol’ opinion” when discussing why 2+2=4.    What I try to do instead is let the other guy do as much of the talking as possible (for a woman, that’s really easy) until he finally gets around to saying something like “I’ve got a nice retirement package, after working for Streets and Sanitation for 25 years.” Then I get to ask him “How’d you manage that?” and he says “We had a good union,” which in fact Streets and San workers in Chicago do have, along with a good civil service system. And I get to say, “So how do you feel about our current governor, who wants to abolish public worker unions?”  This is more subtle than “gotcha,” but just as much fun.  If I do it often enough, maybe our current governor will not be re-elected, if enough other people do it too.

But there are dilemmas for lefties that are less easily resolved.  For instance, I spent several years without health insurance.  I got most of my health care through the Cook County Hospital systems.  If you’re willing to wait several months for a non-emergency appointment, and then spend an entire morning, or an entire afternoon, waiting to get into the outpatient clinic or whatever, you will ultimately end up getting pretty good health care.  (Their emergency care, BTW, is fast and good.  The real problem is with medical issues that are not emergencies—yet–but need to be dealt with faster than the Cook County waiting list for appointments can handle, or they will become emergencies.) In the meantime, you can watch a lot of cute kids running around, or bring a good book.  But it still sort of bothered me—was I using a place in the system that people poorer than me needed more?  Or would it have been snobbish of me not to use it? Now that I have Medicare, I can at least stop worrying about that.

And then there’s housing.  I live in a more-or-less integrated university neighborhood.   My husband, on principle, insisted on finding an integrated neighborhood.  When we moved in, it was a definitely uncool area full of semi-impoverished students.  Now it’s getting all sorts of posh commercial “improvements” which may end up pricing me out altogether.  Was I gaming the system when we moved in? Was I a snob for staying when it started “improving”?  And what about segregation?  When we moved in, were we taking a space that some non-white family needed more and could not have found in a whiter neighborhood?  Or were we doing our bit to keep the neighborhood from re-segregating?  It is easy to get cross-eyed from this kind of double-double-think.

In fact, what it reminds me of more than anything else is the moral system invented by Augustine refined by John Calvin, and recently updated by Paul Samuelson, that says we’re all sinners and the proof of that is that we do what we want to do instead of what’s right, and even when we do what’s right it’s usually because that’s what we want to do.  And the reason we want to do it is that it makes us feel good.  Hahh? The solution to that conundrum, from the Jewish point of view, is to say “Who on earth cares why you do the right thing, as long as it gets done?” Saves a lot of moral energy that can be more usefully devoted to doing the right thing.

Aside from that, I don’t have any useful answers for this confusion.  Do I think I’m smarter than people who didn’t graduate from Harvard because I did?  (Well, actually, that raises an important distinction.  I’m definitely not smarter than somebody who went to Harvard and didn’t graduate, because flunking out of Harvard takes real work and serious smarts of which I am far from capable.  I know a couple of people who did, and they’re a lot smarter than I am. So here I’m talking about people who never went to Harvard in the first place. Aside from people who went to Swarthmore.  I know several people who got into Harvard but were rejected by Swarthmore, from which it follows that Swarthmore grads must be smarter than Harvard grads.)  Not really, and besides, who cares?  Which is to say, for most purposes, being smart is highly overrated.  What it’s mostly good for is finding more ways to enjoy life. Aside from that, it’s just a rare and recondite talent like being able to wiggle one’s ears.  Which I can do, but not as well as my late father could.

Do I think I’m smarter than Donald may-his-name-be-blotted-out?  Yes and no.  No, in that I haven’t become a millionaire. But on the other hand I’m smart enough not to be running for president. Do I think I’m smarter than the people who voted for him?  Presuming the usual distribution of what Charles “Bell Curve” Murray would call g, I’m probably smarter than some of them, and not as smart as some others.  Which is to say, some people may have some grounds for voting for him that are based on sound reasoning and a set of values very different from mine.  Once again you may wish to read up on Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of moral foundations.

So okay, do I think my values are better than theirs?  Well, yes, I do.  That doesn’t mean I think I’m better than the people who hold those other values.  And I have an advantage over lefties who weren’t raised in a religion—I can always blame it on my Sunday School teachers, rather than taking credit for it myself.

So anyway, I’ll worry about Brexit later in the week.  In the meantime, enjoy the Glorious Fourth.  I’ll worry about that next week.




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Judicial ethics? What judicial ethics

Posted by Sappho on June 19th, 2016 filed in Election 2016

You may remember that before the June primary I blogged a little about Orange County, California judicial elections. One in particular was an easy choice for me. It pitted a judge, Orange County Superior Court Justice Scott Steiner, who had been censured for mixing sex and work in ways that compromised his professional ethics, and earned the unusual distinction of being rated by the local bar association as “Not Qualified” despite being the actual incumbent, against a prosecutor who was considerably less ethically encumbered.

It turns out that other voters didn’t agree with me. Steiner won his reelection bid.

Now, it’s possible that these other voters made an informed decision, and concluded that the members of the local bar association were being a bunch of prudes. So what if Steiner had sex with his former students in his chambers? Weren’t they all consenting adults? And so what if he gave a job referral to one of his former sex partners? Hey, all is fair in love and war.

But I kind of doubt it. I haven’t noticed that non-lawyers are markedly more lenient than lawyers about such things. And I have noticed that it’s rather time consuming to find information about all the down ballot races on the ballot. Particularly the judicial races.

I suspect that a lot of people looked at their ballots and said, hey, this guy is the incumbent, his ballot statement looks OK, and I don’t recall hearing anything bad about him.

Either that, or Steiner friendly local bloggers were really good at bad mouthing his opponent.

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Science links: Climate change and autism

Posted by Sappho on June 19th, 2016 filed in Environment, Science, Vaccinations

I got one of these off Twitter, and the other off Facebook.

First, Scientific American reports that Antarctic CO2 Hit 400 PPM for First Time in 4 Million Years.

… The last station on Earth without a 400 parts per million (ppm) reading has reached it.

Passing the 400 ppm milestone in is a symbolic but nonetheless important reminder that human activities continue to reshape our planet in profound ways. We’ve seen sea levels rise about a foot in the past 120 years and temperatures go up about 1.8°F (1°C) globally. Arctic sea ice has dwindled 13.4 percent per decade since the 1970s, extreme heat has become more common and oceans are headed for their most acidic levels in millions of years. Recently heat has cooked corals and global warming has contributed in various ways to extreme events around the world.

Climate change denial isn’t the only form of science denial out there, though; there are also people who still cling to a single discredited study to justify their belief that vaccines really, really do cause autism. And this raises the question: Given that we now have ample evidence that vaccines aren’t the cause of the increase in diagnoses of autism, what is? That’s where this next article comes in: Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism — So What Does? It’s a good layperson’s round up of research on autism, and the various explanations that might account for a portion of the increase in autism diagnoses, from broader diagnostic criteria, to air pollution, to the rise of computers allowing some people on the spectrum to more readily find mates, to other possibilities that you’ll have to read the article to find.

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Gun Rights, Gun Wrongs, and Gun Questions

Posted by WiredSisters on June 13th, 2016 filed in Democracy, Guest Blogger, Law, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony


Like President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and a whole lot of other people, I’m tired of this subject. I’m tired of mass shootings, tired of the parade of sick statistics. And I’m tired of playing Gotcha with the media.

  • is this truly the biggest mass shooting in the US?
  • Is this likely to encourage a numbers competition? The way holiday weekend car crash death tolls used to (“so far this weekend, 62 people have died nationwide in auto accidents, compared to 71 last year.  Come on, guys, some of you are just not trying!”)
  • How come nobody else noticed that we’re in the month of Ramadan?
  • And that a large proportion of the Orlando casualties were Hispanic, probably because Saturday night was “Latin Night” at the Pulse nightclub?
  • Am I the only one who, upon hearing that the shooter (whose name I will not use because I think it should be blotted out) called in his pledge of fealty to ISIS in the middle of the slaughter, flashed on the Spanish bullfighting custom of dedicating a particular bull, or its ears or tail, to some honored personage?    Is there a Hispanic connection somewhere in here?
  • Is the fact that the weapons used in this slaughter were all legally obtained an argument that guns regulations are useless or an argument that they need to be tightened?
  • Were any of the nightclub patrons armed?  If they had been, would the result have been a smaller, briefer slaughter, or something along the lines of the battle of Gettysburg, where everybody was armed, and upwards of 46,000 people were killed or wounded (the real largest mass shooting in US history?)
  • Without the assistance of Google, would the extra time required to research these facts have slowed me down and cooled me off enough to handle this subject more thoughtfully? Has modern technology deprived us of the “second thought”?
  • Am I the only one to consider Trump’s “I told you so” obnoxious enough to completely disqualify him for any public office down to and including Animal Control Officer? Should pit bulls be allowed to vote on such a proposal?
  • Will the publicity now being given to the Islamic extremist policy on homosexuality actually make the Westboro Baptist Church shut up, or even become gay rights advocates? If so, how will the Human Rights Campaign (full disclosure: of which I am a member) deal with them?
  • How much longer can I blog this event before running out of gallows humor?
  • And finally, what will it take to persuade this Supreme Court that framers of the Second Amendment to the Constitution never heard of an AR-15 and would never have permitted civilians to carry them if they had?

In conclusion: it’s true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But people with guns kill more people, faster.

Red Emma

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Loving Day

Posted by Sappho on June 12th, 2016 filed in Marriage

A reminder from a Friend, on our meeting’s mailing list:

A small bright note on a sombre day. Today is the unofficial holiday, Loving Day, which honors the day that the Supreme Court decided, in Loving vs. Virginia, that states could not block interracial couples from marrying.

An article in the LA Times:

The person behind Loving Day, Ken Tanabe (who is a Japanese-Belgian US citizen) has started a petition drive for the White House to pursue official recognition of the day. I encourage you to sign as they need about 90,000 signatures by June 30!

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Button, Button: The Morality of Asymmetrical Warfare

Posted by WiredSisters on June 3rd, 2016 filed in Guest Blogger, History, Iraq War, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony

Years and years ago, one of my favorite speculative fiction writers formulated a “thought experiment.” Imagine, he said, that you could bloodlessly, painlessly, neatly, and with no possibility of retaliation, eliminate any person on the face of the earth, just by pressing a button.  Would you use it?  And, if so, on whom?  That probably got a lot of people thinking.  Maybe some people even made lists, just in case somebody invented such a button someday.

Well, now we have one, sort of.  We’ve actually had it for a while, although it has only recently been publicized.  Back in the 1990s, I worked with a man in the US Air Force who got discharged as a conscientious objector after working with a prototype of the drone program.  It was operated from a base in the Midwest, and worked kind of like a video game during the first Gulf War.  My client was appalled by this long-distance bloodless killing machine, and got himself out as quickly as possible.

More recently, U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain Captain Christopher John Antal resigned from the U.S. Army Reserves on April 12, 2016 in opposition to U.S policies regarding militarized drones, nuclear weapons, and preventive war.  Conscientious objectors always get accused of just not wanting to risk their own lives in combat.  Even the men who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki could conceivably have been shot down, as many other bomber crews were. But my unnamed client and Captain Antal (and probably a few other people I haven’t heard about) pretty well demolish this argument.  The drone operators are perfectly safe.  My client wasn’t even on the same continent where the war was happening.  The worst physical consequence he faced was back trouble from sitting too long. This is the ultimate in asymmetrical warfare.  But it is still warfare.  It is still killing.  Indeed, it is arguably the worst kind of killing, the kind that does not even require the lower-level relative virtues of courage and loyalty.

In a way, most of our wars have been something like drone wars, in that we almost always send somebody else’s sons and daughters to die in them, while we sit back here in relative safety and watch the news.  The buttons we push are on the TV remote control, not the controller of the actual weapons.  It may not be bloodless, but the blood shed isn’t ours.  And we almost always have an edge, in resources and technology, over the other side.  The men and women who do the actual fighting are undoubtedly loyal and courageous in doing it.  But we who sit here at home “supporting the troops” are only slightly better than NFL fans cheering while the real players destroy their own bodies and those of the other team.  In drone warfare, at least our team incurs no injuries, which is sort of a net improvement.  That improvement will probably be balanced out, in the long run, by the fact that this kind of warfare is so much easier and cheaper than the old-fashioned kind that we are likely to use it a lot more often to get our way, and thus kill a lot more people on the other side.

Some commentators on drone warfare (and other forms of asymmetrical warfare) oppose it on the grounds that someday we may come up against an opponent with the same kinds of technology and resources. Others talk about “blowback,” and use 9/11 as an example.  The people who live under our drone fire will have a lot of time and incentive to devise cheap methods of mass destruction against us.  For their purposes, those methods don’t have to be “surgically precise”—they just have to be cheap and effective.  All of that makes sense as far as it goes.  There are good practical reasons for opposing this most-practical-looking form of warfare.  The moral reasons are the same ones that have always been there.  So far as I know, nobody is working on a system in which machines not only do all the killing, but all the dying.

Red Emma

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Educational attainment and genetics

Posted by Sappho on May 28th, 2016 filed in DNA

From a 23andMe blog post a couple of weeks ago:

In what is the largest-ever genome wide association study for social science, researchers found more than 70 genetic variants associated with educational attainment — the number of years individuals spent in school or university.

Now, here’s where I add the caveats. Most individual variation in educational attainment isn’t genetic. The blog post I just quoted also says:

“It is intriguing that, even though educational attainment is primarily influenced by environmental factors, our study of educational attainment generates a biological picture of brain development that is clearer than those generated by previous GWAS that focused directly on brain structures,” the authors said.

And when I look for the article in Nature, I find:

Educational attainment is strongly influenced by social and other environmental factors, but genetic factors are estimated to account for at least 20% of the variation across individuals.

So, we are talking about, according to the abstract, “74 genome-wide significant loci associated with the number of years of schooling completed,” with all genetic factors perhaps not accounting for much over 20% of the variation. Any one gene, by itself, would have only a modest impact here. Still, the study interests me in that it shows the power of genome wide association studies to find genes that influence particular traits, even when the trait is both heavily environmentally influenced and influenced by many genes, and when the genes in question themselves influence multiple traits.

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The Burtons of Leicestershire

Posted by Sappho on May 22nd, 2016 filed in Genealogy

My great-grandfather, Robert Burton Gooden, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, was the son of James Gooden (a barrister) and Hannah Burton, who immigrated from Bolton, Lancashire to California in the 19th century. This makes me the fifth generation in my family to live in Southern California, but in a roundabout way; though five generations of us have lived here at one time or another, I actually grew up in New York (and my mother actually grew up in Wisconsin).

There’s a lot more that I could say about my great-grandfather, who lived to nearly 102 and became the oldest priest on the Episcopal Church retirement plan (as a result of which I have a church magazine devoted to his life, written when he turned 100). But this post isn’t about him. It’s about his mother’s family. My uncle, when going through old family papers, came across some notes about the Burtons and sent me a copy. So I am pulling together what I learned from those notes and what I had learned earlier from my grandmother and her sisters.

Many years ago, I taped an interview in which I asked my grandmother about her family. This is what she had to say about her father’s mother, Hannah Burton:
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Posted by Sappho on May 18th, 2016 filed in DNA

As I’ve said in the past, one of the problems with “there can’t possibly be a ‘gay gene’ because evolution would have selected against it” arguments (which should be distinguished from “your ‘gay gene’ hasn’t been sufficiently proven yet” arguments) is the fact that genes can have multiple functions. A gene that has an evolutionary disadvantage in one respect can still be carried on if one of its other evolutionary effects is advantageous.

This ability of genes to have more than one function is called “pleiotropy,” and some genes are hardworking multitaskers indeed. Here’s a post on 23andMe’s blog about a study of genetic variants that influence multiple traits and conditions.

A new study led by researchers at the New York Genome Center and 23andMe analyzed 42 different traits identified more than 300 locations in the genome that influence multiple traits and conditions. The study published in Nature Genetics was supported through a grant from the National Institutes of Health….

Researchers in this study found that variants known to influence puberty also influence height, male pattern baldness and BMI, which are all related to hormonal regulation. Another cluster was found around metabolic conditions such as coronary artery disease, red blood cell traits and lipid levels. And researchers also noted clustering around immune response with conditions like asthma, allergies, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and infectious diseases like childhood ear infections and tonsillitis clustering together.

The researchers say their study validates the use of genome wide association studies to find variants that influence many different traits….

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A little election music

Posted by Sappho on May 18th, 2016 filed in Election 2016, Music

Joel and I just voted. So here’s a little election music:

The Name’s LaGuardia,” from Fiorello.

The Election of 1800,” from Hamilton.

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June 7, 2016 California primary: Some nonpartisan down ballot races in Orange County

Posted by Sappho on May 14th, 2016 filed in Election 2016

Finally, I get to the nonpartisan down ballot races. Let me take the easy one first, the race for the Board of Education, before I get to the trickier question of figuring out enough about the judicial candidates to have an informed opinion.
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June 7, 2016 California primary: Partisan down ballot races in Orange County

Posted by Sappho on May 14th, 2016 filed in Election 2016

Next, let me look at the partisan races that I get to vote on, in my particular part of Orange County. By this, I mean, not races that are separated by party. California recently changed to a blanket primary system (except for the Presidential race and party central committee races), in which candidates of all parties are listed on a single ballot, we all, regardless of party registration, get to vote on all of them, and the top two advance to the November election. Still, even in this blanket primary system, for some offices I get to see party affiliations on my ballot, and for others I don’t. And the party affiliation is information, so partisan and nonpartisan offices are as good a way to separate my blog posts as any. Here are the partisan offices that I get to vote on.
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June 7, 2016 California primary: Ballot propositions

Posted by Sappho on May 14th, 2016 filed in California Ballot Propositions, Election 2016

For a change, we only have one statewide ballot proposition in this election (eight have been certified to go on the November ballot. In addition, I get to vote on two ballot measures for Orange County. My planned votes are:

Proposition 50 (Suspension of legislators. Constitutional Amendment.): Yes

Proposition A (Establish County Ethics Commission to Enforce County Campaign Finance and Ethics Rules): Yes

Proposition B (Require Fiscal Impact Statement for Any Countywide Measure Placed on the Ballot): Yes

None of these propositions appear to be controversial, so I’m not going to bother to explain my positions (I’m saving that for the posts about down ballot races, where I can get more out of the exercise of thinking through my views). But if you want to argue for or against any of these propositions in the comments, feel free.

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June 7, 2016 California primary: Democratic ballot for President

Posted by Sappho on May 14th, 2016 filed in Election 2016, News and Commentary

I’ve been preparing to vote in the California primary in June by studying the down ballot races. I’m going to have several posts about the primary. This, the first one, serves to separate discussion of the Presidential primary from discussion of down ballot races. Here are the rules:

  1. In the comments of this post, you get to try to convince me of how I should vote in the presidential primary. I have already made up my mind, it’s true, but I haven’t actually voted yet. So this is your last chance to persuade me.
  2. California recently changed to a blanket primary system, in which candidates of all parties are listed on a single ballot, we all, regardless of party registration, get to vote on all of them, and the top two advance to the November election. However, none of this applies to the office of President of the United States. That part of the ballot is still partisan. As I am a registered Democrat, I only get to choose among the Democratic candidates. Any attempts to argue that I should vote for anyone other than the Democratic candidates listed on my ballot are off topic for this post. I will list the candidates that you get to argue for or against below.
  3. I won’t be fact checking comments (not on the blog, anyway – obviously I’ll check any facts before I use them to inform my vote). So you can, if you choose, give factually incorrect arguments for why I should vote for or against a candidate. I trust that any of my readers will take care in checking any facts they find on the Internet before voting.

Here is the list of candidates, from my sample ballot:

Roque De La Fuente
Hillary Clinton
Henry Hewes
Keith Judd
Michael Sternberg
Bernie Sanders
Willie Wilson

So, go ahead and tell me why I should vote for Roque De La Fuente. Or perhaps for some other candidate ;-).


The Chaplin’s War

Posted by Sappho on May 9th, 2016 filed in Fiction

It started with a typo. Brad Torgerson has written a book called The Chaplain’s War, and John Scalzi, on his blog, referred to that book as “The Chaplin’s War.” Someone suggested that a book of that title ought to exist. So I wrote the short story “The Chaplin’s War” and shared it with a few friends. A friend pointed out that I’d left my Chaplin in a desperate place, and he was looking forward to seeing how I got her out of that spot. So I wrote “The Chaplin’s Rescue.” And also, while I was waiting to figure out how I’d manage “The Chaplin’s Rescue,” another short story in the same science fiction future, “A Little Sister’s Tale.”

Now I’ve published them all on SmashWords, as The Fall of the Ubagane Empire series. You can buy them as eBooks for $0.99 each.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Chaplin’s War” to give you an idea what the series is like:

I, Vijaya Choudhary, am a Chaplin.

I thought it best to keep that from the Qorathi. It’s not that I’m anything other than proud of my work. But he and I, for the moment, were not exactly on the same side.

Peacekeeping is an honorable job. Promises, once made, must be kept, and noble are the warriors who ensure that those promises hold, the GalPax forces who maintain the lines of ceasefires and peace settlements.

But until that ceasefire settlement is made, you must fight like hell, to be in position to make the right deal when the time comes. And we humans have a truce with the Dilgarians on one front only. On that front, GalPax may take its proper stand. But on the front to which I was headed, no truce held.

And I am a bard of war.

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Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST)

Posted by Sappho on May 1st, 2016 filed in Education support

Today, in our Quaker Explorations before meeting for worship, one of our members spoke about an education project that she had learned about during her recent trip to India. There is an NGO called Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST). You can find some of their educational videos on Youtube.

Here’s a brief description from their leaflet:

QUEST is a Non-Governmental not-for-profit organisation working on quality related issues in the field of Early Childhood Education, Elementary education, and Teacher education since April 2007. Over the past 8 years, work has been initiated in 6 districts of Maharashtra: Thane, Palghar, Nandurbar, Jalna, Junnar and Dhule. The organisation has reached around 9000 children, through its various programmes, and around 1000 teachers through workshops and its online forum which is available in the regional language (Marathi).

There may be more about this organization later on this blog, but for now I figured at least I’d get a brief description and link up.

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Oh, They Call It Puppy Love

Posted by Sappho on April 27th, 2016 filed in Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

Yesterday we got to see the 2016 Hugo Nominee Finalists, and learned the answer to the question: Would the Puppies sweep the awards this year as well? On the one hand, we knew that they were organizing again, and that the nomination system was still vulnerable to slates – that a determined minority can sweep a category by all voting for the same set of works, while the uncoordinated majority scatter their votes. Last year, a proposal passed to change the nomination system to one harder to game, one in which a coordinated slate is guaranteed to get some of its choices on the ballot, but can’t lock down an entire category. But that proposal only goes into effect if it’s passed again at this year’s WorldCon, so this year, the same vulnerability would apply. On the other hand, with a much larger number of people having bought memberships last year, and more perhaps being motivated to nominate works, there was a chance that the impact of slates would be diluted.

At first glance, the finalists appear to be Puppied, but not as heavily Puppied as last year. Best Novel has a book by Ann Leckie, who was a non-Puppy nominee last year, one by N.K. Jemisin, who is not at all on the same side as Rabin Puppy leader Vox Day (VD got banned from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for calling this famous African-American SF writer “an educated, but ignorant half-savage, with little more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by ‘a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys’ than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine….”), and Jim Butcher, a Puppy nominee last year but one whose works are generally popular enough that I’m sure he got voted below No Award only due to being on the slate. Other nominees include people like Stephen King and Neil Gaimann, who need no Puppy support to make it on the ballot. And Mike Glyer and his File 770, who won praise for their Puppy reporting (I nominated them myself), but seem to be more popular with non-Puppies than Puppies, are on the list.

It turns out, though, that David Barnett at the Guardian has crunched the numbers and foudn that, once again, the Hugo Awards shortlist is dominated by Puppy nominees.

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Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg would fund your third party why, exactly?

Posted by Sappho on April 27th, 2016 filed in News and Commentary

By today, I imagine tweets about primary results have eclipsed, on Twitter, Monday’s news about Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei’s Wall Street Journal horrible op-ed calling for a third party candidate. I first heard about it before work yesterday, when I read Daniel Drezner’s take down of all the ways the op ed goes horribly wrong.

I bring this up because Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei’s Wall Street Journal op-ed manages to ignore all of these warnings. Praising the plain language of Donald Trump? Check. References to disruption? Check. Calls for an “Innovation Party?” Check. VandeHei also leans hard on the “Normal America vs. D.C. bubble” trope, which will be a topic for another column.

Today, however, Spoiler Alerts would like to focus on VandeHei’s yearning for a military leader to set things right….

Indeed, VandeHei’s longing for a candidate from the military who

could build on death-by-drones by outlying the type of modern weapons, troops and war powers needed to keep America safe. And make plain when he or she will use said power. Do it with very muscular language — there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.

is, let’s say, not the third party America needs, and Daniel Drezner shows why, by pointing out an example of what such a candidate might look like.

But at lunch time at work Monday, I checked out a paper copy of the Wall Street Journal and read the editorial myself. And, as I’m a computer geek rather than a foreign policy wonk like Drezner, my eye was drawn to an obvious computer geek flaw in Vanderhei’s proposal.

Vanderhei proposes a third party that takes a lesson from Trump’s campaign that

Voters aren’t dopes: They want an unvarnished look at their future president’s personality and ideas. They can tolerate uncomfortable truths.

This party would support a foreign policy with “very muscular language — there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.”

And it would be headed up by Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party movement? Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign—and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.

I will even throw out a possible name for the movement: The Innovation Party….

And it would succeed by winning disaffected Trump and Sanders supporters.

Hello? Zuckerberg and Sandberg are actual people with their own specific views and issues, not generic poster children for innovation. Zuckerberg favors immigration reform. Sandberg wants to encourage women to lean in to leadership. Whatever gave you the idea that either of them would have any reason to fund a party that’s based on the notion that Trump is winning because he’s telling “uncomfortable truths”? That either of them actually sees Trump’s words as “truths” of any kind, comfortable or uncomfortable? That a party whose positions would appeal to immigration reform advocate Zuckerberg would also be a party that would draw Trump supporters? That people who are enthusiastic about Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy would have a lot of overlap with a candidate, Trump, who’s historically unpopular with women? And, by the way, why is a muscular foreign policy presented with no nuance supposed to bring in Bernie Sanders supporters?

Calls for a “centrist” third party often wind up proposing to recreate political coalitions that are represented just fine in the political system we already have. Sometimes, it’s a proposal for a new, moderate third party candidate (perhaps Bloomberg?) who will adopt the new, centrist policies that the writer has failed to notice are close to the ones Obama already promotes. This time, though, it’s the Republican Party that’s being recreated. Vanderhei wants a party that includes business friendly leaders (Zuckerberg! Sandberg! Innovation!) blended with a “muscular foreign policy” and a right populism like that of Donald Trump. He fails to notice that this is already the Republican Party we have. Why are these groups going to like each other more in a new party than they do in the Grand Old Party?

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One line summaries of movies with Bechdel test results

Posted by Sappho on April 24th, 2016 filed in Movies

Call Girl of Cthulhu one line summary: When the call girl of virginal artist Carter Wilcox’s dreams is impregnated by Cthulhu, he and his roommate Erica Zann must stop a cult from bringing about the end of the world.

Bechdel Test rating: Passes, due to conversations between two women about stopping the impending end of the world, and conversations between Edna and Squid about preventing impending doom, and words exchanged between Squid and Erica about the same.

Notes: High camp, as you would expect.

The Martian one line summary: An astronaut stranded on Mars must survive until he can be rescued.

Bechdel Test rating: Passes, due to brief conversations between two female astronauts during the rescue effort.

Notes: An interesting combination of solitary Robinson Crusoe style ingenuity from the “Martian” and Apollo 13 style (but with more diversity) engineering teamwork from the people involved in the rescue effort.

August: Osage County one line summary: A family unravels in the wake of the suicide of their father/husband/brother/brother-in-law/uncle.

Bechdel Test rating: Passes overwhelmingly, as most of the movie involves three sisters and their mother talking to each other, sometimes about men and sometimes about other things.

Notes: One of the supporting actors is Misty Upham, turning in a fine performance as a young Native American woman hired as a live-in cook and caregiver. I was interested in seeing what else she had acted in, so I looked her up, and, shoot, she died young! And her family believes she could have been saved if search and rescue efforts were more prompt.

Avatar one line summary: A former Marine turned security guard changes loyalties from the company that hired him to the more spiritual blue aliens whom the company would dispossess of their forest.

Bechdel Test rating: Passes, as female aliens discuss with each other the plight of their people.

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The Scourge of Political Correctness

Posted by WiredSisters on April 20th, 2016 filed in Historical Jesus, Moral Philosophy, Quaker Practice, Theology

Apparently, it all starts in childhood, at least some people’s childhood. I distinctly remember my mother telling me (when I was maybe five years old?) “Be nice.” I think at the time, it had something to do with not hitting the neighbor’s three-year-old.

I also vaguely remember my mother telling me that, if I couldn’t say anything nice about one of my schoolmates, I shouldn’t say anything at all. And didn’t Thumper the Rabbit say something like that to Bambi? Omigod, Walt Disney was one of the authors of political correctness! Is no one safe?
And then I started going to Sunday School, where I distinctly remember my teacher telling me that Jesus said to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. This conspiracy has no limits!

Well, I’m about to run out of exclamation points, and I’m only on my fourth paragraph. But I can find almost no place safe from the sinister forces of PC, and just switching to a Mac won’t help. Actually I do remember where I first heard the term (aside from computers, that is.) Back when I was working as a military counselor (trying to help people get out of the armed forces, most of whom as a taxpayer I really didn’t want in there anyway, but that’s another story), my work required me to go to meetings and conferences with various kinds of Left and Far Left organizations. I learned all kinds of interesting stuff about the American Left of the 1970s. I learned, for instance, that Maoists always come on time to meetings, but Stalinists are more fun at parties. I learned how to spot undercover government agents (they do all the scut work and make meetings last forever.) I learned that the women in the local chapter of the Revolutionary Communist Party all got their hair cut at the same place.

And, dear reader, that was where I first heard the term “politically correct.” It was used by a Stalinist describing a Maoist (or possibly the other way around—gimme a break, I’m going on 75 now.) It was, as we would say now, snark, used to describe somebody’s excessive or even obsessive devotion to the minutiae of political principle. It was a kind of in-group joke. Not long after, a colleague of mine suggested raising money by printing up some T-shirts with “POLITICALLY CORRECT BRIGADE” in Boldface Old English type on the front, and “PCB” on the back. We never got around to doing it, but it was a fun thing to contemplate. PCBs, the real ones, I mean, polychlorinated biphenyls, were big back then. They were a nasty chemical that kept turning up all over the place no matter how hard the EPA tried to get rid of it. And then I never heard the phrase again, for another decade or so. When it did turn up again, it was in a totally
different context and with a totally different meaning.

A digression here: I used to be an English teacher. I even got a Master’s degree in the subject. One of the papers I wrote in pursuit of the degree was a study, mostly through the OED, of all the major dirty words in our current vocabulary. The study revealed that almost all of them had started out as euphemisms for something presumably even dirtier.

Most of them had started out as some kind of slang, too. Slang changes faster and more often than more conventional usage. Back in the 1960s, for instance, Black youth (and white youth who thought it was cool to emulate them) used the words “tight” and “up tight” to mean close to another person. But in less than a decade, “uptight” had found its way into the general vocabulary, with the meaning “anxious, rigid.”
Which is pretty much what happened to “politically correct.” It started out meaning “excessively devoted to arcane political principles,” as part of the in-group vocabulary of the American Left. And then it turned up on the American Right with the meaning “avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” (I got this straight from Webster’s.) “Politically correct” gets defined as “Conforming to a particular sociopolitical ideology or point of view, especially to a liberal point of view concerned with promoting tolerance and avoiding offense in matters of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” What the American Right (and, apparently, the Right in the UK as well) mean by it is “those prissy prigs who won’t let me bad-mouth people I don’t like.” (Or, as I’m sure Donald Trump been known to say, “who won’t let me call a spade a spade.” If he hasn’t, he will.)

Most recently, the sinister forces of political correctness are credited with objecting to laws allowing doctors and other health care providers to refuse to serve members of the LGBTQ community. If they’re right, of course, Hippocrates was among the first of the Politically Correct Brigade, well before even Jesus.

Okay, it’s time for a philosophical analysis. I can’t take full credit for it. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations theory” is what got me started thinking about it. That theory posits that all human morality rests on some or all of six foundational values:
Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
Liberty: the loathing of tyranny; opposite of oppression.
Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
Authority or respect: obeying tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion.
Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.

Political groups can be divided on the basis of which of these values they prioritize. Conservatives prioritize Liberty, plus Authority and Sanctity. Liberals prioritize Care, Fairness, and Loyalty. But Haidt doesn’t cross-cut this matrix with what I see as the equally significant division between absolute values (which are always and everywhere to be applied) and relative values (which are no better than the particular people or purposes they are applied to.)

For liberals, authority and loyalty are no better than the people one is being loyal or deferential to. They are relative values, whereas care and fairness are absolute. (For more PC background, see Matthew 5/ 43-47:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.)

And for conservatives, care and fairness are no better than the people one is being caring or fair to. The main reason conservatives dislike liberals is that liberals feel obliged to at least try to respect everybody, even people the conservatives view as immoral or disgusting. Giving that kind of respect to criminals, or sexual deviants, or welfare drones, is what “political correctness” (as a Right-Wing slur) is all about.
I have long since gotten used to people saying “I’m going to say something politically incorrect [snigger snigger]” before saying something unpardonably racist or sexist or just plain obnoxious. It’s roughly equivalent to the driver who honks his horn before zipping through a stop sign or a red light or a pedestrian crosswalk. I have to give Donald Trump credit for not introducing his various tirades with that phrase. (Not unlike the rabbi who could find no suitable way to eulogize a particularly vile decedent except by saying “His brother was worse.”)

And yes, sometimes PC language can be really funny. The first and possibly the best treatment of the PC phenomenon happened in 1957, well before anybody ever used the term, at the hands of Stan Freberg (see http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/) But a lot of good things can be funny, especially the first few times we hear them. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate their goodness.

So anyway, the next time somebody accuses you of being politically correct, don’t bother arguing with him (it’s almost always a him.) Just say “thank you,” try to deserve it, and go on about your business.

Jane Grey

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USA: World’s Poorest Rich Nation

Posted by WiredSisters on April 10th, 2016 filed in Economics, History, Law

Installment Two: Crime and Punishment

This is about a 1995 case, in the context of the 1995 criminal justice system.  Things haven’t  changed much since then.  In 1995, Rolando Cruz, who was twice tried and convicted for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, was granted a new trial by the Illinois Supreme Court, which finally decided that someone else’s confession to the crime just might be a significant piece of data.  The prosecutor claimed to be infuriated and appalled.  So were the victim’s parents.  They had a right to have this case finished, they said.  “Cruz has already had a lot more chances than my daughter had,” Jeanine’s father said.  The case has lived a year longer than Jeanine herself did.

What this tells us is pretty much the same thing the Gary Dotson case told us, the same thing we learned from the 1994 Texas death penalty case in which the U.S. Supreme Court in its wisdom decided that innocence, at least if not asserted in the proper time, place, and manner, is a mere technicality, the same thing we just learned in the Supremes’ Osborne decision from Alaska.  We learn from all of these cases that the “criminal justice system” is not actually about justice.  Indeed, it is not even about vengeance and retribution, as we ordinarily understand them–doing unto the others who have done unto us.  It’s about human sacrifice.  If the Bad Guys have caused X amount of destruction, pain, and death to the Good Guys (us), the Good Guys are thereby entitled to cause roughly the same amount of destruction, pain, and death to any member of the Bad Guy class–i.e., young, poor, non-white, male, high school dropouts with prior criminal records.  The Bad Guys, like all sacrificial animals, are interchangeable.  We may be horrified when we find santeros sacrificing livestock in the public park, but, after all, we generally find chickens more likeable than Bad Guys.

Once upon a time, criminology students were taught that the purposes of the punishment meted out by the law enforcement system were four: rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution.  Well, we gave up on rehabilitation 30 years ago, on deterrence 20 years ago, and on incapacitation 10 years ago.  Now we are giving up on specific individual retribution.  That is:

1) we no longer believe the criminal justice system can reform the Bad Guys–once a Bad Guy, always a Bad Guy

2) we have decided that we do such an uncertain and sloppy job of catching the Bad Guys that almost no one from the Bad Guy class is deterred from committing crimes by the prospect of arrest, prosecution, conviction, and punishment

3) we can’t even be sure of keeping Bad Guys off the street for any length of time any more; and now

4) we can’t afford to take the time and effort to make sure we’re punishing the right Bad Guy for a particular crime he actually committed.  This, of course, should have been obvious to us 30 years ago, when, for the first time, more criminal charges were resolved by “plea bargains” than by trial.  The whole point of the plea bargaining system is that, if the prosecution can’t prove and doesn’t know what the defendant has done to deserve punishment, the defendant does know. Currently, 97% of all criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains, in which the prosecution doesn’t have to care if the defendant did what he was accused of doing, so long as he meets the other requirements of membership in the Bad Guy class and can be persuaded that he will get a better deal by pleading guilty to whatever the prosecutor wants to charge him with than by going to trial.

At the same time, in parallel with these developments, the victims’ rights movement has been evolving.  It arose as a reaction to the increasing mechanization of prosecutorial offices.  Prosecutors currently consider “unwinnable” any case that depends on the testimony of an innocent civilian witness, as opposed to someone they can rely on to testify as and when required–a police officer, a paid police informant, or an accomplice of the defendant.  So prosecutors rarely go out of their way either to file or to follow up charges brought by innocent civilian witnesses.  They see their job as “disposing of cases,” rather than convicting people for acts they have actually and provably committed.  Victims and their families, not unreasonably, got tired after a while of having to take time off from work again and again to go to court without ever having an opportunity to testify.  They got furious with not being informed of all court dates, and then seeing cases dismissed because “the complaining witness did not appear.”  (As a practical matter, the defendant can probably turn up missing several times before anything serious happens to him; if the complaining witness fails to show up once, the case is almost automatically dismissed.) They got utterly fed up when the prosecution bargained their cases down to time served and turned the criminal out onto the street, without even warning the victim, much less consulting her.  And they found it even more infuriating that they–and all other taxpayers–had to pay exorbitant sums in tax money to maintain this system.  The defendants get free room and board (with no obligation to do anything to repair the damage done to the victim); the lawyers get a job; and the prosecutor gets elected to whatever he’s running for this year. And the victims get–a lot of lost time from work, a lot of intimidation in court from the defendant and his buddies, the pain of having to remember and recount the victimization over and over for years, and the same gigantic tax bill the rest of us get.  Who can blame them for being angry?

And some of the responses of the criminal justice system to the victims’ rights movement were in fact fairly appropriate:

1) the use of civil suits against defendants, to prevent them from ever being able to profit from book and movie rights resulting from the crime, or ever being able to get rich at all, from any source;

2) Victim-witness assistance programs, to counsel victims and witnesses, and keep them informed of court dates

3) in many jurisdictions, requirements that the prosecutor must consult with the victim or the victim’s surviving family before plea bargaining the case

4) in some jurisdictions, the right of the victim or his/her surviving family to address the court before sentencing, whether the conviction results from a trial or a plea bargain.

The problems arise when the victim or his/her family demand a role in the process of adjudication (the “did he do it or didn’t he?” phase of the trial) beyond that of occurrence witness, and use that role to testify to the victim’s good character and beloved place in the community, or the devastating consequences of the crime.  These issues have no relevance at all in the adjudication phase.  At that point, it is the job of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have prosecuted the actual perpetrator, and of the trier of fact to find that they have done so, before any questions connected to the victim’s character and value to others can even be considered.  Before we can talk about the kind of person the victim was, we need to establish that s/he was in fact this defendant’s victim. The victim and his/her family have no right to see a particular defendant convicted, unless he happens to be provably guilty.

Indeed, even at sentencing, the fact that the victim was a good person, loved and valued by community and family, and that the loss of the victim, especially in such a horrendous crime, has devastated the family and the community, is only dubiously relevant.  Is it really more heinous to kill a church-going mother of 2 small children than a homeless man with no known family? If we take this position, we are only a short distance away from giving a medal to a person convicted of murdering a street person or some other general nuisance, instead of punishing him. The victim’s character and value to family and community are certainly valid questions in a civil suit, for purposes of calculating damages.  But in a criminal case, the controlling issue in sentencing should be the effect of the crime on the public welfare (what the medievals called “the king’s peace.”)

Well, okay, that was then.  Now, we’ve already decided that justice has been done, the victims made whole, and the “king’s peace” restored, if anybody is convicted of the crime.  The fact that the wrong person may be languishing in jail is of no consequence, so long as he is the right kind of person–young, male, preferably non-white, poor, high school dropout with a prior criminal record.  Whether or not he committed this particular crime, we figure we are all better off if people like him are in jail rather than on the street.

Most recently, we are even willing to extend this reasoning to the death penalty.  It’s okay to fry the wrong person so long as we fry somebody from the Bad Guy class.

We are not even made particularly uncomfortable by the fact that convicting or punishing the wrong person may well mean that the right person is still on the streets, threatening and victimizing other Good Guys.  After all, given enough time, and a wide enough dragnet for “the usual suspects,” the person who escapes prosecution for a crime he has actually committed will probably end up behind bars or even on Death Row for somebody else’s crime, or another one of his own (as Brian Dugan–the confessed killer of Jeanine Nicarico–did, after all.)

The criminal justice system has turned into an actuarial operation, which is defined as functioning properly when the people most likely to be guilty of some violent street crime are also most likely to be convicted of and punished for some violent street crime, whether or not the two crimes are identical, and whether or not any individual “most likely” suspect is actually guilty of any violent crime at all.

Of course, at this point, we may simply not have the money to use the criminal justice system for its original purpose.  The FBI estimates that only a tenth of all violent crimes committed are reported; less than half of all reported crimes result in arrest; less than half of all arrests result in the bringing of criminal charges; and, as stated earlier, 97% of all criminal charges are resolved by “plea bargaining” rather than trial.  Serious pursuit and trial of all violent criminals would increase the cost of the criminal justice system by a factor of something like 240.  No politician on the face of the earth would seriously consider proposing this to the taxpaying voters.

But, if we are not to have a real system of justice, why should we pay as much as we are paying, just for the current actuarial arrangement?  Why not take the actuarial concept to its logical conclusion and just hold a lottery on a regular basis, to choose the members of the Bad Guy class who get to go to jail, and for how long?   Once or twice a year, we could hold a big lottery to pick a candidate (or two, or however many our marketing mavens think would pay off maximally) for Death Row?  The system would not only be cheaper than our current one, it could actually be made to pay for itself or even run a surplus, if we turned it into a state-sponsored, televised “Reality Show” sweepstakes.

We wouldn’t even have to televise the actual executions, if the do-gooders insist on keeping them off the screen.  Just Vanna White drawing numbers out of a rotating basket, with the pictures of  the suspects sweating it out until the word comes down, and then reacting appropriately to winning or losing.  Then we interview all parties on Oprah (hey, it pays a whole lot better than a presentence investigation–can you say “privatization”?) and hold a contest for school kids to write in with the most original ideas for execution.  First prize, obviously, is a ringside seat for the winner and his or her family; second prize is a working model of the winner’s choice of an electric chair or guillotine; third prize is a statue of the Lady with the scales.  Only she’s dressed in a spandex bustier and hot pants, fishnet stockings, and spike heels, with twenty-dollar bills peeking out of her cleavage.

Red Emma


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