Thursday, June 30, 2011


  • Pat Robertson declares that just as every other country to accept homosexuality and gay marriage has failed, so shall the U.S. One wonders exactly how Robertson defines failure, given that Denmark legalized civil unions in 1985 and many other countries have embraced gays as equal to a similar or greater extent since. They seem to be doing all right...
  • Rich Swier of Tea Party Nation declares that anti-gay bullying is simply peer pressure of the helpful variety also used to discourage immoral behavior such as drug abuse. Because all of us look back with fond memories on those helpful schoolyard bullies who guided kids away from developing addictive habits via tough love. Or as Ed Brayton put it more succinctly, "What an asshole."
  • 51 floats had their tires slashed before Chicago Pride Parade on Sunday. Almost all, however, were repaired in time and made it into the parade anyway. So sorry, vandals...the show must go on.
  • Thoughtful piece from Brian Palmer at Slate asking why, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that laws banning the sale of violent video games to children are unconstitutional, we are so much more willing to expose children to images of violence than sex.
  • Elizabeth Weingarten, also at Slates, is cautiously optimistic about the fact that heroine Merida of Pixar's upcoming Film Brave has curly hair, but notes that generally curly-haired women in films tend to be of the nerdy variety who (if they are major players) inevitably seem to get some makeover that involves a serious encounter with a flat iron by the end of the film. I hadn't considered this as I was too busy being over the moon about how well Pixar had rendered said curly hair. But she has a point-- let the curly girls stay curly. Some of us actually (gasp) prefer it that way!
  • PZ Myers is less than impressed with a recent Salon article touting health benefits as offering legitimacy to male circumcision.  Have to say, so am I. This is a practice that is on its way out in the United States, so that eventually hopefully even the "But he will wonder why he doesn't look like his dad!" argument will die a natural death due to public bafflement and derison.
  • All Star Trek series are apparently going to be streaming on Netflix starting in July. Wow....I might have to work through the entirety of TNG, just because.  

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"....Seriously?" of the day

"Context matters" is the title Jen McCreight gives to a recent blog post on flirting behavior at conferences, but "Incredible understatement" might have been a good subtitle. She shares a video of Rebecca Watson talking about having been propositioned very uncomfortably by a guy who followed her into an elevator at 4am after a night of drinking, then proceeds to share several experiences that she (McCreight) has had which fall squarely in the realm of obvious inappropriateness. You'd think.

It's no surprise that there are people on the internet who will say anything. It does surprise me that there are people who will act at a skeptic's conference, to virtual strangers, in the ways McCreight describes. That goes without saying for Watson's experience.

Favorite reactions to New York legalizing gay marriage

From Radley Balko: "New York legalizes gay marriage. In protest, Newt Gingrich promptly divorces his third wife."

From Popehat: "I felt a great disturbance in the derp, as if millions of derpers suddenly wharrgarbled at once in rage and were suddenly less relevant."
"Enjoying quiet evening with amazing wife. Annoyed at suggestion that NY vote could somehow weaken or diminish my marriage."

From Dave Holmes: "As we celebrate tonight, let's spare a warm thought for our opponents, who lost absolutely nothing."

From David Burge: "I think NY's married gay couples should be able to carry handguns legally."

Rich Juzviak of FourFour tweeted at one point "I CANNOT WAIT TO GET MARRIED TO MY TWO CATS!!!!!!!!!" which apparently earned him the ire of a lot of people on Twitter. A little later he said "Ugh, people are just outrageously humorless. That is sad. NOW IS THE TIME TO BE HAPPY AND STUPID. We've earned it."

I agree. You see, the common joke is that if we allow gay marriage people are going to want to marry their pets, and Rich is gay, and a comedy/pop culture writer, and.....oh, hell. People who are offended by that sort of thing probably shouldn't be following him anyway.

George Takei: "Same-sex marriage was passed in NY by a Republican-controlled Senate. Equality has no party, freedom no partisans. #GayRightsAreHumanRights"

Congratulations to you, New York. The cause of equality was just advanced in a big way, of more significance to more people than can be properly reckoned right now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The daughter test

...also known as one of the more offensive and stupid ways of thinking about policy I've heard. Offered, surprisingly, by Steven Levitt who co-authored Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics:
Most of the time there is broad agreement as to which activities should be made criminal. Almost no one thinks that theft or violence against innocents is socially acceptable. There are, however, a few activities that fall into a gray area, like illicit drugs, prostitution, abortion, or gambling. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether it is appropriate to prohibit such activities, discourage them through taxation or other means, or simply let them flourish. A common feature of these gray-area activities are that they are typically “victimless” in the sense that, unlike a theft or murder, there is no easily discernible victim of the activity. When a drug dealer sells to an addict, both are happy to have carried out the transaction. 
I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity.  Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy. Conversely, although logic tells me that abortion as practiced in the U.S. doesn’t seem like such a great idea (see the end of the abortion chapter in Freakonomics for our arguments on this one), something in my heart makes me sympathetic to legalized abortion. 
It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity? 
If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal. 
On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.
This position isn't even internally coherent. Of all of the things you could say about it, and Ed Brayton and Jennifer Abel have pointed out many, the first thing that jumps out is that Levitt's argument doesn't even agree with itself. It conflates too many things. First it conflates what he would want his daughter to have/do, and what he would want her to have if she needed it. Nobody, even the most pro-choice of us, wants their daughter to have an abortion. We want daughters-- and every woman-- to have that option available should she need it, in the same way we want people to be able to have surgery after a heart attack, or an air bag in the steering wheel of their car to inflate in the event of an accident. That doesn't mean we want abortions, heart attacks, or car accidents for our daughters or anyone else.

Is that linguistically picky? Fair enough, but how about the fact that he also conflates doing something with doing it to excess?  It's not uncommon for people to assume that all use of recreational drugs is tantamount to abuse, but most don't feel the same about alcohol. Not everyone who has a glass of wine is an alcoholic. Nor is every poker player a compulsive gambler, but they might become one. Does Levitt acknowledge this in his acceptance of gambling but not drugs? Not in the slightest.  Why is he content to equate cocaine with addiction and therefore be okay with banning it, but not poker?

These are logical inconsistencies that make Levitt's position grating, but they aren't offensive. What's offensive is, as Abel points out, the fact that "if he doesn't want his (cute young) daughter doing it, anyone who does belongs in prison." It is not uncommon for people who have not thought very much about prostitution at all to conclude "I wouldn't want my daughter to do it; therefore it should be illegal." However, Steven Levitt is not a person who has not thought very much about prostitution at all-- there is a large section discussing it in Superfreakonomics, including data about dangers that prostitutes experience in large part because of the occupation's illegality.  This does not automatically lead to a position on whether it should be legal or not, but you would think it would have occurred to him at some point that if his daughter did decide to become a prostitute, she would be better off if it were legal (just as if she need an abortion, she would be better off if she could have access to one). Less likely to be attacked by clients. Better recourse if such a thing should happen, because she could go to the police without further endangering herself by admitting to illegal activity. Safer from disease if brothel standards in Nevada are anything to go by, since they are very strict about testing and protection in the interest of protecting the health of both workers and clients. There is no question that prostitutes would be better off if it were legalized. But Levitt does not care, because he doesn't want his daughter to become one in the first place.

Oh yes, his daughter. His adult, presumably mature daughter, capable of making decisions for herself in accordance with her own happiness. Maybe instead of becoming a prostitute, she wants to work at McDonald's for the rest of her life. Enter the Army and go on an extended and highly dangerous tour in Afghanistan. Join a polyamorous cult and live in a commune. Live as the de facto slave of an overbearing husband. Become a lobbyist with a dim view of everything Levitt himself stands for, attempting to have it banned. All perfectly legal. And one hopes Levitt would support these things being legal, even if he also wouldn't want his daughter to choose any of those options for her life.

A person could not formulate a better standard for policy that defines paternalism if they tried. His stance is literally paternalistic, and it's hard to escape the characterization of misogyny as well. He doesn't just reserve this particular outlook for prostitution, by thinking of his daughter. He applies it across the board to all of us, for all "gray-area activity." We are all to be treated in the eyes of the law as if we were Levitt's daughter, and he the government. Nanny state, meet Daddy Levitt state.We are all daughters in need of guidance.

No thanks; I'll pass. As Abel remarks,
As a writer, few things annoy me more than penning something favourable about a public figure who later says something so asinine that I feel compelled to mumble excuses for my prior support: "Um, yeah, about that…"
Right. Levitt himself admits that he has "never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other." Perhaps he ought to think on it some more.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Being rude to the police: dumb, not criminal

...and it is only dumb because it will be treated, often successfully, as criminal. But not this time:
Man who gave trooper the finger has charge dropped
A harassment charge has been dropped in the case of a 35-year-old Colorado man who faced prosecution for displaying his middle finger to a Colorado State Patrol trooper. 
The State Patrol said in a statement late Friday that it asked that the case be dropped. 
The American Civil Liberties Union had argued that while the gesture may be have been rude, it amounted to protected free speech. 
According to the ACLU, Shane Boor was driving to work in April when he saw a trooper pull over a car. As Boor passed by, he extended his middle finger in the trooper's direction. 
Boor was later stopped and received a criminal summons ordering him to appear in court to answer a criminal charge of harassment, which carries a possible six-month jail term.
Ed Brayton notes:
We've got a whole lot of police officers in this country who truly believe that they cannot be questioned or criticized the way any other citizen can, that their tender feelings being hurt allows them to harass and arrest people who have broken no law. If you dare to question them, they'll arrest you for "disorderly conduct," that famous catch-all crime that really means "annoying a police officer."
If you flip off another person, you can't be arrested for it. Yet this officer actually believed that flipping him off was an arrestable offense. We need some serious retraining for police officers in this country. And we need to start penalizing those who overstep their legal authority in a big way.
Let's unpack...

Is flipping off a police officer rude? Yes, because flipping people off is a deliberately rude act.
Is being rude always bad? I don't think so.
Was it wrong to be rude to a police officer in this instance? Probably, because a person doesn't deserve contempt simply for being a cop.
Was it dumb? Probably, if you think it's dumb to endanger yourself.
But, should such an act be considered endangering oneself? Not in a better world.
Is this a better world? Sadly, no.

Was flipping off the cop an act of civil disobedience? Maybe; there's no way to tell from the article. But if that is why Boor did so, then my hat's off to him. To my rather odd civil liberties-loving mind, the idea of one person being rude to a cop because he hates cops is repellant. But the idea of everybody doing so, to make a point, is awesome. Forget Everybody Draw Muhammad Day; let's have Everybody Flip Off a Cop Day.

Police are, or are supposed to be, public servants.  It does not amount to advocating hatred or denigration of them to say that expressing contempt for them is no worse (and no better) than doing so for anyone else. Certainly not to say that the idea of someone being arrested for it, let alone imprisoned, is absolutely insane.  Yet it is also insane how many officers do not appear to realize that "contempt of cop" is not a crime.  And, most disturbing of all, how many people don't realize it.

Dumb, not criminal. Thanks again, ACLU.