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Respect, Disrespect, and Conscience

Respect, Disrespect, and Conscience

I have seen a number of posts suggesting that those who won’t recite or stand for the pledge of allegiance are disrespectful, or perhaps just badly behaved. Good people, by implication, will say these words and join in the group.

My view of this is formed by my upbringing. I am a United States Air Force veteran. I was not wounded. I really didn’t feel great fear for my life, but I have the “been there” medals for three different overseas military actions. I am both proud to have served, and believe I did right by doing so.

My father, on the other hand, was a conscientious objector. He was a Seventh-day Adventist, and believed that taking lives even in war was wrong. He would have served in a medical capacity, but was not allowed that option in Canada during World War II. Some Canadians were accepted into medical roles, but many were not. So he spent World War II planting trees.

This was not a matter of disrespect for his county. It was a matter of conscience. He believed that training with and then carrying a rifle into combat was wrong. Obviously, I disagree. My participation in the military was without limitations. No, carrying a rifle is not the Air Force thing, but however distant we may be, in war people die partially as a result of our actions.

My dad also respected my choice, as much as he disagreed with it. He would have preferred that I not go into combat. We didn’t discuss it that much, but we knew the score.

So when people say that by protesting a war or any policy of the government someone is disrespecting my service, I firmly disagree. One of the things I am proud of is that my service helps defend a country where a conscientious objector can be diverted to service in some other way in war time.

I also defended a country which has, as one of its founding stories, the revolutionary and protest action of dumping tea—a commercial product of value to its owners—into the harbor in protest of the taxes imposed on it.

Some of the folks I see commenting today would surely have been incensed at this action. Destruction of public property! Against the law! Disrespectful! Aren’t they grateful for the defense provided by the British troops?

These protesters, however, felt that this was an important issue, with underlying principles that were worth breaking the existing law in order to protest. They were very, very disrespectful.

I know there are people who just don’t care for any form of authority. But the majority of cases come from two groups of people: 1) Those who have a reason of conscience for their actions, and 2) Those who believe they have been so badly handled by our society that they need to shake things up to get noticed.

Like my dad, who believed that in spite of conscription laws, God’s law said he could not fight in the war, some believe that they cannot swear oaths. This might be because Jesus said that (Matthew 5:33-37). Now I have a different interpretation of that passage, but some people believe that this is a specific and literal command. They don’t believe they can take oaths.

I’m glad that I served in defending a country that makes exceptions for those who do not believe they can swear an oath. There is alternative language that is permitted. I’m glad of that, I support it, and I am glad that I defended it.

Others don’t believe they can swear allegiance, or even affirm allegiance to any earthly power. Thus, “I pledge allegiance to the flag” is, to them, a denial of the sovereignty of Christ and acceptance of a lesser power. I don’t agree with them, as I believe every claim or affirmation I make falls into a category that is less than my allegiance to God, but that doesn’t change their consciences.

Again, I am glad to have served to defend a country that allows this right and I am disturbed when people mock them or make fun of them. They are following their conscience and are right to do so. I would say that they need to be “convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14:5, mildly out of context, I think!).

Further, if someone believes they have been so mistreated by our society that their best recourse is to call attention to the problem through acts of protest, whether or not I approve of their approach, I am not the one who has been treated unfairly. It is not for me to judge the depth of either pain or conviction, or more probably a combination of both, that has led to an act of protest.

I am again glad to have served to defend a country that will allow such protests. It is important that they be permitted. Don’t complain if the person doing the protest is privileged (yes, think Colin Kaepernick), because that person may well be using a position of influence on behalf of others less privileged.

Further, I don’t have to approve of the cause. The important thing about freedom of expression is that one is free to express things of which I (or anyone else) disapproves. Freedom of speech or expression is not for the things of which society approves. You don’t need a bill or declaration of rights to protect the things the majority wants to do. It’s there to protect the things that the majority disapproves.

The cause is separate from the method as well. I don’t have to approve even of the aim of the person protesting to approve of his or her right to protest. That again is why we need a right to freedom of speech. It’s for the things that make us angry. It’s for the people we want to shut up. Those are the people who need, and should have, protection.

There are religions of which I do not approve. No surprise there! You can note my disapproval because I haven’t joined those religions. But that is what freedom of religion is for. It protects the practice of religions that are not in the majority and may not be approved. And yes, this includes Islam, which, contrary to many assertions recently, is a religion.

And yes, I extend this to those of differing political views. This continues to apply whether they’re wearing MAGA hats or have Bernie Sanders bumper stickers. It’s most important that we have a free exchange of ideas in our society.

If this annoys you, just remember this: I also support your right to be annoyed. Enjoy!

(Theme image from Pixabay.com)

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.

Key Questions which I Might not Answer

The key issues I encounter are:

  • How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
  • Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
  • Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
  • Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
  • Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?

My Experience

First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.

Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.

I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.

Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?

My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.

Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.

Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.

One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.

I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.

Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!

So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.

Rand and Her Christian Followers

Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.

Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.

It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.

My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)

A Note on Economics

I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?

What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)

What’s Left?

So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.

But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.

I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.

In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.

Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.

The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.

God and Satan

Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.

Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.

For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

Voting Tomorrow

Voting Tomorrow

Let me first warn you that this post contains nothing whatsoever that’s exciting. 🙂 Well other than the three interviews I conducted with Energion authors about the election.

Tomorrow I will go to my polling place and cast my vote. I’m a traditionalist. I go to the polls on election day. I’m happy that there are other methods that help those who might have more difficulty going to the polls. The first election after I turned 18, I not only went to my polling place and voted, I was an official poll watcher for a political campaign (Reagan in 1976 for what it’s worth).

I believe in voting whenever it’s possible, and have a hard time understanding people who don’t show up for midterms or for local elections that don’t line up with presidential years. The president gets blamed for many things he couldn’t control (whichever president), and also gets credit for many things he could not control. Your school board members, council members, state representatives, and many others have a large amount of influence on your life. You should show up to vote.

I do understand a principled stand not to vote. What I do not understand is not showing up due to apathy. It’s worth going out of your way to do.

A few notes:

  1. I have not read a single social media post that influenced me on an issue.
  2. I have not seen a single political ad on TV that influenced me favorably with regard to the sponsor. I saw a number, even for people I will vote for tomorrow, that gave me second thoughts.
  3. I didn’t even read the vast majority of the direct mail. What I did read demonstrated that the mailouts haven’t improved.
  4. I found that most candidates had uninformative web sites. I appreciate those who had a good summary of experience and political positions. Neither “conservative” nor “liberal” attract me unless I see specifics. I have encountered nuts under every label.
  5. Actually discovering useful information about candidates took much, much more time than it will to vote. Much more.
  6. Most decisions between candidates were difficult, not because there is no difference. There definitely is a difference. Rather, the problem is that so many candidates have positions or have done things that I would normally say disqualify them for my vote. There are a few candidates that I will vote for with satisfaction. I don’t agree with them entirely.
  7. Character is now, and always has been, central to my voting decision.

I’m not going to share my vote. I don’t think that would actually have any more influence on me than yours would on me. I don’t think it should.

Oh, and I really dislike the way elections have been taken over by political consultants. Here’s a near future science fiction story I wrote about it in 2012.

Free Press

Free Press

The nature of a free press is not that it is always right, always responsible, or required to print what any person or group wants, but that it is free. It can challenge authority and it can be challenged.

You Are a Politician

You Are a Politician

If I get an ad in the mail from your campaign asking me to vote for you, you are a politician. I don’t mind that you are a politician. I consider that a potentially honorable profession, but I object when you lie about it.

An Observation: Accuracy of Perception

An Observation: Accuracy of Perception

An observation: Whether considering theology or politics, almost none of my liberal acquaintances resemble the image of them as portrayed by my conservative acquaintances, and almost none of my conservative acquaintances resemble the image of them portrayed by my liberal acquaintances. Whose vision requires correction?

A Few Notes on Civility

A Few Notes on Civility

I’m not even sure if civility is the right word here, but it will work. I’m talking about remaining courteous even while expressing vigorous opinions.

  1. Civility isn’t cowardice. Rather, it is choosing the most effective way to express one’s opinion. It may lead to civil disobedience, a situation in which one offers oneself in a stand against evil.
  2. Civility isn’t silence. It may involve limited words. It may be a simple “I disagree.”
  3. Civility isn’t a lack of conviction. It’s a way of expressing yourself that you think will connect.
  4. Civility isn’t weakness. The loudest voice is not necessarily the one with the greatest conviction.
  5. Civility isn’t a debt you owe to the other side. It is something you do for yourself and for your cause.
  6. Civility isn’t easy. I think we all know this.

The most important action is still your vote. The reduction in turnout for mid-term elections is an unfortunate comment on how people understand the process. Please study out your candidates for this coming election and be at the polls. The primary election in Florida is August 28, and the general election is November 6. We have a senate election, a gubernatorial election, and, of course, congressional. You can get information on the various ways to vote at the Department of State-Division of Elections site.

I registered to vote when I turned 18, and I’ve been to the polls for every election since that time. I simply cannot understand low turnout for local elections or in non-presidential years.

How About Improved Law Enforcement?

How About Improved Law Enforcement?

I try to avoid posting partisan political material, but I am still an involved voter, and I will advocate on issues. I’ve been thinking about all the posts I see that tell me not do send prayers (which I don’t send to people, but to God anyhow) or thoughts, but to take action. (If you haven’t guessed, I mean about school shootings.)

Let me start with a note about prayer. I wonder what the ratio is of prayers offered to God vs notes indicating that prayers were offered? If you’re a Christian, as I am, you probably believe that prayers have some impact. Personally, I think the most important impact a prayer should have is the one it has on me. If I pray for someone and there is an action I can take, it seems to me that a sincere prayer should lead me to act. “You are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

I think, however, that most people are sincere. It may be hard for some people to believe that gun control is going to work, or others to believe that arming teachers is a good idea. One may also wonder whether an improvement in mental health care could have the necessary impact. I can comment that we’re living in a sinful world, and I believe that. There’s evil out there. But having made that comment, our children are still being shot.

I think one of the most important things we can do is track which politician said what and exercise our right to vote according to our conscience. Too often we don’t pay that much attention, especially to state and local races. So there is an action that nearly everyone can take, and that’s to intelligently exercise your vote.

But I’d like to put something into the pot as we look at solutions: Better law enforcement. No, I’m absolutely not going to beat up on or criticize the police. This is about what I want those politicians to do if they want my vote. One of the great evils of American politics, in my opinion, is the effort to create a result without the willingness to pay for it. I’m not even talking about deficits, though they tend to result from the same thing. I’m talking about allocating the necessary resources to the people you expect to do the job. Or not, as is more often the case.

I recall a computer client some years back who was moving to a new office. He wanted me to install the network cable through his new building. Now while I can build a computer (though I don’t these days; not worth it at today’s prices), and I can do some great things with your software, I am not a wiring man. I suggested he get the proper professional to install the network cables. In order to save money, he hired a relative, who stapled the network cables to various items, often putting the staple pin directly through the cable. For some reason, the network didn’t work. I’ve had people decline to take the necessary training to use tools. I’ve had people who want to see tasks accomplished, but are unwilling to provide the tools. In all these cases what seemed to save money ended up costing the person more.

Some years ago there was a crime bill, and it included money to add some thousands of police officers around the country. One politician objected on the ground that the bill didn’t include money to incarcerate all the offenders those additional police officers would arrest. I wondered whether anyone was considering how much crime could be prevented by adequate policing. It reminded me of a friend of some decades ago who managed a convenience store. He said, “Any officer in uniform gets free donuts and coffee in my store. There are almost always officers there, and I have never been robbed.” The point is that having additional officers can prevent more arrests. Law enforcement is not just about catching and punishing offenders. If you don’t believe me, tell me you don’t have your eyes out for a trooper car, especially one in the median (doubtless with radar gun active), when you’re driving, especially if you have a tendency for your speed to slip higher. Certainly the penalty is important. But the simply presence of law enforcement helps make the road safer.

Now I don’t know the numbers. I’m not a law enforcement expert. I’m not 100% sure I’m on the right track, but here’s a debate (by points) I’d like to see on the city, county, state, and federal level:

  • How might we increase the safety of our schools by increasing the available of law enforcement officers? How could we do this in a way that presents those officers to the students in a friendly way, i.e., that makes them appreciate them?
  • What additional equipment and facilities might help law enforcement respond more quickly?
  • What additional manning might help law enforcement respond more effectively and spend more time on threats?
  • What additional training might we provide?
  • How might we properly compensate these officers so that they will feel confident and respected as they perform these tasks and so that we can attract the best? (I know that this is a vocation. It’s all well and good to say they don’t serve for money, but we ought to pay in accordance with what we expect. Let them say how they do it from love and duty. Let us respond with cash and support.)

Finally, let me note that I’m not an advocate of “the police are always right.” I believe in enforcing standards and accountability on law enforcement just like on anyone else. But if you expect high standards of behavior, you should also be ready to provide high standards of support.

As I said, I’m not an expert here, but I’d like to see a calm, constructive debate and then I’d like us to be willing to pay for what we’re asking for.

I’m looking for politicians who propose things along this line, i.e., serious debate about things we might be able to accomplish, to whom I can give my vote in every election. Trust me, I do vote, and I do read all your position statements and check your record.

People Don’t Get Probability

People Don’t Get Probability

Whether it’s about elections or hurricane predictions, neither the media nor the public understand probability. I suspect this is because we are evolutionarily programmed to look for certainty. Certainty leads to decisive action. It is sometimes said in military circles that a bad decision is often better than no decision. But it’s easy to be decisively wrong.

For example, if you looked at the actual data about Hurricane Irma, and looked at the predicted range of possibilities (you know, either the cone or those circles around the predicted center), the prediction process went quite well. As reported in the media and as “understood” by many in the public, not so much.

Thus I read with great pleasure Nate Silver’s article today at FiveThirtyEight.com (one of my favorite sites), The Media Has A Probability Problem. There were those who criticized Silver for his data analysis in the 2016 election where he was giving a greater probability of a Trump victory than anyone else. Not predicting a Trump victory, but giving it a higher probability. There were those who were rating Clinton’s chances in the high 90s. Following the election there are those who see Silver as wrong, along with the rest. But that’s a probability. A 30% chance is hardly a prediction that something won’t happen. If you understand probability, that is.

Most don’t. Or they understand it in their heads, but don’t feel it. Here’s a summary from Nate Silver:

Probably the most important problem with 2016 coverage was confirmation bias — coupled with what you might call good old-fashioned liberal media bias. Journalists just didn’t believe that someone like Trump could become president, running a populist and at times also nationalist, racist and misogynistic campaign in a country that had twice elected Obama and whose demographics supposedly favored Democrats. So they cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring evidence — such as Clinton’s poor standing in the Midwest — that didn’t fit the narrative.

Now don’t take this as supporting President Trump’s cherry-picking of polls and numbers. That’s just another, less nuanced form of confirmation bias, or more likely simple carelessness with and disregard for facts.

Further, if we are going to blame the media for problems, we need to watch where we go instead. Many blame the media for very real problems of bias, stupidity, and deception, only to turn to even less reliable sources which they believe implicitly. One advantage I’ve found with reasonably good media reports is this: If you read beyond the headline, and check the references, you can almost always find what you need to double check and correct the news story. For example, most news organizations provide links to the actual poll data and analysis.

So if you want good information, follow the chain back to the source. Don’t just find something more agreeable and believe that. There are perfectly good ways to analyze data and avoid errors. None of us is perfect, but we can and should be better. Much better.