A Philosopher's Blog

The Watch List Again

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2008

Drew Griffin, a CNN reporter, has been on the TSA watch list for quite some time now. He has been taking steps to get off the list, but they have proved fruitless. As to why he is on the list, the main reason seems to be that he was critical of the TSA. As to why he cannot get off the list, it might be the nature of all bureaucracies: wrongs are inflicted immediately, righting wrongs takes time. Or perhaps the people in charge are acting out of spite and leaving him on the list as some sort of punishment.

The list has, according to the ACLU, grown to over one million names. There is some dispute over how many people are on the list, however. This is because some individuals are listed under many names. The current estimate is that there are a bit under half a million people on the list (under various names).

According to CNN there are many people on the list who have been trying to get their names removed for quite some time. Many of these people are unsure as to why they ended up on the list and numerous people, such as Griffin, certainly do not seem to belong on it. The ACLU provides numerous examples of people who are on the list. They range from decorated soldiers to members of Congress. Clearly just the sort of people who are a danger to America.

Given that the list is supposed to be a vital instrument in the war on terror, the TSA should do a better job making sure that it is accurate. After all, if there are people on the list who do not belong, time and resources will be wasted dealing with the innocent and this makes it easier for the real terrorists. Further, it creates needless problems for the people who should not be on the list.

The TSA has taken some action. However, this action seems to mainly to claim that the airlines should be doing a better job with the list. However, the last time I checked, Delta was not a federal law enforcement or security agency. As such, passing the buck to the airlines is unreasonable and it is the job of the TSA to provide proper lists. Apparently the TSA plans to do something about the problems-next year.

Of course, the list is just one example of the serious failures of the Bush administration. I acknowledge the importance of effective security (there are, obviously enough, people who want to kill us) and the value of effective lists. However, the Bush administration has failed to deliver that security and that list. Instead, it has squandered billions of dollars, created vast bureaucracies and caused innocent people needless problems. The broken state of American security is outlined in a recent study, lest anyone think I am simply saying that the sky is falling.

Some will no doubt suspect that I am just taking cheap shots at Bush. However, my real motivation is not to attack him and his minions. My motivation is that I want my country to be safe and Bush has failed us horribly in this regard. The next President will inherit one heck of a security mess and will need to sort out this situation in order to protect America. I hope that he is up to the job but I worry that the mess will simply continue until something horrible happens.

Obama and Media Love, Part 2

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2008

John McCain and others have accused the media of being in love with Obama. Recently, Gabriel Sherman wrote an article in the New Republic with the suggestive title “End of the Affair.” The article is interesting and it lays out examples in which the press has felt slighted by Obama.

When I read the article, I was not surprised. First, while the media is often presented as a monolithic entity (“the media”), this is not the case. The media is composed of individuals with varying political views and emotional states. Some of these people are clearly very fond of Obama. Others have been consistent in their lack of love for the man. Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are both major media figures and neither one of them has ever shown any love for Obama. Quite the opposite, in fact.

However, the criticism that some people’s objectivity seemed to have been impaired by a pro-Obama bias does seem to be a reasonable one. Despite this, it seems that the claim that the media loved Obama was exaggerated. That said, members of the media do need to work on their objectivity. This applies to those who have been biased for Obama and those who have been biased against him.

Second, many people in the media are fickle. If you look back through the relations between the media and various political candidates, you will see the love come and go. For example, some allege that the media largely gave Bill Clinton a free pass during his administration and then turned against him (or he against them) during his wife’s Presidential campaign. As another example, McCain was well liked by the media when he was a maverick back in 2000. Now that he is running against Obama, the love seems to have gone away. The fact that people in the media are fickle is hardly a shock. After all, most people are fickle and media is no exception. Further, Sherman’s article seems to indicate that certain people are feeling spite towards Obama because they believe that he has wronged them somehow. Some have complained about lack of access, some have complained about how Obama’s people handle them, and others tell of various other perceived slights. I suspect part of the problem is that certain people in the media expect to be treated in a special way and react very badly when they do not receive that treatment. Hence, they are expressing their spite by withholding their love.

This does, of course, raise questions about how a candidate should handle the press. While the ideal would be complete openness, the reality of politics makes this a practical impossibility. Obama is competing with McCain and hence he needs to keep certain information private. To use an analogy, a football coach doesn’t allow reporters complete access to all his game plans, practices and his play book. That said, a candidate for President is a public figure and does have an obligation to be accessible to the people. Naturally, people in the media see themselves as having a special right to this access and get a bit miffed when they do not get all they see as their due.

Another factor that would legitimately limit press access is the fact that candidate only has so much time and many things to do. As such, the people in the media have to expect certain limits on their access. However, this seems to upset certain people. For example, theTime’s Karen Tumulty complained that if a reporter was given ten minutes for an interview with Obama, she would only get ten minutes and no more. However, she has no grounds to be upset. If she was promised ten minutes and got five, then she would have grounds to upset. However, a person who gets what she was promised seems to have no justification for any spite or complaints.

To use an analogy, as a professor I only have so many office hours and I also have classes that I need to teach. If a student comes in to make up a test twenty minutes before I have to leave for a class, I can give her those twenty minutes. When I leave after twenty minutes, she has no legitimate grounds to be upset. After all, I have an obligation to the students in that class. It would be wrong to place her need to make up a test over the rights of the 35 people in the class who are waiting for me to come and bore them about Venn Diagrams, Descartes or ethical theory.

Likewise, if a reporter is given her promised ten minutes and then Obama has to move on to something else on his schedule, then she has no cause for complaint. Unless, of course, she is so special that what she wants overrides other concerns.

Now, if a reporter is in love with Obama, then she would probably expect him to make time for her. After all, love is supposed to make a person special. If Obama limited his wife to ten minute meetings and restricted her access, then she would be justifiably upset. Interestingly, some of the complaints made by the media sound much like the complaints of a lover who is not being treated in the special way she expects.

However, reporters (as reporters) should not expect such love from candidates. After all, they need to act like professionals and accept that there is a limit to what one professional can expect of another. Also, the media is supposed to provide (in the ideal) objective reporting. Letting love and spite interfere with this is unprofessional and unacceptable.

As a professor, I face a similar sort of problem. I interact with my students as people and hence cannot help but like or dislike certain students For example, I tend to like students who share similar interests with me, show up to class, and are active participants in their education. I tend to dislike students who show up late (or rarely), try to disrupt the class, or otherwise express contempt and hostility towards the education process. However, I cannot allow my personal likes and dislikes influence how I evaluate a student’s academic performance. Like all professors, I have had very likable students do poorly or even fail my classes. I have also had very unlikable people do very well. Good professors try to be objective and focus just on the academics and not on feelings. I think this was best expressed by a friend of mine when she said “I really started to hate that guy and wanted to fail him so badly. But he did excellent work and earned that A. It hurt to put that in the grade book, but it would have hurt me more not to.” The people in the media need to take the same approach and keep their feelings of love or spite in check and do their jobs like professionals. It can be hard thing to do, but it is what should be done.

Is Russia Playing the Old Game?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2008

In recent months Russia has been returning to some of its Cold War behavior. One example is that Russian bombers have been getting close to US airspace near Alaska. In the past year, there have been about sixteen incidents. So far, the Russian planes have peacefully departed the area (escorted by US fighters).

A second example is that Russia has said it will again aim its nuclear missiles at Europe. At the end of the Cold War, Russia announced that its nuclear missiles would no longer be targeted at Europe. This symbolic gesture expressed a change in Russian behavior and attitude. Apparently, the Russians have changed their attitude back.

One reason for this is that Russia’s economy is doing better, hence they might think they can afford to go back to the expense of being a top rate military power. Naturally, as a top rate military power, they need to show that they have the will to use their weapons. Another reason is that Russia probably wants to go back to being a major player on the world stage. For decades, being a major player meant squaring off against the United States. As such, it is hardly shocking that they are going back to their old ways. Third, the United States is pushing for a missile defense system. The Russians see this as a threat to their security and hence are reacting in kind. It seems likely that the Russians might see the missile defense system as a return to the Cold War on the part of the United States.

Russia has the potential to be an excellent ally for the United States and to be a positive agent on the world stage. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, to have the Cold War start up again. Since our military is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would be hard pressed to deal with the Russian threat once more. Of course, the United States’ invasion of Iraq has given the Russians a great opportunity. While our military and economy is getting ground down by that mess, they can build their strength. And, of course, we cannot forget China. They are loaning us billions and enjoying a very profitable trade balance. Meanwhile, the Bush administration seems obsessed with Iran and terror. It seems they are missing two great threats to the United States.

Once Men on Sale

Posted in Science by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2008

My science fiction/horror book for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, One Men, is now on sale.

You can buy it here.

Alter & Umbrage

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2008

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek recently wrote a column on umbrage and the web. While I agree with some of his claims, the article does require a response. As such, I will reply to his main points and offer both commentary and criticism.

Alter begins with a common theme: the umbrage that is present on the web. As Alter notes, the web provides an anonymous vehicle for lies, crudeness and degradation. Of course, the use of the written (or typed) word as a vehicle of umbrage is nothing new. As a philosophy professor I research the time periods and backgrounds of many philosophers and this exposes me to a significant amount of historical data regarding letters, publications and social conditions. I can assure you that umbrage has been with humanity since we started writing things down. Interestingly, after I read the article this morning, I saw a show on the History Channel about two rival Chinese gangs who wrote slurs against each other in the American newspapers. This was during the 1800s. I later read an article in the June 2008 Smithsonian about Darwin (Richard Conniff, “On the Origin of a Theory”, 86-93). The article noted some of the written sniping between various people regarding the concept of evolution. Before Darwin published his work, Robert Chambers wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845. One geologist replied to the work by expressing his desire to stamp “with an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put and end to its crawlings.” (page 90). That is eloquent bit of umbrage every bit as venomous as the comments inflicted on the web today. If one turns to politics, examples of venom throughout history are far too numerous to even begin to list. For those who wish to search for examples, I suggest beginning with political cartoons from the 1700s and 1800s. You will find that the poison pens of old crafted many venomous images. Another excellent sources are various anonymous political tracts from the same time period. As such, umbrage and venom in print are nothing new.

Like Alter, I believe that the umbrage and venom are negative and that they quite undesirable. Such venom adds nothing to the quality of discussions and simply serves to inflame emotions to no good end. It also encourages intellectual sloppiness because people feel that they have made an adequate reply when they have merely vented their spleens (to use the old phrase).

Alter next turns to a matter of significant concern: while bloggers offer a great deal of commentary, they rarely provide people with news in the true sense. While some blogs do post the news, it is (as Alter points out) generally taken from some traditional media source. Newspapers and other traditional media sources are, as he notes, reducing their budgets for actual reporting and laying off reporters. This means that there will be less original investigation and reporting. Fortunately, some bloggers are stepping in and doing their own investigations. I suspect that this might lead to the more substantial blogging sites gradually stepping into the openings being created by the decline of traditional media. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether a web based organization can afford to do robust investigation and reporting. In principle, however, there seems to be no reason why they cannot replace traditional media.

A third point made by Alter is that print media is moving towards the web style of writing. To be specific, there is a push towards short articles like those in blogs. Presumably this is to match the alleged shorter attention span of the modern audience. I do agree with Alter that there can be a negative side to taking this approach. While a short piece can be fine, there is still a clear need for depth and details and this requires more than a blog entry sized block of text. As you can see from most of my own blogs, I tend to go on at considerable length. Hence, it is hardly shocking that I would support him in this matter.

A fourth point that Alter makes is the very common criticism that people exploit the anonymity of the web to launch attacks and spew venom. This is, of course, a concern. However, this is nothing new. History is full of examples of anonymous writings that are quite critical and venom filled. The web merely makes it easier to make such works public and to avoid being identified. After all, if I have to print and distribute an anonymous tract, there will be a fairly clear trail leading back to me. But, on the web I can easily make use of a free service that ensures my identity will remain unknown by making my posting effectively untraceable.

As Alter points out, the “web culture” tolerates anonymity. However, many writers do identify themselves and people are often quite critical of those who hide behind anonymity when they spew forth venom. While there can be good reasons to hide one’s identity (such as fear of reprisals from oppressive governments), most people lack a legitimate reason to remain hidden. My view is that if someone believes what she is typing, then she should have enough courage to actually claim her own words. There is also the matter of courtesy. Anonymous posting is like talking to people while wearing a mask. That is a bit rude. Unless, of course, you happen to be a superhero.

His fifth point is that people often prefer rumors to facts. As he points out, some people believe the emails about Obama being a Muslim. What is new here is not that people often prefer rumors, but the delivery of the rumors. In the past, people had to rely on newspapers, gossip, and public broadsheets in order to learn of rumors. Today, rumors can be sent via email. Same sort of rumors, different medium.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that people prefer a rumor that matches their biases over truth that goes against them. I am also well aware that people generally prefer something dirty, juicy, or titillating over dull facts. Hence, the appeal of rumors is hardly surprising. Obviously, people should have better rumor filters so as to avoid believing false things (or even true things on the basis of inadequate evidence). The internet has just changed the medium and not the basic problem: most people are poor critical thinkers. Fixing this requires what philosophers have been arguing for since before Socrates: people need to learn to think.

Alter’s sixth point is about a commonly remarked upon phenomena: the internet (email and web comments) seems to be especially awash in venom. As noted above, this is nothing new. However, as Alter points out, the web and email lead to disinhibition. While he does not explore the reasons for this, there are three plausible causes. First, email and web comments are effectively instant. With a written letter, you have time to think about it as you put it in the envelope and go to mail it. During this time you might think better of what you said. With an email or web comment, you just push a button and it is done. Second, email and web comments are generally not edited. Professional newspapers and magazines are edited and hence venomous comments generally do not get into print. Hence, the web seems like a more venomous place. Since people know that what they type will appear, they are less inclined to be restrained. Naturally, this feeds the beast-when people see the first venomous remark, they are (like someone who sees trash already on the ground) more inclined to follow suit. Third, the web allows for anonymous posting and emailing so people can (as noted above) spew from behind a mask. This, naturally enough, encourages people to be less nice.

Alter’s seventh point is the usual lamentation about how the web was supposed to bring us breadth in coverage but did not live up to the dream. As he notes, the bloggers tend to mainly follow right along with the cable networks. For example, when a major bank was failing, bloggers and the cable news focused mainly on the “satirical” Obama cover on the New Yorker.

Obviously, this behavior is hardly shocking. Bloggers do the same thing the traditional media does: they focus on the stories they think people will want to read. That said, there is actually significant breadth in the realm of blogs. If you leave the mainstream blogs and search around a bit, you will easily find blogs on vast array of topics. For example, there are many blogs devoted to philosophical issues. As another example, there are blogs devoted to science. These bloggers do not blindly follow the main media. However, because they do not they do not get much attention. As such, much of the perceived lack of breadth is merely a lack of looking.

Obama’s Star Power

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2008

Obama has been well received in Europe and, in some ways, the reaction seems to be on par with that usually received by the big celebrities.  Huge crowds have turned out to see him and they seem very enthusiastic. I saw on CNN this morning that one woman who shook his hand said she would never wash it again. That is, of course, the sort of thing people say when they touch a star.

Some people have been rather critical of Obama’s tour and speeches. For example, McCain said that he’d like to give a speech in Germany but added that he would do it as President. Presumably his point is that Obama should not be acting like a statesman (or President) on tour. Of course, McCain did challenge Obama on his foreign policy experience and challenged him to get out into the world. Now that Obama has done that and done so well, McCain is trying to attack him for. That is like attacking someone for not being a runner, goading them into running races and then attacking them when they start taking home big trophies.

Obama does, of course, run the risk of seeming presumptuous. After all, he is a young senator and not the President. Hence, meeting world leaders, drawing vast crowds, and making moving speeches to the world might be seen as crossing a line. That said, Obama is the presumptive Democratic candidate and he has been criticized for his lack of experience on the global stage. As such, he seems to be doing the right thing. Further, people seem to really like him and this can only help to improve America’s standing and popularity.

Turning to the matter of popularity, while his popularity abroad is probably due partially to the fact that he is not George Bush, much of it is due to his qualities. There is no denying that Obama has charisma, eloquence and crowd appeal. While some might regard these as superficial, they are actually important qualities in a leader. After all, a leader needs to be able to lead and influence others. Someone who lakes those traits will tend to be much less effective in a leadership role. Naturally, a good leader needs to have solid substance under that “gold plating” and “silver tongue.” Obama is clearly intelligent, thoughtful and well educated. However, how well these traits will serve him as President remains to be seen. After all, as the right loves to point out, Jimmy Carter is intelligent, thoughtful and well educated but his presidency was hardly a success.

overall, I think that Obama’s popularity abroad is a good sign. While much of it, as noted above, is due to the fact that he is not Bush, much of it seems to also be due to a genuine liking of Obama and America. While Machiavelli made it clear that no wise prince relies on the love of others, it would be helpful to America to have a President who is well liked. Our President stands for our country and represents us to the world. As such, he shapes the world’s perception of America. Since most people around the world (and the US) think poorly of George Bush, it is hardly surprising that America is not well liked. However, international response to Obama shows that the damage Bush did to America is not irreparable and that that Obama can probably count on considerable good will from the world.

While it is comforting and ego boosting to think that we do not need the good will of the world, we actually do. While being liked is not a substitute for political, economic or military power, it does help in many small ways that add up to significant results. For example, if world leaders know that their people really like America, they will be more inclined to work with us. As another example, if America has the good will of the world, we will enjoy more respect and confidence from the world and this can have a very concrete impact on the economy. After all, the dollar’s strength  is partially  based on the faith that people put in America.

Of course, being liked is not enough. A President needs to be a competent, decisive leader who can make rational and effective decisions. These decisions need to be for the good of the country and consistent with our core values. It has been a long time since we have had a President like that. Maybe Obama can be this sort of President. Maybe McCain can. Or maybe neither is up to the job. So far, Obama seems to be ahead of McCain, but time can change many things.

“Obama” not “Osama”

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2008

Like many others, I’ve noticed that some news commentators have mistakenly called Barrack Obama by the name “Osama.” Dan Rather even went so far as to accidentally refer to Obama as “Osama Bin Laden.”

While it is tempting to believe that the “slips” are actually intentionally, there are good reasons to accept that at least some of the slips are just that.

First, some of the news commentators (such as Dan Rather) seem to be at least neutral towards Obama. hence, they are probably not intentionally trying to link him with Osama. Second, both men are famous and the names do sound very similar. So, a slip is easy to imagine. Third, people tend to be rather bad at pronouncing names. For example, my last name is “LaBossiere” and people constantly butcher my name when trying to pronounce it. Some are close. For example, “la-booze-er”: perhaps they think I drink heavily. Some throw in an extra letter, usually “m” for some unknown reason (perhaps it slides in from my first name “Mike”). For example, I’ve heard “lamb-oozer”: perhaps they think I ooze lambs. I also get “lamb bruiser”: perhaps they think I strike lambs. So, people accidentally mispronouncing a name need not be the sign of anything sinister.

That said, there are some grounds to suspect that the use of “Osama” for “Obama” is not a slip in some cases. Some people in the media have attempted to link Obama with Islam in rather unsubtle ways. Given this fact, it would hardly be shocking if some of the “slips” were intentional attempts to link Obama and Osama in the minds of voters.

Interestingly, 12% of the people polled in a recent survey believed that Obama is a Muslim. This is up from the 10% in a previous survey. Naturally, since the difference is within the margin of error, there might not have been an actual increase. However, the fact that about 10% of those polled believe this is rather telling. It could also have an impact on the upcoming election. Or perhaps not-my guess is that those 10% would probably not vote for Obama even if they knew for sure he is a Christian.

Some people might be inclined to think that the slips are no big deal. On one hand, I agree. People make mistakes, such slips probably won’t have much impact on voting behavior and  most Americans are bad at pronouncing “foreign sounding” names like “Obama” and “LaBossiere.” On the other hand, I do worry a bit that such slips are a big deal. After all, they could (as argued above) sometimes be the result of an intention to link Obama with Islam in the hopes of influencing voters. Also, I think that the folks in the media should take some time to get the man’s name right.

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Media Love

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2008

Since the time of the ancient sophists, politicians have known the value of rhetoric and crowd appeal. With the rise of the media, the smart politicians (or those managed by the intelligent and aware) realized that it was an excellent tool to help them sway the masses.

Today, the power of the media to influence is quite significant and the politician that can gain their support increases his chances of success. Interestingly, the media often seems to be monogamous when it comes to competing candidates. If the media folks love one candidate, their love is general far less (or non-existent) for the other. Of course, like most lovers, the media is fickle. Their love can change in an instant if someone else catches their eyes.

Currently, the media seems to be quite enamored with Obama. As he travels the world, some of the top media people are with him and an amazing amount of attention is being given to his world tour. McCain, who is doing a domestic tour, is getting far less attention. He claims to be taking it well. However, he seems to be dismayed enough to use a standard online tactic-if someone displeases you, create a clever video as a witty retort.

On one hand, McCain does have a point. Many of the news folks seem to be a bit too enamored of Obama and some suspect that this is biasing them in his favor and against McCain. In theory, the news media in America is supposed to take an unbiased and objective approach to news coverage and avoid actually pushing one candidate over another. In actuality, the media folks are just like everyone else and are affected by their own beliefs and biases (both positive and negative). However, they should strive towards an objective stance and McCain is right to call them on this. Of course, his motivation is most likely not a noble desire for objectivity. Rather, he is most likely upset that the media isn’t in love with him anymore.

On the other hand, Obama is doing something that seems more newsworthy than what McCain is doing. After all, taking a trip to Portland, Maine seems to be less worthy of media attention than an international trip to meet with foreign leaders and to see the conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If McCain wants more coverage, he’ll need to go abroad or do something exiting.

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TSA Witch…I mean Watch List

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2008

One way to get on the TSA watch list is to be a suspected terrorist. Another way is to be critical of the TSA. For example, Drew Griffin (a CNN reporter) ended up on the TSA watch list shortly after he did a piece critical of the TSA. Physicist Thomas B. Cochran was also put on the watch list. In 2002 he helped ABC news expose the fact that the nuclear material screening system in use in American ports could easily be defeated. Congressman John Lewis is also on the watch list, but it is unclear why. There are also other people on the list who no doubt should not be on it. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was recently removed from a terrorist watch list.

Watch lists of this sort do have a legitimate function. After all, it is the duty of a government to protect its citizens and such lists provide a minor tool in achieving this end. While I do recognize their usefulness, I tend to dislike the keeping of such lists. They seem to smell a bit of tyranny.

Naturally enough, a list intended to aid in the defense against terrorists should only contain the names of people who are terrorists or are likely to play a role in terrorism. Obviously, people like Griffin, Lewis and Cochran are not terrorists and should not be on that list.

The reason why Griffin and Cochran made the list seems rather obvious: they were critical of the TSA and revealed truths unpleasant to those in charge of the list. This sort of treatment of critics has been standard practice throughout history. For example, Socrates was placed on trial partially because he exposed the failings of the powerful. However, as Socrates argued, the state should be grateful for such critics because they perform a valuable service. If the goal of the TSA is to protect Americans, they should be grateful when someone assists them in exposing weaknesses and thus enables them to make America safer. Of course, if their main concern is not for the safety of the people but for something else, then such actions would be regarded with hostility.

it might be replied that people such as Cochran and Griffin are actually a threat to America. After all, the exposure of weaknesses in America’s security could be viewed as rendering possible aid to the enemies of America. Such information could be used by terrorists in planning and implementing an attack. For example, the weakness exposed by Cochran and ABC could be used to smuggle in material to make a radioactive weapon of some sort.

This reply does have some appeal. After all, revealing a vulnerability can be seen as a betrayal. For example, the Persians were able to outflank the Spartans by learning of the location of a secret pass. Perhaps what Cochran and Griffin did could be seen as analogous to revealing a pass to America’s enemies.

However, the analogy does break down. Griffin and Cochran were not acting to betray America to her enemies. Rather, they seemed to be acting with the intent of exposing a vulnerability so that it could be corrected. In the case of Cochran, his intent has been made quite clear in a recent article in Scientific American. In this article he argues that the United States should adopt methods that will actual help protect America from nuclear smuggling. This is hardly the sort of thing an enemy of America would do.

Putting such critics on the watch list is clearly morally wrong. First, they are being punished for attempting to expose flaws in security that need to be corrected. If these defects remained unknown, then they would probably remain until a terrorist or other wrongdoer found them and used them to do real harm. Second, taking such action against people who are critical goes against the basic principles of an open democracy. Third, such action can serve to deter the criticism that is so essential to exposing and correcting problems. This could have serious and unfortunate consequences. Fourth, the use of this method to try to punish critics is, as Locke would argue, an act of tyranny. Fifth, putting such people on the list can waste time and resources that could be better spent on people who really should be on such a list.

In light of the misuse of the list, there needs to be greater oversight in regards to who is on the list and why. Failure to do so would be to further a moral wrong and also put America at greater risk.

Running & Friendliness

Posted in Philosophy, Race, Running by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2008

When I run, I make a point of greeting people I see. This is for many reasons.

First, it is kind of a runner thing. Just as we sweat, wear shorts and (are supposed to) like Chariots of Fire, we just have to wave at people we see. I think it might be an ego thing: “Look at me! I’m running!” Or maybe it is due to some sort of mental change inflicted by the running: ‘Look at me! I’m crazy as hell!”

Second, although I am an introvert, I seem to be a friendly person by nature.  So, I greet people because it is a friendly thing to do. Or maybe it is just the effects of running so much (see above) and I just think I’m friendly when I am actually deranged in a social way.

Third, I believe that greeting people is a moral and social obligation. It shows that I acknowledge them as fellow people and members of the community. To simply ignore someone is a mark of disrespect and hence a moral and social failing.

Further, sincerely greeting people creates, if only briefly, a small connection and this adds (however minutely) to a sense of community. Also, people often find social interaction a positive thing and hence a greeting can make a person feel just a bit better. Thus, from a utilitarian standpoint, it seems to be a good thing,

Of course, there is a limit to this. When I walk on campus and pass hundreds of people on the way to and from class, I don’t greet everyone-this would be exhausting and people would regard me as crazy. Interestingly, the greeting obligation seems to be reduced when in crowd situations. As noted, this is mainly for practical reasons. Also, if someone seems like they might decide to take a swing at me if I say “hello”, I’ll practice discretion. Of course, sometimes I just say “hello” anyway and trust in my speed and experience in fighting to carry me through any incident that might arise. So far, it has worked.

Fourth, there is the practical motivation. I might get hit by a car or something while running, and if I just said “hello” to someone, s/he might be more inclined to call 911.

Not surprisingly, some people react to greetings and some people just ignore them completely. The reactions do vary. Some people will start a short conversation. Some people will not show any sign that a human being has just spoken to them-not a flicker of recognition or even the slightest reaction.

A few years ago, I started keeping a rough track of how people reacted to my greetings. Naturally, this cannot be considered a proper experiment or study about the friendliness of people. There is a loctaion bias (places where I run), a time bias (I usually run in the morning), and a bias because of my qualities that might affect peoples’ behavior (I’m male, running, look white, and I’m tall). However, the results have been somewhat interesting.

Not surprisingly, the most responsive people are fellow runners. Since we have the obvious common ground of being runners, they would tend to be more inclined to respond. Of course, not all runners respond.

People walking dogs tend to be more responsive than people without dogs, especially if I am running with Isis (Isis also boosts responses-most people cannot resist a husky).

Age is also a factor. People who are 40 and up tend to respond more. Younger people tend to respond a bit less. Part of this might be a matter of social experience. Part of it might be that I’m 40 and up.

Gender is, not surprisingly, a factor as well.  Men tend to respond more, women less. This might be because some women think that responding might put them in danger or might cause me to stop and hit on them. I’ve heard people who are “safety experts” tell women not to respond to or make eye contact with strangers because it encourages attacks.  This might explain some of the difference.

Appearance is also a factor; at least for women. I’ve found, shockingly enough, that “hot women” tend to be the least responsive to greetings.  This might be because (as noted above) they are worried that responding will encourage bad male behavior. Or perhaps it is the fact that the hotter a person is, the less s/he has to worry about being polite and friendly. I’m sure some of my friends would have some witty comment to add here, but I’ll leave that to them. That is, after all, what the comment section is for.

Ethnicity and culture also seems to play a role. Interestingly, I’ve found that black males are the most likely to respond to a greeting in a positive way. This certainly goes against the not uncommon stereotype that black males are hostile to whites. One factor worth considering is that I have taught at a historically black college for years. Hence, my subconscious behavior might be different from most white people. For example, perhaps I do not look nervous or react as if I am suspicious when I see a black person. In case you are wondering, I do not try to “act black” (whatever that might really mean-it is not as if there is a single way black people act).  I suspect that people subconsciously and automatically read various clues and these influence their responses. There might be some very interesting research material here for someone in psychology or another social science. For some reason, Asians are the least likely to respond. Most people would probably attribute this to a a cultural factor.

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