A Philosopher's Blog

Threats Against Obama

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2009
"The Rail Candidate" - Lincoln's 186...
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While reading about the recent controversy over the Obama assassination Facebook poll, I also learned that Obama received more threats as a candidate than anyone else. Investigating a bit more, I ran across claims that Obama has received up to four times the threats received by President Bush. Given the strong emotions Obama has inspired and the virulence of some of the criticisms against him, this seems to be plausible claim. But, as always, I encourage confirmation of the facts.

Some folks are, not surprisingly, chalking up the increase in threats to racism. This explanation does have considerable plausibility. After all, racism is still a factor in America and it makes sense that racists and people with racial issues would tend to be against Obama and more inclined to make threats. While there were plenty of people who were very angry at Bush, many of the folks who were angry at him were liberals. Since these liberals tended to be anti-war and anti-gun folks, they would generally not be the sort of people to make violent threats. Naturally, there are some exceptions-some lefties can be rather violent. Racists, in contrast, tend to be a bit more inclined to advocating violence.

Obviously, not all of the threats are based on racism. The previous Presidents, who were all white, received a regular stream of threats and there were actual assassination attempts against some of them. It seems quite reasonable to assume that Obama also is receiving the “classic” threats (such as those from crazy folks) that all Presidents have received.

Of course, it is also possible that the increase is due to factors other than racism. Obama has been involved with some rather controversial actions (the bail out, health care reform, and so on) that have outraged some folks. People make threats over such things, despite the fact that it seems quite irrational to do so. As such, some of the increase in threats can be attributed to Obama’s actions rather than his race. Looking back at, for example, Abraham Lincoln, we can see that Presidents can be reviled for their actions (while Lincoln is seen as almost a demi-god today, in his own day he faced incredible hatred).

My own view is that the increase is due to a mix of these two factors and possibly others, such as the bad economy). The fact that he is black no doubt has lead to an increase in threats from racists. The fact that some folks revile his actions also has contributed. Plus, he also gets the usual blend of crazy folks who seem driven to threaten the President, no matter who he is.

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The Assasination Poll

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 29, 2009
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A Facebook user recently set up a poll asking “Should Obama be killed?” with the options of choosing”no,” “maybe,” “yes,” and “yes if he cuts my health care.” The folks at Facebook responded by suspending the application that allowed such a poll to be created. This suspension is supposed to last until the developer provides better means of monitoring the user generated content.

Some folks, such as Bob Beckel,  are calling for the fullest possible prosecution of the individual setting up the poll and want him/her in jail.

While I think the poll was a bad idea and certainly not in good taste, a reasonable case can be made as to why the person who made that specific poll should not necessarily be sent to jail. A case can also be made as to why such polls should be allowed.

When considering a question like “should Obama be killed?” there are various ways to interpret the question. One way is that the person asking it is operating from a malicious intent: they are asking the question not in the hopes of getting information but with the intent of expressing a desire for Obama to be killed. The person might even be regarded as encouraging others to consider this possibility, presumably with the hopes that someone will act upon it.

Another way to interpret the question is that the person asking simply wishes to know what people think about this matter. Given the extreme hostility some people have expressed towards Obama, it seems worthwhile knowing what percentage of people think he should be killed. It would also be useful information for the Secret Service as well. I must admit that I have wondered how many people hate Obama so much that they think he should be dead, rather than merely not President. Naturally, I think such people need to seriously re-evaluate their morality, but that is another matter.

There are, of course, other ways to interpret the question.

Of course, it is rather difficult to prove the intent of the creator from the poll itself. After all, the poll merely asks the question and provides the opportunity to answer “no.” To infer from the wording that the author is making a threat against the President would be on par with inferring that asking “should you cheat on your spouse?” is advocating adultery and expressing an intent to commit it.

While I would not put up such a poll myself (if only to avoid the attention of the Secret Service), a case can be made that such polls should be allowed provided that they are clearly making an inquiry and not advocating the activity. If this poll is treated as a threat to the President, then the same sort of reasoning would need to be applied to all polls. For example, if someone asked “should you steal office supplies?”, then s/he would need to be investigated for advocating theft.  If a married person asked “should you have an affair?”, then s/he should be taken to have planned to commit adultery and perhaps his/her spouse should start filling for divorce. Obviously, such reactions would be absurd and, by analogy, the poll about Obama need not be taken as a threat.

Naturally, the assumption seems to be that the poll indicates the possibility of an intent to do harm to the President and as such it is being investigated. If they find that  behind the poll is an actual intent to harm the President, then the person should be dealt with accordingly. However, if the poll was simply a poll, then the person should not be prosecuted.

The fact that the Secret Service investigates such polls does provide people with two reasons not to create them. First, creating one can apparently get a person into serious trouble. Second, creating one means that the Secret Service will have to expend effort (and tax dollars) to investigate, thus using up government resources. As such, while a case can be made as to why such polls should be allowed, they are clearly a bad idea.

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A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2009

President Clinton was recently asked whether the “vast right wing conspiracy” that allegedly plagued his administration is still around or not. His view is that it is not as strong as it was, but is still virulent. Naturally, one might wonder whether there is such a vast conspiracy or not.

People do love conspiracy theories of this sort.  The left has this “vast right wing conspiracy” while the right has its own favorite: the liberal media conspiracy.  Such theories are very appealing to folks. First, it is appealing to the ego to think that your are so important that a vast conspiracy has risen up against you (or your cause). Second, it provides a useful scapegoat in case of failure (“it wasn’t me, it was the vast conspiracy”).  Third, conspiracy implies secrecy, so it is a difficult thing to disprove.

Fortunately, the application of a little reason can help sort out the matter.

First of all, the conspiracy cannot be all that vast. After all, if it were truly vast, then Obama would not be in office. Of course, it could still be fairly large (just not large enough to stop Obama or the Democrats).

Second, most right wingers seem to be very open about their dislike. If they are conspiring, they don’t seem to get the idea that a conspiracy is supposed to be secret.

Third, the idea that the conspiracy is vast certainly implies that it is a unified movement. However, the right wing does not seem to be unified to the degree required for it to count as a vast conspiracy. Sure, there are folks that are right wing and are up to various sneaky things, but I would not consider this a vast conspiracy. If the right were so well organized and unified that it could maintain a vast and secret conspiracy, it seems unlikely that the Democrats would stand a chance against it.

Does this mean that there are not well organized right leaning groups that act in secrecy against the Democrats? No, not at all. Clearly there are such groups. Just as there are left leaning groups that act in secrecy against the Republicans. However, there seems to be no vast conspiracy on either side. Or perhaps they are so good at conspiracy, that they have been able to hide their vastness and amazing abilities behind the illusion of smallness and fallibility.

Parking Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2009

On Friday I bought my employee parking decal. Back in 1994 I think I paid $26 for my decal. Now, the price is $201 (includes tax). That is certainly some impressive inflation, especially considering that I get now exactly what I was getting then.

Naturally, I do wonder why the decal is so costly. Actually, I wonder why I don’t just get free parking as part of my job.

Now, I do understand that the traffic and parking folks need to maintain and patrol the lots. Of course, as my truck rumbles over potholes and I drive around and around lo0king at faculty spots occupied by students’ cars, I do wonder a bit more. But, when I see the nice traffic services’ cars (and golf carts) I get some idea of where the money goes.  When I bought my decal, I also noticed how nice the building is compared to my own office and classroom buildings. But, “if you bring in the bucks, you get the nice stuff.” All I do is teach and so on, so I can hardly expect to be considered a “buck bringer.” In fact, some folks might think that universities would be better off without faculty or students. Just imagine a golden age of universities in which only administrators occupied the campuses, untroubled by students and faculty.

To be fair, the traffic folks have been much more aggressive about enforcing the parking rules. I have seen cars towed and ticketed and the person in charge now is said to be very serious about the parking rules.

We are currently in sort of a lawless period-classes started at the end of August and the deadline for decals is this week.  So, things will probably improve quite a bit after this week.

I did try to use my shiny new $200 decal to find a spot close to my office, but no luck. I ended up parking at the stadium (as I have been), in the general lot, and walked the quarter mile or so to my office. No big deal, but for $200 I’d rather like to get something a little closer. Plus, when I was carrying shelving to put up in my office, that was a bit of a walk.

Jury Duty

Posted in Law by Michael LaBossiere on September 27, 2009

On Thursday I received a summons for jury duty. Naturally, I was less than happy about this. On the one hand, I do recognize that I am supposed to have a civic duty to serve in this manner. Also, I am aware of the various philosophical arguments as to why trials by jury are good and important. On the other hand, there is much about it that I don’t like.

First, I don’t like the fact that the service is not optional and is backed by threats of punishment. I’m not big on being threatened and coerced into providing service. If asked nicely, I am always happy to help. When threatened, my initial reaction is always defiance followed by plans for defense and retaliation as needed. Of course, I do understand that they are just following Aristotle’s advice: most people are ruled by pain and not by fine ideals.  So, I don’t take the threats personally. But, I still feel some bitter resentment about this approach.  No doubt I’ve read Confucius too many times (ruling by moral force and all that).

Second, they do not pay for the parking here in Leon County. I am supposed to either park at the public library and walk a half a mile (no big deal for me, despite my knee) or shell out $5 to park nearby. If jury duty is so important, they should at least spring for a parking voucher.

Third, if your employer won’t pay you for your time serving on the jury, they pay you a laughable and pitiful amount. As I recall, it is $15 a day for the first three days and then it goes up a bit from there. Take out the $5 for parking, and that is even more absurd. While I do believe in civic duty and all that, the judges and lawyers are all well paid to do their duty. The citizens on the jury should also be properly compensated. This sort of absurd pay makes jury duty rather onerous for folks who are not compensated by their employers and is yet one more reason why most folks hate jury duty. If we can afford to drop millions on useless bureaucracy, then we can afford to give jurors a reasonable payment if they are losing money by serving. In my case, I get paid normally when on jury duty-but my concern is not just for me, but for other people.

Fourth, they won’t tell you until the night before whether they need you or not.  In some cases, I can understand this last minute crap, but they should be better at getting the trials planned and organized. Then again, perhaps this is the best they can do. Also, you need to sit around waiting through the selection process, which seems inefficient. But, again, maybe this is the best that can be done.

Fifth, while this provides me with a possible way out of service, there is  evidence that folks with education, knowledge and critical reasoning skills are generally dismissed. For example, my ex-wife was summoned a few years ago. When she told them she was a philosophy professor who taught philosophy of law and logic, they told her to go home. While I can see why a lawyer would want a jury made up of folks lacking in knowledge and critical reasoning skills, that seems like exactly the sort of jury that would serve the truth best.

All that said, I intend to respond to the summons and do my moral duty. While I have almost no faith in the political system and just a little in the legal system, I do have faith in my own ethics. As such, I believe that I owe the folks in the trial my best and that is what I will give them as a fellow citizen and human being. Yeah, I bitch a lot and then do the right thing anyway.

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Change? Well, the More Things Change…

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2009

Back in 2008, Antoin Rezko was convicted of corruption. This was a problem for Obama because Rezko had served him quite ably as a fund raiser. Folks might also recall Norman Hsu. He was also a major money source for Democrats and was convicted back in May for campaign finance fraud.  He also admitted to running a Ponzi scheme.

Last month another major fundraiser for Obama and other Democrats, Hassan Nemazee, also ran into some trouble over his financial adventures.

Nemazee was arrested in August on charges of bank fraud based on the allegation that he used phony documents to get up to $74 million in loans from Citigroup, Inc. Nemazee has clearly done quite well for himself-he was released on a bond guaranteed by his $20 million residence in Manhattan and his lesser home in Katonah, NY which is worth a mere $8 million.

It can, of course, be said that the  intensely money driven and corrupt political system invites such occurrences. After all, since running a major campaign requires vast sums of money, politicians are probably quite happy to accept funds without looking to closely at the source. Naturally, thinkers and moralists have been pointing out that money is a corrupting element so it is hardly a shock that folks with large sums of money often turn out to be less than honest. Also, given the view that politicians are corrupt and shady, it is not shocking to see them rubbing elbows with other shady and corrupt folks.

It might also be claimed that the politicians do not know about the misdeeds of these folks. On one hand, this seems likely. After all, a smart politician is going to steer away from someone who could cause them serious problems and hence would not knowingly become involved with someone doing illegal things. On the other hand, politician often do illegal things themselves and do knowingly associate with such folks.

In the case of Nemazee, he was one of the top fundraisers for the Democrats. He donated to Clinton and then to Obama. He also was involved in John Kerry’s failed bid for President. Prior to the disclosure of his misdeeds, the Democrats seemed to have only nice things to say about him. Now, they seem to be only saying “no comment.”

Interestingly, the mainstream media also seems to have taken a “no comment” approach so far-for which Jon Stewart has taken them to task. This sort of corruption is of significant importance. After all, Obama spoke about changing how things would work in politics, yet it seems that the same old game is still being played.

This incident and others like it show a clear need for politicians to do their homework when it comes to their fundraisers and sources of money. It also shows a need for greater attention to be paid to the money trails leading into politics.

I also believe that there needs to be a proper investigation of the folks who receive money from such corrupt fundraisers.  The fact that they are corrupt and willing to break the law suggests that they might well be up to other misdeeds. Perhaps they got something in return for the money. That is, of course, something that must be considered and investigated.

I would like to say that I am shocked by this revelation. However, I am inclined to think that a politician is green on the inside whether they are red or blue on the outside.

Baristas Bare Breasts for Bucks

Posted in Law by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2009
A cup of Espresso and coffee beans.

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Sorry, couldn’t resist using that post title. I ran across a rather odd article that related how five “bikini baristas” were charged with prostitution.

While the ladies did not have sex in their espresso stand, they would allow customers to touch their butts and breasts for money. Under the local law, this counts as prostitution. While such behavior can be seen as clearly sexual, I’m not sure if I would consider it to be prostitution. Perhaps it would be useful to have some sort of spectrum of prostitution so as to classify actions based on the degree of activity involved. After all, it seems a bit unreasonable to consider what the ladies did to fall into the same category as actually having sex. Perhaps Bill Clinton could be brought in as an expert on what counts as sex and what does not and various degrees of prostitution could be properly defined. Naturally, Elliot Spitzer should be brought in as an expert on prostitution.

The ladies also ran something of an impromptu strip club and would charge customers extra to prepare their drinks in the nude. This apparently does not count as prostitution, but as lewd behavior.

What I find most interesting about this case is the following: “During a two-month investigation, detectives said they saw the women lick whipped cream off each other and pose naked for pictures at the Grab-n-Go Espresso stand on Broadway.” I’m willing to bet that the detectives competed with each other to get that particular stakeout assignment. One can only imagine why it took two months to investigate the case…

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Above & Beyond

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2009

Like most people, I saw the story of the couple who had the wrong embryo implanted by their fertility clinic. Obviously, that was one heck of mistake and indicates that the clinic needs to reassess how it labels and tracks embryos. This does provide a rather extreme example of the sorts of easy to fix errors that can cause so much trouble.

What struck me the most about this story was the fact that the couple decided that the embryo would be brought to term and then given to his/her biological parents. When asked about this, the couple made it clear that their decision was based on their values.

Since I teach ethics, I find this very interesting indeed. Naturally, I also find it interesting as a person. It is, to say the least, morally commendable for the woman to go through this experience knowing that she will be giving up the child. As far as I know, she is not receiving any compensation from the other couple for this. Of course, the fertility clinic certainly owes her for the mistake they made.

This does raise the obvious question: what is the right thing to do in that situation?

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Debt Collection Abuses

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2009
Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...

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Debt collectors generally have a bad reputation, but it has gotten even worse in the past year. Because of the economic mess, more folks are unable to pay their debts and the folks who are owed money need it even more badly. This has, not surprisingly, caused a surge in the intensity of debt collection tactics.

While abusive tactics are illegal and there have been recent crack downs, the problem of abusive tactics remains. Recently I saw a segment on CNN about a pending case in which it is being claimed that debt collectors literally hounded a man to death. The individual in question was out of work due to a heart condition and the collectors made mention of this in their calls, thus showing that they were quite aware of it.

While it seems somewhat unlikely that the needed causal connection between the collectors’ actions and the death will be established, it does seem likely that the collectors will be in some legal trouble in regards to their tactics.

While I am not in debt, I can attest to how annoying and harassing debt collectors can be. For the past week I have been getting a call each day from a collection agency looking for someone who just happens to have my last name. While the automated calls are not particularly rude, they are certainly annoying. This has also happened before, so I assume that debt collectors often do not believe they have an obligation to determine who they are calling. Since I find the calls I get rather annoying, I can imagine just how unpleasant it can be for folks who actually owe money.

While I do believe that folks who owe money are obligated to pay it back, debt collection agencies are also obligated to act within the law (obviously) and they are also not exempt from morality. As such, they should stay within the boundaries of the law or be properly punished.

If you do owe money and are dealing with debt collectors, it is important that you know your rights and the laws that debt collectors must follow. Obviously, you should not simply assume that they are following the law, especially if they are acting in ways that you find threatening, insulting, or harassing. While they do have a legal right to collect the debt, they must also operate within the law. If you believe that a debt collector is acting in a way that violate your rights or the law, then contact your state Attorney General’s office (www.naag.org) and the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov).

While some folks think that the government is inefficient and good for nothing, the folks in the AG and FTC can actually help you.

Speaking of the government, while there are laws limiting the actions of debt collection agencies, it seems likely that the state and private sector should address this problem. After all, there seem to be many folks who are in debt and cannot pay. This harms them as well as the folks they owe money. While I do not think that the state should bail people out, this problem does need to be addressed. Naturally, I’d like to put in a request that debt collectors cannot just call people who happen to have the last name of someone they are looking for.

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When is a Tax Not a Tax?

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2009

I happened to catch a segment on CNN about Obama’s health care plan. One of the many controversial parts of his proposal is that folks will be required to buy insurance. Naturally, some folks are labeling this a tax, most likely to score political points because Obama claimed that his plan would not increase taxes.

In part, this is a semantic debate over the meaning of “tax.” On one hand, it is not a tax in the usual sense.  Obama uses the obvious analogy to the fact that most states require people to buy car insurance, yet that is not considered to be a tax. On the other hand, it could be seen as a type of tax in that the state is requiring people to spend money.

While the battle over the semantics is important for political points (so Obama can try to say he is not taxing and his opponents can try to say he is), what strikes me as the more important concern is that the state would be requiring people to buy a product and this, under any name, will cost folks more money than they spend now.  This, of course, raises the important issue of whether this is a good idea or not.

On the one hand, it does seem to make sense. After all, the same sort of arguments that are used to justify requiring folks to be car insurance can be modified a bit and brought into play. When folks buy car insurance, part of it is to protect other folks when accidents occur. Likewise, if folks were forced to buy health insurance, one reason is that it would remove the expense from the rest of us when those folks get sick or hurt.

On the other hand, forcing people to buy health insurance is compelling them to spend money. While the state compels us to do things all the time, it is always reasonable to consider each new imposition carefully and to see whether the state has an adequate justification for this.