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Genetics may make political arguments unwinnable

If you and I entertain such inherently different preferences about the sort of society in which we want to live that common ground is limited, can expansive, top-down policy-making ever be anything more than an in-your-face power play? If political arguments are doomed to be unpersuasive to much of the opposition, no matter how well-stated, because of vast and largely unmovable differences in values and assumptions, isn’t keeping state interference in people’s lives to a minimum a matter not just of political preference, but the only course for avoiding a permanent state of low-level civil war?

I’ve written before about Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s interesting research into the moral foundations of ideology and the different values and assumptions that separate liberals, conservatives and libertarians. These differences hold strong implications for the likely outcome of policy debates, since they make it clear that various factions often speak past each other, since they’re working from varying moral emphases and different concepts of good and bad when it comes to both means and ends — even the language they use can be confusing, since meanings of words vary among the factions.

Now Haidt comes forward with new information suggesting that conversation among ideological opponents can be even more difficult than previously thought. In an article (not yet online), “Born This Way?”, in the latest issue of Reason, Haidt writes of evidence that our ideology is, partially, determined by genetic factors that govern our risk aversion and our openness to new experiences. These innate traits then nudge us along paths in life that tend to reinforce our inherent inclinations.

Haidt is careful to emphasize that we’re not hard-wired into our political beliefs. He’s talking about a nudge that is likely to be self-reinforcing rather than genetically predetermined belief systems.

Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Our genetic traits lead us to respond to situations, pick careers, choose neighborhoods and associate with people in ways that reinforce our tendencies. Haidt points out that society has changed in recent years in ways that make it increasingly easy to surround ourselves with the familiar and like-minded and disassociate from people and situations that would pull us in a different direction.

Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties — counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.

This same point about Americans self-sorting ourselves along ideological lines was made several years in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing. Now, Haidt tells us that we’re actually reinforcing genetic traits.

I don’t see anything in this research that’s guaranteed to make liberals, conservatives and libertarians like each other more, or find each other more sympathetic. But I do see lessons here regarding the limits of debate and the wisdom of letting people live their own lives with minimal interference. If we don’t just choose to embrace vastly different beliefs, but we entertain beliefs toward which we’re nudged by our internal source codes, it strikes me as both arrogant and cruel to impose policies on one another that must always be perceived by our opponents as alien and incomprehensible.

Democracy doesn’t change this dynamic, since democratic outcomes may just represent differences in genetic distributions across various populations, with the same impossibility of converting opponents to the majority’s way of thinking.

Yes, we need to be better about trying to understand each other, but I think it’s even more important to make allowances for each other’s preferences. The emphasis should be less on winning overall policy battles than on making as much space as possible for people to live according to their own beliefs — beliefs, it seems, that have their roots at the genetic level.

The super-sneaky trick that defeats TSA’s nude scanners

Believe it or not, the secret to bypassing the new airport “security” scanners is to  … wait for it! … hang contraband off your side. That’s because, says blogger/engineer Jonathan Corbett, the scanners display the human body as light, ghost images against a black background, and they display metallic objects as black. So if something metallic is hanging off your side, it literally disappears into the background. He tested his theory at two airports and went through the TSA checkpoint without a hitch each time.

Britain’s Daily Mail points out that Corbett’s revelation about the scanners’ little flaw “comes just weeks after Europe banned the ‘airport strip-searches’ over fears the X-ray technology could cause cancer.”

Live and learn

You’ll notice that Disloyal Opposition looks a tad different today. Well … Many years ago, I was warned to back up my files before screwing around with anything computer-related. This morning, I noticed that WordPress had a number of pending updates sitting in the queue, waiting my approval. I wanted to get on with my current project with minimal delay, so approve I did. Without backing up files.

It seems that the updated version of my WordPress theme conflicts with … something. I don’t know what, and I’m not so in love with the theme that I care to troubleshoot and dig through code. And, since I didn’t backup my files, I can’t roll back to the old version.

So I chose a new theme that includes the features I want and doesn’t conflict with … something. I hope you like the new look.

How Arizona’s land-use debates make my novel so damned relevant

A major conceit of my novel, High Desert Barbecue, (now available as a DRM-free ebook from the Google ebookstore that’s readable on your Nook, Kobo, iPad and pretty much anything but a Kindle or an Etch-a-Sketch) is the desire of a cabal of radical environmentalists to drive humans off of western lands so that they can return to some natural and, presumably, idyllic state. What some readers may not understand is that I really didn’t stretch the truth much. Tug on it a bit? Sure. But not a lot of stretching.

Last week, the current and former sheriffs in Coconino County (where Flagstaff is located) came out, a day late and a dollar short, against a federal plan, driven by groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, that “eliminates 66 percent of areas where car campers and travel trailers could spend the night, reducing it from a majority of the forest to an area a little more than double the size of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area,” in the words of the Arizona Daily Sun. The scheme also closes many forest roads to vehicular use at any time.

The Center for Biological Diversity says on its Website:

[W]e believe the highest and best use of public lands is to provide safe harbor for species by protecting the ecological systems upon which they and we ultimately depend. To this end, our advocacy directly confronts land uses that harm species and ecosystems — from off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing to industrial logging and uranium and fossil fuel extraction — while advancing precedent-setting litigation, policies, and strategic collaborations to usher in a hopeful new era of biodiversity conservation for our public lands system. We work toward a future in which species and ecosystems are finally afforded primacy among public lands priorities.

No, the Center is not led by by a fellow named Rupert Greenfield. Well, not officially.

Yes, some of the sandals-and-patchouli set really do want to see human presence swept out of their wind-swept shrine. And they are able to play on cultural divisions to get their way.

In the West, outdoor use is largely divided between motors and sweat. You have your ATV riders, campers and shooters relying on vehicles to get where they want to go in the forests and deserts, and you have your trail runners, backpackers and mountain bikers depending more on their own muscles. Some people like to cast this as a moral or spiritual divide, but it really is cultural. The sweat set is largely urban/suburban and white collar, and sees machines as something to escape, and the motorheads are primarily small-town/rural and blue-collar, and see machines as things that turn back-breaking labor into mere hard work. Both sides tend to ignore the considerable overlap between their constituents while sneering at each other. The motorheads are hit hard by road closures, while the sweat set see themselves as unaffected — or even benefited — by harder access to the outdoors.

Never mind that some of the sweat set are going to be mighty unhappy when they discover some of their favorite climbable rock-faces and unofficial trails are now effectively of-limits — they’re still either indifferent to the road-closures or actively supporting them.

For the record, I’m a backpacker, trail-runner and mountain-biker — well-ensconced in the sweat-set — but I really don’t like being pushed out of the forests and deserts by a bunch of … well … tree-fuckers (read my book if you don’t get that reference!).

Why I want to paint a huge, raised middle finger on my roof

From Digital Journal, a report on the federal government’s plan to put eyes in the sky. Thirty thousand of them, that is.

A bill passed last week allocating more than $63 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration would increase the existence of drones in civilian airspace across America and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama. …

If the new bill becomes law, up to 30,000 drones could by flying in U.S. airspace by decade’s end. The Senate passed the bill by a 75-20 margin. Civil liberties groups have spoken out on the measure, stating the new legislation offers no restrictions on drone surveillance operations by police and federal agencies and could put us on track toward a “surveillance society.”

What I’ll add is that we’re already a surveillance society, if not quite as Panopticon-ish as the UK. The feds don’t need flying spy robots to be all surveillance-y when they have closed-circuit TV cameras scattered hither and yon, and your neighbors are happily dropping a dime (or rollover minutes) on one another for the greater glory of state security.

Between the devil and the deep blue Santorum

The list of presidential candidates over whom I’d prefer Barack Obama is a short one, indeed. I’ll admit that I never had high expectations for old Barry — honestly, how could anybody? In 2008, when he was running for the presidency for the first time, he was a TV-ready politico-academic dilettante with an obvious social-democratic view of the ideal relationship between individuals and the state — a good-looking guy who wanted to turn the U.S. into Holland, but was ill-equipped to do so. (But he’s well on his way to turning it into Greece! Bring on the retsina!)

But, at least, I hoped, he could nudge the U.S. away from its Bush-driven role as the bombs-and-waterboarding capital of the world, right? Maybe a little more peace and a little less security state. That would be a good thing.

Now, of course, we’re reading headlines about the widespread popularity of President Obama’s scheme for using drones to assassinate American citizens living abroad who have been accused (but not convicted) of terrorist ties.

Yeah. So much for that plan (I say as I nervously watch the sky).

But, even so, Obama remains … less horrendous than some people who want to be president. I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum, you liberty-hating, authoritarian freak. I mean, really … This gay-baiting, collectivist control-freak is now the leading contender (for the next five minutes) among the Republican faithful?

Well, sure. When campaigning against an incumbent president who favors an expanded role for the state in people’s lives, why not go with a guy who favors an expanded role for the state in people’s lives, but in a different way.

That’s choice, American-style!

Democracy didn’t look so good yesterday

Well, I tried keeping these two links open in adjacent browser tabs, but then they started beating on each other (and liking it — you never can tell about these media stories):

I really am happy to see Prop. 8 knocked down, and no, I really don’t give a shit about the “undemocratic” nature of a court voiding the hateful, anti-liberty will of the people. I believe in freedom and am willing to use democracy as a tool — or to push it aside as needed — in order to maintain and expand freedom and minimize the constraints placed on human action by the coercive power of the state.

My chastity belt is pinching my junk

Rick Santorum, when last he sucked off the public tit

As further support for my disdain for democracy, I point to the fact that Rick Santorum topped the polls in three states, yesterday. That’s Santorum who not only hates the chaps-and-flannel-wearers who prevailed in yesterday’s court decision against Prop. 8, but also the libertarians and fellow-travelers who were equal victors in that case. Santorum has openly denounced those of us who “have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want.”

And people voted for this intolerant, authoritarian tool.

So those two browser tabs were a double exercise in juxtaposition: bigotry vs. tolerance and democratic betrayal of liberty vs. antidemocratic support for it.

Interesting.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/calif-same-sex-marriage-ban-ruled-unconstitutional/2012/02/07/gIQAMNwkwQ_story.html?tid=pm_pop

Freedom under the open sky

Over at Ars Gratia Libertatis, reviewer J.P. Medved (writing as “Aducknamedjoe”) focuses on the outdoor aspect of High Desert Barbecue (a not insignificant aspect of the novel, which takes place almost entirely under the open sky):

There is no shortage of novels devoted to the outdoors whose stories appeal to backpackers, campers and hikers (the granola sort, we call them in Colorado). It takes only a minute’s thought to conjure up such titles as Into the Wild, Hatchet, or Hemingway’s famous short story, Big Two-Hearted River. Many of these seriously and studiously explore nature as a vast healing power, a thunderous force not to be trifled with, or a dangerous coming of age challenge.

Rare are those stories that depict nature with a lighthearted chuckle, to be respected, sure, but also to be enjoyed by people who know what they’re doing in the Great Outdoors. Rarer still is such a story written from a free market, libertarian perspective. Luckily, author J.D. Tuccille has taken it upon himself to rectify that deficit with his new novel, High Desert Barbecue.

I’m glad this review notes this point. As a trail runner, mountain biker, backpacker. etc., I spend muchas horas (this is Arizona, folks) under the sun, and I enjoy fiction about the great outdoors. But I’m more than a little put-off by quasi-theological, neo-primitivist tripe that treats the wilderness as a morally redemptive alternative to horrible, horrible civilization and its nasty antibiotics, arts, knowledge and reduced infant mortality. *shudder*

Look, I like the outdoors. The wilderness is fun, beautiful, challenging — and it can kill you. I’ve drunk bad water when I was two days from a trailhead — an uphill climb from the bottom of Grand Canyon, at that. I’ve stumbled over rattle snakes. I’ve been chilled to the bone far from fire or shelter. I’ve been bit by things I still can’t identify, that made parts of my anatomy swell up and turn fascinating colors.

But I like being outside. I also, especially, appreciate the refuge the wilderness offers from the strictures of everyday life. It’s a place to run to escape expectations, condemnations and, especially intrusive laws and red tape. Edward Abbey spilled a lot of ink on this last point — the wilderness as a place to flee from tyranny — which probably helps to explain his mixed reputation in progressive circles, but he also indulged in nature-worship and civilization-bashing to an absurdly misanthropic degree.

Truthfully, if the wilderness is a refuge from civilization, so is civilization a refuge from wilderness. We need a place to escape from busybodies, bigots and control-freaks, but we also need a place to develop art, medicine and technology in order to explore and use our human potential.

Civil liberties are too precious to waste on enemies

Among the things that make rights — in particular, that basket of rights commonly referred to as “civil liberties” — actual rights as opposed to privileges, is that they are inviolable and universal. That is, even people you don’t like enjoy these rights, and are entitled to the protection of the same. And even people you do like have to respect these rights, or suffer the consequences for violating them.

Which brings us to the media reaction to the hassle Sen. Rand Paul went through with the TSA goons at the Nashville, Tennessee, airport. From an OpEd Paul wrote about the incident for the Washington Times:

Today, while en route to Washington to speak to hundreds of thousands of people at the March for Life, I was detained by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for not agreeing to a patdown after an irregularity was found in my full body scan. Despite removing my belt, glasses, wallet and shoes, the scanner and TSA also wanted my dignity. I refused.

I showed them the potentially offending part of my body, my leg. They were not interested. They wanted to touch me and to pat me down. I requested to be rescanned. They refused and detained me in a 10-foot-by-10-foot area reserved for potential terrorists.

The OpEd goes on to describe the TSA and its procedures as a “blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment,” though it ends on a weak — even impotent — note calling for nothing more than “legislation that will allow for adults to be rescreened if they so choose” so they don’t have to submit to pat-downs.

Anger at the TSA is nothing new, and it’s hardly partisan. People screamed about TSA intrusions under Bush, and they scream about them under Obama. Oddly, at least so far as bureaucrats are concerned, many people seem to object to being groped, electronically stripped, herded, told to shut up and otherwise abused just so they can make an early-morning  business meeting or drag the kiddies through the purgatory that is a Disney theme park.

But the Paul incident raises problems for some pundits — specifically, because the victim was a (presumptively evil) libertarian-ish conservative Republican, and the perpetrators were (presumptively angelic) unionized government workers. The result, at least at Gawker, was an odd rant about white, educated libertarians (author Max Read doesn’t seem too well-endowed with melanin himself, though I know nothing of his educational bona fides), followed by a bizarre tantrum about the supposed low stakes and “inconsequential” violations inherent in TSA procedures, so that libertarians should just shut up already about travel restrictions and pay more attention to the war on drugs.

Because … libertarians have been sadly overlooking the drug prohibition issue for lo, these many years, I guess.

Read then concludes by taking a labor-meathead route to a neo-conservative, law-and-order conclusion:

[T]he act of refusing a pat down, and calling it a “detention,” comes across as an unbelievably petty dramatic fit instead of the imagined noble stand against an oppressive government. Couple that with the fact that TSA agents are union workers, often minorities, just trying to do their jobs, and it’s really difficult to feel like this is a “stand” worth taking at all. Just let them pat you down, guy. Stop holding up the line.

Wow, Max. It must be embarrassing to be you. But it’s worse for your mom, I’ll bet.

Esquire‘s Charles P. Pierce didn’t even try for coherent, simply smirking about the incident and speculating that Rand Paul would have had no objections to a grope conducted by Tennessee authorities because — ha! ha! — ummm …

I guess because Paul necessarily supports civil liberties protections only against federal authorities? Pierce really needs to add a footnote there. Just to clarify.

Jessica Pieklo of Care2 suggests that the universe has a sense of humor, because Rand Paul was on his way to an anti-abortion rally when he was detained, and only people who share her overall views are entitled to have any of their rights protected.

That’s also Steve Benen’s position, at the Washington Monthly.

And Library Grape reads from the same script.

Oh, c’mon. I’m pro-choice, too, but do we really want to go to the position of “if you don’t agree with me, then this is just an exercise in irony and you get what you deserve”? That path seems a little … messy. I guarantee you that few, if any of these bloggers will satisfy even each others’ civil liberties purity tests (and certainly not mine), which is likely to leave us all grabbing our ankles, unprotected because of our ideological imperfections.

Which, I guess, is OK, so long as the violators are good, unionized, blue-collar types. Right?

A little Vonnegut, a little Coen brothers …

The latest review of High Desert Barbecue is from Prometheus Unbound, “a libertarian review of fiction and literature.” It’s a thoughtful and, I’m happy to say, very positive review. My favorite part is this:

I think the best word to describe the book is ‘fun’. The peculiar characters and the humor they create fit perfectly with the lean style and fast story. It is equal parts prose that Kurt Vonnegut would approve of, eccentricity like you might find in a Coen brothers dark comedy, and libertarian morals embracing the permissive side.

You can find the full review here (but be sure to check out the rest of the site).