Saturday, July 04, 2015

Sorry, Game of Thrones Fans: Jon Snow is Dead

Was that clear enough? Let me say it again, just to be clear: Jon Snow is dead.

Please, no more need for recycling the same old theories about why he is alive. That ground has been thoroughly covered. That horse is as dead as Jon Snow.

Of course there actually are some decent arguments for why Jon Snow might somehow be resurrected. That possibility seemed quite plausible in the books, with Melisandre's presence at the Wall providing for a means of bringing Snow back from the dead -- and when Melisandre made her retreat back to the Wall as Stannis's army fell it seemed fair to ask why else she would be there but to save Jon Snow. The books also resurrect... book spoiler warnings Catelyn Stark. The books introduce a character, Coldhands, who seems to be a different form of living dead from the other creatures found north of the Wall.

In both the show and books Gregor Clegane, The Mountain, is brought back as some sort of zombie. Beric Dondarrion is resurrected several times before (in the books) passing his power onto Catelyn Stark. There would have also been the possibility of glamouring, as we know that Melisandre can make one character appear to be another. The book also emphasizes wargs, with some theorizing that Jon Snow could have warged into his direwolf before his body died (never mind that there's no obvious way back to human form, and that we've been told that remaining too long in an animal host will cause you to lose your human character).

Also, it seems like an incredible waste of a very interesting character to kill Jon Snow at this point in the story. The relationship you form with a television character is different from that you form with a character on the printed page, and the loss of Snow seems all the more stark (no pun intended) in the series. Why spend all of that time and energy building him into an interesting character only to kill him off, with nobody else of similar charisma to fill his shoes? Why drop conspicuous hints about his "real" parentage if he plays no role in the end game? From a literary standpoint, why kill off the principal point of view characters who could play a central role in the conclusion, while keeping alive others who can't possibly be on the winning team? Will people, readers or viewers, care about events at the Wall without Jon Snow?

At the same time there's one consistency to Martin's writing: If you're a noble, virtuous character who puts the well-being of others ahead of your own, you end up dead. Do you really think that Snow's body will be hidden and frozen for a year, so that he can be resurrected in Season 7? (Jon Snow on Ice.... Is this a Disney production?) From the standpoint of good storytelling, as questionable as it may be to kill Jon Snow at this point in the narrative, a secret, frozen Jonsicle would seem to be worse.

I suspect that the future story anticipates that readers won't care about the Wall post-Jon Snow, and thus won't be surprised or offended when the army of the dead defeats the remaining members of the Night's Watch (and any Wildlings who might have inexplicably continued to support their efforts in the wake of Snow's death), creating the context for a major conflict between the advancing White Walkers and the dragons of Danaerys. (That story line would seem a bit... predictable. We'll see.) Also, particularly if Jon Snow has the royal blood that many plausibly believes used to run through his veins, we can expect Melisandre to have some interesting visions in the flames of his funeral pyre.

The primary evidence for Jon Snow's death comes from the show, (and if it needs to be said) not the as-of-yet unfinished, unavailable sixth book. The show did not renew Jon Snow's contract for Season 6. It's one thing to give a character like Bran a year off, without much concern for whether the part will have to be recast in a future season -- children and adolescents change a lot, and few would be surprised to discover that Bran looks different after a year of communing with ancient trees -- he'll look different even if they keep the same actor.

While daytime soap operas of old used to switch out adult characters without much concern for appearance, and Game of Thrones has done the same with at least one small part (Gregor Clegane) and with a smaller role before it became larger (Tommen Baratheon) I don't think that audiences will accept a different actor as Jon Snow. He could come back among the undead, perhaps as a hooded Coldhands-type character, but he would both be dead and be a very different character -- what would be the point? If the show wanted to be sure that Kit Harington would be available to play Jon Snow in Season 7 or beyond, given the difficult production schedule, it is highly unlikely that they would risk his taking other jobs that would prevent his participation.

The show understandably shares Martin's affinity for killing off characters -- but sometimes the reasons for a death seem different, such as to simplify story lines and perhaps to control the show's budget. The death of Ser Barristan Selmy (a character whose story line died a slow on-screen death even before the showrunners made it final), the death of Mance Rayder with no glamouring, moving up the death of Shireen Baratheon and the defeat of Stannis Baratheon, not bringing back Catelyn Stark, killing Myrcella Baratheon (who at this point in the books was only missing an ear)....

The showrunners could easily have carried Jon Snow's character forward into season six, perhaps drawing on the chapters dealing with his management of the Wildlings or delaying the death of Stannis Baratheon while having Jon Snow announce the rescue mission that precipitated his death on the printed page. But they instead chose to bump Snow off during the last episode of the season, saving themselves a big chunk of change to apply to hiring other actors, building sets and producing special effects.

If in light of all of that you still think Snow is coming back, what do you think the dialogue would be upon his return in season seven? "Hey, folks, I'm back. Did I miss anything? Ooooh... are those dragons?"

So stop watching the length of Kit Harington's hair -- it's going to get longer and shorter over the coming year because (assuming an occasional haircut) that's what hair generally does. Stop arguing that if you turn your head sideways and squint, you can see proof of Snow's survival because his eyes almost imperceptibly change color during his death scene. "We shall never see his like again, and now his watch is ended."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Reynolds "Charity" Empire in Decline

A few years ago I wrote a post entitled, "Is The Breast Cancer Society a Worthy Charity", to which the answer was "No". The comments to that thread are extensive, and include a defense of the organization from Kristina Hixson, which avoided answering any of the tough questions or giving an honest explanation of the organization's operations. She went so far as to post a series of fake endorsements to the thread, trying to bury valid criticism behind fictitious praise.

Oh yes, and she went on to marry the man who ran that "charity", James T. Reynolds II.

Over time, the Reynolds' family of "charities" started to receive press scrutiny. The Tampa Bay Times published an article, "Intricate family connections bind several of America's worst charities". It opens
Carol Smith still gets angry when she remembers the box that arrived by mail for her dying husband.

Cancer Fund of America sent it when he was diagnosed with lung cancer six years ago.

Smith had called the charity for help. "It was filled with paper plates, cups, napkins and kids' toys," the 67-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., resident said.

"My husband looked like somebody slapped him in the face. "I just threw it in the trash."
The story continues,
In the past three years alone, Cancer Fund and its associated charities raised $110 million. The charities paid more than $75 million of that to solicitors. Cancer Fund ranks second on the Times/CIR list of America's worst charities. (Florida's Kids Wish Network placed first.)

Salaries in 2011 topped $8 million — 13 times more than patients received in cash. Nearly $1 million went to Reynolds family members.

The network's programs are overstated at best. Some have been fabricated.
The Federal Government has finally managed to partially shut down the Reynolds empire:
In reality, officials say, millions of dollars raised by four “sham charities” [Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society] lined the pockets of the groups’ founders and their family members, paying for cars, luxury cruises, and all-expense paid trips to Disney World for charity board members.

The 148-page fraud lawsuit accuses the charities of ripping off donors nationwide to the tune of $187 million from 2008 to 2012 in a scheme one federal official called “egregious” and “appalling.”...

Among the allegations is that [Reynolds' ex-wife, Rose] Perkins gave 10% across-the-board bonuses twice a year to employees [of the Children’s Cancer Fund of America], regardless of performance, and was allowed to set her own salary and bonuses up to a limit without the approval of board members. In 2010, when donations to the Breast Cancer Society were declining, Reynolds II’s salary ballooned from $257,642 to $370,951, according to the complaint.
What can a grifter do, but grift? Even having been shut down, the Breast Cancer Society promises to come back to leach off of the good intentions of people who want to help cancer survivors:
The silver lining in all of this is that the organization has the ability to continue operating our most valued and popular program, the Hope Supply. Our Board will work tirelessly to maintain the Hope Supply program services that have benefitted our many patients for years – initially under the TBCS banner as it transitions under a different organization – all with the goal of seamlessly providing services to you. I take solace in the fact that this wonderful program has the chance to continue operating.
There is a note of honesty, "I have loved leading TBCS...." Why wouldn't James love working in a job that paid him royally for performing little work, despite his indifference to the needs of the people his charity was supposed to help? It's a gravy train he's eager to re-board, so watch out for his next "charity", coming soon to a list of the nation's worst charities near you.

If you want a good measure of James Reynolds II's character, watch him on video.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Addressing the Causes of Substance Abuse vs. Addiction

I saw Johann Hari interviewed on Real Time the other day, and what he essentially offered during the interview was a version of the essay published here, in which he argues that the real cause of addiction is the addict's environment, not the nature of the addictive substance itself:
This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's how we get our satisfaction. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
Before I get into the obvious faults of Hari's theory, there is some merit to his position within the larger realm of substance abuse. Many people go through periods of their life in which they rely too heavily upon alcohol, or engage in the recreational use illicit substances or prescription medications, perhaps to the point that their lives seem to be coming apart at the seams, but are subsequently able to scale back or stop that behavior on their own. Their substance abuse may be largely situational, and when the situation changes so does the appeal of drugs or alcohol.

The problem that Hari's theory does not address is why certain individuals are not able to stop using drugs or alcohol without -- and sometimes even with -- significant intervention. Why, if it's the human connection that matters, some individuals will continue to use drugs even as their actions alienate every single person who is trying to connect with them or help them. Hari's theory might explain in part how dealing with addiction can seem like a game of whack-a-mole -- how the successful cessation of the use of one substance, such as alcohol, might be associated with the onset of the use of a different substance or a behavioral disorder. But his theory does not explain why addicts have different drugs of choice, or why rates of successful recovery can differ dramatically between substances.

Hari brings up behavioral addictions,
It was explained to me -- you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.
Except, of course, there are. People do get a biochemical reward from gambling. Were that not the case, people would get nothing out of gambling -- there would be no thrill, just boredom associated with an overall loss of money -- and gambling would have no appeal. As it turns out, there is evidence "that the opioid systems in the brains of pathological gamblers may be different, affecting their control, motivation, emotion, and responses to pain and stress."

Problem gamblers appear to have an issue that is similar to that of some problem drinkers, "it seems that pathological gamblers just don't get the same feeling of euphoria as do healthy volunteers". As counter-intuitive as it may seem at first blush, a rapid response to intoxicants is an evolutionary defense against over-consumption. Broadly speaking, when you need to consume more of a substance to get the same thrill, you are at increased risk of addiction.

Hari engages in the dangerous practice of predicating his entire theory on a study of rats. Rats, he tells us, will deal with isolation and boredom by using drugs, but when given many exciting alternatives to drug use they largely choose life's other pleasures over drugs. While, yes, that does suggest that environment can affect rates of drug use, it tells us nothing about why two people who enjoy pretty much the same environment can have extremely different levels of interest in intoxication.

If you attend open AA meetings, those that welcome all members of the public, you will likely soon hear an addict describe his or her first experience with alcohol or drugs. You will very likely hear many speak of their extreme euphoria, their eagerness to repeat the experience, the steps they took to increase their access to their drug of choice and their frequency of use. While Hari would have us believe that in each case there was something -- some level of connection with others -- missing in their lives, and with some of those accounts suggesting such a lack of connection, Hari's argument nonetheless hits a stumbling block: Why do other people with similar or worse environments or levels of isolation try the same substance yet avoid a similar outcome? From another angle,
Time magazine reported using heroin was "as common as chewing gum" among U.S. soldiers [during the Vietnam War], and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers -- according to the same study -- simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn't want the drug any more.
The thing is, every single veteran had a new, much more pleasant post-war "cage" -- so why did 5% remain heroin-addicted? Similarly,
If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right -- it's the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them -- then it's obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here's the strange thing: It virtually never happens.
If by that Hari means that most people who are administered powerful opiates during hospitalization don't subsequently become heroin addicts, he's correct. But if he means to suggest that large numbers of addicts don't have their addictions start with their taking properly prescribed pain medications, he's wrong. Most patients will come out of surgery, deal with their inadequate post-hospitalization pain control, recover, and go on with their normal lives. Some will suffer a bit more during their recovery but again go on with their normal lives. Some will actively drug-seek, displaying behaviors consistent with substance abuse and addiction.

If Hari's theory were accurate, we should be able to easily define who is likely to become addicted and who is not. We could simply perform a survey of that person's life, their connections, their stressors and the like, and that should give us an excellent idea of who is likely to have a substance abuse problem and who is not. The problem is, you cannot predict substance abuse or addiction in that manner. You may find overall trends and risk factors, such as a family history of substance abuse, a childhood pain condition that was not properly managed, a history of being the victim of child abuse, and the like. Yes, some predictors do suggest a behavioral component to addiction -- which is what you would expect from something that is in large part a behavioral health problem. But other predictors are not behavioral. Why should it be a risk factor to you if relatives who you have never met, or who were never in a position to model addictive behavior to you, had substance abuse problems?

It's important to recall, also, that not everybody has the same reaction to the same substance. Alcohol triggers different physiological reactions in different people. Some people have little ability to metabolize alcohol, and within their communities rates of alcoholism are very high. Some people flush upon consumption of alcohol. Some become nauseous. Some quickly become tipsy, even with modest alcohol consumption. Others can consume large quantities of alcohol without displaying strong signs of intoxication. Similar things can be said of opiates -- if your reaction to opiates includes feeling itchy all over your body, feeling nauseous, experiencing severe constipation, or feeling confused and anxious, the odds are much lower that you're going to want to repeat the experience than if your principal memory is of euphoria.

These differences in reaction are biochemical, not behavioral. It reasonably follows that some of the differences in why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, why people prefer one substance over another, and why some people have much greater difficulty establishing and maintaining sobriety, are biochemical. Yes, you may need to address psychological and environmental issues in order to help the addict achieve a stable recovery, but simply changing the addict's environment will not cure the addiction.

Hari suggests that the history of nicotine patches supports his theory,
Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism -- cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That's not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that's still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
Hari makes three fundamental mistakes in his comparison. First, he presupposes that the use of a nicotine patch is evidence that a smoker wants to quit. In fact, many smokers who attempt to quit are doing so not because they want to do so, but because they are under social pressure to stop smoking. Some people are afraid to quit smoking, for example because they fear weight gain. Second, he presupposes that establishing a baseline level of nicotine will remove any biochemical incentive for a smoker to smoke. The steady baseline certainly can help control cravings, but it is not going to provide the spike of nicotine exposure to which a smoker is accustomed. Hari is apparently referring to Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 2000, summarized here on page 491. Yes, Third, the abstinence rate for the study was premised upon six months of abstinence, so we're not merely talking about how well smokers abstained during their twelve weeks on nicotine patches, but during a period of months after they stopped using the patch. It's interesting to see that a nicotine nasal spray resulted in a 30.5% abstention rate over the same period, as did buprenorphine -- a medication that does not imitate nicotine, but instead blocks opiate receptors. If biochemistry weren't a big part of the story, the results should have been the same no matter whether the smoker received a placebo, a particular administration of nicotine, or buprenorphine.

Fundamentally, as with any addiction, no treatment program or assistive medication is going to work over the long-run unless the addict wants to stop using his drug of choice. Medications and treatment can provide a window of opportunity during which the addict can establish a period of abstinence and have an opportunity to consider a future both with and without his substance of choice, but unless the addict is sufficiently motivated to stop the addict will relapse. For that matter, many addicts who truly want to stop will still have problems with relapse, whether due to a momentary lapse in judgment, the strength of their cravings, or a combination of factors.

At the end of the day, yes, it makes sense for a recovering addict to improve his environment -- to address facors, internal and external, that contribute to addiction and could contribute to relapse. To ignore the biochemical side of addiction, the predispositions that some people have to the use and abuse of certain chemical substances, and the difficulty that addicts of all backgrounds experience when trying to establish and maintain sobriety, by suggesting... is it that this could all be fixed with warm feelings, love songs and group hugs... is to turn a blind eye to the leading factors in addiction.
Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention -- tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won't stop should be shunned. It's the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction -- and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever -- to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can't.
I'm not one to point to a show like Interventions and argue that it's a model for addiction treatment. The purpose of an intervention is to inspire an unwilling drug addicted person to go into residential treatment. Contrary to what Hari suggests, the message is not (or at least should not be) that "an addict who won't stop should be shunned" but is instead that the family has the right to draw boundaries and to state that, if the addict chooses to continue down the road to ruin, they will have to limit their role in the addict's life in order to protect themselves and their own mental health. Sometimes it takes a dose of that sort of reality to get the addict to go into treatment. Sure, others will reject the attempted intervention, but it's facile to suggest that it is a failed intervention that causes addicts to "deepen their addiction" -- addiction is a progressive disease and thus, absent some limiting factor, gets worse over time. Many addicts describe the fear of loss of family, the embarrassment of an arrest or jail sentence, and the like as the very thing that inspired them to finally work toward recovery.

What Hari describes as his ultimate take-away, "to let [the addicts in my life] know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can't", is a basic teaching of programs like Alanon, under the name of "detachment with love". Hari may not like some of the implications of that approach, the idea of telling an addict who calls you hysterically in the middle of the night that he was picked up by the police and needs to be bailed out, that he'll have to wait until morning -- or that he'll have to face the natural consequence of his decisions and find a way to bail himself out -- but allowing an addict to face those natural consequences is not an indication that you don't love them. It's a means of protecting yourself, of avoiding the anger and resentment that get in the way of love, and of allowing them to experience the negative consequences that they bring upon themselves such that they might decide that it's finally time to give sobriety a honest chance -- whether through inpatient treatment, an intensive outpatient program (IOP), counseling, peer support, and with or without assistive medication. When the addict reaches the point of wanting to recover, you can start implementing the structure and changes that Hari correctly associates with improving the chances of long-term sobriety. But no, when you're dealing with populations of addicts, you cannot simply work to improve their emotional environment and expect it to be a miracle cure.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Evangelical Christianity, Homosexuality and the Deeply Flawed "Tale of Two Bobs"

The other day I came across a blog post by Rod Dreher, in which he embraces a parable somebody wrote a couple of years ago about two neighbors, both named Bob, who get along even though the author assumes that they're not supposed to.

The opening of the parable could be this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is a neo-Nazi, the other is Jewish. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.
Or this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is a KKK member, the other is in an interracial marriage. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.
Or this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is an evangelical Christian, the other is gay and agnostic. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.

The narrative continues,
One day, during March Madness, a stiff gust of wind knocked a tree limb into their power lines, and they found themselves without electricity, five minutes before the U of L game. They wandered out onto their respective porches and decided to go to a nearby pizzeria to watch the game.

Somewhere before the end of the game, this conversation began:
Bob 1: Isn’t it surprising that we've become friends?

Bob2: What do you mean?

1: Well, one of us has a [swastika / KKK emblem / rainbow sticker], and the other has a [Magen David / pro-diversity sticker / fish emblem]. According to most folks, we shouldn't get along.

2: Yeah, I'll admit it's crossed my mind once or twice. Does it bother you?

1: Does what bother me?

2: Well, that I am who I am?

1: Hmmm… I don't know how to answer that. Does it bother you that I am the way that I am?
The narrative continues,
Bob 2 scratches his chin, waits a moment.
2: I suppose there are two answers to that question. One is no, not at all. We've been good friends. You took my dog to the vet when it got into a fight with a possum. You share my hatred of the University of Kentucky. What's not to like? On the other hand, I think you've have committed your life to something that's toxic to our culture, and to yourself, and I wish for your sake, my sake, and the world's that you believed something different. So no. And also, I worry about you.
Bob 1 leans back a little, grinning.
2: Did I offend you?

1: No, not at all. In fact, I would probably give the same answer about you, though I'd phrase it a little differently.

2: How so?

1: Well first of all, I’d talk about your barbecue skills, and I’d admit that I like your smelly dog. Second, I’d say that I think who you are and who I am is more complex than beliefs and commitments… but I think that's true for myself too.

2: You don't think you chose to be that way?

1: Did you?

2: I guess I did and I didn't. Or maybe, I didn’t then I did. It was something I didn’t want, but eventually I had to admit it.

1: I guess I didn't and then I did.

2: That's a better way of putting it.

1: For both of us.

2: For both of us.

1: So all this simmers in the background while we see one another, day by day.

2: Yep.

1: But we just keep on being neighbors and sharing the occasional pizza.

2: Yep. Breathing the same air, trying to figure out how to get along.
The game got heated for a few moments and they drifted away from the conversation. Soon, it started up again.
1: Let me ask you something.

2: Shoot.

1: You're saying that you didn't choose to be the way you are, but then you did.

2: Yeah. It was a journey. I didn't want to believe it, but eventually, it became undeniable, and I had to accept it inwardly, and then I had to accept it outwardly.

1: How did your family react?

2: Well, they're more sympathetic to you than me… It wasn't easy. It still isn't. I get snarky comments occasionally, especially during election seasons.

1: Oh yeah… the worst.

2: The worst. Let me ask you something now.

1: Okay.

2: Has it caused trouble for you? Like, at work or anything?

1: Well, sometimes. Some folks just think it's awful, and you have to win them over by just being an ordinary person.

2: Because they think you're a monster?

1: Because they think you're a monster.

2: That's familiar.

1: Yep.
The game ends, the two walk back home, and their friendship resumes. Conversations return to this topic, and both try to convince the other of their errors… But thus far, not much has changed. They remain good friends and good neighbors.
The author argues,
This parable is meant to do two things. First, it’s sort of a Rorschach test. Which of the Bobs is a Christian, and which one is gay? In a culture that remains hostile to the LGBT community at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end, hostile to Christians who hold traditional beliefs, we will find folks like both Bobs: their social experiences are almost interchangeable.
Even within the context of "Which of the Bobs is a Christian, and which one is gay", the exchange is strange and contrived. When you recognize the fact that, perhaps with a slight adjustment for time and place, the exchange as easily "fits" contexts in which one person's views would be unacceptable by broadly held contemporary standards, the parable falls apart as a highly strained false equivalence. There is a difference between disliking somebody because of their beliefs, particularly when those beliefs cast you as somebody who is destined to Hell or inherently inferior, and disliking somebody over an aspect of their being that they cannot change -- such as their heritage, or their (or their spouse's, or their children's) skin color.

If you want to reduce it to a parable about mutual acceptance, to make it a song and dance number for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, you don't need to bring religion or status into the discussion. ">The farmer and the cowman can be friends. You say tomato, and I say to-mah-to. You say goodbye, and I say hello. The exchange actually works better if you treat the disagreement as being over a triviality. Consider Dr. Suess's story of the star-bellied sneetches, creatures identical in all respects save for the presence of stars on their bellies, who come to realize the absurdity of using that distinction as the basis of a claim of superiority. That form of the narrative can still serve as an analogy for much more serious, real world, bigotry and discrimination, but without the need for a false analogy.

Secondly, I think this conversation is very real and true to life. It’s a conversation that I’ve had in one form or another with many friends over the years. I’ve also had conversations that were much less friendly. But the context here is, I think, the key: being neighborly, being a friend, creates space for conversations that are hard. And while that probably won’t resolve the growing public tension over these issues, it might help us to live at peace with our neighbors, and that is, in some ways, far more important.
Except the conversation is not real and is not true to life. I'm not going to rule out the possibility, for example, that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church gets along with his gay neighbor, but this is not the conversation such a person would be at all likely to have with that neighbor. Also, the author starts from the preconception that gay people "shouldn't get along" with evangelical Christians, and vice versa. While some evangelical Christian churches and movements do preach intolerance, that's not prerequisite to being an evangelical Christian. And while a gay person might not like getting the stink eye from somebody who is intolerant of his relationships, there's absolutely no reason to presuppose that being gay predisposes you to not "get along" with an evangelical Christian. For goodness sake, you can both be an evangelical Christian and be gay.

The parable seems to recognize the inherent weakness of trying to analogize the condemnation of a group of people based on status -- something they cannot change -- and criticism of people based upon their beliefs, even sincerely held religious beliefs. The Bobs are posited as having this interchangeable view of their realizing that they were gay, or their embracing a form of evangelical Christianity that regards homosexuality as a mortal sin,
2: You don't think you chose to be that way?

1: Did you?

2: I guess I did and I didn't. Or maybe, I didn’t then I did. It was something I didn’t want, but eventually I had to admit it.

1: I guess I didn't and then I did.

2: That's a better way of putting it.

1: For both of us.

2: For both of us.
The problem here is that "gay Bob" would be describing a process by which he recognized and accepted his homosexuality despite strong social pressure not to be gay. Accepting the fact that you are gay is not a "choice" as posited by the narrative. In contrast, if a person in fact struggles with whether to join a particular religious or social movement, and struggles with those portions of its beliefs that teach intolerance of others, their ultimate decision to remain within the movement and to embrace those beliefs comes as the result of an actual choice. Under the interchangeable narrative, "Christian Bob" describes himself as coming from a family that holds different views than his own, and is accepting of gay people ("they're more sympathetic to you than me"). While "Christian Bob" may believe that his religion dictates his attitudes toward gay people, under the narrative he chose the path that led to those beliefs.

Some try to draw a fine line between homosexual thoughts and homosexual practices -- the conception being that if a gay person doesn't accept his homosexuality, or if he does accept it but represses any action on his desires, that he is somehow elevated above a homosexual person who involves himself in a gay relationship. Under that thesis as it plays out in the real world, you're asking homosexual people to either live a lie, usually at the expense of another person (their heterosexual spouse), or to openly state that they are homosexuality and then to live a life of chastity. Even if the latter path were realistic, many evangelical communities would not be welcoming to such an individual. We can debate the extent to which that's the result of the teachings of their church, the result of larger social views, or some combination thereof, but it's a reality. There's a vast difference between not excluding a gay parishioner and welcoming them into your church as a full and equal member.

To the extent that the narrative reminds evangelical Christians of the teaching that you can love the sinner while hating the sin, that you can be accepting of others without compromising your Christian values, that you can be neighborly even toward people whose lifestyles you find to be sinful, great. The preconception of the narrative, that evangelical Christians "shouldn't get along" with gay people is not necessary -- you can be a devout Christian without hating anybody. Why does a contrary impression exist? Not only because of the antics of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church ("God Hates Fags"), but because of attitudes like those acknowledged here,
I can't look my gay brother in the eye anymore and say "I love the sinner but hate the sin." I can't keep drawing circles in the sand.

I thought I just needed to try harder. Maybe I needed to focus more on loving the sinner, and less on protesting the sin. But even if I was able to fully live up to that "ideal," I'd still be wrong. I'd still be viewing him as something other, something different.

Not human. Not friend. Not Christian. Not brother.


And despite all my theological disclaimers about how I'm just as much a sinner too, it's not the same. We don't use that phrase for everybody else. Only them. Only "the gays." That's the only place where we make "sinner" the all-encompassing identity....
The author clearly felt immense pressure within his religious community to reject homosexuals. He also speaks of how, upon reflection, he can continue to hold his religious beliefs without joining in with that type of condemnation of his literal and figurative brothers. The author of the "Bobs" narrative asserts,
Christians make space for others all the time; neighbors who are adulterers or gluttons, alcoholics or tax cheats. We have family members who are liars and Christians – at their best – love these folks because they know that they are no different but for the grace of God. And so, Bob can make space for Bob even while he lovingly extends the offer of grace in Jesus Christ. That offer includes a call to repent of Bob’s sins, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Save for the contrived assertion that "Gay Bob" is agnostic, "Gay Bob" could have been Christian who attends a church that is accepting of his homosexuality. I doubt that the same sort of emphasis on "the offer of grace in Jesus Christ" or repentance of sins would be asserted if this were "Evangelical Bob and Presbyterian Bob", yet save for the author's contrivance "Gay Bob" could a devout Presbyterian, perhaps even a minister.
But the truth is that the other Bob wants to convert Christian Bob too – not to being gay, of course, but to his own worldview.
As the "Two Bobs" narrative unfolds, there's no reason to believe that to be the case. That is, with "Christian Bob" being able to be friends with his gay neighbor, there's little more that "Gay Bob" could hope to accomplish -- and no reason to believe that "Gay Bob" would be particularly interested in trying to push "Christian Bob" into making further concessions. After all, if most or all evangelicals were as neighborly, the author would have felt no need to write his parable.

Dreher's take-away from the parable was this:
Cosper’s point is that Bob 1 can be the gay agnostic, or the traditional Christian, and the same moral would apply. If you can’t see how either one could play either role in the conversation, perhaps you need to work on your empathy.
For reasons I've already outlined, and which should be readily apparent from the applicability of the parable to other contexts in which it becomes instantly uncomfortable, Dreher's first take-away fails due to narrative's reliance upon a false equivalence.

The argument for empathy -- for mutual empathy -- is more interesting. While the narrative flounders when it attempts to draw a parallel between immutable aspects of a person and their social or religious beliefs, there is no question but that people can be friends with evangelical Christians without sharing or endorsing their beliefs. Sure, just as political discussions are off the table at a lot of family Thanksgiving dinners, there may be discussions that don't occur in the interest of good neighborly relations, but that's part of how we get along with others who don't fully share our views.

The false analogy makes the argument for empathy a bit awkward -- I'm hard pressed to think of any gay person I've ever known who held the sort of blanket views of evangelical Christians that the author seems to believe are prevalent -- but certainly, there's room for neighbors with different social, political and religious views to find common ground. (Nonetheless, if "Christian Bob" is marching with the Westboro Baptist Church or is actively protesting gay marriage and lobbying politicians for a ban on employee benefits for same-sex partners, he needs to take responsibility for the fact that his actions make it much less likely that he will find common ground with his gay neighbor.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Divining the Meaning of an Election

Michael Gerson has written a column in which he accuses political parties of... I guess it's of not sharing his personal beliefs about what is signified by the outcome of an election. Should we find it surprising that politicians characterize the political climate as being consistent with their own, and their party's, political agenda even when the facts might suggest otherwise? When G.W. Bush was pushing Social Security privatization as part of the supposed mandate from his 2005 re-election, despite its not being an election issue, Gerson was still working for him as a speechwriter. If Gerson wants to pen an interesting column on what it means to have a mandate, the collapse of that effort should provide plenty of material.

Gerson's commentary is largely inspired by the recent midterm election,
The GOP is feeling the momentum of its best congressional performance since the New Deal, and Senate Republicans are enjoying the pleasing weight of committee gavels in their hands. Elected Republicans generally believe that [President] Obama was humbled by voters and should act like it — that he should make concessions commensurate to his losses, as President Clinton did following his 1994 midterm defeat.

Obama, in contrast, seems to view the November outcome as his final liberation from a dirty political game characterized by complete Republican bad faith. He finds no repudiation in the verdict of an unrepresentative, midterm electorate. And he is no longer required to pretend that he cares about the political fate of the 4th District of Podunk. His reaction to the election has been to seek new avenues of executive action as an alternative to congressional dysfunction. So far, he has been politically rewarded.
My initial reaction to this split of opinion is pretty simple: The midterm election involved the House of Representatives and the Senate. Neither party disputes the obvious consequence of that election -- the Republicans took control of the Senate. However, the President did not stand for re-election and, as much as his political opponents might want to point to their electoral successes in a different branch of government as a reason why the President should abandon his own political agenda, that's not the way our system of government is constructed. We don't have a parliamentary system, where the party with the most seats gets to form a government with the party head becoming Prime Minister.

Gerson argues,
This type of polarization seems more psychological than ideological. Obama and congressional Republicans are inhabiting alternative political realities, with no overlap in which compromise might take root.
Although ideology comes into play, the word for which Gerson should have been searching is "political". Contrary to Gerson's suggestion, "Obama and congressional Republicans" are not "inhabiting alternative political realities" -- they are seeking to advance their own political agenda within the constraints of our political system. Gerson proceeds to explain that "'The meaning of elections... is almost always contested'" and "Election outcomes are not self-interpreting" -- well, no kidding.
As to the 2014 election: "It may well be," [political scientest Frances Lee told me, "that no single conventional wisdom will ever emerge. . . . Faced with ambiguity, people tend to believe what they want to believe. When people are surrounded by social networks that also want to believe the same thing, their views will harden further."
Cognitive bias 101... which, of course, has absolutely no relevance to how the President and Congressional Republicans interpret or respond to the election.

Gerson opines,
The parties do not view themselves as losers, even when they lose. The 2012 election should have demonstrated to Republicans (among other lessons) that they need a seriously revised outreach to minorities, women and working-class voters. The 2014 election should have demonstrated to Democrats (among other lessons) that a reputation for unreconstructed liberalism seriously limits their geographic appeal.
That, of course, is abject nonsense. If the lesson of the 2012 election is supposedly that Republicans "need a seriously revised outreach to minorities, women and working-class voters", a lesson the Republicans most certainly did not internalize, then the election of 2014 would be that the Republican Party does not need any such revised outreach. I'm reminded of how some commentators, speaking on climate change, confuse weather and climate -- it's the overall climate that requires the Republican Party to evolve. The big picture. The next twenty years. The result of a specific election is a data point, not a trend line.

When it comes to the President, it would be helpful if Gerson provided us with his conception of what it means to be an "unconstructed liberal". The term is bandied about in right-wing circles, but with little attention to meaning or consistency. It seems often to be used to describe somebody who adheres to far-left liberal positions. If that's what Gerson perceives in Obama's legislative history and his present political goals, to put it mildly, he's out of touch with reality. To the extent that Gerson is applying a dictionary definition of "unreconstructed", attempting to suggest that the President is advancing a liberal agenda that has become criticized or is unpopular, it's an odd argument. One of the reasons we have representative governments, and one of the reasons we elect officials for terms of years, is to insulate the political process from popular whims and prejudices. Further, such a definition would mean that Gerson is looking at opinion polls, not the result of the 2014 election and certainly not the results of prior elections.

Gerson's focus on geographic appeal is interesting, given that he presents geography as a problem for the Democrats but not for his own party. While it's not surprising that a Republican like Gerson would suggest that the Democrats should abandon their platform in favor of one that of his own party, it's not clear that doing so would actually do much to change the political map in the red states. What it would do is alienate blue state voters from the party, something the Republicans would no doubt appreciate but which would be entirely counter-productive to the Democratic Party itself. Gerson can't have helped but notice a clear red state, blue state divide in the 2014 election, yet he shows no sign of concern that the Republicans disavow their platform in order to woo more blue state voters. Under this interpretation of his statement, Gerson's suggestion to the Democrats is either a form of preaching to the Republican choir or is the sort of advice you give in the hope of handicapping an opponent who heeds it.

Gerson concludes,
Both parties could gain electoral advantages by realistically addressing their weaknesses, which would also open up the possibility of legislative progress. But everyone, unfortunately, seems to like what they see in the mirror.
Except... not so much. To the extent that Gerson correctly identifies trends within the population, he could make the argument that both parties need to focus on that long-term picture. Within that context it makes sense for the Republicans to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill -- like the one that the Senate passed last year, but which the Republicans would not even allow to come up for a vote in the House. Instead the House is serving up a mess of a bill, unlikely to even gain Senate approval, but which seems to be fairly characterized as throwing red meat to anti-immigrant factions of their base.

Gerson might argue that the GOP is proving his point, that they need to pass something along the lines of the bipartisan Senate bill to help ensure the party's successful future. But even accepting that as true, the problem would be that the Republican Party, like Gerson, is focused on data points as opposed to trends. They're out to win the next election, not to lose that election for the sake of potentially positioning themselves to dominate politics a decade or more into the future. It's the President who has the eye on that future and, even if Gerson chooses to characterize his immigration policy as "unreconstituted liberalism", as something that should be abandoned, through the President's action the contrast between the Republican position and the Democratic position is made stark. Obama is taking the long view.

It's worth noting that Gerson is also playing the "pox on both your houses" game, in which he depicts both the Democrats (through Obama) and the Republicans as being equally at fault for legislative gridlock. The Republicans have come to the political realization that when a Democrat is in the White House, their party benefits from gridlock. The Senate immigration bill represents the sort of bipartisanship that Gerson would have us believe that we need (even as he suggests that the weaker reforms the President enacted through executive orders represent some form of liberal extremism) -- House Republicans killed the bill. Right now there is no chance that the Republicans are going to offer the President a reasonable immigration reform bill, let alone one that could fairly be characterized as bipartisan. There's similarly no chance that they will offer a reasonable healthcare reform bill (perhaps instead passing a score of "ObamaCare repeal" bills to add to the pile of their prior failed attempts) or a reasonable bill to address carbon emissions.... Where's the opportunity for the President to do anything but stand up for his core beliefs and do his best to advance the long-term interests of his party? It's not an issue of the President's liking what he sees in the mirror -- it's a matter of his being sufficiently politically literate to read the handwriting on the wall.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Hey, Firefox: Don't Mess With My Preferences

I know that Mozilla/Firefox ended its contract with Google and entered into a new search contract with Yahoo!, but that doesn't mean I want them to mess with my settings and make Yahoo! my default search engine.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Just a Little Bit of Torture?

Via Charles Pierce, I found Jonah Goldberg's unimpressive defense of the use of torture. Goldberg opens,
For a long time I resisted the word “torture” when discussing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against high-value captives in the War on Terror. I don’t think I can do that anymore.
Let's be blunt, here. There's only one reason somebody like Goldberg would shy away from the use of the word "torture" and it's because he's a coward. The facts were out there. The Senate report adds some shocking details, but if you weren't willing to call "torture" by its name until you learned that it may have involved hummus, you were either choosing not to look at the facts or you were scared of alienating your patrons and followers. In his new defense of torture, Goldberg makes clear that he believes the techniques we knew to be involved in "enhanced interrogation" were torture:
What some of these detainees went through pretty obviously amounted to torture. You can call it “psychological torture” or something to that effect, but such qualifiers don’t get you all that far.
So, then, he's a coward.

Goldberg immediately walks back from his concession of the obvious:
It’s true that torture is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. Everyone can agree that hot pokers, the rack, and the iron maiden qualify. But loud music, sleep deprivation, and even waterboarding? At first, maybe not. But over time, yes. Torture can be a lot like poison: The dosage matters.
To me, that paragraph seems internally inconsistent. The initial argument is that there can be sincere disagreement over whether certain practices constitute torture. But rather than advancing that argument, Goldberg switches to one of degree -- that certain techniques only become torture if they're applied in a repeated or prolonged manner. Goldberg's on the record here. If he has scruples, they're newly discovered:
Within this broad range, arguments over what is or is not torturous are to be had. The most debated technique is “waterboarding,” which terrifies its recipient into believing he is drowning. Apparently, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded until he gave us a bounty of information. Technically, the McCain amendment would ban such treatment.
Goldberg knew at that time that Mohammed was waterboarded repeatedly, yet he had no problem suggesting that waterboarding might not actually be torture and that it should not be prohibited. Goldberg also displayed an inability to comprehend the moral and legal issues behind torture:
But, as Charles Krauthammer notes in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, there’s reason to believe even McCain would endorse a “sliding scale” that would allow the Khalid Mohammeds to get roughed up under certain circumstances. In other words, McCain makes the sorts of distinctions mentioned above–he just doesn’t want them written into law. Indeed, under the “ticking time bomb” scenario, McCain believes the president should willfully break the law McCain has authored. That’s a pretty Kerryesque position: He’s for it, except when he’s against it. So much for absolutism.
Krauthammer proposed banning torture but with exceptions that would subsume the rule -- he would allow for torture in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, and for what he calls "slow fuse" suspects such as Mohammed. Even if you don't follow Krauthammer's definition of "ticking time bomb" so broadly as to include a situation where the enemy has captured a soldier, the difficulty of its implementation should be obvious: If you don't know what information a suspect has until after you torture him, you're going to end up torturing people who have no information, who may have been deliberately fed misinformation for you to elicit, and who you presuppose are going to lie to you. You, as a torturer, also don't know either if or when the lie becomes the truth.

You risk getting an avalanche of information that buries the truth. You risk getting several versions of the truth, with amendment or new "details" added at every turn simply to get the torture to stop. In a non-ticking time bomb scenario, such as a soldier's being held hostage, you may have the luxury of repeatedly returning to your suspects to torture them again and again, until they give you better information... assuming they have it. But in an actual ticking time bomb scenario, you won't know if you have the right person, you won't know if you're getting accurate information, and you may in fact end up chasing red herrings of your own creation rather than following valid leads.

It's not clear that Goldberg accepted, or even understood, Krauthammer's distinction between the "ticking time bomb" and the "slow fuse". Krauthammer endorsed torturing somebody like Mohammed on the assumption that he's going to have useful information that he won't otherwise provide to interrogators -- and because he doesn't believe that suspected terrorists are deserving of basic human rights or dignity. Krauthammer's exceptions are so broad that his proposed limited prohibition of torture would not prevent any torture. His conception of the "ticking time bomb" is so broad as to encompass pretty much any possible, future terrorist attack or the location of a captures soldier. It's difficult to believe that he would object to the use of torture to find arms stashes, or to find people higher on the food chain, all in the name of preventing imminent terrorist attacks -- because terrorists are always plotting the next attack. Any detainee is thus reasonably treated as a "ticking time bomb" -- and if, for some reason, you can't make that case, you can simply apply the subjective measure that you think the person is "high value" and can be tortured to obtain whatever information he holds.

Although it seems obvious, Goldberg was completely unable to grasp the distinction between the positions of people like McCain and Kerry, and the unprincipled arguments of somebody like Krauthammer. Kerry and McCain were prepared for the possibility that the mythic "ticking time bomb" might actually be found, with the President being called upon to authorize torture in violation of the law. A President who could not make the case would be subject to impeachment, and he and those following his orders could face criminal charges. Such an approach should all-but-eliminate the possibility of a Bush-Cheney torture regime, as their programs would be plainly unlawful. Krauthammer, on the other hand, would have been perfectly happy to give that regime the full blessings of the law.

Goldberg is upset with the idea that once something is identified as torture, it should be deemed off-limits:
One of the great problems with the word “torture” is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo word, like racism or incest. Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end. It’s a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “torture,” their work is done.
Pierce points out the stupidity of Goldberg's points of comparison:
This is a guy who has made a comfortable career out of the notion that liberal fascists use "racism" as a club to bludgeon conservatives into silence when those conservatives are only trying to have a discussion about values and the public schools. Is he implying here that people use the words "incest" and "torture" in the same way? Do liberals cry "incest" when conservatives are only trying to talk about the gene pool out of which have emerged their hot cousins?
But more than that, Goldberg again displays the same sort of cowardice that plagues not just his musings on torture, but most of his work. He just told us that he was tremulous of using the word "torture" to describe torture, yet he's now suggesting that all it takes to get us back to where we were a few years ago is a properly applied euphemism. There is no similarity between suggesting that torture should be illegal, and using a euphemism to describe acts you know to fall under the definition of torture in order to try to sidestep legal and moral issues. Beyond that, Goldberg knows that torture opponents are not simply articulating a definition and declaring their job to be done:
The problem is that the issue isn’t nearly so binary. Even John McCain — a vocal opponent of any kind of torture — has conceded that in some hypothetical nuclear ticking-time-bomb scenario, torture might be a necessary evil. His threshold might be very high, but the principle is there nonetheless.
As previously explained, McCain would have the torturer and those who authorized his acts face possible prosecution, defending his breach of a torture prohibition based upon a strong argument of necessity. McCain would have the torturer clearly demonstrate courage in his convictions, a concept that appears to be outside of Goldberg's comprehension.
And nearly everyone understands the point: When a greater evil is looming in the imminent future, the lesser evil becomes more tolerable. This is why opponents of the interrogation program are obsessed with claiming that it never worked, at all.
Here, again, Goldberg is unable to maintain internal consistency. He cannot simultaneously hold up John McCain as the iconic opponent of the torture program, while pretending that McCain is "obsessed with claiming that it never worked." While some do take the position that torture "never" works, most opponents of torture recognize that you may be able to gain useful information from torture -- but with much of that information subject to being elicited through rapport-based interrogation without the moral issues of torture, or the confounding problem of useful facts being buried in an avalanche of lies and misinformation pouring out of a suspect who will say anything to make the torture stop.

Goldberg also steps right past the obvious, that proponents of the torture program have a very long history of lying about the program and the intelligence they gathered. They lied about the scope of the program. They lied about its effectiveness. They lied about the utility of information they gathered. Knowing that their actions would shock the conscience of the nation, they systematically destroyed the evidence. You would not expect that level of deceit, exaggeration and cover-up from people who sincerely believed in their program.

Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army, wrote an essay for Foreign Policy, entitled, I don’t believe a word of what torture advocates say—and neither should you.
Predictably, torture’s acolytes are already responding: The report was a Republican witch hunt led by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Facts were selectively culled by partisan staffers in order to paint the program in the worst possible light. Other staffers could’ve selected different facts and reached completely opposite conclusions. Sure, there were problems with the program, but these techniques really did “work.” They saved lives. Someday, the truth will be revealed, and the men and women who performed this “hard, dirty work” for good ends will be lauded as the true heroes they are. In the mean time, trust us regarding this program’s success. WE KNOW.

Hogwash. I’ve never believed a word of what torture’s advocates say, and neither should you.
The author, who managed interrogation operations for the 1st Armored Division (1AD) in Baghdad from Jul-Nov 2003, asked that several of his prisoners be "re-interrogated" at Abu Ghraib,
Now, this is important: not once during this period did my Division receive any useful intelligence from Abu Ghraib. We received a few reports that Abu Ghraib interrogators seemed to think contained useful intelligence, but they contained nothing of substance that wasn’t contained in earlier reports. It was a mystery to me then why our interrogators in Baghdad produced actionable intelligence nearly every day but those at Abu Ghraib produced nothing of value—not little of value, NOTHING of value.
He opines,
But while trying to make sense of my own experiences, I’ve also read extensively on the subject, and all that I’ve read reinforces the same conclusion: torture is an immensely impractical intelligence-gathering tool. Professional interrogators who have become truly expert at employing rapport-based approaches decry torture’s effectiveness as an intelligence-gathering tool. Yes, you sometimes get the truth, but this truth is rarely substantial and is typically buried in what I’ve heard professional interrogators call “the longest list of lies in the world.”

Those who claim that torture has more chance of success than rapport-based approaches have limited (if any) direct experience with these approaches. They’re rarely real interrogators....

When the 9/11 attacks took place, nearly 3000 Americans lost their lives, and so many Americans lost their minds, U.S. Army interrogation doctrine (as expressed in the 1987 Intelligence Interrogation manual) had it right: “Experience indicates that . . . the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” Unfortunately, this doctrine—which reflected the practical experience of generations of interrogators—was thrown away by arrogant amateurs who thought they knew more than the professionals.
He points out that there's more to the debate than "does it work",
The question of "does it work" aside, there are HUGE strategic drawbacks to torture, such as how it undermines the rule of law, corrupts those who use it, undercuts military training, cedes moral high ground to our nation’s enemies, creates distrust among allies, sows dissension at home, serves as a source of recruits and donations for our nation’s enemies, creates irreconcilable enemies, and makes the ultimate goal of any conflict—its peaceful resolution—increasingly difficult.

Quite simply, for a mature democracy in the information age, there may be no surer tool for prolonging conflicts and shaping defeat than employing torture.
By pretending that opponents of torture begin and end their argument with, "It's wrong", Goldberg conveniently avoids addressing any of the more difficult arguments against torture.

Goldberg then brings in the false analogy:
And this suggests why the talking point about drone strikes has such power. Killing is worse than torture. Life in prison might be called torture for some people, and yet we consider the death penalty a more severe punishment....

It’s odd: Even though killing is a graver moral act, there’s more flexibility to it. America killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in World War II, but few would call that murder because such actions as the firebombing of Dresden were deemed necessary to win the war.

In other words, we have the moral vocabulary to talk about kinds of killing — from euthanasia and abortion to capital punishment, involuntary manslaughter and, of course, murder — but we don’t have a similar lexicon when it comes to kinds of torture.
It would be interesting to hear Jonah Goldberg's description of the military justification of the firebombing of Dresden, which I expect would be about as deep as his understanding of Mussolini's connection to fascism -- "Oops, I forgot Mussolini was a fascist".1

Goldberg is obviously no student of history, but if he were he might have learned that the allied commanders who ordered such acts as the firebombing of cities in Japan knew that their acts were legally dubious and knew that they would likely result in war crimes charges if the Allies lost the war. That is the very sort of accountability that John McCain wishes to bring to torture -- to have the person making the order do so in contemplation that his decision could result in his spending many years in prison (or, in the case of war crimes, the hangman's noose), something that also likely plays into the public acceptance of the necessity defense.

Also, in war the question is almost never going to be, "Should we fire a missile or should we conduct a precision raid to kill or extract an enemy leader or terrorist". While it may be true that, in hindsight, a terrorist might prefer to be tortured and imprisoned over being blown up by a drone, perhaps along with members of his family, that only becomes relevant if the putative target of a drone strike decides to turn himself over to U.S. forces.

Goldberg is essentially arguing that, having accepted that torture is wrong, we need a new euphemism for torture, or at least for the modest amount of torture that Goldberg would have us see as something other than torture. Actually, the issue of whether or not an act constitutes torture can be made reasonably clear, using a definition such as Lt. Col. Pryer's, "Today, I judge any tactic designed to inflict physical or mental pain severe enough to 'break' someone to be 'torture.'". Goldberg might want us to believe that offering a criminal suspect a cup of coffee during an interrogation is an insidious form of sleep deprivation, tantamount to making him stand without sleep and forcibly waking him every time he dozes off, but I suspect that most others can see the difference between an interrogation that goes on arguably past the point when a suspect should be allowed to sleep and intentional sleep deprivation.2

Moreover, in the former case the suspect can argue in court that the circumstances of the interrogation became unduly coercive -- and that is made easier if it's clear that interrogating officers were intentionally depriving the suspect of sleep in order to continue the interrogation of a suspect whose mental faculties were breaking down. There is no point to trying to use Goldberg's "little bit of torture" approach, as torture is only useful if the suspect breaks. Once you make the decision to torture, there's no level at which your actions do not constitute torture.

I don't want to overstate things here. Sometimes a suspect can be inspired to provide self-incriminating information based upon threats or statements that are coercive, but are not deemed to be torture. The federal government has a reputation for threatening to bring charges against a primary suspect's spouse, or possibly other family members, when pressuring a suspect to confess to a crime or to accept a plea bargain. Suspects detained for interrogation may be told that a co-defendant is making a confession that implicates them, and that if they don't confess they'll get a more severe penalty. I don't think that Pryer is referring to causing a suspect to break his silence, or break from a prior narrative, when he speaks of "mental pain severe enough to 'break' someone" -- but I would not be surprised if he argued that you would be much more likely to get reliable information from criminal suspects if you successfully use rapport-based techniques, particularly if he's familiar with false confession cases.

Goldberg then presents the argument, "Our torture is different, because our motives are pure,"
When John McCain was brutally tortured — far, far more severely than anything we’ve done to the 9/11 plotters — it was done to elicit false confessions and other statements for purposes of propaganda. When we tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it was to get actionable intelligence on ongoing plots. It seems to me that’s an important moral distinction. If I torture a fiend to find out where he left a child to suffocate or starve in some dungeon, that’s a less evil act than torturing someone just to hear them renounce their god or country. Also, KSM was not some innocent subjected to torture to satisfy the grotesque desires of some sadists. He is an unlawful combatant responsible for murdering thousands of innocent Americans.

This may sound like nothing more than a rationalization. But that is to be expected when you try to reason through a morally fraught problem.
What it sounds like is both an oversimplification and a rationalization. While it is true that torture states use torture in order to obtain statements useful for propaganda purposes, as well as to generally intimidate the public, it is not true that they thus never use torture to gain intelligence about criminal, dissident, or terrorist activity, or to try to obtain useful intelligence from enemy soldiers. I suspect, also, that their torturers are every bit as good at rationalizing their conduct as is Goldberg when it comes to his insistence that when Americans torture they have only the purest of motives.

Here, again, Goldberg avoids addressing the actual positions of torture opponents. People like John McCain fully embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, and are going into this debate with the assumption that our motives in using torture will be pure. Unlike Goldberg, however, he has enough understanding of both history and the realities of torture to recognize that the use of torture should nonetheless be extremely rare, and that the legal framework for the use of torture should force decision-makers to consider both the need for torture and all reasonable alternatives before authorizing its use.


1. Goldberg's actual statement,
Mussolini was born a socialist, he died a socialist, he never abandoned his love of socialism, he was one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Europe and was one of the most important socialist activists in Italy, and the only reason he got dubbed a fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.
Goldberg's defense of his error is that he "misspoke", a claim that may be true but, if so, is akin to somebody professing to be an expert on the Middle East conflicts while forgetting, even momentarily, about Mohammed's connection to Islam. Actually, given that Mussolini railed against socialism, it would be a bit like such an "expert" arguing that Mohammed unsuccessfully tried to stop Islam.

2. One wonders what distinctions Goldberg would draw that would render the techniques of torture to be, in his view, non-torture. Is there actually a degree of waterboarding that could be deemed anything but torture? Would he defect rectal feeding -- "As long as you don't use any more hummus than you get in one of those airline snack packs" -- or would he concede that some techniques are always torture even if used only to a limited degree?