How To Explain DADT to a 4-year-old

This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…

First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.

Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. ūüôā

Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.

Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.

Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.

Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.

Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.

I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.

“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”

Gotcha Politics

This blog post (which made it onto boingboing today) was the last straw for me.¬† It takes Microsoft to task for using a Macintosh to create their latest “I’m a PC” ad campaign.¬† There’s no discussion of the content of the ads.¬† Just a quick mention of a meaningless point of embarrassment.¬† Gotcha!

There’s too much of this going on in the wider world of the media today.¬† Instead of discussing content, background, and nuance, everyone is on the hunt for the latest misstep.¬† It’s not just that these gotchas are meaningless distractions.¬† The media’s focus on the embarrassment instead of the content means the target will be quick to cover their tracks, wave a hand around the subject, and move on.¬† Any opportunities for further debate are lost.

Here’s an example: last week, while major financial institutions were going belly up, McCain stated that the “fundamentals of our economy are very strong”.¬† His opponents immediately picked up on the contrast. McCain was forced to offer up some pablum about how the American worker is the foundation of the American economy.

And that was that.

McCain looks a little silly for a while, but we’re really no closer to understanding how he really feels about economics, market regulation, and other important topics that are pushing to the forefront in this election.¬† What about consumer culture?¬† The burden of debt and trade deficits?¬† The ongoing shift away from a manufacturing economy?¬† How are these affecting the long-term stability of the American and global economies, and what kinds of activities should government be taking in each of these areas?¬† An opportunity for real debate and understanding was lost because everyone was too eager to yell “Gotcha!”

There are plenty of examples of these kinds of empty mistakes, and they’ve had varying impacts.¬† Howard Dean’s over-exuberance in the 2004 campaign appeared to destroy his campaign because he was… too enthusiastic?¬† During a recent interview, Obama spoke about his “Muslim faith” (quickly corrected to “Christian”), and I’m sure the right-wing media enjoyed chewing up that little sound bite.
I don’t expect the media at large to be able to step away from their pursuit of the latest misstep, no matter who makes it.¬† We are living in a sound-bite culture, and major media conglomerates need to do what they can to feed into their audience’s attention span.¬† It’s only going to get worse as the news cycle continues to accelerate and audiences continue to fragment, and I don’t have any grand solutions to offer here.

But I can ask my friends to take a step back.¬† Take a breath.¬† The next time you see someone on the other side of the debate make a mistake, don’t pounce.¬† Don’t base a gleeful blog post on a single misspoken phrase.¬† Instead, dig.¬† Ask questions and keep digging.¬† Look for the actual truth behind the misstep, and you might find even more powerful arguments to make your case.

On Poppies

I spotted a poppy pin lying on the ground today.¬† Serendipitous!¬† Poppies are a Canadian tradition — nobody wears them here — and the pin was probably accidentally dropped by a Canadian shopper taking advantage of the exchange rate.¬† I’m excited to be able to celebrate Remembrance Day properly.

In the US it’s Veteran’s Day; in Canada it’s Remembrance Day.¬† They’re both on the same day and nominally celebrate the same thing (the end of WWI), but they have slightly different flavors.¬† I can’t comment too much about the US since, not having grown up here, I don’t really know what happens at school assemblies and various memorials.¬† I do get a sense that there’s a mix of honoring veterans and general patriotism.
At home in Canada it’s about honoring veterans, but also tinged with regret and shame.¬† Not shame for the people or the country, but shame for all of us, all of humanity, that such a horrible thing as war should ever exist.¬† It’s called Remembrance Day because we should never forget the horror of war, and we should never forget that war is, fundamentally, a failure of that which makes us human.

10 out of 10

An article in today’s paper discussed your carbon footprint. They talk about some cars, and how each one gets an EPA “greenhouse gas score” out of 10 (higher is better). A GMC Yukon gets a 3 out of 10; a Prius gets 10 out of 10.

A perfect score? For a car which only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by a 1/3 compared to a behemoth SUV?

A bicycle should be 10/10. Walking should be 10/10. A fuel-cell car with hydrogen generated from a solar source should be 10/10. But the Prius is far from perfect, and it’s doing us all a disservice to pretend that’s the best we can do.

My Advice for the Seattle Bus

I ride the bus to and from work every day. It’s about 45 minutes door-to-door, including about four blocks of walking. Not too bad, although about twice as long as a car would take. I don’t mind taking the bus, though, since it’s cheaper than gas, parking, and payments on a second car. Plus, I enjoy the time to read.

Still, the bus could be better. Here are my tips (short of investing in mass transit, like the rest of the civilized world) for Seattle Metro:

  1. Eliminate the ride-free zone. This is the source of tons of problems. First of all, it introduces tons of distasteful characters on the bus. One stinky bum can ruin a bus ride for dozens of people. Before people accuse me of classism, let me say there’s a reason some odors are labeled “offensive”. They offend people! But at the same time, it’s not like it’s the end of the world. And besides, we’ve all had to fart in a crowd at some point in our lives, haven’t we?
  2. The ride free zone also means that people need to sometimes pay on the way in, and sometimes on the way out, and sometimes they can enter or exit either door and sometimes the back door can’t be used for either. So what happens is everybody always leaves from the front and it takes twice as long at a bus stop while the people who want to enter wait for the people who want to leave.
  3. Furthermore, for some reason people in Seattle often feel like it’s okay to wait until the bus is at a complete stop before standing up and meandering their way to the front door. Be ready to exit before the bus stops! You’re slowing everyone down!
  4. And finally, the bus stops are too close together. On my route (66 Roosevelt) there’s one every block. They could cut the number of stops in half without inconveniencing people to any large degree, and drastically improve the speed of the bus.

A discussion about this was started on the Slog a few days ago, and it quickly devolved into class warfare between advocates for snobby white liberals on one side and smelly poor people on the other. If that’s the farthest that the debaters on this issue can see, then I don’t hold out much hope for things improving.

Swarthy Choice

There’s an ad on the bus warning everyone to be vigilant of stray packages. These ads are sad and ultimately destructive of the society they’re supposed to protect. I wish we could learn to think more rationally about risk.

But anyway, that’s not what prompted this post. The ad has a picture of a suitcase-like bag sitting alone on a seat. In the frame next to it, squinting at the bag, is a close-up of a face that is nothing if not Arab-looking (or perhaps Indian, it’s hard to tell). Now, it’s not clear if this guy is squinting at the supposed bomb because he’s being vigilant, or if he’s squinting because he’s the bad guy with a hard, unapproachable look. Either way, did they have to make him look Arabic? There’s no such thing as “accidental” choices in the advertising world.
(As an aside: In the 1990’s, twice as many people were killed by roving death squads in Los Angeles County as were killed by foreign terrorists on 9/11.)

Forget the Nanny State; I need a Nanny Church

Katherine Harris is running for Florida Senate.  She was recently interviewed by the Florida Baptist Witness:

If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you‚Äôre not electing Christians then in essence you are going to legislate sin. They can legislate sin. They can say that abortion is alright. They can vote to sustain gay marriage. And that will take western civilization, indeed other nations because people look to our country as one nation as under God and whenever we legislate sin and we say abortion is permissible and we say gay unions are permissible, then average citizens who are not Christians, because they don‚Äôt know better, we are leading them astray and it‚Äôs wrong. …

There is plenty that is laughable (or just plain offensive) in this statement, but I’ll just pick at the lowest-hanging fruit:

“…then average citizens who are not Christians, because they don‚Äôt know better…”

Apparently, as a non-Christian, I’m not able to tell right from wrong.¬† It’s a miracle that I haven’t eaten my baby yet.¬†

Now, let’s see where her blazing righteousness has gotten her:

Katherine Harris may think I need a nanny church to lead me around by the moral nose, but at least I’ve got a sense of ethics.

My take on I-933

Initiative 933 is on the ballot for Washington State this fall.¬† Here’s the summary:

This measure would require compensation when government regulation damages the use or value of private property, would forbid regulations that prohibit existing legal uses of private property, and would provide exceptions or payments.

Read the full initiative here: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i933.pdf

I am against this initiative.¬† There are numerous practical reasons why it is bad, such as the billion dollars each year it would cost to administer claims, but I’m going to argue a more philosophical bent:

Any kind of law which reimburses you in the event of damaging government action should also do the opposite: if the value of your property goes up as a result of government action, you should be charged for it.¬† I can’t imagine why you’d design a system with one but not the other.¬† For example: all the people along the west slope of downtown Seattle, whose property values would skyrocket if the viaduct¬†came down,¬†should be charged to pay for a new tunnel.¬† Taken to its logical extreme, every time the government imposes a necessary burden on someone (say, for example, a landfill in their backyard), everyone else gets an implied beneft (no¬†landfill in their backyard)¬†— and therefore, they should be charged for it.¬† Guess what?¬† That’s called paying taxes.¬†¬† And¬†I’m guessing that the neo-nimbyists behind this initiative aren’t going to start clamoring for increased taxes to pay for all their reimbursements.

At the heart of capitalism is the assumption of personal risk.¬† Nobody has guaranteed that your property will always be valuable.¬† The price you paid for your exurban McMansion isn’t some fundamental constant of the universe.¬† If you can’t handle the idea that it could go down, maybe you’re better off investing in some writings by Marx.

This initiative¬†is a sociopathic attack on the fundamental ability of the government to govern.¬† The point of a governing body is to create laws that¬†enhance the common good.¬†¬†Sometimes that involves affecting one individual more than others, but in the end everybody benefits.¬† It’s like a stop light at a busy intersection: some people need to wait a little longer than others, but in the end everybody gets where they need to go in much less time.¬† Who could possibly think it’s a good idea to pay people to not run red lights?

Peggy Noonan against Science

Sometimes I wonder how apparently dumb people get to be in positions of such influence.  Take, for example, this column by Peggy Noonan, an editor at the Wall Street Journal:

During the past week’s heat wave–it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday–I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? Also, if global warning is real, what must–must–the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them?

You would think the world’s greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can’t. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

This is a sickening attack on science and the human intellect. 

There is no great scientist who is not also completely honest and rigorous.  Intellectual honesty is at the core of science; you cannot have one without the other.  Richard Feynman, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, talked about this at Caltech in 1974:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

To paraphrase a similar idea from the same speech: science is essentially the long history of humans learning not to fool themselves.  Politics, on the other hand, is something approaching the exact opposite.

Science is just facts.¬† It doesn’t have an ideology.¬† It’s you, Ms. Noonan, who have become politicized.

Defend us from what?

I would like to officially state that my marriage to Kate is in no way threatened by the marriage of one person to another person of the same sex.

If your¬†marriage is threatened by two men you’ll never meet saying “I do”, then you and your spouse should probably visit a marriage counsellor.