Author Archives: Cliff Wirt

About Cliff Wirt

I created this blog as a means of getting my thoughts in order about whatever topics I am interested in at the moment. These are always topics for which getting my thoughts in order is a bit of a challenge, so I expect most of my attempts to fail. (I keep trying, though.) I am not responsible for any brain damage the reader may incur from these posts. They (intentional use of 'they' as the epicene singular pronoun) are hereby warned. . . . Who am I? I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 23andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2 (40% of the male population of Sardinia has this haplogroup, though I believe that my particular variation originated further north in the Baltic area. The Basques are apparently close cousins.), my maternal is H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. (Let no one impugn my knuckle-dragging bonafides!) My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at http://www.cliff-engel-wirt.com. My FaceBook page is at https://www.facebook.com/cliffengelwirt. My LinkedIn page is at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=4298877&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic.

What It Is To Be A Bigot

To be a bigot is to assert oneself as part of an in group by casting another group (defined by some characteristic such as religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation) as an out group whose status of whose members is inferior to one’s own status and deserving of contempt. The out groups are regarded this way partly in order to fill a need for status (to have some place in the hierarchy other than the very bottom), partly for other reasons, such as the desire to obtain cheap or even free labor (race) or to have someone serve as a scapegoat to draw away one’s own sins (sexual orientation). Sometimes the reason is simple fear of otherness (religion, culture) which serves as fertile ground for the imagination to come up with all sorts of horrors. Typically members of the out groups are faced with a constant threat of violence in order to keep them in their place. Obstacles are placed in the way of their attempts to thrive as human beings (employers can refuse to hire them on the basis of the characteristic that defines their membership in the out group; they are always at risk of getting fired, getting evicted, getting red-lined, getting refused service at a lunch counter or cake shop, getting socially quarantined through Jim Crow laws, prevented from entering into (an inter-racial or same-sex) marriage). Often the bigot expresses a violent, obstinate hatred of members of the out group, especially when bigot feels their status slipping away, or feels even the slightest theoretical possibility of such a threat.

The point of all of the above is to articulate a rejoinder to the assertion that when Mr. Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A says the following:

“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

… he is being called a bigot only because one disagrees with what he is saying. But of course the idea that God has to exercise mercy on our generation because it has allowed people to marry people of the same sex (what is God restraining Themselves ((epicene singular pronoun)) from doing? Sending a plague? Killing all our first-born? Bringing forth frogs? Casting darkness on the land?) is difficult to disentangle from the fact that LGBT people serve as scapegoats onto whom members of the in-group project all their sins and whom God (so the in group thinks) wants to destroy like vermin. Maybe some theorist can try to come up with a ‘separate-but-equal’ type scenario in which God doesn’t hate f*gs but loathes same-sex marriage so much that they have to restrain themselves from bringing forth frogs upon the land; maybe Mr. Cathy happened not to experience any occurrent feeling of hatred against LGBT people when he uttered those words. Nonetheless, that scapegoating, that hatred forms the background from which those words are most likely to spring in the real world.

This — and not just the fat that one disagrees with his utterance — is why Mr. Cathy deserves the label ‘bigot.’

Bigotry, Southern Style
Bigotry, Covington High School Edition
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No, This Is Not A Refutation Of Thomas Piketty’s CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY — Why Do You Ask?

In an attempt to dismiss the conclusions advanced by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva here, a certain right-wing personage pointed to an alleged factual error made by Piketty in his CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY. In their paper, Piketty, Saez, and Stantcheva argue, on the basis of a model they have built, that:

The top 1% of US earners now command a far higher share of the country’s income than they did 40 years ago. This column looks at 18 OECD countries and disputes the claim that low taxes on the rich raise productivity and economic growth. It says the optimal top tax rate could be over 80% and no one but the mega rich would lose out.

Summary of the online column linked to above

Our right-wing personage refers us to some musings made by Thomas Sowell here, who asserts the following:


In Thomas Piketty’s highly-praised new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” he asserts that the top tax rate under President Herbert Hoover was 25 percent. But Internal Revenue Service records show that it was 63 percent in 1932. If Piketty can’t even get his facts straight, why should his grandiose plans for confiscatory global taxation be taken seriously?

Thomas Sowell, in column linked to directly above

Our right-wing personage implied this alleged error made by Piketty renders it prudent to dismiss anything written by Piketty, including the column linked to above arguing that that the top marginal tax rate could be higher than 80% without harming the economy.

Now of course the right-wing slime machine is infamous for playing fast and loose with quotes in order to defame those who challenge the established hierarchies (witness the recent slime job done on Nathan Phillips to defend Nicholas Sandmann’s obvious racism). So it would behoove us to look at what Thomas Piketty actually said:

Roosevelt increased the top marginal rate of the federal income tax to more than 80 percent on extremely high incomes, whereas the top rate under Hoover had been only 25 percent.

Thomas Piketty, CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY, trs by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 473

Now ” …the top rate under Hoover had been only 25 percent ” is a bit ambiguous. It could mean, as Sowell (disingenuously?) takes it to mean, that the highest tax rate reached only 25 percent throughout the Hoover administration. In that case, Sowell’s remonstration “But Internal Revenue Service records show that it [the top marginal tax rate] was 63 percent in 1932” would be a fair criticism of Piketty’s assertion.

But Piketty’s assertion could also mean: ‘the top marginal rate under Hoover had been 25 percent,’ which would be true even if that top marginal rate had been 25 percent just for one month of Hoover’s administration. Taken strictly, the assertion does not state for how long the top marginal tax rate had been 25 percent during the Hoover Administration, only that it had been 25 percent. Of course, this (top marginal rate of 25 percent for one month) would not be the most natural interpretation of Piketty’s sentence. But it does become a natural interpretation if the top marginal tax rate had been 25 percent throughout at least three-fourths of the Hoover administration, which, given the fact the top marginal rate had been increased to 63 percent only in 1932, it was.

If one is to avoid being a hack and a propagandist, which I do believe Sowell to be, one adopts a principle of charity in interpreting ambiguous statements — especially statements translated from French that are ambiguous in English! — and, especially those made by an opponent of one’s views. If only to make it easier to brush away the annoying right-wing lightweights hovering over passages like this like gnats (DO FIND SOMETHING — ANYTHING THAT CAN BE USED TO DISCREDIT PIKETTY!!!!) Piketty definitely should make the following revision in the second edition of his book:


Roosevelt increased the top marginal rate of the federal income tax to more than 80 percent on extremely high incomes, whereas the top marginal rate under most of the Hoover administration had been only 25 percent.

That Sowell takes a malicious interpretation of Piketty’s ambiguous statement to try to render Piketty so unreliable as to warrant our ignoring Piketty’s recommendations regarding global taxation hardly reflects well on Sowell. It is one data point among others that reveal him to be a right-wing hack and propagandist. That our young right-wing personage cites Sowell’s malicious interpretation to try to discredit Piketty/Saez/Stantcheva’s assertions regarding how high the top marginal tax rate can go without harming the economy in general reflects equally badly on him.

Even pointing all of this out makes one feel ridiculously pedantic. But someone has to do the intellectual garbage collection work, and I guess this unsavory work has fallen on me regarding this particular point.


The Nature Of Rights And The Alleged Conflict In Rights Between The Fetus And The Mother Carrying It

If You Hold That The Fetus Is A Person, You Must Decide Whose Rights Trumps Whose

A right can be thought of as like armor:  it protects the person who has that right.

By ‘fetus’ I will mean, principally, the just-fertilized egg and the fetus as it exists one day after.

It is also in the nature of a right that it trumps another interest or even another right. Something is a right BECAUSE it trumps another interest or right.  A right is always a right against the background of some interest or other right that it overrides.  Although I am not always a fan of ‘it would be odd to say x‘ type arguments, there is something just a little bit on the strange side, after all, to say something like ‘I have a right to touch the walls inside my apartment at any time,’ without there being something against which I assert that right — for example, some bizarre religious proscription against touching the walls of one’s domicile before 10:00 in the morning that some sect has an interest in trying to impose upon us all.

Here are some examples.  The first few of these should be, I think, plain to all.

A) If a smoker is poisoning my airspace, I will tell them ‘your rights end where my lungs begin.’  My right to breath and not get cancer or emphysema trumps their right to damage their own lungs.

B) If a woman is carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome, her right to control her own body trumps any interest the state may have in not having to expend resources dealing with people with Down’s Syndrome. The state cannot justifiably force the woman to have an abortion. Her right to control her own body trumps the state’s interest in preventing the birth of another baby with Down’s Syndrome.

C) Likewise, Morgenstern’s right to life and his right to self-defense trumps Smith’s right to life should Smith attempt to murder Morgenstern. Morgenstern can, in certain circumstances, justifiably kill Smith to preserve his own life.

(Nota bene:  for this reason, the mother is within her rights to abort a fetus which is threatening her life.  But, of course, this reason applies only to the case in which carrying the fetus puts the mother’s life in danger.)

D) Again, If Jones wakes up in the hospital and finds that, without her consent, a famous musician has been hooked up to her circulatory system in order to preserve his life, Jones’ right to control her own body would trump the musician’s right to life. Jones would be perfectly justified in having the musician removed from her circulatory system if she so desired, resulting in the end of his life.

(Nota bene:  for this reason, the mother is within her rights to abort a fetus that was the product of a rape. But, of course, this reason applies only to the rape case.)

I do not think that the fetus is a person. But I also think one may be able to construct a plausible argument that the fact that the fetus is in development and on the way towards becoming a person with duties and rights and interacting with other members of a community suffices to make it a person, and therefore an entity with a right to life. In that case there would be a conflict between this unnamed person’s right to life and the woman’s right to control her own body.

If the fetus is not a person, then there is no conflict of rights, since the fetus does not have rights that would conflict with the woman’s.  But for the sake of argument, let us suppose for a moment that the fetus is a person with rights.  Since this (alleged) person is likely not to have a name (one sign by the way that an entity is a person), I will refer to is as an unnamed fetal person.

Whose rights, then, should trump whose?  Clearly, the woman’s right to control her own body would trump the unnamed fetal person’s right to life in the case of the fetal-person’s putting the woman’s life in danger, or in the case in which the woman was raped (see above). But what about the more normal case in which the woman does not want to carry the unnamed fetal person to term — say, she is financially or emotionally unprepared to care for a child? If the aforementioned examples are any guide, one right would have to trump the other right.  Either the fetal person’s right to life would trump the woman’s right to control her own body, or the latter right would trump the former.  How would we decide?

If we say that the unnamed fetal person’s right to life overrides the mother’s right to control her own body, we would be faced with a certain awkward consequence.  For killing the unnamed fetal person would, id we are to genuinely regard it as a person, would have incur essentially the same penalties (given the same relevant circumstances — the killing was a blameless accident, was accidental but reckless, was done in the heat of the moment, was done after much pondering, planning, and reflection, that is to say, in cold blood).  If the penalty for killing a person after much pondering, planning, and reflection, that is to say, in cold blood, is, say, death by  hanging in a particular state, say, South Carolina, then the woman who aborts the fetus she is carrying must suffer — at least approximately — the same penalty.  Doubtlessly trials are as stochastic as most other things, so that different trials may result in different punishments.  But any consistently large difference (the woman gets one month for aborting the fetus, the murderer of an adult gets hanged) would be a clear indication that the law was not truly regarding the fetus as a person deserving the equal protection of its natural rights as any other person, and therefore does not really regard the fetus as a person at all.

And certainly in the case of the just-fertilized egg, at least, it is difficult for anyone to regard this entity as a person.  Insisting that the just-fertilized egg be given a name, or baptized, or given a funeral should it die, is, after all, a bit strange.  That (generally) we do not engage in these particular practices is evidence that we do not (generally) regard the just-fertilized egg as a person.

To put the matter a bit colorfully, if the right to life of the unnamed fetal person were to trump the woman’s right to control her body, the highways and byways of South Carolina would need to be lined with the corpses of hanged women.  Since this is a rather unpalatable prospect, we may be inclined to have the right of the woman to control her own body trump the right of the unnamed fetal person to life.

I have experienced right-to-lifers throw quite a bit of dust in my eyes, and doubtlessly in their own eyes as well, in an attempt to avoid facing what must follow, both logically and morally, if the unnamed fetal person is to be truly regarded as a person whose rights merit a degree of protection equal any other person’s.  A right-wing lawyer may point out that this or that legal technicality would make it unlikely this particular beautification plan of South Carolina’s highways and byways would ever actually occur.  It is a question of standing, he might say.  He will try to intimidate one by attempting to claim that I am venturing on his home turf without his 40-years of experience in the legal field.  But I am talking about natural rights and moral obligations here, not legal technicalities.  The  alleged legal technicalities standing in the way of South Carolina’s beautification program would not remove the fact that one who genuinely believes the unnamed fetus is a person would be obligated morally and logically to try to remove whatever legal obstacles stood in the way.  Otherwise, they would not genuinely regard the unnamed fetus as a person, something that is, as we have just seen, genuinely difficult to do at the earliest stages of the fetus’ development.

The right-wing lawyer may also point out that the law does of course allow for different penalties in different cases — manslaughter vs. murder in cold blood, and so on.  Showing why this point is irrelevant to the argument I am making I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

A certain right-wing lawyer maintains that in this more normal case the conflict in rights should be resolved through a kind of “compromise.”

While ultimately I would conclude that the right of the unborn to life trumps the woman’s right in this case, the fact that there is a conflict of rights allows for a disparity of treatment between the woman and the person hiring the hit man. Thus, my conclusion as to the intent of the legislature who adopted that sort of law which outlawed abortion but did not punish the woman, would not be that they valued unborn life less, but that there was a counter right which, while it could not trump the right to life, could still affect how we treat those who caught in a situation of an unwanted pregnancy.

Right A trumps right B in the sense that the woman no longer has the right to control her own body.  But in the process of “resolving” the conflict of rights this way, right A becomes drastically attenuated.  The protection it affords — the thickness of the armor — has become drastically attenuated.  Some protection for fetuses in general perhaps, but obviously none that this particular fetus will receive.  But why do this?  The mere fact there is a conflict of rights won’t suffice, because in the cases A through D listed above of conflicts of rights one right trumps the other without in any way affording less protection.  One has to look elsewhere for a reason, and I think what this reason is is rather plain — this particular right-wing lawyer does not genuinely believe that the fetus is a person.

But one has to ask why make this dubious sort of “compromise” in the case of abortion but not in the other cases of conflict of rights listed above?  The mere fact there is a conflict won’t do it.

The woman undergoing the abortion does not get the same penalty she would get if she had hired a hit man to kill her husband, even though in both cases the right to life of a person has been arguably violated in cold blood. Instead, she gets, say, just one month in prison. But this way of “resolving” the conflict in rights is a bit strange, since BOTH rights have been violated. The unnamed fetal person is still dead in spite of its (postulated for the sake of argument) right to life. The woman still does not have control over her own body.

However, this “resolution” does have a striking advantage if one is right-winger concerned with maintaining the position of males at the top of the hierarchy:  it lets the state strip women of their right to control their own bodies, at the same time relieving the state of the duty to impose on the woman the same penalties that would be applied to the violation, under the same relevant circumstances, of any other person’s right to life.  But however attractive this “resolution” may be to those wishing to keep women in their “correct” place in the hierarchy, it is by no means a resolution of conflicting rights.  Clearly, to negate both rights is not a resolution.

Since it is in the nature of a right to trump another interest or right, I think it is more plausible to hold that either the unnamed fetal person’s right to life trumps the woman’s right to control her own body (in which case there would be a moral case for giving the woman the same penalty she would get had she hired a hit man, with interesting consequences for the beautification plans for the highways and byways of South Carolina), or the woman’s right to control her own body trumps the unnamed fetal person’s right to life. This is an either or situation. One right trumps another. “Resolution” by way of “compromise” is nonsense.

If You Don’t Hold That The Fetus Is A Person, You Don’t Face The Problem Of Deciding Whose Rights Trumps Whose

Of course, this problem does not arise if one holds that the fetus, lacking duties and responsibilities, also lacks rights and is therefore not a person.

Update October 16, 2018:  Made some changes to tighten the argument.


(Asymptotically) All Republicans Are Racist

In order to argue that (asymptotically) all Republicans are racist, you need to take time into account. Before actual Nazis and outright racists started getting NOMINATED, before Trump won* the presidency,before Republican politicians started issuing racist dog whistles, before Nixon put in place the Southern strategy, it was definitely possible to give any given Republican the benefit of the doubt. As time goes on, decent people leave the Republican party, disgusted by the (at first covert, now overt) racism. Now that the racism is overt, with actual Nazis getting nominated for office, it is morally incumbent upon any remaining Republican to either demand that the Nazis and overt racists leave the party, form a new party in which these people are not welcome, or join the democrats. As time goes on and they do none of these things, it becomes more and more apparent that these are not decent people deserving respect and deserving the benefit of the doubt. One starts to think that the same thing that draws the overt racists and the Nazis to the Republican party is the same thing that draws THEM to the party and keeps them there, i.e., racism, white tribalism, the desire to keep heterosexual white males on the top of the heap and to continue to be granted automatic deference.

All Republicans are racist.  Just to be clear, by ‘all’ I mean ‘asymptotically all’ — as time goes on the proportion of Republicans who cannot deny they are racists approaches 100% asymptotically.

The Republican party delenda est. The Republican party must be destroyed; salt must be plowed into its ruins.


The Time We Should Be Giving Any Republican The Benefit Of The Doubt Is Long Past

There are three questions that any Republican needs to ask themselves before they can be considered deserving of any respect at all. — And no, looking and acting avuncular does not entitle you to the presumption that you are a decent human being and deserving a minimum of respect for that reason.

These questions are inspired by this Washington Post article, and some of the wording is taken directly from that article.

1) Why is it that all these racists are so supportive of my party? Why is it that a bunch of actual Nazis won Republican nominations for elected offices this year, and our nominee for the Senate in Virginia is a neo-Confederate? Why is it that every white nationalist thinks they can find a home in the GOP?

2. What can I do to change that?

I and the writer of the article would be interested to hear their ideas. But so far, we’ve heard pretty much nothing.  In other words, Republicans are not especially interested in making their party unattractive to out and out racists and Nazis. Nor have we seen any effort to create a new, center-right party that does not draw overt racists and Nazis.

Given this, any honest Republican needs to ask themselves:

3) Especially given that I am not interested in making my party unattractive to racists and Nazis or forming a new party, how much of my own attraction to the Republican party stems from the same racism that attracts the Nazis? — the same racism, just not overtly expressed, and doubtlessly hidden even from themselves. (The human capacity for self-deception is practically infinite.)

Drawing on a certain informal principle of plausible reasoning, which can be stated as

 

Birds of a feather flock together.

or again as:

If you see a bunch of Nazi flesh flies feasting on a piece of rotting carrion along with a bunch of ostensibly non-Nazi flesh flies, all of them are probably drawn to the same stench.

I think the answer is a lot.

If you see members of a flock of birds perfectly content to associate with a bunch of birds with swastikas emblazoned on their wings, and if you observe them failing to form a new flock minus those members, this contentment renders more credible the conclusion that all of the birds feel a certain … affinity … with one another.

Likewise, the togetherness of the flesh flies renders more credible conclusion that both varieties of flesh flies share the same racism.

Among Republicans, this racism is usually not expressed overtly.  It is typically hidden from themselves by an immense amount of self-deception.  Nonetheless, given the usual vehemence with which they react to the charge, their racism is clearly a sore — though unacknowledged — wound for them.

The number of Republicans asking themselves the three questions posed above is vanishingly small. The number of Republicans deserving of any respect at all is vanishingly small. The time is long past that we should give any of them the benefit of the doubt.

Homework Assignment:  Relate the principle stated above to G. Polya’s PATTERNS OF PLAUSIBLE REASONING, especially to pages 111-116.


One Of Their Gods: Ashton Kutcher Crossing Seleucia’s Marketplace

I usually think of Ashton Kutcher when I read C.P. Cavafy’s ONE OF THEIR GODS.  The translation is from Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s poems:

One of Their Gods

Whenever one of Them would cross Seleucia’s

marketplace, around the time that evening falls —

like some tall and flawlessly beautiful boy,

with the joy of incorruptibility in his eye,

with that dark and fragrant hair of his —

the passerby would stare at him

and one would ask another if he knew him,

and if he were a Syrian Greek, or foreign.  But some,

who’d paid him more attention as they watched,

understood, and would make way.

And as he disappeared beneath the arcades,

among the shadows and the evening lights,

making his way to the neighborhood that comes alive

only at night — that life of revels and debauchery,

of every  know intoxication and lust —

they’d wonder which of Them he really was

and for which of his suspect diversions

he’d come down to walk Seleucia’s streets

from his Venerable, Sacrosanct Abode.

Ashton_Kutcher


On Cruelty, And The Distinction Between Amorality And Immorality

This comes close to nailing it.

TomMorris_0

My two cents:

TomMorris

The context was attitudes toward cruelty in the ODYSSEY.

Tom Morris I like to think there is an objectivity to beauty, alongside the subjectivity of experience relevant to it and what delights us or attracts us. I would view cruelty the same way. Cruelty is first an inner state, an intent to harm without reason or beyond justification, to inflict pain, physical or emotional, for its own sake, outside of any other goal. Cruel acts I would define as acts that arise from that intention. That leaves space for a harmful act that was not intended to be such being viewed by the harmed person as cruel, even though it literally wasn’t. Cruelty is an inner state of the soul or mind and heart. I see it as distinct from sadism, which I could define the same except to add an element of pleasure to the mindset. I don’t see cruelty as demanding pleasure on the part of the cruel person. That just makes him a sadist. Some of the suitors were cruel, I think. Others were just selfish and oblivious to the max. Does that make sense to you? Great questions as always.
Cliff Wirt
Cliff Wirt Tom Morris I’ve been looking for a way to distinguish ‘amoral’ from ‘immoral,’ and this may give me a START. An unambiguously amoral action (putting lead in gasoline because that is the easiest way to make money; firing large numbers of employees because that is a way to temporarily bump up the stock price) is one in which the harm one inflicts is in service to a goal; one does not have the specific intention of inflicting harm even though they may know that harm will be inflicted; accomplishing the goal is more important to one than any harm one may inflict ; and a norm is violated — i.e., the goal SHOULDN’T be more important to one than the harm one inflicts. By contrast, a cruel action would be unambiguously immoral, i.e., an action in which one has a specific intention to do harm. (By ‘specific intention’ I mean one has not accomplished what they set out to accomplish unless harm was done, no matter what other goals one may have had in performing the act.) This is just a start.
Tom Morris
Tom Morris Cliff Wirt I like it, and even more than hitting ‘like’ would indicate.