On Charlie Hebdo and Sacred Cows

Cross-posted from Facebook.

A few of my more liberal friends seem to be taking the stance that “yes, it’s horrible to be killed for what you say, but c’mon, Charlie Hebdo was really racist / xenophobic / Islamophobic!” I don’t speak French and have no particular insight into French media, so I can’t really say it isn’t (although I think this Atlantic article below does a decent job of explaining what Charlie Hebdo actually is).

But I would like to point out that there is a difference between racist xenophobia and a general disdain for sacred cows. An attack on an institution, its beliefs, or its leadership is not the same as an attack on a group of people. It may very well offend many within that group, but offense is not malice. It may very well be wrong, but it is not wrong because it is racist or xenophobic.

By way of analogy, suppose Charlie Hebdo published an image of Thomas Jefferson fucking a slave. Right-thinking patriotic Americans would almost certainly take offense, but it wouldn’t be fair to simply describe the image as anti-American or America-phobic. It is less an assault on the American people and more a mockery of American exceptionalism. The left, most of all, should understand that distinction.

There’s an article floating around stating that Charlie Hebdo is not satire because satire is directed at the powerful and Muslims are not powerful in France. That may be the case (see above disclaimer about my lack of Frenchiness), but there’s a difference between mocking a people and mocking the icons and ideas which hold power over them. An unemployed marginalized refugee from Syria does not hold much power, but the restrictions against the depiction of Muhammad do.

That distinction matters. Much of the left is built on the principles of both respect for people without regard to their origin, and on “speaking truth to power”. But if you conflate a people with the things they believe, then following this first tenet excludes an entire class of “power” from the second. In its own way, an obscene depiction of a revered religious figure speaks truth to power as much as a protest that ridicules Wall Street, a speech by the Dalai Lama that “offends the feelings of the Chinese people” or, more topically, a satirical movie about the assassination of Kim Jong Un.

California Propositions 2014

Cross-posting my thoughts on this election cycle’s propositions for posterity’s sake:

Prop 1 – Yes. Spend more money on much-needed water infrastructure. The con argument as far as I can tell is that isn’t a magic bullet for CA’s drought problems (which largely stem from farming water-intensive crops in dry areas) and general concerns that the state isn’t very good at handling large sums of money (which would be persuasive if there were some more responsible group that we could hand the money to).

Prop 2 – Yes. Toughen CA’s rainy day fund. Good governance generally.

Prop 45 – No. I’m a bit torn on this actually (as is the Democratic Party apparently — Senators Boxer and Feinstein endorse but Nancy Pelosi opposes. Prop 45 requires that the Insurance Commissioner approves any rate hikes by insurance companies. In theory, this allows regulators to keep premiums down, but I’m not convinced that a lack of regulation is the reason for crazy health insurance premiums. Lack of pricing transparency and excess bureaucracy seem to play a bigger role, and Prop 45 doesn’t address that. However, Prop 45 would introduce additional delay and administrative uncertainty to putting new health plans on the Covered California healthcare exchange, which would reduce some of the options available to new enrollees. So, leaning no on this, but happy to hear from someone more familiar with how healthcare works.

Prop 46 – No. This proposition mixes together a bunch of medical malpractice issues that should really be addressed separately. The big one is that it increases the $250K cap on pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits to $1M. This isn’t a big deal in and of itself — the $250K cap was put in place in 1975. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1M in today’s dollars (and really, as a lawyer, I’m not one to dispute higher jury awards).

What I don’t like though is that it requires mandatory drug testing of doctors whenever an “adverse event” occurs. Ugh. Being a doctor is already a pretty demoralizing job. Mistakes happen because doctors are human, and overworked sleep-deprived humans at that. Peeing in a cup won’t fix that.

Prop 47 – Yes. Prop 47 reduces penalties for drug and other minor crimes. Harsh sentencing guidelines haven’t done much to actually reduce drug use or petty theft. They have, however, cost us obscene amounts of money and wrecked havoc on civil liberties.

Prop 48 – Yes. The story behind Prop 48, as far as I can tell, is that when the state approved casinos for Native American tribes, a couple tribes got screwed by technicalities and left out. This just puts those tribes on equal footing with the rest of the tribes. Also, casinos don’t bother me and the tribes are giving us money.

SOPA and PROTECT IP chill free speech

There’s a lot of outcry over how pending copyright legislation (SOPA (PDF), formerly known as E-PARASITE, in the House, and PROTECT IP (PDF) in the Senate) would “break the Internet”. Hyperbole aside, the bills would enable the Attorney General and rights holders to go after payment processors, domain name registrars, and the like to disable access to “foreign” websites that infringe U.S. intellectual property rights.

My concern is that the bills are overbroad. They take down too much non-infringing speech in order to get at the stuff that does infringe upon copyright. I’m not sure whether the Supreme Court would hold that the bills abridge free speech rights under the First Amendment, but they would have a serious chilling effect upon free speech.

For example, suppose that the Russian equivalent of Google’s Blogger service hosts infringing content — say, at blogger.ru/piratedmovies. Suppose also that this is the only piece of infringing content and that the vast majority of content on blogger.ru is stuff like critiques of Dostoyevsky and recipes for borscht. Under Sec. 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General can obtain a court order to block off all U.S. access to blogger.ru. While the Russian operators of blogger.ru could, in theory, appear in a U.S. court to dispute the Attorney General’s actions, it’s unlikely that the operators of a Russian language website are going to go to that effort for the handful of American users interested in its Borscht recipes. Collectively though, this would block off Americans from a lot of “foreign” Internet account. It would, in effect, create a “Great Firewall of America”.

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Re. Shirley Sherrod

<rant>Let me get this straight.

USDA official Shirley Sherrod basically says, “Because this farmer was white, I didn’t do all I could to help him. But then I realized that was racist, and that all racism is bad, so I helped him save his farm.”

White farmer says, “Yup, she saved our farm. She rocks.”

Andrew Breitbart edits that down to just this: “Because this farmer was white, I didn’t do all I could to help him.” He calls her a racist. White House (or Tom Vilsack) fires her.


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California – Yes on Prop 14, No on Prop 16

As most people who read my stuff have probably already voted, I should have posted this earlier if I wanted to actually persuade anyone. Still, I feel it’s good practice for me to justify my own votes.

Yes on Prop 14

Prop 14 creates a non-partisan primary system. Rather than party-specific primaries, there’s just one big election where everyone from any party runs. The top two vote-getters (assuming neither candidate gets more than 50%) then move on to a run-off vote.

Personally, I think instant-runoff voting is the way to go, but a jungle primary would be an improvement too. That said, you’re not automatically getting less polarizing candidates as advertised. In most jungle primaries, the two who make it to the runoff round are probably going to be the same two who would have won the Democratic and Republican primaries anyway. The benefit is really in those edge cases where there’s a candidate with significant cross-over appeal. For example, let’s say I’m really invested in the outcome of a close Democratic primary for Governor but I also really like one of the more moderate Republican candidate for Treasurer. Under the old system, they’re on different ballots, so I’d have to choose which one I care about more. Under the new one, it’s all unified onto a single ballot, so I can make those moderating votes for both candidates. Continue reading “California – Yes on Prop 14, No on Prop 16”

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission apparently lifted the ban on corporations spending money in support of a candidate. I haven’t read the decision yet, but I have some general thoughts on free speech versus campaign finance reform generally.

On one hand, we don’t limit political speech. It runs contrary to the first amendment. You might say that corporations warrant a special exception, but there’s a lot of “potentially political” speech out there that I think should be protected. The second Star Wars prequel, V for Vendetta, V the TV show, and Avatar all could be construed as not-so-subtle attacks on certain politicians and parties, yet all of these were creative works by corporations worthy of first amendment protection (well, maybe not Attack of the Clones, but the rest are pretty good).

On the other hand, we really don’t want the wealthy being able to buy influence with large contributions. So what do we do?

Traditionally, the way to counter speech you don’t like is to speak up yourself. In the past, it was pretty hard because there was only so much airtime on TV or pages in print media. Today however, it’s really a lot easier. The costs of putting your own 30-second campaign ad on YouTube are trivial. Tools like Digg and Reddit make it easy for people-driven movements to raise awareness or draw attention to your YouTube clip without any of them spending a penny (well, maybe they have to pay for Internet access, but you get the idea).

The reason you can buy influence with money is that speech, the kind that reach large numbers of people, is expensive. As the cost of speech goes down, the influence of wealth does as well.

Yes, today, you’ll probably reach a larger audience with a TV ad than you will with your YouTube clip. That’s likely to change in the next decade or so however. TV (as we know it) will die, and it should die.

So rather than griping about the decision, perhaps activists should spend more time trying to increase broadband access.

Gun Manufacturer Liability

In Torts yesterday, we started on strict products liability. At some point, we touched on the liability of gun manufacturers for the costs of crimes committed with guns. This naturally started up a shitstorm.

First, let’s assume that there is in fact a legitimate public interest in ordinary citizens being able to buy a gun (if there weren’t, then we would be discussing banning guns period, not strict products liability). Given that legitimate interest, my initial reaction was that holding gun manufacturers liable for gun crimes would be horribly unfair. It’d be the equivalent of holdng auto-manufacturers liable for hit and runs. After talking to my modmate Sam though, I think, from an economic efficiency and loss distribution perspective at least, it’s an interesting proposition.

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