How China Wiped Out Half the World’s Extreme Poverty

When the world’s ultra-poor spend almost all of their meager cash on food, they never acquire the durable goods or productive assets that enable them to climb out of their predicament. Buying a handcart or a bike or farming implements provides a chance to begin moving from bleak subsistence to a toehold in the lower middle class. It may take a generation or two, but I’m elated whenever I see it happen.

Now, in a New York Times essay about ending poverty, Annie Lowrey shares an economic perspective that is the most encouraging thing I’ve read in months:

This deadly and cyclical form of poverty is already on its way toward obsolescence, and much faster than many development economists expected. The first Millennium Development Goal — to halve the proportion of the world population living in dire poverty by 2015 — was met five years early, as the rate fell to an estimated 21 percent in 2010, from 43 percent in 1990. Some economists had feared that the recession would arrest or even reverse the trend, given how interconnected the global economy is, but the improvement continued, unabated. Annual growth dipped for developing economies in 2009 but has since rebounded to about 5.3 percent a year, a figure dragged down by weaker peripheral European economies.

For much of the improvement, the world can thank one country: China, which alone accounts for about half of the decline in the extreme poverty rate worldwide. [emphasis added] It has also driven significant gains across the region. In the early 1980s, East Asia had the highest extreme-poverty rate in the world, with more than three in four people living on less than $1.25 a day. By 2010, just one in eight were.

Think of that, next time your bleeding-heart neighbor or colleague starts railing against work conditions at Foxconn or some other perceived shortcoming of capitalism in general (and China’s model in particular).

We shouldn’t close our eyes to factors like pollution, or ignore China’s still-abysmal free-speech record. But neither should we pooh-pooh the fact that the country’s policies have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty — not just in China itself but all across the Asian continent and beyond.

Ask yourself what has contributed more to the gradual and ongoing erosion of deep existential misery: The breathtaking capitalist fervor that China suddenly brought the table since the mid-nineties, or the reflexive, predictable protests from Western naysayers who claim to be humanitarians but would try and stop this mighty poverty-eradication machine.

Neither should negate the other; there’s honor in fighting the anti-liberty excesses of unbridled capitalism when they make actual victims. I’m just saying to go easy on the anti-capitalism rhetoric. As before, capitalism is the best weapon we have for material human advancement. Capitalism may be tweaked, it may be mocked, it may be criticized: but first and foremost, it deserves to be celebrated.

Just ask the half a billion people who recently reached up out of the economic muck and managed to leave the worst behind them.

Posted in capitalism, economics, foreign politics, free markets, poverty | Comments closed

On Being Offended

If you’ll forgive a little loftiness: I write to sort out and arrange my thoughts, but also to inform, surprise, inspire thought, and entertain.

I don’t set out to wound, but I do have a sense of humor that’s not shared by everyone, and I’m OK with that.

Don’t like it? That’s fine too. Some people hate broccoli, or country music, or the color fuchsia. It’s neither a virtue nor a shortcoming to dislike something. The sooner we all stop pretending that being offended by something we don’t happen to like entitles us to a higher level of rectitude, the more self-inflicted misery we’ll ban from our lives.

There’s simply nothing respectable about the word “offended.” On the contrary. It’s a ransom note, with the ransom being an instant apology. Pass.

The marvelous Stephen Fry sums it up:


While I’m sharing my affection for the man and his low tolerance for the easily piqued, I might as well toss this one in too:

The identical twin of “offended” is “shocked” — no longer as prevalent today, for which I’m grateful. I love this A.C. Benson quote:

It is a misfortune that many people think it is a mark of saintliness to be easily shocked; whereas the greatest saints are the people who are never shocked. They may be distressed; they may wish things different; but to be shocked is often nothing but a mark of vanity, a desire that others should know how high one’s standard, how sensitive one’s conscience is.

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A day to honor our right to disagree

We don’t have to worry about it much in the West, but there are dozens of countries where criticizing religion, or even just saying that there is no God, is a hazardous affair that can land you in jail — or worse. If you’re an atheist and you sometimes feel under siege from the majority of theists in the U.S. or Europe, imagine what life is like for the folks listed below.

Today, March 14, is an international day of action to defend apostates and blasphemers worldwide. The organizers wish to highlight ten specific cases.

• Alex Aan, Indonesia: 30-year-old atheist, said on Facebook there is no god. Imprisoned.

• Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Baz (also known as Ben Baz), Kuwait: Blogger and atheist, jailed, charged with blasphemy (that’s him in the picture).


• Turki Al Hamad, Saudi Arabia: Novelist, in prison for tweets critical of Islam and Islamism.

• Raif Badawi, Saudi Arabia: Charged with apostasy for setting up a website that “harms the public order and violates Islamic values”.

• Asia Bibi, Pakistan: 45-year-old Christian mother of five, sentenced to death for “insulting the Prophet Mohammad.”

• Hamza Kashgari, Saudi Arabia: 23-year-old Muslim, charged with blasphemy for Tweeting about Mohammad and women’s rights.

• Saeed Malekpour, Iran: Sentenced to death for “insulting and desecrating Islam.”

• Shahin Najafi, Germany: Lives under an Iranian death fatwa for writing a song critical of an imam.

• Ahmad Rajib, Bangladesh: Atheist blogger, killed last month in a machete attack by angry Muslims.

• Alber Saber, Egypt: Atheist blogger, sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy.

Please, support them by going here and following the links. Thanks!

[image via Laughing in Purgatory]

Posted in civil liberties, crime and justice, First Amendment and free speech, foreign politics, government, law enforcement, libertarianism, nannies, police state, religion | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

The partisan politics of crying “bully”

I’ve occasionally bleated blogged about the fashionabilty of smearing every utterance and behavior that you don’t agree with as the act of a “bully.” But the other day, Ken, over at Popehat, relieved me of ever having to write about the phenomenon again. That’s because he didn’t just hit the nail on the head; he brought down a twenty-pound sledgehammer on the fucking thing. Just pounded it with one masterful post — and along with it, he smacked the whole range of censorious whiners and smug milquetoasts upside the head, on both sides of the ideological divide no less.

I approve of protecting the weak from the strong. I approve of calling out people who pick on strangers who are minding their own business and who didn’t enter a debate. But I don’t like the unprincipled overuse of “bullying” for several reasons. I don’t like it because it shifts focus from issues to personalities. I don’t like it because it changes our focus from substance to quarrels over substance. I don’t like it because I think it encourages the trend of feckless, unconstitutional speech codes, and encourages the state to apply those codes too broadly. I don’t like it because it encourages the unprincipled to pursue legal theories like “cyberbullying” when they mean “I acted badly and now a bunch of people are writing about me acting badly.” I don’t like it because I think it encourages the censorious mindset rather than the appetite for more speech. I don’t like it because it encourages a posture of weakness over a posture of strength. But perhaps most of all, I don’t like the overuse of “bullying” because it diminishes and degrades the word for petty political purposes to the detriment of actual victims of real bullying. The meretricious overuse of the term “bullying” threatens to degrade it to the point where efforts against real bullying are not taken seriously and are tarred with the same brush of self-serving partisanship.

Put another way, if you think it’s “bullying” for Sean Hannity or Rachel Madow or some blogger to make fun of people with your viewpoint on some political subject, I think you are unserious, I think you are flirting with weakness, I think you are empowering censors, I think you are more interested in partisan games than in kids getting the shit knocked out of them every schoolday, and frankly I think you are kind of a dick.

Sorry if that comes off as bullying.

The whole delicious post is here.

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15 reasons to oppose drug testing in schools

This makes me ill.

I’d be tickled to death to have [our students] drug tested!

…singsongs one of the leaders of the Acadia Christian School, up the road from where I live. Which sounds pretty damn giddy — and pretty damn creepy — to my ears. Tickled to death at the prospect of forcibly extracting piss from youngsters. Nice.

I can think of all sorts of reasons why parents and students should oppose drug testing in schools.

• 1. Random drug testing requires children to surrender their bodily fluids on a teacher’s or administrator’s whim.

• 2. It’s a form of coercion that goes well beyond “coercing” them to learn multiplication tables and state capitals.

• 3. It teaches them to be meek and docile, and to go along with any Fourth Amendment violations that authorities care to inflict on them. Sorry, I’m teaching my children the opposite.

• 4. It’s an invasion of privacy.

• 5. It isn’t effective in combating drug use; study after study shows that schools with drug tests have about the same level of drug use as schools without.

• 6. It pushes kids who already use drugs to try newer ones that are even less safe and aren’t screened for, in an effort to circumvent the tests.

• 7. It will saddle (some) kids with a criminal record that may be hard or impossible to expunge.

• 8. I want my school to teach my kids a proper curriculum. I’ll do the parenting, thank you.

• 9. In order for kids to learn well, I want them to be able to trust their teachers. I don’t want them to see teachers as narcs, and I don’t want schoolmates to contribute to a climate of suspicion by being expected to rat each other out. What kind of learning environment is that?

• 10. Slippery slope #1: Caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes are also drugs. Shall we test for those? Shall we suspend or expel students with traces of nicotine or alcohol in their blood? That’s what zero-tolerance policies are all about, right?

• 11. Slippery slope #2: If it’s all about keeping children safe, shouldn’t we start random family testing too, to combat pernicious influences on kids’ psyches from older siblings and parents? If not, why not?

• 12. Drug-testing students who want to participate in extracurricular programs deters students who, as is common, are only admitted after passing the test. That means they can’t join precisely those activities that — thanks to a structured environment of accomplishment — offer a great opportunity to help students get or stay out of trouble with drugs.

• 13. Drug tests cost money to administer and enforce, and require lots of man hours (excess administrative tasks) to boot. As a parent, I’m not paying for this nonsense.

• 14. Random drug testing perpetuates the War on Drugs that we’ve been fighting and losing for a century already, at tremendous cost to our pocketbooks and to American families everywhere.

• 15. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

Me, I’ll be “tickled to death” when more parents stop mindlessly giving their blessing to such disturbing violations of liberty.

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Next, a drone attack on American soil?

Time magazine has an excellent round-up of the state of drone technology, and explores drones’ implications for the future. It’s not just a piece about battlefield use; the story also looks at the increasing use of domestic drones.

Yep: We’re not in Afghanistan anymore, Toto.

This passage offers a good bit of insight into the psychology of the watched:

There’s something uncanny about drones. Flying one is a heady experience, but being watched by one is an eerie, oppressive, somewhat annoying feeling. …  [A] drone is the physical avatar of the virtual presence of a real person. They provoke a new kind of anxiety, quite unlike the nuclear terror of the 1980s or the conspiracy-theory paranoia of the 1990s. They’re a swarming, persistent presence, low-level but ubiquitous and above all anonymous. They could be al-Qaeda or your government or your friends and neighbors.

One way of gaining back some feeling of control is, I suppose, to press your very own drone into service. They’re now within almost everyone’s reach. People of relatively modest means can buy a $300 remote-controlled quadcopter that beams back live footage to their smartphones. For the price of a fancy motorbike or a small car, you can own a drone with better range, very good stability and maneuverability, hi-def cameras, and built-in GPS.

This realtor uses a drone to take promotional aerial footage of his high-end properties.

Tinkerer? You can build your own drone.

If you want a little more excitement, you can fly unmanned aerial vehicles with firearms mounted on them. You read that right. There are videos doing the rounds of guys who rigged cheap drones with guns.

Here’s one. This drone shoots fireworks to pop balloons:

Here’s another one, featuring some serious firepower. (The authenticity of this video is in doubt, but it seems feasible enough for committed individuals to build such a death machine.)

Nervous yet?

It’s not hard to picture a few of these home-rigged contraptions, in the hands of some bad guys, buzzing into sensitive areas and high-profile events — anything from an NFL game to the Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn — and unleashing hell. I sure hope it doesn’t happen. But a halfway imaginative survivor of a U.S. drone attack, or someone who saw a loved one blown up in such a strike, surely has revenge fantasies about just that. To jihadis, including the ones we mint almost daily with our fresh kills, carrying out a drone hit on American soil would be the sweetest retribution.

We can scarcely blame them, can we? Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but if some foreign power invaded U.S. airspace and, accidentally or not, blew my kids to smithereens, I doubt I’d content myself with writing letters to the editor about it.

The genie is out of the bottle. President Obama (and George W. Bush before him) popped the cork, and I suspect that, technology being a double-edged sword cum two-way street, the consequences will become clear soon enough.


Bonus: Jon Stewart sounds off on the secret U.S. battle-drone policy. The best bit, dripping with well-deserved sarcasm, is in the second video (they’re part one and two of the same show segment).

Obviously, a Democratic administration’s White House secret war policy memos are very different from the Bush administration’s secret war policy memos — in that I assume the Democrats have written them on recycled paper.



Posted in civil liberties, crime and justice, government, law enforcement, military, police state, science, U.S. politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

A respectful thought on this day of our Lord

Trust only the pious ones, for they can show you the path to God.

Like this guy.

A prominent Saudi Arabian preacher who raped his 5-year-old daughter before torturing her to death has been spared a death sentence or even a lengthy prison term after agreeing to pay “blood money” to the slain girl’s mother. [He] was arrested last November and charged with brutally raping and torturing 5-year-old Lama al-Ghamdi to death. According to a medical report, the little girl had been tortured with whips, electric shocks and an iron. She had broken arms, a broken back and a fractured skull.

The man, Fayhan al-Ghamdi, is a respected Islamic scholar, and a regular commentator on issues of religion and morality for several Muslim TV channels. He’s a bit of a holy man, really. See for yourself:

According to social worker Randa al-Kaleeb, Lama had been raped “everywhere.” Agence France-Presse reports that hospital staff told the girl’s mother that her “daughter’s rectum had been torn open and the abuser had attempted to burn it closed.”

By the grace of Allah the Mighty, the Merciful, al-Ghamdi will receive just a metaphorical rap on the knuckles.

No word on whether he currently has any other children whose every orifice cries out for his religious blessing.

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Two kinds of justice: One for you, another one for cops

Police officer Daniel Harmon-Wright shot a 54-year-old woman to death in Culpeper, Virginia, a year ago. Her name was Patricia Ann Cook. Mr. Harmon-Wright claimed he had no choice, because in some unlikely altercation, she rolled up the window of her idling car, trapping his arm. And then she hit the accelerator, he says, and she was dragging him. It was his life or hers. He did what he had to do.

None of that was true. Witnesses disproved Wright’s story. Fuck knows why he did what he did. Probably had a bad day, or a bad case of You Will Respect My Authori-tah.

It wasn’t the first time Wright got in trouble. He had a history of drinking and aggressive behavior.

His mom, Bethany Sullivan, who worked as a secretary for the police department, falsified Wright’s personnel record, attempting to cleanse it of previous stains. She got caught, too. That was encouraging, at least. This was one instance of police brutality that didn’t get swept under the rug.

Wright stood trial last month. The jury didn’t believe him — no one with any knowledge of the situation did — and voted to convict. So far, so unusual.

But then, yesterday, that same jury recommended a jail term of three years. Three years!


Wright commits manslaughter, and he lies about what he did, all bald-faced and arrogant and cocksure — but you know what’s next. He had a badge. So then it’s not really that bad, is it? We’ll treat him with kid gloves. Thanks for your service, officer.

Can you imagine what the sentence would have been if the role of perp and victim had been reversed? If, under similar circumstances, some civilian had put a bullet into a cop’s heart, and then lied about it to save his own skin? Even without the perjury charge, that person wouldn’t just be branded a cop killer all over the media; that person’s life would be over, either thanks to a jail sentence of 25 to life, or because of a death penalty verdict.

But cops, as we see time and again, are above the law. They mouth pieties about it; they claim that only they stand between us and all manner of deadly riff-raff; but for the thousands upon thousands of revenge-fantasy bullies and trigger-happy cowboys among them, that’s as far as it goes. It’s just pretty words. They are the deadly riff-raff.

If, for a change, the court system and the awed sheep on the jury hold cops accountable for something as patently outrageous as the cold-blooded killing of Patricia Cook, the boys in blue don’t get the chair — they get their wrists slapped. But only if we’re lucky, of course.

In this case, we got lucky. Justice was served. Or was it?


Four additional fun facts:

1. Patricia Cook’s widower, Gary, filed a $5.35 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Wright in May 2012.

2. By the summer, Cook’s attorneys were looking into expanding the  lawsuit to include Culpeper police chief Chris Jenkins and former chief Dan Boring, now a Culpeper Town Councilman.

3. In September, officers of the Culpeper PD found Gary Cook’s body in his apartment.

4. The Medical Examiner in Manassas, Virginia, said Gary Cook died of natural causes. Cook was 62.

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Islam and science: a budding love affair?

The Economist argues that a Muslim scientific awakening is underway. Few things would please me more, although it seems to me that there is an inverse relation between a society’s overt religious piety and its willingness to truly embrace science. As far as Islam goes, I suppose the good news is that the situation can only get better.

In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West … By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. … Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries.

Not sure whether we ought to be confident that, in the words of the magazine,

The political storms shaking the Middle East could promote not only democracy, but revive scientific freethinking, too.

I don’t discount the contributions of moderate Muslims and small bands of (closet) secularists, but the revolutions seem primarily driven by throngs of islamist hardliners who couldn’t be more at odds with the overall body of science. And even the moderates (to the extent that they are in favor of actual science, divorced from the fairy tales of religion), will find their work cut out for them.

Consider, for instance, the exchange between a reporter from Discover magazine and Waheed Badawy, a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. Badawy, though a Muslim, prides himself on seeing religion and science as “separate pursuits.” But when asked if a Muslim scientist or lecturer would be free to teach evolutionary biology — essentially, Darwin — the following exchange transpires.

“If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no,” Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that.”

But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask. He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it.

“Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”

“What proof?”

He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”

To the Muslims who, unlike Badawy, are committed to scientific standards of reason and proof: Work to do, Sahibi. Join us, we welcome you.

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Revisited: Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

I’m re-reading Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 compendium of suggestibility. Mackay, in his wry, amused way, wonderfully describes mob behavior through the ages, from the persecution of alleged witches to the insanity of inflated markets, from various end-time follies to the ever-popular search for eternal youth.

I could quote from his book all day long. It’s surprisingly droll and accessible for being 170 years old, and also surprisingly relevant, as it essentially offers a taxonomy of human sheep, of which we surely have no shortage today.

Take this passage: It’s about an outbreak of infectious disease in 1630s Italy, a pestilence that, of course, had to be the work of the devil, or of filthy foreigners, or both.

Prayers were offered up in all the churches, that the machinations of the Evil One might be defeated. Many persons were of opinion that the emissaries of foreign powers were employed to spread infectious poison over the city; but by far the greater number were convinced that the powers of hell had conspired against them, and that the infection was spread by supernatural agencies. … Every thing was believed to have been poisoned by the Devil; the waters of the wells, the standing corn in the fields, and the fruit upon the trees. It was believed that all objects of touch were poisoned; the walls of the houses, the pavements of the streets, and the very handles of the doors. The populace were raised to a pitch of ungovernable fury. A strict watch was kept for the Devil’s emissaries, and any man who wanted to be rid of an enemy, had only to say that he had seen him besmearing a door with ointment; his fate was certain death at the hands of the mob.

An old man, upwards of eighty years of age, a daily frequenter of the church of St. Antonio, was seen, on rising from his knees, to wipe with the skirt of his cloak the stool on which he was about to sit down. A cry was raised immediately that he was besmearing the seat with poison. A mob of women, by whom the church was crowded, seized hold of the feeble old man, and dragged him out by the hair of his head, with horrid oaths and imprecations. He was trailed in this manner through the mire to the house of the municipal judge, that he might be put to the rack, and forced to discover his accomplices; but he expired on the way.

It’s interesting to imagine what Mackay would make of today’s mass-psychological excesses — say, of the throngs of rabid Muslims seized by a perennial frenzy over cartoons and YouTube videos; or of the American climate of outsized fear that springs from a belief that our domestic safety is under constant mortal threat by them, “necessitating” trillions of dollars in military and DHS spending.

The book is still in print, in various editions no less, and easy to obtain online — for a song. You can even download it for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Fill a long winter’s night with Mackay’s tales of never-ending mass silliness and disastrous gullibility. But remember: it’s a cautionary tale, not a manual.

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On gun control, media commit an epic viral deception

Yesterday, in Hartford, Connecticut, state legislators held a hearing on gun control. Neil Heslin, the father of one of the Sandy Hook victims, testified in favor. Within hours, various media, most notably The Telegraph in the U.K., reported something rather disturbing:

The tearful father’s testimony was interrupted by up to a dozen members of the audience shouting ‘Second Amendment!’

The headline over the Telegraph story: Gun activists heckle father of child killed at Sandy Hook. Hundreds of thousands of angry people, most of them decent human beings without the intent to deceive, instantly spread the story far and wide via social media and bulletin boards.

The Huffington Post piled on with almost the same headline. Screenshots of these stories were annotated and presented as proof positive of the viciousness of gun owners. Like so:

Meanwhile, the British paper posted an edited video version of the incident — but oddly enough, the footage didn’t seem to support the claim that heckling took place. And the single cut occurred at a moment that made me a little suspicious. The Huffington Post posted its own bizarrely edited video, apparently via CBS.

And then, no thanks to the Telegraph or the HuffPo, the unedited version emerged, and so we can all see for ourselves the willful deception that took place. What neither the U.K. paper nor the U.S. website reported, and in fact took pains to conceal, is that Mr. Heslin asked emphatically whether anybody in the room could think of a reason why people should have rifles (he calls them “assault-style weapons”). He paused. He invited an answer. And after a few seconds’ silence, some people at the back of the room gave him one: “The Second Amendment.” No angry yelling. No interruptions. No heckling of any kind.

Here’s the complete, uncut video. The exchange starts at 13:30. No matter where you stand on guns and gun control, the media coverage, especially in The Telegraph and the Huffington Post, should give you pause.

Then again, why call out only those two? This was a veritable media clusterfuck, the likes of which I don’t recall. It cut straight across the ideological divide, considering that even the rightwing Drudge Report and the equally conservative Business Insider reflexively parroted the story, no factchecking needed. Very similar articles, all containing the same false accusation, soon appeared in The Daily, Slate (notice how the URL betrays the original “hecklers” headline, later amended), Democratic Underground, Salon, Gawker, the New York Daily News, the Connecticut Post, Jezebel, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Buzzfeed, The (U.K.) Independent — and, of course, on Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed. This is by no means a complete list.


P.S.  I became aware of the Telegraph story this morning through a friend of a friend, who shared an annotated screenshot of it on her Facebook page, courtesy of a group called Anti-Republican Crusaders. So it seemed right to clue them in. Maybe the ARC administrators weren’t aware of the deception.

Now, I’ve done quite a bit of anti-Republican crusading myself, and still do. But it turns out that I have precious little in common with the group. When I went to the ARC Facebook page to post my findings and the unedited video, pretty civilly I thought, whoever administers the group yanked my comment within the hour, and banned me from making further ones. So the comment exposing the lie is gone, but the entirely fallacious text and graphic itself survives just fine on the group’s page.

Genuine public discourse? So inconvenient. Let’s just be deliberately deaf and blind, and keep angrily reciting our learned-by-rote articles of faith.

Make no mistake: This is too often the prevailing attitude in both camps.


P.P.S.  See how many words it took to paint (and prove) the deception? I’ve long found this depressing. A good lie is always brief, and fleet of foot. A debunking of it is always long, arduous, and slow to spread. The latter will almost never reach the distribution of the former.

And so it goes.

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Newtown: an explosion of dubious grief

I’m feeling just a bit queasy, courtesy of a Canadian cop.

A Saskatoon police officer is working to create a massive sculpture honouring the victims and emergency workers involved in the December shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A preliminary version of the memorial, which would be built by Saskatchewan people and shipped to Newtown, would include life-sized images of the 26 children and six Newtown teachers, as well as various emergency workers climbing a ladder into the clouds. “It’s going to take a lot of time and money, but frankly, I don’t care,” said Saskatoon Police Services Const. Mike Scanlon. “This could be us saying we care.”

It’s like a balloon made of marble or a cast-in-stone teddy bear (Newtown doesn’t even know what to do with the non-stone variations), but worse, as the proposed statue is supposed to feature the likenesses of the victims for a good stretch of eternity.

I find the whole thing maudlin and disturbing. That’s because there’s a fine line between trying to show you care and becoming an ersatz-grief fetishist. The horrible Newtown massacre was rapidly transformed into our nation’s Princess Diana moment, with an aftermath chock-full of preening public handwringing and unrestrained emoting that was almost as unbearable as the tragedy itself.

U.K. author Patrick West addressed the phenomenon in his aptly named book Conspicuous Compassion. He was interviewed by the BBC in 2004:

Describing extravagant public displays of grief for strangers as ‘grief-lite,’ Mr. West said these activities were, “undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night of the proms. [It] is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches. Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes’ silences its liturgy and mass. But these new bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical. We saw this at its most ghoulish after the demise of Diana.”

He may be on to something.

The thesis of West’s essay-length book (79 pages) is that

“such displays of empathy do not change the world for the better; they do not help the poor, diseased, dispossessed or bereaved. Our culture of ostentatious caring is about projecting your ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are. It is about feeling good, not doing good, and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.”

In other words, the distinguishing characteristic of this affliction, otherwise cleverly known as mourning sickness and not so cleverly as grief porn, is that the public display of real or imagined grief, through cunning self-delusion, is aimed at psychologically benefiting oneself rather than the intended recipient of the good deed. It is self-PR and outright masturbation just as much as, if not more than, genuine sorrow.

If I were the parent of one of the Sandy Hook victims, I’d prefer to safeguard my own memories of my child, rather than allow her to be publicly co-opted as part of a statue I’d have to look at, or try to avoid looking at, every time I walked by.

I realize I can’t speak for the bereaved parents of Newtown.

But neither can Mr. Scanlon.

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