Wednesday, February 28, 2018

School shootings are a reflection of militaristic police state

The recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which seventeen were killed and fourteen injured, is the latest in a long series of such incidents in American schools. There have been killings in American schools since before the founding of the United States (the first was the Enoch Brown School massacre in 1764), but the incidence of such crimes only gathered pace after the Columbine killings in 1999. They have become so common that Americans seemed to become quite blasé about them - at least until the latest massacre, which has brought strident calls for stronger gun control.

The primary function of the state is to protect life and liberty. We give the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in order that it can fulfill this function. Many people in the United States believe that the state cannot adequately carry out this role and that they should have the right to possess and carry firearms for the express purpose of defending themselves. The Second Amendment to the Constitution enshrines this right, although (as I have written before) personal self-defence is not actually the purpose of the Second Amendment at all. 

The right to possess and carry firearms for self-defence does not exist in most other countries. There are limited rights to own firearms for sporting, hunting and pest-control purposes in most countries but even these are usually strictly controlled. In New Zealand, for example, gun owners are licensed through an onerous vetting process and those who do have them are subject to regular checks and inspections to ensure they continue to be safe owners.

The sharp rise in school shooting incidents in the United States over the past 20 years is paradoxical because it comes against a background of significantly decreased homicide rates over the same period. Many states have tightened the rules and background checks for purchases of firearms in recent years and the percentage of the population owning guns has remained static, which begs the question that if there is no obvious correlation between access to guns and the increase in school shootings, what is the cause?

I touched on a problem in my last post that I believe explains at least in part the phenomenon of school shootings - the disaffection of young men in Western society. Mass killings are almost always committed by young men and it seems the more we tell our young men that they are a menace to society, the more certain individuals are likely to act out the role in which we cast them.

Another possible explanation is the increasing resort to violence by the state. Police in the United States killed more than 1100 people in 2015, a rate that surely must exceed any other nation's law enforcement services. Many of these killings are unjustified (such as the case of Australian Justine Damond) and the officers involved are seldom held to account. The increasing militarisation of the police in America, which is increasing under President Trump, will undoubtedly mean more police killings of the people they are meant to serve. Violence begets violence and an escalation on one side of a conflict inevitably leads to a matching escalation on the other side.

The right wing in America has a hypocritical attitude to guns, supporting an unfettered right to bear arms while at the same time supporting a highly militaristic law and order state. I believe that a capable but restrained police force that protects the rights of its citizens should obviate the need for people to carry weapons for their own defence. We have a civilian police force to ensure we don't live in constant fear of attack by criminals but the problem in America is that it has become a place where people fear the police as much as the criminals.

There is evidence from other countries that America would be a safer place, with fewer mass killings, if gun ownership was significantly reduced. However, Americans won't agree to give up their guns while the police are armed like the 82nd Airborne. Any attempt to unilaterally confiscate guns in America would risk civil war. The de-escalation has to start with the government and it needs to be accompanied by policies such as the decriminalisation of recreational drugs that reduce the number of Americans who are targets of the police. But that would require a braver cohort of politicians than currently inhabit that country's halls of power.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Problem with Young Men

The so-called #MeToo movement continues to accuse prominent men of various transgressions ranging from serious sexual assault to what can only be described as poor manners. I wrote here about the hypocrisy of Hollywood and its celebrities who lecture us on all manner of moral causes while providing a safe haven for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, so I am not going to dwell on my scepticism for the motives of the whole movement. Rather, I would like to discuss the flip side of the coin - Western society's treatment of young men.

It is undoubtedly true that men continue to assault women in our modern, liberal society despite the emancipation of women in every sphere of life. However, when discussing this issue with women I am often surprised by their ignorance of the equivalent issue for men. The greatest victims of violence by men are other men. I have been the victim of reasonably serious assault several times in my life and I am by no means atypical - if women do not believe this I am sure a straw poll of their male friends will convince them otherwise (although men, perhaps even more than women, are often ashamed to admit they have been victims of violence). Women complain that every time they go out on the town or walk alone at night they are at risk of assault, but the situation is no better for men. Women are at greater risk of sexual attack but even that form of assault is not unusual for men. 

However, that is not the biggest problem for young men in our society. More serious is the disaffection of young men today. Sex is ground zero for the identity wars. We teach young men that masculinity is toxic and that femininity is all good - that masculinity is something to be restrained rather than nurtured, and that men are 'privileged' and women are 'oppressed'. The messages are succeeding if the success of women in surpassing men in education and career outcomes in every field (with the exception of science and technology) are any indication. If the intent is to hamstring men, then other indicators such as the high suicide rates for young and middle-aged men also show the success of this grand social experiment.

Young men get mixed messages and are understandably confused. If masculinity is so bad, why are so many women looking for a man to 'look after them' (and if you don't believe that, have a trawl through the ads on any dating website or application). Women want strong men, not weak, neutered, beta males. And yet young men are told that venturing any opinion in the presence of women is 'mansplaining', sitting in what is the most comfortable position for the male hips is 'manspreading', and showing even the most tentative romantic interest in a woman is sexual harassment. 

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose lectures have packed theatres throughout the world and reached millions on Youtube (and whom I have written about about here), believes young men are seeking meaning and significance as an antidote to the toxification of their sex. Peterson advocates a return to the archetypes of our cultural roots - particularly, but not only, those of the Judeo-Christian scriptures - to provide that meaning and significance. He preaches a message of self-responsibility, short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit, and treading a fine line between order and chaos to live a fulfilling life. He has been surprised that most of his audience is young men, who invariably say his message is life-changing. Peterson brutally tells them to get their act together - that the world needs strong and resourceful men and you are no use to anyone as a weak, neutered, beta male - and they lap it up. 

I am not entirely comfortable with everything Peterson preaches as I think there is another fine line that must be tread - between his archetypal messages and religious fundamentalism. His lectures may be changing the lives of young men but so too are the messages of religious fundamentalists. The reasons thousands flock to Peterson's lectures are the same reasons young Westerners flock to Islamic State. The more our society tells young men that they are (paradoxically) useless, undeservingly privileged and a menace to women, the more they will seek alternative messages. Peterson is the voice of reason and a safe haven for disaffected young men but few commentators understand his appeal and many seek to dismiss his views as "alt-right" (whatever that means). They would do better to listen to what he is saying and to try and understand his message, because I think he is a force for good and the alternative is far worse.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Isaacson's Magnificent Leonardo

One of the books I have read over the summer is Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson is probably best known for his highly-acclaimed authorised biography of Steve Jobs (which I would strongly recommend even to those who have no particular interest in Apple or its products), and he has excelled once again.

This book traces Leonardo's life from his illegitimate birth in Vinci, his apprenticeship to the painter Verrocchio in Florence, and his productive years in Milan, Rome and eventually France. We all know Leonardo was a brilliant polymath but Isaacson presents a level of detail about the great man's discoveries - in the fields as diverse as geometry, biology, irrigation, military machines, flight and the human body - that is fascinating. I knew about Leonardo's prototype flying machines and submarine, but Isaacson reveals far more obscure discoveries of the great man, many of which were only rediscovered centuries later - the most astonishing being an accurate description of the functioning of the human aortic valve that was only conclusively validated in 2014!

The author doesn't just capture Leonardo's achievements, he tells us much about the great artist and inventor as a man. Leonardo was gay at a time and in a place that was almost as tolerant as our own and, with the help of generous patrons, he had the space to pursue his art and science relatively free from harassment. We learn about Salai, the companion and lover Leonardo had for much of his adult life (and the subject of so many of his drawings), his difficult relationship with his father and his legitimate brothers, his popularity in the social elites of the cities in which he lived, and his love for sartorial finery.

Isaacson captures the important elements of Leonardo's character - particularly his obsessional pursuit of knowledge - that drove his many discoveries but which meant he finished few projects, much to the frustration of his patrons. However, the projects he did complete benefited from his incredibly detailed knowledge across so many fields. His studies of human anatomy, light and perspective are what made his paintings, particularly his portraits such as the sublime Mona Lisa, some of the greatest works of art of all time. Indeed, Isaacson concludes the book with a section 'Learning from Leonardo' in which he compares the traits he identifies in Leonardo - such as relentless curiosity and the ability to 'see the unseen' - with those of Jobs and Einstein (about whom he has also written). 

This is a book you have to buy in hardcover. It is beautifully produced with more than 500 glossy pages interspersed with full colour prints of Leonardo's greatest paintings, drawings and manuscripts, and is well worth the price.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Nunes Memo and the Russia Investigation

We are witnessing the unfolding of the most fascinating scandal in the American political establishment since Watergate. I am referring, of course, to the revelations of the Nunes memo. Devin Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which last week released a memo prepared for him by his staff that summarised the evidence presented to the committee about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia.

In the last few days I have read many of the news reports about the release of the memo, the memo itself (which you can read here), some excellent analysis including this commentary in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), and this long but detailed background from economist Ross McKitrick. It is particularly worth reading McKitrick's document because it goes back several years and links to earlier events such as the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and it accurately predicts what was in the Nunes document even though it was written before the release of the memo.

The key revelations of the Nunes memo are as follows:

  • The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to carry out surveillance against Carter Page, a Trump campaign advisor, by presenting to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court evidence that was contained in a dossier written by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. It is worth pointing out that FISA warrants usually allow "two hops", meaning that the entire Trump campaign staff including Donald Trump himself would have been subject to surveillance under this warrant.
  • In applying for the warrant, and in subsequent renewals, the FBI did not reveal to the court that Christopher Steele was working for FusionGPS, a British research firm that was engaged by the Hillary Clinton campaign to conduct "opposition research" on Trump. The Clinton campaign paid FusionGPS nearly $1m to conduct the research, hiding the payment through a New York law firm called Perkins Coie. The FBI also did not reveal that they had significant doubts about the accuracy of the dossier, with then FBI Director James Comey calling it "salacious and unverified." The FISA warrants also relied on corroborating information from Yahoo News concerning a visit Page made to Russia in July 2016, which the FBI failed to disclose (and actually denied) also came from Christopher Steele. 
  • FBI officers were clearly engaged in a campaign to discredit president-elect Donald Trump, with text communication between two officers who were involved in the investigation saying, "there’s no way [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40."
The Democrats and much of the media have criticised the release of the Nunes memo but no one has denied the salient facts, which indicate that the investigation into the collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians was initiated because of highly doubtful information commissioned by the Clinton campaign, and that the FBI misled the court to obtain warrants. The latter is a very serious matter and McKitrick speculates that it will result in criminal charges, at a minimum against the FBI officers involved (including deputy director Andrew McCabe who resigned suddenly last week), Clinton aides such as Cheryl Mill and Huma Abedin, and possibly Hillary Clinton herself. He goes so far as to point out that presidential immunity from prosecution does not apply after a president leaves office, implying that if Obama knew about all of this, then he may face prosecution.

Finally, it is worth looking back on how Donald Trump has handled these matters. He received a great deal of criticism for sacking James Comey last year and was painted as a paranoid idiot for claiming that the Obama administration was carrying out surveillance against his staff at Trump Tower. We know he was considering sacking special investigator Robert Muller but decided not to. With what we now know, it looks like he was justified in all these actions. But other than that, he has remained largely aloof from the Russian investigation. 

I think Trump has played a blinder. He has given the FBI, the special investigator, and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, all the rope they wanted. It is now tightening around their own necks.