On the Lack of Posting.

A) Blogger’s been, well, bloggered lately.

B) I’m still getting over whatever the hell this ongoing creeping crud is.

C) Work is still extremely hectic and looks to stay that way a while.

D) I haven’t been too inspired to write due to A), B), and C) (though I’ll admit to getting up at 4AM on Saturday to finish Rights, Morality, Pragmatism & Idealism Pt. II.)

At the moment, it looks like The Smallest Minority is going to be updated mostly on the weekends.


Quote of the Month.

The difference between the United States and the Islamic terrorists is this: The terrorists export death. The Americans export freedom.

Fatos Tarifa, Albanian Ambassador to the United States in his Washington Times editorial column
Albania Stands with the U.S. in Iraq

Read the whole thing, but that’s the money quote.

Dept. of Our Collapsinged Schools, Part Who-Can-Keep-Track?

In today’s entry we have the unfortunately named Wayne Brightly, erstwile teacher for the NY school system. Mr. Brightly is a 38 year old black man.

Mr. Brightly had a bit of a problem passing NY’s state certification exam. He failed it at least twice. If he failed it again, he risked losing his $59,000/year job (well, DUH!).

So instead, the tall, thin, young and black Mr. Brightly coerced squat, fat, old and white Rubin Leitner

into taking the exam for him. It seems that Mr. Leitner has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history, but he also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and at the time was homeless. Mr. Brightly was bright enough to get Mr. Leitner sufficient identification to get him in to take the exam, but neglected to consider what the result would be. Mr. Leitner not only passed the teacher’s exam, he did so much better than Mr. Brightley’s previous attempts that it aroused suspicion. So they called Mr. Brightley in for an interview. He sent Mr. Leitner with his fake ID.

Things, shall we say, fell apart at that point.

But wait! That’s not the best part! Mr. Brightley has been teaching in the NYC school system since 1992! According to the New York Daily News:

Wayne Brightly’s city schools career:

* 1992 – Began working as a substitute teacher at IS 171 in Brooklyn.
* 1994 – Became a substitute teacher at PS 7 in Brooklyn.
* 1995 – Became a substitute teacher at PS 65 in Brooklyn.
* 1998 – Became a teacher at IS 171.
* 2004 – Became a teacher at MS 142 in the Bronx.
* 2005 – Reassigned to a regional office job after he was charged.

Yes, that’s right! Thirteen years teaching without passing the certification test, and he’s still on the payroll!

I couldn’t make this up.

Rights, Morality, Idealism & Pragmatism, Part I.

The discussion with Dr. Danny Cline continues. He sent me his reply to my previous post yesterday. I read it and thought about it and then read it again.

This is a difficult topic because the discussion goes to something so fundamental that the words we’re forced to use carry many layers of meaning, while what we’re trying to do is flay them back and be unerringly precise in what we’re saying. There’s much opportunity for misinterpretation here, though I think we’re approaching a consensus on the topic. As I did before, I’m going to post Dr. Cline’s submittal for you all to read and think on, then later I will post my reply which will be predated to appear physically below this post. That way, anyone stumbling onto this full front page or reading a monthly archive will be able to read the two posts as one continuous piece.

Dr. Cline emailed to me in plain text, so I have taken the liberty to edit his piece very slightly for readability (if I screw anything up, Danny, leave a comment and I’ll fix it.) Here is his latest response:

First let me say that the order in which I’ll respond to your comments is not necessarily the order they appear in your post. First I think I’ll take up the statement:

“I think Dr. Cline believes that man has an innate moral instinct.”

Well, I’m not going to argue much against this statement. I do indeed believe that man has innate moral knowledge (I wouldn’t say an instinct, but that’s a pretty minor problem). I should say rather that I believe that I have innate moral knowledge. I’ve never been very convinced of the applicability of knowledge about one’s self to knowledge about others. So instead let’s say that I believe that I have moral knowledge and I suspect that some others do as well. However, that belief is not the underlying support of my quibble with your posts. The source of my support is rather the question of whether there is an objective standard of morality. Note that the question of whether or not there is an objective standard of morality is wholly different from the question of how or if, we have access to this standard. My belief is that there is. I would gather from this post that you would disagree and say that either that there is no morality, morality is meaningless (i.e. morality is just a word), or perhaps morality only exists relative to a certain society or certain people.

This gets us to the first of a series of difficult questions, namely, how can we have a priori knowledge (knowledge not based on experience – of which our discussion of morals and rights certainly brings into question)? Now, although our questions are ones of morality here, there are many other areas in which the knowledge (as much as it seems to be very concrete) is still a priori. For example, the axioms of geometry, or even the truth of arithmetic are not things that we feel need to be proven, and are as such a priori knowledge. Indeed, in 1931 Kurt Gödel demonstrated that there is no way to completely list all of the necessary axioms for a complex system such as mathematics. Any attempt at a list of all necessary axioms (again a priori knowledge) will necessarily generate propositions that are undecidable within the system. These propositions could be made into axioms themselves, but then would be still more undecidable statements generated within the system.

Thus, some things we accept (the axioms underlying arithmetic and geometry) are indeed knowledge we are neither able to prove nor knowledge that we even derive from experience. This is the essence of a priori knowledge. Now, one certainly could claim that a rejection of all a priori knowledge (including such things as simple arithmetic) is valid. However, while not inherently self-contradictory, that sort of skepticism is notoriously unproductive, and not even in line with how we (or I, at least) view the world. One might instead claim that certain claims of a priori knowledge is justified (perhaps the truth of the laws of logic and mathematics) while other such claims are not (in this case, the existence of an objective standard of morality). Here we are still treading on difficult ground, as we’d need to examine why certain claims can be considered true without proof, while others cannot. For example, why should we accept that there are external objective truths of arithmetic and logic but not such objective truths of morality? The claims some make about moral truths being relative to society are intended to be such a difference. However, this seems to me to be nothing more than the claim that we cannot have objective standards of morality because people (or perhaps one of these complainants might say “reasonable people”) might disagree about them. In my experience teaching mathematics at the college level, I have found the same thing occurs.

Many (otherwise) reasonable people cannot add fractions correctly, or cannot understand that IF we know that P implies Q AND we know that P is true THEN we know that Q is true. At the higher levels of mathematics, even those who have studied mathematics and know a great deal about it have disagreements, not because there is no right answer but simply because the questions are hard. Thus, either the complaint that morality has no objective standards because otherwise reasonable people may disagree on issues of morality fails or mathematics, and indeed logic itself suffer the same problem (and if we reject logic, there is little point in continuing this, or any other, argument). The fact that this sort of a priori knowledge causes disagreements is not a sign of its non-existence but rather its difficulty. This knowledge does not spring fully grown, armed, and armored from our heads like Athena; it must be sought out. Reflection is our path to this knowledge, and often it is a difficult path confusing even our greatest minds. The fact that we may be unsure of the contents of an objective standard of morality does not imply that none exists.

Indeed, at one point in your response, you do claim that there is such an objective standard, with a quote from Ayn Rand:

“A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.”

Immediately afterward you say that

“[t]hat right is, in my opinion, REAL, but it can and has been trampled, folded, spindled, mutilated, and – worst of all – unrealized, for the overwhelming majority of Man’s existence upon the Earth.”

This is entirely correct. The right and its corollaries ARE real AND they have been violated. One of these clauses does not negate the possibility of the other. A right is not like a law of physics; it is simply a statement of morality. It is not a statement of what CAN happen, but what SHOULD happen. However, almost immediately, you contradict this statement with:

“[Jefferson] and the other Founders may have held those truths to be “self-evident,” but for centuries if not [millennia] before they were neither self-evident nor true.”

This statement is only half-correct, and in that half you don’t go far enough. In the millennia before, the statements were true – but they were not then, nor were they in Jefferson’s day, nor are they now self-evident. These truths, like all a priori knowledge are not things that we can prove, but are things that we must discover. It is not easy to uncover reality or truth – not in mathematics, not in morality, and not in science.

Finally, in response to your statement and the following question:

“Telling a murderer that he is violating your rights won’t stop him from doing it, and if he kills you is he not “taking away your right to life”? The question I have is: the claim to whom? [To whom] do we go to with our claims to our proper rights?”

The answers are as follows: No, the killer is not taking away your right to life – he is violating it. He is taking away your life, not your right to it. Rights and guarantees are not the same; rights are simply statements of what is right and wrong. The answer to your second question “the claim to whom” is a rather sad one, namely, that we can take it to no one as this is not that kind of claim. Rights are not a part of some cosmic insurance policy in which if they’re violated we get a new toaster. Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough, they are simply statements of what is right and what is wrong. The rights are universal conditions “which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore” quote we have been bouncing back and forth in these emails is correct enough in its way but can be very misleading. The rights can’t be taken away, the things they grant are ours can be. A tyrant couldn’t take away my right to life, but unfortunately he (or she) could take away my life. Mr. Dale Franks makes this exact same fallacy in his quote. Rights are NOT laws of physics, and as much as we might hope that they should be, their nature does not prevent their violation. A right does not exist in the same way as a table, or a molecule. His questions:

“Where are your rights now? What protection do they afford you?”

are answered easily enough. My rights are “where” they always are. They are ideas, and have no physical form, much as Newton’s second law has no physical form, or the number 567 has no physical form. “Where” is not the kind of thing one ought to ask about a nonphysical entity like truth or 43 if one wants an understandable answer. To the second question, my answer is again, sadly, they don’t afford me protection. They never have and never will. I’ll have to protect myself (or not) as I am able.

Again, I think your troubles with my post are related to an assumption that I am saying one doesn’t need to defend one’s self from murder or theft or imprisonment. I am most certainly not saying anything of the sort. If one wants to live, one may very well have to defend one’s self. My rights won’t defend me, but again, that is not what they are meant to do. They are meant to tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

You and Mr. Franks both come somewhat near the fallacy of the logical positivists, who said “any statement not of natural science is meaningless.” This was meant to put an end to all such questions of rights and morality. Unfortunately, it is self-contradictory, as it is itself a statement not of natural science. As you don’t quite cozy up to it, this is not an accusation, but your continued examinations into the questions about how rights are supposed to have a physical effect (they aren’t) comes tantalizingly near to it.

In the end you say that your objection to my position is that it encourages members of a society to disconnect. Perhaps it does. If we are arguing from consequences, though, I’d say your position – at least the one where you doubt the existence of right in any true universal way – encourages people to buy that whoever has the greatest might is justified in doing whatever he or she wants. Your question to me “[i]f you believe, as Dr. Cline believes, that “All rights are simply universal conditions ‘which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore'” then why would it be necessary to defend them?” I have answered several times – we do not defend the right, we defend what it claims is rightfully ours. This question prompts me to ask one of my own. If you believe that rights are not real or are meaningless (as you indicate in some places but not in others and Mr. Franks flatly states in the post of his you have quoted) what is the purpose of defending them or respecting those of others, particularly those incapable of defending theirs and unprotected by society?

See why I do this? The free exchange of ideas forces you to think. It’s work I thoroughly enjoy.

Back later. Maybe much later. This will be a tough one to get just right.

UPDATE: Part II is done.

Rights, Morality, Pragmatism & Idealism, Part II.

I have to admit, it never occurred to me to attack the question of rights from the perspective of mathematics. I studied physics in college, and I remember plainly the division between physics professors and mathematics professors. The physics professors were uniformly disdainful of the mathematics professors, and vice versa. The mathematicians were interested in math for math’s sake, ignoring any practical applications and appreciating primarily the elegance of the science. The physicists were interested only in the practical application of mathematics to solving the questions of physical reality, appreciating the elegance mostly as evidence of the correct application of the tools.

You can imagine which side of this divide I rested on. However, as I said above, I think we’re approaching consensus here, but perhaps only asymptotically.

Dr. Cline in his opening explicitly connects the question of rights with the question of morals, and I think it’s important to make clear here that the two are associated, but not interchangeable. That’s probably understood, but as I said, it is necessary that we be unerringly precise in this discussion.

I quoted Ayn Rand’s statement that “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” I believe this to be true, but Websters defines “moral” as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” A quick study of history shows that what is moral for one society may be immoral for another, as in the example I gave of the Maori and Moriori from Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Yet Dr. Cline’s position is that there is a single “objective standard of morality” and that objective standard is based on the rights of man which are corollaries of Rand’s one fundamental right: a man’s right to his own life.”

Dr. Cline believes, and makes a good case, that those rights can be determined just the same way the laws of mathematics are: through discovery by logical thought.

We’re ==><== this close!

We’re stuck in that no-mans-land between mathematicians and physicists, I think. Dr. Cline argues for the theoretical ideal, while I’m oriented towards the pragmatic. His “this is the way it should be,” and my “does it work? Settle in for another dissertation-length essay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I stated in the earlier piece:

The whole purpose of morals is to ensure survival, and whatever works to ensure survival is, for that society, “moral.”

This is accurate, but incomplete. There are at least two bases for morality: survival, and individual rights. For the overwhelming majority of the existence of Man, the morality of any society has been based strictly on survival – anything that worked to ensure survival was, by definition, “moral.” For example, drawing another citation from Guns, Germs and Steel, New Guinean cannibalism can be pragmatically understood if you study the food sources available to the cannibal tribes. There simply wasn’t enough protein available in their environment to sustain their populations without it. Even though cannibalism can be dangerous to its practitioners for biological reasons (diseases like Kuru and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, for instance), when the alternative is rapid death from starvation or slow death through malnutrition, the choice seems obvious. Since their only significant available source of protein was meat, and the only large animal species in that ecosystem was humans, and it remained thus until these tribes were reached by Europeans bringing high-protein crops and domestic animals formerly unknown, then the choice of their source of dietary protein was simple. From our perspective, cannibalism is a moral horror; involving the taboos of both murder and of the consumption of human flesh. From an individual rights perspective, the systematic slaughter of people is wrong as it is violative of their rights. We can mitigate our revulsion if the situation is obviously extreme; sailors adrift at sea, isolated survivors of an air crash, but the idea of a culture based on cannibalism is abhorrent to us.

And perfectly normal, natural, and acceptable to them.

This is difficult to square with Dr. Cline’s insistence on the existence of one objective standard of morality if you do not recognize this dichotomy between the pragmatic and the ideal, and I must confess to not expressing this well or clearly earlier. The rules of a society’s morality, to use a mathematical analogy, are like the deceptively simple equations that define very complex bounded chaotic systems. So long as the overall system is stable within its bounds, the morality of that society “works,” despite how it might offend or even repulse members of another society, and regardless of how it relates to an ideal of individual rights. The only thing that can upset it is a catastrophic change imposed from outside, (the offended society attacking and slaughtering them, for instance) or something truly extraordinary from within.

Man has existed for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, and our social structures have struggled slowly and painfully up from the band, to the tribe, to the chiefdom, to the state over that long time period. Throughout all of it we have done so without an ideal system of morality, just as we did without mathematics, agriculture, metallurgy, chemistry, or physics. We’ve been too busy just surviving. A theory of individual rights is much like mathematics – something of great value that requires time and resources to explore and develop. Dr. Cline states that such a theory of rights is every bit as real and as useful as the laws of mathematics, and he may be right – though I must throw out the caveat that it is crucial to recognize that man can survive without either, and might again. I quoted Rand earlier, concerning this:

The concept of individual rights is so new in human history that most men have not grasped it fully to this day.

I think it’s critical that we remember it.

Dr. Cline believes that he has a personal “innate moral knowledge” and he “suspect(s) that others do as well,” but by stating that I think he admits that such knowledge may not be and probably is not universal. That “innate moral knowledge” is akin to Newton’s ability to develop the Calculus by his pure logic, or Einstein’s conception of the Theory of Relativity through his. These are talents that are rare in humans, and when such people apply themselves to the questions of morality, we call them “philosophers” – people like Rand, Kant, Popper, and Aristotle, and also Marx, Neitzche, and Kierkegaard. It is important to understand that when humanity is the topic, “irrational” implies much more than “the square-root of 2.”

During that long trek from band to tribe to chiefdom to state, it is arguable that the freedoms of individuals in those societies have been increasingly restricted, violated, and abrogated. In exchange, much of humanity has gone from a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” to one of wealth, comfort, and health. It is understandable, then, when we see people willing to trade their freedoms for the security of even an oppressive society, and equally understandable when others would rather not. Would you rather live as a Kalahari Bushman, or as a Russian worker under Stalin? One was unquestionably more free, but the other had indoor toilets (though probably no toilet paper.) One might be killed by a lion, the other “disappeared” by the KGB. However, we have reached a point in human development where we have begun to restore freedoms once taken away, in part because the restriction of those freedoms is no longer essential to the survival of the society, and in part because we now have the time and resources to allow philosophers to think about it, and the technology to disseminate their thoughts broadly to those not so gifted.

Dr. Cline states that “rights are simply statements of what is right and wrong”. I think that’s a bit in error. Morals are simply statements of what is right and wrong; “Thou shall not murder.” Rights are the statements of an underlying philosophy that explains why; “Each individual has a right to his own life.” Conversely, the reason (as it probably was for centuries) could be given; “The power to murder is exclusive to the State. Violation of this rule will result in the execution of the non-state murderer.” No right involved. Stay in line or get hammered down.

Dr. Cline and I agree (I think) that the one fundamental right can be defined as Rand defines it, “the right to your own life.” The problem comes from trying to ascertain what all those corollary rights are. Dr. Cline believes that there is a single, determinable objective standard of morality, based on that fundamental right and its corollaries. I don’t. The reason I don’t is because we’re talking about human beings here, and not theoretical concepts like mathematics and physics. Remember: “irrational.” What Dr. Cline is arguing is also partially what he was protesting against when he took exception to my reference to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers citation:

Starship Troopers is not the correct novel to reference – at least not unless you’re a die-hard communist or fascist. The government presented therein is a fine example of a fascist/communist nanny-state, and its subjects/slaves are clearly worshippers of Nietzsche’s “New Idol” – the state.

Yet it is from that citation that this comes:

“A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.”

That certainly sounds to me like Dr. Cline’s “objective moral standard” based on “a man’s right to his own life.” My problem is that I don’t think it’s really possible to “describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.” The equations of morality are deceivingly simple in appearance, but difficult to conceive and inherently sensitive to initial conditions. Logic can lead us down inescapable dead-end paths as it did the Moriori, if we neglect to consider that others exist who do not share our morality but to whom we try to extend it because our morality is obviously the “right” one. We see it still today in the policies of governments that try to protect their populaces by disarming them, and in nations that repeatedly attempt appeasement and accomodation when their antagonists see it as weakness and lack of will. On the converse, it is possible for logic to lead to aggression to force that “single objective standard” of morality onto others, which is what some on the Left are currently frothing at the mouth about and accusing the U.S. of doing in the Middle East (while their own attempt to subvert the current American morality for their Leftist one continues to fail), and it is what the Wahabist Jihadis are attempting – and failing – to accomplish worldwide.

In his initial comments, Dr. Cline stated:

I think what I am saying is an important point, indeed it is THE important point in the American Revolution and all of Ayn Rand’s writings. These rights are not things that can be removed; they are innate and inalienable; they are conditions of morality itself. If one TRULY believes that rights and morality are “socially constructed” the only sensible option is to join those in power (the always present “communist masters”) and claim your share of their unjustly gained loot.

I don’t believe this – I won’t DO this – and I think (I hope) the same is true of you.

This is the statement that “since thus-and-so is morally right, I will not act in violation of that moral.” In the main, this is true for me as there are acts that I will not perform even unto death. I was asked, in the comments of that original post, “Is it wrong to rape?” It is for me. There are no circumstances in which would commit it, and I believe its practice to be violative of rights and thus immoral and evil. But I recognize that this belief is not universally held. I believe, too, in that fundamental right to one’s own life, so I don’t support the idea of invading and attempting to force my morality upon those nations not so enlightened, but I have only mild objections to peacekeeping forces killing rapists out of hand when caught in the act. (The potential abuse of due process being the only one that comes immediately to mind.)

Dr. Cline also said in his last missive:

I would gather from this post that you would disagree and say that either that there is no morality, morality is meaningless (i.e. morality is just a word), or perhaps morality only exists relative to a certain society or certain people.

No. There is morality, and it is not meaningless. Nor is morality restricted to one people or society. There are MANY moralities, one for each society extant, of which the objective question is “do they work?” Do they support the continued existence of their societies? ALL societies are violative of Rand’s “one fundamental right” to some extent or another. This is the objection that the Spoonerist Anarchists have – any violation of rights, they believe, is grounds to abolish the governing force of that society. It’s an unfortunate truth, though, that societies that are coercive and violative of rights are successful and powerful and can easily overrun anarchic collectives. Because all societies are violative of the “one fundamental right,” from my pragmatic perspective only those “rights” that are generally recognized and defended by the majority of the populace are protected. Thus the premise of the original post: A “Right” is what the majority of a population believes it is. Otherwise it is not protected and may as well simply not exist.

Because man has no innate moral instinct, we are dependent on philosophers to use reason to determine what rights are actual corollaries to that one fundamental right, and to convince the rest of us as to their existence. That’s an ongoing struggle of some significance these past two thousand years or more.

I live, I believe, in a society that is the most free and most advantageous to the individual of any that has existed since tribalism supplanted free-roaming family bands of hunter-gatherers. Still, many of the freedoms that we have are severely restricted; some for survival reasons, some for reasons of societal inertia. These freedoms are being further restricted as the society ages because of the human nature of some to acquire power for the sake of wielding it, and the human nature of others to submit to such power in a search for safety.

It is not enough to believe that there is a single objective standard of morality, based on the corollaries of the fundamental right to one’s own life. It is necessary to convince others of the “rightness” of that standard and those corollaries, and to inspire them to support and defend that standard against attack by others who hold different moralities as “right.” No society currently exists based on that ideal single objective standard, and I honestly think it will be centuries – if ever- before one might. In the mean time, I believe that the basic rights first enumerated by the Founders of this nation are as close as we’ve ever gotten, and that we need to convince more of our population that they are valid and need defending. Else they may disappear as if they had never been expressed, and they will mean no more to a survivor smashing open a human thigh-bone for the marrow than would the concept of the mathematical construct; i.

This is Why I Check The Safety Valve from Time to Time.

Even though Toren has said that he’s on indefinite hiatus, he still puts up a jewel every now and then. This time it’s a graphic from Cold Fury that I must steal and post myself, just so I have a copy:

Ain’t it the truth, though?

I think I’ve found my entry for this week’s Carnival of Cordite.

Outstanding News!.

Back when I was writing at the late, lamented Themestream.com, one of the other contributors I read with much enjoyment was Tina Blue, a college professor. (Well, she’s “adjunct faculty” which means she hasn’t got a shot at tenure, which sucks when you realize that assholes like Ward Churchill get to be tenured big-shots, but dedicated, devoted teachers like Tina get the dirty end of the stick.)

Tina went on after Themestream folded to her own education-oriented website, Teacher, Teacher, and if you’re looking for some good reading material concerning education, that’s a great place to visit (and I don’t know why I haven’t added it to my blogroll under the “Dept. of Our Collapsing Schools” heading. Gotta fix that.) She’s archived most of her articles from Themestream at her site, so there’s a lot of good reading there.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I got an email from Tina this afternoon. I hadn’t heard from her in a while, so it was a pleasant surprise. Here’s what she sent me (and a bunch of others, natch):

Do you remember when everyone was so amazed at how brilliant John Kerry’s daughter Vanessa must be to win a Fulbright Fellowship to do research in England when she was a second-year medical student at Stanford University?

Well, my little daughter, who is a second-year med student at Georgetown, just won a Fulbright Fellowship to do a year of research in Ireland! In the letter she got today telling her she had won the fellowship, it said that of those who have won Fulbrights to Ireland, 35 of them are Nobel Prize winners! These Fulbrights really do go to the crème de la crème.

Sorry to be sending out a group email about this, but I am so proud that I have to tell the world.

Well, Tina, I’ve told a few more for you. Congratulations to you and your daughter. Drop me an email when she wins a Nobel!

(Damn, but I love good news!)

OK, This is Cool.

Cryptic Subterranian points to a company that does a conversion of Enfield No. 4 and No. 5 rifles from the obsolete .303 British cartridge to the modern 7.62×39 Russian using single-stack 5- or 10-round AK magazines. Why would you do this? Well, the .303 isn’t a real common round anymore, so ammunition for it tends to be on the ‘spensive side if you don’t handload. Also, the Lee-Enfield bolt action, while very slick and quick, isn’t the strongest in the world. It has locking lugs located at the rear of the action, rather than at the front near the breech, so the entire action is stressed when fired tending to cause “stretch” over time. I have a No. 5 Mk I Jungle Carbine which has stretched to the point that the headspacing is unsafe now. Enfield designed the rifle to allow for this. An armorer could reset the headspace by replacing the easily removable bolt head. Unfortunately, mine has stretched to the point that the longest bolt head available isn’t long enough. The 7.62×39 round has the same bullet diameter (.311″) as the .303, but is much less powerful, and therefore less stressful on the action. Kicks less, too. Here’s a picture of one that’s been converted:

I currently load the lightweight 125 grain .311″ bullets designed for the 7.62×39 round in my .303 brass for that reason (I have four examples of this rifle in my “arsenal” – two of which are actually shootable!), but if I can get that No. 5 rechambered for 7.62×39 with safe headspace, it would turn a wall-hanger into a shootable, fun rifle.

It’s a wee bit pricey, though.


…which seems to be the battle-cry of legislators. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune,

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called on Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to take “immediate committee action” in response to the mass school shooting at Red Lake High School.

“It is difficult for us to conceive of a more pressing public policy matter than protecting our children from school violence,” the Democrats wrote Tuesday.
The group, led by Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, identified a number of possible congressional measures, including enhanced child safety guards on guns, closing of gun law “loopholes,” renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, and limits on ammunition magazine capacity.

The Democrats also called for increased school security measures, and increased resources for state and localities to hire and retain safety officers.

Not to make this a partisan thing, but at least the Republican quoted had somewhat of a grip on reality:

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, interviewed on CNN, said he did not believe the incident could have been prevented by even “the most aggressive” gun control measures that have been proposed. He called it a “human problem.”

The Democrats fall back on their shibboleths of “gun control” and increased social spending. (Okay, I did make it a partisan thing.) But Pawlenty hits on a truth that most politicians simply want to ignore – it is a “human problem.”
There is, normally, huge social pressure to DO something!” when a horrific incident occurs. I think that’s a natural human reaction. If it’s a natural disaster, the normal reaction of many people is a desire to send aid. If it’s a criminal act, the normal reaction is to want to capture and punish the criminal. But when it’s an incident like a school shooting in which the assailant takes his own life, the urge to “do something” is in some way thwarted by the fact that the perpetrator is a child or youth, and is dead by his own hand. There is no catharsis available, no way to find any resolution. We are left with unease and a lack of closure.

I am, as any reader of this blog knows, an ardent defender of the right to arms. I am aware that the incidence of “school shootings” is a relatively recent phenomenon. This table indicates that the first of the recent incidents was in 1979. The next occurred in 1985, then two incidents in 1988, one each in 1989, 1992, and 1993, one in the U.S. and one in Scotland in 1996, two domestic and one in Yemen in 1997, seven domestic incidents in 1998, five in 1999, and so on. (Not all of the incidents listed are what I would consider “rampage” attacks, but all are disturbing.)

Gun control advocates suggest that things like “enhanced child safety guards on guns, closing of gun law ‘loopholes,’ renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, and limits on ammunition magazine capacity” are needed to prevent these incidents, but as Gov. Pawlenty points out, even the most aggressive gun control will not prevent those intent on evil from carrying out their acts. Gun control advocates blame these incidents on “gun availability,” yet when I was growing up I and most of the kids I knew “had access” to firearms and ammunition. My father had three guns, and I knew where they were and where the ammo was. Same for a lot of my friends.

We just didn’t kill each other.

I had a discussion with a co-worker back about the time of the Columbine massacre. He’d been a hell-raiser in his youth, and a self-admitted bully at times, but (to paraphrase the conversation) he was glad he was not a younger man, because:

When I was growing up, you faced each other and fought fair, and when the fight was over you were friends again – or at least you respected each other. Kicking was for girls.

Then kicking was OK.
Then kicking when the other guy was down was OK.
Then using a stick, or a brick. Then a knife. Now it’s guns.

I quit when we got to sticks.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of lethal teens out there, where there once were not. The hardware is (and has been) available. Nothing up to and including door-to-door confiscation is going to change that, and we all know that’s not going to happen, anyway. Metal detectors at school entrances won’t stop it. John Lott, among others, recommends allowing teachers to carry concealed on campus as a deterrent. I’m not a big fan of Lott, and while it’s certainly possible that some of these incidents might be averted or ameliorated, I’m not even sure that armed security will stop them. It’s tough to dissuade someone willing, nay eager to die while taking as many with him as he can.

The question most people seem to want to avoid is why we have so many lethal teens? I mentioned a few days ago that I had picked up several books, one of which is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I chose this book for one reason because it is one of the few texts that actually addresses this question. I haven’t had time to do more than scan through it, yet, but Col. Grossman appears to have a compelling argument. The book covers the human aversion to inflicting injury on another, and the intense training required to overcome this aversion in combat soldiers, along with the mechanisms involved in that training to restrict the lethality of soldiers to the battlefield. Near the end of the book, however, he looks into the rising level of violence occurring in America. (The book was copyrighted in 1995, and does not reflect the last decade of decreasing criminal violence – but I think his observation that the level of aggravated assault, i.e. assault with the intention of committing severe bodily harm, has climbed dramatically as of late is still a valid one.)

Col. Grossman states:

The three major psychological processes at work in enabling violence are classical conditioning (á la Pavlov’s dog), operant conditioning (á la B.F. Skinner’s rats), and the observation and imitation of vicarious role models in social learning.

In a kind of reverse Clockwork Orange classical conditioning process, adolescents in movie theaters across the nation, and watching television at home, are seeing the detailed, horrible suffering and killing of human beings, and they are learning to associate this killing and suffering with entertainment, pleasure, their favorite soft drink, their favorite candy bar, an the close, intimate contact of their date.

Operant conditioning firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers in modern armies, are found in the interactive video games that our children play today. But whereas the adolescent Vietnam vet had stimulus discriminators built in to ensure that he only fired under authority, the adolescents who play these video games have no such safeguard built into their conditioning.

He goes on to note the influences of gangs, drugs, poverty, etc., but this is a general observation about the general level of violence, whereas here I am focusing on the specific incidents of rampage killings in schools.

In all of these incidents the perpetrators have been social outcasts. We’ve always had social outcasts – it’s human nature, I think – but now the social outcasts aren’t just committing suicide, they’re taking their tormenters with them. I think Col. Grossman’s not far off the mark in finding that the human aversion to inflicting violence has been severely reduced by our culture, which seems to worship it. Acidman had a post yesterday on the TV classic Gunsmoke, where he noted:

I’ve kept my television tuned to “The Western Channel” for the past day and a half. They show a lot of “Gunsmoke” reruns on there, the old black-and-white episodes that I watched as a boy. Matt Dillon was my hero back when those stories first aired, but I look at his character today with different eyes.

Between yesterday and today, I counted 16 people that Matt Dillon killed. Festus threw two more into the body count. Stop and think about that for a moment.

James Arness was EXCELLENT as Matt Dillon, except for one thing. He never had the eyes of a killer. Anybody who shot as many people as he did could not sleep well at night unless he was a complete robo-cowboy, with no sense of conscience or regret.

Gunsmoke wasn’t the only western, or the only program where a lot of killing occurred, and the good guy only got “a flesh wound” at worst. The difference is, I think, is that topic I have commented on several times; the difference between violent and predatory and violent but protective. The one thing that all of these incidents share is no guiding moral hand on the shoulder of the perpetrators. There is nothing to direct them away from “violent and predatory.” Combining that with the cultural conditioning Col. Grossman describes that literally permeates our society, and that may very well explain why rampage shootings by youths are a wholly modern and far too common occurrence.

But it doesn’t bode well for any kind of solution other than arming responsible adults to avert or ameliorate the attacks.

And that isn’t “something” that the majority of the populace is going to be comfortable with.