Month: November 2016

Is This Election Different?

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When I started this blog I mentioned politics as one possible subject, but lately it seems to be the dominant subject. With the election of Trump perhaps that’s unavoidable. I have already said that I don’t know if everything will be okay, though I pointed at some early indications and structural factors which I thought looked encouraging. That was a couple of weeks ago, and you wouldn’t think that I’d already be changing my mind, but I am. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that everything won’t be okay.

First I should emphasis that this feeling is very nascent. Just a hint that things may be developing in a way I didn’t expect. Which ironically is exactly what you should expect. As I repeatedly emphasis you can’t predict the future, so, to resort to a cliche, you should expect the unexpected. Part of the reason why these developments are unexpected is that they arrive from an unexpected source. Allow me to explain. I, along with most people in America, expect to be surprised by Trump, but the feeling I’m describing has very little to do with Trump’s actions. So far he’s acting about as I figured. He’s appears to still be running his own Twitter account and making remarks that probably strike a majority of people as not being very presidential. He’s put forth some divisive figures for high level appointments (Bannon and Sessions being chief among them). Most of what he talked about on the campaign trail is still out there, though some of it has been softened, at least a little bit. In other words I see no reason, yet, to modify the assessment I made of Trump in my election post. Trump is not the reason I’m starting to think that things might not be okay. But the opposition to Trump is another matter.

Now this may sound like I’m opposed to any opposition to Trump, which I suppose if taken to it’s logical conclusion would mean that I’m a Trump supporter. Neither of these are true. I’m not opposed to opposition, I think having a vigorous debate has all manner of benefits, including better decisions, and clearer thinking in general. And if you have any doubts you can refer back to the two posts I did on freedom of speech. In other words, I think my full-throated support for freedom of speech is unambiguous.  And insofar as the opposition to Trump falls under the category of free speech, I support it. To the additional question of whether I’m a Trump supporter, I would describe my approach to Trump as more zen. There are things which happen that are beyond our ability to change. Who gets elected as president is one of those things. And freaking out about it has as much utility as freaking out about the weather. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy an umbrella.

Having come this far you may be confused. I seem to be simultaneously saying that the opposition to Trump worries me, but that also opposition is a healthy expression of freedom of speech. The resolution of this paradox is that I’m not talking about what’s happening right now I’m talking about the direction I fear things are headed. And I’m talking about when opposition moves from speech to something more concrete.

Obviously I considered the possibility that Trump might win, I would have bet against it, but the chances seemed great enough that I tried to model what it might be like. One obvious place to go when you’re attempting to understand something is to draw on past experience. And in this I was in luck. I had already lived through a time with a very unpopular conservative president who was hated by the left. His name was George W. Bush, and when I considered what the Trump presidency would be like, particularly what the liberal reaction to it would be, I figured it would look similar to opposition during the Bush presidency. It would be nasty, it would be everywhere, it would be filled with outrageous claims, and he would be the butt of basically all of the late night jokes, but after taking all of that into account, he would still be acknowledged, even if reluctantly, to be President. I should add, before continuing, that much of the criticism of Bush was completely justified, though sometimes the amount of criticism he drew for any given item appeared inversely proportional to the actual harm.  

Returning to the most recent election, it appears that things may be playing out differently. Now of course in all of this I’m trying to compare the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Not only is there the problem of distance, distortion and memory, but also in 2000 there was no Facebook, so what I consider a difference in the message my in fact be a difference in the medium. All that said, I don’t recall anyone urging people not to normalize the Bush presidency. (Of course at this point in 2000 no one was quite sure who would be president.) In 2000 people were mad about things, definitely, and there were certainly calls to get rid of the electoral college or to try and flip an elector or two. The same calls are happening now (though Hillary would need 38 faithless electors as compared to the three that Gore needed) but there is also lots of rhetoric of a kind I don’t recall hearing in 2000. Back then my feeling was that people accepted the result, they weren’t happy about it, given the chance they would have loved to impeach Bush, but they agreed that he was president, and treated him as such. I’m getting a different vibe out of things today. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”

Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.

As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.

I’ve mentioned the word “normalize” now a couple of times and this appears to be the favorite term for describing what we definitely should not be doing now that the election is over. Again, I could be misremembering or overlooking things, but this feels qualitatively different than when Bush was elected. I certainly don’t remember anyone criticizing Gore when he finally conceded for being too nice. And a search around the terms “george bush” and “normalize” brings up hardly anything, while doing the same search on Trump brings up all the articles I already linked to plus thousands more. In other words, in answer to the question posed in the blog title, this election is starting to appear qualitatively different than even the hotly contested 2000 election.

But what are people hoping to achieve when they warn against any attempts to normalize Trump? And how is this different than the derision and hate that Bush was subjected to? This is where we start to get into the realm of speculation, and as I’ve have said, it’s just a feeling, I could easily be wrong, but it also represents a hypothesis, something that should be kept out and occasionally compared against reality to see if the events and facts which have developed in the interim support this theory or are pointing in a different direction.

In any case, as I read it, when people caution against treating either Trump or his presidency as normal they are make a judgement call that he is so bad that extraordinary measures are called for. Extraordinary measures like seceding. I already mentioned the idea of California seceding in my post about the election, but in this context it seems like yet another way that this election is different. Of course, you might retort, that Texas was talking of seceding long before California and mostly in response to Obama (though they did pre-emptively bring up the threat again as a possible response to Clinton winning.) This fact doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. And opens up the idea that it’s not just the election of Trump that is different but that things are moving in an alarming direction, possibly even in the absence of Trump.

So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that this election is different than the 2000 election. Trump’s presidency will be more divisive and uglier than Bush’s and it’s becoming apparent that the level of push-back and rage is greater than any modern election. Of course the divisiveness and outrage is not greater than in any previous election. Perhaps when I mentioned the potential secession of Texas and California your mind already went in this direction, but if you’re looking for a more divisive election I would direct you to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Indisputably that election was more divisive, but comparing this election to the election of 1860 should not bring any comfort, and in fact this is the situation that has been gnawing away at the edge of my consciousness.  

Libertarians are fond of talking about how every law ever passed is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel. In a similar fashion at some point if two groups just can’t agree, then, ultimately, the issue is going to be decided by force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the best known of all the Supreme Court justices, said as much:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.

Historically this is how it has been. All important issues have ultimately been decided by the shedding of blood. Recent history is an anomaly, and not even much of an anomaly if you consider what’s currently taking place in Syria. However if we restrict ourselves to just the US, we still only have to go back as far as the Civil War, before we see the roll of bloodshed in deciding between two inconsistent worldviews.

Insofar as things aren’t decided by bloodshed, it’s because we have replaced that idea with the idea of settling issues through the will of the people and the rule of law, but if you decide that this time, with this election, that you’re no longer going to follow the system (and I’m aware that Clinton won the popular vote, but recall that’s not the system) then you’re implicitly opting to decide things by force. Perhaps you disagree, and think that this one time you can ignore the results of the system, achieve the desired outcome of keeping Trump from being President, and that everything will be fine. If this is what you’re thinking I would say that at best this line of thinking is delusional and at worst it’s deadly. Things are decided either by force or by the rule of law, there’s not some hidden third option. If you abandon the rule of law than, you’re choosing force, even if you don’t realize it.  Which is not to say that this automatically means a second Civil War, but you’re definitely entering into uncharted territory, where at a minimum things are going to be decided by the threat of force.

You may counter that civil society is already only maintained by the threat of force. However, by making laws which restrict and codify the use of force, we greatly minimize its use. Which is not to say that force isn’t sometimes, or even often, used in an inconsistent and unfair manner. The rule of law isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative methods, particularly when you’re talking methods which have historically been used for deciding who is going to be king (or in our case president).

To return to the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote are we dealing with two groups who both want a different kind of world? Do we have Texas secessionists on one side and California secessionists on the other? Does the election of Trump mark the beginning of a permanent split between those two worlds? These are the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.

You can judge for yourself whether there’s anything to worry about, whether we’re seeing the beginning of a great schism or whether things will eventually normalize over the objections of a vocal minority. In case it’s not clear, my own opinion is that it’s far too early to tell, though some of the trends are worrying.

For the rest of the post I want to focus on what to do if this is in fact what’s happening. What are the current remedies if we’ve finally reached a point past which no compromise is possible? If our current course is leading us to either a giant secession crisis, or worse still a second Civil War, is there some way to avoid that?

As usual I offer the caveat that individually there’s very little we can do about politics or the weather, and probably the best course of action is to make sure you have an adequate stock of umbrellas. That said it’s still a subject worth discussing.

To start let’s examine our options if we decide that our highest value is to keep the country together. This was basically the thinking during the Civil War so there is some precedent for it. If this is what we decide then we have three possible strategies.

The first strategy is that of the status quo. Sure there are currently some disagreements, and some anger. But perhaps rather than looking all the way back to the Civil War, a better example is the Civil Rights Era. And a better analogy for the 2016 election is the 1968 election, the last time a third party candidate won any electoral votes. Times seemed pretty tumultuous then as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the country was convulsed with race riots. It appeared that the gains made by the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be overturned, and yet, even though Nixon was elected President the country stayed together, the wounds eventually healed and we made it through. Under this strategy, perhaps you agree that things look ugly, but you don’t think any major changes need to be made. Everything will eventually work itself out, the rule of law and compromise will eventually win out in the end

But what if you pursue this strategy and it doesn’t work out? The rifts keep widening, things get worse. States vote to secede, and the country starts breaking apart. This brings us to our second strategy, if you can’t keep things together by the normal methods then the only other alternative is to keep things together through force, and just like in 1861 you go to war. In other words this isn’t exactly a different strategy, but an extension of the status quo, let’s-keep-everything-together strategy. Which further means that if the initial, trust-in-the-status-quo strategy doesn’t work out then you might very well find yourself in a situation where bloodshed is the only option. I would hope that there would be no bloodshed, but if you really are intent on keeping the two worlds together, whether your goal is to preserve the union or to dictate a set of laws and policies to an unwilling minority, then eventually it will come to bloodshed.

If you have doubts about the status quo, and if you don’t like the idea of a second Civil War, then you probably aren’t thrilled with either of the first two options, and you may be eager to hear what the third strategy is for keeping the country together. I’ve already said that there are two ways to decide something, you can decide things through the use of force or you can decide them via a system of law. If we reject force then we have to do something about the system. Right now the system is dominated by the federal government. The bulk of the tax burden is determined at the federal level, as is environmental regulation, discrimination laws, the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, not to mention educational standards, healthcare and entitlements. In that list there’s a lot for California and Texas to disagree about, but what if there wasn’t. It’s interesting and ironic that so much is determined by the “federal” government, because under a truly federal system you would expect most of the aforementioned issues to be decided at the state level, which would allow California and Texas to be different, but that’s not the case.

An argument about whether federalism is actually dead, is beside the point. Whether federalism has died or just evolved, the point is not to argue semantics, but to figure out ways in which Texas and California could both exist in the same nation without Texas seceding if Clinton is elected and California seceding when Trump get’s elected. And more importantly to keep the country together without having to resort to force. I know that for many people the idea of allowing individual states to make their own environmental regulations, their own decision on same sex marriage, and their own labor laws is terrifying, but is it more terrifying than going to war in order to just have one standard for all those things? I personally think that, when the total number of deaths is taken into account, it may have been a mistake to not just let the South secede, but if we were going to have a big war over something at least the elimination of slavery was a cause worth fighting for. Are the issues which divide us today similarly important? I’m personally not willing to have my son’s fight and possible die in a war to keep either California or Texas in the country. And I assume a lot of people feel similarly.

This brings us to the final possible strategy. The strategy to pursue if preserving the USA isn’t your highest goal. This strategy might be most usefully described as the right of exit. If California wants to leave, then let them, same with Texas, same with New Jersey. Obviously this may mean that some people aren’t as happy being in Texas as they once were when the Texas was obligated to follow all the federal regulations. They should have a right of exit as well. I don’t know that the right of exit has a corresponding right of entry (a topic which is already controversial), but I assume that it would work itself out. Of course this would be an experiment on a massive scale, and who knows what would happen, though Europe may provide a preview of this process if things continue to head the way they’ve been.

Of all the strategies I think a return to a greater degree of federalism and state autonomy would work out best in the long run. Not only is this what the founders had in mind, but I think it provides the best trade off between joining the two different kinds of worlds, while avoiding most of the chaos occasioned by a completely break up of the United States. That said of all the possible strategies I’ve described it may be the most difficult to actually implement. Rolling back the trend of a century is unquestionably more difficult than just maintaining the status quo, and probably more difficult than the other two options as well.

This post has engaged in a lot of speculation, and as with many things I write about hopefully none of this will happen. Hopefully, the status quo will work, Trump will be a great president, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. If I had to guess, I think we’ll survive the Trump presidency without having to worry about a second civil war, or states seceding, or whether we should have been trying to restore federalism this whole time. But even if we do, I don’t like the direction things are headed.


Freedom of Religion in 2016

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As is often the case, over the last few posts you may have lost track of the fact that this is ostensibly a religious blog. Well it is, though it might be one of those, if someone accused you of being a religious blogger would there be enough evidence to convict you? I’m sure one of the points which might be used against me is the fact that, before my last post about the election, I spent two posts talking about the first amendment, without any discussion of freedom of religion. What kind of religious blogger is more interested in freedom of speech than freedom of religion? Well in this post I intend to correct that. I think part of the reason why I tackled speech first is that it’s easier. People may disagree with my argument that it’s the best defense against authoritarianism, but the argument is not unreasonable on its face. Also there is not a group of people who feel that free speech is at best a collection of superstitions which should be gutted, if it’s allowed to survive at all, and at worst the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened. Those arguments have been used with respect to religion, which makes defending freedom of religion an entirely different endeavor. Basically it’s hard to argue that the existence of atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics doesn’t complicate things.  For example you’ll note (speaking of atheists and agnostics) that there are no similar terms for people who don’t believe in free speech, except maybe dictator.

Even for people who aren’t atheists or agnostics, part of the muddiness comes from what people consider freedom of religion, and along with that, what counts as an attack on that freedom. True freedom of religion can include things far more concrete than the right to say what you want without fear of censorship. As the old children’s rhyme goes:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

This is largely true, especially from a legal standpoint, if a group of people surrounds someone and yells at them, you might find that behavior annoying, you might even find it appalling, but you’re unlikely to think that those people should be arrested, and if they are, you would be surprised if they were held for more than a day or two. However, if a group of people surrounds someone and stones them to death (as recommended by at least two religions) you would expect a lot of arrests. Now obviously not all examples of religious freedom involve stones and dying, but even a comparatively mild example like not baking someone a cake involves something more concrete than just words. Putting freedom of religion in a significantly different place than freedom of speech.

I’ve mentioned the negative opinions of atheists and agnostics, and maybe someday they’ll succeed at eliminating religion entirely (similar to the Soviet Union and we all know how well that worked out.) But is freedom of religion currently under attack? Unlike with freedom of speech, where you need look no farther than a college campus to see things that, while technically legal, meet no one’s ideal of free speech, freedom of religion is trickier. One commonly cited example of freedom of religion being under attack is the persecution of Christians. (See the aforementioned reference to cake baking.) But there is disagreement on how prevalent or consequential this persecution actually is. With some people going so far as to declare the entire thing a myth. I don’t think it’s a myth, and this post will largely be an argument in favor of it’s existence.

When considering whether freedom of religion is being restricted, two things should be kept in mind. First, to refer briefly back to the Constitution, what it actually says is that the free exercise of the religion shall not be prohibited. The term “free exercise” strikes me as a higher standard than making sure religions aren’t persecuted. Second, it’s important to clarify that religious persecution can take many forms and operate on many levels. If my examples of persecution just took the form of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, saying mean things about Christians, then this wouldn’t be much of a post. Dawkins, in particular, has been so abrasive recently that he has started to alienate even his fans. If I was going to write a post built around outrageous things Dawkins said, I’d be joining a pretty crowded field, and I would have to share whatever sympathy I could muster with thousands of others.

But I think that persecution is broader than just hard-core skeptics and atheists, and I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t think it existed, in fact I not only think it exists, but I think that it’s a bigger and more widespread problem than most people realize. This is not that uncommon, lots of times big problems aren’t that obvious, or at least their obviousness is frequently not directly correlated to their severity. Some people will claim that lead exposure explains nearly all the social ills that have afflicted America since the time of Columbus (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration). For my part I’d be surprised if lead exposure was quite as consequential as all that, but I would definitely agree that it had an impact far out of proportion to its obviousness. The persecution of religion is in a similar category. A non-obvious problem that’s bigger than people think. Which is not to say that it’s non-obvious to everyone. In the same way that some people have been warning about lead for decades, other people have been warning about religious persecution for just as long.

Maybe you are one of these people, perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but if you’re not, and religious persecution isn’t apparent, what should you be looking for? How am I going to convince you that it’s as big a problem as I say it is? These are all excellent questions, but before we get to them it would help to establish some background by looking at three theories of religion:

Theory number one: God exists and religion is how we interact with him.

This theory of religion was dominant for most of human history. It hypothesizes that there is a God (or Gods) and that one or more of the religions on the earth reflect some greater or lesser portion of God: his divinity, his unchanging truths, or his eternal plan. Most adherents to this theory also believe in some form of afterlife, of infinite duration and happiness, meaning that whatever we do that doesn’t qualify us for this afterlife is a waste of time. Under this theory we shouldn’t be merely promoting freedom of religion the whole point of man should be religion. Freedom of religion, and by extension giving people the ability to find God, isn’t a nice policy it’s the only policy worth having period. Of course there is an alternative to freedom of religion under this theory, if you’re certain that you have the correct religion, then (if God doesn’t object, which he might) you can just make everyone be that religion. This particular scenario of dictating a single religion will be discussed in more depth later.

Theory number two: Religion is stupid

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that God doesn’t exist, and not only does he not exist, but religion is superstitious garbage created by the brain’s over-active pattern matching and it’s garbage that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. The most visible adherents to this theory are the every-bad-thing-which-ever-happened-can-be-blamed-on-religion people, who feel that religion is similar to drinking, something they probably can’t prohibit (and attempts to do so have turned out badly), but which at best is a necessary evil and if we can get people to not do anything important while under it’s influence (to continue the drinking metaphor) everyone would be a lot better off. But in addition to these people we should also include those people who may even have some belief in God, but believe religion to be a waste of time and an annoying topic of conversation; not actively harmful, but not beneficial either, perhaps in their minds it’s similar to World of Warcraft, potentially an amusing diversion, but otherwise pointless.

Theory number three: Religion is just the accumulated culture and traditions of a given society.

Under theory three religion is neither the primary point of our existence, or a vestigial remnant of a superstitious past, and despite being neither of those things it is nevertheless unavoidable. If you have a society you’re going to have a religion, perhaps many of them, but ideas and traditions, taboos and beliefs don’t exist in isolation. They’re always going to end up bundled into a package of some sort. Some people want to label the packages which have been around for a long time as religions, and more recent packages as science, but not only is that division arbitrary, it gives unfair precedence to the science side of things, when, if anything it should be reversed. Societies don’t accumulate culture and traditions as a hobby, they accumulate them because they work. Science works as well (replication crisis aside) but even the best results in social science (the closest parallel to religion) have been arrived at by testing a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Religion is the distilled results of testing millions of people over thousands of years.

I know there are people who will reject this assertion outright, but if you take a moment to engage in some hard thinking, than this idea makes more sense than saying religion is stupid. If that were the case why isn’t the world dominated by non-religious societies and civilizations? Instead, not only is religion universal, but certain taboos, like the taboo against extramarital sex, turn out to have been present in most religions. I discussed this in far more depth in a previous post. But in short you can either accept that religion is universal and useful, or you can assert that all cultures went slightly mad in a very similar way.

Interestingly accepting theory number three doesn’t necessarily preclude theory number one, religion could exist as an extension of God’s existence, at the same time providing a useful store of accumulated wisdom (in the ideal case this would be God’s wisdom). However theory three is incompatible with theory two. For adherents of theory two their modern ideology is an entirely different thing than an ancient religion like Christianity or Islam. But if you believe theory number three, then modern ideologies are just another religion, one that could be better, but also could be a lot worse than the traditional religions.

Of course outside of these three theories, there are obviously many people who hold no theory of religion. Without being able to access people’s deepest thoughts it’s difficult to know how many people there are who truly have no opinion, but there are almost certainly people who really don’t give it much thought one way or the other, except to be annoyed when the Mormon missionaries show up at their door.

With the three theories of religion in place, let’s look at religious persecution through the lens of each theory. Examining persecution by way of the first theory is fairly straightforward. If there is a God and he’s commanded us to do X, and if we do we’ll receive some manner of infinite reward, anything which keeps us from doing X is essentially infinite harm. Now I personally think things can get screwy once you start tossing around infinities, and also I certainly believe that there is a continuum of acts. Preventing someone from praying in school is obviously less egregious than preventing them from praying period. And destroying all the LDS temples would be of greater harm than just banning the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. But still, in essence, any infringement on religious rights under theory number one is pretty bad, and while you may not see same-sex marriage or abortion as an infringement on anyone’s rights, in fact you might view it as a huge expansion in rights. It is certainly conceivable that a religious person might nevertheless view it differently. The same could be said for widespread acceptance of extramarital promiscuity, and the deluge of pornography. The standard argument is that no one is forcing you to engage in same-sex marriage, have an abortion, be promiscuous or view pornography, but all of these things make it much more difficult to for people live their religion and make it particularly difficult for them to raise their children to be religious. Which under theory number one is the whole point of life, meaning that religious persecution is pervasive, ongoing, and unlikely to do anything but get worse if you view things through the lens of the first theory.

To be clear I’m not advocating that this theory should be the dominant theory for interpreting freedom of religion under the first amendment, though it’s arguable that it was the dominant theory for most of the country’s existence. I’m just illustrating how, if this is the theory you’re operating under, persecution and infringement are everywhere.

Under the second theory of religion, the idea that it’s stupid, almost nothing counts as persecution. I mean if you can still meet in your special building once a week and talk about your crazy ideas concerning the existence of a supreme being, for whom no proof exists, then what else is there to complain about? I mean obviously if you do certain ridiculous things like have more than one wife we’re going to smack you down, cause that’s not freedom of religion, that’s insanity. I mean the whole thing is insane, but since we can’t outright prohibit it, we’ll continue to let you meet once a week, and I guess if you want to volunteer at a food kitchen or at a disaster site from time to time that’s cool too, but don’t give us any of this crazy bigoted stuff about same sex marriage being wrong or abortion being murder.

In other words, defining persecution under the first two theories is easy, in the first, persecution is everywhere and in the second persecution is nowhere. Understandably this has made discussion between the two sides difficult. Of course it’s a gross oversimplification to assume that there are just two sides, there are dozens, but hopefully you can see that where you stand on freedom of religion could in large part be determined by what you think the point of religion is.

It’s when we turn to the third theory that things get more difficult and more interesting. If religion is the accumulated cultural wisdom of the ages, there should be significant deference given to those points on which most religions agree (see extramarital sex above). On issues where one religion has something to say and other religions are silent (say the consumption of pork), religions should be given wide latitude since there’s a good chance that there may be wisdom in one religion which could profitably be shared with the society at large. Of course this is not going to eliminate ideological competition, but insofar as we can make it ideological and not violent competition, that would be preferable. In this respect freedom of religion bears a strong resemblance to freedom of speech, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re both in the First Amendment.

Just as speech loses most of it’s value if there is only one viewpoint, religion is subject to all manner of abuses if there is only one religion, particularly if that religion is state-sponsored. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with this potential for abuse, and had seen religion morph from accumulated cultural wisdom into a tool for the powerful to oppress their enemies (the tendency largely responsible for creating adherents to theory two.) Having some guidelines which help society run better is one thing, burning your enemies at the stake is quite another. But the founders could still distinguish between the state acting in the guise of religion and religion free from the influence of the state, and that’s what they tried to encourage.

As you can see theory three leads us to a place that looks very similar to what the founders probably intended, though possibly by a different route. And we end up with two principles for defining religious freedom. The first principle is that freedom of religion should be similar to freedom of speech, with some additional deference for tradition, and the second principle being that we should avoid dominance by a single religion, particularly a state sponsored one.

For most of the country’s history I would argue that these two principles were largely taken for granted. Which is not to say that there weren’t ideological disagreements like anti-catholicism (and that could be viewed as a reaction against domination by a single religion, rather than the opposite) but largely things went pretty smoothly. One of the biggest tests of religious freedom came with polygamy. Which the Supreme Court eventually decided was not covered by the First Amendment. We don’t have the space to jump into that briar patch, but it is important to note that it was prohibited largely because it didn’t match with what people viewed as traditional religion, particularly traditional Christianity. There’s a big debate about whether the recent ruling on same sex marriage will eventually lead to polygamy being legal, but it’s certain that if the issue does come before the Supreme Court that arguments involving what’s “traditional” will play a much smaller role than they did in Reynolds v. United States the original 1878 case which outlawed polygamy for good.

With these two principles in place we can finally consider what religious freedom looks like under theory three. Let’s start with the idea that freedom of religion should look like freedom of speech, with a bias towards traditional religious values. On this count I would have to say that things are not going very well. Regardless of where you stand on the issues I would hope that you could agree that there has never been a time more hostile to expressions of support for traditional religions particularly expressing traditional religious opposition to stuff like extramarital sex, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. Now to be fair this power balance has only recently flipped, and so it may seem like gay individuals still get more grief than people arguing against same sex marriage. In this era of flux it’s possible that both sides are getting a fair amount of censure and hate, ideally neither would.

Turning to the principle that we should be wary of having a single dominant religion, I think we’re doing poorly there as well. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Religion of Progress, but I would argue that it is currently the dominant religion and de facto state-sponsored to boot. Though there would be a lot of people who would deny that it’s a religion. Combined with what I mentioned above the Religion of Progress is crowding out the practice, doctrine and even discussion of traditional religions.

I can certainly imagine that I’m wrong about all of this and all traditional religions need to be supplanted by the Religion of Progress, but even so is it really wise to have all our eggs in one basket? Is it really wise to dismiss everyone who came before us as stupid and superstitious? Are you really so confident that religions have nothing to teach us? That it’s fine if they are pounded down to the point where they barely resemble religions?

I’ve spent over three thousand words illustrating my view of how freedom of religion should be interpreted and whether religious persecution exists. But perhaps in all of the twists and turns the totality of the argument wasn’t clear, so in a somewhat glib summation, which should not take the place to the thousands of words which preceded, here is my argument:

There are three ways of looking at religion. Viewing religion as stupid and valueless (theory two) is, well, stupid. Both of the other viewpoints would strongly suggest that we treat traditional religions and traditional norms with a large degree of respect. In the last few decades we’ve decided against that. This is a mistake.


I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election

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You may be familiar with the website Cracked. I spend more time on it than I should, and I definitely have a dysfunctional relationship with it. Sometimes I think it’s the worst clickbait site out there, more information free than even Buzzfeed. Other times, while still annoyed by their tendency to split test their titles until the most sensational, least accurate title wins out, I think they might actually have some interesting articles. This may seem like a strange way to start a post about the election, but it’s going somewhere.

In the wake of the election Cracked had an article, titled Dear White People Stop Saying Everything Will Be Okay (though by the time you get to it it may be titled “Five Reassuring Things White People Say (that are pure B.S.)”). And in case you didn’t know it, I am white. And I’m going to follow this injunction. I’m not going to tell you that everything will be okay. How could I possibly know that? In fact the theme of this blog is that things are not going to be okay (and certainly that they’re not going to be okay in the absence of God, for my non-religious friends this is the first and last religious reference.) If you want to be told that everything will be okay I would point you at the recent article from Wait but Why. If you’d rather stick with someone who has no illusions about his ability to predict the future you’re in the right place.

To be frank, Trump could end up being a horrible president. He could not only be as bad as people thought, he could be worse. He could be the person most responsible for the eventual destruction of the planet, whether through a full on exchange of nukes with Russia, or something more subtle. But, once you start talking about things that could happen, then in the end Clinton also could be and do all those things, in fact there are credible arguments that Clinton could have been even more likely to do some of those things.

We just don’t know. We guess; we estimate; we might even create models to predict what will happen, and coincidently enough, we just got a great example of how models and predictions can be wrong, really wrong. So the first thing I want to talk about is the pre-election predictions, because everyone recognizes that they were wrong, and yet now, both people who are enthusiastic about the election and people who are devastated by the election are making pre-presidency predictions, without recognizing that these predictions are even more likely to be wrong than the pre-election ones. At least the predictions about who would win the election were based on lots of data and dealing with a very narrow question. On the other hand, how Trump will be as president is a huge question with very little data. So yeah, I’m not going to say that everything will be okay because I don’t know, and neither does anyone else really.

As I said remembering how wrong the polls were can help us have some perspective on how wrong we might be about a Trump presidency (and remember we could be wrong in either direction). I should pause before I discuss the predictions and, in the interest of full disclosure, mention that there is definitely some schadenfreude going on here, not because I really wanted Trump to win, but because as someone who is constantly pointing out the difficulty of predicting the future, when someone smugly does just that and ends up being really wrong, it does give me a certain amount of validation. In any event my favorite example of being really wrong is is Sam Wang from the Princeton Election Consortium, who gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning the election. This is bad enough, but then outlets like Wired and DailyKos decided to double down and not only hail the genius of Sam Wang, but dismiss Nate Silver as an idiot. Now of course Silver was wrong as well, but he was a lot less wrong. To take a more limited example Matt Grossman of Michigan State said that Clinton was ahead by 19 points in Michigan, a state that Trump won. This wasn’t months ago, this was a week before the election. (Perhaps, one clue that it was wrong should have been the fact that in the same poll Gary Johnson was getting 11% of the vote.)

In their defense people like Wang and Silver will argue that the polls were not off by that much. Nate Silver posted an article about how if only 1 person in 100 had switched votes Clinton would have easily won. What this amounts to is that the polls were off by 2%, which is not that much, and the sort of thing that could slip in unnoticed, and be due to any of a 100 different factors operating in isolation or in combination.This is totally fair, but it doesn’t matter if the polls were only off by 0.1% or if Trump’s margin of victory was only 537 votes. (As was the case with Bush, another person who won the election but lost the popular vote.) He still gets 100% of the presidency. Most things are like this, a tiny error in some part of our calculations can still have huge consequences. In this sense it doesn’t matter if the odds of a Clinton presidency were 65.1% or 65.2% the key thing was for them to be right about who would actually win, and everyone (or at least mostly everyone) was wrong about that.

Before leaving our discussion of polling I’d like to point out one final thing. Yes, a tiny switch in the voting and the nation would be having a very different discussion right now, but as Andrew Gelman, a noted statistician, points out there are two ways to view the election. The first way to view it, is as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew Tuesday morning. The second way is to view it as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew when the race first started. Under the first view Trump’s victory was not that unlikely, despite what Sam Wang said. Under the second view it was fantastically unlikely. Gelman points out that a lot of the shock people are feeling is based on still being stuck in the second view, the probability of him going all the way.

Being stuck in the second view obviously causes problems, but for the moment I’d like to look at how we got from here to there. How did something which seemed so unlikely when Trump first announced his candidacy (One commentator said he was more likely to play in the NBA finals than win the nomination) end up being our reality on November 9th?

Obviously this is not the first attempt at an explanation, pundits have had essentially no other job since Trump entered the race than explaining and/or dismissing his rise, but I’d like to focus on two explanations which I don’t think got much play, but may be more significant than people realized.

I know a fair number of political junkies and as you can imagine there was a lot of discussion in the aftermath of the election. One comment in particular jumped out at me, from one of my more liberal friends, he mentioned that there is a history in the US, going all the way back to the revolution, of saying “Screw you, I do what I want!” And that’s what this looked like to him. In response I pointed out that in order for that to happen that someone had to be trying to tell them what to do, and in my opinion that was one of the overlooked factors. All the individuals telling people how evil they were for even thinking about voting for Trump. Everyone seems to agree that Clinton lost some voters when called half of Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables, but what about when the Huffington Post decided to add the following to all of their articles:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Did that hurt or help Trump? And is it possible that the net effect of Joss Whedon getting all his rich friends together to record a video (which I enjoyed by the way) was to create more Trump voters, while convincing no one new to vote for Clinton?

I am not saying that any one of these things was enough to push the election to Trump, but together, to borrow a term from the other side, they created a climate of badgering, smugness and disapproval. Was it enough to swing the election? Hard to say, but as we saw above it was very close, so if this hectoring created any net Trump voters (particularly in the state of Pennsylvania) then it may very well have been what pushed it over the top. I think it certainly created the nucleus of hard-core supporters that got him the nomination and kept him in the race.

I said that this didn’t get much play, and that was true before the election. Now that the election is over lots of people are pointing it out. So far I’ve seen articles about the Unbearable Smugness of the Press, another commentator saying Trump was elected (and the Brexit happened) because people were tired of being labeled as bigots and racists, and finally Reason Magazine saying that Trump won because political correctness inspired a terrifying backlash. Perhaps you feel that Trump, and anyone who voted for him, is racist, and that regardless of whether it’s going to cost Clinton the election, it’s still important to point it out, that’s certainly your right, but in the long run it might be more effective for your candidate to win.

The second explanation I’d like to look at might be called the, “what’s good for the goose” explanation. And this goes beyond the election into the presidency, but let’s start with the election, in particular voting as a racial block. Much has been made of the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump, despite his apparent misogyny. And some are even saying that because of this obvious racism that white women sold out the world. But at the same time you read about people who are shocked that Latinos didn’t vote in greater numbers and that up to 29% of them may have actually voted for Trump. But then another article comes along and assures us that no, it’s okay, Latinos did vote as a block and only 18% of them voted for Trump. This is not new of course, minorities have been voting as a block for a long time. It’s expected, but it was also expected that whites wouldn’t vote as a block, but why?

I’m not going to get into whether it’s right or wrong to vote as a racial block, it’s one of those intersections of a lot of different principles (charity, justice, equality, etc.) where things get really muddy. But no one should be surprised if after decades of urging blacks and latinos to view the election in terms of race, that at least some whites start viewing it in terms of race as well. And you don’t even have to imagine some grand conspiracy for this to happen. Most people vote based on their perceived self interest, not on what’s best for the world, and it’s not inconceivable that these interests will align in a way that looks racial, even if that race is white.

This gets into the subject of those tactics, which seem great if your side is the only one using them, but aren’t so great when the other side starts using them. And here we move from talking about the election to talking about Trump’s presidency.

Regardless of your opinion on whether Trump will make a good president or a bad president. It is certainly true that recent developments will make him a more consequential president than he might otherwise have been. I already talked about how dangerous the temptation is to restrict free speech because not only is it the best protection against a bad leader, but you can create tools to use while you’re in power which then backfire on you when you’re out of power. There are lots of examples of expanded executive powers which fit this model. Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcasts talks a lot about this. He’s particularly worried about surveillance powers and executive orders. I’m more interested in the Supreme Court. There are a lot of things where liberals couldn’t wait for public opinion to catch up and so they relied on the courts to change them, but now that the court has done that, they can reverse it, and they can do it even if, in the interim, public opinion has caught up.

Also, with the Supreme Court acting more and more as the de facto rulers of the whole country, I know that there are a lot of Republicans out there who voted for Trump just because they didn’t want Clinton appointing four justices. That was their single issue, and they ignored or held their nose about everything else.  Combine this with Dan Carlin’s list of concerns, and a federal bureaucracy that’s more powerful than ever, and if Trump is going to be a bad President he’s going to have a lot more tools at his disposal than he otherwise would have. In short, people arguing for limited government weren’t always doing it because they’re jerks. (I mean sometimes they were, but not always.) They may have genuinely recognized the danger and the fragility that comes from too much centralization.

As I’ve said, I don’t know what will happen under a Trump Presidency. He could be good, he could be horrible, he could be worse than horrible, but before ending I’ll run through what I think might happen in a half dozen different areas:

First, let’s start with immigration. This is one area where Trump took a lot of heat and got a lot of support. I have seen some Trump defenders say that he’s going to walk back some of his more extreme comments when he’s President. And if you look at his plan for the first 100 days it does appear that he might be doing that, at least somewhat. There is no mention of deporting everyone who’s here illegally or banning all Muslims (the word Muslim doesn’t appear anywhere in the plan). Combine this with the normal difficulties of getting things done in Washington and  his immigration policy may be less draconian than people feared.

Second, another place where people are scared is LGBT rights. Despite the expansion of executive power I don’t know that there’s a lot he can do here outside of getting the Supreme Court to undo the blanket legalization for same sex marriage. (And remember that all the Supreme Court can do is send it back to the states, where, one could argue, it should have been in the first place.) Also from what I can tell Trump’s social conservative urges are nearly non-existent. Certainly nothing about this appears in his plan for the first 100 days nor was the idea that prominent in his campaign. That said if he manages to appoint four conservative justices there’s no telling what they might do. But of all the Republicans in the primaries I think Trump was the most socially liberal.

Third, people also seem to be worried about whether Trump will keep abortion legal. This is another area where Trump doesn’t seem to have strong feelings, but a court with four Trump justices could still reverse Roe vs. Wade (and once again remember this just moves it back to the states.) For whatever reason this strikes me as more likely. For one, Roe v. Wade is considered a poorly constructed ruling even by some people who support it, plus it appears to have been bubbling to the top more in the last few years. Despite all this I still don’t think it’s going to happen, but I think we’ll actually see a substantial challenge.

Now that we’ve covered the relatively mundane topics, topics where there’s almost certainly going to be some noise made, we can move on to what we might term black swans.

In the fourth position, and our first black swan is something which is definitely going to make some noise, the question is whether it’s going to go anywhere. I’m talking about California seceding.  What was once the cause of a few thousand hardcore supporters is now being seriously considered. The consensus is that to do it cleanly would require a constitutional amendment. But historically it’s far more common for a nation to break apart through bloodshed and war than through a vote, though I doubt the Californians have the stomach for that, but probably neither do the rest of us. When I consider the difficulties I think more likely than either a specifically Californian Constitutional Amendment or war would, be an amendment making it easier for any state to leave. Or alternatively a new Constitutional Convention, which is actually something provided for in the Constitution.

For numbers five and six we’ll finally deal with the two greatest fears cited by opponents of Donald Trump: dictatorship and nuclear war. I’m not sure how to evaluate the possibility of a dictatorship. I mean obviously it is possible, I just don’t immediately see how to get from here to there, but I’ll see what I can come up with. Let’s start with the premise that dictatorship requires some kind of force, and while force can be applied without guns, eventually if you really want to get someone to do something guns are going to enter into the equation at some point. So who has guns? Obviously the military does, also in the US there is a vast stock of guns in private ownership, and then there’s the police. But if it came to it private gun owners (if unified) are a bigger deal than the police, but the military is a bigger deal than them all. Thus, to exercise force you need to control one level and the levels above you need to be sidelined. For example it’s sufficient to control the police if both military and private gun owners are uninvolved, which is, broadly speaking, the situation we have now. But if someone controls the military it doesn’t matter how many cops or private citizens oppose him. And Trump does, sort of, control the military now, but he can’t just immediately declare martial law, the military would tell him to go suck it. He needs an excuse. Perhaps the War on Terror. Perhaps the war against California after they secede. But regardless of the excuse it has to be a big enough excuse to derail the normal process of elections. And that’s where I have a hard time seeing how to get from here to there. But perhaps I just lack imagination on this front.

As far as Trump controlling the nukes. This worries me too. If the worry is just all out nuclear war with Russia, he actually worries me slightly less than Clinton did. The other possibility for all out war is China and here he’s kind of a black box, though it’s widely understood that China prefered Trump, for whatever that’s worth. Where Trump concerns me more is in the area of using tactical nukes, say in the Middle East somewhere. I this front I’m not sure what warnings or consolation to offer. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

And of course that’s the primary advice I have, wait and see. There should definitely be some red lines even for those people who think Trump is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But these red lines should always be there for every President. And by red lines I mean acts by Trump that should cause us to take to the streets with signs and shouting and if necessary, man the barricades. Red lines like if he starts abusing the power of military, or if he starts censoring people, or if he tries to pack the Supreme Court, or most especially if he tries to start messing with the election. Of course there are a lot of small steps between where we are and General Trump, Dictator for Life, Beloved and Eternal Leader. And it’s important that, unlike the frog, we don’t allow ourselves to be slowly boiled. But based on what I’ve seen on social media and the news since Tuesday I have no doubt that there will always be people willing to call out Trump the minute he tries to raise the temperature.


The Value of Free Speech

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.