When Jihad Isn’t About Religion

2014-08-28 When Jihad Isn't About Religion

One of the rallying cries of the New Atheists was that–as 9/11 shows–religion isn’t just harmlessly irrational. It’s dangerous.

The logic seemed clear: the more devoutly you believe in God the more likely you are to go and do something violent, stupid, or both in the name of God’s will. The logic was wrong. As the New Statesman reports:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? … Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

This isn’t just speculation or–worse still–some kind of PC effort to protect the reputation of Islam from its own adherents. As it turns out, this conclusion is the same one that was reached by the behavior scientists at MI5:

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”

But that’s not even the most interesting finding. This is: The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

In other words: if young, budding terrorists were more religious, they’d be less likely to be terrorists. Terrorism is primarily a socio-political response to insecurity, insecurity that a deep and abiding faith would help to alleviate.

DailyKos: Eliminate Corporate Taxation

2014-08-27 General Electric

Today will forever be remembered as the day I almost agreed with a DailyKos article. Almost. It will also be remembered as the day kos became a right-wing fiscal conservative, almost.

We start off with something everyone should be able to agree on: Eliminate corporate tax, seriously. Kos cites Robert Reich for a universal, non-partisan reason to ditch corporate taxation:

But in many cases, depending on the structure of the market, a significant share of the actual burden of paying the corporate income tax is often borne instead by employees in the form of lower wages, or consumers in the form of higher prices.

This is true. No matter how good “corporate taxation” sounds, the reality is that all tax burdens are ultimately born by people. The most obvious problem with corporate taxation is that we don’t know who those people are. We do know that some of them are the employees and customers of big corporations, however. For this reason alone, corporate taxation is unconscionable.

Kos then goes on to make another good observation, but unfortunately this one has ideological implications that run directly counter to his belief. US corporate taxcauses multinational companies to stock more than $2.1 trilllion in off-shore accounts. If there were no corporate tax, they would bring most of that $2.1 tillion home. Kos calls this “one hell of a stimulus package for the country.” He’s right, but he’s sounding right-wing, and this triggers an intellectual gag reflex in the next paragraph:

However, this isn’t about free money for the corporatists. Fact is, the big companies are good at avoiding taxes by playing offshore finance games, while small businesses end up paying higher tax rates. Aside from the matter of fairness, it’s poor economics, as those small businesses—the driver of most job creation in our economy—could use that tax money to invest in new employees and equipment.

He’s right that small business drives most job creation, but small businesses are usually not C-corps and so they don’t pay corporate taxation. They are pass through organizations, so f you want to lower their tax rate you have to lower the personal income tax rate. The segue from corporate taxation to small business makes no sense. Worse than making no sense, however, Kos is digging the hole deeper. Whether he admits it or not, kos is now arguing to eliminate corporate income tax (to get that $2.1 trillion stimulus) and to lower personal income tax (to reduce the tax burden on the small companies that provide most new jobs in this country). This triggers a second intellectual gag reflex:

But of course, this isn’t an effort to starve government, it’s to move the tax burden on those who can actually afford it—tax capital gains at the same levels (if not higher!) than regular income.

Lest he sound like an anti-tax right-winger, kos has to get around to sticking to the man some how. So he proposes that we make it all up in capital gains. This plan has two enormous defects. First of all, taxing capital gains lowers economic growth, which counteracts the stimulus and job-creation effects of the previous arguments he just made. Secondly, the numbers he borrows for his tax plan make no sense:

For example, a tax of $1 on every $400 of stocks traded (0.25%; one-quarter of one percent) and $1 on every $800 of currency and debt trading including derivatives (0.125%, one-eighth of one percent). This fee (tax) would have raised between $750 billion and $1.2 trillion during each of the past five years (2005 – 2009).

He’s saying: “Let’s pretend we taxed stock trades for 5 years and nobody reacted to the taxation.” Not very realistic, is it? The reality is that if you skim 0.25% of every trade off the top, there are going to be a lot less trades. And so we’re gong to raise dramatically less revenue then he suspects and we’re going to undermine the economy-expanding effects of the first two tax-cuts. All because of ideology.

The really sad thing, of course, is that it takes me (a conservative) to point that he if kos really wants to “move the tax burdn on those who can actually afford it” then he should try a consumption tax. Then we’d actually be able to offset some of the losses from the other forms of taxation and actually hit rich consumers. Oh well.



Wired: NASA validates ‘impossible’ space drive

2014-08-26 nasa-space-drive-emdrive.si

So there are two really cool sci-fi propulsion technologies that folks at NASA  are working on these days. The first, which I’ve written about before, is the  Alcubierre drive. That’s a highly theoretical concept for traveling faster than light that made headlines in 2012 and again this year. Now, I’d say one sci-fi propulsion announcement per year is pretty good, but back in July there was a flurry of articles about a completely separate, exotic propulsion possibility.

As Wired wrote:

Nasa is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this week presents evidence that “impossible” microwave thrusters seem to work, something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.

Now, this propulsion technology, called the EmDrive or  RF resonant cavity thruster, isn’t faster-than-light but it’s still really exciting. Here’s why: standard propulsion theory says that in order to make your spaceship go one way, you need to make something else go the other way. This is called conservation of momentum, and in practice it means that rocketships have to carry their fuel with them. This is a debilitating limitation on the range and speed of spacecraft because when you load up extra fuel to go faster, you also make the ship heavier. So the more fuel you add the less benefit you get from adding more fuel.

There are two hypothetical ways to get around this limitation. The first is a Bussard ramjet. It is basically gigantic stellaar bulldozer (thousands of kilometers wide) that collects sparse hydrogen atoms from space as the ship moves, then compresses them and shoots them out the back. In other words: it gathers fuel as it goes. It’s a cool idea, but it only works for very large ships traveling very fast. And it doesn’t work at all yet, given the technology we have today.

The EmDrive works, well, no one actually knows why it works although there are theories. The point is, you put electric power in (but no fuel) and you get propulsion out. And it works. People have been claiming it works forever and NASA got tired of saying it probably didn’t so they tested it. And it did. Not a lot, mind you, but working at all is more than anyone expected. So, what can we expect?

If the technology can be figured out and refined, it would make satellites a lot cheaper for starters: they wouldn’t need to carry fuel (extra weight) and would be able to move around almost indefinitely (increasing their useful lifespan). But why stop there? “Say hello to deep-space missions and distant world exploration at a fraction of the cost and at 100 times the speed,” says RT.com. Without any need for fuel, travel around the solar system would be much, much faster (lighter ships accelerate and slow more easily) and even trips to other, nearby worlds might become feasible in relatively short (multi-year) periods.

Now that is exciting!

Texas and Job Creation

The above comes from a post by economist Mark Perry in which he explains that the chart shows “the percent changes in total civil employment between December 2007 (when the recession started) and July 2014 for: a) Texas (blue line) and b) the US minus Texas. The chart tells a powerful and important story about the strength of the Texas economy, which has experienced an employment increase of more than 1.3 million workers since late 2007. In contrast, civilian employment in the other 49 states is still almost 1.3 million jobs below the December 2007 level!”

He provides another chart below: “The difference between the two charts is that the one below uses monthly nonfarm payroll employment data and I’m using total civilian employment based on the “household survey” that determines the jobless rate. Total civilian employment is a more comprehensive measure of all US workers that includes agricultural workers, the self-employed, and workers in private households. Using the more comprehensive household survey of jobs shows an even wider divide between the number of jobs added to the Texas economy (+1.3 million) and the net loss of jobs in the other 49 states since December 2007 of -1.23 million!”


From all of us down here in Texas: you’re welcome America.

Unlikely Allies: Iranian Tanks in Iraq

2014-08-26 Iranian M60

The War is Boring blog at Medium has a fascinating post about Iranian M-60 tanks being spotted in Iraq on their way to help the Kurds push back ISIS militants from Iraqi territory. This means that we’ll have the following guys fighting all on one side:

  • Iraqi army
  • Iraqi militias
  • Kurdish Peshmerga
  • Iranian army
  • United States air power and special forces

If that doesn’t tell you how much of a threat ISIS is to the region, I’m not sure what could. But you really have to be familiar with some history of the region to understand just who truly wackadoodle this coalition is. Consider, for example, the fact that the Iranian M-60 tanks are actually American made because they date back to the time when Iran was an ally. The Kurds, for their part, have alternatively been allied with and betrayed by the Iranian government across multiple Iran-Iraq conflicts. They are currently working with the Iraqi army to fight off ISIS, but they also used the ISIS incursion as an opportunity to further solidify their autonomy and seize additional territory for themselves. Many Kurds still dream of their own homeland: Kurdistan. I don’t even know whether the Iraqi militias that have been involved in fighting alongside the formal army are Sunni or Shia. Maybe both? ISIS is Sunni, as are most Arab states in the region, with Iran being the sole major Shia holdout. Just Saturday, Iraqi Shiite militiamen conducted a massacre at a Sunni mosque in northern Iraq (maybe in retaliation for ISIS?)

It’s funny.

Except when it’s not.

Further Thoughts on World Building

A map of Roshar, where the Stormlight Archive takes place.
A map of Roshar, where the Stormlight Archive takes place.

Last week I published a post contrasting world-building between J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (hereafter: LotR) and the high fantasy genre that followed using Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive (which includes Way of Kings and Words of Radiance so far and which I’ll be calling just SA). The post sparked some fun and interesting discussion, but the comments (here and on Facebook) made me realize I could have been a little bit clearer about some aspects of the OP. In this post I’m going to use some simple illustrations and a few more examples (the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series) to try and provide that clarity.

The image below depicts the difference between the setting in which LotR takes place (the blue region) and the aspects of the setting that are actually conveyed directly in the LotR itself (the green region).

2014-08-21 LotR Setting-Narrative

To give an example of what I mean, consider the language Quenya. That’s one of the languages he invented, and he started work on it in 1910, more than 20 years before he started work on The Hobbit. By the time he started work on LotR, Quenya was largely complete. The entire language of Quenya (all the vocabulary, all the grammatical rules, and all the etymology that goes along with it) goes in the blue circle. Just those specific parts of Quenya (a few words, maybe whatever grammar was required for a phrase or sentence) that made it into the LotR go in the green circle. So the blue region is the entire setting (everything the author ever thought of) and the green region is just the parts of the setting that the author actually used directly in the story.

Obviously this isn’t an exact science, but what makes Tolkien’s example so helpful is that he actually made pretty details notes of his entire setting and it even has a name: the Legendarium. The fact that all his world building is collected in notes and papers that are pretty common knowledge (Christoper Tolkien used those notes to complete the manuscript for the The Silmarillion after his father’s death, for example) makes it particularly easy to envision the entire setting as something that is separate from the aspects of the setting that crop up in the LotR themselves.

So that’s what my chart shows: the setting broken down into the parts that show up within the text (the green region) and then the other stuff that might be hinted at in the text, but isn’t actually there directly (the blue region). Here’s what I imagine the charts looking like for LotR and SA side by side:

2014-08-21 LotR vs SA Narrative-Setting

The blue regions are sized identically because I don’t want to try and talk about who created more, Tolkien or Sanderson. They are both epic high fantasy authors, so they both write a lot. I suspect Tolkien created much more in his lifetime than Sanderson has created so far, but Sanderson may well surpass him. Who cares. The point is that they both do a lot of world-building so let’s just call it equal.

The difference, then, is that the proportion of Sanderson’s world-building for SA that shows up in SA is much, much higher than the amount of the Legendarium that shows up in LotR. That’s what the red lines are showing you: Tolkien’s excess world-building is thick. Sanderson’s excess world-building is thin.

Before we talk too much about what that means, let me just throw up one more image. This one adds the Harry Potter and Hunger Game series to the mix.

2014-08-21 All 4 Narrative-Setting

I don’t want to get bogged down in the exact details of who did more world-building than whom, but I think it makes sense to say that the epic high fantasy authors (Tolkien and Sanderson) did more world-building than Rowling or Collins. This isn’t to say that they did better world-building. I’m on-record as thinking that J. K. Rowling’s world-building is total genius, but she didn’t do very much of it compared to Tolkien or Sanderson.

So here’s the main point of this post: more world-building in aggregate (bigger blue circles) isn’t necessarily better, but thicker world building (more gap between the green circle and the blue circle) is better. And now the explanation/defense and some caveats.

I don’t think more world-building in aggregate is better because it’s really just a genre question. High fantasy does lots of world-building. Serious mystery novels and real-world thrillers do very little of it. Historical fiction does lots of it, but it’s research rather than invention, so it’s a very different kind of world-building. The point is, you should create enough of a world for your story to live in. If your story requires a relatively small setting or occurs in the real world, then you don’t need to do a lot of world-building. If your story has a big scope and takes place in a fantasy world, then you do need to do world-building. More, in aggregate, isn’t better. It’s a matter of fitting the world-building to the story.

So why is it bad to have only a small amount of world-building “left over” as it were? The primary answer is that, especially in stories that take place in fictional worlds, you want to preserve a sense of immersion in the world. Excess world-building helps you do that in multiple ways. The most important is that referring to events and locations that have an existence independent of the main narrative is a really powerful signal to readers that “this is a real place where lots of things happened, not just a setting I threw together for this one particular story.” When every single aspect of your story ends up being required for the plot, you strain a reader’s credibility in the same way that having too many coincidences in the plot strains credibility: it doesn’t seem natural. Your story should have places your characters don’t as much or care as much about as other people in the universe do because otherwise you’re implying that everything in the world exists merely in service of the characters. Which feels horribly fake.

The other ways are less direct, but still relevant. The work of doing more world-building is a kind of quality control on what you do show. I think even non-linguists can be struck by the way the language (especially via proper names) in LotR broke down consistently among ethnic and political groups. Most fantasy writers just pick similar-sounding names without worrying about complex etymologies, but the risk of sounding like just a jumble of made up syllables is higher when you’re just throwing out a jumble of made up syllables. Also, leaving a bigger gap between what you create for the world and what you show in the story means you have more freedom with your narrative. If you feel like you have to show off everything you create, you can end up bending the plot so that it becomes more of a guided tour of your brilliant creation rather than an independent story.

So, just to recap the graphic above, Collins does a bad job of world-building because even though her story is limited in scope, she did the absolute bare minimum to create even the relatively small setting she needed. Sure, her world building is pretty terrible in general (that’s pretty well-known), but even if you set aside the stuff that doesn’t make sense the problem remains that she just reskinned the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur with the slimmest trappings of a generic sci-fi dystopia and called it a day. She does do a little bit when it comes to the culture of the Capital, but there’s nothing about the setting scientifically, linguistically, culturally (outside the Capital), historically or in any other sense that would make you believe that this is anything other than a flimsy, disposable backdrop for her plot. In short: Collins didn’t create enough setting to fit her story.

Hogwarts. Geo-spatially, this is about all the setting Rowling needed for her story.
Hogwarts. Geo-spatially, this is about all the setting Rowling needed for her story.

Rowling also had a story with a pretty limited scope. Hogwarts, the Burrow, and the Ministry of Magic pretty much account for all the setting she needs. But Rowling did a good job of making the world fill lived in primarily through the inclusion of tantalizing books. Where Tolkien made the world seemed lived in by giving forgotten histories to all sorts of places (the Barrows, Weathertop, the Argonath just to name a few), Rowling made the world seemed live in by giving context to all the silly textbooks at Hogwarts. If you think about the number of times a book played a crucial role in Harry Potter, you’ll realize how important they were to the landscape. And the fact that their authors frequently showed up as minor characters or historical figures really deepened the sense in which these books were part of the world. Just like J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling had plenty of material in her own Legendarium left over to make follow-up books that were based on books mentioned in the original series. There’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, for example, and the new Harry Potter trilogy is going to be based off of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (which also exists as a book). J. K. Rowling was as profligate with the books she invented for the Harry Potter universe as Tolkien was with language or as Sanderson is with magical systems.

The SA suffers from the same basic problem as Hunger Games (not enough extra world-building) but for the opposite reason. He created plenty to tell the core story, but then he kept cramming more and more of hiw world-building into the narrative until there was barely anything left over. The end result is the same: there’s no sense of realism that comes from a reader perceiving that the world extends beyond the borders of the pages.

Tolkien, of course, is the gold standard. Although the scope of LotR is great, it is nowhere near the scale of the Legendarium from which it draws. My one wish for Sanderson—because I really do like SA—is that he would be willing to stop feeling the need to show off every idea he has in the narrative. It makes the story feel like a guided tour instead of an adventure.

First major caveat: we’re only looking at world-building. That’s just one aspect of what makes a work tick. There are all kinds of other factors: quality of prose, vibrancy of characterization, mastery of theme and tone, coherence of plot, etc. I’m not attempting to address those. This post together with the previous one are not an attempt to give some kind of comprehensive theory of fiction or high fantasy. They are not even a complete theory of world-building. One of the most important tricks that Tolkien uses, for example, that has nothing to do with green circles or blue circles is to demonstrate that actions in one work change the setting in ways that are felt in subsequent works. The best example of this is the way that Frodo stumbles upon the trolls in LotR that Bilbo had helped turn to stone in The Hobbit. The persistence of changes to the setting across works is a brilliant tool in world-building (and one I understand Sanderson may excel at) that falls totally outside the scope of this post.

Second major caveat: it’s possible that I’ve got the wrong frame of reference for Sanderson’s books. I have only read his SA series, but I am aware that all of the books he’s writing a linked up in a single world. Tolkien has the Legendarium. Sanderson has the Cosmere. That defense is not as strong as it first appears, however, because it increases the size of Sanderson’s setting substantially (the Cosmere is really big) but it also increases the size of his narrative because in addition to the two books in the SA, we’ve also got: Warbreaker, the Mistborn series, ElantrisWhite Sand, Dragonsteel, and others. In other words: I might be underestimating the scale of Sanderson’s setting, but only if I’m also underestimating the size of his narrative. This is because, unlike the relatively unrelated works of Tolkien, the whole point of the Cosmere is that all the books are actually part of one grand epic. In that case, you might have to draw a much bigger blue circle, but the green circle keeps on growing, too. You’re still let with a thin band. The problem doesn’t actually go away.

The Cosmere crosses the high fantasy genre to include an industrial setting in one of the Mistborn books.
The Cosmere crosses the high fantasy genre to include an industrial setting in one of the Mistborn books (Mistborn: The Alloy of Law).

So here’s where this leaves us—and I promise I’m done on this topic for the time being when I wrap this post up—the fundamental rule is that you want your world-building to be comfortably larger than what you’re actually going to use directly in the story you tell. This came naturally to Tolkien. Keep in mind he was working on Quenya twenty years before he started The Hobbit! I’m sure part of that was his personality, but it was also a matter of religious faith to him: world-building was a form of worship. So he did a lot of it. So, even though LotR is a big story, his setting was bigger.

High fantasy is particularly sensitive to the quality of world-building, but high fantasy authors since Tolkien have generally failed to get anywhere close to his mastery of it. Often, this is because they don’t do enough world-building. This makes sense, who wants to invest 20 years in world-building before they start a story they don’t even know if they will be able to publish or not? Sometimes it’s because they’re just not very good at it. But even when you get someone like Sanderson—someone who creates a lot and who does it quite well—they still can run into the trap of wanting to stuff all of that world-building into their story instead of leaving a nice, comfortable margin. If Sanderson included less of the world-building in the story, the narrative would have more focus and the world would feel more extensive and genuine.

Sweatshops and Prosperity

Texas Tech economist Benjamin Powell has done extensive research on sweatshops, including a recent book on the subject published by Cambridge University. He has a new article in the Summer 2014 issue of The Independent Review titled “Meet the Old Sweatshops: Same as the New Sweatshops.” The article traces the history of sweatshops in 19th-century Great Britain and U.S. as well as post-WWII East Asia. It documents the incredible increase in living standards, to which sweatshop wages contributed. Perhaps more important, it looks at the impact labor laws had on sweatshop conditions and their eventual elimination:

The short answer is that the laws played very little role in ending sweatshop conditions. For the most part, the laws were adopted once the United States had already reached a level of development that had mostly eliminated the conditions the laws made illegal. Great Britain’s first restrictions on child labor applied only to children under nine years old, and Massachusetts’ child labor law, the first in the United States, limited the workday to ten hours only for children under twelve. The United States didn’t pass meaningful national legislation against child labor until 1938, when its per capita annual income was more than $10,200 (in 2010 dollars)…Similarly, the first federal U.S. minimum wage wasn’t introduced until 1938, and it set the minimum at 25 cents per hour when average productivity was already 62.7 cents (Cowen and Tabarrok 2009, chap. 7). The first state minimum-wage law wasn’t passed until 1912 in Massachusetts, and it applied only to women and children. Other national labor legislation didn’t come until the United States was even more developed…The same pattern is true of workplace safety regulation. Fishback finds that “[m]ost [safety] regulations appear to have codified existing practices in the relevant industry” (2007, 310–11)
(pg. 17).

Despite the loud protests, research demonstrates that Third World sweatshops provide an above average standard of living for their workers compared to others within their economies. Also, as economist Alex Tabarrok has noted, “the soft-hearted demand for international labor standards often masks labor union protectionism.” This isn’t to say that we should be content with all examples of sweatshop conditions. But, as Powell concludes, “Poorer countries today would be better served if antisweatshop scholars and activists had a better understanding of how the historical process played out in wealthy countries” (pg. 120).

Check it out in full.

Before “I Do”

This is the title of a brand new study out from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that having a child before marriage, beginning a relationship by “hooking up,” having multiple sexual partners before marriage, and serial cohabitation can lead to lower marital quality in the future. The data indicate that making intentional decisions rather than simply sliding through relationship transitions increases marital quality. What was especially interesting to me was that formal weddings can actually increase marital quality. Furthermore, the number of wedding attendees can also impact marital quality.

Definitely worth a look.

Lindsay Lansing: Did God Answer Your Prayer?

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1460
Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460

My wife just forwarded me a blog post by Lindsay Lansing, who was in my ward growing up. It was profoundly moving, and so I wanted to share it. It’s called Did God Answer Your Prayer?, and it’s a sacrament talk that Lindsay gave in her ward recently.

The talk is about a variety of prayers–serious, earnest, desperate prayers–that were not answered, including Lindsay’s frantic rush through heavy traffic to try and get her son–who was struggling with a heart condition–to the hospital in time:

William was screaming in the back of my car, and I was trapped. I couldn’t console him, I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t even get out of the car to hold him because the traffic was so bad. I came to a fork in the road and I had to choose which way to the hospital. As tears streamed down my face, I said a prayer out loud, pleading for the Lord to tell me which way to go. There was no prompting. I chose one way, and it turned out to be awful. I realized the other way was better, and it then took me 10 minutes to just turn around, all while little William was screaming in the back. I thought he was going to die. I prayed for the Lord to turn my car into a hover craft… to fly me to the hospital. That didn’t happen. I prayed for all the stoplights to turn green, but they all turned red. I prayed for the crazy lady in front of me to hurry up and pay the teller in the parking garage and get into the parking deck. But she had no money. I prayed to find a parking spot close to the hospital, and there were none.

I kept waiting for the time when Lindsay would talk about the prayer that was answered, and how then everything was OK. And it all made sense. And it was all worthwhile. I never got there. That moment, from what I can tell, hasn’t come for Lindsay yet.

And that’s what made this such a profound article. It wasn’t the stereotypical Ensign story with a beginning, middle, and happy end. It was a real life story: just an interminable, senseless middle.

These are issues that have occupied me as well. Lindsay says, at one point, “I had always heard stories about people losing their keys, praying to find them, and then miraculously being led to find them under the couch.” It’s one of those stereotypical everyday miracles, and prompted me to write Does God Help Find Car Keys? last year. And then, at the end, she writes:

I do not know why God heals some by their faith and others he does not. I do not profess to know the meaning of all things. But I will not let the things that I do not know, affect the things that I do know. One of them is that God loves us. That we are his children. And the Lord’s Will is always the best. I am grateful that the Savior, in his most desperate moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asked that the cup be removed from him said, “nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.” It wasn’t easy for the Savior of the world. He had to drink from the bitter cup –and he absolutely did not shrink. And if I am to be his disciple and follower, how dare I ask it to be easy for me, when it was never easy for Him. In my experience and through it all, I add my testimony to John’s that when I allow the two ideas of faith that the Lord CAN help me, but also complete submission to his will, I have found greater comfort and peace. I hope one day to know the meaning of all things, but until then, I will walk by faith.

I am humbled by Lindsay’s faith, which strengthens with my own. In dark times, I’ve also tried to hold onto the personal conviction that my Father loves me, even if I can’t reconcile that love with the pain and heartache so abundant in this world. We all have our burdens in life, but the burden Lindsay is bearing–caring for a seriously ill child–is one I have never had to labor under. The blessing I often repeat to myself when things are looking really bad is precisely that: at least my children are safe and healthy.

We are made to suffer. But why does it have to be so much for so many people? I think part of it might simply be that the kind of grace, bravery, love, sacrifice, and fidelity that Lindsay is living is only possible in a life that has both pain and confusion. Perhaps we need this senseless, unfair, chaotic, painful existence because it is what makes virtue possible. Even if that’s the answer, it won’t ever be something that allows us to sleep easy. That’s the point, after all. It doesn’t make sense in this life. So all we can do is what Lindsay is doing: hope to one day know the meaning of all things, and walk by faith until then.

Cop: If you don’t want to get shot, do what I tell you.

2014-08-21 Sunil_Dutta_Los_Angeles_Police_Department

A lot of people are pretty angry about an OpEd Sunil Dutta wrote for the Washington Post. A sampling of reactions:

– Veteran Cop: ‘If You Don’t Want To Get Shot,’ Shut Up — Even If We’re Violating Your Rights (Huffington Post)
– To the Cop Who Told Me Not to Resist: Go F— Yourself (some random politics site)
– ‘If you don’t want to get shot, just do what I tell you,’ cop with Colorado ties writes (Fox affiliate)
– Column defending cops in Ferguson sparks online fury (CNN)

Let me first point out that, although most articles just call him “cop” and that might leave you the impression that he’s a stereotypical white police officer, he’s actually an immigrant who was born and raised in Jaipur, India, a “scholar of Urdu mystical poetry and an Indian classical music form called Dhrupad,” and “a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University,” in addition to being a cop with the LAPD. For somebody with such an interesting background to show up in the midst of one of the most contentious episode of racial tension in the United States is worth noting. Life has a funny way of not fitting the narratives we expect it to.

The angry reactions to his post are also misguided. Dutta is actually making a reasonable case that doesn’t include limitless authority for cops. As he writes:

I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and bully cops exist. When it comes to police misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some officers engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every cop should use a body camera to record interactions with the community at all times. Every police car should have a video recorder.

His point is simply that reacting aggressively to a cop is not a good response when the cop is issuing lawful orders and even, in almost all cases, when the cop has overstepped his or her bounds. There are checks and balances for holding individual cops accountable for individual abuse and also for holding entire units accountable for systematic abuse. Now, you could argue that those checks and balances are broken. That’s a serious consideration, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Dutta’s argument. Even if the checks on police abuse are broken, responding by aggressively resisting police authority is illegal (in most cases) and stupid (in all cases).

Cops have wives and children they want to go home to, and they have to defend themselves in life-threatening situations. This includes situations where they are dealing with an unarmed person.

There are no national statistics on how many times officers’ guns are taken away. But the FBI says that of the 616 law enforcement officers killed on duty by criminals from 1994 through 2003, 52 were killed with their own weapon, amounting to 8 percent. (PoliceOne.com)

So the mere fact that you don’t have a gun doesn’t mean that a cop doesn’t see you as a threat. You are a threat, and cops know that because they know nearly one in 10 of their fallen brothers and sisters was brought down with their own weapon. One of the problems here is that cops understand violent encounters. Bystanders and arm-chair lawyers don’t. Civilian reactions of “couldn’t the cop have used a taser?” or “couldn’t they have shot him in the leg?” or “why did they have to shoot him so many times?” are almost invariably founded in ignorance.

The deeper reality is that government is defined by the exclusive right to exercise force. We can go back almost 100 years to the political theorist Max Weber. He defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” A state is defined as the group with the monopoly on violence. In practice, individual people are invested with the monopoly on violence. We call them law enforcement officers. It’s not fair and it’s not supposed to be fair. It’s a monopoly. They have broad legal rights to use force on you. You don’t, except in very narrow and practically useless situations, have a right to use force on them.

Unless you reject all government, this is a state of affairs you will have to learn to live with. That doesn’t mean that we can’t change anything about our current system. Arguments about how the police use their authority to boss people around are reasonable. Arguments about whether the police can boss people around are not. Rejecting the authority of cops wholesale–which is what a lot of the anger seems to boil down to–is like getting upset that in a democracy sometimes the majority does the wrong thing. It’s s defect, but there’s no better alternative.

If there’s one criticism I have of Dutta’s piece, it’s that he acknowledges individual acts of police corruption but not the possibility of systemic injustice. That is the real issue here. It still doesn’t change his central point, however, and no amount of anger will.