The Most Appalling Thing I've Read Lately

Note: the following short essay is about freedom of speech, not the morality of same-sex marriage.

Of all the things I've read in the news over the last few weeks ISIS sweeping across Iraq, Greece heading towards financial disaster, biker gangs slaughtering each other in Texas, California withering from drought, etc. this article has worried me the most.

The facts of the story aren't in dispute: a Marquette philosophy instructor named Cheryl Abbate was lecturing to her students about the application of philosophical texts to recent controversial political issues. Listing several such issues on the board, she included same-sex marriage and apparently having not read a newspaper for the last five years announced, "everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it." A student afterward informed her that not everyone "agrees on this." Abbate replied that any opposition to same-sex marriage is de facto homophobic, could offend any LGBT students in the class, and so such views wouldn't be aired. The Marquette professor who authors the above-linked blog came to the student's defense, decrying her response as politically motivated censorship, and was promptly suspended by the university for "harassment." Marquette apparently is trying to fire him.

Why does that worry me more than ISIS, financial turmoil, and the rest? It has to do with the disintegration of the key freedom that holds peaceful civilization together.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Why? Because a person who can't objectively examine a viewpoint that clashes with their own is intellectually crippled. If you can't consider that an idea you support might be wrong, you probably won't be able to catch your own mistakes until the consequences smack you in the face and even then you might not be able to connect cause and effect. Worse, once people with such narrow vision get in a position of political power, they usually discourage discussion of competing ideas when formulating policy and that's a recipe for disaster.

Some practitioners of this kind of "education" defend it on the grounds that not all ideas deserve equal time. "Should we let flat-earth proponents have a day in the classroom to teach their theory?" No, obviously not. Some ideas really have been truly and thoroughly discredited by a mountain of empirical evidence gathered over decades or centuries that they're obviously wrong. Others that can't be settled so quickly through scientific observation — notably sociological or cultural issues — have simply gone through the debate, developed a very large body of relevant case law, and been so thoroughly accepted by the majority of society that they've become an integral part of the culture. Anyone who thinks we should, for example, reopen the debate on whether women should have the right to vote will earn himself a lot of strange looks. But notice the false dichotomy presented by people who want to squelch debate on ideas that aren't culturally or scientifically settled  the suggestion that allowing any contrary idea into the debate means we have to allow debate on every contrary idea. As with all false dichotomies, it's never that simple, and anyone who says it is probably has an agenda. 

What's particularly disturbing about the Marquette case is that a key part of a good education is teaching students how to sift through competing ideas and determine which are worthy of consideration and which aren't. But such sifting should be based on evidence, for and against. Telling students that ideas can be rejected just because they might offend personal sensibilities? That isn't education by any standard.

I first saw that lesson taught in dramatic fashion during my first semester at Brigham Young University. For my first General Education science elective, I enrolled in Biology 100 and was promptly rocked to find the class met in a standing-room only 1,000-seat amphitheater (my high school graduating class only had 100 kids in it). Moreover, Biology is not my best subject and I pulled a C in the course.

I'm grateful to this day that I took that class because the professor taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, and it had nothing to do with frog livers. In fact, it's the only lecture from that entire semester that I still remember.

The professor spent the hour teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution (you can already see where this is going) and I saw a number of students spend the entire lecture flipping through their Bibles. When the professor finished his presentation and opened up the Q&A period, one student leaped from his chair and walked quickly to one of microphones, scriptures in hand. Apparently, this poor, deluded freshman imagined that his Ph.D. professor had never encountered the religious tension between the Book of Genesis and Darwin's theory — despite having tenure at BYU of all places — and was going to educate him. The teenager opened the scriptures and, in an outraged tone, said, "But professor, it says here in Genesis—"

That's as far as he got.

I don't remember the professor's precise words, so I'll paraphrase as best as my memory will allow.

"Stop right there," the professor said, cutting the student off. "I know exactly what you're going to say. I'm a Mormon. I know the scriptures and the Gospel, and you're not the first person to raise that particular objection in my class. But you know what? The Theory of Evolution is the prevailing scientific theory of Biology and that will continue unless and until a theory that better fits the empirical evidence rises to replace it. Now, some of the students here want to go to medical school, some will become professional biologists, etc. Whether they personally want to believe in Evolution or not is their business, but if they want to work in such fields, they have to understand the theory because their colleagues will base their research on it. So I'm going to teach the theory. There's a time and a place to debate religion vs science, but my class isn't it. Save it for your religion classes. And, by the way, if I ask you to explain the Theory of Evolution on the final exam, which I will, and you give me an essay explaining how the Bible disproves it, you'll fail the course."

End of discussion. The professor actually was pretty polite about it, but his message was clear. Students who couldn't hold the Theory of Evolution in their heads alongside Genesis were in trouble.

On the surface, it might look like that Biology professor did exactly what Ms. Abbate did shut down discussion of a dissenting viewpoint. In reality, he did the opposite. 95%+ of BYU's student body is Mormon. On that campus, the belief that there is a God who created humanity isn't a remotely controversial idea. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was the idea more likely to stir controversy (not so much these days, almost 30 years later), but the professor was going to teach it and wasn't terribly worried that he might offend anyone in doing it. Why? Because he knew that if students with strong religious backgrounds couldn't learn to be objective about potentially clashing secular ideas, they would never be able to work professionally in an analytical field.

That was the most important lesson I learned my freshman year, and possibly during my undergraduate education. I wish I could remember that professor's name. I owe a lot of my professional success to him.

That's what worries me about Marquette's actions. A university that silences students and teachers to keep controversial subjects from being discussed so as to "not offend" is teaching students that emotion counts for more than reason.

I'm not advocating offending people. Intentionally offending others is reprehensible behavior. But there's a difference between the presentation of an idea and the idea itself. We can and should denounce people who present ideas in ways intended to shock and offend. But teaching students that they can and should shut down anyone trying to discuss an idea they simply find uncomfortable? They're doing a severe disservice to those students and to society; and if this becomes prevalent in our universities, colleges, and high schools, our civilization will be in real trouble. Why?

Democracy, with its many variants, is the only modern political system in which people with diverse viewpoints govern themselves non-violently through rational argument and discussion. In democracy, debate replaces violence. Take away debate and the free exchange of ideas, and what's left? A group of people who impose their political will on another group without considering, maybe without even knowing, the views of the second group. Governance without consideration for the views of the governed creates an environment in which people feel disenfranchised; and people who feel they have no way to express contrary viewpoints start looking for other ways to make the politically deaf listen to them. Nature abhors a vacuum. If debate no longer replaces violence, we risk having violence come rushing back in to fill the void. Go down that road far enough, and you find civil wars and revolutions and insurgencies waiting at the end. Hence the famous Clausewitzian dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." When debate fails to resolve an issue, resolving it through force becomes a temptation.

We're fortunate that Western civilization has a (relatively young) tradition of non-violent civil disobedience to perceived political injustice, but history shows that violent resistance is always lurking at the edge of human affairs. Just ask the Founding Fathers. That's why they enshrined the Freedom of Speech in the First Amendment. They knew that tyranny and free speech are mutually exclusive, and so did not want free speech curtailed, no matter how well-intentioned the motives for doing so. 

That's why Marquette's actions should be denounced. If we want to strengthen society and solve pressing social and cultural problems, we need more educated people — lots more — who can debate potentially offensive ideas without becoming offended, not less. We need citizens who look at someone who disagrees with their politics as a person to be persuaded, not a person to be silenced. In backing Ms. Abbote and trying to fire the professor who defended the student, it looks to me like Marquette has decided that it no longer wants to be part of that pursuit.

The End at Appomattox

150 years ago today, just before 3:00 pm or so, this happened.


If you heard bells ring today for four minutes starting around 3:05 pm and didn't know what they were for, it was to commemorate the end of the US Civil War. The bells rang for one minute for each year the war was fought.

General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant didn't officially end the war. It did, however, mark the end of the Confederacy's military operations in the eastern theater of the war, which effectively killed the southern states' hopes for independence. Other Confederate armies and units would surrender in the coming months, and a few small battles were even fought after April 9, 1865; but the war was, for all practical purposes, ended by Lee's decision to surrender.

Robert E. Lee is a divisive figure. In the South, he is still revered as a hero. Outside of the South, views towards him are often, shall we say, less charitable. Richard Cohen summed up the opposing view in his April 29, 2011 column, "Dispelling the Myth of Robert E. Lee"

"The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend—swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism—has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the 'Lost Cause' to get lost. Now it should be Lee's turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country—not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him."

Lee was a complex man, and I'm not here to declare Cohen right or wrong (though Cohen is wrong about Lee being "loyal to slavery," which he considered a serious political and moral evil). However, whether you revere or revile Lee, I would argue that one day before he surrendered to Grant, Lee made a decision which should earn him the gratitude of all Americans, if not their respect.

April 8, 1865 was a Saturday. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated from Petersburg earlier in the week where they had defied a nine month-long siege by Grant's Army of the Potomac. They had been moving steadily westward, trying to reach a trainload of supplies and rations to feed the starving men and outfit them with new clothes and ammunition. Lee had lost more than half his army in less than seven days to straggling, desertion, and capture. Under Lee's direction, they made one grueling night march after another...but starvation was taking its toll, Grant's cavalry dogged them the entire journey and the Union infantry was never more than a few hours behind. Confederate quartermasters had been compelled to keep moving the supply trains westward to keep them safe from capture; but they were also keeping them tantalizingly just out of Lee's reach. He'd received several letters from Grant, trying to convince him of the folly of further resistance. Lee had replied in his own letters that he didn't think his men were beaten yet, but he did ask Grant what terms of surrender the Union general might offer. They both knew that without those needed supplies, the chase couldn't go on much longer.

When Lee reached Appomattox on the 8th, he learned that the Union Cavalry had captured the supplies waiting at Appomattox Station. The closest supply trains were now at Lynchburg, 20 miles further west and the Union cavalry was now in front of him. 

Lee convened his final council of war that night with Generals James "Pete" Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Edward Porter Alexander. Longstreet and Gordon commanded the infantry, Alexander the artillery. Together, they decided that the army had enough strength to make one final attempt the following morning to break through the Union forces and push on to Lynchburg, but Lee realized that failure would leave him with no option other than surrender.

General Alexander disagreed. He suggested that Lee disperse the Army. The men would slip away during the night, dissolving into the woods, where they return to their homes and then fight on as guerrillas, raiding and killing Union troops and destroying Union property wherever and whenever they could. They would drag out the conflict for years and years until the Union grew weary of trying to extinguish the secessionist flame.

Alexander was suggesting, in short, that the Confederacy launch an insurgency.

The other generals turned to Lee, the most respected military officer the United States had produced since George Washington. He was beloved of his men, almost worshipped by Confederate civilians. He was the miracle worker who had defeated the Union army again and again, almost always outnumbered and outgunned. He had out-thought, outmaneuvered, and out-fought Union general after Union general. His troops trusted him implicitly. All he had to do was give the word and 28,000 Confederate soldiers would spread out and become, not to put too fine a point on it, terrorists. It would have been war without end for decades, a generation or more.

Lee rejected the suggestion out of hand.

"If I took your advice," Lee told Alexander, "the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders...We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from."

But here's the interesting bit: the country he was referring to wasn't the Confederate States of America. He was talking about the United States.

Robert E. Lee had spent four years fighting for the Confederacy; but facing the end of that country, Lee was worried about what would happen to the only country he would have left. He'd served the US faithfully as an army officer for more than twenty years before the Civil War. It's clear from his letters and the recollections of associates that Lee fostered no sense of hatred towards the US despite having fought against it for four years. With the Confederacy dead, the US would again exercise sovereignty over Lee's home state of Virginia.

So, in that moment, when Lee decided there would be no insurgency, he gave his once-former and future country a gift for which we should all be grateful. He offered the US a chance to start healing.

He didn't have to make that choice. Remember, he didn't know that Grant was going to offer him generous terms of surrender the following afternoon. In fact, Lee thought it more likely that Grant would arrest him and he would be tried, then probably hanged for treason. Facing that possibility, a lesser man might have lashed out at the enemy. Had Lee been a man filled with anger, hatred, and vitriol, he could have sent the entire continent spiraling down into unrestrained violence for decades to come. Had he been a more egotistical man, humiliated in defeat, he could have told his men to lay waste at random as a way of salving his wounded pride. Instead, he told his men that they had fought honorably, would surrender honorably, and should live honorably as citizens of the United States; and he sought to set the example for them. When he knew for certain the following day that escape was impossible, he chose to hand himself over to Grant—essentially to the United States—to answer for his actions instead of going down swinging.

I would argue that the decision that Lee made the night before was no less important than the one he made the next day to surrender. That one decision to not launch an insurgency merits a measure of this country's gratitude. I'm grateful that Lee lost the war, but I'm also grateful that, when faced with defeat, Lee told his men to let go of the old cause and take up a new one — to rebuild the United States. For that act alone, General Robert E. Lee deserves our thanks; and those who would simply declare him an irredeemable traitor should spend some time studying the decision Lee made that night. If they can come to understand what drove him to make that choice, they might come to see him as a more complex man than one who was simply "disloyal to his country."

If you want to know more about Robert E. Lee, you can't do better than the abridged Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman, unless you're motivated enough to hunt down and read the entire original four volume series.

Sorry I've been away

BTW, my sincere apologies that my blog posts have become pretty infrequent of late, but I've been cranking hard on my third novel. Simon & Schuster's submission deadline is coming up soon and I've been spending my evenings working on that. So there won't be too many posts here until after the New Year, but hopefully the new book will be sufficient consolation when it comes out next May.

Amazon and Hachette cut a deal

Amazon and Hachette have finally negotiated a peace treaty to the war.

Hachette won an important victory on Thursday in its battle with Amazon: the ability to set its own prices for e-books, which it sees as critical to its survival. But even as the publisher and retailer announced a negotiated peace after sparring since January, hardly anyone seemed in the mood for celebratory fireworks. ...

And even if Amazon got less in the deal than it originally wanted, it still controls nearly half the book trade, an unprecedented level for one retailer. And the dispute showed it is not afraid to use its power to discourage sales.

I don't know the details, but it looks to me like the deal gets the major details right: Hachette gets to set prices for its own products, Amazon has to offer incentives to get lower prices. In other words, Amazon has to give up something to get something in return. That's the way any business transaction should work. If one party can get what it wants through threats alone, you don't have a commercial exchange -- you have extortion.

I don't know what the long term effects of the deal will be, but I'm thrilled that Amazon won't be able to force Hachette to lower prices just by threatening the publisher with oblivion.

Amazon's "Monopsony"

I almost never agree with Paul Krugman about anything when he's talking politics. But the man has a Nobel Prize in Economics, so when he talks about the institutional forces affecting commerce, I do at least pay attention.

Krugman wrote an editorial for the New York Times on the Amazon-Hachette feud, and, wonders never cease, I agree with every word.

"So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance. What it has done, instead, is use its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books — hence the fight with Hachette. In economics jargon, Amazon is not, at least so far, acting like a monopolist, a dominant seller with the power to raise prices. Instead, it is acting as a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.

And on that front its power is really immense — in fact, even greater than the market share numbers indicate. Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place."

Krugman does miss one crucial point, which surprises me given that it's a purely economic one. It's not just that Amazon can kill the buzz surrounding a new book. It's that driving product prices down constricts the ability to make profit, and most authors and publishers' already have very thin profit margins. In fact, most authors (myself included) don't make a living through writing. Writing is something we do on the side, either before or after our day jobs.

To be fair, Amazon has proposed a deal it claims will pay authors more; maybe so. But there's only so much profit to be squeezed out of a single copy of any book, so when Amazon tries to reduce the amount of profit-per-copy, somebody gets less. It's simple math, and you can bet Amazon doesn't want that "somebody" to be Amazon. So either authors will get even less money, or publishers will get less and then either publish fewer books by new authors or pay authors even less in advances and royalties. It's really that simple.

The Imitation Game

It's about time someone made a feature film about Alan Turing and the British project at Bletchley Park during World War 2 to break the German Enigma system.

IN CINEMAS NOVEMBER 14-- Based on the real life story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is credited with cracking the German Enigma code, THE IMITATION GAME portrays the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team at Britain's top-secret code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, during the darkest days of World War II.

If you're not familiar with the story, the Germans started using Enigma in 1932 to encrypt  their sensitive military communiques and the Poles cracked it later that year; but the Germans kept refining the device and improving the cryptography. By 1939, the Poles had been overrun by the Nazis and were out of the game and Enigma's encryption was practically unbreakable as long as the German operators were using the machine correctly. The British took up the charge but couldn't decipher more than a tiny trickle of German Enigma messages.

The British Government launched a top secret effort, later codenamed "Ultra," to beat the machine. Turing was one of the mathematicians recruited from Cambridge University for the effort and developed much of the "bombe" technology that ultimately defeated Enigma. Sir Harry Hinsley, official historian of British Intelligence in World War II, said that Ultra's success in breaking Enigma shortened the war "by not less than two years and probably by four years." Sir Winston Churchill was even more definitive about Ultra's contribution, telling King George VI that "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

In the process of developing the technology to defeat Enigma and helping save the free world from the Axis, Turing also made several breakthroughs that made modern computers possible. That desktop/portable device you're using to read this post? You can thank Alan Turing for it.

But Alan Turing was also gay. Homosexual acts were illegal in the UK in the 40s and 50s, and Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison and the British government stripped his security clearance. He was found dead in 1954 at age 41, and the autopsy ruled that he had committed suicide by ingesting cyanide. In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology for "the appalling way he was treated"; and Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon on Christmas Eve especially meaningful gesture when you realize that Turing was charged the very same month that Elizabeth began her reign (yes, she's has been on the throne that long).

It's a fascinating story and the movie is receiving rave reviews at pre-release screenings – Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke? Yes, please. If you're a fan of espionage thrillers or movies like A Beautiful Mind, go see this one on opening day, 14 November 2014.


And then, after my brilliant post about assumptions and sports broadcasters'  flawed methods of prediction about who will and won't make it into the new NCAA football tournament – my beloved BYU Cougars lose 35-20 to unranked Utah State University. These in-state rivalry games are killers.

My personal vow against profanity prevents me from using some pretty choice terms to express my feelings about now. BYU will be lucky not to fall right out of the Top 25But congratulations to USU for a well-deserved victory.

That said, I do note that the Utah Utes beat #8 UCLA yesterday 30-28. So don't think that my comments about assumptions are somehow invalid. Anything can happen. That's why we play the games, instead of just looking at a bunch of stats at the season's start and deciding who the national champion will be right then and there