Let the Idiot Speak!

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This morning I came across an article reporting Facebook’s sudden about face on the matter of whether Covid-19 came from a lab in Wuhan.  The established narrative was that this debunked, a wild conspiracy theory, and thus the social media giant took it upon themselves to protect us from this misinformation. 

Had you posted some speculation about the possible man-made origin of the pandemic prior to this it is likely it would be demoted by Facebook’s algorithms or removed entirely from the platform.  This, like questions about the election results or the Biden laptop scandal, deemed to be fake news by Big Tech monopolies, present a prime examples of why I oppose all censorship.

Their supposedly independent fact-checkers, who somehow never found the time to flag some false claims (including the Russian collusion narrative, that ‘kids in cages’ started with the last administration, and the myth that Trump praised white supremacists), somehow instantly debunked the New York Post’s big scoop in the weeks prior to the election.

Of course, the Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, did issue an apology for this “total mistake” and yet long after it could impact the election.

All this to say that, no matter your politics or perspectives, these Silicon Valley elites did a rather poor job of playing impartial arbiters of truth and really can’t be trusted to police the national conversation.  Sure, maybe it was an honest effort, confirmation bias can make a fool of the best of us, they were relying on the experts, yada yada, but clearly they can be wrong and can be wrong again.

Wisdom of the Crowds

A few months back I had planned to write a blog on an interesting phenomenon called wisdom of the crowds.  

In an experiment, Sir Francis Galton, a statistician, had the visitors to a country fair guess the weight of a dressed ox.  He also had some experts independently assess the weight.  Many of the non-expert guesses were wild and yet, when taken collectively, as a mean average, do you know who came out on top?

That’s right!  

The crowd beat the experts and actually came within 1% of the true weight of the slaughtered animal.

Now this wisdom, when manipulated, say by someone claiming to know the weight, is no longer accurate.  And this is not to be dismissive of expertise.  There is certainly a place for doctors, lawyers and engineers, professionals, those who have spent years in careful study or ‘know the math’ so to speak.

Still, maybe just maybe we should rethink this idea that some kind of central body, especially in matters of partisan politics, should have complete control over what information is or is not fit for public consumption.  I mean, do you really believe that smart people are immune to things like group think, that there’s no echo chamber or chance that they miss something in their ‘expert’ analysis?

It is absolutely fact that well-educated people can get things wrong.  Remember that deadly collapse of a bridge under construction in Florida, someone in the FAA approved the 737 Max to fly before it was grounded after two plunged killing all board, surgeons sometimes remove the wrong leg and there’s a good reason malpractice insurance exists. 

Even the best of us make mistakes.  Add political agenda to the mix and there can be tremendous blindspots.  

A friend of mine suffers from a rare genetic disorder.  But it had gone misdiagnosed for years.  A local hospital even refusing to consider the possibility of a genetic cause by running tests.  Well, it turns out, a relative of his, a layperson, reading in publication about someone with the same disorder, put two and two together, my friend finally demanded the tests and that is likely the only reason he’s alive.

So why, again, should we blindly trust a small team of experts when we can open it up to the entire crowd?

Let the Idiots Speak!

One of the things that bugs me most about the whole censorship regime is that truth can come from complete idiots.  Yes, I get tired of crackpot conspiracy theories, critical thinking often seems to be in very short supply, and yet I would rather have the open conversation than to arrogantly assume that the unwashed masses have nothing of value to contribute.

First of all, as previously discussed, the established ‘expert’ consensus can be wrong.  The problem with experts is that they often have a very narrow focus and rely on other experts rather than research everything for themselves.  So, in other words, incorrect knowledge can be repeated over and over again, taken as fact, because everyone trusts their colleagues too much and sometimes, even after peer review uncovers the error, the myth persists.

For example, the Lancet, a renown medical journal, was forced to retract a study they published that came out against use of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment option.  How this got past their editors is anyone’s guess, but this shows the danger of relying too heavily on a few experts.

Second, idiots, being less knowledgeable, can be at an advantage as far as telling the truth as they see it.  Confirmation bias, as it turns out, is something that plagues the intelligent or those who are more able to rationalize their way around the problems with their perspective.  It is far less likely that an idiot will come up with wrong (yet plausible sounding) explanation which sways public policy in the wrong direction—like a PhD college professor could.

Third, children, who are idiots due to their lack of education, are less prone to functional fixedness, they often speak in an unfiltered way and have a fresh perspective that should be heard.  The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes describes this well, the child in the tale didn’t know what they weren’t supposed to say and blurted out the truth that the socially pressured adults refused to see.

So, in conclusion, the established ‘truth’ can be wrong, the child (or unsophisticated mind) can sometimes see through the knowledge others have, and therefore we should allow all to speak no matter how stupid they sound to us.  No, that doesn’t mean we should let the idiots lead or ignore the experts, but there is great danger in shutting even their incorrect and sometimes offensive ideas out of the conversation.

At the very least, nobody is safe when the tyrant king murders the court jester.  When the idiots can be silenced it won’t be very long before the powerful begin to use the label “idiot” for anyone challenging their authority, including you, and who will dare to speak up for you after that?

Conflict Builds Character: A Family Conversation About Race

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My own family situation was unique. As many good Mennonites do, my aunts and uncles, like my grandmother, adopted and there was no child left behind. Of course what this meant is there was some additional shades of color at family reunions and it had always seemed like this wonderful idyllic thing. And it certainly did help in the regard that it gave some children the privilege of a stable home and also likely helped us other cousins to humanize those of different color from our own.

But with this also came a negative side. Believe it or not, good little Mennonite children can also be vicious racists, being of a different skin color did indeed make that a focal point of conflict and I wonder how many seeds were planted then that fed insecurities that we all deal with and yet would be felt especially acutely by those adopted? My own feelings of not belonging did not have that one focal point, that specific thing that could be identified as a source, and yet I was still the “black sheep” regardless.

Still, I had the opportunity to talk to another self-identified “black sheep” of his family, my cousin Isaac, who like me, had a foot in two different cultures. He would spend most of the year with his white family in rural Pennsylvania, his parents my first cousins, and would also spend time with his black family in the inner-city of Philadelphia during the summer. Of course this gives him a very unique perspective on racial issues and definitely a voice worth listening to. So, when we started to argue about recent events, both of us talking past each other, he called and this is the result.

My Voice Doesn’t Matter

Taking a step back, Isaac and I are a different generation. I’ve been struggling, over the past few years, with feelings of betrayal for having embraced the ideal of racial equality and all that nonsense (which isn’t actually nonsense) about judging each other by the content of character rather than the color of their skin. Racism always seemed silly to me. What did it really matter what skin a person wore so long as they treated me decently, right? And that’s just how I would assume that most rational and sane people think. Unfortunately things are more complicated than that and that is what is creating conflict across this great nation.

My grievance started years ago, with something that I witnessed over and over again and maybe is best captured in a story from my school years when a mother, black, got on to the bus and screamed in the face of our bus driver, calling him “racist” and “redneck,” nasty things. Why? Well, he had had the audacity to apply the same standard, established for the safety of her children as much as all of us, but apparently the only thing she could see was that this white man (now beet red) was somehow mistreating her perfect darling angels for trying to impose a little order. The rest of us sat in stunned silence, the poor farmer working for a pittance was not a sophisticated man nor equipped for this kind of conflict nor were the rest of us.

That was one of many similar incidents where us polite people had to simply keep our mouths shut as some other folks got a free pass for their misbehavior. Polite culture means we avoided causing a scene, that we look the other way when the impolite people fight and basically do whatever it takes to avoid conflict. Conflict over the slightest perceived insult was the realm of bullies and other insecure people. We did not wish to be browbeat and berated ourselves. Our own grievances with this mistreatment would be mocked and belittled anyways, so we kept our heads low and did whatever it took to accommodate those less polite.

A few years, during the Obama presidency, many took issue with the massive expansion of government called by the misnomer Affordable Care Act. Of course, as a consistent fiscal conservative and one keenly aware of the costs, along with unintended consequences, of expanded government power, I was opposed. Many Americans did peacefully protest and yet, almost immediately, they were branded as racist by the media. I was appalled. But at least a black friend, a progressive, with a good education, would treat my own concerns as valid, right? It ended up being one of the most disappointing conversation of my life. A man, who already intimidated me for his advantages, dismissed my points with personal insults.

It was in that conversation and several others, after Obama’s call for dialogue about race, that I found out my own voice and experience didn’t matter in this ‘conversation’ about race. If I did not accept everything on their terms then I wasn’t understanding or lacked in empathy, which is absurd and definitely not terms that I would ever agree with in any other discussion. Nevertheless, it was what was, my skin color automatically disqualified my opinion, my attempts at consistently applied principles didn’t apply to their grievance, and I’ve always left feeling unheard. That’s the experience for many who don’t go 100% along with the protest narrative. Our voice didn’t matter.

A Time When Silence Is No Longer An Option

Over the past few years I’ve become a professional (yet hopefully harmless) agitator. After years of being a polite person or at least trying, wanting to go along with the Mennonite program, and finally it had just become too much. I had been told I was respected, affirmed in many ways, followed the rules, mostly, or to the best of my abilities and felt the other side of this social contract wasn’t holding up their own end of the commitment. My grievance had become too much to bear any longer and thus began my blogging here. It eventually boiled over and led me to leave my Mennonite tribal identity behind or at least to the extent that is possible.

But this emancipation was not complete. There was one topic, given past experience and potential loss of friends, that I avoided as much as possible. The politics of race, meaning the discussion of things related to measuring out justice and governance, is a third rail for those who wish to think outside of the established and acceptable narrative. As oppressed as some claim to be, the oppressed sure do dominate conversation, they have governors breaking their own shutdown orders to march, celebrities speaking out in solidarity and big corporations affirming their message without any word about the accompanying violence. If only I could be so oppressed.

It was with cities burning, small owners being beaten for defending their livelihoods, with my polite friends seeing “animals” and a growing number people dying in the violence, that I decided to take off my own filter and say enough is enough!

Everyone up to President Trump himself had acknowledged the injustice of George Floyd’s death. We had an opportunity for solidarity against police brutality, the officer was charged, and yet, after what seemed like a full validation of the concern, the protests only picked up steam. I might be a polite person, who avoids conflict when possible, but I don’t want to be beaten to death on account of my skin color more than anyone else and certainly was not going to wait untill the violence had reach my own doorstep to speak out. No, nobody asked me to mediate or broker a conversation. I knew that those on the ‘other side’ would likely tune me out, maybe even unfriend or unfollow me, and started my own form of protest.

The racially divisive narrative was a lie. Police brutality is a problem. The death of George Floyd is, by all appearances, an injustice. I have no problem with those who, on their own time and dime, without violating the rights of others, wish to protest. I know well the reality of racism, both historically and in the current year. And yet to frame everything of what happened in Minnesota in terms of race simply ignores reality and this sort of assumption about what happened will lead to anything but justice. If we were allowed to have an intelligent discussion on matters of race, if I had a partner in that discussion willing to see another perspective, I could explain.

The Call

Anyhow, it was in the midst of speaking out that someone with connection to me since childhood decided to speak back. That being my cousin Isaac. And it went predictably, online, as one would expect, I was “missing the point” and this first round came to a stalemate, with us moral posturing and might have ended there had Isaac not reached out with a phone call. It didn’t feel, at the end of an hour or so, that we agreed on too much. We had our times of animation, talking over each other, and emotion. But the reality is that we accomplished far more in our willingness to engage and so I did want to summarize a little of what I saw as significant, what I heard, where we agreed and where as diverged.

1) Not About George Floyd

The one thing that Issac and I seemed to agree on is that that this was not about only the death of George Floyd. In his view, this is about racial unjustice and draws upon his own experience of finding out what it means to be black as a teenager. He spoke of the fear that black (presumably men in particular) have in their encounters with police, the profiling he suspects when entering into white communities and some of the racist language he has encountered.

The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, that being his violent criminal record, his being on drugs and passing forged currency were inconsequential in his opinion. And I agree that this doesn’t make any difference as far as the guilt or innocent of Derek Chauven and the other officers. But where I diverge from Isaac is where he claims this death makes him equally vulnerable, as a black man, whereas I believe that criminal behavior and repeat negative encounters with law enforcement are going to dramatically increase the chances of dying at the hands of police.

So we agreed that it is not about George Floyd. But I see the only reason that we are talking about this case, as a nation, is because of Floyd is black and not because of the injustice.

2) Black Lives Is Not About Black Lives, But All Lives?

Isaac took issue with me saying that this was all about black tribal identity and racial solidarity, but was actually about police brutality and justice for all people. But, while saying this, he also defended the “Black Lives Matter” description and claimed it was a movement to respect all lives.

However, if this were truly the case, I postulated, why do we only have protests, riots and looting when it is a black man involved?

Why didn’t millions of Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets and demand instantaneous prosecution of the black officer, Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed 40-year-old white woman in July of 2017?

Why did I never hear about the final desperate calls of a young man named Tony Timpa? “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!”

Timpa cried out thirty times, as officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck down, and joked over his body as he slipped away in 2017? Why no outrage over the officers only being charged with misdemeanors and then having those charges dropped?

Could it be because Timpa was white?

And, finally, why did it not matter when Daniel Shaver, a 26 year old man on a business trip, in 2016, was shot five times, while crawling in compliance with police demands and having committed no crime?

His killer was acquitted, even briefly reinstated as a police officer just so he could receive a pension and nothing burned. Nobody said much of anything.

Why?

I know what my own answers to that series of questions is. My answer is that these deaths did not fit a racially divisive narrative. If this were truly about making all lives matter and police brutality, then these three cases would be an excellent opportunity to bring many people into the fold. No, that doesn’t mean that Isaac is insincere, not at all, but I do think the “Black Lives Matter” moniker is alienating and, frankly, insulting to those of us who have spent our lives treating everyone of all colors and creeds as if their lives mattered.

So, my point is if this truly is about police reforms, not racial tribalism or divisive political posturing, why not find descriptive language that matches that intention? Why not “All Male Lives Matter,” since most who are killed by police happen to be men, mostly white men, not women? Or maybe “Police Brutality Must Stop,” a title that would describe the actual mission if it is about change and reform of police violence? The point is that words also matter and I would much sooner jump on board a movement that didn’t falsely present the issue.

Isaac would likely disagree with everything I just said, that’s his right.

3) Isaac Wants Change, I Do Too

The real crux of the matter comes down to a difference of perspective. Isaac (who has friends who are in law enforcement) sees a “broken criminal justice system” and wants a change. I agree that there needs to be improvement, but also that there’s an elephant in the room not often talked about and that being that we aren’t actually being honest in our discussion about race or getting to those things that lead to more violent encounters with police. And that’s not blame-shifting, we can both hold police officers accountable and also get to some of those root issues shaping black outcomes as well, but there first needs to be some acknowledgement of that difference.

As things currently stand, polite people are forbidden to talk about things like black on black crime, we are not supposed to notice when public officials, journalists and activists downplay the ongoing murder and mayhem in the name of justice. We are not supposed to believe our own eyes when we see people, many of them black, with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Sure this may be a small minority, but let’s not pretend that this is only a few “white supremacist” infiltrators. It is time to stop this racism of lower expectations and have zero tolerance for using one injustice to excuse another. Again, that would restore some credibility and help accomplish the stated goals of the protests.

And we need to talk about this double standard. The polite people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens and silenced based on their skin color. They are tired of being villainized or ridiculed for their peaceful protests of other forms of government oppression, equated to terrorists, when actual terrorism is being ignored and criminals lionized. We need to talk about this because even polite people won’t respect those who do respect them. If the goal is to eventually achieve equality (which is my own hope) then the pandering and patronizing must end. To achieve the change we need to be the change and to be the change we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.

Ironically, I believe some of the reason why many white people tune out is because they don’t feel heard themselves. Many, like me, feel unappreciated in a system that expects them to be polite people and then celebrates when their minority counterparts act out. It’s almost as if the minstrel shows have etched in this expectation that the black folk are supposed to sing, dance and keep us entertained, riot occasionally, that black people are unable to control themselves or their emotions and thus can be exempted if they are more aggressive, etc. But this is utter nonsense, there are many sober and serious black people, many emotional and expressive white people.

I do agree with Isaac, we should not hold police to a different standard than anyone else, they must be held accountable for their actions like anybody else, and I support the push for reforms. Where we seem to diverge the most is our perception of what’s important to consider. He would prefer a more narrow focus, on the problem of police brutality, where I am more interested in doing more to address the cultural issues that lead to negative outcomes and would improve the image of black men in particular.

4) I Want Appreciation, And As An Individual

It is not fair that Isaac, as intelligent and well-rounded as an individual that he is, gets lumped in with the crimes of any other black man or is even the defined in any way by his skin color. Likewise, I don’t want to be judged or held personally accountable for sins I’ve never committed as some are trying to do. It is absolutely absurd to me that some white people are out literally kissing the boots of black men. Please stop this insanity! Let’s just all learn to appreciate each others as equally individuals, okay? Fight prejudice in all forms.

I would also rather we start from a position of appreciation for the criminal justice system that we do have. It is far from perfect and yet I know first hand what happens where it doesn’t exist. The killers of uncle Roland, in the Philippines, despite many leads, have not been brought to justice and that’s simply because there’s not the law enforcement resources to bring to bear. It is extremely easy to criticize any system and yet we should also study what is working and why as well. The key to fixing or improving any system is having an intimate knowledge of how it works or why it was designed in a particular way.

I think that’s where Isaac and I differ the most, and also why we must talk, he wants change while I’m geared for caution and constraint. He protests for justice, now, immediately and on his own terms, while I ruminate about foundational principles and think about past incidents of mob rule. Neither of us are right or wrong in our approach. I understand his orientation towards action. He probably gets more done while I brood and ponder philosophies. We make perfect sparing partners. He knows enough about me to keep me honest and I know enough about him to do the same.

I appreciate that Isaac, while passionate, did not attempt to pigeonhole and treated me with respect, like an equal. As Scripture says, “iron sharpens iron” and I felt quite evenly matched. It was definitely a conflict, yet I never felt threatened, as I have in other similar attempts at honest dialogue and efforts to bring the racial divide. We ended up expressing our love for each other, something that I don’t think we’ve even done before given there is a whole multitude of cousins on my dad’s side, and the whole experience was cathartic for someone like me who cares deeply and often feels helpless to change anything given the complexity of everything.

It also inspired me to write this and help get our combined perspectives (albeit obviously biased towards my own perspective) out there for your consideration. But the more important take away is that we not ignore uncomfortable topics, that we not shout each other down rather than hear, that we engage in there types of true conversations, with two sides given, and find our common ground. I feel strongly that God brought Isaac and I together for a reason and the reason is to be that bridge between people. But Isaac deserves most of the credit, he didn’t fire shots and run, he was willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

Is America Great?

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My little push mower sounds like a hit-and-miss engine running on that old gas.  And, while my stubbornness doesn’t allow me to waste the stagnant fuel, I’m a bit embarrassed as I sputter along through the lawn and always wonder what my neighbors must think.

That was my first concern when I rounded the corner to the backyard and saw my neighbor pushing his smooth running and sophisticated overhead valve machine.  I had never met these neighbors (other than their annoyingly barky dog) since they moved in a few years ago.  I thought to just keep my head down and contining on my way without saying hi.  But, realizing it was now or never, I decided to be neighborly and released the safety lever.

“I’m never quite sure where our property line is…”  I said, inviting his commentary on this extremely important matter of mutual interest (we quickly established that it ran from the corner of the sidewalk and past my big pine tree) before we transitioned into some other friendly chatter about the neighborhood.

Of course, me being me, noticing his accent and NY hat, I was curious where he was from originally.  So, picking an opportune time, when he talked about his wife being from another local town, I asked, “where are you from?”  It was no big surprise when he told me he was from New Jersey.

As we continued, a bit more relaxed now, we started to get into his Irish heritage.  His grandparents had been born there.  We talked about Dublin, how the animosity still lingers there today between Catholics and Protestants, comparing it to our relatively peaceable American experience.

After 30-40 minutes of conversation, I had to excuse myself (Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville, needed a ride home from work because her car is in the shop) and finished the patch of grass before heading out.  But had to think how wonderful this country is when considering the alternatives.

Where else in the world can such a diverse population coexist in relative peace?

Yes, obviously, it has not always been that way here, not all neighborhoods are as nice as my small corner of a blue collar town, and yet there are many things that make America a special place.  Sure, our freedoms aren’t unusual in the world anymore or as broad as they would have been when this was a sparsely populated frontier, but there is plenty left of what still inspires people to cross oceans to be here.

That said, I think we could lose that greatness and are squandering the potential to be greater when we pull away from each other in fear.  Which is exactly what we will do when we stay inside (and focus on the few bad stories in the news continually) rather than have those simple neighborly conversations.

We are a nation of over 320 million people, mostly immigrants from all around the world, and we’ve kept it together this long despite our differences.  Yes, in a population as big as ours, there will always be bad stories to fret over, plenty of ignorant bigoted people and enough evil to keep you occupied for a lifetime.  So, go ahead, spend your time amplifying those negative feelings online, if that’s what you want.

But, if you would rather have a better nation, do what worked for me and have those little meetings with the person across the street, because white, black or otherwise… Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, or irreligious… most of us would rather live in harmony together.  I know this based in my many conversations like the one today.

Stop listening to the divisive and hateful voices in the media and in politics.  Every wave of immigration came with a little controversy and unrest.  For example, Irish Catholics weren’t exactly considered trustworthy at one point in recent history and, yes, there was violence.  But my neighbor doesn’t seem to dangerous anymore, he actually seems quite like me.

Anyhow, to celebrate the 4th, I bought a bunch of polos and button downs (on sale) at the mall, then dropped off Sarah.  I happened upon a new Corvette, later in the evening, while crusing in my Shelby Mustang and, beat him in an impromptu race between red lights—hehe!  Now, at 10:00pm, I’m listening to what sounds like a war outside…

Yikes!

Should I be concerned or should I say…

Happy Independence Day!

Oh, and one last thing, I told my neighbor his barky dog didn’t bother me much when he mentioned that.  I guess the yapping doesn’t matter as much when it’s your friend’s dog…