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We should try not to take ourselves too seriously

“The game is not about becoming somebody; it’s about becoming nobody.”

                                  — Ram Dass

Well, folks, this is where I restock my wagon with snake oil and hit the ol’ dusty trail. My time as your resident opinion guru and charlatan has come to an end, as this will be my final piece for The Voyager.

In my last piece, I discussed the concept of agnosticism as it applies to our observations of the universe.

In this piece, I would like to extend the discussion further and advocate applying that same agnostic point of view to our observations of ourselves or, more accurately, to the very concept of self.

In the same way that we can never assume our faculties of receiving and processing information will allow us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of the universe, we also cannot assume that our conception of self, as we think we understand it, allows us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of consciousness.

There are many things about the mystery of consciousness that are entirely elusive to understand.

The mystery of senses

Take something as seemingly simple as sensory input. Our material science has elucidated a great deal about the mechanics of the senses, but material science can say absolutely nothing about how consciousness perceives such phenomena within the mind itself.

For example, let’s examine the concept of sound or hearing for a moment.

Material science can explain the mechanics of acoustics: An oscillation of pressure produces vibrations that form a mechanical wave transmitting through a material medium such as a solid, liquid or gas, and if the wave falls within a certain range of frequencies, the eardrum and inner ear will detect and convert the vibrations into neurons via the cochlear nerve and the brain stem can recognize them as electrical signals.

But none of that has anything whatsoever to do with explaining the phenomena of hearing itself. Yes, material science explains the mechanical process of acoustics. But the phenomenon of actually hearing a sound is something that can only be experienced by the mystery of consciousness.

We can literally say nothing about the actual perception of sound. We can only experience it.

So, then what is sound? Ultimately, we have no friggin’ idea.

This goes for all the senses. We can explain the mechanical process, but we can say nothing at all about the phenomena of the perception itself. It can only be experienced by consciousness, as an event for the mind alone.

The mystery of self

The mystery of consciousness is so pervasive that we can’t even explain using words or scientific instruments what it entails to perceive sensory input. However, there is one aspect of consciousness we do know: As we each perceive the universe, we seem to organize the experience into subjective morsels that help solidify the idea of self-awareness.

It is difficult to define exactly what we mean by the concept of “self,” and we will perhaps be charting some murky and dangerous waters just trying to frame this conversation in a way that yields coherent results.

Sometimes, the word “ego” is used synonymously with the concept of self. “Ego” is simply Latin for “I.”

But for most people, our sense of self or ego comes from a series of associations we make from which we derive a strong sense of identity.

These associations usually consist of our past, our emotions and our thoughts. In fact, for most people, the most easily recognizable aspect of their ego is the interior monologue — the incessant thinking we do all day long.

We tend to think that the voice in our head is actually us, when the reality is that the voice in our heads is just a seemingly endless series of words that we as humans invented and has very little to do with the mystery of consciousness.

Form from the formless

This is another area where I feel Alfred Korzybski’s phrase “the map is not the territory” is relevant. Just as Korzybski suggested that language and theories are not the same things as the objects and ideas for which they symbolize, our ego or sense of self with which we identify is not the same thing as the mystery of consciousness.

We as humans have a tendency to over-conceptualize and try to create tangible things out of transient ideas. So, when we think of the concept of self, we unconsciously try to create an actual thing in our minds that we can reach out and touch and say to ourselves, “This is me. Here I am. My name is so-and-so, etc.”

It’s what I like to call “creating form out of the formless.”

It’s difficult to say why we do this. Perhaps it’s the by-product of language or some evolutionary bio-survival mechanism or a myriad of other possibilities.

But we tend to over-conceptualize the idea of self to the point where we identify wholly with some tangible box-like object that contains the idea of who we think we are.

We constantly try to place our life story, past troubles, emotional baggage and habitual thought patterns into this little box and keep writing our names on it and calling it our “self.”

The Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff once suggested that our egos ultimately can become prisons for the mind, writing, “What you took as yourself begins to look like a little prison-house far away in the valley beneath you.”

And Buddhism essentially teaches that there is no self or that the self is an illusion. This concept in Buddhism is called “anatta,” a Pali term meaning “no self.”

Dance of the Human Mystery

Ultimately, if you were to ask me who I am, my response would be, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

I have zero interest in such an idea because any metric I used for a definition would come up radically short. It would be like attempting to grasp a handful of sand — the grains just run through your fingers.

Buckminster Fuller once said, “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”

I think Bucky puts it pretty well. It seems to make better sense to think of human consciousness as being much more akin to verbs than nouns — as mysterious bundles of energy functions and processes flowing within time and space as integral aspects of the unfolding universe.

It’s what I like to call the Dance of the Human Mystery.

This is not to say that we do not each have wonderfully unique traits about ourselves, but these traits are just as beautiful and mysterious as consciousness itself. For example, there seems to be a reason that Mozart was able to start composing at age 6 — we just don’t know what that reason is.

We ultimately don’t know who we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And while I might not know who I am, I do know this: Whatever I am, the concept of self is not something that should be taken too seriously.

We’re all dancing through this swirling, mysterious universe together like lotus flowers flowing downstream on a river of uncertainty.

We might not understand where we’re going or from whence we came, but along the journey, considering no one really knows who they are, let us try our level best to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and empathy without any sense of judgment for our fellow travelers — at least that’s what I’ll be telling the next townsfolk when I hitch my wagon and unload my cases of snake oil.

So, fare thee well, folks. The dusty trail beckons me forth.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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Human ability to receive and process information is limited

Well, folks, my time at The Voyager is rapidly coming to a close. I graduate in May, and then I’ll be steering my wagon into that great wide open — my final destination as yet unsure.

Since September of 2010, I’ve often played the role here of resident opinion guru and know-it-all, opining on matters whether political or societal and offering my analysis and solutions. But the truth is I’ve never been totally comfortable with the rigidity of this role.

So, since this will be my next-to-last piece ever for this rag, I figured it was time to offer a death-bed confessional of sorts and atone for my past polemic sins.

As an opinion writer, it has been my role to play the arbiter of knowledge and justice, to render issues as worthy or unworthy using only the might of my alleged intellectual prowess.

And though I tried my best to perform my duties in this role as fairly and rationally as possible, there have no doubt been times when I felt a bit like a charlatan peddling snake oil from the back of my wagon for two bits a jar.

H. L. Mencken once said, “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it… I myself deny it.”

The Sage of Baltimore may have been crafting a meta-joke with this statement, but I think there’s some truth to it. In some sense, I am a fraud, and I don’t mind admitting it.

The reality is that my actual perspective on life is informed much more by what I don’t know rather than what I do. I consider myself an agnostic about most things, not just religion, but also science, politics, philosophy and pretty much the entire breadth of human knowledge.

So, I would like to take a moment to step out of my opinion-guru role and explain why I am actually an agnostic. Because when it comes to the big, pertinent mysteries of life on this blue rock, I prefer to dwell comfortably in the gray area.

Limited ability to perceive 

Ultimately, we as human beings can never escape our limited ability to receive and process information and the limited ability we have to communicate such information.

What we can ascertain about the workings of the universe is directly circumscribed by the faculties we possess in order to observe the universe, and by faculties I mean the capacity for sensory input, functions of the nervous system and the brain and their relationship with the phenomena of the mind.

There’s an analogy I like to use to convey this point, and it is has to do with dogs. Now, our science suggests that dogs, along with many other animals, cannot see the entire range of colors, basically what we as human beings call the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In other words, their eyes cannot see all of the colors that our eyes can see. They have what’s called dichromatic sight and only see in shades of red and gray because the biological makeup of their eyes contains more rods than cones. But the point is that they cannot see the full color spectrum as we as humans understand it.

So, in the same way that we know a dog cannot see all of the colors available in the universe, there is absolutely no reason to think we as human beings possess the faculties necessary to receive all of the information available in the universe.

We can only know as much about the universe as is available to us based on our ability to perceive the universe. We don’t know how much, if anything, there is that we cannot perceive.

We can only know as much as our faculties of receiving information will extend. There is no reason to think the faculties we as human beings possess are all encompassing in the scope of the universe. There is no reason to think we are capable of comprehending the totality of the existence.

There could be an endless amount of information available in the universe that we simply are not able to receive, much less comprehend.

In philosophy, the idea that our senses or faculties that perceive information can provide us with a direct accurate representation of the universe is called naive realism. And naive realism has been rejected by nearly every philosopher and school of knowledge in recorded history (except maybe Ayn Rand).

Everyone from Plato to Buddha, Descartes to John Locke and David Hume to George Berkeley suggested in one way or another that we can never know what an object is but that we can only know how an object is perceived by the mind.

Well, let’s extend that idea to the entire universe. We can never know what the universe is; we can only know how the universe is perceived by our minds.

The map is not the territory

And when it comes to communicating our perceptions through language and theories, the Polish scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski coined the relevant phrase: “The map is not the territory.”

On the most basic level, the idea is very simple. Let’s say you have a map of Florida. You do not have Florida itself; rather, you have a metaphorical representation of Florida. It would be impossible to ever make a complete, all-encompassing map of Florida.

On the surface, this is supposed to be an analogy for language: the word is not the actual thing it represents. But, at the macrocosmic level, the analogy speaks to something much more substantive.

What it also speaks to is the process by which we as human beings develop our theories and ideas concerning the workings of the universe.

It is a reminder that we can never escape our limited ability to receive and process information, and that as we organize this information into theories and ideas through language, the information is inherently biased.

It is the product of the human condition. All of the ideas and knowledge we accumulate, whether it be through science, psychology, philosophy or religion, are simply the maps we make to chart the human experience.

They are maps of our experiences as seen by our eyes. And they are just that, maps — or models. They are metaphorical representations of the universe that we have created based on our limited ability to perceive the universe.

I think Robert Anton Wilson perhaps said it best of all when he wrote, “Any grid we use to organize our experience of the world is a model of the world and should not be confused with the world itself.”

I think that sums it up beautifully: The models we make of the universe should never be confused with the actual universe itself.

Studying ourselves 

And it’s not just the philosophers that have rejected naïve realism; modern scientists reject the notion as well. One need only look to the field of quantum theory to discover this.

From the quantum entanglement of the EPR paradox to the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg to the measurement problem of Schrodinger, if we examine the phenomena of matter and energy enough, we ultimately discover that we are looking just as much at the inside of the human mind as we are the inside of the atom.

Because, if you really think about it, when we as human beings study something, no matter what the field of knowledge, at the end of the day, we are learning just as much about ourselves as we are the subject of our studies. We are learning how we process and receive information.

So perhaps Mencken was right. We are all frauds; the only difference is that some deny it… but I myself gladly admit it. We are all agnostic charlatans whether we realize it not.

But maybe this is just the ramblings of your resident opinion guru, and, as always, I very well could be wrong.

I will further explore a similar topic next week in my final piece for The Voyager.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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I think Supreme Court will likely uphold ‘Obamacare’

Recently, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” and the traditional wisdom from the talking heads in the world of punditry seems to forecast a negative prognosis, suggesting that the justices look likely to either strike down the law or at least find the individual mandate portion of the bill to be unconstitutional.

I agree that, based solely on oral arguments, it seems as if the death notice of the ACA may be all but certain. However, my cautious prediction is that the justices will ultimately uphold the healthcare law in a 6-3 decision with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion.

Obviously it’s impossible to predict these things with any scientific metric of accuracy. My prediction is really based mostly on a hunch — but perhaps an educated hunch.

When the individual mandate portion of the bill goes into effect in 2014, it will require employers and individuals to purchase health insurance or face a fine. This was a way to provide universal health insurance coverage without resorting to a single-payer system or a government-run health insurance agency option.

The exact origins of the mandate idea are murky, but I think most people agree that some form of the idea started in conservative circles such as the Heritage Foundation, and healthcare legislation that contained a form of the mandate were drafted by Congressional Republicans in the early ‘90s but failed to pass.

Conservatives originally supported a mandate as a way to keep free loaders (those without insurance who wind up in emergency rooms) from benefitting from a system without paying into it. Even Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney supported this notion at one time.

The mandate contained in the ACA attempted to accomplish just this, but it was also a compromise (or perhaps acquiesce) to the healthcare and insurance industries to keep a private system in tact.

It can be safely assumed that the liberal wing of the court — Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer — will likely vote to uphold the mandate, and the conservative wing — Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts — will likely want to strike down the mandate. This seems to only leave Justice Kennedy.

Most observers think the fate of the ACA in the Supreme Court will hinge on whether swing-voter Kennedy will find the individual mandate to be in violation of the “Commerce Clause” in the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to regulate commerce that crosses state lines.

At question are both whether the sprawling healthcare industry constitutes interstate commerce that Congress can constitutionally regulate and whether punishing people via a mandate for the inaction of not buying insurance falls within Congressional powers.

The Commerce Clause is an enumerated power in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that states that the Congress shall have power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

Without going into a lengthy doctrinal history of how this power has been interpreted over the years, there certainly has long been a debate as to what constitutes interstate commerce and what falls within the purview of Congressional regulation authority.

Many conservatives with an originalist view of the Constitution believe that the Commerce Clause has been used in ways over the years that the framers did not intend.

However, as a recent article in “The Atlantic” points out, even ultra-conservatives, such as Robert Bork, have acknowledged the problem with overturning federal legislation under a strict originalist interpretation of the Commerce Clause.

Bork and Daniel Troy wrote a paper in 2002 stating: “There is no possibility, today, of adhering completely to the original constitutional design. Such a daring plan would require overturning the New Deal, the Great Society, and almost all of the vast network of federal legislation and regulation put in place in the last two-thirds of the twentieth century. It appears that the American people would be overwhelmingly against such a change and no court would attempt to force it upon them.”

One of the oft-cited Supreme Court cases that acts as precedent for the broad Congressional authority granted by the Commerce Clause is Wickard v. Filburn, a 1942 case in which farmer Roscoe Filburn wanted to produce more than a regulated allotment of wheat for private consumption. The Justices rules that the Commerce Clause gave the federal government the authority to regulate wheat production on the basis that overproduction of wheat, even for private consumption, could affect prices across state lines and destabilize the national market.

Even under a strict originalist viewpoint, I don’t think anyone would disagree that the healthcare market is certainly a form of commerce with spillover that crosses state lines and the citizens of each state affect the overall national healthcare industry. The question is whether the market and its various components can be regulated as a whole by Congress via a mandate.

Supporters of the bill suggest that the mandate is a necessary regulation in order to pool risk together by forcing everyone to buy into the market — even those least likely for major health risks — in order to offset the costs of high risk individuals and keep premiums at a reasonable rate .

Kennedy seemed to agree with this notion, stating during oral arguments that “in the insurance and health care world….the young person who is uninsured is uniquely proximately very close to affecting the rates of insurance and the costs of providing medical care in a way that is not true in other industries.”

This is in congruence with an earlier ruling of a lower court concerning the ACA. In the case Seven-Sky v. Holder, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit voted that the mandate was, in fact, constitutional. Judge Laurence Silberman, widely recognized as one the most conservative judges in the country, wrote the following in the court’s decision:

“We acknowledge some discomfort with the Government’s failure to advance any clear doctrinal principles limiting congressional mandates that any American purchase any product or service in interstate commerce. But to tell the truth, those limits are not apparent to us, either because the power to require the entry into commerce is symmetrical with the power to prohibit or condition commercial behavior, or because we have not yet perceived a qualitative limitation.

“That difficulty is troubling, but not fatal, not least because we are interpreting the scope of a long-established constitutional power, not recognizing a new constitutional right.”

Silberman continued, writing: “It suffices for this case to recognize, as noted earlier, that the health insurance market is a rather unique one, both because virtually everyone will enter or affect it, and because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.”

While the healthcare industry may arguably be unique in this context, this mandate has led many to wonder what limits there are to the Commerce Clause, such as when Scalia asked during oral arguments whether Congress could mandate that people buy broccoli.

The Commerce Clause has typically been seen as only applicable in cases in which an industry has spillover issues that cross state lines and present regulatory problems generally viewed as outside the reach of individual states and that substantially affects commerce.

Silberman concurred with this limitation in the Seven-Sky case, writing, “Congress may not regulate intrastate economic behavior if its aggregate impact on interstate commerce is negligible.”

Barring some unforeseen national vegetable emergency, I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the broccoli industry will ever require such regulatory action by Congress.

So, I think at the end of the day Kennedy will likely not find the individual mandate to be in violation of the Commerce Clause.

However, Roberts is known to not be fond of 5-4 decisions and to have concerns over the court’s legacy during his tenure. Because this issue is of such importance, I think if Kennedy votes as I suspect he will, I think Roberts will then follow suit and want to write the majority opinion so he can control the language in it.

That’s my prediction, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see the court’s decision in June.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

Cartoon courtesy of Andy Marlette/amarlette@pnj.com

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Trayvon Martin shooting calls ‘stand your ground’ law into question

The tragic shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. by self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 has sparked a debate in this country about race, self-defense and the legal system.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing every detail of this case or wade into any waters about the racial component to it. I think these are completely valid discussions to have, but I want to focus mainly on the facts of this case that pertain to the Florida law that allowed Zimmerman to escape arrest that night.

At issue is the so-called “stand your ground” law that was passed by the Florida Legislature in 2005.

The relevant portion of that statute is as follows:

“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

This law essentially gives anyone the right to shoot first and ask questions later if he or she feels threatened — or if he or she can make an undisputed claim of feeling threatened.

Zimmerman told the police that he was attacked by Martin that night. However, there are conflicting eyewitness testimonies in this case, with some witnesses claiming Martin attacked first and others claiming Zimmerman was the aggressor.

I honestly don’t care if Martin did attack Zimmerman first. The only relevant fact that is applicable to the “stand your ground” law is that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin, which Zimmerman himself admitted he was doing.

We know that Martin was doing nothing wrong, had every right to be in that neighborhood and was simply on the way back to his father’s house.

Two-hundred-fifty-pound Zimmerman was following 140-pound Martin, and any time you are the pursuer of an innocent man, you are doing so in what can be reasonably interpreted as a threatening manner.

Martin would have had just as much right, if not more so, to claim he felt his life was in danger as Zimmerman did.

Zimmerman disobeyed the police dispatcher’s instruction to not follow Martin, instead pursuing the boy like the self-appointed vigilante he is purported to be, and as a result, an innocent boy is now dead.

It should also be pointed out that Chris Tutko, director of Neighborhood Watch for the National Sheriffs’ Association, recently went on record saying Zimmerman was not following typical neighborhood watch protocol.

Firstly, neighborhood watch volunteers are advised to never carry handguns when patrolling their communities. Also, volunteers are told to only report suspicious activity but never to get involved or pursue suspects.

“This guy went way beyond the call of duty,” Tutko said.

Also, the “stand your ground” law does not apply to people seen as the first aggressor, which Zimmerman became when he decided to pursue Martin.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Agreeing with my assessment is one of the very authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Former Florida State Sen. Durell Peaden, a Republican from Crestview and one of the chief architects of the “stand your ground” law, recently said, “When [Zimmerman] said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense.”

“They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid,” Peaden said. “He has no protection under my law.”

But the problem is that when the responding officers arrived on scene that night, they simply took Zimmerman at his word and decided not to arrest him on the basis of the “stand your ground” law.

Further complicating matters, when the “stand your ground” law is rightly applied (which does not seem to be the case here), the shooter becomes immune from criminal prosecution.

Luckily, because of the high profile nature of this case, there are two concurrent investigations taking place concerning this incident by the Justice Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And a Seminole County grand jury has also been impaneled.

This means Zimmerman will possibly be arrested if the grand jury decides to indict him, which looks very likely.

Even though a reasonable case could be made that the “stand your ground” law does not apply in this instance, this case has called this law into question.

Firstly, the law allowed for the police to assume they did not have probable cause to arrest Zimmerman that night, which means Zimmerman’s gun, clothes and all other evidence were not seized and the crime scene and forensic investigations normally employed in shooting-death cases were not conducted.

Also, the law potentially allows for immunity from criminal prosecution based simply on the cursory examination and testimony collected at the scene.

I don’t care if someone did act in self-defense. In this country, when someone is killed the burden of proof should be tested in the court of law.

And now it has come out that even the lead homicide investigator for the Sanford Police Department didn’t believe Zimmerman’s account and wanted to press manslaughter charges, even signing an affidavit to that effect.

But the biggest problem with the “stand your ground” law is that it allows vigilantes like George Zimmerman to try to be Batman — to take the law into their own hands, shoot first and simply claim self-defense in order to avoid arrest.

Regardless of whether this law applied in the death of Martin, it’s a reckless and dangerous piece of legislation that should be repealed. At the very least, the immunity from prosecution portion of the statute needs to be revoked.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

Cartoon courtesy of Andy Marlette/amarlette@pnj.com

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‘Kony 2012’ campaign is well-meaning nonsense

In one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns ever launched, a 30-minute video detailing the horrors of Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter last week.

The “Stop Kony 2012” campaign is a project by the activist group and charity organization Invisible Children, and its YouTube video has racked up 75 million views in less than two weeks.

As a filmmaker, I found the video to be a relatively well-done piece of sentimental emotion porn that was kind of long and pretentious. As a foreign policy and world news junkie, I found it oversimplified and wrongheaded in its methods.

I have absolutely no doubt that almost everyone who posted the video to his or her Facebook page had good intentions, and it was nice to see people take an interest in a worthy cause in a largely overlooked part of the world — though, admittedly, my first reaction was a snarky “thanks, white people, for finally noticing that horrible things are happening in Africa.”

My familiarity with the name Joseph Kony is also relatively recent. Besides vaguely remembering a Vanity Fair article about the LRA by the late Christopher Hitchens in 2006, I first really registered the name Joseph Kony in the fall of 2011.

Last October, President Obama authorized the deployment of 100 military advisers to forward operating bases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan in order to assist the Ugandan military in hunting down and capturing Kony.

I also remember shortly after the troops were deployed, the odious Rush Limbaugh basically defended Kony and the LRA and accused Obama of sending troops to murder Christians who were killing Muslims in the Sudan.

That was when I did my first research into who were Joseph Kony and the LRA, and after Invisible Children’s wildly successful promotional campaign last week, I decided to revisit some of that research.

So, let’s look at the facts, shall we?

When Uganda’s horrific military dictator Idi Amin was removed from power in 1979 following the Uganda-Tanzania War, the country fell into a brutal civil war that lasted until 1986.

In the years following the civil war, sometimes referred to as the Luwero War or the Ugandan Bush War, Uganda has been controlled by leaders of the National Resistance Army.

But in Northern Uganda, guerilla groups fought against the NRA’s rule, and one such group was the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony.

For 20 years, Kony’s LRA led a brutal campaign of terrorism, rape, abduction and torture, killing tens of thousands of civilians and kidnapping thousands of children who were used as sex slaves and fighters for the LRA.

A 2004 report by the Ugandan Refugee Law Project estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 children had been abducted and that 1.4 million people had been displaced because of the LRA. Presumably, those figures are considerably higher now.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued its first ever arrest warrants for five leaders of the LRA, including Kony, and indicted the LRA on 21 counts of war crimes and 12 counts of human rights violations.

By 2006, following failed peace talks with the Ugandan government, the LRA moved its base of operations from Northern Uganda into the DRC, CAR and South Sudan.

Since 2006, Kony and the LRA’s sphere of influence have been considerably weakened, and the group is estimated to consist of only a few hundred remaining fighters.

This is not to suggest the LRA does not still pose a threat to Central Africa.

Kony and the LRA remain at large and still carry out attacks on the civilian populations.

2011 report by the International Crisis Group estimates that the LRA killed more than 2,400 civilians, abducted more than 3,400 and caused 440,000 to flee their homes in the Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic since 2006.

So, there is no question that the campaign to stop Kony and the LRA is a worthy cause deserving of attention. My issue with the “Stop Kony” campaign was not with the cause itself but with the charity Invisible Children and its methodology.

Firstly, we need to understand that Kony and the LRA are no longer in Uganda and have not carried out attacks there since 2006. Secondly, the LRA does not have an army of 30,000 child soldiers, as the video suggests.

That figure refers to the total number abducted and killed in the LRA’s 20-year existence.

And the LRA’s real numbers stand at fewer than 1,000 soldiers.

The real question is what exactly does Invisible Children’s campaign actually hope to accomplish? They say they want to make Kony famous in order to aid in his capture.

But isn’t that exactly what the Obama administration is trying to do with its deployed military advisors?

Invisible Children’s video says, “if the [U.S.] government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled.”

And apparently to show our government that people care, Invisible Children wants people to buy their $30 Kony 2012 kit that includes arm bracelets and posters.

This is just silly, juvenile nonsense. The Obama administration doesn’t care if people wear stupid Kony bracelets. Capturing Kony was already official U.S. policy as well as the policy of the African Union.

Also, whether Invisible Children realizes it or not, it is possible this promotional campaign will help lead to the U.S. expanding its troop presence in Central Africa.

And for a campaign aimed at stopping the use of child soldiers, Invisible Children seems to ignore the fact that the current Ugandan government ruled by the NRA has its own dirty past of using child soldiers.

This is not to mention that the NRA has its own host of human rights abuses under Yoweri Museveni who has ruled Uganda in a near-dictatorial manner since 1986.

While it’s very unlikely that the U.S. will be going to war in Central Africa anytime soon, Washington’s military presence and sphere of influence in the region may soon swell under the auspices of this Kony campaign.

It may also be worth noting that, in 2010, the Obama administration gutted the Child Soldiers Protection Act and waived penalties for Yemen, South Sudan, Chad and the DRC.

So, it’s at least worth raising questions about what Washington’s interests in Central Africa really entail, if not to protect the recruitment of child soldiers.

Look, capturing Kony would be great, and there’s nothing wrong with bringing attention to a worthy cause. But in all honesty, there are better, more effective charities and organizations deserving of people’s money and support than Invisible Children.

If you want to really get involved and make a difference in Africa, then I suggest donating to organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, and leave capturing Kony to the experts on the ground who were already trying to do just that.

 W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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Presidential nomination by delegates is ridiculous

Did you know that, technically speaking, all of the voting that has and is currently taking place at the primaries and caucuses across the country is actually not the final deciding factor for how presidential candidates are chosen?

It’s true. Presidential candidates are ultimately chosen at conventions by delegates from the political parties — and the will of the primary and caucus voters can theoretically be overturned.

This is the second part of my two-part series examining the presidential election process in America. In the first installment, I discussed the absurdity that is the Electoral College and called for it to be abandoned.

In this installment I would like to examine this ridiculous process of presidential candidate nomination by delegates.

Believe it or not, this topic is so dense and confusing that I cannot possibly discuss every aspect of it substantively here (which is perhaps indicative of how crazy the system is).

The delegate selection rules, and the manner in which nominating conventions operate, have changed considerably over the years and have even changed in subtle ways between every presidential election.

But I will try to do my best to provide a condensed explanation of the process based on the current rules.

A delegate is basically someone picked to represent his or her political party at the nominating convention. How delegates are chosen varies from state to state and between the political parties.

For the Republican Party, some states will automatically allot a certain number of delegates based on the number of congressional districts while other states allot delegates to the state as a whole. It’s also possible for bonus delegates to be awarded if the state has a Republican majority in the state legislature, elected Republicans for Congress or as governor or voted for a Republican in the last presidential election.

The Republicans currently have 2,380 delegates, and a candidate needs 1,191 delegates to become the nominee.

Many states use a winner-take-all system for their Republican primaries, such as Florida, meaning if a candidate wins the state’s primary all of the state’s delegates will pledge to vote for that candidate at the nominating convention.

However, some states, such as New York and Texas, use a proportional system that allows the delegates to be divvied up based on how many votes each candidate received in the primary.

Although most of the Republican delegates will be determined state to state either through primaries or caucuses, there are also about 500 delegates that are considered “unbound,” meaning there is no legal obligation for which candidate they must vote, and they are free to decide as they please come the convention.

Many of the unbound delegates come from states with non-binding primaries and caucuses. As a result, those contests are basically only cosmetic and the delegates can actually decide for themselves at the convention.

Non-binding primaries and caucuses generally cost each state millions of dollars to hold and essentially amount to an incredibly expensive straw poll.

The Democratic primaries and caucuses, on the other hand, have a uniform system that awards all delegates proportionally, though candidates must reach a threshold of above 15 percent.

Each Democratic state delegation is required to have an equal balance of men and women and even comply with certain affirmative-action policies as set by the Democratic National Committee. However, each state is free to come up with their own delegate-selection plan that conforms to these requirements and have it approved by the DNC .

Democrats currently have 4,049 delegates, and a candidate needs 2,025 delegates to become the nominee.

However, the Democrats also have so-called “superdelegates” that are similar to unbound delegates and are free to vote for whichever candidate they want.

There are approximately 800 superdelegates, and they include all the members of the DNC, all current Democratic members of Congress, current Democratic governors, and party leaders such as former Democratic presidents, vice presidents and congressional leaders.

Also, the regular Democratic delegates awarded through primaries and caucuses are considered “pledged” delegates and are technically under no legal obligation to cast their votes at the convention for whomever won their respective states — though pledged delegates rarely vote for a candidate that did not win the state.

If a candidate does not win enough delegate votes to secure either the Republican or Democratic nomination, then the parties will have what is known as a “brokered convention.”

In the situation of a brokered convention, essentially, all bets are off. The primary and caucus results are thrown out the window, and the candidate will be selected through a dizzying series of horse-trading, power-brokering re-votes on the convention floor.

The last Democratic brokered convention was in 1952 with Adlai Stevenson eventually becoming the nominee even though Estes Kefauver went into the convention with more delegate votes.

And the last Republican brokered convention was in 1948 with Thomas Dewey eventually winning the nomination after struggling to defeat Robert Taft.

In 2008, the Democrats almost had a brokered convention, but Barak Obama managed to edge out Hillary Clinton by the time of the convention.

And it looks increasingly possible that a brokered convention might be possible for the upcoming 2012 Republican convention if Mitt Romney doesn’t safely secure the nomination.

So, if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, this system of delegate nomination is totally insane, hopelessly outdated, needlessly overcomplicated and utterly inconsistent from state to state and party to party.

Granted, reforming this system would be next to impossible considering the political parties are so set in their ways, but let’s consider some ways we could fix this madness.

Perhaps the easiest solution would be to just have a binding nationwide primary on a single day a few months before the general election that would select the candidates for all political parties through overall popular votes.

Using this system, we could either get rid of delegates altogether or make their function non-binding and just for-show at the conventions.

Another way would be to create a consistent nationwide system for delegate allocation, requiring a proportional system in every state, and the delegates must vote in the conventions however their respective states decided in the primaries.

Whatever we do, I would hope we can all acknowledge that this current system is ridiculous and badly needs reform.

 W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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The Electoral College is absurd and should be abandoned

Our country is in desperate need of electoral reform — and I’m not even talking about our horribly broken system of campaign financing. I mean the manner in which we elect presidents through the delegate-nominating system and the Electoral College is absolutely insane and makes no sense whatsoever.

So, it being an election year, I would like to examine our election system and make some recommendations on how to fix it. I realize my recommendations will probably be a bit unrealistic because they would require constitutional amendments in some cases, but I think these are things worth considering.

I will be splitting this subject into two parts. In this first installment, I will be examining the absurdity that is the Electoral College. And next week I will discuss the ridiculous process of candidate nomination by delegates of the two political parties.

As we all know, the president and vice-president are not chosen by the popular vote in the general election but by an absolute majority of votes from the Electoral College.

This is how the Electoral College works: As per Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, each state either elects or appoints electors that make up the Electoral College who cast a vote for president and vice president in the general election.

The number of electors must be equal to the total number of Congress members (but electors cannot be a member of Congress).

Ergo, there are currently 538 electors, meaning it takes the votes of at least 270 electors to win the general election.

It is up to each state as to how electors are chosen. For example, in Florida, the governor nominates electors to represent their political party, and the electors swear an oath to vote for the candidates of the party that he or she is nominated to represent (this is pretty close to how most state’s electors work, but some states nominate electors in party conventions).

Generally speaking, the electors act as functionaries of the state and pledge to cast their vote for whomever wins their state’s popular vote in the general election. However, they are not required to do so.

In theory, electors can actually cast their votes for anyone they choose. When electors cast their vote for someone other than who won their state’s popular vote, this process is called “faithless electors.”

Faithless electors are a rare occurrence, but it has happened several times over the years and as recently as 2004 when a Minnesota elector cast his vote for John Edwards for president instead of John Kerry (presumably by accident).

It also happened in 2000, when Elector Barbara Lett-Simmons cast an abstention vote in Washington D.C. instead of voting for Al Gore.

The Electoral College system also allows for the possibility that a candidate can win the presidency without winning the overall national popular vote.

Such an occurrence has happened four times in our nation’s history, most recently in the 2000 election debacle when Gore received 550,000 more votes than George W. Bush.

The Electoral College can also end in a tie. It’s only happened once in the 1800 election when Thomas Jefferson tied Aaron Burr in Electoral College votes. In this absurd scenario, the election gets turned over to be decided by Congress.

And don’t think an Electoral College tie cannot happen again. There are even a couple of completely plausible scenarios that could result in a tie in the upcoming 2012 election (such as this scenario).

If the election goes to Congress to be decided, the president would be chosen in the House of Representatives and the vice president would be chosen in the Senate.

To decide the president in the House, each state delegation gets one vote.

So, while the House currently has 435 members, they would collectively only be casting 50 votes with the representatives from each state voting as a group.

And, no, they are not obligated to cast their vote in line with how the voters in their respective states went. That means a state like Colorado could vote for Obama on Election Day, but since four of the state’s seven representatives are Republican, the state could theoretically end up going for Romney or whoever the Republican nominee is.

Furthermore, this also means that hypothetically Obama could be picked as president by the House and a Republican could be picked as vice president by the Senate or vice versa. This means we could have ended up with Obama and Sarah Palin in 2008 under such a scenario.

So, you may be wondering, then why the hell do we even have an Electoral College if it operates in such a ridiculous manner?

The Founders actually appropriated the system from the Holy Roman Empire, when, starting in the 13th century, elector princes chose the emperor.

The American Electoral College system was chosen, in part, because of the prevalence of slavery in the South and the worry that the infamous Three-Fifths compromise would lead to under-representation of southern states.

Also, there was the completely erroneous hope that such a system would discourage the most populated states from deciding the election at the detriment to the least populated states. However, the Electoral College actually allows just as easily for the opposite to occur.

The United States is currently the only county in the world that allows for an indirect election of an executive president.

Germany and India allow their parliaments to elect the president, but the real executive authority lies with the prime ministers who must win direct elections.

The Electoral College system is an outdated, arbitrary mess that should be completely eradicated.

It would take a constitutional amendment to change the system, but poll after poll has shown that the majority of Americans support such a change, such as a recent Gallop poll that found 62 percent favor nixing the Electoral College.

Our presidents should be chosen by the overall national popular vote, plain and simple — anything else is absurd.

 W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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NDAA bill may allow for indefinite detention of American citizens

On December 31, President Obama signed into law the controversial National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, and critics have pounced on the bill claiming that it potentially allows for the indefinite detainment of American citizens.

Let me go ahead and warn everyone that this is a very complicated subject, but I’m going to do my best to try and make it intelligible.

On its surface, the NDAA is an 1844-page spending bill that authorizes $662 billion for the defense budget. But contained within the legislation are provisions that deal with the detention of terrorism suspects, specifically the portion of the bill entitled, “Subtitle D –Counterterrorism.”

These provisions of the bill do not so much expand presidential authority for detaining suspects as it does reaffirm an authority both former President Bush and Obama claim already existed as granted by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

The AUMF was a one-page joint resolution passed by Congress immediately after 9/11 authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the terrorist attack and granted the President the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” in 9/11.

Section 1021 of the NDAA codifies this authority of the AUMF and defines a “covered person” subject to this authority as the following:

“A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks” or “A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.”

So, in effect, this section puts a Congressional stamp of approval on the administration’s interpretation of the AUMF, even though the AUMF does not explicitly state anything about powers of detention.

The new language that is added to the NDAA that was not in the original AUMF is the phrase “substantially supported.”

This phrase is dangerously broad and could, perhaps, be used to detain someone only tangentially involved in organizations hostile to the United States.

Furthermore, when someone is detained that is deemed a “covered person,” the NDAA allows for four options for disposition, including trial by a military commission, trial by an alternate court or tribunal, or transfer of custody to the person’s country of origin or any foreign entity.

But the most terrifying option is “detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.”

Considering the War on Terror could potentially last forever, a person could reasonably be held indefinitely without trial under this provision.

However, contained is this provision is also language that says, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.”

While it seems to exempt U.S. citizens, it still allows the potential for the detainment of U.S. citizens if captured outside of the United States.

But the next section does seem to allow for the potential for American citizens to be detained.

Section 1022 of the bill refers to a subset of “covered persons” defined as “a member of, or part of, al-Qaeda or an associated force” and someone who “participated in the course of planning or carrying out an attack or attempted attack against the United States or its coalition partners.”

If a person is detained that falls under this subset, the bill says the requirement for military custody “does not extend to citizens to the United States.”

The key word here is “requirement,” which does seem to suggest that the option for indefinite military detainment is still available but is simply not mandatory.

When Obama signed the NDAA into law (after backing down from his empty veto threat), he also offered a signing statement that said, “I want to clarify that my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.

“Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation. My administration will interpret Section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war and all other applicable law.”

While that might be true (it’s too early to tell), it really suggests only that the Obama administration will not interpret the NDAA to include American citizens but completely leaves open the possibility that subsequent administrations will have a different interpretation.

Ultimately whether or not these provisions of the NDAA will be used in the worst-case scenario manner that critics fear is yet to be determined.

But there is no question that the bill absolutely could be interpreted to be used in such a manner, even if such a worst-case scenario is perhaps unlikely.

This is just the recent in a long line of measures the Obama administration has supported that curtail civil liberties in this country. Obama has proven to be just as hawkish, if not more so, on foreign policy than the Bush administration —  and many liberals and progressives are starting to feel this is not what they voted for in 2008.

The very fact that this legal ambiguity exists in a bill such as this is utterly unforgivable.

While the NDAA might not exactly be the end of the Bill of Rights as we know it, the bill is a dangerous piece of legislation that should have never been passed or signed into law with such shameful and troubling ambiguities.

 W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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SOPA and other anti-piracy measures threaten future of internet

A major victory for the future of the internet and free speech was scored last week when hoards of everyday people flooded Congress with calls and emails in opposition to the far-overreaching anti-copyright-piracy legislation introduced into the House of Representatives known as the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA.

On the side supporting the bill were many members of Congress along with every major company in the media and entertainment industry, as well as many unions and organizations such as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (a private, pro-business lobbying firm, not a government agency).

On the other side were opponents such as the internet giants Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Wikipedia and eBay along with human rights organizations such as Reporters without Borders and the ACLU, as well as countless citizen activists.

Thanks in part to a website blackout organized on Jan. 18 by Wikipedia and the popular, social link-aggregator site Reddit, SOPA and the similar Senate-version of the bill known as the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA, are now dead in the water for the time being.

After being inundated with opposition from constituents, the number of Congress members opposing the bill swelled from 31 members on Jan. 18 to 189 members on Jan. 19.

It was an inspiring example of successful political activism that managed to stop a powerful piece of legislation, which many opponents felt would have potentially destroyed the very fabric of the internet and done very little to stop online piracy.

The legislation would have granted the government the authority to shut down and block access to websites that posted illegally-obtained copyrighted material such as movies and music or even hosted links to such material, all without a trial.

This basically meant that any site that allowed user-generated content such as Facebook or YouTube could have potentially been shut down if even one piece of copyrighted material was posted, even if the infringement was unintentional.

SOPA and PIPA were wrong-headed from the beginning, and as Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” said recently, the bills were “like coming up with a plan to prevent teen pregnancy by filling penises with cement.”

The bills were almost certainly written by lobbyists from the entertainment industry, and as such, displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying architecture of how the internet works, such as the functionality of DNS servers.

While there is no question that access to illegal copyrighted material is a problem in need of a solution, these bills would have created criminals out of the wrong people and done very little to actually stop the flow of such material.

Supporters of the legislation have used widely-inflated figures to suggest that online piracy costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion each year and has killed 750,000 jobs.

However, the Government Accountability Office released a report in 2010 say these figures “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology,” basically meaning they are totally bogus.

It is currently impossible to quantify the exact amount of damage done by online piracy, but make no mistake about it: These bills are about more than people just downloading copyrighted material.

The subtext hidden in this legislation is the desire on the part of the entertainment industry to stifle competition.

As technology advances, the ability for independent filmmakers and musicians to create highly-polished works of art increases exponentially, and the internet provides a perfect digital distribution model at zero cost.

The entertainment industry does have a legitimate interest in stopping online piracy, but they also want to control all content production. Sites like YouTube terrify the major studios because it allows for a system of distribution that bypasses the entertainment industry.

SOPA and PIPA were not only dangerous bills that threatened the structure of the internet while doing little to stop piracy, but they also infringed on free speech not just by shutting down websites but by  killing the infrastructure for the entertainment industry’s competition as well.

So, all proponents of free speech and an uncensored internet should take a bow for killing these odious pieces of legislation. But the fight is far from over, and new threats are on the horizon.

Congress is already gearing up to debate the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act, which in its current form infringes on privacy by allowing the government the ability to obtain people’s credit card data, IP information and search history simply by asking for it.

But the PCIPA could very well end up being nearly identical to SOPA and PIPA in its final form if it isn’t stopped.

However, the most horrifying anti-piracy measure still in the works is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a international agreement to set standards on intellectual property for which the U.S. is already a signatory.

ACTA would potentially allow for placing a near-impossible burden on Internet Service Providers to police copyrighted material, forces ISPs to cut off internet access to infringers and block access to websites that host or link to such material, all without a trial or due process.

Speaking of which, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, the recent shutdown and seizure of the file-sharing site Megaupload has shown that the U.S. government already posses the authority to kill copyright-infringing websites without due process or a trial.

This is because a law currently on the books, the 2008  Pro-IP Act, grants the Justice Department such authority.

If the SOPA fight has taught us anything, it’s that political activism works. So, pay attention, keep informed and participate by calling your Congress members and educating others about these draconian measures.

Also, we need to tell our representatives to consider supporting far-more reasonable anti-piracy legislation such as the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act) introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D – Oregon) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R – California).

We have the power to stop these overreaching measures, but we must exercise it.

 W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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Ron Paul offers much to like and dislike

Ron Paul, who had a strong third and second place showing recently in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to presidential candidates.

He’s running as a Republican but counts among his supporters people from all sides of the ideological spectrum, from anti-regulation libertarians to Occupy Wall Street protestors, from leftist 9/11 Truthers to right-wing white supremacists.

While it may be a moot point considering Mitt Romney will almost certainly be the eventual Republican nominee, I would like to examine who exactly is Ron Paul and where he stands on the issues.

The former obstetrician-gynecologist has served as a Republican congressman for Texas’ 14th district since 1997, and over the years has solidified a reputation as a bit of a renegade who marches to the beat of his own drum.

Part of the reason Paul garners such a wide cross-section of support is because his positions on the issues offer a little for everyone to like — and perhaps dislike.

For example, he appeals to some liberals and progressives (especially the younger ones) because when it comes to the drug war, civil liberties, executive power and some aspects of foreign policy, you could perhaps say that Ron Paul is more progressive than President Obama.

He advocates ending the so-called War on Drugs and supports drug legalization, saying that prohibition doesn’t work and drug addiction should be treated as a medical problem. 

He has taken a strong stance advocating an end to War on Terror and preemptive wars and has condemned the practices of drone attacks and targeted assassinations on American citizens involved with terrorism, all of which Obama supports.

He is the only Republican candidate to come out against the far-overreaching Stop Online Piracy Act and the highly controversial National Defense Authorization Act, which some critics think has provisions that could potentially allow for the indefinite detainment of American citizens.

While these positions have gotten Paul in trouble with the Republican base, he also has positions that appeal to social conservatives: He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state, thinks there is war on Christmas, rejects the theory of evolutionis against gay marriage (though thinks it should be left to for the states to decide) and denies that global warming exists.

When it comes to abortion, Paul considers himself to be strongly pro-life, as he supports a repeal of Roe v. Wade and has introduced the Sanctity of Life Act several times into the House that would have defined human life and legal personhood as starting at conception.

But Paul has also said that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments would not allow the federal government to ban states from performing abortions and feels that abortion is not a constitutional issue. However, in a rare moment of inconsistency, he has voted twice for a federal ban on partial birth abortions.

Paul appeals to those who think government is too big. He thinks that both Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, but stops short of saying he would abolish the programs.

He’s not keen on many federal departments and agencies and wants to eliminate the departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior, Education, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as FEMA.

He’s no fan of many international organizations and global alliances and wants the U.S. to not only pull out of the United Nations but also NATO and the World Health Organization.

Paul even once said the United Nations was a threat to the U.S. that would confiscate firearms, end the Second Amendment, take away private property rights and curtail the right of free religious practice.

He is also against all foreign aid to other countries including Israel.

Paul largely appeals to libertarians, which is the philosophy that seems to inform much of his worldview.

He is a disciple of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, pioneers of the so-called Austrian school of economics (far too complicated to discuss here, but imagine a fanatical reactionary response to Marxism and you’ll start to get the idea) as well as Ayn Rand, who ranks up there with L. Ron Hubbard as one of the worst novelists of the 20th century and believed in pure objective reality.

He comes from the dogmatic school of thought that believes unfettered free market capitalism will solve everything and almost all government regulation will only encroach on people’s freedoms.

It is this libertarian spark that starts to put Paul’s positions into perspective.

Paul essentially believes in the privatization of everything and thinks individual liberty can only be achieved when government has a hands-off approach to nearly every aspect of society, especially business.

In his 1987 book “Freedom Under Siege,” Paul wrote that in a “free society an individual can own and control property and run his or her business as he or she chooses” and that “free people have the right to discriminate.”

Paul has said numerous times that he would have voted against the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he feels was an affront to liberty and private property.

He rejects the notion that we need regulation to protect people from unfair corporate practices, such as monopolies, racial or sexual discrimination, overworking hours, child labor, etc. He even once said that it was actually capitalism that ended child labor.

And this is where Paul totally goes off the rails for me.

He claims to be against corporatism, but I would submit his economic policies would lead to disastrous results and inch us that much closer to corporate tyranny.

There is no question that sometimes government regulations can be overreaching, ineffective and corrupt just like any other human system, but I think the idea that industries can be entirely self-regulating if we just left them to their own devices is utterly absurd.

First of all, this ignores the fact that much of the bills passed by Congress regulating industries are actually already written by the very industries and their lobbyists that are to be regulated, either weakening the regulation or preventing regulation altogether.

But if the financial crisis of 2008 taught us anything, it’s that private industries cannot be trusted to self-regulate.

Remember the credit ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s? These were private regulatory agencies that were to set standards for rating investments as either safe or dangerous.

But instead, the credit ratings agencies knowingly rated toxic investments as safe because they were in cahoots with the financial service industry and turned a massive profit from the ratings — one of the key factors in the financial collapse.

And, no, capitalism did not end child labor. Child labor was ended in the U.S. with unions and federal regulations after many hard-fought years of workers’ struggle through political activism.

In fact, many American corporations still engage in child labor in other countries, such as Apple. I know we can’t live without our iPhones and iPads, but we all need to understand they were built in part by child labor and sweat shops in China.

And why China? Because China doesn’t have regulations that outlaw such practices like we do in America.

I feel the failure to understand this simple truth of the relationship between capitalism and regulation is to be totally out of touch with reality. We should be calling for better more effective regulations, not wanting all regulations to be abolished.

Of course, if you don’t agree with this notion, then perhaps Paul is your candidate. Ultimately, whether you want to support Ron Paul depends on which issues are of most importance to you.

But I’m certainly glad he is a candidate, because he offers something new and substantive to the debate and a challenge to the status quo whether you agree or disagree — and if that makes him an anomaly in American politics then I welcome it.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

Cartoon courtesy of Andy Marlette/amarlette@pnj.com

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