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Friday, May 28, 2010

Bit Me

In 1993 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published a novel titled, The Gripping Hand, which featured an alien species known as the moties. The plot of the book isn't really important, but what you need to know is that the moties were not bilaterally symmetric. Instead, they had two small arms on one side of their torso and one large arm on the other, for a total of three arms. Needless to say, that makes them look a little weird, but who am I to judge?

In any case, using these critters Niven and Pournelle introduced the phrase, "on the gripping hand," as a way to indicate a third option that the speaker is trying to choose between. So, in other words, the expression would go, "On the one hand X, but on the other hand Y, and on the gripping hand Z." In the course of the book they made a big point about it being the sort of idiom that humans would be unlikely to come up with on their own* since we only have two hands. And this is relevant because, in a sort of jumped up version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, they suggest that this influences our patterns of reasoning. In other words, since we have two hands we tend to perceive two, possibly opposed, options in many situations and will react accordingly. And this is potentially a problem since a given situation may include more than two options.

I don't know that I agree with Niven and Pournelle's logic, but I have noticed a tendency to reduce a complex situation to a false dichotomy. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Where it seems to me to be most pernicious, however, is in the moral arena. Some people seem to think that if something isn't moral then it must be immoral. In my view- and this may stem from my atheism- there are actions that are moral (good), actions that are immoral (bad), and actions that are amoral (neutral). It makes sense when you think about it- some actions are positive (e.g. helping those in need), some actions are bad (e.g. child abuse), and some actions are completely outside the bounds of moral concerns (e.g. I think I'll have chocolate today). And as you might guess, getting stuck in binary thinking can have some unfortunate, and occasionally hilarous, consequences.

And that brings us to a recent article in World Net Daily, the paper that makes Left Behind look positively restrained by comparison.** The article in question refers to the recent trial of President Obama. And if you don't recall hearing about any trial... well, there's a reason for that:

The controversial Harlem pastor who led a days-long "trial" of President Obama says the resulting "guilty" verdict and corroborating evidence will now be turned over to appropriate authorities, congressional and otherwise.

The event was held at Atlah World Missionary Church over the past few days, and its pastor, James Manning, claimed it to be the first "legal verdict" against Obama since he took office.

Focusing on allegations regarding Obama's status as a "natural born citizen" of the United States as well as the allegedly illegal "award" of a diploma from Columbia University, Manning insists new legal ground was broken.

The activist pastor says that under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, citizens can legally hold a trial and arrive at a verdict, with the results turned over to appropriate government bodies for enforcement.

Ah. So, what we have here is a pastor deciding to just convene his own court- with no legal authority whatsoever- and pass judgment because he f-ing feels like it.*** Sounds like a great idea. I guess I should be glad that WND at least put "legal verdict" in scare quotes, although they seem to put a lot of stuff in scare quotes, so maybe it wasn't intentional? Maybe scare quotes are like a written tic for them? Now, you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with my lengthy preamble about binary options? Well, I'll tell you, but you need to read this first:

Manning claims the fact that the Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and investigating threats, allowed the "trial" to take place constitutes evidence it was legitimate.

"If the trial did not have legal standing, then why did the federal or city authorities not intervene to halt [the proceeding]?" he said. "We did not hide the trial, in fact we did our best to promote it. So if the authorities had any problems why did they not act?"

Not only was there no government interference during or after the trial, Manning boasts the NYPD had officers in the neighborhood to protect the church when the trial was under way.

And here we come to the meat of the issue: Manning seems to believe that if his little proceeding was not illegal then it must have had legal standing. Or, to put it even more succinctly, "if they didn't stop me, it must be because I'm right". And here we see the hilarity of binary thinking. It isn't that holding this trial for Obama was illegal or legal, it's that it's entirely unimportant. The law doesn't care about whackamuffins who hold kangaroo courts in their church so long as said courts do not then do something illegal, like execute prisoners. And even then, the issue isn't the holding of a court, but the killing. So, really, it isn't that the proceedings were legitimate or illegal, it's just that they don't matter. Manning might as well have put Tom Sawyer on trial for all the law would have cared. We saw the same sort of things under President Bush with his claim that you're either with us or with the terrorists. Really? In a world as complex as ours, those are the only options? Damn.

And what I find so funny about all of this is that this sort of binary logic undermines the whole notion of our freedoms. Before you can argue that the government should encourage a behavior (e.g. support abortion with public funds) or discourage a behavior (e.g. make abortion illegal) you have to concede that government has the authority to do either. The greatest defense of liberty is simply to define certain things as beyond government's reach to influence. But, hell, thanks to binary thinking, if the government doesn't oppose it, then the government supports it, and to hell with limits on government power.

Ah, well. When you think that an invisible skybeast watches and judges your every action, I guess it's hard to apply a different logic to the government.

* The irony is, of course, rich since neither Niven nor Pournelle, so far as I am aware, have three hands.

** Note as well that its initials WND are only one letter from WMD. Coincidence? Eh, probably. WND is effectively impotent, WMDs... not so much.

*** I should probably note that the tenth amendment really just says that anything that the constitution doesn't say the Federal Government can do, is a power reserved to the states or the people. It says nothing about trials and, further, given that both the Federal Government and the states seem to have the legal arena pretty well tied up, it's little short of irrational to think that power devolves to the people. I'm just sayin' is all.

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