Friday, August 14, 2009

Paul Graham Is Wrong

Today, Chiron linked to a Paul "Facile" Graham essay. I've long considered Graham a dabbler and a blowhard and a participatory narcissist, if only because he is. He's what you read immediately after you grow out of Eric Raymond, but before you discover girls. Indeed, Google has at last count 715,000 distinct reasons why "Paul Graham is wrong". But this time, he said something good, or at least funny:

You can't distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false.

While we're on the subject of programming pundits, Joel Spolsky is one of only three people on Earth who look like my brother. The others are my brother, and Christopher Hitchens. And that is why all true hackers would rather be covered with mustard than mayonnaise.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Libertarian, Spare that Burqa

Peter Risdon wants to ban burqas. Personally, I think he's nuts.

Having skimmed the John Stuart Mill stuff, and made a big ol' power fist during the bit about how bad apartheid is, I see two points that in my view don't hold together well:

First, he assumes that banning the burqa will, in the real world, contribute in some meaningful way to reducing what he calls "sexual apartheid" in immigrant muslim communities in the West. Risdon doesn't explain how it's going to do that. It's common to think that waging a low-level "culture war" against a given group will somehow make them less comitted to their customs or their identity, but in real life you can't make that work short of completely obliterating the subject group's culture and religion, over the course of several generations. That's tough to do. Even the helots revolted, in Sparta, didn't they? How'd that stuff work out in Ireland? (UPDATE: How'd that 1994 "assault weapons" ban work at eliminating the NRA?) Still, people think it works. God knows why. Hell, for all you know, the practical effect of such a law would be that formerly veiled women would be kept indoors 24/7. Laws like this generate unintended consquences at a faster rate than most.

If anything, banning the burqa will reinforce more traditional muslim immigrants' sense of separateness and undermine whatever openness to the West (and its values) that they may, however tentatively, have. This is not to say that you can't enforce reasonable laws against members of "immigrant communities" (for example, laws against blowing people up); but it is a very different thing to pass laws very specifically targeting them for gratuitous harrassment when they display symbols. Even if those symbols symbolize something that you rightly loathe.

Second, Risdon thinks that it's reaonable to start by banning burqas anyplace where you wouldn't let people wear ski masks. Banks, for example, and schools. Well, if somebody walks into a bank wearing a ski mask when the weather doesn't jutify it, it's because he's going to rob the place. If somebody walks into a bank wearing a burqa, it's because she has an account there or wants to open one. Or maybe she'd like to use the restroom. See the difference?

Has there been a rash of burqa-clad bank robbers in the UK? If not, then the ski mask comparison is preposterous. It's a thin, obvious pretext. Imagine a law which pretends that you, Peter Risdon, are likely to be a bank robber, just because you dress funny. Maybe you could be hiding swords in your clown shoes, or a claymore mine in your top hat. After they pass that law, will you be a) more, or b) less, likely to assume that the people who wrote the law are reasonable, sensible people with nice healthy values that you ought to consider sharing? Because that is the goal here.

Yes, burqas really bother the hell out of you. Lots of things bother the hell out of lots of people. Gays bother the hell out of some people. You just have to suck it up. Banning burqas will only convince damn near all traditional muslims, and damn near everybody else, that you are just harassing muslims because you are a dickhead. And where does that leave principled objection to the real problems you're trying to address? Up a crick, that's where.

Now, if some broad wants to put picture of her burqa on a driver's license or a passport instead of a photo of her face, there are practical reasons why that's a bad idea. But don't we already allow other religious exemptions, for people who object to photography because they think their soul will be stolen, or they don't like technology, or whatever? If so, how do we justify suddenly changing our minds? Sure, burqas aren't actually in the Koran as far as I know, but the state cannot sanely be in the business of telling people what their theology is: "Sorry, ma'am, that's not what you believe." "Yes it is!" "Mmm... nope." "IS TOO!" "But it shouldn't be." Clue: Religions are, almost by definition, stuff people shouldn't believe. Deal.

So, yeah, maybe we can reasonably demand they lift the veil for the passport picture, maybe not. Willing to debate that one.

But don't start telling me it's reasonable for the law to assume that somebody's 90 year old grandmother is out to rob banks just because she doesn't (in her view) run around half-nekkid. And don't tell me that enshrining that assumption into law will make her grandson less likely to blow you up on a bus.

Really, I don't see much chance of Britain banning burqas, so the disagreement is probably academic. At least I hope it is. But those people in Europe (and that sort of includes the UK these days) sure do pass some crazy laws.