Act on Principle

President Trump at a meeting Jan. 9 on immigration observed correctly that the system is set up to make it hard to get things done in Washington. Indeed the constitution was written so as to make it hard for legislation to pass that would restrict the freedoms of the people.  Mr. Trump has  been widely praised for this attempt to get Democrats and Republicans talking amiably and working together in that meeting.  More could be said about that but he spoiled any possibility when he floated the idea of using earmarks to improve relations between the parties, to get Republicans and Democrats to go to lunch together and get more things done.

This is an abominable idea.  Earmarks are special favors for a particular legislator’s district that almost no one else would vote for in order to induce him or her to vote for legislation with broader appeal.  It sounds like a bribe and it is.  It is full of perverse incentives.  Earmarks encourage the legislator to seek projects which have high publicity value in his district, which contain little value to the nation or which may even harm people. They are made for the sole purpose of assuring the legislator’s re-election.  That legislator by the inclusion of earmarks is then induced to vote for legislation he would otherwise consider marginal or even bad.  It encourages various interests to propose, support, lobby and attempt bribery for hundreds of earmark projects.  It shifts the focus of discussion from the merits of any significant legislation to what earmarks can a legislator get tacked onto it.  Earmarks become fodder for those who ridicule waste in government but which they hypocritically trade.

The result is poorer legislation passed because the focus is not on the legislation but on the earmarks.  Lots of money is spent on projects the sole purpose of which is to re-elect legislators and not on whether the project protects the rights of the people.  A culture of trading in favors follows.  Any obstacle is systematically torn down by throwing in earmarks.  A gaggle of lobbyists for such projects peck at legislators and encourage corruption. For this reason I oppose earmarks on the principle that they create bad legislation, corrupt the system and fail to protect the rights of the people.

But President Trump does not act on principle.  He is a pragmatist who looks short range at what will get his wall passed quickly.  He knows and acknowledged in the meeting that earmarks lead to problems in the past and indicated that protections should be put in place.  But what protections can stand against earmarks?  Just offer an earmark to any legislator who opposes your earmarks.

The only protection against bad legislation and even earmarks is principle.  Always act on what is right.  Vote for a bill on its merits.  Withhold your vote if the bill falls short.   In government the guiding principle is protecting (from initiated force) the rights of the people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Mackie and Kamrath: Three Ecclesiastical Venues

The Kamrath architectural practice (a local example of the Prairie School) erected many churches and synagogues during its existence and a few of the more successful and well-maintained structures in Houston are here described. Builders often are said to avoid returning to see their creations for fear of what later administration/ownership has changed or neglected, but these three churches benefit from vibrant levels of activity and support.

Emerson Unitarian (later named Emerson Unitarian Universalist after the denomination’s reorganization) at 1900 Bering Drive shows the strong influence on Karl Kamrath of Willem Dudok (mentioned in Scott Reagan Miller’s Rice University thesis on the Kamrath practice and in my earlier articles at this site) in that problems of larger arrangements such as two-story church sanctuaries can be solved by large, mostly windowless massing. Where one-story Prairie methods provided no guide, Kamrath often looked to Dudok for feasible precedent. The original section of the structure closest to the street shows influence of both Dudok and Wright, with extensive, blank concrete central sides, but with tower-like vertical concrete masses at the corners and wood tracery that relates the two areas. And on the north end of the property (the north parking entrance), a low wall of concrete and plaster separates a courtyard area from street noise, in Wright’s Oak Park fashion that recalls the Edward Cheney and Arthur Heurtley houses. Also the lantern-like light fixtures of stained glass are a clear and traditional Prairie reference.

St. John the Divine Episcopal at 2450 River Oaks Blvd. at Westheimer (the 1953 main sanctuary) makes extensive use of a considerably different material popular in post-WW2 America, a kind of white limestone sometimes locally called “Austin stone” since it’s quarried in central Texas. It’s assembled in a Piet Mondrian-like right angle pattern that’s hard to describe but unmistakable when one sees it. The same material was used in later extensions of the church’s school, but the later builders didn’t quite duplicate the angles; the Kamrath structure, though, gets it right. From Palm Springs to Long Island, this pattern is still seen where the original fashion has been respected. A unique aspect of the 1953 structure is the west entrance, a Kamrath updating of stone-framed cathedral entrances. Large slabs of limestone form a pyramid-pointed doorway protecting a wooden door topped by a triangular frame point. Some engineers may question the rigidity of such an arrangement but I found no cracks or fissure movement visible; this would suggest a foundation unmoved after over 60 years in a notoriously muddy environment. If you ever pass by, note the separate chapel with the east wall done completely in stained glass, with a rustic roof of real cedar shakes (not wide tar paper shingles with the lower edge cut to resemble multiple shakes).

Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church at 11612 Memorial uses white limestone as well, but in a slightly different pattern which extends some “bricks” of the material closer to the viewer, suggesting the sort of cantilever effect that the bedrock at Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania inspired. The 1972 sanctuary, the triangular-prow structure visible from the main intersection of Memorial and Blalock, has more Wrightian detail such as clerestory windows (across the top edges of walls so as to allow light but afford privacy as well) with periodic vertical piers supporting the roof. This suggests Chicago’s Unity Church, which Wright built for his own congregation. And these wall-top windows come together at the corners, not obstructed by a support pier. The joining of two glass sheets where walls normally would meet was a method used by Wright to eliminate dark corners in rooms. And a wedding chapel along a corridor about 75 yards behind the main sanctuary is a tour de force of 30, 60 and 45-degree angles beneath a sweeping A-frame, fronted by a 2-story window which, true to Wright’s practice, in fact encloses a two-story interior space rather than concealing several one-story spaces as many contemporary architects do (which would amount to false advertising).

These three structures are among the most well-preserved of Makie & Kamrath buildings anywhere. This possibly is due simply to their distance from the Texas Medical Center, where the Kamrath firm did most of its major work. Since the TMC experiences such massive growth, many buildings fall to the changing needs of the area. The further into the suburban reaches of Houston one travels, the greater the chance of seeing an M&K building that’s surviving undisturbed.

Makie, Kamrath and consultants: Temple Emanu El (1957)

As I’ve been noting here over several articles, the local connection with the Prairie School of architecture is strong, thanks in large part to Karl Kamrath’s “conversion” to the movement shortly after World War II ended. Although he was already a practicing architect, his meetings with Frank Lloyd Wright changed his direction, and with it the look of Houston and other cities.

In the late 1940’s Congregation Emanu El in Houston needed a new home and a congregation member named Lenard Gabert had an ambitious idea for a synagogue constructed in the shape of a Star of David hundreds of feet in diameter. The architecture firm contracted to render the design to scale, elevation and code was Mackie and Kamrath, and over the next ten years segments of the property began to take shape. Cantilevered awnings, integrated tracery leading from planters to walls to ceilings and other Prairie School details revealed Karl Kamrath’s design participation, and perhaps other comment. To that end, at some point Frank Lloyd Wright became aware of the progress on the building and was shown the building in person by Kamrath shortly after its completion. Wright was in town to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects and was staying with Kamrath at his house on Tiel Way in River Oaks, which still exists. And at the conclusion of the tour of the completed synagogue, Wright stated to Kamrath and the tour group that he was presenting the building with his personal stamp of approval.

Here’s a view of the main facade at the synagogue’s web page:

https://emanuelhouston.org/temple_tour1

Local and professional publications continue to take note as well:

https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fka15

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Temple-Emanu-El-5930803.php

http://www.lib.utexas.edu/apl/personal-library-karl-kamrath

The relationship with Mr. Wright is detailed in Scott Reagan Miller’s masters’ thesis for his architecture degree at Rice University, which has been placed online here:
https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/13763

(Current pictures of the structure are not used in this article so as not to interfere with any security arrangements that may have been added later.)

Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 7

Last week’s class was about discrimination, but not in the manner that the word is typically used. We learned to discriminate between various types of guns. Some guns were easy to hold and fire, while others felt clumsy and uncomfortable. And while that was an interesting and informative experience, I found the class to be more interesting as an example of the importance of discriminating.

Discrimination has become what Ayn Rand called a “package-deal“:

“Package-dealing” is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or “package,” elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value.

The purpose of a package-deal is to destroy a legitimate concept by replacing it with an illegitimate cousin by attempting to integrate things that are essentially different.

Discrimination means to identify differences between two things. This is a valid and important concept–no two things are exactly alike. But those differences are contextual. In some contexts they may matter, and in others they may be irrelevant.

For example, cats and dogs are very different types of animals. If I am studying the characteristics of animals versus plants, the differences between cats and dogs are irrelevant. But if I am choosing a pet, the differences between cats and dogs would be very important. The importance of those differences would depend on my values and my purpose for wanting a pet. It would depend on my context. Rational people recognize that there are differences between cats and dogs, and they make their choice on the basis of those differences.

Depending on my context, cats might be good or bad, dogs might be good or bad, or either may be good or bad.

But what if I am told that I can’t recognize differences–i.e., discriminate? What if I am told to treat cats and dogs as the same? No rational decision could be made. If I select a dog, I am discriminating against cats; if I select a cat, I am discriminating against dogs. Unless I simply flip a coin, any choice I make will be regarded as “discriminatory.”  Flipping a coin isn’t making a choice. Quite the opposite. It is the willful suspension of one’s mind and a surrender to chance.

The modern meaning of discrimination ignores context and treats all acts of identifying differences as essentially the same. The modern meaning of discrimination tells us to ignore differences regardless of our context and purpose. The modern meaning demands that we turn off our mind and refuse to make judgments about what is good or bad.

Certainly, some individuals make judgments on the basis of irrelevant criteria. So? People make bad decisions regarding jobs, investments, lifestyles, and everything else. We are each responsible for our choices, and we should not be shielded from the consequences of our decisions. If someone wants to be sexist, racist, or homophobic, let us ostracize him and allow him to wallow in his misery.

Certainly, sometimes our judgments cause harm to others. If I buy my groceries at HEB, I am causing “harm” to Kroger, Randall’s, Aldi, and every other grocer I deprive of my money. So? The issue isn’t harm, but the means by which that harm occurs. If I cause harm by force, fraud, or negligence, then I should be held accountable. But if I cause “harm” merely by refusing to engage in a voluntary interaction, that is my moral right.

There are differences between guns. There are differences between grocers. There are differences between people. Some of those differences don’t matter. Some do. That is for each of us to decide, and we have a moral right to act according to our own judgments. I don’t want to tell you what gun to buy (or whether to buy one or not), where to shop for groceries, whom to befriend, or whom to hire and promote. That is for you to decide. Those are decisions that each of us should be free to decide on the basis of our values and purpose.

No law can prevent us from recognizing differences. The law should protect our freedom to make such identifications, and suffer or benefit accordingly.

Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 6

In recent years, a gap has developed between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. In some communities, police officers are perceived as brutal villains who are above the law. Last week’s class focused on some of the causes for this gap.

While there are numerous causes for this gap, the two most essential are philosophical. One is epistemological (the science that deals with the theory of knowledge) and the second is moral/political. Because epistemology is more fundamental than morality or politics, I will address it first.

As I pointed out in the first post on the Citizen’s Police Academy, context matters. Before we can rationally judge an event, situation, or individual, we must have relevant facts. However, too often, when a police shooting or alleged brutality occurs, we are presented with only a small part of the facts by the media. A rational person would recognize this and make judgments accordingly.

For example, a short video clip showing police officers shooting a man in the back does not show us what happened prior to the shooting. If all we see is a fleeing man gunned down, we might easily conclude that excessive force was used. But what if this man had stabbed an officer, tried to take an officer’s weapon, or otherwise been hostile and threatening? The context changes significantly.

We are all familiar with the fallacy of quoting someone out of context. We can make a person appear to advocate almost anything if we consider only a few of their words and ignore everything else that they said. The same is true of photos or videos. They can make a situation appear much different than it really was because we aren’t getting all of the relevant information.

But if an individual has improper thinking methods, he will take the information that he is given as the entire story. He will make judgments based only on what he has seen and he will not consider the fact that there is much that he has not seen. He will not seek additional information. He will not confirm the truth of the information he has received. He accepts what he gets at face value. And this method of “thinking” is prevalent in America today. I put thinking in scare quotes because it’s not really thinking–it’s non-thinking.

This cognitive method is largely driven by emotions. Consider the hysteria that often results after some alleged incident of police brutality. Those who have truth on their side do not react by burning, looting, and destroying their community. But those who are acting on emotions don’t care about the consequences of their actions. They simply want to express their rage.

This flawed cognitive method ultimately leads to the moral/political doctrine of collectivism. Collectivism holds that only the group matters; the individual is irrelevant. To the collectivist, the actions and character traits of one member of the group apply to all members of the group. If one police officer engages in brutality, then all police officers are guilty.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often engage in the same collectivist thinking. When Black Lives Matter (BLM) began to denounce the police, law enforcement officers responded by saying “Blue Lives Matter.” While this is true, it continues the focus on the group. Collectivism cannot be overcome with more collectivism. Any attempt to do so is nothing more than pitting one group against another group.

Our instructor hinted at a solution (or at least a start towards that end). He wondered what would happen if, in response to BLM, police officers said, “I agree. Let’s talk.” More fundamentally, the discussion should not center on black lives or blue lives, but individual lives.

All of us–black, white, brown, and blue–share one thing in common. We are all individuals. And with rare exceptions, individuals do not want to brutalize others or to be brutalized. Those who act on that desire should be thrown in jail, no matter the color of their skin or the uniform they wear.

Groups like BLM act on the premise that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. This view is just as vile as the racist who believes that all blacks are criminals. Some blacks are criminals, just as some cops are bad apples. Most blacks are not criminals, just as most cops are not bad apples.

Epistemologically, it is irrational to ascribe the volitional traits of one member of a group to all members of the group. Morally, it is repugnant.

A Break from Reality

An Atlanta woman, Lamora Williams, has been charged with murder for placing two of her children in an oven and turning it on. The 24-year-old single mother of four claimed that she left the children with a caretaker while at work. When she returned home, she allegedly found her children.

I first learned of this story on the CNN show HLN. Apparently, the program deals with bizarre crimes. Anyhow, one commentator on the program said that the mother had a “break from reality.” Duh!

This was a 24-year-old single woman with four children. She lost touch with reality long ago. She has been having children without a father around, and has done so more than once. Some time ago, she refused to take responsibility for her actions.

I have no problem with single women (or men) having sex. Sex is one of the great pleasures in life. But sex does have consequences, both emotional and physical. Engaging in sex without recognizing these consequences and taking appropriate precautions is irresponsible.

One of the physical consequences of sex is the possibility of pregnancy. There is no excuse for anyone engaging in sex to not take the proper precautions if they do not want a pregnancy to result. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

Certainly, accidents can happen. But this women has had four “accidents” and she is only 24 years-old. When someone has a consistent pattern of “accidents,” we have to question their culpability. We have to question why she kept putting herself in a position where such “accidents” could happen. She chose to put herself in that position. Not once, but multiple times.

Our choices have consequences. To evade that fact is to break from reality. Lamora Williams broke from reality years before she allegedly put her children in an oven.

Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 5

Week 5 of the Citizen’s Police Academy was “scenario night.” We spent the evening role playing police officers and were faced with a wide variety of situations. To call it interesting would be a gross understatement.

The class was divided into three groups, which gave each of us ample time to practice various skills and decision making. My group began with handcuffing and the use of batons. As the process of handcuffing was being explained, it seemed like a relatively easy skill to master. As the instructor was explaining the most efficient process, I practiced on one of my wrists, and I would do it relatively quickly. But when it came time to put cuffs on another student, my time easily tripled. Clothing and the position of the hands made it much more difficult. And that was with someone who wasn’t resisting.

We then used a baton to fight off two officers who used large foam pads to push and crowd us. It was a grueling exercise involving jabbing, swinging, and shouting. And the officers were trying to harm us.

In our first class, we were shown a photo with five or six officers restraining a man who was lying on the ground. They were attempting to handcuff him. Our instructor asked us if excessive force was being used. At the time, I said that I didn’t know because there were many facts that were unknown. Certainly, a photo of five officers subduing one suspect might look excessive. And while I can’t speak to that particular incident, I can certainly understand why so my officers might be needed. As I pointed out in Part 1, context matters.

My group then moved to the “shoot or don’t shoot” simulator. Armed with a laser pistol, we responded to a variety of calls and had to decide when to shoot and when to refrain from shooting. My first call involved an intoxicated man shooting at lights in a parking garage. When I confronted him, he turned toward me with his gun at his side. I was ready to shoot him, but when I commanded him to drop the weapon he did so.

My second call involved a domestic disturbance. The husband and wife were arguing loudly in the kitchen when we (I had a partner) entered the home. The husband was holding a baby. He demanded that we leave and shouted obscenities. After a few minutes, he suddenly grabbed a rolling pin and lunged at us. My partner and I did not fire, but we soon learned that we had just been beaten with the rolling pin. In my opinion, that was a flaw in the simulator, because it seemed that he was 6 to 8 feet away and just waving the pin menacingly. Regardless, it demonstrated how quickly a situation can change and become a threat to officers.

We then moved to the third stage which featured Constable Ted Heap as the suspect. In my scenario, we were dispatched to a scene that was described as a disturbance. As we approached, we heard a gunshot and immediately drew our weapons. We rounded the corner and found a woman lying on the ground with Heap kneeling beside her. I commanded him to move away and he launched into a tirade. He shouted that his wife was dying, and we needed to help her.

For the next ten minutes, we tried to calm him and secure the scene. He was hostile, often made moves towards us, and belittled us for not trying to save his wife. After about ten minutes, I noticed “blood” on one of his hands and asked him about it. At that point he quickly moved toward my partner and tried to get her gun. I “shot” him, or perhaps I shot my partner in the back. It wasn’t clear and we had no way of telling. But it was clear that the situation had escalated rapidly and spun out of control.

I knew that I was role playing and no harm was going to come to anyone. And yet, these scenarios were intense. I had to make decisions quickly, and information was often lacking. In one situation, I was dealing with someone who was intoxicated. In two others, I was dealing with individuals who were angry and hostile. In each instance, I had to judge the threat level and respond accordingly. Twice, the threat level escalated almost within the blink of an eye.

All of us have to occasionally make quick decisions with less information than we might prefer. But few of us have to make to do so in situations that involve life and death. Police officers do it on a regular basis. They don’t always get it right, but they do so more frequently than they often get credit for. I previously understood that in an abstract way. “Scenario night” made it concrete.

A short video of “scenario night” is on Facebook.

The Moral Trumps the Practical

Last week, Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders debated the merits of pending tax reform. Cruz focused on the economic benefits, pointing to tax cuts during the Kennedy and Reagan administrations and the resulting economic growth. Sanders responded, “Creating massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations doesn’t create jobs.”

Cruz is correct when he claims that tax cuts stimulate economic growth and create jobs. But such practical arguments are largely irrelevant. Tax cuts should be defended on moral grounds–individuals and businesses have a moral right to the wealth that they have earned.

Unfortunately, Cruz and his fellow Republicans embrace the same moral code as Sanders–altruism. Altruism holds that the benefit to others is the standard by which we measure policies. Sanders believes that taxing the rich will provide the most benefits to others. Cruz believes that tax cuts will provide more benefits. So the debate is over which policy provides the most benefits, rather than what is moral and just.

If your neighbor broke into your home to steal money to pay for his children’s education, his wife’s health care, or to feed poor children, we would recognize his action as theft. The principle does not change simply because government acts as his proxy. Taking an individual’s property without his consent is theft. And theft is immoral, no matter the number of alleged beneficiaries.

If Republicans want to win the debate over tax reform, they should demand that Sanders and his ilk defend theft. They should make opponents to tax cuts explain why theft is just, why it is moral to take money from those who have earned it and give that money to those who have not. But to do so, Republicans will first have to reject altruism.

Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 4

Week 4 of the Citizen’s Police Academy featured the K9 unit. We witnessed three different dogs demonstrate their skills. Two were trained to detect drugs, and the third was a multi-purpose dog that specializes in biting. The third dog was the most interesting to watch.

An officer wearing heavily padded clothing stood at one end of the warehouse playing a suspect. Simulating an actual scenario, the dog’s handler warned the suspect to surrender. When the suspect refused, the handler warned him that the dog would attack if he continued to refuse. When the dog was unleashed, he made a bee line for he suspect and latched onto his arm. When the handler went to retrieve the dog, it was clear that the dog did not want to let go, but he did.

The scenario was then repeated, but as the dog was advancing the suspect surrendered. The handler called off the dog, which promptly laid down and stared at the suspect from about ten feet away. It was clear that the dog wanted the suspect to give him a reason to attack, but the dog resisted what must have been a very strong desire.

The K9 officers made it clear that their dogs are not pets. They are highly trained work dogs. The dogs that are used in Constable Precinct 5 specialize in clearing houses, subduing fleeing felons, locating missing persons, and/or drug detection.

Interestingly, while class was in session, one of the officers announced that the K9 unit was helping on a large drug case at that moment. And before the class was over, undercover officers brought an estimated 400 pounds of marijuana to the station and unloaded it in front of us. It appeared to me that most of my fellow students applauded this effort. I must admit that I was morally repulsed.

Adults should be free to ingest whatever we choose, whether it is raw milk, an experimental cancer drug, or marijuana. If the government can dictate what we put into our own bodies, then we are not free. If we cannot take the actions that we think will better our lives, then we do not have the liberty to pursue happiness. Drinking raw milk, talking an unapproved cancer drug, or smoking marijuana does not violate anyone’s rights.

Certainly, smoking marijuana can impair one’s judgment and motor skills, but so can many other drugs. The proper issue, politically, isn’t whether a drug creates an impairment, but whether one violates the rights of others or poses an objective threat to others. If someone smokes a joint in their own home, they do neither. If they drive while under the influence of marijuana they do pose a threat. Drinking a six-pack of beer at home poses no threat to others. Driving a vehicle after drinking a six-pack does.

To be clear, I do not fault the police officers who enforce these laws. I blame those who write the laws and prohibit individuals from acting on their own judgment. The law should identify those actions that violate the rights of others or pose an objective threat. Dictating what is legal for adults to put into their own body does not do that.

 

When “Rights” Aren’t

In the past year, a group of vagrants have established a camp under the Highway 59 overpass at Wheeler. Property owners in the Museum Park neighborhood have complained about vandalism, defecation in public, and similar acts.

In April, the city passed an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property, but the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, claiming that the ordinance violated the rights of the homeless. In August, a federal judge issued a restraining order blocking enforcement.

This is a perfect example of what occurs when rights are attached to groups rather than individuals: actual rights are ultimately violated in the name of protecting the alleged rights of the group.

Rights pertain to freedom of action. They protect the freedom of individuals to act on their own judgment, so long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same. A homeless individual has the same rights as a home owner.

To speak of the “rights of the homeless” implies that homeless individuals have rights that are separate and distinct from home owners and renters. And so, the homeless are allowed to threaten individuals, vandalize homes and businesses, and defecate on the door steps of private property. In short, they are permitted to violate the rights of other citizens.

Even if the city cannot enforce the camping ban, it can and should protect the rights of individuals. Camping on public property doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Actions such as threatening others with baseball bats and guns, breaking security cameras, and vandalizing property do violate the rights of others. The city should be prosecuting those respolnsible.