The protest condundrum

Well, over a million people marched in protest of President Donald Trump yesterday. And while I definitely agree with the protesters and their messages, I couldn’t help but think of one thing as I watched the coverage on the news:

Where the hell was all of this during the election?

If all of those protesters has poured as much energy and organization into the election, I would bet that we wouldn’t be talking about president Donald Trump right now. So while I think the protests were totally awesome on one level, on another level it seems like it’s too late. Trump has already been sworn in and he’s sitting in the oval office right now.

Trump, Pence, and the republicans in congress probably don’t give a rat’s ass about the protests because they already won and protests aren’t going to change that.

But that kind of activity probably could have changed the outcome of the election. Of that I have very little doubt. This past election suffered from pretty low voter turnout. People just weren’t excited about Donald and Hillary, so they stayed home.

voter-turnout-graph

But imagine if all of these people who protested had mobilized in a similar way before the election. Imagine if they worked that hard to drum up more excitement for voting. The outcome probably would have been different. Imagine if they’d all worked that hard to ensure that he didn’t get elected in the first place. These protests should have started the moment Trump won his party’s nomination, not after he took office.

There’s always 2020.

Litigation nation

Liability. It’s fancy legal talk for “Whose at fault?” Blame is big in our culture when something goes wrong, and we’ve taken to using the legal system as a way of obtaining closure.

Case in point: I recently came across this story about a family in Texas who is suing Apple because a driver who struck their car, killing their daughter, was using FaceTime at the time of the accident. In their lawsuit, the couple alleges that it was incumbent upon Apple to warn everyone that their app could be dangerous when misused, and that they should have designed a safer app.

Folks who read this blog know that I’m not usually a fan of corporations, but I have to side with Apple here. It’s unreasonable, both in legal terms and in common sense, to expect a company to clairvoyantly predict all the ways in which a product can be misused or abused. And speaking of common sense, it should be painfully obvious to everyone that a video chatting app shouldn’t be used while driving.

There is definitely someone at fault here, but it isn’t Apple. It’s the man who was driving the car that hit them. He’s the one at fault because he’s the one who made the decision to use the app while driving. It was his actions that lead to the accident, not Apple’s.

What this appears to be is simply a grab for money. Why else sue Apple instead of, you know, the man who killed your daughter? Probably because the guy who hit your car isn’t worth billions of dollars. But more importantly, suing Apple doesn’t speak to justice–turning tragedy into financial gain is not justice.

But this case brings to light several important questions.

First, should companies be held responsible when their products are used incorrectly or abused? The answer to that, I should think, is a resounding NO. There was a similar debate about this issue during the democratic primary. Hillary Clinton supported a law that held gun manufacturers liable for incidents involving their products. Bernie Sanders did not support such legislation. I have to side with Bernie on this one (shocking, I know, me agreeing with Bernie). The fact that someone used a gun to commit a murder isn’t the manufacturers fault; that individual chose to use a gun for murder instead of self-defense or sport.

Where would this sort of thing end, holding manufacturer’s liable for the actions of individuals who use their products? Suing the brewery for a drunk driving accident? Suing the waitress who served the alcohol? Charging the gun shop owner who sold the weapon used in a crime as an accomplice or an accessory? Holding manufacturers liable is a very, very dangerous precedent.

Second, are companies obligated to warn people about the potential dangers of their products? This is a slippery slope. How much hand-holding do we expect these companies to do? This is why we have labels that say things like, “Do not stick hand in while lawnmower is running” or “caution: this hot drink is hot.” At some point, individuals have to exercise common sense and personal responsibility.

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The fact that we have to tell people this is sad

Third, is litigation the best way to get closure? Suing Apple isn’t going to bring the family’s daughter back. Even if they did win, say, a billion dollars, that still isn’t going to change the fact that their daughter died. But I think more importantly, we as a culture have to realize that getting money isn’t the same thing as grieving. We have a tendency in this country to throw money at problems.

But sometimes that simply doesn’t work. In the case of losing a loved one this is particularly true. Money does not replace loved ones and it isn’t a substitute for grief. Sorry. But I expect that our cultural solution to intense emotional angst would involve money somehow, because everything in this country revolves around money.

Perhaps what disturbs me the most about cases that seek to hold a manufacturer liable is that they absolve individuals of the need or expectation that they use common sense, critical thinking, and have a little personal responsibility for their actions. We’re becoming a nation where everything is always someone else’s fault, we’re never the ones in the wrong. We always try to point the finger at others when we screw up. “How was I supposed to know that my child could choke on tiny toy parts if he wasn’t supervised?! Give me money!” Maybe you could try, I don’t know, parenting your child. I don’t think it’s too much to expect people to know that hot coffee is hot or that you shouldn’t stick your hand in a lawnmower while it’s running. It’s dangerous to me to allow people to use the law to obviate their own lack of foresight, responsibility, or common sense.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean that people who experience what the family in that article went through don’t deserve closure. After all, the accident was not due to a lack of vigilance on their part; someone else’s poor choices directly affected them. But that person wasn’t Apple. It was the man driving the car. Who can and will be prosecuted for his crime–manslaughter. That’s where the legal system is supposed to provide closure to grieving people. In the fact that the person was caught, held responsible for their actions, and won’t be allowed to do it again. That they’ll be punished for their poor choices. That’s justice.

Facebook, fake news, and free speech

The issue of fake news on social media has suddenly become a hot button issue, and Facebook has found itself square in the cross-hairs of public ire. The issue recently came to a head after an armed man invaded a local pizza parlor because a “news” article he read online said that Hillary Clinton has a secret child slavery ring based there.

At first glance, any rational person would hear or read something like that and say, “Sure, whatever. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How could anyone fall for something like that?”

Well, there are several reason why someone would believe something that outlandish. First and foremost, there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t rational. Second, there is now a whole industry of trolls out there dedicated to creating fake news, and they’ve gotten quite good at it, to the point where fake news, by all outward appearances, resembles actual news. And finally, there is such a huge distrust of mainstream media, that increasingly people are turning to alternative and, shall we say, less vetted news sources.

All of this is creating a perfect storm wherein people are reading things on the internet that simply aren’t true, but are nonetheless being presented as fact. After public outcry, Facebook is taking some steps to trying and help crack down on fake news. In short, the plan is to create a feature whereby people can flag an article as “disputed.” People can still read the article, but they’ll be able to see a message saying the there are others who dispute the “facts” in it.

Cue people crying foul.

Immediately there was a backlash that Facebook was trying to “control” the news. The new measures, although sent to third-party fact checkers once flagged, are user generated. And they still don’t prevent you from viewing a disputed article. In reality, Facebook isn’t taking any false content off their site; they’re simply giving people a warning that what they’re about to read might not be entirely factual.

Despite this, there are still cries that this violates freedom of speech. Like this article, which warns that such measures limit the public from hearing “different points of view.”

Frankly, such arguments are bullshit, because anything that isn’t a fact really isn’t “a different point of view.” That’s a false equivalency. Saying that the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real isn’t “an alternate point of view”–it’s just plain wrong and not rooted in fact or reality.

Now, that isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they want. If you want to believe that the earth is flat or hollow or that vaccines cause autism or that lizard people run the government, fine. I can’t stop you. But there’s a difference between voicing your opinion and trying to represent your opinion as fact. One is clearly protected by freedom of speech while the other is not. Freedom of speech gives you license to say and believe whatever crazy thing you want without fear of imprisonment, but it doesn’t give you the right to proclaim it as fact.

An example. Person A posts something on their own Facebook feed that says, “I don’t believe vaccines work. I think that they cause autism, and I think parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children.” This is clearly someone’s personal opinion. Then there’s person B who creates a Facebook group with a title like, “Vaccine Research Group” and creates an article called “Vaccinating your children gives them autism,” which is filled with personal opinion organized in a journalistic format, but contains no factual information or citations.

There is a clear difference between what person A has done and what person B has done. Person A has expressed his or her own thoughts on a public forum. That, to me, is clearly protected by freedom of speech. Person B, however, has dressed their opinion up as journalism and represented it as fact. The latter is much more likely to influence someone to not vaccinate their children because they view it as a credible source–it’s news. This could lead to very real, physical harm in children. Which is what the difference is. Deliberately misleading people in a way that causes them harm goes beyond freedom of speech. 

There’s a clear difference between being able to freely voice your opinions–which everyone has the right to do–and trying to represent your opinion as fact. The former is a critical part of a free society, while the latter is incredibly dangerous to society as a whole. The latter can get you in a whole heap of trouble, as Andrew Wakefield found out if we’re sticking with the vaccine example. He falsified research. That isn’t protected as ‘free speech.’ That’s fraud. And that’s what fake news is essentially–fraud.

As far as I’m concerned, the steps that Facebook is taking don’t go nearly far enough. I’d like to see Facebook create an algorithm that scans an article and looks at 1) how many citations there are, and 2) where those citations are from. Fake news has the potential to lead to great harm: further denial of climate change, dropping vaccination rates, increased use of “alternative” medicine that doesn’t work. And, as we’ve seen already, armed people invading pizza parlors. It’ll lead to further polarized politics, less discourse, and a greater misunderstanding of political and governmental processes.

In short, fake news is bad news for us all.

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Vote your conscience, you idiots

So tomorrow marks the day that all the electors in the electoral college get together to formally elect the president of the United States. Lots of people are hoping that these electors will see Donald Trump as unfit for office and vote someone–anyone–else into office instead. Which they could technically do, because they’re not constitutionally bound to vote for whoever won their respective states. Unless of course you ask the electors themselves.

With only a handful of exceptions, most of the republican electors plan to vote for Donald Trump, even if they think he is unfit to be president. Why? Well, just ask this idiot from Texas: “Each of us signed a pledge that, as electors, we will support the nominee when called to Austin on December 19.” You hear that a lot when they interview these electors. “Well, you know, I just have to serve the will of the people.”
NO YOU DON’T YOU FUCKING TWAT. That’s the entire point of having an electoral college. So that when people DO elect someone who isn’t fit for office, you can nullify the whole damn thing.

Which makes the whole entire process pretty useless huh? If that’s your view, then why even have an electoral college at all? Why not stick with the popular vote if all you’re ever going to do is reaffirm “the will of the people”?

Not that that would be a bad thing. If we went by the popular vote, Clinton would be taking office right now and we’d all be fondly remembering president Al Gore. But that’s a subject for another blog.

Right now I’d like to focus on the electors and the fact that they apparently aren’t even aware of their own role in the damn process. Which begs the question: how the hell do people become electors in the first place?

They campaign for it. Then there’s a vote by the state party. That’s it. So any dumbass can become a member of the electoral college simply by showing up to meetings and throwing their name into a hat.

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No special qualifications–just pure, unadulterated party loyalty! Which seems to be why the whole goddamn system is fucked up the first place–people voting party over substance and policy. So sure, I guess it only makes sense that the electoral college isn’t immune to the bullshit that permeates every aspect of our society.

If we are going to have an electoral college as a kind of check or balance against populist idiots like Trump assuming the mantle of the presidency, then you’d think that there would be at least SOME qualification for choosing the president other than your ability to fill out paperwork and show the fuck up to the vote.

Like…a civics class! Or some demonstration of critical thinking. Or at LEAST an understanding of policy. Hell, far be it from me to defend the system that gave us Bush v2.0 and now Trump, but the whole point of the electoral college was to ensure that we didn’t have direct democracy, because the framers of the constitution thought that the masses were stupid enough to elect an idiot to office. Which apparently they are. But the very system that was designed to protect us from that eventuality wound up being populated by the very idiots that the founders didn’t want directly choosing the president.

I fully expect the electors to honor their pledges. Which pains me to write. It pains me that the very people who toss out sentences like, “I have to vote for the will of the people,” are going to elect the man who didn’t win the most vote–in essence, who WASN’T the choice of the people.

Maybe it’s because America is full of idiots. Or maybe it’s because we let the idiots run the place.

In defense of socialized medicine

Socialized or government run healthcare is often derided by its capitalist critics here in America. But does it really deserve all of the hate and mistrust that it gets from us? So many times I’ve heard people claim that such systems are inefficient, even tyrannical because they limit choices. More recently, I’ve heard and read many people talking about how even people in the Scandinavian countries are turning their backs on socialist principles.

However, much of these claims remain to be proven. Strangely, nobody ever offers evidence that increased choice leads to better health outcomes. As for inefficiency, most people who demonize socialized medicine cry about increased wait times for procedures. And what about citizens themselves turning their backs on socialized medicine? I’m willing to bet that the majority of the people who make this claim have never been to any of these other countries and have never bothered to ask its citizens what they actually think–they’re simply parroting economic and political rhetoric and propaganda.

In reality, it’s actually pretty easy to take a magnifying glass to socialized medicine and hold it up to scrutiny. There are a lot of data one can analyze and compare to determine whether socialized medicine is really the evil and inefficient scourge that people claim. There’s even a way to find out what the people in places like Sweden actually think about their healthcare: by–shockingly–asking them point blank and not relying on American politicians and conservative economists to spoon feed you their own biases.

There are two primary resources that we’re going to be looking at in this post. The first is here. That link will take you to the complete 2014 International Profiles of Health Care Systems released by The Commonwealth Fund. The majority of the information I will be providing comes directly from the report. It’s an excellent read, albeit a long one. The report compares the healthcare systems of Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. That’s a pretty broad base to compare, and I feel it’s an adequate sample to really show genuine reflections in outcomes and costs.

First, it’s worth noting exactly how all of these systems work in terms of how they cover healthcare. Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Sweden all have national health systems that cover all citizens, run by the government, and funded through taxpayers. France, Germany, and Switzerland have a statutory insurance mandate, similar to Obamacare, wherein all citizens are required to purchase insurance; funding largely comes from employee/employer contributions. And finally the US, where 56% of people have private insurance, 13% are uninsured, and the remaining 31% are covered under government run programs (Medicare, Medicaid).

Now, the first thing we can do is look at cost, since that’s currently what we are bemoaning here in the US. Per capita, here is what healthcare spending looks like in each of those countries. I will highlight the highest and lowest numbers.

  • Australia: $3,997
  • Canada: $4,602
  • Denmark: $4,698
  • France: $4,288
  • Germany: $4,811
  • Italy: $3,209
  • Japan: $3,649
  • Netherlands: $5,219
  • New Zealand: $3,172
  • Norway: $6,140
  • Singapore: $2,881
  • Sweden:$4,106
  • Switzerland: $6,080
  • UK: $3,289
  • US:$8,745

The US pays the most, almost double the average of $4592. Now, what about spending as a part of GDP?

  • Australia: 9.1%
  • Canada: 10.90%
  • Denmark: 11.00%
  • France: 11.60%
  • Germany: 11.30%
  • Italy: 9.2%
  • Japan: 10.30%
  • Netherlands: 12.1%
  • New Zealand: 10.00%
  • Norway: 9.30%
  • Singapore: 4.7%
  • Sweden: 9.6%
  • Switzerland: 11.40%
  • UK: 9.3%
  • US: 16.90%

Again, the US spends the most. We get an average here of around 11%, and the US is a good 50% higher than that.

So we spend the most of all of those countries. Surely, then, we get better outcomes for that, right? Well, let’s look at some healthcare quality indicators listed in the survey. The first one is: “Diabetes lower extremity amputation rates per 100,000.”

  • Australia: 4.6
  • Canada: 10
  • France: 7.1
  • Germany: 18.4
  • Netherlands: 13.5
  • New Zealand: 6.7
  • Norway: 8.7
  • Sweden: 3.3
  • Switzerland: 7.1
  • UK: 5.1
  • US: 17.1

Hey, look! The US wasn’t #1! That honor goes to Germany. But just barely, we’re a close second. It’s still worth pointing out that we’re still nearly double the average rate (9.2). So I don’t really know if I would qualify that as a victory.

What about lifespan?

  • Australia: 82.8
  • Canada: 82.2
  • Denmark: 80.6
  • France: 82.4
  • Germany: 81.0
  • Italy: 82.7
  • Japan: 83.7
  • Netherlands: 81.9
  • New Zealand: 81.6
  • Norway: 81.8
  • Singapore: 83.1
  • Sweden: 82.4
  • Switzerland: 83.4
  • UK: 81.2
  • US: 79.3

(Data from the WHO).

We don’t seem to live the longest, which is odd considering how much we pay compared to everyone else. Okay, well what about deaths due to the healthcare system? In other words, how many avoidable deaths in the healthcare system were there (per 100,000)?

  • Australia: 57
  • Canada: n/a
  • France: 55
  • Germany: 76
  • Netherlands: 66
  • New Zealand:79
  • Norway: 64
  • Sweden:61
  • Switzerland: n/a
  • UK: 83
  • US: 96

Yikes. Looks like our healthcare system kills more people.

Now it wasn’t all bad news for the US. We had the highest 5 year breast cancer survival rate (barely) and we were somewhere in the middle of the pack when it came to mortality after admission to a hospital for a heart attack. And that seemed to be the general trend, that the US was either the worst offender or somewhere in the middle.

Okay, what about the long waits and rationing? There were several markers here. The first was “Able to get same or next day appointment when sick.”

  • Australia: 58%
  • Canada:41%
  • France: 57%
  • Germany: 76%
  • Netherlands: 63%
  • New Zealand: 72%
  • Norway: 52%
  • Sweden: 58%
  • Switzerland:n/a
  • UK: 52%
  • US: 48%

Everywhere else but Canada it’s easier to get a same/next day appointment. The next measure was “Very or somewhat easy getting care after hours.”

  • Australia: 46%
  • Canada: 38%
  • France: 36%
  • Germany: 56%
  • Netherlands: 56%
  • New Zealand: 54%
  • Norway: 58%
  • Sweden: 35%
  • Switzerland: 49%
  • UK: 69%
  • US: 39%

Again, the US isn’t the worst, but it’s far below the average (48.7%). Okay, now the one I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for: “Waited 2 months or more for a specialist appointment.”

  • Australia: 18%
  • Canada: 29%
  • France: 18%
  • Germany: 10%
  • Netherlands: 3%
  • New Zealand: 19%
  • Norway: 26%
  • Sweden: 17%
  • Switzerland: 3%
  • UK: 7%
  • US: 6%

Well, well, well. While it’s true that other people have to wait longer to see a specialist, we weren’t necessarily the fastest. And it isn’t as if people those other countries are dying in the streets because they can’t see a doctor. Indeed, it would seem as if this whole issue is really a nonissue–clearly it doesn’t affect mortality, as every other country on the list had a higher average lifespan than America. Also, “waiting” depends on what we’re talking about: we might get people into specialists faster, but other countries do primary care faster than we do. However, there’s one more piece of this issue to look at: “Experienced access barrier because of cost in the past year.”

  • Australia: 16%
  • Canada: 13%
  • France: 18%
  • Germany: 15%
  • Netherlands: 22%
  • New Zealand: 21%
  • Norway: 10%
  • Sweden:6%
  • Switzerland: 13%
  • UK:4%
  • US: 37%

While it’s true we do get people seen faster in some instances, we certainly make them pay through the nose for it. So much so that some people can’t or don’t access healthcare at all. I wrote awhile back about stress in America and the role that Americans said money played: 20% said they put off medical appoints because of cost. That’s worth noting.

Also worth noting before we move on is how much people pay for drugs per capita in each country:

  • Australia: $588
  • Canada: $771
  • Denmark: $295
  • France: $651
  • Germany: $668
  • Italy: $514
  • Japan: $718
  • Netherlands: $450
  • New Zealand: $297
  • Norway: $414
  • Singapore: n/a
  • Sweden: $478
  • Switzerland: $562
  • UK: n/a
  • US: $1,010

Look at that, ours is the only number with a comma in it.

Okay. So we’ve looked at efficiency and outcomes. But what about popularity? You often hear that criticism. “Well yeah, it’s cheaper in Sweden, but the people over there hate it!” Is that really true? Well, luckily for us, we have some sources.

Public views of the health system: “Works well, minor changes needed.”

  • Australia: 48%
  • Canada: 42%
  • France:  40%
  • Germany:42%
  • Netherlands: 51%
  • New Zealand: 47%
  • Norway: 46%
  • Sweden: 44%
  • Switzerland: 54%
  • UK: 63%
  • US: 25%

You can ask the converse, too: “Needs to be completely rebuilt.”

  • Australia: 9%
  • Canada: 8%
  • France: 11%
  • Germany: 10%
  • Netherlands: 5%
  • New Zealand: 8%
  • Norway: 12%
  • Sweden: 10%
  • Switzerland: 7%
  • UK: 4%
  • US: 27%

Well it looks to me like socialized medicine is pretty popular. Meanwhile, a much higher percentage of people don’t like the American healthcare system. In fact, very few people in countries with socialized medicine feel it needs to be completely abandoned. That’s not exactly a stinging rebuke of socialism. As an example, I find it interesting that Canada, the nation with the worst scores when it came to access, had numbers in the single digits with regard to completely scrapping their system. And we can look at other sources, as well.

Eurobarometer conducts public polling in the EU. When asked about the overall safety and quality of their healthcare, almost 3/4 of EU citizens responded that it’s good (71%).

While it’s true that in many other countries people can purchase private or supplemental insurance, those numbers are generally low, with some exceptions. In England, only 11% of people buy supplemental coverage. That number plummets to 7% and 5% in Norway and Sweden. Again, hardly a shunning or abandonment of socialist principles. And where those numbers are much higher (between 50-70% of people) that coverage mostly allows for things like private hospital rooms, elective surgery, optometry, etc–it doesn’t necessarily buy access to better basic care (although in some cases it certainly can buy you access to faster private hospitals and doctors).

Alright, so what can we conclude from all of this? Well, for one, we can say that when politicians call US healthcare the greatest on earth, they’re talking out their asses. It’s not. The data clearly demonstrate that it isn’t. It doesn’t manage to make us live longer, and it puts us in the middle of the pack when it comes to industrialized nations as far as most other health outcomes. We pay the highest prices for mediocre results, basically.

At this point, I don’t really know how anyone can completely bash socialized medicine. It produces better outcomes for less money. That isn’t up for debate, that’s what the numbers indicate. There are some aspects that don’t measure up to the needs of some Americans, like the amount of time one waits to see a specialist. Although, that might be one reason why they pay so much less than we do: they don’t refer people to specialists at the drop of a hat. That probably saves a lot of money in the long run.

These data also seem to speak against the idea that “When the government gets involved everything goes wrong.” On the contrary, we see that the countries where the government is most involved have the lowest costs, the best outcomes, and the highest rate of approval among their citizens.

And as far as the “they’re all fleeing socialism to embrace the free market” lines go, that’s a bunch of baloney. By and large, people are satisfied with socialized medicine, and people are turning to private industry mostly for niche care. And even if more people are embracing some aspects of the free market, they aren’t doing so while abandoning socialism: it seems most countries agree that basic healthcare is a human right, and all citizens should have access to it.

I suspect that the American fear and hatred of socialized medicine is due to several factors. One, for many generations we’ve simply been taught by our government that socialism and communism are dire enemies. Two, here in American we’re used to a corrupt and inefficient government, so we naturally don’t see how centrally planned healthcare can work. But just because our government is inept doesn’t mean that all others are; indeed, it would seem that every other government has found a way to produce better outcomes with less money, which doesn’t exactly prove the “government is inept” theory. Admittedly, socialized medicine wouldn’t work in the current American government. Mostly because the government is bought and paid for in America, where overseas that isn’t the case (or at least not to the same extent as here). Which brings us to three: healthcare, to most of the world, is a human right, while in the United States it remains mostly a privilege.

Most countries see the health of their citizens as something that shouldn’t be considered a for profit venture. We can’t really say the same for the US. We provide healthcare for the elderly, but even that’s questionable now that republicans control all three branches of the government here. There’s a very real possibility that Medicare will be dismantled and replaced with a voucher system where our seniors will purchase private insurance. The problem with that is that insurance companies are in it to make money, and if a senior can’t afford what the insurance companies are charging, tough luck. I guess grandma doesn’t get healthcare.

In reality, having the government run everything allows them to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies (where applicable) and set price ceilings and negotiate. In our American system, we pretty much let private companies write the laws, literally. And now we have a group of people in power who want less government involved, because for some reason the same people who were going to drop you like a brick when you got sick are magically going to have a change of heart once Uncle Sam isn’t looking.

In summation: socialized medicine works. It’s cheaper and it’s more effective. It’s nothing to be afraid of, unless you own stock in an insurance or pharmaceutical company. Anyone who tells you different just isn’t living in a world of facts (or ethics, if you ask me).

I leave you with a meme.

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Actions, morality, and defining people

Fidel Castro died last week at the ripe old age of 90, and the world reacted in very different ways. Many people condemned Castro and his regime, while others, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had kinder words for the former world leader. Specifically, Mr. Trudeau said:

Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.

This obviously upset a great deal of people who saw Castro as a cruel tyrant. Indeed, it seems like the country of Cuba itself was divided by the death of their former leader. Many people celebrated his death, while it seems many also mourned it. And that brings me to a very interesting area I’d like to discuss today.

Human beings in general have a capacity for good and for bad. When it comes to morality, most of us live somewhere on a spectrum. That is to say, not all of us are 100% good, and conversely not all of us are 100% bad. In fact, I’d be willing to say that in my opinion, there have been very few people in history who have lived exclusively on one side of the spectrum or the other.

World leaders are even more heavily scrutinized because of their positions, and as such tend to be demonized or lionized to a much higher degree. Let’s look at Castro to begin with.

Castro did indeed do some truly horrible things, like killing and jailing his political opponents, interning gay people for “re-education,” forced labor camps, and censoring freedom of speech.

I’m not going to try to argue that Castro was some misunderstood saint.

But even so, he did do some good things for Cuba. Healthcare is free for the Cuban people, and the Cuban medical system even produced a vaccine for lung cancer. Education at all levels is also free. In fact, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States (99% to 86%). In the US, women hold ~20% of the seats in congress; in Cuba, 48% of the seats in parliament are held by women. The caveat here is that this came at a high price for many people.

This begs an interesting question, though, and it’s the central one I would like to pose with this post:

Was Fidel Castro a bad man who did good things, or a good man who did bad things?

Many people are quick to write off Casto as “an evil and immoral communist,” but it seems to me like such black and white thinking completely whitewashes a lot of history here. Indeed, world leaders often get remembered in polarizing ways, written into the annals of history as being either exclusively evil or exclusively good.

But there seems to be a tinge of hypocrisy to this. People in the US tend to generally think of communists as evil people, and Castro certainly fits that mold. Again, I’m not trying to argue that Castro didn’t do horrible things to many people.

But I’d be willing to bet that the same people in America who hold Castro in such disdain probably hold Thomas Jefferson in great esteem, being a founding father and former president…despite the fact that the man owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson participated in and promoted a system wherein human beings could actually become property based on their skin color.

The US has a pretty checkered history when it comes to human rights, beyond even slavery, which seems to be the most egregious.

We’re the only country that’s ever dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. That decision killed upward of 250,000 civilians.

Then there was the time we spent 40 YEARS studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black soldiers. We didn’t tell them they were infected and we withheld treatment just to see what would happen. Because again, America has a little problem with racism.

Oh, and that reminds me of that time we tried to infect Native Americans with smallpox. Our treatment of Native Americans has been appalling from the start. We invaded their land, butchered them, and then forced them onto reservations. Oh, and speaking of, forcing people onto reservations…

The Japanese internment during WWII. That was also a pretty horrible thing to do to American citizens.

I think one could argue that the United States has committed its fair share of war crimes and violations of human rights. But the same people who refuse to acknowledge that Castro may have actually done some measure of good for his people also tend to conveniently forget all of the awful things that “the greatest nation on earth” has done.

Which brings me back around to trying to separate people from their actions. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but he also helped write our constitution, which now affords many freedoms to people. So was he a good guy who happened to own slaves, or was a he bad guy who helped frame the constitution?

Was Castro a man who did bad things to ensure what he thought was a greater good? That is, after all, the logic that  Truman used when he dropped the atomic bombs: sure, it would hurt innocent people, but it would also save innocent people as well.

Right now, we still hold people without due process in Gitmo, and we tortured suspected terrorists after 9/11. We did so under the pretense that it would keep millions of people safe, but a lot of people at home and abroad think that Bush and Cheney are war criminals.

I don’t really know if anyone is truly good, or if doing bad things to protect a greater good is acceptable. It’s the same old question we’ve been wrestling with for ages: do the ends justify the means? Whatever the answer to that question is, I think it means the legacies of all heroes and villains deserve closer scrutiny.

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It’s all bullshit, folks

I’ve seen the following meme making the rounds on social media:

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I find stuff like this somewhat amusing. While most people are arguing about which religious headgear is the least sexist, I’m just standing off in the corner, laughing at how stupid the entire concept is in general.

To me, the concept of hijab itself is stupid, no matter which religion is practicing it. As an atheist, they’re all equally offensive to me because they’re all equally oppressive. You can argue all you want about how the patriarchy in each religion uses head covers and whether or not it’s sexist, but they all represent regressive, superstitious ritual to me. They’re all symbols of belief in a magical sky being who, for whatever reason, seems to give a shit what you wear on your head.

So to recap: anyone who wears special clothing to “devote themselves to god” is oppressed in my view, because they’re signalling to me and everyone else a surrendering to blind belief in a deity, and subjecting themselves to a life guided by the traditions taken from archaic books written by ignorant desert-dwellers.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a bit by the late, great George Carlin about religion and hats. And so, for your viewing pleasure, George’s thoughts:

As George concludes: “It’s all make believe!”