Blinded by the Dark

Considering a pseudo-random question that seems relevant to our current societal climate:

Why does being vehemently against something — hating it with a passionate rage — blind us to any merits of the thing?

careful now
Beware what lurks in the darkness of hatred and fear. (Image: “careful now,” by neeel, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Consider any number of candidate topics: abortion, guns, the President, nameacontroversialsubject. Why do so many of us end up so adamantly against whatever it is that we cannot bring ourselves to consider the least amount of good in it? Why does it seem that acknowledging even the tiniest merit is some kind of betrayal, rather than an admission that we don’t have all the answers and that most (if not all) issues are not clearly black and white?

Sometimes it seems as if we are afraid to recognize anything good in that thing we despise, because we might begin to question ourselves instead of the hated thing. But in general we’re careful not to question our own conclusions or premises, let alone how we got from one to another; and just as careful not to question our motives or our leaders — and so we build fortifications around our position and prepare not only to defend it, but to attack the other. We guard ourselves against an obvious risk: if we ever accept that the thing we hate has some good aspects, we may begin to recognize that its opposite, the thing we love, is not as pure and perfect as we thought.

As an artifact of my engineering training, I wonder: is there a scale, a curve, a function that describes the point at which opposition produces recalcitrance? And is there a way to draw one another back from the precipice it represents?

I may be the only person who wonders, or cares. But, then again, I’m quite comfortable in the “grey areas” of life — between the black and the white.

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If I Were My Own Representative, Part II: Knowing What I'm Voting For

How about that State of the Union address? I’ll include my thoughts below, after I cover today’s installment.

If I Were My Own Representative, I would know what I was voting for, because I would READ THE BILL.

Now, I’m no speed reader; if I were, I’d be much more efficient with my slush reading for Baen Books. So it might take me awhile to get through a bill, especially since most legislation is written in terrifically dense prose. But can’t we wait to vote until we’ve all read it?

I’m not usually the smartest person in the room, either, and I’m not a lawyer, so I might have to take a little extra time and consult an expert or two to figure out what a bill REALLY says. And if the bill was written by some lobbyist, as so many bills appear to be these days, it might take a little extra time to figure out. Can’t we wait to vote until we understand it?

How should a Representative vote who hasn’t read and understood a bill? I think, “no.”

Last night the President contrasted saying “no” with showing leadership, a curious stance for someone whose entire campaign was a study in saying “no” to the previous administration’s policies (and, even more curiously, much of whose first year in office continued several of those very practices). But saying “yes” to something we don’t understand seems much worse.

So if I didn’t know what was in a piece of legislation, either because I didn’t have time to consider it thoroughly or because it was so arcane that my puny brain couldn’t comprehend it, I’d vote against it. I suppose I could abstain, or even vote “present,” but it would be much more satisfying to just vote “no” and move on.


Back to the SOTU. I had to watch the speech from home, of course, since I’m not my own Representative. As with many such speeches, it seemed too long, was made even longer by a lot of unnecessary obeisance and calculated exuberance on the part of the listeners, and had less substance than we might hope for. Especially toward the end, when so many little things were tossed in (gays in the military! equal pay!), it began to epitomize the speech about everything which turns out to be a speech about nothing.*

At the risk of being partisan, I’m not as impressed as others seem to be with our President’s oratorical skills — he seemed to stumble through many parts of the speech, to force humor, and often to grasp for applause and affirmation. I was pleased with one aspect of his delivery: I’ve noticed in other addresses that he sometimes appears to be looking down his nose, perhaps because of the angle of or glare on the teleprompters, but that was not a problem last night.

As for the content of the speech, I listened for a simple statement — “The state of our Union is [something].” What I heard was, “Despite our hardships, our Union is strong,” a line so equivocal that it didn’t deserve and indeed came and went without a scintilla of applause. Some of the speech’s content was surprising — support for nuclear power — and some, like his jab at the Supreme Court, was almost shocking. Some was not that surprising at all, given the trend in his oratory to date: I listened to hear more “we” than “I” — and didn’t. Make of that what you will.

Finally, I did not listen to all of the GOP response, because I find myself objecting to the idea that the minority party must mount a response when the words of the President’s address are so fresh. There is plenty of time later to object to the substance of the speech, but especially for the State of the Union, a gracious “thank you, Mr. President” at its conclusion would seem to be enough.

*I don’t recall when I first heard the phrase, “a speech about everything is a speech about nothing.” Perhaps I only dreamed hearing it. But if everything is important, then “everything is not” (cf. Sara Groves, “Just One More Thing”) — a point I’ve made a tenet of my speechwriting.

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Once again, I am a Relic

A few years ago, when they shut down the 55th Mobile Command & Control Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, I became a relic of the Cold War. Later, when the last Titan rocket launched, I became a relic of the space program.

Now, again, it seems I am a relic: this time of the attempt to keep militarily critical U.S. technology in U.S. hands.

At the Defense Technology Security Administration from 2001-04, I recommended provisos for hundreds of State Department export licenses and agreements, to ensure U.S. companies didn’t reveal design methodologies or other insights into U.S. capabilities. I reviewed reams of technical data to ensure the companies didn’t go beyond the restrictions in their licenses. And I monitored dozens of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and foreign companies to ensure all parties stayed in bounds. It was often fascinating, sometimes frustrating work that was born out of the Cox Commission and the defense authorization that, among other things, had moved export authority for communications satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department (see below).

Now we find out that, by executive fiat, our President delegated his responsibility for certifying critical space exports to the Commerce Department. It was actually done back on September 29th, via this Presidential Determination.

The responsibility is found in Section 1512 of the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act:

The President shall certify to the Congress at least 15 days in advance of any export to the People’s Republic of China of missile equipment or technology (as defined in section 74 of the
Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2797c)) that —
(1) such export is not detrimental to the United States space launch industry; and
(2) the missile equipment or technology, including any indirect technical benefit that could be derived from such export, will not measurably improve the missile or space launch capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.

So now, rather than the President making such certifications to Congress, the Commerce Department will do so. If I recall, people complained because George W. Bush seemed to delegate things instead of tending to them himself; but according to this Washington Times article, neither he nor Bill Clinton ever delegated this particular responsibility.

Thankfully, the determination did not seem to immediately get around Section 1513 of the 1999 NDAA, which states,

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, all satellites and related items that are on the Commerce Control List of dual use items in the Export Administration Regulations (15 CFR part 730 et seq.) on the date of the enactment of this Act shall be transferred to the United States Munitions List and controlled under section 38 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2778).

But how long until that gets changed? There are a lot of rumblings in the aerospace industry about rescinding some of the current export controls, as if the reason U.S. companies have lost market share to foreign satellite makers is that they can’t tell foreign customers why U.S. satellites work so well. It’s not price, it’s not that foreign manufacturers build fine spacecraft, it’s lack of technology transfer? The notion is ridiculous, but the impulse to blame our lack of competitiveness on anything other than internal business practices runs very deep in this country — witness the U.S. auto industry. Disturbingly, this “determination” seems to indicate that the Administration is willing to entertain the idea of sacrificing national security in order to make a quick buck.

I found that attitude among representatives of some of the companies I monitored: the short-sighted notion that it didn’t matter if they transferred technology to another country, as long as the other country paid well. The possibility that a foreign company might end up as their competitor in the future, and take away their customers using adapted U.S. technology, never seemed to occur to them.

Eight months before President Obama was elected, I expressed concerns about his national (in)security rhetoric. I didn’t foresee this potential relaxation of export controls, but I can’t say I’m very surprised.

And I’m still concerned. But I would be: after all, I’m a relic.

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