Thursday, December 12, 2013

Notes on a Citizenship Ceremony

Mrs. Athwart History became a United States citizen on Tuesday, and I'm very proud of her. Naturally, I came with her to the swearing-in ceremony. Here are some various observations.

What a truly amazing country we live in! Before the ceremony a video was playing showing various scenes: of family life, of nature, of communities, of business. America is an incredibly varied and welcoming nation. Much is made of our flaws, but it's worth reflecting from time to time on our virtues.

America is unique in its adherence to a set of ideals above any other definition of nationality (other Anglo-Saxon nations approximate this but only America makes it explicit). Essentially, if you agree to live our way, then you can be an American. I wonder how this is handled in other countries. France, for example, is famous for teaching colonial Algerians about "their ancestors, the Gauls."

A slightly sour note crept in early in the ceremony. Representatives from the election office spoke about the importance of registering to vote. But they repeated themselves in Cantonese and Spanish. This is doubly flawed. First, those who speak neither Cantonese nor Spanish must've felt left out. A new citizen proficient in Farsi but a bit shaky in English is thus treated differently on his very first day as an American. And second, it was the only part of the ceremony conducted in multiple languages. Part of the citizenship test is to demonstrate a working knowledge of English. This is as it should be, and the ceremony should be in English. The oath, for example, is in English. Voting is important, of course, but not more important than the oath. If the oath can be trusted to be understood in English, the voting registration advertisement damned well can be.

Nearly every speaker at the ceremony was a naturalized citizen. Kind of cool, I thought.

There were over 1,000 new citizens sworn in along with my wife. This is a busy office, I imagine, and I'm not sure how often they run the ceremonies, but the numbers were still remarkable. USCIS claims to have naturalized 6.6 million people in the past decade, so that's 660,000 per year, or 660 ceremonies like this one every year across the country.

The oath was preceded by a singing of the National Anthem. The singer was pretty awful - just someone from USCIS - but it was poignant, nonetheless, and was the oath. This is a big step in many lives!

At the end of the ceremony, a singing group was invited in to perform "America the Beautiful" and "This Land is Your Land". The singing itself was just atrocious, and frankly embarrassed me. This is how we welcome new citizens, with amateurs who can't stay on pitch? Better to just play a recording or leave it out. But the message was nearly as bad. The Woody Guthrie song is, of course, crypto-communist. The ceremony was being held just a few miles from Berzerkely, so that's probably a factor, and I imagine most of the folks at the ceremony didn't pick up on the lyrics or knew the history of Guthrie or the song. But it's not quite the way I'd like to see America represented.

Still and all: I was moved. And more importantly, my wife is now a citizen!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Obamacare: The Lying Strategy

This has been making the rounds, but in case you haven't seen it, Ezra Klein in 2008 laying out the strategy for Obamacare:

I'd say "shocking", but of course it isn't. This is what we expected. And the last bit about creating a system that would gently lead us to single-payer: yep, just as we suspected. Thanks, Ezra, for finally telling the truth. Now to abolish this abomination.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bayes Theorem, Guns, and Mental Illness

Since the recent Navy Yard shooting, the Left has been talking about gun control, and the Right about mental illness. The Left's arguments are mostly specious or a dead end (specious: that an AR-15 was involved - one wasn't; dead end: that we should get rid of all guns - we won't).

But the Right's case isn't so great, either. Yes, we should have better mental health policies. And it's pretty clear that the Navy Yard shooting, at least, could have been prevented with more attention to mental health. Evidently the shooter had displayed clear signs of mental illness when speaking to police just days before the shooting. But the police hadn't called mental health officials. Had the done so it's possible the shooting could have been prevented.

In general, though, would better mental health policy have much effect on gun violence? Not really. The problem is that most people with mental illness aren't extraordinarily violent, and most violence isn't perpetrated by the mentally ill. So not only is it difficult - nearly impossible - to determine who is likely to commit gun violence, even if we could keep guns out of their hands the effect would be only marginal.

This is a problem with no easy, obvious fix.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Say what you will about George W. Bush as President: he has at least been a good ex-President. He hasn't interfered with his successor, and has stayed on the sidelines, unobtrusively.

Bill Clinton has been more of an activist, but has stuck to public speeches. He did speak out against W. during his two terms, but he also teamed up with Bush Senior in several projects, and hasn't directly interfered in, say, foreign policy.

Then we come to Jimmy Carter. It's hard to think of a worse example of an ex-President. He has often directly interfered with U.S. foreign policy. During the run-up to the First Gulf War he wrote to France and China to urge them not to support the U.S. Sent by Clinton as a negotiator to Haiti, he undermined our policy and made Clinton look foolish.

And now, he makes this comment, not in the U.S., but to the foreign press: "America has no functioning democracy at this moment." One might think, perhaps, that this statement is in response to Congressional stalemate. But no: it's actually in response to Snowden, whom he seems to think is some sort of hero.

One can only hope no one takes him seriously anymore.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

UN Peacekeepers

I've had a very long absence from posting - sorry! - but I will try to improve. There's certainly no shortage of things to say.

Recently read this story about the quality of UN peacekeepers. No huge surprises, but the extent of the incompetence is still amazing:

There was a bunch of Ukrainians, who typically rolled out of bed at noon, cracked open the vodka, and drank until dawn the next day, before going back to bed. The commander no longer bothered asking them to do anything.

Later on...

He was left to rely on a tough and professional contingent of Kenyan soldiers. What proportion of his force could he actually count on? About a third, was his answer. It would have been better for everyone if two thirds of them had stayed at home.

Remind me again what the UN's purpose is? Other than to condemn Israel, I mean.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Post Office: A Step in the Right Direction

Following up on my post from December 2012, the Post Office is in fact cutting back, by eliminating Saturday delivery. It's a small step, but a step in the right direction.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook Mini-Review

On Friday my wife and I saw Silver Linings Playbook, the Oscar-nominated film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. It's a good movie, well-constructed, well-acted, not quite a romantic comedy but not so heavy as to be a full-on drama. Typical Hollywood ending.

But what I thought was interesting was that the climax of the movie involves the furtherance of a criminal enterprise. That's spelled out pretty explicitly, but no one in the film seems to notice or care. The father, played by Robert de Niro, has lost his pension and started a bookmaking "business", which is, of course, illegal. To hide his profits he wants to start a restaurant, through which he can funnel his illegal earnings.

His son Pat, played by Cooper, can help his father win a bet (itself, ahem, illegal) in order to obtain the capital needed to open the restaurant. Spoiler alert: they do win, and Cooper gets the girl and his father gets his restaurant. Which, we couldn't help but notice, is the front for his bookmaking operation.

The reason this is so very odd is that the story revolves around Pat's difficulties with the law. He has just come out of a court-ordered stay at a mental institution after beating his wife's lover nearly to death. Needless to say, Pat figures out a way to control himself and stay on the right side of the law. Except... does he? He ends up being an accessory to a crime, or at least enabling his father to commit one.

I suppose we aren't supposed to worry about such things, but it struck me as strange. The family could easily have had some other, less illegal, form of financial hardship. In any case, the circumstances detract only a bit from an enjoyable, if hardly profound, movie.