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Why Teachers Do All That Annoying Stuff

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Most people, when they become teachers, tell themselves that they won't do all the annoying things that their teachers did. If they teach for very long, though, they almost all find themselves slipping back to practices they didn't like as a student but which they now understand from the other side of the fence. Dynomight has written a nice little essay explaining why. Like deadlines. Why have deadlines? Let students learn and work at their own pace. Grade what they turn in, and let them re-submit their work later to demonstrate their newfound learning.

Indeed, why not? Because students are clever and occasionally averse to work. A few of them will re-invent a vexing form of the ancient search technique "Generate and Test". From the essay:

  1. Write down some gibberish.
  2. Submit it.
  3. Make a random change, possibly informed by feedback on the last submission.
  4. Resubmit it. If the grade improved, keep it, otherwise revert to the old version.
  5. Goto 3.

You may think this is a caricature, but I see this pattern repeated even in the context of weekly homework assignments. A student will start early and begin a week-long email exchange where they eventually evolve a solution that they can turn in when the assignment is due.

I recognize that these students are responding in a rational way to the forces they face: usually, uncertainty and a lack of the basic understanding needed to even start the problem. My strategy is to try to engage them early on in the conversation in a way that helps them build that basic understanding and to quiet their uncertainty enough to make a more direct effort to solve the problem.

Why even require homework? Most students and teachers want for grades to reflect the student's level of mastery. If we eliminate homework, or make it optional, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery on the final exam or final project. Why indeed? As the essay says:

But just try it. Here's what will happen:
  1. Like most other humans, your students will be lazy and fallible.
  2. So many of them will procrastinate and not do the homework.
  3. So they won't learn anything.
  4. So they will get a terrible grade on the final.
  5. And then they will blame you for not forcing them to do the homework.

Again, the essay is written in a humorous tone that exaggerates the foibles and motivations of students. However, I have been living a variation of this pattern in my compilers course over the last few years. Here's how things have evolved.

I assign the compiler project as six stages of two weeks each. At the end of the semester, I always ask students for ways I might improve the course. After a few years teaching the course, students began to tell me that they found themselves procrastinating at the start of each two-week cycle and then having to scramble in the last few days to catch up. They suggested I require future students to turn something in at the end of the first week, as a way to get them started working sooner.

I admired their self-awareness and added a "status check" at the midpoint of each two-week stage. The status check was not to be graded, but to serve as a milepost they could aim for in completing that cycle's work. The feedback I provided, informal as it was, helped them stay course, or get back on course, if they had missed something important.

For several years, this approach worked really well. A few teams gamed the system, of course (see generate-and-test above), but by and large students used the status checks as intended. They were able to stay on track time-wise and to get some early feedback that helped them improve their work. Students and professor alike were happy.

Over the last couple of years, though, more and more teams have begun to let the status checks slide. They are busy, overburdened in other courses or distracted by their own projects, and ungraded work loses priority. The result is exactly what the students who recommended the status checks knew would happen: procrastination and a mad scramble in the last few days of the stage. Unfortunately, this approach can lead a team to fall farther and farther behind with each passing stage. It's hard to produce a complete working compiler under these conditions.

Again, I recognize that students usually respond in a rational way to the forces they face. My job now is to figure out how we might remove those forces, or address them in a more productive way. I've begun thinking about alternatives, and I'll be debriefing the current offering of the course with my students over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps we can find something that works better for them.

That's certainly my goal. When a team succeeds at building a working compiler, and we use it to compile and run an impressive program -- there's no feeling quite as joyous for a programmer, or a student, or a professor. We all want that feeling.

Anyway, check out the full essay for an entertaining read that also explains quite nicely that teachers are usually responding in a rational way to the forces they face, too. Cut them a little slack.

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4 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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Reports of Russian Missiles Killing 2 in Poland Raise Prospect of Dangerous Escalation

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General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that military officials were "aware of the press reports alleging that two Russian missiles have struck inside Poland" but said the military was still seeking to corroborate those reports.

American military officials are "looking into" reports that two Russian missiles may have hit Poland on Tuesday, killing two people near the country's eastern border with Ukraine.

Poland's status as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) means the reported incident, which seems to have occurred as part of a Russian bombardment that targeted cities and key infrastructure across Ukraine, represents one of the most dangerous moments in the war since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Even if only an accident, it seems inevitable that the missile strikes raise the likelihood of a direct confrontation between the world's two largest nuclear powers.

According to The New York Times, two people were killed by an explosion at a grain processing facility near the Polish village of Przewodow. The Associated Press cited two unnamed American intelligence officials who confirmed that the missiles did stray into Poland.

General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that military officials were "aware of the press reports alleging that two Russian missiles have struck a location inside Poland" but said the military was still seeking to corroborate those reports.

The potential for an accidental missile strike inside NATO territory that could spark a broader war has been one of the top concerns for many observers since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Just weeks after the war began, Emma Ashford and Joshua Shifrinson warned in a piece at Foreign Affairs about the potential for an "escalating spiral" if Russian warplanes accidentally entered NATO airspace or if other events, perhaps accidental ones, caused the war to spill over Ukraine's borders.

"On a long enough timescale and with enough Russian missiles due for western Ukraine, the odds of this were growing," tweeted Ankit Panda shortly after news of the missile strikes broke on Tuesday. "This *exact* inadvertent escalation scenario (off-course Russian missiles hitting Poland/Romania) has been subject of discussions on pathways to direct NATO-Russia escalation since Feb. 24."

The scary question is what might come next. Article V of the NATO charter obligates the alliance to treat an attack on one member as if it were an attack on all, but Panda warns that the language in the treaty should not be treated as "a tripwire/automatic."

"Contrary to prevalent (though not universal) belief, Article V does NOT obligate NATO members to go to war if a fellow ally is attacked. It gives them leeway to take steps they deem suitable, including 'the use of armed force.'" wrote Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, a realist foreign policy think tank.

That the Pentagon is taking time to assess what happened in Poland is the first step to preventing a dangerous escalation. Indeed, some reports indicate that the explosion might have been the tragic result of Ukraine shooting down Russian missiles over its airspace. Regardless, the next moves made by both NATO and Russia will be some of the most fraught and potentially catastrophic yet seen.

More than anything else, for now, Tuesday's incident is a reminder of the inherent risks that come with any war or near-war between great powers—and should provide a much stronger incentive for all sides to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine before it truly spirals out of hand.

The post Reports of Russian Missiles Killing 2 in Poland Raise Prospect of Dangerous Escalation appeared first on Reason.com.

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22 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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Open Thread 250


This is the weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. ACX has an unofficial subreddit, Discord, and bulletin board, and in-person meetups around the world. 95% of content is free, but for the remaining 5% you can subscribe here. In other news:

1: Like many of you, I’ve been following the FTX disaster. My thoughts go first of all to all the depositors who lost money, and second of all to the people of the Bahamas who have reason to worry their economy will suffer. But the only category I have any special insight into are the charities that were reliant on FTX funding. FTX kind of went around to a bunch of charities saying “What could you do with twice as much money? With ten times as much money? Do it! We’ll give you the cash!” and then the charities did it, and now it looks like they will not get the cash. A lot of people in nonprofits are going to lose their jobs, and some people are worried they’re going to have to go into debt giving back funding that they’ve already spent (if this might be you, see here but also here). I hope everyone involved is okay, or as okay as it’s possible to be in situations like these.

2: The past year has been a terrible time to be a charitable funder, since FTX ate every opportunity so quickly that everyone else had trouble finding good not-yet-funded projects. But right now is a great time to be a charitable funder: there are lots of really great charities on the verge of collapse who just need a little bit of funding to get them through. I’m trying to coordinate with some of the people involved. I haven’t really succeeded yet, I think because they’re all hiding under their beds gibbering - but probably they’ll have to come out eventually, if only for food and water. If you’re a potential charitable funder interested in helping, and not already connected to this project, please email me at scott@slatestarcodex.com. I don’t want any affected charities to get their hopes up, because I don’t expect this to fill more than a few percent of the hole, but maybe we can make the triage process slightly less of a disaster.

3: I have no idea what’s going to happen with ACX Grants now. Some of the infrastructure I was hoping to use was being funded by the FTX Foundation and may no longer exist. It might or might not be more important to use all available funding to rescue charities about to go under from losing FTX support. I still want to do something, because of the increased need and urgency mentioned above, but give me a while to hide under my bed and gibber before I sort out specifics.

4: None of last year’s ACX Grants were funded by the FTX Foundation or anyone else linked to FTX, so if this is you, don’t worry.

5: In light of recent events, some people have asked if effective altruism approves of doing unethical things to make money, as long as the money goes to good causes. I think the movement has been pretty unanimous in saying no. Obviously everyone is condemning it super-strongly now. But people have also been condemning it, consistently, since the beginning of the movement. For example, Will MacAskill is as close as EA has to a leader, and he wrote in 2017:

We believe that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a mistake to pursue a career in which the direct effects of the work are seriously harmful, even if the overall benefits of that work seem greater than the harms.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has also been writing eloquently about this for over a decade, including Ends Don’t Justify Means (Among Humans):

"The end does not justify the means" is just consequentialist reasoning at one meta-level up.  If a human starts thinking on the object level that the end justifies the means, this has awful consequences given our untrustworthy brains; therefore a human shouldn't think this way.

And I tried to make the same point in Axiology, Morality, Law (2017), where I said:

In [just societies], the universally-agreed priority is that law trumps [personal] morality, and morality trumps axiology [ie consequentialist reasoning]. First, because you can’t keep your obligations to your community from jail, and you can’t work to make the world a better place when you’re a universally-loathed social outcast. But also, because you can’t work to build strong communities and relationships in the middle of a civil war, and you can’t work to make the world a better place from within a low-trust defect-defect equilibrium. But also, because in a just society, axiology wants you to be moral (because morality is just a more-effective implementation of axiology), and morality wants you to be law-abiding (because law is just a more-effective way of coordinating morality). So first you do your legal duty, then your moral duty, and then if you have energy left over, you try to make the world a better place.

I later discussed whether there could be exceptions to this (like “what if by giving one person a paper cut you could end all disease forever?”) but I hope that it’s still clear that in most normal situations following the rules is the way to go. This isn’t super-advanced esoteric stuff. This is just rule utilitarianism, which has been part of every discussion of utilitarianism since John Stuart Mill in the 1800s. See also The Dark Rule Utilitarian Argument For Science Piracy.

6: Some other people are asking whether this happened because utilitarians should have infinite appetite for risk, eg the St. Petersburg paradox. I think a first good answer would be something like “you shouldn’t even consider this question unless you are following the deontological rules and avoiding unethical externalities, which seems really hard to do as the amount that you’re risking gets higher”. But two specific points beyond that.

First, it’s true that $20K buys twice as many bed nets as $10K. But most of what FTX was funding wasn’t bed nets - it was things like medical research, or lobbying, or AI research labs. The effectiveness of these things probably follows a power law distribution - your first dollar funds an amazing lobbying organization run by superstars, your hundred millionth dollar funds a so-so lobbying organization scraping the bottom of the barrel, and your ten billionth dollar funds a hobo with the word “LABIYIST” scrawled on his shirt. I think FTX’s money was already getting near this point, at least for the short term; I would have preferred 100% chance that the charitable ecosystem keep the FTX money it had, compared to 50% chance of 10x more and 50% chance of zero.

Second, if you St. Petersburg yourself a bunch of times and lose everything, it’s going to be really hard to pat yourself on the back for a job counterfactually well done and walk away. More likely you’re going to panic and start grasping for unethical schemes that let you escape doom. So real-world St. Petersburg isn’t “50% chance of doubling your money, 50% chance of zero”, it’s “50% chance of doubling your money, 50% chance of getting put in a psychologically toxic situation where you’ll face almost irresistible pressure to do crazy things that will have vast negative impact.” And the only really effective way to resist temptation is to avoid getting in situations where you’re really tempted to do bad things. I wouldn’t have thought about it this way before recent events, but now that they’ve happened it seems obviously true. This is what Eliezer means by “running on corrupted hardware” - either you follow the deontological rules without knowing exactly why they apply in your particular case, or you try doing the seemingly-reasonable act-utilitarian thing and get to learn why it was wrong after you’ve destroyed everything.

Still, I’m reluctant to center the St. Petersburg narrative here. Hundreds of other crypto projects have proven fraudulent and gone bust without us needed to appeal to exotic branches of philosophy. SBF is a semi-mythical figure. It would feel appropriate if his downfall was for properly mythical reasons, like a deep commitment to literal St. Petersburg. But I think in the end it will probably have at least as much to do with the normal human vices that we all have to struggle against.

7: Some people are asking whether people who accepted FTX money should have “seen the red flags” or “done more due diligence”. Sometimes this is from outsider critics of effective altruism. More often it’s been effective altruists themselves, obsessively beating themselves up over dumb things like “I met an FTX employee once and he seemed to be frowning, why didn’t I realize that this meant they were all committing fraud?!” Listen: there’s a word for the activity of figuring out which financial entities are better or worse at their business than everyone else thinks, maximizing your exposure to the good ones, and minimizing your exposure to the bad ones. That word is “finance”. If you think you’re better at it than all the VCs, billionaires, and traders who trusted FTX - and better than all the competitors and hostile media outlets who tried to attack FTX on unrelated things while missing the actual disaster lurking below the surface - then please start a company, make $10 billion, and donate it to the victims of the last group of EAs who thought they were better at finance than everyone else in the world. Otherwise, please chill.

True, there are also other people outside of finance who are also supposed to look out for this kind of thing. Investigative reporters. Congress. The SEC. But the leading US investigative reporting group took $5 million from SBF. Congressional Democrats took $40 million from SBF in midterm election money. The SEC was in the process of allying with SBF to anoint him as the face of legitimate well-regulated crypto in America. You, a random AI researcher who tried Googling “who are these people and why are they giving me money” before accepting a $5,000 FTX grant, don’t need to feel guilty for not singlehandedly blowing the lid off a conspiracy that all these people missed. This is true even if a bunch of pundits who fawned over FTX on its way up have pivoted to posting screenshots of every sketchy thing they ever did and saying “Look at all the red flags!”

8: Disclosure of all my own FTX connections and conflicts-of-interest just so it doesn’t look like I’m hiding anything: I’ve never taken money from FTX as an organization. In January 2021, a few FTX employees including SBF bought subscriptions to this blog at way above sticker price; I will earmark that money for the rescuing-collapsing-charities project (I don’t generally dox people who subscribe to this blog without asking them first, but in this case it was public knowledge). I did some work helping the FTX Foundation find good charities to donate to; I was offered compensation but declined.

My emotional conflict of interest here is that I’m really f#%king devastated. I never met or communicated with SBF, but I was friendly with another FTX/Alameda higher-up around 2018, before they moved abroad. At the time they seemed like a remarkably kind, decent, and thoughtful person, and I liked them a lot. I desperately want to believe they didn’t know about the fraud, but it seems really implausible. If they did, then I genuinely have no idea what happened, and I hope the investigation finds some reasonable explanation, like that they were doing so many stimulants and psychedelics that the DMT entities were piloting their body like an anime mech. I probably shouldn’t exactly say “I hope they’re okay” when there are so many victims who deserve okayness more. But I hope there’s some other world-branch where they never got involved in any of this and they’re living their best life and doing lots of good, and I hope the version of me in that world branch is giving them the support and reassurance that I can’t give them here.

More generally, I trusted and looked up to the FTX/Alameda people. I didn’t actually keep money in FTX, but I would have if there had been any reason to; I didn’t actually tell other people they should trust FTX, but I would have if those other people had asked. Lower your opinion of me accordingly.

9: The past few days I’ve been thinking a lot of stuff along the lines of “how can I ever trust anybody again?”. So I was pleased when Nathan Young figured out the obvious solution: make a list of everyone I’ve ever trusted or considered trusting, make prediction markets about whether any of them are committing fraud, then pre-emptively be emotionally dead to anybody who goes above a certain threshold. You can find some preliminary markets here, although I have nitpicks about the exact questions. If anyone ever goes above 33% on that market in anything other than a short-term blip, I’ll either sever all ties with them, or at least write a public post presenting my explanation for why I’m not doing that despite the risk.

10: Sorry for cramming all of this into an Open Thread. I’m not really sure why I’m doing it this way, except maybe feeling like if it isn’t a real post then it’s not real and I can continue mashing the “DENIAL” button on my subconscious. This is still an Open Thread. Talk about whatever you want. This isn’t Challenge Mode. I’ll continue to experiment with doing that on Wednesdays only.

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24 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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Highlights From The Comments On Columbus Day


[Original post: A Columbian Exchange]

1: The most popular comments were those objecting to my paragraph about holidays replacing older holidays:

All of our best holidays have begun as anti-holidays to neutralize older rites. Jesus was born in the spring; they moved Christmas to December to neutralize the pagan Solstice celebration. Easter got its name because it neutralized the rites of the spring goddess Eostre. Hanukkah was originally a minor celebration of a third-tier Bible story; American Jews bumped it up several notches of importance in order to neutralize Christmas.

Starting with Christmas, Retsam says that there are three main theories - Adraste’s plus two others:

1) March 25 + 9 months, 2) solstice symbolism, 3) co-opting paganism. (The earliest reference to this theory seems to be a millennium later in the 12th century)

Apparently the logic for March 25 is that it was calculated to be the day that Jesus died (easier to calculate since it was Passover), and Jewish tradition held that great people lived for exact, whole number of years. (i.e. were conceived and died on the same day)

This is somewhat convincing. But December 25 was literally the winter solstice on the Roman calendar (today the solstice is December 21st), and it really is suspicious that some unrelated method just happened to land on the most astronomically significant day of the year. Likewise, March 25 was the spring equinox, so the Annunciation date is significant in and of itself.

(I guess if you’re Christian you can believe that God chose to incarnate on that day because He liked the symbolism - although He must have been pretty upset when Pope Gregory rearranged the calendar so that it no longer worked).

Jesus died two days before Passover, but Passover is linked to the Hebrew calendar and can fall on a variety of Roman calendar days. So the main remaining degree of freedom is how the early Christians translated from the (Biblically fixed) Hebrew date to the (not very clear) Roman date. This seems to have been calculated by someone named Hippolytus in the 3rd century, but his calculations were wrong - March 25 did not fall on a Friday (cf. Good Friday) on any of the plausible crucifixion years. Also, as far as I can tell, the relevant Jewish tradition is that prophets die on the same day they are born, not the same day they are conceived. For example, Moses was born on, and died on, the 7th of Adar (is it worth objecting that it should be the same date on the Hebrew calendar and not the Roman?) Maybe this tradition was different in Jesus’ time? But it must be older than the split between Judaism and Islam - the Muslims also believe Mohammed died on his birth date.

So although the Annunciation story is plausible, it’s hard for me to figure out exactly how they got March 25 and December 25, and there’s room for them to have fudged it to hit the Solstice, either to compete with pagans or just because the astronomically significant dates were impressive in their own rights.

I guess I will downgrade to a 5% credence that competing with pagans was a significant factor in the date of Christmas.

Moving on to Easter. Russell Hogg writes:

You are entering a world of pain when you mention Eostre . . . https://historyforatheists.com/2017/04/easter-ishtar-eostre-and-eggs/ . We should have a ‘Debunk the Eostre Myth’ day. It’s already celebrated regularly by many people.

And Feral Finster adds:

Glad others decided to debunk that particular bit of midwit received wisdom. I get tired of doing so, over and over.

Looking at Hogg’s link, it mostly debunks the claim that Easter is related to Ishtar (which I agree is untrue), but moves on to discuss Eostre also. It points out that for a while the only known reference to a goddess Eostre was in the works of 8th century English historian Bede, who wrote:

Eostremonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (Bede, De temporum ratione, XV)

The author of the link goes on to say that for a while Christians claimed that there was no other reference to this goddess and that it was just dumb New Atheists seizing on fake history - but then archaeologists found lots of other references, plus she is an obvious cognate with other goddess like Greek Eos, so probably she did exist and did give her name to Easter.

Aren’t eggs and rabbits more related to generic spring festivities than to Christ’s resurrection? The link argues that eggs make sense because eating eggs was banned during Lent, which meant there were lots of extra eggs to eat on Easter (the day Lent ended). Rabbits are just a generic spring thing, but probably not connected to Eostre in particular. Still, claims of a link aren’t just something some idiot New Atheist dreamed up one day - they actually come from the Grimm Brothers and other German folklorists who were postulating links between rabbits and the goddess Eostre as early as the mid 19th century. None of their reasons really sound convincing by modern standards - an unrelated goddess with hare symbology here, a few poorly-sourced quotes from peasants there - but they are surely the origin of this belief.

Still, I think the fact that Easter is currently named after Eostre, who was a real goddess celebrated at that time, and that Bede says it replaced her feasts, is enough to back the strictest interpretation of Adraste’s claim.

Moving onto Hanukkah - some commenters like odd anon question my description of it as coming from a Bible story. This isn’t going to get resolved here - Hanukkah comes from the Books of Maccabees, some of which are included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Bible, but not the Protestant or Jewish ones.

Other commenters have meatier objections. In response to the claim that American Jews signal-boosted Hanukkah to compete with Christmas, Falernum writes:

I was told something similar as a kid, but it's bullshit. Here's the thing about Hanukkah: there's two miracles. There's only one the rabbis accept, that the oil that was sufficient for one day lasted eight. And there's the miracle that the rabbis reject but most Jews feel in their bones: that we defeated the mighty Assyrians and won our independence.

Nobody remembers who decided to light that oil, or who ran to get new oil, but we all remember who led the fight: Judah "The Hammer" Maccabee.

The reason Hanukkah was a minor holiday in 1900 but large today has little to do with Christmas and everything to do with a resurgence of pride/relevance in the idea of a Jewish militia miraculously defeating a much larger army to win independence.

Thus, note that in Israel Hanukkah is a Big Deal holiday, while Christmas is observed mostly by tourists/pilgrims. There exist Christians in Israel, slightly more than there are Druze, but certainly not enough that Jewish kids feel they're missing out. Hanukkah has become a big holiday there on its own merits.

I am willing to accept that Hanukkah got signal-boosted for different reasons in the US vs. Israel, but I think I am right about the US. Wikipedia says:

In North America, Hanukkah became increasingly important to many Jewish individuals and families during the latter part of the 20th century, including a large number of secular Jews, who wanted to celebrate a Jewish alternative to the Christmas celebrations which frequently overlap with Hanukkah. Diane Ashton argues that Jewish immigrants to America raised the profile of Hanukkah as a kid-centered alternative to Christmas as early as the 1800s. This in parts mirrors the ascendancy of Christmas, which like Hanukkah increased in importance in the 1800s. During this time period, Jewish leaders (especially Reform) like Max Lilienthal and Isaac Mayer Wise made an effort to rebrand Hanukkah and started creating Hanukkah celebration for kids at their synagogues, which included candy and singing songs. By the 1900s, it started to become a commercial holiday like Christmas, with Hanukkah gifts and decorations appearing in stores and Jewish Women's magazines printing articles on holiday decorations, children's celebrations, and gift giving. Ashton says that Jewish families did this in order to maintain a Jewish identity which is distinct from mainline Christian culture, on the other hand, the mirroring of Hanukkah and Christmas made Jewish families and kids feel that they were American. Though it was traditional for Ashkenazi Jews to give "gelt" or money to children during Hanukkah, in many families, this tradition has been supplemented with the giving of other gifts so that Jewish children can enjoy receiving gifts just like their Christmas-celebrating peers do. Children play a big role in Hanukkah, and Jewish families with children are more likely to celebrate it than childless Jewish families, and sociologists hypothesize that this is because Jewish parents do not want their kids to be alienated from their non-Jewish peers who celebrate Christmas.

But also, use common sense. US celebrations of Hanukkah are centered around gift-giving - not a traditional part of the holiday at all. Some families put up blue-and-white “Hanukkah lights”; others have a “Hanukkah bush” in their house. Most Jewish children know lots of Hanukkah songs that sound suspiciously like Christmas carols. I don’t think we’re exactly hiding what we’re doing here!

2: Other people objected that I was wrong to say Columbus was an evil genocidal slaver. Vizcacha writes:

A, B, and C seem to accept as a given that Columbus was a horrible, vicious person. This may be the case, but nearly all of the horrible things he supposedly did were reported by a single source, a Spaniard named Francisco de Bobadilla who was sent (in 1499) to evaluate how things were going. Most of his negative information was supplied by enemies of Columbus. Needless to say, there is a great deal of back and forth controversy about the truth of Bobadilla's assertions.

Columbus was probably no worse than your average adventurer in terms of evil. What he is celebrated for is opening the "new world" to the "old world," and vice versa. He found it and publicized it. It was one of the most consequential events in the last thousand years. That puts him way ahead of anyone else in the explorer league. If his voyage and exploration had ended like Leif Ericsson's, we would not celebrate him.

Spooky Reverence on the Discord channel adds:

So, for an example. Here’s the most-cited quote of Columbus’ to support the idea he engaged in sexual slavery:

> A hundred castellanos [a unit of currency] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.

Looks pretty bad, right? Fuller context:

> The maintenance of justice and the extension of the dominion of Her Highness has hitherto kept me down. Now that so much gold is found, a dispute arises as to which brings more profit, whether to go about robbing or to go to the mines. A hundred castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid. I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world; and now they are returning thither, and leave is granted them.”

The more I look into it, the more it’s like this. Something he’s criticizing becoming portrayed as something he’s endorsing…rather than commending sexual slavery, he is saying that he has had trouble bringing degenerate sex slavers to heel.

It looks like I (or Adraste) was also wrong or at least on thin ice about Columbus cutting off the hands of Indians who didn’t give him enough gold - see here for details. Columbus did (by his son’s admission) punish Indians who did not give him enough gold, in some unspecified way. And hand-cutting was used as a punishment for insufficient-gold-tribute elsewhere in Spanish America. But there is no hard evidence that Columbus ever used this punishment himself - though punishing people who don’t give you gold after you take over their country seems pretty bad regardless of what the punishment was.

I cannot find anyone denying that Columbus promised the king and queen of Spain that he would provide them with lots of slaves, and did indeed raid the native villages of the Indies, capture many of them as slaves, and send 500 back to Spain (200 of whom died en route). He talks about doing this in his own letters, so I don’t think this one is a rumor spread by his enemies.

Was this “normal for his time”? I think somewhat. Wikipedia says:

Spain began to trade slaves in the 15th century and this trade reached its peak in the 16th century. The history of Spanish enslavement of Africans began with Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão in 1441. The first large group of African slaves, made up of 235 slaves, came with Lançarote de Freitas three years later. In 1462, Portuguese slave traders began to operate in Seville, Spain. During the 1470s, Spanish merchants began to trade large numbers of slaves. Slaves were auctioned at market at a cathedral, and subsequently were transported to cities all over Imperial Spain. This led to the spread of Moorish, African, and Christian slavery in Spain. By the 16th century, 7.4 percent of the population in Seville, Spain were slaves. Many historians have concluded that Renaissance and early-modern Spain had the highest amount of African slaves in Europe.

…but Columbus seemed pretty upset not to find much gold in the West Indies and seems to have slave-raided at an unusually intense level to compensate. I can’t tell what percentile of badness for a 15th-century explorer he was, but I’m guessing it’s >50th, and reading about some of the awful things he did it’s hard to care.

Still, I apologize for repeating the cut-off-hands rumor, and will add it to my Mistakes page.

Of course, there’s the broader issue - whatever Columbus did or didn’t do himself, he opened the way for Cortes and Pizarro and the eradication of native tribes in America and the series of epidemics and slave plantation systems that killed most of the natives alive in 1492. I’m reluctant to attribute this to Columbus (who didn’t do most of it, couldn’t have predicted most of it, and died before most of it happened), because then you would also have to credit Columbus for all the good things he caused in the far future that he couldn’t have predicted - like America inventing vaccines or helping win World War II. On the other hand, if we don’t credit him at all for things he couldn’t have predicted, we can’t credit him for discovering the New World at all (all he predicted was that he might reach Asia faster than usual) and he becomes an inconsequential figure. If we’re celebrating Columbus Day at all, then it has to be because we’re attributing downstream effects to him, in which case he had many downstream effects but these were (hopefully) overwhelmed by the good effects of the US and all other modern New World countries.

3: The third big controversy in the comments was whether Santa Claus was justified in punching Arius.

First things first - this story is probably fake. The first reference to St. Nicholas hitting someone at a council was a thousand years after his death. The story says he lightly slapped (rather than punched) an Arian heretic (rather than Arius himself). So this false-to-begin-with tale grew in the telling - but we’re talking holiday myths, so fine, let’s say Santa Claus punched Arius. Valjean writes:

Arius had it coming. The practice of punching those supposed church leaders who are his theological descendants should be normalized and celebrated.

Why? Remember, Arius is famous for claiming that God the Father created Jesus (and so Jesus was not the same as God, not an equal partner in the Trinity, not eternal, etc). How come people care about this 4th century dispute today? Some Christian commenters explain why this matters to them. Pope Spurdo writes:

The implications of Arianism for Mariology, which provides a sharp distinction between Catholicism/Orthodoxy and most Protestantism, are huge. If you're debating Mary's role in salvation, which we Catholics/Orthodox think is major and most Protestants don't (and which we fight about on the internet the way you fight about buying mosquito nets) you eventually run into the Christological answer given by Arius. If Jesus isn't fully God, then Mary can't be the mother of God, which we think is an important title, with a corresponding entitlement to special reverence.

Valjean writes:

Short answer:

Christianity without the divinity of Christ, as a person of the Triune God, is not Christianity. The highest-profile modern followers of Arian theology are the LDS and JW movements, which I'm grateful to note are pretty broadly acknowledged to be outside the pale of historic, Biblical Christianity. Confused, well-meaning adherents of these systems, I would engage warmly. Leaders who are actively seeking to lead more and more people astray with their anti-Biblical nonsense, I wouldn't mind seeing punched in some circumstances.

Soapbox answer:

The issue at stake with Arius and at Nicaea was far greater than the sort of discussions [about wills vs. natures] which you reference there, Scott; simply put, the question was whether Jesus was himself divine, or whether he was a created being; like us, albeit greater. This is a point on which Scripture is emphatic, and it teaches that our salvation rests upon what we hold to be the historical event of Jesus, the eternal, uncreated Son of God, dying for the propitiation of His people's sin, and rising again to eternal life; an act effective only if carried out by the God-Man (to borrow a term). My associate there referenced the implications upon Mariology, but setting that area of (major) disagreement aside, there is firm agreement between we of the Reformed tradition and our Catholic brethren on the utmost importance of Christ's identity (indeed, one of the greatest expositions of all this came from the pen of St. Anselm of Canterbury).

Side note: if anyone should read this and think, "Oh, this ridiculous Trinity business again; how wearying", I would commend you Dr. Michael Reeves' book "Delighting in the Trinity", which is a clearer and more wonderful exploration than I would previously have thought possible.

Deiseach inevitably writes:

Ha, ha, ha, well you know - it's the tiny details that make all the difference. A lot of the early heresies were precisely that kind of very fine-grained theological exaltation, but it's a bit more vital than that - whatever Arius himself may have believed, it was the Christological doctrines of what came to be called Arianism that were important.

And that led to the kind of "99% of Christians wouldn't even know the difference" claims by its followers, who were really in a dominant position for a long time, who solved the problems of "how can Christ be God and man?" by adopting the solution that the Father alone was the eternal God, and the Son was created by Him, was not existing from all time, and though unique and exceptional, was more akin to one of the angels (this is a very simplified version) or was just an exceptional unique human who was elevated into being the Son of God (even more simplified version).

So if you have God who is God and alone, and then the special intermediary who is not (fully) God or a created (g)od, then you have the door into things like Islam - where Jesus is a great and venerated prophet, but not the Messiah or son of God, and Mohammed is the greatest and final revelation, or Unitarianism, or Mormonism (this is the really big deal about why Mormons are not considered Christians even though they say they follow Christ and accept the Bible and all the rest of it).

Imagine someone saying "Look, I don't get this squabble between you Jews and the Christians. Don't you all fundamentally believe the same things about God anyway? Who cares if this one guy was or wasn't the Messiah, heck you even have one sect of your guys who firmly believe their leader was the Messiah and you haven't declared them non-Jews! Why the continuing animosity over some incredibly obscure distinction?"

I would quibble that Jesus as the Messiah is not one of Jews’ top objections to Christianity, which I think would be first that it flirts with polytheism (the Trinity), that it flirts with idolatry (icons + Michelangelo-esque depictions of God), and that it says you don’t need to follow the Law. Other sects of Judaism that have “just” posited a Messiah (eg the subset of Lubavitchers who think Rebbe Schneerson was the Messiah) have met much less resistance.

Deiseach inevitably continues with a Chesterton quote:

The whole great history of the Arian heresy might have been invented to explode this idea. It is a very interesting history often repeated in this connection; and the upshot of it is in that in so far as there ever was a merely official religion, it actually died because it was merely an official religion; and what destroyed it was the real religion. Arius advanced a version of Christianity which moved, more or less vaguely, in the direction of what we should call Unitarianism; though it was not the same, for it gave to Christ a curious intermediary position between the divine and human. The point is that it seemed to many more reasonable and less fanatical; and among these were many of the educated class in a sort of reaction against the first romance of conversion. Arians were a sort of moderates and a sort of modernists. And it was felt that after the first squabbles this was the final form of rationalised religion into which civilisation might well settle down. It was accepted by Divus Caesar himself and became the official orthodoxy; the generals and military princes drawn from the new barbarian powers of the north, full of the future, supported it strongly. But the sequel is still more important. Exactly as a modern man might pass through Unitarianism to complete agnosticism, so the greatest of the Arian emperors ultimately shed the last and thinnest pretense of Christianity; he abandoned even Arius and returned to Apollo. He was a Caesar of the Caesars; a soldier, a scholar, a man of large ambitions and ideals; another of the philosopher kings. It seemed to him as if at his signal the sun rose again. The oracles began to speak like birds beginning to sing at dawn; paganism was itself again; the gods returned. It seemed the end of that strange interlude of an alien superstition. And indeed it was the end of it, so far as there was a mere interlude of mere superstition. It was the end of it, in so far as it was the fad of an emperor or the fashion of a generation. If there really was something that began with Constantine, then it ended with Julian.

But there was something that did not end. There had arisen in that hour of history, defiant above the democratic tumult of the Councils of the Church, Athanasius against the world. We may pause upon the point at issue; because it is relevant to the whole of this religious history, and the modern world seems to miss the whole point of it. We might put it this way. If there is one question which the enlightened and liberal have the habit of deriding and holding up as a dreadful example of barren dogma and senseless sectarian strife, it is this Athanasian question of the Co-Eternity of the Divine Son. On the other hand, if there is one thing that the same liberals always offer us as a piece of pure and simple Christianity, untroubled by doctrinal disputes, it is the single sentence, 'God is Love.' Yet the two statements are almost identical; at least one is very nearly nonsense without the other. The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love. If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed. The truth is that the trumpet of true Christianity, the challenge of the charities and simplicities of Bethlehem or Christmas Day never rang out more arrestingly and unmistakably than in the defiance of Athanasius to the cold compromise of the Arians. It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colourless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics. It was emphatically he who was fighting for the Holy Child against the grey deity of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family.

4: LHN on whether anyone actually cares about Columbus Day:

The size of Chicago’s Columbus Day parade and the continuing efforts to have the Columbus statue (removed in 2020) returned to its place of honor point to “Yes” on the sentiment question, at least for an influential community here.

Only four years ago, the local Italian-American community successfully resisted efforts to rename Balbo Drive, a street in a prominent location named after a prominent literal Fascist (an early leader of the party who built Mussolini’s air force and ran large parts of North Africa before being shot down, poetically, by Italian air defenses).

They may win or lose on the statue or Columbus Day in the long run (the statue at least hasn’t yet been returned) since there are competing interests at play. But their fervor clearly isn’t casual. And if 80-odd years of Blackshirts being non grata in the US hasn’t led to a deal renaming Balbo Drive after Monteverdi or something, I’m guessing it’ll be a while before the rather newer turn against Columbus makes a dent in their enthusiasm.

Several people (Aristides, Herbert Herbertson, Gordon Tremeshko) argue that this depends a lot on where in the US you live, and that in cities with a big Italian-American community Columbus Day is a really big deal. Meanwhile, I had to hear about Columbus Day approximately yearly in elementary school, and I was an adult before I learned (as a fun historical fact) that it was ever supposed to involve Italian-Americans at all.

In response to how much people in different parts of America knew or didn’t know about the Italian pride aspect of Columbus Day, Voyager wrote:

I (not American, mind) didn't know Columbus Day was a thing at all, and when Beroe brought it up, I thought it was an alternate history idea Scott had made up to set up a reversal test. I learned something today.

Who knows? Maybe this is all just extreme commitment to the bit!

5: Evariste writes:

> suppose we were to replace Christmas with another holiday that tested equally well in focus groups. It had just as much potential for holiday specials, provided just as much of an excuse to get together with family, even had delightful mythological characters who, starting ex nihilo, would have just as much appeal as Santa. Would you feel like something had been lost?

I have had weird feelings reading this. I am from Russia, and this precisely what has happened here (without focus groups though). In soviet era, Christmas was banned as too religious, and replaced with New Year celebrations (in the night from 31st of December to the 1st of January), which are as massive a holiday as Christmas is in the US. For New Year, families come together, decorate a spruce tree (which is called a New Year Tree rather than a Christmas Tree), and give each other presents which are supposedly distributed by Grandfather Frost, who is totally not Santa Claus despite being an old jolly bearded guy giving the presents. (He has evolved from the East Slavic mythology rather Cristianity, so while he was briefly banned, the soviet government was much less strict about that, as, in accordance with the post, they feared Pagan opposition much less than Christian opposition). And Christmas in Russia is mostly celebrated by people who are indeed religious.

And yes, in Russia we are kind of without tradition with regard to national holidays, because all the main ones are at most soviet-era old. The most popular are The New Year, The International Women's Day and the Day of Protectors of the Fatherland (Progressives in Russia have been to change the nature of both of them for years: to make the Women's Day more about feminism and awareness of Women's rights, rather than flowers, beauty and "We wish you to smile more and to be a decoration of your work team"; and to demilitarise the discourse around the Protector's day and just turn it into Man's Day, like it works in school, where girls give boys gifts for Protector's Day, and boys give girls gift for Women's Day), and the Labour Day and Victory Day (the has also been attempted to get demilitarised for years, to be turned from belligerent weapons demonstrations into a day of grief for those who have died in WWII, of whom there are a few in practically every Russian family history). So yeah, we live in a country with a short tradition of holidays, and there are lots of clashes around them.

Also, I have just read on Wikipedia that in Ukraine there is a movement to change the focus from New Year to Christmas again, because New Year is associated with the Soviet past. I don't have any personal evidence on whether this is true, however.

It seems that the Russian word for their amped-up New Year’s festival is “Novyi God”, which is an interesting kabbalistic correspondence. And Robert Jones writes:

As someone who lives in a country with "early May", "late May" and "August" holidays, I assure you that having figured out the optimal number of holidays, you don't need to go on to the next step of agreeing historical figures to celebrate. You can just have holidays there.

When I lived in Ireland I was creeped out by things like the May Bank Holiday. It felt too much like I was living in a dystopia. “Worker #4113, you and the rest of North West City get the May Bank Holiday off from your job at Nutrient Factory 87”. If you tried to pull that in America, we would revolt.

6: Chlopodo writes:

Nobody cares about *Columbus* for the sake of Columbus. I find the vilification of him every bit as annoying as the exaltation of him, since it always comes from people who clearly have no genuine interest in the history of the age of exploration, the conquest of the Antilles, or the Caribbean indigenes.

Personally I find Columbus interesting because he seems to have just been a WEIRD individual, psychologically. Late in his career, he started having a belief that he was chosen by God for some divine mission, which put off his Spanish contemporaries--they started calling him "pharaoh" and treated him as some discredited mad prophet. On his third voyage he discovered the mouth of the Orinoco River and concluded that it must flow from the Garden of Eden.

I have a mild interest in weird historical prophecies, and in this context I came across Columbus’ Book Of Prophecies, which he wrote late in his life. This actually touches on the Garden of Eden claim - Columbus believed that the Second Coming could not occur until the Garden of Eden was found. I don’t know how seriously to take his own self-presentation, but Columbus always presented himself as deliberately setting out to fulfill as many preconditions for the Second Coming as he could - for example, he said that he was looking for gold so he could enrich Spain to the point where it reconquered the Holy Land. New EA hero?

I have never been able to find a good online version of the Book of Prophecies, but one day I may cave and buy it from the bookstore - it is, after all, the only apocalyptic prophecy from someone with experience causing apocalypses.

7: Red Barchetta:

I haven't read the comments yet, but why must some authority "set" holidays in the first place? The best and most enduring holidays rise up organically from the culture and are simply formally observed by a government. I think this dialogue mixes what are really two types of holidays.

A good point. This got me thinking about whether we can still do the “decentralized organic coordination on having a new holiday” thing.

Maybe Pride Month is the clearest example of this working in the modern era, from back when gays were more persecuted and before it was endorsed by cities and corporations? The rationalists have also succeeded at this within their subcommunity in a smaller way - Petrov Day, Smallpox Eradication Day, and others have managed to sort of catch on, with maybe a few hundred people celebrating them yearly. Maybe this suggests that small tight-knit groups (gays were a small tight-knit group whenever Pride started) can still do this, and then sometimes they catch on? Maybe this is the only way organic holidays ever form?

My best counterexample is 9-11, which seems to have semi-organically become a nationwide day of remembrance, although realistically that seems to mostly involve newspapers publishing “It’s the somethingth anniversary of 9-11 today, never forget!”. Any more . . . exuberant . . . commemorations tend to be considered insensitive (eg this).

8: Albatross11 writes:

In practice, I'm glad Columbus showed up in America, because that led to my civilization existing and my nation existing and me existing, and I think all three of these are good things. 

I think this brings up an important point: whether Columbus was good or bad for the world, he was presumably good for us (non-Native citizens of the US) and maybe we owe it to celebrate or at least commemorate our own progenitors regardless of their overall value. This seems to be the theory behind eg ancestor worship, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and the fact that America celebrates Washington’s Birthday but not eg Gandhi’s Birthday.

A possible counterexample: my family descends from various Jews who emigrated from Russia and Poland because of pogroms and then interbred. The people who sparked those pogroms (let’s say the Tsar) caused the current generation of my family to exist. Should we celebrate the Tsar, even though all he ever did was try to ruin our ancestors’ lives? And did Columbus - who really just wanted a quicker route to Asia plus maybe to find the Garden of Eden - really “aim at” creating America in any way more profound than the Tsar “aimed at” creating my family?

9: BBA on the Discord writes:

Many countries have some kind of holiday on October 12 but the US is the only one to call it "Columbus Day" in most of Latin America it's Dia de la Raza, celebrating the undeniable fact that Hispanics literally would not exist if not for October 12, 1492

Oooh, I like this one. Italians aren’t powerful enough to maintain their own holiday these days, so draw the Hispanics into the coalition. Columbus didn’t destroy indigenous peoples, he initiated their transformation into a more powerful form! We can ditch Cinco de Mayo (boring, unrelated to America, non-inclusive of non-Mexican Hispanics), save Columbus Day, and have an extra excuse to eat tacos. Let’s do it!

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A Columbian Exchange


Adraste: Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

Beroe: Happy Columbus Day!

Adraste: …okay, surely we can both sketch out the form of the argument we’re about to have. Genocide, political correctness, moral progress, trying to destroy cherished American traditions, etc, etc, would you like to just pretend we hit all of the usual beats, rather than actually doing it?

Beroe: Does “Columbus Day was originally intended as a woke holiday celebrating marginalized groups; President Benjamin Harrison established it in 1892 after an anti-Italian pogrom in order to highlight the positive role of Italians in American history” count as one of the usual beats by this point?

Adraste: I would have to say that it does.

Beroe: What about “Indigenous People’s Day is offensive because indigenous peoples were frequently involved in slavery and genocide”?

Adraste: I’m not sure I’ve heard that particular argument before.

Beroe: But surely you can sketch it out. Many indigenous peoples practiced forms of hereditary slavery, usually of war captives from other tribes. Some of them tortured slaves pretty atrociously; others ceremonially killed them as a spectacular show of wealth. There’s genetic and archaeological evidence of entire lost native tribes, most likely massacred by more warlike ones long before European contact. Some historians think that the Aztecs may have ritually murdered between 0.1% and 1% of their empire’s population every year, although as always other historians disagree. I refuse to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, because I think we need to question holidays dedicated to mass murderers even when they’re “traditional” or “help connect people to their history”.

Adraste: Very droll, I’m glad I let you present that one.

Beroe: See, that’s what everyone says. “Very droll”, “so galaxy-brained”. It seems like people should be more concerned that they’re asserting a principle - “we shouldn’t be allowed to have holidays devoted to genocidal murderers even if they’re traditional and people really like them” - and then immediately in the same breath violating that principle. Doesn’t that bother you?

Adraste: I don’t think the Native Americans were as much of a negative moral outlier among groups as Columbus was among individuals.

Beroe: No, and I’m sure you draw the line for “too evil to observe a holiday celebrating” right in the most convenient part of the space between them.

Adraste: Maybe? I’m not sure I think about it in quite those terms. To me it just feels like your objection is an annoying motivated fake argument that you’re coming up with to mock Indigenous People’s Day because you don’t want to celebrate it, rather than genuine concern that it’s offensive to the descendants of the Aztecs’ victims. Or are you really worried that if we normalize the Aztecs’ misdeeds, then the youth might start sacrificing people with obsidian daggers on top of giant pyramids?

Beroe: There’s a saying “the sovereign is he who sets the null hypothesis”. But I would add that “the sovereign is he who decides which arguments are too galaxy-brained and annoying to take seriously”. A hundred years ago, when everyone wanted to honor the Italians, it would have been galaxy-brained and annoying to object to Columbus Day. People would have accused you of just wanting an excuse for your anti-Italian bigotry. It’s not like it’s going to normalize the youth taking over the West Indies and enslaving the local population!

Adraste: Maybe those people would have been right! Maybe the point of holidays is to teach people lessons, and which holidays are good or bad depends on what lessons need to be taught. If the big conflict in society is about whether or not to accept Italians, and nobody is thinking about Native Americans either way, then maybe it’s correct to honor a famous Italian, so as to emphasize our support for Italians’ rights. And a hundred years later, when nobody worries about Italians anymore, but lots of people worry about Native Americans, then honoring an Italian who killed lots of Native Americans sends the wrong message, and so we deprecate the pro-Italian holiday in favor of a pro-Native-American one. In the very unlikely chance that, a hundred years from now, the descendants of Aztecs are powerful and privileged, but the descendants of their sacrificial victims are marginalized and there’s a debate about whether or not to accept them - then we should scrap or re-work Indigenous People’s Day to emphasize that we support the victims’ descendants. Until and unless that happens, why bother?

Beroe: Allow me to try a hostile rephrasing of your point. There is no such thing as genuine heroism worth celebrating, or traditions worth keeping - only raw power. Whenever we need a group to join the left-wing coalition, we’ll signal allegiance to them by celebrating their ancestors and demonizing their enemies, regardless of who was in the right. If we stop needing their votes, or they start voting conservative, we’ll demonize their ancestors and celebrate their enemies instead, again regardless of whether this involves active lionization of evil. Do you think that’s substantially different from what you’re saying?

Adraste: You changed “society is preventing pogroms against a marginalized group” to “left-wingers are cynically milking people for their votes”, so yes, I would say it is substantially different.

Beroe: Okay, okay, I admit that was indeed an extraordinarily hostile rephrasing. Maybe it’s not exactly the same as what you said. Maybe it’s more - the way that the idealistic thing you said will inevitably get implemented in real life?

Adraste: And you’re not being idealistic with your argument that we should never celebrate any holiday for anyone who has ever been associated with bad things? Except for Columbus, an exception you still haven’t even slightly explained?

Beroe: Oh, that’s easy. Christopher Columbus did nothing wrong.

Adraste: What? I thought we agreed we could skip the basics - genocide, rape, slavery, torture.

Beroe: No! Cristobal Colon did all those things. Christopher Columbus did nothing wrong.

Adraste: They’re the same person. The Spanish name vs. the Anglicized Latin name.

Beroe: The relationship between Cristobal Colon and Christopher Columbus is the same as the relationship between St. Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus. St. Nicholas of Myra is a historical figure who lived in 4th century Anatolia. He may or may not have done bad things like physically attack people who he disagreed with at church councils. But Santa Claus is a jolly old man who lives at the North Pole and spreads holiday cheer. In the same way, Cristobal Colon is a historical figure responsible for many serious crimes. But Christopher Columbus is a brave explorer who set forth across the ocean sea with only three tiny ships, despite the risk that he might fall off the edge of the world -

Adraste: Nobody actually thought the world was flat in 1492.

Beroe: Reindeer can’t actually fly.

Adraste: So you're saying we’ve created a mythical version of Christopher Columbus who did good things but not bad things, and we’re celebrating that myth, and not the real, flawed historical figure?

Beroe: Precisely.

Adraste: I think in order for me to accept this, I would need for Columbus the mythical figure to be more clearly differentiated from Columbus the historical reality. Let him fly around the world on his magic caravel on Columbus Day Eve, visiting all the little children. And if they’re nice children who listen to their parents, he brings them gold and spices; but if they disobey, he invades their house, murders their family, and forces them into slavery on his plantations. That would be a mythical figure. Absent something transparently fantastic like that, I think you’re just scheming up a clever way to avoid historical accountability. Nazis can hold rallies hailing Hitler, and when you challenge them, they can claim they’re talking about a mythical Hitler who, mythologically, did good things but not bad things.

Beroe: And that claim would be either true or false! If none of those Nazis showed the slightest inclination to dislike Jews, I would believe it was true. But this doesn’t seem true of real Nazis - they love their version of Hitler for exactly the same reasons we hate ours. I would rather use the example of Genghis Khan, who really is beloved in Mongolia. He did kill millions of people, but the Mongols are celebrating him for fine, pro-human reasons like bravery and tactical brilliance - so we let it pass.

Adraste: And in this schema, the reasons for celebrating Columbus are “pro-human”?

Beroe: Yes! Columbus is the brave explorer who set forth across the ocean sea with only three tiny ships, despite the risk that he might fall off the edge of the world. He represents the human urge for discovery, to go forth from safe and settled lands to seek out new horizons. And he’s part of our history. For a while the poets called America itself “Columbia”, and since then we’ve used the name for our national capital district, two of our state capitals, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, an Ivy League university, three spacecraft, and the mythical goddess of American democracy - not to even mention the Columbian Exposition, revolutionary Gran Colombia, (beautiful) British Columbia, and the modern country of Colombia. Columbus is a part of ourselves - the part that leaves behind the comfortable Old World for something new and exciting.

Adraste: Then isn’t it an insult to this mythical Columbus to turn him into a figurehead for stale tradition? To say oh, yes, he was a bad person who violated everything we believe in, but we have to stick with him because that was what our forefathers did? Isn’t that the opposite of leaving behind the settled shores of the comfortable Old World seeking bold new progress? I’m not completely ignorant of the old American tradition of lionizing the early explorers and colonists. But I think it was James Russell Lowell who wrote about them as:

They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,    
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past's;
But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,     
Hoarding it in moldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee      
The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them across the sea.       

Do you deny that’s what you’re doing here?

Beroe: Clever! Turning my own words against me! Maybe if I believed that we could create an even better explorer holiday - one honoring Neil Armstrong, maybe - I could be convinced to part with Columbus Day - although I worry that Armstrong wouldn’t have quite the same oomph, nothing he did really affected us. But in fact we’re not even trying to do that. We’ve replaced it with this complete milquetoast Indigenous People’s Day, which isn’t even pretending to be anything other than an anti-holiday to neutralize Columbus Day itself. There is no such thing as a natural grassroots Indigenous People’s Day celebration. It exists only to harass and humiliate people observing the old rites - so that busybodies can say “Actually, you should be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead.”

Adraste: Is that so bad? All of our best holidays have begun as anti-holidays to neutralize older rites. Jesus was born in the spring; they moved Christmas to December to neutralize the pagan Solstice celebration. Easter got its name because it neutralized the rites of the spring goddess Eostre. Hanukkah was originally a minor celebration of a third-tier Bible story; American Jews bumped it up several notches of importance in order to neutralize Christmas. Labor Day was invented to screw up Communists’ attempts to coordinate around May Day as a labor protest holiday. This isn’t something modern liberals invented. It’s a tradition as old as the West. Give anti-holidays enough time and they become proper celebrations; in a hundred years, your descendants will be horrified at the thought of missing an Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance!

Beroe: I’m sorry, you may be right about the history, but Indigenous Peoples’ Day is just not a very good holiday. Indigenous Peoples are just too vague and diverse to have any real attachment to them. What are we even supposed to be celebrating? It’s not that Indigenous Peoples didn’t have any good qualities - maybe some of them lived in harmony with nature or something, and some had surprisingly egalitarian societies. I hear the Aztecs had amazing urban planning, and the Incas did some very neat things with rope bridges and knots. But there was no good quality that all of them had as a group. And even if there was, we wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate it, because that would be a stereotype. I can imagine a world in which Benjamin Harrison had declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day back in 1892, and people celebrated by wearing feathered headdresses and attending pow-wows and eating cornbread, and that might have eventually evolved into a good holiday. But absent a 180 degree shift in the culture, we obviously aren’t going to get that now. In the real world, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is observed by feeling vaguely guilty, making a big show of not celebrating Columbus Day, and making sure not to do anything fun or cultural related to Indigenous Peoples in any way, lest it offend someone.

Adraste: Columbus Day isn’t exactly the world’s most exciting party either.

Beroe: Granted. But at least 1892 was before we had so much physical technology that we let all our social technology atrophy away - and so Benjamin Harrison had the good sense to declare Columbus Day rather than Italian American Heritage Recognition Week. At least we got a real historical figure who we can have feelings about.

Adraste: So what, you’d prefer Sacagawea Day?

Beroe: Oh God, you’re really making this embarrassing for me, aren’t you? Yes, I suppose I would prefer Sacagawea Day to Indigenous People’s Day. But why not Sitting Bull Day? Yes, yes, I know, he murdered a few civilians, but that was the historical Thathanka Iyotake. The mythical Sitting Bull can easily be rehabilitated! And he has a sort of extra indefinable cool.

Coria: Sorry, can I interrupt?

Adraste: Who are you?

Coria: I’m getting written into this dialogue because the author found it concerning that one character is promoting “holidays are about destroying other tribes’ holidays to score political points” and the other is promoting “holidays are about whitewashing genocides”, without anyone holding the principled position of “let’s just figure out what the optimal number of holidays is, determine the greatest historical figures based on some weighted combination of goodness and importance, and then assign those holidays to those historical figures in order according to some proper technocratic High Modernist system.”

Adraste: Are you crazy?

Coria: I realize it’s a big ask. It just seemed sort of dishonest or small-minded to not even mention it as a possibility. There are plenty of lists of the greatest historical figures. Taking this one, selecting for only Americans or America-related people, and removing people too similar to each other, we get Columbus, Einstein, Edison, Washington, MLK, Disney, Franklin, Jonas Salk, Margaret Sanger, Susan B Anthony, and Louis Armstrong. We could combine it with this list of people who saved the most lives, of which the Americans are Maurice Hilleman, Henrietta Lacks, Jonas Salk, and Norman Borlaug - I think a good consensus list for both influential and moral might replace one of Columbus, Sanger or Franklin with Borlaug, and keep the rest. That would give us eleven honorees - enough for one holiday a month, leaving room for Christmas.

Adraste: I don’t think a list of algorithmically-determined honorees without any Hispanics or Natives really takes into account how politics works these days.

Beroe: And I don’t think that a Year Zero attempt to reinvent holidays from first principles takes into account how culture works, ever.

Coria: As I said, I didn’t expect you to be interested. I’ll just be standing over here in the corner in case you decide you like truth and goodness.

Adraste: I do think Coria’s idea suggests an important point. If we imagine ourselves reinventing the concept of holidays from the ground up, I don’t think our plan would include bringing in Columbus, rehabilitating him from a mass murderer to a mythical explorer, and then celebrating him every October . That means that continuing to do so doesn’t pass a reversal test for status quo bias.

Beroe: Granted. If your argument is that my position depends on something like nostalgia or tradition, I accept it. I am trying to argue that celebrating Columbus Day is permissible and justifiable, not arguing that it is an optimal holiday for some hypothetical culture with no previous history.

Adraste: Isn’t there an aspect of selfishness in forcing future generations to do things you remember fondly, just to indulge your nostalgia? If we rip off the band-aid now, then future generations won’t have any memories of Columbus Day, and the problem won’t come up.

Beroe: Let me answer your question with a question: suppose we were to replace Christmas with another holiday that tested equally well in focus groups. It had just as much potential for holiday specials, provided just as much of an excuse to get together with family, even had delightful mythological characters who, starting ex nihilo, would have just as much appeal as Santa. Would you feel like something had been lost?

Adraste: I admit it would make me sad. I agree we shouldn’t do it. But that’s because there’s no reason to do it. It would make old geezers like us sad, with no compensatory advantages. Getting rid of Columbus Day is much less laborious - people have many fewer associations with it - and does have compensatory advantages. So even though there is a cost in making you sad that your children will celebrate different holidays than you celebrated as a child, it’s probably worth it. And even if every hundred years or so we adjust holidays so that morally fraught ones are out and ones that celebrate new groups who it’s politically important to celebrate are in, I think that’s a worthwhile sacrifice.

Beroe: And I say it isn’t, and you’ll end up without myths, without heroes, and without enjoyable festivals. You’ll get occasional long weekends whenever the government orders you to celebrate Seasonal Farm Workers Suffering From Fatphobia Day or whatever, but good luck keeping anything that might be called a real national culture.

Coria: Why are you two even still holding this debate? You know you’re never going to resolve this.

Adraste: Why, so that the next time we get in a fight about this and say “Can we pretend that we hit all the usual beats and skip to novel arguments?” we’ll be able to skip over more things!

Beroe: Exactly! We may never come to an agreement, but next time we’ll be able to explore even more exotic and complicated arguments. That’s what philosophical progress is!

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36 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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You Do Not Need To Store Your Kids' DNA in Case of Emergencies

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Children and DNA samples

The Today show this week offers an alarming headline about how Texas is handling school shootings: "Texas schools send parents DNA kits to identify their kids' bodies in emergencies."

The headline is true, but the story's framing is misleading. More importantly, parents who get DNA kits from their schools should simply dump them in the trash and go about their day. The tests are unnecessary, and hanging onto your child's DNA data compromises his or her privacy for little gain.

In 2021, Texas lawmakers passed a bill, S.B. 2158, mandating that all schools (including open-enrollment charter schools) send home fingerprint or DNA kits "on request" to parents of parents or legal guardians of children up through middle school. Parents may then use the kits and submit the identifying information to law enforcement officials if their child is kidnapped or trafficked. Participation is completely voluntary, and parents are supposed to keep the DNA samples at home in case something happens to their children.

The bill was not introduced as a measure to identify the bodies of children killed by school shooters, as Today frames it. The bill was introduced by Texas State Sen. Donna Campbell (R–New Braunfels) as part of a national collaborative effort for the National Child Identification Program to fingerprint America's kids to help investigate kidnapping. We can argue the merits of whether we should be fearmongering parents into getting their kids fingerprinted over kidnapping panics. Still, to be clear, the bill was not introduced or passed for anything to do with school shooters.

Much of this is lost in Today's story, which instead leans heavily on fear and panic and casts the law as Texas' response to school shootings, instead of implementing harsher gun control measures. The story notes that the bill was passed after a deadly school shooting in Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, and before the Robb Elementary School Shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which suggests that the Santa Fe shooting inspired the bill.

Today's piece is fundamentally about people being mad that Texas isn't doing more about guns. It has this juicy, just-too-perfect, totally-spontaneous-I'm-sure quote from Tracy Walder, a former CIA and FBI agent and current college professor, who says her second-grade daughter would be sent home with a kit (even though the law says schools are supposed to provide them on request, not unprompted): "You have to understand, I'm a former law enforcement officer. I worry every single day when I send my kid to school. Now we're giving parents DNA kits so that when their child is killed with the same weapon of war I had when I was in Afghanistan, parents can use them to identify them?"

Well, as a former law enforcement officer, Walder should know full well that the reason so many children died at Robb Elementary School had nothing to do with the type of gun the shooter had but because the police sat on their thumbs and did nothing while the violence played out.

Today, which is usually good at inspiring fear, weirdly glosses over the privacy issues at play here. The story notes that "some parents feel uncomfortable sending their DNA to anyone for privacy reasons." Good, because parents shouldn't do that and don't need to. The story notes that when officials struggled to identify some of the victims of the Robb Elementary shooting, they could do so by comparing DNA samples of the bodies to those of family members. There is no need to permanently keep DNA samples on hand to share with authorities.

And what exactly happens to these DNA samples isn't entirely clear, even under Texas statute. Under Texas law, fingerprint cards and photographs made and kept under these statutes "may not be used as evidence in any criminal proceeding in which the child is a defendant." Another part of the code specifies that fingerprints may only be used to identify or locate a missing child. But the statutes do not have similar restrictions on the use of DNA samples.

We've already seen police misuse DNA data collected for other purposes in San Francisco, where investigators used DNA collected from rape victims to prosecute completely unrelated crimes.

Don't let blatant fearmongering push you into doing something reckless, like handing your child's DNA information to authorities. It's not necessary, and it compromises your family's privacy for very little gain.

The post You Do Not Need To Store Your Kids' DNA in Case of Emergencies appeared first on Reason.com.

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46 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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