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Archive for September, 2005
There’s a great deal to be said about the intersections of those three concepts. Or so Jim Johnson says, and he’s got a blog and a paper to explain. I heard him give a brief account of his paper at a conference recently, and I’m intrigued. When I’ve had time to take a closer look I may have more to say, but it’s worth a look.
hat tip: Henry Farrell. A nice preliminary discussion at CT is emerging. My initial reaction to Johnson lies in the general ballpark of Chris Bertram and Russell Arben Fox.
Scott made it pretty clear the other day that mainstream pro-life policy positions are more than just wrong-headed, but a “dog’s breakfast of illogic.” He’ll get no argument from me. Still, I think it’s worth engaging the serious, reasoned pro-life positions we might find, particularly when they share a commitment to many of the core principles of feminism. Two exemplars of serious pro-life thinking, from a Christian left-communitarian perspective, are Hugo Schwyzer and Russell Arben Fox. As it turns out, they’re currently disagreeing with each other on California’s proposition 73, which would require parental notification (not consent) in the case of minors seeking abortions. Despite his deeply felt anti-abortion convictions, Hugo is planning to vote no. Russell disagrees. Hugo’s original post is here; Russell’s is here, and Hugo’s follow-up and response is here. Hugo confesses to be at a loss in his attempt to reconcile his competing commitments and convictions, and finds himself siding, half-heartedly and without much confidence, with his liberal individualist commitments. Were I a Californian, my no vote would cause me no anguish whatsoever, but there are plenty of other policy areas where I can empathize with Hugo’s relationship with liberal individualism.
To review the terrain: Hugo plans to vote no. What tips his competing commitments in this direction?
If my daughter were pregnant, I would want to know. Perhaps I would want her to keep the child, or choose adoption — though those would not be my decisions to make. But even greater than my desire to know, I would want her to be safe. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be about me, but about her and her needs.
This is refreshing–it’s usually thinking “as a parent” that flips the switch from no to yes on this issue, and it’s nice to see someone speaking from the subject-position of a parent (as Hugo has no children) to draw this conclusion. As I’m not likely to become a parent anytime soon I don’t make much of an effort to see the world from that position, but I must say to the extent that I do Hugo’s priorities–the health and safety of his daughter, and her ability to exercise her nascent autonomy in this most crucial decision over his desire to play the role of supportive, loving, involved parent is refreshing. The lines between love and concern for children, control of one’s children, and children being a vehicle for narcissistic forms of self-expression are often blurred in our culture and it’s nice to see someone keep those distinctions clear.
Russell’s disagreement in this particular case stems from what I take to be his larger vision of our abortion policy ought to look like. Specifically, he thinks abortion policy ought to reflect the social consensus on abortion, which is that it ought not be banned, but ought to be made rarer through both progressive social and economic policy (obviously, we’re allies here) and a host of restrictions on abortion that reflect that society finds abortion deeply troubling and indeed shameful. In his words:
I recognize that a whole lot of people–and specifically, young women–out there face terrible, unjust, ugly choices. But I do not understand how the problem that their choices pose to society are made any easier by refusing to allow any kind of social consensus, any kind of deterrence, any kind of interference, to present itself in between the individual and their choice. If you think abortion is a bad choice, and if you agree that majorities of one’s neighbors also think it is a bad choice (and there is scads of polling data which backs up that second claim), then I am at a loss as to why one would think that abortion can be a focus of social expression through law.
To his credit, Russell acknowledges the real costs of this legislation (while understating it; I respectfully think his use of 99% and 1% throughout the post, even though primarily a rhetorical device rather than a concrete estimate, to be low to the point of naivete about the quality of parenting). Furthermore, I suspect he’s right about the current status of public opinion concerning abortion. His vision and general concerns here in line with the communitarian vision of strong democracy put forth by (amongst many others) Ben Barber, who suggested that when our individualism becomes too robust, and is treated as an automatic trump when social values and priorities conflict, our ability to democratically govern ourselves will suffer, and there will be an attendant loss in the quality of our community. I don’t uncritically accept Barber’s vision of democracy, but I probably find it more valuable and compelling than most liberals do, and as such I’m not unsympathetic to his line of reasoning. He thinks Hugo should vote yes because he is conflicted about abortion, so as to get a better read on the social consensus. (Presumably, given his implicit conception of democracy, he wouldn’t encourage me to vote yes, at least not until he’d first convinced me that abortion is morally problematic enough to warrant it. If liberals who don’t particularly find abortion problematic at all were to become the majority, he’d presumably accept the outcome while trying to convince us otherwise.)
Hugo’s response is essentially to state that his liberalism trumps his Christian communitarianism in this case–he isn’t even defending that value ranking, so much as explaining it. Again, I approve of this, but the communitarian in me thinks we can and should do better. I’d like to suggest that there are good communitarian reasons to oppose initiative 73, and that while Russell identifies a problem with liberal individualism, he repeats the error at another level of abstraction. Liberals may be guilty of reifying and overstating the value (both descriptive and moral) of individual autonomy; but his brand of communitarianism reifies the value (again, both descriptive and moral) of familial autonomy.
Russell wants to see 73 pass not to protect “fetal rights” but to give social expression through public policy of societies’ disapproval for abortion. While wearing my liberal hat, I vote no because I think individual rights and autonomy out to trump. But, even if I discard my liberal hat and vote using only my communitarian hat, I continue to vote no. My reasons have nothing to do with abortion. Rather, I’d vote no because I want the laws of the land to better express our communal need to care for children. We all agree familial autonomy and what are erroneously called parental rights (I’d call them the discretionary boundaries of parental obligations) can, should and do lead to the positive development of children. It is through those parameters that these boundaries should be constructed. But healthy families don’t need this sort of policy intervention to function, or to the extent that they do, that ought to be trumped by our communitarian sense of duty toward children who, through no fault of their own, don’t find themselves in such families. A yes vote is an exercise in wish-fulfillment–shaping family law to conform to what families ought to look like. Here, Russell wants policy to strengthen the already strong at the expense of those who live in families that fall short of that. It’s exactly the sort of policy preference he’d be opposed to in the economic realm for all sorts of good reasons.
Obviously, my communitarian commitments would be more conflicted if I could bring myself to think of abortion as a serious morally troubling procedure. I don’t, and in any case my liberal commitments would step in and interfere with any attempt to seriously consider that abortion should be a morally troubling practice. One of the strengths of left-communitarian thinking is that is provides a strong alternate basis for supporting those who, often through no fault of their own, aren’t benefiting from our economic system. I’d like to think left-communitarian would share concerns for those who are failed through no fault of their own by our familial system as well. Indeed, I’m struck, as I conclude this post, by how similar my left-communitarian attitudes toward the free market and the nuclear family are. They’re both deeply ingrained and essentially irreplaceable for the foreseeable future sets of social institutions and practices that are incapable self-correcting for their own flaws. As such, those who are successful beneficiaries in the realm of family or the economy (whether through hard work or good fortune, or both) have an obligation to give something up to aid those who are failed by those systems. In the first case, we pay taxes for welfare provisions (and make charitable donations of time and money on top of that), don’t obstruct the construction of homeless shelters in our neighborhood, and so on. In the second case, those in successful families, who shouldn’t need the law anyway, ought to see giving up the legal affirmation of our family structure as the sacrifice we make to those who have been failed by the social structure that has served us well.
Update: Anyone clicking through from Harry’s CT post (thanks Harry!) should not be fooled by haloscan’s egregiously false claim about the number of comments contained in the link below. There’s several more than zero; most importantly some smart, helpful responses from Russell Arben Fox.
Wow, yet another TLC home improvement show. Starring Adam Carolla. Wow. What wonders will the pop culture industry produce next? A Star Wars novelization by Neal Stephenson? Medved/Chetwynd: The Collected Interviews? “Jessica Simpson Performs the Songs of Nickelback”? Patch Adams 2: A Film By Michael Bay? Doug Giles interviewing Annie Jacobsen?
…Shakes Sis is also on the Carolla-bashing case.
I never got around to following up on this post, which was touted as the first in a series. I’ve been thinking lately about how to explain to people why Ozu is so great. Peter Bradshaw, a better writer than I, does a nice job in this essay:
Ozu’s mannerisms of directing are very eccentric if you are not used to them. He uses low shooting positions, as if the camera itself is bowing, group compositions in profile and restful tableaux of outdoor landscapes (often showing railway lines or stations) or empty interiors to cleanse the viewer’s palate between scenes. He does not fade or dissolve between scenes, but crisply cuts. Oddly, his characters will often speak straight into the camera for dialogue exchanges – something that would get today’s film-school students hit across the knuckles with a ruler. It is a style so formally distinctive and stylised as virtually to constitute a kabuki-cinema language of Ozu’s own invention. Nobody else in Japanese cinema worked like this. But soon one becomes used to it – and then completely hooked.
Quite so. While many of his early films are very good, it’s when he settles into the rythym of his mature period (which I would date from the 1949 masterpiece Late Spring through his final work, 1962’s Autumn Afternoon) is entirely unique, profoundly accomplished, and thoroughly intoxicating. That only five of his films are available on North American DVD is a travesty. (Hopefully, more are coming. Several of the live scores preformed at the film forum were recorded for potential use on future DVDs.)
This post has a point: any Seattle-area readers who missed the Ozu program this Winter have a chance to partially redeem themselves; they are bringing back, for one night only, the 1934 silent “Women of Tokyo” (with a live score performed by Wayne Horvitz) Sunday, October 2nd, at 8:00 PM. I haven’t seen this particular film, but I feel quite confident in my recommendation. See you there.
I must confess, I’ve never been able to sit through James Bond movies or enjoy them on any level. Which makes it all the more odd that pretty much my favorite TV show throughout my childhood was Get Smart. By the time I was 15, I’d seen all the episodes many times; when Nick at Nite showed the whole series in a week-long marathon I forswore sleep. More discriminating viewers have often noted that while the show can be amusing, the fact that it repeats the same jokes with shockingly little variation makes it a dubious choice for repeated and obsessive viewing. Audiences at the time thought so, as the show did quite well for the first two seasons, and then experienced a singular ratings decline. The jokes didn’t get old for me; I’ll even confess to watching all seven episodes of Fox’s ill-conceived 1995 revival starring Andy Dick. (And I’ll actually defend the 1989 movie as watchable if I have to).
Despite this unhealthy and irrational obsession with the centerpiece of his life’s work, I mark Don Adams’ passing without much of a sense of just how talented a comic he was. I know his standup and pre-Get Smart routines impressed the likes of Mel Brooks, and he was a regular on the talk show circuit. And obviously, his ability to perfectly create and execute Maxwell Smart speaks well for him. (And, as I learn from the Times obit, he was canny, or lucky; taking a third of all future earnings from the show in exchange for a lower salary). But a quick perusal of his career shows that he was never given much of a meaningful chance to test his comic range. This is, I think, a shame, but to do one memorable thing and do it very well places him well ahead of the curve. RIP.
Update: My IMDB surfing for this post has caused me to learn of this. Hmm. I suppose if it has to be done, Brooks at the helm and Carrell in the lead is just about optimal. Still, it seems, like so many remakes, wholly unnecessary. Won’t stop me from seeing it, of course.
The disappointing course of Operation Iraqi Freedom invariably, for an American, brings the Vietnam War to mind. The Vietnam analogy is of limited applicability to the current situation in Iraq. I mean “limited” in every sense of the word; it’s good for some things, not for others. Another useful comparison for the Iraq intervention is the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are some important parallels, and some important differences. The Soviet experience is worth a closer look. Unfortunately, there are few good English language accounts of the invasion and its aftermath. Nevertheless, we know enough to explore some of the similarities and differences.
The US invasion of Iraq and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan opened in a very similar manner. If anything, the Soviet invasion was accomplished more quickly and with less muss than the opening days of the Iraq campaign. The Soviets had significant ties to the Afghan army, and were essentially able to disarm it without a fight. The Russians very quickly came to control the urban areas of Afghanistan (which were larger in 1980 than they are today), although they never had very secure control of the hinterland.
Soviet forces in Afghanistan were slightly smaller, for the bulk of the campaign, than Coalition forces in Iraq. Red Army strength topped out at about 120000, but was as low as 50000 at the beginning of the campaign. The Soviet controlled what was left of the Afghani Army, but, even more so than the current Iraqi forces, its size was small and its reliability non-existent. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan steadily escalated from 1980 until 1986, when it plateaued and began to decrease.
The Soviet Afghan campaign is a much better analogue to Iraqi Freedom for casualty rates than the Vietnam War. Total Soviet dead, overly roughly eight years, amounted to 15000 or so. Current dead for Coalition forces is a little over 2000 in two and a half years. Taking into account superior medical techniques and superior body armor, vehicles, and other equipment, Coalition casualty rates look very similar to Red Army losses.
Like the US situation in Iraq, the Red Army faced a fractured and fragmented population. Indeed, the tribal conflicts that existed (and still exist) in Afghanistan make current difficulties with Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions look like child play in comparison. On the other hand, the opposition to the Red Army lacked even the mild degree of unity that the US occupation enjoys. This has benefits and drawbacks, but in a counter-insurgency struggle probably makes things harder, rather than easier. No unified opposition means no one to negotiate with, meaning that a political solution is difficult to reach.
There are also similarities and differences in doctrine. Like the current US Army, the Red Army was a conventional, continental military organization very, very good at fighting the kind of war it wanted to fight. When put into a counter-insurgency role it performed poorly, but in a much different way than the US Army. The Red Army had no compunctions whatsoever about the wholesale slaughter of Afghani civilians. Red Army units carried out collective retribution for guerilla attacks, destroyed villages, and in general held the local population in contempt. Instead of trying to give villagers a reason to support the regime, the Red Army gave them lots of reasons to support the guerillas. The Soviets attempted to kill the fish by draining the water, meaning that they killed civilians, burned crops, in general acted brutally in guerilla supported regions. While US forces have failed to adopt a genuine counter-insurgency doctrine, and while Americans have been brutal on occasion, their behavior doesn’t really come closely to matching Soviet brutality.
The Soviets offered no compelling political option for insurgents. The political appeal of the communists that the Russians were supporting was virtually nil. Coalition forces have been able to offer a much more compelling political vision for Iraq, even if it falls short in critical respects. A portion of the Iraqi populace seems willing to at least go along with the Coalition, which wasn’t really the case in Russian Afghanistan.
The most interesting comparison of the two campaigns involves the role played by foreign assistance. The Iraqi resistance has no equivalent to the support offered Afghan guerillas by the United States. This support included funding, small arms, and, critically, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. By all accounts, these missiles forced the Red Army to abandon its most effective anti-guerilla tactics and weapons, notably its use of attack helicopters. The shoulder fired SAMs didn’t kill all that many helicopters, but they did force the helicopters to use more caution, reducing their effectiveness. The Afghan guerillas also received a lot of support from the rest of the Arab world, support that hasn’t been as forthcoming in the Iraq case.
It’s hard to gauge the effect of the Afghan War on Soviet domestic politics during the 1980s. The Soviet system was nearing collapse for several different reasons, and the Afghan conflict certainly contributed to the general sense of political discontent. Whether the casualties themselves or the perceived futility of the ongoing war proved the cause for discontent isn’t clear, although I’d bet on the latter. The Soviet system certainly lacked outlets for healthy voicing of discontent, which probably made it easier to keep the troops in Afghanistan while making the eventual political reckoning more harrowing.
Upshot? The Russian job in Afghanistan was harder than the American task in Iraq. They had minimal domestic political or military support and faced a guerilla army that had friends around the world. In terms of tactics, the Soviet used fewer troops, but used them to more brutal effect that the Americans. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets adopted a genuine counter-insurgency doctrine, although it could be argued that Red Army tactics were more true to the kind of “direct” counter-insurgency approach (one that involves killing everyone and letting God sort them out) that occasionally works in such conflicts. US Army doctrine in Iraq doesn’t seem terribly coherent, even as an indirect approach.
In spite of this, the Russians managed to hang on for eight years, and didn’t suffer casualty rates terribly out of line with those suffered by the United States in Iraq. Especially after the mid-1980s, they failed completely to make any progress toward victory. The regime they established upon retreating didn’t last very long before Afghanistan disintegrated into civil war. The Soviet authorities enjoyed at least a temporary immunity from public criticism on Afghanistan, something that the Bush administration would no doubt envy.
There are lessons to be learned. The first is that casualty rates, in and of themselves, don’t say much about the political difficulty of a war. Russian losses in Afghanistan were trivial compared to American losses in Vietnam, yet the political devastation of the Afghan failure was probably greater than that of the Vietnam War. Second, conventional, continental armies have a lot of trouble fighting insurgencies, regardless of how good they are at their day job. Third, offering a compelling political option and having strong friends in-country is critical to success. If the Americans succeed where the Russians failed, it will probably be because of the attractiveness of the political system the Americans can offer, and because the Americans are at least tolerated by large segments of the Iraqi population.
Flat tires suck.
Flat spare tires, in the abstract, suck less. In practice, they suck more.
Please, check your spare tire for proper inflation. Think of the children.
Deep Thoughts, by Tacitus:
Suffice it to say that neither pole of the American ideological mainstream has a claim to a consistent life ethic. The left at large is willing to fight for the certain humanity of the most base savage; but it can barely be stirred for the probable humanity of the innocent child. The right at large defends the unborn with admirable tenacity; but it happily slaughters those whom a judiciary (that it otherwise despises) deems unfit to live, and thereby implicitly subscribes to an ethic whereby humanity’s value is a thing earned rather than inherent. Neither position is free of grave contradiction. Neither is worthy of continuance. Neither yields coherent policy. [my emphasis]
The pretensions to philosophy notwithstanding, we’re back to the hoary old junior-high school debating line: “How can you support abortion while opposing the death penalty? Or vice versa?” And the thing is, the argument is quite silly. A concept at such a high level of abstraction obviously cannot yield convincing contradictions, because all the interesting work is in the details. (And I should note that this cuts both ways: it is perfectly easy for those who support the death penalty and the criminalization of abortion to distinguish the two: the fetus is seen as an innocent life, while those subject to the death penalty are not, and all non-anarchists and pacifists accept some use of state violence to protect society even as they presumably oppose murder. You can disagree with this analysis, but there’s nothing inherently inconsistent about holding these positions. And there’s no reason for any non-Catholic to engage in moral reasoning that starts from an abstract, homogenous conception of “life.” )
And so, of course, Tacitus’ attempt to catch supporters of reproductive rights in a contradiction is only useful as an illustration if you’re trying to explain to someone what “begging the question” means. Since pro-choicers completely reject the premise that the fetus is a “child”, there is obviously no internal contradiction in the arguments of pro-choicers who oppose the death penalty. And then, of course, there’s the bigger question: why on earth should pro-choicers accept the premise that the fetus is the moral equivalent of a “child,” when most of the people who purportedly believe it aren’t willing to apply this principle with the slightest consistency?
We saw an amusing example of this in this recent thread, when Niels Jackson went from arguing that abortion consisted of “killing babies” to arguing that the vast majority of abortions are really like killing, er, bald eagles or something. (Or cats, maybe. But not cows, because then you couldn’t bootstrap criminal sanctions from a risibly arbitrary comparison. And since bald eagles generally do not live in women’s bodies, the analogy is null in any case.) At any rate, he’s already conceded that Tacitus’ frame is wrong. But that’s just one commenter—what does that prove? So let’s see what the platform of the party that controls all 3 branches of the federal government says about it:
We must keep our pledge to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence. That is why we say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.
We oppose abortion, but our pro-life agenda does not include punitive action against women who have an abortion. We salute those who provide alternatives to abortion and offer adoption services, and we commend Congressional Republicans for expanding assistance to adopting families and for removing racial barriers to adoption.
Consider, first of all, the radicalism of the HRA plank. Considering the fetus a “person” under 14th Amendment would require—not permit, but require—abortion to be treated as first degree murder in all 50 states. But, if you believe Tacitus’ framing of the issue, this is the only logical outcome; laws against killing “children” already exist, and presumably they should be applied. The question at hand, however, is whether any actual abortion restrictions would actually look like the Republican proposal. And the answer is: of course not. Most of the abortion bans that existed in 1973 had significantly lower penalties, and yet they were virtually never enforced against doctors who performed abortions on affluent white women. And the reasons for this are obvious: abortion laws that rigorously applied harsh penalties would be immediately repealed, because people willing to consistently apply “pro-life” principles are a vanishingly small minority. Is there any reason to believe that such laws would be different now? Obviously not—public opinion on abortion is basically the same as it was in 1973, and considerably more liberal than it was in 1963 (when weak abortion laws were largely unenforced.) So already we see the seamless web of the allegedly “pro-life” position torn by grave internal contradictions.
But wait—it gets worse. We now get to the second clause, which exempts women who initiate the decision to get an abortion entirely from criminal penalties! So, in other words, women who procure abortions are committing first-degree murder—but should not be punished. (Enshrining this principle into criminal law would certainly have interesting consequences; if you want somebody killed, just pay somebody to do it, and as far as you’re concerned it’s all nice and legal.) There are two possible explanations for this bizarre combination of policies. The first—which is the reason that abortion laws passed in the 19th century (including the Texas law struck down in Roe) applied only to doctors—is that Republicans do not consider women to be responsible rights-bearing subjects (unlike, say, the first-trimester fetus that inhabits a woman’s body.) Given the extent to which the “pro-life” position tends to come packaged with a variety of other patriarchal regulations of female sexuality, this would seem to be a significant part of the puzzle. You may remember this kind of phony male chauvinist “compassion” from some of the conservative op-eds that came out in the wake of Karla Faye Tucker and Titanic—it used to be women and children first, but then those feminists ruined everything and now a woman can be executed as if the laws should apply to them because they’re legal persons or something. (I mean, sure, women couldn’t own property or vote or practice law or anything, but I bet they’d trade that for having doors held open for them regularly anytime!) Shorter American pro-life movement: fetuses are right-bearing subjects, adult women are not. But there is a second explanation: pro-lifers sincerely believe that women who get abortions are guilty of first-degree murder, but they are willing to abandon this purely for reasons of political expedience. If this is the case, this provides yet another glaring hint that new bans on abortion would be as internally contradictory and inequitably enforced as the old ones, and that the rhetoric of most “pro-lifers” about fetuses being “children” is not to be taken seriously.
And, of course, there are additional examples of pro-lifers being unwilling to apply their own first premises logically. Jill recently noted that the Netherlands has a much lower abortion rate than the United States. This is generally true of most liberal democracies with access to abortion; the U.S. is a distinct outlier when it comes to abortion rates. Even Canada, where abortion is both unregulated and state funded, has lower abortion rates. And the reasons for this are obvious: certain policies, like providing access to contraception, rational and scientifically accurate sex education, and subsidized child care, have the predictable effect of lowering abortion rates. (Not surprisingly, women who are aware of and have access to contraception generally prefer to use it rather than getting abortions.) Given that doctors performed large numbers of abortions even when the practice was formally illegal, one might think that “pro-lifers” would be interested in such policies. But, of course, they aren’t; there are individual exceptions, but for the most part Republican “pro-lifers” are much less likely to support such policies. Because, after all, policies that allow women to make sexual choices that conservatives disapprove of are the real enemy. Among the most odious recent example of this is conservative opposition to HPV vaccinations. (Death before unmarried sex—very “pro-life.”) People who oppose rational sex. ed. are, in fact, so powerful within the Republican party that they can force the physician who is the Republican leader in the Senate to pretend on national television that AIDS might be spread through tears and compel the government to put lies about the effectiveness of condoms on government websites. Whatever their subjective motivations are, we know that given a stark choice between protecting fetal life and maintaining reactionary and patriarchal conceptions of sexuality, most “pro-lifers” will choose the latter. Which leads us right back to the original point: if you don’t apply your own first premises logically, why should someone who rejects your first premises do so?
The positions of the vast majority of the American pro-life movement with respect to abortion, far from representing a coherent set of principles that may be used to evaluate other conservative policies and criticize the allegedly unprincipled positions of those who support reproductive freedom, are in fact a dog’s breakfast of illogic and staggeringly atavistic conceptions of gender roles and sexuality. Before he starts asserting that liberals have inconsistent positions about “life” because the fetus is an “innocent child,” Tacitus should start trying to convince the people who allegedly believe it first.