Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lies, Damn Lies and Politics

We can go on for DAYS about the absolutely deplorable practice of telling falsehoods during a high-stakes political campaign. But, all of this misses one very important point: Why are people bothering to lie?

Yes, yes, I know - There are any number of people who'll say that we already know that. After all, the position of President of the United States of America is widely considered to be the single most powerful political office, if not the single most powerful office, period, on the face of the Earth. With stakes that high, who WOULDN'T be tempted to cheat, if only a little bit?

But there is one thing that can be said for everyone who lies for reasons other than pervasive mental pathology: They want, hope and/or expect to be believed. They rely on a belief that their audience wants to believe statements that are provably false, and then have them disseminated, acted upon, and backed with complete sincerity by people whose identities are bolstered by those falsehoods.

But, of course, that's not the whole picture. Can more than a few people honestly say they've never chosen to believe someone, when they really knew better, just because they really didn't want to believe they were lying? I don't know about you, but given the choice, I'd much rather that our elected officials were as stand-up as they act. The idea that someone's a liar, but that they somehow will never find it useful to lie to ME, creates too much cognitive dissonance for my brain to handle. And while I tend to therefore be consciously suspicious of people's honesty, that there have been at least a few times when I've decided that someone was being honest with me, despite the evidence, because it suited my purposes.

And shall we take a few moments to talk about the practice of ignoring a lie here and there, when it serves "the greater good?" How many times have you heard someone with no personal stake in what's going on say something like, "Well, yes, my side lied, but the stakes were so high that the ends justified any means." Or, the old standby: "The truth just doesn't work with some people. Our side had to lie to get these people to take the action that we needed them to take." Or how about: "Look, these people are criminals! Why should anyone bother being honest with them?"  And here's one of my personal favorites: "But the other guys lie! If we restrict ourselves to the truth, it puts us at a disadvantage. So we have to lie to level the playing field."

Yeah. You can just tell that we're a society that values honesty.

So, in the end, we encourage the very practice that we claim to so dislike. Through a number of factors, from pride, to expedience, to hope beyond hope, we find ourselves having to take eveything with a grain of salt, and sift truth from fiction in situations where one would think that the stakes are too high for some idiot to decide, "Now's a good time for a mind game." We've allowed people to make cynicism into a survival trait, and then we wonder why some people view suspicion as a mark of intelligence.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


Democracy (or, as in the case of the United States, a Republic), as a form of government, is a means, and not an end. For this reason, I find articles worrying about people's failing commitment to democracy tiresome. While I understand the overall tendency to link commitment to "democratic ideals," as they are often called, to broader measures of social enlightenment, the fact of the matter is that the two are not particularly closely related.

I have worked with children and managed adults, and one of the things that I've learned is that the primary difference between adults and children is often height. Children tend to be big boosters of democracy - when they think that they're going to win the vote, and thus be able to legitimately demand that things go their way, regardless of the objections of others. When they understand themselves to be in the minority, however, their enthusiasm for majoritarian rule (and the overriding of their own wishes) quickly fades. And while adults may have a substantially more nuanced view of the pros and cons of participatory decision making, that basic tension remains. It's not terribly difficult to find examples, on both the American Left and Right, of issues (effectively of their understanding of virtue) that people feel should be above the risk of being put to a popular vote.

To borrow the well-worn saying from Lord Palmerston: "People have no ongoing values or principles, they only have ongoing interests." And, as a result, they will tend to back those things that they understand align with their ongoing interests. When Yascha Mounk portrays Americans' "age-old fantasy of a benevolent dictator" as depressing and the "long-standing desire for a strongman [leader]" as something to be healed, he is casting that commitment to one's interests over he choice of a specific form of government as pathological. But the understanding that a commitment to democracy is the healthy choice is never supported, it is only assumed.

Conservative/Republican voters and/or Trump supporters who are in favor of President Trump's (personal) authoritarian leanings are simply backing what they understand at this time to be most likely to advance and sustain their interests and better their fortunes. Democracy, Republicanism or whatever you wish to call it may be wonderful - but in and of itself, it neither provides food to eat, clothing to wear or shelter from the elements. And when one understands at least a sizable minority of the rest of the population to be willfully perverse "takers" who will happily "vote themselves a share" of one's "hard-earned" food, clothing, housing and other income and/or wealth, it's easy to decide that participatory government needs, at least, fewer authorized participants. It's also worth pointing out that if President Trump is followed by a Democratic president who appears (or can be made to appear) to have authoritarian leanings of their own, especially if that person (like President Trump) is elected due to the vagaries of the Electoral College system, that support for "democracy" will surge among the same voters who have less used for it now. And this is not to call them out as hypocritical, any more so than anyone else is. It simply acknowledges the fact that people are in this because of the benefits that they understand it brings them and the disadvantages it imposes on their perceived rivals. As far as I'm concerned, when people claim they have ongoing values, rather than ongoing interests, they are incorrect. (Intentionally or not does not matter in my view.) Their perceived ongoing values may align closely with their genuine ongoing interests, but the two are still separate things.

The idea that Democracy (and the commitment thereto) and Enlightenment are linked, and therefore any genuinely Enlightened people will express an unshakable preference to Democracy is based on flimsy reasoning at best and pure assumption at worst. And the result of this is that hand-wringing over a waning of that commitment obscures the notion that simply because one believes something is correct does not free them of the responsibility of proving its right to exist, let alone enjoy permanent favor. Likewise, the adoration accorded to the founders of the American Republic ignores the fact that they didn't secede away from the British Crown because they understood that, despite all of the advantages and benefits that monarchy brings, participatory government without hereditary leadership, even if it had disadvantages, was the correct moral choice. The American Revolution was a direct result of the Colonists commitments to their own interests over a commitment to what was viewed internationally as a legitimate government. It's not at all difficult to imagine a Loyalist at the time indulging in the same sort of hand-wringing over waning commitment to monarchy - even if such sentiments would have been dangerous to express in public.

(This is another side effect of the fact that early American history is typically taught in the very early grades of school. The shabby treatment that dissenters to the Revolution received, some of which would count today as atrocities, is completely ignored in the service of maintaining a G-rated patriotism.)

While Democracy (however one winds up defining and/or implementing it) is unlikely to ever simply go away anytime soon, the fact remains that in order for it to thrive, it must be recognized that it, like any other system of government, has a responsibility to the people who live under it and not the other way around. If democratic processes and institutions are not perceived to be best protectors and advancers of public interests, then the public will be drawn to those systems that seem better. They may change their minds later, but this is simply the nature of the beast. And it's worth keeping top of mind for that reason.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


I was reading a discussion of whether or not a certain idea was anti-Semitic. And the general consensus was that it didn't start out that way, but it had been taken over by anti-Semites and so was now irretrievably tainted. But it wasn't taken my anti-Semites. It was gradually being ceded to them. As other people sought to avoid the taint, they reinforced the idea that only anti-Semites would use this idea. In this sense, it's like the swastika. Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists who attempt to use the swastika in its religious sense are treated as if they were wanna-be Nazis, because Western society at large can't be bothered to understand that the symbol has different meanings. And that's in part because it isn't a loss for Western society at large - it's a loss primarily for Indians and others from the subcontinent.

But when I've attempted to make this point - that if we continuously cede things to anti-Semites, sexists or other people we find deplorable, what will we do if they come for something that is important to us, but not to the society at large. Who will we rally to the cause that this should not be taken from us, if we are unwilling to help others keep what is theirs? And there is always this sense that no matter niche a group it is, that they're important enough that they're worth the broader society standing with them to prevent their symbols or language from being co-opted. But I suspect that this isn't as true as they believe it is.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


There is always an impulse, from outside of a given constituency, to expect that political "leaders" (a term that I am very dubious of) will educate their constituents on the "correct" way to look at any given political topic, or at least publicly disavow their "incorrect" views on it. But this is a risky proposition for most elected politicians.

Despite a general mindset that views politicians as holding office as long as they wish to (within term limits) or at the pleasure of shadowy "masters" and therefore immune from public opinion, a politician who seeks to educate a constituency on something they believe to be untrue will be ousted in favor or someone whose rhetoric more closely matches people's perceived reality. Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump are both examples of this carrying people all the way to the White House, but even the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders demonstrates this effect.

Policies that do not work for people in their everyday lives will be perceived as bad policies, if only because most people don't readily differentiate between "bad for me and my immediate interests" and "objectively and universally wrongheaded." And it's difficult to tell people that they are unskilled at making that distinction, because doing so challenges their sense of their intelligence and discretion. And to the degree that challenging the virtues of one's voters is seen as a career limiting move, it tend to be avoided.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Diversity Dividend

So this has popped up in my Google+ stream some time back, and I read it, and I think that while it's very well and passionately argued, it misses one thing, something that I've pointed out from time to time. It's weird, because for me it's in plain sight. But, as my father would tell me: "The definition of 'obvious' is something that is crystal-clear that you are the only person who sees it."

Think about it: A panel on diversity with no diversity on it. The outrage would be immediate, even from people of color. And yet maybe that is what should happen. And maybe the first question should be why do we need a black person on a panel to talk about inclusion when it’s the white person who needs to figure out how to include?
But I think that White people already know how to include, even if that sometimes means they define "inclusiveness" as having access to "ethnic" restaurants. What I suspect they don't know is why to include. For a long time in the country, White people managed perfectly well for themselves without giving a rip about Black people, Asians or Native Americans; and for a time, even Germans, Irish and Poles. Those last three groups (among others) weren't eventually integrated into what we now understand as "White," because it was good for them. It happened because it was good for the people who considered themselves the gatekeepers of "Whiteness."

The same is true today. We can say all we want that: "It’s for the white person to be less racist," and "It’s for the bigot to stop attacking trans people," but if those people don't understand what's in it for them, they're going to carry on with business as usual - because it works for them. And that's what they care about.

Diversity needs to stop being an obligation and become a product. Instead of being something that we saddle people with, we should make it into something that they want badly enough to pay something for. When someone sees the adoption of diversity as the shortest route between where they are, and where they want to be, they'll trample you in their haste to embrace it. People display, and identify, with racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia not because these things are understood as affirmative Goods, but because they understand that in a world where those hierarchies are in place, they do better for themselves than a world that's more diverse and inclusive. I'm a firm believer in teaching a man than he has everything he needs. But I also understand that it rarely works. If people are always going to see themselves as needy, perhaps the way to drive their support for the better world we want them to implement is to show them how they'll be less needy once they've done it.

As long as diversity is a pricey favor from the mainstream to the marginalized, its going to be slow going. When it becomes a favor from the mainstream to the mainstream that pays clear dividends, wild horses won't be able to drag them away.