Thursday, September 17, 2020

Visuals

In The Atlantic today is John Dickerson's The Slow-Fingered President, which is basically a piece that criticizes the President for being quick to take to Twitter when it comes to things that bother him personally or might damage his political fortunes, while holding off then it comes to subjects that of broader public interest. In this case, public heath messaging concerning the SARS2 coronavirus.

To go with the critical piece is a singularly unflattering photograph. To wit:

It's little wonder that politicians complain about "the media" being biased against them. There is no particular reason why this column needs a picture of the President being sour-faced. (Honestly, it doesn't really need a visual at all. There's nothing that need illustrating about this.) While there may very well have been a good reason for editors at The Atlantic to pick this particular photograph other than the fact that it makes the President look bad. And it seems to me, that for the average reader of The Atlantic, which leans noticeably (if not extremely) left, the President is more than capable of making himself look bad without any help from the print media.

But for the President's defenders, I wouldn't be surprised if this came across as a deliberate provocation, the media working overtime to sway people against someone who is entitled to more respect. In the end, I get it. The President has decided that "the media" is the enemy, and, to a certain degree, "the media" has decided to play along with that designation. But I'm not sure how useful the dance is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

You Break It

I am starting to read more and more essays to the effect that racism in the United States is a problem that White America needs to address, and fix, themselves. The drumbeat of Black writers, whether professionally published, or informally composing for small audiences, who note their fatigue and frustration with being asked to be an active part of the solution is growing.

And I understand that. I don't blame anyone who feels that they didn't make this bed. But that doesn't change the fact that we have to lie in it.

One essayist noted that concepts of race (and, in his mind, racism) date back to the 16th century. Personally, I would go back even farther, to the Inquisitions of the 15th century, at the latest (even if the term "race" wasn't in widespread use at the time). But no matter what date one picks, even if one pushes it forward to the 17th century, and the start of the trade in African slaves in North America, that fact of the matter remains that this is a system that has been in place for far longer than the living memory of anyone today. The final triumph of non or anti-racism will create a world that hasn't been seen in centuries, if at all.

And if White people have no more direct experience with the world as we want it to be than anyone else, and they will be perhaps the people who benefit from it the least, why place all of the responsibility for creating it on their shoulders?

It's tempting to see this as a problem that they, and only they, can solve, but that cedes the ability for Black America (who see themselves as the primary beneficiaries of the change) to bring about the world so many of us say that they want. That reduces millions of people to the status of beggars. Right and ethics may be on their side, but they are beggars nonetheless, and if world history has taught us anything about the fates of beggars, its that they rarely have their demands met.

"White People" are not a single, timeless, entity with a group mind and memory that stretches back centuries. They're mere mortals, like the rest of us. If we are asking them to make something new, something that they're as unfamiliar with as we are, then I don't know if anyone does themselves a favor by bowing out of the work involved.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

You Could Cut It With A Knife

I always find it strange that smoke takes on this color.

I wouldn't recommend it, though. You would dull the blade.

While the sky never made it to the brilliant orange of other places, the smoggy brown that's settled over the Seattle area (and the rest of Western Washington) for that matter has been impressive in its own way. Just like a couple of years ago, it de-fanged what should have been a spike in temperatures, and lent the air an odd smell. But, this being Seattle, there is rain in the forecast, and that should scrub things clean.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Counter-Information

The public radio program Marketplace has a regular podcast called Make Me Smart. On Tuesdays, they do a "deep dive" into a given topic, and bring an expert on to discuss it. This past Tuesday, they spoke to University of Washington professor Jevin West about the QAnon conspiracy theory. I find conspiracies fascinating for what they tell us about people. But it turns out, the reactions are also pretty telling. At a couple of points in the discussion, they really hit on something; Beyond people "looking for simple explanations to all of this craziness that's going on in the world," (because of some the explanations are anything but simple) conspiracy thinking is a way of making sense of the world that allows people to assign motive and intent to the actions that they see others taking all around them. Political institutions and social trust breaking down are causing persistent crises is many people's lives, and some number of them have turned to conspiracies as a form of self-medication for a pathological world. And so I was kind of surprised when the discussion turned to solutions ("How do we stop this thing?" to quote the podcast), and there was no mention of addressing that pathology. The disconnect was pretty clearly stated, but at no point was the idea of addressing the dislocation and disenfranchisement considered.

I get that it's difficult when the remedy that people are flocking to seems dangerous, especially to people who aren't taking it. And that's perhaps why so little progress is being made, because it's easy to become caught up in policing people's reactions to their fears and anxieties. But if we want people to stop self-medicating for their feelings of disenfranchisement, powerlessness, uncertainty and social mistrust, the alternatives either have to do a better job of helping people feel better and/or actually ease the underlying causes of their anxiety. Simply attempting to shut down the sources that people have turned their trust to is not going to restore their trust in the institutions that they've come to understand have started lying to them. One of the problems that "the mainstream media" has in dealing with this phenomenon is that its members often speak of it as being an institution that is entitled to being trusted, rather than one that must always work to earn the public's faith.

It's sort of like being sick and taking a naturopathic remedy, which makes me feel better, but there are some side effects. And then I meet someone who tells me that the remedy is bunk, and I should be taking 50 milligrams of Dystopamine HCL twice a day. When I ask "Oh, does that work?" they say, "No, but it's FDA approved." They're attempting to counter unsafe, but effective, with safe, but ineffective.

The degree to which people sympathize with the plight of the self-medicating depends, I think, on whether they see the diagnosis as genuine, a misdiagnosis, hypochondriasis or deliberate malingering. Because it's not only followers of the QAnon theory that can be said to self-medicate with a persecutory worldview, and they aren't the only ones whose reactions to the stresses of their lives make other people feel unsafe. At some point, dealing with the stress is going to have to be the solution.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

In the Name of the Law

I wonder how much of the way that policing operates in the United States stems from the belief, on the part of the general public, that every fearsome crime committed today can be traced back to a failure of the police to capitalize on an opportunity to detain the perpetrator yesterday. If heads are more likely to roll for the false negative of releasing a suspect who goes on to victimize someone than the false positive of killing someone who turns out to be innocent, that incentive alone can be called upon to explain the current situation.

But perhaps the more immediate concern is the perceived inability of police officers on the scene to accurately distinguish between people who constitute an immediate threat to their own lives and safety and people who do not. In a culture that would rather be "judged by twelve than carried by six" there is a clear incentive to ensure that all errors are false positives. And this is exacerbated by a reluctance to examine the role that police actions themselves play in creating scenarios in which the false negative condition becomes a matter of life and death.