Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger Danger 2.0

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Moslem.
Donald Trump is agent for Russia.
Micah White is a Satanist.

Or, perhaps more simply, each of these people is a Dangerous Other in the eyes of those who oppose their politics. So why not focus on their politics? In an intensely partisan environment, it isn't very difficult to find some policy prescription that a candidate that is vulnerable to being described as Wrong For America, or whatever jurisdiction that they hope to represent or manage. In a world where solutions are rare and trade-offs are common, most policies will come at a cost to someone - those costs being the necessary trade-offs for the benefits proposed - and people's Loss Aversion tends to prime their sensitivity to those costs, making them easy targets for mobilization to scuttle the entire enterprise.

Part of it, I think, is related to the idea of Lovely Awful Things - the seductive nature of Bad Ideas that makes them attractive to people other than ourselves. The injection of ad hominems into the mix is designed to inoculate people against Wrong Thinking by casting the source of those thoughts as Evil.

But I also think that this phenomenon grows out of a focus on Stranger Danger. Although Stranger Danger is perhaps most accurately defined as the conceptual framework that we've built around the idea of the threat to children posed by adults they don't know, I think that we can also broaden the term to encompass the idea that people we don't know who don't signal shared virtues with us are dangerous, in no small part because they seek to advance their own special interests at our expense.

In this sense, the focus of Birtherism is a way of blunting the rhetorical skill of President Obama and the accusations that President Trump is intended to undermine the idea that he's simply another partisan. Likewise, but on a much smaller scale, labeling Micah White a Satanist is mean to counter his for-the-common-man bona fides. Just like an adult unknown to a child offers sweets as a lure, politicians from the other side of a political divide offer reasonable-sounding policies only as traps for the unwary, and casting them as an evil person aligned with an outsider enemy allows for ad hominem attacks on them without appearing to be openly partisan. The non-partisan may be repelled by an attack on someone for their partisan affiliation, but calling them out as a Dangerous Other allows that unacceptable prejudice to be cloaked in an tolerated one.

In 1992, I turned 24, after a childhood in which Stranger Danger was starting to become a thing, even if it hadn't yet acquired that name. Stories of predatory adults prowling about for children to victimize seemed to be slowly becoming more an more common. And even though people my age often look at modern parental hysteria with a mix of amusement and concern, it's not as if our own generation didn't indulge in it. And I wonder of part of the pattern of increasing, and intractable, partisanship that seemed to take root as my age cohort came to be of voting age isn't perhaps rooted in the distrust of strangers that was starting to be seen as a virtue when we were still in school. Part of that distrust was buttressed by the speculative things that were attributed to unfamiliar adults, things that, as time went on, morphed from unsupported suppositions to presumed truths, each becoming a justification for shedding the presumptions of innocence and good intent.

Of course, I'm speculating here. I don't have any evidence one way or another, and correlation does not imply causality. But part of me hopes that there's something there, for no other reason than it offers a visible, if not easy, path to begin to undo some of the divides that we've built between ourselves.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And the Law Won

Instead of changing in the couple’s favor, the laws evolved to make her husband more vulnerable to deportation, a development the Beristains never expected. She told the Tribune that Trump’s deportation measures — the one’s she thought her family would be exempt from — are harming “regular people.”

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen told the CBS TV affiliate WSBT. “But when you’re a good citizen and you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”
Trump supporter thought president would only deport ‘bad hombres.’ Instead, her husband is being deported.
Helen Beristain has already received a lot of criticism over this situation, from both the Left and the Right. (Of course, they are attacking her for different reasons, but neither side seems inclined to hold their fire.) So I'm not intending this post to be a direct criticism of her, myself. Rather, I'd like to point to an aspect of this situation that I find instructional.

Roberto Beristain, for all that he might be a wonderful person is, by definition, not a good citizen. And that's because he's in the United States illegally. And there was nothing in President Trump's rhetoric, back when he was still Candidate Trump, that pointed to the idea that simply because Mr. Beristain was a good person - that he supported and he helped and he paid taxes and he gave jobs to people - that he would be converted into someone who is in the country legally.
Helen Beristain, his wife, says she supported President Trump but feels his policies shouldn’t apply to her husband because he owns a business and pays taxes.
Trump Supporter’s Husband Faces Deportation
While this is sometimes the way that laws work, when we refer to "the Rule of Law," this generally isn't what we have in mind. The Washington Post headline says that Mrs. Beristain believed that President Trump would only deport "bad hombres." And while it's an understandable sentiment, it points to a fundamental understanding of the nature and the purpose of laws.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on immigration. That's a body of law that, like many of them, takes quite a bit of time and effort to really understand. But, to the best of my knowledge, the United States does not have a policy that accepts all potential immigrants, with the exception of who are criminals or have been adjudged to have done "bad things." Rather, one has to apply for entry and be accepted. The original intent behind the United States' immigration policies may or may not be valid, depending on how one views the nation's motives when they were first enacted or how strong a position one takes on the idea that people should have unfettered rights to move about in the service of bettering themselves. But even if we ascribe a desire to apply a filter to would-be Americans, and the rules are designed to let in the good, and keep out the bad, there is a process by which the government determines who should be allowed to stay, and who should have to return to their home nation. And it's not based on the personal sentiments of private citizens, whether they be immigration activists, low wage employers or the spouses of those who didn't make the cut.

Generally speaking, the purpose of law is to be a weapon against people who behave in ways that we find to be unacceptable. In order to live in communities, human beings have evolved the capacity to create and manage remarkably complex series of rules and strictures that govern personal behavior and mandate sanctions for violations. But part of what allows rules to work is that they have to be (reasonably) consistent, and in a society like ours, where the body of law is simply too large for any one person to commit all it to memory, it has to be applied in accordance with how it is recorded.

The problem that many people had with President Obama's actions on immigration was that it didn't square with their personal desires on how the law should be applied. For critics on the Left, the President's stepped up enforcement actions were an affront to their ideas that people who were seeking better lives should be allowed to do so without interference. For critics on the Right, the loopholes that the President opened in the rules were proof that he wasn't serious about enforcing laws that they saw as essential for the security of the nation. But both sides seemed completely disinterested in examining the purpose and the wording of the laws under consideration and asking it were time for changes. My personal understanding of the reason for this is that it allows both sides to retain laws on the books for the purpose of being weapons against those they don't like - a broadly-written law that is ignored when convenient can be just as easily recalled for convenience. But that's likely an overly cynical way of looking at it. Rather, I think that most people are like Mrs. Beristain - they believe that the intent of a given law roughly matches what they would intend with it - in this case that the objectively criminal and the subjectively bad would be barred from entering the country, and we would simply look the other way for the "good" immigrants. (And despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are perhaps the most subjective determinations that we ever make, that people would generally agree on who belongs in which category.) But in the end, that creates a legal structure that lends itself to either being arbitrary or to being sectarian and prejudicial; and American history is rife with heartbreaking stories of how that wound up allowing the law to become a cover for abuse.

In a nation divided by competing political and moral ideologies, a body of law that is to everyone's liking is probably beyond our ability to put into place. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to cultivate a high-level understanding what our currently laws are and understand what provisions are encoded into them, and what informal and unwritten modifications have come about as a result of custom, resources or simple desire. And if we understand the law as it is practiced to be superior to the law as it is written, lobby intentionally for those changes, rather than simply assuming that they will always stand.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I never knew that flowers could be unkempt.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trolls in the Hoods

One such post is an article on white supremacist website, The Daily Stormer. "How to be a Ni**** on Twitter" breaks down methods for creating a fake account in order to take "revenge on Twitter" for banning Andrew Auernheimer's white supremacist ads and for blocking Jared Wyand's account for anti-Semitic tweets. The secondary goal, the article notes, is to "create a state of chaos on twitter, among the black twitter population, by sowing distrust and suspicion, causing blacks to panic."
The Emergence Of The White Troll Behind A Black Face
I don't use Twitter. I've never had the time to look into it, and I have enough random online accounts that I don't use to begin with. So I don't have any insight into how Twitter society, even the Black Twitter society works. But I have to admit to being dubious about the idea that a bunch of trolls pretending to be Black people on Twitter could somehow manage to spark "panic" among actual Black people on Twitter. How does Black Twitter interact with the site that a disruption to it would cause "panic?" I understand how social media has risen from online yearbooks to become a central part of many people's lives over the past decade and a half, but it seems strange to believe that simply being unable to trust the someone who claims to be a given ethnicity is actually that ethnicity seems like a flimsy reason for fear.
Some of the steps to creating a fake account include pretending to know people they might be related to, calling people out on their drug dealing activities, and accusing them of being Neo-Nazis using fake accounts. This way, Aglin writes, "Blacks will then accuse each other of having fake accounts and start reporting each other."
Given that everyone understands, or should understand, that on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog, it seems optimistic to the point of derangement to think that a few well-placed trolls could turn an entire online community, especially one that comprises millions of people, into effectively a circular firing squad.

Having some difficulty understanding how anyone could possibly believe that such a hare-brained scheme could work, I'm tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a parody, and chalk its newsworthiness up to Poe's Law. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell a genuine idiot from someone who's simply pretending to be one on the Internet. (Of course, given the generally low opinion that many people have of White Supremacists, it may be easy to believe that they'd hatch schemes that come across as obviously broken.)

In my own activities online, I have encountered any number of people who make assertions about themselves that I can't verify. Generally, speaking, I don't pay much attention to these things. When people post self-portraits of themselves, I typically assume that they are honest pictures, and when they make statements about what's going on in their lives, I typically assume that they're accurate descriptions. But I don't need them to be. I don't base my comfort and safety on the World Wide Web on the idea that people that I've otherwise never met, and only "know" from online interactions are who they portray themselves as being. If I really need to speak to a known quality, I simply connect directly with one of the people that I have enough of an offline relationship with to be comfortable speaking to. Were some noticeable fraction of the others to turn out to be engaged in elaborate subterfuge, I'd simply drop them. Calmly.

The fake account advice proffered up by The Daily Stormer seems to be based on a parody of a minority online community, a group of people who are frightened and insecure enough to require the comforting presence of people superficially like themselves, trusting enough to believe that anyone who presents as like them must actually be like them and naive enough be easily manipulated by literal strangers. In the case of Black people specifically, it also seems to be predicated on a sort of group subterfuge; a pretense of respectability that people engage in between drug deals. And in that sense it comes across as a plan to trap elephants using their fear of mice.

Like I said, White Supremacists are an unpopular bunch, and perhaps this is what makes it seem reasonable that they would think such a vapid scheme is workable. But from my perspective, I suspect that someone's having a good laugh at NPR's expense right now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Opposites Detract

One day, people will stop using moral/ethical terms, such as "right/wrong" and "good/evil" when describing their emotions about certain people - how likeable, how trustworthy or how safe they understand someone to be.

Of course, that will be the day after the final extinction of humanity...

I've always wondered about the habit that people have of predicating someone's moral or ethical opinion of someone's entire interior life on a single data point. "This person supports certain people, so they're unacceptable as an acquaintance" or "This person is okay with a certain action, so they're completely without scruples." These have always struck me as a form of personal Purity test, and what I will admit confuses me about them is how unacceptable they are to admit to, given how common they are.

I can't manage a day without someone loudly proclaiming how this one singular (usually vague) action that some or another (usually nameless) person has said or done means that they should be cast down into the fires and how anyone who disagrees should uncircle/unfriend/unfollow them *this instant*. And nine times out of ten, my first thought is, "Given that I have no idea what the crack you're going on about, I can't understand how to make this information actionable." Usually followed up by the sinking feeling that I'm going to regret ever having encountered them in the first place.

Now, to be sure, I'm a moral noncognitivist (Whew! Say that three times fast!) which is really just a five-dollar word for the idea that what people consider moral and ethical truths are a form of behavior preferences, rather than any sort of objective statement about the world. In other words, when someone says, "Taking candy from a baby is wrong," what I understand that to mean in the broader context is "I disapprove of taking candy from a baby," because there is nothing intrinsic to either candy or babies that creates an objective prohibition against separating the two. And while I can take that disapproval seriously, and support acting on that disapproval - in the end, it's just personal disapproval, and if someone else (say, a dentist) approves of taking candy from a baby, what we have is a difference of opinion rather than competing understandings of the objective nature of the universe.

But even setting that aside, going all the way to a description of someone's ethical framework based on whether they support this artist or disagree with that law seems like a tremendous, and unwarranted, leap. Especially because we tend to use such leaps to avoid simply saying: "I prefer to associate with people who openly share all of my preferences when it comes to certain activities." Because for some reason that seems more narrow-minded and partisan that making wild presumptions about people in order to justify a preference to not associate with them. I don't understand it.