Saturday, February 28, 2015

Techsplanation

Back in November of last year, Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted the following:

"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
According to "The Oatmeal" author Matthew Inman, this lead him to assume one of two things:
Thing #1: When you [Senator Cruz] accepted campaign funds from telecom lobbyists last year, they asked that you publicly smear Net Neutrality.

Thing #2: You don't actually know what Net Neutrality is.
Deciding that there was nothing to be done about Thing #1, Mr. Inman proceeds to school the reader on Net Neutrality, with an eye that the Senator would read it, and that this would solve Thing #2. (By the way, if you haven't read it, and are up for an entertaining foray into the issue, give it a read.) Ostensibly.

Now, I'm pretty certain that Mr. Inman, as well as everyone who shared the post on social media, knows that Senator Cruz would be unlikely to read it. And that even if he did, he would be unlikely to chance his stance on the issue.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is because Senator Cruz understands exactly what Net Neutrality is. His comparison to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (to use "Obamacare's" real name) isn't the result of ignorance on the part of the senator. It's the result of ignorance on the part of the senator's intended audience - who understand the ACA to be a Bad Thing that "government" is imposing on them, and can be counted on to vociferously oppose other supposed Bad Things that "government" might come up with. And so, I posit another Thing.
Thing #3: Senator Cruz' constituents and supporters among the public are prepared to take his word for whether or not certain policies are good for them.
After all, without that public trust, there's no point behind Thing #1. And who knows - he might actually believe it. (Personally, I doubt this, but people in high places have gone on the record believing stranger things, so...)

I don't subscribe to the theory that powerful politicians are the puppets of, and bought and paid for by, powerful special interests, who in turn insulate them from any threat of public dissatisfaction but who then turn around and engage in a pointless charade in an attempt to hide that fact from us. My observations tell me that as much as individual votes are simply raindrops in a flood, elections do matter, and so politicians spend time, effort and, perhaps most importantly, money on giving themselves the appearance of operating in the interests of voters - or at least that segment of voters that placed them in office in the first place. I'm not of the impression that powerful political and business interests spend their time worrying about the torches and pitchforks coming out.

In my own understanding, the threat to Net Neutrality had never been the opinions of people like Ted Cruz. It was, and despite the FCC's ruling, still is, the opinions of voters in those states and districts covered by Senator Cruz and his like-minded allies. They're the people who, when they think that what's good for Comcast is good for America, will see politicians standing up for "them," and want to re-elect those same politicians to shape national policy.

And so, in the end, it's the Net Neutrality skeptics among our friends, family, co-workers and neighbors that Mr. Inman should have been explaining things to.

Oh. Wait. That's our job.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Different Race, Same Song

One of the oddly liberating things about not being particularly partisan is that I can see candidates for public office as people, rather than harbingers of the fate of civilization. I mention this because it's about that time again; when we, as a nation, apparently forget that we're going to elect the head of a large government bureaucracy (along with a raft of legislators and other assorted ne'er-do-wells) rather than (depending on your outlook) the next messiah or great adversary.

Despite the fact that one administration tend to be more alike than different when compared to the one that precedes of follows it, campaign season will be wall-to-wall with expectations that slide right past the unrealistic and into the completely ridiculous.

“If Obama’s re-elected, it will happen. There’s no IF about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut-wrenching, but it will happen. The country’s economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected. I don’t know how long: a year and a half, two years, three years.”

“California is going to declare bankruptcy and you know what Obama will do? He’ll go to states like Texas or Arizona, Florida to bail them out. That’s what he’ll do, and that’s gonna precipitate this stuff. California is showing where we’re headed in every which way,”
Limbaugh Predicts 'Economic Collapse' If Obama Re-elected
Rush's three years are going to be up soon - the apocalypse had better get it in gear if it's going to get here on time.

Of course, Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer, and this is the sort of thing that his audience prefers. It's entirely possible that he doesn't believe much, or any, of it himself. And it's fairly hyperbolic, even for election-year hysterics. But it illustrates the sort of baggage that tends to attach itself to political figures, especially when polarization is high.You can already see the dynamic taking shape for the 2016 elections, despite the fact that the primaries are nearly a year away still.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Love Mundane

I do not believe—and I know this is a horrible thing to say—but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country. With all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani
For my part, I don't think this is about what President Obama believes, or does not believe. This is about the intersection of (and this strikes me as hokey even as I type it) superiority and lovability. Or to put it another way, how much can you love a person, institution or a nation that you understand is no better than any other? In the article from The Economist where I first found Giuliani's quote, the author notes that: "The ardent and unclouded quality of love that Mr. Giuliani and [Kevin] Williamson find missing in Mr Obama is largely the privilege of those oblivious of and immune to America's history of injustice and abuse."

In my own dealings with people who strike me as more conservative than myself, I have encountered several who appear to hold to the opinion that in order to see a person as being worthy of respect, heroic or, basically, exceptional, one has to see them as morally elevated - even if that means deliberately ignoring what one understands the truth about that person to be. As one conservative acquaintance of mine put it: "There is no reason to take note of the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves other than to diminish his standing as a hero." And as problematic enough as this would be when it comes to dealing with individuals, it's not difficult to imagine the impossible standards this creates for an entire nation, especially when history comes into play.

The first time I was accused of "hating my country," it was because I rebutted the indictment of President Obama as being the architect of a national shift away from a historical pattern of respecting universal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I pointed out that, in the past, the United States had countenanced the massacres of Native Americans, the internment (and then theft of property from) of citizens of Japanese descent and laws that restricted whom various non-whites could marry. But I also pointed out that none of these things were true today. And for making the case that the arc of American history bent towards justice, I was told: "It's too bad that you hate your country." This from someone who felt that President Obama's policies, and the people who supported them, had damaged a once-pristine nation beyond salvation.

The expectation that patriotism means pretending the bad part of history never happened may appeal to people for whom reminders of the less-than-spotless parts of America's past feel like indictments of themselves, their ancestry or both. And it may have its uses, in enabling them to see themselves as superior in patriotism to those of us who see that America has improved over time, and, by virtue of not yet being perfect, is still improving. We can be cast as ungrateful, unpatriotic or hateful and thusly unfit for public service. But if loving your country must of necessity entail a refusal to see it as it was or is, what is it that is really being loved?

Rudy Giuliani appears to demand that President Obama love him, and his audience, for what they desire to see themselves as - the most recent generation of the exceptional inhabitants of a superior nation, rather than as simple human beings who live out their lives in a nation (and a world) of similarly human people. Because the real problem that comes from understanding the troubled history of the United States isn't that it leads one to see the country is inferior to others - but rather just like them. "All our flaws" do not render us exceptional in such a way that the rules are different for us. Instead, they render us like people the world over. The willingness of Americans to see themselves as exceptional when compared to others did the same thing to them as it has done to people the world over - allowed them spread misery and suffering and think themselves righteous while doing it. The arc of history does not bend towards justice because the powerful people, who see themselves as superior, decide that the time has come to be more charitable to those beneath them. It bends because we come to see ourselves as more and more alike and the empathy this builds makes atrocity difficult.

Love, of anything, is a gift, and one that we give as it suits us. If it suits President Obama to love an unexceptional nation, I find no fault in that.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Winter's End

The plums are blossoming again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Circles of Confusion

I was in a conversation with some acquaintances about the best way to respond to a police officer in a dodgy situation. There was the recommendation to do whatever the officer says and that shifted the argument to the worst-case scenario of an interaction with an officer. The ex-police officer in the group broke it down in two ways - on the one hand, he said, if the officer is in the wrong (intentionally or not) going along with him can result in a false/mistaken arrest and, at most, a night in jail. On the other hand, not going along could result in being beaten.

This is where the conversation took an interesting turn for me, because, as far as I'm concerned, going along with an officer who is violating the law and/or the rights of the individual they have detained doesn't have a night in jail as a worst-case scenario. Winding up in prison for a crime one didn't commit is the worst-case scenario. To back up what seemed like something of an extreme (rather than simply highly unlikely) scenario, I fell back on the fact that I am often mistaken for one Mike Pondsmith. Now, any number of people who have seen the pictures of both us note that we look nothing alike. Which is true - it's also beside the point, because what's really at issue is the intersection of what we have in common and the imprecision of many people's mental pictures of people unlike themselves.

If you describe a middle-aged black man, somewhat overweight, bearded, deep voice, salt-and-pepper hair, propensity for dark clothing and hangs out with gamers/comic book fans, that's an accurate description. Where it leads to confusion is in the fact that it's not precise enough to differentiate between the two of us. Imagine the entire population of the Earth, standing together in one huge crowd and arranged so that if you start from any given person in the group, a person close to your starting point is more similar to that first person than someone farther away, and that all people equidistant from a given person have the same level of similarity and dissimilarity to that person. (Of course, in reality, this mob would likely look different for every observer and likely for any given starting trait; this is what makes it a thought experiment - well, along with the fact that it's simply not possible to get the entire population of the Earth into one place...) Any given description of a person would create a shape (a circle will do for this experiment, although it would likely look more like a set of formless blobs) that encompasses everyone who fits within it. The more accurate the description, the closer the specific person you're describing is to the exact center of the circle. The more precise the description, the smaller the circle.

The description of Mike Pondsmith that I created above is accurate enough that Mr. Pondsmith would be well within the circle of people defined by those traits. But because of the imprecision of that description, the circle extends out far enough that I'm within it as well. Which is all fine and good. What trips people up is their understanding that the circle is more precise than it really is, in large part because, in their personal experience, the number of people who reside with in that circle is typically one. So when I walk up, the "Mike Pondsmith" label appears over my image in the onlooker's mind's eye, and they say, "Hey, Mike!"

While there has been a lot of research into the unreliability of memory as a whole, this interplay between people's own understanding of the precision of their memory and how precise it actually is may be more to the point.

Which takes me back to the conversation about what to do in an interaction with a police officer. One of the issues that I think that many African Americans have with dealing with law enforcement is the idea that police and prosecutors, in order to increase their chances of arresting and convicting someone for a crime, often rely on as imprecise a description as they can get away with. Recall the case of Timothy Cole.

A chain-smoking, African-American rapist who used a knife. That was the man the Lubbock police should have been looking for. But it was a nonsmoking, asthmatic black man they eventually settled on.
Timothy Cole went to prison for the rape of Michele Mallin - and died there from complications of asthma - rather than Jerry Johnson because when the police showed Mallin a photograph of Cole, she identified him - her mental picture of her attacker left a large enough circle for both men to fit within it. The police and prosecutors (and, apparently at some point, a jury) then ignored the parts of the description and other evidence that would have made their description of the perpetrator more precise, but would have sent them back to searching for the criminal, as it would have excluded Cole.

And so they built their case against the bird they had in hand. Rather than a night in jail while things were sorted out, Timothy Cole spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Making this point about the imprecision of memory and description, I freely acknowledge that situations like Timothy Cole's are very rare. But "very (or even extremely) rare" and "not worth worrying about" are not the same thing. And I think that this is part of what drives a certain level of resistance to the police when a person confronted feels that their rights are being violated. For the person who recommended that going along with the officer was always the best policy, the idea that it could turn out very, very badly never crossed his mind. Hence a night in jail as the worst-case scenario. But then again, he, in common with most police officers in the United States, is white, and is likely accustomed to a world where descriptions of people are precise enough that the idea of arresting an asthmatic when the perpetrator is described as a chain smoker seems ridiculous.

But for those of us for whom a remarkable level of imprecision is our daily experience, it may make sense to privilege protecting yourself in the moment above trusting that things will work out.