Thursday, July 19, 2018

Blanked Out

So I was driving along yesterday afternoon, and I encountered this protest. It was just ginning up when I arrived on the scene, and I quickly found a place to park and hurried over with my camera to find a good place to shoot from. The protesters were mainly on the corner directly across the intersection from me, but were starting to cross the streets to either side.

The fact that the bulk of the party was on the southeast corner of the street meant that they were out in broad daylight. Which had the effect of washing out the text on most of their signs, as you can see in the picture. Granted, the human eye has a better dynamic range than a digital camera, but I wasn't really doing any better at seeing what they were protesting; even when there was enough contrast, a handheld sign isn't very large at any significant distance.

I'm pretty sure that it hadn't occurred to any of the protestors that the Sun would be the enemy of their message; it wouldn't have occurred to me before yesterday. But I did find it to be amusing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


Summer blossoms are always interesting, especially here in the Seattle area. In the spring, when it's more likely to rain, it's easy for a flower to stand out against the gloom. But when it's bright out, the flowers have to bring their color A game.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Partisan Polarity

One of the drivers of partisan strife in the modern United States is the idea of "spin." Simply defined, spin is selectively emphasizing or de-emphasizing information in order to present a particular event in a predetermined light, either positive or negative.While spin is often viewed as dishonest, it's usually different from lying, or other forms of direct deceit.

This becomes a partisan issue in that there seems to be a general assumption that there is an objective and neutral reality that everyone inhabits, and that depictions of the world that closely align with disagreeable partisan viewpoints have been spun by partisans to appear that way. Accordingly, absent any attempt to spin the data, objective truth would be evident. To the degree that people understand the political Other to be (willfully) unintelligent, credulous or immoral, all of these are generally wrapped up in spin, which has come to mean a sort of cynical dishonesty about the workings of the world.

But, in my understanding of the world, spin has little to do with partisanship. Rather, it's the fact that there's really no such animal as an objective view of the world. People interact with the world through their senses, but also through their own experiences, and this creates a necessarily biased view of the world. I read a long-form essay about New York's real-estate market and the author's perception of the impact that it was having on the spirit of the city this morning, and it soon became clear that the depictions of events were being filtered through the author's own understanding of the world around them.

To a reader who holds a different set of experiences, however, that filtering starts to look a lot like intentional spin, designed to fool the unwary. It's easy to understand a simple reason for this; the belief that experience doesn't matter. And that's an easy conclusion to come to. After all, unless color blindness is a factor, what's red for one person is red for another. And so if someone says something is blue when the observer sees red, one may be excused for asking what's going on. But politics doesn't work the same way as color.

Understanding that, I think, will result in a more productive political discourse. Of course, that leaves the thorny issue of promoting that understanding.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Imagine Luxury

You’re providing a luxury service at a bottom-wage price. This is the most galling element: Having hot food delivered on a whim is ostensibly one of the most upper-class things imaginable. It’s entirely a luxury service, but people treat it like it should be a “deal,” or at a rock-bottom price with absolutely perfect service each and every time.
Luke Gardner "I Delivered Packages for Amazon and It Was a Nightmare" The Atlantic
With all due respect, Mr. Gardner lacks imagination. When I was younger, and living, I might add, in greater Chicagoland, having hot food delivered on a whim was quite common, so long as one had a taste for pizza or Chinese. These were the foods that could charge enough to make delivery worthwhile, yet didn't charge so much that people expected a better experience than eating at home could provide.

It was most certainly a discretionary service, in that you didn't need to have the food delivered. Going to a place that didn't deliver (or one that charged extra for the service) and either eating there or taking it home yourself was an option for the slightly more frugal. But it wasn't a luxury. It wasn't something that demonstrated a certain level of wealth, sophistication and/or status for people who engaged in it, unless their peer group was quite impoverished or visiting from a third-world nation.

The fact if the matter is that people who are willing to drive food from a restaurant to a home in return for a bottom-wage are thick on the ground, for any number of reasons. And that is why the wages are so low. That, and most, if not all, of the people who use GrubHub, or have their packages delivered by Amazon are not themselves "upper-class." The upper class have better ways of obtaining hot food on a whim and more secure ways of having things delivered to them. The people whom Amazon Flex and Grub Hub are serving are looking for absolutely perfect services at rock-bottom prices because absolutely perfect service helps them to feel better about themselves and rock-bottom prices are all they can afford without worrying about their finances.

One a recent trip to New York State, a heat wave was settling in just before we were preparing to leave. The nearest retail outlet to our hotel was a Walmart, so I hopped over there to buy a handkerchief to stuff in a pocket and mop the sweat from my face when the Sun came for me. I found a packet six thin squares of cloth for the "rock-bottom" price of three dollars. As I pulled one out of the package and looked at it, I realized how desperately cheap it was. The napkins that the airline handed out to be used with dinner were miles better than this. I would gladly have taken one halfway-decent handkerchief for that same three dollars. But six, I recalled, is more than one. And so I had six nearly-worthless handkerchiefs, rather than one useful one. Because the ability to buy six handkerchiefs (certainly more than anyone needs at one time) helped Walmart customers to feel better about themselves and fifty cents apiece spared them from worrying about their finances. And thin cotton, assembled by people for whom American poverty would be considered a luxury, is inexpensive. Enough so that there's a margin to be had at six for three dollars. Because there is always more where that came from.

And that's the thing about Amazon Flex or Grub Hub drivers. There are always more where they came from. If The Atlantic's Alana Semuels never gets behind the wheel of a car again in the service of delivering packages for Amazon, Amazon will never miss her. There are thousand other people waiting for the work. And because it doesn't take any particular preexisting skill or acumen, most of them are likely competent enough that it doesn't matter to Amazon which ones they pick. My father told me that the only way one makes good money working for someone else is to do something that other people can't do, or something that other people won't do. Gig-economy courier satisfies neither of those.

And that's why the pay is so low, and the expectations are so high. Someone else is willing to claim that they can do that work both better and cheaper, and they're willing to take the risk that they can somehow make that work, because they don't have any better options. And while the services of the desperately poor may be a luxury good in that they're a discretionary purchase, they haven't been the mark of true luxury for some time.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

So What About?

I was reading a comments section on an article from way back in the day - the Bush Administration, to be sure, and one of the commenters quoted a comedian: "Be careful if you have brown people in your country, because we're going to bomb you!" The response to this was trotting out the names of two Black Republicans of the time; names that often came up when Republicans felt that "the race card" was being played on them: Julius Caesar (J. C.) Watts, and Condoleezza Rice. And it reminded me of something that I hadn't had much call to think about recently; the fact that the relatively small bench of prominent Black conservatives leads to the ineffective and unnecessary tactic of naming the same people as defenses; as if their names are shields against charges of racism.

The larger Black community tends to have little use for most outspoken Black conservatives. Rice and Watts, like their contemporaries Ward Connerly and Alan Keyes, and present-day conservatives like Ben Carson, Kanye West, Juan Williams and even Bill Cosby are, to varying degrees, widely considered to be "Uncle Toms" within the Black community; people who have sold out to the White power structure for either their own betterment or, in the eyes of many Blacks, out of racial self-loathing. (Note that Connerly rejected the "Black" label as he is only 1/4 Black, which leads to the somewhat ironic situation of Black activists criticizing him for not accepting his "Black identity" - almost as if they were seeking to have the "one drop" principle applied. And Keyes couldn't seem to shake the "Uncle Tom" label no matter how often or loudly he accused the GOP of covert or overt racism. His moving to Illinois, apparently solely to mount a doomed Senate campaign against Barack Obama back in the day, didn't help matters any.) Colin Powell, another name that was commonly used to deflect charges of racism, by contrast, was widely considered an ineffectual dupe, whose appointment was mostly political cover for the administration, rather than a mark of any real respect. The fact that the Bush administration placed Blacks in three Cabinet positions (Powell, Alphonso Jackson [HUD] and Roderick Paige [Education]) and as National Security Advisor arguably did much less for them in the Black community than administration's seemingly overt religiosity and "activist conservatism." In fact, many Americans are/were completely unaware of Jackson and Paige period, let alone the fact that both were Black.

In any event, using the Rice, Keys or West et al to deflect charges of racism is undermined by the generally negative perceptions of this group within the Black community. The only way that this sort of name dropping would work is if the name were that of a prominent critic, who somehow managed to work well with (and within) the administration, an almost paradoxical situation mode more unlikely by the Bush, and now the Trump, administration's famous allergy to anything that smacks of disloyalty or criticism. But only by managing to find someone not considered to be either co-opted or shut out by the administration will Republican name-dropping meet with any success in the near term.

What tends to keep Blacks in the Democratic column is not an overall liberalism in the community (Blacks are very social conservative as a group), but the idea that Democrats will do more to advance and protect them. Blacks tend to see themselves as victims, and as George Will once put it, the Democrats have never met a victim they didn't like. Many Blacks don't distinguish between policies that hurt them because they are, for the most part, working-class or poor, and intentionally racist policies that are aimed at maintaining the American Apartheid that many Blacks are convinced exists (and are in some ways, emotionally invested in). If you ever hear some of the wilder conspiracy theories that circulate within the Black community, some of them are pretty incredible. (Interestingly, many of these theories have the overall effect of painting White America as being implacably malicious and supremely devious, but amazingly inept, in much the same fashion as hapless movie villains.) Alan Keyes was perhaps unique in managing to be both a staunch Republican, AND tightly wrapped up in the culture of Black victimhood.

If the Republicans could find a way to use shared values to break the (counter-)culture of victimization that many Blacks subscribe to, they could scoop up the vast majority of the socially-conservative community in one fell swoop. And in doing so, go a long way towards crippling the current incarnation of the Democratic party, which relies heavily on the fact that Blacks tend to feel marginalized and put upon by society at large. Many Black commentators feel that breaking the Democratic stranglehold on the Black vote would increase the community's political clout. With their votes perceived as being in play, the community could wrangle concessions out of both parties much more easily than they can now, when they are apparently taken for granted by Democrats, and written off by Republicans. I'm a bit dubious about this line of reasoning, however, if for no other reason than the loss of the Black vote would likely damage the Democratic Party to the point that the Republicans wouldn't feel the need to court new voters.

This effort may be hampered, however, by the fact that many Republicans may see their fellows as being at least somewhat racist, and willing to withdraw their support of the party if too many overt overtures are made. As a candidate Donald Trump famously asked the Black community what they had to lose, but it's telling that he didn't explicitly offer anything. He simply painted a caricature of wretchedness and implied has as President, he'd do something about it. Instead, he's become widely seen among non-Republicans as attracting, and surrounding himself with, would-be Confederates, neo-Nazis and other flavors of White Supremacists. The caricature of the GOP as political arm of the Ku Klux Klan was dying on with great difficulty; now it's come roaring back to life, or undeath, as the case may be.

In any event, holding up a succession of token Black names is unlikely to reduce the friction between Republicans and Black community. It is only through a values-based bridging of the perceived gap between themselves and the Black community (regardless of who does it, or how it happens) and a purging of openly racist elements that will lay to rest the idea (on both sides) that the GOP and Blacks are natural enemies. Jesse Jackson's intervention in the Terry Schiavo case showed where the Bush administration and the interests of the Black community intersected, and this is really the place the Republicans should focus on. We'll see if anyone ever has the desire, drive and vision to make it happen. In the meantime, conspicuously focusing on strategies and actions that create the rising tide to lift all boats may be the best path. But that would mean letting go of a culture of White grievance that sees wiley Blacks as cheating their way into undeserved non-poverty. And that's a much heavier lift than name-dropping.