Sunday, August 23, 2015


One of the recurring complaints that people have about the American political system is the prevalence of "big money" in the electoral system. Typically, I have little patience for such complaints, after all, money can't buy you love, and no amount of expensive advertising is going to trump the viewpoint of a trusted friend, relation or co-worker in political matters. And in a day and age in which information on any candidate you wish to know something about is no further away than a web page (even complete no-hopers like Jill Stein), I consider the issue to be less about money than it is about a pervasively passive approach to modern American politics that makes it worthwhile (and, to a large degree, necessary) to spend remarkable amounts of money to reach and motivate (or demotivate) potential voters.

And then, along comes Donald Trump. Being a billionaire of some level or another, he can afford to spend his own money on his presidential campaign, which frees him from the need to tailor his message to the Republican big-money donor class. Accordingly, he can direct his message to a segment of the Republican electorate that feels increasingly marginalized in modern American society, and fears that said marginalization will only accelerate as time goes on, and current minorities reduce them to a plurality, and someday, a minority themselves. Early American history being nothing if not a case study of what happens to an entrenched majority when a needy (to the point of hostility) minority takes over the majority status, perhaps what White people fear is having what generation past have done unto others being done unto them.

I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist. But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, "You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk." And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty. Like I said, I feel it's going to be - they're going to feel it's payback time.
York Voters Express Post-Election Hopes, Fears
While the past seven years have proven that it would take more than the election of an African-American president to gin up the Payback Machine, the fear that a loss of White dominance of the United States is going to lead to Whites holding the bag in a society that openly favors non-Whites has not gone away.

But the United States being what it is, it's considered gauche, if not brazenly racist, to address that fear as a real thing that should be dealt with. And that's where Donald Trump, with his ability to self-finance his own campaign for the White House, may have done us all a favor. When people who feared the coming post-White Hegemony future had no-one willing to speak for them (rather than simply to them), it was easy to see them as a tiny fringe element in an otherwise forward-looking nation. The disconnect between their values, which Republican strategist Mary Matalin terms "Common Sense* America" and those of the wealthy donor base, or the "Conventional Wisdom Establishment" meant that "serious" candidates were unable to directly engage with them and still be considered "electable." The fact that Donald Trump doesn't need to ask them for money to keep his campaign going allows them to rally behind him without effectively needing to pay to have their views displayed.

As people line up behind statements that public piety demand be seen as reprehensible, at best, the rest of us are better able to see just how large a group of people feel that they have been thrown under the bus. And even if Mr. Trump gives up his bid for the Presidency or is forced out of the race by managing to alienate the people who support him, the understanding that this group is out there, and is willing to back someone they understand speaks to their fears and concerns, will embolden other politicians to make direct plays for those votes. Which may finally push the rest of us into addressing their concerns, rather than ignoring them.

* I am always leery of people peddling "common sense." Mainly because the term "common" has morphed away from "shared" and towards "self-evident," and thus invocations of common sense have simply become a way for a speaker to tell their chosen audience that their worldview is an obviously correct one, and that a lack of adherence to it is proof of deficiencies in intellect and/or "character," rather than simply indicating differences in background, upbringing and/or life experience.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015


I can see how it seemed like a stupid question.

"Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?" interviewer Ana Marie Cox asked.
"Hillary’s hair gets more scrutiny than my hair? Is that what you're asking?" Sanders clarified, before asking Cox whether she had any "serious questions."
Here's Bernie Sanders' Response To A Question About Hillary Clinton's Hair
But it WAS a "serious question," even if somewhat inelegantly asked. It's the serious question of whether or not Hillary Clinton in specific, and female candidates for elective office in general, are given a fair hearing in most media outlets and by the public.
I can defend that as a serious question. There is a gendered reason —
When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.

It’s also true that the media pays more attention to what female candidates look like than it does to what male candidates look like.
That may be. That may be, and it’s absolutely wrong.
Bernie Sanders Has Heard About That Hashtag
While Senator Sanders may feel that "it’s absolutely wrong" for media outlets to pay more attention to the appearance of female candidates than male candidates, and his supporters may feel that the line of questioning reveals Ana Marie Cox to be "another tool who has no idea what journalism is" or the media to be "trying everything they can to 'gotcha' him," what stood out for me is what may shape up to be the primary problem for the Sanders campaign - being so wedded to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats that they miss the fact that some of those boats may not be in the water. The United States joining the club nations that have some form of guaranteed health care is not going to change the fact that women are expected to look after their appearances and lose certain social benefits (known as "the Makeup Tax" for not doing so.

The current disconnect between the Sanders campaign (and Sanders supporters) and the Black Lives Matter movement falls along similar lines. Shifting income and wealth away from the 1%, or the .1%, may pay dividends for the 40% of African-American children that Sanders identifies as being in poverty, but it won't, in and of itself, put an end to the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement - or the idea that Black America brought this sad state of affairs on themselves due to rampant criminality and an eschewing of "character and values." After all, people are just as capable of judging the wealthy by the color of their skin (or their gender) as they are the poor.

After the first debate between the majority of Republican candidates, Sanders referred to them as "out of touch" because they didn't place issues like Citizens United vs. FEC or student loan debt front and center in the moderated forum. But Sanders himself comes across as only speaking to the issues that are important to certain constituencies after very public confrontations. And his supporters are often critical of those who feel that Senator Sanders doesn't speak to their concerns, holding him up as self-evidently the best chance that those concerns have of being addressed.

If Senator Sanders does become the Democratic nominee for President, it's unlikely that Black and/or women voters would consciously decide to withhold their support. But an enthusiasm gap can be just as damaging. To bridge it, I think that the Senator will have to learn to understand both the issues that various groups find important, and how they talk about them. And he does have time. But he doesn't have forever.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Inside Out

These two quotes do not closely follow one another in the source, but they relate to the same event. I think that the context is important here, and I want to make sure that I capture it as accurately as is feasible, so I'm presenting them together.

A few weeks ago I ended up on a date facilitated by an online dating service with a white guy who disclosed halfway through the date that he has a preference for South-Asian women. I left the date feeling offended.
I’m 37 and unmarried and I just went on a date with a guy who was essentially telling me, after all my successes in life and my awesome personality, that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin.
Tinder isn’t perfect – but why would it be?
What I found to be interesting about these passages, that more or less bookend Samhita Mukhopadhyay's defense of Tinder/indictment of certain straight White dudes is that (assuming her representation of her date's disclosure is accurate) her assertion "that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin," could easily have simply been an assumption that she was making. After all, there are other ethnic groups in the world who share the same range of skin color as Indians, and cultural stereotypes cover any number of different traits. But, for all of that, I understand precisely where she is coming from.

When I was growing up, the adults in my life taught me, a number of things about getting along in the world. Following are three of them that dealt specifically with dealing with White people:
  1. The first (if not only) thing that they'll see about me is the color of my skin.
  2. Any one of them who says otherwise is almost invariably lying.
  3. These judgments of them are okay (even if we don't own up to them) because they're objectively correct.
The most pernicious effect of prejudice, as I've encountered it, is the constant expectation of prejudice. And once people are taught to be constantly vigilant for it, they start to see it everywhere. Which often eventually metastasizes into prejudice itself.

I understand Ms. Mukhopadhyay's disappointment that her date didn't openly validate her for those traits that she feels the most pride in, her "successes in life and [...] awesome personality." It's often disappointing that people don't seem to see those invisible traits that reside inside of us that are most important to us. But that's different than people, especially people of other races, only seeing the very surface of us. And when we call them out on that, especially when we do so without dialoging with them, it's hard to see how we've done any better.

One of the things that makes discussions of race and ethnicity in the country so contentious is that it's remarkably easy to make judgments of other people based on nothing more than a few superficial traits, and then convince oneself that no more information is needed. The Black Lives Matter activist, Indian writer or any other "person of color" who immediately chalks up a negative encounter with Whites to an inability to see past race tends to miss the irony in their own pronouncements. Yes, there is a difference between saying that Whites aren't as color-blind as they like to think themselves and saying that Blacks bring police violence down on their own heads. But in a society that judges by the content of character - or doesn't judge at all - neither statement has a home.

Validation, I came to understand, is like any other important task - If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. When I left it up to other people to validate me and my experiences, I often came away not only hurt, but with an inability to understand how so many people could miss what was right in front of their faces - until I remembered my father's admonition that "Obvious is something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it." Mark Twain was exactly right when he noted that "The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself." And given the difficulty of making other people see us as we want to be seen, I think that there is also more wisdom that we credit in the idea that "When you cannot get a compliment any other way pay yourself one." Our accomplishments, our personalities, our wisdom - these are all things that we can place on display - but they are not things that we can expect that everyone will see in the same way that we do, or see at all. And yes, I understand that I'm allowing the willfully blind to escape censure. But if I don't need, and therefore don't ask, someone to do something for me, does it really matter their exact reason for not doing it?

It's true that people's judgments and opinions of others tend to say more about the holder of the opinion, than the subject of the opinion. But that doesn't mean that we can automatically know what someone's judgements say about them. Accordingly, perhaps we should be more aware of what our often self-serving judgments say about us. Because while, I, for instance, have no problem with being called Black, I'd rather it not be because I was caught calling out the Kettle.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


When I encountered the headline "How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail," I was hoping for something that seems to rarely come up in discussions of the culpability of persons and/or companies for the financial industry crash of 2008 - some indication of what laws were supposed to have been broken. Granted, it's not the job of a journalist to bring an indictment against someone, but most of us are generally not versed in the law, and especially in financial law.

For me, the answer to "Why isn't anyone in jail?" is simple; the article itself points it out: "Wall Street bankers make it their daily business to figure out ways to abide by the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And to be sure, much of the behavior that led to the crisis involved recklessness and poor judgment, not fraud." And, whether we like it or not, recklessness, poor judgment and violating the spirit of the law are not crimes. And so when I find a piece that purports to tell me why no-one has been convicted of anything, I expect to have it explained to me which laws had their letter violated. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't the case here - rather there was simply another assertion that some crime just had to have been committed, and this opinion was then taken as proof that some perfidy had taken place within the department of justice. So far, so familiar.

Then, a little later on, I read the following:

Any narrative of how we got to this point has to start with the so-called Holder Doctrine, a June 1999 memorandum written by the then–deputy attorney general warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks—a variant of the “too big to fail” argument that has since become so familiar. Holder’s memo asserted that “collateral consequences” from prosecutions—including corporate instability or collapse—should be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute a big financial institution. That sentiment was echoed as late as 2012 by Lanny Breuer, then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, who said in a speech at the New York City Bar Association that he felt it was his duty to consider the health of the company, the industry, and the markets in deciding whether or not to file charges.
And this caught my attention for a simple reason - there was no link to the memorandum in question. And I've learned to be suspicious of news articles that reference documents without pointing to them. About 30 seconds on Google later, I had tracked down "Federal Prosecution of Corporations." And unsurprisingly, it didn't at read like a "warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks," any more than the manual that comes with a car constitutes a "warning of the dangers of driving."
Virtually every conviction of a corporation, like virtually every conviction of an individual, will have an impact on innocent third parties, and the mere existence of such an effect is not sufficient to preclude prosecution of the corporation. Therefore, in evaluating the severity of collateral consequences, various factors already discussed, such as the pervasiveness of the criminal conduct and the adequacy of the corporation's compliance programs should also be considered in determining the weight to be given to this factor.
Federal Prosecution of Corporations
Now, it may very well be true that the reason that there haven't been prosecutions of "Wall Street types" is that the Federal Government is protecting people in high places due to cronyism and an insufficient commitment to justice for the majority of citizens. Governments have done far worse. But Eric Holder's 1999 memorandum doesn't support that viewpoint in and of itself. And this strikes me as part of the reason why there wasn't a link to an easily-available document.

As much as we talk about "Media Bias," despite the legal fiction of corporate personhood, media organizations are not people, and they lack a consciousness. People, on the other hand, have biases, disagreements and agendas, and they often seek to enlist other people in these, to make them more effective, to show themselves that people are paying attention, or what-have-you. And it's these personal factors that we should be wary of, and alert to the markers for.

The Solution

A friend of mine and I "argue" about politics all the time. But in the end, we're in agreement about a basic point concerning humanity - it doesn't scale. When you have large aggregate populations that are composed of several different communities of people, each with their own wants, needs and concerns, they start to become at odds with one another. And so what we often wind up talking about is how do we overcome that basic separation between people?

One of the suggestions that I've often heard is "a common enemy." But that's never really worked. The Second World War and the Cold War were both seen as real threats to the United States - but that didn't bring the nation together across the lines of race, ethnicity and nationality that were in place. I suspect that a common enemy powerful enough to overcome human self-centeredness is likely powerful enough to simply put an end to the species, no matter how unified. But it brings up an important point, which is that for there to be a real shared humanity, and a shared human experience, the issues that face people have to be genuinely universal - right now, "universal" is simply a label that we slap on things when we want other people to care about them.

And I don't know how we find that universal issue. There may never be one. It may simply be outside of the human experience to have a genuine feeling of overall unity. And maybe that's where the solution lies - in the understanding that we'll never find what we're searching for.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sometimes, a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

“I was really shocked and just taken aback of the way the crowd reacted to the two young women that courageously took over the stage,” said K.L. Shannon, a board member with the Seattle NAACP chapter who marched. “It sent a clear message on how they really feel about black people.”
Black Lives Matter Marchers 'Really Shocked' At Sanders' Seattle Crowd
When I was in my twenties, and living away from home, I found myself needing to learn a different way interacting with the world than my parents had taught me. Mainly because I lived in a different world than the one that they'd grown up in, and some of the behaviors that made them well-adapted to that setting were maladaptive in my own life. One of the lessons that I learned from them was that the hostility of Whites was born of racism and resentment. Which made sense - my parents had grown up during the Civil Rights era, which I'm not old enough to remember, but just barely - my mother was pregnant with me when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.

But when I was in my twenties, somewhat older than my parents were when I was born, I learned that that were actually several possible reasons for the hostility of any given White person.
  1. They were simply being racist. (Hey, sometimes your parents are right.)
  2. They were having a bad day, and I just happened to be a convenient target.
  3. They were being a jackass.
  4. I was being a jackass.
  5. Some combination of the above.
Number Four was the important revelation. That Black people could be jerks when dealing with each other was a given - the world is full of jerks, and some of them are, unsurprisingly, Black. But when your relationship with an entire outside community is defined by prejudice, you may not learn that jerkdom can cross ethnic divides. When I was growing up, where was, really no such thing as interracial jackassery. Doing things that made White people angry was pretty much termed as "standing up for yourself," and when they did things that made us angry, it was always "racism." A person was only a jerk or a jackass when they did something that made someone else like them upset. And even though I unlearned it as I grew older, not everyone has.

Which is why I opened this quote with the Seattle NAACP board member. Had Henry Louis Gates, Jr. been coming to Seattle and Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford insisted on disrupting his speech to a predominantly Black audience for some cause that they were passionate about, it's unlikely that members of the NAACP would agree with the two that they were facing White supremacists who didn't want to talk about issues important to Black people. So why must the anger of White supporters of Bernie Sanders be evidence of Seattle's inherent racism? Yes, a couple of posts back, I pointed out some rather nasty online comments aimed at the two activists. My point there was that some Black people were going to take those comments as evidence of racism - not that they'd necessarily be correct about it.

The long and the short of it is that Bernie Sanders has a number of passionate supporters in Seattle. The man bills himself as a Social Democrat/Socialist, and this is the Left Coast, after all. And they were angry as what they perceived as the jackassery of a pair of Black Lives Matter activists who were taking their frustrations out on them, rather than the actual guilty parties. The way they did it may make them jackasses themselves, but it doesn't make them racists. That's an important lesson to learn, and one that makes your life better once you have.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Two quotes about campaigns for President of the United States. One from now:

The most common type [of Trump fan] said she respects Donald Trump because he’s willing to say what he really thinks without being afraid of offending people. “He doesn’t know what ‘PC’ means,” one man told me. Of course, “willing to say what he really thinks without being afraid of offending people” actually means “willing to say what I think while offending people I don’t like.” I consider this type of fan, let's call them Trump Type I fans, to be more superficial: they are into Trump because he violates social taboos but not their own political sensibilities.
Elspeth Reeve “This 22-Year-Old Really, Really, Really Wants Donald Trump to Be Our Next President” The New Republic, 1 July, 2015
And one from a little while back:
94.3 percent of the time Obama never really tells the audiences anything uncomfortable though he boasts that he will 100 percent of the time. What he promises them instead is to tell people they don’t like (auto executives and Wall Street fat cats) what THOSE GROUPS don’t want to hear.
John Dickerson “Obama’s Closing Argument” Slate Magazine, 21 April, 2008
Despite what we may have learned (or ignored) in Social Studies classes while growing up, the United States has never really been a land of universal opportunity. Rather, there was a sort of trade-off. Generally speaking, the American “mainstream” (a somewhat nebulous group of people, the boundaries of which have shifted over the years) have enjoyed a certain level of prosperity, advantage and sometimes privilege at the direct expense of some other segment(s) of the American population. And not only has this trade-off, and the fact that it has shifted between being unspoken of on the one hand and actively denied on the other, sparked certain resentments between different demographics, changes to the trade-off also sparked resentments. While they aren’t always correct in their assessment of who’s receiving what at whose expense, Americans are always on the lookout for, and angry about, situations in which they are left holding the bag for someone else’s benefits. And, often times, susceptible to viewing being unable to saddle someone else with their own bills as holding the bag.

The myriad petty resentments of our divided society have long left clear openings for politicians to stump for votes by giving voice to those resentments, and promising to redress them by inverting the hierarchy of bullying that everyone demands to see themselves at the base of. And, as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t an indictment of political process or politically active people; it’s simply a reality of politics in general. Which has, on occasion, left me open to charges of “false equivalence.” I tend to have little respect for the term, which often strikes me as little more than a seemingly erudite way of claiming that “only the other side does bad things,” but, given that, I understand the nature of the complaint. Americans are often perfectly willing to describe the United States as populated by a petty and resentful people - so long as a carve-out is made for themselves, people like them and people they like; and the charge of creating a false equivalence between groups is often triggered by a refusal to make such a carve-out.

For me, the value in avoiding such rationalizations is that it forces all of us to look at the dysfunction in our society as something other than anyone else’s fault. Not that we each need to own every possible flaw that we bring to the table, but when we note that politicians commonly return to the well of promising some or another amount of payback or “othering” their rivals (and sometimes by extension, sometimes directly, the people who vote for them) for minor grievances, it may be worthwhile to understand the underlying dynamic at work, and our own parts in it.
The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward.
Finley Peter Dunne, writing as  “Mr. Dooley” (with some editing for clarity). “Observations by Mr. Dooley
Mr. Dunne's words have gone from a dig at the hypocrisy and self-importance of journalism to being an organizing principle of social justice; with people invoking the idea that religion, art and even journalism have an obligation to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But to the degree that we often view our undeserved (natch) afflictions as a direct result of the undeserved comforts of others, afflicting those we dislike becomes a means of redressing unfairness. Indeed, for some there is no comforting of the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable.

And so we wind up with political figures able to drive popularity for themselves by appealing to our sense of grievance with those we see (correctly or not) as more comfortable than ourselves. And we view this as noble, honest and brave while we wait for those we disagree with to have their come to religion moment, and understand how wrong they are. In the meantime, we wedge ourselves further apart, while wondering why we can’t work together.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Anger and Consequences

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was in town today, due to give a speech about Social Security at a downtown Seattle park. But that didn't happen. Tomorrow, as it turns out, is the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. And so Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford took over the stage in the name of Black Lives Matter, and held it until Senator Sanders gave up on the rally and left. Now whether Johnson and Willaford actually represent Black Lives Matter is questionable, at best. Both the national and local organizations have denounced them. (But this is part of the problem with movements - gatekeeping can be difficult, to say the least.) According to new coverage of what happened, when the crowd that had gathered to hear Sanders speak requested that Johnson and Willaford allow the event to continue, "one activist called the crowd 'white supremacist liberals,' according to event participants."

One of the lessons that I learned as a young man is that emotion often trumps ideology. And the anger of many of Senator Sanders' supporters was palpable. A few minutes of browsing social media commentary on the cancelled speak turned up the following critiques by whites of the disruptors, copied and pasted here:

media whores
used by outside forces
just don't get it
Trump is funding them
Beyond stupid
Paid shills
fucking idiots
clinton workers
mindless arrogance
Certainly a plant
wannabe protesting group
Nothing out of the ordinary there, given the level of emotion that this incident has stirred up. But a few people did go beyond that...
hood rats
Fat Black Bitches
loud ass ghetto bitches
And one commenter went so far as to make a statement about Black people in general in their attempt to explain what happened:
only vote skin color
Of course, this is small sample of people - selected not through any sort of scientific sampling, but just by my random wandering through Google+.

But this is where things often start. Something makes people angry, and they lash out. And if the situation begins to escalate, you start to see the attacks ratchet up. And on social media, where a certain amount of one-upsmanship is often the norm, people can compete to be the most visibly angry. And then the slurs begin. And then someone takes offense and fights back. Then, perhaps, someone attempting to keep the piece is attacked for not being properly supportive of one side or the other.

Black Americans are an important voting block for the Democratic Party - if Senator Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, he's likely going to need their support to win the White House. And it's a safe bet that some of them are still smarting from the Party Unity My Ass movement from 2008, that claimed that the primary race between Senators Clinton and Obama was being decided by backroom deals, rather than the voters - a sentiment that for many Blacks, smacked of racism. Another fight is not what the Democrats need. (Of course, this is part of what's leading to speculation of a political false flag operation.)

This one incident is unlikely to blow up the primary race. But Senator Sanders has had run-ins with Black Lives Matter activists before, and his supporters are starting to grumble. If the anger grown large enough, resentments could flare up into something that has a measurable effect on Election Day. And there's very little that Sanders, or anyone else, can do about that. The Internet connects billions of people directly to one another. What they say over those connections will be the key.

Ha, Ha... Ha?

As I listened to the kids hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny—genuinely funny—and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs included, but were in no way limited to, the following: women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially “marginalized” community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected.
Caitlin Flanagan “That’s Not Funny!
I remember, in the late 1980s, being a college student, a possessed of what now strikes me as both a crippling hypersensitivity to issues of black-white relations and a complete insensitivity to issues that were of importance to anyone else - including race. But I was also stereotypical nerd - I played role-playing games  and read science-fiction and fantasy novels. I didn't date and didn't drink and the closest that I ever came to campus entertainment was an abortive attempt to go to a blues club that we mistakenly thought was only a few blocks away. So I can't speak to whether or not the “particular set of beliefs” straitjacketed on-campus entertainers then as it is said to now. I suspect that it did not, if only for the reason that I assume that the parents of my peers were a lot like my own parents. Had I called my parents to complain about a stand-up comedian hurting my feelings with jokes that referenced a gay man and his “sassy black friend,” I would have regretted it. Why, my parents would have wondered, was I making them pay for a long-distance telephone call for something that had nothing to do with either my schoolwork, housing arrangements or the financing thereof? My father was angry enough with me as it was, just for taking a stand on my choice of schools - there would have been no wisdom in further antagonizing him over trivialities.

Not that my parents weren't sensitive to the idea that being black would make me the butt of jokes - and thinly veiled expressions of disrespect, dismissiveness and even outright hostility described as “jokes” - but for them, part of going to college was to prepare me for a world in which there was no shelter from the malice and racism that permeated society. It might not have been the Army, but the goal was to toughen me all the same. And for the most part, my sensitivity to issues of race - a sensitivity that bordered on outright paranoia - was of little concerns to the rest of the people I went to school with. They had their own concerns to deal with, and making sure that I found everything on campus to be inoffensive was not one of them.

Of course, in the end, it wasn't anywhere nearly as bad as I would have told you it was when I was 20. Which I think was part of the central organizing principle of our parent's generation. Compared to what my parents endured when they were young, I was kicking back on East Street - I could handle the fact that my peers were occasionally unafraid to call me “nigger” to my face. Unlike the South that they’d grown up in, it was unlikely to ever go any farther than that. But in the same way that genuine First-World Problems represent actual difficulties for people, being an outsider in school came with its hurdles, and I can understand not only simply not wanting to deal with them, but not wanting anyone else to deal with them. I’d much rather than my niece not have to deal with the same antagonisms that I did - I’m simply at a loss to come up with a way for her to be prepared for the world she’ll find as an adult if she doesn’t.

In that sense, I’m more Conservative (in a political sense) than a lot of other people of my generation, who have children old enough now that they’re in, or have just graduated from, college. I don’t have any confidence that we can Newspeak our way to a better society by using a younger generation as shields. I realized that some of my schoolmates were were reticent to refer to me as “nigger” when I was in the room had no such compunctions when I exited it, and that enforcing outward obeisance merely resulted in me not knowing how people really felt about me. And while I found knives in the chest unpleasant, there were far preferable than knives in the back. Demanding obedience while cloaking it in “respect” simply encourages deception and hiding who one really is. It is when leaving behind old stereotypes and prejudices behind visibly improves one’s life that changes really begin to take hold.

Friday, August 7, 2015


As you might guess, I'll be passing on the sticker.
One of the things that I came to understand as an adult is that while politics had an effect on many aspects of my life, the actual identity of the person in the Oval Office rarely, if ever, made a direct, noticeable, difference. And so I learned to be more interested in who my Representatives and Senators were, and who was being elected into office at the state and local level.

But we live in a political environment where the Apocalypse is seemingly one wrong vote away. And as the two major parties become more and more polarized, they have made an open lack of respect for each other into a virtue as they see to energize and mobilize their base voters.

As you may have guessed, I'm no more thankful for the Obama presidency than I was for anyone else's, and I take exception to terming the 10 participants in yesterday's Republican primary debate "fools." Even though I couldn't see myself voting for more than one or two of them, if it came to that, I don't see them as being any more foolish than any other person who conducts a serious run for the White House, regardless of how little I agree with their policies.

In the end, the calculus is simple: Republican voters are Americans too, and I don't see how the nation fixes some of the issues that ail it if all the two parties have for one another is animosity and spite. Contrary to popular mythology, the United States has never been a unified populace. If we ever want it to be one, dialing back on things like this would be helpful. But that would take something of a truce - not between the Democrats and Republican parties/political establishments, but between their broader voting bases. Which seems unlikely. So I suspect that we'll simply see this sort of thing go on, at least for the immediate future.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Presto, Change-o

How do we really know that one species evolved into another?
"How do we know that evolution is really happening?"
One of the factors that drives skepticism about the process of evolution (outside of a religious conviction of humanity holding a special, divinely-ordained place in the Universe and/or that only a creator deity can be a source of ethics) is the idea that it entails one lifeform "turning into" another lifeform. This can conjure up an image of change that takes an entire population, and over time, transmogrifies them, in a coordinated fashion, into a population of entirely different lifeforms. And one of the things that can help drive that misconception is the way laypeople talk about evolution.

Now, I say this as a layperson myself - after all*, I'm a project manager, not an evolutionary biologist. And, as a layperson, I likely often make mistakes when talking or writing about Darwinian evolution. So I'm not making the case that everyone always has to get everything right. But I do think that it's somewhat important to avoid certain specific phrasings that provide fodder for critics and motivated skeptics. Sure, the process of evolution can, and inevitably will, given enough time, alter an entire species to a point where, if you could re-create an archaic example of that same species, interbreeding with the modern population would no longer be possible. (This process is termed "anagenesis.") This isn't say that the particular word choice should never be used - only that it's worth being careful with, so as not to engender confusion or needless controversy.

People taking the statements of the uninitiated as gospel, however, is something that I encounter all the time. Especially when those statements can be construed to fit in with preconceptions about the topic at hand.

* (Feel free to insert "Damnit, Jim!" here.)

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Oh, I've seen the videos, and I guess, to me, they are a sign of a sort of a gradual moral degradation that occurred. Whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, to talk in this way, suggests to me just a hardening of the heart that happens when you, I guess, deal with this on a daily basis and are not - don't remain morally sensitive to the issues involved.
David Brooks. "Week In Politics: 'Black Lives Matter,' Planned Parenthood" NPR.
My first job out of college was working with children who had been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. These were children who could tell you some stories. It's been some twenty years since I left that job, and I can still remember many of them. And one thing that surprises some people when I tell those stories is the dispassionate way in which I do it.

One of the things that I've noticed is that there appears to be an expectation that horror never simply shades into everyday experience. That the fiftieth terrible story of abuse of a child should be just as unsettling as the first. But this isn't how people operate - instead, we adapt. It's like anything else that becomes a constant in one's life - eventually, it all fades into the background noise. Or people just don't make it. When I worked with children, a lot of people just didn't make it. One washed out within four days. The average length of time that people stayed on the job was six months. I was there for four and a half years, and a number of my co-workers had been there that entire time. And that meant that we had witnessed a steady stream of young people (this isn't a line of work you go into in your thirties - or at any point after you're making real money) come in the door with high hopes and high ideals, and decide that they couldn't deal with it. The work demanded a heart harder than the norm, because otherwise, the emotion would overwhelm you.

But it made talking with other people about work difficult. "How can you be so cavalier?" people would ask. In my less thoughtful moods, I would reply: "How quaint. You think there is a choice." David Brooks may see a need to remain morally sensitive to the issues involved, but when it's something that you have to do day in and day out, that moral sensitivity isn't an advantage. And so, it fades, so that you can do the job better. Because, on the job, you have to talk to the other people who do the job. And they don't have time for beating around the bush or euphemism.

The Planned Parenthood "sting" videos play on this. Insiders (and supposed insiders) talking business, but in a way that comes across as insensitive to those not in the business. If they are a sign of moral degradation, then it's an occupational hazard.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Character, Pictured

Here is a picture that has been making the rounds on LinkedIn:

And I get it. Reputation, being simply other people's impressions of you, isn't as important as the real person that you are, or strive to be.

But whenever I see that picture, I'm reminded of this one:
Copyright Matthew Lee High.
George Johnson mistakenly earned a reputation as a horse thief with the people of Tombstone, Arizona. So they hanged him. Later, they learned that he'd purchased the horse, in good faith, from the actual thief. And so the poetic grave marker. I suspect that it brought the late Mister Johnson scant comfort.

So if it's all the same to you, I think that I will be just as concerned with my reputation as I am with my character. Because while it is true that it better to actually be a good person than simply to be thought one, it's better to be thought a good person than to be thought a bad one.