Thursday, December 29, 2016

Value Judgements

This is one of those things that strikes me as blindingly obvious. Which, to hear my father tell it, means that I'm the only person who sees it that way. Perhaps I'm simply bad at convincing other people to change their valuations of persons, places or things, and everyone else who's tried it was simply having an off day, but I've never seen someone be convinced to change how much they've valued something - or someone - simply because someone else told them to do so, regardless of how much vehemence went into the telling.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Up in Lights

Because if it's worth doing... it's worth overdoing. Although I will give them credit for how quickly they set this up and tear it down every year. Most of it is gone already.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Season

So it's Christmas Eve again, and I was out and around for part of the day, and, as one might expect, there was a lot of last-minute Christmas-gift shopping going on.

The Christmas season in the United States is derided every year, by a wide variety of people, for being overly commercial, crass, materialistic, et cetera. And those criticisms come from far and wide. One social media post showed people and shoving for flat-screen televisions, and commented about how people were better behaved in the United Kingdom. They were displeased with me when I pointed out that the photo they used was not taken in the United States, but was from a Black Friday sale in the United Kingdom last year.

And I won't leave myself out of this. I've been dubious about Black Friday, and other parts of the holiday season, not the least of which being the fact that it seems to begin the day after Halloween - when it doesn't start on the 5th of July.

But Christmas and birthdays are the two times of year during which most of us give gifts to the people in our lives. And Christmas is the prime time to travel to spend time with family and/or friends in places distant from our own homes. And so it takes on a meaning that it really can't contain and that it wasn't intended to have. And I'll admit that I'm bad about this myself. My parents became Jehova's Witnesses when I was an adult, and they, generally don't celebrate most common holidays. My father was livid the time I'd forgotten, and wished my mother a Happy Birthday. With the common days that I'd usually thought about buying or doing something for my parents being off-limits, my gifts to them dropped dramatically. And when I did think to buy a gift for them, it tended to sit around in my apartment until it seemed safe to send it - and I remembered to do so.

Christmas bears the weight of our need to do things for the people in our lives, and that, in part is what contributes to the atmosphere that it's taken on. Maybe if we spread that need out throughout the rest of the year, Christmas would seem less crazy.

Thursday, December 22, 2016



Today marks ten years since I started writing Nobody In Particular. It is not, I think, what I first intended it to be. My original goal was to create something of an insider's guide to my little portion of the United States, hence the "Just Another Random American" subtitle. But I don't know that I really understand the United States, the Pacific Northwest or suburban Seattle any more than the average person, and while I have a habit of overanalyzing things, society is not really one of them.

A few years into it, my now ex-girlfriend noted that Nobody In Particular is where I complain about the world. The world and I don't always get along well, and when I don't have someone nearby who is willing to listen to me rant about it, I'd sometimes write it out instead, and post it here. Which, I believe doesn't do anyone any good. So, for decade two, I think I'm going to try to take a different tack. Less "current events that annoy me" and more "things that have legitimately caught my interest."

The world in an interesting place, and I think that I should pay more attention to the parts of it that are right in front of my nose. So we'll try it, and see how it works.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Treading Water

One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away.
Drug firms poured 780M painkillers into WV amid rise of overdoses
While the article mainly goes after the major distributors of opioid painkillers as the culprits of West Virginia's overdose epidemic, I was hoping that they'd spare some word count for the pharmacies dispensing the drugs. Because it strikes me that unless that "mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana" was raking in sales like nobody's business, it's a pretty safe bet that they understood that they were selling addictive drugs to addicted people. And there's a story in that.

For all that I understand the appeal of weaving a narrative that lays the woes of a community at the feet of uncaring outsiders, I think that even more compelling (if not as comforting) are the stories behind why local people aid in those woes. Because for a small independent pharmacy to be handing out painkillers hand over fist, someone was likely confronted with a choice between complicity in the deaths of addicts desperate for a high and watching their business go under. And sure, it could have been a successful business "motivated by greed" (as often goes the mantra in such stories) but it seems a high-risk strategy just for another Lexus or a lakeside cabin.

It's a missed opportunity, because it shows us a side of poverty that we don't often see. While we are often shown stories of the desperate poor, the people who are working multiple jobs or just lost in their own sense of helplessness, the stories of those people who turn to doing things that are legal, yet damaging to the people and the community around them because it's the best option that they have available are thin in the ground. But I think that they're instructive, because they illustrate what people will do to hang on.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Born To Ride

I was pointed to an interesting article on Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, in which the author posited that Mr. Thompson was the first to predict the rise of "Trumpism," the "retaliatory, right-wing politics" that is credited with making Mr. Trump the President-elect. Mr. Thompson, the article claims, was the first of many writers to take note of the "'ethic of total retaliation' against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which [the motorcycle guys] felt they’d been counted out and left behind."

Articles like this, especially when they feed into (or clash against) people's understandings of the world around them, invite discussion, and so a lively (if occasionally bitter) discourse sprang up on social media. One commenter, viewing this as the inevitable result of what happens when a society built around competition condemns groups to be losers, noted:

I could help these people, but they slap my hand away. But would it be helping, or creating dependency?
When I read that, what occurred to me was: The dependency is already there.

Any number of people who are not completely self-sufficient are dependent in some way. And so, generally speaking, as you work your way down to the level of individuals, dependence grows. But this is a different model of dependency than we usually think of when we are talking about helping people. Typically what comes to mind is a short continuum, with "learned helplessness" on one side and "opportunistic free-riding" on the other. But there are broader ways of understanding dependency. One could say that most urban communities depend on rural farms, because they don't have, within their borders, the unused arable land that they would need to grow all of the crops that they eat in a year. You could say that the residents of a condominium development depend on the local fire department to come to the rescue in case of a home fire. What sets these apart from other understanding of dependency is their mutuality, and therefore, the lack of an assumption that one side is either unable to unwilling to care for itself. And so the dependency, rather than being a matter of simple survival, is more about reaching a certain standard of living. City dwellers and condo residents could manage, to some degree or another without nearby farms or a fire department, but the extra work and resources that they would have to put into filling the gaps would make them slightly less well-off than they are with them.

And I think that for all that we saw the "alienated, white, masculine working-class culture" of Hunter S. Thompson's time as self-sufficient, in fact, they depended on certain things, and perhaps their alienation is the result of losing some of the things that they depended on. Thompson is quoted in the article noting that: "Their lack of education rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy." Workers with a high-school education depend on a job market that values labor that doesn't require higher education. And as that job market started demanding higher and higher levels of education (as opposed, perhaps to skill) the bikers who depended on it for their livelihoods found themselves cast aside; not because they were helpless, but because they needed the job market they'd been accustomed to more than that job market now needed them. Their contributions were still necessary, just not in a great numbers as before, or great enough to sustain them.

When Hell's Angels was published in 1966, the American Civil Rights Movement was still ongoing. Martin Luther King, Junior was still alive and "An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes," otherwise known as the Voting Rights Act, was perhaps a year or so old; or maybe less. And so one might theorize that the racial disparities of the United States of the time was another thing that Thompson's Hell's Angels depended on, if not as openly. And this isn't to say that they'd intentionally hitched their wagons to Jim Crow; only that people often incorporate the advantages they have into their daily standards of living in such a way that when those advantages fade, their standards of living fade with them. The newfound competition from Black Americans need not have been catastrophic, or even particularly ubiquitous, to have noticeable effects.

Retaliatory politics are, I think, to be expected from any group that both exists within a culture driven by scarcity, and finds its access to those scarce resources threatened in favor of supplying them to someone else. They understand, even if unconsciously, their dependence and realize that the loss of their benefactors is a threat to them. But as they don't also see themselves as beggars, they feel aggrieved - that something that was rightfully theirs was being taken from them. In the end, the only way around this is to remove the specter of scarcity. But we are wedded to that, I think, and we'd rather deal with the retaliation of the losers than take the risks that attempts to free people from poverty entail.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Last Horizon

I had a friend over to the apartment yesterday, and we were, after a fashion, talking about philosophy. One of my goals in life is to achieve what we typically call "serenity" in the United States, after the prayer - the state of controlling those things that one can control and accepting everything else as it is. Although, in my case, I understand that I have little to no control over much of anything, and so that state is effectively one of universal acceptance of the world around me, on its own terms.I made the point that this all had started with a conversation with my mother some years ago. My mother always ends our phone calls with "I love you," and one day I decided to go down the rabbit hole of understanding just why she loved me. The conclusion I came to was that she chose to, and from there I concluded that love was a choice.

When I related this to my friend, he had a simple question for me: "Have you ever fallen in love?"

He then proceeded to tell me what it was like to fall in love. His description fit in with almost all of the other descriptions that I've encountered of it. What set it apart for me was that this was the first time that I'd heard falling in love described by someone whom I actually knew. All of the other descriptions I'd come across were strangers, people on television or authors, and their descriptions weren't directed at me; I was simply part of a larger audience. Which, now that I think about it, seems kind of strange. I suppose that it's a side effect of the fact that I don't normally talk to people about their relationships. When I was younger, I used to, but I was something of a amateur psychoanalyst in the years immediately after college, and I enjoyed talking to people about certain facets of their lives and the issues that they had with them. But as I became older, those details started to become more intimate, and discussing them felt intrusive. And I didn't really understand how to talk about them. My parents rarely talked about their relationship in front of me, and even less often to me; I didn't even know how my parents met until I heard my sister rehearsing my father's eulogy before his funeral.

And in that sense, the distant discussions of what it was like to fall in love lacked that immediate reality that listening to someone that I've known for years brought to the table. But it was still something that I had no first-hand experience of myself, and so it also seemed abstract in the way that all of the other had.

Part of our discussion that evening had been about the idea of event horizons. How having lived a particular experience placed you over an event horizon from people who hadn't, and how, because of that, it was impossible to ever truly communicate back to them what things were like on the other side. And I understood the concept - it's one of my favored analogies in life, but it's altogether something different to experience it in the moment.

Falling in love, as I understand it, removes the element of choice from the act of loving another human being, although I guess that one could say that falling in love with another person is a different animal than loving another person. Which is why it had come up in the first place. I've always had the ability to decide, rationally and willfully, whether or not I was going to love another person, and I understand that I make those choices, even if I don't really think about them in the moment. And I've based the project of my life on that understanding, as if it were reality. But it's not reality, at least not a universal reality. For some people love isn't always a choice, and they spend their lives looking for a love that will take the choice away from them.

As we talked about my friend's experience of having fallen in love, I understood the event horizon that I was on the outside of, and just how distant things on the other side were. I had built an entire philosophy of my life around the idea that his experience simply wasn't real, because I had never experienced it, and understood that I never would. All because I couldn't see past the world around me.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Set It Off

Prosecutors say [Dylann] Roof, a 22-year-old white man, targeted the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine black worshipers were killed in that attack last year. Roof's goal, prosecutors say, was to start a race war.
Robert Siegel "Testimony Concludes After Jury Hears Survivor In Dylann Roof Trial"
Just about every story about Dylann Roof makes mention of his reported goal of starting a "race war" in the United States. And what I've been wondering is: How would that work? Despite the very real differences between Americans (and, one could say, the Americas) of different colors and ethnicities, the sort of wide-spread, dedicated, sectarian violence that we've seen in various parts of the world is more or less non-existent here. And so one wonders, what, other than simply being delusional, convinced Dylann Roof that attacking a dozen people in a church would cause a a surge in ethnic violence that would rise to the level of open warfare between Black and White Americans.

For me, the simple answer is "nothing." That is to say, Dylann Roof was (and/or is) simply delusional, lost in some far-off alternate universe in which his reported plan had some chance of success. And to a degree, that fits for me, because I can simply drop the entire narrative in the bucket that Chris Rock so conveniently labelled: "Whatever Happened to Crazy?" But even that leaves some nagging questions. Because in the same way that I wonder why so many mentally ill people seem to think that they're Jesus Christ, I wonder what it is about the idea of "race war" that draws the mentally ill White supremacist to it. From the point of view of actually imagining it, it makes a certain amount of sense - Whites in America outnumber Blacks by at least four-to-one, and in most wars, those are pretty uneven odds. But I wonder what people like Dylann Roof see that I can't see that leaves them with the impression that a single act of violence that barely makes a dent in national crime statistics would trigger one. Do they see a seething Black hatred lurking just beneath the surface that only takes a single, carefully placed, pinprick to bring it erupting out into the open? Do they see a pent-up White anger that is simply waiting for someone to show them how best to vent it? For me both of these rationales seem reasonable, but they have the slight problem of, to steal a line from James Carville, being backed up by everything except evidence. There isn't a reading of modern American history that I can think of that makes either one of them seem like the likely result of any one individual act of violence.

For many people, I suppose, this entire exercise is a waste of time and energy. I could simply drop the whole thing into the bucket marked: "senseless," and leave it at that. But I understand that there are people to whom this does make sense. And that maybe, if we know, why, there's something to be done to increase the time to "next time."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


My mom used to tell me, you know - I can't use this phrase on the radio - but basically, "Don't be one of those dudes hanging on the corner." And I think the president adopted some of that same language, but took it into the White House. And I think, like, there's a crucial difference between being, you know, Joe Schmo in the neighborhood and being the head, you know, of the government that, you know, in many ways is largely responsible for those conditions in the first place.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'My President Was Black'" NPR.
Unfortunately, the radio interview with Mr. Coates wasn't long enough for an important question. "What's the difference?" What is the crucial difference between Mrs. Coates, Joe Schmoe in the neighborhood and President Obama that the first two can be critical of "some dude [...] outside drinking hanging on the corner" but the third must not? Even if we accept the idea that the United States government is largely responsible for that dude spending his days drinking out on the corner, why does that make it appropriate of the President to be as critical of it as anyone else might be? If seeing people daily lounging on street corners drinking are enough to engender "anger" and "shame" in others over their "irresponsible" behavior, why do we expect the President to be above such things? What do we think that we are going to gain from having the President remain silent? After all, President Obama isn't old enough, by any stretch of the imagination, to have been in government long enough that the genesis of the policies that lead to dissoluteness among those dudes hanging on the corner can be realistically laid at his feet. And he wasn't in office long enough that he could have realistically undone all of them.

Mr. Coates speaks of President Obama as an optimist in this interview, and I, for my part think that his criticisms of Black America are born from that optimism. As much as we may dislike language that we consider pathologizing or even patronizing, the President, I think, hopes that what we'll take from it is inspiration. To a certain degree, we all understand that the American understanding of meritocracy is a lie. Even if we accept that anyone could grow up to be the President of the United States, only one person can hold the office at a time, and no amount of "grit," hard work or determination is going to change that. And so, if there is more than one individual qualified to hold the office at any given point (and in a nation of 300 million people, there most certainly are), someone is always going to be locked out of that role, and their opportunity to show the rest of us what they could have done with it, by the fact that the first person there assumes sole ownership. But that's different than saying that we're all locked in the places where we find ourselves. Even if the policies of the government of the United States are what caused a dude to irresponsibly spend his days drinking on the corner, I think that President Obama believes that we, as a "community" and as individuals can do something about it or rise above it. And he's not alone in that.

The Black population of the United States is not a singular, unified community any more than any other group of millions of people spread across millions of square miles can be. And while we may all see the same things, the disunity that is a natural consequence of being such a large and diffuse group of people uis going to lead to different solutions. And we can agree or disagree with each others solutions. But I don't know that it's useful to police who can voice which ones.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Heavy Lifting

I was reading a discussion of "emotional labor" online, and it wasn't quite clear to be what people were referring to, so I decided to look it up. And the World Wide Web basically gave me two definitions.

Emotional Labor
1. the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors.
2. the feminist idea that women – and other people that society labels “feminine” – are socialized to provide a vast array of emotional services for other people (usually men), most often without acknowledgement or pay.
Interestingly, both of these definitions originate with the same person, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. Just as interestingly, the second definition actually belongs (more or less) to another term that she coined, "Emotion work."
Examples of emotion work include showing affection, apologizing after an argument, bringing up problems that need to be addressed in an intimate relationship or any kind of interpersonal relationship, and making sure the household runs smoothly.
The language nerd in me finds this utterly fascinating. These concepts, coined by the same person, are merging into the same term, but they're used by different groups. In business literature, such as the Harvard Business Review or Pacific Standard the mentions I found were more in the context of definition 1. Whereas other outlets, like The Huffington Post or Everyday Feminism concerned themselves with the second usage.

You could make the point that since Professor Hochschild had defined emotion work, to use that as a definition of emotional labor is technically incorrect, but I'm not sure that anyone cares, and so I'm going to leave it aside. What interests me is how the two concepts came to share the same label. My own personal theory is that "emotional labor" is simply a more compelling term than "emotion work," and one that fits into the idea that much of what people (women, especially) do in their private lives should be thought of as just as demanding (and just as worthy of remuneration) as what they do in their professional lives. Or perhaps, that we consider "labor" to be more serious and/or more strenuous than mere work, and so describing it as such does a better job of describing the toll that we understand that it takes on people. Of course, part of it could simply be that many reporters don't really understand the difference - and so the general synonymity of "labor" and "work" has a lot to do with it.

Of the four articles that I browsed through in seeking to understand the different usages, only the Pacific Standard piece had significant overlap, noting a study that it said showed that women did more "emotional labor" in their relationships. But the title of that study is: “Women’s Work? Women Partners of Transgender Men Doing Housework and Emotion Work.” In short, here was a journalist who included a study on emotion work in an article on emotional labor, apparently unaware of the distinction, even while crediting Professor Hochschild.

When I worked with children, there were significant components of both emotional labor and emotion work to the job. Certain emotions were off-limits once you walked in the door, and in that sense, one could say that Professor Hochschild's original definition of "emotional labor" is simply a shorter way of saying "leave your personal feelings at home." No matter what happened, you had to be a certain, limited, version of yourself in front of the children, and if you couldn't maintain that, you simply weren't going to make it. No matter what was going on in your personal life, you had to be a stable and welcoming person for the youth in your care. And by the same token, we were expected to emotional role models for children that we generally understood lacked the same in the lives before they'd come to the treatment center, and so there was emotion work involved. Showing affection for the kids, taking the first steps to deescalate tensions, and well, making sure that the place ran smoothly; these were the jobs of all the staff, male or female. Sure, as a guy, I was often saddled with the job of being the disciplinarian, but I also had to be the person that the children could talk to about it afterwards, no matter what had happened beforehand. As the adults, we had to place them first. And unlike in adult relationships, you couldn't complain to them about a failure to pull their weight.

Back in my twenties, these didn't strike me as different activities - although Professor Hochschild has already done a lot of her work back then. Perhaps if I'd focused more on Sociology rather than Psychology, or just decided to go for the minor, I'd have been introduced to her work, and been able to see the difference. But, at the time, it was simply part of the day-to-day of my job. In the end, I think that it was better for me that I didn't understand the science behind it all, after all, it was leaving social services that pushed me into technology, and the money is much better here. And I think that if I'd been better about compartmentalizing things, I'd have lasted longer than I did. But that doesn't mean that I'm done with the emotional fakery. Sure, I can grouse a bit about the job, but genuine candor simply isn't happening anytime soon.

Being single, I don't have to be concerned with my ability to do most emotion work at home. Sure, I have to make sure that my household keeps running; given that I'm the only person in it, no one else is going to make sure of it. And I don't have anyone to show affection to or initiate making up with after a fight. So I won't presume to try and critique myself on it from the relatively short time when I was in relationships - I honestly wouldn't begin to know how to judge.

One of the things about both terms, is that they make both concepts seem like more effort than I recall them being, back when I actively had to do them on a day-to-day basis. Of course, the feminist critique of that might simply be that I'm a man, and even when my job demanded a certain level of emotional labor and emotion work, I simply slacked off at it. And that could be true - again, I wouldn't know how to judge. But I think that even when you're consciously doing things as part of your professional life, you can subsume them into the broader category of that professional life, and so they don't loom as large. I didn't really realize the amount of work I had put into not swearing until I was done working with children and didn't have to watch my language for every minute of 40+ hours a week. By the same token, I often don't realize how much I suppress my irritation with things that happen at work, until something similar happens away from work, and I notice how much it rankles me.

In the end, I think that it's unfortunate that "emotional labor" has been drafted into doing double-duty. The distinction between emotional labor and emotion work is a useful one that's likely to eventually be mostly lost. But it's like any number of discussions worth having. We put them aside, and we never get back to them, and the conversation fades away.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


"Fake News" has gone from "often-false click-bait stories presented as if if they were legitimate news stories by parties looking to drive advertising revenue" to including "things that are presented by established media outlets, but that contradict my view of the world," in a very short time. But maybe that's because that second understanding had already been well established, and all that the fake news stories if this past election cycle have done is give people an easily-remembered name for the phenomenon.

And I understand the overall distrust of "the Media." I remember when, in the 1980s, there was a big to-do over the fact that an Aldi grocery warehouse was found to have mice in it. I, as it so happened, lived across town from said warehouse, and I, like everyone else in the area, knew perfectly well why there were mice in the warehouse - field mice are afraid of bulldozers, and when construction of a new building ramps up, they seek shelter in existing buildings. We'd wound up with field mice in our garage every time they put up a new house near ours. Of course, this was not the angle that the TV stations took on the story. Even though they never actually came out and said that the mice were the result of sloppy or unsanitary conditions, the implication was there. Given this, I understand people who don't trust "the (Mainstream) Media" as far as they could throw a satellite truck. Once you understand that news outlets are willing to leave out important information in the interest of making a story seem more immediate, it's not a huge step to presume that they're willing to make up information for that same reason - or for more sinister ones.

In my experience, people in the United States have a tendency to take things personally, even broader events. I was listening to former King County Executive and Deputy Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna talking about the recent presidential election. Mr. Sims noted that that "resource counties" here in Washington State were hurting due to lose of jobs in the industries that once sustained them, and Mr. McKenna noted that for people in these communities, the opposition to new industries that would bring jobs (such as coal export terminals or natural gas terminals) by environmentally-conscious urban and suburban dwellers is definitely seen, at least in part, as personal - people from elsewhere are deliberately attempting to harm their communities. And so when these same people see in the news media stories about the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change, they interpret that as the urban media siding with urban dwellers against them. And that erodes their trust in what they see and hear.

Of course, this is all kind of moving away from the point. What it comes down to is that many established media outlets are not seen as neutral and honest brokers of information. Whether people view them as beholden to the interests of large urban media markets, "billionaires"/corporate profitability or just to the businesses that want to sell advertising to their audiences, there is a widespread suspicion that the media is not in the business of informing us about the world, but of shaping our understanding of it for the benefit of a third party that doesn't have our interests at heart.

And the recent surge of interest in fake news plays into that. Much of what I've heard about fake news during the election season positioned it as a form of negative campaign advertising that's outside the reach of campaign speech regulations; something that's designed to suppress voter turnout by raising Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about a candidate, with the added bonus of being untraceable to anyone who has an interest in the outcome. And that understanding of fake news as public manipulation via dissemination of misinformation is what is leading to a broadening of the term. The story I talked about before, with the mice in the Aldi warehouse: fake news? Although there were no obvious falsehoods in the story as I remember it, there was a clear push to make the story seem newsworthy by implication of something that was likely not the case. That seems like manipulation of the public to me.

I understand the impulse to view leveling of charges of fake news against journalistic professionals to be a cynical ploy to draw attention away from hoaxers of the sort who convinced people that Hillary Clinton was somehow running a child sexual abuse ring from a Washington D.C. pizzeria. When falsehoods lead to armed vigilantism, I can understand the cause for alarm. But the simple fact that someone is a professional journalist doesn't mean that they're incapable of believing that news coverage should further an end other than giving people a simple recitation of the facts. Any number of people accept advocacy as a valid purpose of journalism, and many people understand that the purpose of advocacy is to spur people to right action, and that this is more important that right knowledge. And it's worth pointing out that people don't always see this as a bad thing. Advocacy organizations are consistently being called out for playing fast and loose with the facts, and many people are perfectly okay with this, seeing it as a necessary evil in the name of making the world a better place.

But seeing MSNBC, the Atlantic or the Economist as willing to purvey fake news is not going to make "fake news," as a descriptive term, meaningless. Sure, it blurs the line between some guy running a one-person operation that milks partisan echo-chambers for cash and Rolling Stone dropping the ball on a campus rape story, but I'm not certain that the distinction being protected in that case is a worthwhile one. For those people who understand "fake news" to mean any story, presented as genuinely newsworthy, but is actually intended to mislead it audience into supporting an agenda designed to advance illegitimate interests or damage legitimate ones, the issue is never going to be who puts out the information, or how sketchy their website might be. It's going to be whether or not "lies" are being spread to injure someone. For the people in Ferndale, Washington, who were placing their hopes on a coal export terminal to ship fossil fuels to Asia, the idea that scientists are united in the understanding that burning coal is damaging to the environment isn't a neutral fact. It's a tool that Seattle hipsters use to justify opposition to a project that would have meant "good jobs" for their community. And whatever the reality of the coal terminal would have been, the grass is always greener on the counterfactual side of the fence, because you can paint it whatever color you want. So jobs that never materialize can work wonders. And so when a scientist who's a skeptic (or open denier) of the link between human activity and climate shows up, the (overstated) unanimity of scientific thought becomes more than journalistic simplification. It becomes a deliberate falsehood, perpetrated in the name of picking winners and losers. And given that there is no system of dividing scarce but necessary resources such that those whose needs will go unmet will all concede that they are receiving no less than they deserve, people who feel that they have been selected to lose will always find reason to doubt the stated reasons for their selection.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Apples to Dollars

I think the reality is, if you look at a large number of jobs being done by people who come across illegally, they're doing jobs no one else wants to do. I guess you could pay, you know, 15 or 20 dollars an hour. But then an apple would cost, you know, $16. And that's not going to work economically.
Michael Chertoff
Now, for the record, I don't think that the former Secretary of Homeland Security really believes that apples would literally cost $16 a piece (even at Whole Foods) if growers paid high enough wages to entice American laborers to take the work. It's unlikely that the current migrant labor force that works to harvet fruit is paid less than a dollar an hour, which is what it would take to have apple prices be where they are (between about 35¢ and $1.30 each as of this afternoon in the Seattle area, depending on size and type). But the logic here is telling, because Mr. Chertoff is essentially asserting that we need to have a robust guest worker program to undercut the demands of the labor market.

Generally speaking, Mr. Chertoff, and others, are correct when they say that no one else wants to do these jobs (at the wages currently offered), although I've met Americans who once worked in the apple orchards of Eastern Washington. (Granted, when I met them they were panhandling after becoming too sick or injured to keep doing the work, but that's beside the point.) Even most of the migrant workers who do the jobs don't want their children doing them - that's why they send them to school to be educated, and support initiatives to grant in-state tuition to college students in the country illegally. Nobody puts the time, energy and money into a college degree to be a fruit-picker. Migrant laborers might consider picking apples in the Yakima Valley as a step up from doing the same work in Mexico, but it's not something that they aspire to; it's a step to a better life for their children.

When President-elect Donald Trump promised to build a "great" wall to cut off access to the United States from Mexico, and to prevent businesses from offshoring jobs to other nations, that resonated with people because of their impression that the point behind moving jobs was to create more profits for "business fat cats." Whether they understand it or not, they are directly contradicting Mr. Chertoff's understanding that they themselves are, in a way, part of the beneficiaries of the movement of jobs, because it lowers consumer prices. You could make the point that businesses would eat some of the higher cost of domestic labor out of their ill-gotten gains, and that the only effect would be a slowing in the rate at which they became wealthier, but that strikes me as a rosier view than is warranted.

But even given that, what would the effect of paying 15 to 20 dollars an hour for agricultural labor be? Back in 2013, people floated the idea that adding about 15 to 30% (depending on how you did the numbers), to McDonald's menu prices would allow the company to double salaries. Now I don't know what apple pickers make these days, but I'm going to randomly guess that to get them to Chertoff's guess at to what it would take to entice Americans to take the work would be a doubling of the cost, so that the apples that I looked at in the store today would run you from about 70¢ to $2.60 a piece. Still fairly pricey by today's standards, but a far cry from $16. Of course, the impacts don't stop there - those McDonald's prices are likely going to have to go up, as there will likely be at least some people who would rather pick apples for an average of $17.50 an hour than work for the 10 to 13 dollars an hour that fast food places around here tend to offer. And so the knock-on effects will begin, and they'll be somewhat unpredictable - at least to me, since I'm not a labor economist. But I'm guessing that some prices will go up, some wages will go up, and some jobs will simply be eliminated by automation. Over the past few months, the cafeteria where I work went cashless, and the people who once handled checkout all went away. It's likely that other jobs would follow suit if labor prices rose, leaving us with a trade-off; although it's likely only a matter of time in any event.

So in the end, the question becomes, what makes the economy work? Michael Chertoff says that we can secure the border, but we'll still have to find a way to legally import enough poverty to keep consumer prices from rising too quickly or too high. The localized waves of conservative populism that elected Donald Trump to the White House seem to believe that we can avoid importing poverty (and thus avoid the need to compete with it) by extracting profits from the wealthy. Looking at Mr. Trump's choices for cabinet positions, one might guess that he's aiming for a lighter regulatory and tax load, and counting on free-market competition, the Laffer curve and trickle-down economics to flow income down to the working classes. For my part I have no idea which (if any) of these will work. But for anything to work, we'll need a better idea of the factors involve than has sometimes been on offer.


I was listening to the radio and a moderately conservative university professor was being interviewed about his thoughts on modern campus culture. And he was making the point that many of the taboos of the political left about topics such as race and gender and the like, run the risk of stifling liberalism, where liberalism is taken to be a degree of freedom to do as one pleases, even when those actions result in minor hurts or offense to others.

Generally speaking, for many Americans who understand themselves to be conservatives, the desire to strictly observe social taboo is born from the "oversensitivity" of those who are hurt or offended by "free speech." I first became acquainted with the concept in high school - I had classmates who would label me as "oversensitive" for being put out when addressed as "nigger." For some time, I took that as adding insult to insult, but as I grew older, I came to understand that it wasn't the word I was responding to, but a very broad context around that word, which didn't often make sense in the contexts in which I encountered it. And, accordingly, I became less sensitive to it. I never really regarded by younger self as "oversensitive," however. After all, the whole reason why certain of my classmates called me "nigger" to my face was to get a rise out of me, and they tended to escalate if I didn't take the bait. But as I started to cultivate a different understanding of the world around me, I didn't need to see the term as quite so taboo, and so I let it fade.

What I am starting to find interesting is that American conservatism is not about the abolishment of taboos. They simply have their own taboos that they want to have respected - items that were once commonly punished but don't carry the same force that they used to.

President-elect Donald Trump claimed that he and Vice-president-elect Mike Pence brokered a deal (a payoff, really) to convince the Carrier company to retain 1,000 jobs in Indiana that had been slated to move to Mexico. Chuck Jones, president of an Indians Steelworkers local, accused Mr. Trump of lying, saying that the number of jobs retained was in the area of 730. Not long afterwards, Mr. Jones began receiving veiled threats - people hinting that they might do something to his car or to his children.

The American Right defends their taboos just as adamantly as the American Left does - they may use different tactics, but I suspect that the underlying thoughts are the same: Words have meaning, and words can be weapons (or otherwise do damage). Something as simple as criticizing President-elect Trump doesn't strike me as grounds for attempting to intimidate people. After all, Mr. Trump is a politician, and the most accurate way to tell if a politician is lying to you is to check to see if their lips are moving. Mr. Trump inflating the number of jobs he's "saved" should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who has any understanding of the political system.

"Oversensitivity" is going to be one of those Pot, Kettle, Black accusations that is marshaled whenever convenient and defended against by defining it in such a way that it only applies to people one doesn't like. Which is unfortunate, because if overly strict enforcement of meaningless taboos is a problem, only seeing the ones that one's opposition favors is not a solution.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Faked Out

What speaks to me about this tweet is how it takes the way we often describe the acts of people we consider to be between ignorant and completely insane and applies that to us as a nation. Sure, the "rifle-toting Americans" are the Army and Marines, but just as Edgar Welch is part of a larger community that suspects that Mrs. Clinton was up to no good to the point that running a child sex slavery ring out of a pizzeria made sense to them, the Armed Forces of the United States are also part of a larger community that had bought into the idea that President Hussein of Iraq was cleverly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that he'd managed to hid from feckless United Nations inspectors. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect, but it is useful in any event.

Because in hindsight, I think that to people of the region, the United States does come across as something between ignorant and completely insane. It's been a decade and a half since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and far from standing up stable (let alone Western-style democratic) governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've managed to leave both nations in shambles, even as we spend trillions of dollars that many people concede could have been better spent - even if the reality is that we likely simply wouldn't have spent the money at all.

"Fake news" as the term is commonly bandied about today, operates on a very simple model - it tells an audience that their subjective perception of the world around them is accurate - and it uses that to sell them on the "facts" that it presents, rather than presenting genuine facts, and allowing perceptions of the world to flow from that. It's convincing because that's often how we judge the world. And for all that we tend to label that "closed mindedness," it makes sense. Otherwise, we would have to independently judge the veracity of every statement someone told us. Sure, Seattle winters are rarely as cold and snowy at other areas of the country that are as far North, but were you tell someone that it would be 80 degrees on Christmas day, most people who'd lived here any length of time would suspect a falsehood. By the same token a confident prediction that it would be dreary, gray, drizzly and 45 degrees would likely be taken at face value. The assumption would be that you picked it up from the Weather Service, or a meteorologist, because it makes perfect sense. Likewise, tell Seattle's famously (or infamously) liberal population that the disruption of a Bernie Sanders rally in the city had been perpetrated by Republican plants or the Hillary Clinton campaign, and you'd have some takers.

We're not immune to being deceived by people who tell us things that we want to be true, because they prove our perceptiveness and sensitivity, either as individuals, as political factions or as a nation. And the idea of weapons of mass destruction backed up what some of us wanted to believe - namely that the ideology that lead to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was widespread enough that nation-states were conspiring against us. Not because it made geopolitical or geoeconomic sense for them, but because we were Doing It Right, and that was unacceptable to them. To buy into the idea that "they hate our freedoms" one has to buy into the idea that our freedoms are both enviable and, to some, unobtainable. The idea that the Hussein administration wanted to use nuclear, biological or chemical weapons against us for refusing to surrender our exceptional qualities bolstered what people wanted to think they knew - that "here" was better than "there."

And when the weapons of mass destruction turned out not to be there, we didn't reexamine our assumptions, because in the end, we didn't have to. We simply decided that a war-mongering government snookered us all, and that was the end of it. People outside of the United States may have considered our culpability as a society, but we, generally speaking, did not.

The tweet at the top of this post judges us in the way we judge others, and I think that it realizes that it won't do any good in the end. Still, I appreciate the gesture. It never hurts to have someone hold up a mirror for you from time to time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Despite the hit to credibility that polling has taken in the past couple of months, the art form survives and pollsters are still phoning people and asking them random questions. One such enterprise is the Allstate|Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll XXVII (the Roman numerals add a touch of gravitas, I suppose) which was last run on the 16th of November.

The Atlantic has posted an article on the poll, and this stood out for me: "Likewise, the share of adults who say [Donald Trump] will govern in a way 'that reflects bias against certain groups in society' is nearly as large as the percentage that says he 'will try to govern as the president of all Americans,' the poll found." What piqued my attention was the fact that one said "will" and the other said "will try." It struck me as an odd way to parse things, so I looked up the survey itself, and tracked down the question.

26. As you look forward to the next four years, which statement best reflects your view?

President-elect Government Style
Donald Trump will try to govern as the President of all Americans.
Donald Trump will govern in a way that reflects bias against certain groups in society.
There was a part of me that immediately wisecracked, "Do or do not - there is no try," but the difference in choices here is an interesting one. For starters, the two answers are not mutually exclusive - you could easily imagine someone believing that President-Elect Trump will try, and fail to govern as a President for all Americans and end up governing in a way that reflects biases against certain demographics.

Personally, I suspect that President-elect Trump won't turn out to be a President for all Americans, whether he wishes to or not (which is debatable), mainly because the people who voted for him likely don't sincerely want that outcome. America politics has become both tribal and moralistic, and the intersection of those two is often vindictiveness. Generally, what is required for an administration to server all Americans equally is its supporters being willing to hold it accountable for doing so, even if it means leaving some of the spoils of war on the table to shared with the vanquished. The past Bush and Obama administrations, however, haven't exactly seen the party in power being expected to share and share alike. And its unlikely that people who supported a Trump administration will be any less invested in seeing the other side get theirs.

And this may be part of the driving force behind posing the question in a way that gives President-elect Trump points for trying, but doesn't necessarily expect him to succeed. Trump supporters were willing to make excuses for him during the campaign, even when they were the ones on the receiving end of what one might term "bias against certain groups in society," on part of candidate Trump, his staff and his supporters, and it's unlikely they they'll be willing to raise their expectations of him once he's actually in office. By the same token, it's unlikely that many people who didn't support him will expect him to make a genuine effort, let alone manage to be even-handed. While Presidents Bush and Obama were often considered to be openly partisan, neither of them showed the sort of willingness to directly go after people who challenged them in the way that Trump has with Boeing, to name an example.

A house that's willfully divided against itself cannot be forcibly unified, and as Democrats and Republicans have come, more and more, to view the other side as intentionally un-American to the point of being evil, unity of purpose has become less and less plausible. Only serious external threats have shown any ability to quell the bickering between the sides, and while a Trump administration may find it worthwhile to pick a fight with someone that ends in a shooting war, it's unlikely that his political opponents will view that as a reason to set aside their differences with him and rally around the flag.

In the end, Trump is, regardless of his intent or the effort that he puts into it, going to be a President for everyone. There simple doesn't seem to be enough support for it at this point. And I would be unsurprised to find the both sides are already pointing the finger for the failure. Sometimes, low expectations are the result of simply not thinking someone capable. But sometimes, they're simply the natural result of understanding the world on lives in.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Witness this sadistic, mean lady who acts embarrassed and horrified and withholds her affection when her fella yells that he loves her, but declares her love when he gives her stuff. She is not to be trusted.
The Car-Sized Bow And Other Gift-Giving Lies Pop Culture Told Me
I've always wondered about this aspect of commercials - and how basically shows people at their worst. I remember seeing the particular spot referenced by Ms. Holmes back in the day, and thinking that the woman was shallow, and the man was a complete idiot. Either that, or she was the best lay on three continents. Most jewelry commercials on television seem to follow this basic model - that a woman's affections are primarily correlated to the perceived amount of money her partner spends on adorning her. It's hard to see who this serves - with the possible exception of women whose affections are primarily correlated to the perceived amount of money her partner spends on adorning her - assuming of course, that such actually exist.

But with another Christmas season upon us, I've been thinking about how we've come to equate the value of gifts with the degree of someone's love. Although "It's the thought that counts," is a popular saying, we tend to reserve it as a cover for disappointment, or the sorts of odd items that one receives from children who have been pushed to show off their facility with handicrafts. As the sort of person who dearly loves to give gifts to people, I often find myself wondering if I'm attempting to buy the positive feelings of others or to act on my own. (One way that I've gotten around this is to give people gifts anonymously, when I can get away with it.) In the end, I tend to be poor at giving gifts because I'm not close enough to the people I give gifts to that I have a intuitive understanding of what the best gifts (things that they want, but wouldn't buy for themselves) are. And so for me, gifts always come with a certain amount of guilt, because I always end up feeling that I should have given more of my time, and less material, to the person in question.

I've never met anyone who behaves in the way that people on television often do, and so I often chalk up odd behaviors, like that shown in television jewelry commercials, to artistic license. I also tend to see them as mostly harmless. After all, given that I never seem to meet anyone who actually behaves that way, clearly the commercials aren't all that influential. I suspect that Ms. Holmes and I aren't the only ones who look at television and find ourselves wondering, "Who does that?"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Known or Should Have Known

Back in the day, I came across an article on Slate, entitled "Rescuing Fly." It's the story of a dog rescue. And early in the story, we learn the following:
Evidently, the farmer didn't realize that border collies aren't born knowing how to herd; it requires long, painstaking training before they'll go whizzing around on command. Pressed for time and money, farmers have little patience for creatures that have to be fed but can't be sold. But having paid $200 for Fly, the farmer figured he could at least use her as a watchdog. So, day and night, rain or shine, heat or cold, the dog lived out her life attached to a tree, barking and circling some of the time, lying down and staring at the road the rest.

The neighbor, disturbed by the sight, had actually called the police. But tethering was not illegal, the cops said. She was fed; she wasn't beaten; there was no crime.
The solution: Wait for the farmer to leave, then steal the dog, and place her up for adoption. The farmer may have had his name added to "a secret Yahoo list that collects the names of dog abusers, so that rescue groups can avoid them as potential adopters." He was placed under surveillance, of a sort; people checked to see if he'd reported the dog missing, and when he hadn't, it was assumed that: "He seemed fine with the idea that she was gone, and he would never hear another word about her."

These actions were justified, because even though the author assumed that the farmer was simply ignorant about dogs, he was a "dog abuser" who didn't deserve to own an animal. People who, according to the article were willing to spend thousands of their own dollars to help dogs couldn't be bothered to spend $200 to buy the animal from the farmer; or even knock on his door to tell him how to better treat his animal, or offer to trade for a dog that better met his needs. His culpability was determined in absentia and animal rescuers swung into action, so that Mr. Katz could have a new dog.

Now, even though I first read (and essayed about) "Rescuing Fly" back in 2005, this tendency, to presume that people who do things that we find to be unacceptable are being willful about it, persists. I came across a blog posting today about a tabletop gaming project that didn't include any women in its list of writers. The author of the blog post noted that the person in charge of recruiting didn't make diversity a priority, that they didn't speak to enough women authors; that in the end, they weren't making the effort. But he doesn't suggest any names of people he world have added, he doesn't post the link to the company's calls for contributors. He simply determines the company's culpability and starts to criticize.

There is an assumption that I feel people make at times, and it works something like this: For a given situation, the "right thing" to do is not only self-evident, but it is utterly foolproof, to the degree that an unacceptable outcome is defacto proof of lack of appropriate effort. It's a sort of begging the question that presumes that the crime is the motive. And for all that I understand that, I think that we should be less willing to ditch the presumption of good intent.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Geek Lust

Now that geekery has become mainstream, geeks, no longer united by the disdain of society in general, have separated themselves into a bewildering array of different camps, some of which now seem to derive as much enjoyment from antagonizing each other as they do from their chosen hobbies. One particularly vocal subset of geekdom has devoted itself to crusading against the depictions of women in speculative fiction (including interactive fiction, such as games and the like; and simply artwork). And one of the new targets has become "boob armor." While a precise definition of boob armor is more or less non-existent, in general it refers to any personal body armor, worn by women, which is specifically shaped around a woman's breasts individually; although some usages appear to also take issue with more or less any armor that is shaped around the bust. While for some commentators, armor that appears to place more of an emphasis on sex appeal than protection is the target, for others, the whole concept is offensive, and needs to be stamped out.

Have fun storming the castle, gang!

Not that I think that the common use of women in speculative fiction as sex objects is at all helpful. Don't get me started on the shopworn trope, typified by Red Sonja, of "the Sexy Swordmaiden;" I'm trying to avoid going off on rants. But I think that seeking to eliminate particular depictions of women in specific media are unproductive, because that's not where the issue lies.

Boob armor is a symptom of 1) a marketing strategy that uses depictions of unlikely (although perhaps delusional is a better word) versions of the female form to draw in an overwhelmingly male demographic by appealing to a desirable (and of course, out of reach) fantasy life; and 2) the idea that most, if not all, of a woman's appeal resides in two glands (and perhaps some underlying fat) that rest on the wall of her chest. After all, we are talking about the "Tits" in "Tits and Ass." It's no coincidence that no matter how otherwise naked you depict a woman, certain parts of those two areas must be, ahem, "left to the imagination," unless you want it rated NC-17.

1) Is easily dealt with. It simply takes better material on the market. Generally speaking only pornography relies exclusively on sexuality as a marketing tool. More mainstream games, books, art, movies and other media typically are selling something else. They haul out the sex when they're either doing it poorly, or aren't sure that they can break through the clutter to make a big enough splash. If we presume, for the moment, that an original video game with decent gameplay and an engaging storyline doesn't need to fall back on T&A to the same degree as a lower-grade game, if at all, then the easiest was to push most of the openly exploitative stuff out of the market is to create more original, user-friendly and engaging video games. Will it keep people desperate to break into the industry from trying to drum up sales with naked sexuality? I suspect, after a while, that it will. After all, buggy whips are difficult to come by these days.

2) Is more pernicious, as it is a broader social issue. The sexualization and objectification of women in geek culture is a symptom the sexualization and objectification of women in the broader culture. I understand the idea of wanting geeks to be ahead of the curve on this one, as they often are in technology, but I don't know that the society as a whole is taking its cues from geek culture

"Sex sells," we hear over and over again. Which is true. Sex, however, isn't the only thing that sells. But if you're otherwise peddling crap, it doesn't hurt to have it as a fallback position. And to me, that's a side effect of the vaguely puritanical society that we live in. I can create a television show aimed at second-graders and load it up with all sorts of "fantasy violence," but I have to avoid open sexuality. Of course the issue isn't simply limited to children's programming because our attitudes around sexuality isn't limited simply to children. While it's often said that men are "programmed" to want sex, it's just as easy to say that men are expected, if not socially obligated, to want sex. I still remember discussions with peers where I found myself needing to defend a disinterest in someone I was "supposed" to want to go to bed with. Couple this with a standard of feminine beauty that seems to rely almost entirely on a combination of unlikely genetics, photomanipulation and outright delusion, and you have a recipe for dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality. And we haven't even started on the infamous stereotype of the geek's discomfort around women.

In the end, geeky discussions of the portrayals of women in speculative fiction are going to have to be folded into the mainstream discussion of the roles of women in media and the purposes of various media forms, given that this isn't a geek thing. It's unlikely that geekdom will ever shed its reputation for sexism. But it may be able to compartmentalize it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Feel Checking

Here's a question that's been raised by the recent Presidential election: Can an incorrect statement of fact be a correct statement of emotion?

A lot of people have been talking, and writing, about President-elect Donald Trump and his penchant for untruths as well as the torrent of "fake news" stories that popped up during the election cycle. And this has lead to quite a bit of discussion of how to inoculate the public against potential lies, to prevent people from being taken in by attempts to sway them with deceit. But I'm not sure that this is the right approach.

To the extent we were making a mistake, it was one of strategic misassumption, as opposed to tactical failure: This fight had nothing to do with science. It was being fought out on an entirely different frequency. That frequency was the one that transmits emotion, blame, anger, ratings, and money, not “the facts” that had been so carefully packaged in press kits.
Eric Dezenhall - Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal
I kept a journal in my twenties, and when I go back and read through it, I find a number of statements that were, by any measure, factually inaccurate, but were spot on to my emotional state at the time, and if someone had parroted them back at me, they would have met with my enthusiastic agreement despite the ample physical evidence of their falsity. I think that such things are common for young people, because in our youth, many of us have yet to develop a broad enough understanding of the reality of the world around us. I'm going to quote something I read from the internet, without attribution this time, because this isn't about drawing attention to the person, but to make a point about the statement.
[N]o one has invested in incorporating me into their life, in distributing their care, in any meaningful way such that my absence will create a gulf.
This is, in reality, an incredibly difficult thing to know with any certainty. And for most people, it's absolutely untrue. But many people go through that feeling of being alone, and for them, it's so present in their lives that it's impossible to convince them of its inaccuracy. I've been there, and I've tried - and failed. Fortunately, things didn't end in tragedy, but it's the basic dilemma of Push-me-pull-you. The game can never end with the puller overpowering the pusher. It can only end with the pusher agreeing that the puller is sincere. And when you can't be in another's mind, your own mind fills in the blanks in a way that creates a coherent worldview, regardless of the contradictions that it leaves.

When we focus on the specific words, it's often possible to find obvious disconnects from reality as we understand it to be. So it's easy to find the flaws in a story about how Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, or a claim that President Obama was going to find a way to extend his time in office.
But if you look at the emotional content behind them; the belief that a Trump administration would be good for the poor, and the belief that President Obama was interested in the personal power to undermine American capitalism, then they make more sense. And that also become the explanation for why they were so hard to debunk, because the affirmed a worldview that people wanted to have faith in, and one that they were deeply emotionally invested in. And while facts a subject to checking, feelings aren't.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Errors and Consequences

Despite the fact that there are many people, on any side of any given dispute, who are all in favor of "live and let live," the fact of the matter is that there will always be those who are quite vocal in their understanding that "incorrect" beliefs have consequences. This understanding, regardless of its accuracy or even reasonableness, is what so often drives so many discussions (online and in the real world) off the rails.

The problem, as in many other situations, is easier identified than fixed. When we fear the repercussions of the incorrect beliefs of others, we seek to ensure that they believe the correct things - and that those who would convince them again of incorrect things are silenced.

Religion is, despite what some people would tell you, a matter of faith. And having been raised Roman Catholic, I had always understood the quick and dirty definition of faith to be the belief in things unseen - or, to be somewhat more accurate about it, unprovable. Of course, "unprovable" is a nebulous term - what I find myself unable to prove might be very easy to verify for someone else.

For the most part, what any given person has faith in is of little interest to others. I have a certain amount of faith, for example, that Pluto is actually out there, cruising along in its distant orbital path. I'm pretty sure that no-one cares about this one way or the other.

Other times, however, people perceive consequences in the beliefs of others, and that's when things become dicey. A few years ago Bill Nye (the Science Guy) took creationists to task for teaching their belief that the world and its inhabitants are the results of specific acts of divine creation. Not so much, he says, out of the idea that such belief is never appropriate, but that teaching it to children helps close them off from the sciences, which is problematic in that the United States needs, in Mr. Nye's opinion, more scientists and engineers. While there are few people who have gone on record with the idea that there is a danger in not being a creationist, it doesn't take long to find people who are certain that an insufficient level of Christian belief (or at least lip service to those beliefs) invites divine retribution.

This is becoming salient again, due to Donald Trump's penchant for lying (or bullshitting, if you view it that way). There are growing calls for "the Media" to actively involve itself in fact-checking him. But, to take some of the latest statements that the President-Elect has made, the issue isn't the truth of falsehood of the statements themselves. When Donald Trump claims that there was election fraud to tunes of millions of votes in Virginia, New Hampshire and California and that "the Media" is helping to cover it up, what he's really doing is communicating to his supporters that he _is_ the legitimate President of the United States of America, and not someone who owes his victory last month solely to the election-distorting rules of the Electoral College. And, let us not forget, that "the Media" is dishonest and working against him. No matter what the results on an investigation into the election (not that one would ever happen) would conclude, Mr. Trump has no really option but to continue in that vein. And while Democrats and other factions of the American Left may look on slack-jawed at the brazenness with which Mr. Trump ignores "the truth," the simple fact of the matter is that no level of attacking or truth-squadding is going to change what's actually happening: that Donald Trump is feeding off of people's visceral, emotional reaction to feeling that they've been left behind in favor of others for the past eight years. The loss of Congress on the part of the Democrats left President Obama in the position of needing to resort to Executive Orders to advance his policy priorities, and those priorities turned out to be too narrowly tailored to garner the support of people in states that Hillary Clinton needed to win.

The fear of repercussions from Trump supporters believing wrong things isn't going to serve the Democrats well. At least, not as well as showing people in swing states how their policies will enhance their lives will.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Identity, Please

I've always wondered about Identity arguments and what drives them. Or, to be more precise, what drives people to make argumentative statements about other people's identities. That is, when people say: "People like you are bad; I'm not like you, therefore, I'm good." It strikes me as one of the few ways to one-up "People like me are good; you're not like me, therefore, you're bad," on the scale of Looking to Get Into it With Someone. Over the past couple of days, these sorts of arguments have popped up around me with an unusual level of regularity. Of course, in the long run, they're not terribly uncommon. In-group and out-group identification is endemic to the human condition, and it tends to resist our best efforts (which often aren't very strenuous) to do away with it. What's been interesting about my recent encounters with this phenomenon is that people have been defining the out-group in incorrect terms, sometimes due to admittedly intentional ignorance of what the out-group is about.

This behavior strikes me as simply bizarre, perhaps, I suppose, because I don't have an identity that I feel strongly enough connected to that I see any point in promoting it at the expense of others. And that's what I wonder about. After all, like most other people, I have any number of identities. Just none that strike me as worth picking fights over. Maybe it's just the people I encounter, but this gives me the feeling of being an outlier, and so I wonder what it is about identities that make them so central to others.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sleazy Answers

Of course "Democrats Don’t Have an Easy Answer for the Rust Belt." Easy answers are vanishingly rare in politics, because all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, shipped and made into pies already. And what that means is that most of the answers that either party will be able to come up with are going to be painful for someone who has enough clout to say something about it.

But part of the problem that politicians have is the belief that the decisions that leave various segments of the public in the lurch are easy, and so undoing them would also be easy. This is how Donald Trump managed to gain traction with the idea that he would strongarm American companies that moved jobs overseas into moving them back. Mitt Romney used a similar tactic to with the Republican presidential primary in Michigan back in 2008. When the straight-talking Senator John McCain basically came out and said that a lot of the old manufacturing jobs were gone for good, Governor Romney quickly swooped in to say that they weren't.Of course, bringing jobs back onshore will have costs, and the people who have to pay them wouldn't be very happy about it, which is why it's unlikely that any American government that resembles the one we have now would do the work (and the arm-twisting) required to actually accomplish it.

In the end, the problem is a simple one - we've failed to adequately adapt to the growing efficiency of the world around us. As late as the 1950s, it was understood that advancing technology would lead to a system where the labor force participation rate would stay the same (or even increase) and salaries would stay roughly the same but people would have more leisure time. Instead, you could describe what happened as the people who owned businesses, large ones, generally, converted the extra leisure time into liquid wealth, and kept it for themselves. And given how long it's taken us to dig ourselves into this hole, it's likely to take quite a bit of time for us to excavate ourselves out again. But that's a long and painful process, hence the siren call of "easy answers."

While economists are often faulted for finding easy (and fictional) answers to problems, as the "assume a can opener" joke often pokes fun at, there is a maxim of economics that's helpful to keep in mind, and that is, "There are no solutions, only trade-offs." But trade-offs rarely win elections, and so the easy answers will keep coming.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Back in 2004, I'd made a New Year's resolution. I was in London over the holiday, and being out of the country made me feel like an American in a way that I don't when I'm stateside. But as I tried to find an open Underground station, to get back to my hotel, I decided that I'd been too much of an observer of American politics, and that I was going to be more politically active.

Like a lot of New Year's resolutions that come to one on the spur of the moment, this one both started out remarkably well, but in hindsight was better in concept than it was in reality. The plan was to give both major parties a whirl. But I started with the Democrats, and by the time I was done, I had no energy or desire to repeat the process. And the one thing that really drove me up the wall about regular meetings with committed Democrats was not that their politics turned out to be consistently to the left of my own, but the constant language of victimization. They couldn't even have disagreements with one another, over what struck me as minor matters, without making whatever happened into a deliberate form of oppression, directed at them. Of course, as usual, I didn't know when I was well off.

When I first read this, when I saw it posted on Google+ a few days ago, it struck me as simply odd. But after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it struck me as completely ridiculous. In what universe does the simple act of voting for whichever of the major-party candidates that you think will do a better job of making lives better - both yours and others - count as "control?" Okay, I'm not a fan of "build the wall" or having a registry of Moslems. But I don't understand how voting for the candidate that people who worry that illegal immigration and terrorism are threats that we should be doing more about counts as "abuse." And while I understand street protests as a means of making one's grievances heard (although I'm of the opinion that protest is the last resort of the politically powerless), since when does calling a a president-elect's appointees "racist," booing his running mate or insulting him or his supporters qualify as "resistance?"

My impression of this piece drifted from "wonky" to "this is a completely inappropriate use of the language of abuse and resistance." But, a part of me gets it. We tend to give people we see as victims rights and privileges that the rest of us don't have access to - often because it's easier than actually fixing the problem; although sometimes because the problem defies fixing. But that habit, of allowing people who have been victimized permission to do things that are denied the rest of us, makes that label something worth having. As in here, were the idea that Trump supporters are abusers becomes a means of recasting what we otherwise consider to be bad manners into a noble pursuit.
Still, it is clear that the places that voted for Trump are under greater economic stress, and the places that swung most toward Trump are those where jobs are most under threat. Importantly, Trump’s appeal was strongest in places where people are most concerned about what the future will mean for their jobs, even if those aren’t the places where economic conditions are worst today.
Jed Kolko "Trump Was Stronger Where The Economy Is Weaker"
This is something that nothing to do with name-calling, booing, protesting or insults (or even sexism or racism). It's the simple fact that there are large numbers of people in this country who feel that the current path of the country, one that they perceived would continue under a Hillary Clinton administration, wasn't going to make them any more secure than the way they feel right now. And no matter how loathsome a character that Democratic voters, or they themselves found Donald Trump, he threw them a lifeline that the didn't feel was going to come from business as usual in Washington D.C.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Rare and Valuable

"Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It." Oooh... this could be interesting. And, unsurprisingly, it's beginning to make the rounds of social media. Let's see what it has to say.

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.
Okay, I can understand this point. Let's see where it goes next.
Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.
Aha. And now we arrive at the crux of the matter. The idea that there is no way to use social media such that it becomes a useful craft that can be applied to things that people are about in ways that are rare and valuable. Right. Now that we have that sorted, let's see what his arguments are in favor of that premise.

None, apparently. And this is where this piece falls down. Because it never takes up the idea except in passing, that using social media cannot be, in and of itself, a useful craft and/or a way of applying a craft to things that people care about. In reality, almost no field of human endeavor qualifies as decidedly rare or valuable on its own. Talking to people is neither rare nor valuable. Neither is playing sports, painting pictures or playing poker. Just about everyone can do these things with some basic level of skill, and can learn to do them better. I've done each of them at least once in my life. But certain people, like Hillary Clinton and Rudolf Giuliani have earned millions of dollars for nothing more than getting up on stage and reading a speech that they likely prepared in advance. Likewise, top athletes in certain sports are making seven or eight figures annually, doing more less the same thing that grade and high-school kids do on the field next door to my apartment complex. I once watched a documentary on an artist who threw paint into jet engine exhaust, and allowed it to splash onto a canvas, and could pull down more than $10,000 for a piece - and people are still making art this way. And I suspect that we all know that winning the World Series of Poker can result in some pretty big prizes.

What makes the way people speak to audiences, play sports, create paintings or play poker into a useful craft that is applied to things that people care about in a way that makes them rare and valuable is not baked into the activity itself. Like I said, almost anyone can do them, to the degree that being unable to do any of them would likely be counted as a serious handicap. And what the author of the Op-ed, Cal Newport, never does is differentiate the use of social media from these other things - or any other things. Social media is a tool. To say that it is not possible to be skilled enough at using that tool to create "things that matter," is to place it into a very small category.

In the end, what Mr. Newport is really inveighing against is allowing unimportant things to distract us from putting in the 10,000 or however many hours it takes to become really skilled at something, and making sure that you're directing that towards things that other people value enough to pay for. Which is fine; it's perfectly sound advice. But the unique conflation of "social media" with "unproductive distraction" is an assertion that requires more than being stated to be proven. His New York Times piece is simply the latest entry in a long history of people looking down their noses at those who have the temerity to do something that they don't understand, and can't figure out how they themselves would make a living at. And they can't be bothered to find someone who is doing it, and ask them.

Mr. Newport has never had a social media account. Given that he tends to see them as merely gateways to professional ruin, that makes sense. But that doesn't then give one permission to claim that this understanding of social media is based on objective truth, rather than anecdote or personal experience. Because I can find countless stories about people who put everything they had into a particular endeavor, and because they were unable to separate their need to keep themselves entertained from what they hoped would be a lucrative career, they crashed and burned. But that was due to a lack of focus on their part. And while it may have been aided and abetted by their choice of entertainment/career, other people have taken that same paths and succeeded.

Who Determines

It's Sunday, and that means that, as someone who is neither spiritual or religious I'm doing something other than attending a worship service. Actually, pretty much every day of the week means that, but since the United States likes to tout itself as a "Christian" Nation, a lot of people are attending the church of their choice at some point during the day today. Me, I'm sitting in front of my computer, giving my keyboard a workout, and worrying that I'm developing carpal tunnel.

I read a blog posting, a little bit ago, that takes on a comment by President-Elect Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn. "Islam is a political ideology. It is a political ideology. It definitely hides behind this [idea], this notion of it being a religion." It's an interesting piece, but it kind of buries the lede and skirts the main issue, which it deals with only briefly:

So is Islam a religion? I guess it would depend on how you define a religion and who gets to do the defining.
And in that sense, the real question about Michael Flynn's comments becomes: Is Lieutenant-General Flynn enough of an authority on religion that he is a credible source for questions of whether or not a particular group that understands itself as a religion objectively qualifies for that distinction? And independently of that is a secondary question: What is Lieutenant-General Flynn's definition of "religion," and is it accurate?

And for all that Mr. Cole's posting is an interesting, if apparently somewhat ideological, read, it never takes the time to address these questions. If we divide the post into two sections, the first section deals mainly with presenting a brief refutation of "Flynn’s arguments is that Christians don’t kill people in the name of Christ." The second section gets closer to the point, laying out definitions of religion by Anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service. Which is all fine and good, but it doesn't answer the questions that we need to, if we are going to come to the conclusion "So everything Flynn said is false," based on anything other than gut feeling and/or preconception.

In my general opinion, time taken to refute the idea that "that Christians don’t kill people in the name of Christ," is always wasted in the Western world. For many Christians, especially American (and in my limited experience, British) evangelicals, the moment one commits an act of violence, or even petty vandalism, in the name of Christ, that person has automagically stopped being "Christ-like" enough to be termed a Christian. Such people are, at best, misguided and at worst fabrications, lies constructed to maliciously discredit the universal Truth that Christianity professes to proclaim. And even if it didn't inspire impassioned gatekeeping on the part of many believers, the point isn't relevant to the question at hand, unless one accepts an underlying assumption - that whether or not a group uses violence to advance its goals is germane to whether or not that group may be legitimately be called a religion. And if we accept that the use of violence precludes a group from being viewed as a legitimate religion, then we must also accept that religion is a relatively new concept. Quite a bit of blood has been shed in the name of religion over the years.

But even given that, we don't know one important piece - is a renunciation of violence part of Lieutenant-General Flynn's definition of "religion," it is simply a way of making the point that "Christians good, Moslems bad?" Or is it both or neither? From context, it's reasonable to assume that the former Lieutenant-General does consider whether or not a group is willing to use violence to meet its ends to be part of his definition, but that's still just an assumption, and, more importantly, it doesn't tell us if this is the be-all and end-all or what the rest of his definition might be. And to circle back for a moment, it's entirely possible that Lieutenant-General Flynn is doing the same thing that it seems to me that a LOT of American Christians do - conflating "Christianity" with "Religion." Hank Green, the presenter/instructor of Crash Course Philosophy on YouTube, doesn't strike me as being in the Lieutenant-General camp as far as ideology goes, but pretty much every episode of the webcast that has dealt with the philosophy of religion has focused exclusively on Christianity. You may make the point, and it would be a valid one, that for an American audience, Christianity is the religious tradition that people are most familiar with, but that doesn't get you around the fact that it may create a problem when one treats "Christianity" as a synonym for "Religion," in that it encourages people to judge other faiths on their superficial similarities to American Christianity. In the end, the problem becomes that we have nothing but conjecture to go on, because the snippet of his remark given doesn't provide us with enough information to be sure.

Likewise, the second section of the posting doesn't treat "how you define a religion and who gets to do the defining" as a question that requires serious engagement. It simply selects Anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service and lays out their respective understandings of "religion" and "church," and then effectively declares that the philosophical proof has been completed. But I'd never heard of Clifford Geertz before this point, and the single quote from Goodreads does nothing to establish is bona-fides as a legitimate definer of what is and is not a religion. So I'm somewhat in the dark as to why I should accept his particular definition of a religion.
A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
And the various constituent pieces of the definition are not defined, and so even though Mr. Cole declares "Islam would obviously fit this definition," I'm not sure that I understand why "patriotism" and "television" don't obviously fit this definition. And this is, apparently, another of those circumstances were "obviously" means "not requiring any further explanation," because no effort is made to lay out the characteristics of Islam that show it to be a qualifying "system of symbols" or to demonstrate that it acts as advertised.

And this is odd, in light of the fact that Mr. Cole does attempt to tie specific attributes of Islam to the Internal Revenue Service's definition of "church." What struck me as interesting about this section of the post is that Mr. Cole states "In American law and practice, it is the Internal Revenue Service that defines a group as a 'church,' i.e. organized religion, because it has to determine whether groups are eligible for tax exemption." To be pedantic for a moment, i.e. is a Latin abbreviation for "it is," and is effectively an equal sign in common usage, that is to say in stating "'church,' i.e. organized religion," Mr. Cole is saying that a church is an organized religion and vice versa. But the IRS says nothing of the sort, noting "The IRS generally uses a combination of these characteristics, together with other facts and circumstances, to determine whether an organization is considered a church for federal tax purposes." Now, I will admit to not being a scholar of federal law, jurisprudence or the Constitution, but I don't recall "for federal tax purposes" and "in fact" being one in the same. Because consider the following, is a faith community that lacks IRS designation as a "church," therefore ineligible for protection under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution? Because while I understand how most Judeo-Christian and Islamic groups fit the definition that the IRS uses, does every "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" fall under the IRS definition? Would Islam still qualify as a religion were it not organized enough to satisfy the IRS that its institutions should not have to pay taxes? In other words, since Mr. Cole has selected Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service as the authorities to be appealed to, are they themselves in agreement? Because while they might give is useful means by which to define a religion, I still don't understand why they are allowed to do the defining - in essence, why the fact that whatever definition Lieutenant-General Flynn is using flies in the face of those definitions means that he is wrong and they are right.

Ever since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, there has been a background "debate" on the legitimacy of Islam. And, as I see it, part of that debate is based on the false premise that if one does accept Islam as a legitimate religion, that implicit in that is acceptance of behavior that one might otherwise consider out of bounds. And this, to me, is the problem. I, for my part, don't link these two. Neither, it turns out, does the IRS, which says: "The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy." But the ghosts of the Crusades linger on, and the attempts to disentangle the violence of the past from the violence of the present continue, despite their futility.