Thursday, March 31, 2016

Color Change

I've heard, time and again, that being a staunchly Democratic voting block does not serve the Black community in the United States well. There are many reasons, some deeply partisan (like the idea that cynical Democratic politicians are hoodwinking naïve {or stupid} Black voters) and others less so, but the simple fact of politics is that if your votes are not considered "in play," then you'll be mostly sidelined in favor of votes that take more active, and visible, work to get.

But the fact of the matter remains that if a group of people tend to vote as a group, the political utility is commonly a function of their ability to play kingmaker. Black voters may be able to hold Democratic politicians in some areas hostage, but in areas where Republicans can already win elections, what good does it do Blacks to defect to them? Given the racial politics of the modern-day United States, Republican candidates have even less incentive to be seen as beholden to the Black electorate than Democratic ones.

In politics, as in a number of other facets of life, beggars can't be choosers. Republicans tout their general alignment with the socially conservative values of the Black population, and claim that their free market ideals will result in a sudden explosion of jobs so large that Black people won't be able to help finding well-paid work, but the fact remains that if Black voters were to turn red, en masse, they'd simply be another group in the Republican tent - and to the degree that Republicans can win elections with only small numbers of Black votes now, one they could do without. There's no way that there would be any pressure to enact specific policies that aided Black Americans any more than any other group. If Republican ideals failed to raise the living standards and status to Black voters to the degree that they wanted, what recourse would they have? Rising tides may raise all boats, but that's different than saying that it raises them all to the same level, when that requires the tide to lift some boats higher than others.

Identity politics are generally a losing game for minority groups, especially in the face of a single majority group. When authority relies on numbers, smaller numbers are always at a disadvantage. Choosing, or refusing to choose, a political faction will not change that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Race

Over the weekend, there were Democratic Party caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii and here in Washington State. Senator Bernie Sanders won all of them convincingly. There have been a couple of primary narratives around this. One is demographic. All three states held caucuses instead of primaries and have a Democratic voter base that is both Whiter and more educated than the national average, and as the primaries have played out, states like that have tended to go for Senator Sanders. One is political. Democratic voters are signalling to Hillary Clinton that she hasn't sealed the deal yet, and that it is they, and not party bigwigs or large donors who will decide who the nominee is; and in making themselves heard, Democratic voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the Clinton campaign.

While there's nothing wrong with either of those narratives, what I've found interesting is that several stories have invoked them both at the same time. But that leaves you with Sanders supporters, by virtue of living in states where the demographics predict that large numbers of other Sanders supporters live, delivered a stinging rebuke to the Clinton campaign by voting in precisely the way that demographers predicted they would.

Nothing sells news like conflict.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eyes To See

My father is asking me, great, you see the history, you see the Bible, you see the holy land, but you don't see the Palestinians. What about the Palestinians? The first time I was arguing, and the second time he asked, I said, you're a right. I don't see them. I went to our spiritual leader here in our community, and I've asked him, do we have to see them? And he said, of course, of course, we do. They're a part of this land, and, like we've been taught in the Bible, we have to take care of them but, of course, not to forget that this is our homeland.
Tamar Asraf "Israeli Woman Describes Journey From Criticizing Settlers To Becoming One"
"Do we have to see them?"

I will be the first to admit that I cannot know the minds of those other than myself, but when I heard Ms. Asraf ask the question "Do we have to see them?" the subtext that I heard was "Is it right to see them?" But when I thought about the whole sentence, then entirety of: "I went to our spiritual leader here in our community, and I've asked him, do we have to see them?" the subtext I heard was "I don't want to see them. Tell me that it is right not to see them."

In life, we often see what we want to see, and we do not see the rest. And we all have reasons for seeing what we see and being blind to the rest, just as we have reasons why others should see the things that we see, and be blind to those things that we do not see. And we seek out authorities to tell us what we should see, and what it is justified for us not to see.

And we declare that the selectivity of our vision is the truth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Welcome back.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Maybe You're Crazy

"Psychologists Break Professional Silence To Diagnose Trump For Public Good." How's THAT for a headline? More on that in a moment.

I know a number of people who are politically engaged, and  common topic of conversation for them is the role of "the Media" in public life, especially elections, now that it's campaign season. I usually wind up rolling my eyes, because, to me, many of their portrayals of "the Media" come across as subtle, yet inescapable mind control, perpetrated by a shadowy cabal of hateful élites who spend their time in darkened rooms plotting how best to make everyone firmly believe The Wrong Things. But, for all that, sometimes you can find stories where "the Media" should have known better, and while I suspect that pageviews and/or advertising dollars were the driving factor here, the fact remains that there's something fishy afoot.

Back in November, Vanity Fair published an article, with the click-bait title: "Is Donald Trump Actually a Narcissist? Therapists Weigh In!" which purports to have a number of mental-health professionals tackling the question of "What exactly is wrong with this strange individual?" To lend gravitas to the piece, which includes quotes from psychologists and psychotherapists, Vanity Fair notes:

That mental-health professionals are even willing to talk about Trump in the first place may attest to their deep concern about a Trump presidency. As Dr. Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry and the director of the master’s of bioethics program at Columbia University, pointed out, the American Psychiatric Association declares it unethical for psychiatrists to comment on an individual’s mental state without examining him personally and having the patient’s consent to make such comments. This so-called Goldwater rule arose after the publication of a 1964 Fact magazine article in which psychiatrists were polled about Senator Barry Goldwater’s fitness to be president. Senator Goldwater brought a $2 million suit against the magazine and its publisher; the Supreme Court awarded him $1 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.
And it is this passage that inspires the Reverb Press headline in their own article from late last week.

But I actually read the Vanity Fair article, and something struck me right off the bat. If Barry Goldwater was awarded $75,001 in damages after an article in which psychiatrists violated what is now the "Goldwater rule," why on Earth would Vanity Fair, or anyone else, for that matter, run an article that requires a violation of the rule? The answer is, as it almost always is: They didn't. Other than Professor Klitzman, there is not a single psychiatrist quoted in Vanity Fair. The mental health professionals they talk to are a developmental psychologist, clinical psychologists, a psychotherapist and a licensed clinical social worker. And while you could make the point that the APA's rule against commenting on the mental state of individuals unknown to them personally and obtaining consent for such comments would be a best practice for them just as much as for a practicing psychiatrist, the fact remains that the Goldwater rule is not binding on them - for the simple fact that they aren't speaking as psychiatrists, even if most laypeople don't make, or understand, the distinction. And it's only within the context of blurring that distinction that the mention of the Goldwater rule makes sense. Because it likely would take a fairly deep and abiding concern about a situation to prompt someone to openly violate a point of professional ethics. But it's a much lower bar for most people to ignore the ethical rules of other professions, regardless of how much of a best practice that rule is. And the fact remains that while psychiatrists are mental-health professionals, not all mental-health professionals are psychiatrists, and the rules of the American Psychiatric Association don't apply to the mental-health profession as a whole any more than the fact that I write a weblog subjects me to the rules of the Society of Professional Journalists.

To be sure, there's nothing that says that journalists know everything that the rest of us don't. It's entirely possible (if not, in my opinion, terribly plausible) that this article was researched, written and edited without anyone realizing that reference to the Goldwater rule was at once irrelevant and potentially confusing. But then again, a lot of things are possible.

Reading the Vanity Fair and Reverb Press articles, I can understand how Donald Trump's supporters come to the conclusion that "the Media" is out to get him. If you see in this coverage of Mr. Trump an implication that mental-health professionals are willing to throw their ethics under the bus in support of an opinion piece cum hatchet job, it becomes easier to understand this comment by George Wooley, one of the people running to succeed former Speaker of the House John Boehner as a member of the House of Representatives:
The easy answer is to take the guns away from the mentally ill. The trouble is, the medical community has been co-opted by liberals who say that if you don't agree with abortion and homosexuality, there's something wrong with you. It's not hard to imagine that they could also declare people that are Republicans and conservatives as mentally unfit as well. So until we get this political correctness swept away with the truth, I say we keep the Second Amendment as it is.
For all this, I'm still not on the bandwagon of claiming that "the Media" are in the business of manufacturing consent for their oligarch masters. An article implying that Donald Trump is mentally ill may as well have "Trump Haters (of which there are many) Click Here" on it, in letters that can be seen from orbit. And that, like it or not, is their job - get people to click, to read, to subscribe in the service of keeping the money flowing. Serving the public doesn't always put food on the table in the way that serving those who want to sell to the public does, regardless of one's ethics. And it's always easier to sell something to the public that they already want.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Flipping For the Team

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) noted the dissonance between Chaffetz and other committee Republicans calling out for stronger rules while also frequently bashing the EPA.

“Republicans have been absolutely slamming the EPA for overreaching at every possible turn,” Clay said during Thursday’s hearing. “Now they criticize the EPA for not doing more when Governor Snyder fell down on the job.”

Reporters asked [House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason] Chaffetz [R-Utah] about the apparent contradiction after the hearing.

“You gotta look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Arthur Delaney, Kate Sheppard "Thanks To Flint, Republicans Love EPA Rules All Of A Sudden"
I would suspect that it's less that Republican members of Congress like Representative Chaffetz suddenly love the Environmental Protection Agency, or even the Lead and Copper Rule that they are claiming needs to be more stringently enforced. It's that they see a chance to burnish their images in the eyes of their voters by coming down on a Federal government agency during a Democratic administration. It's likely that if the political seating chart were reversed, that Republicans would be defending the EPA and looking to blame Democrats in Flint's administration for the water issues.

In the end, this isn't because politicians are hypocrites, as much as their political opponents and dissenting commentators like to say they are. It's because politically active people in the United States; the ones who write donation checks and can be counted on to vote and to help get out the vote, are often staunchly partisan and have little problem with giving people a pass for taking contradictory positions in the name of the cause. So wanting to de-fund the EPA one week and then complaining that it's incompetent the next? Not a problem.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Why are minorities suddenly entitled to jobs and platforms and Oscar nominations that previously belonged exclusively to whites? Trump’s supporters see their social status slipping at others’ expense in what they perceive to be a zero-sum game. And they may not be wrong.
Molly Ball. The Resentment Powering Trump
While I suspect that, given the general context of her article, that Ms. Ball meant to say that Mr. Trump's supporters see their social status slipping for others' benefit, the idea that they perceive society and social advantage to be zero-sum is likely dead on. Because that is the nature of status.

Imagine a group of people picking apples, and they are being ranked on the number of apples they pick. Let's say that Jack is an apple-picker, and the first time the number of apples picked is measured, Jack scores a respectable 50 apples. Jill is also picking apples, and at the first measurement, she picks 30 apples. By this measure, Jack ranks above Jill, and enjoys the status thereof. After reforms to the apple-picking process are made, there is another round of picking, and another count. This time, Jack picks 65 apples, and Jill 70. If we measure apples as income, both of them are better off. And the total number of apples picked is greater making the over all pie (ahem) bigger. But despite the fact that Jack has done significantly better than he had done before, status-wise he's losing out to Jill, because she picked more apples. And to the degree that certain advantages are conferred on group members due to their ranking as pickers, rather than simply being a direct function of the number of apples they pick Jack loses access to advantages that Jill gains. And if inflation eats into the buying power of Jack's apples, he can easily feel himself objectively worse off than he had been before. And to the degree that Jack felt that his earlier apple-picking superiority was due to his hard work and Jill's laziness, rather than processes that advantaged him at Jill's expense, it's easy to understand that Jack might concluded that the reforms put in place were stacked against him, perhaps deliberately.

Advantage is difficult to see for people when it's simply the way the world has always worked. For many people, Jim Crow was a long time ago, and the minute after the last racist law was repealed, the world suddenly became a complete meritocracy, regardless of the fact that the same people who had presided over the old order were still around, and laws can't change attitudes.

Monday, March 14, 2016


Socialism: A narrow definition that I can claim to be just as much against as you are. Although I leave the door open to the idea that it just might work - just in case I'm talking to an actual Socialist.

Corporate Socialism: My justification for telling you that you, too, are a Socialist if you support the current system.

Democratic Socialism: Where I claim that Socialism is just like Capitalism, except better, because somewhere along the way a miracle occurs and greed and corruption are expunged from the psyche of a suddenly enlightened public. There is the added bonus of being able to cast any disagreement with me as heartless and selfish.

I get it. It's nice to think that all we need to do is elect the right President who has the right politics and the right ideas about the economy, and all of our problems will magically go away. But simply creating our own definitions for things isn't going to get us there, because it blinds us to the fact that benefits usually have costs.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ask a Loaded Question...

"How Perceptions About Opportunity Vary by Race," in the Atlantic, is supposed to be about how people of different racial backgrounds understand differences in opportunities. But, when you look at the questions and the answers that were given, it becomes clear that people either aren't really thinking the question through, or don't understand the implications.

For instance, in answer to the question: "Do you think young people in the United States today need a 4‐year college degree in order to be successful, or not?" 49% of White people asked said "Yes."

But when asked: "Do you think African-­‐Americans have better, worse, or equal access to employment opportunities compared to other Americans?" 69% of White people asked said Equal or Better.

In 2012, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who had dropped out of school was about 6.6% on average, but 7.5% for Black kids. At the same time, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in degree-granting institutions (two or four-year) was 41% on average, but only 36% for Blacks. Therefore, one would suspect that African-­‐Americans would have lower access to employment opportunities than other Americans, because they are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend college. Note that the question does not stipulate "all other things being equal."

But when we use "Do you think [Fill in the Blank] have better, worse, or equal access to employment opportunities compared to other Americans?" as a proxy for people's perceptions of whether or not race has tangible impacts on life outcomes (which let's face it, is usually what it winds up being), you wind up with a question about how people feel about the country, rather than how they actually understand opportunity to work.

Because if I were to ask "Do you think college graduates have better, worse, or equal access to employment opportunities compared to other Americans?" I'm willing to bet that a lot of people would say "yes." After all, 53% percent of people in the survey said that going to college gives young people the best chance of success. So it stands to reason that groups with higher rates of college attendance would, on average, have better access to employment opportunities. The fact that many people seem unable to get that means that they aren't actually engaging with the question. And since we don't bother to interpret the question as it is actually written, why bother to ask it in the first place?

Why not just openly ask people "Do you think [Fill in the Blank] have better, worse, or equal life outcomes, when compared to other Americans, because of the fact that they are [Fill in the Blank]?" It's not going to get us around the tiresome arguments about moral and ethical superiority, whining or good versus bad life choices, but it does have the advantage of straightforwardly asking the question that we're actually looking to have answered and that people understand themselves to be answering.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Keeping it “Real”

In the end, though, the Carrier story was pretty simple: Trump said he would call Carrier’s CEO up on day one and tell him that every unit the company sent to the U.S. would be slapped with a 35 percent tariff. His rivals couldn’t do that because they were bought off by campaign donations, he added. Within 24 hours, Trump was certain the CEO would call back and announce the company would return to the U.S. Never mind establishment conservatives who say protectionism is wrong. [...] Never mind the fact that the president cannot unilaterally impose tariffs, as reporters have been noting for months. The crowd loved it. Policy is beside the point: Trump’s fans love his brash manner of speaking, which they call telling it like it is—even in cases like the tariffs, where Trump is telling it like it could never be.
David A. Graham “The Lurking Menace of a Trump Rally
I quote this passage at length, because it illustrates for me one of the central themes of this election cycle. It’s one that I don’t think that very many people were aware of a year ago, despite the fact that it’s been a looming presence. And I think that both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have tapped into it. (Which may be the reason why you sometimes encounter people who feel that both candidates represent their interests.)

There is a segment of the American public, and quite a large one, judging by election returns and rally attendance, who believe what many would label as “political realism” is, in reality, a hateful, but flimsy, fraud perpetrated against them by a cabal of wealthy elites and their servitor politicians. And because these policies only remain in place because they suit the purposes of those who benefit from them, undoing them is not a difficult task to be undertaken by Congress and enacted through the passage of new law. Instead, all it takes is the stroke of a savior-President’s pen, or a phone call to the right person telling them that the jig is up.

Therefore, as an acquaintance said to me today, President Obama did not fail to make life markedly better for the majority of the American public because he had to deal with a Congress that they acknowledged as obstructionist, but because he was unwilling to make the required effort to stand up for the little guy and strongarm his policies into place.

I do not have a conspiratorial mindset. The world as I understand it is complex and kludgy, and it took us decades to get into this mess, and it will take us just as long to walk it back, short a catastrophe, war or armed insurrection. But then again, I do not believe in Evil, either, and perhaps that’s why I can only see long and difficult roads where others see a short and sunny path back to a misremembered past.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Far Away

Some time back, I'd found an article about a deal to allow mining at a site that the local Native American tribes held sacred. The author made an interesting point.

If Oak Flat were a Christian holy site, or for that matter Jewish or Muslim, no senator who wished to remain in office would dare to sneak a backdoor deal for its destruction into a spending bill — no matter what mining-company profits or jobs might result. But this is Indian religion. Clearly the Arizona congressional delegation isn’t afraid of a couple of million conquered natives.
Lydia Millet. "Selling Off Apache Holy Land"
Part of this is because of those "couple of million conquered natives," only 400,000 or so live in Arizona. The rest live elsewhere, and that takes us to the heart of the matter. The percentage of the other approximately 6,000,000 Arizonans who care isn't large enough for the congressional delegation to be afraid of them, either. And while Ms. Millet may very well be correct that they would value Christianity or Judaism (Islam, I'm not so sure about) over the promise of greater corporate profits (and hopefully, tax revenue from same), more jobs or increased national security (Senator McCain's stated rationale for backing this deal), anyone else's religion? Sure, throw it under the bus.

Part of this is simply the nature of the United States - for a broad swath of the overall public, not their problem directly equates to not a problem. But I also think that a large part of it is due to the Native American population being largely out of sight and out of mind. Even here, in the Puget Sound region, where Native American place names dot the landscape, actual Native Americans seem fairly thin on the ground. I don't think that I've actually met a tribal member in the nearly two decades since I've moved here. And I think that "out of sight, out of mind" status contributes to their lack of political clout.

Monday, March 7, 2016


The remains of a homeless encampment. I was surprised to see just how much trash had accumulated, although it makes sense - it's not like the homeless have regular garbage pickup. It's a strange feeling, wandering around in the aftermath of people's lives.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

There May Be Only Two

The Democratic and Republican parties do not hold their virtual duopoly on elected offices in the United States because of a corresponding duopoly of public support - there are many people who choose to support neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, and do not vote for their candidates. Instead, the two principal parties maintain a lock on elections by maintaining a lock on the perception of viability.

Despite what some Republican boosters would tell you, Senator Bernie Sanders is not running for the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States because his brand of Social Democracy is a natural fit for the traditional Democratic voter. Over the years, Senator Sanders has made a number of unflattering statements about the party:

“You don’t change the system from within the Democratic Party.”

“My own feeling is that the Democratic Party is ideologically bankrupt.”

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why should we work within the Democratic Party if we don’t agree with anything the Democratic Party says?’”
Can Bernie Sanders Win the Love of a Party He Scorns?
Instead, he joined the Democrats because he understood that it was the only way to make a serious run for the White House.
Sanders said he thought about running as independent in the first place, but decided not to.

“If we were serious about winning this election, which is always my intention from day one, I thought we could and I hope that we will. I had to do it within the Democratic primary caucus process,” he said.
Bernie Sanders on why he won’t run as an independent
The alternative is to be relegated to the “Third Party” ghetto, where candidates can, and do, build loyal supporter bases, but next to nothing in terms of either media coverage, donations or the sort of broad support needed to be taken seriously.

As long as the public as a whole demands that viable candidates only come from the Democrats and Republicans, this situation is not going to change.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Perhaps the most frustrating thing about talking politics with people is the ease with which they slide into referring to others as stupid, ignorant, short-sighted or some other term designed mainly to justify denying them the right to make their own choices, whether that be for a political candidate or for a particular policy.

The second most frustrating thing about talking politics with people is that they only want to notice that tendency in people with whom they disagree.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Straight Talk

The ingenious subtext of much of [Donald Trump's] messaging is: “Nobody wants to hear this hard truth, but here it is: you’re right!”
Derek Thompson "How Donald Trump Can Beat Hillary Clinton" The Atlantic, 2 March 2016

"94.3 percent of the time Obama never really tells the audiences anything uncomfortable though he boasts that he will 100 percent of the time. What he promises them instead is to tell people they don't like (auto executives and Wall Street fat cats) what THOSE GROUPS don't want to hear."
John Dickerson "Obama's Closing Argument" Slate Magazine, 21 April, 2008
"Hard truths" and "Things people don't want to hear" are part of the stock in trade of American politics because the American public, as a whole sees itself as above being openly pandered to, and tough enough to hear about the difficult work that lies ahead. A stereotypical scene from older movies comes to mind, wherein a young man is seated in a doctor's office waiting for the prognosis, and when the doctor hesitates, the young man blurts out "C'mon, doc! Give it to me straight! I can take it!"

But time and again, candidates who openly pride themselves on their candor are typically judged by outside observers to be pandering. Not because the public has deluded itself as to what it wants - people dislike those they understand to be pandering (even if sometimes, their ideas of pandering seem to be driven by their like to dislike of the speaker, rather than the content of the message) - but because people rarely go into a political speech without an idea of what candor would look like. Combine that with people's tendency to conflate their interests with the interests of the nation, and you have a recipe for an inability to distinguish between truth and convenient falsehoods.

In reality, there are no such things as "hard truths" outside of an unexpected crisis, when people are turning to others precisely because they don't know what to expect or what they need to do next. In everyday life, for the person who has seen the hand writing on the wall, understands that their industries days are numbered and is preparing for a new career, "These jobs are leaving, and they aren't coming back," isn't a hard truth; instead, it's a confirmation of the path they've already decided on. But for the person who understands that it's too late for them to find another job that will allow them to live at the standard to which they've become accustomed, it isn't a hard truth, either; it's a convenient lie, invented to justify throwing them under the bus and handing their rightful benefits off to the undeserving.

When people are allowed to participate in their government, government is going to, at least outwardly, reflect the revealed preferences of those people who participate. And during campaigns, when people are voting their hopes, dreams and fears, the words of candidates for office will reflect those.