Saturday, December 30, 2017

Apply Palm to Face

Wouter Zwart: Speaking of threat, at one point you mentioned in a debate that there are no-go zones in the Netherlands and that cars and politicians are being set on fire.

Ambassador Hoekstra: I didn't say that. That is actually an incorrect statement. Yeah, we would call it fake news.

Zwart: Is that fake news? Because that's what you really said.

Ambassador Hoekstra: No, it's not what I said.

Mr Hoekstra (on archive video): The Islamic movement has now got to the point where they have put Europe into chaos. Chaos in the Netherlands, there are cars being burned, there are politicians that are being burned. And yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.

Zwart: You called it fake news, obviously... (is interrupted)

Ambassador Hoekstra: I didn't call that fake news, I didn't use the words today.

Zwart: No?

Ambassador Hoekstra: No. I don't think I did.
Trump's ambassador to Netherlands in 'fake news' blunder
This, I think, gets to the heart of a lot of issues between the citizens of the United States and their government: the idea that politicians (especially politicians that a given individual didn't vote for) are reflexive liars, with an aversion to the truth that rivals the fear of anaphylaxis.

I'm not sure if I'm impressed or appalled that Ambassador Hoekstra went into this interview so clearly unprepared to be called out on something that he'd said, and that no-one at the State Department warned him about this. Of course, 2015 was a long time ago, and politicians have famously poor memories when put on the spot. But this speaks to an inability to realize that he'd said something that might come back to bite him, especially given that he'd said it in a televised and recorded forum. Not to mention a certain carelessness about what he was saying in the moment.

And this issue with this, as far as partisanship goes, is then the reflexive reaction to this, which is to defend the politician as being a target of unscrupulous media types, rather than to say, "You know what? Ambassador, you're a great guy, but you're in over your head. Come home before you do some real damage."

There's also a critique of the American media establishment in this. Mr. Zwart had his ducks in a row before he walked into that interview and was prepared to back up what he was saying, where as outlets like NPR tend to allow the statement to pass, and then "fact check" it afterwards. This may be part of the reason that the Ambassador was tripped up - he simply wasn't expecting Mr. Zwart to be as ready for him as he turned out to be.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Friday, December 22, 2017

You Forgot a Bit

I came across a copy of Chris Hayes A Colony In a Nation and read it. It's a quick read, I was able to finish it during the gaps in my workday, and about a half-hour before going to bed. As the title implies, it's a take on the idea of colonialism, with the central premise being that poor Black and Latino (although the book mostly focuses on Black) communities are treated like colonies, and the analogy is made to the original 13 Colonies that made up the early United States. In this, is draws some interesting parallels between the way that modern America jurisdictions of various levels and the administration of King George III treated their colonial subjects.

It is, not surprisingly, a Left-leaning critique of things, although there are some practices that I was surprised that we don't hear more right-leaning commentators talking about. (It kind of reinforces the cynical "freedom for me, and none for thee" charge that is leveled against them.)

The one big miss that popped up for me is the very end of the book. In the conclusion, Mr. Hayes asks the reader to imagine a button that, when pushed, delivers a benefit to the person who pushed it, at the expense of someone else. He goes through a couple of ideas of what that benefit might be, and what it might cost the someone else, but the basic idea is the same. And, on page 216, he says of this:

And if the person sitting by the button is poor and desperate, I doubt we'd judge her if she pushed the button to feed her kids or get money toward much-needed medicine. But overall it's not okay, as a general principle, to impose random harm on someone else so that you can reap a reward. That's our moral commitment.
But as far as I'm concerned, it is okay. That's why people do it so often. Regardless of how unethical or immoral one might claim it to be, the fact remains that reaping rewards by imposing random (or quite specific) harms on someone else is a mainstay of cultures around the world and throughout history (and prehistory, for that matter).

So, is Mr. Hayes wrong about this?

Not entirely. I think, however, that he left out one tiny bit.
But overall it's not okay, as a general principle, to impose random harm on someone undeserving of it so that you can reap a reward.
There, as all the cool kids would say these days, I fixed it for you.

And I think that it's an important distinction; one that explains much of the way in which people actually behave. And the issue becomes that it's never particularly difficult to come up with a reason why someone else is deserving of the harm that is required to reap a reward. They're of the wrong social class, they're from a different place, they've broken this or that rule, they didn't defend us from some harm that someone else did to us, they don't follow the correct faith, their ancestors harmed our ancestors, they're simply inferior. Et cetera. The list is as long as the human imagination. And as varied as human deprivation.

Mr. Hayes notes that we'd refrain from blaming the poor or desperate. (I suspect that judgement would be very quick if the harm befell someone the judge cared about, however.) And that's the other side of the coin. People are quick to see themselves, as poor and desperate. Not as often as they're willing to see the person harmed as deserving of harm, perhaps, but more often than one might think is reasonable.

And this ties in to the overall theme of the book. After all, Mr. Hayes attributes King George's heavy-handed tariff enforcement in colonial America as a way of replenishing the depleted royal treasury after the Seven Year's War, rather than (as it often seems we're taught in grade school) any sort of personal malice. (Although it's likely that he saw the colonies, with their smuggling and other tariff-dodging, as wretched hives of scum and villainy.)

Mr. Hayes idea, that we consider victimizing one another as wrong across the board, is an ideal. And in that, lip service may be paid to it, but it's not often the reality. Understanding the pieces that bring it into line with the world as we experience it, makes it easier to understand how it's actually lived, and perhaps why it's lived that way.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


"So, there was something about growing up black in the United States and then bearing a child that was associated with lower birth weight," says [University of Illinois at Chicago neonatologist Richard] David.

What is different about growing up black in America is discrimination, says David.
How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants
But is that the only thing that is different? While I understand that between questions about housing, income, health habits and discrimination, that the understanding of discrimination may be the best predictor of very low birth weights for newborn babies, correlation doesn't always prove causality.

Racism and discrimination have become our "Get Out of Blame Free" cards, when perhaps what we need to do is be less willing to shoulder blame in the first place. We often feel a need to be on guard, or take responsibility for what comes next, and maybe that's unhealthy for us.

The point of the NPR article is that the stress caused by racial discrimination may be causing the high rate at which Black women in the United States lose their infants. But that begs this question: Is racial discrimination the ONLY cause of stress in the lives of Black people that other people don't have to deal with? Technically, the NPR article gets around this by not openly stating a causal relationship. But the lines are wide enough to read between. And that's kind of a shame, because given that a causal relationship is not established, there could be other factors at work.

One very important issue when it comes to racial discrimination is that it may or may not be possible to determine discrimination when it happens. There was a study, which I can't seem to find online for love or money that noted that when Black people went to a business (I believe that auto dealerships were the subject in this particular case) that even though they believed they were being treated perfectly fairly, they didn't receive the same level of service as White people coming to the same dealership.

And this idea, that one can't always detect when one is the subject of racism, may contribute to the stress, because it drives a constant uncertainty. Sure, this person that you're dealing with seems perfectly nice and cordial. But maybe they'll just fooling you, and actually dislike you, or won't give you a fair deal. There may be wisdom in second-guessing every interaction that you have with someone, but let me tell you, it can be tiring to never be able to feel comfortable around people who are not like you.

And one of my experiences of growing up Black was the constant warnings that one should never be too comfortable around White people.

My parents were fairly conservative, so they never talked about sex with me. Even when my lack of a dating life led them to worry that I might be gay, they simply asked me outright "Are you gay?" rather than ask potential uncomfortable questions about my sex life. So I remember the only piece of dating advice that my father ever gave me. "Stay away from White girls," he said. I figured I knew where this was going. One didn't have to be particularly astute around 1990 to understand that hostility to interracial relationships came from all corners. But, as usual, my father threw me a curve ball when he informed me that the reason was that White people, effectively, universally hated Black people. "And a woman who will sleep with someone she hates," my father warned me, "will sleep around on you in a heartbeat."

And this idea, that White people (or White Americans, at least) were universally racist was pervasive in my extended family. Sure you had to deal with them, but you could never, ever, really trust them. And that feeling that no matter where you went, there were people out to get you, drives an anxiety all it's own. I drove up to northern Minnesota once, and was so nervous about stopping at a McDonald's to eat that I positioned myself near a large window, with my car just outside and chair within arm's reach, ready to make a break for it at the slightest sign of trouble.
[Samantha] Pierce remembers her mother warning her early on in her childhood that she would have to "work twice as hard to get half as much" as her white counterparts, she says.
My mother had a variation on this phrase. And and it was something that I found quite stressful; the idea that I would have to work four times as hard as everyone else, just to keep up. Eventually, I had to say to her, "Mom, do you understand how demotivating that is?" She didn't and I don't think that anyone else in my family did. It was just reality as it occurred to them. But it's a reality that leaves no room for trust or safety.

I'm not surprised that Black people find life in the United States stressful. But I wonder how much of that stress originates within us.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


One of the projects that my father had on his plate when he died was a foolproof system to prevent hacking of online transactions and financial data. Now, while my father had been a systems analyst going way back to Assembly language, he wasn't a computer security researcher. And this lead to some speculation that the lawyers he was paying to help him prepare his patent of the holy grail of online finance were fleecing him. And while I'm sure my father had thrown that money away, I'm less sure that he was being intentionally conned. After all, the lawyers by father was working with likely knew a lot less about computers than my father did. They were lawyers, after all, and my father was the computer expert with the impressive résumé. It's highly unlikely that they could have found the flaws in my father's plans for this. I'd been working in technology for more than a decade and a half when my father explained it to me, and my objections were based more on the understanding that my father claimed to have single-handedly solved a problem that thousands, if not millions, of people the world over had yet to crack, than being able to tell him specifically where the scheme fell down.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Science Says

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.
CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity
Now, to be sure, I'm not certain that this story is everything it's cracked up to be. The information comes from a "CDC analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly." Of course, one wonders why "hey people, don't use these words in budget documents" would effectively be classified (after all, unless the documents in question are classified, people would start noticing the omissions), but we live in a world where any group of people larger than two has apparently world-shattering secrets. But for whatever reason, we have an anonymouse scurrying to the press to reveal supposed inner workings of the Trump Administration.

I'm fairly certain when I see this story in my social media feeds, it's going to effectively be marked with "this is something that aligns with my prejudices." And what makes it interesting is that you can align it to Liberal and Conservative sensibilities. On the Liberal side, there will be shoutrage; how dare the Trump Administration attempt to muzzle scientists for political purposes! The word "censorship" is already being thrown around, although there aren't any legal, or even administrative, punishments threatened in the piece for analysts who don't comply. On the Conservative side, there is also likely to be some shouting. The Washington Post article is fairly clearing disapproving, and Red America will likely response with "what's wrong with the standards and wishes of the community?" In this, it becomes a two-fer. The Trump administration shows that it cares for what communities (of Trump voters) want and it shows the "Mainstream Media" as biased yet again. So one could make the case that the leaker could be on either side.

The most interesting bit of this is the: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” part. Because it speaks to (and fits into people's prejudices about) the relationship between conservative communities, especially religiously conservative communities, and scientific institutions. For many religious conservatives, the Bible is more than a book of scriptures, it's a history of the world and a basis for all understanding of right and wrong (the parts of it that comport with what they actually want to do, anyway). Which isn't a problem in itself. It's when those two things become linked, as in "if the Bible isn't an accurate historical document, then its teachings of right and wrong are irrelevant," that the problem begins. While one can decide that the story of Adam, Eve and their sons is suspect in places (So... if Cain and Abel were Adam and Eve's two children, how did Cain find a wife and where did enough people to build a city in the land of Nod come from?) for many people the broader point is that the Judeo/Christian/Moslem God created the first people as separate from all the animals. Evolution, which argues against the specific creation of individual species, including humans, undermines, this. In some quarters, this is taken to mean that the scientific community has fallen for a ruse set by a supernatural adversary to lead people away from God. In others it's taken as proof that the scientific community is in on the deception.

The linking of science to the Culture Wars is unsurprising. The scientific method and academic studies often come to conclusions that undermine traditional understandings of the world at large, and to the degree that long-standing policy was based on a given traditional understanding, proponents of change (especially those who saw change as progress) looked to science as a "value neutral" means of demonstrating that theirs was the proper understanding of the world, and that policy needed to be changed, the current standards and/or wishes of the community involved be hanged. As science more and more came to be seen as having taken the "liberal" side of the culture war debate, a certain conservative distrust for scientists began to develop. This supposed Trump Administration edict, which supposes to prevent liberals using the scientific community to push "agendas" on unwilling communities by simply saying, "What you want doesn't matter, because science," can be viewed as the Trump Administration stepping in to protect the desires of people who don't like to consider things settled until their buy-in has been obtained.

The thing about culture war victories like this, however, is that they are fleeting. After all, the Trump Administration won't be office forever, and do the degree that it mollifies supporters and causes crises in opponents, it sows the seeds of a Democratic successor, who would simply rescind whatever ban was in place. And so the fight will go on, regardless of the outcome of this alleged skirmish.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Women and Men

I was reading Peter Beinart's The Growing Partisan Divide Over Feminism at The Atlantic, and something stood out for me. A quarter, or maybe a third, of the way into the column, Mr. Beinart makes the following observation: "But what’s driving the polarization is less gender identity—do you identify as a man or a woman—than gender attitudes: Do you believe that women and men should be more equal. Democrats aren’t becoming the party of women. They’re becoming the party of feminists."

While this is a common formulation, it misses something important - a definition of "equal." And that omission is important, because equal doesn't mean the same thing to all people, as I often find when I discuss Steven Pinker's social trilemma; that a society cannot be simultaneously "fair," "free" and "equal." Oftentimes, people are adamant that a society can be simultaneously "fair," "free" and "equal." And they can demonstrate that this is true - they just have to use different definitions of "fair," "free" and/or "equal" than Mr. Pinker himself does.

One of the things that I find separates the stereotypical Liberal from the stereotypical Conservative understanding of equality is the degree to which it is correlated with identicalness. The stereotypical Liberal position tends to posit a very high degree of correlation between the two. For instance, despite the common wisdom on the gender wage gap, many detailed analyses tend to place the overall difference at a few pennies, once you start controlling for certain factors. And in many cases, even that remaining difference comes down to flexibility in work - that is that people who require flexibility in their working hours tend to earn slightly less than people who have their schedules dictated to them, even when doing the same work. While it's relatively easy to see how this might be a workable trade-off, for some people, pay is equal only when paychecks are identical. If that means robbing people of some flexibility or making others effectively pay for flexibility they don't need, then so be it.

While the stereotypical Conservative idea that men and women are different, yet complementary and equally important parts of a greater whole is seen in some sectors as simply a cover for entrenched sexism, it makes perfect sense to them, likely because many things in the world work this way. Generally speaking, we understand that two things can be equal, without always being identical. A simple example would be two cars. We can understand that two cars can have the same feature sets, gas mileage and price, yet be easily distinguishable from one another.

To be sure, an article on whether partisanship has an impact on views of gender equality may not be the best place to hash out what has been a contentious argument on exactly what makes two people "equal." But it's still worthwhile to recognize the idea that not everyone defines equality identically. Simply writing off the Republican understanding of what it means to be "equal," in favor of the Democratic one doesn't make the argument any stronger. It simply shows a substantial portion of the population that they aren't being listened to.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Darker Than Shade

France will do whatever it needs to do for its own sake, and when those coincide with ours, 'tant mieux' [even better] as the French people say. But our main responsibility as leaders, as citizens, is what we need to do to grow our own countries.

We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves — in our country, in our region, in our continent — on the basis of whatever support that the Western world or France or the European Union can give us. It has not worked, and it will not work.
Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana
This, according to NPR, is the Ghanaian President "throwing shade" at foreign aid. I'm not sure I agree. After all, shade, in this context, according to Merriam-Webster "is a subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone—sometimes verbal, and sometimes not." I don't know that I see anything approaching contempt for, or disgust with, the concept of foreign aid. That description, I think, it better reserved for some of the social media crowing about President Akufo-Addo's statement. NPR goes on to say:
Instead, [President Akufo-Addo] encouraged African leaders to focus on good governance, accountability and diversity to promote trade. With its wealth of natural resources, the continent should be a donor, not a recipient, he said.
I think that part of the reason why so many Africans saw President Akufo-Addo's statement as a way of sticking it to France is that sub-Saharan Africa has a worldwide reputation as a horror show; dirt-poor on a good day, and crammed to the rafters with strongman dictators who busy themselves with looting their nations and scheming to stay in power so they can loot some more. Even Amnesty International's recent report on abuses of migrants bound for Europe excoriates the EU, but doesn't bother castigating the African governments of the nations that the migrants are do desperate to get out of. It reminds me of President Bush's invocation of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Of course Africa needs all the foreign aid it can get - and while we're at it, Europe should take all the migrants who come, because no-one would and to stay in such a hellhole. And, of course, Africa can't be expected to stop being a hellhole.

But, on its face, President Akufo-Addo's statement doesn't seem to be one of accusing France, or other nations, of deliberately fostering African dependency. You can easily read his statement as "Dude. It's been 60 freaking years. Why are we still beggars after all this time?" If that's throwing shade on anyone, it's governments in Africa, Ghana included.

NPR's mischaracterization of President Akufo-Addo's statement is simply playing into another stereotype of Africa - the bitter person who understands that they dependent on others, but too proud to take that with good grace. It's no better than any of the other stereotypes.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Bad Child

I don't recall when I first heard this; it was sometime in the past few years. An economist made the observation that, in the United States, children had gone from an economic necessity to a luxury good, in the sense that modern children for most American families cost much more than they will every return, economically speaking.

I was listening to a series of interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates by some editors of The Atlantic, and at one point, he made a point that I'd also come to; injustice (in this particular case, White Supremacy) tends to exist when it is in the interests if the broader society for it to exist. In other words, injustice exists because it brings advantages.

And in this, you can understand a means of combating injustice that is analogous to the reduction in family sizes.

When injustice effective represents a direct increase in the standards of living across a society (and not just for the people who behave unjustly) you can imagine that it would be quite widespread, in much the same way that in places where children are effectively a form of working farm animal, large families tend to be the norm. As the relative price of injustice goes up, it will eventually become a luxury good, and people will cut back. Family sizes have dropped in part because the greater "investment" that people are expected to make in their children has raised their price, but social changes in gender roles have also raised the opportunity costs of childbearing (something that many people understand to be a form of discrimination against women), and this has also resulted in fewer children being born - there are more economically advantageous uses for the time and resources. (And it is in this sense that children become a luxury good. They're no longer broadly useful as either semi-autonomous home or farm equipment or as a buffer against old age and infirmity.) And one can understand that in a lot of ways discrimination is a modern-day status marker. Prejudices aside, the willingness to write off large swaths of the overall population means missing out on the things that those people could bring. This means that injustice tends to be the province of people who can afford it, rather than the broad populace at large.

But at the same time, it gives us a reason to understand that most forms of injustice will always be with us, no matter what. After all, people who decide to have (or to risk having) children when they cannot afford the expense of it are fairly thick on the ground. Not to say that "everyone does it," but it's common enough that stories are easy to find. And so even once both the direct and opportunity costs of injustice are high, there will still be people to whom it is important enough that they'll indulge themselves when they can.

Like many analogies, this one is imperfect. But I think that it's useful as a way of organizing thoughts around what my need to happen going forward, if things are to change.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Starting Line

Um... Frank? We're supposed to be going that way...

Thursday, December 7, 2017

They Said, They Said

“This is a spiritual battle we’re fighting,” they say.
“As Christians, we believe in second chances,” they say.
There’s Biblical precedent, they say—just look at Mary and Joseph!
'You Need to Think About It Like a War'

[Mark Ford,] The head of the county Republican Party called the election “a spiritual battle we’re fighting.”
“Even if the allegations are true, as Christians we believe in second chances,” said Pat Hartline, who lives in neighboring Cherokee County and was also in attendance.
This is a Spiritual Battle We’re Fighting

“Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus,” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler told The Washington Examiner.
Alabama state official defends Roy Moore, citing Joseph and Mary: ‘They became parents of Jesus’
"They" is typically taken to be a plural. It when you have some combination of hes, shes and/or its. It is sometimes used a singular, generally in referring to someone where the person's gender is unknown or unimportant - "it" usually being reserved for inanimate objects at at least non-human ones. You might get away with calling a dog "it." Calling a person "it" will typically get one into trouble.

The problem that often arises with "they" is that it's a convenient weasel word. The sort of thing that's used to say something, when a certain amount of ambiguity is desired, even when ambiguity isn't called for. In 'You Need to Think About It Like a War,' McKay Coppins opens with the idea that the "God-fearing supporters" of Roy Moore have thrown their commitment to personal morality out of the window, with things that "they" say in Mr. Moore's defense. But he links to the sources of what "they" say, and in each case "they" turns out be a single, specific, individual.

Of course, this is secondary to the point. Mr. Coppins is right about the fact that the "Christian right" has decided that someone who shares their politics is a better fit as their representative than someone who doesn't, and maintaining a standard of personal moral purity isn't worth losing a valuable legislative seat. But that's not a very good reason to imply that individual voices are a chorus. because it's unnecessary. Attributing each speaker's words to the individual who said them would have still backed up Mr. Coppins' point that in the service of putting someone whose politics matched their own into the United States Senate, Roy Moore's supporters are willing to look the other way at his behavior. He simply would have had to speak of those individuals, rather than generalizing their words.

The whole article uses "conservative values voters" and "they" interchangeably, dealing in broad generalizations, when really the only people who count are the ones who actively decide to vote for someone they would otherwise find to be reprehensible. And in a nation where turning out to vote isn't a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination, an active minority can carry the day. It's a safe bet that whomever wins the Alabama Senate race, they're going to carry the day with a minority of registered voters. It's possible that Mr. Moore could win with a minority of conservative values voters making it to the polls. After all, he doesn't need all them to show up - only a statistically significant number more than the number of people who are motivated enough to vote for Doug Jones. Whether that constitutes a majority, I have no idea. But it's entirely possible that there are still large numbers of conservative values voters who have no intention of backing Roy Moore. It's just that the group of them, in total, votes rarely enough that politically, they don't exist. And so the media pays no attention to them, either.

Institutional hypocrisy, my name for the linking of two people who share a characteristic and calling them out for not sharing enough groupthink, is a pointless exercise. Conservative Christians don't have to think about personal purity and political office any more than two people from Rhode Island or any two Latinas have to. Generalizations in support of it don't do anything useful, either.

Monday, December 4, 2017


Today's "Daily Dispatch" from The Economist makes the following point about Congressional Republicans' efforts at tax reform: "The tax bill passed by the Senate on Saturday morning makes a mockery of Republican claims to want to balance budgets. The only objective seems to have been to cut taxes."

With all due respect to The Economist: Well, duh.

No form of government is perfect, and one of the imperfections of a representative government is that there is always the temptation for voters to elect people who will promise benefits at the expense of people who cannot (or do not) vote. Back in the day, the enfranchised class could vote for representatives who would deliver benefits that women, or the Black population of the country would have to pay for. But near-universal enfranchisement has changed that. And so the the current group that's been elected to shoulder the burden of today's benefits are tomorrow's adults, who are now either too young to vote or politically disengaged.

Part of what drives this is that despite the fact that Republicans are primarily focused on lowering taxes, public peity demands that they make some sort of noises about "fiscal responsibility." It's another case of the public effectively asking elected officials to lie to them, because partisan support for spending through the tax code rarely erodes simply because it will increase the size of public debt.

It's a popular trope on "the Right" (to the degree that such a large group of people are unified in any one specific issue) that Democrats often "buy" votes by promising the (undeserving, by many Conservative standards) urban and suburban poor "free stuff," and in doing so, freeing them from having to work for a living. It's a popular trope, in large part because it grows neatly out of a particular conservative worldview that tends to break the world down into Makers and Takers (which are more moralistic than economic distinctions, the way they are typically deployed).

Cutting tax rates, and "letting people keep more of their hard-earned money," is often floated as a way of restoring a measure of fairness to the world, depriving the lazy and unindustrious Takers of the fruits of the hardworking Makers' incomes. But all in all, direct cash welfare via transfer payments is a fairly small amount of the overall federal budget. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, are, by themselves, about half of all government spending at this point, even when the net interest on the current debt is included. And these are programs that are popular all across the political spectrum. Reducing government revenues is not going to make these programs go away or immediately reduce their benefits. And in this, the Republican drive to reduce taxes, given the dubious chances that they will spark enough growth to fully offset their costs, is effectively, well, buying votes by giving their constituents "free stuff." It's just that the "stuff" comes in the form of retirement income and medical care.

While Senator Mitch McConnel can say that for the Republican tax plan to pay for itself only requires a boost of 0.4% to current growth rates, that's not as simple an issue as he makes it sound. While 0.4% is a very small amount, what that means in practice is boosting the current growth rate from around 3.17% to 3.47%. That's a jump of a little over 12.5%; or adding an extra dollar of economic growth for every 8 dollars of current growth. Not impossible, but a non-trivial feat.

I find it interesting that there doesn't seem to be a push to recreate the conditions that lead to the technology and internet boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Were it up to me, I'd be diligently attempting to understand how to create a sustainable version of that. And one doesn't have to sustain it forever. Just doing so long enough to allow for a substantial dent in public debt would be more than worthwhile. Had that rapid economic expansion been the direct result of lowering taxes, one would think that the Republicans would be shouting it from the rooftops, so that doesn't seem to be the Republican intent. The cynic in me has a suspicion as to why there isn't a move to spark another technological revolution, but since my cynical impulses are also uncharitable, I'll keep them to myself.

In the end, I hope that the Republican tax plans do drive enough economic growth to be revenue-neutral in the end. I doubt it will happen, if for no other reason than there will be heavy political pressure to not allow the individual tax rate reductions to sunset, but I have no desire to cheer the downfall of my own interests, regardless of whether I believe that they're honestly being looked after. But I do suspect that economic growth wasn't really the intent. It's well and good for the Republicans to cast doubt on each and every analysis that says that the growth won't make up for the shortfalls, but part of me thinks that it's simply to avoid admitting that they're buying votes, and since they won't be paying the price, the unit cost doesn't matter.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Simon Says

Alright, if you make another mistake, there is a very severe possibility you are both going to get shot, do you understand?
Eventually, according to Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf, Daniel Shaver made one too many mistakes, and a Mesa, Arizona police officer shot him to death.

This is the part that kills me:
At approximately sixteen minutes and forty seconds on the recording Sgt. Langley shouted at Shaver, “If you do that again, we are shooting you. Do you understand?”
Sixteen minutes and forty seconds. The shooting of Tamir Rice is often looked upon as unjustified because the police officer opened fire within seconds of arriving on the scene. This shooting seems unjustified in part because of the amount of time during which Mr. Shaver was under duress. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out how long during the overall eighteen minutes of video Mr. Shaver was trapped in the fatal game of Simon Says with the officers, but in any event, it was long enough for him to lose. And so I wonder why was the situation so drawn out, especially if officers were so concerned that Mr. Shaver may have had something dangerous concealed on his person. If every second that a person is effectively not under the complete control of the responding officers is a second in which a tragedy might unfold, keeping that number of second to a bare minimum seems like it would be a priority.

When you read the excepts of testimony in the case, it seems clear that the officers on the scene had come to the conclusion that Mr. Shaver was a criminal. He was guilty of something, even if they had no idea what, and therefore they had no responsibility to ensure a relatively positive outcome to this situation. So if the orders to do this and not do that went on forever, that wasn't their problem. Mr. Shaver had brought it upon himself by whatever unknown bad acts he'd committed.

When I've debated this sort of thing with people online, they are often at pains to say that in a situation like this, they would make sure to follow each and every one of an officer's instructions. What this case illustrates is that it's easy to say that when you don't know how long you're going to have to maintain the performance. There's an idea, perhaps born of watching too many police procedurals, that police will take complete control of a situation quickly and efficiently. Maybe a minute or three into an encounter, everything's handled, and if one complies with the three or four things they are told to do during that time, nobody is hurt and the task of working things out can begin.

But that's not the way this turned out. And despite my wonderment at how long this all appeared to take, I'm not of the opinion that officers intentionally dragged the whole scenario out for their own purposes. They were following a playbook of some or another sort, and that playbook called for a number of complicated and time-consuming moves, that, in the eyes of the officers, left no room for error.
[Mesa Officer Christopher Doane] also said he remembers Shaver crying. Still, he said, he didn't believe Shaver's tears were genuine because it appeared he was faking it in order to get some sort of advantage against the officers.
This I also find interesting. This whole episode is about a man who is unexpectedly confronted with a squad of heavily-armed police officers, and has been told on more than one occasion that if he does not do everything he is told, exactly as he is told to do it, he will be shot. But one of the officers on the scene testifies in open court to the effect, that he didn't believe the person on the business end of the weapons would be stressed out enough by this to cry. But he was shot specifically because, even though the officers outnumbered Mr. Shaver six-to-one, Officer Philip Brailsford felt threatened enough to use deadly force. When did we enter this world were stone-cold killers can pop up literally anywhere? After all, it wasn't like Mr. Shaver was wanted for a crime or anything. He'd simply been showing his pellet gun to a pair of fellow working-class people he'd met in a hotel.

While many police processes and procedures when dealing with potentially armed citizens (remember, Mr. Shaver wasn't a suspect in anything) are specifically designed to make sure that the officers have the upper hand, the officers themselves seem to be increasingly unaware of this, and of the opinion that at any moment, someone can whip out a weapon, and shoot his way to freedom against people already pointing guns at them.

But here's a simple question that I'm dying for an answer for: Why didn't the officers take the time for a visual inspection of Mr. Shaver when he came out of the hotel room? After all, a gun may be tucked into a waistband, but that doesn't make it two-dimensional; one would think that it would be possible to be reasonable sure one way or other other. Again, I presume that they has a reason. But without understanding what that reason was, it seems like an important oversight, especially in light of the fact that Mr. Shaver was shot to death because Officer Brailsford was convinced he was reaching for a hidden firearm.

One last thing: Mr. Friedersdorf makes the point that: “The case hasn’t attracted the higher degree of attention from the press, the public, or policing reform activists, partly because body-cam footage of the killing has been withheld from the media and partly because the cop and the dead man were both white, rendering the killing less controversial than one possibly animated by racism. But it warrants more attention than it has received.” But I also think that there is another aspect to this. “Brailsford is now on trial for second-degree murder.” The system working as it should, even in the aftermath of a horrendous act, rarely makes the news. Granted, it's nearly two years after Mr. Shaver was killed. I don't know how long it took for the decision to charge the officer to be made. Maybe there was an inexecusable delay. But maybe, as slowly as the wheels of justice grind, they are grinding in the way that people think the should.

I understand that I'm ignoring the main thrust of Mr. Friedersdorf's column, that shootings like that of Daniel Shaver should be publicized, because in order for the majority of Americans to be convinced that there is a problem, they have to be convinced it could happen to them. My White neighbors are more likely to write off people like Michael Brown as hardened criminals than they are people like Daniel Shaver, and so the more Daniel Shavers are brought to light, the more likely action is to be taken. I'm ignoring it because that much I know. The fact that people are the most interested in the rights of others like themselves is common knowledge, I suspect.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Sunday, November 26, 2017


The subtitle to Republican Is Not a Synonym for Racist says that "Conservatives must reckon with their policies’ discriminatory effects. That would be more likely if liberals stopped carelessly crying bigot."

Yeah. Good luck with that. The two broad political persuasions that are considered to make up most the American political spectrum don't come with governing bodies that can enforce a mandate against calling the other side out as perverse. Or, for that matter, seeing being called out as perverse as a cover for the other side's perversity. This is simply part and parcel of an understanding that right and wrong are objective facts about the world, independent of time or place.

I think that the author, Peter Beinart makes a slight misstatement when he notes: "Progressivism is progressive. It seeks ever-greater moral advance." Perhaps I'm misreading it, but this implies to me the Progressivism has no theoretical end state: the advance of morality is never-ending. But I think that what many modern self-described Progressives are after is moving the world closer and closer to what they understand is the correct understanding of proper thought and behavior. What keeps Progressivism moving "forward" at time marches on is the movement in that understanding. As one problem is solved, another moves in to take its place. When I was younger (not that I considered myself a Progressive), the idea of "microaggressions" would have struck us as not worth bothering with - mainly because we had bigger fish to fry at the time. But now that those fish have been safely cooked, younger people have determined that there are new issues to be dealt with. Such is simply the way of things.

And once one arrives at an understanding of what one considers objective reality, it's easy to come to the expectation that everyone recognizes it - or should recognize it. The liberally-applied (pun intended) term of "bigot" is nothing more than a charge that conservatives have already reckoned with the discriminatory effects of their policy choices - and decided that, if those effects aren't the whole point, that they're fine with them. Because one can't possibly look at the world and not realize what's happening.

Despite the stereotype that concepts such as cultural relativity are mainly embraced by the Left in America, the fact is that both sides accept or reject the concept based on how much they feel that their own position is one that every thinking person should hold. Getting people to walk away from that idea is going to be a difficult lift, given how deeply it's ingrained in the way people see the world and their place in it.

Friday, November 24, 2017


Some time back, I was reading an article on the Greek Debt Crisis (it's remarkable that this seems like ancient history already) and one of the people they spoke to made an interesting pair of observations that work basically like this: There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone. They were remarkable points, and they stayed with me ever since, mainly because they helped me articulate something that I'd sort of understood, but hadn't found a concise way to say: A lot of prosperity actually isn't. It just seems that way because someone else is paying the costs. This isn't to say that all prosperity is due more to cost-shifting than actual economic bounty, but since money is just as green if it turns out that someone else actually did the work to earn it, from the point of view of many observers, the two can be difficult to separate.

The point came up again when I was reading this article in The Atlantic about Justice Clarence Thomas' misgivings about the current practice of civil forfeiture. (For the uninitiated, civil forfeiture is the practice of seizing assets and then, initiating a legal action against those assets, rather than the owner. What sets civil forfeiture apart from criminal forfeiture, apart from the asset{s} being the defendant, is that no criminal charge is necessary. As a DEA agent put it: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”) The federal government and the states alike have civil forfeiture laws, and they can be moneymakers - the Justice department's forfeiture programs "brought in about $28 billion over the last decade."

But, as I noted, other jurisdictions are in on the act. And for some of them, it's an important source of revenue. Justice Thomas cited an article in The New Yorker on the practice, and it carried this passage:

“We all know the way things are right now—budgets are tight,” Steve Westbrook, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, says. “It’s definitely a valuable asset to law enforcement, for purchasing equipment and getting things you normally wouldn’t be able to get to fight crime.” Many officers contend that their departments would collapse if the practice were too heavily regulated, and that a valuable public-safety measure would be lost.
In other words, if we're not allowed to continue a practice that is easily abused into becoming virtual police shakedowns, we won't have the money we need to protect and serve. Or, we're too broke to care about right and wrong.

The New Yorker piece focuses on what seemed to be remarkably open abuse of the program in Tenaha, Texas. But what took me back to the story about the Greek debt crisis and the observations therein was how many of the people were from out-of-state. The police there weren't using the process of civil asset forfeiture to clean up their city. They were using the fact that they were situated on a major highway to fleece motorists passing through.
It's been said that representative governments more or less have to do what their constituents ask of them. While some politicians appear to have ironclad holds on their seats, even that depends on people approving of the job that's being done. Being gerrymandered into a safely partisan seat doesn't save you from a primary challenge. And it seems that a lot of the time, the public asks their government to deliver valuable services to them, but not to raise their taxes. Borrowing money from the global investor community (whether persons or nation-states) is a workable solution for the federal government, but states and localities don't always have that option, and so they have to be... creative.

And for the people they serve that creativity often goes unnoticed, but even if they do see it, their options are either pony up more of the costs themselves or do without - and if they were willing to have done that in the first place, it's unlikely that the shakedowns would have started in the first place.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Picking Sides

It’s not even clear whether he truly harbors animosity toward the people he tagets or if he really knows much about them, but it’s undeniable that Trump knows exactly what these attacks do for him.
Vann R. Newkirk II, "Donald Trump’s Eternal Feud With Blackness"
Ah, a cynic after my own heart. But I think that Mr. Newkirk is on to something. President Trump heads to Twitter to open fire on people because being seen doing so shore him up with his base of voters. And while that base of voters is fairly large - they tend to keep his approval ratings from dropping below 35%, they're still a minority of the overall electorate. And the President likely understands the utility of keeping them fired up until the mid-term elections.

The article as a whole focuses on the fact that many of President Trump's targets are Black. This fairly visible fact had lead many to label him a racist, but I think that we can borrow Mr. Newkirk's sentence again and point out that it’s not even clear whether he truly harbors animosity toward Black people or if he really knows much about them, but it’s undeniable that Trump knows exactly what these attacks do for him. And I think that the President realized this, and decided to hop on the "Birther" train, because he understood that it would play well with a group of people he needed to support him, and seemed open to doing so.

While the amount that President Obama did for the Black community specifically is debatable, it's fairly clear that there was a large segment of Conservatives/Republicans who believed that he was deliberately screwing them over to give handouts to the undeserving, Black, urban poor. He was, in effect, openly buying their votes, with goods wrested from the desperate hands of hardworking White Americans who'd never done anything wrong in their lives, but were now being made to pay for past injustices that not only were they not complicit in, but that they surely would have vigorously opposed, had they been around for them. And I understand that I sound like I'm exaggerating their understanding of their innocence to sneer at them, but it's worth keeping in mind that when I graduated high school, less than twenty years had passed since the Loving v. Virginia verdict had been decided. Yet many of my White classmates swore up and down that racism was dead and buried, as if the courts had managed to repeal it in the same stroke that had done in miscegenation laws.

This is in part due to the monstrous caricature of a human that we often make racists out to be. When your understanding of the bad guy is someone who would as soon murder someone of a different color as look at them, it's difficult to see even rather unusually open day-to-day prejudices as qualifying. But it's also in large part due to a national self-image that equates haven obtained something you didn't earn with dependency and morally culpable weakness. It's difficult to push someone into realizing that they benefited from the sins of their grandfathers, when their self-image relies on them believing that they started with nothing and built everything they hard with their own hard work and grit.

And that's the conflict between large groups of White and Black Americans that President Trump has openly taken a side in. And it's unsurprising. After all, it works, and one could have predicted that it would work to one degree or another. Mainly because President Trump mainly appears to avoid the sort of open, snarling, racism that would prompt his backers to feel is if they were supporting a monster. Instead, he simply agrees with their assessment that their woes are caused by the machinations of nasty people who sought to put themselves in positions of power by bribing people who lacked the moral backbone to refuse ill-gotten gains, or to be appreciative of what they have.

Every so often, I run into someone who tells me that even if every nasty thing that "they" say that White people do to Black people is fact, I should be grateful to be an American because I'd be worse off everywhere else, and they can become incensed when I decline to treat them as if they're doing me a favor by allowing me to stay. President Trump speaks their language, and he does so easily, if not always eloquently. And even though I may roll my eyes at their irritation with my ingratitude, I understand (at least in part, I think) where they are coming from. They don't want to see themselves as bad people any more than anyone else does. And they find themselves in a world where there is no shortage of people willing to line up and call them out for thieves and cheaters.

A lot of this, I suspect stems from the simple fact that many people see the world as a zero-sum game, and when they're losing, someone else has to be winning and vice versa. And President Trump, much moreso than more establishment Republicans, told them that they'd earned the right to be winning. And in that, he doesn't need to have an active animosity towards anyone else. An intense enough focus on the self crowds out consideration for others, and left to go long enough, it creates a world in which when others are losing, then you must be winning. The two simply become indistinguishable.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Handed Over

The current sexual abuse/harassment scandal that is floating around the American entertainment, political and business establishments kind of reminds me of discussions that I used to have with people about race when I was younger. Both of them seem to be driven by an understanding of Power that allows Power to be unmoored from human choices.

I don't know when it first occurred to me, but one day I had the realization that the the Black community in the United States had abdicated a lot of control over its own destiny to other people - people who had their own lives and priorities to worry about. "We" (not that it was a unanimous decision) had done this because we had learned to be afraid of the power that the White community wielded. I feel that I sound like a broken record in this, but we learned to fear what White people thought of us, and never sought to have them be concerned with what we thought of them. Sometimes, the relationship between the genders seems the same way. Women fear the power that men wield, and this manifests itself in women fearing what men think of them, but men don't generally have that same concern.

You can see this, I think, in understandings that: "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," or "Men need to have conversations with men about sexism and sexual harassment." But I've always been dubious about the idea that the best way for a group to advance itself is for other people to talk about them. Racism and sexism have always struck me as being, to some degree about incentives. And so racism will go away when it starts to cost more than it's worth, and the same with sexism. For me, as a Black person, we, as the Black community in the United States have to make racism cost more than its worth, because we're the ones who want that and will be major beneficiaries of it. We're the ones who are going to have to create the conditions that mean that not being a racist is more valuable than being a racist. The issue that I've always had with the idea that "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," is that it presupposes that Black people don't have anything of value to bring to the conversation. It's that perceived lack of value, I think, that sustains racism.

I am of the opinion that our overall concern with the Power that White people wield, and our unwillingness and/or inability to see our own role in giving them that Power puts us into the role of supplicants. And supplicants, like suckers, never get an even break.

Sexism, I think, operates on a similar dynamic. And while gender issues may be having a moment in the light at the time, I'm unsure that it will last. And if it doesn't, we may see the same pattern play itself out again. Which would be a shame.

Friday, November 17, 2017


There is this picture of a wolfpack that's been making the rounds on the Internet. It's been floating around for the past couple of years, from what I understand, but I just encountered it earlier today. Somewhere along the line it acquired a description that makes it out to be a marvel of teamwork and leadership in the animal world, and, of course therefore a model that we humans should be emulating.

I found the picture, with its new description, on LinkedIn. Which doesn't surprise me. LinkedIn has something of a low-grade obsession with leadership. If someone can create a flashy graphic or pithy meme that claims to explain the secrets of leadership, it's a safe bet that someone will post it on LinkedIn. So of course, the wolfpack photo, with its description that was all about wonderful leadership, made it there.

As you may have already guessed, if you didn't already know, the new caption that the photograph had acquired was completely bogus. Someone had attached it to the the photograph along the way, and it bore no resemblance to the original caption that the photograph had been published with. I found this out fairly quickly - a former co-worker of mine had come along and posted the Snopes link to the debunking. But it had been posted, and reshared, by a couple of people before that. I tend to be dubious of the leadership tropes that finds their way onto LinkedIn. A lot of it looks suspiciously like virtue-signalling. And to be honest, this wolf photo caption did to. More than likely, if my old co-worker hadn't posted the Snopes link, I'd have simply gone right past it without a second thought. But if it had been something that I found more interesting, or more compelling, would I have been taken in? I like to think that when information that just happens to align with my prejudices and preconceptions finds me on the internet, that I tend to fact check it. After all, everyone's inclined to fact check the things they suspect (or want) to be false - it's the things that one wants to be true that get you. But I don't have time to fact-check everything, and a lot of things slide.

And so I wonder if that's the secret to how things spread on the internet - being seeing plausible, and not too good to be true. The internet is a deep well of information, and that very depth is what makes it unreliable - there's so much information that it's difficult to check the provenance of it all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

To Do Right

Millions of Americans have, in recent weeks, discovered that their favorite movies and shows were made by men now accused of sexual assault or harassment. This presents a dilemma for those who would prefer to watch art by people who haven’t built their careers on the sexual exploitation of those around them. But how can moviegoers avoid supporting such institutions and individuals?
Is There Any Way to Be an Ethical Moviegoer in the Post-Weinstein Era?
That's easy. Make your own movies and television shows.

Because in the long run, if your ethics demand that your never support anyone who's done something that you find reprehensible, you're going to start having to do a lot of things yourself. Consider it a corollary to "If you want something done right..." If you want something done by someone who has never done anything you have ethical qualms with, well, sometimes, maybe even doing yourself won't cut it, but it's likely to be as close as you'll ever get. Because, for the most part, other people's lives are invisible to us. The surveillance apparatus that would be needed to ensure that the people who make the goods and services we use would be pretty much unacceptable to anyone who would have to live under it, and to a lot of people who wouldn't.

And pretty soon, the compromises would have to begin. Kevin Spacey has effectively had his career ended by a single drunken incident of propositioning an underage young man way back in the day. Not a trivial offense to be sure, but also, unlikely to be the worst thing that the people who run the businesses that supply us have done. There are likely much worse crimes hiding in the broad expanse of the corporate world. Given the rate at which new accusations of sexual misconduct come out, it's likely a very safe bet that some of the money that each of us is spending on a day-to-day basis is going into the pockets of someone who, were their life a completely open book, would have faced felony charges for something at some point along the way. There comes a point where "innocent until accused" may be a practical stance to take, but hardly an accurate one.

I think that part of the problem that society faces in looking for ranks of people with clean hands to run the world is that bad behavior isn't the exception. It's the rule. And it's the rule in part because there isn't a single objective standard of bad behavior. A decade or so ago, here in the Seattle area, a young entrepreneur managed to stir up a teapot tempest with a wonky scheme that came to be known as "bumvertising(" At it's core, it was simply a means of getting a message out by paying panhandlers a small amount to display a corporate message alongside their own. But for advocates for the poor and homeless, it was travesty. Bad enough that one wouldn't want to support any business that engaged in it? For some people yes, for others, not so much. And it's that subjectivity that means that businesses are going to have to be selective about who they appease and who they decide to ignore.

But bad behavior, I've come to think, is also the rule because behaving well often means doing without. Up and down the scale. One thing that I've noticed coming to the fore over the years is a greater focus on the idea that more of us than are willing to admit to it are living in poverty. And that mindset of deprivation is catching on. And I'd be willing to bet that some combination of "I want this," "I need this" and "I deserve this" is at the core of the vast majority of ethical compromises, small and large, that people make, whether or not the rest of us really understand what drives a given person to want, need or feel they deserve whatever it turns out to be. And this isn't to say that all transgressions are the same - it's to point out that our broader society, despite the fact that it often preaches doing without rather than doing wrong, does a really poor job of actually instilling that value in people.

And so, in the end, it's highly unlikely that the people who have risen to the top of the food chain are going to be the ethical paragons that people might want them to be. Few people anywhere else in the food chain would manage it, either.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

You Know You're Wrong

He could have confirmed that he harassed women, that he is sorry, and that he did it even though he knew at the time that it was wrong.
Wasted Reckonings
The article is subtitled, "What do we really want out of public apologies from alleged sexual harassers?" But I suspect that it could be applied to any form of apology for anything. Because I think that Ms. Waldman puts her finger on the one thing that people often want from those who they feel have transgressed against them - an admission of willful wrongdoing that reinforces the idea that whatever expectation was violated was, in fact, the way things were supposed to be. And in this, it becomes a reinforcement of the idea that good and bad, right and wrong, are objective and fixed qualities that everyone knows - and that everyone knows to obey.

I think that it may be especially important in situations like (but not perhaps limited to) sexual harassment and assault, where the survivors often spend a good deal of time wondering if they had done something wrong, but I suspect that this reaffirmation of a singular truth (and that we understand what it is) would be welcomed in any number of other circumstances.

From my own point of view, it's a difficult thing to obtain because people don't do things that they understand are wrong when they are doing them. They may understand that their behavior isn't acceptable or appreciated, but I don't think that the understand it to be ethically out-of-bounds. As much as I can't fathom what would possess someone like Louis C.K. to masturbate in front of a woman who would rather that he didn't, I do suspect that, at the time, he had some sort of sincerely-held justification for that action.

Ms. Waldman notes that, "Apologies are supposedly about acknowledging our mistakes, but in practice they can permit us to disown them." But is doing something that one understands to be wrong when you are doing it really a mistake? Perhaps in the broader theological sense, it can be ascribed to "error," but in everyday parlance a mistake is something that's done out of ignorance, carelessness, misperception et cetera. An act of deliberate wrongdoing is not a "mistake" in that sense.

And perhaps that's the fundamental problem; the difficulty of speaking to an action, or a group of actions, in two different ways that are at odds with one another at the same time. Acknowledging a mistake is a different beast than acknowledging a deliberate misdeed. And I think that society treats them differently. There is a tendency to ascribe mistakes to to a given figure when a person wants to forgive them. But when someone wanted to close the door to forgiveness for a figure, they tend to ascribe deliberate, and malicious, wrongdoing. You see this all the time in politics, where partisan divides tend to make the differences is reactions stark, but it's present in any number of other facets of society.

Regardless of how reasonable one might find such an admission, the expectation that someone will openly call themselves out as a bad person strikes me as a bit much to expect. But that's never stopped anyone before, and so I doubt it will now.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Too Young To Know

#MeAt14 Reminds Internet 14-Year-Olds Are Innocent, Immature, Unable To Consent. Sounds legit. But it's interesting in that when you read through the NPR article, you're presented with pictures of young white women; photos that are clearly selected to show them as childish. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway. Because it's a reminder of the children that I used to work with, in a past life. For them, being "innocent and immature" wasn't a fact of biology, it was a luxury that they didn't have. They needed to have a clear-eyed and practical understanding of how the adult world worked, because they couldn't rely on their parents to shield them well enough that they could manage to be unfamiliar with it.

And it left many of them in a difficult position, because they were legally unable to consent to anything. And this has nothing to do with sex. many of the children in the residential treatment center I worked in chafed under the rules there, but they had no legal right to chose anything else for themselves; the state had made the choice for them, and that's all she wrote. And this isn't to say that they should necessarily have been allowed free rein to determine what their living situations were going to be. It wasn't difficult to see how the choices that many of the kids would have made (or even had access to) would have ended badly. But that didn't erase from many of them the understanding that they'd been able to manage more or less for themselves for some time before state social workers had shown up and decreed that they were going to live in a big brick building miles away from their friends, communities and whatever family they still had.

And so, even though the youth in our center generally ranged from 5 to 14, to survive in the world, one had to understand that for many of them, innocence and immaturity were not their native state, but one that we were attempting to restore them to, despite the fact that those particular children were much more streetwise than most of us staffers and some even had better housekeeping skills. (In all honesty, some of the children I worked with were better cooks then than I am now, some two decades later.) This isn't to say that I would have condoned them being in relationships with adults twice their age or other. We didn't condone them being sexual at all. But many of them had needed to learn to navigate sexuality before they'd come to treatment, and they'd developed differing levels of skill at it. And again, our goal was, as much as we could, dehabituate them from using those skills.

In modern parlance, the fact that some teenagers can afford to be complete naïfs in a world where that carries such serious consequences for others is considered a privilege. When I was growing up, it simply made one lucky to one degree or another. I hadn't realized how fortunate I had been in my own childhood until I was faced with stories of how other childhoods had gone horribly and irreparably wrong. I don't know that those stories have a place in the narrative being woven by "#MeAt14." I suspect they don't, if for no other reason that they'd be seized upon by people looking to justify relationships we commonly consider to be some combination of criminal and perverse.

But I do think that it's important, at some point, to make sure that we remember that the extension of childhood through adolescence is not ordained. We worked to make it that way, and there are people who were missed in that work.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Or the Wrong Side

Postscript: GOP officer who'd vote [Alabama Republican Senate Candidate Roy] Moore even if he was a proven sex offender refused in 2015 to accept the legalization of gay marriage, saying "it's wrong."

"Other than being with an underage person - he didn't really force himself," Alabama Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener tells me. "I know that's bad enough, but I don't know. If he withdraws, it's five weeks to the election...that would concede it to the Democrat."
'I Have Never Engaged In Sexual Misconduct,' Moore Says In Statement
To paraphrase from a comic book I once read, anyone can stand by a fellow party member when they're in the right; true partisanship is when you stand by someone when they're wrong. Although to be sure, a lot of people take exception to equating "legal/illegal" with "right/wrong." But while I understand that people (or at least NPR's target demographic) are intended to find the quotes that Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale Tweeted "shocking," the only thing that I find mildly surprising is that people openly admit to such nakedly partisan motivations in the face of a public piety that says one should always do otherwise.

And I'm starting to think that the "rally 'round the flag" response to the accusations against Roy Moore are showing that this particular piety is starting to fade. I'm also thinking that this is a good thing. Public peities that encourage us to lie about what we're thinking, or who we are, aren't very helpful in the long run; they simply legitimize deceit in the name of avoiding being punished for, well, saying out loud that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. And of course, the thing about sticking to the fiction that the Emperor is well-dressed is looking intelligent in front of other people, even though one's allowed themselves to buy into the fact that it's only the foolish who see the Emperor's nakedness. But if we're going to buy into the fact that, come a general election, the only thing that matters about a candidate is the letter after their name, let's own that. It's not like, as a society, we're fooling anyone. Gerrymandering specifically requires people's voting patterns to be predictable well into the future, when state legislators don't know who will run, only that a broad majority of voters will make their selection based, in the end, on partisan affiliation. And while it's true that partisan affiliation can tell you a lot about a person, one would think that there's still some room for genuine evaluation of positions in there. (Even though, clearly, there isn't.) So if the choice comes down to a proven sex offender who holds the right political positions and a person with a clean record who doesn't, why bother to even raise an eyebrow at the "wrong" choice?

Maybe if, as a society, the United States can more easily own up to forming opinions of right/wrong or good/bad based mostly on whether a candidate mirrors back the proper politics, it will be possible to dispense with the need to link mass shooters to politicians we don't like, or declare large swaths of people heroes based on their affiliations.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

On The Side

But [Attorney General] Sessions also voiced a concern expressed by many business leaders and politicians over the years: "You just simply can't have a situation in which your competitors pay bribes and you don't."
Trump Used To Disparage An Anti-Bribery Law; Will He Enforce It Now?
On the one hand, I get it. Following a rule that one's competitors don't follow is a voluntary disadvantage. No one likes to compete at a disadvantage when they feel that the stakes are high, and no one likes to feel that they're placing themselves at a disadvantage and not gaining anything for it. But on the other hand, there are no principles of good governance that countenance bribery and other forms of official corruption as a desirable thing.

And so this perhaps feeds into a common critique of the United States; that its businesses are concerned with profitability, and its citizens are concerned with cheap consumer goods, to the exclusion of other considerations. While the United States is thought of as a rich nation, there is the lingering understanding that it got there by screwing over other people. And being more concerned with a little more material wealth than taking a stand against corruption doesn't help that.

There is a feeling in the United States of poverty, and President Trump rode a wave of that feeling into the White House. And in much the same way that a stereotypical Trump supporter is seen to view the prosperity of others as an unwarranted threat to themselves, the Trump Administration seems to view the health of foreign governments as something that unjustly impoverishes the United States. But then again, who ever said that the perception of poverty and ethics were natural bedfellows?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fallen Star

I don't know if I'm any good at it, but I'm starting to enjoy found object photography.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Bad Geeks

One of the things that pops up in my Google+ stream now and again are complaints about "Geek Guys" (or, to be more precise, the jerks among them) and their treatment of women ("Geek Girls" in particular). My first response to something like this tends to be my standard one - no group large enough to have entered the social consciousness is small enough to not have any assholes in it, and geek culture now having made inroads into the mainstream, there are more than enough geeks out there for them to have a presence.

But with a little more thought, I've come to the conclusion that there's also a greater expectation of empathy and understanding from stereotypical geeks, and that it may not be warranted. Back in the days before personal computers were ubiquitous and programmers could be treated like "rock stars," being a geek (or a nerd) could be kind of sucky. It was, for a very long time, a ticket to being pushed around by the stereotypical "jocks," ignored by just about everyone else and being told to put down the books and pick up some weights. Granted, this behavior wasn't as common as movies made it out to be, but there was, to be sure, a certain amount of truth in entertainment.

And I still think that it's something of a truism that suffering breeds resentment far more often than it breeds empathy. And I think the resentments of geek culture have come to manifest themselves as doing unto others as someone else had once done unto them. Which, even though it seemed fairly predictable, is something of a shame. It would be nice for some group or another to break the cycle, rather than perpetuate it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Birds of Autumn

What do you call a small group of crows?

An attempted murder.
Where would we be without kid jokes?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Moving Bodies

I understand the idea that when our friends don't live up to the standards of decency for the day, that we may decide to walk away from that relationship. This isn't a new concept. In "the brand new album for 1990," They Might Be Giants sang about the problematic nature of knowing you and "Your Racist Friend." There's nothing inherently wrong with deciding that one cannot be friends with someone due to something they believe about the world.

But that's a different thing from telling others that they must shun people who have been friends to them. Because often, that sort of connection blackmail that places a person in the position of having to chose doesn't bother to offer to replace what is lost, whether that is emotional and/or intellectual sustenance or help in moving bodies. Casting those that one is asking others to shun as hateful enough that they seem like sorry examples of humanity strikes me as something of a cop-out in this regard, because in the end, one presumes that they have earned the friendship.

I've been in the position of having someone ask (or demand) that I walk away from a friendship with someone else in order to retain their friendship, and on the occasions where I've assented, I've always come to realize (sometimes quite quickly) that I made the wrong choice, because the person who forced me into it was generally unconcerned with the consequences of it - after all, that was my problem, and not theirs. And this is not to say that they were bad people, or we attempting to injure me - they simply saw my friendship with the other person as a problem that I had an obligation to solve, rather than a favor that they were asking of me.

Rather than putting people in a position where they've been strong armed into what will seem like a lose-lose proposition, perhaps a better option would be to draw them into a new circle of friends; people who will be even better at offering emotional and/or intellectual sustenance and, for that matter, moving bodies. And were I to feel the need to ask someone to discard a friend, I would, instead, step up to be a better friend myself. People will do what they need to in order to look after their needs, and were I to ask someone to leave a need unmet, I would not expect them to agree unless I was offering to assist them with meeting that need myself.

Because that's what friends are for.

Friday, October 27, 2017


[Tom] Hanks, who spoke with David [Greene] during a tour stop for his book Uncommon Type, asserted that he did not feel complicit in the kind of climate that would allow for harassment of this kind.

"I'm sure there were people who knew exactly what was going on and didn't say anything," Hanks said. "The thing is, I've been involved in sets where there were shenanigans — but not sexual predatory behavior. That's the difference."
LISTEN: Tom Hanks On Weinstein Allegations: Some 'Think ... This Is How It Works'
My question, Mr. Hanks, is this: The distinguishing characteristics that separate "shenanigans" from "sexual predatory behavior" are what, exactly? After all, in my own experience, I've seen behavior that simply struck me as thoughtless, lonely and sad, quickly labeled as sexually predatory.

And I suspect that for many women, that's the issue. The issue with unwanted sexual advances or behavior isn't that it's sexual - it's that it's unwanted. And as with so many other things, the line between unwanted behavior that is simply distracting or annoying, and that qualifies as predatory depends on so many different, and subjective, variables that it's nearly impossible to predict in advance. One person may brush off something that strikes another person as bearing attention, a third person as clear cause for alarm but that a fourth person finds gratifying. And while it's highly unlikely that someone would do something overtly predatory in front of Tom Hanks (as this seems like a grade-A Career Limiting Move), it may also be unlikely that someone who felt genuinely threatened by something Mr. Hanks regarded as mere shenanigans, who decided that saying, "I find this to be predatory," might also very well count as a career limiting move.

I've told this story before, so I'm not going to detail it again, but I was simply walking to the grocery store one day in broad daylight, and encountered a woman who then felt so threatened by me that she took steps to ward off a possible assault. At the time, it seemed extreme, and prejudicial, and maybe it was, but here the point is that it doesn't matter how mundane someone thinks they're being. Other people's perceptions, and risk tolerances are their own.

And for some people, sexually predatory behavior starts with shenanigans. Whether it's a means of grooming a target or a way of gauging what will be tolerated, a touch here, a comment there, and then perhaps you're talking real sexual assault. And even then, you have differences of opinion.

I've been told, from time to time, that I'm intimidating. I've even been told that people had thought twice about telling me that I'd done something to bother or slight them because they were afraid of how I would react. Those, fortunately rare, occasions always came as a surprise to me, because I haven't deliberately set out to intimidate someone since I was 14. And even then, I hoped that my uniform would do the heavy lifting for me. I've never seen myself as particular intimidating; my mental picture of myself doesn't match up with my mental picture of a heavy. But I'm not sure how much that matters to someone who looks at me and simply sees someone who masses twice what they do. Under those circumstances, a wisecrack might come across as an order, or a threat. It's easier than one might think. Especially if you happen to have a somewhat morbid sense of humor.

And so while I understand where Mr. Hanks is coming from, I don't think that there's such a bright line between shenanigans and sexual predation. And in that, I think it's difficult to say that any one of us isn't complicit in it.

Part of the issue, I suspect, is that we tend to use complicit in much the same way that we use "accessory" or "accomplice;" someone who knowingly, or perhaps simply negligently, aids and/or abets bad behavior. The responsibility that's implied, perhaps, allows us to rest more easily when making judgments. But perhaps complicity is broader, much broader, than that. And if it is, it's difficult, because we then have to wonder if we're complicit in things that never cross our minds and that we know nothing about.

When I was in college, I took a creative writing class, and we had a short story assignment for Halloween. One young woman in the class wrote a story about a husband taking revenge on his wife for having an affair. My story was a man, with dogs and his rifle, turned out to be on a literal witch hunt. Both tales ended badly for the women involved. If another classmate later pressured a date into sleeping with him, did our stories, which made violence into entertainment, make us complicit in that? Could we claim that we were simply writing scary stories?

The point to this isn't self-flagellation now for something that I was completely oblivious to thirty years ago. It's simply to point out that the answers aren't so easy, aren't so cut-and-dried when we're talking about people's perceptions of the world. The world is not an objective place in any way that most of us can interact with, no matter how much it may seem so in the moment.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Keeping a lookout.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Let It Fade Away

But once you insert black people into the situation, [sociolinguist Renee] Blake says, it's important to be more tactful.
This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'?
The context of this is that during World War Two, the Tuskegee Airmen were referred to as the "Spookwaffe," (who coined the term is unknown) and from there, according to NPR's Code Switch, "became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur." Now I've heard of the use of "spook" as a term for a black person, and, to be honest, I'd thought that it had gone out of style even before WW2. Given the fact that "nigger" is still alive and kicking, I've never had anyone attempt to slur me with "spook."

But by the end of the article, it's fairly clear that there is an expectation that spook, and words derived from it, like spooky or spooked, shouldn't be used within earshot of a Black person. The author of the Code Switch article says that other synonyms for "frightened" are "more fun." My first response to this was "Seriously?" But for all that I've grown weary of the sensitivity and brittleness that is supposed to be a common component of modern Blackness and the experience of being born African-American, I get it.

And there's a bigger issue than the ability to find racism, or at least racial insensitivity, under every rock and my irritation with the habit. Why is there an attempt being made to reinforce the idea of "spook" as a second-rate pejorative? What does anyone gain from the idea that spook should be considered offensive to black people because of its short-lived career as a racial epithet? It's like "niggardly," which Ms. Blake also notes as a term that should be avoided "front of a group of young students in a classroom," and, presumably, in front of Black people. But niggardly is not derived from nigger - so why imply that it is by tiptoeing around it? Why reinforce an idea that we have no really use for?

The power that words have is not in the words themselves. If someone walks up to be and calls me a nigger with all of the hate and disdain that they can muster, I won't suffer heart failure or a broken bone. The power is in the way we teach people to use and respond to words. At worst, I'll be afraid that they intend to follow up those words with violent action. And maybe even fatal action. But it's the action that will objectively injure me. And the fear that the words and the actions are linked is something I was taught. Were a co-worker to walk up to me and say "What up, my nigger," it would be an entirely different story, even though the syllables are the same. Now, when I was younger, I used to be quite put out when people would call me nigger to my face - especially when those same people would piously declare that racism was dead. But I was put out because well-meaning people in my family taught me to be put out. And I eventually realized that it was the fact that I was put out by being called nigger that prompted many of the people around me who used it.

And in that, I don't see the point of freighting "spook" with some or all of the same meaning. Why teach people to be the slightest bit put out by it? Because for spook to have any portion of the same currency as nigger, we would have to teach people to use it, and respond to it, that way. I cannot see how anyone is better off that way. If someone refers to something as spooky in my presence and I've learned to feel disrespected enough that language policing them seems like a reasonable response, I don't see any gain - except that we're telling a group of people that their coining of "Spookwaffe" is still alive and powerful today. And that group of people is almost entirely dead. We'd also be giving people who want to slur in public a means of doing so that comes with the plausible deniability of the other definitions of spook. Yay?

Given this, the formerly racist uses of spook shouldn't be dredged up and paraded around. We're better off letting them lie. We have enough weaponized words as it is. Who will care that we passed up the opportunity to add this one to the pile, other than the very people who most often seek out words to use as weapons? It does nothing for me, as a Black person, to have another word that someone might use in an attempt to put me out, and it does nothing for people who aren't Black to have yet another word that they have to do mental math before speaking. And while one could make the point that English is what happens when languages develop hoarding tendencies, there are better ways of housecleaning than this.

If I sneak up behind you and say "boo," feel free to say that I spooked you. That's what the word was designed for. The use of the word as a pejorative, even a second tier one, had largely come and gone by the time I was born. Let it stay dead. It will require active effort to revive it, and there has to be a better use for that work.