Friday, March 31, 2017

Side Vs. Side

[B]ack in September, Flynn made it clear how he felt about people who seek immunity.

"When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime," Flynn said  during an interview with MSNBC commentator Chuck Todd.
Michael Flynn's comments about immunity last year are coming back to bite him
While I will admit that this prompts me to look askance as General Flynn, in the end, that's because I'm not a staunch partisan; I don't have an interest in shielding Republicans from criticism and casting Democrats in a bad light. But, by the same token, I'm unprepared to level charges of "hypocrite;" again, because I'm not a staunch partisan. I don't have an interest in shielding Democrats from criticism and casting Republicans in a bad light.

For me, where General Flynn erred was in not being more partisan during his interview with Chuck Todd in September. Had he simply cast the Clinton aides who had requested immunity as probable criminals flat-out, he'd still be facing criticism for following in their footsteps, but he's have an easy defense in the idea that he was impugning the motives of the specific people he was talking about. Because that's likely what he was intending. I somehow doubt that General Flynn honestly believed that the American justice system was 100% witch hunt-free until the day he decided that asking for immunity in exchange for testimony was a good idea.

After all, this is the nature of partisanship. If I'm talking to a die-hard Republican, I'm not at all surprised when they insinuate, or even flat-out declare, that Democrats are dishonest by simple virtue of them being Democrats. Likewise for Democrats. Of course, any investigation mounted by Democrats that target's Republicans is simply a political which hunt and power play. Of course, any Republican operative who requests immunity from prosecution is looking to avoid jail time for crimes they knowingly committed. When speaking to someone whose worldview, and perhaps more importantly, moral compass, is centered around their partisan/tribal affiliation, why would one expect anything different?

Our problem with partisanship isn't that many of us are active partisans. It's that many active partisans openly look down on active partisanship, and so seek to present themselves as neutral, objective, players. And they do this despite the fact that it fools no one. In a sense, we're all partisans, in the sense that we have biases. If you've read more than two or three of my Politics posts, my biases should be fairly apparent to you by now. And if there were a political party that directly aligned with my biases, I'd likely be a fairly partisan supporter, and have to constantly be on my guard against reserving the presumption of good intent exclusively to fellow party members. So, in that regard, I'm non-partisan in the American system only in the fact that neither of the two major parties particularly suits me. I'd like to think that I'd escape groupthink enough to only believe in my party, right or wrong, as opposed to my party is always right, but I don't know that I'd bet on that.

Because in the end, there's no profit in being even-handed about these things. A Republican who disputes that there's a witch hunt or a Democrat who says that General Flynn is simply playing the game as it played won't earn themselves anything with the people who matter. Their co-partisans will likely resent the party's reputation being undermined, and counter-partisans might be happy to point to their statements as proof of the other side's dishonesty, but that's different than an embrace at the ballot box.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Knowledge Based

Which is better: A short news story with an increased probability of leaving listeners (especially motivated ones) with misconceptions, or a long new story that people don't take the time to listen to all the way through?

Now, this is somewhat of a leading question, and I suspect you understand what the "correct" answer is. I was listening to Morning Edition on the radio this morning, when a story cane on about geoengineering to reduce global warming. Morning Edition is intended to be "drive time" radio, and so the stories are short. And that brevity can sometimes work against a full understanding of the issue at hand.

This morning there was a story about climate engineering in the service of cooling the planet, and how the researchers involved are weighing federal funding for their research. Whether or not climate engineering is the best way, or even a good way, to combat the overall warming of Earth's atmosphere is certainly open to debate, especially given that it's never been attempted on a large scale. So one can understand the importance of researching the issue. But now that President Trump is in office, backed by a Republican Congress, researchers have become more leery of accepting funding from the federal government.

Many environmentalists are suspicious of efforts to deliberately tinker with the climate. They think just talking about the possibility of cooling the planet will threaten the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So the last thing [Ted Parson] would want is for this research to be associated with the Trump administration.
Scientists Who Want To Study Climate Engineering Shun Trump
I pulled this particular quote from the story because it points to a particular facet of the climate change debate and its goals. Namely, the issue with carbon. For many people in the fossil fuels business, especially the rank and file workers whose job it is to help extract, process and transport the materials, climate activism seems like a direct attack on them and their livelihoods, hence the rhetoric of a "war on coal." From the environmental activism side of the equation, things look a little different. Workers in the fossil-fuel industry may be being asked to sacrifice their careers in the name of cleaner energy, but that's a means, not an end.

To the uninitiated, given those positions, climate geoengineering seems like a win-win. Energy workers can keep their jobs and the temperature of the atmosphere can be controlled. One can have one's cake and eat it, too. For climate scientists to appear to back away from an idea they saw as promising a year ago, simply because the current administration is more committed to fossil fuel industry employment than the previous one seems to undercut the idea that the problem is the effects of fossil fuels, and not the fossil fuels themselves.

Here is another quote, this one not taken from the radio piece, but from the accompanying article on NPRs website:
"I am more comfortable," [David] Keith[, a climate scientist at Harvard University] said, "taking money from clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists than I am taking money from the administration."
For someone who sees money as money, something that spends the same no matter where it comes from (or who writes the check), this statement could easily stoke their suspicions that climate scientists have an agenda, and that they are being less than honest about their findings. Why, after all, should money from a Clinton administration or "clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists" be any better than money from a Trump administration? It doesn't require a particularly suspicious mindset to suspect that climate scientists are more comfortable taking money from those they agree with ideologically, because they'd be more likely to accept ideologically-driven results.

All of this is not, I suspect, the intended takeaway from this piece. But if you know little to nothing about climate engineering initiatives other than you heard/read in this story, it could easily be the message you're left with, especially if you already think that something's not on the up-and-up. On the other hand, the alternative may not be workable. Giving an audience a working primer on the scientific concerns about climate engineering and then discussing climate scientists concerns about the current administration is a tall order of a drive-time news story with a three minute running time. I'm a fairly regular NPR listener (whenever I'm commuting) and I'm somewhat up on the debate over climate engineering. But NPR, and media outlets in general, can't count on their audiences always knowing the greater context. And it does their audience a disservice to leave it out.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger Danger 2.0

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Moslem.
Donald Trump is agent for Russia.
Micah White is a Satanist.

Or, perhaps more simply, each of these people is a Dangerous Other in the eyes of those who oppose their politics. So why not focus on their politics? In an intensely partisan environment, it isn't very difficult to find some policy prescription that a candidate that is vulnerable to being described as Wrong For America, or whatever jurisdiction that they hope to represent or manage. In a world where solutions are rare and trade-offs are common, most policies will come at a cost to someone - those costs being the necessary trade-offs for the benefits proposed - and people's Loss Aversion tends to prime their sensitivity to those costs, making them easy targets for mobilization to scuttle the entire enterprise.

Part of it, I think, is related to the idea of Lovely Awful Things - the seductive nature of Bad Ideas that makes them attractive to people other than ourselves. The injection of ad hominems into the mix is designed to inoculate people against Wrong Thinking by casting the source of those thoughts as Evil.

But I also think that this phenomenon grows out of a focus on Stranger Danger. Although Stranger Danger is perhaps most accurately defined as the conceptual framework that we've built around the idea of the threat to children posed by adults they don't know, I think that we can also broaden the term to encompass the idea that people we don't know who don't signal shared virtues with us are dangerous, in no small part because they seek to advance their own special interests at our expense.

In this sense, the focus of Birtherism is a way of blunting the rhetorical skill of President Obama and the accusations that President Trump is intended to undermine the idea that he's simply another partisan. Likewise, but on a much smaller scale, labeling Micah White a Satanist is mean to counter his for-the-common-man bona fides. Just like an adult unknown to a child offers sweets as a lure, politicians from the other side of a political divide offer reasonable-sounding policies only as traps for the unwary, and casting them as an evil person aligned with an outsider enemy allows for ad hominem attacks on them without appearing to be openly partisan. The non-partisan may be repelled by an attack on someone for their partisan affiliation, but calling them out as a Dangerous Other allows that unacceptable prejudice to be cloaked in an tolerated one.

In 1992, I turned 24, after a childhood in which Stranger Danger was starting to become a thing, even if it hadn't yet acquired that name. Stories of predatory adults prowling about for children to victimize seemed to be slowly becoming more an more common. And even though people my age often look at modern parental hysteria with a mix of amusement and concern, it's not as if our own generation didn't indulge in it. And I wonder of part of the pattern of increasing, and intractable, partisanship that seemed to take root as my age cohort came to be of voting age isn't perhaps rooted in the distrust of strangers that was starting to be seen as a virtue when we were still in school. Part of that distrust was buttressed by the speculative things that were attributed to unfamiliar adults, things that, as time went on, morphed from unsupported suppositions to presumed truths, each becoming a justification for shedding the presumptions of innocence and good intent.

Of course, I'm speculating here. I don't have any evidence one way or another, and correlation does not imply causality. But part of me hopes that there's something there, for no other reason than it offers a visible, if not easy, path to begin to undo some of the divides that we've built between ourselves.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And the Law Won

Instead of changing in the couple’s favor, the laws evolved to make her husband more vulnerable to deportation, a development the Beristains never expected. She told the Tribune that Trump’s deportation measures — the one’s she thought her family would be exempt from — are harming “regular people.”

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen told the CBS TV affiliate WSBT. “But when you’re a good citizen and you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”
Trump supporter thought president would only deport ‘bad hombres.’ Instead, her husband is being deported.
Helen Beristain has already received a lot of criticism over this situation, from both the Left and the Right. (Of course, they are attacking her for different reasons, but neither side seems inclined to hold their fire.) So I'm not intending this post to be a direct criticism of her, myself. Rather, I'd like to point to an aspect of this situation that I find instructional.

Roberto Beristain, for all that he might be a wonderful person is, by definition, not a good citizen. And that's because he's in the United States illegally. And there was nothing in President Trump's rhetoric, back when he was still Candidate Trump, that pointed to the idea that simply because Mr. Beristain was a good person - that he supported and he helped and he paid taxes and he gave jobs to people - that he would be converted into someone who is in the country legally.
Helen Beristain, his wife, says she supported President Trump but feels his policies shouldn’t apply to her husband because he owns a business and pays taxes.
Trump Supporter’s Husband Faces Deportation
While this is sometimes the way that laws work, when we refer to "the Rule of Law," this generally isn't what we have in mind. The Washington Post headline says that Mrs. Beristain believed that President Trump would only deport "bad hombres." And while it's an understandable sentiment, it points to a fundamental understanding of the nature and the purpose of laws.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on immigration. That's a body of law that, like many of them, takes quite a bit of time and effort to really understand. But, to the best of my knowledge, the United States does not have a policy that accepts all potential immigrants, with the exception of who are criminals or have been adjudged to have done "bad things." Rather, one has to apply for entry and be accepted. The original intent behind the United States' immigration policies may or may not be valid, depending on how one views the nation's motives when they were first enacted or how strong a position one takes on the idea that people should have unfettered rights to move about in the service of bettering themselves. But even if we ascribe a desire to apply a filter to would-be Americans, and the rules are designed to let in the good, and keep out the bad, there is a process by which the government determines who should be allowed to stay, and who should have to return to their home nation. And it's not based on the personal sentiments of private citizens, whether they be immigration activists, low wage employers or the spouses of those who didn't make the cut.

Generally speaking, the purpose of law is to be a weapon against people who behave in ways that we find to be unacceptable. In order to live in communities, human beings have evolved the capacity to create and manage remarkably complex series of rules and strictures that govern personal behavior and mandate sanctions for violations. But part of what allows rules to work is that they have to be (reasonably) consistent, and in a society like ours, where the body of law is simply too large for any one person to commit all it to memory, it has to be applied in accordance with how it is recorded.

The problem that many people had with President Obama's actions on immigration was that it didn't square with their personal desires on how the law should be applied. For critics on the Left, the President's stepped up enforcement actions were an affront to their ideas that people who were seeking better lives should be allowed to do so without interference. For critics on the Right, the loopholes that the President opened in the rules were proof that he wasn't serious about enforcing laws that they saw as essential for the security of the nation. But both sides seemed completely disinterested in examining the purpose and the wording of the laws under consideration and asking it were time for changes. My personal understanding of the reason for this is that it allows both sides to retain laws on the books for the purpose of being weapons against those they don't like - a broadly-written law that is ignored when convenient can be just as easily recalled for convenience. But that's likely an overly cynical way of looking at it. Rather, I think that most people are like Mrs. Beristain - they believe that the intent of a given law roughly matches what they would intend with it - in this case that the objectively criminal and the subjectively bad would be barred from entering the country, and we would simply look the other way for the "good" immigrants. (And despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are perhaps the most subjective determinations that we ever make, that people would generally agree on who belongs in which category.) But in the end, that creates a legal structure that lends itself to either being arbitrary or to being sectarian and prejudicial; and American history is rife with heartbreaking stories of how that wound up allowing the law to become a cover for abuse.

In a nation divided by competing political and moral ideologies, a body of law that is to everyone's liking is probably beyond our ability to put into place. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to cultivate a high-level understanding what our currently laws are and understand what provisions are encoded into them, and what informal and unwritten modifications have come about as a result of custom, resources or simple desire. And if we understand the law as it is practiced to be superior to the law as it is written, lobby intentionally for those changes, rather than simply assuming that they will always stand.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I never knew that flowers could be unkempt.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trolls in the Hoods

One such post is an article on white supremacist website, The Daily Stormer. "How to be a Ni**** on Twitter" breaks down methods for creating a fake account in order to take "revenge on Twitter" for banning Andrew Auernheimer's white supremacist ads and for blocking Jared Wyand's account for anti-Semitic tweets. The secondary goal, the article notes, is to "create a state of chaos on twitter, among the black twitter population, by sowing distrust and suspicion, causing blacks to panic."
The Emergence Of The White Troll Behind A Black Face
I don't use Twitter. I've never had the time to look into it, and I have enough random online accounts that I don't use to begin with. So I don't have any insight into how Twitter society, even the Black Twitter society works. But I have to admit to being dubious about the idea that a bunch of trolls pretending to be Black people on Twitter could somehow manage to spark "panic" among actual Black people on Twitter. How does Black Twitter interact with the site that a disruption to it would cause "panic?" I understand how social media has risen from online yearbooks to become a central part of many people's lives over the past decade and a half, but it seems strange to believe that simply being unable to trust the someone who claims to be a given ethnicity is actually that ethnicity seems like a flimsy reason for fear.
Some of the steps to creating a fake account include pretending to know people they might be related to, calling people out on their drug dealing activities, and accusing them of being Neo-Nazis using fake accounts. This way, Aglin writes, "Blacks will then accuse each other of having fake accounts and start reporting each other."
Given that everyone understands, or should understand, that on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog, it seems optimistic to the point of derangement to think that a few well-placed trolls could turn an entire online community, especially one that comprises millions of people, into effectively a circular firing squad.

Having some difficulty understanding how anyone could possibly believe that such a hare-brained scheme could work, I'm tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a parody, and chalk its newsworthiness up to Poe's Law. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell a genuine idiot from someone who's simply pretending to be one on the Internet. (Of course, given the generally low opinion that many people have of White Supremacists, it may be easy to believe that they'd hatch schemes that come across as obviously broken.)

In my own activities online, I have encountered any number of people who make assertions about themselves that I can't verify. Generally, speaking, I don't pay much attention to these things. When people post self-portraits of themselves, I typically assume that they are honest pictures, and when they make statements about what's going on in their lives, I typically assume that they're accurate descriptions. But I don't need them to be. I don't base my comfort and safety on the World Wide Web on the idea that people that I've otherwise never met, and only "know" from online interactions are who they portray themselves as being. If I really need to speak to a known quality, I simply connect directly with one of the people that I have enough of an offline relationship with to be comfortable speaking to. Were some noticeable fraction of the others to turn out to be engaged in elaborate subterfuge, I'd simply drop them. Calmly.

The fake account advice proffered up by The Daily Stormer seems to be based on a parody of a minority online community, a group of people who are frightened and insecure enough to require the comforting presence of people superficially like themselves, trusting enough to believe that anyone who presents as like them must actually be like them and naive enough be easily manipulated by literal strangers. In the case of Black people specifically, it also seems to be predicated on a sort of group subterfuge; a pretense of respectability that people engage in between drug deals. And in that sense it comes across as a plan to trap elephants using their fear of mice.

Like I said, White Supremacists are an unpopular bunch, and perhaps this is what makes it seem reasonable that they would think such a vapid scheme is workable. But from my perspective, I suspect that someone's having a good laugh at NPR's expense right now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Opposites Detract

One day, people will stop using moral/ethical terms, such as "right/wrong" and "good/evil" when describing their emotions about certain people - how likeable, how trustworthy or how safe they understand someone to be.

Of course, that will be the day after the final extinction of humanity...

I've always wondered about the habit that people have of predicating someone's moral or ethical opinion of someone's entire interior life on a single data point. "This person supports certain people, so they're unacceptable as an acquaintance" or "This person is okay with a certain action, so they're completely without scruples." These have always struck me as a form of personal Purity test, and what I will admit confuses me about them is how unacceptable they are to admit to, given how common they are.

I can't manage a day without someone loudly proclaiming how this one singular (usually vague) action that some or another (usually nameless) person has said or done means that they should be cast down into the fires and how anyone who disagrees should uncircle/unfriend/unfollow them *this instant*. And nine times out of ten, my first thought is, "Given that I have no idea what the crack you're going on about, I can't understand how to make this information actionable." Usually followed up by the sinking feeling that I'm going to regret ever having encountered them in the first place.

Now, to be sure, I'm a moral noncognitivist (Whew! Say that three times fast!) which is really just a five-dollar word for the idea that what people consider moral and ethical truths are a form of behavior preferences, rather than any sort of objective statement about the world. In other words, when someone says, "Taking candy from a baby is wrong," what I understand that to mean in the broader context is "I disapprove of taking candy from a baby," because there is nothing intrinsic to either candy or babies that creates an objective prohibition against separating the two. And while I can take that disapproval seriously, and support acting on that disapproval - in the end, it's just personal disapproval, and if someone else (say, a dentist) approves of taking candy from a baby, what we have is a difference of opinion rather than competing understandings of the objective nature of the universe.

But even setting that aside, going all the way to a description of someone's ethical framework based on whether they support this artist or disagree with that law seems like a tremendous, and unwarranted, leap. Especially because we tend to use such leaps to avoid simply saying: "I prefer to associate with people who openly share all of my preferences when it comes to certain activities." Because for some reason that seems more narrow-minded and partisan that making wild presumptions about people in order to justify a preference to not associate with them. I don't understand it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Border Stories

After one too many jarring electric wake-up calls, I picked up a clock radio, and now I am reminded of the loathsome fact that I need to be out of bed at far too early for my tastes by the disembodied voices of NPR correspondents and their subjects. And often, as part of that morning routine, there is a story about immigration, typically illegal immigration from Latin America.

Immigration stories on NPR have a certain sameness about them after a while, as they fall into a predictable pattern, being sympathetic treatments of the migrants and their plight, while making sure they talked to a token cranky Gringo (who dutifully makes the expected complaints).

While I appreciate the newsworthiness of these stories, they do become stale after the fiftieth time you hear about some hardworking Mexican being forcibly returned to a life of poverty, some Guatemalan parents being shipped back home while their children look for a place to stay, or some small-town bumpkin calling for the government to round 'em all up an' ship 'em all back to where they came from, usually in the comically vain hope that this will mean that the local unpaid labor market will suddenly raise wages to upper-middle-class levels again. But more importantly, they seek to boil the debate down to the effects on a set of carefully chosen individuals, who are intended to represent much larger groups of people. Groups that are large enough that they're not as monolithic as they're made out to be.

What I'd like to see are reasoned debates on some of the central issues surrounding immigration. One that's touched on from time to time is the human rights issue. Seems reasonable enough. It seems needlessly cruel to say that people in marginal areas have no right to go a wherever they can find opportunities. But there's always at least one flip side, and in this case, that's the right of a nation to control its borders, and decide who its willing to let in, and who stays out. These two concepts are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. So deciding which one of these we consider to be more important to us is going to be a major part of a broader plan going forward. Surely, news outlets can dig up specialists on human rights and national sovereignty to both depersonalize and contextualize that aspect of the debate for us?

Will it solve the whole debate for us? Of course not. There are other considerations to be taken into account, and it would be good to know those as well. But we'll have more to go on than we have now, and can start to see the bigger picture.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


“Well, I’m a huge student of American history and I recognize this is one of those times where there’s great polarization between the two parties. And frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise. Hence you have the deadlock we have today.”

“Well, the fact is, you never compromise on principles. If people on the far left they have a principle to stand by, they should never compromise, those of us on the right should not either. [...] What has motivated many people to get out and work for us and we are at that point where one side or the other has to win this argument. One side or the other will dominate.”
Richard Mourdock former Treasurer of Indiana
Mr. Mourdock's comments came during an interview with Soledad O’Brien while he was running for the Indiana United States Senate seat formerly held by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, whom Mr. Mourdock had defeated in the primary, in part by casting him as too moderate and too willing to work with President Obama. I was reminded of the interview after a conversation with a politically-minded acquaintance in which I made my standard argument about the importance of not demonizing the other side when you talk to them. His response was basically, that he never intended to speak to them, only about them, and that his goal was to rally the rest of the nation against them.

And that left me with a question. Is a lasting victory for one side or the other even possible? Can either America's political Left or Right actually manage to convince enough people to follow them to create the sort of "permanent majority" that Karl Rove once envisioned without compromising their principles enough to appeal to a large swath of people who don't normally vote? (And can they do so in such a way that doesn't motivate others of that same group to join the opposition?)

There's nothing about the nature of the political universe that prevents it. So the question really becomes: If circumstances don't line up in such a way as to bring down their opposition, are the political parties willing to do what it takes, whatever that is, to secure long-lasting power for themselves? Right now, the answer seems to be "no," if only because the parties, while unified in what they don't want, and not unified enough in what they do want to be able to marshal all of their resources into a dominance project. Which may be a profound disappointment to staunch partisans on all sides, but is likely a boon for the rest of us. A political party driven by a sense that their principles are both morally right and the last line of defense again a willfully perverse opposition, if given an unassailable majority for even a short time, could restructure the political landscape to give themselves formidable structural advantages that could last decades. Republican control of redistricting in several states meant that in 2012, despite narrowly losing the overall popular vote in House of Representatives races, they were able to hold on to control of the chamber.

Richard Mourdock envisioned a world in which the American public effectively exiled one party or the other to the political wilderness, making them the opposition in name only. He saw the electorate as being given a choice and making it. It's a vision that's unlikely to play out anytime soon, given the way the public is divided and the political parties fail to effectively cross those divides. But people will continue to look for ways to end the back and forth. Something tells me we're better off if no-one ever manages it.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Rain, it turns out, is not a good subject for photography, because unlike snow, you can't really catch it in flight. And the ripples in puddles always look better when they're in motion.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Return to Gray

Reasons why Aaron isn't Black Enough, number 23,695.

I saw this, and my first reaction was to burst out laughing. Fortunately, I have my own office where I work, so I didn't bother my coworkers. I think that this is funny and clever. And yes, I understand why some people are offended by it. But no, I don't think that it's objectively bad. I'm not going to be "that guy," the one who runs around telling people to "lighten up," or "have a sense of humor." Because you can consider this to be the worst thing ever done to beer and still be the life of the party. But I do become kind of annoyed when things like this are cast as being about race and ethnicity, rather than about the individuals involved. What we find offensive, or not, is about who we are as people, and not the color of our skin. I happen to take Black Lives Matter seriously, and still find this to uproariously funny. It's hard for me to avoid chuckling as I type this.

But on the flip side, I understand that there are people who feel that the joke is on them, and they're being undermined. That the dead are being mocked, and that centuries of pain are being ignored. I don't know whether or not that was the intent. Honestly, I don't know if it matters. I became at peace with the idea that some percentage of humanity simply wasn't going to like me, for some reason or another, on sight some time ago. I find I enjoy life more that way.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Once and Forever

I was looking to do a little reading outside of my usual web haunts, so I wandered over to the National Review, where I found a column by George Will - I'd link to it, but there seems to have been some browser shenanigans going on (it kept opening new tabs to strange websites), so I'm uncertain of the page's safety.

In any event, Mr. Will, who I'd come to enjoy reading in the past was holding forth on the idea that eugenics was once a Progressive idea - in the 1920s to 1940s, and that modern progressives should know this. But he never answered the question of "Why?" Who cares what ideas were attached to modern political labels 80 to 100 years ago? Why must the current heirs to a political term be held responsible for a past that was dead an buried before they were born?

It was a disappointing read, because it seemed more outwardly partisan, and less sharp, than I remembered Mr. Will being when I'd read his columns in local Seattle newspapers. The idea that modern Democrats and Progressives are somehow tainted by the actions of the pre-civil rights era or the period before the Second World War has been floating around for years, and seems to be born of little more than a desire to insinuate that people who use the same labels as bad people in the past must be (perhaps secretly) bad people themselves.

Pretending that the world never changes is a poor mode of Conservatism, in my opinion. Conservatives may extol the virtues of the past, and desire to retain as many of the its practices and traditions as they can manage, and I can understand that impulse, even when I feel that it leads to a certain level of historical blindness. But when that blindness extends to the insinuation that the American political landscape - and the labels we use to describe it - haven't changed in a century, it becomes a handicap we can do without.

Monday, March 6, 2017

America, the Incredible

For some people, I suppose, the fundamental problem with the idea of "My country, right or wrong," is that it presupposes that one's country can be wrong.

And that's the feeling that I took away from this GQ article about a speech by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity—there were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships who worked even longer, even harder, for less. But they, too, had a dream, that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.
Now, I wasn't around when slavery, let alone the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was still practiced in the United States. So I can't really speak to the heart of Secretary Carson's words, which are that an American spirit of optimism was so all-pervading that even after being abducted from their homes and surviving a horrific passage across an ocean to become the literal property of other people, that African slaves understood that they were in a land of boundless opportunity - if not for them, then for their descendants. But suffice it to say that it strikes me as being iffy, at best.

In the end, the issue with this statement isn't it's historical iffiness. After all, there's no way to go back and survey the slave population and ask them if being in a nation so far from home had filled them with a hope for the future that they hadn't possessed beforehand. It's that there are ways of expressing that aspect of American Exceptionalism that won't come across as anywhere near so bizarre, or beholden to an idea that the United States could never do any wrong. The first step to uniting a group of people is speaking to all of them; and doing so in a way that's understood to be speaking to all of them. Speaking of the past in a way that says that, by today's standards, it has nothing to atone for doesn't do that. Not because there are people who are simply so invested in the wrongness of the United States that they demand self-flagellation as the price of their allegiance, but because there's just something... off about the idea that any human institution can somehow manage to completely transcend the failings and missteps of humanity.

Secretary Carson seeks to evoke an image of a perfect America. One that rarely managed any harm even in the worst aspects of its history. One that always projected its promise to everyone, no matter how lowly their station - or the effort expended to keep them there. And it's a nice image. But it can't ring universally true, and so it comes across as partisan. And therein lies the problem.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Marriage Material

Anecdotes are a handy way of personalizing a news story - a way of taking what otherwise might be a dry subject and putting a "human face" on it. Such as the following, from a story about how the loss of manufacturing jobs in Middle America is depressing marriage rates there:

After all, women are more independent than they used to be because they have more job opportunities than they once did. They can make the choice not to marry and still have children, and not face as much stigma as they once did.

This group includes Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana, where she works as a waitress at Red Lobster. The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”

Of course, Alfano still has obstacles: for instance, finding childcare while she’s at work and getting good health care for her family (she doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for Red Lobster’s plan). But three decades ago, a woman like Alfano would have needed a partner to be able to have children, or else faced social stigma and economic hardship. Today, her potential partners don’t have the opportunity for good, stable employment that they once did. They’re struggling, while Alfano makes a life on her own.
Alana Semuels "When Factory Jobs Vanish, Men Become Less Desirable Partners"
The focus of the story is the impact of the loss of manufacturing work on male “marriageablity” defined in the article as a) not being an alcoholic/addict and b) being employed. (No, really - that's the way the study's authors, David Autor, Gordon Hanson and David Dorn, define it.) And the anecdote above, that serves as a conclusion, is presented as a way of saying that when sisters can do it for themselves, they don't need men to provide for them.

But that anecdote stood out for me. The money at Red Lobster must be really good to allow for that sort of lifestyle on less than full-time. So I did some digging for a few of the details that the story left out. Given that she doesn't qualify for the employee health-care plan Ms. Alfano has to be working a maximum of 30 hours a week. It strikes me as difficult to buy a home and a BMW on that salary, but I live just outside of Seattle, where the cost of living is fairly high. Evansville, Indiana, however, is a completely different story. Looking up median home prices there, checking the local BMW dealer's used case selection and making some semi-educated guesses about the costs of property taxes and homeowner's insurance, I guesstimate that Ms. Alfano needs to make somewhere in the area of $12 to $13 an hour to buy a home just shy of the median price (with a 20% down payment) and drive a decent used BMW - something with enough miles on it that it wouldn't cost her as much as the house did.

With that out of the way, it seemed to me that the story was somewhat misdirected. Which  brings me to an anecdote of my own. I happen to know a single mother here who is doing pretty well for herself. She's a lot older than Ms. Alfano, but she owns a house, has a couple of nice car and raises two children on her salary. She also happens to make about six or so times what Ms. Alfano does, to allow her to live this lifestyle here in the Seattle area. What both of these women have in common is that they're not locked out of jobs that allow them to be self-sufficient in the areas in which they live. The (dire) economic hardship of the past is more or less gone, at least for them.

And given that, to a certain degree, the pressure to be married fades. In The Lobster one of the points that the society in which the movie was set took (sometimes comical) pains to drive home is that being alone was dangerous, whether it was choking on a stray bit of food or being sexually assaulted in the street, being single carried serious risks that having a partner would mitigate or even eliminate. And that leads to another facet of male “marriageablity” that the article didn't really touch on: need.

The model of family that many segments of society have come to see as outmoded, if not necessarily obsolete, can be said to have viewed being a wife as a prerequisite to being a mother, but not openly admitting to that. Instead, being a wife was viewed as just as aspirational as motherhood. But in a society that tended to stand between women and the jobs they needed to be self-sufficient or "breadwinners" for a family, you can see marriage as a stepping stone to motherhood, due to the financial aspects of the arrangement.
When young women become pregnant unintentionally, they have to decide whether to have the baby and whether to marry the father or not, said Autor. That evaluation becomes more fraught when the man doesn’t have a good job. Marriage to such men can be risky: They may not contribute very much income, but they could factor into family decisions. “You don’t want to marry a man who is in all likelihood not economically viable, because it’s not a free lunch,” Autor said.
What this says to me is that, possibly, a lot of these men were never desirable partners - they were simply necessary partners, because the task at hand, having a baby and raising it, was simply too much for many women to manage alone. Because from a purely financial standpoint, a man who makes enough money to support themselves (as an individual) and contribute to the overall finances of the couple is a net positive.

The general gist of the article is that if women like Ms. Alfano could meet someone who had a $25 an hour factory job (like the kind that Rexnord is moving from Indiana to Mexico), she'd happily let that man into her family - and family decision-making process - in exchange for the extra money he'd bring to the table. But outside of the fact that she has challenges with childcare and doesn't work enough hours to qualify for company-sponsored healthcare, she's doing alright for herself, because she managed to find a job that enables her to be reasonably self-sufficient in the place where she lives. Now, that self-sufficiency may be tenuous, but it's lasting well enough. After all, of Ms. Alfano were that hard up for a partner, one would suspect that there's at least one single Red Lobster waiter in the general vicinity who's marriage minded. Sure someone higher on the socioeconomic ladder might be better, but someone making as much as she does would still be an overall boon, especially given the efficiencies that could be realized - after all mortgage payments aren't calculated on the basis of the number of people who reside at the address.

There's a lot to be said for wanting what you need. But in a case like that, when the need goes away, the want goes with it. Maybe it's time to understand that there should be a new, or maybe simply broader, understanding of what it means to be marriagable in a society where men looking for partners have to compete with a status quo that's becoming increasingly livable.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Material Interests

It’s not that working blacks and working whites are unable to see the things they have in common; it’s that the material interests of the former—freedom from unfair scrutiny, unfair detention, and unjust killings—are in direct tension with the identity politics of the latter (as represented in the sketch by the Trump hat).
Jamelle Bouie "The Most Astute Analysis of American Politics in 2016? SNL's 'Black Jeopardy!' Sketch."
But I think that it's also important to remember that there is a flip side to this, that material interests of working Whites-in the form finding lawbreakers, incapacitating them from further criminality and neutralizing immanent threats to public safety-are in direct tension with the identity politics of working Blacks (as perhaps represented by a Black Lives Matter shirt).

And there will be a broader conflict than simply between the material interests of one side and the identity politics of the other - material interests vs. material interests and identity politics vs. identity politics will also be in play. It's worth mentioning that factors that are working against the material interests of Black Americans are not driven by White Americans' identification as White. Instead, they are driven by the idea that there are not enough resources to meet both sets of needs, and, to an extent the understanding that this lack of resources means that as long as the "other side" is having their needs met, that one's own needs, and rights, are being deliberately shortchanged. The comfort of one is the intentional infliction of the other.