Sunday, July 30, 2017

Of Little Consequence

"Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?" [Senator] Sanders asked. "What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?"

"I'm a Christian," [Russel] Vought repeatedly responded.

"I understand you are a Christian," Sanders said, raising his voice. The senator is Jewish and has said he's not particularly religious. "But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?"
Is It Hateful To Believe In Hell? Bernie Sanders' Questions Prompt Backlash
I've written about this previously, but The Atlantic raised the exchange again in the second episode of their "Radio Atlantic(" podcast. In case you'd managed to ignore the whole thing until now (in which case, my apologies), Russel Vought was defending Wheaton College (which is an evangelical Christian school in Wheaton, Illinois) commencing termination proceedings against Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor. Dr. Hawkins drew the college's ire after noting that Jews, Christians and Moslems are all "People of the Book," among other statements designed to show solidarity with Islam. They were then dissatisfied with the professor's reaffirmations of the college's Statement of Faith. For a lot of evangelicals, as I understand it, the idea that Islam should be considered an offshoot of Judaism, in the same way that Christianity is, and thus understood as worshiping the same deity is anathema.

The context was the question "How much religious diversity do Americans really support?" And most of the segment was a repeated criticism of "the Left" (defined as "Democrats and Liberals") for engaging in "intolerant pluralism" and not respecting religions as they are, rather than as they want them to be. Mr. Vought's grilling by Senator Sanders is often held up as proof that "the Left" talks the talk of religious tolerance and pluralism, but doesn't walk the walk. Emma Green defined "intolerant pluralism" as "diversity [...] acceptable only so long as those who are diverse are checking certain boxes or staying within the boundaries of certain acceptable viewpoints, by which everything is okay." She contrasts this with "tough pluralism," which she says "challenges us to take viewpoints like [those of certain conservative Christians], and ask the question, 'Is it okay? Can we live with, and tolerate people who have views that say "Mine is the right true way, and I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you, but I believe I'm right, and you're wrong".'"

Now, it's worth pointing out that this isn't a new criticism.
Liberals' desire for religion purely in service to social justice is as wrongheaded as conservatives' conception of religion as social control, and "relevance" is not the only test to apply.
Mark Oppenheimer "Haggadah Better Idea" Slate Magazine, 2 April 2007
But it misses something important. When Ms. Green attributes "tough pluralism" to the evangelical community, and other Christian conservatives, the "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you," is taken as a given. But when one does this, it makes the idea that certain people are condemned in the eyes of God something that only matters within the four walls of a church or a bible-study session, with no real-world implications outside of that. I think that part of this is that Christian communities are often very adept at casting out those people who behave "badly," but bad behavior is commonly considered to begin and end with violence or acts that otherwise cause extreme embarrassment (see: Westboro Baptist Church). And because, as far as the panelists were concerned, the issue started with Senator Sanders' grilling of Russel Vought, they didn't feel the need to answer if "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you, but I believe I'm right, and you're wrong, and if anyone says anything that even slightly contradicts that, they can't work with or for me" should be counted as a form of pluralism.

The statement that got Mr. Vought into trouble is as follows:
[Dr. John] Stackhouse implies that someone could really “know God” without a focus on Jesus. He explains, “Having a deficient (e.g., nontrinitarian) theology of God…does not mean you are not in actual prayerful and faithful relationship with God. (Having wrong ideas about a person…doesn’t mean that you do not have a relationship with that person.)” This is the fundamental problem. Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.
And it's important to point out that Jews also reject the idea that Jesus was the Christ. In fact, if one is going to say that anyone has rejected Jesus, that likely applies to Judaism even more than Islam. In Islam, Essa ibn Maryam was a prophet of God - the last prophet prior to Mohammed - and is often mentioned in the Qur'an. In Judaism, by contrast, Yeshua is, by definition, a false messiah. In this way, it can be understood that Jesus has a far greater standing in Islam than he has in Judaism. And even if most of the public does not understand that, it seems strange to presume that Senator Sanders wouldn't realize that Jews are firmly in the condemnation crosshairs.

And so the question is, in the eyes of people like Russel Vought, does this idea that people who "do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and [...] stand condemned" have any greater than implication than the theological. He applauds the firing of the Dr. Hawkins (although she may have resigned before the process completed) not for actively contradicting the idea that Moslems are theologically wrong, but because statements like "When pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply God," can lead to "theological confusion," because it could give people the idea that viewing Jesus as a prophet, rather than the son of God, didn't automatically cut one off from a relationship with said god. In other words, because her statement didn't make it abundantly clear just how wrong Moslems were, she deserved to lose her livelihood.

And this is the issue. For many people, the tacit assumption that someone who is adamant about how theologically wrong you are will take no actions against you based on that idea is suspect. And so "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you," cannot simply be assumed. And I think that despite the remarkably clumsy and hamfisted way in which he went about it, this is what Senator Sanders was driving at, and Mr. Vought aided and abetted him in that by refusing to simply say "yes," so that the discussion could then turn to what that means in practice. While American Christians seem to have no issue telling one another that everyone else is damned, they're often oddly reluctant to say as much to the damned themselves.

Despite the idea that American Christians (and here, I am speaking of a broader community than simply evangelicals) are considered deeply religious, perhaps to a fault, they are often also considered to have completely bought in to the idea that the modern United States should be completely and utterly secular, and thus gladly willing to separate their theological understanding of the world from their civic understanding of it. But this is in part, it seems, because many Americans can't seem to imagine anything less than Christians running around setting off bombs while shouting "God Wills It!" as a blurring between those worlds. And while it's true that sectarian violence is vanishingly rare in the United States of today, almost to the point of non-existence, that's not the only way in which conflict can make itself known.
Somebody who overtly professes not to have religion can't get elected dog catcher in this country. That's a problem, because it creates a political discourse full of sanctimony. Hypocrisy sanctified by religion.
Salman Rushdie (Reason Magazine, August/September 2005)
Yet we're intended to believe that of all the people in the world, Christians are unique in being able to hold in their heads the idea that other people are wrong and their ideas lead to condemnation by the universe itself; and while such people may be unfit for elected office, that's punishment enough. While that isn't an unreasonable position to take, casting the refusal to trust in that as a form of intolerance seems a bit sketchy to me.

And in the end, that becomes part of the problem with the discourse we have today. The idea that intolerance lies simply in not seeing someone as they prefer to see themselves was dubious from the outset. But now it's been adopted broadly enough that it's often the starting point of any discussion. But it leads people to be very selective about where the appropriate starting points for conversations lie, and to see deliberate bad faith in choices other than their own. And when the broader community buys into this, it miscasts concern into hatred. And as the labels of "bigot" and "intolerant" tend to drive people into their echo chambers, a debate that was intended to break down barriers simply builds them higher.

Friday, July 28, 2017


One voice that is considered trustworthy for many conservatives is Rush Limbaugh, the radio host who's viewed as sort of the conservative movement's Walter Cronkite.

Limbaugh tells listeners that the Russia probe is part of an effort to de-legitimize President Trump and his followers.

"Trump voters are never going to fall for this collusion story and are never going to buy into this notion that the Russians rigged it with Trump," said Limbaugh this week. "They're never going to buy into it. Because it makes them illegitimate. And they are not illegitimate. You people who voted for Trump are not illegitimate."
Amid Russia Scandals, Conservative Media Provides Air Cover For President Trump
As much as his critics tend to see Mr. Limbaugh as little more than a conservative blowhard, it's worth keeping in mind that one doesn't rise to a position of prominence, power and wealth by being pedestrian. And I think that Mr. Limbaugh has done something genuinely clever here.

On the fact of it, it seems to be a simple "if X, then Y" formulation - that is, if the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to influence the election, then those people who voted for Donald Trump are somehow illegitimate. In this, Mr. Limbaugh is both acknowledging and reinforcing the idea that of the link between the emotional investment of the voters who continue to support President Trump and their understanding of the election. A lot of people are aware of this, including the President himself. And one of the interesting things about Mr. Limbaugh's comment is the direct, succinct encapsulation of this reality, which would likely be rejected out of hand by his audience had it come from someone like E.J. Dionne, President Obama or even David Brooks.

But it's also interesting how Mr. Limbaugh continues the concept, and in so doing alters it. When he goes on to say that "people who voted for Trump are not illegitimate," he lays out the other way people tend to look at these things. Because once you have tied the concepts of collusion and illegitimacy together, what you end up with is different than "if X, then Y." You tend to wind up with "X equals Y." And therefore, an understanding of "if not Y, then not X." And in this way, Mr. Limbaugh is effectively implicating the audience in any collusion that would have taken place - only illegitimate voters would have participated in electing someone who the Russians had rigged the election in favor of. And so the affirmation of the legitimacy of Trump voters also becomes an affirmation of the fact that the Trump campaign did not collude with the Russian government.

And that, in the end, is the reality of partisanship. A shift from the idea that a person is blameless, and therefore trustworthy, and thus fit to be a member of the tribe to the idea that a person is a member of the tribe, and therefore trusted, and thus blameless. In other words, to paraphrase Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, "Everything I need to know about you I already learned from your political affiliation." And partisanship acquires this power when it's born from the idea that opposition is driven by a hatred of righteousness. And this sort of thing isn't unique to the United States by a longshot. President Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela, and President Chavez before him, have cast themselves and their followers as not only being correct, but in being opposed because they are correct.

Mr. Limbaugh casts the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia into more than simply an attack on the integrity of the democratic process, which is what many of the investigations backers say that it is, to an attack on the entire segment of the voting public who cast their ballots in the 2016 election for Donald Trump. And so the proof that the accusations are false becomes the fact that they are being made in the first place, because the Trump supporters understand themselves to not only be legitimate people and true American patriots, but to be under attack from sinister (natch), cynical and perverse Socialists, specifically for that reason.

And as one's politics becomes more and more entwined with one's sense of personal legitimacy, the more reflexive defenses of those politics becomes. People will stand and fight much more quickly for the the idea that they are good people than they will for some random policy platform. And this is true of both sides of the political spectrum. The Right has a cadre of people who make it their business (and for whom it is a lucrative profession) to reinforce this thinking, but it also occurs on the left - the internecine squabbles of the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama camps in 2008 and between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton camps in 2016 show the same dynamic. The opposition became personal more than political, because of the degree to which self-image entered into the picture.

And this is perhaps the reason why there isn't a strong centrist movement in the United States. The center simply doesn't have a view of itself as beleaguered by the forces of darkness. A centrist may see more active partisans as wrong, but is unlikely to see the majority of them (the far fringes possibly excepted) and intentionally hostile or perverse. And in such, they lose a motivating factor. And it's that motivation the President Trump's supporters are going to need if they want to avoid the Congress becoming more Democratic after the 2018 elections or to send President Trump back to the White House after the contest in 2020.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Some Of My Best Friends Are...

I was in an online discussion, and a commenter made a short point about "the sort of overt hatred espoused by some of the Right." To which the reply was "Thing is, I think that is a mischaracterization. I am on the Right. My wife is even black and Native American. I would not say the Right is based on hate. That is not accurate, in spite of how often it is repeated."

I'm going to leave aside the fact that the first poster had never said "the Right is based on hate," and instead take a look at "My wife is even black and Native American" as a rebuttal to the idea that there are overt haters among one's political allies. My father taught me that anyone who says "I'm not a racist, I have [a] Black [fill in the blank]," is, to some degree or another, a racist. And, in my experience, it's turned out to be more accurate than not. Mainly because anyone who feels the need to proactively tell me that they aren't a racist understands that something that they are going to do or say may strike me as racist - and they rarely wind up doing something that turns out to be completely innocuous. People who don't have the expectation that they're going to something I may find questionable, on the other hand, don't feel the need to preemptively lay out their bona fides.

But, more to the point, here are some Simple Reasons why the fact that you are married to someone makes no difference when it comes to whether or not people who happen to agree with you on politics and/or policy might be overt haters:

  1. Most alleged racists and other forms of bigots or other people described as hateful are, when it really comes down to it, simply being, at least in the moment, garden-variety jackasses. (I think that we woefully overuse racist, bigot, hateful et cetera.) And there are several things tend to be  true of jackasses.
  2. Once a jackass does not mean always a jackass. It's not a full-time job. It's more a hobby that some people engage in from time to time.
  3. At any given moment in time, there are a LOT of jackasses in the world. So many, in fact that if your political group is large enough that it actually makes a difference, it's GOING to have at least one active jackass in it.
  4. Jackasses are loud. If you have a group of 1,000 people, and one of them is a jackass, you can bet that everyone who knows anything about your group will have heard that braying jackass. The 999 people who are perfectly reasonable will run themselves ragged just trying to get a word in edgewise. And a corollary to this is that people don't understand political ideology from reading political science textbooks. They understand political ideology from people who self-describe as that ideology. And so that jackass who's running around waving your group's flag is going to color the perceptions of outsiders.
  5. Being a jackass doesn't rescind the right to vote. And since jackasses can vote, someone is going to compete for those votes, especially in close and/or high-stakes political contests. Just because someone is a jackass, that doesn't mean that anyone they vote for is a jackass.
  6. Being a jackass is not an automagical disqualification for public office. If jackasses aren't getting what they want out of office holders, one of them will run for office themselves. But since the jackass vote is seldom large enough to win elections unassisted, you can expect outreach to the non-jackass part of the electorate. Accordingly, just because someone is a jackass, that doesn't mean that everyone who votes for them is a jackass.
  7. Squeaky wheels get the grease. In electoral politics, making it KNOWN that you plan to vote for or against someone is just as, if not more, important than actually doing it. If the subset of people in your group who are the most consistent about letting it be known their votes are in play are jackasses, their interests will always be represented.
  8. There's honestly a difference between a jackass, and a legitimate extremist. Once someone's at the point of: "Because this person is visibly different from myself, they're completely ineligible for any sort of relationship with me as an equal, regardless of any other considerations" they've gone beyond jackass and are somewhere in "movie caricature of a Klansman or an evil plantation owner" territory.
  9. Jackasses will often tolerate people who aren't jackasses in the same way that they are jackasses. To go back to the original discussion that started this, this isn't 1957. Just because someone thinks that the repeal of miscegenation laws is a crime against Nation and God, that doesn't mean that they're going to run you out of town on a rail for marrying someone who has different color skin. Because they may still value your support in other areas.
Sometimes, a jackass is simply a person who's having a really bad day. And for a subset of people on the American Right, pretty much every day from January 2009 to January 2017 was a bad one. Likewise, the American Left has it's subset for whom January 2017 may as well read "Welcome to Hell." There will be time for equal-opportunity jackassery.

Now, I've dealt with a lot of albatrosses being hung around my neck because someone happened to have had an interaction with a jackass who happened to be Black, and wanted me to answer for those sins, because I too, happen to be Black. And it took me a long time to understand that the simple fact that some jackasses are Black didn't mean that I had to prove that I wasn't also a jackass. Granted it's different when dealing with issues of race, rather than political ideology. I don't have the luxury of being able to simply "un-Black" someone, and make an interlocutor prove a connection. The (sometimes very) superficial similarity is all that's needed. And that made the learning curve slow.

But in the end, it came down to having the expectation that people were bright enough to realize that I'm not Maurice Clemmons, Jesse Jackson or that sketchy guy they saw on the corner the other day, and that people could complain about them, without necessarily extending whatever complaint they had to me - or using that complaint as a means of criticizing me. While it's true that some people fully believe that  Michael Donald received what was coming to him, and that I should have to explain why I'm not due some of the same, it's not as widespread as people often make it out to be.

But more importantly, I've learned to let go of the fear that anything less than a vigorous defense of myself would lead to the people around me suspecting that their complaints about other people who may be associated with me (for whatever reason) in their minds did actually apply to me. Part of that was simply not always expecting that this is the way that everyone around me operated. The rest of it was the realization that there isn't anything to be done about the people who did operate that way. If someone was going to make the leap from their belief that O. J. Simpson was guilty to a belief that I could also kill someone, well, that's life. 99 times out of 100, it won't make a difference to me, and in the 100th, simply telling them that I'm not like O. J. likely won't solve it anyway.

It's human nature to lump people into groups. And just as much so to worry about the reputations of the groups that we're lumped into. Because there are a lot of jackasses in the world, and we've learned to fear their taint. But holding up our relationships with people as preemptive shields don't really do much to ward it off.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


I grew up in a home with firearms. My father was an occasional hunter and gun collector, and a member of the National Rifle Association. And one of the things that he taught me as to always, always, be careful with firearms. My father wanted me to know how to use a gun, and be reasonable comfortable with one, in case I ever had to use one in self-defense. And that meant understanding how to be safe with one, and not being nervous when I had one in hand. My father had a healthy respect for firearms, and though both intent and happenstance, instilled that respect in me.

This was, mostly, for my own safety, and the safety of the people around me. But it was also out of an understanding that getting things wrong had consequences. Shooting someone when you didn't mean to was not something that was taken lightly - people wound up in jail for that sort of thing. When I was a teenager, and taking training to become a security job for the summer, even though we weren't going to be carrying guns, we spent quite a bit of time going over the ins and outs of state firearms law, especially as concerned liability for a shooting - intentional or not.

That liability though, doesn't seem to attach as much to police officers - people who are specifically trained in the use of force, handling firearms and dealing with dangerous situations. And people have been sounding the alarm about this issue for far longer than Black Lives Matter has been on the scene.

While narcotics officers have (or at least are supposed to have) extensive training in how to act during a raid, suspects don’t, and officers have the advantage of surprise. Yet prosecutors readily forgive mistaken police shootings of innocent civilians and unarmed drug suspects while expecting the people on the receiving end of late-night raids to show exemplary composure, judgment, and control in determining whether the attackers in their homes are cops or criminals.
Radley Balko "The Case of Cory Maye" Reason Magazine, October 2006.
The case of  Justine Ruszczyk, in Minneapolis, illustrates this issue.
Fred Bruno, the lawyer for Matthew Harrity, whose partner killed Ms Damond, 40, had said: "It is reasonable to assume an officer in that situation would be concerned about a possible ambush."
Justine Damond shooting: Minneapolis police ambush claim 'ludicrous'
Which is fair. But it's also reasonable to assume that an officer concerned about a possible ambush would take another action than to shoot first, and ask questions later. Especially as, in line with what Mr. Balko pointed out over a decade ago, the general public is held to a higher standard of conduct. I've been in some sketchy neighborhoods in my life. But I highly doubt that I'd be able to get away with shooting an unarmed person out of fear of an ambush without being arrested and charged right off the bat.

The leeway we give law enforcement officers in these sorts of situations is understandable. No one is perfect, and if we treated every shooting as a criminal offense, it's likely that law enforcement would be a much more difficult job than it already is. But it does seem that "The officer feared serious injury or death," is quickly becoming a go-to rationale for shootings; perhaps because it's easier to defend overall than "In having an armed police force who are trained to defend themselves as well as the public, we accept that a certain number of people are going to be killed by officers under circumstances that we don't tolerate from the public at large." And, honestly, that's the bargain we've made.

Black Lives Matter tends to view that bargain through the lens of race; White citizens are okay with the police (or other citizens) shooting and killing Black people, because of (perhaps implicit or unconscious) racialized fears, as a means of maintaining their status of being in control of the nation. But it's likely that it's not so biased as that makes it sound.

In general, the United States is a safer place that it used to be. President Trump can rail against the homicide rate in Chicago (something which the cynic in me suspects he does because Chicago is an example of everything that many of his supporters feel is wrong with the parts of the country that they don't live in), but the place is much safer than when I was living there in the 1990s, and celebrating having made it to age 25 without being assaulted or killed. The violent crime rate has been on a downward trend pretty much ever since. But a lot of people don't realize that. And I suspect that police officers are no more immune to the idea that death awaits around every corner than anyone else is.

And in a nation where access to firearms is often taken as a means of securing safety, it's likely that this feeling of security will be purchased in blood.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lock, Lock. Who’s There?

I am, I guess you could say, a small-government moderate. I don’t have a philosophical issue with the existence of government, or any special gripes about the legitimacy of state power, but rather I tend to think that everyone is better off when people play to their strong suits. And there are some things that governments are placed to do very well, and some that they are always going to be terrible at. And the more we remove from government the responsibility for things that it doesn’t do well, the better off we are overall. Because we can give those jobs to people who will do them well.

When I have a gripe with government, it’s when they do something poorly, yet won’t allow anyone else to do it, regardless of the fact that they could do it better. An illustration of this is the Transportation Security Administration and travel locks. If you’re going to fly, and you want to lock your luggage, you have to use TSA-approved locks for the job, because the TSA wants to be able to get into a suspicious bad without having to cut the lock off. As if someone who is going to try to smuggle a bomb or other dangerous item onto a plane via checked luggage is going to merrily use an approved lock. These locks are approved by the TSA, because the TSA has skeleton keys that will allow them to open the locks, and thus the bags, and then lock them back.

The problem now is that people other than the TSA can have access to these keys. In fact, you can print them out for yourself with a 3D printer and the right plastic. Not, it seems that you need to; the locks are said to not be very secure. And therein lies the issue. TSA spokesperson Mike England says, in response to the news that keys for its locks can be printed by the public:

“The reported ability to create keys for TSA-approved suitcase locks from a digital image does not create a threat to aviation security.”

“These consumer products are ‘peace of mind’ devices, not part of TSA’s aviation security regime.”

“Carried and checked bags are subject to the TSA’s electronic screening and manual inspection. In addition, the reported availability of keys to unauthorized persons causes no loss of physical security to bags while they are under TSA control. In fact, the vast majority of bags are not locked when checked in prior to flight.”
But here’s the point. If I’m using a TSA-approved lock, I’m clearly not worried about the security of a bag when the TSA has it - otherwise, I’d have taken steps to keep them out of it, too. The point behind a TSA-approved lock is to keep people out when the TSA doesn’t have control of the bag. It’s unclear how one can have “peace of mind,” when the only luggage locks available on the market that can be taken on aircraft are so publicly compromised. Now, to be sure, I understand that luggage locks are not the end all and be all. I think of them in much the same way I do the lock on my apartment door. Not really much of a deterrent to a determined thief, who could likely simply bash the door in, but enough to prompt a casual burglar to move on to the next unit, in the hope of finding an unlocked door. And given that, as Mr. England points out, that most suitcases aren’t locked anyway, that small amount of deterrence might help. Granted, it’s still easier to open an unlocked bag than to use the TSA’s keys, but the bar is simply that much lower.

A number of people online had expressed some dismay over Mr. England’s attitude towards the security of traveler’s belongings, which has charitably been described as “not our problem,” but in a sense, that’s kind of the point. The TSA doesn’t concern itself with the security regimes of travelers. And in that regard, it doesn’t have to care that it compromises those in the course of what it does concern itself with - namely telling everyone how terrorists would be blowing up planes left, right and center if they weren’t there to rifle through random people’s luggage.

The TSA’s chance of every stopping an airplane bombing through physically searching luggage are slim. Given what I understand of their processes, the device would have to show up on whatever scanners they use, but not be so obvious that it would be clear what it was without a physical search. And again, if I were going to put a bomb into a piece of checked luggage, I wouldn’t care about the locks on it. But I guess this is the way security theater works. One would hope however, that they’d aim for better than a one-star performance.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

But I Do Know...

About a year and a half ago, I came across a post on Seth Godin's blog, entitled "For those unwilling to think deeply..." It rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt like someone who should know better taking pot shots at people who knew less than he did, and blaming them for their circumstances. And the American tendency to snipe at one another has always bothered me, even though I fully understand that the tribalism at the heart of it is never going to go away.

Being deeply knowledgeable about how electricity, democracy or irrational decision making works, when your paycheck depends on you knowing other things - but none of those things, is a luxury good. Because even though we don't have a market in "emotional labor," in that you can't simply go out and pay someone else to perform it for you, it's not without its costs. And I think that this is another way in which Mr. Godin's post irritates me, and illustrates one of the things that bothers me about the way we relate to one another: the not having access to a given luxury is itself a character flaw - being "unwilling to think deeply..." rather than a marker of a certain kind of poverty. And so we see no need to share that luxury with others.

Now, here I will admit to thinking that Americans are often more willing to plead poverty than perhaps we should be. But in some ways, I think that it is true that we can be impoverished in ways that don't often occur to us. The world is a very big place, and there is a lot to learn about it. But in order to do that, you have to have time that you aren't devoting to other things. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf noted this several years ago when he related to readers that he understands things that non-news junkies are unaware of. Not because he is smarter than they are, or more willing to think deeply about things. But because it's what he does for a living, and so he's doing deep dives into these questions when other people are working at whatever it is that puts a roof over their heads.

There are a lot of things that I don't understand about the world, because, in the end, I don't need to understand them. When I run into missionaries, and tell them that I don't believe in deities, the follow-up question tends to be "Well, where do you think that everything came from?" Rather than fall back on the Big Bang, I simply shrug and admit to not knowing, and note that I don't really have a reason to know. I wasn't there to see it for myself, and I have other things to do than spend the time to really understand what the science says about the topic. I can manage my day-to-day life without being able to definitively answer the question, and I'm okay with that. And there are a lot of topics that fall into that same category. And as much as I love to listen to Dan Ariely talk about the topic, I don't have anything more than a superficial understanding of the irrationality of most mundane decision making. I am, to quote Mr. Godin, unwilling to devote the time and energy. This is not because I am content to be a cog in a machine that I don't understand. (Although in the end, I am content with that - because I don't have the mental horsepower to be a cutting-edge astrophysicist, and as a result, I am a cog in an unrelentingly vast machine that I can barely make heads or tails of, let alone actually understand. I can barely manage to come up with a why to describe gravity that doesn't rely on the action of gravity itself to illustrate it. Put the word "quantum" in front of anything, and my eyes glaze over.) But to be anything more than a cog in the machines I do understand, I have to be continuously learning about them. Knowing Agile software development practices and rituals, as shaky as I am with that knowledge, serves me in much better stead than a deep understanding of the workings of electricity, because I spent 13 months working in a place that used Agile for some of their development work. And none as an electrical engineer.And I don't believe that I am the only person in that situation.

This is the entire reason for the human development of division of labor - that different people do different things. And in the process, they become really, really good at them, and pretty much suck at everything else. So I don't understand human irrationality, instead, I let Dan Ariely understand it, and try my best to keep up when he's explaining it.

Because I don't have the luxury of being able to do the work needed to have that knowledge firsthand. And portraying that as a character flaw won't change that fact.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It All Falls Down

One of the things that I really enjoy about summer photography is that the light is often good enough to completely freeze the action. The illusion of stillness has always fascinated me.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Not Even Past

I'm going to indulge in my habit of liberal quoting again for a moment, because I'd like to give the entirety of the criticisms leveled about old comics. I'm not reprinting the whole of the descriptions of them, but pulling out the sentences that concern us here.

1905: Little Nemo in Slumberland
Shame about that Jungle Imp character, though, who serves as a cold reminder that blithely racist stereotyping has been a part of the visual language of the comics medium since its inception.

1929: Tintin
And racially iffy.

(Hot tip: Skip Tintin in the Congo. Trust us.)

1934: Terry and the Pirates
Milton Caniff's two-fisted action adventure strip about a boy named Terry, his frequently stripped-to-the-waist mentor Pat, and — regretfully enough — a Chinese man name Connie who speaks, well, pretty much like you'd imagine a Chinese character would speak in an American-made comic strip from the 30s and 40s. More's the pity.
The Old School: Classic Strips That Continue To Shape Comics
In the ongoing debate over absolute versus relative values, the stereotype is often that the Right are absolutists, believing that their understanding of right are wrong are objective facts of live not subject to a person's lived experience, and that the Left are relativists, believing that different people can come to differing but equally valid understanding of ethics and morality. But the Left does have its own version of moral absolutism, and that is that advanced Western societies should always have espoused values that line up with modern understandings of race, class and gender issues.

Note that the knocks on Little Nemo in Slumberland, Tintin and Terry and the Pirates are not for being out of step with the times in which they were written. It's that they're not in line with the values of 80 to 100+ years after they were written. And implicit in that is a wager that, come 2100 to 2130, people will see the world of 2017 as being thoroughly modern and in line with their contemporary values. But it's just as, if not more likely, that people (especially the 15 to 35 set) in that time will find barbarism and backwardness in something that we don't think of as particularly wrong. We could hope that the early 22nd century sees the end of judgmentalism, but that seems like a long shot, at best.

Instead, I suspect that they will judge us, and our works, by their contemporary values, and regard them as somewhat shameful, iffy, regretful and worthless, even as they see them as valuable for their staying power and historical context. Of course, in that I'm making a wager myself, and on flimsy evidence at best - namely that over the next 80 or so years of human existence, societies won't decide that judging the past by the standards of the present is simply an exercise in self-righteousness. After all, the fact that "it's always been done that way" doesn't mean that it always will. Still I'd like to see us to a better job of understanding that values evolve, not because human history is a steady progression from Bad to Better, but because of people doing what works for them in the contexts in which they find themselves, and those contexts change over time. The best way to ensure that the future breaks with the habit of looking down its nose at the past, is to break with it ourselves.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Wallet Vote

So there was a posting on LinkedIn that was mainly a complaint about another posting, that was itself a complain about women being lazy, and sitting on their butts "complete with graphics of various shaped women's rear ends - no I'm not kidding and I do mean today, in 2017." The post ended with: "It's time to ask LinkedIn and other social media sites aimed at professionals to stay professional and limit bullying and misogyny."

But the problem isn't that LinkedIn allows people to post things that others may, with complete justification, consider to be bullying, misogynistic or simply unprofessional (the constant "like" farming comes immediately to mind). The problem is that you can post inappropriate or unprofessional items to LinkedIn without this being considered a career-limiting-move. Remember, the whole point of LinkedIn is to network; to be able to get your name in front of people. A LinkedIn profile is effectively a form of résumé. If you can, in an open internet forum that supposedly has your real name attached to it, engage in "bullying and misogyny," without consequence, then the issue isn't with LinkedIn.

When some guy snarkily makes a post about women's backsides, and is called on the carpet the next week, because his post has caused the company's sales to slide 2.5%, you'll quickly see that sort of behavior go the way of the dodo. Sure, there are concerns, and they are valid, about companies policing their employee's social media presence. And some companies will discipline or fire people for saying things that are socially acceptable, or even laudable, but that make management or owners uncomfortable. But I'm not sure that such a scenario is much worse than LinkedIn taking over that policing function to prevent semi-activist users from being exposed to something that most of the user base doesn't care anything about.

But in the end, this is what activism is all about - getting people to forgo something that they find worthwhile to do something about things they find reprehensible. It's about getting people to vote with their feet, and with their wallets, to create the world that people say they want to live in, rather than looking to corporate entities to be the enforcement mechanism of our personal sense of enlightenment.

The best way to encourage good behavior we desire is to reward it. One of my fathers lessons to me as a child was that "You should always reward those who have done you a service." And while it grates sometimes to treat what we may understand as basic human decency as a service done for us, that, in the end, is exactly what it is. And we can reward it, at least in part, by punishing those two behave in ways that we find reprehensible. It's tempting to outsource that task to corporations to which we have already ceded a degree of power over our lives. But it seems like a bad idea in the end, because power, by its very nature, can be put to a multitude of purposes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Personally Political

To the dismay of a vocal segment of its user base, LinkedIn is becoming more and more a run-of-the-mill social media site, with people asking about medical conditions, sharing self-portraits, proclaiming their faith and making political statements. What makes this last aspect of the site interesting is that despite the fact that posts are made with real names, and people understand that potential employers may see them, people are unafraid of naked partisanship.

There have been a couple of posts over the last week or so that illustrate this. One was a link to an article on a Republican website that was headlined "California Woman Says 'She Got Pregnant At 15 Because Her Town Didn't Have a Planned Parenthood'." As one might expect a number of self-identified conservatives quickly jumped on the bandwagon on condemning "California Woman" for not taking responsibility for her promiscuity and lack of contraception. Which would have been reasonable - had the article in question actually contained any statement by her to that effect. Interestingly enough, the only place the statement appears is in the headline. While the article implies that had the woman had access to a Planned Parenthood clinic, she may have aborted the fetus, rather than keep it, even this is only an implication - she never actually says this is what she would have done. The other illustrative posting is a meme consisting of side-by-side pictures of President Obama and President Trump. President Obama is speaking outside the White House, while a Marine holds up an umbrella. President Trump is shown adjusting a Marine's peaked cap. According to the caption, President Obama is self-important for having the Marine hold the umbrella, while President Trump is selfless for picking up a Marine's cap that had blown off in the wind. Again people were quick to pile onto the criticize President Obama bandwagon, as if the essence of each man could be neatly boiled down to these two pictures.

The most interesting thing about these posts for me is how people have started using LinkedIn to show their partisan political loyalties through personal attacks on others, rather than by attacking or defending policy. Because one can be a staunch Republican, and still believe (although this seems to be more and more rare) that non-Republicans are not bad people - they simply support the wrong policy choices. Whether or not ad hominem attacks are a useful and/or appropriate way to display ideology is a separate issue from that ideology, and one suspects that there are still people out there who might like what one says, but take exception to saying it by putting others down.

I'm curious at to whether the erosion of the idea that publicly calling other people out for being perverse is unprofessional is being driven by the rise of an internet culture in which people have grown accustomed to the fleeting nature of web communications or the widening partisan gap and the need, when in an echo chamber, to always keep up with the loudest voices. In any event, the idea that an incautious social media post would spell social or professional suicide seems to have become a quaint relic of a bygone era, even though it was all of 10 to 15 years ago. I suspect that at some point, someone will post something on LinkedIn that unexpectedly becomes incendiary enough that it burns them badly enough that everyone feels the heat and things quiet down. The question then, is how long will it take.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

It's a Dog's Life

It is, by now, a familiar story. An abandoned animal is found somewhere, and there is an outpouring of support as people clamor to be the animal's eventual savior; while at the same time public scorn is heaped upon whatever human is judged by the Court of Public Opinion to be the must culpable perpetrator. Meanwhile there is a parallel thread that questions why people aren't worthy of the same compassion.

Such is the case in the story of Chewy the chihuahua puppy, found in McCarran Airport over this past weekend. So many applications to adopt the puppy have come in that the animal shelter has stopped taking them, while at the same time, the shelter and the airport are also facing demands that they do something, presumably a form of necromancy or other divination, to track down the woman who left him behind while fleeing an abusive relationship. Whether to rescue or castigate her is not stated, but it's a safe bet that both motivations are in the mix.

Playing the role of calling for more attention to humans is shelter worker Darlene Blair, who laments: "I wish this story would bring more attention to the fact it's a felony to abuse an animal but it's not a felony to abuse a woman." That statement made me wonder*, so I looked up Washington State's laws on animal cruelty, mainly because that's where I live, even though the case of Chewy took place in Arizona. Suffice it to say that I didn't find anything in the Revised Code of Washington that counts as a felony when done to an animal that wouldn't count as a felony when done to a woman, outside of the fact that since women can legally consent to sex, it's possible to engage in sexual contact with a woman without automatically having committed a crime. But, at least in Washington State, it takes a bit of rooting through the criminal code to track down all of these provisions, as the laws on Domestic Violence reference many other parts of the code, while the rules against Animal Cruelty are neatly gathered and spelled out in one place, under a single heading that makes them easy to find. But the rules against Animal Cruelty are also fairly short - there are a number of items that fall under the heading of Domestic Violence that don't have a corresponding entry in Animal Cruelty.

But even with that, there are actions that are generally understood to fall under the heading of "abusive" that are not recognized as being criminal offenses. The Court of Public Opinion, especially the Social Justice Circuit, often has more stringent definitions of what constitutes abuse than lawmakers do, in part because the Court of Public Opinion is much more free to respond to its emotional reactions. A blazing row between lovers where one of them clearly has the metaphorical upper hand, and isn't afraid to use it, may seem clearly abusive to onlookers, but is still a difficult thing to legislate. And in that, the understanding that Chewy's owner committed a crime by leaving him in an airport bathroom, but the circumstances that lead her to that point are not felonious, can seem to be unjust, and Ms. Blair's statement well-taken.

But it's difficult to make the reprehensible into the illegal simply for the asking. The more laws rely on judgment calls, the more open to abuse - or the perception of abuse - they become. In the end, the law can't solve everything. While there's nothing wrong with asking it to, or wishing it would, the expectation that it will seems misplaced.

*There was a time when one could lawfully treat children in a manner that would have landed you in jail if it had been done to an animal, and many of the original laws against child abuse were modeled on animal cruelty statutes that were on the books already. In that regard, it wouldn't surprise me if there had been a time in which one could have gotten away with injuring a female partner in a way that was illegal for animals. But I would be surprised to learn that anyone alive in the United States today has first-hand memories of that time.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Insufficiently Enlightened

One of the things about being old is that you're in that time of your life where most of the people you encounter are younger than yourself. And this grants some insight into how the things that you thought were important are dealt with by the next generation(s).

There is a Young Person's Problem that I think every deals with at some point, and that's The Insufficient Enlightenment of the Rest of Humanity. I remember when I was a young(er) man, we used to sit around and congratulate each other on our perceptiveness in having put our fingers on the problems of humanity, and we would be amazed that this has gotten past so many other (older, natch) people. And I suspect that those selfsame older people simply smirked at us when we weren't looking, and chuckled to themselves knowingly when we were out of earshot. Because now that I'm old, I occasionally want to do the same.

I read a couple of articles today that solemnly proclaimed that Dungeons and Dragons and other (mainly fantasy) role-playing games were Racist and Colonialist, and in so doing I realized that those terms were simply the new buzzwords for Insufficiently Enlightened, and I realized that I could see the thought process that my peers and I engaged in back in the day playing out again. The idea that we saw things in their objective, truthful forms; the idea that everyone understood the world in the exact same way that we did; the idea that if someone disagreed with us, that the problem was with their understanding of things. It was all there.

Despite the fact that the struggle to find moral/ethical principles that are indisputable, universal, and eternal has never been resolved, we were convinced that the answers were right in front of our noses, and that what the world needed was for more people to think like us. And now that I'm old, I see a new generation of people going through the same process of wading through that thinking. And some of them are even starting to come out on the other side.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Monday, July 3, 2017

Blue Moon