Tuesday, January 31, 2017

There Can Be Only One

Social media can be, for lack of a better term, faddish. Something new enters the general consciousness, and the next thing you know, it's come to dominate some or another corner of the online world. One such recent fad is virtue-signalling via claiming that one has no problem punching Nazis. I'm not sure how it all started, but it seems to stem from a gif that's been making the rounds of someone running up and sucker-punching Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed. (Richard Spencer, for those who don't know, being a White separatist. He wants White people to be able to create racial homogeneous enclaves and keep others out.)

As this particular wildfire burned through the Left side of my social media stream, a predictable debate began to take shape, namely: Is it justified to assault someone simply on the basis of their belief system. And before, well, nearly any time had passed the debate turned acrimonious, with terms like "Nazi Apologist" and "Fascist" being thrown around, and people retreating into echo-chambers of like-minded souls and demanding that all who entered tell them how correct they were. Some people narrated the historical crimes of the National Socialist German Workers' Party from the 1920s through the Second World War to justify punching people they understood to be Nazis as a form of preemptive self-defense. Others cited their commitments to freedom of thought and freedom of expression as reasons why they wouldn't be the ones to attack first. There were rebuttals to that in the idea that Liberal Democracies sowed the seeds of their own destruction by being too accepting of self-evidently harmful ideologies; an interesting appropriation of the Conservative line of thinking that says that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact."

But one of the most interesting things about it was how quickly the two sides began to call out perversity in those who declined to support them. Before the "reactive" faction had even begun to form, the "proactive" faction had begun to label as somehow sympathetic to racism and antisemitism those who refused to back the principle that assaults on Nazis were ethically (if not legally) permissible. Accordingly, as the reactive faction had begun to cluster into groups, the accusations of authoritarianism and totalitarianism began.

Unsurprisingly, given that the subject under consideration is a reaction to one of the most well-developed understandings of evil in modern times, the debate took on a moral character even before it started, and once that moral tone was set, neither side was willing to grant the other the mantle of principled opposition. Once the sides determined that their chosen principle was self-evidently correct, there could be no opposing principle. You could either accept or reject the primacy of principle, but there was no choosing a valid, but competing, maxim by which to live. You were either for the side of right and justice, or you were against it. With predictable consequences.

Of course, the whole of the debate is not like this. There are people who can discuss this with those who disagree with them without feeling the pang of an intentional rejection of their worldview and their ethics. But I find it interesting the posts that garner the most plusses, and the most reshares simply captioned, "this." They are always the ones that go the farthest, the ones that most vehemently declare that their viewpoint is self-evident to the point that only the unintelligent, credulous or immoral fail (or decline) to see it. And I think that they are popular because they take way the element of choice.

In any situation like this, choice can be empowering, or it can be terrifying. And I think that as the moral stakes are raised, the fear of making the wrong choice becomes greater and greater. And this may be why the strident, morally decisive posts are attractive to so many people. They don't make the choice for the reader. They confirm the reader's suspicion that there is no valid choice, other than: "Will you stand up for the Right things?" It's a worldview that offers a confidence in oneself that many everyday situations don't. And the price that it exacts is little more than some level of contempt for others. But even then, it makes that seem eminently worth paying, because it casts them as not only worthy of contempt, but willfully so.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Monster You Expect

There is no point in expecting our political system to understand, and attempt to remedy, the "real" issues that affect our lives. Mainly because "real" is, in this case a subjective term. I may determine that something is a real issue while someone else determines otherwise. The issues that our political system is going put the work into understanding and remedying are those issues that we threaten punishment for not addressing, or that we respond with applause when they are dealt with.

This occurs to me in the context of the executive order from late last week that halted refugees and nationals of seven Middle-Eastern nations from entering the United States. The rationale for this maneuver was that it would "keep us safe." I'm going to examine that for a moment, and I'm going to leave aside my own understanding of what a "safe" life would look like.

“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever. You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”
Donald Trump
So what, one wonders, does now-President Trump plan to do about this? Because making a dent in have people being shot at as they're walking down the street would likely do a lot to "keep us safe." Because, pretty much no matter how you slice it, if you're going to be shot, stabbed or assaulted by someone, that someone is far more likely to be a fellow American that they are a refugee, or even an illegal migrant. After all, citizens have numbers on their side. And this is the issue with Chicago. Chicago does not have the highest murder rate in the nation. It simply has a fairly high murder rate and a very large population relative to other places. And even a small percentage of 3+ million people can generate from rather large numbers.

One can make the point that fixing the murder problem in the United States is going to have to be a long-term project. Keeping potentially dangerous people out of the country is something that can be done now. And in the end, that's the basic issue.

Terrorism is rare, at least for us here in the United States. There are places where it's a much more common occurrence than it is here. And to a degree, that's what makes it so frightening. For the person who is afraid of "inner city" violence in Chicago, there's a fairly simple solution. Don't go to Chicago - or at least stay away from the places where everyone is uneducated, unemployed and violent. (Actually, that's a very simple solution - in all of the times I've been in Chicago, either as a resident or a visitor, I never managed to end up in one of those places.) But terrorism seems more dangerous because it feels less contained. Who knows where the next radicalized jihadi might strike? Maybe the local mall. Maybe your child's school. Maybe the nearest coffee shop. It's this understanding that the danger is, potentially, literally everywhere that drives the fear of terrorism in the United States, and leads to a focus on that as the thing that stands between Americans and safety. Because that's what stands between Americans and a feeling of safety.

Safety is one of those things that isn't tightly linked to its perception.You can be perfectly safe and yet feel as though you are in grave danger, or be in grave danger while feeling perfectly safe. Because of this, the perceptions of danger and safety are just as, if not more, important than the actual situation. But more importantly, they're the only things that can be seen to shift. For a person who is, for whatever reason, unable to accurately gauge their relative safety or danger, actions (or inaction) that materially alter their levels of safety or danger may go unnoticed, or possibly be misinterpreted. On the other hand, materially altering their feeling of safety or danger directly has an effect, even if the underlying reality hasn't changed a bit.

I tend to characterize common criminality inflicted on Americans, by Americans, as a "more real" issue than terrorism for the simple fact that it does in more people every year. It's entirely possible that attacks on people by other members of their own families or their romantic partners kill as many people in the Unites States annually as the destruction of the World Trade Center did. (This conclusion, however, is based on the idea that unsolved murder cases are just as likely to be family members as ones where the relationship between the target and the perpetrator is known.)  But it seems to me that there is little political capital to be gained in tackling the issue, especially given the steps that would likely be needed to make it work. And this is because for most of us, the chances of being attacked and murdered by a family member are small enough that it's a newsworthy curiosity, rather than an actual threat, even for many people who have lost relatives to domestic violence. And that's because in our perceptions, it's less real.

This isn't a situation that we're ever really going to be able to solve until we have a government of benevolent technocrats with high social skills; taking care of the most pressing actual threats to life and limb while leaving to public to fret about the latest panic would be a test for any government. But we can be aware of it in ourselves. And maybe ask ourselves why, given all of the people who have died. we haven't gotten around to putting more effective resources towards the problem.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wheel of Crisis

I think that you could write similarly angry screeds about "How Obama Happened" or "How Bush Happened," and while they would resonate with people emotionally, they would still likely be inaccurate in the end, because of that focus on emotionality.

There is, I think, something cathartic about rubbing the other side's face in the idea that it was minor skirmishes in the Culture Wars that lead to whatever the result of some or another recent election. But I think that it goes a little deeper than that. The Culture Wars are, at the same time, an expression of both the understanding of affluence and a feeling of poverty. For people in the middle ground, they're not well enough off to turn their attention to ways of imposing their worldviews on their fellow citizens, and they're not poor enough to feel that the imposition of someone else's views on them is a form of adding insult to injury. But the thing about the Culture Wars is that the public tends to be more motivated to fight them when they're on the defensive, yet victories are commonly only realized on the attack.

For the past sixteen years, we've conflated the task of governing the country with fighting the Culture Wars. During the Obama Administration, Democratic voters and supporters failed to make a commitment to their Republican countrymen that "We will make this work for you, with you," just as Republican voters failed to do so during the Bush Administration. Because in the face of opposition from the other side, it's easier to look for gains that will bolster one's standing in the eyes of one's own supporters. And the side that's running the show tends to see themselves as having a mandate to ignore the hopes and fears of people who didn't vote for them.

Anyone who thinks that politicians, of any political party, are above treating politics as "something done to [people], for their own good," hasn't been paying attention. Because this is what the Culture Wars are about. The central premise of Culture War politics is that certain policies are not only good for both geese and ganders, but they are self-evidently so. And that understanding, that the Correct Policies are self-evident, leads to an understanding that opposition is not born of principle or a differing worldview, but from factors such as ignorance, stupidity and/or willful perversity. And once one understands the idea that the other side is made up of the blind lead by the malicious, then we do things to them not for just their own good, but for everyone's good. After all, we care for the disabled to help them, and we punish the wicked to help ourselves - and we do not ask them if this is what they want from us.

A couple years back, I had a discussion with an advocate of Social Justice War, who made the following point:
Telling other people what to do and "talking down to them" creates environments in which people are threatened with shame for not [obeying]. It's dirty, but it gets the job done. [...A]s a change consultant, I can tell you that people typically don't change without the impetus of a crisis -- Our job [...] is ultimately, in the very long scheme of things, providing that crisis.
But the thing about it is, this is how a certain group of people in all camps perceive the world. A Conservative who feels that the undeserving should have their unemployment benefits cut isn't looking to watch them starve in the streets. But rather to create a crisis of insolvency that drives those people to do as they have been told - to go out and find the work that someone, somewhere is assumed to be providing. Doing something to people for their own good. Is it better than doing the work that it takes to ensure that working is better than collecting unemployment? Maybe not. But if you presume that people are perverse, and that only the impetus of a crisis will impel them to change then the answer is instead "most definitely."

And it's this drive, on all sides, to create crises, that creates the pushback. Of all of the reasons for "How Trump Happened," perhaps the most relevant, the statement about finding people jobs, only tells half the story. A voter in Pennsylvania made the very insightful statement that "People want what they had." People who have worked their way up the ladder for 20 years don't want to be retrained into the entry-level jobs of the future. They want the positions (or, perhaps more accurately, the money and the standing) they earned in the past, regardless of how unrealistic or unsustainable in the long run that might be. Their response to a possible crisis that demands that they change - and come out the poorer for it - is to seek out someone who will tell them that the crisis is not real - that it was created at the behest of a change consultant who decided that, out of perversity masquerading as the "national interest," that a crisis must be "provided."

If Democrats had spent the past 8 years making sure that their policies actually worked for people who didn't vote for them to those people's satisfaction (more or less), people wouldn't care about bathrooms, smoking and taxes on pop. There wouldn't be a President Trump, in the same way that if Republicans had done the same between 2000 and 2008, there wouldn't have been a President Obama. Jonah Goldberg noted that Donald Trump is the third consecutive President to promise to unite the country, and that he's going to be the third consecutive President to fail. And I think that this is because he's not going to be able to direct Republican energy away from consolidating Culture War "victory" at the expense of more Liberal/Progressive elements of society in the same way that President Obama was unable to direct Democratic energy. Because while "unity" is an easy thing to say, it's a harder thing to accomplish, because the fact of the matter is that the parties depend on a certain amount of partisan support to advance themselves and their policies. And policies that benefit the opposition as well as the partisan are hard sells. The opposition don't trust the motives and the partisan feel betrayed. The result is that, partisan energy is channeled into partisan solutions that become crises to the opposition. So what will happen is that the Trump Administration will provide enough crises that the Left will eventually end up in Crisis Mode, while the Right will think that they've earned the gratitude and loyalty of the fickle and the pendulum will swing back the other way, to yet another round of Republican recriminations. And the cycle will continue.

I suspect that someone's already writing their angry screed.

H/T: Adam Bragg.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Doctor, Doctor

This quote, if I remember correctly, is from the episode "The Face of Evil;" the Fourth Doctor episode in which Louise Jameson makes her debut as one of the Doctor's most popular companions, Leela. It's been making the rounds of the Left side of my social media community for a while, as an implicit criticism as what is often portrayed as the Right's unwillingness to conform their view of the world to objective reality.

But Facts are funny things. Not because they're changeable, but because we often don't know what they are. And so we misuse the term. The word atom comes to us from the Greek, "atomon" which mean "indivisible." And to a degree, that's correct; an atom is the smallest unit of matter that has elemental chemical properties. But we now understand that atoms are no longer the smallest unit of matter there is. What we once thought was a fact has changed, because our view of things changed - along the line we became able to perceive things smaller than an atom. And so the facts changed as our ability to view the world changed. Now, for instance we say that electrons are thought to be indivisible, because they have no known smaller constituent parts. But I think that one would be hard pressed to find a scientist who would say that the indivisibility of the electron is a fact. And chemistry isn't the only area in which things that were once thought to be facts have fallen by the wayside. History is littered with former facts that were later demonstrated to be untrue by a different set of observations.

And so the reality of things, at least to me, seems to be that facts and views have a symbiotic relationship. They work together to create the world we live in. But because they work together, we often blur the lines between them, and as a result, we often use fact-checking as a manner of feel-checking. We expect other people's subjective experience of the world in which they live to conform to a certain set of facts that we understand to be true about that world. That's why we trot out facts when people say they feel discriminated against, threatened or left behind. But the facts don't matter if you don't encounter them in your life as it's lived. When I was learning chemistry, back in the day, the common illustration of an atom was a cluster of protons and neutrons, with electrons gathered around them in nice circular orbits, meant to be indicative of spheres. Of course, if one could actually see an atom in real time and space, it wouldn't look like that. The "solar system" model of the atom is useful, but not the way they actually work. But what difference does that make to me in my day-to-day life? None. And so, if you ask me to draw an atom on a whiteboard, you're going to end up with something that would a person from the 1950s would easily recognize. I don't need my facts to be any more accurate than that.

To be sure, this is a trivial example, of no consequence to anyone other than a few frustrated chemistry or physics pedants. But there are other examples. For example, in my experience, overt expressions of racial animosity are rare. This allows me to be fairly comfortable in a suburb that is overwhelmingly White. For many Black people I knew when I was growing up, ability to walk down the street without seeing racism under every rock earned me the labels of "asleep" or "confused." And it was a prime example of changing the facts to fit a view, rather than changing the view to fit the facts. To be sure, I saw more racism in the world around me than many of my White peers, but for some Black people I met, my not seeing a race-based slight in nearly every interaction I had with Whites was nothing short of willful bad faith. One of my favorite examples was from college. The school had been sued over discriminatory hiring at some point, and so had been made to embark on a more balanced hiring plan. Some of the people who worked in the cafeterias struck us as barely capable of doing their jobs, and when they were Black, they became proof that the University had deliberately hired the most idiotic, incompetent people they could find, in the service of being able to say that Black people were simply too dim to do the work. Pointing out to people that minimum-wage jobs, especially menial ones with long hours that required tolerating snarky college students, rarely attracted the cream of the crop turned out to be unhelpful. People looked at the world around them, applied their understanding of how things worked and derived a set of obvious facts from that, that in turn, informed the way they looked at the world. And secure in our own objectivity, we regarded incompatible worldviews as suspect.

Doctor Who, for all that it's a fun show (or at least it was for me when I was devouring the exploits of Tom Baker's portrayal of the character) is not necessarily a good guide for reality, at it's put together by people who are writing to entertain, rather than philosophers. The Doctor's quips and observations of the universe were designed to work within the world that myriad writers has created over the years. And the Doctor was almost always right, even if for no other reason than his thoughts and actions mean that the show would continue. We don't live in fictional worlds. I think. And the real one is more nuanced than a late 70s/early 80s science-fantasy romp needs to be.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Friday, January 20, 2017

Crisis Mode

I am, of course, not the first person to make this observation. I recall reading a George Will column in which he made a similar point about climate change. But given the outcome of the recent election, the thought came back to me. During the Obama Administration, the stand taken by a sizable segment of Republicans, voters and elected officials alike was to treat the Obama presidency as a crisis, and set about to "mitigate the damage." But it occurs to me that if those same people has spent some or all of that energy during the Bush Administration making sure that President Bush's policies were things that would benefit all Americans, regardless of party affiliation, there might have been a McCain Administration, instead. By the same token, many people have taken to nearly fetishizing their "resistance" to not only President Trump, but the understandings of the United States and the world that they feel that he represents. Again, had that effort been mustered during the time that Barack Obama was president to ensure that people in Red states did not feel ignored and left behind, it likely would have been Hillary Clinton at the podium today.

And perhaps this is why so many political outlooks are so apocalyptic. Motivating people to keep up the effort to keep things going in sunny weather is difficult. Convince them that they're sinking in a storm, and their energy is at your beck and call.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

America Cares

It demoralizes these people all over the world, and it leads people to conclude this, which is damaging, and it hurt us during the Cold War, and that is this: America cares about democracy and freedom as long—as long as it’s not being violated by someone that they need for something else.

That cannot be who we are in the 21st century.
Senator Marco Rubio
To which my response is: "Why not? That's who we've been from the 18th through the 20th centuries."

The quote "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." has been attributed to Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, and while I have no idea if he actually said it, it strikes me as a fairly accurate understanding of how international politics works. And, as near as I can tell, "democracy and freedom" are not numbered among the permanent interests of the United States. Diplomatic language tends to remind me of the old Soviet joke "the authorities pretend they are paying wages, workers pretend they are working," in that it often comes across as one diplomat pretends to be speaking plainly and other diplomats pretend to believe them. In this sense, it strikes me as naïve, at best, to believe that the United States genuinely cares about democracy and freedom in other parts of the world, especially when other concerns (notably security) are on the table.

Affluence tends to bring with it an understanding of what one has to lose, and therefore a certain level of risk aversion. And the practice of freedom and democracy in one nations has its risks for other nations, because people may pursue their own interests at the expense of people outside their borders. And, for many people the world over, this is precisely the modus operandi of the United States - and that includes any number of people within the United States. The idea that America will screw over anyone it has to in order to maintain access to oil supplies is a common trope. And while there are many people who disagree with the idea that the United States would go to extremes, such as genocide, in pursuit of energy, getting the best deal for itself, even if that means injuring the locals is more or less expected.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that become the issue. The support of democracy and freedom in other parts of the world has noticeable costs, and political systems that rely on the popularity of individuals and parties to fill public offices tend to lead to a downplaying of expenses.
Celebrity means the ability to surround yourself with people whose short-term finances depend on pleasing you. There's nothing about fame that encourages dissent or hard truths.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Thoughts on the Rihanna-Chris Brown Collaboration" the Atlantic, Wednesday, 22 February, 2012.
And while politics isn't exactly like celebrity, politicians, like a celebrity's entourage, have to make sure that they're keeping the people who elected them happy. And that's often why politicians offer up "hard truths" that are generally hard only on people who aren't in the audience or their broader constituencies. Maintaining a regime of constantly, and effectively, supporting "those 1,400 people in jail in China, those dissidents in Cuba, the girls that want to drive and go to school" that Senator Rubio mentioned in his words, along with "people that are suffering and they’re hurting" around the world would not be free. And it wouldn't be cheap. It would, in the end, ask a lot of people in the United States. Because the United States is not in a position where it asks nothing of the rest of the world. And ratcheting up the costs for China, Cuba or the Islamic world to get what they want from us means that they would ratchet up the price that we would pay to get what we want from them. Sure, we we're able to cut Cuba off, without too much harm to ourselves. But Cuba is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Bigger countries are bigger deals in that regard.

A commitment to democracy and freedom when grilling a potential Secretary of State is cheap. It plays well for the people back home, precisely because it doesn't ask them to pay anything. But actually walking the walk on the world stage is another matter entirely. And political posturing is a poor substitute for what it will actually take.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


You have to admit that "Trump's lust for respect makes national unity implausible" is a pretty good headline if you're looking to attract a left-leaning crowd to read an opinion piece. And it delivers - sort of. One of its closing lines is as follows:
The presidency, normally a job for people with thick skins and a nose for insincere flattery, promises to only heighten Trump’s sense of entitlement to respect and exacerbate his inevitable resentment when he doesn’t receive it.
But headlines can be deceptive - or they can be changed. When I encountered Mr. Goldberg's opinion piece on my phone, the title was just as I spelled it out above, "Trump's lust for respect makes national unity implausible." I read it, and found the headline to be somewhat misleading, honestly. The article is just as much about Representative John Lewis, and his partisan response to the President-elect, if not more, than it is about Donald Trump.

When I made it home, and looked up the article online, I quickly found it, but with a different title: "Why National Unity Remains So Elusive." It was posted on the National Review, and it came with an interesting, and descriptive subtitle: "The presidency has become the biggest prize in the culture war, and that doesn’t lead to unity." And the page description reads as follows: "Donald Trump and John Lewis: Culture Wars Deepen Party Polarization."

I'm not sure whose idea it was to market the piece with a different headline. Maybe the National Review protects theirs and doesn't allow them to be reprinted, and so Tribune Content Agency, LLC, which appears in the copyright notice for the piece, decided to write their own headline. But given that if an editor started at the beginning of the piece, they'd have to read more or less all the way through it to get to the part where Mr. Goldberg criticizes Donald Trump's sense of entitlement to respect, it seems unusual that they would have missed the equal-opportunity criticism that Mr. Goldberg levels. (But now I'm curious - is there a separate headline that excoriates Representative Lewis making the rounds on right-wing media sites?)

Although, given the overall tenor of the column, left-leaning readers looking for a full-throated takedown of the President-elect are likely to be disappointed. While the piece does have some things to say about the soon-to-be occupant of the White House, it's Representative Lewis who comes in for most of Mr. Goldberg's disapproval. Although the article quickly gets to the point that: "Trump will be the third president in a row to promise to unite the country, and he will almost certainly be the third in a row to fail," which I think is undoubtedly accurate, and it will be worth sticking around to see if that turns out to be at all consequential. (After all George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama were the first two in a row to promise unity and fail, and the place hasn't burned down yet.)

In the end, I guess, it's a simple reminder to remember that columnists and authors rarely write the headlines that accompany their pieces. And the people who do may have their own motivations.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Friday, January 13, 2017

The Meaning of Tears

When someone says of others: "Their tears mean nothing to me," I see all of the excesses of history. All of its oppression, cruelty and atrocities. Not because there is a causal link; the perpetrators of the worst of human history went far beyond merely the ability to ignore others' suffering. But because the oppression, cruelty and atrocities of history, in nearly every case, required more than just those people who were willing to turn their hand to the infliction of pain upon others. They also required the enthusiastic approval, servile (or self-serving) acquiescence or willful ignorance of those who refused to assign any meaning to the tears brought forth by that pain.

It is tempting to see, in the worst of history, a vast sea of active participants, hateful and snarling, twisted by rage and bitterness into abominations utterly unlike ourselves. But the truth is simpler. Most are loving, kind and compassionate people, who simply found room in their hearts to, this one time, make an exception.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Arena of Ideas

Milo Yiannopoulos has written a book. That this book exists is pretty much all I know about it. I don't know what the title is, or even what it's about, let alone whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I know that Simon & Schuster said that they would publish it - because that seems to be what's newsworthy about this whole situation. There are calls for boycotts, people lining up their arguments about whether or not this is about the freedom of speech and/or the freedom to publish, if the answer to speech one doesn't like is more speech to counter it, blah, blah blah.

A few years back, I critiqued an essay by Mr. Yiannopoulos, in which he complained about the "sharing economy." I've pretty much entirely forgotten the piece in question, I'm okay with that, given that I didn't really see much to recommend it at the time. One of my comments was this:

Suffice it to say, as also with many things like this, Yiannopoulos takes the world that he wants to live in, and extrapolates that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer.
And that's what I'm going to reexamine here. Because there are "many things like this" in life, and interestingly, I think that we're looking at another one of them. Presuming, since it makes sense to do so, that this isn't all a deep-cover operation designed to make whatever it is that Mr. Yiannopoulos has written into a New York Times Best-Seller, I ask why level any heat against Simon & Schuster? Sure, I can understand the grousing about the publisher being willing to "stoop so low to make a buck as to publish this purveyor of vile hate speech," but the teapot tempest that this flap is stirring up is going to wind up in a lot more bucks being made. Perhaps the complaint is that a well-known publisher, by putting their brand on Mr. Yiannopoulos' book, is helping to "normalize" what he's saying.

And that gets back to the observation I'd made about Mr. Yiannopoulos' article back in 2013. His critics, I think, takes the world that they want to live in, and extrapolate that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer. And a "reputable" publisher like Simon & Schuster aid in that potential spread.

For all that Dennis Johnson, the small publisher that NPR quotes in their article, says, "Nobody in the protest is saying 'you have no right to be published. You have no right, Simon & Schuster, to publish this guy, and this guy, you have no right to be published' — nobody's saying that." I think to a degree, that's exactly what's being said. What I suspect is being sought here is to deny Mr. Yiannopoulos a platform. (I also suspect that it's too late for that.) Because while Mr. Johnson and other people protesting the publication of the book understand Mr. Yiannopoulos to be a "purveyor of vile hate speech," I think that there is a fear that there is a significant audience of people who won't find it so vile, and that among them are people charismatic enough or persuasive enough to convince yet more people that they shouldn't find it vile, either. That it is, in effect, a Lovely Awful Thing; an objectively wrong, but intrinsically appealing, way for other people to behave. And I say "other people" intentionally. I think it's rare for people so say, "Hate speech should be kept out of the mainstream discourse, because I can't be trusted to not internalize the messages."

Sometimes, I think that there a view of social progress that likens it to pushing a boulder up a volcano. Until it's safely nestled into the crater at the top, it's always in danger of rolling back down to the bottom at the slightest provocation. This strikes me as going hand-in-hand with a view of people as being insufficiently invested in the progress that has been made - to the point of always being ready to backslide, with alarming rapidity, to reprehensible, but easier or more profitable, practices of the past. To be sure, I am not of the opinion that the social structures of, say, 1750 could never again rear their ugly heads. I am of the opinion, however, that it will take quite a bit of time for them to claw their way out of their graves. And that we'll be able to see the shift happening, if we're paying attention.

I'm of the opinion that "silencing" and "censorship" are functions of the State, rather than of the populace. Especially today. If Simon & Schuster decide that they won't put out his book after all, Mr. Yiannopoulos could easily self-publish it if he wanted to, and he likely has enough of a following that he could break even on doing so. Whatever ideas he's looking to get out will get out. And I suspect that no-one who genuinely views what he is saying as vile will be swayed by the name of a given publisher. And if there is a large enough population of readers who won't view it as vile that it becomes an issue, that, in and of itself, is the problem that the protestors need to worry about. And virtue signalling won't solve it for them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Amored Warrior

When I was in high school, Robotech came out on television. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Robotech was a show cobbled together out of three Japanese animated science-fiction shows: Super-Dimension Fortress Macross, Super-Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada. In their native Japanese, the three shows were completely unrelated, and while the writing staff as Harmony Gold managed to alter their plotlines and backstories fairly competently and create a fairly workable meta-plot that wove the three together, there were still enough plot holes make the whole thing resemble Swiss cheese. But I was in high school - what did I care? In any event, my linking up with other fans of the show introduced me into a rather remarkable world of "Giant Robot" anime. That world turned out to have two primary branches. And at the base of one of them, the same one from which the shows that became Robotech grew out of, was Mobile Suit Gundam.

American cartoons, like G. I. Joe or Transformers were basically brawl-of-the-week-club. The "bad guys" would come up with some sort of scheme or plot, and attempt to put it into action. The "good guys" would sorté out to stop them, a battle would ensue and the bad guys would lose, returning the world a a whole to the status quo, after which a short Public Service Announcement would run. What set Gundam, and many other Japanese shows (imported the the United States or not) apart from this, was that there was a continuing storyline, and while the giant-robot throwdown was important, it wasn't the whole story.

Despite being just as much a 30-minute toy commercial as Transformers was, Gundam was also a drama, and one with a remarkably compelling story at its heart. The basic gist was this: In the 21st Century, mankind was united under the auspices of the Earth Federation; basically the United Nations. The national boundaries that had defined nation-states were gone. Earth was overcrowded, at least as far as the leaders of the Federation were concerned, and so they embarked upon an ambition program to colonize space in the immediate neighborhood of the Earth and the Moon. By mining the Moon and every asteroid they could catch for resources, the Earth Federation managed to construct hundreds of large O'Neill cylinder-style space stations (which the animation staff for Gundam simply copied more or less verbatim from the original designs), and clustered them into large groups called "Sides" at various LaGrange points in the Earth-Moon area. Then they began sending people to them. In a lot of science-fiction, it's the wealthy people who move to space. In Gundam, it was poorer people who were sent to be space colonists. Which makes a certain amount of sense. Space stations are relatively fragile. One errant asteroid or out-of-control cargo vessel can ruin your whole day.

Space colonies, like other types of colonies, have a habit of wanting to be independent, and that drive for independence eventually broke out into a shooting war. With giant robots. But it's not as silly as it might sound. Gundam pioneered what is now referred to as the "Real Robot" genre in animé. While the show doesn't always reflect them, the Mobile Suits that various characters piloted had descriptions and statistics that were meant to give you an idea of how these things fit into the real world. The RX-78-2 Gundam has a set height. Which is how they were able to build a "life-size" model of the thing and put it on display:

Big, isn't it? (Photo by Yoshiaki Miura in The Japan Times)
It has a defined (if not exactly realistic) weight, the machine-guns mounted in it's head are 60mm caliber, et cetera. This isn't to say that it's hard science-fiction, far from it. But it's defined in real-world terms.

In the end, Mobile Suit Gundam is a coming-of-age-story set against the backdrop of a civil war that rages through space and various places on the Earth and Moon. One where giant robot war machines fill in for tanks, space fighters, helicopters and any other of a number of more mundane types of military hardware, yet without completely displacing them. And it's one of my longest-lasting hobbies. From time to time, rather than grouse about current events or pontificate on things, I'll talk about this instead. Not from the point of view of an expert, but rather as a long-time fan. It should make for a nice change of pace.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Muscovite Candidate

If Obama is a Muslim, is Trump a Russian spy? is one the cleverer ways that I've seen to point out one of the differences between Right and Left in the United States: that while both sides may dislike the other's candidate, the Left is less interested in attacking a Right candidate's "American-ness" than the Right tends to be. Of course, the fact that President Obama's father was not born in the United States, combined with the idea that "father knows best" makes it easier to envision President Obama as a foreign-born Moslem than Donald Trump's family history lends itself to the fact that he might be a Russian agent, but one can imagine that the more conspiratorially-minded of the American Right would be quick to see a Democrat who behaved in the way that Donald Trump has as wanna-be Soviet, to say the least.

To be sure, like most items of this sort, it indulges in calling out Institutional Hypocrisy. It doesn't take any prominent members of the Birther community and tell us what they've said about President-elect Trump. After all, maybe there IS a section of the conspiracy constituency that believes that there's something fishy about Donald Trump. They're just not marching around with signs proclaiming their theory yet. But even so, one can create a stereotype of the Right and the Left when it comes to how they oppose candidates.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


"Why would four suspects in Chicago broadcast the torture of a man on Facebook Live?" Good question. The easy answer, as N.G. Berrill, executive director of the the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science points out, is that they're stupid. To borrow a quote originally about sexting, one could make the point that some people call live-streaming one's own violent acts "entertaining," but that in a court of law, they call it "evidence." And, let's face it, by a certain standard, openly doing things that are likely to land one in prison with one or more felony convictions is nothing if not stupid.

But there's another answer, and it's illustrated by this:

At one point, dissatisfied with how few people have tuned in to watch the group assault the man, the woman with the cellphone says to her internet following, “You all ain’t even commenting on my shit. Ain’t nobody watching my shit.”
Mr. Berrill presumes that it's "a scary place" where people are willing to publicly engage in cruelty in order to earn accolades from others, but if that's the case, the United States has been a scary place for a very long time. Because while mistreating bad people may still be mistreatment, visiting this fate upon "bad people" has often been a way of reinforcing social norms, especially those that were not explicitly encoded into law. The actions of the four young people who have been charged in the Chicago assault don't strike me as much different than the actions of people who would turn up to attend a lynching - and then pose for photographs with the body. Of course, they were unlikely to have later been charged with the murder, or even being an accessory to same, but the basic thought process seems the same: "Here I am, being seen to participate in the inhumane punishment of someone different. Isn't that great?"

As long as people expect and/or are given approval for this sort of thing, it will continue. Approval is a powerful thing, and we shouldn't underestimate its ability to motivate.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Armed or Armored

It doesn't take a deep insight into the nature of humanity to realize that people are often cruel and often foolish. And let's throw egotistical into the mix for good measure. And so we have the case in Chicago, where four teenagers decided that it would be fun to torture one of their mentally disabled classmates - and then to live stream it.

Now, I'm old, and therefore I'm past being particularly shocked or appalled by this sort of behavior. I've heard of worse, and I'm sure that, sooner or later, someone will take this as a challenge to be exceeded in the name of being on the national news. But this case has been receiving a lot of air time, due to the fact that the assailants are Black and the victim is White. And a lot of people have been hashtagging their social media posts about the subject with "BLM Kidnapping," as if this were sanctioned by the Black Lives Matter movement.

When someone doesn't perceive, understand and acknowledge a threat against you, your preparing to defend yourself and a prelude to aggression can be difficult to distinguish. And this, I think, is the issue that many people have with the idea of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter came into existence, initially as a hashtag itself, after the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of wrongdoing in Mr. Martin's death, in part due to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use lethal force without requiring them to attempt to retreat to safety first. And, presuming that Stand Your Ground would applied equally to everyone involved, it can be said that Trayvon Martin acted in self-defense when he went after George Zimmerman - after all, Mr. Martin was somewhere that he had a legal right to be, and was confronted with an armed man who turned out to be ready, willing and able to kill him. (And if you ask how Mr. Martin knew Mr. Zimmerman was armed, I'd ask what was it about Mr. Martin that prompted Mr. Zimmerman to bring his gun to the confrontation in the first place - whatever assumptions that George Zimmerman made that gave him the impression that lethal force could be called for could just as easily been made by Trayvon Martin.)

Black Lives Matter is a response to a perceived threat - namely the idea that Black people in the United States, young Black men for the most part, are often enough dangerous and/or criminals, that the use of lethal force against them is justified, especially in situations in which non-Blacks would be given the benefit of the doubt, and police would more often be expected to deescalate the situation. But I believe that it's safe to say that a lot of non-Black people in the United States (although by no means all) don't perceive that threat. And accordingly, they see Black Lives Matter, and the social changes that the group/movement/hashtag pushes for as weapons; something that makes society more dangerous by demanding that Black people be held accountable for their actions less often than Whites or others.

And in this, Black Lives Matter, rather than being a reaction to an aspect of society that Black people find frightening and destructive, is instead a tool for racial advantage, in much the same way that many people view Affirmative Action. For a person who sees themselves as just as likely to be abused by authority, or who sees the actions of the police as justified by criminality in the Black community, there is no threat there, and Black Lives Matter is a weapon to be wielded against them, rather than armor for a community that feels itself vulnerable.

Thirty years ago, if you had asked certain of my high school classmates about racism in the United States, they would have told you it was a thing of the past. And I suspect that they honestly believed that, even when they did things that a neutral bystander would likely have regarded as racist. But they didn't see themselves as a threat, and therefore, they didn't understand why I felt any need to guard against them - and instead, I was the threat - looking for ways to cause trouble for them for my own advantage. This aspect of human nature is unlikely to ever go anywhere, because it's ubiquitous, on large scales and small. An abusive spouse sees themselves as reacting to wrongs done to them by their partner, terrorists view their actions as justified by the crimes of their target's (or their target's government) and nations go to war with completely different stories of who took the action that finally sparked the conflict.

The inability to see ourselves as other people see us, and to demand that instead they see us as we see ourselves, is likely built into human DNA. It seems too widespread to be otherwise. But it prevents us from understanding when the people around us feel threatened by us, and are responding to us, rather than threatening us themselves. And the consequences of this will likely always be conflicts, no matter how unnecessary they turn out to be.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Capital E

Many of the more vociferous debates in American politics can be described as a continuing conflict over whether something is actively harmful to a degree that warrants legislative action, or simply a failure to live up to some one other another person's standards for virtue. In other words, when is the answer to a given "bad act" simply "if you don't like it, don't do it," and when is it "the power of the society at large should be brought to bear against this?" This is a disagreement that is exacerbated by a general tendency of people to understand that there most closely held understanding of virtue are all about avoiding things that are actively harmful, either to specific individuals or to the society at large. This exists on all sides of whichever political divide one cares to name, so I'm going to dispense with providing specific (and partisan) examples.

While Americans tend to view themselves as a tolerant people, it's worth keeping in mind that this is not the same as being an indifferent people. And thus that tolerance has limits. And in a society that generally believes in the realism of moral categories, tolerance ends when Evil enters the picture. And many of the arguments that arise around whether or not this or that action is acceptable are really about if something rises to the level of actually being Evil. I tend to be bemused by such debates, as I am not a moral realist, and so for me, "Evil" is nothing more than a label that we apply to people, things and/or actions that we dislike to some degree or another - some people use it more expansively than others. And when one sees the opposition, intentionally or otherwise, advancing Evil, it's unsurprising that the opposition is not seen as principled.

Monday, January 2, 2017


How to make someone mad at you: When they start grousing about the "undemocratic anachronisms" of American politics, innocently ask: "Like the Constitution?" Despite the reverence in which we hold the document, the Constitution of the United States can be described as both undemocratic and anachronistic.

While it's fashionable to describe the men who put together what became the model of governance for the United States as snobbish aristocrats who had nothing but contempt for the public as a whole, a more charitable reading of the time could be that they knew something that we often have trouble with: that "democratic" and "enlightened" are not synonyms. The idea behind democracy, direct or representative, is to give the citizens of a nation say and/or a hand in the decisions that are going to directly impact them, and that they are going to, in many cases, pay the price for implementing. Democracy doesn't automagically make people less selfish or more capable of foresight. Democracy is also a poor way of apportioning scarce resources between two mutually antagonistic groups of people, especially if those groups have ossified into fairly stable camps. Opportunities, and the benefits they bring, often come at a cost to someone, and in an unfettered democracy, a slim majority can consistently reap the rewards that come from taking advantage of opportunities, while saddling the remaining populace with the price.

It's for this reason that the Bill of Rights was put into place. While people today frequently grouse about government functionaries seeking to stifle free speech or get around due process in criminal cases, the fact of the matter is that sometimes, these abuses also serve the interests of large swaths of the public. While the sorts of laws that bar causing offense to religious groups are often the targets of derision here, I can think of any number of people who would happily outlaw open criticism of Christianity, and still sleep the sleep of the just every night. And while people seek to ban hate speech for reasons that they understand to be perfectly reasonable, things like that have a way of getting away from you, often more quickly than anticipated.

And while the history of the United States prior to effectively universal adult enfranchisement wasn't one long horror story of majoritarian tyranny, there are a lot of instances where it's fairly easy to figure out which groups found themselves being raked over the coals for the benefit of everyone else.

It's also clear that the times have changed. When was the last time you encountered a court case that dealt with the provisions of the Third Amendment? Has there been a Third Amendment challenge to anything in living memory? And the right to a trial buy jury attaches to any "suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars." While changes in the price of silver mean that twenty early American silver dollars would have a metal content value of just over $300 today, the changes in actual buying power are much more substantial - $20 from just about a century ago purchased nearly $500 in goods and services in today's money. And let's not forget that whole three-fifths of a person thing...

The fact of the matter is that we haven't been consistently re-writing the constitution to keep up with the times, and several of its provisions are specifically aimed at coming between the majority of the public and their ability to enforce their will on the rest of society. So it shouldn't be surprising that other artifacts of the nation's past are still floating around today.