Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Got to Be Real

Image credit: Paul Garber/WFDD
It's become popular to complain about "sowing division" in the United States. Accusing people of focusing on, or even simply bringing up, topics or concepts that encourage Americans to retreat into their mutually incompatible identities is something of a cardinal sin in many areas of American discourse. What that misses is the idea that Americans will separate themselves into groups with hardly any prompting, thank you very much. And this billboard, which was put up outside of Winston-Salem North Carolina is a handy demonstrator as to how it works.

One of the effects that I suspect that Judeo-Christianity has had on the United States is twofold - an understanding that there is a Truth out there that can be found, and the idea that deviation from that revealed Truth is a form of wrongdoing. And I think that this leads people to look at this billboard and presume that a man who does not provide for a family or a woman who does not appreciate being provided for as not "real," as in somehow less than genuine men or women. Now, that's not to say that this isn't an attack on people who don't follow "traditional" gender roles. But the billboard itself says nothing of the sort. Any insult to other ways of life that one takes away from this are, at least at this point, in the reading that one brings to it, rather than in the text itself.

And maybe that's part of the problem that we have as a nation, given the fact that we're not truly a unified society. We've become so accustomed to attacking one another, and defending ourselves against attacks by others, that we see attacks everywhere. It's the same thing with Black Lives Matter. While nothing in that slogan says anything to the effect that the lives of other people are any less meaningful, there are a fair number of people who read it as Only Black Lives Matter.

A single billboard, no matter how large, is too small a canvas to capture any significant amount of the nuance of the human condition. I am willing to let the men who provide, and the women who appreciate it, into Realdom, along with just about anyone else who asks. (Although I will admit that I've raised an eyebrow at a few of the petitioners from time to time.) It may be overly generous of me to presume that they are willing to share that distinction with the single and otherwise independent, but I keep one thing in mind - they can't stop me. If I choose to allow that a man who is, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to provide for a family, or even for himself, is just as real as they are, any disagreement on their part is their problem, not mine. Likewise, if I choose to allow that a woman who refuses to allow anyone to provide for her and hers is as real as they, their disagreement will not deter me. Declaring something Truthful does not make every other thing a Falsehood by default.

Besides, despite the suspicions of some detractors that the sponsors of this sign wish to return the United States to a black and white Leave it to Beaver society, progress is seldom that fragile. Especially in a case like this, where I suspect that any competent historian would tell you that things were never as simple as seven words on a billboard would make them out to be. Even when people still sought the lifestyles of the rich and Brady, the idea that none of that society was built on the backs of miserly bachelors or self-reliant women was more delusion than history.

So let them place billboards wherever they may and project whatever message they wish. If they hope to turn back the clock, they'll likely find it more difficult than they, or their more fearful critics, think. And if they only wish to have others see them as just as genuine as anyone else, reality has room for a few more, I think.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bad Advice

One of the things about the American political system that we can do without is its tendency towards bitterness, anger and vindictiveness. Being wrong-thinking brings suffering, and that suffering is deserved so long as the wrong thinking persists. When I first read the above, what struck me is that all of it is bad advice, to the last word.

The "structure of power" that allows an employer's choice to relocate a job is called technology. From ships to planes to high-speed internet, advancing technology has had the effect of making the world effectively smaller, meaning that more and more people around the world are now effectively in close enough proximity to be able to do work for otherwise local employers. The container ship has sailed, and it's not coming back. The belief it was created solely by the greed of "the 1%" is a fallacy. Even if we stop working on new and better ways to directly give the global workforce access to the markets of first and second world nations, the fact of the matter is that other technologies will be pressed into service. Autonomous vehicles, faster and faster internet infrastructure, better education - all of these things make it easier to move good and services around the globe. And they aren't going to go away.

The "structure of power" that incents an employer's choice to relocate a job is called economics. The fact of the matter is that as goods and services are produced in a globalized marketplace, some people will be willing to do work for a lower standard of living than others, because it's still a step up from where they came from. Yes, there governments, whether they be in other states, or India or the United Kingdom, that have found a way to put a thumb on the scale - taxing their own citizens to attract jobs away from other people. But even in the absence of that, for some people, their comparative advantage is that they feel themselves to be living like kings on wages that would beggar someone else. Their poverty, relative or absolute, is an advantage, and one that they exploit in order to destroy it. We live in a society in which we equate affluence with possessions. And so the less expensive possessions are, the better off we see ourselves. According to Walmart "We save people money so they can live better," through the more efficient transfer of wealth from liquidity into goods and services. And everyone is on board with this. While the Michael Chertoff claim that to have Americans pick apples, we'd have to pay $16 each for them may be overstated, we are, as a nation, price sensitive. And on the one hand, this leads to all sorts of strangeness, it also leads to straightforward cost-cutting. And if moving a job to Mexico, India or Botswana to offer a wage that's one-eighth of what an American would make means that some fraction of the retail price can either be shaved or pocketed (or a bit of both), then that's what's going to happen.
Instead of attacking your fellow worker, the one who's willing to work for less than a legal wage to feed his family, maybe you should go after the technological advances and economic forces that allow him to have the opportunity to take that work.
"There," as the saying goes. "I fixed it for you."

The fact of the matter is that we live in a society that has come to depend on the existence of poverty to function as it does. And while I understand the point that it does no good to be angry with someone who has taken advantage of a door out of the grinding poverty that they found themselves in, I don't know that looking for ways to chain it shut is any better.

This can all be seen as part of a process of creative destruction. And in such a process, it's always better when the process of creation results in destruction than to have a desperate need for creativity to mitigate against the effects of destruction. And in a lot of ways our problem isn't that the interests of the wealthy and powerful are served by driving destruction - instead it's that their interests are often served by implementing open checks on creativity - and it is this retardation of innovation that leads to the problems that we have today. Not that demand can continue to rise indefinitely in the fact of constant efficiency gains - but when the new industries that would take up the slack in the labor market are stifled, people feel a need to hold on the jobs of the past, jobs that the global poor are learning the skills to perform and are no longer locked out of simply by a lack of proximity.

Whether it coes about as a result of attacking fellow workers, or attempting to undermine the forces that enable them to be workers, it speaks to the fact that our issue is not that one person or another has a job. It's that the system is set up in such a way that only one worker can do well at a time. And part of the issue with a standard of living that is fueled by someone's poverty is that it doesn't care where that poverty lives. It doesn't matter which worker loses out, so long as one of them loses. Certain people have preferences, yes, but the structures of everyday life don't care.

Capital is dearer than labor. This is not due to the structures of power. Its due to the broader way in which we have organized our society. The fact that what separates people is not a disagreement over whether it should change, but how it should be enforced may demonstrate that.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Giving Wisdom

Reading McKay Coppins' piece on Tucker Carlson in the Atlantic, two things stood out for me. One was what made him angry:

“It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
The second thing was something he said he'd learned from his father:
“The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”
I wonder if he realizes how the two go hand in hand. I've met a lot of people who stand by the practice of calling other people names. And generally speaking, they don't see that activity as “doing the Lord’s work.” Instead, they see it as imparting wisdom to someone who may not realize that they're being an asshole.

There appear to be a lot of philosophies that work on the idea that to make someone a better person, the first thing that you have to do is tear them down, or otherwise have them hit bottom. And I think that speaks to a lot of people because it allows them to go around telling people what assholes they are - but shields them from the understanding that they, too, might be assholes who just happen to have found a justification for behavior that they find unimpressive in others.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Know the Truth

Instinctively by Trump, perhaps strategically by Bannon and others, the Trump moment has promoted the idea that there are no facts, no reality, no authorities, no actual truth. There’s only us and them.
James Fallows ‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’ The Atlantic.
As much as I like James Fallows, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this conclusion. What the Trump moment, and broader Conservative thought has pushed back against is the idea that if there is a disagreement between "the press" and any other entity or institution as to what the facts, reality, authorities or actual truth are, then it must be the press that has it right. As much as various personalities within and commenters on the media and the press may say that the sole function of the press is to get us to facts, reality, authorities and actual truth, the simple fact that they have one job does not, in and of itself, mean that they are doing it properly or in good faith. To claim otherwise is an appeal to authority that may be wise, but is no less a fallacy for that.

What the Trump moment is instead promoted is that they are honest speakers of the facts, reality, authorities and, yes, actual truth. And that those who say otherwise are at best instinctively biased and at worst, strategically dishonest.
Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories?
action.donaldjtrump.com Mainstream Media Accountability Survey
Once you postulate that facts, reality, authority and actual truth are real and objective things that can be discovered and known, they become independent of any particular persons or institutions. And if you postulate that these things are self-evident to anyone who cares to look at them, it is easy to conclude that you can judge a person's intellect, observation and/or honesty by how they describe them.

It is a common facet of human nature to believe that "ought" can be just as objective as "is." And that one can, and should, flow from the other. We are no less likely to see what we think the world ought to be like as objective and self-evident as we are to think of our everyday reality that way. And in a society large enough to have major cultural groups operating at cross-purposes (if not direct opposition) to one another, it's easy to see how "us versus them" comes into the picture. If I control the narrative of the past and the present, I can influence what someone thinks the future should be. And we often use the present to dictate to people how to bring about the futures we want. If you see someone's vision of what ought to be as damaging to you and based on certain information about what currently is, sometimes one's first impulse is to dispute what is, rather than question the necessity of the connection. And in a regime where what is, in the form of everyday reality, is thought to be self-evident, disputing someone's account of what is lies only a short step away from questioning, or impugning, their rationality, knowledge and/or morality.

And from there, you have Us, the rational, knowledgeable and moral - and thus ready, willing and able to accurately understand the world around us; and Them, the irrational, ignorant and immoral, who see what they think they see, what they've been told to see or what they want to see in order to justify their wrong-headed, if not dangerous, ideas of what ought to be.

The problem with common conceptions of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth is that we don't often distinguish between the objective and the subjective; but we often link the two. Consider the statement, "It's cold outside today." Now consider the statement, "It's 40° F outside today." Are both of those statements facts? Let's say I make the second statement "It's -20° F outside today." Now are both statements facts? And if 40° isn't cold, but when I go outside it is, can I question my thermometer? These are the sorts of questions that we deal with day after day, as we sort our sensations and perceptions of the world into information and knowledge. Is the legitimacy of a government ever a fact? Can it be linked to vote totals? Is popularity a fact that flows from polling numbers? We know that polls can be wrong. Is "You are (un)safe," a fact?

As I understand the world, things like facts, reality, et cetera are not always truth-apt in the grand scheme of things, but only in regard to human experience. And from that comes the idea that there is no one singular, universal truth. But that is different, very different, from the idea that there no actual truth at all. (Of course, if I wanted to really meta about this whole exercise, I could ask if actual must mean singular and universal...) A worldview that posits that the actual truth must be an agreed upon item, sets us up for a conflict of truth versus lies, rather than the overlapping truths of different experiences. It is a conflict that can never be won, because unless truth only consists of items that are objective, in the sense that they are completely independent of the perceptions of the observer, different people can always honestly assert different truth. And even with objective truth, you still have the issue of incomplete knowledge - just as with blind men and elephants, partial knowledge may be mistaken for the whole.

And so I disagree with the idea that the Trump moment represents an attack on the idea of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth are real. Instead it argues against the idea that these are singular things and/or that only people outside of the moment have access to them. Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts" as clumsy as it was becomes the first of those propositions, and the Trump moment's general disdain for media outlets they disagree with becomes the second.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Unreality

So I came across the following on my social media feed.

Fake news as defined by the left and center:
A news story put out to intentionally deceive, that the author knows is wrong

Fake news as defined by the right:
Any news story that challenges my world view, or that I don't like.

Rather looks like the right is challenged in dealing with unpleasant realities.
Three guesses as to the political leanings of the author...

And it seems to me that this is what the discussion over "fake news" has devolved into - a partisan, and personal, sniping fest over who is more gullible. But that's not what the term was originally coined to describe.

Fake News, as it was encountered during the 2016 election cycle, is a form of advertising scam. I suppose that you could also call it fraud, but I'm unsure of a legal basis for that label. And it is, at heart, a form of clickbait, that, like most clickbait, is designed to take advantage of the way that online advertising is placed and that placement paid for. The goal is to drive pageviews, and thus, advertising revenue. Virality, not deception, is the primary goal.

What makes Fake News fake is not the veracity of the stories themselves, although many of them were made up out of whole cloth, or cobbled together by randomly lifting pieces of other items found on line. The fake aspect of Fake News derives from the fact that many of these sites were designed to look like legitimate, if small and/or local, news outlets. And this was designed to give the stories a certain level of credibility, again, to make them more likely to be shared. If I were to post something here on Nobody In Particular that claimed, due to some obscure 1920s law, that President Trump was guilty of some impeachable offense, it might garner some views. But, as it says on the tin, I'm Nobody In Particular, and few people are likely to take it as anything more than wishful thinking or a thought experiment on my part. But if that same piece were to show up on what people presume to be a reputable news site, WashingtonStarNews.com, say, they might be more inclined to see it as something worth talking about, even if they were no more inclined to believe that it was accurate.

Given that virality is the goal, even people who click through to the page merely to pass along the URL with an incredulous comment serve the site owner's purposes - views, and the advertising revenue that comes from those views. The World Wide Web is a very big place, virtually speaking, and it's not worth most advertisers' time to verify each and every site where their ad might be seen. If people are going to a particular site, that's where they want to be, and their willingness to pay for the opportunity is what drove Fake News.

Much has been made of the fact that the American Right seemed to be highly susceptible to Fake News. This, in turn, fed a theory that Fake News, and the anti-Clinton animosity that it engendered, is was came between the former Secretary of State and the White House. But it's probably more accurate to say that anti-Clinton (and anti-Obama) animosity, and Republican desperation, that drove the Fake News cycle.
I would wager that this guy had it in for both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama long before he encountered Washington Star News. And note that this piece had generated 3 likes when I took this screenshot, but 36 comments. For everyone who clicked through before saying something, a website operator made a bit more money.
It's likely that as "Presidential Derangement Syndrome" (which is likely better named "Partisan Fear") cycles back to the American Left, we'll start to see a robust trade in Fake News designed to draw them in by appealing to the search for hope. And then it will be the Right's turn to cast their opponents as "reality challenged." And we'll see the same charge that the tern "Fake News" is being used as a cover for closed-mindedness.

People understand that even when the facts are the same, the framing of Who, What, When, Why and How can lead people to different conclusions as to the nature of the world around them.
In that sense, it's worth pointing out that a) people tend to be sensitive to items that they understand are biased (especially when that bias operates to the detriment of themselves or people they like), b) the modern media landscape is littered with items that people can and will seize upon as being biased and c) to the degree that people tend to understand their worldviews as both objective and self-evident, negative biases will often be seen as intentionally perverse. Openly anti-Obama stories from eight years ago weren't characterized as Fake News at the time simply because the term wasn't in widespread use. But I can recall stories from that time that openly questioned the former President's suitability for office that were called out as being hit pieces, rather than items of genuine newsworthiness.

Understanding what Fake News really is, as a concept, independent of the label attached to it, is important because it's not going to go anywhere. As long as there is an online advertising model that pays people for the number of people that view a page where an ad is placed, people will turn to clickbait to draw people in. And playing on the hopes of frightened people has always been an excellent way to do that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Leverage


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Going Without

Today was to be "A Day Without Immigrants." I didn't notice it, personally. Not because I don't work with immigrants, but I'm in the tech sector, and the immigrants I work with on a regular basis are all making salaries in the upper-five to six figures. They're not feeling the heat in the way that restaurant workers and other people lower down on the income ladder might be. Not, to be honest, that it appeared that any of the immigrant-run restaurants I drove by this evening appeared to be closed.

There is a difference between "A Day Without Immigrants" and "A Day Without Immigrants From Latin America Who Are In the United States Illegally." And I don't know that it does anyone any good for those two groups to become conflated in the public consciousness. Immigration policy in the United States is, and will always have to be, based more broadly than the interests of Latin Americans. Programmers, managers and other white-collar workers have different interests than "cooks, dishwashers, busboys, cleaners, carpenters and delivery workers."

I'm typically unimpressed with street protests, mainly because I understand protest to be the last resort of the politically powerless. And when we're talking about those people who are in the country without documentation, they are more or less by definition politically powerless, since they cannot vote or run for elected office. Therefore, they have no way of influencing the system from the "inside." This necessitates that they attempt influence from the outside. And while I understand the goals behind the protests, I don't know that I think the tactics are the best ones.

If we don't produce, if we get deported, and don't show up, what's gonna happen? This country will collapse, because who's gonna do our kinds of jobs? No one.
The problem with this sort of thing (which mirrors the problem I have with "No justice, no peace") is that it is, at it heart, extortionate. And I'm not sure that is a good way of making friends and influencing people. The bluff is unlikely to be called; the United States is a very large nation of people who don't get along all that well in a lot of things - I can't see the nation as a whole saying "Okay. Challenge accepted. Show me what you've got." But even so, threatening people and effectively calling them out as weak strikes me as an unlikely path to convincing the public that they should either continue to tolerate the blind eye that's often turned to immigration or opt for another Reagan-style reset. I also think that it seems likely to alienate people who came to the country legally, who generally speaking, couldn't bluster their way in.

Hostility to immigration tends to be a pocketbook issue, at least in perception. The understanding is that the large pool of immigrant labor lowers wages and leads to job losses for "natives," without doing anything to materially aid the displaced. The fact that one might be able to buy berries at 50% of what they would otherwise cost is slight consolation to someone facing long-term unemployment. The fact of the matter becomes that many Americans are not compared to compete with many of the world's poor people on standard of living. Trinidad Macias may be convinced that most Americans would not do the jobs that immigrant workers perform, but the simple fact is, that to the degree that she's right, it's because the work is poorly paid, and many Americans would be unwilling to sacrifice the America Dream enough to make the math work out. I don't know that rubbing their faces in that will drive the impetus for change.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pretenders

Representative Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin) has stirred up a minor teapot tempest with his assertions on CNN that when White people engage in mass murder, those are one-off events, as opposed to groups "like ISIS or al Qaeda that [are] inspiring people around the world to take up arms and kill innocents." Whether or not this is actually true is debatable - it seems plausible that there is something of a movement out there, just not as large or persuasive of one. After all, it's likely that even ISIS and al Qaeda were at one point small enough that they could easily be ignored.

But when I hear Representative Duffy saying "There's a difference," what I understand him doing is looking to avoid being tarred by the broad brush that people often tend to apply in situations like this - it's similar, in my mind, to the woman who posted on social media that Dylann Roof didn't look White to her. If what makes groups of people bad, the logic seems to go, is that some of them do bad things in the name of bad causes, we must be constantly vigilant for the idea that any of us do bad things for bad causes.

And this strikes me as pointless.

Whether people see other people as individuals or whether they see them as members of a group is going to vary according to the person. And people are often going to vary on that depending on who they're looking at - people they like will be seen as individuals and people they want a reason to dislike will be seen as tainted by the sins of people who share something in common with them. It's the nature of the beast. The problem tends to be that many of us are discouraged from owning up to that. Representative Duffy can't openly say that he is more willing to give White Americans the benefit of the doubt that they are to give it to other people, even though most people who listen to or read his comments will likely come to that conclusion. Just like it is often frowned upon for Moslems to openly give other Moslems the benefit of the doubt while withholding it from others.

But that creates a society in which we pretend to be fair, and one in which we then feel the need to have the facts back us up - hence Representative Duffy asking for the Catalog of Sins of White radicals, in the expectation that Alisyn Camerota would be unable to come up with enough examples to undermine the Representative's stand that there's something different about Middle Easterners that Anglo-Europeans are mostly above. And so we never get to the crux of the issue. And the pretending continues.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bordered

I am of the opinion that media interviews with officials of a current Administration are, and have always been, a waste of time. They're tiresome charades in the name of "balance." No competent administration is going to allow the press to have access to someone who can't toe the party line, and so what you end up with a mixture of deflections and carefully inserted talking points.

But I do think that White House adviser Stephen Miller made a good point on "Meet The Press," when he noted that: "If people don't like the immigration laws of the United States, they can reform them." Now, to be sure, Mr. Miller is also being somewhat glib. The set of people who can reform the immigration laws of the United States is rather select - the 535 members of Congress, and even then, they have to contend with the risk of a Presidential veto and/or the oversight of the courts. Mr. Miller is at least somewhat correct, however, in his insinuation that what's missing from the immigration debate is a serious talk about changing the legal framework through which people are allowed into the country. And this has lead to the somewhat backwards situation that sneaking into the United States makes much more sense than attempting to be above board.

In the end, from where I see things, the illegality of much of the migration into the United States serves the purposes of any number of people, and that's why it persists. Labor migration (and, while we're at it, let's throw in labor trafficking) creates a class of low-paid workers who have the willingness and conditioning to perform menial work at very low rates of pay. And this keeps prices down. When employers complain that "Americans are unwilling to do the work," what they really mean is that "Americans are unwilling to do the work at a wage that allows us to maintain both our profitability and our pricing structure." And there's a lot of truth to that. Because, when you ask them, immigrant aren't exactly clamoring for the jobs themselves - no one performs years of physically demanding and low-paid labor to put their children through college simply to have them return to the field or the packing plant floor. And for Americans, who value upward mobility in life, jobs that are both low-paying and low status often aren't worth pursuing.

But the flip side of that national self-importance is price sensitivity. While the United States manages to stay out of the trouble caused by subsidizing everyday products and services, people grumble when prices go up, and in an economy that's driven by constant purchases of non-essential items, keeping people feeling flush enough to go out and shop is an important component of overall economic "heath." Food is a requirement, so if prices went up to the point that wages were high enough to pull in Americans looking for work, the effects on business would be widespread. Smaller producers, unable to effectively take advantage of economies of scale, would likely find themselves fighting to hang on to their customers. And other businesses would start to suffer as the disposable income that they rely on was eaten up by higher food prices. Not to mention that agricultural products that could be substituted for something less expensive would suddenly find their sales dropping. Domestic employers who rely on keeping their labor costs as low as possible are also beholden to the fact that much of their labor is in the nation illegally.

In order to keep the balance of consumer prices and producer profitability where it is if immigration laws were liberalized, wages and benefits would have to be allowed to sink to what migrant workers are currently paid. And it's unlikely that this would happen. This creates a strange situation in which workers in the country illegally benefit from the current labor laws because the main reason why they can compete with legal workers is that they can undercut them by working for wages too low to be otherwise allowable. In other words, in a regime where all of those workers were legal, and subject to the same rights and protections as legal workers, would result in a lower overall demand for their labor. (And, by the same token, wages high enough to draw citizens and other legal residents into those jobs would also reduce the demand for poor immigrant laborers to do the work.

In this sense, it's possible to make a case (although here is were I admit to not knowing how strong a case) for the idea that the public at large, employers and even the migrants themselves have a stake in the current version of the status quo, and the reason why it hasn't been reformed is that reforms that unambiguously make one or more groups better off without trade-offs simply aren't available.

But... I'm also a cynic, and so there's a part of me that suspects another reason why immigration laws don't really change. Removing them means that they're no longer available to use as weapons when we want them. Out current method of enforcement, which tends to be one of mostly looking the other way unless we catch someone in the act of crossing or they've done something serious means that we still have the ability to turn the sights on anyone we disapprove of. Employers (and traffickers, for that matter) are already said to use this as a bargaining chip. Complain too loudly about the deal that's been offered or how it's implemented, the implicit threat goes, and you'll be reported to immigration authorities. And while I don't think that this is something that the public as a whole outwardly subscribes to, I think that it hanging there, like a sword of Damocles over the heads of people in the country illegally, serves a purpose. Make the wrong enemies, and prepare for deportation. "Undesirable" and "criminal," while they may overlap, are not one in the same. But when being in the nation is itself a crime, there is always the rationale for shipping the undesirable to their home nation.

In the end, I'm unconvinced that a solution to the issue of immigration is difficult. Instead, it's "merely" expensive. And we don't want to pay the costs. But we're not necessarily above passing them on to other people, and perhaps that's what we need to start looking at.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I Know, I Know, I Know, I Know, I Know

Yeah, I should leave the young thing alone,
But ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
I'd never really paid much attention to the lyrics of Ain't No Sunshine. It was just another one of those songs that I heard every so often. But one day, I was listening to a playlist that I'd put together of the sort of music that I listened to as a child, I began to realize that a lot of songs used similar phrasings to talk about things, when this didn't simply directly reference one another. The Rolling Stones had put together a compilation album of music that had influenced them, and when I listened to it, it became pretty clear to me that even when the Stones weren't directly making covers of older songs, they were unafraid to lift bits and pieces of them. And over the years, I'd started to notice that it wasn't only they that did this.

The general theme of Ain't No Sunshine is the longing for something that you know isn't good for you. And that lends the song a poignancy that I was unaware of before I'd carefully listened to the lyrics. And a level of universality. Because relationships aren't the only things that we want, that aren't good for us.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Envisioned

So the other day, I saw a social media posting from a young person who was upset about being called a "lady," several times that day. She was born female, and certainly looks the part, but is genderfluid and prefers to be perceived as masculine.

Part of the issue, according to the post, was a fear of standing up for their desire to seen as masculine and not as a woman. But there's another side of it, that resonated with me from my own experience, and that's just the difficulty of linking anything about oneself to how other people see you. People see the world in a combination of the way they've learned to see it, the way it's been described to them and the way that works for them. And other people fit within that. It's an impossible thing to wish away, no matter how much one want to be seen in the way one sees oneself.

It took me a long time to learn that. Granted, the disconnect between the way people saw me and the way I saw myself had nothing to do with gender. It was a simple matter of being Different when I didn't want to be. I move in circles that are predominantly White - and that means I stand out immediately. When there was a large team meeting at work, and people came from all over the Americas to attend, it was immediately obvious to everyone there who I was the second I walked in the room - after all, I'm the only Black guy on the team. I, on the other hand, was working to match people with their voices or pictures that were often several years old. It was stressful and it brought back that feeling of being Different that had so haunted me when I was a child. But I'm more or less okay with it now, because it's not going to change.

It did take me a while to get there, though, and so I sympathize with other people who see themselves one way, or who want to see themselves one way, and are constantly reminded that they aren't seen that way by the people around them. It's going to be tough going for a while. But it will, like all things, subside.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Return of Winter

Winter stopped by yesterday. But it didn't stay, as it had other places to be.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Feelings and Data

So over the weekend, someone posted a graphic of a social media post by someone who I presume is a women's advocate. The general gist of their argument was that American women were less concerned with possible violence on the part of immigrants and refugees because of the much greater likelihood that violence would visited upon them by an intimate partner. In other words, American men were a much more immediate threat to American women then foreign-born men are. In the service of this point, the advocate noted that 1,500 women were murdered by their partners every month. That number struck me as high, so I did the math, and that gives an annual number that turns out to be greater than the overall murder rate of the United States. So I expressed curiosity about the nations covered by the numbers, reasoning that it must be a larger area than just the United States. Another commenter on the thread then made the point that even if the number was much lower, it still represented too many people murdered by someone they should be able to trust.

This represents for me the unhealthy relationship that we've created between our subjective understanding of the world and the objective "facts" about the world. I had attempted to take pains to not say that the concern that many women have about violence from their partners is misplaced. After all, for instances where the relationships (or lack thereof) between murdered people and their killers is known, a large number of the murdered are acquainted with their killers. And in about 10% of murder cases, the crime is a man killing their partner. (A number which leads, I learned, to estimates of about 1,500 domestic murders a year in the United States.) I had been attempting to limit my questions to the mind side of the equation, but the follow-up comment that I received was squarely aimed at the heart aspect of the issue, lest I undermine it with my question.

A lot of topics have this dynamic, and we tend to miss it more often than not. This morning, I noticed that someone had posted an article about President Trump (once again) referring to "the media" as "dishonest." This time, the allegation was that stories of terrorist attacks in Europe were being covered up. Donald Trump being Donald Trump, the allegation of media malfeasance had been made without support evidence, and in the social media post, the poster attacked this, and added their voice to the chorus (although perhaps choir is a more apt metaphor) of people accusing the President of open deceit. But this strikes me as a "minds" argument, when President Trump was more speaking to "hearts." For some number of people on the American Right (and it is these people, I suspect, who are the intended audience of the President's comment) Islamic terrorism is high on their list of troubles. And they feel that "the media," having tarred them as "deplorables," are willing to (literally) sacrifice them in the name of an Elite liberal do-gooder project to bring foreign-born poor to this nation to help themselves to its resources at the direct expense of the Working Class. But in order to make this more palatable to Peoria, the fact that some of the poor that the liberal experiment are designed to help are actually murderous jihadis is either ignored, or decried as racism and bigotry. Of course, to be sure, it's not as if people suspect that all of the would-be immigrants, travelers or refugees are dangerous; the M&Ms and Skittles memes are fairly clear about that. But they're also clear that even one instance of "poison" is too many. (There is a certain irony to the fact that, given Americans' tendency to use violence as a problem-solving tool, people moving to the United States are presented with a bowl of candies that has its fair share of toxic individuals. "Safer than where you came from" and "safe" are not the same.)

To a degree, the Executive Order that President Trump signed that barred entry to the United States to all refugees and to travelers from seven Moslem-majority nations was more than a security measure. It was also a rebuke of the previous administration, if an unspoken one. The travel ban halted people who had been cleared by the Obama Administration, while a halt only to processing permissions to enter the nation wouldn't have. So there is a case to made for the idea that the Trump Administration is indicating that it felt the Obama Administration was effectively being lax in its stewardship of public safety. It's not very difficult to argue that an immigration and refugee resettlement pause, with time to review and, as required, revise policies, could have been carried out without blocking people who had already been cleared. It only makes sense to effectively revoke previous clearances if one suspects that they the process that granted them was completely inadequate. And this would fit in with the idea (among others) that the American Left was willing to deliberately (if not openly) overlook a certain amount of danger in order to hand out benefits to poor people from abroad, while allowing businesses to reduce Middle America to destitution.

And that emotional understanding of the world is not going to be undone by attacking President Trump's command of, or apparent disrespect for, the facts. Talking to the mind means little if your audience should be the heart. And in cases like this, it simply cements the very ideas that critics seek to dislodge. Because challenging President Trump on the facts is not the same thing as refuting his appeals to the feelings of his supporters, and, as near as I can tell, it's often perceived as attacking him because he backs up and confirms his supporters, who feel themselves targets of contempt for hostile leftist "Elites."

Whether or not Hearts and Minds campaigns are workable is a topic for historians. From my vantage point, they haven't seemed very effective when employed in war. But they acknowledge the two factors that have to be taken into account. Which is more than we've understood in the culture war.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Balance


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Misbehaved

It has become common for people to react to protests that they disagree with for partisan reasons with the statement: "We didn't behave this way when X happened," or some variation thereof, where X refers to some past event that they have determined is roughly similar to what the current batch of activists are protesting, but went against the critic instead. The idea is that the critic and their faction were more tolerant of political setbacks than their opposition.

This often sparks criticism when it can be shown that there were, in fact, protests of a similar sort when event X happened. And since digital cameras and camera phones have been a thing for nearly the past two decades, there is often an abundance of photographic evidence of that fact. And this triggers that most common of modern political epithets: Liar.

But I suspect that critics of protests are less likely to be denying the reality of past actions as they are the legitimacy of present ones. Because I'm not sure when people make statements like this, that seems to completely ignore relatively recent history, that they are indulging in a convenient or fabricated amnesia. Instead, they are speaking to the justifications of the parties involved. Although it's relatively easy to delve into the minutiae of a given protest and make points such as whether or not traffic was snarled, windows were broken or rocks were thrown, most "we didn't behave this way" statements and other criticisms don't make the attempt to parse things out that finely. And on social media, a lot of the criticism is directly aimed at the protesters themselves, and attributes to them any number of negative character traits. And so the point becomes not what was done, but whether or not it was justified. And in a partisan era, who is doing something and why they are doing it are often conflated.

What we often tend to think of as ironclad, universal rules are, in practice, riddled with loopholes. After all, "You will not kill," tends to have exceptions for self-defense, defending others, wartime, executions, fleeing felons and anyone sufficiently frightening. And in a society torn by factionalism, we are much more likely to accept a mitigating circumstance when it is offered by someone of our own faction, and see it as deceit in service of excusing murder when offered by someone of an opposing faction. This self-righteousness tends to grow in proportion to the enmity between the factions, as that same enmity tends to push us towards seeing opposing factions as perverse, rather than principled. And this leaves aside the tendency to deliberately shelter our own guilty and prosecute opposing innocent when we seek to make people's understandings match the reality we believe we inhabit.

And in the end, the problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn't tolerate self-reflection very well. We don't like to see ourselves as wrong (let alone perverse), and so we don't step back from our positions far enough to be able to evaluate both them, and our opponents', at once. If something happens that allows us to see others as less wrong without seeing ourselves as more wrong, that might prompt us to accept what others are doing. But if we have to admit to having behaved badly ourselves, we're less likely to want to see others as better than we already do. And so we set ourselves apart from them by claiming that they have done we we would never contemplate.