Tuesday, May 17, 2022

This Way And That

I was listening to a podcast yesterday, and Elon Musk was a guest panelist. During his talk, he noted that both the Democratic and Republican Parties have different forces that push them to be unresponsive to the needs of the public at large (or, "the people," as Mr. Musk put it). On the Democratic side of the house he called out labor unions and the trial lawyers (who are something of an old bugbear when people speak of "special interests"). On the Republican side, Mr. Musk called out "corporate evil" and religious zealotry.

It was a nice, succinct encapsulation of the of the activist class of both of the United States major political parties. But I wasn't sure that it was an accurate one, mainly on the Democratic side. I'm not sure that trial lawyers, as much as they're commonly blamed for making the United States into the overly litigious place that it's often seen as being, are that partisan of the problem.

Thinking about it a bit more, it seemed that id one was going to come up with two groups on either side of the partisan divide, it might be possible to place them into categories of proactive and reactive; that is one partisan interest group actively pushes for policies and the like that worry the other side, and the other interest group that is mainly responding to said pushing from opposing partisans.

And, using that overly simplistic model, perhaps one could structure the interest groups this way:

Proactive Interests:

  • Republican - Rapacious Capitalists: The problem with capitalism, it could be said, is the capitalists. There are a fair number of people in the United States who view the goal of capitalism to be one of running up the score on everyone else, and to that end, using the vulnerability of others as an asset. They prod the Republican party to ignore the degree to which the current American practice of capitalism not only creates rampant inequality, but comes across as deliberately designed to not work well, if at all for the majority of Americans.
  • Democratic - Social Engineers: There is no problem that can't be solved by using whatever crisis may be at hand to attempt to reshape the United States into something that more closely resembles the social democracies of Western Europe. Never mind that the United States is much larger than Europe, less densely populated than Europe and significant less homogeneous than most European nations. If that pesky individualism and religiosity can be stamped out and the right technocrats placed into offices, the United States can actually become a legitimate First (or Second, depending on where one starts counting) World nation.

Reactive Interests:

  • Republican - Culture Warriors: A mix of nationalistic would-be theocrats and racial-superiority supporters, this is a group that seems to want nothing more than another bite at the apple that was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When women were meant to be seen but not heard, the only value of minorities was cheap (or even simply stolen) labor, and freedom of religion really meant the right to be the proper sorts of Christian. This movement strikes me as mainly acting in response to their caricatures (and sometimes the reality) of the Social Engineers, perceiving them as Godless heathens who don't realize that "all men are created equal" wasn't actually intended to apply to humanity as a whole.
  • Democratic - Counter-Capitalists: Encompasses organized labor, sure, but also brings in a wide variety of people who have no use for labor unions, but still see American style capitalism as a crass, and deliberate, means of victimizing people. Generally unable to distinguish Capitalism from Corporatocracy, this is a group that tends towards dreams of a utopian future in which the only reason for wealth to exist is to free the population at large to pursue their dreams.

Three out of the four groups that Mr. Musk identified are still present; only the trial lawyers have been swapped out and replaced with the Social Engineers. The other groups are more or less the same. On the whole, I suspect that it's a bit too neat, and I've left out some important details. It is worth noting that both the Culture Warriors and the Counter-Capitalists have strong economic identities; both are acutely aware of their own feelings of poverty, and have convenient villains to blame for it, corporate managers and billionaires on the left and socialists and globalists on the right.

And there is a fifth group that should likely bear some of the blame; the passive voters (and non-voters) who may care enough to complain, but not enough to search out people who may change things for the better. While they may not actively seek to enact policies that advantage themselves to the detriment of others, their general lack of engagement reduces the penalties for politicians who chase particular interest groups to the exclusion of all else. To drive politics one way or another, one's vote has to be seen as being in play; the voter who can be relied upon to find an extremist of their own party to always be a better bet than a moderate from the other, or the person who simply never shows up to the polls, narrows the number of people that office seekers have to appeal to. This is what drives the hollowing out of the political center.

I don't know what remedy there might be for all of this. One is likely needed at some point; democracy is not meant to be the means by which mutually-antagonistic groups decide which off them will be run over by the other, nor is it a means of deciding between competing visions of right and wrong. Something needs to take the place of the broad sets of warring interest groups outlined above. And maybe it will. Whether it happens anytime soon is anyone's guess.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Shrouded

I spent a bit of time this morning looking for the "manifesto" that Buffalo, New York supermarket shooter Payton Gendron is said to have posted online. No luck.

The Google Document that contained Gendron’s manifesto remained online for several hours.

It was later taken down after Google said its contents had violated the web giant’s terms of service.
Buffalo supermarket shooter's chilling 180-page manifesto said 'great replacement theory' of whites being outnumbered drove him to kill - and New Zealand mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant was his inspiration

And after Google/Alphabet decided to remove the document, no one else has posted it, at least not in an easily-accessible place. It's out there. That much is a given. Several news stories I've read reference the document's contents. This doesn't mean, of course, that most of the journalists involved have actually read it; a lot of the verbiage in the news stories is similar enough that it seems clear that the same sources are being referenced. But there's enough detail that someone's read at least part of it.

But, at least for now, tracking down the manifesto would require more work than I'm willing to put into it, generally in the name of keeping other aspiring spree-murderers to seek to rack up body counts of their own. (Given that Payton Gendron supposedly saw Brenton Tarrant, Dylan Roof and Anders Breivik as people to emulate, I suspect that this particular horse my have long fled the barn.) Which I understand, to a degree, but it makes an assumption that I'm not sure I agree with; namely that there is no real value in having these documents readily available to the public.

There is a point to be made that people like Payton Gendron have nothing of any value to say. Which is fair enough. But how many of us do have anything of value to say? If much of the random blathering and nonsense that make up broad swaths of the World Wide Web (including Nobody in Particular) were to suddenly vanish, never to be seen again, would anyone really be worse off? Being old enough to remember when the public had no inkling of what blogs, subreddits or podcasts were, I'm pretty sure that people would find ways to fill their time.

I think that there is some value in understanding the resentment, anxiety, ignorance and distrust that drives people to drive three hours just to walk into a grocery store and start shooting people. Or, for that matter, the sense of romanticism that drives someone to help a multiple-time felon escape prison in the hopes of starting a new life with them. And the best way to understand these things is to have access to the words that these people have put down describing them. Even in a case like this, where it seems that much of the "manifesto" was cribbed from the internet or copied from others' diatribes. Sure, there are likely to be news stories, documentaries and/or made-for-television (or streaming) movies that purport to explain people to the public, but those are always filtered through the lens of the people who write and produce them, and they tend to have a specific audience in mind. And while the differences between how Fox News and MSNBC cover these sorts of things can be enlightening on their own, something is always lost in the filtering.

People of dubious mental stability who are of the impression that they and their semi-automatic rifles can hold off the fears that have been drummed into them are becoming an occupational hazard of living in the United States. And despite the outsized news coverage that they generate, they are still a very minor hazard. As a nation, the United States has made a pastime of ignoring much more serious problems. But that's not really a reason to force people into ignoring the concern by deciding that if such people are simply hidden in deep enough holes, they'll eventually go away. So perhaps it's time to set aside the fear of contagion, and allow the public a bit more access into the lives of the people who have strayed so far from the mainstream.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Foggy

If all one knows about a particular person or group of people is what one has been told by that person's or group's critics, then one likely knows very little about that person or group, regardless of how much information one has been given.

This was driven home to me recently in a conversation with a Christian who was convinced that they understood exactly what I thought about certain issues and what my ethical lines (or lack thereof) were, because the atheist worldview had been explained to them in detail by their pastor.

"Have I met your pastor?" I eventually asked, in an effort to create an opening for the idea that it's exceedingly difficult to create an accurate description of a complete stranger. But my interlocutor was having none of it. Either the pastor's depiction of me was correct, or I was calling the pastor a liar. Rather than call the man deceitful (which part of me feels that I should have done), I simply walked away from the conversation.

This disinterest in understanding how other people understand themselves, in favor of falling back on what is best described as secondhand information, strikes me as a commonplace reaction these days. Perhaps it's a reaction to the idea that "To understand all is to forgive all." Back when I was in school an acquaintance told me that the upshot of that aphorism was that those who should not be forgiven should not be understood. (Personally, this strikes me as being born of the idea that forgiveness is a gift that a wrong party gives the transgressor. Being of the mind that forgiveness of others is a gift that one gives to oneself, I have no problem with understanding.) But it's more likely simply an expression of faith in the people who tell one things. The Christian I was conversing with had much more faith in his pastor than they had in me, even when the topic was me. The idea that I was either in denial or deliberately lying was more palatable to them than the idea that their faith may have been displaced.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Into the Void

I was listening to a podcast about the leak of one of the Supreme Court's draft opinions in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization, and it was suggested that the next goals of the anti-abortion movement would be to lobby for restrictions or bans in Blue states and to lobby Congress to pass a nationwide law against the procedure.

Personally, I suspect that they'll have better luck in attempting to convince a Republican Congress to enact a nationwide ban. But I also think that it will have to wait for a while, the Republicans are unlikely to win enough seats in the Senate to force cloture votes (needed to end a filibuster) anytime soon, and I doubt that they'd seek to change Senate rules simply for a Culture War concern. (By the way, I'd also heard that some people think that their may even be enough momentum to pass a Constitutional amendment. Those people are deep in wishful thinking.) My skepticism that voters in Democratic and Democratic-leaning states could be convinced to back greater restrictions on abortion aside, I have noticed that pro-life groups regularly pay for billboards in and around Seattle to make their point.

Generally, I consider it a waste of time. Mainly because, like a lot of amateur political advertising, it preaches to the choir. Repeating for the umpteenth time the point in a pregnancy at which a heartbeat can be detected or comparing a small fetus to a diamond and asking which is the more valuable does nothing to address the concerns of voters who see abortion bans as promoting forced pregnancies or another form of attack on women and their rights. It's simply virtue signalling. But then again, billboards aren't really all that expensive to rent.

This public posturing is a symptom of the current phase of the American public sorting itself into two mutually hostile camps to either side of a mostly disinterested middle. Partisan actors have too little respect for anyone who doesn't already agree with them to bother actually attempting to address them. Which is a shame. Not that I would like to see abortion here in Washington come to look like what Texas or Mississippi have in mind, but an actual discussion of the interests on both sides might actually result an a more adult way of going about things than is currently the norm.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Charging Along


I went to a small Electric Vehicle show that a couple of friends were attending, just to hang out with them. While most of the cars were modern, purpose-built EVs, Teslas and the like, there were also a few that had been converted from internal combustion.

EVs are interesting, but conversations with the owners revealed that the United States is going to be a while in fully adopting them, and not simply because of the oil industry. The United States is a big place, and cities of note can be pretty spread out. None of the vehicles on display today could get one from Seattle to Portland, or Seattle to Spokane, without stopping to recharge. My car can easily do Seattle to Portland without stopping. I've never tried to make the round trip without filling up, but I suspect that in the absence of any traffic snarls, I could make it... or the one-way try to Spokane. But even if I needed to stop, it only adds several minutes to the overall drive time.

Since EVs are unlikely to ever match the range and ease of refueling of gasoline vehicles, they'll likely need a boost from other modes of transportation, such as trains, to really meet their potential. Which means that the EV world will likely look very different from the current one. I'm curious to see how it shapes up.