02 December 2016

Westworld

I've been trying to figure out what I think of this show. So here goes

Good
Anthony Hopkins is playing a villain.
Cultural homages to Shakespeare, Frankenstein, and Hannibal Lecter ensue.

They've done a pretty capable job of examining the concepts of memory and solipsism as they might interact with an AI (or anybody with a really good memory but a traumatic life). This has also been by far the most interesting question marks of the show for me to think about is the intersection of memory and story telling.
Note: Game of Thrones also deals heavily in the question of story telling and history/memory. I might have a thing for shows, books, or films that highlight the difficulty communicating information accurately to other people, or the difficulty of remembering things accurately, or the effect of a narrative or even thinking in narrative arcs to pervert memory and thinking into a rigid space rather than a purposeful and open investigation of the nature of reality.

The two android characters that have been the most built-up by the show (Dolores and Maeve) are at least the most engaging characters. I suspect one of them does not have an important plot line, which is a problem for the show. The downside of this is that I really don't care about any of the human characters. That includes the feud between Arnold and Ford over the question and importance of the nature of consciousness. Which should be an interesting philosophical digression. But isn't. Partly because Arnold's idea of how to "create" consciousness was... let's say idiotic. This could have been Ford telling a story, which is to say, lying. But after the last episode it doesn't look like that's the direction the show is going.

There are some nice shot constructions and cinematography to build up the world, and little details within it as a universe building experiment. These aren't always fleshed out, but I'd rather see a pretty well shot show that I am not sure what to make of than a poorly shot show that I'm not sure what to make of (see: all of Game of Thrones' scenes set in Dorn).

Meh
There's a lot going on. There is however a maxim for how to treat that. I'm pretty sure this show does not live up to that one. Not all of the sound and fury matters here. There's really only one or maybe two plot lines that matter. The rest is window dressing. Most of it looks like it was hacked into the script later. Very messily at that. Given the frequent Lost comparisons and connections with the production team, this is not at all encouraging. The show is rather uninteresting to me until about the 5th or 6th episode, The fact that at that point it doesn't feel very connected to the first several episodes which were technically fun but uneven plot wise suggests they didn't originally know what they were going to do. It is possible this is suggesting that they may have taken some time to figure out what they wanted to do. Or that they still haven't figured any of that out. But essentially, if Lost comparisons keep appearing, that's not the space they want to be in.

Note: I never really watched Lost, because it clearly was heading in this direction of plot gaps and sloppy writing but lacked the acting chops or technical effects that this show does have. It was heavy on meaningless detail and symbolism from what I can tell though, which is not how I like my shows.

Most of the reveals have been boring and predictable rather than interesting plot twists (next week's season finale doesn't look any different on this score). That's fine... if the point is to do something other than tell an interesting story. Like make a show about the process of making stories. And complain about people who want to edit those stories to be less complicated. While also needlessly stuffing the plot with complex details that don't mean much of anything. But it also means you can't really sell the show as being full of mysteries and secrets either if none of them aren't easily solved several weeks before they appear.

Bad
The show doesn't really present a plausible explanation for whatever is going on most of the time. Which is to say, it presents a series of roughly to totally incompetent human characters interfering or attempting to interfere with Ford's little empire in the sun, little to no internal security measures despite the prospect of intellectual property rights theft and sabotage or technical malfunction, elaborate coding requirements that don't get overseen or phased in through testing. And finally all of this advanced technology and huge amounts of land and resources being expended on a weird fantasy world built around what amounts to a MMORPG complete with pathetic little side quests for its players. We can already do that and kill other human beings repeatedly online (usually not literally). But sure. Let's build a giant park to kill the same robots over and over. I usually accept the dramatic universe premise for say, a comic book, fantasy, or sci-fi series. This sort of thing was a huge problem with any of the post-Aliens Alien movies however. Assembling a team of incompetent morons to go investigate a major xenobiological find on another planet? Uh. No.

This show isn't True Detective season 2 level of gahdawful writing and acting performances (McAdams was fine, everything else about that was absolutely terrible). It isn't Prometheus level of stupid. It isn't yet at Lost levels of useless incoherence. It's probably better than Walking Dead for that matter, with a more invigorating prospect of having both heroes and villains from non-human interactions to spice up the plot (where Walking Dead more or less relies on humans only to provide villainy, and the non-humans are there as atmosphere or background radiation at this point).

But I also don't think it's the next best thing to Game of Thrones going right now in popular water cooler shows, or whatever that term would be these days.

14 November 2016

Historical guides

Historical analogies are imperfect. But to get at what I think many people disappointed by last week's results are seeing (people across the ideological spectrum). The closest comparison I keep coming back to, now that George Wallace no longer works, is Andrew Jackson.

The reason that's bad: Jackson was a terrible President.

He was racist, even in an era of much higher racism, he stands out (as does his key Supreme Court appointment, Roger Taney). He basically destroyed the US economy of the time, with his second term presiding over one of the worst economic downturns in the country's history (FDR does not get sufficient blame for what happened in his second term either, in my opinion). He completely destroyed the prospect of integrating native tribes like the Cherokee into rather than being excluded from American society (this was, admittedly, a dim prospect). He firmly inaugurated a spoils system in political appointments, a system which would take decades to overcome with civil reforms, and which greatly strengthened the executive branch at the expense of legislators and professionals. Those few who could provide a more balanced or nuanced check on radical reforms sought only by the executive.

His pre-election history includes a belligerent attempt to start a war over Florida (he invaded on his own to attack the Seminoles), and numerous duels. He was seen as having a lack of respect of common decency or genteel behavior. His election was seen as a changing of the guard in American politics, and a repudiation of elites by the general public. Given the reverence sometimes granted to Tocqueville's work on American democracy by right-wing thinkers, he was not fond of Jackson either, noting his indifferent hostility to Congress and tendency to ignore or subvert legal processes to try to get at his personal rivals or settle his own agenda. As a further parallel, he represented a significant shift within the Democratic party (away from Jeffersonianism, in style more so than substance, but both were shifted), much as Trump appears to have upset most of the previous ideological or intellectual pillars of the current Republican party (such as there were any left).

I'm not expecting Trump to be a good President. I'm not expecting him to uphold something like the dominant social values of the country. I'm not expecting him to behave personally. It might be because I've seen this play out before. And I didn't like how it went.

13 November 2016

Boiling oil on the gates

I have been trying to reduce down Trump-ism to its essential ingredients. I am not quite sure I have a handle on them yet. But some thoughts anyway.

Borders matter, damnit! 

This is a version of nationalism. I am an anti-nationalist, or a globalist, and a humanist. I don't really care that much about games of nation-states and their claims of awesomeness. I am very much a child of the post-Cold war, where there was no great evil to savage in contests of ideology, war, science, and even athletics, and where the only advantage to be sought out was the betterment of ourselves and the protection of those who were still growing and vulnerable, both in our society and without. I sense in our modern conflicts a demand to feed a more ancient sense of conflict and competition with a dreaded "other", to justify ourselves as a more savage and wild or untamed beast of a nation. There have not been peer great power states with which to compete since the fall of the Soviet Union however. That left only the project of defining what American hegemony was and should be to other nations. To the extent I embrace realist international tendencies and theories, I do like the idea of American hegemonic power, but only so far as it is used successfully to promote the peaceful flourishing and security of all nations and people under its dominion. That it may provide an example of a functioning liberal democratic state, with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideals for other nations to aspire toward (as we ourselves try), and that it maintain peace or order lightly, and without a casual or brutal violence when not necessary. Unlike the nationalist, I want to know that our country actually serves useful ends and is admirable, rather than claim the right to demand admiration through our strength. I prefer American hegemony to Russian or Chinese dominions mostly for the types of countries that are historically aligned within it, and any beneficent effects upon the people within them. And not because it has the word America in it and branded on symbols and hats. I think, as a great power hegemony, this has gone pretty well for America and most Americans for nearly seven decades, and that Americans were a curious and respected people, while their country was a curious and respected experiment long before that. Nationalists should not be so quick to dismiss this history.  Neither should globalists.

I do have some respect for the idea of patriotism. In people wanting to see their country, and their countrymen, prosper, flourish, and improve because we care about the place in which we live. Accordingly, that we care about the ideas or principles we believe that place should strive to exemplify. Policies which promote those ideas and principles, advance them, and defend them, are to be used. Policies which work, from a consequential mindset of actually achieving these high minded and vague sets of things pragmatically, are also to be favored. Policies which do not work, or which advance more dangerous ideas and principles that we should not aspire to, should not.

I suspect I find Trump-ism abhorrent in part because I recognize nationalism as a dark and very much more difficult way to get people to hope and live up to those ideals, where it is more dangerous and more apt to be weaponized for destructive purposes. It is that place I saw us carrying into during the dark days after 9-11 and the Iraq War, and now again, on 11-9, and whatever sad disaster comes of it. Trump has himself provided some semblance of this already where the idea of the game of nations is a zero sum game, where there are only winners and losers, and destruction and authority are the tools of power. History does not bode well for those varieties of nations and hegemonic powers based upon primarily the application of strength, particularly through violence. This is not a principle I feel has been or should be an exemplary function of the American polity and nation-state, even as our history has many marks of conquest and warfare against other nations. Not simply because it does not align with the values I find most admirable in my country of birth, but because it has had little chance of success historically to apply brute strength and have it be unresisted and unconquered in turn. It does not work. It does not make us stronger. It should not be our path now. I fear it will start swaying back this route under Trump, and there may not be time to arrest our fall.

Trump-ism applies this brute function through trade, which he tends to oppose, or claims we have "failed" to make work for ourselves, with the intention of extracting clear benefits for Americans at the expense of other nations (which is... not what trade is). And through conflict, through the bluster of threats toward our enemies, and cold and unfriendly or harsh demands made to our allies. And through the strict control of borders, to police what is "American" in ethnic and nationalist terminology. And through bluster and respect for authoritarian strength. These qualities when possessed among American Presidents and political figures in our history (Andrew Jackson or Huey Long in particular, less renowned characters like Millard Fillmore or Father Coughlin could be included as well) have generally been looked upon by myself as disdainful black marks on our history. I cannot find it an admirable theory of what America should look like. Trump pushes it further in foreign policy through a demand for colonialist domination, or tribute through strength. Conquests should not be of high-minded liberation. If that were where his views stopped, that is an argument I might find appealing given that they are fairly unlikely to prevail in that way historically. But instead, his basis for conflict and conquest is for the provision of resources for ourselves at the expense of the weak and vanquished. This was an argument as a vision for the nation-state which ultimately led to two massive and bloody wars in the last century. It did not work out well for any of the nations which held it (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Japan, and eventually, the Soviet Union).

Trade is a far cheaper way to attain that provision of resources and prosperity than warfare. Gold is always cheaper than blood. Diplomacy and knowledge may be cheaper still. Paper is cheaper than gold. Most of these other great powers from the last century have learned this lesson (Germany and Japan far more successfully than the others, while Russia appears not to have learned it at all). This is a flaw common across Trump-ism, it calls for a universe of ideas that have largely been discredited by history or left behind by progress as functional ways to organise a society. The ideas he sells to absolve people of their fears or anxieties do not and will work, certainly not to help people who are struggling to adapt to a world, an America, that has rapidly changed.

To combat this method of thought. Patriotic duties should be reclaimed and reforged. Rather than using rank nationalism, a philosophy which if left undiluted which possesses immense dangers in a world with powerful weapons capable of annihilating cities. This still leaves questions of "what does it mean to be an American?". In what can we take pride in? What America will we leave for our children and grandchildren to take pride in and succeed in? High-minded liberal ideals espoused in the Constitution modestly and inconsistently practised domestically and exported around the world peacefully, and being an global economic superpower are all well-and-good, but Trump appears to have tapped into something else that these things do not connect to. A simpler question. Namely: what does any of that mean for normal Americans and their lives. He does not propose a good answer, but we should treat this question seriously.

The American dream, as a nightmare

"The American dream" has always been a flawed vision, denied to millions of its own citizens. Sometimes deliberately and maliciously. Sometimes with neglect and indifference. For example. It is reasonable to point out that free trade, while enriching most Americans with efficiently produced goods from abroad and increased business opportunities, still provides a massive sense of uncertainty for millions of them. As does relatively free immigration, as was the case throughout the 19th century and which globalists (like myself), favor still.

Indeed, one of the core problems of Trump-ism is that for over a century, Americans managed to exist with few meaningful obstacles on who could be "American". Without even a clear sense of what our borders were as a nation. We expanded, and grew, often ruthlessly absorbing territory and cultures. Vast numbers of immigrants fled here and eventually became heavily integrated into the story of who and what was America in spite of hostile receptions on arrival. Vast numbers of natives were killed or displaced. Vast numbers of Africans were enslaved, sold, and wars fought to expand the economic opportunities they provided wealthy land owners. (I did not say it was a virginal purity story that makes up the American dream). And for decades in that time, men and their families wished to own property, to farm or ranch upon that land, marry well, and produce and raise children to whom they could pass on what wealth they created through trade and hard work, and who would absorb these lessons and help care for their elders when they could no longer care for themselves. Or at least that is the optimistic narrative thread of what we might presume we wish to be true about ourselves. Adopted to the mid 20th century, the aspirations and the pathways of success were little different. A decent job in an office or a factory and a suburban home instead of a farm.

These fruits have dispersed erratically. They always have. The process of creative destruction in a free and open economy, intersecting with our abilities, laws, regulations, and competition from abroad or from our friends and neighbours, does not reward all alike. It aspires to be meritocratic, but does not always achieve it. It also firmly rejects the Marxian axioms about each to their need and often leaves some in want or destitution, and provides all with an incentive to better themselves in competition. We have made some progress in assuring no one will fall too far behind, that indigents might find help and the freedom to try again, but the basic elements of a meritocratic society remain the central story of America. Here people come and live to make themselves better, to have better lives and opportunities than they have experienced in some other land.

In the later 20th century, and today, these fruits have begun to shift to allow women far greater access. To allow ethnic minorities more access. Immigrants have always had access to this, but our laws and regulations have shifted back from a stiffer and less welcoming world, that of the mid-20th century which was often constrained to political dissidents and refugees from favored states, to a more accepting and open one. A world which takes in people from Cambodia and Somalia and Germany alike and gives them each a chance or a stake to compete. Not merely by moving here and adopting the ethos of Americans, but by existing at all. There is far greater competition for success, respect, tolerance, and well-being for someone who came up in a world where being a white male of modest education (completing high school, and maybe eventually college), and merely being born in America, was a recipe for a pretty comfortable life.

To a globalist this is all well and good. To a meritocratic vision it is also fine. We should expect to have to compete not simply because we were born here be handed a world on a platter. To a normal person, it might seem terrifying. I imagine many people contemplating what impact automation has had on the economy so far, and what impacts it is liable to have moving forward will likewise find much consternation and confusion just as these questions about how a global economy impacts Americans, or Egyptians, or Filipinos appears to do. Globalists and most ethicists will see no problem with mining and manufacturing, historically often dangerous manual labour jobs, being done by disposable machines instead of hordes of disposable people. But as with the agricultural revolution, there is a question of what happens to those people now that the industrial revolution has ended and a knowledge economy has replaced it. What do they do now. It's not like they can suddenly become successful bankers or salesmen on a whim (Iceland attempted to do this, and many of the bankers went back to being fishermen when their financial sector imploded).

Most of the people for whom Trump-ism has had its greatest appeal appear to be older, over 60, mostly white, more likely to be male, and living in middle-sized cities or smaller towns. Many of their concerns are not limited to economic anxieties about themselves or their futures, or those of their grandchildren. There are sizeable correlations with support for Trump and xenophobic fears of foreigners, or of people coming here with funny religious views. Or of an America that is darker skinned rather than a white majority, or retrograde views about the role of women and the type of treatment men should be allowed to perform. These are cultural fears about what it means to be an American. These fears are mostly not shared by their children and grandchildren. I regard this as a good thing. Perhaps in time some of them will as well. That it is not a big deal to have a Muslim man as a neighbour or friend, or to have a woman as a doctor, or as a boss. This type of fear is a broad cross section of Trump-ism. It intersects with the question of nationalism. What does it mean to be an American. And they don't like what they think it now means on these and other questions. This is a question and a response that dangerously flirts with racism, sexism, and xenophobia, sometimes rushing in to embrace these things fully.

Liberals and progressives, or even plain people who are mostly tolerant of these changes, find this appalling. I believe we should find it appalling, an instinct that we should resist, and should resist when it attempts to influence and create policy changes. But a huge number of people found it appalling and voted for Trump anyway. I have been trying to explore why that could happen. And what I think I am settling on is they often do not understand how our society will have a place for people like themselves even to compete. Jobs increasingly demand high skilled education and licensure from the state. Simple and menial tasks that were once treated with middle class aplomb are automated or shipped off to foreign countries, or backbreakingly performed by low skilled migrant workers from other countries. The call "we don't make anything in this country" is patently false. We build a ton of stuff. It produces more economic value than ever before. But a lot of it is assembled by robots, purchased on computers, and may soon be delivered by robots. We aren't going back to a world with legions of factory workers who work the same job for 40 years. That world was dead 50 years ago. It will not be resurrected.

Trump-ism has sold a message that pretends that we will be able to do so as a balm for this anxiety about what happens next. I think a better message would be to offer people an actual hope, something that could actually happen. An economic and social system for people having purposeful jobs that they can perform with minimal levels of training, and have easier access to get, and learn to excel at to move up the economic ladder, or which have basic skills that can be translated to other careers. Late in the Obama years, there were numerous reports, both from government and from economists and think tanks, calling out the problem of extensive and still expanding occupational licensure, frequently now used as a needless barrier to job growth and economic opportunity rather than as a necessary function to protect consumers. One of the flaws with the sales pitch of the ACA was that it was not made clear how to make health care portable, rather than tied to our employers such that we might feel stuck to a job we no longer find fulfillment in, but need so that our children have access to medical care. These are practical steps to give the economy a breathing room space to let people try things and figure out their own path forward, and to show others how it can be done. I did not hear them getting discussed much. Mostly a lot of media coverage about emails and sexism. One can imagine why the public seems to have eventually tuned this out.

I believe what happened, for many Trump voters, is they saw Clinton selling more of the same. And they did not connect this to see how it would help people like themselves (nor did she help them to do so), only that it would probably help people not like themselves, under their perceptions that that is what has been happening for a long time. Some of them found this offensive for highly offensive reasons. In some cases, a lot of them did so; for instance, on the Syrian or Muslim refugee question. But most people if they don't think a candidate is speaking about them, speaking to them, and listening to them, will find somewhere else to go with their vote. Trump promised them restorative change. Therefore that's where they went. Trump isn't actually offering restorative change, at least not on any of these issues that matter, he merely promised it. He doesn't appear to know how to create such changes, and most of the things he does know how to offer are dangerous, boorish, and downright offensive or stupid. But if that's the only thing people think they have to get, that's what they will take.

Clinton appears to have run a campaign based on the idea that things are fine, and getting better, which they are in most ways. Violent crime is near historical lows for the last half century. Abortion rates, teen pregnancy, and divorce have been declining. Terrorism is rare and sporadic, and often fomented and conducted by various ideological loners rather than representing a systematic or existential threat to a peaceful or prosperous American life. The US military, while partly bogged down in largely ineffective and pointless conflicts, is still powerful enough to deter any rival power from threatening us and our interests or allies and then some, granting immense safety from armed conflict that American civilians have enjoyed for almost two centuries (with the exception of a couple of prominent attacks rather than sustained, destructive conflict on American territory as is occurring in Ukraine or Syria, and has ravaged all of Europe and Asia in the recent past). The economy and wages are finally growing, albeit haltingly and slowly. Inflation is low. Corporate profits are high. American scientists and researchers and inventors are exploring the universe and the world, and making advances in technology and leisure with benefits that can be quickly dispersed to people all over the world. These are promising messages. Most people are unaware of them, or find them highly dubious because they are told something else is happening without verification of facts. Voter ignorance is a crushing problem to effective democracy, but it is not overcome by ignoring it and not bothering to confront it. And recognizing that the world is not on fire, and seems to be getting better in many ways, even if those ways do not always benefit ourselves, is a good start to acknowledging and defending progress and opportunities created and capitalised on as a consequence of our values and institutions as a nation.

What appears to have happened instead of offering these features and finding ways to expand them as opportunities to people who were afraid was a campaign that hammers on the fact that Trump was an unacceptable demagogue, peddling lies and false narratives, offensive speech and nonsense. This is all well and good, because it has the virtue of being true. Most people agreed with this message. That he was openly sexist or misogynistic in the things he said or did. That he was being racist in how he spoke about immigrants or minorities. That he was selling fear or xenophobia on the question of terrorism or crime. And even that he wasn't trustworthy and was running a con to enrich himself at the expense of voters. And still some of them voted for him anyway. It is not that they did not care. They simply evaluated these faults as less important than some other consideration. Some of them voted on the basis of amplified fear over abortion, or gun rights, or Obamacare, or immigrants, or terrorists. The campaign should have been doing what is possible to reduce those fears, because they have become unhinged from what is possible, or what is actually happening. As fear is often capable of doing. Fear, as a national emotion, is something to be avoided also. It paralyzes us, and prevents useful action and trust. It burns and destroys bridges and builds walls in the rubble. The world Trump-ism describes is a world with barbarians at the gates, and calls for reactionary politicians to man the walls ready with boiling oil to save us from this new and twisted evil. This is not the world in which we live in. But nobody seems to have bothered to explain this.

I would have some sympathy for Bernie Sanders fans running around complaining that if only Democrats had nominated him, this national nightmare would not have happened. Some of them are doing so in some really bizarre ways, such as complaining about the DNC "rigging" the primary process, and in so doing, annoying me when they pop up in threads discussing what to do about the attitudes and issues unfurled by a Trump/Republican victory to defend civil rights, or to protect women or minorities. I'm still not sure Sanders would have won, as there are some structural weaknesses to his campaign, and on a few points, not enough difference between himself, and his fans, and those of Trump. What this rests upon is the idea that the appropriate response to a right-wing populist/nationalist demagogue is left-wing populism, which in turn rests upon an idea that the appropriate way to turn out votes is to focus on being as distinctive as possible from your rivals to encourage your supporters with a clear vision. I agree a clearer and coherent vision would have helped the Clinton team. I do not think it is clear a farther left vision would have. Large numbers of voters were not happy with Clinton as the perception was she was too liberal. I think on the merits it was accurate she was liberal, more so than Obama. This does not point to an idea that Sanders would have benefited. Where he benefits is on the message of requiring some form of radical/restorative change. This seemed to be the broad segment of Trump's base and their demand was for someone to promise them change and the impression that they could deliver it.

I think Clinton's supporters were able to rest upon the idea that she cared about them. Her opponents did not think this was the case at all, because she offered little succor and clarity about how she would fight for their interests. Her record in office suggests she very much does fight for people's interests and liberal causes. Perhaps not always the most vibrant and important ones on the front lines (gay marriage most prominently), but in ways that would benefit the people she served in office. I regarded much of the opposition to her candidacy as grounded in some very strange, often conspiratorial ideas about how she practiced the use of power for domestic goals. Where I think this missed is that some of the opposition was that she wasn't ambitious enough about offering a robust agenda that people could get behind. There was no clear and cohesive view that was apparent to her observers of how and for what purpose she would exercise power. Trump-ism offered pretty clear ideas about what that would be, if offensive and self-destructive. So did Sanders. Reams of policy proposals and white papers suggested mainly that Clinton's agenda was "government for government's sake", if there was anything at all to it. Sanders or Trump at least suggested there would be a purpose of their own massive expansionary positions.

Much of my skepticism of Sanders' chances I think rests on the idea that he, like Trump, was mostly selling a lot of ideas that I do not see how they will be all that helpful. If anything, I regard significant minimum wage increases and "free college", key pillars of his agenda (and later Clinton's), as liable to increase and accelerate the problems posed by income and economic inequalities, along with his reflexive opposition to trade and sketchy positions on immigration. I felt that among these three candidates, Clinton on policy grounds probably offered the least harmful set of ideas and policy proposals (at least until she moved farther left on economic policies during the primaries), and that Sanders was only less harmful than Trump by dint of not being as belligerent and clumsy with American diplomacy, something he seemed to care little about, and less hostile to the idea that Americans have Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and should have those rights protected by government, not infringed. Overall, he offered an agenda I saw as dangerous by being largely economically illiterate and harmful. I do not want candidates who put forward ideas in the lineage of "we need to do something, this is something, let's do it". If we must have bold transformative ideas, I would like to see some idea that we might come away afterward with a better world. Sanders did not offer that. Trump certainly does not. Clinton's problem in this space was she lacked an idea, a justification around which to rally. A dream to sell other people on walking in. Trump literally promised people all of their dreams would come true. All the time. Even if some of those dreams are nightmares for others.

But Sanders and Trump suggested they would man the gates and pour the oil on someone, anyone. Maybe even lighting it on fire after. And that seemed to be something a big chunk of voters want. They don't know what the American dream is, or is going to be. So they'll settle for a nightmarish version of it. Trump supporters will have to contend not only that they picked a strange and probably counterproductive message around which to resonate, but that they picked a horrible messenger. Someone who was crude and offensive to most Americans and whose effects or policies may be dangerous to the security or safety of many. This too is a feature of Trump-ism.

Tell it like it is!

Which is to say, it is not a particularly appealing feature of Trump. Telling large portions of Trump's voters that they are racist, sexist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, or whatever, has little or no effect. I'm not sure it is a useful exercise. Some of them pride themselves on this, on being offensive for the purpose of being offensive. Most however do not understand how their views have become interpreted this way, or do not understand that the things that may have outraged them are not considered that outrageous by others (or even as existing as real in the first place). Or that they are in fact considered reprehensible. There are not clear norms for interpreting and applying liberal or progressive values if one is conservative. Partly because these are still shifting, sometimes dramatically in the last decade. The cultural norms on speech and behavior relating to women alone have shifted radically in the last 50 years, and in even the last 15-20 years. These are voters who often grew up before that time, and whose children and even grandchildren may have internalized certain habits of how men talk that it should be "excused". For the most part, this view was not held by most voters in the country. It wasn't even held by most Trump voters. But things like "grab em by the pussy" were regarded as "just locker room talk" by a large number of people. Including women.

The difficulty many liberals have with interpreting this is that it comes from a political party and movement which has claimed for itself a mantle of "the moral majority". And then appears to have given a huge pass to someone who has crudely violated most of the norms and values they claimed to stand for. These are the same people who are often quite disturbed by the shifts in values or norms regarding language, sexuality, or violence in media and society. While some of them are thrown in a panic every December when a clerk says "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas", most are offended at the idea of publicly objectifying women on at least some level.

This is a dimension of Trump's appeal that I have the least comfort with and least understanding of. But what I think, partly, is going on is anecdotes about college speech codes and media flirtations with "hate speech" as though it should be a legal concept, combined with perceptions that traditional symbols and institutions are not respected by liberals (like religion or the flag or the military or the police), has created a sense that these values are under threat and that people won't be allowed to voice their opinions in the future. I don't much care for some opinions. I don't think most people express themselves very well (Trump included, he does not have the "best words"). But I do think people can and should be allowed to try. Where I have difficulty is in understanding how "but people don't like my opinions!" is treated as an issue of free speech. The chilling effect of having bad opinions called out by others, or poorly expressing them, is not the same as being legally prevented from speaking. The use of others right to protest and assemble having the impact of denying speech or assembly by others I believe is unwise as a use of those rights, but it does not seem to be something we should trouble ourselves over as a legal function either. Where the use or threat of violence exists, we should intercede. Where people are merely very annoying and disruptive, we should counsel against it. Where people are lying or dissembling extraordinary events into existence, we should demand better evidence.

The basic problem with this is that I don't have a good sense of whether this is a new or extreme threat to the institutional value of free speech. Or if it's just some wacky professors and college kids and a few people who manage to get editorials written. There isn't very much public engagement with the civic value of speech as a right, and its legal implications, versus the social norms about how people should use speech in public and what they can or cannot say in polite company. Assessing the actual damage done to the concepts like freedom of speech is also difficult. I do worry about how people choose to use the rights they have. There are not laws, or should not be laws, against being an asshole. But it shouldn't be our first choice in most circumstances either.

Running alongside these narratives about speech codes, these seem to be some number of people who are much offended by the use of the word "pussy" or "vagina", but not much offended by crude stereotypes and antiquated traditions about women and men's opinions of women. I don't know how to square that circle. I also see no reason to extend much respect to bad or bigoted ideas that are being held and espoused, or that egregious threats and strength through bullying to quiet others should be tolerated. Or to pretend that these methods of opposition to the polite discourse of ideas are hardly limited to a handful of wacky leftists, and are quite common and endorsed by Trump himself, and some of his most ardent fans. Unlike leftist professors, Trump is also in a position of legal authority to strip others of their basic civil rights. This is a serious threat to American civil liberties and the public exercise of them by its citizens. Not merely of the freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I do not think this is a serious danger that the majority of white Christian males are about to lose the privilege of talking and saying any ridiculous or offensive thing that comes into mind, or that Trump needed to be elected in order to restore that to being the case. As I and others have pointed out, a lot of whining about PC speech codes comes down to not being able to be a dick without having that pointed out (in making the mistake of reading internet comments, I saw this very much on evidence over the last few days. It was not wholly limited to right-wing nutters complaining they were being called homophobic for thinking gay men are gross and therefore that they shouldn't be allowed to get married to each other or have binding contracts enforced by the state. But there was a lot of that going on too).

Where I do find some more comfort in understanding this perspective is on another front. These are people who are mostly, if not overwhelmingly, white, and white Christians at that. And to be sure they will often have some antiquated views about women, race, and other subjects. This bothers me such that I don't plan on inviting very many people to BBQs or out for beers for sure (not that I do this with very many people anyway). What they also have is a vague sense that "they" are being somehow excluded by the political functions of identity politics. So some poor white kid in Arkansas trying to get a college degree and become a chemical engineer, say, does not get the same kind of assistance as some poor black kid in Chicago, or a Mexican immigrant's daughter (legally a citizen), to do the same thing. I'm not sure this happens that often, but I don't doubt that many families have internalized a sense that it does. Where it does occur, this violates a basic moral sense of fairness or equity. There are some good historical reasons why Americans should seek to provide aid to historically oppressed ethnic minorities (and also women) to a modest degree to help attend to the questions of economic mobility, and college admissions is an easier equalizer than shuffling large sums of money around through tax policy. Still. I would agree our sense of fairness, for something like college admissions, should focus mostly on the question of poverty first, and identity politics second as a result. I don't have strong feelings about it either way as long as it isn't used to exclude and discriminate against others.

One reason for this would be that poverty as a foremost concern would still mostly focus on the problems of ethnic minorities and class mobility. So we'd still be able to address this as a societal concern. But the other is that better educating a bunch of ultra religious rural/red state poorer kids in science or philosophy seems like a necessity anyway in order to shift the American polity in a somewhat more helpful direction politically on a few important issues. It should not be that the US is the only industrialized country with a major political party which takes so many basic anti-science stances. Such as global warming denialism. Or has so many people who are not sufficiently understanding of science and its methods and operations that they will deny the merits of evolutionary theory. These have rather negative impacts upon our policies in scientifically informed issues (carbon taxes, vaccines, antibiotic resistance, among others). To put it mildly we cannot afford to leave behind that half of the country. We can't easily fix rural or red state public schools at the K-12 level to spread empirical reasoning and critical thinking far and wide. One of the easiest ways to fix that is to make sure to admit some smart, poorer white folks from Arkansas and Louisiana and Montana into a pretty good university once in a while. I wouldn't suggest doing it at the exclusion of other smart and poor non-white kids from Chicago or Las Vegas or Los Angeles. But if the system is supposed to look like a meritocracy, giving people the same kind of shot based on some objective criteria (like wealth or income inequality) isn't a terrible idea.

All that said. There are talking points going past each other. To presume that a white population, with a declining life expectancy and troubles with alcoholism, opiate addiction and abuse, and mental health and suicide, and comprising a large body of undereducated people living in smaller cities and towns who may not be finding easy employment in future economic states as automation and globalisation increases and thus is in need of some kind of societal attention is not the same as concluding that our conflicts over the inequalities caused by race or gender or sexuality should be set aside, abandoned, or neglected either. We can do both. We also don't have to put up with intolerance and bigotry along the way simply because some people haven't figured out how to be kind to one another.


So...what now?

As for how to combat this. Americans in the 40s and 50s and even into the 60s appeared in the rose-coloured glasses of history to have had a sense of common purpose as a people and nation. Rhetoric defending and exemplifying civil rights and civil liberties as anchors of individual and social freedom used to be common, even as the country often failed to live up to those high-minded ideals. Investment in science and science education, and celebrating the achievements of those who took to it and made advances and discoveries and inventions, was seen as a patriotic necessity. I do not think it so that this era was populated by people any more noble or any wiser or better educated than ours today that they better understood these values, or struggled less with how to uphold them. The distinction seems to be that we do not have some idea that these things, these inalienable rights, are a part of what it means to be American and are worth celebrating in our civic life, and worth trying to uphold and live up to. We have just elected someone who openly proclaimed an intention to ignore most of these values, and appears to have little interest in examining the things he does not understand, and has no history of exhorting others to live up to these values privately or publicly to this date, nor of surrounding himself with capable people who know things that he needs to know. This is a serious problem. It appears in part to have happened because elites took some things for granted. But also because people really hated elites, and didn't care what we get instead of the status quo. We are divided by ideology, or political party, just as we are along religion (or its absence), and by race. To the point that we no longer argue over principles and ideals, but over fealty to this identity and damn anyone who belongs to the other side. And that toxic mixture of fear, hate, and ignorance has boiled over.

This has happened before. The antebellum period leading up to the Civil war was filled with incidents of division and strife, eventually culminating in a bloody and disastrous war between brothers and states. The 1960s and early 70s unleashed a long saga of civil rights struggles and chaos here and abroad which even engulfed the President and other instruments of governance in a corruption that was exposed and took down an entire administration. We recovered. We can recover this as well. But we have to have something else to replace it with, something to shoot for, instead of each other. More or less together, setting aside the differences and fear across the partisan din. Before violence and mayhem sets in and the truncheon or the Molotov or the bullet replaces a conversation.

There was a dream that was America. Make us believe in it again. As the line goes.


11 November 2016

Fear and respect

Two other points in all of this. There's a fair amount of talking past each other going on. I'm trying to interpret it. Because something just happened that I genuinely did not understand, or did not expect this country to be capable of. So I'm doing some listening.

In looking at Trump supporters. I'm seeing a lot of talk and discussion about a demand for respect. There is sometimes a genuine disdain evident from "elites" toward white working class people living in rural Wisconsin, say. I don't think Trump was paying them better respect (because he's a con man). Still. I understand the demand for it, if not where that lead them politically. There is a manner in which discussing his voters as ignorant, racist and anti-feminist country bumpkins dismisses this need, which is justified, and provides more incentive to lift a middle finger in response and go do something kind of dumb to get back at people who don't respect you and your interests. In the way that people become spiteful in order to try to harm others who do not grant them the respect and common decency that is required in societal norms. For one thing. Most of them are not like this depiction. Social and polling evidence is strong that many are, depending on the subject (particularly exhibiting xenophobia toward Muslims and immigrants), and that some number of Clinton supporters were also, depending on the subject. That still leaves a big chunk of people who voted Republican the other day for all sorts of complicated reasons that were not sexist, racist, or idiotic. That is difficult to explain on the merits. But it isn't difficult to explain that they have complex motives and self-interests that are not the same as "what I think they should be", the position of "people voting against their self-interest" which is far too commonly taken up by liberals and progressives in examining right-leaning constituents. Dismissing other people's interests is not a sensible way to govern versus seriously arguing with them.

The issue for me is more that most of them deliberately overlooked what Trump was (an ignorant, racist, and anti-feminist bumpkin in a suit). I had thought at multiple opportunities we were better than that to see this as a problem as a country, as something beneath us to represent us to each other and to the world. Respect is something earned by being a decent person, someone who is tolerant, patient, and kind to others. Most of us try to do that privately and publicly where possible. Most of us I thought wanted the country to reflect that even as we disagree vehemently over how. If we are in need of respect as a nation, we should find a better exemplar who earns and commands respect even from his or her rivals. Reagan was great at this, even as I would have to find many of his policies ridiculous. Do not go run with a belligerent jackass. That is not the route to the respect you demanded. You will get a lot of people pissed off. "They" of the infamous "they" will respect you even less for exercising such poor judgment. Not elites, whose respect people do not seem to even want anymore. Other regular people who happen to be more liberal than you, because of a position on guns or abortion, say, and are otherwise trying to lead normal, happy lives. Or people of a different ethnicity than you. Or who live in another country. Or who wanted to come to this country and build a life. And it is these people who may suffer most from what happened Tuesday, not the elites who look down upon you. This is what has happened. In the quest to punish elites for a lack of respect, it is normal people will suffer and no respect will be earned or given. Only more division. It is hurtful and often disrespectful or dismissive to be called a racist or a sexist, particularly when you do not feel those terms should apply to you. It is much less so than suffering the consequences of someone who is racist or sexist in their actions and words.

In looking at Clinton supporters. This is something that I think many people are far too quick to dismiss among the right. There is a genuine fear based upon the things Trump and his surrogates have said they intend to do. Significant and sometimes terrifyingly large portions of his supporters have expressed a demand for particular changes in policy that are genuinely harmful to some number of "other people", people unlike themselves that they hate and fear. Minorities. The LGBT community. Foreigners. Immigrants. These are groups of people who have been given every reason to be concerned right now. This is a fact.

It is wishful thinking to push it away and claim Trump is the most LGBT friendly Republican nominee they've had (I am extremely dubious, as Goldwater comes to mind immediately as having been pretty pro-LGBT as a Senator, especially later in his career). When they also have Mike Pence on the ticket and the most explicitly anti-LGBT party platform they have ever had. Trump has said explicitly he wants to overturn the Supreme Court ruling granting marriage as an equal right and is in a position to appoint people who could do so. Pence has taken much more harsh stances. This is not imaginary. This is not merely about people getting pissed off because some bigoted baker wouldn't make them a cake for their wedding.

Changes to abortion restrictions and access to birth control should alarm many women. Changes to police militarization and justice department restraints of abuse by police of civil liberties should alarm anyone and everyone, but will fall most harshly on ethnic minorities. Changes to immigration policy should alarm migrants and people who look like they could be immigrants. Changes to the way we surveil and treat Muslims and their religious liberties should alarm the Islamic community. Changes to the way we accept refugees should alarm people fleeing from authoritarian governments and active war zones. Changes to environmental policy should alarm environmentalists (and everyone else). These are innocents. Not people who wish us harm, merely sometimes people with which we disagree. People can claim these are deserved and necessary changes (I disagree, for the most part), or be unconcerned, even gleeful, that these other Americans or other people are now afraid or potentially will suffer. But they don't get to claim that fear doesn't or should not exist and that everyone should pipe down and get on with it.

These fears are grounded in what has happened in the campaign, what has happened when Republicans have had control over the levers of government, and what is most likely to happen now as a matter of American policy. It is not made up. It is entirely reasonable to wonder why large numbers of voters went to the polls, and seeing these same elements, and decided "yeah, that's a good choice for President". If the fears people have are from experiencing sexism, and racism, and ultra-nationalistic chest bumping on the receiving end, it will not be appropriate for such people to declare and decide that their white (mostly male) countrymen are all sexist, racist bastards who just want to burn everything down and make other people suffer. But it isn't an entirely unreasonable conclusion given that this will be the effects they experience.

10 November 2016

Many words, here instead of elsewhere

Most of my annoyance in the last week or two has gotten filtered into facebook posts among friends. But I'm also encountering now some of their own forms of annoyance. I have some thoughts.

Blaming third party voters is a waste of time. This was bad political strategy during the campaign for Clinton and her surrogates to go after Jill Stein or Gary Johnson supporters. It isn't any smarter now after the fact. What appears to have happened in the narrative of the campaign's history is she used those initial attacks, and the debates, and the grab 'em by the pussy statements to consolidate her more liberal support among third party voters (this is suggested by polling at any rate) back in early October which allowed her to get out to a significant polling lead. That left a solid cohort of "true believers", people who almost always vote third party and probably would not vote at all if they were forced to vote for Clinton or Trump, and whatever portion of that vote may have preferred Trump to her but were uneasy about actually voting for him, plus some portion of people who lived in non-competitive states and wished to voice an opinion.

Voters do appear to have engaged in some strategic voting, to reduce the chances of a swing state being carried by Trump as third party vote totals in close states like Florida are extremely low, while states like New Mexico or Utah were not. But what appears to have happened is not that this third party vote preferred Clinton uniformly and thus that the millions of Stein and Johnson voters could have swung the election to her, but that those votes went to Trump instead at the moment of truth in the ballot box. There is some math involved, which I will spare people, but so far it appears Johnson's presence on the ballot, and Evan McMullin's occasional presence, may have flipped Minnesota and New Hampshire to Clinton based on who showed up to vote and who Johnson's support was drawn from. Colorado is a possibility as well. This is in spite of Stein and Johnson possibly flipping Wisconsin and, especially, Michigan to Trump. What does this mean? Well it does not mean Clinton would have won. That would require a very different universe of voters turning out than who did.

There are two major flaws with this argument that the problem for Clinton was third party voters. First that the major party vote is deserved by even this small sliver of protesting voters who may have quixotic political views that are better reflected by minor parties. The best response to that is to make a pitch to appeal to those odd views in some way. Based on what I see Stein putting forward as her views on many issues, that was not very likely to be very similar to Hillary Clinton. In some cases, that's a good thing. She's weird, and her views are weird on a number of issues. Appealing to some of them as a mainstream Democrat, even a farther leftist one, would be weird and probably not ultimately helpful for winning an election. This is also true of Johnson voters and libertarians, except there the typical appeal is from mainstream Republicans. Like many third party candidates, Gary Johnson appears to have been a very awkward and bumbling representative for his overlying philosophy for governance: a bleeding-heart-libertarianism, which has some appeal to younger voters, and younger Republicans or conservatives especially. Still, expecting conservatives to decide Hillary Clinton is a good choice to vote for again suggests a very strange correlation based on the history of conservative media and its coverage of the Clinton family. Based on my understanding of conservative views, there were a great many who did not favor Trump's agenda. But they were not fond of Clinton's either. They may have presumed or calculated that it would be easier to manipulate Trump's than Clinton's into something they would find livable. You can disagree with that calculation, or point out that it does not account for a bunch of other things that you think are important, or point out that Clinton might actually be better for their preferred agenda, but that appeal has to be made. I do not think it was. It was instead assumed that third party votes should just not exist, and that all voters must obviously favor one candidate over the other and should vote accordingly. That this is the prevailing attitude both during the campaign and persisting afterward is not encouraging that Democrats and liberals have learned anything by this experience.

Second, the bigger flaw is to assume that these votes substantially preferred the candidate you did. They do not. "Libertarian" votes historically go to Republican candidates, not Democratic ones. Johnson tried to make a pitch to more socially tolerant or socially liberal voters, Bernie Bros for example, as well as civil libertarians of all political stripes. And maybe that's a chunk of the support he had left. But he also had a chunk of support from anti-Trump voters that didn't like Clinton either. And some who genuinely liked neither. It is not as simple as to look at his vote total and assume it would all go in the Clinton column, or the Trump column.The math from late polls suggests he was no longer drawing evenly, and the math from the disparity of polls and state election results suggests a bunch of his residual anti-Trump voters decided to give in and vote for Trump. What this means, in mathematical terms, is he was suppressing Trump's vote more than he was Clinton's by being on the ballot and attracting votes. It is wishful thinking to assume otherwise.

The appropriate response to all of this was not "third party voters are evil and stupid", and it certainly does not appear to be "third party voters have just created a fascist dictatorship because they're stupid", but rather "my candidate better reflects your agenda than this other person, and here is why". Or perhaps listen a little to why they do not think so. Many of these voters are otherwise normal people with weird habits and views. Some of them have very reasonable disagreements with either of the major political party candidates on issues of substance and significance.

And well. Some are just assholes. I for one will not miss the influence of alt-right, Ayn Rand fans, and the voters thereof upon the libertarian movement in favor of more classically liberal views. Go home to the Republican party and stay there. Libertarians as a political movement seem to be doing just fine at growing their support base without you anyway. I regard that as a good thing. I do not regard it as a good thing that you were apparently this numerous however.

There are some problems with the third party vote. Most notably: that a bunch of people who suggested they might vote for Gary Johnson in polls back in the summer mostly broke to vote for Donald Trump at the last minute, and over the last few weeks. Given there are fairly few policy parallels between these two (you almost can't get a more extreme variation on immigration, abortion, gay marriage, and civil liberties, as examples), I have a hard time understanding what that is based upon. I have this problem almost every election cycle, wondering what people with libertarian-ish views or claim to have libertarian-ish views are doing voting for most Republicans (or Democrats). But Trump appeared to be uniquely incompatible with a political ethos based around freedom or individual liberty and rights. He appealed strongly to authoritarian instincts, and toward the restraint of the rights of "others". Neither of which should be appealing to libertarians, or people who might have otherwise found the variety of libertarianism on offer from Gary Johnson that appealing. I seriously doubt his announced intentions to scale back banking regulations, among other regulatory changes, or to punch a huge hole in the deficit by passing a massive tax cut and not reducing spending was getting that big of a draw from Johnson voters.

What this last part suggests is the real problem for Clinton voters to answer. It is not enough to answer why some small sliver of libertarian-ish voters decide to vote for Trump. Why did people at all want to vote for Trump in the first place? I have not been satisfied so far with many of the answers that are given. Some of them I recognize as likely true, but I find appalling. Vast portions of Trump's agenda should have been regarded as politically disqualifying by a decent society. His avowed, willful, and bombastic ignorance of subjects relevant to governing also should have been regarded as a serious danger. His affinity for attracting support from authoritarians abroad, and from misogynists and racists at home also should have given serious pause (as it did for me with Ron Paul, as an added bonus for finding him too distasteful on a number of policy questions, immigration and abortion key among them).

There are two scary parts to this.

1- People who were aware of these as disqualifiers. Most of the public did not approve of his bombastic cruelties toward women or thought he was unsuited for the job of the President. Some number of these people who thought he was an ignorant asshole of some variety voted for him anyway. This is disturbing. There might be other reasons they preferred him to Clinton, some policy issue (for example, Supreme Court nominations). But then the question mark is why prefer and prop up him over some other more amenable source for advancing those policies? Trump actually got fewer votes than John McCain, in a country with more people and voters in it than 8 years ago. What policies are this important to risk a number of other issues, and to risk depressing voter turnout by having a nominee that disgusted large portions of the general public? Clearly there was a high level of disgust with Clinton as well, for sometimes legitimate concerns and sometimes rather tortured reasons. It is likely a generic Democratic candidate clobbers this fool.

2- People who ignored or embraced these as disqualifiers. Because of the unusual nature of Trump's campaign, lots of studies have already been done examining who his supporters are likely to be. It is not obvious to liberals or the media why he attracted this much support. So studies. There are large sums of people who are racist. Who are sexist and who hold anti-feminist views of a hostile or misogynist nature (rather than benevolent chivalry of a traditionalist view). Who are xenophobic or Islamophobic. Trump did very well with the voters who (still) think Obama wasn't born in the United States, or is secretly Muslim. Trump did very well in counties that George Wallace did well in in the GOP primaries, and often adopted some of the same tones. Democrats were not immune from these issues either. There was considerable racism found among Democratic voters too, just not as pronounced as among Trump's base. His campaign was very much a revanchist and white nationalist view of policy on many issues. It adopted strongly authoritarian tones ("I alone can fix it", among others). Violence was not an uncommon incident from his followers at campaign events, and he did little or nothing to discourage any of these views of himself or his followers, or their behavior. Indeed, his most ardent followers often reveled in being called "deplorable".

The assumption all along by liberals and polls was that voters, even Republican or conservative voters, would reject these as a stated agenda. They did not. Policy elites did, particularly on the issues of national security, where Trump has taken a very unpredictable and probably dangerous long-term stance on the use, goals, and promotion of the American hegemony (to the point that I think the biggest winners of the election were probably Russia and China, our biggest geopolitical rivals). But as it turned out, conservative voters did not care very much about the conservative agenda served up by standard Republicans. The voices of protest or conservative reason abandoned a ship that was ready to toss them off anyway. This is not what they cared about.

I have seen two vaguely laid out perspectives of what they did care about.

1- We want to blow up the system because we think the system sucks (or favors people we do not like/fear.) This is the "economic anxiety" argument for his support. I think most of his policy agenda is apt to foster far more economic anxiety particularly his positions on trade and taxation/spending, with the exception of pretty well off people like himself. But it wasn't like I felt Clinton did a good job messaging how she would do any better. She waffled on trade instead of defending it as something that benefits everyone, or explaining how it could be redistributed to better benefit workers. She waffled on immigration instead of defending it as something that can benefit all Americans by enriching us rather than "taking away jobs". And on and on throughout her agenda. A core problem appeared to be that she was seen as part of the system, someone who wanted to work within its limitations and understood them well, but did not seem able to elaborate what she intended to do. What was she focused on? Who knows? It seemed like anything she could get into and get done. Which is hard to sell in a stump speech, even if there's something in there for almost anyone.

Trump, for all his lack of policy details, it was pretty clear what he intended to do as a set of visionary goals. Build a stupid fucking wall. Kick out Muslims and Mexicans. Start a trade war with China. Isolate ourselves from our traditional allies. Adopt more authoritarian governing cultural norms. Cut taxes drastically for people like himself. And so on. This was an appalling policy vision to many people, but it serves the purpose of "burn down the system" simply because it was not smelling like rank establishment. That most of his actual policies were composed by or will be composed by the establishment Republican party was a fact missed in all of this and is now being arbitrated by his followers claiming that he won't be trying to go after gay marriage rights. He picked Mike Pence as his VP and the party platform was aggressively anti-LGBT, if you don't think he won't go after that question, among others that were feared by his political opponents, you are fooling yourself. Trump's appeals to LGBT voters and other minority groups all took the form of "I'm not anti-gay but", a problem which leads me to the second reason Trump appears to have gathered support.

2- "We don't like being looked down on by elites." This is the "he tells it like it is" version of his support. To an extent I understand some maligned feeling regarding PC speech. There are anecdotes of ridiculousness of speech codes and responses to offensive speech, questions which need more examination for me to get an understanding if this is a broad social trend that needs to be combatted or is just a few really wacky folks. I am also uncomfortable with using laws to try to shutter bigoted cake shop owners who refuse to make cakes for weddings they don't approve of (even as I agree they are most likely bigots and can or should be called such). But. Most of the time when I hear a statement complaining about PC culture and speech policing, what it amounts to is whining that you can no longer be a dick without being called out as one. People who are more offended at being called a racist than the fact that they hold racist views, suggesting that the label is accurate. Statements like "I'm not a racist but....." or "I have great respect for women but..." are heard as "I am a huge asshole and you should have to listen to me anyway". This is largely the methods Trump has employed in his lifetime. His "grab em by the pussy" comments suggesting casual sexual assault were often compared to rap lyrics as though these were similar word crimes (a common punching bag for all manner of right wing talking points seems to be Beyonce, I assume it's because she's really popular with liberals and not with conservatives). All while ignoring that it is the context of words that is suggestive of harmful behavior or intention and thus makes them potentially offensive. Not the existence and use of words that are deemed offensive.

This is not a segment of the population I am all that sympathetic toward as a whole. I think the advance of social norms of tolerance is a good thing in a diverse society. I think it will do so imperfectly, and should be called out when it is acting weird or counterproductively. The use of speech to suppress others speech by coercion is not going to be an easy space to walk in, and will have erstwhile allies on underlying policies, like gay marriage, who wish to go much further than I think is necessary. I do not agree that such norms as politeness or decency toward others should be generally enforced with laws and speech codes, where possible, which is where I often part from more progressive friends. But I do believe they can be beneficial to consider the impact and importance of words and behaviors on others and to treat them with more kindness or tolerance. I do not think that means we should revel in being a racist prick, or a misogynist pig who doesn't believe in rape as a crime. Or that that should be something to aspire to being. There's a middle ground there somewhere that involves the legal functions of using our freedom of speech with the laudable cultural norms of "not being a dick" when we do so, but I don't think we will be seeing it anytime soon. Large segments of Trump's supporters embraced views which are anti-PC. Much of his vote came from voters who have a very serious hatred or fear of Muslims and who somehow believe that calling a war, such as it is one, something different and labeling our opponent as Islam, or at least a portion of it, is somehow a good strategic concept. As but one example. There was a non-trivial sum of his vote that was willing to not only ignore these views and policies, but actively favoured more of them and has been celebratory for the return of a world where such abuses as they wish to hurl at others may do so again. These were abuses they were and still are free to hurl at others generally. The only difference is it is harder to say they are "wrong" when the cultural norm has elected someone who violates the norms (in spite of most voters agreeing this was wrong and unpleasant behavior).

So. Where do we all go from here? For my part, I will continue to argue against most of Mr Trump's agenda. Vociferously. There are portions which do not animate me with disgust, or fear for my fellow Americans, or which do not seem likely to be odious and harmful to millions of people. But not many. Had Mrs Clinton been elected instead, I would have had many disagreements there as well, particularly where it regarded foreign policy and civil liberties. These were issues I felt both candidates were quite awful, and the precise issues on which I normally vote for Presidential candidates. Neither candidate seemed interested in addressing the deficit or debt. Tax reform policies were scarcely discussed. The things I cared about most did not come up much at all (climate change, BLM, long-term fiscal security of the country, etc), in spite of being obviously high stakes between the two candidates for once. And the ones that did come up at all (trade and the appropriate use of American hegemony) came up in a really, really weird way that left me with no favored candidate.

I have the fortune of being in a relatively well off position that most of his policies will not impact me directly, or at least not immediately (his protectionist anti-trade and anti-immigrant stances will be a problem for everyone). That does not mean I feel comfortable waiting to see what he will do and how it will impact people who are much more vulnerable than myself for reasons of ethnicity or religion. He has announced what he intends to do. People for whom he has announced policies that will target people like themselves have every reason to be afraid and to take calls for patience and unity as sanctimonious nonsense. Don't come to them telling them to calm down and not be angry.

In brief discussions so far with friends since election night. Many people are angry, angrier than I am even that the result of this election cycle was this man, in particular, becoming President and the prospect of his agenda being enacted frightens or disgusts them. The thing that occurs to me most is that people should work to defend those causes and issues they care most about. If that is pro-choice abortion rights, find a clinic to volunteer at. If that is Black Lives Matters and general questions of police reform, keep pushing back on police militarization and brutality and violations of civil liberties by police, and assure that the goal is that police can and will do a better job cleaning up crime and violence by citizens rather than rousting and annoying ordinary citizens because they can. If that is gay marriage, work to make sure many people you know who can get married and want to will do so and support those marriages as friends do. If that was immigration or refugees, see what can be done locally to protect people here in this country or seeking to come here. If that was climate change, keep trying to do things that are environmentally friendly personally, or push for local and state action where you can. Broad scale changes in the form of legislation and regulation are coming on these and many other issues. They may not be amenable to your goals as a person for what you want this society to do with its powers and attention. Go forth and defend them on the front lines if you can.

I had also entered this election cycle wondering what would happen with "reasonable" conservatives (and libertarians). I am now left very confused still about that question, with even less clarity than expected. It would seem to me that both major political parties need to have a serious "what the fuck are we doing" discussion, as the political elites in both parties have been annihilated and overturned for the most part. They will (both) need new agendas for long-term stability moving forward as a younger generation comes of age and starts voting at higher rates. Budget hawks, civil libertarians, anti-drug warriors, and anti-interventionists or IR realists have had no homes right now at all as expressed in the major party Presidential candidates or Congressional politics over the last couple of cycles. Those seem like they could be substantial portions of the American polity to attract votes for a political party in several cases. Why aren't they reflected by one party or the other? What happens to anti-Trump voters that ended up voting for him out of a disdain for Clinton? What happens to weak political parties in an era of intense partisanship?

Really the question of what happens with the portion of Trump's voters that were not sexist/racist morons (roughly half of his voters don't fall into those categories, most of the rest do so pretty clearly) had interested me the most. Since they "won", in a close and contentious election at that, I'm now intensely curious what they think they won. I don't see that there was some prize in the box that they will come away with better for. In a few cases, I see some policy wins (pro-life voters for example), but those wins are liable to be very hollow rather than long-term advances. I'm not sure what that leaves. I would have had some similar concerns regarding Clinton had she won. Other than the importance of a symbolic win of a woman over a clearly sexist opponent and rival, that wasn't entirely clear what we were getting either as a country that it would be helpful, or would stand a chance of passage. I have a hard time believing that Trump's support was entirely based on denying this from occurring. But. I am not seeing many coherent and sensible ideas on offer instead.

18 September 2016

Why were we invited to that party again?


I'm having trouble understanding why libertarians are still marginally affiliated with Republicans/conservatives. These questions are not helpful for figuring that out.

"Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?

Conservatives: 23% better, 64% worse
Libertarians: 74% better, 12% worse."

There are better ways to tell the difference between these two, but pessimism will do if nothing else will. (These are all among a group of mostly millennials, not overall populations).

Immigration had a big split, but mostly because libertarians were 94% in favor of more immigration, and 86% opposed to a stupid wall. Conservatives were divided, nominally opposed to more immigration and in favor of a stupid wall. Another big gap existed over the NSA and defence cuts, and ground troops to fight ISIS.

And then there were these questions.

"Do you believe that identifying with a gender different from the gender assigned at birth is morally acceptable or morally wrong?

Conservatives: 64% wrong, 1% acceptable, 32% not a moral question
Libertarians: 13% wrong, 24% acceptable, 62% not a moral question

Recent killings of black men, including incidents in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge have sparked national protests of police treatment of black Americans that centered around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter. Do you support or oppose the goals of #BlackLivesMatter?

Conservatives: 21% support, 76% oppose
Libertarians: 64% support, 32% oppose

It is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values

Conservatives: 88% agree, 8% disagree
Libertarians: 34% agree, 61% disagree

I am willing to give up some personal freedom and privacy for the sake of national security

Conservatives: 80% agree, 16% disagree
Libertarians: 24% agree, 70% disagree

Internet pornography is a public health crisis

Conservatives: 53% agree, 44% disagree
Libertarians: 10% agree, 84% disagree

The government needs to do more to combat the prescription painkiller addiction epidemic

Conservatives: 48% agree, 49% disagree
Libertarians: 25% agree, 70% disagree"

And these

"How concerned are you about the following issues?

Terrorism/national security

Conservatives: 89% very concerned
Libertarians: 29% very concerned

Abortion

Conservatives: 71% very concerned
Libertarians: 26% very concerned

Morality in society

Conservatives: 67% very concerned
Libertarians: 50% not concerned at all"

"Which of these best describes your religious preference?

Catholic

Conservatives 32%
Libertarians 8%

Evangelical

Conservatives: 32%
Libertarians: 6%

Non-religious

Conservatives: 3%
Libertarians: 40%"

08 September 2016

Gary Johnson and political ignorance

I take it that an interview this morning did not go well for the upstart third party campaign of Johnson-Weld. I have numerous reservations with Johnson's positions on a number of issues as it is, though I still find him broadly preferable to either Trump (who is just awful) and Clinton (who is merely pretty bad). But this kind of event requires some thinking and examination.

To recap. Johnson's "problem" is he has gotten a lot of media coverage this campaign cycle, which means he is getting a broader array of questions than a third party candidate normally gets. He has a habit of deflecting questions he does not understand, whether by brain fart or sheer ignorance, by asking what they are talking about and then formulating some kind of answer. This looks really quite bad when the question is asking about what are deemed to be significant policy details. Such as a city in Syria. I was not happy that he didn't know where Aleppo was.

In voter ignorance terms, most Americans did not know where it was and what significance that question had either. Very few Americans probably knew what that question meant or was in reference to. Had I heard it, as someone who tries to keep abreast of foreign policy and issues in other countries, I would have sought to clarify what they were specifically asking about in regards Aleppo (the fight between Assad's regime and the rebels there? the refugee problem? the general state of affairs in Syria as a whole? the deployment of American special forces there?), suggesting it wasn't a terribly great question anyway. Perhaps the context was helpful and I could have provided a cogent response without seeking clarification, but I am dubious. It is not like "Morning Joe" is likely a space for intelligent commentary and interviews.

As to what that means in political terms.

Probably not very much.

Presidential candidates have gaffes of memory or misspeaking quite often. We have one candidate in particular (Drumpf) who does not seem capable of uttering virtually any factual information correctly whatsoever. I am not happy about it to be sure. Aleppo is, or at least ought to be, pretty well known within discussions about Syria. But it isn't very pertinent to specifically know about it in order to determine overall strategic questions about what should be done in Syria or about Syria by the United States.

It turns out that the media doesn't seem to know where Aleppo is or what it is either. Which is not terribly surprising. Most Americans of all lines of work and persuasion are woefully ill-informed about other countries. Even other countries in which we seem to have a considerable interest in intervening in militarily or diplomatically or are actively doing so. (The old line about "war is god's way of teaching Americans geography", which Bierce or Twain did not ever actually say or write). Getting those kinds of details correct is something Presidential candidates should try very hard do in order to sound well-informed to a public that is usually not well informed. But. Secretary Clinton is nothing if not razor sharp at recalling and reciting facts about policies that might be informative at determining what good policies are and have achieved. This has not generally helped her form what seem to be wise and effective policies where international relations are concerned (see: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Rwanda, Kosovo....). Meanwhile, Donald Trump has more or less gone out of his way to sound uninformed and uninterested in becoming informed on pretty much any policy, in particular international affairs. I would imagine this could leave some room for error in the middle in the minds of many undecided voters.

The current two major party candidates are both pretty unpopular, and American foreign policy is not considered a major issue by many voters. While domestic considerations like terrorism and ISIS are considered important, they're not actually a big deal. I don't think it is automatically disqualifying for how one should vote if one was considering a third party that someone flubs a very specific policy question. Most of his support appears to be from younger voters anyway. Voters who are unlikely to pay much attention to mainstream media coverage and whose main problem would be making sure they might show up to vote in the first place.

This will probably depress Johnson's vote total somewhat, but probably not below the 5% threshold to secure funding and ballot access for the Libertarian party in the future, which is a useful goal for libertarians or libertarian-ish voters to seek out as a means of demonstrating a potential avenue of reform for either political party. If his vote total is subsequently depressed from the current 8-10% nationally in polls to around 6-7% in votes (something I regarded as likely anyway), that will possibly help Clinton in a couple of close states (perhaps Colorado or North Carolina most noticeably). It will also probably keep him from competing as effectively in Utah to try to win any state, something no third party candidate has done for quite a while. And possibly put a damper on his fundraising efforts to some degree in order to run ads or voter registration campaigns in favorable states. But all of that is also unlikely to impact the result of the election simply because the third party vote, while apparently much higher than normal, was pretty unlikely to impact the result of the election already.

I would say that this is a common issue with media and establishment types to deem minor party candidates as "disqualified" by dint of rather minor errors, while writing off rather substantial errors made by the major party figures (see, most everything Trump has done for the last year, as well as his entire public life, for example). That will not help Johnson recover from this blunder. The margin for error is really quite low if one is running an insurgent campaign to garner any public respectability. This was something he should have been aware of. And worked harder to avoid.

For the record: the correct answer on Syria/Aleppo should be something like the following list
1) Take in vastly more than 10000 refugees. Possibly as many as one million. Or basically anyone who wanted to come here. The American refugee system is pretty reliable for both vetting potential refugees to reduce problems of terrorism or criminality or maladjustment, and also for producing high quality immigrants who work hard to assimilate to a new life in a pretty safe and advanced country that took them in from a place of hardship and violent upheaval. Historically it's one of the best weapons we have both against terrorism or violent extremism. And also one of the best faces we can put upon what it means to be "American" is that we will take in people from anywhere and more or less leave them in peace to live their lives once they get here. We should take advantage of that to take in and shelter as many people as we can. This is the most pressing element of the war is the displacement of ordinary people it has created and the vast humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as a result. We should be seeking to do as much as we can to alleviate that by removing people from a position of violence and danger and placing them in the position of trying to build ordinary lives elsewhere.

2) Use diplomatic pressures to try to end the civil war between the Assad forces and various rebel groups who don't like him. This may mean that Assad must step down, the country could be partitioned into autonomous or semi-autonomous states (like the Kurds in Iraq), Russia or Iran would have more influence on the resolution of the situation than is nominally desirable, and so on. I do not mean to suggest that this path is easy, but it seems more likely to have a productive result in ending fighting and violence in Syria than violent intervention and use of force against Assad to remove him militarily, or that the provision of military assistance to forces we might nominally support is likely to guarantee that weapons we provide won't be used against us later, or won't be used internally or regionally for the purposes of brutal repression (as the Saudis have been doing in Yemen and has been mostly ignored).

3) Use diplomatic pressures to try to involve all of the relevant regional parties in suppressing ISIS regional state as a thing that exists within Syria and Iraq and might be of some threat to the outside world, most especially the neighbouring countries and the people within the territories it has control or influence over. This would mean Turkey, Syria/Syrian rebels, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and probably Russia as well.

4) Do not use American foreign policy in the form of bombing campaigns or ground forces to resolve the question of lone wolf style ideologically inspired attacks within the US and the West. That is not how that fight is going to be won. That is a terrible policy formulation. American leaders should take advantage of voter ignorance and indifference on foreign policy to "ignore" problems like that and seek their resolution in other means (intelligence gathering and cooperation with foreign governments, counter-terrorism policies, police investigations, etc).

31 August 2016

Odious speech

There have been two parallel trends of "free speech" discourse over the last several years I have observed with some disdain.

People who complain when other people who do not like what they have said and say so, or otherwise use their private ability to discriminate who may use a platform of speech they have provided, under a mistaken belief that "PC-policing" of this kind is infringing upon their rights to free speech.

Groups of people who cite anecdotal experience to suggest that there are broad, sweeping, and new trends which threaten civil discourse norms of engaging with political opponents in a polite disagreement over facts and motives.

The former is merely stupidity about what the Constitution means; that it restricts the government, but not the people, from imposing restraints upon what someone can say, or what they wish to hear. Which is par for the course, but still really annoying and tedious.

The latter position if true would be a deeply shared concern, but I have not really seen anyone making an attempt to demonstrate that it is in fact what, say, college campuses and college students on said campuses are doing in a new way that they have never before done. These two trends often intermingle in a way that suggests a major problem is in fact the demand for PC behavior. There are points on which I might agree this is the case. But in general, it is not.

The former situation operates in something like this manner: If I am attempting to engage with someone I likely may disagree with, it is best to do so in a method that treats them with a degree of respect. One way to do this is to answer questions in a civil manner. Another is to try to understand their perspective. One can still be quite dismissive of the manner they have arrived at an opinion, of the "facts" they have marshaled in support, of the flimsy nature of logic being used to move from one subject to another, and so on. But one should ultimately try to avoid being dismissive of the person with whom a conversation is being engaged with. This is not always easy to do but it is the proper and civil nature of a debate to carry out, and it has some noble aims in principle behind it. It is possible you might persuade them that they are wrong, or that they have considered a perspective that you have not and that you are in fact in the wrong. At "worst", it may persuade people with whom you haven't even engaged that one of you is offering a more sensible option for interpreting events or their proposed solutions. That is the purpose of engaging in civil debate and discourse with people who disagree with you. What I often find instead is that disagreement is then used as a means of divining and imputing all manner of ill-favored motives, character flaws, ethnic or racial origins (where not otherwise obvious), and an increasing slide into personal attack rather than argumentative cases being constructed for the matter at hand. The effect of such action is to persuade neither person of the wrongness or flaw in their argument, and most likely to make both of you look like complete assholes to any innocent bystander who happens by.

The Internet, for all its flaws in preventing or harnessing the ability of individuals to filter out bullshit from fact, actually does offer some amount of tools for dealing with this as a problem. The ban hammer comes out and away that person goes to cool down for a while, perhaps indefinitely. What it does less well is deal with this when it concerns an entire movement of people condemning an individual or groups of individuals, whereupon they have descended as locusts to feast upon the person, marrow and bone all.

One of the essential difficulties of this is that the former activities, banning an obnoxious troll from your sight and daily interactions, is a subjective action that protects the time and energy of the individual (and sometimes their viewpoints). I find it useful for abusive persons in social media debates, or for people whose arguments are so tedious and pathetic that I no longer wish to expend the time on them. But the latter action, banning a whole host of persons at once, or restricting one or more person's ability to influence said persons through a social media platform entirely, involves a more rigorous analysis than "this person annoys me". And as such, it often passes well into less decorous behavior before anything is or could be done. Threats (true or otherwise), abusive language, bigotry, and so on. Almost all of which is and probably should remain perfectly legal and free from public sanction by the mechanics of government and law. But a platform provided by a private company has no obligation to allow anyone to use it in that way either. It is perfectly legal behavior to be an asshole, and to carry forth senseless mayhem in argumentation. It is also a perfectly sensible action to point out that someone is acting like one.

This is the essential component of what gets termed PC. What is "politically correct"? A simple stab at an answer would be "avoiding being an asshole in public". Expressions of bigotry or intolerance do not need to be tolerated. Merely being annoying or offensive might need to be tolerated at some level, but doesn't need to be sought out either.

This is the part that I am having some difficulty understanding however is how this intersects with college experiences. There are definitely many specific stories indicating that there are some people who have difficulty understanding what to do with academic freedom, or whether academic freedom should exist, and instituting speech codes with fairly arbitrary purposes, and trying to suppress the public speaking appearances of controversial figures. I've encountered some people with a rather poor grasp of freedom of speech in academic settings myself, in debates on public forums, and so on. Getting from there to the supposition that the entire architecture of freedom of inquiry and debate is under assault because "kids today are weak and don't want to engage with tough ideas!" is a very large stretch however.

I consider these concepts like "trigger warnings" to be reasonably robust in the culture at large. We tend to use mechanics like parental ratings systems to screen out material we may not want to view on TV or in films or hear in music. This is not limited to trying to restrict access for children. But to tell ourselves as adults or parents that this is going to have some graphic material and to decide whether or not we want to deal with a show about rape and sexual abuse, or brutal violence or torture. To be sure, I probably have more tolerance with viewing nudity or sexuality, or violence, and certainly with hearing "strong language" than many other people. Nevertheless, I usually want to know that's what I'm about to be in for, implicitly or explicitly rather than just sit down and all the sudden be in the middle of hearing about a brutal rape case or viewing a fictional torture sequence in a film or TV show. If I were taking or teaching an ethics class, I would not expect to dive right into asking about incest as a moral topic. Or abortion. Or even humans (Westerners at least) eating insects (or other humans) as food. There's a certain amount of mental preparation most people need to make in order to get past shock or disgust and try to dig into the content.

If and where these concepts like trigger warnings or safe spaces are being used to destroy discussion altogether, or to prevent controversial figures from speaking and learning what, if any, rationale they might have for their views, or otherwise to present only a sanitized and sanctioned understanding of a topic, I would agree they are being misused and applied to an over broad practice of policing thought and expression. This is not generally what people are doing with them in academic settings. It's more like giving people a minute to collect themselves. I would feel it works more like the slow and relaxing climb up a roller coaster ride, before diving and twisting around.

One of the many beneficial features of free speech and free inquiry is that it allows people to go more or less anywhere with a thought or a hypothesis and to explore many ideas. It also means that when we are treading off into an area of exploration of ideas or the expression of them that is likely to be offensive or troublesome, other people will be free to say so. We can then ignore them. That is likely to make us come off not so well in a social sense, that it will have cultural and social consequences. This should encourage us not to automatically abandon our esoteric and unpopular quest for what seems to be forbidden knowledge. But instead to think harder about its merits and how to express them, or to acknowledge perhaps there are few enough merits to discount the idea more or less entirely and to move on into other inquiries more worth our time. Or at least better forms of expression to get across our ideas. A key value of free inquiry and free speech is the process of ideas having to do some amount of rigorous battle with each other. Rather than simply being able to express something freely without complaint, we should expect that people might marshal their energy to oppose us. And that should lead us to make or seek out the very best and most rigorous arguments for not only what we believe we have learned and discovered to be true about the world around us, but what others believe as well. Such a process should humble us about our own level of certainty. And will also provide some outlets for controversy and debate. Even basic fundamental premises like "major political candidates should not say racist things and be able to get elected" will be tested from time to time, giving us the space to re-evaluate ourselves alongside our fellow citizens, classmates, teachers, friends, family members, and so on. To recognize whether we seem to be progressing or not with difficult ideas like how to deal with issues of racism or sexism. Or crime. Or punishment. Or education.

Even the premises of speech themselves are challenged from time to time. Very strong advocates for its utility should be willing to re-examine the value of speech and understand how robust it is, or how weak it has become as institutional practice if that is indeed the case. As well as understanding the varieties of expression will include shocking and distasteful methods or topics that can be approached more cautiously and perhaps more productively as a result.