Saturday, November 26, 2016

On Trump, Racism, Granularity, Rationality, and Things That Quack Like Ducks

Scott Alexander's SlateStarCodex is one of my favorite blogs. Much of it involves trying to really look at what's going on, ignoring noise and assumptions in favor of data and rational evaluation.

Recently he did this on the topic of whether Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate for president. His conclusion - argued persuasively and at length - is that no, Trump is not the candidate of white supremacy and the hysterical claims that he is are doing harm. The article is not a defense of Trump, but just a challenge of one particular narrative.

It's a terrific article, but as I read it, I had the vague feeling that at least some of his points could be refuted. But a superficial googling on the article didn't show that anyone had tried to refute any of it. There were just articles lauding the piece.

As I thought about the article there were a few things that began to bother me, and since Alexander turned off comments on the post in order to avoid chaotic flame wars, I'm just going to discuss them  here.


Alexander makes a lot of good points. Take, for example, Trump's famous statement "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. Their rapists." Alexander points out this is not actually racist because Trump is specifically saying that there are good Mexicans, and that it's just those aren't the ones immigrating to the U.S. It's not actually racist to say, "all the good Mexicans are living in Mexico," even though it's clearly untrue.

Alexander points out that while Trump's obsession with birtherism seems racist, Trump actually believes all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories, many involving white people. He points out that, outside of the liberal bubble, Trump has made many statements praising U.S. diversity, like every other politician. He skillfully takes the "racist Trump" arguments apart piece by piece, leaving you with Trump as an asshole whose racism is closer to that of Robert Dole than Adolph Hitler.

He's probably right. And yet, as I thought about the article later, I began to think of Rodney King.


Rodney King, as you may recall, was videotaped being savagely beaten by the police in 1991.

Watching the video, it was clear that King had been beaten mercilessly for several minutes by many cops while he tried to escape. But when the case went to trial, the defense slowed that video way down and convinced the jury that every time King's arm flailed out as a baton hit him, every time he tried to get on his knees to crawl away, that he was in fact lashing out and trying to attack the cops.

This is the danger of granuality. Anything, when looked at closely enough, can lose its shape. It's like those paintings that look like people in a park from a distance and look like a bunch of dots of paint up close.

Alexander is looking at Trump on a granular level, and on a granular level, you can prove an awful lot.

As much as Alexander is admirably trying to look at all the evidence, he's still just taking a small section of the immense number of things Trump has said and using it to push back on a narrative.

Alexander does, in fact, understand that. In point 17 of his post he shows exactly how all arguments against an insupportable theory can sound, to a believer, "weaselly." If you believe Trump is a racist, you can reject pretty much any arguments to the contrary. And if you're living in the liberal bubble with me, where you basically keep hearing the same five quotes from Trump on an endless loop, it's easy to see the case for racist Trump as a slam dunk.

I'm not saying Alexander's granuality means he's wrong. I'm just saying it's something you need to pay attention to, because he's a very persuasive writer and as anyone familiar with Malcolm Gladwell knows, persuasive writers can persuade you of things that are not entirely true.


As I continued to mull his piece over in my mind, certain other things began to bother me, like this:

13. Doesn’t Trump want to ban (or “extreme vet”, or whatever) Muslims entering the country?
Yes, and this is awful.
But why do he (and his supporters) want to ban/vet Muslims, and not Hindus or Kenyans, even though most Muslims are white(ish) and most Hindus and Kenyans aren’t? Trump and his supporters are concerned about terrorism, probably since the San Bernardino shooting and Pulse nightclub massacre dominated headlines this election season.

This seemed fine when I first read it, but then it began to seem really, really wrong. Because he is basically saying that racism is tied specifically to skin color. That if Trump is more afraid of "white(ish)" Muslims than darker Kenyans, then somehow he can't be all that racist.

As much as I respect Alexander, this is blatantly stupid. Because racism is not a visual thing. In the past, Americans have been racist against Irish and Italians, among others. My mom had a friend who once said she could deal with her daughter dating a black guy, but would disown her for dating an Asian, even though Asians are generally somewhat lighter (the reason having to do with a hatred of Japanese born during World War II).

And, of course, Hitler hated Jews more than any other race even though Jews were often physically indistinguishable from Germany's non-Jews.  I don't know how Hitler felt about Kenyans, but I'm pretty sure he spent less time worrying about them.

And yes, hatred of Muslims has been exacerbated by Muslim terrorists. But racism doesn't have to be based on nothing. It is a matter of taking some aspect of a racial group, whether real or imagined, and applying it to all people of that group. Some African Americans are criminals. Some Jews are greedy bankers. Some Poles are stupid. If you think that subgroup represents the whole, that's racist.

After all, there are tons of white terrorists in America, shooting abortionists or blowing up buildings, but we don't take actions against all white people because some of them are terrible.

I wonder whether a 1930s version of Scott Alexander be able to examine Hitler on a granular level and conclude that he wasn't really more anti-Semitic than other German politicians? After all, the level of anti-Semitism in 1930s politicians was pretty high.


While point 13 is Alexanders worst argument, others are also  problematic. For example, the fact that Trump believes in all sorts of conspiracy theories, only some of which are racist, doesn't mean his belief in birtherism isn't still racist; if I believe all drug dealers are black, and I believe moon people have invaded earth, the second belief doesn't make the first one less racist.

And yes, it's true that people have physically attacked Trump supporters, and that's terrible, but there's a difference between attacking someone for how they voted and attacking someone for who they are. If a Muslim is a wearing a Clinton button and someone attacks her you can say it's equivalent, but if she's just wearing a hijab then she's not being attacked for her vote, but for her race and religion. There's a fundamental difference between saying "fuck you, Trump supporter," and "go back to Mexico, wetback."


Alexander is very persuasive, and I am willing to admit there's a pretty good liklihood that Trump isn't the most racist Republican out there and that the actual white-supremist part of his constituency is tiny and is only seeming significant because the media has glommed onto the white-nationalist story and is giving fringe groups way too much attention.

But I'm still nervous, because I'm not convinced that this country hasn't opened the door a crack for racists now. That there is a new acceptance for racism, and sexism, and homophobia that Trump is helping along, and that he really is more dangerous than a typical Republican not just because he's corrupt and incompetent but because he is going to at worst institute racist policies and at best just let racism grow without challenge.

There's an old expression: if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. For a rationalist like Alexander, this is untrue. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you can only say for certain that it is something that shares certain characteristics with a duck. It's an important perspective, because the truth is, common sense is not always sensible, few things are truly self-evident, and to assume is, as the saying goes, to make an ass of you and me.

I admire Alexander's attempt to rationally look at that quacking thing to try and figure out if it's really a duck. I just wonder how many data points he would need before finally admitting that, yeah, what we've got here is a duck.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump voters are idiots and jerks who blithely voted a racist fearmonger into office - here's why we shouldn't demonize them

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is one of the most horrific moments in U.S. history. A blatant racist whose election has the KKK dancing in the streets, Trump is a crude, corrupt, unqualified moron who will cause damage to this country - through his Supreme Court appointments, through his destruction of progressive programs, through his encouragment of bigotry and xenophobia - that will continue on for decades.

The people who voted for Trump should be ashamed. They have unleashed a great horror on the country, and it is little comfort that Trump's policies will wind up ruining the lives of many of his most fervent supporters.

So yeah, it is outrageous to suggest that we need to understand these people, as some are suggesting. What's to understand? These are white people whining about their lives even though many of those voters aren't suffering, demanding that the little we've given our country's minorities be taken back, that our halting attempts at equality for women be smashed. They were dumb enough to believe Trump's promises and uncaring enough to not care who got hurt. The majority of them are so racist that they think Obama is a Muslim foreigner. They are monsters.

On the other hand...

There is a problem with painting Trump voters with too broad a brush. Certainly, the worst people in America - Nazis, Klansmen, sexual assaulters - embraced him enthusiastically. But that doesn't mean everyone who voted for Trump loved everything about him.

John Scalzi posited in the Cinemax Theory of Racism that even if everyone who voted for Trump isn't actively racist, they all basically accept racism as a part of the Trump package that they can live with. And that's true. But they are not the first voters to accept the bad with the good. In 2012 I read an article by a progressive who refused to vote for Obama because he had sent out drones in the pursuit of terrorists that had killed many innocent people. For him, to vote for Obama was to say he could live with a president who would kill innocent foreigners.

I voted for Obama anyway - it wasn't like Romney was a peacenik who would end all the killing - but in doing so, I have to accept that I made a statement - to keep the Supreme Court from becoming even more conservative, to keep making progress against racism and sexism, to further a (somewhat) progressive agenda in the United States - I could live with drone strikes that killed civilians in the Middle East. I feel bad about it, but I did it, and I did it knowing I was doing it.

So if you're a conservative afraid of a liberal Supreme Court, if you believe liberal economic policies will make the country poorer, then you might say, "I really hate that Trump is calling Mexicans racists and Muslims terrorists, but I have to protect this country from a greater threat."

I might disagree with that analysis and those priorities, but I can't say I have never compromised on the perfect in favor of what I perceived as the least bad option.


I've read a fair amount about those Trump voters. My main takeaway is that they feel like government cares about everyone but them, and they're very resentful. They feel that there is affirmative action for black people, new rights for gays, and nothing for them. That they are taken for granted and undervalued and their struggles are ignored.

And if you're like a lot of my friends, your reply to that is, "Damn right I'm ignoring your so-called 'pain.' You problems are nothing compared to those of people of color. There are people getting pulled over and shot by the police while you're whining that your kid didn't get into their first-choice college. Fuck you with your slightly-lower-than-your-parents standard of living and your undeserving lazy-poor-people tropes. You white straight people are at the top of the heap, and if you're suffering, then how do you think the people without your privileges are doing right now?"

Or, to put it another way, "yes, white America, you really don't matter at all. Just shut up and vote for the Democrats."

I understand this attitude. I have had advantages in life and I feel people with less advantages deserve a boost up; that their need is greater than mine. But at the same time, I can appreciate that if you feel you are getting less so that others - no more deserving than you - can have more, then you might be annoyed.

Look at it this way. Let's say you're a kid, and every day your parents give you one cookie. Now, you have friends who get three cookies a day, so you're already a little resentful about your lot in life, but at least you get that one cookie.

Then one day your parents say, that kid next door gets no cookies, so from now on every Wednesday and Sunday we'll take your cookie and give it to him.

If you're a really noble, self-sacrificing kid, you'll be okay with that. You'll say, give him my Monday cookie as well. But if you're like most kids, you will be consumed with the unfairness of getting less cookies not because you have done anything wrong, but because someone you don't even know is just being given the cookies that have always been a part of your life.

There is a difference between not being noble and self-sacrificing and being a monster. But people who drift to the self-sacrificing side of life can forget that.


There's a big problem with the "fuck all you whiny-ass Trump voters, you're all racist monsters" attitude. By lumping everyone together like that, you make everyone in that lump unreachable. If someone came up to me and said, "you are a monster and every death caused by Obama is blood on your hands; people like you should just die, because you care about no one but yourselves," I would not listen to much that person had to say.

And we may really need those non-KKK Trump voters soon. Because there are people who were horrified by aspects of Trump but ultimately thought that voting for him would not destroy the country. They thought Trump was all talk and wouldn't really have jackbooted thugs going from house to house arresting Muslims and Mexicans.

But if they are prooved wrong, they might cool on Trump. They might say, "wow, I did not realize this would happen." And they could join the opposition to Trump.

Unless, of course, you've told them they are all privileged assholes whose concerns are stupid. In which case, why exactly would they want to join with you?

The fact is, white people do have problems, because everyone has problems. If you're white, you are less likely to be shot by a cop, but it can still happen. Innocent white people get shot by cops. White people get sick and go bankrupt paying medical bills. White people lose their jobs. And you can't insist that people shouldn't complain about their problems because others are suffering more. If you lose a child, you don't want to hear, "that's nothing, I lost my whole family, quit whining."


I don't excuse people for voting for Trump. They did a terrible thing, for terrible reasons, and will cause irreparable harm to this country. But I still believe we need to understand their views and listen to their complaints. Because the fact is, as they just proved, they can vote in big enough numbers to put a fascist in the White House. And if Democrats don't try and understand and communicate with them, then in four years they will give him a second term.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

I'm not That Excited by Hillary Clinton ... But That's How I Feel Every Four Years

It's said that Hillary Clinton suffers from an enthusiasm gap. People just aren't that jazzed to vote for her, and her greatest assett is that many voters are terrified of the apocalyptic disaster a Trump presidency is liable to usher in.

Her supporters have been trying to convince us to get excited. She's incredibly qualified. She has a long history of public service. She's smart and willing to engage with the nuts and bolts of government.

But why should I get excited for Hillary, when I haven't been excited by any of the presidential candidates I've had to vote for over the years?


Even before I could vote I followed the elections, and the last time the candidate I liked actually became the nominee was in 1972, when McGovern became a cautionary tale in nominating the genuine liberal.

After that it's been all disappointments. In 1976 I really liked Mo Udall, and thought Jerry Brown showed promise, but instead got Jimmy Carter. Whoopdefucking do. 

The first election I could vote in was 1980. Once again, Jimmy Carter was the nominee, and since he had just instituted draft registration for people my age, I was really unhappy with him. I would have preferred Ted Kennedy, or, once again, Brown, but Carter was the nominee. I voted for third party candidate John Anderson. I wasn't excited by Anderson, I just really didn't like Carter. And I was going through my "they're all the same" phase, which ended as I watched Reagan dismantled the government and put foxes in charge of every henhouse, creating a swathe of destruction we have yet to recover from.

There were some good guys running in 1984. I remember liking Alan Cranston. George McGovern took another shot at it. And Jesse Jackson was an exciting possibility. And in their wisdom, the people nominated bland, middle-of-the-road Walter Mondale. Who I did vote for, because, after all, Reagan was gutting the country.

In 1988, my guy was the bow-tied liberal Paul Simon (no, not the Garfunkle one), though Jesse Jackson was still a solid second. Instead, we got the uninspiring Michael Dukakis. I voted for him, but we still got the Bush that gave us Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court and an idiot son for our future.

I don't know who I was cheering for in 1992. Jerry Brown. Eugene McCarthy? I know who I wasn't cheering for: Bill Clinton, the guy who brought neoconservatism into the Democratic mainstream. Still, better than more Bush.

It was Clinton or nothing in 1996. He'd turned out to be even worse than I expected; his biggest achievement was gutting welfare. But it wasn't like the Republicans were going to be an improvement.

I wasn't impressed by Al Gore in 2000, who I knew of mainly through his wife's stupid music censorship activism, but it was a year of little choice. I voted for him, but a bunch of people going through their "they're all the same" phase went for Ralph Nader, leading directly to the American invasion of Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

My guy in 2004 was flaming liberal Dennis Kucinich, although Howard Dean also held a lot of appeal. So we got John Kerry. And another four terrible Bush years.

Kucinich was still my man in 2008, although quirky Mike Gravel was also pretty appealing. As for Obama, well, he was basically an early-70s Republican, but at least he brought some history with him, and he was pretty darn likable. That was probably the closest I came to being enthusiastic about the Democratic nominee, but I knew he was going to be a disappointment. And I voted for him again in 2012 even though he had proved me right.


In 2016 I wanted Bernie Sanders, of course. In this crazy election year he really did have the potential to win and be the most progressive president of my lifetime. So I'm disappointed that I'm stuck with Clinton.

But - and I guess this is my real point - I'm not any more disappointed than usual. In spite of all the antipathy she inspires in people, I don't see her as worse than Gore, or Mondale, or Obama, or her husband, or even Carter, who in retrospect was actually pretty good. She just represents another time when the middle-of-the-road Democrat beat my liberal favorite.
I don't need to be enthusiastic about Clinton. I have voted for every Democratic nominee since 1984, and I will do so again.

I vote for the Democrat because I learned in 1980 what happens when you don't vote for the Democrat. Terrible, terrible things. And I know that a neoconservative replacement for our neoconservative president is still a lot better than an unqualified authoritarian narcicist. 

If Clinton wins, I will be thrilled. I will be dancing in the street, because we will have dodged the biggest bullet in my lifetime and a woman will have broken America's highest glass ceiling. It will be a great night.

Then I'll brace myself for the inevitable disappointment, just as I have with every Democratic win. It's better than bracing myself for the shit show of a Democratic loss.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Clinton’s Suicide of a Thousand Cuts versus Trump’s Big Lies

Hillary Clinton has once again got herself in trouble for holding back information, in this case not letting the press know that she had pneumonia until she almost collapsed. It’s ultimately a pretty small lie, but it feeds perfectly into the narrative of Clinton as shifty.

At her most dishonest, Clinton doesn’t come close to the dishonesty of her rival, Donald Trump, who tells huge whoppers on a daily basis. Clinton more often paints things in the best light based on the public record, and then continually makes small changes in her story as new information comes to light. Overall, her stories don’t really change all that much, but the constant drip-drip-drip of modifications makes it seem like she never actually tells the truth.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, tells huge, ridiculous, easily disproved lies, and when he is shown the evidence, he simply insists the evidence is wrong. The irony for Clinton is that her attempts to adjust her story to conform to the available facts creates a perception of shiftiness, while Trump’s bold, unapologetic dishonesty just makes people think that he’s a man who sticks to his guns.

Imagine Hillary Clinton were accused of shooting someone. The police would take her into the interrogation room, and she would say, “I didn’t know that person, we never met, I wasn’t there that night, and I don’t even own a gun.”

When the cops would show her a photo of her with the victim, she would say, “well, we may have met once, but I don’t remember them, and anyway, I was out of town and don’t own a gun.” And when they bring in the gun, registered in her name, with her fingerprints on it, she would say “come to think of it, I do have a gun, but I certainly never shot someone I barely knew with it.”

Now imagine Donald Trump was accused of shooting someone. He too would say, “I didn’t know that person, we never met, I wasn’t there that night, and I don’t even own a gun.” Faced with a picture of himself with the victim, he would say, “I never met him, that’s not even me in the photo.” When they brought in the gun, he would say, “I never owned a gun, those aren’t my fingerprints.” When they showed security video of him pointing the gun at the victim and pulling the trigger, he would say, “no, that’s not me. Absolutely not.”

Trump’s ability to stick to his lies makes it difficult for the press to even report on them. Every time Clinton makes a small change in her story, the press can write, “faced with new information, Clinton changes story.” But how many times can the press report that Donald Trump has repeated the exact same lie in the exact same way? It’s not really news; it’s like reporting that the sun rose this morning.

It must be frustrating for Clinton to see her every lawyerly prevarication become a damning headline while her opponent tells so many lies that journalists consider them nothing but “dog bites man” stories. But she keeps reinforcing the negative perceptions by refusing to get ahead of a story; she always waits for events to catch up with her. If on Friday she’d simply announced she had a touch of pneumonia but was going to try and keep going, she would have seemed forthright for admitting to illness and tough for pushing through, and video of her staggering into a car would have been nothing but proof that you shouldn’t run around when you have pneumonia. By waiting until she had no choice but to say something, she encourages people to think she has something worse than pneumonia. If in a couple of days she announces she actually has double pneumonia, no one will be surprised, because that’s what she does.

And if in a couple of days Donald Trump announces that he is incapable of getting sick and in fact hasn’t even aged since he was thirty, people will shrug. Because that’s just Donald being Donald.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Donald Trump's Best Path to the Presidency Involves a Russian Invasion

Donald Trump loves conspiracy theories. Obama was born in Kenya. Ted Cruz's father was in on the Kennedy Assassination. The Clintons killed Vince Foster. 

So Trump should love my theory on why he's running such a terrible campaign.
Right now, pollsters are giving Trump about a 15% chance of winning in November, seemingly because he keeps saying crazy things about how Obama founded Isis or Second Amendment people could do "something" about Clinton. Trump became the Republican nominee because his outrageous statements kept him on the front page, but while that worked great among disaffected, angry Republicans, it's failing with everyone else.

But if I were a conspiracy theorist like Trump, I would think he was blowing the election on purpose, because his goal is not to be elected but to be appointed.

Right now, Trump is claiming that the only way he can lose is if Clinton steals the election through fraud. Among hardcore Trumpites, who believe all the polls are heavily skewed, this is a persuasive argument. 

So, Trump has established that his loss will be from Clinton's skulldugery, the government will be illegitimate, and people with guns will have to do something about it.

For all the crazy shit he says, 40% of the voters are still planning to vote for him right now, so there are a lot of people on his bandwagon. And a lot of them have guns.

So here's the theory. Trump throws the election. His followers, who believe it was all voter fraud, rise up and start shooting Democrats. The country descends into chaos. Tea Party radicals claim the government has collapsed and request help from Russia, because Republicans have a hard on for Putin (apparently, he's what they consider a "strong leader"). Russia invades and appoints their buddy Trump - who has praised Putin and has financial connections with Russia - as the country's new dictator.

Is that an insane theory? Sure. Do I expect anyone to believe it? Of course not. But in a crazy election against a seemingly inept businessman who has already used his bizarre behavior to become the Republican nominee, you've got to consider all the possibilities.

At the least, it's more likely than the Clintons having murdered Vince Foster.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Trolley Problem and the Protest Voter

In a well-known thought experiment called the Trolley Problem, a train is hurtling down a track towards five people tied to that track, and you can pull a switch to move it to a different track on which one man is standing.

This is generally used to explore moral choice and whether you'd be personally willing to kill one person to save five. If you do so, his blood is on your hands, but if you don't throw the switch, five people will die.

It would be a terrible decision to make.

It's also a lot like the decision voters are facing this year. The train is heading down a track called TRUMP that will cause horrible disasters, inflame racism, bring trade wars and possibly real wars, destroy America's standing in the world, and give us a right-wing Supreme Court that will chip away at our civil rights for decades to come.

The other track is called CLINTON. The train will cause less damage if it goes down the Clinton track, but there's likely to be some poor judgement, some foreign misadventuring, and a poorly-handled scandal or two.

It's a grim decision.


If only there were another way. If this were an action movie, you could fire a rocket launcher that curled the track up so that the train would fly up and sail right over those people, landing on the track right past the victims.

You could also do nothing and hope for a miracle. Perhaps the train will run out of gas right before it hits anyone. Or Doctor Who will appear and send it through a time portal into an alternate dimension where no one is tied to the tracks.

What you really need is another switch. Not one that will actually effect the direction of the train, but one you can pull so you can feel you're doing something without having to make this terrible decision.

Let's give you that switch and put a sign on it that says "PROTEST VOTE." Pull it, and you can tell yourself that those five dead people aren't your fault at all; you pulled a switch; what more could you do?


Right now we have a choice of presidents: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. One of those two people is going to be president. And a lot of people are just watching that train speed down the track and saying, "hey, it's not my train." Republicans who hate Donald Trump are saying, I can't vote for him, he's a dangerous incompetent with no qualifications, so I'll vote for a third party, but never Clinton, because she's evil. Hardcore Bernie Sanders supporters are saying they'll just write his name in rather than vote for Clinton; multiple people have said to me, in virtually the exact same words, "it's not my fault if Trump wins; I'm not the one who chose an unelectable candidate."

Years ago a friend was defending her vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. Her position was simple: if she just voted for someone terrible because their opponent was even more terrible, she was accepting this terrible political system. Things would never get better if people didn't stand up and refuse to cooperate with the status quo.

It's a fair point, but the question that should be asked is, did voting for Nader do anything besides help make George W. Bush president? Did it create a powerful liberal movement? Did it cause politicians to change their ways because a sliver of the populace was unhappy with both sides?

No, it didn't.

If we had a different system for electing people, where parties could gain power according to the proportion of their vote, or where there was a series of run-offs that would make a third-party vote more than just a throwaway, we would have a mechanism to change the system. But we don't, and I don't think many of the protester voters are even working to change our electoral system in a way that would give them that power.

Meanwhile, third parties seem loathe to go through the nuts and bolts of building a party, as Dan Savage pointed out in a wonderful diatribe:

If you're interested in building a third party, a viable third party, you don’t start with president. You don't start by running someone for fucking president.
Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher? I would be SO willing to vote for Green Party candidates who are starting at the bottom, grassroots, bottom up, building a third party, a viable third party.
Voting for a third party presidential candidate won't advance any agenda. It won't give that party more power, more influence, more legitimacy, or a better future. It will be just the same as voting for "none of them."

And you can do that if you want. Just admit that this is all you are doing. You are not changing the system or creating a brighter tomorrow. You are saying "fuck it."


You don't have to do anything about that train. It's not your train. You didn't send it down the track. You didn't tie those people up. Why should you take responsibility for other people's actions just because you're the one standing there?

The people on the track screaming "please don't let us die" are probably less philosophical. To them, the mistake made when the train started moving cannot be rectified, and the only thing that will save their lives is you pulling that switch.

And it's a painful switch to pull. I mean, my god, you're going to kill someone! Sure, you'll save five people, but you'll be responsible for a death. How is that fair?

Perhaps after you pull your protest vote switch, someone else will rush up and pull the working switch so you can feel good about yourself and your principled refusal to take responsibility for a problem not of your making. If not, you can watch those people die and say, "fucking railroad company, this is all their fault."

Hopefully you'll feel just as good about that decision later on, when you're tied to the track, the train is coming, and the one person who can save you turns to go.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Children: Savage Enforcers of Society Conformity

Look at your fingernails. Go ahead, just take a peek. Do you look at them the masculine or feminine way?

If you know the answer to that, you probably learned it in childhood from a peer. In case that's a lesson you missed, boys look at their fingernails by curving their fingers over their upturned palms. Girls point their palms forward.

If you know that, you probably also know that boys look at the bottom of their shoe by bending their knee in front of them, while girls kick their foot up behind and look over their shoulder.

I failed both of these tests in grammar school, and was told I was a girl. I was unhappy about that, and changed appropriately.


When talking about gender stereotypes, it is often suggested that much of the problem comes from toy companies that make all girl toys pink and advertising that divides toys into those for boys and those for girls. Some people seem to think that if we could just remove these societal messages, that children would be free to choose what they enjoy, rather than what society considers appropriate.

But what if Mattel and Walmart aren't really the problem? What if the problem is, in part, a culture of conformity passed from child to child, with rigid, stringently enforced rules? How do you change that?

Childhood is full of rules and tests (according to this thread, there are also gender tests involving looking at the sky and removing sweaters), created not by the media or the government but by children who use them as weapons. Yet even though these rules appear to arise organically out of the muck of childhood, they seem to strongly reinforce the culture's priorities. Besides gender conformity, consumerism is encouraged through attacks on things like "floods," a term for too-short pants.

Floods are a natural result of the speed at which children grow. A typical parental strategy is to buy things when they're too big and keep them until they're too small. This is sensible, but ill-fitting clothes can get you in trouble with the herd. (Note: I have no idea if floods or fingernail testing are still done; children may have different tests now, but I guarantee they have some.)

Why would children be so insistent that their peers shop frequently? No reason. In fact, it's unlikely children actually care that much aesthetically about the length of your pants or the way you look at fingernails.

Instead, it's all about beating you down, because children are savage, sadistic monsters. Children simply grab the popular weapons and use them on every target. They try out new insults and see what sticks. And if it sticks, it is carried on, year after year.

The weapons that stick tend to be those that society at large emphasizes. Society says boys should not act like girls, and boys find ways to test for girliness. (I imagine girls have their own tests, although I don't know what they are.)

To some extent, Mattel actually does effect the concept of normality, because they show children what society holds important. Movies do as well when they feature brave boys and crying girls. But these concepts are so deeply embedded that superficial changes like removing gender recommendations from toy boxes probably won't do much. Fix the toys, and you've still got a society where women speaking firmly are accused of shrill shouting even when faced with men who are shrilly shouting to no objection. You can't teach children to be more open and accepting if all of society if promoting the opposite. One of the first thing children figure out is words mean much less than actions.


My first inclination when I thought of this was that it's all pretty hopeless. Childhood conformity is so powerful that I doubt tweaks to marketing and speech would have any effect.

I did have one idea, though. Children, as I say, just want weapons they can use to beat down their peers (you non-cynics will probably disagree with that, but I feel the evidence is pretty solid). So what if that destructive power could be used for good?

Children, reflecting society, push gender conformity and consumerism because those are the weapons that work. If you could convince children that the worst, most embarrassing, most deviant qualities were racism, or greed, or bad manners, or littering, then these children would create tests for these qualities and crucify those who didn't do things the "right" way.

How can that be done? Well, as someone who doesn't care for children and avoids them as much as possible, I'm not able to answer that question. But if you like children enough to interact with them yet still understand their dark nature, see if you can come up with a way to use their savagery to make the world a better place.

Or if not a better place, at least one where one is judged by something more important than fingernail examination.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

David Cameron is Paul Ryan's Ghost of Christmas Future

The lesson many pundits are taking from Britain's vote to leave the European Union is that the appeal to bigotry, hatred, and fear can lead people to vote against their best interests and royally fuck themselves up out of pure spite. If that can happen there, they say, then a Trump presidency can happen here.

That may be true, and we should certainly all be scared. But Brexit should also scare one particular American, Paul Ryan, who just had a chance to see what happens when politicians make a short-term political calculus that destroys their career.

Brexit happened because Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to get reelected. A chunk of anti-immigration conservatives wanted Britain out of the European Union and to keep the Conservative Party together and win an election, Cameron agreed to a referendum on leaving the EU.

Cameron didn't want Britain to leave the EU, he just wanted to pacify those on the right and counter the popularity of the anti-immigration U.K. Nationalist Party. He figured he could easily persuade voters to vote REMAIN.

He couldn't, and having created a disastrous situation with disastrous results, he had no choice but to resign.

Now, Cameron will go down in history as the guy who screwed Britain and the EU. That is his legacy. Nothing he has ever done in his life will matter; he's the Brexit guy.

Like Cameron, Paul Ryan decided to do something dangerous to the country for political expediency: support Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump, a racist, xenophobic no-nothing conman (or, as the Scottish would say, a weaselheaded, Cheeto-faced, jizztrumpet/fucknugget/shitgibbon) who spews hatred against minorities like a shit-throwing sprinkler system, gained the nomination through big lies and absurd promises. It's clear to everyone with half a brain, including Ryan, that he is a toxic bomb set to blow up this country.

But Ryan also believes, probably correctly, that Trump is somewhat more likely to support his help-the-rich, screw-the-poor agenda than Hillary Clinton, and for that reason, he has chosen to endorse the monster.

Ryan's endorsement looks worse and worse every time Trump claims his right to be judged only by those with European ancestry or congratulates himself when horrible tragedies befall the country, but while Ryan will mildly criticize Trump's remarks, he is still determined to make him president.  Ultimately, whether he succeeds or not, he is probably destroying his career.

In November, one of two things will happen. Either Trump, in spite of a phenomenally incompetent campaign, will win, or Clinton will. If it's Trump, well then, an authoritarian lunatic will helm this country, most likely sending the world into economic collapse, and Ryan will intimately tied to that disaster (and probably won't even get much from his shopping list out of the short-fingered megalomaniac). If it's Clinton, then Ryan sold his soul and got nothing for it except a GOP in flames.

The U.S. does not have Britain's parliamentarian system, so Ryan won't have to resign anything. He'll still be a congressman. He might even get reelected; in this country an incumbent can get reelected even if he's in prison for fraud. But his career as the golden boy of the GOP will be over. Like Cameron, he will forever after be known for one thing; tying himself to a bucket of shit, throwing the bucket down a well, and trying not to fall in after it.

Watch out Ryan; it's a very heavy bucket.

Monday, June 27, 2016

On Not Being Photographed by Bill Cunningham

I first heard of Bill Cunningham years ago when someone told me he was at the Jazz Age Lawn Party and I said, who? It was something I was supposed to know.

For 40 years, until quite close to his recent death, Cunningham took photos for the New York Times, specializing in people he found stylish. Some were famous, some were just people walking by. He would also turn up at events that drew those who wanted to show off their finery, which is why I used to catch sight of the dapper gentleman clicking away at JALP and the Easter Parade.

The dress-up people at JALP seemed obsessed with getting their picture taking by Cunningham. By dress-up people, I mean those who devoted themselves to period wear. The people who scoured eBay and thrift shops for authentic 1920s vintage clothing. Who studied old photos to get the look just right. Who purchased vintage picnic baskets. For many, that picture in the Times was a victory, and Cunningham obliviously walking past you without a glance at your authentic, over-priced 1920s hat a terrible defeat.

It was a race I never ran.

I mainly went to JALP to dance. Sure, I dressed up a little, but I've always had a close-enough-for-rock-n-roll approach to vintage dress, and worried more about being comfortable in the blazing heat of summer than in wowing the dress-up world. I would certainly never, as the serious folk did, wear wool on a humid, 90-degree day.

Look at this picture from the New York Post of me dancing with my girlfriend Laurel. I am making less effort than the three people I'm sharing the picture with, who are all aiming for authenticity. I've got some nice wide-legged pants, but I'm also wearing a golfing shirt that wicks away moisture, a bow-tie with a crossword puzzle design, and elastic suspenders with skulls on them.

Not that I don't think I look great. I love those suspenders, and that bow tie is hilarious. I had other great things I wore to JALP, like orange linen pants that Laurel still mocks me for. But though I liked my colorful, somewhat rumpled style, I knew it wasn't Cunningham-worthy. And I respected his vision.

While others think fondly back to the day Bill stopped to snap their picture, I celebrate him for a different reason; he knew enough about style to ignore half-assed outfits like mine.

Orange pants, suspenders with a newspaper theme and a golf shirt. Close enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Democracy: The System Everyone Likes Until the “Wrong” People Win

In 2011, Egyptians protested against their authoritarian dictatorship, overthrew the government, and held democratic elections that installed Mohamed Morsi as president.

By 2013, unhappy Egyptians were holding mass protests and demanding that Morsi resign. When the military stepped in, many of those protesters were thrilled. Soon the new government proved itself to be at least as bad as the one ousted in 2011.

I remember that after that military coup, there were pundits on both the left and the right who supported it, seeming to believe that this was a way to reset a democracy gone bad. To me that seemed a long shot. Democracy works when people accept it as the thing you’re stuck with. If after every election the people who didn’t vote for the government could persuade the military to step in, you wouldn’t really have a democracy.

Democracy is when both sides agree to accept the results, even if they don’t like them. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Now let’s talk about Bernie Sanders.

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. The things I want – a single payer health system, more taxes on the wealthy, greater worker rights, a stronger social safety net – are the things Sanders wants. If I were declared ruler of the universe and could choose the next U.S. president from anyone who has run for the position in the last couple of years, I would pick Bernie.

But in a democracy, one person can’t choose the president, or the nominees. Instead, there’s a whole electoral system in place.

Regarding the Democratic primary, that system is one Bernie Sanders has liked less and less the more it has become apparent that he is unlikely to win more votes or pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton.

As little as a few months ago, Sanders still had some hope for the democratic process, as long as it was truly democratic. He made the reasonable suggestion that superdelegates – free agents who can vote for whoever they like at the convention – should vote for whoever their state voted for.

The problem is, under that system, Sanders would still lose. Because Sanders is way behind Clinton. About three million votes behind.

So Bernie has a new plan. We throw out the democratic system and decide the nominee based on polling.

What Bernie wants is for all the superdelegates, regardless of who their state supported, to vote for Bernie. And he says they should, because in head to head polls, he does better against Trump than Clinton.

There are reasons those polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As the Times points out, Sanders hasn’t experienced a full-on Republican national attack yet, which could drive his numbers down markedly, and Trump is no longer competing against anyone, while Clinton is still fighting off Sanders, softening her support.

But beyond that, picking candidates according to polls is wildly undemocratic.

Right now, RealClearPolitics collection of recent polls shows that averaged out, Sanders beats Trump by 10.8%, whereas Clinton loses by .2%. Each of these polls represents 800 to 1100 voters. If you were to assume that these polls had no overlaps, then they give us the opinions of a few thousand voters. If Sanders is up by 10% over Clinton among a group of 5,000 voters, then that means a few hundred people like Sanders better than Clinton. Yes, they are presumably a representative sampling, but still, if we’re using the polls to select nominees, very few people are actually getting a say.

As of April, over 15,000,000 people have voted in the Democratic primary, and by the convention that number will be higher. Sanders plan is, very simply, to discount the millions of people who prefer Clinton over him in favor of the preferences of a tiny sliver of America’s voters.

How can anyone who believes in Democracy find that acceptable? If we are going to choose our nominees by poll, why don’t we just get rid of elections altogether, and every four years take a few polls and make whoever wins the president? How can Sanders supporters who scream about unfairness every time Clinton gets an extra delegate they believe belongs to Bernie be fine with simply taking the choice out of the hands of the electorate altogether?

What would happen if next week the poll numbers switched, and suddenly Clinton had the edge against Trump? Would Sanders drop out of the race? My guess is, no.

I understand why democracy failed in Egypt, a country unused to the messiness of a system that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of Government, except for all the [others].” But in the U.S., we’ve been doing this for a long time. And even if the results don’t turn out as I hope, which has happened many times, I hope we continue our experiment with democracy, and let people, rather than polls, choose our representatives.

Although I’m still open to just deciding the whole thing myself.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Finding out you're weird. Then finding out you're really, really weird.

When people tell you to imagine something, like a beach, or a polka-dotted elephant, does an image come to mind? Most people, it seems would say yes.

I didn't realize for a long time that this was true. I always took phrases like "mind's eye" as an abstract term for constructing concepts in your mind. But somewhere along the way I discovered that most people actually picture things. They can "see" a beach; see the color of the water and the shape of the birds flying through the air, much in the way I can "hear" a song in my head. I can imagine Yellow Submarine, and hear Ringo's voice, and the sound effects; not so clearly that I can throw away my stereo, but I can conjure it up.

So I figured that much out. And I thought, well, that's weird. It didn't bother me much, though, since it didn't seem like a terrible useful ability. It did explain  some things, like a famous quote that had always puzzled me. In the early days of television, some kid was asked if he preferred radio or TV, and he said radio, "because the pictures were better."

That sounded insane to me, but if people can picture the stuff they hear on the radio, then I guess it makes sense.

I didn't realize how much other people's brains use that facility until I talked to my girlfriend, Laurel. As I understand it, all her memories are visual. If she thinks on the past, she sees it. I had thought of the mind's eye as something you could turn on if you wanted, but from Laurel it seemed that it was just a constant thing. Shortly after our conversation I saw the movie Inside Out, and the main character does experience her memories visually, and I thought that perhaps this is how most people's minds' work.

The subject came up again yesterday when I read an article on Vox by Blake Ross. His mind had been blown by a 2015 article in the New York Times about a man who had lost the ability to picture things. The condition had just been given a name that year, Aphantasia. And his reaction was, like mine, people can do that?

If you have Aphantasia, the Times article seems really bizarre, because it acts like this is an extraordinary thing. Imagine you'd been blind your whole life, and no one had ever told you, and then one day you read about a guy who "lost" his sight, and you suddenly realize almost everyone in the world except you can look up and see clouds and stars, and there's this whole thing going on you had no idea even existed.

As I read the Times article, I could see that people use their mind's eye for all sorts of things, because the researchers were amazed at what could be done without it. They asked aphantasiacs, how many windows are in your house, and were stunned that people could answer without picturing the rooms.

And I thought, that's how people remember things? They picture them?

Why wouldn't I know how many windows were in the house? I mean, you look at them, and your mind makes note of where they are, and if someone asks you, you can answer. The number of windows is a fact. I know a lot of facts. Water boils if you heat it on the stove. Cats have four paws. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I don't even understand why you would need to picture the room to answer a factual question. That just seems weird.

While I asked a handful of friends about the mind's eye, Blake asked everyone he knew. He asked them to picture a beach, and they did. They could see the color of the water, the waves rushing in, people sunbathing.

It appears it's not something you turn on and off, it just happens. When Laurel read Blake's article, she said when he talked about picturing a red triangle, a red triangle just popped into her head. When Blake asked a friend how often he pictured things, he said a thousand times a day. The shocking thing is, for 98% of you, italicizing that doesn't make any sense: it's just normal.

This explains so much. It explains why writers will spend two pages describing a forest; it's because people use that information to picture what's happening in the book. It explains why people claim it's impossible to not picture a polka-dotted elephant when someone tells you not to picture one. It explains how people count sheep (they actually see sheep and a fence), how people with a fear of public speaking picture an audience in their underwear to calm their nerves. It explains how people can tolerate meditation; with their eyes closed, they aren't actually locked in impenetrable blackness.

Some people are really bothered by aphantasia, one they know they have it. They feel they've been cheated. They think they might have other skills if their brain worked properly. But I doubt that.

Blake says he's been asked if he can draw, and he says he can't. I can draw, and at one point majored in art. How do I draw without picturing things? Kind of the same way I can tell you how many windows I have in my room. I store up facts. I look at a face, and see the nose hooks down slightly. So I look down and draw a nose that does that and look up again. I see a short upper lip, look down, draw that, look up. Look up, note, look down, draw. It's easy.

If I had a mind's eye, perhaps I could just look at a face and hold it in my head while I drew it. That would be convenient, but it's not essential. I manage with what I've got. It's certainly less of a problem than my face blindness, which can make it difficult to make friends (because I treat people I've had interesting conversations with like total strangers). I think of aphantasia more as a curious condition.

At the same time, now that I realize how much people use their mind's eye, I feel aphantasia actually makes me more of an alien than my face blindness. I don't just lack a capability others have; I fundamentally use my brain differently than everyone else. (Between my  face blindness, aphantasia, and perhaps an auditory processing disorder, I have to wonder exactly how much my brain is diverging from the rest of humanity's.)

It also makes me wonder: is there anything else? Will I learn someday that there is something else other people can do that I didn't realize was possible? Are there other phrases that I've been taking figuratively when they are literal? Do people really shoot the breeze? Do bad dancers really have two left feet? Can people do handsprings when they're happy? Do hearts actually jump when people feel joy and break when people are sad?

Right now, I think I know how atypical my brain is, but I am prepared to learn, once again, that I don't know the half of it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Agonizing Process of Deciding Which One to Vote For

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the New York primary. It was a decision I couldn't help second guessing in subsequent years, as Obama floundered amidst Republican opposition. My mother had been right; he didn't have the experience for the job.

I wondered if Clinton would have done better, and hoped that she would run in the future so I could find out. Now that has happened, and yet I find I'm strongly drawn to Bernie Sanders in much the way I was to Obama. I have to wonder; if I follow my heart, am I going to regret it a second time?


Clinton seemed terrific when she was first lady, smart and progressive, but as my senator she was suspect, displaying a mushy moderation that suggested she was more into positioning herself than changing the world. Then she voted in favor of a preemptive war in Iraq, which meant, I thought, that she was either too stupid to recognize the Bush administration's bullshit (detailed in the run-up to the war by the progressive press) or was simply taking a spineless, politically advantageous position.

Obama had been against that war. He also promised that his universal health plan wouldn't include a requirement that people buy health insurance; as someone who couldn't afford insurance, I was worried about facing fines. He spoke beautifully and offered a vision of a better, more hopeful world.

Unlike his most ardent fans, I never expected Obama to turn the U.S. into a progressive paradise. He was, after all, a politician, and bound to break the hearts of true believers. But I was still hugely disappointed by his meekness; he seemed the sort who would bring Roberts Rules of Order to a knife fight.


So here we are again. A man full of fire and fury, promising great things that might be impossible, versus a far more experienced woman who voted for a terrible war and offers less ambitious but far more concrete plans.

For a lot of people, it's an easy decision. Either Sanders is an impassioned visionary who will lead a modern revolution and Clinton is a corrupt hack with no principles who will hand the country over to the billionaire class, or Clinton is a brainy progressive feminist with deep experience whose realpolitik approach will move us forward while Sanders is an unelectable, impractical gadfly whose nomination is a Republican wet dream.

What I see are two smart, progressive, and imperfect candidates, either of which would be a million times preferable to even the least crazy Republican. Philosophically, Bernie is almost a perfect match for me, a fellow progressive who looks at enlightened Scandinavian countries and asks, why can't we do that? But as annoying as practical considerations are, they cannot be avoided. I have to ask, which candidate is more likely to win the election, and which candidate, if elected, is more likely to accomplish good things? Also, which candidate is more likely to royally screw up?


Electability is a big consideration when choosing a nominee, and in a normal political environment, electability would be Clinton's best friend. She is better known than Sanders, with more political experience. Sanders is an elderly agnostic Democratic Socialist; which normally would make him the most unelectable candidate in the world.

But let's face it, this is a weird year. Voters are sick of a political system that doesn't work and seems custom made for a wealthy elite. The Republican nominee is likely to be Donald Trump, a no-nothing blowhard with a frightening ability to sucker people in with his big daddy authoritarian promises and his constant lies and policy shifts.

Against Trump, Hillary is certainly the adult in the room, and in a sane country where voters want the reasonable, thoughtful candidate over the ticking time bomb, she could easily beat him. But in a year where people are obsessed with "authenticity," and shooting from the hip, Clinton's carefully triangulated positions and coziness with Wall Street  are more damaging than in a typical year. And her history of Republican-manufactured scandals has given her low trustworthy ratings with voters (I'm not saying that's fair, since all the problems I have with her are not the problems the Republicans have created, but it's still a consideration).

Sanders seems better positioned to beat Trump at his own game, out-shouting him, mocking his stupidity, while also being blindingly smarter than him. If people really want big changes, Sanders versus Trump offers a clear-cut choice. Sanders could win over Trump-ites, although the be fair, the reverse may be true as well; a lot of voters seem to just want to disrupt the system but aren't that picky about how it's done.

While Clinton's downside is that she has been softened up by years of molehills turned into mountains by the right, Sanders' downside is he hasn't experienced any real attacks at all. The Democrats' primary campaign has been pretty civilized. While the candidates are increasingly snippy, there is no real mud-slinging - no questioning of citizenship, no spousal slams, no mocking of physical attributes. I don't think he's even been attacked all that hard for saying up front he's going to raise taxes (claiming this will be balanced out by health insurance savings) which he would get slaughtered with in a general election.

What happens when Sanders gets into a savage knife fight with someone like Trump or Cruz? Does Sanders have any terrible skeletons in his closet? I doubt it. Can the Republicans create one? Sure. These are the people who used John Kerry's military heroism against him. Can Sanders withstand the tremendous heat? We don't know. We know Hillary can; she's been living on the sun for years.

Of course, the increased polarization of the electorate means the candidates might barely matter at all, because almost all the Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party, even if they hate the candidate. This gives the final decision to those freakishly unpredictable independents. In this case, enthusiasm and getting out the base is really important, and Sanders seems to have the edge there.

It is also possible that either candidate will win in a landslide due to a third-party candidacy for the conservatives if Trump is the nominee or a third-party run (or just a lot of sniping) from Trump if he isn't. Although things could get patched up with a Cruz-Trump ticket, which would be ... interesting.


Then there's the question of who can get more done.

Think of it this way. You have a stone quarry in the middle of a swamp, and you would like the stones mined, carried to a faraway hill, and built into a mansion. One contractor tells you it's impossible, but she can get enough stones to the edge of the swamp to build a decent, reasonably dry home, and maybe you can build a better house later. She has detailed  blueprints.

The other contractor says he will build that mansion on a hill, guaranteed. He will move heaven and earth to make it happen. He has a bunch of notes on post-its.

If she's right then voting for him will get you a bunch of stones littered along the path to the hill. But if she's wrong, you're living by the side of the swamp when you could have one hell of a view.

Who do you hire?

The pro-Clinton argument is simply that she knows how to work the levers of power. She knows how to deal, how to compromise, knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them.

She will build on what's here. She will tweak Obamacare, trying to get it closer to what it should be. She will try and push through a few more financial regulations. She will navigate the treacherous path. She will be sensible

But she'll never even try for the mansion on the hill. She doesn't believe in it.

Neither did Obama. He always started with a reasonable position, something centrist and practical that deserved wide support, and then was slapped down by Republicans who painted his most modest proposals as the works of a wild-eyed, America-hating Muslim anarchist.

Obama tried to be reasonable, and that failed because the other side was unreasonable. Sanders would not make that mistake. He would make huge progressive proposals. And while he might not get free college or a single-payer system, not starting at the center could be a powerful negotiating tactic.

What worries me about Sanders is that when asked how he will bring these miracles to pass, he says we need people to rise up, we need a revolution. But how does that happen? Politicians casually ignore what the majority want (better gun control laws, for example) in favor of what donors and lobbyists want. Even if Sanders could get people to demand the same things he demands (and this country is so polarized that this is unlikely), politicians entirely concerned with their own little gerrymandered districts are not going to join the Sanders revolution. This is a big, unwieldy country; it can only turn so sharply.

Still, Ronald Reagan created a pretty major shift in this country, and if Sanders can't turn the U.S. into Denmark, he could still, in theory, push it as far left as Reagan pushed it right.

Sanders is worrisomely vague about how he's going to pay for everything. He claims that his policies will lower health costs and improve the economy, and if that's true then we might be able to afford Sanders' big dreams. But what is the difference between Sanders' claims and those of Republicans who say if they cut taxes on the rich the economy will improve so much that the government will have more money than ever?

Once again though, the point may be trivial; if Republicans keep control of congress, neither Sanders nor Clinton is going to get anything done. The Republicans are perfectly happy to obstruct the government forever if need be. The stones will never be mined, the house never built. The contractor won't matter.

On the other hand, if Democrats get control of both the house and the senate, Sanders' big dreams could make a better country than Clinton's little ones.


Presidents can do a lot of damage. George W. Bush managed to tank the economy, plunge us into war and destabilize the mid-east. Bill Clinton pushed through laws that vastly increased the racial disparity in prison populations. 

I'm on the fence in terms of Clinton's electability and her efficacy, but I am far more worried about her capacity to screw things up. Because while Clinton's supporters offer her vast foreign policy experience as a positive, it is what worries me most.

First off, she voted for the Iraq war. At the time, I saw that as pure politically expediency, but it could also represent her general inclination to muck around in other countries and hope for the best. After all, she lobbied for regime change in Libya, which just further messed up the midle east.

I strongly believe in Obama's foreign policy tenet: don't do stupid shit. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of screwing up other countries, breaking their governments and alienating their citizens. Clinton, alas, has the interventionist mindset that leads to doing stupid shit, sometimes for very noble reasons. Obama gets a lot of grief because he realizes that America cannot remake the world; Clinton doesn't seem to get that.

I don't think Sanders wants to recreate the world in America's image. I don't think he's interesting in nation building. My feeling about Sanders lack of foreign policy experience is best summed up by the satirical op-ed, Sorry Bernie Bros, Your Candidate Just Doesn’t Have The Foreign Policy Experience Necessary To Prop Up A Pro-Western Dictatorship.  

The danger of Sanders is the danger of  unintended consequences. The more powerful the pill, the bigger the side effects. The more radical the change, the greater the unpredictable ripple effects. Sanders' sweeping proposals are tricky. A $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles is likely to affect the local economy differently than in Podunk, Idaho. Sanders could find himself spending an entire term trying to make one change work the way he expected it to. It's a sizable risk.


Sanders versus Clinton is not an exact repeat of Obama versus Clinton. Sanders has more experience in government than Obama had in 2008 and he's a far more progressive candidate. But once again I find myself torn between a candidate whose positions are appealing but whose practicality is suspect and a shifting compromiser who has a plan for getting things done but may not want to do the things I want her to. 

Maybe I was wrong to vote for Obama in 2008, but maybe I wasn't. Could Hillary really have done any better against the anarchists of the Republican party? We'll find out if she becomes president, and then I might be able to decide whether my Obama vote was a mistake. But I'll probably never know for sure whether Bernie or Hillary was the right candidate for 2016. All I know for certain is, whatever happens, I'll always wonder about the path not taken.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bernie, Hillary, Sexism, Authenticity, and Elizabeth Warren

It is undeniable that, as a woman, Hillary Clinton faces a sexism that makes campaigning tricky. Pundits will obsess over stupid things like her hair and dress, they will scrutinize her actions as a wife in a way male politicians are never scrutinized for their marital conduct, they will look for signs of "womanly weakness" at every turn.

That being said, Clinton is not struggling to beat Bernie Sanders because, as Catherine Rampbell suggested in the Washington Post, Sanders' maleness allows him a freedom to seem authentic that Clinton doesn't have. Sanders, windblown and loud, can express passion; Clinton, constantly under watch by a sexist media, must be meticulous.

But its' not Sanders Brooklyn accent and mussed hair that make him seem authentic, nor are they the key to his popularity. And to see that, all one has to do is look at Elizabeth Warren.

With all due respect to Bernie, he was not most progressives first choice for president. Warren was the one every ultra-liberal democrat pictured taking the White House. Because Warren, with her kempt hair, midwest accent and pricey blazers, exudes exactly the passion and authenticity that Rampbell says sexism prevents Clinton from attaining.

One pundit suggested that Clinton's problem is we have cast her in the role of a grandmother, and when she raises her voice we feel we're being scolded. But Warren raises her voice all the time. She admonishes her foes with great force.

The difference is who is being admonished. If Warren is a grandmother, she is one who will see kids teasing another kid and run outside and chase them away with a broom. When she admonishes, she admonishes for you.

Hillary is something different. Like Warren, she can get angry, but often she's angry with all of us. She's angry because we keep throwing her vote for the Iran war back at her, angry because we asked for an explanation for her private email server, angry that people keep choosing dreamers like Obama and Sanders over a practical, sensible woman like herself. Hillary is the grandmother who tells you that you're a bad child if you don't eat your broccoli.

Hillary's authenticity problems are not because she can't be seen with messy hair. Her authenticity problems are because she's inauthentic. She answers questions with an evasive lawyerliness. She makes unsupportable claims, as when she said that being a woman makes her a true establishment outsider when her resume is remarkably insider-ish. She seems inauthentic because she switches positions and then says, oh no, I never really said I supported that, I just said I was open to it.

Authenticity isn't a male/female thing. Romney seemed inauthentic. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, comes across as passionate and authentic, even when she's being crazy and incoherent.

I'm not saying we should choose our political representatives based on that indefinable thing called authenticity. There are slick, talking-point-driven politicians like Nancy Pelosi who seem phony but still do a terrific job, and it's possible in the end that Clinton's experience, wonkiness, and nuts-and-bolts practicality would make her a better president than Sanders - I'm having difficulty making up my mind who to vote for.

What I'm saying is, if Elizabeth Warren were the candidate instead of Bernie, she would have the same fans, receive the same big crowds, and be attacked in the mainstream press for many of the same reasons. But no one would say she was doing so well because of sexism.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Trigger Warnings and Toughening Up

When I first heard about trigger warnings, my reaction was not positive. To me, it seemed as though weak people were demanding to be catered to. People go through terrible things, but so many terrible things happen that the world can't be expected to grind to a halt for every traumatized soul. Trigger warnings struck me as the height of a coddling culture devoted to preventing discomfort. The world is a hard place, and people need to just fucking toughen up and deal with it.

I've been thinking this way for some time now, not really questioning my underlying visceral response. And then today an old remark happened to pop into my head; a simple question, asked years ago, that made me reconsider the whole idea of oversensitivity.


In the first grade, I had just moved to a new neighborhood and was very unhappy about it. On the first day of school, while the class waited outside for the teacher, who was late, some kids started to tease me. I don't know what they said, but I started crying.

Tears are to children what blood is to sharks, and there was a verbal pile on. I panicked and started screaming, "STOP IT,"  which to keep going with the shark analogy, was like when the leg gets bitten off and the blood gushes out, pulling in more sharks until there is a huge feeding frenzy.

With that, my fate was sealed. I was the kid who screamed, and my peers all wanted to try that out for themselves. I was famous for it; people who had never met me would say, "hey, are you that kid that screams?" even when I no longer did.

Of course, some children go through far, far worse, but it still sucked. I avoided people as much as possible, hiding out in the library. I rarely had friends, and some of the few I had eventually turned on me, teasing me to gain traction with the other kids. From my perspective, the truest movie ever made about childhood is Welcome to the Dollhouse, the only movie I ever saw where I wasn't annoyed that the movie's "loser" character had a better childhood than I had.

I worked very hard to not cry and scream. It was a lot of work, it took many years, but by high school I was doing pretty well. Emotions were the enemy and the source of all my troubles, and it felt like a victory every time I managed to feel less and react less.


Decades later, I was talking to someone. I was talking about how fucking oversensitive people are, for example, people I dated. They would get upset about stupid little things. I could make some mild comment and they would just freak out. They needed to toughen up.

And the guy said, "you mean the way you had to toughen up when you were a kid?"

That was a "woah" moment. I was being asked, did I feel other people should tamp down on their emotions, curtail their feelings, so I could be insensitive? And the answer was no.

But it's easy to fall into old mental habits, which is why my first reaction to trigger warnings was still, toughen up, you big babies.


When I was perhaps ten years old, or whatever age it is when parents finally feel they can let their kids wander about on their own (an age that seems to have shifted since I was young), my parents gave me the lordly sum of $5 to spend at the state fair while they went off and did their own thing. I imagined going on a lot of rides, but I was distracted by a ring toss game. I bought three rings for a quarter, and missed three times. The guy running the booth said, don't give up, I'll give you four rings for another quarter. Then 5 rings, then 8, then 12, until I had spent the entire $5. There would be no midway rides for me.

Ashamed and heartbroken, I told my parents what had happened. They could have let that stand as a valuable lesson in the dangers of life, in the need to watch out for people, in the irrevocable nature of our mistakes, but they didn't. Instead, my dad hunted down the guy who managed the arcade and complained. He said it was wrong to take advantage of the naivety of a young child, and the ring toss guy had to give me my money back.

So I didn't learn that people will screw you, life is unfair and you have to accept it. I learned that people don't have the right to screw you, and that if they try, you should make a stink about it.


Toughening is a natural part of life. If you walk barefoot on gravel, your soles will toughen over time. If you don't like shoes, then that toughening is a good thing. It protects you from pain. It allows you to function. That's what toughening up is about; making adjustments that allow you to function.

For many of us, toughening up means growing a thicker skin. It means, in the words of Marge Simpson, that you, "Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you're almost walking on them."

There's a problem with that sort of toughening, beyond the discomfort of walking on your own feelings. If it is necessary to toughen up because the world sucks, then by toughening up, you are agreeing to the world sucking.

So you toughen up, and when people are mean to you, you laugh it off. If your boss mistreats you, you live with it. Everyone's got problems, there's nothing you can do except to grin and bear it.

When we insist that asking for trigger warnings is a result of being weak and coddled, we are demanding that traumatized people (and very few of us aren't, to some degree, traumatized) be tough.

But perhaps the insistence on trigger warnings is simply a different variety of toughness. Perhaps being tough is demanding that people show sensitivity to your needs. Perhaps you are tough if you refuse to let people make you swallow your feelings.

Some people argue that it's a cold, cruel world, and if we cater to college students now, they'll be in for a shock when they enter an adult life of asshole bosses and vindictive neighbors. What will these coddled kids do in the real world, when they can no longer run to daddy or teacher?

But maybe we have things backward. Perhaps this toughening up is why we are so quick to accept abuse. Perhaps demanding trigger warnings could lead to demanding fair treatment at work and home. Perhaps the assholes of the world rely on all these people who use their toughness to power through all the shit heaped upon them. Perhaps toughened people accept abuse that sheltered people would rebel against. Perhaps encouraging people to toughen up is making the world a safer for assholes.


In the classic Shel Silverstein song, "A Boy Named Sue," famously recorded by Johnny Cash, a father names his son Sue before leaving his family. Sue faces a lot of ridicule and fights back, becoming tough and quick-witted. As an adult, he meets his father, and tries to kill him, at which point dad says the name was to make him tough and he was pleased to see it worked.

The moral Sue took away? Don't fucking give your son a girl's name. Being tough enough to almost kill your dad isn't worth all the pain it takes to get you there.

Toughening up didn't make me a better or happier person. What has made me a better, happier person has been years spent stripping those protective emotional layers away, allowing myself to soften just a little. Still, I always quickly wipe my tears away during a sad movie; letting people see me cry will always feel dangerous.

How would my life have been different if I'd been more coddled? If teachers hadn't watched me being tormented and thought, that's just kids being kids?  If school administrators had tried to stop the bullying instead of writing me off as that kid who screamed because he wanted attention? If a psychiatrist had, instead of putting me on Ritalin (which had no effect because I was sensitive, not fucking hyperactive), admitted that bullying cannot be remedied by medicating the victims of it.

We'll never know, but I'm in favor of coddling a generation and seeing how it turns out.

I'll never be so soft as to need trigger warnings, and I'll probably always feel a visceral dislike of them. Trigger warnings are stupid and the people who insist on them are big fucking babies. And I say to all you big fucking babies, be tough enough to refuse to toughen up. See if it makes a better world.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Tin GOP

The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was once (as you know if you read the book) a real man. He lost his body parts one by one to a cursed axe, until he was all tin, and thus, no longer human.

I suspect the moment other people thought of him as a tin man was earlier than when he thought of himself that way. There was probably a time when he was still thinking of himself as a human with a lot of tin when everyone else was thinking of him as tin with a few flesh parts. It always takes some time to acknowledge a new reality.


I've been fascinated by the panic of mainstream Republicans over the state of their party. Donald Trump, a racist loud-mouthed populist with no clear political philosophy beyond yellow at minorities, stands a good chance of being the Republican nominee for president of the United States. If he doesn't win, it will probably be Ted Cruz, a right-wing extremist hated by his colleagues whose only goal seems to be to cause the gears of government to grind to a halt.

Right wing pundits are wringing their hands and crying out, "THIS IS NOT OUR PARTY." They insist they are the party of small, sensible government and free-market ideals, not the party of racism and demagoguery and intolerance.

But of course, they are that party. Racism, intolerance, and rabid hatred of seemingly most of the country have been, for a long time, as much a part of the GOP as helping the rich at the expense of the poor.

Republicans once actually did believe in government as a tool to make things better. For all his flaws, it was Richard M. Nixon who started the EPA. But the party has moved much further to the right since then. The modern Republican party began with Reagan, an arch conservative who by today's standards is still too liberal for the GOP.

The GOP's cursed axe was the Tea Party. The Tea Party was fueled not by a consistent political philosophy (they would protest against government entitlements while demanding the government not cut any entitlements they enjoyed), but by rage at gun laws and the dewhitening of America, and a general sense that they were getting screwed by "them."

The Republicans saw the Tea Party as a large voter block that they could use to gain and hold onto political power. They embraced the Tea Party, they supported Tea Party Candidates, the chose Sarah Freaking Palin as a vice presidential candidate, all to get those Tea Party voters to come out and help them crush the Democrats. They raised their voices, questioned Obama's citizenship, swift-boated John Kerry, and allowed stupidity and craziness to take a place of honor in the party.

And without them realizing it, everything they saw as classic conservatism was being chopped away.

Right now the leading GOP presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, are all Tea Partiers. The are all extremely right wing. And the percentage of Republicans who support them make up a strong majority of the party. Republicans fed the Tea Party like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and my, how it has grown.

Now that the last vestige of human flesh is gone, the heart is absent, and the GOP is 100% tin, conservative pundits are screaming that something has to be done before the Republican party is destroyed.

But there is no more Republican party now, there is only the Tea Party. Eventually, the few remaining Republicans will have to accept that.