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.