Our poor, tainted political system

I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren. In fact, I think that just the idea of being a “fan” of hers or not is symptomatic of our deeply disturbed political system at the moment.

I think she’s a perfectly acceptable candidate among the 20-odd choices, and I will vote for her if she ends up the official nominee of the Democratic Party. Until such time I will withhold further support. I want to wait and see how the issues unfold.

However, she already seems to be the choice of the political disruptors. I’m seeing more and more gratuitous mentions of her Native American heritage fiasco (on which, see Snopes.com). It has become a trope, bordering on the magnitude of Clinton’s emails, and just as irrelevant to her qualifications for the job of President.

I said as much in a comment on a Tweet recently, in (I thought) a reasonable tone. I got two or three responses telling me why I was wrong, again, in a more or less reasonable (for Twitter) tone.

Then, all at once, dozens of comments popped up, and I mean all at once. Some of the comments could be construed as in my favor, and others against, almost all much more insulting in tone that the original exchanges. I’m not a big Twitter user. I rarely get a thread going with more than about six or seven comments, and never over about 20, even when I’ve been getting piled on, and even then, they have accumulated gradually, as you’d expect.

Nowhere in all of this fusillade was there a mention of her ideas on policy, her other qualifications, or even a suggestion of an alternative candidate.

This tells me three things:
1. at this point, the opposition considers Warren the most likely to survive the nominating process,
2. they consider her the most dangerous in terms of running against Trump, and
3. the bot network (Russian or homegrown) is up and running already.

As they say, buckle up.

True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

Born to be mild

It was a very nice restaurant up north in Michigan, kind of upscale but not nosebleed, that had a front wall that could be entirely removed for the warm summer months, providing all the benefits of outdoor eating from almost anywhere inside.  It was a Saturday evening in July, with temperatures hovering in the 70s, a perfect up north atmosphere.  We were enjoying a really nice beef-tenderloin-in-a-pastry thingie, when up from the stoplight a block away there arrived about two dozen or so bikers, riding slowly by, in a parade of their own.

Mind you, these were not Hell’s Angels types for the most part.  There were four or five scruffy desperados, but the rest were a diverse group: millennials with their millennial assortment of facial hair and slick heads, geriatric hippies, dentists with Harley-Davidson logos on the backs of their $500 leather jackets, middle management types bolt upright on their rides.  All had at least one thing in common: they had enough money to spare for high-end motorcycles.

Well, okay, they had two things in common.  They also loved to race their unmuffled engines as they rode slowly by.  Maybe you’ve heard the biker mantra, “loud pipes save lives”?  If it’s true, then enough lives were saved that evening to make Our Lady of Lourdes blush with envy.

Well, three things. This disparate collection of humanity loved nothing better than annoying anyone who thought they were above them, which, from their perspective, was anyone who was annoyed by them.

It worked to perfection. For the duration of the din, all conversation stopped, since it couldn’t be heard anyway.  Around the room, there were a few slow-burning stares, a smattering of giggles,  and some outright smiles, but most did what I did: sigh with resignation and wait the invasion out.

This episode strikes me as the perfect metaphor for current politics.  The bikers represent the loud Trumpist minority, and the rest  of us divided but generally unable or unwilling to stop them, many silently wishing that at least mufflers on motorcycles could become a thing.

If only our political malaise could be so easily cured.

My country, your country

Things are more complicated than they used to be.

It used to be that conservatives would advocate for a return to some idyllic, unfettered free society, unburdened by excessive constraints of what they called a “nanny state.”  Liberals would then argue that there never was such a society, at least not in the US, and what was derided as the nanny state was simply a means of redress for the injustices suffered by less fortunate citizens.

Now, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has systematically destroyed any vestiges of conservative ideology among the party faithful in favor of the kind of personality cult we used to cluck at in other places.  There’s no longer even any serious attempt at lip service to these values.  What we get instead is a naked power grab, no holds barred.

Ironically, this finally allows us to resolve the classic debate between liberals and conservatives.  We now have to concede that the Republican party is indeed trying to restore the country to some previous state that the country was actually in.  They want to go back to the 1950s.

For those of you too young to remember that time, let me clarify things.  It was a time when African Americans were still occasionally being lynched with impunity, when police would routinely beat confessions out of the usual suspects whenever it was expedient, when anyone even suspected of communist sympathies was blacklisted from desirable jobs, when the term “domestic violence” didn’t exist and it was considered a man’s prerogative to beat his wife and children, when “no” was seriously thought to mean “yes,” and when it was everybody’s business to enforce conformity.  Women were expected to stay home and cook, and if they were allowed to work at all, it was at a fraction of the salaries of equivalent jobs for men.  LGBTQ? Forget it. It was open season on people like you.

And this wasn’t the worst of our history.  From the infamous Alien and Sedition Act to the Jim Crow laws, we have been a country of, at best, enablers, and at worst, criminals.

Trump’s ideals are no foreign intrusion, friends.  They are a dream of his youth, the good old days in the US.  You can see it through the clenched teeth of his supporters.  At least no one’s pretending any more; what you see is what you get.

Happy Fourth.

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.

Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?