Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Nothing is certain

I’ve gotten a sense over the years of the futility of most debates about politics and related topics—history, philosophy, ethics etc. I can think of very few discussions where I changed someone’s mind or had mine changed. People seem very fixed in their opinions and unwilling to move in the face of evidence.

This may not be entirely unreasonable. I think we all have a certain sense that how evidence is presented can distort reality. For example, someone could say, “A 1998 study showed that people who ate mouse droppings lost weight,” while declining to mention all the studies that did not support this argument or the fact that the particular study that did was rife with methodology errors. We’re smart not to take things at face value.

But sometimes the evidence is pretty solid and people seem unwilling to change. I find myself guilty of this; I read something contrary to my beliefs and I almost feel physically resistant. We want our truth to be the truth. Which is really a matter of ego, I suppose.

I find myself particularly bothered by conspiracy theories. Donald Trump just recently repeated the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been as disproved as possible but refuses to die. Because, I guess, people just want to believe it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Micheal Shermer called “The Believing Brain” where he examines why we are so prone to believe things that fly in the face of evidence. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard before: we want control over uncertainty and conspiracy theories give us knowledge which is a stepping stone to control Why’d your kid get autism? The correct answer is: who knows? The psychologically comforting answer is because he was poisoned by vaccines.

If there’s been an overall trend in my thought for the past 8 or so years it’s been that things are pretty uncertain and we basically need to embrace that. As I’ve recounted a million times, I had pretty solid faith in the medical establishment until I came down with a dizziness they could not explain. I had hand pain that lasted for years and was impervious to any number the “fixes” medicine offered. To solve these problems you basically have to stumble around in the dark until you find something. Few experts saw the economic bust of 2008 coming. It seems like nobody predicted the rise of ISIS in the middle east. Did anyone six months ago seriously think Donald Trump would be the leading Republican candidate? The experts on these matters seem to be largely a group of know-nothings*. But if they know nothing, then we know nothing and that’s not solid ground to stand on.

But maybe that’s where we are. And maybe accepting that is the best course of action. Embrace the mystery of life and all that.

*I’m reminded of the study that political pundits are mostly spectacularly wrong in their predictions.

Shaming the shamers

Lately I’ve been reading Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which is about the advent of public shaming that has overtaken the internet. (For the latest example, see the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.) Ronson explores a number of cases one might have heard of—Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, even my old acquaintance Mike Daisey who fabricated details of a radio report he did on Chinese workers. These are all people who committed some offense and were basically torn apart by strangers on Twitter.

I’m reminded of an event I observed on my facebook feed. (I’ll keep it anonymous but if you know the story you’re sure to recognize it.) A local songwriter performed at a local bar some months ago and when he went to get paid they basically told him to get lost. The songwriter reported this on facebook and dozens of his followers and their friends, maybe over a hundred, went to the facebook page for the venue and basically screamed at them.

I don’t fault the songwriter for doing what he did, but there really was some sense that he was unleashing a mob. The venue owners relented, apologized and paid him. They’ve stopped doing music and I wouldn’t be surprised if their revenue has dropped as a lot of people have probably sworn off ever going there.

The event bugged me a bit though I have a hard time saying why. Maybe it comes down to two things. These kinds of online mobs deliver a form of justice but is it equal to the crime? These bar owners basically stole 100$ (the payment for the performance) but it seems very possible that they’ve lost thousands in lost revenues. And on top of that I imagine these guys have lost some friendships and had their reputations forever tainted over what used to be a private dispute. Screaming mobs are very imprecise tools of justice.

My second concern is that the people who mete out these shamings—the people posting negative comments on someone’s facebook page or tweeter feed or whatever—aren’t being entirely honest with themselves as to their reasons. They may see it as a purely moral statement but I think everyone likes being a bully, likes the catharsis of damning others. I’m not sure shaming is so much about punishing the perpetrator as much as it allows the shamer to feel good about themselves, and in step with their society, to get high with self-righteous fury

The Cecil the Lion case brings this up for me. I like animals and the guy sounds like a douchebag, but lions are killed by hunters every day (as are plenty of other animals.) Why go after this guy? Because this particular lion was somehow protected? That feels like a pretty arbitrary, legalistic reason. Because Cecil was sort of a “famous” lion? Frankly, I’d never heard of him (I don’t know any celebrity lions.) It seems more likely that people saw a mob movement growing online and jumped at a chance to scream at another person. But I think that mob power can be corrupting. It should be avoided not to protect the target but to protect yourself. (Now, I’m far from perfect on this. I’m often having mental conversations with myself mocking this or that person. But I seldom, if ever, participate in online attacks.)

There’s probably a third reason I’m wary of the idea of online shaming. If you go through the archives of acid logic there’s are doubtless many things that would offend a lot of people. And I wonder of the online mob will ever come for me?

The quiet rise of Ben Carson

There is a lot of legitimate attention being paid to the fact that Donald Trump has so quickly become a big player in the race for the Republican nomination. But I’m surprised there’s been so little discussion of the fact that Ben Carson is now neck and neck with Trump in some polls.

In many ways, Carson sounds like a pretty conventional conservative, but I’m do take note of this New York Magazine article that makes the point he’s not one of these “filled with hatred” guys. He seems capable of disagreeing with someone without wishing for their destruction. We certainly could use more of that.

Ultimately, I think the Republican nominee will be someone predictable—Bush or Christie— but I won’t rule out something like “Trump/Carson 2016.”

I like Donald Trump

I really make an effort not to get too drawn into the gamesmanship of politics, but it’s hard not be entertained by the rise of Donald Trump as a Republican contender. He seems to be such an unending source of contridictions and oddball statements that I hope he stays in the race a while.

And I have to say, even though I’m almost certain a Trump presidency would bring about the destruction of humanity (and probably the earth, possibly the galaxy) I kind of respect him. In particular I like his utter refusal to apologize for obnoxious but fundamentally meaningless statements. I think the best response to his Megan Kelly directed comment that she has “blood coming out of her whatever…” is an eye roll. But of course everyone is huffing and puffing and declaring his words totally beyond the bounds of decency or what have you. In response to this, the Donald simple tells his detractors to fuck off; this is quite refreshing in an era where people are constantly emitting mealy-mouthed mea culpas. I’m not sure why I admire that, but I do.

The mind of conspiracy theorists

I’ve started reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time: Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” (There’s a title that would not make it in today’s popular science writing market!) I’ve seen the book mentioned in various places for years, mainly for its stunning assertion that humans only became conscious fairly recently, like 3000 years ago. (I think that’s the number; I’m sure I’ll find out soon.)

I’ve read the first couple chapters and see that part of how Jaynes supports his argument is as one might suspect: by defining down what consciousness is, thus making the idea that we could live without it more palatable. That said, I think his definition of consciousness is perfectly valid. He points out something I think we’ve all noticed: the process of reasoning, often touted to be about extensive rumination and consideration (all done consciously of course), is really a sudden gut feeling that is then justified via logic. In chapter one, he states… (BTW, this chapter is online.)

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make general assertions based on our past experiences in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious.

He then adds an interesting point.

And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process.

This ties in with a lot of my thoughts about various conspiracy theories. I’m always amazed by people who believe that George Bush planned 9/11 or that various people are covering up Obama’s secret Kenyan and Muslim roots, or that thousands of medical professionals are keeping quiet about how vaccines cause autism. I’m amazed because these conspiracies would involve organized evil on the part of so many, with not much payoff. I guess I could understand why George Bush might have determined it was in his favor to affect a false flag operation, but why would the various minions who would be needed to enact it decide to go along? Perhaps the head of some pharmaceutical company would keep quiet about his poisonous vaccine, but why would the entry-level chemists who would certainly figure it out? What would their motivation be? I’ve discussed this with people who believe such theories and they don’t seem to see the issue. They freely accept evil as a payoff unto itself. As Jaynes says above, neither I nor the conspiracy theorists are using consciousness in our assessment of people’s character and motivations, we are using automatic inferences. (These inferences play a big part in the ideas of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio who I’m a big fan of.) These are not arguments of reason, but of differing instincts.

Having said that, I believe my automatic inferences are correct and those of people who disagree with me are wrong.

Maybe salespeople are on to something

Freddie Deboer had a interesting post recently titled “Pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything.” His point—a rather obvious one—is that trying to convince people that they are wrong by talking down to them and treating them like shit will probably have the opposite effect. (This has been been affirmed in various studies that claim to measure such things.) As Deboer states…

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

It’s worth checking out the white privilege comic to get a feel for what Deboer is talking about.

I always had an embattled relationship with liberalism because of this sort of thing. While I agree with at least some of liberalism’s ideas, I find the attitude of so many of its proponents to be completely off-putting. This is partly because I came into political awareness while living in Olympia, Washington and Seattle—two enclaves I think even moderate liberals would agree are stifling in their progressive orthodoxy.

But what is it precisely that bugs me about this kind of “fucking educate yourselves” argumentation? I think one hears it and suspects that the person making the point is being disingenuous. Take the cartoonist described in DeBoer’s post. Is their point really that they want to make the world a better place by eliminating inequality, or is it that they want to buffer their self image and serve the needs of their ego by saying, “Look at me! Look how wonderfully progressive and right-minded I am!”?

Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer since I’m not a mind reader, and, frankly, I’m arguing that this cartoonist is not even themselves aware of their real intent. We really have no way of knowing another person’s intent (though I think we can take some reasonable guesses). But I will note this: there is a class of people who really are focused on getting people to do something. These people are called salespeople, and usually they are trying to get you to buy something. And they are almost never pedantic or assholes, if fact, they usually bend over backwards to be nice. They try to appear as your friend. (Sometimes they try to dissuade your dubiousness to the idea that they are your friend by explaining their self interest in what they are presenting as a win-win. “I’m not going to lie to you, Bob, I’ll get a healthy commission if you buy this car. But I honestly think you will look great driving off in it too.”)

Is my point that liberals (or anyone seeking to cause political change) should be a lot more like salespeople? Well, sort of. At least I think folks find people who don’t seem indentured to their own egos as more convincing than those who are.

Interestingly, I stumbled on a web post just the other day that touched on this point. It was titled, “You’re Wrong And I Can Help You.

The reason that I no longer want to act like I think I’m better/smarter than others is because I think it’s damaging my relationships. Previously, I’ve written about Power and Intimacy. I talk about how in relationships, power and intimacy are opposite: treating someone else (whether it’s a friendship, family, a partner, a colleague) as though you know better than them, distances you.

So even if you’re the smartest person you have met, or more insightful or more loving – whatever it is that makes you better than others – if you act on it while deep down thinking “you’re wrong and listening to me will help you,” think twice.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

Good teacher, bad person?

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post on the fact that college students are rejecting their commencement speakers with a seeming newfound vigor. Their reasons are usually an objection to the proposed speaker’s political views or actions. Sullivan quotes another author who says:

The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things: Different types of people, different ideas—and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death. But if, at the end of your time as an undergrad, you haven’t learned that oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people, or just that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say, what on earth have you learned?

“…oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people…” Boy, ain’t that the truth.

Reminds me of an old lyric of mine.

You say I’m a hypocrite
Well, I’ll pay that price
Listen up fellow because sometimes hypocrites
Give the best advice

Uncomfortable truths

I’ve been admittedly lax in blogging and will continue to be so for a while. I’ve gotten caught up in learning some cartoon animation software and it has grabed my focus.

That said, I’ve been interested in the discussion that’s risen over NY TImes Science writer Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” As many have stated, Wade is arguing two things: There is such a thing as race and humans have been continually evolving up to present day.

When stated as such, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Most people, egalitarian platitudes aside, buy into the premise of race as a useful dividing line. Few people, for example, are oblivious to the race of an actor or celebrity. But what Wade is noting is that people have variations of genes specific to their race. Race is more than skin deep. (See here, particularly the seventh paragraph, for more on this.) If we accept that our behavior is influenced by our genes (which I think is the prevailing view though there are dissenters) then we open ourselves up to the idea that different races have different behavior tendencies. For example, a tendency towards increased violence. And, if we accept that intelligence has a genetic factor then we open ourselves up to the notions that certain races will be statistically “smarter” than others, and you know what a can of worms that is.

It’s interesting that this book came along when it did. A couple months ago I stumbled across discussion of the HBD movement. These are people who argue in favor of “human biodiversity” – the notion that there’s qualitative variation in our genes and these lead to variation in our behavior and traits. When stated in that fashion it generates at best a yawn from most people. But what’s really being said here is that some people are smarter, more violent, less sociable, more empathic, etc. than others. It drives a sword into the heart of the “everyone is equal” sentiments found (usually) on the left.

I have to say, when you nose around in HDB web sites like this one, you don’t have to look hard to come across commenters who have a disconcerting zeal when they advocate recognizing racial differences. That said, there’s some thought provoking ideas there.

I don’t really have a conclusion here other than I want to follow the debate. I haven’t read any of the criticisms of Wade’s book so far, so I’m relatively unlearned on the topic. But I do think science has a way of revealing uncomfortable truths.