19 February 2017

Jefferson

I am fascinated with Thomas Jefferson. I love him. He is my favorite of the Founders.

The first reason is the Declaration of Independence, which kicks off with two hundred words explaining liberal democracy with bracing clarity, then embodies those liberal-as-in-liberal-democracy values by submitting facts to a candid world so that he may justify an improvement to the political order. The Declaration is by my lights one of the greatest achievements in all of history. Jefferson was not truly its sole author — it is, after all, the shared statement of a committee — but his voice is integral to its greatness.

The second reason is the rest of his writing: clear, thoughtful, and inquisitive about every corner of the world. One might almost say the same of Franklin, but Franklin was earthy, practical, and grounded, while Jefferson was airy, intellectual, idealistic. In our mythology if not in fact, Jefferson is our First Nerd. And as I am an American nerd, Jefferson is my grandfather.

The third reason is that he was a monster. A profoundly and specifically American monster.

Jefferson was monstrous in owning slaves and profiting from their labor. We know he raped at least one of his slaves. (Any relationship we can imagine between Jefferson and Hemings does not make it rape any the less; she was still a slave, bound to obedience by pain of death and worse.)

Jefferson was monstrous in advocating for and enacting genocide against American Indians.

And Jefferson was monstrous in hypocrisy, championing equality and liberty, calling American Indians his equals ... and yet still keeping slaves and pursuing genocide even as he wrote with conviction that these were evils.

So what is this love I have for Jefferson, the monstrous hypocritical genocidal slave rapist?

I hope my disgust at Jefferson is clear. I cultivate this disgust, deliberately summon it every time I speak his name. But I love him in his monstrosity, and I love him for being a reminder of the monstrosity to which I am heir, both in the way that all Americans inherit the consequences of those crimes and in the way that as another nerdy American White guy I inherit an ownership of those crimes.

To love truly is to embrace the whole of the beloved without delusion, to see clearly and love anyway, to know the worst and support the best. I would do that for my country, and for that there is no better symbol than Jefferson, who embodied so much of our very best and our very worst. We cannot understand the American condition or the human condition without recognizing that all of these things were the same person.

Jefferson — so much a skeptic that he took a scissors to his Bible to cut away every mention of miracles — said he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just. As he should. As do I. Trembling in terror and in anguish and in awe and in awesome responsibility as I invoke his name.

29 January 2017

Art & politics

At the time, I tweeted a kind word about Meryl Streep's speech referencing the (then forthcoming) Trump administration, though I had mixed feelings about it.

For instance, her opening assertion that the glamorous and successful Hollywood people in the room constituted “the most vilified segments in American society” lacks perspective, to say the least. So I thought that — bracing as that was — I didn't need any more earnest actors talking about our national moment of dread.

I was wrong.

Because David Harbor's speech given tonight is a marvel: it talks about the news without talking about the news, by reaching down to fundamental things about the craft of acting, the nature of art, and (dear to my heart) the virtues of genre stories.




On behalf of this fearless and talented cast ...

[...]

I would just like to say that in light of all that's going on in the world today it's difficult to celebrate the already celebrated Stranger Things.

But: this award from you — who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world — is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper ... and through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture. And through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired: they are not alone.

We are united in that we are all human beings, and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive.

Now: as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things we 1983 midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals & institutions we will, as per chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized.

And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy.

We thank you for this responsibility.

A few things I feel I must underline:

  • He opens by giving his castmates the highest compliment I think an actor can give another actor: fearless
  • This is the case for seemingly trifling art in times like these. And it is correct.
  • That last word: responsibility. Bingo.

28 December 2016

Necktie

So a while back I spat out this story on Facebook and now I'm posting it here.

There's this skinny young guy I run into on an irregular basis in downtown SF in the late afternoon. He sells snacks out of a little box to commuters on their way out of their office jobs. I never buy a snack from him.

But a few years back, after the first few weeks of saying “no thanks” to him as warmly as I could, I complimented his necktie because of Dapper Solidarity. And it became our habit that when he had a moment we would do a little howyadoin' and when he didn't have a moment I would give him a wave or a little salute. He started giving me dap because he knows White guys love that shit and I am so not above loving that shit and so I try to join in with the minimum of White gracelessness that I can muster.

I still know almost nothing about him other than that he has an open face.

So the day before I originally post this to Facebook I see him and it's a howyadoin' day and he says he's doing well and has a birthday coming up and I wish him Happy Birthday In Advance and he likes today's tie and it's one of my favorites, a tie I paradoxically don't wear very often because I like it so much, and I take off the tie and give it to him and he gives me dap and I roll into BART.

I don't know what this story is about. It's like a Harvey Pekar story that may not even be about anything.

It is definitely not about me being a swell guy. When I posted it to Facebook, I threatened that if someone even hinted at that in the comments I might well unFriend them because sweet suffering Sartre I hate even getting close enough to that thought to have to say that it's wrong.

It's not a story about what I did. It's maybe a story about something that happened to me. I suspect that it isn't even that much about me. But it's a story I felt I had to tell.

18 December 2016

RPG toolbox

Because I am that kind of geek, I have constructed a sort of EDC solution for tabletop roleplaying games.

For a long time, my only supply solution was a plastic case with dice and counters:

But that was never really quite adequate, and I wanted to be better prepared to leave home and run a game. I looked at toolboxes, but they didn't have quite the right compartments. I considered a tackle box, because those have lots of little compartments, but the options there are frankly overwhelming. Then I found a sturdy makeup case at a discount, and have assembled this:

In the upper right that's a GameMaster's Apprentice deck. (Actually three of them, including a couple of the neighboring trays, with different genre themes.) It's a surprisingly handy tool. Each card is packed with all sorts of randomized stuff that a GM might need in the course of a game: character names, memorable details, surprise encounters, et cetera. Plus of course die rolls. The graphic design is frankly a little hokey, but it is legible enough to work well in play. If I had to run games on a desert island with no other play aids, I'd bring the main deck.

The upper left corner is a stash of wound PennyGems, including a set of the jumbo 5/10 counters, specifically designed for counting hit points et cetera. I haven't used them all that much, but when I have they've been really handy, and they are nifty. The gray bag half-visible in the bottom right of the lowest rung of the case is a jewelry bag with lots of interior chambers, full of more different PennyGems. The creator of PennyGems has a fascinating site about their design: the graphics subtly representing different numbers are cunningly chosen. You can find comparable jewelry bags or as dice bags.

You can see glass beads and dice. I have a few sets of polyhedra dice (including one in metal, my favorite), enough matching d10s to play a character in a Storyteller or other game that uses dice pools of those, and a few sets of Fate dice which the sharp-eyed will recognize are actually old school Fudge dice, cast before Evil Hat released Fate. I need to rearrange things at some point to have more d6es because there are plenty of games that require throwing big handfuls of them.

In the tray on the lower left you will see some exotic dice of my own design. They are d6s painted with nail polish: matte black on three sides, silver on the other three, good for playing Lady Blackbird style games that rely on a coin-flip dice mechanic.

I have a ton of blank 3x5 cards in the bottom tier because I use them a lot in all kinds of games, especially Fate, which is my go-to generic system. There are some dry-erase cards in there, which are pretty great. They don't erase perfectly cleanly, so eventually they give up the ghost, but they make me feel less guilty than throwing out a bunch of cards at the end of the game. The binder clips in the upper tray are there to get cards to stand up, a trick I learned from Zed Lopez. Not pictured are some dry erase name tents I keep in the bottom tray.

The section with the organizer tabs has a few different decks of Fate play aids: Fate rules summary cards, an It's Not My Fault deck (which show up colorfully because I've color-coded the edges to make the different types of cards easier to keep track of), a pack of common aspects, blank Fate Accelerated character cards, and Backstory cards. Frankly, I've not yet experimented with the Backstory cards, which provide a formalized version of collaborative backstory chargen that I learned from folks at my old table., but I have them in the kit because I'm itching to use them.

On the right side in the middle is a stack of a few other generic play aid card decks I like. There are turn tracker cards, which I've used a few times to good effect, plus a set universal score cards that sometimes turn out to be useful.

Plus dry erase and regular pens, of course ....

15 December 2016

Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech

If you have the good fortune to not know who Milo Yiannopoulos is, you have my envy ... and my apologies for ending your innocence. He is a gadfly critical of both the broad left and the mainstream right, notorious as a skillful troll, arguably the most visible figure in the pop segment of the “Alt Right”.

One is tempted to dismiss him as just an even more mean-spirited and erratically witty version of P. J. O'Rourke for the era of reality television, to try to avoid feeding his narcissism and transparent hunger for fame. But I think he is interesting and important. We must talk about him, to clarify some important things.

When I first heard that Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter a few months ago, I was ready to hold my nose and defend him on free speech grounds. My interest in understanding conservative politics had me watching his jokey, offensive provocations with one eye for a while, his range of racist, sexist, authoritarian, liberal-hating pronouncements positively begging to inspire outrage. (Homophobia has an peculiar role in his oeuvre, since Yiannopoulos is emphatically out as gay, which he deploys as a shield against social justice criticism of him and his allies.) Had the offensiveness of this stuff been Twitter's case against him I would call it wrong for them to remove his access to their system because Twitter has become a unique part of our public discourse, with sufficient influence that they have a free speech obligation to avoid picking which ideas they do and do not allow people to express, even if they have a legal right to deny service to whomever they choose.

But a little digging reveals Yiannopoulos doing more than just saying ugly things. As an early booster for the GamerGate movement which systematically harassed women in a cascade of insults, threats, and doxxing, he implicitly endorsed the use of those tactics ... and as his fame grew, engaged in them himself, identifying with a wink and nod targets for his numerous followers to harass. Twitter explicitly identified this — and not the ideas he expressed — as the cause of the ban.

People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.

Yiannopoulos has relished the ban which he was transparently courting, playing the martyr to the cause of free speech. He has turned to undertaking a speaking tour, doing talks at college campuses wherever local organizations invite him. Just a couple of days ago, I got a ping from an activist friend; he and some other activists were thinking about how to respond to a planned appearance at a local school, and he had been reflecting on my recent post expressing concern over the misuse of No Platform tactics to stop controversial speakers. I said that while I supported the Twitter ban because he was using that platform for abuse, trying to prevent Yiannopoulos from talking about his ideas at a college was probably skirting too close to being opposition to free speech, and they should consider other tactics instead.

I was wrong. Today I see a report of Yiannopoulos engaging in further harassment on the speaking tour.


Content warning: Yiannopoulos being a transphobic asshole

In critiquing leftist criticism of the phrase “man up,” Yiannopoulos said around the 49:52 mark, “I’ll tell you one UW-Milwaukee student that does not need to man up.” He then showed the student’s photo. “Have any of you come into contact with this person?” he asked. “This quote unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year.” He went on:

I see you don’t even read your own student media. He got into the women’s room the way liberals always operate, using the government and the courts to weasel their way where they don’t belong. In this case he made a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a set of rules to protect women on campus effectively. It’s couched in the language of equality, but it’s really about women, which under normal circumstances would be fine, except for how it’s implemented. Now it is used to put men in to women’s bathrooms. I have known some passing trannies in my life. Trannies — you’re not allowed to say that. I’ve known some passing trannies, which is to say transgender people who pass as the gender they would like to be considered.

He then referred to the photo, which was still onscreen, and said, “Well, no. The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.” The audience laughed.

(More on the fallout from that talk from UWM student Cary Gabriel Costello and a reprint of the harassed student's letter to the university.)


Yiannopoulos wants outrage at the odious transphobia he expresses here, in part to misdirect you into missing the second layer of what he is doing. Consider the context he brings with him: the reputation which put him on that stage was born from his support for and organizing of systematic, targeted group harassment. When he does this, Yiannopoulos points his finger at a target. We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.

(Update: Similarly, at the UC Berkeley talk that was prevented by riots, Yiannopoulos planned to suggest that people report undocumented immigrants in the campus community.)

Driving women off of Twitter through harassment is an attack on their capacity to speak plus a move to discredit the idea of free speech. And then Yiannopoulos walked away decrying Twitter's ban as a demonstration that they — and liberals who he claims hold institutions like Twitter in thrall — do not respect free speech.

All this invites protest from counter-activists whom he places in a bind. Do they attempt to starve him of attention ... allowing his campaign of harassment? Do they give him the opportunity to paint himself as the victim of intolerant liberal opponents of free speech? Do they take the bait and accept his misrepresentation of “free speech”, coming to genuinely reject it because they understand “free speech” only as assholes' shield? Do they get drawn into debate, implicitly lending credibility to him as representing a legitimate position which must be considered? Do they simply mock him, letting him claim that they have no substantive objections?

Yiannopoulos chooses forums like Twitter and college campuses in part because their scale and openness offer opponents who stumble in threading the needle of how to respond to him, further helping him to cast himself as heroically standing athwart a tide of liberal foolishness.

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

One of Yiannopoulos' signature moves here presents particular interest. He exemplifies the Alt Right's jokey, coy, hyperbolic aspect. Call him out on his worst comments and he shrugs it off as his accuser being humorless and taking him too seriously. This is a variant on oblique winking we might recognize from previous hard- and far-right media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, married with jokey vulgarity-for-its-own-sake internet culture that runs deep in the roots of GamerGate. Watching Yiannopoulos for long enough, one feels struck by the transparency of his nihilistic insincerity, and this is characteristic of many other Alt Right figures like him.

Many say that we should understand the Alt Right as nothing other than neo-Nazis, and that points to the cold truth of what they really stand for, but the Alt Right's stacked layers of irony mark a style difference with significant consequences. Nazis regard speaking in bad faith as righteous political pragmatism, as we see in Yiannopoulos and other figures of the Alt Right, but Nazis have a demeanor of earnest sincerity. This makes the natural enemy of Nazi not violent counterprotestors — because violence is a language Nazis understand and embrace — but clowns who make them look buffoonish rather than scary. The Alt Right does not share this vulnerability; their own clowning makes them an effective foil to both leftist pomposity and leftist absurdity.

I don't know what Achilles heel Yiannopoulos and his crew have instead. And that gives me the cold spooky.

Free speech (n.)

Since so many people seem to be confused on this point:


Free speech is the right to express ideas without coercion.


We must protect freedom of speech both because it is an aspect of individuals' right to liberty and dignity and because it is good for society to have a rich exchange of ideas.

It is important that we understand free speech broadly and protect it vigorously. But common misunderstandings inspire me to outline what free speech is not:

  • Free speech is not just protection from government censorship, it is protection from coercion of all kinds. If there are things you cannot say because it might cost you professional opportunities in work unrelated to what you said, or it might lead to harassment or even violence, or it might prevent you from finding housing or medical care or other essential services, then that is no less coercive than a law. The rest of that XKCD cartoon is correct, but that first panel is dangerously wrong: where it says “free speech” it describes the First Amendment, not the principle of free speech.
  • Free speech is not only a protection for nice speech, it is and must be a protection for icky speech too. Free speech is a right to say things that discomfort others.
  • Free speech is not a right to speak in every space. It is a right to speak in the public sphere, and a right to speak in the private spheres into which you have been invited. It is not a right to barge into any space you want and demand to speak. Private spaces may set their own rules for participation.
  • Free speech is not a right to freedom from criticism. The whole point is that one’s critics are free to speak, too.
  • Free speech is not a right to say anything, it is a right to express ideas. It is not a license for lies, deceit, and fraud. It is not a license to conspire to commit crimes. It is not a license for slander, harassment, and threats. There is no legitimate personal right to those actions, they do not contribute to the public sphere of ideas, and there is a significant public interest in curtailing them.

This is not hard to understand. But things being what they are, I expect that I will have to expand and clarify this list over time.

11 December 2016

Talking with and about monsters

Since well before the current crisis I have been worried that too many people don’t know the difference between No Platform and Not My Megaphone, and are not careful enough in thinking about when they are appropriate.

And now we are in a moment when we need to re-think these fundamentals.

Not My Megaphone is a refusal to engage with a person or organization or idea. They don’t get the use of your megaphone: you will not put their quotes in your article, or let them speak on your stage, or debate them in some third party’s venue. You do this in order to prevent them from getting attention, and to identify the range of legitimate discussion which you recognize. So a newspaper may refuse to cover a publicity stunt, an astronomer may refuse to debate a would-be “scientist” offering proof that the Earth is flat, and so forth. This isn’t a form of censorship, since the folks you refuse to favor with your megaphone have other ways to speak. Indeed, there is no way not to make choices about what you allow on your own platform, since the platform is finite. And any platform must exercise some form of editorial judgment: a newspaper that will print any story becomes a joke. There are hard tactical questions — when is addressing a point implicitly helping it? when is ignoring a point leaving it dangerously unchallenged? — but they are tactical questions about what is effective in the moment for your mission.

No Platform is a stronger and more profound move: not just refusing to engage on your platform but fighting to prevent a person, organization, or idea from appearing on any other platform. It is a form of censorship. I say that not to dismiss it as always wrong; No Platforming is an essential part of the immune system of liberal democracies, preventing attacks on the foundations. It is paradoxically a defense of free speech if it is used exclusively to block those who would destroy free speech. In order for that to be true it must be used very, very sparingly, reserved for cutting out sources speaking deceitfully, in bad faith (like fascists) … and cutting out positions which have been already thoroughly and publicly discredited as illegitimate because they attack free speech and other deep liberal democratic principles. There aren’t many of those people, but when you find them you hound them to the point that they can only share their poison on the shitty parts of the internet because if you don’t, they a cancer on a free society which will break free speech and everything else.

We have seen several miscalculations in recent years which have weakened our ability to use these tools effectively.

It must be said that we have had a few leftists who have been too eager to reject ordinary conservative ideas — and even some liberal ideas — as not merely wrong, not merely unworthy of their debate and response, but illegitimate, worthy of No Platforming and comparable tactics. A noisy few among them reject the principle of free speech root-and-branch: “your freeze peach is not more important than the harm your speaking does”. This gives trolls of various stripes an opening to claim that they are defenders of free speech when they are only opportunists who want to abuse the principle of free speech to claim the right to speak on any platform without criticism.

More importantly, we have failed at discrediting the authoritarian-fascist axis. These folks are the classic examples of the speech that should be No Platform’d because it is a cancer on the discourse. Authoritarians want to end free speech. Part of what makes fascists fascists is their embrace of speaking in bad faith as a method. Were our public discourse’s immune system healthy, people would be able to recognize them when they show up so that when we No Platform them, and everyone would understand why. But we have enough Americans unable to recognize them that they just won a huge electoral victory.

And so the cancer has metastasized. The Overton window has come to include authoritarian and fascist ideas. Like it or not, they have a megaphone and cannot be No Platform’d. It is time for chemotherapy on the discourse: doing some stuff that is normally poisonous but necessary now in hopes that it kills the cancer before it kills us. So we need to re-think when and where and how we make Not My Megaphone and No Platform moves. There are things we need to address directly in this environment.

This post was proximately inspired by my frustration at seeing people on my social media feed saying that it was wrong for Trevor Noah to interview Tomi Lahren on The Daily Show because it only legitimizes Lahren and helps her spread her poison. And were Lahren a figure scrambling to be heard, I would agree. Two years ago I would have said without hesitation that someone like her was a good example of a voice that a major media platform like The Daily Show should respond to with Not My Megaphone, and would have been willing to entertain arguments that she should be No Platform’d. But it is not two years ago. Her movement has platforms so effective that they just won a huge political victory. So while I think the jury is still out on whether Noah’s interview was a good move and a tactic worth imitating, it was an interesting experiment in revealing the monster for what it is and so legitimate for Noah to try. We need more experiments like that in fighting this thing that has come upon us.

I do not think that means that in our current world Not My Megaphone and No Platform are dead as tactics. But I do think we need to revisit how and when and why we use them. The time has come for chemotherapy.

23 November 2016

Infighting

In the face of the forthcoming Trump administration, there is a lot of work to be done. Protecting people and necessary institutions who are vulnerable. Preparing to win Congressional and statehouse elections in 2018. Preparing to handle the worst if it comes. Watchdogging what is happening in our government.

But there is, unhappily, very little we can do about what the Federal government actually does until 2018 elections come around. Republicans hold both houses of Congress and have a grip on the Federal judiciary; Democratic Party leaders, activist organizations, and ordinary citizens will therefore have very little power to shape the course of the Executive Branch's actions.

This is terrifying because I see Trump leading a para-fascist movement which is sure to severely damage the Republic. There is a real chance that it will take us to an authoritarian dystopia. Watching helplessly for the next two years is a nightmare.

But. These next two years will not be a simple death spiral into an authoritarian takeover. The internal dynamics of what the Federal government will actually do are complex and impossible to predict. I see four key actors on stage who do not have a shared agenda.

  1. The Deep State
  2. Republicans in Congress
  3. Team Trump
  4. Trump himself

The Deep State

The Deep State is the network of Federal government functionaries (and connected powerful citizens) who run the country and give us the seemingly unshakable continuity between Presidential administrations which one might naïvely expect to differ more. It's the military brass and foreign policy advisors who maintain American global hegemony though military and trade power, the economists and bankers and regulators and titans of industry who shape economic policy, and so forth. It's easy to go Alex Jones Paranoid talking about the Deep State, but you don't have to. I am not talking about a tight-knit small cabal of sinister secret princes with a shared agenda. The Deep State is more a large collection of smart, motivated, sincere, and not-entirely-wrong people with shared inclinations but plenty of internal friction. They are very smart and powerful and very accustomed to bending new Presidential administrations to their will ... but this is not a normal administration. There's going to be a huge battle between the Trump administration and the Deep State, it's going to mostly happen invisibly under the waterline, and it's very hard to imagine how it's going to go.

Republicans in Congress

Powerful Republicans in Congress think it's Christmas, and they are largely right. Initially, Trump is going to be happy to rubber-stamp almost anything they send him ... so long as they commit themselves to loyalty to him. A lot of them are going to fall for the okeydoke; they're either too dumb to see what they're doing or too scared of losing Trump's base as voters to do otherwise. But Team Trump's agenda is not their agenda. It won't be long before we see friction between Trump's erratic and eccentric policy versus the ideological movement conservatism of most Republican politicians, who will face some hard decisions. Do they betray the big donors to whom they have become beholden? Or Trump's base of voters? Do they push back against a White House gathering power at the expense of Congress? Or do they align with an administration that rewards loyalists and punishes individuals who show any signs of disloyalty?

Team Trump

The Trump administration is not just the man himself, it's the collection of Cabinet members, White House staffers, and other advisors (including Trump's family), many of whom are yet to be named. The crew we have seen so far are turning out to be an army of evil clowns. There are a lot of different flavors of crackpottery in there, and a lot of ambition. Vice President Pence wants to build the Christian Republic of Gilead. Chief Strategist Bannon wants to realize his vision of Twue Capitalism. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn wants a Forever War of the US military against Islam. Ivanka Trump wants to build the Trump corporate empire and her own brand. And so on. We can expect wild irresponsibility and crazy talk and crazier action on the regular from these guys. Will they turn into a circular firing squad of incompetence, or a powerful crackpot alliance? (Being a geek of a certain age, I cannot help but think of how the Legion Of Doom were never a threat to the Superfriends because they just couldn't get their acts together.) Will their squabbling for power in the administration undercut their effectiveness or produce weird fiefdoms in different domains? How will that interact with the Deep State? And what will hold them together? Usually in authoritarianism, there is either a tight-knit ruling junta or a dictator at the heart of it all, but instead here we have ....

Trump himself

Every evidence is that the Maximum Leader wants to reign rather than rule. This is one way in which Trump doesn't fit the usual authoritarian mold. Like Hitler or Franco or Stalin or Peron or Saddam Hussein, he cunningly gathers power and builds a personality cult ... but unlike those guys and others like them, he doesn't appear to be terribly interested in actually running the country. Given his narcissism, he's likely to intervene vigorously, erratically, and capriciously in policy, which is going to make a hash of how these other players try to interact with him.


It's going to be a strange, surprising, rocky ride.

01 August 2016

On Chait on Stein

Jonathan Chait's article Jill Stein's Plan To Stop Trump By Electing Him is making the rounds all over my feed, so I guess I have to take a minute to talk about why it is terrible.

There are a host of things that I think disqualify Jill Stein as a standard-bearer for the American left. I hope that in the years to come, Stein will not be one of the visible leaders of left criticism of the Democratic Party, not least because the quote at the heart of this piece demonstrates how she does not know how to speak well to people who are not already in her lefty bubble.

But this piece is reading her in bad faith.*

What does Stein mean when she says “the answer to neofascism is stopping neoliberalism”? Her answer is sloppy, but it is not “gibberish”, and it is easy to understand if you've been paying any attention at all to leftist readings of the Trump phenomenon. That understanding hinges on getting what leftists have taken in recent years to calling “neoliberalism”.

Unhappily, too many folks have asked that word to do too much work, so it's been stretched almost out of usefulness as a precise term of art. It originally meant a school of economics and governance pioneered by the Thatcher administration in the UK, whose American manifestation was Reagan's policy program.

As leftists like Stein use it today, “neoliberalism” means the whole economic policy consensus that has reigned across both parties through the Clinton-Bush-Obama era:

  • Federal Reserve policy willing to lift unemployment in order to prevent inflation
  • Globalist economics that favors not just trade in goods and services but mobility of capital across international boundaries
  • Weak regulation
  • Private provisioning of social insurance as much as possible (401ks over Social Security, private health insurance over single payer, student loans over publicly-funded education, et cetera)

The strength and weakness of this analysis is that it elides the policy divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans and looks at what they have had in common for the last three decades plus.

As lefties tell the tale, neoliberalism has given us the current economic environment and trajectory affecting citizens' lives. Rising economic inequality. Stagnating or falling wages for most Americans, especially the working class who have suffered from the erosion of the manufacturing sector. Economic precarity. Weak public services. Et cetera.

In this reading, it is these consequences of “neoliberalism” that have discredited mainstream politics and policy, shaking Americans' sense that our institutions serve their interests. Disgust at neoliberalism and its fruits (married to perennial racism and authoritarianism) are the reason why Trump's quasi-fascist rhetoric has appealed to enough voters to net him the Republican nomination and make a plausible run at the Presidency.

So to Stein, neoliberal Clinton defeating Trump in November addresses the immediate threat of Trump's quasi-fascism, but will make the conditions that produced that quasi-fascist sentiment even worse. In order to defeat the impulse that Trump represents, we need to defeat the political ideology that produces the economic conditions that produce the hunger that Trump addresses. Thus to defeat Trump's quasi-fascism in the long run, we must defeat neoliberalism.

So no, Stein does not mean that defeating Clinton at the polls in November is the best way to stop fascism in the US; she means that defeating the neoliberal consensus that Clinton represents is the best way to stop fascism in the US. If Chait had been actually listening to the left, he would have known that and would not have written this bullshit article.


* I'd say the article was being willfully obtuse, but I've read a lot of Jonathan Chait, and I believe that his bafflement is as sincere as it is stupid. He can be very sharp on the political mechanics of the mainstream Democratic Party, and he's a good critic of the movement conservatism that has been the main animating force of the GOP since Reagan, but that is the limit of his range. Talking about radicals — whether it's Ta-Nehisi Coates or Trump supporters or Jill Stein — he just cannot bring himself to take them seriously enough to understand where they are coming from. And when it comes to the American left in particular, Chait is the poster child for the lefty critique that influential mainstream liberals hate the hard left, and would rather disdain leftists than win against conservatives if forced to make the choice.

20 April 2016

Tak

I just succumbed to a Kickstarter for simple little abstract strategy game called Tak, meant to be the incarnation of a game referenced in a set of fantasy novels. Its minimalism is charming, making Tak a good (belated) entrant for Daniel Solis' Thousand Year Game Challenge. It's playable on a square grid of spaces: 3x3, 4x4, 5x5, 6x6, or 8x8. (Because the game has an imaginary history and cultural context, there is lore that the 7x7 variant is “rarely played”, while the 8x8 variant is sometimes known as the “Master's Game”.)

The folks behind the game have a nifty idea for a “hybrid” gameboard that makes it easy to play (almost) any of the variants. It looks like this:

For the odd-numbered variants players place their pieces in the truncated-square spaces, while in the even-numbered variants pieces go on the diamonds. Nifty.

But this made me itch that the 8x8 variant is not accommodated. Surely a Tak enthusiast who plays the Master's Game would need to be able to also play the smaller-scale versions. So it occurred to me that the absence of the 7x7 variant creates a little design opportunity:

11 April 2016

Humans are scary

I wind up looking this up a few times a year, and I've never found a sufficiently legible version to satisfy me, so I'm cooking up one of my own.

It’s funny how science fiction universes so often treat humans as a boring, default everyman species or even the weakest and dumbest.

I want to see a sci fi universe where we’re actually considered one of the more hideous and terrifying species.

How do we know our saliva and skin oils wouldn’t be ultra-corrosive to most other sapient races? What if we actually have the strongest vocal chords and can paralyze or kill the inhabitants of other worlds just by screaming at them? What if most sentient life in the universe turns out to be vegetable-like and lives in fear of us rare “animal” races who can move so quickly and chew shit up with our teeth?

Like that old story “they’re made of meat,” only we’re scarier.


HOLY SHIT THEY EAT CAPSAICIN FOR FUN

YOU GUYS I HEARD A HUMAN ONCE ATE AN AIRPLANE.

A HUMAN CAN KEEP FIGHTING FOR HOURS EVEN AFTER YOU SHOOT IT

humans are a proud warrior race with a pantheon of bloody gods: Ram-Bo, Schwarzenegger, etc.

REMOVING A LIMB WILL NOT FATALLY INCAPACITATE HUMANS: ALWAYS DESTROY THE HEAD.

WARNING: HUMANS CAN DETECT YOU EVEN AT NIGHT BY TRACKING VIBRATIONS THROUGH THE ATMOSPHERE

WARNING: HUMANS CAN REPRODUCE AT A RATE OF 1 PER SPACEYEAR. DESTROY INFESTATIONS IMMEDIATELY

THE HUMAN MOUTH HAS OVER THIRTY OUTCROPS OF BONE AND POWERFUL JAW MUSCLES.

HUMAN BITES CAN BE FATALLY INFECTIOUS EVEN TO OTHER HUMANS

WARNING: HUMANS CAN AND WILL USE IMPROVISED WEAPONS. SEE CLASSIFIED DATA LABELED J. CHAN.

HUMANS CAN PROJECT BIOWEAPONS FROM ALMOST EVERY ORIFICE ON THEIR BODY. DO NOT INHALE

OH GOD THE HUMANS FIGURED OUT DOOR HANDLES OH GOD OH GOD


More seriously, humans do have a number of advantages even among Terrestrial life. Our endurance, shock resistance, and ability to recover from injury is absurdly high compared to almost any other animal. We often use the phrase “healthy as a horse” to connote heartiness — but compared to a human, a horse is as fragile as spun glass. There’s mounting evidence that our primitive ancestors would hunt large prey simply by following it at a walking pace, without sleep or rest, until it died of exhaustion; it’s called pursuit predation. Basically, we’re the Terminator.

(The only other animal that can sort of keep up with us? Dogs. That’s why we use them for hunting. And even then, it’s only “sort of”.)

Now extrapolate that to a galaxy in which most sapient life did not evolve from hyper-specialised pursuit predators:

  • Our strength and speed is nothing to write home about, but we don’t need to overpower or outrun you. We just need to outlast you — and by any other species’ standards, we just plain don’t get tired.
  • Where a simple broken leg will cause most species to go into shock and die, we can recover from virtually any injury that’s not immediately fatal. Even traumatic dismemberment isn’t necessarily a career-ending injury for a human.
  • We heal from injuries with extreme rapidity, recovering in weeks from wounds that would take others months or years to heal. The results aren’t pretty — humans have hyperactive scar tissue, among our other survival-oriented traits — but they’re highly functional.
  • Speaking of scarring, look at our medical science. We developed surgery centuries before developing even the most rudimentary anesthetics or life support. In extermis, humans have been known to perform surgery on themselves - and survive. Thanks to our extreme heartiness, we regard as routine medical procedures what most other species would regard as inventive forms of murder. We even perform radical surgery on ourselves for purely cosmetic reasons.

In essence, we’d be Space Orcs.


I do hope you realize I’m going to be picking up this stuff and running with it right?


Our jaws have too many TEETH in them, so we developed a way to WELD METAL TO OUR TEETH and FORCE THE BONES IN OUR JAW to restructure over the course of years to fit them back into shape, and then we continue to wear metal in out mouths to keep them in place.

We formed cohabitative relationships with tiny mammals and insects we keep at bay from bothering us by death, often using little analouge traps.

And by god, we will eat anything.


  • We use borderline toxic peppers to season our food.
  • We expose ourselves to potentially lethal solar radiation in the pursuit of darkening our skin.
  • We risk hearing loss for the opportunity to see our favorite musicians live.
  • We have a game where two people get into an enclosed area and hit each other until time runs out/one of them pass out
  • We willingly jump out of planes with only a flimsy piece of cloth to prevent us from splattering against the ground.
  • Our response to natural disasters is to just rebuild our buildings in the exact same places.
  • We climb mountains and risk freezing to death for bragging rights
  • We invented dogs. We took our one time predators and completely domesticated them.
  • On a planet full of lions, tigers and bears, we managed to advance further and faster than any other species on the planet.

Klingons and Krogan and Orcs ain’t got shit on us


can we talk about how pursuit predation is fucking terrifying

it’s one thing to face down a cheetah, which will slam into you at 60 mph and break your neck

it’s another thing to run very quickly to get away from a thing, only to have it just kind of

show up

to have it be intelligent enough to figure out where you are by the fur and feather you’ve left behind, your footprints and piss and shit, and then you think you’ve lost it and you bed down for the night but THERE IT IS


WAITING


WHEN YOU WAKE UP


and you split! again! but it keeps following you. always in the corner of your eye. until you just


die


we are scary motherfuckers ok

19 March 2016

Voter ID laws

The Nation:

North Carolina’s new voter ID law goes into effect for the first time during the March 15 primary, and 218,000 registered voters do not have an acceptable form of government-issued ID now required to vote.

Ethelene Douglas, an 85-year-old African-American woman who grew up in the segregated South and first registered to vote in 1964, was one of them. Her struggle to obtain the necessary ID vividly illustrates the problems with the law.

Tucking this away for future reference when talking to people who are naïve about the implications of voter ID laws.

04 March 2016

Running for gangster-in-chief

Donald Trump, answering a question at last night's debate:

Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists' families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they've been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.

But they're illegal.

Let me just tell you:

You look at the Middle East, they're chopping off heads. They're chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They're drowning people in steel cages. And he ... now we're talking about waterboarding. This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last — two debates ago — about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, “What do you think of waterboarding?” I said, “It's fine. And if we want to go stronger, I'd go stronger, too” because, frankly ...

APPLAUSE

... that's the way I feel. Can you imagine, can you imagine these people — these animals over in the Middle East that chop off heads — sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That's my opinion.

But targeting terrorists' families?

APPLAUSE

And — and — and — I'm a leader. I'm a leader. I've always been a leader. I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.

Even targeting terrorists' families?

Well, look, you know, when a family flies into the World Trade Center, a man flies into the World Trade Center, and his family gets sent back to where they were going — and I think most of you know where they went (and, by the way, it wasn't Iraq) — but they went back to a certain territory. They knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening. They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went. And they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon, and probably trying to fly into the White House (except we had some very, very brave souls on that third plane). All right?

APPLAUSE

Let's review:

  • Trump expects his orders as President to be followed without question, without regard for law
  • This reflects his understanding of “leadership” because of his essential qualities as a “leader”
  • He plans to order waterboarding and worse forms of torture
  • He plans to intimidate people by murdering their families
  • This bloodthirstiness distinguishes him as a better candidate for President than Ted Cruz
  • A Republican debate audience applauds this

He imagines the Presidency he seeks as like being a mafia capo, fighting the “animals” in the Middle East by ordering his obedient minions to commit brutality.

May the gods have mercy on these United States, though I gather that the American god is not merciful but just.

03 March 2016

Partial birth abortion

This is the post that made me pro-choice. Glad to see it still circulating.

Keeping the link handy. I'm sure to need it sometime.