28 July 2015

The Difference

Robert “The Prince of Darkness” Novak says:

The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats truly believe in governing, and Republicans just want power.

Just putting it here so I have it handy.

15 July 2015

Local government often sucks

I've been meaning to write something about this American political canard for years, and Jonathan Chait has finally done it for me so I don't have to: Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments

The myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche. Left and right alike use small and local as terms of approbation, big and bureaucratic as terms of abuse. None of us is equipped to see that the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us.

Greece & the EU

So I've been trying to get up to speed on what's really happening with Greece and the EU. My man Paul Krugman says:

The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it.

My favorite article so far about the situation is from Interfluidity, which lays out Krugman's case in clarifying detail. If you read nothing else, read that. Here's the heart of it:

The choice Europe’s leaders faced was to preserve the union or preserve the wealth, prestige, and status of the community of people who were their acquaintances and friends and selves but who are entirely unrepresentative of the European public. They chose themselves. The formal institutions of the EU endure, but European community is now failing fast.

It is difficult to overstate how deeply Europe’s leaders betrayed the ideals of European integration in their handing of the Greek crisis. The first and most fundamental goal of European integration was to blur the lines of national feeling and interest through commerce and interdependence, in order to prevent the fractures along ethnonational lines that made a charnel house of the continent, twice. That is the first thing, the main rule, that anyone who claims to represent the European project must abide: We solve problems as Europeans together, not as nations in conflict. Note that in the tale as told so far, there really was no meaningful national dimension. Regulatory mistakes and agency issues within banks encouraged poor credit decisions. Spanish banks lent into overpriced real estate, and German banks lent to a state they knew to be weak. Current account imbalances within the Eurozone — persistent and unlikely to reverse without policy attention — implied as a matter of arithmetic that there would be loan flows on a scale that might encourage a certain indifference to credit quality. These were European problems, not national problems. But they were European problems that festered while the continent’s leaders gloated and took credit for a phantom prosperity. When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture into a dispute between European nations. They brought back the very ghosts their predecessors spent half a century trying to dispell. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.


Gaius Publius writing at Hullabaloo, my favorite progressive blog, connects this to the neoliberal project of privatization of everything for the benefit of plutocrats, pointing to parallels between Greece and Ukraine.

The actual story is that the forces of privatization on the "liberal left" in Europe have found a nation in a great deal of economic trouble, thanks in large part to looting from outside, and they're offering a “helping” hand in order to further loot the country via those privatizing strings. In the minds of the looters (we'll call them “neo-liberals” below) every government-owned operation (Athens airport, say) is a missed profit opportunity for someone rich enough to buy it, and the world would be better if everything were made private.

But airports and other revenue opportunities don't privatize themselves; they have to be pried loose from government.

Greek journalist Michael Nevradakis and US investigative journalist Greg Palast make a similar case:

Here’s how it works. To join the Eurozone, nations must agree to keep their deficits to no more than 3% of GDP and total debt to no more than 60% of GDP. In a recession, that’s plain insane. By contrast, President Obama pulled the USA out of recession by increasing deficit spending to a staggering 9.8% of GDP, and he raised the nation’s debt to 101% from a pre-recession 62%. Republicans screamed, but it worked. The US has lower unemployment than any Eurozone nation.

As Obama scolded the European tormentors of Greece: “You cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression.” Cutting spending power only leads to less spending which leads to further cuts in spending power – a death spiral we see today in the Eurozone from Greece to Italy to Spain—but not in Germany.

“Not in Germany.” There’s the rub. Normally, a nation such as Greece can quickly recover from debt-induced recession by devaluing its currency. Greece would become a dirt cheap tourist destination once more and its lower-cost exports would zoom, instantly increasing competitiveness. And that’s what Germany can’t allow. Germany lured other European nations into the euro in order to keep them from undercutting Germany’s prices in export markets.

Restricted by the 3% deficit rule, the only recourse left for Eurozone debtors: pay the piper with “austerity” measures.

In Disinventing Democracy George Monbiot describes the anti-democratic, plutocratic nature of the process at work.

Consider the European Central Bank. Like most other central banks, it enjoys “political independence”. This does not mean that it is free from politics; only that it is free from democracy. It is ruled instead by the financial sector, whose interests it is constitutionally obliged to champion, through its inflation target of around 2%. Ever mindful of where power lies, it has exceeded this mandate, inflicting deflation and epic unemployment on poorer members of the eurozone.

The Maastricht treaty, establishing the European Union and the euro, was built on a lethal delusion: a belief that the ECB could provide the only common economic governance that monetary union required. It arose from an extreme version of market fundamentalism: if inflation was kept low, its authors imagined, the magic of the markets would resolve all other social and economic problems, making politics redundant. Those sober, suited, serious people, who now pronounce themselves the only adults in the room, turn out to be demented utopian fantasists, votaries of a fanatical economic cult.

The authors of this are not simply mustache-twirling villains. Ian Welsh outlines the cultures of the actors involved, and describes the architects of the EU this way:

In this worldview, it is only progress that national politics become increasingly devoid of content, and it is only necessary to build European-level democracy when the Europeans have finally, ironically, swallowed the medicine of their own mission civilisatrice. A case in point that is unfolding right now is the drama over refugees, specifically, how to settle them. Brussels had a perfectly reasonable and fair idea that refugees be allocated to countries in proportion to countries’ relative economic weight. This was met with absolute rejection, particularly by newer EU countries in Eastern Europe, who explicitly do not want even a small increase in the proportion of brown people who live there. Behind these countries hid some of the older, larger countries, whose national politics are already burdened by immigration-fatigue.

To EUians, this can only be confirmation that, at the national-political level, Europeans are only a hair’s breadth away from poking each other with sharp sticks in order to maintain ethnoreligious homogeneity. And they may be. But is it a sustainable solution to gradually dilute their democratic rights? To EUians, it is the only answer.

But as the Interfluidity article observes, these European elites have betrayed the good motivation of preventing European international conflict; in Welsh's words they have become functionally psychopathic.

I'll be adding more links and quotes here as I find them.

01 July 2015

Jane Austen's The Terminator

This may be my favorite literary mashup, and since the text is getting to be linkrotted away, I'm hosting it here.

“Indeed,” said the man (whom Patience could not help but think of as made of clockwork, though he manifestly was something far stranger), “I speak of these things not merely because of the way that I am made, though indeed a machine should do that which it is made to do, but because I have found that I have developed, through our many conversations, a feeling of that which is proper, both within the bounds of your society and without; and being that I am, here, a gentleman, I find that I am also bound to behave as a gentleman would, and indeed, Lady Patience, I must warn you that this Mr. Connor is a man of less than sterling character.”

Patience was quite taken aback by this sudden expression of personal concern, so unlike the measured rationality of the Mr. Terminus that she had come to know and depend upon, and so for several moments she sat quietly, simply looking upon his earnest, if overly regular, countenance, before she had quite decided upon her reply. “Sir, your concern for me is noted, and not entirely without my appreciation, but you are most forward and presumptuous to offer advice in such a matter, in which you cannot have any interest and which is, therefore, entirely between myself and Mr. Connor.”

At this moment the path through the shrubbery took a sharp dogleg to accommodate a stately lime tree. To Patience's discomfiture Mr. Connor was lounging on the bench around the bole, just striking a match on the sole of his boot. His glance at Mr. Terminus was distinctly cold. He drew on his pipe until the tobacco was well alight before saying, “My dear Patience, clockwork and machinery is properly the sphere of the lower orders. The delicately nurtured female can have no commerce with the denizen of a factory. May I escort you back to the terrace?”

Patience found this unexpected confrontation most distressing. Mr. Connor's wonted pleasant manner and courtesy were most shockingly lacking in this most recent speech. “Mr. Connor, I beg you, do not further ruin my heretofore pleasant impression of you by insulting my friend. Whatever lies between you and Mr. Terminus — for clearly there must be some further history than that of which I am aware — is not something which should be permitted to render impossible the simple courtesies of speech in front of a lady to which you but recently expressed several flattering pleasantries.”

Mr. Connor had smiled, in a way Patience did not find at all comforting, when in her speech she had mentioned “further history”. He rose, throwing back the unruly lock of wheat-colored hair which she had found so endearing, and turned his regard upon Mr. Terminus, whose expression was, if possible, more woodenly controlled than usual. “She knows something of what you are,” he began, almost entirely ignoring Patience in a manner which she found, if anything, even more annoying than his prior manner of address, “but it would seem, Mr. Terminus, that you have neglected at least some important aspects of ... history in your admissions. I confess to being somewhat at a loss to comprehend the precise reasoning behind your current course of action, yet even so you cannot deny the truth — that you were sent here to find Patience and to kill her.”

Patience felt the echoes of those last words pass through her as though they had, themselves, been fired from a pistol. She noted how very odd it was that she was turning towards Mr. Terminus to hear his reply, as though this were a simple conversation of the weather and doings about town. “Mr. Terminus?” she heard herself say, as though from a great distance. “Mr. Connor's words are so outré that I can scarce believe that I comprehend what is being said to me. Please tell me that my ears deceive me.”

Mr. Terminus' face seemed as controlled as ever, yet beneath it Patience could discern a great working of the emotion which the clockwork man had said were the great gift and curse of his time here. Then he bowed his head and said, “I would give anything to speak those words, Miss Patience, yet it is not in me to speak aught but truth in these matters. But believe also that I speak truth, when I say that I have come to know you in these weeks, and that any thought of harm to you is long gone, replaced by something of which I cannot even speak at this time." He stepped away, a slow movement that Patience realized was meant to keep from frightening her, as though she were a small animal which might flee if startled, and turned towards Mr. Connor. “Would you, then, risk everything for both of us, and have me explain all? The consequences to her if she is told the truth — the consequences to us — potentially we both face destruction even if we take this confrontation no farther. Yet a part of me says that she has the right to know the whole truth, as you have begun to reveal it.” Patience had understood his words until then, although they spoke implicitly of secrets yet unrevealed. She found his next sentence, however, quite opaque. “You could take no equipment with you, of course, while my CPU and auxiliary DPUs are fully functional; in truth, I can extrapolate the consequences on the spacetime continuum far more accurately than you would imagine, and they would surprise you.”

Patience did not understand, but as the initial shock wore off and she found — not without some surprise — that she had retained both her feet and her consciousness, Patience realized that something momentous was about to be decided, in this place, at this moment, and she turned towards Mr. Connor, to see what that decision would be. Little though she — as a properly raised young lady — knew of duels or the ways of soldiers — she still guessed, now, that both Mr. Terminus and Mr. Connor were capable of violence she had never before imagined, and she was not sure if, having had this realization, she would ever be the same again.

This work sometimes has been known to under the titles Terminators of Endearment or Pride and Extreme Prejudice. I would be indebted to any reader who can attribute its authorship.

03 May 2015

Weren't the Nazis National Socialists, and therefore leftists?

Over at Crooked Timber, a useful long post by John Holbo Were The Nazis Right-Wing? – or – Weimar Culture: The Insider As Outsider explains that yes, the Nazis really were a movement of the right, despite the confusing name.

The point of the long quotes I started with is this: the reason the Nazis are regarded by historians as right-wing isn’t so much that it ended with the Holocaust. It’s the way it began in party politics in Weimar Germany. If all we knew about Hitler was the inside of a German concentration camp, and all we knew about Stalin was the inside of a Russian Gulag camp, it would indeed be mysterious why the one was ‘right’ and the other ‘left’. But that isn’t all we know. It’s impossible to narrate the ins-and-outs of the story of how the Nazis came to power without regarding them as, basically, an extreme right-wing party. There are features of Weimar politics that complicated the left-right binary. There are ways in which the Nazis defy our left-right preconceptions. But basically we can tell left from right. We know which side the Nazis were on. Basically, the Nazis were a right-wing party that tried, and failed, to sell its brand of ‘socialism’ to the working-classes, which preferred left-wing versions courtesy of the Social Democrats or Communists. But it succeeded in allying with old-line conservatives, despite being too radical and revolutionary for their tastes. The Nazis used the conservatives to gain respectability; the conservatives used the Nazis to gain an energized, activist base. In the end, the Nazis came out on top.

Since this is Crooked Timber, for once it's actually good to read the comments.

17 February 2015

An open letter

To the Mysterious Author who writes the PantyCon schedule:

I have an unsolicited word of advice, in this moment when a lot of people are unhappy with you. I’m going to ask that you do something that probably runs counter to your instincts:


That's a strong suggestion, and both you and the community deserve a clear explanation for why I propose it. That means, I'm afraid, that I must get long-winded in the name of clarity.

(Update: PantyCon apologizes in the comments below this post.)

First, an important aside

As this is an open letter I have a responsibility not only to you but to the other people who may read this. So let me address them for a moment.

For the uninitiated: PantyCon is a faux convention schedule for the big indoor Pagan conference PantheaCon, which was just held last weekend. It is created not by the convention itself but rather by some unknown wag and consists mostly of listings for imaginary talks and classes in the same format as the real convention schedule. It's mostly composed of inside jokes about Pagan culture, ranging in tone from gentle teasing to biting criticism.

Also: I'm going to comment on the “class listing” which many Pagans of Color found hurtful. To do that properly I have to quote it and some other hurtful comments. So to be on the safe side, I want to flag that this means that this letter itself may be painful for People of Color to read. I believe in using trigger warnings sparingly, so much so that I have never used one on this blog before, but in this case I must say: trigger warning for racism.

Okay. That aside done, I return to addressing the Mysterious Author of PantyCon.

What I think you were doing

I’m pretty sure that the criticisms of PantyCon for being racist which some people have been making have surprised and frustrated you.

You’re an ironist, offering an exaggerated funhouse mirror version of Pagan culture’s moments of paradox and pomposity and hypocrisy. You're obviously hoping at least to wring a laugh out of these failings and at best to speak the unsaid, reminding us to try to do better. Irony is a magical technique, speaking words to create change. But it is a wild magic, and it can be hard to control who it burns.

It has slipped out of your control this week, Mysterious Author, and it burned the wrong people.

Let’s look at what you said:

Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans
Large Umbrella Pagan Group

Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think that they can get away with this stuff.

It is the ironist’s method not to say outright who they are criticizing. But I am not bound by that stricture, so when I read you mentioning “meaningless statements of pure pablum”, I think of the non-statement Perspectives on Racial Issues in the United States from The Troth and this bowl of mush from the Covenant of the Goddess, a large umbrella Pagan group who have been around for long enough:

We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

Today, we the members of the Covenant especially stand together with people who are not privileged by race and class and say to you: Your life matters. We stand with you and work alongside you in ending the systems that disenfranchise you. We encourage and support all efforts by those within our communities to explore the realities of racial inequality and to work to find ways to eliminate these injustices. We hope this will create a wave of introspection and reflection throughout our world, bringing about new levels of understanding and an appreciation for the unique expression of the Sacred we each embody. We stand together with communities seeking nonviolent means of safety and reform, for the unnecessary harm of any person is an affront to the Sacred and is in contrast to our central ethical tenet: An it harm none, do what ye will. May the work we do together today create a peaceful and just tomorrow.

CoG’s statement has received criticism from Pagan commentators like Terence P Ward and Caer for being a grossly inadequate response to the Black Lives Matter movement. I agree with those critics, and I imagine that you do too, Mysterious Author.

I read you as trying, in your “Ignoring Racism” faux talk listing, to add your voice to theirs, criticizing CoG and The Troth and other Pagans like them who have made anodyne statements “against racism” that are so inadequate for this moment that they are ignoring racism, not confronting it. But I'm a White guy, and that informs how I read it.

The problem

The faux class listing was hurtful to some Pagans of Color in several ways.

Whatever your intentions were, many didn't read you the way I did. In the context of a Pagan culture and a conference environment that is all too often unwelcoming at best and overtly hateful at worst, they were too raw and found your joking irony on the subject hurtfully insensitive to their situations and experiences. Some read you as making light of the need to stand up against racism, or mocking it outright.

Pagans of Color have cause to be wary of attention which creates chain reactions of overt racism, microaggressions, and other encounters that make the environment feel unsafe both physically and emotionally.

Some Pagans of Color (especially those new to PantheaCon) could all too easily stumble into reading the faux talk listing in a context that makes it look real.

And even for those who recognized the irony, we are in a moment when too many people have defended unfunny racist jokes as “ironic”, fatiguing patience with “irony” so much that even the clearest imaginable ironist simply cannot portray racism without participating in the machinery of racism themselves. I love the use of irony for critique, but in these times critics of racism must apply not irony but sincerity.

Having seen how deeply this pained people, I am heartbroken. Even if I am right that you intended to speak in the noble tradition of using humor to punch up (at the powerful like CoG and the Troth) rather than down (at Pagans of Color) the fact remains that you have wounded people in the Pagans of Color community, people who deserve a Pagan culture which is much more supportive than it is now.

Social justice practice rightly teaches us that we cannot dismiss responsibility for the effects of our words and actions by pointing to our good intentions.

What I ask of you

I dread a bizarre spectacle of the Pagan community engaged in a witch hunt, devoting more energy to looking for you than to examining the racism of people and institutions who have worse failings and a lot more power and influence than you do.

I doubly dread the prospect of White Pagans looking at what you said, reading it as I did, watching the reaction it has produced, seeing you criticized while CoG remains welcome at PantheaCon, and coming to the exact wrong conclusion — that they had best not engage in discussions of racism at all, lest a misstep make them a target of overwhelming criticism by the community. We need this moment not to chill White engagement in fighting racism in our community.

And worst of all, as someone who has fought to make PantheaCon a force for a more inclusive Pagan community both this year and in the past, I am horrified to see a lot of hard work being undone by your joke. There are a lot of Pagans of Color who see you as demonstrating that they are not welcome in Pagan spaces, demonstrating that their experiences of racism will not be taken seriously. We need in this moment to affirm that Pagans of Color are welcome and will receive the vigorous hospitality of a community dedicated to acting against racism.

You have the power to fix this, and thus you have a responsibility. Now is a moment when we have an opportunity to model the Pagan culture we want. So I encourage you to do the right thing:

Confess to writing the offending passage in PantyCon. Apologize to the community of Pagans of Color for having hurt some among them. Apologize to the Pagan community at large for having made it less welcoming to some among us.

I understand that it's counter to your instincts as an ironist to repudiate the joke, and that it's now risky for you to expose yourself. But you have an opportunity to take a mistake that has weakened our community and turn it into an example that will make us stronger.

Be brave.

My pledge to you

If you make a clear apology — accepting responsibility for harming Pagans of Color without dwelling on justifications — then I will be in your corner. Social justice activists have been clear that though we must work hard to avoid them, mistakes are inevitable, and so we must recover from them gracefully. Do that, and I will turn from your critic to your advocate.

Commentary on this blog post

I hope that other members of the Pagan community will co-sign this letter. Co-signatories need not agree with the letter in every particular, but should at least join me in my pledge. If any Pagans of Color co-sign, I ask that they identify themselves as such.

I am reserving the comment thread on this page for people to join me as co-signatories on this letter; any other comments on this page will be deleted.

But in the hope that this letter will garner comments and criticism, I have created a separate page on my blog for commentary and discussion. I will also try to index every discussion of the letter which I know about on that supplemental page. I encourage folks commenting elsewhere to contact me by email, so that my index can be as complete as possible.

I strongly encourage anyone to repost this letter, in whole and in part, but I ask that all re-posts link back to this page.

Commentary on my PantyCon open letter

I have reserved this page for comments on my long open letter to the author of the PantyCon faux convention schedule, so that the comment thread there can be a place for people to co-sign the letter if they wish. I invite comment here, and if commentators have posts elsewhere — in praise, comment, or criticism — they can email me and I will linkback to their comments on this page.


09 February 2015

Who owns your children?

In the course of a good article about why Republicans seem to be pandering to anti-vaccination people over at the Weekly Sift, I was struck by this little quote from Rand Paul:

The state doesn’t own your children.

At the risk of over-interpreting a short quote, I see a lot going on in that little comment.

First there's the expression “the state”. An ordinary Republican would be more likely to say “the government”. Distrust of the government has been standard issue Republican rhetoric since Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan. Referring to “the state” means the same thing, but Republican politicians tend not to speak that way because of the confusion it generates over how here in the United States of America we have provinces called “states”. Senator Paul is sounding a bit like a political science professor in saying “the state” instead of “the government”, which is a bit odd since it clashes with Republican anti-intellectualism.

What's going on there? Who, other than political science academics, talks like that?


Libertarians like to style themselves deep thinkers about the fundamentals of political theory. (I don't mean that as mockery; libertarians have an enthusiasm for thinking about the fundamentals behind their politics which I think is admirable. I'll get to the mockery in a moment.) So they talk a great deal about the state in the same way that thinkers like Locke and Hobbes talked about the state.

Senator Paul is commonly understood as a libertarian. Maybe he was deliberately trying to dog-whistle to his libertarian fans. But I imagine more likely that he's turned to this question at this fundamental level, using this language, because genuine libertarian thinking surfaces in the way he talks about any number of issues.

And we see that continued in what he says about the state here, that it doesn't “own your children”. There are a few things going on in there.

Who is saying that the state owns your children? Obviously it must be liberals, whom he opposes, suggesting that children should be vaccinated. How does he get there?

Libertarians talk a lot about property rights, who owns what. They generally hold that property rights are prior to government, and that government action is generally either unjustified violence or unjustified theft of something which someone else rightfully owns (which itself is another manifestation of violence, since if one refuses to give the government what it demands it will send people with guns to come get it). To most libertarians, as well as to many movement conservative Republicans influenced by libertarian ideas, “taxation is slavery” because it is the state stealing the fruit of your labor. By their lights, taxation makes us all slaves, owned by the state. So some imagined regulation compelling the vaccination of children is nothing other than slavery by the state advocated by liberals.

Anyone who has talked much with libertarians knows that they aren't just speaking metaphorically. They regard government taxation and regulation with the same moral disgust that chattel slavery deserves, because taxation and slavery are fundamentally the same. (That libertarians saying this have an overwhelming tendency to be White men has implications which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.)

But actually, all that that was not the thing that struck me. What got me was the next thing Senator Paul said.

The state doesn't own your children. Parents own their children.

Wait, what? Parents own their children?

Given what I just said about libertarian understanding of property rights and their horror of being “enslaved”, I would have found that turn surprising had I not read Corey Robin saying:

When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

You will find Mr. Robin well-represented on my Understanding American Politics index, where there are links to a few of his articles expanding on this thesis that the conservative objection to exercise of power by the state in the public sphere ultimately reflects a protectiveness of the exercise of power in the private sphere.

09 January 2015

Propaganda about police use of force

Apropos of the horrifying video making the rounds on Twitter today, of a police officer shooting into a car full of passengers, a few days ago I was pointed at a Fox News segment including some police use-of-force training.

Check it out. It's a fascinating work of propaganda.

Consider what the exercise has Rev. Maupin do. Without any apparent training in preparation, Maupin is presented with a series of scenarios that are transparently designed to make him panic. First he encounters a possible car thief who surprisingly overreacts and suddenly shoots Maupin. It's startling, and primes him to be quicker to perceive threats. Then Maupin encounters an intimidating person who fearlessly advances on him despite him having his gun drawn. It's scary, and coming right after the previous scary exercise it inspires him to panic and shoot the unarmed man ... in a violation of police use-of-force rules.

I only know what I read on the internet about the police use of force continuum, but I strongly suspect that the exercises we see in the video are intended as the beginning of a responsible police training process, meant to demonstrate to cops how easy it is to do the wrong thing. “Those deadly mistakes you just made are why we are going to drill you hard in this training. So that when that confrontation comes on the street, you won't do what comes naturally, you will do what you've trained.”

This kind of preparation is one of the benefits of a police force, and part of why we respect good cops so much. They are skilled professionals who face stressful, dangerous situations that we know that ordinary citizens would screw up because of the preparatory training which they receive. In this, police are like firefighters and airline pilots and other people who need to be cool in the face of danger and surprises.

In the Fox News segment, the exercise is framed not as a cautionary tale but as a justification for police shootings.

Watching, one can easily sympathize with Maupin shooting an unarmed man in the exercise. The situation was scary, and it's easy to imagine doing the same thing. But Maupin is not a cop trained in multiple ways to handle a belligerent person, physically and otherwise, he's just a guy who was handed a fake gun and told to see how he would use it. So of course he reached for the obvious tool.

Notice how the exercise is chosen to reïnforce narratives conservatives have offered about the threats police face. Darren Wilson says that Michael Brown charged at him menacingly, despite being unarmed, and here we see that scenario portrayed as a situation which police are trained to handle. It helps to make the genre of Officer Wilson's bizarre narrative of his shooting of Michael Brown seem to make sense. I am well aware that cops have been shot at seemingly-routine stops like the first exercise, or that big scary guys advance on cops like in that second one ... but I also know that a cop is less likely to die on the job than a trucker, cab driver, farmer, or the guy who picks up your trash. On TV, cops get into gunfights every week, but in real life many police officers never have cause to fire their weapon.

Notice also how editing serves the narrative. Maupin says, “People need to comply with law enforcement officers for their own sake,” which sounds like he's endorsing the authoritarian view that I have heard from many commentators who say that if Black people who have been killed by police had just obeyed police orders, they would have been safe. But Maupin doesn't say that deference will ensure one's safety, or that deference is justified. He just says that it is prudent. I wonder what else he said. I wonder what he said immediately after that sound bite. “It's too easy for a trigger-happy cop to panic when you don't obey their orders”, maybe?

Fox News is, of course, propaganda. But it's chilling to see it work as propaganda not just for the Republican Party but for the idea of an authoritarian police state in which police are justified in shooting unarmed civilians.

07 January 2015

Pentagram of the Good Life

This admirable and recondite spell from T. Thorn Coyle can be cast whenever friends gather. Tradition calls for all present to raise a glass of spirits while joyfully intoning the names of the Five Points in call-and-response, then sealing the spell with a sip of the spirits.

Love! Health! Prosperity! Knowledge! And Great Sex!

06 January 2015


A long digression from a characteristically long post at Slate Star Codex, The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories, which I'd like to keep handy because it's just so great.

I’ve made this argument before and gotten a reply something like this:

“Transgender is a psychiatric disorder. When people have psychiatric disorders, certainly it’s right to sympathize and feel sorry for them and want to help them. But the way we try to help them is by treating their disorder, not by indulging them in their delusion.”

I think these people expect me to argue that transgender “isn’t really a psychiatric disorder” or something. But “psychiatric disorder” is just another category boundary dispute, and one that I’ve already written enough about elsewhere. At this point, I don’t care enough to say much more than “If it’s a psychiatric disorder, then attempts to help transgender people get covered by health insurance, and most of the ones I know seem to want that, so sure, gender dysphoria is a psychiatric disorder.”

And then I think of the Hair Dryer Incident.

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

I, on the other hand, thought it was the best fricking story I had ever heard and the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

Miyamoto Musashi is quoted as saying:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

Likewise, the primary thing in psychiatry is to help the patient, whatever the means. Someone can concern-troll that the hair dryer technique leaves something to be desired in that it might have prevented the patient from seeking a more thorough cure that would prevent her from having to bring the hair dryer with her. But compared to the alternative of “nothing else works” it seems clearly superior.

And that’s the position from which I think a psychiatrist should approach gender dysphoria, too.

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?

03 January 2015


I keep needing to explain the terms by which I manage discussion in comments on my Facebook feed, which I have tried to keep lively without being raucous. This is always challenging, and doubly so given my strong interests in cultural politics and politics politics. I like to think that I mostly do pretty well. (I use the same principle in managing comments on this blog, though the discussion rarely gets going here.)

For convenience, and for the benefit of others who find this useful, I'm posting it here.

Long experience has taught me that fruitful online discussion requires the attentions of a dictatorial moderator who mostly manages dicussion through thoughtful comment, but who will ruthlessly and unilaterally seize control on rare necessary occasions. This is not the open internet, this is my space. If you want free speech, go somewhere else.

That said, I like to let out a lot of rope. I cultivate the participation of people I disagree with, even disagree with vigorously. I like debate: to better clarify for myself what I think, to open me to possibilities I had not considered, and for the pleasures of debate itself. But understand, my purpose is to have discussion which offers participants information, entertainment, and the sharpening of our wits. Which means this is not a level playing field: people I disagree with have to be at least informative, entertaining, witty, or polite. People I agree with need not necessarily obey those same injunctions when debating folks I disagree with, as their rude dismissiveness may qualify as good sport for me.

Though I insist that everybody speak in good faith. Bad-faith arguments are poison.

So you know, my cultural politics and politics politics mostly align with the hard left with strong sympathies for the radical left, and my friends tend to orbit the same locus ... though I have many idiosyncrasies. If you like to challenge that, great. But bring your A game: it's a fair bet that I've heard all the basic arguments before, and if I haven't, likely someone among my Friends has.

There is an added dimension to these principles when discussing questions of social justice. This is not meant to be a safe space. If you need that, you have my respect but not my support here. But I do want this to be a welcoming and supportive space for folks on the sharp end of various sticks, so I give folks in privileged positions less rope than I give to folks in oppressed positions. I might well side with someone whom I disagree with who is Black and rude when discussing racism over someone who I agree with who is White and polite. The reasons for doing this should be familiar.

Plus, since Facebook includes a mix of folks who do and do not play a part in my meatspace social network, FB Friends who are realworld friends also get more deference.

This is my house. Play nice.

Update: Yes, I do allow people to play the Devil's Advocate, and do it myself, because I know what that role really means and I think it's valuable.

31 December 2014

Why I insist that I am a feminist

To explain my commitment to being a proponent of feminism in the face of a number of objections, I need to offer a distinction I make between feminism and what I refer to as “feminist culture”.

Feminism can be tricky to define, but it refers to a bundle of political and intellectual approaches to understanding and objecting to injustices faced by women. Feminism is an outlook, a toolkit, a history.

Feminist culture is the range of things that feminists do.

When people complain about “feminism”, very often they are objecting to a particular thing that some feminists have done. They are criticizing feminist culture, not feminism itself.

I can respectfully disagree with a range of different responses to feminist culture, including criticisms harsher than I would make. So when one objects to, say, the unmeasured rhetoric of “Tumblr feminism”, one may be criticizing a part feminist culture without rejecting feminism. And I have objections of my own to feminist culture.

That is not to say that everyone who “rejects feminism” is really just making fair critiques of feminist culture. There are a great many people who really do reject feminism. They may say that women face no inequities, which is factually untrue. They may say that the inequities women experience are just, which is morally wrong.

With that distinction made, I can be clear about why I insist that I am a feminist. I am not a “feminist sort-of”. I am not a “feminist but”. I am a feminist, period. I may have my criticisms of feminist culture, but I support feminism itself 100%.

I say that despite my position as a cis man, which I recognize disqualifies me as a feminist in some eyes. I say that despite social justice objections to parts of the feminist tradition that have failed lesbians, women of color, trans women, sex workers, and others. And I say that despite disagreement with some ideas from the feminist tradition. (Feminism has offered so many ideas that of course a few of them are dumb.) And naturally I have my own criticisms of feminist culture.

But to let those deterrents prevent me from calling myself a feminist would not just be mistaken, it would be dishonest. I have a deep commitment to the feminist outlook: women face terrible injustices, and they can and must be corrected. I employ the feminist toolkit: I grew up reading feminist theory and I apply its intellectual toolkit to everything, as I think any responsible citizen should. I am heir to the history of feminism: the person I am and the way I see the world owe an incalculable debt to the work of over a century of feminist thinkers and activists. Feminism is integral to how I see the world, to how I try to operate in the world. I cannot not call myself a feminist.

This post has been reproduced at The Isocracy Network

In another forum, a commenter challenged this post, saying:

The question that needs to be answered is: what is the need for men to identify using the word “feminist”, when many women feminists object to the usage and other less contentious usages are available?

The only successful feminist movement will be one led by women.

There are two questions there. Why is it desirable for men to call themselves feminists? And why should those reasons outweigh the objections of some women?

I've answered the first question. So the question on the table is whether the objections of some women should negate other arguments.

A comparison to the taboo against Whites using The N Word is instructive. I respect the spirit of the prohibition, but I also have reasons why I ardently believe that it's actively bad for society that I should have to use asterisks to say, “It is offensive for White people to say ‘n****r’.” I could present a whole argument about why. But there is a strong (if not quite universal) consensus among Black commentators that the rule has to be that absolute, and I think it is so important to signal my respect for them that it does negate my arguments. So I do this rhetorical thing which I think is silly and counterproductive because in the White position, signaling respect to Black people is more important.

But with the word “feminist”, there is no such strong consensus. There is lively disagreement among feminist women (and women in general). One cannot simply follow the lead of women in this as one can follow the lead of Black people in the use of The N Word.

So how am I to decide?

Defaulting to not using the word is not just making the cautious choice. It is taking sides in a dispute within feminist culture. This makes the comment that “the only successful feminist movement will be one led by women” false in its implication that if I don't follow the lead of the women the commenter agrees with, I am arrogating leadership of the feminist movement to myself. I call shenanigans. That is a non-sequitur at best and disingenuous at worst. But it presents a clue that answers an important question.

Who these women are who object to men calling themselves feminists? I know them well, and recognize their rhetoric in my critic's comment. They come from what I would call the “identity politics school” of feminism. In alluding to the need for the feminist movement to be “led by women”, I find a hint pointing to what I would call the totalizing identity politics school: the strain which thinks that the identity politics toolkit is the only valid approach to feminism, dismissing all others.

The identity politics school looks to understand sexism (and other social injustices) in terms of the power relationships between the socially-imposed identity categories of men and women (and other categories like race and sexual orientation and so forth). A proper discussion of this school and the toolkit it offers will have to wait for another blog post. (I'm working on it!) In brief, I think that every citizen needs to know and use the analytical tools of identity politics, but I vigorously disagree with the totalizing form of the school which rejects all other kinds of analysis.

I can point to a key example which should inform the question at hand.

Identity politics tells us that the identity group membership of a speaker informs how we should read their comments, and a corollary to that is that we should regard privileged speakers comments about injustices with a certain wariness. We are all familiar with men who will loudly proclaim, “Let me tell you who's really sexist. Look at these sexist women!” This pattern presents some obvious problems, so we do well to resist it.

The totalizing identity politics school says that identity positioning doesn't just inform the meaning of a commenter's statements, it actually is the only thing meaningful about them. I have had a totalizing identity politics feminist tell me that I should not have called Cathy Guisewite's newspaper comic Cathy sexist, because I am a man and Guisewite is a woman, which means that I am placing myself over all women as the arbiter of what is sexist. This casts the content of her strip as irrelevant to whether I am justified in my comment on it.

I think this is stupid and counterproductive.

If I avoid calling myself a feminist and instead use some clumsy language saying that I am “pro-feminist” or “working to be an ally to feminists” or whatever, I implicitly declare my allegiance to that school in the discussion taking place within feminist culture. So no, I won't be doing that.

Update: Mark Ruffalo agrees with me.

29 December 2014

Not a source of information

I've been meaning for some time to write about an important form of informational hygiene one must practice when reading things on the Web: learning to recognize untrustworthy sources. There are websites that I file in my mind as Not A Source Of Information because I once saw an article on that site that was false or deceptive.

Yes, just one bogus article disqualified the source. On the face of it, that seems a little unfair. One is tempted to say that sure, maybe that article was bad, but one should evaluate each article on its own merits. But that's a serious mistake. You don't have time to properly vet everything you read. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of your sources. If the source is either deceitful enough to deliberately serve up BS or sloppy enough to do it accidentally, then everything offered by that source is suspect.

You may say, “Well, even if I cannot trust that source, this article is interesting, and might be worth following up.” But one must be wary even of that. Something one follows up from an untrusted source is research starting not from a useful clue but from zero; it doesn't become a real lead until you find something from a trustworthy source. If you take “reported lots of places” as a positive indicator you'll end up believing BS re-reported by lots of BS sources and accept “Elvis' UFO alien love child” stuff eventually. We live in an environment conducive to the spread of BS, where deceiving us has become an industrial process. That last link is possibly my favorite thing on the internet: it makes clear how smart, motivated people with lots of time and resources are out there working hard to confuse you.

RationalWiki maintains a pretty good index of websites with credibility questions examining their credibility. Here's my own little index, which I hope to build out over time. Links, where I have them, lead to demonstrations of why the site is not credible.

These sites purport to publish news, but they are sources of BS:

It turns out we need a section just for health-related pseudoscience:

These sites are aggregators which take no responsibility for the sources they republish:

  • Huffington Post
  • Forbes
  • Business Insider

These sites are publishing platforms which take no responsibility for the people who publish on them:

  • dKos diaries

A friend points out that we have a proliferation of parodic fake-news sites in the style of The Onion, some of which are so deadpan that their less clever efforts are sometimes mistaken for real news:

Special mention: Cracked is a humor site which often reports on facts with the addition of joking commentary. I like Cracked a lot, but their fact checking cannot be trusted.

Note also that it's important to distinguish reporting of fact from commentary. On this blog I have several posts linking to dKos diary entries with analysis about politics which I have found instructive or at least interesting. But I would not trust dKos with news; if a credible-looking news item shows up there, I confirm it elsewhere before taking it seriously.

Update: Discussion over on Facebook brings up the trickiness of the comparison to more respectable news media. On points of fact, the mainstream media are not as bad as most of the sources I've pointed to here, but their failings can be severe.

The New York Times provided very misleading reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, often acts as apologist for US government interests, and has expressed some bizarre ideas about their responsibility to report the truth. A friend offers an example of the kind of misleading reporting he has seen at the UK Guardian. And the Wall Street Journal trades on its deserved good reputation for journalism to lend credence to lies and deceit on the editorial page.