Bo Knows Politics?

There comes a time when, as the logic of a movement plays out, it just goes too far.  In this essay I want to say that I have reached that point myself, so far as the self-righteous political left is concerned. [1]  I’ve been following along.  I have said Yes.  Then I said…O.K.  Then I said, Really?  Now I am at the place where I want to say No,

I want to provide an illustration shortly.  This represents the bridge too far.  It’s not that it is SO bad; it is, rather, that it came at the time when I really couldn’t take one more.  And it is bad.

But I want to begin with one of my favorite commercials.  You can look at it yourself by looking up “Bo Knows” on You Tube.  The “Bo” is Bo Jackson; It’s a Nike ad.  But well-known athletes appear in very brief cameos to say, “Bo knows ______” [whatever their sport is.]  I remember John McEnroe saying “Bo knows tennis?” and Michael Jackson saying “Bo knows basketball.”  As I remember the sequence, the affirmations get weaker until Wayne Gretsky shows up.  He is supposed to say, “Bo knows hockey.”  He doesn’t say that.  There is a little pause, while we digest the idea that Gretsky is struggling with what he is supposed to say, then he looks at the camera and says, “No.”

“Bo knows hockey” is one station too far for Gretsky.  I cite that well-known ad because it carries the flavor of where my political life is at the moment.  The camera turns to me and I know, as Gretsky did, what I am supposed to say and in that moment, I am not willing to say it.  So finally, I am saying No.

Liberals have gotten weird.  They are still on the train that I have gotten off of.  I’m still as liberal as I was, which I always thought of as an achievement for a small town southern Ohio boy who went to an evangelical college.  I suppose there are other liberals who, like me, are still liberal and wonder where their comrades think that train is going.

I could spent some time on what I mean by “liberal,” but I mean roughly what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris mean by it, so that wouldn’t add much.  Let me move, instead, to the petition that moved me to my Wayne Gretsky moment.  Here is the petition, at least all the parts of it that deal directly with Trader Joe’s.

This is the work of a young woman named Briones Bedell, if you would like to find it on line.

We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores. The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. For example, “Trader Ming’s” is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, “Arabian Joe” brands Middle Eastern foods, “Trader José” brands Mexican foods, “Trader Giotto’s” is for Italian food, and “Trader Joe San” brands their Japanese cuisine. 

The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures – it presents “Joe” as the default “normal” and the other characters falling outside of it – they are “Arabian Joe,” “Trader José,” and “Trader Joe San.”

The common thread between all of these [the other examples included Disney’s Jungle Cruise and the book White Shadows in the South Seas] transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived “normal.” The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before. What at first seems, at worst, insensitive, further is called into question. 

 

I think I would like to begin with “exoticize.”  The -ize ending is used to say that one thing has been made into another.  You can’t homogenize homogenized milk, for example, because that has already happened.  In Ms. Bedell’s use of “exoticize” she suggests that something was not exotic and that it has been made exotic.  My question is, “Where was it not exotic before?”

Where I grew up big cities and high mountains and endless plains were exotic.  They aren’t exotic to the people who live there.  Groups of Hasidic Jews are exotic to me and large Amish communities and the Los Vegas culture of risking and losing.  But they are the normal habitat of the people who live there.  They are not exotic to the locals.  They are exotic to me because I am not local.

I don’t “exoticize” these places.  They seem exotic to me and it might very well be that my kind of life would seem exotic to them.  Consider, for instance, reporter Sue Charlton’s response to Australia and Mick Dundee’s response to New York City in Crocodile Dundee.  Each of those settings is exotic to the other.  

Ms. Bedell’s use of exotic sets up her criticism of “normal.”  “Joe” is presented as normal in the context of Trader Joe’s, she says.  And it is.  All those other names are adaptations to—puns on, really—other language traditions.  They are not pejorative; they are playful.  My early years were spent in the verbal environment of World War II where other nationalities were routinely disparaged.  This isn’t that.  Ms. Bedell seem to believe that if a norm is not universal, it is somehow perverse.  There are local norms, Ms. Bedell.  If things are not “normal,” it doesn’t mean that they are ab-normal.

And, finally, she moves directly from exotic—“exoticizing, really—to racist.  I have a whole attic full of difficulties with the word “racist” but this breaks new ground.  If you call something unusual because it is not usual where you live, that is the same as calling it exotic, which is clearly a racist thing to say.

It isn’t that Ms. Bedell’s petition is SO bad.  It’s bad, but it really just takes the kinds of arguments a lot of liberals are making and extends it too far.  It is the reductio ad absurdum presented as a sober logical conclusion.  And for me, it was just too much.  I reached my Wayne Gretsky moment and I had to say, NO.

And it wasn’t that saying No was such a big deal.  It was the sense of relaxation that accompanied it.  That relaxation told me that I had been working a lot harder than I had realized to hold on to liberal excesses.  I had exerted myself to hold together the excesses of sexism and racism and sizeism and ageism and a lot of other -isms. [2]  I apparently accepted, being a good liberal, the weight of one excess after another without sensing what the cost was.  But when I said No to the exoticism = racism charge against Trader Joe’s, I felt a lot of weight fall off and it made me wonder why I had been carrying it all this time.

That’s why I called this post “Bo Knows Politics.”  That series runs, with increasing puzzlement, up to Wayne Gretsky.  The ad continues, but I stop at Gretsky.  I don’t want to call what those guys are doing, “liberalism.”  I want to call why I am doing as “liberalism.”  

I want to call what they are doing, “wretched excess.”

[1]  You can tell that, of course, when I categorize a group by their motives rather than by the nobility of their cause.

[2]  If I were feeling playful about it—I’m not—I would say that we had been enduring a wave of ism-ism.  Maybe one day.

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And forgive us our maladjustments

I had a friend once who had learned to apologize for his lateness and to minimize his error at the same time.  I was fascinated.  I had no idea you could do that.  He would say, “Hi guys.  I’m so sorry that I am just a little bit late.”  The “so sorry” part recognized the error and apologized for it; the “just a little bit late” part minimized the error and made the apology seem unnecessary.

I was reminded of that recently when I heard an invitation to a period of common confession at church.  The need to confess our sins before God is fundamental to Presbyterians and the sins we confess are horrible without mitigation.  That is the whole point that is made when we emphasize God’s grace in refusing to hold these horrible sins against us and blotting them out completely.

The “sins” we commit against each other are mere peccadillos by comparison.  We sin against each other as we sin against God—in thought word, and deed—but we are sinning against people who have also sinned against us.  This calls for a kind of “adjustment” which may have, as Paul’s admonitions often did, the unity of the congregation in mind.  That is why he implored the sophisticates of the church in Corinth not to casually dismiss the most conscientious among them and why he implored the conscientious not to condemn the sophisticates.  These are matters for forgiveness, certainly, but mutual forgiveness. [Nothing here, you notice, calls our attention to whether the arrow has gone “far enough,” which is the presupposition of “fallen short.”]

That’s not how it is with God.  God is holy and our sins are glaring violations of the relationship He offers, enables, and demands.  Here, for instance, in one we have used from time to time in our church.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Our sins, in this confession, are “heavy, real, and deep.”  They have become for us “a consuming fire of judgment.”  And we cannot change what we have done; we can only hope to “be changed” by God’s intervention in our lives.  There is no softening our our faults here; not a hint of what I called, in the title, “maladjustment.”

Forgiveness as therapy

There is a slow drift, it seems to me, away from the notion that sins are really bad and that we are really guilty because we keep committing them.  A friend who is a therapist once told me that it is a good practice in counseling the assume that the client is doing as well as he or she can.  That gives you a chance to focus on how the client can look at the problem in a different way, how to learn new skills, and how to create some non-judgmental space for learning those skills.  That sounds really good to me.  It is therapy, however.  It is not how the Christian faith has been understood.

Therapy does not provide us with a model for faith.  There is no God against whom we have offended.  There is no God to whom we can confess and to whom we can appeal for forgiveness.  And the closer we come to adopting the understandings that work perfectly well in therapy, the worse will be our understanding of what faith in God entails.

All this was brought on by a “call” to “confession” I heard recently.

“We confess ways in which we have not yet quite made the mark.”

Three things concern me here.  One is mere pedantry, so I’ll deal with that first.  As I understand it, “falling short of the mark,” the traditional way of phrasing it,  is a term from ancient archery.  A line is drawn and all the archers are to shoot their arrows beyond it if they can.  If you can’t shoot it that far, your arrow falls short of the mark.  Literally.  It’s more like the modern competition in javelin.  You don’t really “make” marks in archery.

In the context of the prayer of confession, the mark is the life to which God calls us.  It is a life with respect to Him and with respect to each other.  The line is at a challenging distance and we fall short.  In the expression above, we have the picture of “making the mark.”  That may be a version of an accomplishment, as in “she made her mark in popular music.”  Or maybe it is just a rephrasing of “not falling short;” we “made” the mark that is set for us.  Neither calls the familiar “falling short of the mark” to mind. 

The second matter is not mere pedantry..  This formulation has us “not quite” making the mark.  The emphasis there is not on missing it, but on how close we came.  That is what “not quite” contributes to this formulation.  It is not the language of confession.  It is apologizing profusely for “being just a little bit late.”  In confession, the emphasis is on our failure.  This language doesn’t do that.

The third matter is also serious.  It is that we have “not yet…made the mark.”  That achievement is, by this phrasing, just a matter of time.  We are coming closer and closer.  We have not achieved the goal, but we are about to.  That is what “yet” contributes to this picture.  But the Christian view is not that we are coming closer and closer and that God, if He were willing to wait.  It is, rather, that we are fundamentally flawed and that the guilt of our lives will be dealt with by God’s unmerited mercy or not at all.  “Not yet” doesn’t say that.

If this was a public misstatement, no more than a slip of the tongue, it really doesn’t matter.  I know what it is like to have a microphone stuck in your face and later on, you can scarcely imagine that you could have said such a thing.  If this was one of those, I have spent way too much time on it already.

But I don’t think it was.  To me, this is part of a much larger pattern—the slow drift of real religion into therapy is a real thing.  It is actually occurring.  Studies that take no position on this change show it to be occurring and I can see why it is attractive.  We, after all, control the outcomes in therapy.  

We don’t control the life of faith.  In our service of God, we can see a future in which we may “be changed,” as it says in the confession above.  That’s a passive verb.  We are not doing the changing; it is us who are being changed.  The Agent of this change is elsewhere and we receive the action and respond to it as we are able.

I like therapy.  I have benefitted greatly from my experience of it.  But I don’t want it instead of worship.

 

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A Skeptic has a Mystical Experience. Who would have thought it?

A few weeks ago, I had a mystical experience.  I mention it because I am not at all sure what a mystical experience is and because I am not somebody who has mystical experiences.  Still…this time I did.

So what’s a mystical experience?  Some people talk easily about experiences that are “inexplicable,” but all kinds of things have been explained satisfactorily that were once “inexplicable,” so I would rather say that, for me, a mystical experience is unexplained.

I have a very low bar for unexplained events, so you would think I would have a lot of
them.  The picture I use of my own conscious experience is a small campfire in a large dark forest.  The campfire casts a little zone of light and beyond that, everything is shadowy, and then pitch black.  Some of that darkness is inside me and some outside.  The common element is that I have no conscious access to it.

That’s a lot of darkness and just a little light.  When I say that something has come to me, a realization, let’s say, from “out there,” it’s not a big deal.  Most of the things I once knew are out there and a lot of things I spend energy on not knowing or not remembering.  They are all out there, too.  I don’t call those mystical. They are just “out there.”

But this experience was not like that.  This was an intimate and powerful  feeling and it came with a very persuasive visualization of the event.  I was asleep—kind of—and I immediately felt that something had happened and that it was a really good thing.  I saw a man dressed in a long coat or maybe a robe walking away from me into the fog.  The fog is the reason I don’t know if it was a trench coat or a robe.

He had been close to me, apparently.  Maybe even as close as conversational distance, but by the time I saw him, he was maybe 30 feet away and walking slowly into the fog.  I knew at once what “it” was.

This is an odd time to begin saying “it,” isn’t it?  I have been saying “he.”  But I change now to “it” because although the figure was the figure of a man, I knew that it was the embodiment of a grievance I have held for a long time.  “It,” the grievance, was walking “away,: walking out of my life.  I hoped ardently that he/it was gone for good.  It was a real relief to think that that particular grievance might be gone for good.

I don’t want to deal with the particularities of the grievance—at this distance from the events, it doesn’t matter much anyway—but I do want to say that I have been alternately treasuring and fighting this grievance.  Do you know what that is like?  I’m guessing it is a common experience, but I don’t really know.  An unfair and hurtful action was taken against me.  I resented it, of course.  It was hurtful; it was nightmarish.  Being angry about it felt a lot better than cowering under it.

After a while, it became clear that I was the only one still suffering from it and it was time to let it go.  And I tried for a while to let it go.  But I also kept on feeling angry about it.  I think that is why it hung around my life for so long.  I would try to let it go for a while, then I would burst out in righteous anger against it for awhile.  I thought I would be really proud to have mastered it and just let it go.  But I also thought I would be accepting and consenting to some really bad behavior by letting it go and I didn’t want to do that.

So I wanted sometimes to treat it like a crime and make my case in court and have it validated and the perpetrator punished in some way.  I also wanted to rise above the whole petty event; to think that I was a better person that the guy who would keep on holding on to a grievance years after everyone else has forgotten it.  

So I managed, by wanting one thing at one time and another thing at another time, to tie myself in knots.  Then I saw it walk away from me.  It walked slowly into the fog and was gone and I knew exactly what “it” was and what its “going away” meant and I remember hoping that it would stay gone and not ever come back.

And it hasn’t.  Yet.

The one piece of the experience I have not yet had a chance to fill in is that I had no sense at all that this was something I was doing.  This was something I was watching.  “It” was going away.  I wasn’t sending it away.  I had been trying that for a long time.  Of course, I was also trying, during that time, to have my cause judged and myself vindicated so if “it” was paying any attention to me at all, “it” must have been confused.

I am a big fan of acting in my own behalf.  I call it “agency.”  I spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about just what is worth pursuing, what kind of accomplishments I would be proud of.  This experience had nothing at all to do with agency.  When I say, as I did above, that this was something I watched, not something I did, it is agency I am ruling out.

So “he,” who was the embodiment of “it” walked away from me into the fog and I felt immediately that something important had happened.  And when I was fully awake, it felt just the same.  I felt that I was breathing more freely, more deeply, with less effort.  I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  I felt as if I could do all the things I do in a day with more focus and more energy now that “it” had left and wasn’t coming back.

It’s been several weeks now and there has been so sign of that old internal struggle.  I haven’t had to deal with it in any way since I saw its embodiment walk away from me into the fog.  I don’t understand it at all and I am someone who really likes understanding things.  I didn’t do it, myself, and I am someone who really likes acting on his own behalf.  I am experiencing a sense of confidence that the whole thing is over.  I hope that is right, but I know I am not in control of it.  I am the beneficiary of whatever it is that happened and I am grateful.

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C’est Monyafeek

This is (yet another) celebration of the way Neal Stephenson uses language and the illustration is taken (yet again) from his Anathem.

You need to know a little bit about the story or you won’t be able to share the joke.  In Anathem, the action takes place on a very Earth-like planet called Arbre. [1]  Arbre is invaded by a space ship that is the home of four other planetary civilizations, one of which is called LaTerre and which is, in fact, Earth. [2]

The story is told by a young scholar named Fra (his title) Erasmus.  We need to know that because it tells us how he hears and understands languages from elsewhere.  “Elsewhere,” in this case, is a place on LaTerre that we know as France.

When we know that the Laterran who visits them is named Jules Verne Durand, we are prepared for the possibility that he is French.  But Erasmus doesn’t hear French and he is the one who is telling the story.  So this happens.

“The entire stage weighs considerably less than I do,” says Erasmus.  It doesn’t look like the kind of thing you would trust to get you safely into space.  Fra Jesry asks, “Where’s the rest of it?” 

“This is the whole thing,” proclaimed Jules Verne Durand, understanding it perfectly even though he was seeing it for the first time.  “The conception is monyafeek.” (page 775)

Durand sees the design, sees the function, and is immediately impressed by the thinking that has gone into it.  It is that, the whole concept, that is magnifique.

Monyafeek is so crude.  For one thing the word doesn’t look anything like magnifique.  And English speakers who have had a chance to adjust to how French words work (the -gn, for instance, and the -que) know how to hear such a word.  Erasmus does not and Stephenson gives us the word on the page just the way Erasmus hears it.  And it is never spelled according to French rules.  Always, we see the way the word looks, but we also know how it should look and we celebrate—I do, in any case—the friction between the two. [This is the way Michael Kingery, a concept artist, pictures the monyafeek.]

The second little friction is the function of the word.  You notice that Jules Verne Durand uses the word in the passage above as a predicate adjective.  The conception is monyafeek.  Erasmus’s friend, Lio, who is the local expert on these vehicles hears it as a noun and why wouldn’t he.  He says, “It’s not called a monyafeek.  It’s called…oh, never mind.”

And that “Oh…never mind” establishes that the team will continue to call them monyafeeks.  The representation of magnifique as monyafeek is just a gaffe when it first happens.  But these devices are part of a daring attack on a space ship and the attacking force, which includes Erasmus, Lio, and Durand, come to take these little devices very seriously.

That means that we get one more look at what happens to this word when Suur (her title) Tulia, part of the Arbre-based support team [3] tries to correct the usage.  That goes like this. (page 812)

Tulia: I’m going to talk you through the process of unstrapping yourself from the S2-35B.

Erasmus: Up here we call it a monyafeek.

Tulia: Whatever…

This is a whole different development, as you see.  Tulia is in a storage shed in some remote part of Arbre.  Erasmus is “on the front lines,” so to speak.  He is the one who is risking his life in deeds of derring-do and he gets to say what “we” call it.  This grotesque misspelling is now the official name of the device because that is what the people in the line of fire are calling it.  And Tulia, who knows better, says, “Whatever…”  Monyafeek is now not only a noun, and not only a term of art, but a name validated by the the pride of warriors.

Pretty cool.

I suspect that I will never hear magnifique again with having to dedicate a neuron or two to keep me from smiling along with Erasmus, Lio, and Jules Verne Durand.

[1] Stevenson says that if you have any trouble pronouncing the name of the planet, you should ask a friend who is currently studying French.  That takes care of what to do with the -re at the end.  Of course, you still have to be able to make that sound, but you get the idea.

[2]  People who live on LaTerre are called Laterrans.  Stephenson doesn’t giver any help with that, but I have chosen to accent the -terr.

[3]  Picture a very small “Houston,” as in “Houston, we have a problem.”

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The -ize has it

Now I think that’s just fun.  It sounds wrong, of course, but it probably isn’t.  It sounds like “eyes,” which would require a plural verb, “have.”  But -ize is not a noun, like “eyes;” it is a “word-forming element” used to make verbs. As a “word-forming element,” it does not qualify as any of the parts of speech I am familiar with. [1]

If the formulation, “the –ize has it” is wrong, it may be because “the” does not properly apply to the suffix, -ize.  Can “word-forming elements” take definite articles? [2]  Or is it the case that some “word-forming elements” can take definite articles and some can’t.

Let’s take “-ify” as another relevant case.  This is, obviously, also a “verb-forming element” but it is also a verb.  It derives from the Latin facere, “to make.” [3]  So if I “specify,” I “make specific” something that was not specific before.  For our purposes, the case of -ify is difficult because it doesn’t sound like another English word, the way -ize does.  If there were two f’s, it would suggest the slang word “iffy,” meaning uncertain, but there are not two f’s.

In this difficult matter, I am going to rule in my own behalf.  Because it would be proper to say “the word-forming element” I am going to say it is proper to say “the -ize”—meaning “the word-forming element -ize.

Besides, I have gained some courage from Jeff Aronson, a clinical pharmacologist, who wrote an article in the British Medical Journal called “-ize right.”  That might be just a little cheeky for a Brit, when the British use has consistently been -ise instead of –ize, but I take heart from it anyway.

It couragizes me.

[1]  Because it turns nouns into verbs, however, it brings about a very substantial change.  If -ize denotes the new outcome, then we know what the previous condition was.  A personal greeting card, for instance, cannot be “personalized.”  If you can “personalize” it, then it was not personal before.  

[2]  Can newspapers?

[3]  And a host of other meanings.  “To make” is the meaning of interest to this investigation.

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The Banner of Republicanism

I’ve been teaching a course about parables.  I want to offer that as an excuse.  One of the easiest things to do with a parable is to turn it into an allegory, in which each element of the story represents some other entity.  If you are going to do that, you need to know a good deal about the “reality” the allegory represents and you need to know what your audience is likely to know.

You can violate that rule for the fun of it, certainly.  In the movie, Galaxy Quest, Sir Alexander Dane (the analog to Mr. Spock) delivers this line to the dying Quellek: “By Grabthar’s hammer…by the Suns of Worvan…you shall be…avenged!”  That’s good comedy because the viewers have no idea what any of that means and Dane (Alan Rickman) delivers the line with such intensity.

It may be that you didn’t see this coming, but I had a quick and very visual image of the plight of the Republican Party.  This is just an allegory,(see cautions above) but I’ve enjoyed it so far.

The Republican Party is Bruce Banner.  For those of you who don’t follow the comics, the TV shows, or the movies of the Hulk, Bruce Banner is the Hulk when he is not being the Hulk.  Bruce Banner, as the icon of the Republican Party back in the day, was careful, prudent, and alert to what wold be good for us all.  Banner is the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Romney, and even, to a large extent, of Nixon  Then something happened to him.  He was given, accidentally, a dose of gamma rays during the explosion of an experimental bomb and ever after than, when he is subjected to emotional stress, he turns into the Hulk.

That is where the Republican Party is now.

This came to me in a moment of reflection.  I caught myself looking back to the current time from a point in the future, when a democratic system driven by the contest of two policy-driven parties, had been restored.  From that distance, the current identity of the Republicans as the Hulk seemed clear.  Encouraging too, in a way, because after the rampages of the Hulk, he simmers down and becomes nice guy Bruce Banner again.

For the Republican Party, I see the gamma rays as the steady deterioration of the party’s position in American politics.  We’re going back to the allegory, remember.  Back in those days, the Republicans had a moderate wing and a conservative wing, just as the Democrats has a pro-civil rights northern wing and an anti-civil rights southern wing.

Some time in the 1960s, the Democrats threw out (most of the anti-civil rights Congressmen, and became much more ideologically integrated.  At about the same time, the Republicans devised “the Southern Strategy,” popularized by Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, and became more ideologically integrated as well.

At this point, I am going to leave the two party analysis and focus just on the Republicans.  In any case, it is this capitalizing on the racist politics necessary to win Southern votes that is like the exposure to gamma rays for poor Bruce Banner.  Now, with the parties internally unified and with most congressional seats non-competitive, the primary election process drives the parties apart.  For the Republicans, this could have meant an extreme and ruthless pro-business emphasis—something Karl Marx would have recognized and applauded.

But that isn’t what is did mean.  The Republicans went the other way.  They went on the path of populist rage.  Congressmen elected as “Tea Party” candidates and seated in the House with the Republicans, rebelled openly against their Speaker and demanded populist rage.  The Republicans kept nominating candidates for President who wanted more than that, but who could not be elected without the votes of the populist and paranoid Right, so they tried to appeal to both.

Eventually, this anger washed over the party—this is the overwhelming dose of adrenalin that pushes poor Bruce Banner over the edge and he becomes the Hulk.  At last, the R’s nominate and elect a man with no policy aspirations at all.  Donald Trump was a tantrum; a fit of anger against whoever the populists hated at the moment and there was no more left of the Republican party after 2016 than there is left of Bruce Banner after he becomes the Hulk.

That’s where we are now.  A lot of Republicans are deeply concerned about this.  There are lots of former Republicans who would like to see Joe Biden elected in the short run because they see that that is their only hope of recovering the Republican party to which they once pledged their loyalty.  This morning I happened on REPAIR, the Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform.  They want “the old party” back, in a way, but of course, they would like to Build (the party) Back Better if they can.

This is the Bruce Banner faction.

But now we need to look at the last piece of this preposterous allegory.  When he wakes up as Bruce Banner, what does he remember about what he did as the Hulk?  It’s hard to say, really.

Here’s a conversation between Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) and Betty Ross (Liv Tyler)

Betty Ross: : Do you remember anything?

Bruce Banner: : Just fragments. Images. There’s too much noise. I can never derive anything out of it.

Betty Ross: : But then it’s still YOU inside of it.

Bruce Banner: : No. No, it’s not.

Jay Alexander, who seems to know what he is talking about, puts it this way:

Banner has recollections of what happened but not clearly as if he was seeing it first hand but more as if it was a very lucid dream. So he remembers bits and pieces and other stuff ends up becoming a mess as to what was really happening and what his mind was most probably trying to comprehend what was going on. 

So let’s look at this from the standpoint of a group like REPAIR.  As they go about trying to restore the party—to make it once more the party they were proud of—they have a distorted memory to work with.  Imagine this.  They are trying to restore some interest in actually governing the country and they need to talk to people who actively hollowed out the federal agencies, diminishing their ability to do the work that is required of them.  They talk to them about what they did; what the records show they did.  What they celebrated at the time—the time of their Hulkishness.

And they remember “bits and pieces;” as if it were a lucid dream.  “Fragments,” Bruce Banner says, “Images.”  That’s what he remembers of what the Hulk did.

Recovering from the rampages of the Hulk is going to be difficult under those conditions.  If any of you are fans of the Hulk oeuvre, you might know about things that help Banner come to grips with what the Hulk has done.  Any such information that could be made available to those few who are trying to raise the Banner of real Republicanism could be a real help to them and we Democrats wish them well.

 

 

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Just Enough Evidence for Now

I have one model of persuasion I would like to explore today and one I would like to reject.  I am sure these models have names that are known to people who study persuasion, but I don’t know what they are and today, I really don’t care.

The context in which I have been hearing the model I want to reject is the present substantial and growing rejection of President Trump’s leadership.  That’s just the context.  Someone is open in principle to the case that President Trump has failed badly in his duties.  She, to assign gender arbitrarily, is open to evidence that you are going to present.  Here’s the question.  I think it is a bad question, but let’s start with it.  How much evidence is it going to take?

The major flaw in that question is that it presupposes that more evidence is going to be better than less evidence.  That’s true up to a point and then it stops being true.  Let’s examine some analogies.

How heavily should a state tax tobacco products?  The advantage to the state of taxing tobacco products is that: a) the state gets to keep the money and b) there is a disincentive (higher cost) to using tobacco products.  So you would think that the higher you raise the tax, the better.  Except that that really isn’t true.  There is a level of taxation at which covert means of importing tobacco (black market) become profitable and at that point, you start losing the money you wanted to raise.  There is a tipping point.  The higher the taxes, up to that point, the more you make; after that point, you start making less.  Or, briefly, “more” is worse.

The alternative model presupposes that there is no response.  Nothing in the alternative model suggests a tipping point after which “more” is worse.  Imagine a wall that resists the pressure you are putting on it.  You put X pressure on it; then X + 1; then X + 2.  Finally the wall breaks down

In the beginning, I introduced a Trump supporter, a woman, whom I am trying to persuade.  Being unsophisticated and also deeply committed to the data I have,  I am trying to persuade to abandon her case that he has been a good president.

So I say that President Trump has asked for and received the help of foreign spy agencies in defaming his opponent.  I have five pieces of evidence that is true.  I say that President Trump has led the country poorly in response to the pandemic.  I have five pieces of evidence.  I say he has begun and pursued an unnecessary and costly trade war with China.  I have five pieces of evidence.  The evidence is all really good.  Irrefutable, really.  So I ought to win this one, right?

She seems receptive to the first point.  President Trump has been receiving aid from the Russians.  She accepts the first argument in support, and the second, and…eventually…the third.  But something is starting to go wrong.  Her agreements are slower and seem more ambivalent.  If I knew anything at all about the signs of the tipping point, I would pay attention to them.  But I don’t.  I’m just increasing the logical force, imagining that she has no options.

But she does, of course.  She can just get up and leave, which the wall could not.  She could deny the accuracy of the evidence by making the evidence-gatherers self-interested. [1]  Finally, she could reject me, her friend, as a source of information about President Trump.  I have cherrypicked the data; I have a hostile emotional bias; I am just trying to embarrass her.

This is like the topic of evolution is some southern school districts.  If you try too hard to
establish the “truth,” [2]  you show the problem.  You show how the theory of evolution provides efficient solutions to that problem and you prepare to move on.  But the responses of the class become slower and more ambivalent.  But you proceed because you have Science on your side and what choice to they have?

But you are putting at risk the relationship of trust these students have in their parents and in the local Baptist church, where all their friends meet.  That’s a lot of emotional drag.  These students are not like the wall; they are like the black market in tobacco.

So they respond by trying to separate “fact” from “theory.”  This is deadly.  In science, it isthe facts that support the theory.  The school board makes up little stickers that say (Evolution is a theory, not a fact) and stick them in the text where assertions about the adequacy of the evolutionary point of view are asserted.  Page after page, lies are told about the relationship of facts to theories.

And if that separation doesn’t work, they can move on to the denial of science broadly.  As President Trump said on his recent visit to California, “Science really doesn’t know.” [3]  Failing that, they can “home school” their children using anti-evolution biology texts.

When you get to that point, you realize that you should have stopped earlier.  The conditions that prevail after the tipping point has been passed are: a) the whole set of arrangements for weighing evidence are are scrapped, b) the relationship between you and the person who trusted you to be fair is damaged, and c) they might just leave and set up institutional arrangements that will prevent evidence from being presented at all.  Those are really bad outcomes.  Everyone loses; even the ones who think they won.

What to do.

First, accept the tipping point model.  When you push beyond that, you yourself become the point at issue and when that happens you will lose the argument and possibly the relationship.

Second, make room for a little time to adjust to the topic.  The first response you get is partly skepticism about the information and partly wariness of you as a presenter, but it may be partly just the novelty.  She says, “I have never heard anyone say that about the President before.”  That’s three separate stresses on the listener, but the last one may just dissipate on its own.  By the next time you talk—and if you don’t bully her, there may well be a next time—it won’t be new anymore and there will be only two stresses.  And the two remaining stresses may have weakened as well.

Third, agree with her as much as you can.  There is very little to be gained in identifying a political figure that is important to her as “evil.”  If you can share a goal with her—protecting the intelligence services of the United States—you can reduce the argument to the best way to do that.  Reducing President Trump’s mistakes to “understandable failures” might be a good thing to do first.  It establishes that they are failures and it sustains the relationship you have with her.  It moves less quickly to the tipping point.  You can come back next time to question just how “understandable” they are.

Finally, don’t gloat.  Gloating makes the discussion a zero-sum game.  Everything that makes her feel bad, makes you feel good.  She experiences the pain you are causing her—which is bad enough—but if she also experiences the pleasure you take in inflicting that pain, she may leave the discussion and the relationship on those grounds alone.  A point that you make, sympathizing with her about how hard it is to really believe the corruption is that widespread, does put you on one side and her on the other but only factually.  Emotionally, you are—or could be—on the same side.  And if you can’t feel about the issue the way she does, you can still feel about her emotional response the way she does.

The point is this.  If there is a tipping point—a point at which you become the issue—then you need to understand that there will be no more persuasion when you pass it.  If you are interested in persuasion, you need to respect that.  There are things you can do to move the tipping point a little further away.  Sometimes these will be costly to you, but you have to remind yourself about what you are trying to do and to do the things that will help you.

Make the case.  Make it repeatedly.  Don’t gloat if you’re winning.  Save the relationship.

[1]  This does not challenge the data themselves; only the motive in collecting the data.  It’s not a refutation, but it is always available in time of need.

[2]  “Truth” is not a viable concept in scientific writing.  There are theories that are well supported and others that are poorly supported.  Sometimes, as in the case of evolution, the support is so deep that you just start with it as a presupposition.  But, of course, “presuppositions” aren’t true or false.  They are just a good place to start.

[3]  There is the temptation to ask what the alternative is, but I have resisted that so far.

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Government by “Stand-up Guys.”

President Trump has referred to people who lie on his behalf and who are willing to be convicted for their service to him, as “stand-up guys.”  That could sound unobjectionable.  Who would not want to be served by people who are willing to do so even at a cost to themselves?’’

But what it obscures is that it is the personal relationship to the leader that is the basis for the assessment.  It is not the contribution to successful government.  Decisionmakers in the executive and legislative branches are supposed to be able to count on accurate information in making their decisions.  Members of the government who are responsible for producing that accurate information can serve their government—and the American people as well—by producing the most accurate information they can.  Their loyalty is to the accuracy of their work; it is not to the person who currently heads the executive branch. [1]

They are not “stand-up guys.”  They are honest scientists. That’s their job.  Note:  I don’t know anything about this book, but it has the mob guy, the stoop pigeon, and a dame.  I think that is considered a full set of characters.

At this point, I want to shift over to a column by Heather Cox Richardson.  You can see the whole column, including all the hyperlinks she offers in lieu of footnotes, here.  What I have done is to pull several sections that support my main argument for today, which is that government is under attack by the Trump administration, and very likely by President Trump himself.

Question 1:  Is the CDC telling us the truth:  Answer 1: No

“Since 1981, career scientists have compiled weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports to inform Americans about trends in disease. These records are not controversial. But in April, Trump passed over scientists to install one of his campaign advisers as assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs. …Caputo promptly began trying to change the CDC reports on Covid. Although he has no background in medicine or science, he and his team claim that the scientists are exaggerating the dangers of Covid-19. An aide, Paul Alexander, wrote an email to CDC Director Robert Redfield calling for retroactive modifications to two reports, saying, “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration.”

Question 2:  Is the Intelligence community telling us the truth?  Answer: No.

“On Wednesday, a whistleblower filed a complaint that Wolf and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli have been pressuring intelligence officials to change their reports to bolster Trump’s campaign speeches. Rather than releasing the actual findings of intelligence experts that America’s chief threats come from white supremacists and Russian attacks on the 2020 election, Trump’s men want the intelligence reports altered to suggest that left-wing violence is equal to that of the right-wing thugs, and that Iran and China are as guilty of election interference as the Russians.”

Question 3:  Is the Justice Department telling us the truth?  Answer: No

“The Justice Department, too, is being shaped to support Trump’s narrative. Yesterday, Nora R. Dannehy, the top aide to John Durham, resigned from the department, apparently because of pressure from Attorney General William Barr to complete a report that could bolster the president’s claims that the Obama administration improperly began an FBI investigation of his campaign in 2016.”

Question 4:  Is NOAA telling us the truth?  Answer: So far, but the prospects are not bright.

“And today… we learned that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has hired a climate-change denier. David Legate has spent his career casting doubt on climate science: in 2014, he told the Senate that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which identifies international consensus within the scientific community of 195 countries (no mean feat) is wrong. His work has been funded in part by grants from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute. Neither he nor NOAA would tell NPR why he was hired.”

Question 5:  Is President Trump telling us the truth?  Answer:  Of course not.

“All of these stories dovetail neatly with the information shared this week from journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book. Woodward reveals that Trump knew on January 28 just how bad the coronavirus was. He called Woodward on February 7 to tell him “this is deadly stuff,” and to detail for him that the virus was airborne and that it was five times more deadly than “even your strenuous flus.” But he continued to tell the American people that coronavirus was going to disappear, that they did not need to wear masks, and that those warning of its dangers were trying to advance a “hoax” to weaken his administration.”  Note: Manafort is second from the left here.  He took the rap and that  is how he became a “stand up guy.”

It would be easy to say that these five clips have the theme of untrustworthiness and it would be true, too.  But behind the untrustworthiness is a failure to honor the notion that a government needs accurate information if it is going to work.  Campaigns can work on “talking points,” which ensure that everyone is saying the same thing.  That uniformity works the same way whether the talking points are true or false.

That makes me think that possibly the Trump administration doesn’t so much fail to honor the notion as fail to conceive of the possibility or maybe even to tell the difference.  All these examples, which Heather Cox Richardson offers, are ways of treating government as if it were a continuation of the campaign.  I know it seems bizarre, but governing requires that problems be solved—even problems that you yourself have not caused.

When I look at these instances from the Trump administration, I think of what “government” looked like under Al Capone in Chicago.  Capone valued “stand-up guys,” because the other kind were “stool pigeons” who would tell the truth to the cops.  The mob worked by asking only the question of what was good for them because they had no responsibility to anyone outside the mob.  They weren’t representing anyone; they were just making themselves rich. [2]

The Trump campaign continues and in places, it tries to look like governing.  But it is not; it is still just campaigning. It’s been going on for four years now.  It’s hard to think that we can wait much longer.  Dismissive remarks about “draining the swamp” don’t sound nearly as attractive as they used to.

[1]  The same applies to people who head the House of Representatives (the Speaker) and the Senate (the Majority Leader).

[2]  Oddly, there was one category of mob employee what was required to be accurate and to tell the truth.  These were the guys who kept the records of who had paid and who had not; of who had kept some of the payment for himself, and who had turned it all in.  Those were the honest guys.

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Identity and Agency

Sounds heavy doesn’t it?  You wouldn’t know, just by looking at the title, that this is going to be a critique of hyperindividualism. [1]

Let’s start with this exchange.

Empathetic Elder:

(EE) Thank you for sharing that account with me.  I know exactly how you feel.

Unimpressed Young Person

(UYP) You can’t possibly know how I feel.   You are not me.

Empathy as Identity

I want to come around, eventually, to a consideration of whether the Unimpressed Young Person (UYP) is correct, but let’s begin by looking at her standards, and particularly, what those standards are good for.  The general context of this interchange is “empathy,”  I started thinking about it this morning when I read Molly Worthen’s piece in the New York Times.

The UYP has a rejection of the EE in mind and I am sure what she said accomplished that, but considered as a standard for empathy, it doesn’t hold up very well.  “You will be able to know how I am feeling when you achieve complete identity with me—when you are me.  As long as you are only yourself, you will fail.”  That is the standard she is using.  It isn’t ridiculous.  Logical implications flow from it.  Behavior consistent with it can be predicted.  It is, however, completely useless.

“Being me” as the standard for “feeling what I feel” or even “knowing what I feel” is useless because it doesn’t help us understand anything.  But buried in that casual rejection of empathy is a lot of ideology—probably unconsidered ideology—that I would like to consider.

This young woman may think of herself as a glowing coal of consciousness, but she is, in fact, part of a category.  She is part of many overlapping sets of categories, every one of which has affected and is still affecting her experiences.  She could be a Uygher, an older sister, a talented athlete, and a suspicious solitary person with no friends.  That means that she shares the consciousness that is shared among all Uyghers, all older sisters, etc.  

In addition to that, she may be a teenager or a woman with two kids and two jobs, or have been twice-married and  twice divorced.  So she shares the consciousness that is common to all those settings.  And there are more ways of approaching it.

This establishes that “how I feel” can readily be interpreted as “how people in my situation” feel.  “How I feel” is, in that way of interpreting it, the common property of many other people in one or more of those settings.  

And beyond that, there are the cultural prescriptions that her culture has taught her about individuality and sociability.  Some people are taught to expect that their experiences are like those of others; others to expect all their experiences to be unique.  UYP is obviously one of those.  That explains her rebuke to EE, but it doesn’t bear at all on whether her experiences actually are unique.

There is, again, the question of what interpretation helps us understand our experiences so that “our” encompasses both the individual and the social experiences.  So if the “identity” standard is badly skewed to the “all experiences are unique experiences” side of the scale, anything like empathy is going to fail.  That seems like a great loss to me.

Empathy as Agency

There is, however, another way of looking at the kind of interpersonal contact of which empathy is an instance.  I have called that kind “agency.”  Agency is about what we do.

Here’s an example that I have run across recently.  It is from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The situation from which I have rescued this example is impossibly complex, but we don’t need very much of it to illustrate the kind of empathy I am talking about when I consider agency. [2]

Erasmus is in space, rescuing a small nuclear reactor which will be needed to supply the oxygen he and his friends will need to survive long enough to accomplish their mission.  Erasmus has had to go out of communication range [3] so deciding together what to do is no longer available.  At that point, what I am calling an empathy of action or agency, shows up.  Here is what it sounds like to Erasmus.

The key to it all: what were my friends thinking? What were they saying right now over that wireless…? I’d heard Arsibalt’s voice saying that the nuke was in the wrong plane. They’d probably watched me drifting away, with mounting anxiety, and debated whether to send out a rescue team.

But they hadn’t. Lio had given no such order. Not only that, they had fought off the temptation to switch on the long-range wireless. 

If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have been able to read their minds, nor they mine. But my fraas [brothers] had been raised, trained, by Orolo. They had figured out—probably sooner than I had—that in forty-five minutes the nuke would reappear on the other side of Arbre. 

Just as important, they were relying on me—entrusting me with their lives—to figure out the same thing and to act accordingly.

There is no way place this clip into an adequate context—especially that they had been tutored in common by Orolo—but the bold lines show what I mean by agency and by empathy.  Erasmus’s friends have figured out a life-saving solution, but it won’t work unless they trust him to have figured it out as well.  They are going to do something that will work only if he figures it out and does the right thing.

Under other circumstances, Erasmus says, he “would not have been able to read their minds,” but these circumstances are special.  These young men are products of the same discipline, students of the same tutor, and lifelong colleagues.  Those are the circumstances that make cooperation without communication possible.

Conclusion

You might not know it from this account, but I believe both kinds of empathy are important.  Emotional empathy is possible—in fact, it is common—when we understand that we have had many common experiences and that “I know how you feel” is correct in that general sense.  It is only demanding that “understanding” means being the other person that it fails.  Unfortunately, that is more and more the standard that is used.

The empathy based on a common understanding of actions to be taken is even more common.  Every good work group knows how to anticipate how things will seem to others and to take that into account in choosing their own actions.  Every good sports team works the same way.  This kind of empathy is as necessary as the other.  It is the centripetal force that draws us together when otherwise, we would spin away as solitary entities.

[1]  You would know, probably, that it is an essay written by someone who prizes abstract nouns; probably by someone who has had a lot of education.  Why else would you prefer abstract nouns?

[2]  It is a shame that the adjective form, “agential” is not more familiar.  It would be so convenient to say that we were talking about emotional empathy and now we are talking about agential empathy.

[3]  They could reach him by long range communications, but that would signal to the enemy that they were there.

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Victory Lapse

I am hoping that title will arouse your curiosity.  I know it will only make my kids roll their eyes.  “Oh no.” they will say, internally, and then to each other, “Dad’s at it again.”

For everyone else, let me explain what the “it” in “Dad’s at it again,” refers to.  In 1975-76, I got involved in a project to celebrate the country’s bicentennial by running 1,776 miles between the 4th of July in ’75 and the 4th of July in ’76. [1]  So I did that.  I played quite a few of the little mind games you play if you are going to run that many hours in a non-competitive setting and one of them was the “victory lap.”

We lived, at the time on “New Faculty Circle,” a part of Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.  The circle was half a mile and, just to pad the mileage a little, I developed the habit of running that extra half mile from my house on around the circle and back to my house again.  This is Sean Connery at 90, my new goal.

I called that lap “a victory lap,” partly just to have something uplifting to call it and partly to recognize the experience that I felt different—better—running that extra lap.  It seemed that the tiredness didn’t bother me the way it had in the last “real” mile and if I had blisters, they didn’t bother me as much, and so on.

The last half mile—the victory lap—was, in other words, qualitatively different.  It felt different.

At about that time, I began dividing my life into 20 year blocks, imagining that I would live into my 80s, as my parents did.  So…like a mile race, four laps.  [2]  Twenty years each.

And that meant that, when I hit 80, I would have “finished the race.”  And assuming that I would keep on living, at least for a little while, I could call each year thereafter, a “victory lap.”  The race was over.  I won (finished).  And now, before the beer and pizza started, a slow celebratory victory lap.  That worked really well at first, but I am coming up on 83 and it isn’t working that well anymore.  There are two problems.  The first is that “the end of the race” (2017) is getting to seem distant.  Cloudy.  The second is that I never ever did more than two victory laps around New Faculty Circle and the “laps” don’t seem to have any meaning anymore.

The laps have lapsed.  So to speak.

So now we come to the need for a new spatial metaphor.  I want it to do for me what the old “victory lap” metaphor did back when it was fresh.  Here’s my current idea.  Let’s imagine that I am going to live to be 90.  That would be in 2027, which once looked like a science fiction date to me. Now I have calendars that go that far.

Would that work?  I’d have to admit that it has liabilities, but I’m kind of attracted to it.  For one thing, it changes the time horizon.  I stop celebrating the first 80 years (I finished! WooHoo!) and start to think about what I want to get done “before I die.”  Except that “before I die” doesn’t serve very well as a horizon.  It does not draw a border anywhere and I am at a place where I find borders instructive and helpful.  “Until I am 90” is much better in the “horizon department.”

It also cues another race-related memory for me.  Most of the road races I have run have been 10K races. [4]  And I remember noticing the place in the race where I stop worrying whether I will have enough juice left to finish and start paying attention to adjusting my pace so that I will have only a little left at the finish line.  That shift was never something I decided; it was something I noticed.  And Michael Caine at 87.

The 90 year focus would have that kind of advantage for me and, frankly, it would serve me just as well if I were to die at 88 as it would at 90.  I remember reading that a prominent miler said that you run the first two laps to gauge the competition, the third to get yourself in the proper position in the field…and the fourth because you have to run another lap before you can quit.  Using the 90 year marker, I could think of myself as putting myself in the proper place in the field.  Except, of course, in aging, as opposed to racing, the opponents are not other runners.  They are those few things that are still in your control and that will make all the difference in how you finish the race.  Intention, discipline, good manners, compassion, and the willingness to make hard decisions when necessary.

The one serious problem is that the 90 year marker is a fiction.  The 80 year marker was a fact.  The 80 did not retain the clarity I needed to continue to use it.  The 90 might not ever seem certain enough—“real” enough—to be of any use to me.

I do know how to find out, though.

[1]  Or maybe it was ’76 to ’77.  I could look it up, but I really don’t care any more.

[2]  They also corresponded, roughly, to my marriages if you make the third lap a little longer and the fourth a little shorter.

[3]  The Latin version would be lapsus est, “I have slipped (or glided or slid or sunk or fallen, or declined or gone to ruin) from the Latin verb, labi, meaning all those things.

[4]  The longer ones were, frankly, exercises in just finishing.

 

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