What keeps me up at night

It’s not just worrying about things. I get roused out of sleep by new ideas, too. And I don’t really mind that. I wish I got more sleep, but I would hate to miss out on the ideas.

I’m better about worrying about things than I used to be. During the time my wife, Marilyn, was experiencing so much pain as a result of her cancer, I learned to be emotionally alert to her situation on the one hand and to be physically disconnected from it on the other. “Be a body,” I would say to myself, and manage to rest enough that I could do all the things for her that I needed to do the next day. That was how I learned that emotional awareness of a loved one’s pain does not require the physical tension that wears your body out.  They are two things; not one thing, as I first experienced them.

I’m not as good at that as I was back then. I think I could get better at it again if I practiced, but it is hard to want to practice and I am very grateful that circumstances have not forced it on me.

On the other hand, I am just as emotionally open, in the middle of the night, to ideas that are exciting. I stumble onto questions from time to time that are new to me and that engage me immediately. Currently, during the COVID—19 pandemic, I am reading a lot about loneliness. Why are people lonely?


Well…loneliness is a deficit of some sort. Is it a lack of company? Not to the people who write about “being lonely in a crowd?” Is it a lack of meaning? Not to people who encourage more and better distractions as a good solution.  Is it any one thing at all? Not to people who want to define loneliness by their experience of it.

lonely 1But that is not what I want to do. I want to build a model of human functioning that makes sense to me and that I can use. So I need some premises about human functioning and then I need some observations that test and affirm the premises. [1] I plug the day’s observations, the reading I do, the conversations I have, into the system and up pops new idea—sometimes a really intriguing idea. Take loneliness, for instance.

Am I experiencing “loneliness” when I say I am experiencing loneliness? Of course not. I am experiencing something and it is an “instance” of the category I put it in. I could have exactly the same sensation on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and call it loneliness and then on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I call it “low self esteem.”

Like everyone else I know, I have had experiences I call “being lonely,” but I have also had times—sometimes long periods of time—when I do not have those experiences. When I am engaged in a project so intensely that time just goes away and sometimes even hunger, I don’t feel lonely. I don’t really feel anything at all. I am living in the project somewhere.

So are lonely people “project poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am working on a project with a colleague. [2] I don’t have that sense of total immersion, the kind of thing Mihaly Csikszentmihaly called “flow,”when I am cooperating with a colleague. I couldn’t afford it under those circumstances and I really don’t need it. I value him for his contributions to the project and I invest myself in the project counting on him to do what he does. [3]

So are lonely people “colleague poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am engaged in a relationship where I amlonely 4 receiving what feels like an unedited flow of self-expression from an intimate other and am allowing that same kind of unedited flow to come from myself. There is nothing particularly erotic about this exchange, although there is no reason it could not involve erotic commitment. We hunger, I think, to know who another person really is and at the same time, we know that society simply can’t operate that way. Society—civil association—requires that we play our parts and do our jobs and relate to each other with the psychic surplus. And that is why we hunger to know who another person really is.

We don’t just “be” with each other. We have to actively remove the playacting that allows us to live together in groups and come closer and closer to that intimately perceived unity that we call “myself.” It’s an active thing. And I can lead or you can lead but whoever leads may call out a corresponding relaxation of the personal editing we do so that we move from one level of trust and consequent candor to another, to another.

Are lonely people “intimacy poor?”

There is also a kind of evaluation of myself—of my behavior, principally—that helps protect me. [4] For many years not, I have taken seriously the spectare = to see part of the word “respect.” That’s how it is different from self-esteem. “Esteem” is based on a sense of who you are, of your innate worth. Respect is based on an assessment of what you have done and are doing. “The respect of others” is variable because the standards of valuation are variable and even my respect for myself varies. It varies not only because I behave better some times and worse at other times, but because the standard I use to evaluate my work varies from one time to another.

But when I am challenged and have the clear sense that I could respond in the better way or the worse way and choose, at whatever cost, the better way, my respect for myself is bolstered. And when my respect for myself—my self-respect—is strong, I simply don’t experience loneliness. [5]

So are lonely people people who don’t respect themselves?

Deaths of Despair

This has been on my mind recently because I have been reading about the sharp increase in “deaths of despair,” particularly in the United States. A lot of people are concluding that “it” is just not worth it and kill themselves quickly (suicide) or slowly (drug and alcohol abuse). Despair is not the same as loneliness, but all these despairing people are lonely. That’s why I’ve been thinking about it.

And people who look at this problem is a practical way—that’s not me; I am looking at it in a theoretical way—wonder what to do to help people feel less lonely. They recommend more physical activity and more socializing and more entertainment. But if loneliness is the kind of thing I’ve been speculating about, none of those things is going to help much and the kinds of things that will help are the things the lonely people will do, the effect of which will be to protect themselves from those feelings.

lonely 5I don’t object to the things that are being proposed, but I also don’t see any connection between those proposals and the kinds of things I think—using the system I have derived for my own use—actually help people. So I see those proposals and I wave them away. Yeah, fine. But when I am pressed to adopt or support them, I am forced to say that I don’t think they will help. And when I am pushed to say why I think that, I trot out my own set of presuppositions and the observations that are consistent with them. That is often not received well.

But…just to finish out with the sleep reference, what would happen if the “deaths of despair” hypothesis, which has been swishing into my brain and back out again like a tide, suddenly acquires the missing piece. Some new conceptual tool or some new study or some new phrase that locks together a lot of the things I have been thinking about? Wouldn’t that be exciting? And if it happened in the middle of the night—which it does, sometimes—wouldn’t it keep me up?

Of course it would. And I would be grateful for the privilege. But the next day, I would need a nap.

[1] None of this should be confused with scientific inquiry, of course. I don’t control the flow of data, the level of awareness, or the precise standards by which I categorize my experiences. And we won’t even think about a control group.
[2] I don’t have very high standards for the use of the word “colleague.” If we are chosen or sent—we get that part of the word from the Latin verb legare = to send as a deputy—to the same task or at the same time, then we are “in league with each other.”
[3] And if that sounds like C. S. Lewis’s reflections on philia, I have done it right. That is where I first encountered this idea and I have experienced it myself many times over the years.
[4] The reverse side of this is that when I disapprove of my choices and my behavior it doesn’t protect me. It doesn’t lead me toward loneliness, however. Guilt and shame are my weak points, not sociability.
[5] My “self-esteem,” by contrast, is based on my celebration of who I am or on the support of others who esteem me highly. I have no confidence at all in my estimate of my innate worth. For me, that is a theological question. And I have no confidence in the stability of the assessment of me by others. That comes and goes like clouds come and go, having no sense at all of whether you need to see the sun.

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Foul is Fair

Why do we keep falling for this? Is it because we don’t understand anything at all about symbolism? Is it that we so dearly love making fun of the nation’s Chief Buffoon that we are willing to hand him the election as a gift?  Surely we can do better.  Let’s back up and try again.

President Trump said he would like to see churches packed on Easter Sunday. Fine. synbols 2Wouldn’t we all.?  Why wouldn’t we wish that we were not afflicted at all by COVID-19 and that we could go about our business? There are two elements here. One is context: there is a health crisis for which we are woefully unprepared. We need to get serious about taking the measures necessary to contain it. The other is religious symbolism. “Easter” is a prominent marker in the church year. Having “the churches filled” evokes a long-ago America when most people identified as Christians and where church attendance statistics were eye-poppingly large.

Two elements.

One is directly connected to the question of who will win the presidency in November. The other is distantly, if at all, connected. President Trump chose the direct connection. I understand that completely. The man’s a genius.  [1]  He knows where the blood is.

What I don’t understand is why his worst opponents want to cooperate with him. Liberals can say, if they want, that “filling the churches by April 12 (liberals wouldn’t refer to Easter directly if they didn’t have to) is medically irresponsible.” And that is what we have said and we are right.

But I asked that we back up a little and think of the symbolism first. So President Trump symbols3wants to talk about religion and his hopes for it. We want to talk about illness, disease, and public responsibility. He wants to align himself with the hopes of one of his core constituencies. We want to bring the news of deprivation and disease. And not only do we want to do that, we also want to condemn him for his reference to Easter, as if we didn’t understand that every complaint establishes him more firmly in the pro-religion camp and ourselves in the anti-religion camp.

But wait! you say. That’s not fair! No it isn’t, but as Mr. Dooley said a very long time ago, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” We can align ourselves with the hopes of the faithful or we can ignore those hopes and celebrate the shuttered churches, mosques, and synagogues. Symbolically, those are our choices.

When President Trump chooses Easter as a symbol (rather than April 12, which you will agree is a very poor symbol) he is clothing himself in the mantle of religion. When we revile him for being unrealistic, we are clothing ourselves in the mantle of anti-religion.

Trump sets the categories—two-valued, as he most often does—and invites us to choose the wrong one. The category is religion: he is for it. In our criticisms of him, we keep the category—we are still talking about religion—and we, by being against him, are against religion.

There are two ways to do better than we are currently doing. The first is to change the category. The other is to change the flavor, the charge, from negative to positive.

Changing the category is going to be hard. Here is President Trump is a public setting where he can express himself freely and emotionally without any real oversight. To change the category in that setting, we would have to point out the real life effects of packing the churches with infected people. In that new setting, President Trump would be forced to backtrack and say something prudent.

synboils 1Please note that this is not a press conference where there could be follow-up questions. It is not a CDC briefing. It is more like a public appearance byAndrea Ramirez, (seen at the left) the acting executive director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. She is a low level (compared to the President) employee and you could require her to say that she, herself, does not hope for the churches to be filled with infectious Christians on Easter. There can be hundreds of such interviews without touching the public appearances of President Trump at all.

So…I do have the beginnings of another solution. The one I have presented here—change the topic or change the charge—is really really hard. If I go back to this, I know I will have to come up with something better.


[1]  OK, he’s an evil genius.

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A Non-conversation about the COVID-19 Virus

In today’s New York Times (March 26), Nicholas Kristof and Russell Moore had a non-conversation about the COVID-19 virus.  

moore 2Kristof, with co-author Stuart Thompson and with the help of some statistical model builders, published an interactive graph on the spread of the virus.  It shows the effect of different lengths of “intervention.” [1]  It is the kind of information we need to decide what “we”—crucial term—should do in the present crisis.

Russell Moore wrote that we should not sacrifice anyone.  Dr. Moore does not want to talk public policy.  It looks from a suitable distance that Moore and Kristof are talking about the same thing, but I don’t think they are.  Let’s look at why not by allowing each to critique the other.

Kristof says that setting the level of intervention at X will cost Y million lives.  If the intervention lasts until Easter (17 days from now) the model forecasts 30 million infected, 10 million hospitalized, and 1 million dead. If we continue the intervention for 40 days—I picked that number because I thought Dr. Moore would enjoy it—we would have 8 million infected (instead of 30) 1 million hospitalized (instead of 10 million), and maybe 100,000 dead (instead of 1 million). [2]

That is what good public policy work should tell us.  What is the difference in lives lostmoore 1 between X and X+1?  Policy cannot be made on any other basis.  It treats every member of the population equally; everyone is a check mark.  In approaching it this way, we have, according the Moore, “lost our humanity.”

Dr. Moore says that every life is sacred because we are made in the image of God.  For reasons he does not specify, the most vulnerable are the most valuable.  If Moore were to organize a chart like Kristof’s, to which he is ethically opposed, he would organize it by social class, giving priority to those who are most likely to die from the disease and sacrificing those least likely to die.

Moore has good theological grounds for his ethical urgings, but they don’t help anyone who must make the kinds of decisions he is talking about.  He argues, for instance, that we should not “pass by on the other side of the road.”  The phrasing comes from the story of the Good Samaritan, but in public policy there is no “other side” of the road.  Public policy is responsible to consider both sides of the road and there is nowhere for people like Moore to hide.

OK, those are the two critiques.  Now let’s look at the reality.  Every additional day of “intervention” will come at great cost in human values and in human lives.  It is nonsense to say that protecting the economy is a different thing from protecting human lives unless you have some particular human lives and some particular measure of economic health in mind.  As I see it, Moore does have particular ones in mind and Kristof does not.

An older version of this dilemma is setting speed limits.  If every five mile per hour reduction saves X lives, how can you argue against reducing the limit.  Is “getting there faster” really worth the cost of the human lives that will be lost?  Well…yes.  There is a point at which, given the speed capabilities of cars both ancient and modern, you must simply balance the need for speed against the loss of life.  I know that sounds heartless, but imagine 15 mile and hour speed limits.  Dr. Moore argues against balance.

Would it help us at all to consider where we get a word like “vulnerable”?  English gets the word from the Latin vulnus, “wound.”  We distance ourselves from the realities of our society by using a word like “vulnerable,” which means “able to be wounded,” or perhaps, “more likely than some others to be wounded.”  Perhaps it would help us to use “wounded” of the people most likely to die from this virus, rather than “able to be wounded.”

Those who are already wounded are most likely to die from an epidemic.  If we are aggressive in our social policy, we will save many lives, but those who are already wounded will still die disproportionately.  If we are casual in our social policy, as President Trump is proposing, the wounded will still die disproportionately, but many more of them will die.

In other words, Dr. Moore’s advice does not help.  I think it would do less damage in a sermon.  I really wish the New York Times had not published it.  It offers only moral condemnation on the people who have the hard job of allocating lifesaving equipment here but not there, and continuing the intervention from X to X +1.  

[1]  Business closures and social distancing

[2]  Rough estimates based on reading a small interactive chart.  The numbers are proportionately correct.

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“Reply all”

“Reply All” is the bane of my existence.  I would like to spend a little time today complaining about it, but it might be worth my while–possibly even worth your while–reply all 3 to try to understand it first.

The first problem is “reply.”  To whom does one “reply?”  To one who has addressed you, of course.  And who is comprehended by “you?”

If you and I are having a conversation, I say something to you and you reply.  I have addressed you and you “fold back” the conversation to me.  [1]  That clarifies “reply.”  But if I address a group—which is presupposed by “all,”—anyone in the group might reply to me directly.  “Dear Dale, thank you for your note.”  Or anyone could “reply to all,” in which case you send your thanks to me to everyone.  As a practical matter, you are “replying” to me (because I have addressed you) and “informing” everyone else that you are replying to me.

That is the silly shallow end of the pool.  Let’s go deeper.

Let’s say that I propose in my email to the group, of which you and I are both members, that in every instance of a population being served, the population be referred to as “constituents.”  They are not patients [2] as those served by a medical doctor would be or “clients” [3] as those served by a lawyer or social worker would be or “customers,” [4] as the regular patrons of a business would be.  No, these are constituents, a distinctly political term.  So when I propose that the term to describe this population should be “constituents,” I am proposing that the role be politicized.

I proposed this to everyone.  If you respond to me, you really ought to respond to the group.  To use the language I invented above, you really should “reply” to me and “inform” everyone else of your view.  You are of the populist wing of the group.  Everything that treats transactions as if they are political and best responded to by the broadest possible set of the people who will be involved, the better.  You will and should respond to me and inform everyone else that “constituents” is exactly the right word for  the people we are talking about.

Then someone from the other wing—we will have to call them “representationalists,”  the word “republican” having become either archaic or misleading—replies directly to me (and indirectly to the populist) and informs everyone else of his or her views.  “No, no, that is a terrible thing to do.  Politicization of this set of transactions will: a) ruin the transactions,  b)it will elicit an electoral selfishness from the “voters” and c) it will cause the public spirited voluntarism of those now doing the work, to atrophy.”  In your “reply to all,” you are directly opposing my proposal and the agreement  offered by the populist and indirectly trying to persuade everyone else in the group to oppose my proposal.  You are, that is, “replying” to the populist and me, and “informing” everyone else.

Others who follow, are “responding” to those in the conversation and informing everyone else.  The proportion of people who are properly being responded to becomes a larger and larger fraction of the original “all.”  The proportion of people being “informed” becomes progressively smaller.  This is just as it should be when an issue is being discussed.

Even short comments like, “I agree with Dale’s proposal”  [or “not”] belong in this chain.  Or even, “Dale says that what we call the group of people is the crucial thing.  That is evident in his proposal that we pay attention to the name.  But the real issue is…”  That is not a reply to my proposal, but it is a reply to me: the reply is that people ought not to reply to me on the question I raised, but on another question entirely.  Fine.  Even better than fine.

But what if we are only scheduling a meeting?  Can you meet, staying, of course, six to ten feet apart, next Thursday at 2:00?  This a convener question.  Replying to the convener makes sense.  No one else needs to know that that is the time you are scheduled for dialysis or you are going to your beach cabin or your grandkids will be here then for their monthly visit.  THE CONVENER NEEDS TO KNOW THAT.  I do not.  And furthermore, I don’t care.  When the convener has heard from enough people to know whether to schedule the meeting, he or she will let us all know.  “Reply to all” gives us all the information that only the convener needs.

It reminds me very much of the old party line. [5]  It was always possible, but never reply to 1certain, that you could call someone else and have a private conversation.  A listener could always “reply to all,” that is to everyone else on the line at the time.  In the present case, a proposal has been made.  “Use the word ‘constituents’” is a proposal.  “Let’s meet at 2:00 on Thursday” is a proposal.  Everyone who has something to say that bears on the proposal—yea or nay—is part of the conversation.  Everyone else is just on the party line.

So…what does it really cost?  There is no way to say and I’ve read people who have tried.  Instead, imagine that your time is worth something.  Every time you get a message in your inbox that might contain information you need, then you need to find out whether it does.  If it is a “convener only” reply, you just wasted some time and some focus.  If it is the twelfth “I agree with Simon” message, you just wasted time and focus.  You have to keep your inbox cleared so you will   have a chance to notice new messages.  It really isn’t an option.  You are therefore obligated to check out these  “messages” as part of the cost of keeping your inbox empty.

In the absence of any real information about costs, let’s say it costs twenty-five cents to check a pointless message in your inbox and delete it.  And let’s say you get twenty such messages a day.  Every day.  By my calculations, that is $35 a week, roughly $140 a month.  Remember that I am including in that all the valid messages, the ones to which I should respond (and inform) so it is not as if I am getting no value for my $140 a month.  It is, rather, that I am getting no value for the fraction of those 20 daily messages that ought not to be there. [6]

Of course, it costs you, too.  Every time you decide to respond to the sender, rather than to all, you run the risk that everyone else will think you are being secretive and are “excluding” them.  It may always seem to you that the more prudent choice is always to include everyone.  That way no one will feel left out.  Always safer to include, you think to yourself.  And what does it hurt?

This essay has been an effort to answer that question,.

[1]  Etymologically, “reply” is made of the same materials as “replicate.”

[2]  Literally, “sufferers.”

[3]  Etymologically, “leaners on.”  The Patrician/plebeian relationship in ancient Rome is the controlling instance for this usage.  The plebe “leans on” (clinare) the patron.

[4]One who as a matter of regular practice, buys from the same tradesman or guild.It is a contraction of the Latin consuetudinarius.The “regular practice” part of this history shows up in our “customarily,” which may have nothing at all to do with purchasing goods.

[5]  This is back before “party line” meant parroting the talking points the party distributed for your use.

[6]  And that’s just the “reply to all” part of the problem.  I keep getting advertising from people who have agreed to honor my request that they stop sending me things and then begin again.  That’s a problem, but it isn’t this problem.

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God and the plague

I would like to think a little today about the corona virus.

Let’s start with Genesis 6: 5, 6

Yahweh saw that human wickedness was great on earth and that human hearts contrived nothing but wicked schemes all day long. 6Yahweh regretted having made human beings on earth and was grieved at heart. 7And Yahweh said, ‘I shall rid the surface of the earth of the human beings…for I regret having made them.’

And from there, maybe Numbers 21

.On the way the people spoke against God … We are sick of this meagre diet.’ At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel.

OK, now we have a context to work with. It’s a little silly, so let me point out in advance that the nature of the offense and of the response to the offense, both the Agent of the response and the means of the response, are undeniably similar.Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 10.22.16 AM.png

There might be a couple of things to point out on the way. The first is the expression “down here.” You don’t see that in either of the biblical references and I can think of only a very few where it exists at all. God is not pictured in these texts as peering down and monitoring our behavior. Why not?

Another is that he sent us to our rooms. That’s what makes it funny, of course. God is enforcing “responsible social distance” because we are not. And he is “sending us to our rooms.” Each of us has a room, apparently, so as a joke, it’s a middle class joke.

But a joke is a study in contrasts. It is the tension induced by the contrasts which, when a humorous context is presumed, makes things funny. The tension comes from God’s anger. “He got so mad at us….” and the very recent parental adoption of “time out.” “Got so mad at us” evokes the outraged Yahweh sending His people into Exile and drowning the world with water and ordering that conquered cities by treated as holocaust offerings. This God is not to be messed with.

And then you get a “punishment” reeking of “Brian, I told you not to do that;” and “Sally ,you made her feel bad, tell her you’re sorry.” You get “go to your rooms until you’re ready to apologize.” The two perspectives are so radically discrepant that when we are invited to turn that tension into laughter, we snap it up.

So I think it’s a lovely joke. I laughed out loud when I saw it. But now I am better satisfied, because I have spent a little time with the mechanisms that make it work so well.

[1] There is Malachi 3:10, of course], but I think you will admit that “pour out a blessing” is metaphorical in a way that “all our fighting down here” is not. Malachi 3:10 slightly edited reads “Yahweh Sabaoth [says]…see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you and pour out an abundant blessing for you.”

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A Sign of the Times at Starbucks

Over the years, Starbucks has made me happy in a lot of different ways.  They did it again this morning and I’d like to tell you about it.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have begun to take the Coronavirus seriously.  Not seriously enough, probably, but it is starting to force people to change well-established habits and that is difficult.  For instance, is a Starbucks open or closed?

Even a drive-through Starbucks is either open or closed.  If it is open, you can go by thestarbucks 1 window and get some coffee; if it is closed, you can still park in the drive through lane.  But if a regular full service Starbucks is open, you can go in and order a coffee and sit there and drink it.  The Coronavirus has made us think about this a little differently.  Everyone has to think about it differently.  So the trick is to say what has to be said in the right way.

At the Starbucks closest to me, I walked in today and found that there were no chairs and tables.  No cream pitcher either.  But there was as sign that said: “We have temporarily closed our seating area, but we remain open to serve you.”

I liked that. Think about “we are closed” as an alternative.  This says not only “We are open” (it is “the seating area,” not us that is closed) but also that we are open for the purpose of serving you.  I know as well as you do that “serve you” might mean only “sell you a cup of coffee.”  But unless you a regular at a really good Starbucks, you might not know that they can “serve” in a great many more ways than that.  It isn’t just the coffee that is stimulating at Starbucks.

My immediate reaction to the sign was that I would like to be one of the people who writes Starbucks ad copy and gets to sit down with others and puzzle about the most inviting way to say that you can’t sit here and have your coffee the way you always have.

Still, it was Starbucks, so I wasn’t all that surprised.  For instance, there was a time when my wife, Marilyn, could no longer drink coffee so when we went out to Starbucks in the morning, I would get coffee for myself and tea for her.  They gave me a cup and a teabag wrapped in paper.  I would shuck the bag out of the paper, wad the paper up, and throw it (just the right arch makes so much difference) into the opening for paper waste.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that.  To make that throw, I had to throw across the busy barista route without making anyone change pace or direction.  A well-run place would have asked me not to do it.  But this particular Starbucks was a really really well run place and they did not do that.  Then there was the morning when my concentration wavered and I missed the shot.  It bounced off the front of the counter and fell to the floor.  A barista was coming by and he bent down and retrieved the paper and gave it back to me so I could try again.

Really.  Had I been the barista, I would have picked up the paper and thrown it away, maybe pausing for a side remark that I am crediting the customer with an assist.  That would have been pretty good, except that it contained in it no recognition at all of what I had been trying to do—and had been doing successfully for months.  No recognition and therefore also no affirmation.

Instead, this barista took the trouble to look at it from my point of view.  What is the really important thing that is going on here?  I missed the shot.  That’s the only thing that’s going on from my standpoint and there is no reason Starbucks should care about that.  The barista’s response affirms the semi-official Starbucks view that I was a really good shot and had never yet hit or even impeded a Starbucks employee and that it was a real shame I missed this one.  It offered me another chance of the kind you get when your teammate corrals the rebound and throws it right back to the place where you threw up the last shot, inviting you to try again.

And that is the way I felt about it.  That they had treated me as a teammate.  They hoped my next shot would go directly in (it did) and virtually gave me permission to wad the paper up again tomorrow and try again (I did)..

That’s pretty classy work, I think, and that is (partly) why I was pleased but not surprised at the note I found at Starbucks this morning.

And I think it might even be why my hopes crept up about the blind date I had at Starbucks some years later.  I imagined that I was still somewhere in the middle of a dreary and demanding period of dating after Marilyn died.  As I waited there, not knowing I was just about to meet a new wife, I found my hopes rising and it might be because Starbucks has just been the kind of place where really nice and completely unexpected things happen.

Things like a really sweet “you can’t sit here” sign.

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The Norms of Political Rhetoric

Here are two observations made in Thomas Edsall’s column in the New York Times today.  I think the two comments belong in different contexts, but I am going to join them today, because I think they also mean more together.

Here’s the first.  The context is collecting votes and winning elections.

Schaffner, MacWilliams and Nteta put the case well:

There is reason to think that Trump’s strategy of using explicitly racist and sexist appeals to win over white voters may be followed by candidates in future elections,” they write. “There is no longer a price to be paid by politicians who make such explicit appeals. [bold font added]  

And this is what they mean by “a price to be paid.”

Explicit racist and sexist appeals appeared to cost Trump some votes from more educated whites, but it may have won him even more support among whites with less education.

That seems pretty clear.  Among the Republican electorate, at least, building heat under racist and/or sexist positions will get you more votes than it loses you.  And that might be true among the general electorate, too, depending on how you define “sexism” and how you measure it. [1]

But there is another piece to this argument which can be seen as part of the electoral gamble, as above, or as a challenge to Americans generally, which is the way I want to look at it.  In this second section, they (Schaffner, MacWilliams and Nteta, op cit.) say that Republicans might just as well follow the strategy the Trump campaign relied on in 2016 and they give this reason;

.”…the norms governing political rhetoric appear to have largely been shattered in 2016,

I’d like to look at that by itself, not just as a part of the political calculus.  I’m going to say that the “norms governing political rhetoric” can be phrased positively or negatively.  Positively, a candidate would be required to refer to his opponent, to the opposing political party, and especially to the head of the opposing ticket, in collegial terms.

rhetoric 3The often parodied language of the U. S. Senate can be drawn upon here just to illustrate the idea.  “I rise in opposition to the motion of my honored colleague, the Senator from Mississippi…”  Senate speech is bound by the norms of formality in ways that campaign speech is not, of course, but a positive notion of “the norms governing political rhetoric” could be understood to require generous and inclusive language toward one’s opponent.  All the while, of course, arguing that he is inexperienced (or superannuated) and the true representative of a locally important industry (or in the pay of corporate elites).  This quotation attributed to Socrates may not be true anymore.

The negative notion of rhetorical norms is probably more directly applicable.  There are things that you just didn’t say about your opponent, at least not in public, at least not in ways that could be tracked back to the candidate.  There are serious derogations. My opponent is a communist, a fascist, is unAmerican and so on.  Then there are the joking derogations.  Candidate Donald Trump used to refer to Sen Warren as “Pocahontas,” to highlight her claim to Indian heritage.  The goal was not to charge her with something, but to offer her as an appropriate object of ridicule.

Between the serious and the jocular, there is another category that might be called “character slurs.”  My opponent is a sexist, a crook, a slanderer, a sexual pervert, a hoity toity elite, a person unduly responsive to citizens of African descent.  I know that last phrase is cumbersome, but it will be widely recognized as a way of “not-saying” another charge “N—lover” which cannot be said any more in public even by conservatives.

So that is how I understand the idea of “rhetorical norms.”  When Schaffner, rhetoric 34MacWilliams and Nteta argue that there is not really a price to be paid for using such language in campaigning.  They are talking about us—the American electorate.  They are saying that we will listen to such things being said and will not object in any way that would serve as a warning to the candidate that he or she has gone too far.

It is difficult even for me to imagine that someone would go to a campaign rally and stand up to object to the undue derogation of an opponent by the speaker.  If it was done as part of a Q & A afterwards, the candidate would deny it and the crowd would boo the questioner.  You could write a letter to the candidates office, of course, but it would be weighed (that is not only a metaphor) against the other letters and texts that praise such language.

If we are really no longer offended by these slurs—especially the racist and sexist slurs which are the subject of this column—then there is really nothing to do.  The norms have, in fact changed and not only in the old calculus of how many votes to I get v. how many I lose for going racist.   It will have changed in the fundamental sense that voters no longer object to the use of such language.

Is that true, I wonder.

There are more important things to say about a candidate than that he meets the positive obligations of public speech (my honored colleague) and the negative constraints (no more “Pocahontas”).  It would be nice to vote for someone who has ideas about public policies that would help us pursue our goals and help solve our problems.  As a voter, I would rather vote for such a person no matter how foul-mouthed he or she is toward an opponent.  

But look at it from the other side.  Just as car manufacturers go to great lengths to shave off ounces of unprofitable chassis, so politicians are extremely sensitive to unnecessarily losing votes.  There are enough close elections in the U. S. that giving away votes you could otherwise have had is just stupid.  It is said that the whole electoral college would have been flipped by the change of only 80,000 votes in 2016. [2]

Using language that will cost you votes is just stupid.  Now the case that the researchers cited in this Edsall column are making is that under some circumstances, you will gain more votes than you lose by using racist or sexist language and in those races, anything a candidate can do to put race and sex at the center of the campaign will be of help.  It can be offensive and it only works better because both the people who like it and the people who hate it are helping you keep it at the center of the campaign.

rhetoric 2Some people will say that this can be addressed by organizations of likeminded people.  What politicians really care about, they will say, are money, votes, and endorsements.  This points, in this argument, to groups that will advocate the withholding of funds from those who “violate the norms governing political rhetoric.”  Or put pressure on public officials who would otherwise endorse them.  Or urge people to vote against them because they have broken the norms.

I am not a fan of such arguments because those organizations can be so easily walled off from the political world and because they may cause a counter-reaction.  But the really fundamental question is whether we really care any more.

When candidate George H. W. Bush, in looking toward the debate with Geraldine Ferraro, said that he was “going to kick a little ass,” he was only trying to look macho—always a challenge for him. [3]   But when candidate Donald Trump said about Hillary that, “she got schlonged” by Barack Obama, he is inviting a sexism that would never have occurred to G H W Bush and that he would have rejected has it occurred to him.

Do we really not care?  Is the public disapproval which is the only guarantee of the effectiveness of “the norms of political rhetoric” tolerant now of such language?  Does it work for all the conservative candidates in the way that the accusations of hate work for the liberal candidates?  Or does it just work for Trump?  

That’s what I hope.  And I hope it won’t work again.

[1]  Especially if you are using the “Ambivalent Sexism Scale” which is built to find sexist attitudes in people who are trying hard not to have them.

[2]  And I have treasured for many years now the joke that George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by a single vote.

[3]  I wondered, even at the time, if Ferraro could not have taken the “ass” reference very literally, have taken it as a compliment, and said that keeping it little has been one of the challenges of the campaign.  It would have accused Bush of making a vulgar remark, which he did not, and might have made him look silly for his posturing.  But no responsible Democrat asked me for my views.

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