Making people better cogs

Professor Karen Levy has been studying the automation of the trucking industry.  That is why New York Times writer Noam Scheiber interviewed her in preparation for his article on robots in the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.  Schreiber and Levy are studying the same thing, although the one is looking at highly automated packing warehouses and the other at long haul trucking.

This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots.

That’s the Scheiber puts it.  People react to this, of course. [1]  Levy tells about a trucker who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab and observes, “It was a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy.”

But that’s really where the trouble is, isn’t it?  People need some “decisional autonomy” to reassure themselves that they are human; that they are persons.  The needs of the system—shipping orders at the Amazon warehouse and maintaining the most efficient operation of trucks (and of truckers)—are not compatible with “decisional autonomy.”

robot 1The system works better with a single rationality engine.  The people in the system work better when are able to act as competent agents.  This is one of the major dilemmas of our time and I don’t see a happy resolution to it at all.

Marx imagined a communist utopia where mechanized industry did all the work and the people were free to pursue their own interests.  Little groups of neighbors would form themselves into literary societies and orchestras and so on.  That’s not how things are looking at capitalism’s current stage of development.

Here is a conversation from Levy’s study of truck drivers.  Note the difference between the way the questions are put and the way the answers are put.  “Consider,” she says, “the following exchange I had with one driver about how to get from Oregon to Indiana. [2]

Q: So you don’t use GPS though?

A: GPS? No. Honey, I’ve been driving for twenty-nine years, I’ve been all over the United States, I don’t need a GPS. I don’t even need a map.

Q: You don’t use a map?

A: [laughing] No.

Q: Really?

A: Hell, no. I could drive—where do you want to go?

Q: West Lafayette, Indiana. […]

A: Go around Ontario, Oregon, over to Pocatello. Go south on Pocatello, go to McCammon, that’s 30, it runs—McCammon runs over to 80, I-80, that’ll come out by Little America, take Little America—or the 80, excuse me—run that over to Chicago, right? Get through Chicago, now from there it’s up to you which way you want to go. […] You’d have to go south on 65, down towards Indianapolis. […]

Q:So how do you learn all this [about different routes]?

A: Honey, driving them.

She sums up exchanges of this kind by saying:   “Road knowledge” gleaned from years of experience serves as a clear source of value and professional identity for these workers. [3]

The Future of Road Knowledge

The principle works the same way at the Amazon center.  The workers are doing repetitive jobs and the question is how fast they can do them.  A change in what a worker does that shaves one second off his part of the process is worth a lot of money to the company and Schieber’s piece gives us workers who look at it that way.

Here, for instance, is a “stower” [4] named Jing Zhang:

Mr. Zhang seemed like a state-of-the-art Amazon employee — someone who saw the world through the eyes of a manager. “I try to find ways to make me more efficient,” he said. He figured out how to reduce wasted movement by unpacking the box closest to the shelving unit first, then replacing it with the next-closest box, rather than wandering to and from other boxes.

Seeing things through the eyes of a manager means privileging the system perspective over the personal perspective.  It means the end of “road knowledge” as the trucker would put it and the end of decisional autonomy, as Levy herself puts it.

Shawn Chase has chosen a different way to keep his head in the game.

A picker named Shawn Chase said he motivated himself by competing with a friend in a different part of the warehouse to see who could earn the higher productivity ranking…“Last week I was 41st in the building,” he said. “This week I’m trying to be top 10.”

But, of course, “keeping your head in the game” is not the choice everyone makes.  Karen Levy remembers a trucker “who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab.  Her comment about this strategy is that it was “a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy.”

Decisional Autonomy

This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread
consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots. “The next pod comes, and a pod comes after that, and after that,” Mr. Long told me. “All day till you get off.”

That is Scheiber’s view.  In the meantime, Levy says, “what you end up doing is making people better cogs.”

So there it is.  If the future is the full use of robots, humans will have to find something to do.  Maybe it will be what Marx envisioned.  In the meantime, there will be a mixing torobot 2gether of robots and humans under the direction of the system devised for the process.  This system will have no place for decisional autonomy.  “Road knowledge” will disappear in due time, but long before that, it will be demeaned as a weakness The picture to the right shows a much happier kind of resolution.

Decisional autonomy is easier to insist on when someone is directly taking it from you.  A boss who is a bully will create a complete palette of acts of covert resistance among the workers.  “You can’t do that to me” is the cry of the heart in such circumstances.  But when “the system” devises the kind of interface with robots which strips away all decisional autonomy, it is hard to find someone to receive your acts of defiance.

If you are in that situation, you need to step up and be a corporate hero, like Jing Zhang, or a subversive, like the trucker playing solitaire.  The system is stacked in favor of the robots, so larger and larger numbers of people are going to have to find a way to do without “decisional autonomy.”

We used to call that “being human.”

[1]  I say “of course,” because I am thinking about my time and the people I have known.  It may be that the workers of the future will simply not feel it as a loss.

[2]See her article inFeminist Media Studies. Apr2016, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p361-365

[3]  And it isn’t just the automatic routing that bothers the truckers Levy studied.  “As two drivers put it in regulatory comments:”A computer does not know when we are tired, [f]atigued, or anything else. Any piece of electronics that is not directly hooked up to my body cannot tell me this. … I am also a professional [and] I do not need an [EOBR] telling me when to stop driving … I am also a grown man and have been on my own for many many years making responsible decisions!”

[4]  In the Amazon line, the stowers come right before the pickers.  In fact, Zhang is making an acute comment when he says, “Our customers are the pickers.”  Making things easier for the next agents (whether human or robot) is, in fact, Zhang’s job.

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Who took my phone book?


So…I ran into my old friend Ted Nelson last week. That’s a real person. I’m not making any of this up. Ted is co-author of a very popular text (Mathematics for Elementary Teachers: A Conceptual Approach) now going into the 11th Edition.

I don’t know a lick about mathematics, but it is not easy to remember that when I am talking to Ted. His forte is eliciting what you do know and how you know it and he is really good at it.

phone 1He and I, in fact, devised a society to belong to. It doesn’t have any real substance yet and only a few members, [1]but I have taken great pleasure in it for many years now. Every now and then on my travels, I meet a math teacher with a sense of humor and enroll him or her as a member of the society.

So why a Subtrahend Society? When I was in elementary school, they taught some things about arithmetic that I don’t believe they teach any more. One such was the names of the different parts of arithmetic problems. Of particular concern today is the elements of a subtraction problem. Here is an example.

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 4.48.28 PM.png

Why there should be names for each of those elements, I am not certain. The top one is called the minuend, a Latin word that means that it is to be diminished or made smaller. The second one is called the subtrahend, which means (Lain again) pulled out from under. And the third term is called—drum roll, please—the difference.

So it is the subtrahend that makes the difference. Literally. That is what a subtrahend does. So it didn’t take all that long for me to think that everyone nowadays is talking about making a difference, so why not invent a society we can all belong to? So far, I have invented a page of stationery. It looks like this.

The Subtrahend Society
We’re here to make a difference

That is all we have done as a society to change the world in a positive way, but I am sure that each member has done things on his or her own to accomplish that and if there is ever a meeting of the society, I am sure those will be mentioned and put into the minutes.

That’s if we have a secretary by then. So far, we have only a President (that’s 
Ted) and a Membership Chair (that’s me).

Two members have been added since the last time I saw Ted Then I ran into him last week. I told him about the new members and said I would email him. Right. I don’t have his email address. I don’t have his phone number either.

So what does one do? Remember? One takes up the phone book and looks up ones’s friend and makes the call. Except…do you know what? There aren’t any phone books anymore. Maybe you can just google the person and come up with the number. Nope. There is and I could learn a good deal about my friend Ted for only $4 a month. I just want a phone number and and I would like it for free, please.

Why didn’t I ever notice the disappearance of the old phone book? So now I’m stuck. Two new members and no way to let the President of the Society know. And no phone books.

[1] Which seems odd, on a way. According to the recent Pew poll, 5% of Americans specifically mentioned wanting to make a difference. So the pool we could draw from as members is really large.

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The Hunger Games for Democrats

When I began watching the Democratic debates this week, I started thinking of this as a hunger 2sort of tournament. Each candidate is not so much a way of envisioning who the Democratic Party should be this year and next, but a free-lancing entrepreneur. Successful entrepreneurs get more fame, more money, more column inches, and a chance to move on to the next round.

But as I watched the second night, I began to think more along the lines of The Hunger Games. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it.

The Hunger Games universe is a dystopia set in Panem, a North American country consisting of the wealthy Capitol and 12 districts in varying states of poverty. Every year, children from the districts are selected via lottery to participate in a compulsory televised battle royale death match called The Hunger Games.

There are some differences, of course. The children are all helpless conscripts; the candidates are all volunteers. The kind of death the losers die is a political sort of death and there are often many benefits even to losing. When the children in the Hunger Games die, they are just dead.

But there are similarities, too, which is why the metaphor occurred to me. The “death” of every other candidate gives life to my candidacy. Later, when only a few candidates are left, it will be important that there are enough to keep the Democratic options open and clear, but now there are just too many. Twenty candidates? Really? Spread out over two nights? Really?

hunger 1If I were a frontrunner, I would hammer on “electabiliy” until the entrepreneurs and the governors fall out. I would try to kill them off by denying them funds, by shrinking their airspace (there is only so much airspace) until they are electorally dead. The fewer there of them, the better for my own chances of surviving the Hunger Games.

Anybody who has a scandal hanging around—they made a recent run at Joe Biden for his high TI [1]—or who has a policy failure of some kind (racial conflict in South Bend, Indiana) is fair game. The fewer of them there are, the better my chances for being one of the debaters left on a small stage.

That’s how it is and that’s how it’s going to be.

I have another idea. It is completely impractical, but as a dilettante, I claim that right. There are two kinds of divisions among the candidates. [2] They are the policy divide and the paradigm divide.

The policy divide is featured by the candidates, of course. What is your “plan” for gun control, for immigration, for healthcare? [3] These “plans” are at best “directions,” if they are not simply hopes.

The paradigm divide answers the question, “What is this election about?” It divides those candidates who want a system change—what would, in other circumstances, be called a regime change—from those who want to keep the present system and tweak it a little. The new paradigm candidates, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want a sizable readjustment of power in the U. S. In their view, nothing less will really accomplish anything in the long run. The “tweak the system” candidates, like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Corey Booker want to leave the power where it is and use it for better purposes.

So what I would really like is a tournament like baseball’s world series. The Tweakers are the National League and they will work out among themselves who is the best Tweaker. The Paradigm Changers are the American League and they will do the same. Then, instead of having the NLCS and the ALCS, you put all four “finalists” on the stage and let them work.

That’s not The Hunger Games. It is the Democratic Party’s best chance to decide who they are. This is hard for me, I confess. I want Donald Trump out of the Oval Office and behind bars as soon as can be managed. I would also like to see the U. S. become a stable and prosperous liberal democracy. The tournament picture gives us a chance to decide which of those we want more.

[1] Tactility Index. I just invented that one, but as everyone knows, there are people who do a lot of touching and people who do not.
[2] Besides “likeability,” which I know is important.
[3] This is a truly egregious misuse of the word, “plan.” I would like to see “plan” saved for things the candidate can do. No presidential candidate is going to deal with “the gun problem.” Unless, of course, you are Andrew Shepherd of The American President, who offers to go door to door and get the guns.

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Abortion and Whack-a-mole

Gov. Janet Mills, of Maine, is in the process of putting on the books a law that will allow physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners to perform abortions.  I had not thought of that approach and when I read it in Vox Sentences this morning [1] I thought, “Well….of course.”  My brother, John, captured this experience perfectly when he said “What I found was a surprise that should have been an expectation confirmed.” [2]

Maine 1This is an ongoing game of Whack-a Mole.  Let’s start with Roe v. Wade (1973).  The question there was whether the government of Texas was permitted to intrude into Roe’s “zone of privacy” and forbid her having an abortion that she and her doctor thought she should have.

Does the Constitution provide “a zone of privacy?”  Certainly it does.  Right after Roe v. Wade declared that it did.  So states are not allowed to “forbid” abortions.  They can, of course, “constrain” abortions, (Whack) provided it does not pose an “undue burden” on the woman.  (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992)

Due burdens are perfectly OK.  “Zone of privacy” standards are yes and no standards.  “Undue burden” standards are “how much” standards.

So who pays for an abortion? [3]  Ordinarily, that is a medical insurance question.  If no medical insurance plans cover it, it becomes unavailable to most women.  That is why the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) required institutions that provide insurance for employees to include abortions in the covered procedures. [4]

maine 3At this point, the “state intrusion into the zone of privacy” mole has been whacked.  But that becomes burdensome sometimes (as, in Pennsylvania, when it required spousal consent), so “undue burdens” are forbidden.  Whack.  Now we have required insurance coverage.  But companies are allowed to opt out under some circumstances.  Whack.

So, where can I have this procedure done?  Well, at any licensed facility.  Sure.  And what are the requirements for licensure?  Let’s get creative here.  Let’s say that no medical facility can be licensed to practice in Georgia if a virus has ever been discovered on the property.  We are only concerned about the health of the women you understand.

maine 3So “all hospitals are allowed to (a federal standard) becomes “all licensed hospitals are allowed to” (a state legislative standard) and the state standards are set so that no hospital meets them.  Whack. [5]

But aren’t there federally funded and licensed hospitals and clinics?  How about them?  Well, so long as Roe v. Wade stands, the feds cannot forbid abortions at such clinics, but they can defund them.  The way this would work is that no federal funds are available for a clinic at which abortions are (also) performed.  Along with appendectomies. Whack.

And at what age do these restrictions bear upon the fetus?  Casey (1993) establishes that the ability of the state to regulate begins at the “age of viability,” or when, in the opinion of the doctors, the fetus could live outside the womb.  And when would that be?  Well, the fact is that medical practices has advanced to the point where the “age of viability” has been pushed back a very long way.  The money it costs to rescue a child from this new expanded “age of viability” is staggering, but then again, it isn’t the parents’ money.

maine 3The problem with this expansion, from a political point of view, is that it is technical.  Only doctors (elites, not people like you and me) can establish an age of viability.  Georgia’s approach to this difficulty—the difficulty, remember, is that we turn these questions over to elites—is to establish the fetal heartbeat as the sign of viability.  Georgia’s new abortion law is called the “fetal heartbeat” law and you will notice, I hope, that this is a perfect solution to the political problem.

People “know” that life starts when the heart starts beating because they know that life Maine 4stops when the heart stops beating.  It’s something that everybody knows.  It’s “common sense.”  [7]  Whack.

And, finally, who is permitted to perform abortions?  Well, doctors, of course.  And there are only so many doctors.  Enter the state of Maine.  It isn’t just doctors [6] but also physicians’ assistants (PA’s) and nurse practitioners (LPN’s) and there are lots more of them.  Whack.


Here’s the deal.  There is a virtually unlimited number of women who want to have abortions or who want to make sure that they are available should they be needed.  There is a limited number of mechanisms by which executive, legislative, and judicial bodies can make abortions unavailable.  So each specific law or decision or regulation—each whack of a particular mole—is going to put the pressure on some other part of the system and cause another mole to pop up.

There is no shortage of moles.  Whacking is a lot of work.  The moles are going to win.

[1]Thank you, Kevin Miller of thePortland Press Herald.Vox gave me a hyperlink to his article.

[2]  June 10.  He was talking about the internal structure of grapevines, but I recognized the sentiment.

[3]  There is no strategy for abortion elimination that prevents someone with a lot of money from going somewhere in the world that a safe abortion can be provided.  Regulating abortions by regulating how much they cost is a strategy for ordinary people.

[4]  There were also “fig leaf” provisions that allowed this coverage to be provided by someone else so long as it was paid for by the employer.

[5]  We’ll just skip over, here, the attempts to define an abortion procedure as a murder and the attending physician as a murderer.  It’s just too complicated.  And it doesn’t cover the doctors who have been murdered.

[6]  And eight other states.

[7]  The heart starts beating at about three weeks, depending on just how you are looking for a heartbeat.  Fetuses are not medically viable at 22 days.  The mother is unlikely to know she is pregnant at 22 days.  But the fetus is politically viable when the heart starts beating.

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Goodies-in-the-hamper time

Below you will find the text of the prayer of confession we used at our church this week.  I liked it a good deal when I first read it.  Now I have worked with it a little since then and I like it even more.  I know the title of this post is obscure and idiosyncratic, but it does establish in my mind an image I would like to keep, so I’d like to share it here.

The title comes directly from Russell Hoban’s Best Friends for Frances, a story about little badgers.  Albert has refused to allow Frances to play baseball with him and his friend Harold.  Frances retaliates by packing an enormous picnic lunch and refusing to let Albert have any.  It turns out that only “best friends” are allowed to go on the outing.

Then we get this.

 “Can’t I be a best friend?” asked Albert.

“Well, I’m not sure, said Frances.  “Maybe you’ll be best friends when it’s goodies-in-the-hamper time, but how about when it’s no-girls-baseball time?”


The “goodies” are the beautiful language that the confession offers.  Here it is.  The expressions marked in red are emotional reactions we are “confessing;” those marked in blue are that actions we take as a result of those reactions.

1.  Our God, we come in humility,

2.  confessing that we are slow to respond

 3. to your call and claim on our lives.

4.  When your Spirit speaks, we hesitate to hear, 

5.  for we fear what you may call us to do.

6.  When the wind of your Spirit blows, 

7.  we close the windows of our heart, 

8.  afraid the wind will disrupt our ordered lives.

9.  When the fire of your Spirit touches us,

10. we quench the flame,

11. wary of the ardor it would bring.

12. Forgive us, O Lord, and renew us by your Spirit.

There are old good words here.  I like “call and claim” in line three and “the windows of our heart” in line seven.  I like “quench” and “ardor.”


But I had no sooner read and enjoyed those words—the goodies—than I began to weavehamper 1 a hamper for them.  I began to think of them not just as words, but as kinds of words (these are motives, for instance and those are actions) and then to notice patterns that relate these kinds of words.  Note, for instance that the sequence of “slow” (line 2), “hesitate” (line 4) “close” (line 7) and “quench” in (line 10) seems quite deliberate.  They are an ordered series, each more active and more defensive than the previous one.

I noticed then that each of these reactions is an emotion (a motive) that is followed by an action.  [1] We fear something in the first step, so we take measures to make it less scary.  This thing we fear is a life of Christian discipleship.  That is why it is something that needs to be confessed.  See what you think.

We fear what you may call us to do, God, so we hesitate to hear what you are saying, for instance, in lines four and five.  Note that in that event, we simply do not hear what we are being called to do. [2]  We fear, lines seven and eight,  that the wind will disrupt the order we have established for ourselves so we close “the windows of our heart.” [3]  We are wary of your ardor, in lines ten and eleven, so we quench the flame.

The relationships of those words, causal, in this case,  are a new way of attaching myself to the meaning and power of the confession as it applies to me.  The fears line up and raise the question for me, “What are you afraid of?”  The consequences of giving in to those fears are much more varied.  We “hesitate to hear”—or, worse, refuse to hear—what we are being called to do.  Imaging being part of a team assigned to protect someone and just taking the earpiece our of your ear.  “What?  No, I didn’t hear anyone ask me to cover the approach from the balcony.”  See the earpiece?

hamper 2We protect, in the second clause, the order into which we have put our lives.  As someone who struggles to put his life in order, I have very little emotional resonance with that one, but the writer probably intends to celebrate God’s order rather than the disorder I picture from the wind blowing in the window.  I understand that a disorder may be the necessary first step to a new order.  It may be.  But this suggests, not that it may be, but that it is.  It is the first step and that way of understanding it goes further than I want to go.

The third clause asks the question of emotional temperature.  God has a great deal of ardor, in this way of thinking about it, and not much prudence. [4]  We are failing in “ardor” as the writer of this confession sees it.  I think we are failing in a lot of other things—generosity, for instance—that an increase in ardor will only make worse.

We have arrived at a hamper, of sorts; a conceptual construct meant to contain and amplify the meanings of the beautiful words themselves.  Those words are the goodies; the construct is the hamper.

The Goodies OR the Hamper

This is the way it is often put to me.  Veterans of a much more emotional practice of liturgy, study, and prayer think of these constructs as ways of buffering the powerful meaning of the words.  As they see it, the better choice is the goodies themselves, never mind about the hamper.

And, of course, there are people for whom the hamper is really all that is of interest.  These are often people for whom the “goodies” have long since become rancid and toxic.  They want nothing more of these goodies —like the wind of the Spirit and the windows of the heart, for instance—than an excuse to build hampers. [5]  Theological or psychological or sociological constructs are the prize here, not that the “goodies” have gone bad.

The Goodies in the Hamper

That’s not how I see it, obviously.  Some of the people I know and love best look at the hampers I build and roll their eyes, but isn’t a rejection of what I have done.  It is a recognition that, a) I have done it many times in the past, that b) I seem to find it meaningful and c) that some other people seem to like it as well.  These particular people find it unhelpful for themselves, but knowing that I find it helpful, they support it in me, while rejecting it for themselves.  These people I know and love are pretty nice people, as you can see.

The goodies became toxic for me a long time ago.  I got over it.  I look at those goodies differently now, finding meanings where I once found only emotional power and I continue to be attracted when many others can manage only repulsion.

So “goodies in the hamper” time is a very good time for me.

[1]  “Followed” is just a sequence.  The words may come in either order.

[2]  The first result of receiving no call is doing nothing but we are not built for doing nothing, so we do other things and elevate them to significance in our lives.

[3]  The reference to “the heart” here is probably meant to call up emotional reactions we are trying to avoid, but the scriptural use of “heart” had much more to do with intentions and actions.

[4]The Latin prudentia, from which we get “prudence” is a contraction of providentia (seeing ahead of time) from which we get “providence.”God is vastly practical, as He is portrayed in our scriptures, and this is based on what He knows.

[5]  This use of the noun, “hamper” is related for these people to the verb, “to hamper.”

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Jesus had two dads

Just playing around a little.

This picture was sent to me along with a rash of other church signs. Some of them were quite witty, but this was my favorite. This is exactly the kind of prompt I was anticipating when I chose the word “dilettante” as the basis of this blog’s title. So let’s have some fun.


I am a Presbyterian, myself. [1] I attend “the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon.” Notice the difference. If you look at the sign above the display, you will see “the First Baptist Church in America.” That is not said casually. If you go to the church’s website, you find this.

The First Baptist Church in America has been on College Hill in downtown Providence since 1638, sharing the good news, with Christ-centered enthusiasm, biblical preaching, dynamic caring ministries, advocating the separate and complementary relationship between church and state, and the vitality of traditional worship. What Roger Williams established is still worth standing for.

When I began to take the title seriously, my mind went immediately to Roger Williams, that noted un-Puritan, who was chased out of Massachusetts Bay and went down to Rhode Island (often called Rogue’s Island at the time) and founded an un-Puritan church. 1638, it says. Nineteen years after the first boatload of slaves docked here. Two years later than the founding of little Harvard College.


Theologically, the idea that Jesus had “two dads” is preposterous. That’s part of the fun of it. Anyone who has prayed the Lord’s Prayer has begun, “Our Father—not the earthly one, I mean the Heavenly one—hallowed be your name. Why the need for the distinction?

Very often, Hebrew usage referred to Abraham, from whom all the children of Israel (Jacob) derive, as “our father, Abraham. (John 8) Jacob is also referred to as “our father” (John 4). So it may be that the principal reason for “heavenly Father” was distinguishing that relationship from “ancestral father.”

But that wouldn’t be enough to give this sign the pop it has. [2] To get there, you have to introduce two entirely modern contexts. The first asks in what sense Joseph, Mary’s husband, was Jesus’ “father.” First, it is important that Joseph be Jesus’ father because Joseph is descended from David and Jesus needs to be descended from David. Nothing we are considering here has anything to do with DNA.

Luke has Mary refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father in the famous abandoned at the Temple incident, but that would have been true whatever Jesus’ parentage provided that Joseph named him and counted him as part of the family. And if Jesus was a carpenter (Mark’s language) or just the son of a carpenter (Matthew’s language), he would have been raised under Joseph’s tutelage.

So Jesus could be said to have one Father (John’s emphasis) or two,(Matthew’s emphasis) or three, counting all the references to Abraham, our father. You can count up the fathers as far as you like and never get anywhere near the adoption of a child by a gay couple, which is the discrepancy that the sign board is playing with.

And I think that is why I like it so much. The desert between Jesus as “the son” of Abraham and Joseph and God, on the one hand, and as “having two fathers” in the current usage, is vast. The two references have nothing at all to do with each other. That’s the discrepancy. And, following Max Eastman [3] that is why it is funny.

Of course, it isn’t funny to everyone, which is also part of why it is funny to me. People who allow themselves to get their undies in a bunch [4] over a joke that pairs Jesus with gay dads are marching right past a joke they really could have afforded to enjoy. Which seems a shame.

[1] Although I have been a Baptist myself. The church I attended near Dayton, Ohio descended from this experiment by Roger Williams . Churches descended from his shoot are known as the American Baptist Church, a very un-Southern Baptist kind of place.
[2] No pun intended. I didn’t see it before you did.
[3] Eastman defines humor as a discrepancy taken playfully.
[4] Thank you, Garrison Keillor.

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Teaching alienation to citizens

Peter Berger says in one of his early books on sociology that “society” is a show that is meant to be seen only once.  It’s like a magic act.  The first time the illusion is complete.  Later on, you begin to wonder what the other hand is doing while you are watching the hand the magician is showing you.  Finally you get how he does it and the “magic” is over; now, it’s just deception.

In my 80s now, I have been more and more getting the feeling that I have seen this show before.  When I read in the New York Times about the crap that Mike Abate took from flooded out locals, I was reminded very much of Tom Wolfe’s essay, “Mau mauing the Flack Catchers.” [1]

I didn’t like the process much when I first read about it in the 1970s.  Since then, I have had some experience as a “flack-catcher” which I also didn’t like very much, so I responded to this piece about citizen outrage even less well that I did the first time.

To tell you the truth, it reminded me of my time as a legislative assistant in the Oregon Legislature where part of my job was to take calls from constituents who were either just pissed off or were deeply confused.  My boss, who had actually won an election, would eventually get to the place where he would just tell a persistent caller to shut up.  I didn’t get to do that. [2]  

The constituent who comes most readily to mind would call on Friday afternoons and give me a tongue-lashing about how much money the national government spent on military hardware.  I agreed with her completely (but didn’t say so) and then she would go on to demand that I intercede with my representative to get him to withdraw his support.  My explanation that my boss was a state legislator and that we did not, in fact, control any military spending at all, did not move her. [3]

It is experiences like that that make me sympathetic to Mike Abate.

So Mike is appearing at a meeting of angry flooded out citizens and as part of this abate 2confrontation, something happens that bothers me a good deal.  It is not John DesBarres allegation that the Corps of Engineers made a mistake in retaining or releasing floodwaters.  That may be true of partly true or entirely untrue.  Mike says the Corps did everything its policies require it to do in balancing the range of interests they have to balance., but DesBarres has suffered a loss and he is angry about it and he wants the Corps to have done something different.


Then he says that the government owes them money in compensation for their losses.  The government “took” their property he says, referring I presume to the “takings clause” of the Constitution.  I think that is far-fetched.  In a situation of triage among several classes of constituencies, someone is not going to be in first place, but still, it is an argument DesBarres is making and it relates to his losses.

Mostly fine.

Then he does this.

Mike Abate, the chief of civil works in the Corps’s Tulsa District, was asked [by DesBarres] if his home had flooded.

That’s over the line, I think.  It isn’t the worst thing that happened at the meeting.  I’m still getting to that.  The question takes away the obvious situation, that there has been a lot of rain and that people’s homes and businesses are going to be at risk.  For that situation, DesBarres substitutes one that puts Abate on one side of the divide and “honest citizens” (who don’t work for the government) on the other side.  Abate and his property have been “privileged” or “protected” in some way, treated as elites.  Abate and his cronies have rigged the course of this natural disaster so that DesBarres’ home is flooded and Abate’s is not.

That is what DesBarres does and I think he should be condemned for it.  But that’s not the worst thing.  Here’s the worst thing.

At the church in Sand Springs, flooded neighbors and some officials came up to Mr. DesBarres when the meeting was over and thanked him for speaking out.

That’s the worst thing.  DesBarres neighbors saw him making absurd accusations againstabate 1 Abate and they thought of it as “speaking out.”  Presumably, “speaking out” is a good thing.  It is a citizenship skill.  It calls tyranny by its name and opposes it in public.  Those are the connotations of “speaking out” as I see them.  And that expression, which I treasure, is used to refer to DesBarres’ “mau mauing the flack catcher.”  Abate is the flack catcher.  Here is the caption the Times put under that picture: “John B. DesBarres, a lawyer whose home was flooded, was met with applause as he spoke out against the Army Corps of Engineers at the meeting.”

These neighbors are going to tell this story to others.  This kind of bullying of public officials is going to be identified as “good citizenship,” as behavior not to be deplored, but to be lauded.  Treating it that way is only going to make it more common and the self-inflicted gap between citizen expectations and government performance gets wider and wider and more to be condemned.

Mike Abate is really good about it.

Mr. Abate stayed in the worship center after the meeting ended to answer residents’ questions. He defended the agency’s decision to not prerelease water until the rain starts coming down, and said he didn’t mind the heated comments. “I work for the government,” Mr. Abate said. “I’m a public servant. If I need to serve the public by getting yelled at, that’s O.K.”

I like it that he stayed until he wore the dissidents down.  That’s a really good thing to do.  On the other hand, he thinks he is serving the public by presenting himself as a piñata and I am not convinced at all that that is true.

His taking the abuse DesBarres is dealing out—and is modeling as good behavior for his fellow citizens— is playing the confirming role.  The combination of the two roles defines them as a natural pair and therefore as solid and enduring.  As “normal;” maybe even as a duty.  The bureaucrat who thinks getting yelled at is part of his job and the angry lawyer who thinks personalizing the flood is his job.

If I am right about that, then we all lose by DesBarres’ irrational anger (the third charge, not the first two) and by Abate’s idea that he is serving the public by taking it.  A direct confrontation of DesBarres might be inflammatory in the long run, but if he is supported by his agency all the way up and if what he rejects is the abuse, not the hard questions, it might repair a little of the breach he and DesBarres are creating.

DesBarres wants as Us v. Them scenario.  He wants Abate to be held personally accountable for not getting flooded out.  Us v. Them is going to hurt us all.  It will hurt Abate’s children and grandchildren and DesBarres’ children and grandchildren.  It valorizes irrational personal vilification and it is wrong.

Then this:

Mr. DesBarres approached Mr. Abate after the meeting. Mr. DesBarres was done venting. He wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. He extended his arm to Mr. Abate, and the two men shook hands.

I see that the reported does go so far as to call DesBarres’ outburst “venting.”   DesBarres wants to be sure, privately, that the outrage he perpetrated publicly was OK.  He probably said, “It wasn’t anything personal.”  And the two men shook hands and the public damage caused by that redefinition of what nature  does, will continue to spread.

[1]  Wikipedia: “Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or “mau-mauing” (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising) from intimidating young Blacks nd Samoans, who are seen as reveling in the newfound vulnerability of “the Man. ”.

[2]  Which I thought, even at the time, was eminently fair.  He had run for election and had won and that gave him the right to choose me as his flack catcher.  I liked most of the job a great deal but I didn’t like that part.

[3]  Eventually, I did what Mike Abate did.  I just outlasted her.  I took all the questions and all the rebukes and asked if she had any more until she didn’t have any more.  Then she stopped calling.



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