“You will govern in the interests of rage…”

This week, Jenni Russell, a columnist for The Times of London offered some language I would like to think further about.  She was writing about Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his electoral strategist, Dominic Cummings, but I think that we are facing these same questions in the U. S.

We face, for instance, “the rage or left-behind…voters.”  We have strategy to win seats by focusing on, inciting, and harnessing rage.  We have the language “not of traditional political disagreement, but of betrayal.  We have a government “under huge pressure to cater to …anger.”

And we face the consequences pointed to in this conclusion: “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage.”  I think that is what caught my attention.  It seems to me that it blows right by a lot of more common American electoral patterns.

The way it used to be

It was once thought, for instance, that “the people” were the best judge of their own interests.  The notion that the people had “interests” and would reward candidates that promised to cater to them was never very high-minded.  These “interests” played, in the electoral system, the role that greed played in the economic system.  It was ugly in each instance, but across the system, it played out to the benefit of all.  That was the idea.

outrage 2Then there came the shift that I associate with Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?  They don’t “vote their own interests,” Frank said, meaning that they don’t vote their “real” (economic) interests.  The response was that they were “values voters” and voted their real—religious and social—interests, not being dissuaded by the economic promises.

We are now, it seems to me, in the next stage.  Religious/social values are “interests,” still.  They are not the ones the first analysts imagined, but they are plausible goals of public policy.  But “inciting and harnessing rage” cannot be kept within that framework.  Rage has its value in its expression, not in its effect.  Rage is not a tool.

It may be authentic or not.  It may be induced or not.  It may be understood or not.  But there is no plausible policy outcome of rage.  Rage validates itself to you as you express it either on the grounds that it feels so good or that it feels so right.  It would be a detour, at this point, to examine just why it feels so good or why the “authenticity” of the rage validates it [1]

Rage is, therefore, not a “position” on the political spectrum, as liberalism and conservatism are and cannot be satisfied by a political response as liberals and conservatives can be.  

On the other hand, given the role that rage plays in keeping the outrageous in power, it is not satisfying it but continually stoking it that the outrageous must do.  And the idea that those who owe their current position to popular outrage must—they have to—has evaded my attention until I read this article.

If a woman were elected president because she was so beautiful and maintained heroutrage 4 power by being beautiful at every public appearance, sooner or later someone would begin to speculate on what it must cost her to have to be beautiful all the time.  There is no way she could present herself as being beautiful in public appearances because she likes being beautiful—that it is, in other words,  a choice she is making because she wants to.  Like this one?

So what happens to President Trump on the day he gets tired of being outrageous?  He attended a World Series game in Washington D. C. this year and was booed.  If it is true, as the “British insider” told Jenni Russell, that “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage,” then I think the answer is that President Trump is forced to elicit rage everywhere he goes.  I think that is why he was booed at the World Series game.

President Trump gives every evidence of enjoying his outrageous behavior, so perhaps he does.  But as with the presidential beauty queen, she may very well enjoy being beautiful, but I am quite sure she does not enjoy being forced to be beautiful all the time.  So let’s say that President Trump does not enjoy being forced to top one daily outrage with yet another and another.  If he must “govern in the interests of rage,” he really doesn’t have a choice.  The daily outrages are required and he must commit them in good spirits or bad. [2]

outrage 5Behaving outrageously when you are outraged must feel pretty good, but being required to behave outrageously no matter how you are feeling, likely does not satisfy anything fundamental.  So we may be, now, in “he who rides the tiger” territory. [3]  Donald Trump climbed on the tiger when he “campaigned in fury,” knowing he could not possibly win.  How he is forced to govern in the interests of rage, because he supporters will eat him alive if he does not.

Notice the transition from “political disagreement” to “betrayal.”  If President Trump is in the business of “stoking resentment and populism;” if he has been presenting “opponents as saboteurs;” if he has been whipping up fury against Washington [Jenni Russell’s article said “Westminster:”] elites, then anything that looked like getting off the tiger could be fraught.

His base is now tuned to “betrayal;” the business of “my honorable opponent will disagree, but….” has been left behind.  The people who oppose the Trump goals or even the Trump tactics can be tarred as “saboteurs.”  In the U. S., the press is severely limited by having been successfully labeled the purveyors of “fake news.”  And an electoral sector like that will not treat signs of moderation kindly.  They will retaliate if the liberal elites will give them room enough to do that.


Jenni Russell offered what I thought was a perceptive look at the dilemma facing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  I thought that most of the difficulty she foresaw for Johnson was applicable to Mr. Trump.  That was a new perspective on our situation.  And then the notion that, despite President Trump’s apparent relish for outrage, he if were forced to keep on producing it whether he wants to or not—that was the point of the beauty queen metaphor—really intrigued me.

[1]  That is a long and unhappy story with its roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th Century.

[2]  This reminds me of Ida, a Polish movie about a novice who wants to take her orders as a nun, but is sent out to square matters with her family first.  She comes suddenly into quite a bit of money and begins cranking out sins one after another.  These are “sins” as they would appear to a nun and she performs them all with not the slightest flicker of enjoyment, as if she were checking off all the boxes.  Then she walks back to the convent to take her holy orders.

[3]  “He who rides the tiger is afraid to dismount.”

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I wanna be a hero

I don’t know how it is with girls, but there is a persistent attraction among adolescent boys toward “heroism.” It can take really ugly forms as well as really attractive ones. I think there is nothing good or bad about being drawn toward heroism as such. I think there are good heroisms and bad heroisms.

I got to thinking about this because of a column by Joanna Schroeder in the New York Times from Sunday, October 13. The author was concerned about the attractiveness of the far right in online settings and its appeal to “heroism.”

hero 1Ms. Schroeder is concerned about the vulnerability of white males, her sons in particular, to the extremist appeals that are available online. Certainly she should be and so should we all. But I would like to take her column as a starting place and to think about just what we have on hand to oppose it.

The ideal, it seems to me would be to oppose “our kind of heroism” to “their kind of heroism.” It just might be, I am afraid, that we don’t have one of our kind. What we are asking our adolescent boys to do is to forego heroism entirely,. That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

Thus example from the column illustrates some key dimensions of the problem.

The next red flag: I watched my son scroll through Instagram and double-click on an image, lighting up a heart that signifies a “like.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said, snatching his phone. “Was that Hitler?”

The meme showed a man in contemporary clothing tipping off the Nazi leader to the invasion of Normandy. My son said he hadn’t even read it, he’d just assumed the time traveler was trying to kill Hitler, not help him. He was shocked and embarrassed when I pointed out the actual message: that it would have been better if the Holocaust had continued.

“I’m not stupid enough to like a Hitler meme on purpose, Mom,” he said. “And anyway, I’m sure my friend shared it to be ironic.”

Once again, Ms. Schroeder is writing about parenting and I am writing about heroism. But before we get there, let’s look at the kind of attention the mother and the son paid to this online clip. [1] When he saw someone in modern dress talking to Hitler, he assumed it had to do with opposing Hitler in some way. Why else would his friend have put it online and if it came from a friend, what is wrong with “liking” it:?

This changes the focus from whose communication this is—a question of “belonging” to “what it says,” a question of meaning. And not just meaning in some immediate and concrete sense, but “meaning” in the sense that Hitler connects to Holocaust which connects with a friend who has a death camp tattoo on her arm. The son is a lot more interested in belonging and that means “liking” a lot of things, too many, really, to have to read them carefully. [2]

So there is a dimension of this little episode that raises the question of how one reads (carefully and analytically, or casually and informally) and whether meaning or solidarity is more important.  That isn’t what Ms. Schroeder is writing about, but I think they are essential elements of the dilemma.

So what does Ms. Schroeder have in mind for her sons? What are her goals for them? One of the kids used the term “snowflake” (easily offended) and she responded this way:

Who is more of a delicate snowflake? The person who wants people to stop racial slurs or mocking of gay people or the person who is upset and offended by the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays?”

She wants to say that good behavior is more in line with stopping racial slurs or mocking gay people than it is in line with being easily offended by the substitution of “holidays” for “Christmas.” And she is right. That’s what good character calls for. What does heroism call for? Fox News says there is “a war on Christmas.” Fighting a war to save a cherished American institution could be called heroism if you pushed it hard enough. Refusing to mock gay people could not be called heroic no matter how hard you tried.

Or consider this one:

But of course, it’s not just that we want to prevent our sons from becoming perpetrators of mass shootings. We want to raise them to be the kind of men who would never march with the neo-Nazis …we want to keep them from becoming supporters of the racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and gender- or sexuality-based hatred that is on the rise.

This way of dealing with the kids’ yearning for heroism is to stop them from being supporters of bad causes. Not neo-Nazis, not racists, not anti-Semites, not Islamophobes, etc. But there is nothing heroic in simply not being a supporter of bad causes. If you are hungry and thirsty for heroism, this list of “not doing things” will leave you as hungry and thirsty as you were at the beginning.

I really think there is not choice but action against the odds. Do a brave thing; a daring thing. Do it in the company of people who will call themselves your sisters and brothers and be willing to go down in flames. That’s an adolescent notion of heroism.

It is hard for a stable liberal democracy to produce such causes. Hating the “other” evenhero 2 if you are no supposed to could be construed as heroic. Affirming all people despite their differences probably cannot be called “heroic” no matter how hard you try.

I think the message implicit in Ms. Schroeder’s column is that guiding teenage sons to generous and affirming behavior when their friends are out there testing the limits is going to be a tough sell. Telling adolescent boys to forego their hopes of being heroes is going to be a tough sell also. The extremists will aways have better access to the hopeless hero status, but I think we could do better than we are doing.

[1] Calling this a “meme” stretches the word out of any useful range of meanings, it seems to me.
[2] I am familiar with the problem. To get from one screen to another, I have to say that I have read (I have not) and agree to (what are my options, really?) the massive block of legal language it offers.

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Catching Eli’s Attention

The story of old Eli and young Samuel has been told a lot of times.  The story I have always heard is how Samuel learned, finally, to hear God’s voice.  It’s a really good story.  But lately, I have been noticing what Eli hears.

Eli 1Eli can’t hear God speaking to him anymore.  He did once.  Now he needs help and Samuel provides the help Eli needs.  He doesn’t know he is doing that.  Samuel is innocent entirely of God’s plan for Eli, but he helps Eli to hear God by doing all the things he is supposed to do.  It’ a sobering thought.

Let’s look at it from God’s point of view.  How do you get a message to Eli when Eli has stopped listening?  Answer: you call Samuel.  I chose this picture because Eli looks really irked and Samuel looks clueless.

Samuel has no idea what is going on.  He hears his name being called and there are only two of them there, so he knows it is Eli calling.  So he runs to Eli to see what he wants.  Eli has no idea yet what is going on, but he is sure that he did not call Samuel and he tells Samuel that.  Samuel doesn’t know how to understand what Eli is telling him—might not believe it either—but he goes back to bed as Eli has told him to do.

Note the difference at this point between understanding what is going on and doing what you are supposed to do.

Samuel goes back to sleep and hears his name being called again.  Since it can only be Eli, he goes back to see Eli and gets the same answer.  Eli might be puzzling a little about why Samuel keeps hearing his name being called, but he is way past doing anything about it.  Only being wakened again and again out of a sound sleep by a very obedient little boy is going to raise that question in his mind.

The discrepancy between what Samuel thinks is going on and what Eli suspects is going on has now gotten sharp.  Eli now needs another explanation for why his servant keeps coming up and waking him.  This is a big deal.  He has lived for many years without stumbling on this discrepancy.  It is the equivalent of the harassment tactic of phoning a victim’s number every hour all night.  At some point, the victim will say, “Who are you and what do you want.”

Samuel knows that only he and Eli are there.  That’s how he knows who is calling him.  But Eli knows—now that he has been forced to consider it—that  there are three there: Eli knows Yahweh is there as well.  Samuel does not know that.  That means that if Samuel keeps getting called and Eli knows he is not doing the calling, it is God.  

It has been a long time since Eli has heard anything from God.  He has learned how not to hear God.  If spiritual sensitivity could be compared to wearing hearing aids, Eli has taken his hearing aids out.  He is slowly dying and everything is fine, but he can’t keep Samuel from waking him up and, eventually, he can’t help noticing what is going on.

God’s project of contacting Eli is now half done.  Eli is paying attention.  So God tells Samuel everything Samuel needs to hear, including a bunch of really nasty stuff about Eli.  The next step is for Samuel to break the bad news to Eli and he doesn’t want to.

But Eli has been awakened now, and from a much more substantial sleep that the one Samuel kept interrupting;  he understands, now, that the little boy is not going to want to tell him the bad stuff.  So he instructs Samuel very directly to tell him all the bad stuff and Samuel does.

17Eli asked, ‘What message did he give you? Please do not hide it from me. May God bring unnameable ills on you and worse ones, too if you hide from me anything of what he said to you.’ 18Samuel then told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Eli said, ‘He is Yahweh; let him do what he thinks good.’

As I was reading over this familiar story and seeing if from another angle, I rememberedeli 2 a very bad movie about God.  It is Oh, God, with George Burns playing God.  He wants to get a message to Jerry Landers (John Denver), who doesn’t believe in God in any way practical enough to allow God to give instructions.  God gives Jerry a written note inviting him to come and see Him.  Jerry wades it up and throws it away.  The next day, that note is in the outer leaves of a head of lettuce.  Jerry wads it up and throws it away.  Then it shows up on his pillow that night.

Jerry still doesn’t believe in God, but he wants his life back with the same intensity with which Eli wants his night’s sleep back.  So he goes to the place where God is and hears what God wants to tell him and is forever changed.

You can see why the story of Eli reminded me of the story of Jerry.  But in Oh God, the role of Samuel is played by a piece of paper that magically reappears over and over until Jerry gets tired of throwing it away.  If you don’t have a magic piece of paper, you will need someone like Samuel.

Who’s like Samuel?

Samuel is, in this story, God’s catalyst.  He has no idea what is going on, but he does his job.  He is, in that one sense, inert.  God knows what is going on and Eli once knew what was going on, but Samuel does not.  Samuel knows his duty and he does his duty and in that way, God is able to get Eli’s attention without using a magically reappearing piece of paper.

I look around, sometimes, for what I think of as “meaningful work.”  By that, I mean work that means something to me.  I’m not sure I have the patience to do the catalytic work Samuel was called to do.

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The Greater Good and Its Rivals

Of all the ways to “look at things,” I would like to explore one particular set that is currently bedeviling us. These ways of looking at things are based on value premises that are contradictory, if either is allowed to dominate,  but they can be integrated harmoniously under some circumstances.

One way of looking at things gives priority to “the good of all.” The right thing to do is the thing that will leave everyone better off. The other looks at the achievement of personal goals. Succeeding at what you are trying to do is not only invigorating, it is primal. We would not have gotten to this point in our history without it.

I know this is an argument that has been going on for a long time, but I keep stubbing my toe on it in casual conversation, so I thought I’d examine it again.

See now 1983

I ran into this in a new and unforgettable form in 1983. I was legislative assistant to arationale 1 newly elected State Representative (House District #1 in Oregon) [1] He thought I was politically naive (which was certainly true, although not in the way he thought) so he would bring me into the office from time to time and ask me a question. I thought it felt a good bit like a catechism. The question was, “What is a good idea?” The correct answer was, “Sixteen and 31.” [2] So, roughly, if you can sell it to a majority, it’s a good idea. [3]

And he was right about me in a way. I was much more vulnerable than I am now to the idea that proposed legislation that would be beneficial to everyone ought to be passed on the grounds that it would be beneficial to everyone. There is a “we” in there. It is a category we all belong to and by pulling together, we can achieve great things. What I discovered, over and over, was that people who were being asked to vote for something [4] needed to see that it was in their interest, somehow, to vote for it. The question, always implicit and sometimes also explicit, was, “Why would I do that?” The answer, “Because it’s the right thing to do” was nearly always thought to be inadequate.

The lesson I learned, that has served me on beyond the legislative context is that people, by and large, join movements that are in their interest. When you explain to them what voting yes will do for something they already care about, they are perfectly willing to go along. I might say, inventing the context just for this example, “It will help a lot of school children and it will free up money for the irrigation subsidies you have been proposing.” When he stands up on the floor and votes “Aye,” I am thinking of the school children and he is thinking about the irrigation machinery, but the Clerk of the House just records the vote as “Aye.”

Is there really a tradeoff?

Not necessarily. Sometimes actions taken for personal reasons have the effect of benefitting the whole system. The the rationales and clearly incompatible. Adam Smith, the foundational economist (see illustration below), tried to marry to two motivations by inventing an “Invisible Hand,” (the capital letters are supposed to suggest a deity) with will transform actions taken by individuals for their own benefit into a pattern of outcomes that are good for everyone. According to Smith’s rationale, what is done for private gain has the effect of producing public benefit.

It’s a very attractive argument, but capitalism, the economic system he was justifying, doesn’t actually work the to benefit of all. It works to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. It is, in that way, like evolution, where progress is made on the corpses of all the species whose adaptation was comparatively inadequate. So the less good adaptors failed to the benefit of the better adaptors and that is how good things happened. The new modern giraffe with the long neck wins and thousands of almost-giraffes with less long necks, die.


So let’s say I want to propose a new plant-based menu for the CCRC [5] where I live. I could start with the “It’s the right thing to do” arguments and I could produce studies that show how much better everyone will be if they accept the new plant-based menu. My interest in bringing this example up has nothing to do with food; it has to do with rationales.

rationale 4People who like more “meat” [6] will wonder why they should shift from a menu they like to a menu they do not like. That seems to me a reasonable question. There is a good tight relationship between the preferences of the resident carnivores and their meal choices. They like to eat meat and so they choose meat dishes from the menu. The counterargument, that they really should have different preferences than the ones they do have, will sound faint to their ears and if it persists, it will become annoying. Doing what you like to do—provided that it is not illegal, immoral, or fattening—is your right.

Notice how taut the line is kept between my preferences and my chosen actions. It is hard to ignore that. Note how loose the line is between the overall benefits that will come to all the residents of the CCRC and my nightly experience of dinner. From the standpoint of the rationales alone, the more immediate one, the personal one, will always win out and the system advantages will always be foregone.

It’s the Tragedy of the Commons (again) but with attention paid this time only to the rationales being used.

Overcoming Resistance

Anyone who has ever tried it has learned that telling people that they ought to feel differently than they do feel is an exercise in futility. People quite rightly object that they feel the way they feel about the matter at hand and they intend to pursue the course of action that feeling indicates. If they like eating meat, for instance, they would have to be given a reason for not eating it that is so cogent and so immediate and so personal that they will act in some way that their feelings so not dictate at the moment,.

Is there a solution?

Of course. All we need to do is to set up a system in which the behaviors (and subsequently, the hearts and minds) are those that are in the public interest. In the well-known case of grazing your cattle on the commons, you refuse to graze more than “your share, ” that if you do it, others will do it and the common grazing area will be destroyed. This is not one of those capitalist moments where private knowing greed is supposed to produce the common good. Nor is it reasonable to expect a given owner to refuse to enrich himself by grazing more than his share of the commons. The fact is that some will and others will not.

rationale 5So neither rationale—neither do the right thing nor do what you want to do—is going to work here. What works, instead, is an approach toCommon Pool Resources (CPR), such as Elinor Ostrom considers in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. . In Törbel, Switzerland, for instance they live with the possibility of private overgrazing at public cost and they deal with it. How? First, they inculcate the attitudes that will make voluntary compliance the normal thing. [7] Second, they rely on all the members of the association to monitor and report infractions. The association also hires people to monitor infractions, but they are not expected to do all the work, only to supplement the work the residents do. Third, they punish violators with both disapproval of their neighbors and with financial penalties.

I surveyed the two rationales above. This is neither, in a way, because it is both. It emphasizes the value of preserving the common resources, on the one hand, and on avoiding the punishments that the neighbors and law enforces would levy. [8] The first is systemic and remote; the second personal and immediate.


Either kind of rationale, taken alone, has deficiencies. Telling people [9] that “they really oughta wanna,” which is the way the systemic solutions are most often marketed, doesn’t work very often, and it annoys the target audience. [10] Telling people that you understand that they have to do whatever they think is in their own interest, is an easy sell, but is disastrous to the system. Building structures that encourage people to make choices that sustain the system and that identify and punish choices that selfishly harm the system is very promising. I am not quite sure whether it would work at the CCRC where I live, but I think people should adopt it anyway because…you know…it’s the right thing to do.

[1] I proposed that we devise a mural for the small bulletin board that faced the hallway outside our cubicle. It would have pictures from various settings proclaiming “We’re number 1!” Football teams, banks, insurance companies, soft drinks, whatever. Then we would say that what is a claim for them is a simple fact for us. We are, in fact, #1. I was not able to sell the idea and it still disappoints me a little.
[2] Those would be majority votes in the 30-member Senate and the 60 member house.
[3] I don’t really think he believed that. I think he thought it was a useful corrective for me.
[4] Or to lobby for it or to support it or to contribute money to people who are promising to vote for it—I’m putting all those in the same category.
[5] A Continuing Care Retirement Community, in my case, Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon.
[6] For purposes of convenience, any food a vegan would reject will be considered “meat.”
[7] Obviously, this works only for a closed system, so all the members of the association are alert for incursions into their pastures by outsiders.
[8] Please note: violators are not told to go back to where they came from. They pay their fines; they may or may not demonstrate a public penitence; and then life goes on.
[9] Robert Mager and Peter Pipe have written a very good book with a world class subtitle. The title—informative if not imaginative—is Analyzing Performance Problems. But the subtitle includes the phrase “you really oughta wanna,” which I think captures the dilemma of the first motivation taken alone.
[10] I chose that particular phrasing for the benefit of Mark Twain fans. You know who you are.

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Shared “reality”

The Crucial Text

Most of the material below has been taken from Neal Stephenson’s novel Seven Eves.  My strongest interest in this small slice of the novel is the expression with which it ends.  It is: “consensual historical hallucination.”

I will add in this section the excerpts I have made.  Then I will try to put the larger narrative frame in place.  Finally, I will try to unpack this fascinating combination of words.  Consensual historical hallucination?  Really?

Tekla had been an easier target, where Aida was concerned, since she had stated soSeveneves 1 forthrightly what she considered desirable in a future race.[1] It was easy enough to see that the children of Tekla were going to be strong, disciplined, formidable fighters. And one did not have to be a military genius to understand that fighting, for the foreseeable future—several millennia of being bottled up in space colonies—was going to be up close and personal.

Aida was not about to see her children dominated by the sons and daughters of Tekla.  She might simply have done what Tekla did, and created versions of herself modified for certain traits associated with athleticism.

 Instead, having become fascinated by the odd detail in her genetic report, she had embarked on a program to reawaken the Neanderthal DNA that, or so she imagined, had been slumbering in her and her ancestors’ nuclei for tens of thousands of years. It was a somewhat insane idea, and in any case she didn’t have enough Neanderthal in her to make it feasible, but she did produce a race of people with vaguely Neanderthal-like features, and in later centuries the processes of Caricaturization, Isolation, and Enhancement—which had affected all the races to some extent—had wrought especially pronounced changes on this subrace. 

Gene sequences taken from the toe of an actual Neanderthal skeleton, found on Old Earth and sequenced before Zero, were put to use. Old Earth paleontology journals had been data-mined for stats on bone length and muscle attachment so that those could be hard-coded into the Neoander wet-ware. 

The man sitting at the end of the table was the artificial product of breeding and of genetic engineering, but, had he been sent back in time to prehistoric Europe, he would have been indistinguishable, at least in his outward appearance, from genuine Neanderthals.

Their Neanderthal heritage had been fabricated out of whole cloth, yet it was taken more or less seriously by everyone—it was a sort of consensual historical hallucination. 

Narrative Context

To provide the context for this expression, I am going to have to fill in a very small part of the book.  You need to know, so that you don’t get entirely lost, that all human beings (so far as we know for most of the book, including this part) have died except for these seven women, [2] who produce a “race” of people each.

seveneves 2You will see the names Tekla and Aida.  They are two of the Eves and the races that derive from them are known as Teklans and Aidans.  There are also subraces, one of which are called Neoanders, one of whom is referred to as “the man sitting at the end of the table.”  His name is Langobard.  This is Eve Tekla in the movie version.

So Langobard is an Aidan because he is of the genetic line of Eve Aida. He  “is” a Neanderthal.  Let me explain why I put “is” in quotes.  He is the product of a great deal of genetic manipulation, but the starting point of all the manipulation is “gene sequences taken from the toe of an actual Neanderthal skeleton, found on Old Earth.”  In addition, “Old Earth paleontology journals had been data-mined for stats on bone length and muscle attachment so that those could be hard-coded into the Neoander wet-ware.”  Langobard is as close to a genuine Neanderthal as anyone will ever see.

Is he a “Neanderthal?”  He is granted the status of Neanderthal.  Without any question, the word “consensual” in the phrase we are unpacking shows that.  “Historical” may refer to the period of history he is emulating or to the period where his status has been granted.  I lean toward the latter.

But what is the hallucination?  The principal referent of “hallucinate” is visual (the other senses may be involved, too) so it might refer to how Langobard looks.  Except it doesn’t.  You could plop him down on Old Earth in the company of naturally produced Neanderthals and he would blend right in.  It is the “heritage” that is hallucinated.  

Everyone has agreed, apparently, to grant that there is a body of people who are bestseveneves 3 thought of as modern day products of Old Earth’s Neanderthals, both of their physiology and their culture.  Langobard’s actual “cultural history” comes from the time when there were enough Neoanders (modern Neanderthals) to build a culture, which could not happen before the genetic manipulations of Aida and the natural population distortions referred to above as “caricaturization, isolation, and enhancement.”  Let’s say less that a thousand years of “history.”  Not 5000, which separates Langobard from the actual DNA that was harvested to create his subrace.  And Eve Aida, the progenitor of Langobard.

If this is what Stephenson has in mind, the “hallucination” is simply the exchange of the real Neanderthal history on Old Earth (surviving only in the DNA they harvested) for the real Neoander history of the most recent centuries.  That is was “taken more or less seriously by everyone” is a choice they have made.  As a choice, it cannot be a hallucination.

I think he has an agreed upon myth in mind.  It is a “shared reality,” as in my title, but it is not a mistake.  Nor is it true.

[1] Neal Stephenson, SevenEves.New York: HarperCollins, 2015, pp. 684-85 and 689-90.

[2]  Ron Daniels is making the movie and you should see who he has cast as the Eves.  I have included the pictures of the two whose names I use here.

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Impeachment 101

I don’t have a view, myself, about whether impeaching Donald Trump (hereafter, CHEB, the Current Head of the Executive Branch) is a good idea or not. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, when she authorized the first tentative step toward impeachment, “No man is above the law.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I think we would have to call it an aspirational statement.

No one is above the law

Here’s why I say that. We were in Scotland recently and while I was there, I learned aimpeach 6 good deal more than I had ever wanted to know about clan governance. Clans cohere around the leader. Until, of course, someone kills him and takes over, at which point they cohere around the new leader. “The law of the clan” is a fiction for the same reason the “law of the mob” was fiction in Chicago when it was being run by Al Capone. These are “leader-driven” not “law-driven” societies.

I think we might be better off thinking of some such notion as “outside the law”  than “above the law.” These leaders are people to whom the law does not pertain. These leaders are not, in the eyes of their respective clans, “illegal;” they are a-legal.” That is why I referred to Speaker Pelosi’s standard—no man is above the law—as aspirational.

It is a commonplace that the U. S. is divided into “tribes” [1] but the implications of that  observation, which is correct, are not always made clear. When you go to a collection of tribes and ask whether they want to follow their leader or to submit to someone’s notion of “law and order,” they will choose the leader. It is unnatural—I use that word with care—to prefer to be governed by an abstract set of norms than by a person you trust. There are some strata in American society who have achieved that unnatural standard and maintained it across several eras of American life, but the strata are thin and few and they are routinely dismissed by most of the population. The U. S. is more tribal now than it has been since the decade leading up to the Civil War. [2]

In that sense, the tribalism of the Congress, which is more formal, simply lags behind the tribalism of the electorate. The Constitution, in specifying that the President may be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” refused to specify just what actions could be called that and tossed the ball over to the political process. That is what the Framers intended.

As a result, the House of Representatives, which has the power to impeach, may call anything it wants “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is true that CHEB has broken new ground in the areas of obstruction of justice, of collusion with foreign leaders, and in treason, but he need not have done all that to be impeached. Just as “the Constitution says what the Supreme Court says it says,” so “high crimes and misdemeanors” are what the House says they are. [3] The House could impeach CHEB for having an astounding sequence of bad hair days provided that they called the offense, “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Is it a good idea?

Some people say we really no longer have a choice. The longer we go on saying nothing, the more complicit we are in his crimes. In this view, it is courageous and moral to point to the crimes and call for impeachment and this is the case NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME OF THOSE ACTIONS WILL BE. Sorry for the shouting. The case here is that when we consent to this kind of behavior on the part of our elected leader, we have lost a moral battle we will never be able to win back. This is, in the eyes of people who hold this perspective, a “crossing the Rubicon” sort of moment. [4]

They may be right. It may be that in allowing the President to do unprecedentedly scandalous things and to be approved of for them, we have finally ceded the high ground and will never be able to get it back. On the other hand “the moral high ground” requires a law and order perspective and the liberals are very nearly (not quite) as tribal as the Trump voters. In a nation as divided as ours “the moral high ground” is just a rhetorical tool of one of the tribes. It is not, any longer, a way of mediating among the tribes.

If that is what the “moral culture” critics are afraid of losing, it is already lost.

Other people say we do have a choice. These are the “keep your eye on the ball” people, of whom, I should pause to say, I am one. I want Donald Trump out of office; I want a Democratic House and Senate; I want a fair electoral system; I want aggressive conservation measures; I want decent sustainable treatment of immigrants. I want a lot of other things too and I want to take a position on impeachment that maximizes my chances of getting as many of those as I can. If impeachment proceedings help, fine. If not, fine. Keep your eye on the ball [5]

CHEB is not going to be convicted by the Senate no matter how high the impeachment count gets in the House. He is not going to be removed from office that way. He can, of course, be voted out of office, which I think is the surest way to do it and the best way to pursue the collection of goals I specified above. I have always felt that Speaker Pelosi agreed with me on that, but she has suddenly changed and I don’t really understand why. I am quite confident that she has not gone over to the “moral critique” camp. She is still a numbers counter. What does she know that I don’t? It makes me less sure that relying on the 2020 election results is the best way to get all the things I want.

Finally, some people argue that a premature impeachment—an impeachment with no likely conviction—will still weaken CHEB. All his dirty laundry hung out in public view and producing public disgust. I don’t think so. At a certain point, you have to decide whether the dirtiness of the laundry is worse or the mean-spiritedness of the people hanging it out. We (our tribe) keep pointing to how dirty the laundry is. They (the other tribe) keep pointing to the distorted and shriveled morality of the people hanging the laundry out. Oh…they are hypocrites too, of course.

That’s the way if worked for Bill Clinton, if you recall. The more grievous the charges the Republicans brought, the more they seemed like bullies who might turn on people like me when they were done with poor ol’ Bill, who had, after all, only showed his common humanity. Clinton’s popularity went up sharply as a result of that impeachment and the Republicans’ went sharply down.

I don’t want that to happen to me and I don’t want it to happen to us.

[1] I am going to shift now to talking about tribes rather than clans. It sounds more contemporary, for one thing, and it offers a useable adjectival form, “tribal.”
[2] The standard that political scientist Robert A. Dahl used in measuring the degree of division in the U. S. House was ingenious: how many things do you need to know about a Representative to correctly predict his vote? When it got down to one—you need to know only one thing (region, in the case of the Civil War) then you are justified in calling the nation “divided.”
[3] There is the practical matter of living in glass houses and throwing stones, but that is practical only in the long term and we are not living in a “long term” era.
[4] Joseph N. Welch is celebrated by liberals for saying to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “At long last, sir, have you left no sense of decency,” but “at long last” points to how very long he waited to say that.
[5] I realize I have defined “the ball” as the political and policy outcomes most important to me, but I would be willing to share the agenda space with others.

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The first time I saw this wonderful cartoon, I thought it was just funny, The second time, I thought it was witty and funny—not at all a common combination. I still think it is witty and funny—the whole Olympic gesture with the scores on cares the way they used to be displayed—but now I am thinking it is a little sad, also.bon voyage 5.jpg

“Who are you to judge?” [1]

We always imagine when we see the scores held up by the judges that they know what a good performance is. We might imagine, to take the case of platform diving, that the judges had been very good divers themselves in times past and they know a great dive when they see it. That doesn’t work for this picture, I’m afraid. The caterpillars have never been butterflies.
They have no experience at all with what they are assessing.

The next thing that occurs to me is that whoever knows what, only one of these creatures is actually flying. The caterpillars can imagine, they can hypothesize, they can project…but when it comes to saying what it feels like, the butterfly takes the stage.

There is a distinction to be made—it isn’t valid for everything, as I will note below—between those who are are actually doing something and those who are only criticizing. Criticizing is pretty cheap by comparison with flying. [2] If you are flying, you can fly in the wrong direction, you can run into something, you can fall out of the sky. Leaving aside for the moment, predators who feast on caterpillars, nothing all that bad can happen to you while you are just sitting there criticizing someone else.

I get the chance to preach every now and then. I’m not a very good preacher—not at least to the congregation I get access to—but going through the process has the effect of making me a good deal less critical than I would be otherwise. [3] When you spend a lot of your own time backstage, and when you are a very occasional preacher, you spend a lot of time backstage, you know how many sudden inspirations would be meaningless to the people you are going to preach to. You know how different it is to build a story that means a lot to you and to know with that clear sinking feeling that it will not mean anything when you actually have a chance to give that sermon. A good sermon is a picture that makes sense from the standpoint of the people who can see it. You just got done drawing it; you can’t see it the way they can.

But I’m good at judging

So the other side of this question is that an activity—flying, in this cartoon—is chosen as real and other things—judging, in this cartoon—are demoted to being “not quite real.” That is the source of the jab about teachers being people who can’t actually do anything. “Those who can,” the slam goes, “do, and those who cannot, teach.” Some activities are “really doing something,: in this insult and teaching others to do that thing are not really doing anything.

So those who can’t box can teach boxing; those who can’t play tennis can be tennis coaches, and those whose own lives are frightful messes can still counsel others about how to improve their relationships. In each of those examples, there is a real activity (boxing, for instance) and a fake activity (teaching boxing). But I maintain that as appealing as that form of grievance is, it is false. Both boxing and teaching boxing are “real.”

Let’s look at it from the other side. There are superb performers who have no idea how they do what they do. They make terrible teachers. To teach, you have to know what works AND how to help others acquire the knowledge or the skill required. Neither the knowing nor the helping require a past experience with doing. That does not argue, of course, that the experience of competent practice might not help; it argues only that doing and teaching are not the same thing. Both are “real” but they are different.

And the counselor who is quite skilled at helping couples see what is impeding their pursuit of a better marriage may not be good at being married—at least not to his current spouse. Does the fact that he is not a good husband mean that he is not a good counselor, as if one activity were “real” and the other only a pale reflection. I don’t think so.

And although it takes all the fun out of the cartoon to say so, there is no reason to believe that the “judges” are not correct. The fact that they cannot fly doesn’t mean that they can’t see. And 8.66667 reflects quite a lot of agreement, when you stop to think about it.

[1] OK, I’ve abused the quotation. The word translated “judge” in this passage would better have been translated as “condemn,” but my use of it requires that it be able to have meaning in both contexts and “judge” does that for me.
[2] Actually, these days almost everything is cheap by comparison with flying.
[3] I’ve been a college professor most of my life and my sermons still sound mostly like lectures.

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