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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Super Wednesday

Since I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, I have no idea what will happen in all those primaries. What I want to happen is pretty clear to me though and I think this might be the right time to think about it.

Biden 1The Democratic party is split again. There was a time when Democrats were notoriously disorganized at the national level. [1] It was this phase that caused Will Rogers to quip, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

The Democratic party under FDR and his successors were dominant; a ruling party. But that was achieved by uniting “the solid South” with the “liberal North.” It was a great way to win elections, but when it came to policy choices, it tended to split north and south.

Then the Republicans managed to do what would have amazed Will Rogers: they organized the Democratic party. The “Southern strategy,” Lee Atwater’s strategy to appeal to Southern racism trading, by his calculations, five white votes for every black vote they got. Obviously, this shift of “the Solid South” from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican, changed the Democrats. They were now—finally—integrated on policy questions. Rather than being “the liberal wing,” they were now “the liberal party.”

The current split, the one that is now stressing Democrats, is between the programmatic left (democratic socialism) and the left of center pragmatists. You can see that split in the orientation of this year’s candidates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent the programmatic left. The leader of the centrist pragmatists today is Joe Biden Jr. We’ll see how things are on Super Wednesday.

Implicit in this one split are several subordinate choices. One is how important it is to defeat Donald Trump. Every Democrat and at least one Independent wants to beat Donald Trump, but is it worth taking a risk? If Trump is massively unpopular, unpopular at the Goldwater in 1964 level, it would be the perfect time to roll out the new agenda and start trying to look like Finland. If we are going to win anyway, let’s not blow this opportunity.

If Trump looks like he is going to make a very close race, then the risk of allowing him another four years is a big time risk, and the first job is to defeat him and take the Senate. Democratic socialism is a great idea, but first let’s make sure the Democrats are back in power. That means appealing to the swing voters and consolidating the core Democratic programs.

Vote.pngA second consideration is what used to be called “coattails” and is now called “down-ticket effects.” It is the effect the top of the ticket—we are interested now in presidential candidates—will have on candidates for other offices further down the ticket. Some candidates are personally popular, but don’t have a positive effect on candidates for House and Senate from their own party. Some lead a wave of pro-party voting.

That’s what I want. In this time, when the goal of conservatives is to keep government from operating at all, a candidate who won the White House but did not add 5 or 10 points to down-ticket races is not the candidate I want. I want to see, particularly for the Senate, a real improvement in the prospects of Democratic candidates given that X is at the head of the ticket. I’m just solving for X on this dimension.

Finally, the dynamics of the election will be entirely different, depending on who the Democrats nominate. Trump is an angry candidate. He appeals to the anger and resentment of his base. Sanders is an angry candidate, too, and while I wouldn’t say his base doesn’t have resentments, they have aspirations too. That would be two warriors standing at the top of huge pyramids of supporters and whanging away at each other.

A Trump v. Biden race would be another kind of thing entirely. People like Joe. He isbiden 2 very strong in the very group—white men without college degrees—that has sustained Trump. If he won that group, he would be ripping the heart out of the Trump coalition. It seems plausible to me that he would help out other Democratic candidates, but I’m willing to wait and see what the polls show.

I really like the idea that the Democratic convention might be called upon to make a choice this year. The choice would not be only of candidates for President and Vice President, but also a choice of direction for the near future. If they still televise conventions, I might want to watch this one.

[1] Oddly, some very well-organized local Democratic machines were operating at the same time the national party was working with paper clips and tape dispensers.

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Zen agency

I’ve been thinking about agency a lot lately. A agency is fundamental to being human; the costs of giving up on it are catastrophic. By “agency,” I mean only having the sense of acting on your own behalf.

In Martin E. P. Seligman’s superb book Helplessness, he reports on experiments with animals who are actually helpless and those who believe they are helpless, whether they actually are or not. Even a casual reading of that book will give you a rich sense of how valuable agency is.

And then, today [1] I got a contrary idea. I’d like to tell you about the contrary idea and then I would like to find some way to affirm them both.

zen agencyThe contrary idea came to me from W. Timothy Gallwey’s book, Tennis: the Inner Game. Gallwey’s idea is that to play tennis well, you need to expose your body to the game long enough that it can learn the right responses, to give it enough time to learn them, then you need to get out of the way. Give your mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the way of the kind of tennis your body knows how to play.

One of my favorite stories from Gallwey’s book is about an exercise in the topspin forehand. Gallwey is the instructor, and he aims the tennis ball machine where he wants it and tells the student that he just hit away; that Gallwey doesn’t really care where the ball lands. All he cares about, he tells the student, is the student’s ability to say just where the ball lands so he has the student watch watch where every stroke lands and call it out. Two feet too far, just inside the line, three feet out, and so on.

Gallwey doesn’t really care about the student’s ability to do that. He just wants to give the student’s mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the road of his body’s ability to play tennis. So over the course of this exercise, the amount of topspin the student puts on the ball increases. The student doesn’t know that. The clean address of the ball by the racquet gets more consistent. The student doesn’t know that. By the end, the student is hitting screaming forehands that land consistently six inches or less inside the line—gorgeous forehands! And he doesn’t know it until Gallwey calls his attention to it.

This is one of my favorite tennis stories, but what, exactly does it have to do with agency? If agency is the explicit attempt to realize my intention and if my intention is the problem—it puts me, not my body in charge—then agency is the problem, not the solution. The solution for me as a player is to let go and let my body do what only it can do—play tennis.

That’s what Gallwey says. But he knows it isn’t really true. He knows that if the question is who, you or your body, is going to notice that when your opponent begins to rely too much on slice returns, the answer is that you will. “It” will not. On the question of how best to reply to some particular slice—not sliced returns in general—you body will do a much better job than you will and, in doing so, will rely on information you never become consciously aware of at all.

So there is a kind of interplay between “you” and “it.” And, as in all cases of such interplay, there are three jobs. There are the jobs you do better, the jobs it does better, and the job of deciding whether any particular instance falls into the one category or the other.. Imagine that you are the personnel director in a two-person department and that you are one of the employees. (“It” is the other one.) Your job is to hand out all the assignments and to actually do the assignments that come to you.

And if, as seems likely, you are accustomed to doing all the jobs there are, you will have the additional task of getting out of the way and staying out of the way on the jobs that are assigned to “it.”

It is this interplay of doing and not doing that I am calling “zen agency.”

[Gunning Fog Index: 10.63]

[1] In the middle of a stretching class, actually, I had an idea I was afraid I was going to forget, in the middle of all the deep breathing and stack your vertebrae one on top of the other. I was so afraid I would forget it that I left the class and found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote it down. This is it.

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A complaint about Thomas Edsall

Who is Thomas B. Edsall and what is the complaint.  Thomas B. Edsall is one of the best things that happens in a week of The New York Times.  He publishes a column on (most) Wednesdays.  The column is about, says the identifying blurb that comes with it, “politics, demographics, and inequality.”

He has a method for preparing his columns that I like very much.  First, he comes up with Thomas B. Edsall really good question.  Here’s an example: “Aggressive, insulting campaigning is said to be good for turning out your partisans, but does it turn out just as many people to vote against you?”  Is there, in other words a “net turnout gain?”

Take these two paragraphs, for instance, from the same column I am going to complain about.

“We identify three possible negative outcomes for democracy,” the political scientists Jennifer McCoy and Tahmina Rahman of Georgia State and Murat Somer of Koç University Istanbul, wrote in their 2018 paper, “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy.”

The three negative outcomes, according to the authors, are gridlock; democratic erosion or collapse under new elites and dominant groups; and democratic erosion or collapse under old elites and dominant groups.

A really interesting question is posed.  A paper is cited.  It is, you will notice, hyperlinked and the whole article is available is you want to pursue it further.

Having a good question in hand, he writes a bunch of people who have studied the question he has asked.  He writes really good people; he writes people whose books and articles I know.  They write back to him and sometimes he writes back to them to clarify or challenge some point.

The result is a column with a lot of quotations in it.  Edsall provides the question and the narrative and his “guests” provide the experimental data that the question requires.  Edsall actually does more than that and I value the additional things he does—until this last week—but I am trying to present a general model of how he works.

He is in touch with a very considerable range of informed opinion.  He doesn’t “cover” the range from left to right because most of the questions he asks are not left/right questions, but he does use research that relies on different models of data aggregation and different kinds of experimental research and that helps me be confident in his conclusions.


This last week, he cited a paper by Joshua Kalla and David Brookman, who had done an experimental study of “exclusionary attitudes”—prejudice against outgroups, for instance.  They describe a kind of conversation that can produce “durable reductions” in such attitudes.  That sounds to me like a good thing to pursue.

To this hopeful study, Edsall makes two objections: one serious, one snarky.  It will not surprise you that it was the snarky one I object to.  The serious objection was that to the extent the problem is misinformation, the increase in newspaper fact-checking should help.  I don’t think so.  I haven’t been able to access the whole article yet, but the overview appears to have very little interest in  “misinformation.”  And you would not expect it to, given that the focus, as given in the title, is on “exclusionary attitudes.”  So I think Edsall just missed that one.

But he follows that up by saying that to the extent the solution to this problem is what Kalla and Broockman say it is, i.e. the non-judgmental exchange of narratives in interpersonal conversation, it isn’t going to work.  And maybe if won’t.  But Edsall ridicules it by taking the language of the study—language borrowed from therapy—and using that language in a setting where it would obviously fail and where Kalla and Broockman did not propose that it be used.

It is hard, Edsall says:

to conceive of circumstances under which Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, or Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, would “non-judgmentally” exchange “narratives in interpersonal conversations.”

Imagining such conversations between high-ranking politicians noted for their combative style is, indeed, a challenge and I am quite sure—I’ll tell you for sure when I locate the whole article—that Kalla and Broockman did not propose such a conversation.  I also think that Edsall knows they did not propose such a conversation and that he cited the language of the study not to criticize it, buy only to ridicule it.

That’s my complaint.

There is no need to ridicule this study, particularly if you have no better solution yourself.  Edsall does not have a better solution.  I am quite sure that if I asked him what solution he proposes, he would say that proposing solutions is not really his line of work.  I accept that as a valid excuse.  In his studies of “politics, demography, and inequality,” there is really no reason for him to be proposing solutions.  

On what basis would he propose them?  That they have been shown to work is small studies at universities?  That they worked when they were tried in South Africa?  That, as tenuous as the methodology seems, it is the best one proposed so far?  None of those really work for Edsall.  They are not his line of work.

So why should he go out of his way to ridicule a method when a)it’s not his job and b) he doesn’t have anything better?

That’s my complaint.Having said that—and hoping he doesn’t do it again—I want to remember that he is a wonderful source of good questions and solid research that bears on those questions.


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Going uphill requires resources

The summary I found for the recent movie, Downhill, starts like this: “Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray…”

I don’t mean to imply that that is inaccurate, but that is not the movie I saw. I want to tell you about the movie I saw. I am aware that it is probably not the movie that directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were trying to make, but it is the movie I went there to see.

Let me illustrate and then we can do a little exploration. Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)and and Pete (Will Farrell) are a barely married couple (they haven’t divorced yet) whose marital poverty is revealed by their responses to the avalanche. They are a couple utterly without resources, without mutual affection, with a goal, without any means of navigating jointly toward that goal. I called attention, in the title I gave this essay, to the fact that it takes energy and resolve to go uphill because that is not the journey gravity has in mind for you. Billie and Pete don’t have energy and resolve—at least not as a couple—so downhill is the only plausible course.  You can almost tell that by looking at them in the picture below.

dowhill 1How do we know their marriage is so poor? Because Faxon and Rush go to some lengths to tell us that in many ways. A good example shows Billie and Pete going down to dinner. [1] There is another couple in front of them. The woman has taken the man’s arm and is turned toward him as they walk. Billie and Pete are walking behind them, side by side, with their hands almost, but not quite, touching. When the weight of the example in front of them begins to press down, they hold hands very tentatively. [2] When the other couple turns into a side hallway, they drop their hands immediately and resume the side to side posture.

Neither there nor at any other time in the film do they show any physical affection for each other. That could have been a resource for them, but they don’t have it.

Here’s another example. Pete has planned this “family vacation.” It is a “family” vacation in the sense that they brought their two pre-teen sons along. It is not a family vacation in the sense that Pete has any idea of doing things the boys would enjoy doing. They are all going to go to Austria and do the things Pete thinks the family might like. [3] Pete planned the trip because he desperately wants to be a hero and spending a lot of money in a beautiful setting on activities that his family can get through only by gritting their teeth, is as close to being a hero as he can come.

It wouldn’t have to be that hard. In saying this, I know I am running the risk of saying that it is all Billie’s fault. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that 
Billie controls whether Pete feels like a hero or not. Pete wants to be a hero to his wife and has, so far, failed, and in his desperation, he has planned this preposterous ski trip to Austria.

If Billie had planned the trip, it would not have been to this hotel; it would have been to the nearby “kid-friendly” hotel and there would have been lots of things to do that the kids like. Billie is a much more sensible person than Pete; she is more realistic, more organized, more practical. But Pete wouldn’t let Billie plan the trip—none of this is in the movie, I’ m just extrapolating from my sense of the fundamental dilemma of the marriage—because he needs to be a hero.  It’s a shame he is so bad at it.

He could, of course, recognize how much better Billie is at planning and settle for being the “big idea guy.” He gets the idea that the family needs a vacation, sells it to Billie, and then supports her in every way as she makes the arrangements. Recognizing Billie’s superior ability doesn’t feel heroic to Pete. Maybe it never did. Maybe it would have, back before his need to be a hero became such an obsession. We don’t know any of that. In any case, it is not what he chooses. This vacation trip is a kind of Hail Mary pass for Pete and like most Hail Mary passes, it is not received successfully.

Pete also does not protect the time he wants to have with Billie. On their first visit to the restaurant, they are invited—insistently invited—to join a hotel employee for dinner. Neither of them wants to go, but eventually, Pete says Yes. It is awful. A work colleague of Pete’s shows up with a free-spirited girlfriend and they take over the next possible “romantic dinner.” Again, Pete could have said No, but Pete does not say No. He does not say No to anyone. He doesn’t understand, apparently, that saying Yes to everyone necessarily implies saying No to the kind of relationship he wants with Billie.

Billie knows that, even if Pete does not. She experiences Pete’s failure to protect the zone of intimacy that would allow them to remember what it was like to be a romantic couple. [4] There is no room in the movie for Billie to tell Pete that—the plot wouldn’t allow it—so I don’t want to say that she should have. I am saying only that she understands what Pete’s affability is costing them and Pete does not.

That’s part one. The skiing trip is a disaster and the reasons I have given are why it is going to fail—avalanche or no avalanche. Part two is about the resources they might have had—they don’t—to navigate the disaster successfully and return home as an intact family.

What would it take? I have made Pete the principal cause of their difficulty so, in a spirit of gender equity, I am going to focus on Billie as the principal cause of their failure to work their way out of the difficulty. In fact, there are so many things wrong, I could stay with either.

Billie’s worst moment—she would agree with this, I’m sure—is the time she and Pete are in a dispute about how he reacted to the avalanche. These were not happenstance avalanches; they are set off by firing cannons placed on the slopes. These are regular and controlled avalanches. Nevertheless, one of them exceeds its mandate a little and breaks over the terrace where Pete and Billie and the kids are eating breakfast. Some people react by running indoors; some by hunkering down at their tables. [5]

The view of the directors is that Pete deserted his family because of his cowardice and that is the view of Billie and the kids as well. Pete holds that accusation off as long as he can and his tendency to deny when he can and obfuscate when denial no longer serves, finally pushes Billie over the edge and she does something that even she knows is wrong. She goes and gets the kids and requires them, in public, to say that their father had deserted them. Pete never recovers from that accusation and, in my estimation, Billie never will either.

She needs to be right. That is her flaw. Ordinarily she holds it at bay, balancing it with other needs she and the family might have, but Pete’s denials are, finally, too much for her and she determines to have her rightness put on display at whatever cost to Pete and the family.

That action that Billie takes, does, however, set up the one potentially redemptive action in the whole movie. They are all taking a last run down the slopes. Pete and the kids have finished but Billie—the best skier in the group—has not made it down. At that point, Pete is reduced to looking anxiously up the hill. [6] Then he goes up looking for her. He finds her sitting on the snow with her skis stuck in the snow vertically. She is done, clearly.

He scoops her up—“rescues her”—and carries her in his arms back down the hill to where the kids are waiting. This is the kind of hero Pete really wants to be, but Billie puts some boundaries on it. “This is for the kids,” she says. “It doesn’t really change anything between us.” Billie is taking an action that will save this family until the boys leave home. It does nothing for the marriage and nothing, also, for the kind of marriage they are teaching their boys to expect for themselves. Pete complains, on the way down the hill that she looks at him as a loser. That is true. There is no compassion at all in her judgment; only embarrassment. She says that if he doesn’t want to be looked at as if her were a loser, he needs to show her something else.

And maybe he does. I wouldn’t bet on it. Pete’s “heroism” is going to require a lot of support from Billie. He really can’t do it on his own. She is going to have to help him decide just what is heroic and to provide the support that allows him to feel heroic when he succeeds. Pete has a lot of strengths as a person—none of which are explored in this film—but acting heroically in the eyes of a wife who sees herself as one of the Olympic judges is not one of those strengths.

So I wouldn’t bet on Pete. That means that I wouldn’t bet on Billie’s willingness to do what she would have to do to turn her doofus husband into the hero he needs to be. You could say that he shouldn’t have that need and that he should give it up. You could say that Billie ought not to have to manage the little dramas which will help Pete feel like a hero. I am sympathetic to both those points.

But neither of those is going to get the job done.

[1] That’s the way I remember it. Bette remembers that they were on their way outside.
[2] Bette remembers that Pete takes Billie’s hand. That’s plausible; Pete cares a lot more about how the family looks to others than Billie does, but I remember it the other way.
[3] These are not, by the way, the things he would have chosen for himself. Faxon and Rush are trying to illustrate Pete’s cluelessness as a father.
[4] One symbol of that failure of Pete’s is that he takes his cell phone with him everywhere he goes and answers it whenever it rings. He does not protect Billie from it which, in my judgment is much worse than failing to “protect her” from the avalanche.
[5] Either response seems reasonable to me, but, in fact, Pete chose to go inside and Billie chose to hunker down with the kids. This difference became the charge that Pete/Daddy had “deserted them.”
[6] Bette remembers that Billie was calling Pete and that he finally heard her. I admit that sounds like Billie, but I didn’t hear her.

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