See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Politics

A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

In a desperate bid to make my parents love me, Fortune.com published an essay of mine on James Damore’s famous, if incoherent, memo. My essay was focused on proper argumentation, how Damore’s memo lacked it, and how we all need to focus on the fights that actually matter (like how you define fairness) instead of arguing about unprovable facts that don’t (like exactly how much of gender discrimination is due to biological factors). Please go ahead and read it so my mother will finally put something I made on her fridge.

I want to take a moment to say: yes, he should have been fired. No, I haven’t changed my position that generally speaking you shouldn’t fire people for unpopular ideas. As I wrote when Brendan Eich was pressured to resign:

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly. It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it.

So what’s the difference, other than Eich was a C-Suite employee and high profile and Damore is not? Well, Damore’s sins weren’t just abstract politics or ideology. He insulted the women he was working with, not because he said they were inferior to he because of their gender, but because he wrote so sloppily that such an interpretation was reasonable under the circumstances. And more importantly, he did it as part of his company role, publishing his memo onto Google’s internal social network, for the explicit purpose of influencing Google culture and policy. And it was a profoundly lazy attempt at that, which damaged relationships between Damore and his coworkers and Google employees generally for no appreciable or foreseeable gain. It was, plainly speaking, useless and dumb. Damore’s primary contribution to our public dialogue was a useless freak out where conservatives pretended only the good parts of the memo were there and progressives pretended that the memo was coherently evil when it was just incoherently bad. Damore served his view point very poorly and lowered the level of debate. That isn’t a good reason to fire him either, I suppose, but the way he harmed his fellow employees trust certainly is.

So, next time you want to put together a long controversial memo? Do it better. And maybe post it anonymously on Reddit instead of to your company’s social network.

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How radical are we actually getting?

I have of late found myself in the uncomfortable position of being really upset with writers I otherwise admire and respect. In part this is because the writers I go out of my way to read are smart people who think differently than I do. And I, like all people who put pen to paper, am a relentless egotist who finds disagreement to be a personal insult.[1] Pascal Emmanuel Gobry is one such writer and he recently went off on a tirade about the left’s position on racism. A tirade I found insulting and completely off base. But Gobry also had this had this observation:

 

The more I think on it, the more he is talking about something very real and very dangerous. It does certainly feel like everything has gotten worse, tenser, and more extreme. But something doesn’t quite sit right about his model of what’s happening. For Gobry to be correct, political partisans would have to believe in more and more extreme positions that are even more diametrically opposed to each other. But I don’t think that’s what is happening at all. Rather, it is our image of each other is becoming more radicalized. Let me demonstrate with the incident on hand.

Gobry was ranting in response to this exchange:

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Gobry, it seems, saw this exchange and interpreted as if Beauchamp had thrown the entire idea of nationhood, inheritance, borders and anything short of a single global borderless state as inherently racist. I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable and/or historically obvious case that US immigration restriction has historically been racist and the claim of any non-Native American American to have claim to the soil by blood to be laughable.[2]

How did we see the same thing so differently, assuming for the moment we are both reasonable men? Well sticking just to the US context, Gobry and I are members of different tribes, meaning different friends and affiliations. So I am naturally inclined to interpret, edit really, the exchange to be more reasonable and he more inclined to see the worst. In fact, our interpretations are also likely to feed off of each other, since nothing causes an idea to take hold and spread quite as fast as anger. This process is well explained by CGP Grey in this wonderful video which you should watch right now if you hadn’t already.

The relevant gist is that ideas about the opposing tribe that make you angry are the most likely to take hold and spread among people you respect and like, and they can trigger mirroring rage inducing idea about your tribe in the opposing tribe. Everyone got that? Good. This is what Gobry said that I found offensive enough to go on a long rant about the historical racism of US immigration policy:

What’s funny about this tweet enraging me so is that I don’t self-identify as a progressive. And yet I was enraged and stopped giving Gobry the benefit of the doubt, despite our multi-year history of fruitful dialogue over Twitter. I use this experience as an example, not a proof. But I think all of us can sense a building tension between tribes.

Let me propose that what is going on is not that we are radicalizing each other, but we are radicalizing our images of each other. This does not cause more radical policy on our end, but it does cause more radical behavior in the form of less benefit of the doubt and more insults to the opposing faction.[3] Because why would you bother being reasonable with a radical? Then again, straw-men and stereotypes about opposing factions[4] has always been with us.

One factor is that social media has not only made it easier to connect with your tribe, but made it way more likely to actually encounter the ridiculous straw-men you paint the other faction to be. Or at least people who are so caught up ressentiment they act like it. The other obvious factor is the election and Presidency of Donald Trump. I mean, the man is nothing if not a walking conflictionator. He constantly produces a miasma of stress, rendering social trust by his actions. And, there is the crushing onslaught of news as Trump flails about and journalists dig in. We’re all on edge, scrambling to and fro for the security of priors and fellow tribes(wo)men.

So now what?

First off, don’t hate read.[5] Second, recognize the problem is you, not social media or your smart phone. This is a very human thing we are doing, an old human thing in new mediums. And finally, embrace charitable construction and questions. Don’t argue with the dumb version of what someone said, but the smart, reasonable version of what someone said. Cut away the snark, find out what it is someone really meant and act reasonably, and more often than not, you’ll find something worth engaging with. And if you don’t, fall back on not hate reading in the future.

Footnotes

[1] I am mostly joking. Mostly.

[2] In the history of US immigration policy we have excluded races by name in legislation as well as have had the category, taken from the legislative text, of free whites of good character. The case that the history of US immigration policy is steeped in racism is a slam dunk.

[3] Tribe! I meant tribe. Or did I?

[4] Whoops. Did it again. Funny that.

[5] Except you should hate read me. I am sustained by your hatred. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred.

Parallel Invaders, Post-Trump Redux

Much of my life has been a desperate chase for a particular feeling. It’s that moment where the ground shifts underneath me and everything becomes more clear than it was before. It’s as unsettling for me as anyone else, but I still love it. It’s my thrill seeking behavior, my only drug. I’m intellectually bungee-jumping and using this blog as my GoPro. Worse, I keep inflicting it on others, like these (fictional) cartographers did to C.J. Cregg:

I took my first bad trip late on November 8th, 2016. I’m still reeling from it. I’ve said it again and again today: the world has shifted underneath my feet. I have found myself in a place of fear and anxiety that exists entirely in the world instead of the recesses of my defective mind. My fear is bloodless and serious. It is measured, weighted and proportioned to the situation. I am afraid of a small but real subset of Trump supporters. True lunatics that I now estimate to be more frequent that previously supposed who gathered under a now victorious banner of repeatedly promised, repeatedly delivered bigotry.

I’m afraid of one of them burning a cross on my lawn.

That is probably not going to happen. I’m actually in pretty good shape. I’ve got a law degree and the self-protective powers that implies. While Michigan as a whole is probably going to end up in Trump’s column, my precinct is in Clinton’s. My neighborhood is getting browner, younger. It has long been wealthy and safe. The more likely result is that I face just a few more slurs, a few more but still blessedly rare moments of explicit bigotry as my son grows up through a momentarily wobble as the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. But that risk of actual racial violence, that low probability tail risk, involves an event so catastrophic the only rational choice is to take it seriously. My son is due to be born in the first 100 days of a Trump presidency. All existential risk has to be accounted for, and this risk is real.

The risk of being a direct victim of racial violence is real and is executed along a simple mechanism. There are some lunatic white people who hate people who look like me and want to start a race war.They have been partially held in check by strong signals that the rest of America, including the other white people, are not with them, that they do not have a permission slip from the powers that be to do what they want. That, no matter how much they didn’t think people who look like me belong in America, enough people who do think I belong in America were standing in the way. They are now receiving the opposite signal. It could very well be illusory (it isn’t) but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they perceive it as. So now I have to worry. Not just about my preferred direction of policy or American identity, but a more basic question of trust and safety. And I don’t know what these people look like. Well, actually I do, it’s telling them apart that’s the problem.

In this post I wrote about how many women reasonably perceive all men with great anxiety because the sexually dangerous men look exactly like the men who are not. Meanwhile, most men instead live in the parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t happen – and predators use our ignorance to slip in between. I had no idea then I was writing a metaphor for my own sudden transition from a parallel universe where racial violence was mythical and rare to the reality that I am surrounded by the threat of it. I will look every at every new white face with apprehension. I will always be wondering if it is this one that will turn out to be the dangerous lunatic underneath a genteel surface. I don’t like it. I desperately want to go back to the moment before I fell into this awful world. But it’s real, the race warriors are real, and the unfairness to every decent white person I meet is also real.

This would have been true even if Clinton had squeaked out a win. Over fifty-nine million people sent or cosigned a signal that I’m not part of real America, that my job creating immigrant mother is a threat to their livelihoods, that my to be born an American son is a threat by his very existence to their children because of our skin.

I am faced with a choice of leaving my state, maybe my country or facing down the risk of racial violence every day. Of forcing my family to face that risk as I let my loud mouth attract unwelcome attention. If I have to leave America it isn’t because of disgust, but fear. I love my country. I love America. But the America that I’ve been standing in this whole time isn’t the America I thought it was, but instead the America with the shadows colored in, hiding predators. I have a duty to help bring the real America and transform it into the fantastical one, and I have a duty to keep my family safe.

I know I am not the only one who has to make that choice. And I know for many who do not have to make that choice, this sounds like the ravings of a bitter madman. But please, take our fears seriously. We’re not delusional – we just now stopped having our delusions.

Making Deals

Imagine you are playing a game. The object of the game is to have the most points after an indeterminate amount of time. The only way to get points is to make deals. Deals give you points in exchange for someone else getting points. Not making trades gives you no points.
 
OK, that’s the set up. You are offered a deal of 5 points to 5 points. Do you take it?
 
The correct answer is “how many players are there?” If there are only two players, the net result of the deal is 0, so you might as well not make it. In fact, the very fact you are offered the deal is suspicious, so you might even refuse it if it appears lopsided in your favor. The game becomes functionally zero-sum. If however, there are 318.9 million players (he said, picking a TOTALLY ARBITRARY NUMBER) then you should almost definitely take the deal! You need those points. Deals everywhere! You might even take lopsided deals just to get more points, as long as you spread the points around, you stay ahead.
 
OK. Now the twist. What if roughly half of those 318.9 million players wore one kind of shirt while you wore a different kind of shirt? And let’s say you like the people wearing your kind of shirt, who go to your kind of bars, have families with people who wear your kind of shirt a lot. And let’s say you don’t really care for those other people, who go to the other kind of bars, have families with people wearing the other shirt color. I mean, there’s more to it than that, obviously. These are just TOTALLY ARBITRARY things picked out of the ether to point out that you identify with one half of the players more than the other half.
 
The deal rate would slow down until you found clusters of people you wanted to make deals with. But slowly you would sort yourself and start making deals again. Except maybe then you’d discover that in order to get really big points, you need to make big deals, where a whole lot of you, but not all of you, with one kind of shirt have to pool your point contributions by making 0 to 1 deals to some designated people with your kind of shirt, but shinier. And then they make a big deal with someone with a shiny version of the other kind of shirt and whatever group they rustled up. And first time it happens and you get that huge point kick back it’s amazing! So you sign up to do it again. Except, because there are 318.9 million of you and you have to execute a lot of simultaneous, 1-0 deals and hope it all kind of works out, and a lot of time it doesn’t, so maybe you stop making those kinds of deals and kinda start hating the people with your kind of shirt and lots of points who keep wanting to make big deals.
 
Another twist in this game. Not even a twist so much as noting something I didn’t say. I didn’t say when the game ended. No one knows when it ends. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it does. But you know you feel better when it feels like you have a lot of points and the people around you have slightly less points than you and the people who wear the other kind of shirt have way less points and why wouldn’t it? It means you’re more likely to be winning and you want to be winning all the time just in case the game ends on the next move.
So there are less points flying around than you’d like, but it’s ok! Everyone has made a rational decision within the framework of the game so at least it makes sense, and you’re not sure you’re winning, but you’re definitely not losing, and the people around you who are most likely winning more than you you actually like a whole lot!
OK. Very last twist. What if what I said about winning was a lie, and the game is set up so no one ever wins. But it still feels good to get points, especially when people who wear your shirt have more points than people who wear the other kind of shirt and the people around who you like you have about as many points as you; and everyone else feels that way except a couple of losers with less points who keep telling people the game isn’t about winning even though it definitely feels like it is.
Man. Playing that game would get pretty tragic quick, wouldn’t it?

The War on Racism May Not Be Won After All

I used to think that the war against racism had been won. That (with others) Martin Luther King Jr. had dealt the critical blow and won the decisive battle not so long ago. That his martyred spirit would guard the victory into eternity. That all that was left would be the decades long mopping-operation where we as a society moved on from racism to slowly dismantling the booby-trapped structures and systems that racism left behind. It is ugly, painstaking, divisive work, but it is planned along a schedule of inevitability. Alas, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

The forces of racism have counterattacked in force. They have tapped their reserves, they have recruited partisans, and they have struck with their guerrillas. And now, the bolstered forces of racism – ugly, no modifier, hunting for a race war racism – think they have not merely infiltrated but seized control of the party of Lincoln. They think they’re about to march on Washington to take it over.

They may be right.

We are too used to arguing about whether and how to dismantle each bit of structural racism. That is an important fight, especially now that we no longer are on the schedule of inevitability but upon the question of never. But it is not the most important fight. The enemy is at the gates. Racism is coming for us, and it would be well pleased if we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, all just to bludgeon each other. It’d be so easy.

Racism is an idea and thus immortal. But though it cannot be killed, it can be beaten. Racism can be captured from our hearts and left to rot alone in well-guarded closets when it cannot. Racism can be undermined, it can be weakened, it can and it must be routed.

But none of those things will happen unless we can first repel racism’s foot soldiers as they march upon our capital. None of those things will happen until we band together to do it. We do not have to abandon our struggles over whether and how to dismantle the structures of racism, but the when for continuing that argument must be in the future if it is to have a future. We will not dismantle the structures of racism when the enemy has taken control of the land.

So come, friends. Put down your pens for but a moment so you can take them up in service; by each other, with each other, and for each and every other.

The Heretical Gospel of Trump

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a column out in the Week tracing Donald Trump’s evangelical support to two factors: Christian nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. As is often the case, I almost agree with Gobry about the prosperity gospel. Gobry:

In its most crude forms, the prosperity gospel says that God rewards financially those who pray. If you don’t have the car you want or the house you want, if you pray hard enough, God will give it to you.[F]orgetting […] that sometimes the righteous have to suffer […] and that a man’s worth is never, ever judged by his possessions.

The prosperity gospel is one of the most vibrant heresies in America today, […and…] one of America’s most powerful religious leaders is undoubtedly Joel Osteen, who is a prosperity preacher. It’s obvious why someone taken in by the prosperity gospel would see no glaring contradiction between Trump’s assertion that he’s a “very strong Christian” and his gaudy lifestyle and ostentatious wealth.

So far so plausible. Prosperity gospel breaks orthodox Christianity’s view of wealth and creates the idea that being a good Christian is positively correlated with wealth, Trump is wealthy, so prosperity gospel believers think he’s a good Christian, so prosperity gospel is at fault. But if you look at how prosperity gospel churches actually work, and how Trump supporters behave, it doesn’t quite match up with their optimism and their activism.

The prosperity gospel is a very optimistic approach to religious life. The kind of twisted optimism that casts cruelty as a shadow. As I’ve discussed before, the inevitable consequence of believing that if you just pray hard enough you’ll be wealthy and healthy is that if you are not wealthy and healthy, you believe that it is all your own fault. Trump supporters do not believe it is their fault. They are not optimistic and about their personal ability to do things, they believe they need some savior billionaire to wreck/beat all the other countries. Hell, there is a lot of evidence that they don’t even believe that. Instead, they believe that Trump can’t change things, but he can help them give a big middle finger to everyone who has looked down on them or otherwise messed with their lives. And their anger seems to come from the standard issue places: socioeconomic class resentments, personal prosperity, Jacksonian ideas of national dignity and so on. No reason to reach for some sort of psychological inversion of the self-blame the prosperity gospel engenders. Trump’s Evangelical followers aren’t going to this church enough to shape their thinking in this way. Hell, they’re just not going to church much at all. Which brings us to the activism gap.

Prosperity gospel churches trend heavily towards a highly active church life with big asks. Now, most other Christians sneer at this, because the theology of the prosperity gospel asks pretty much none of the hard things, like embracing your enemies, faith while in fear and trembling, and charitable conduct and thought. But prosperity gospel churches ask a lot in simpler ways: cold hard cash. Tithing, going to church activities, evangelizing for the church, buying the preacher’s latest book, buying a book from the church store for this month’s sermon, providing free labor for the church’s commercial bookstore – there are plenty of big asks, especially for the poor who don’t have much to give. Trump has done none of these. Except that one time he screwed up giving money during communion. He can’t even rely the subtle linguistic cues of someone culturally Christian to signal that he is “one of us” to the Evangelicals who support him. He is not one of them. So who are these supporters anyway?

Evangelical supporters of Trump may not actually be Evangelicals the way we tend to think of them. They’re probably more like Mr. Young from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens:

He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left‑footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no­ nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell‑floor polish for the Low, some­what suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.

Gaiman and the late Pratchett were writing Mr. Young in an English context, but change the set dressing a little, and you get that everywhere religion has just enough hold on a people to give them a tribal affiliation but not enough to give them religiosity. They probably know a lot of churchgoers, they’re related with churchgoers, probably even married to churchgoers. But you don’t need to believe Christian ideas to identify as Christian on a poll. You don’t need to believe to get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” or telling you to stop saying “God bless you”. You don’t even have to disdain the outsiders doing it, you just have to perceive their disdain for you. That’s tidy, isn’t it?

But, but, but, what if there are, actual religious evangelical Christians in the Trump coalition and it can’t be explained away by personal idiosyncrasies? Well, certainly it’s going to be a further step in the Faustian bargain with secular power Christians have made since suborning Constantine into the flock. Christianity is deeply suspicious of secular power, but if a Christian takes the idea we live in a fallen world seriously grasping at power is inevitable. But why Trump and why were they doing it while other candidates still seemed viable? And this is where we get into a twisted up understanding of evil. Which is to say, too many people think that evil works better than good.

Way back when America was grappling with whether or not to torture – sorry “use enhanced interrogation techniques on” – captured suspected terrorists in order to get information. And according to the Republican Presidential candidates, we should relitigate that debate. So here it is: torture is not a superior, always works like for Jack Bauer on TV, method of interrogation. Torture doesn’t give you information. Torture gives you compliance, a compliance that is agnostic to truthfulness. We know this because of the several thousand year known history of regimes torturing people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. So, while we can construct scenarios where torture is both effective and forgivable, they are not the general case. The general case is torturing someone until they break.  And yet there are clearly people who think it is universally effective, purely because the bad guys do it and we won’t (anymore). But sometimes evil is evil agnostic of its effectiveness. And sometimes evil is evil because it is so ineffective.

Trump is more than America’s pro-even-worse-torture candidate. He’s America’s pro-evil candidate. He’s selling the idea that he’s evil, he’ll be evil for America, and that will make America win again. And even before we embrace evil because it is effective, we have to remember that evil is not effective. Trump represents a number of challenges, and one of them is religious. A number of Evangelicals have failed that test, God help them. And more are to come unless we can convince them otherwise.