Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thank you, Dahlia Lithwick

A lot about this election cycle bothers me — no, worse: scares me. I haven't quite been able to pin it down. However, I think Dahlia Lithwick may have identified a big part of it.

Her piece is entitled, "Fellow Liberals, Let's Stop Doing These Things". Her piece is about the bad, degrading tone afflicting not just (what passes for) discourse between left and right, but discourse between ostensibly likeminded folks on the left. She has a short list of "hideous behaviors" that seem to be prevalent, having become almost reflexive.

The list of things wrong with the country and what passes for our current national discussion is long. Lithwick has taken a stab at enumerating some of the most egregious items, and for that, I'm grateful.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Newsflash: it's still the Internet

The New York Times is relegating "the Internet" to lowercase.

The paper cites the AP's recent decision to do the same as the impetus for its decision. The decision has been a while coming as common usage apparently has been heading in that direction.

Mr. Kent, of The A.P., said of the devotion to the capital I, “Some people feel sort of physically deep in their soul that it’s a proper noun.”

“They would compare it to a physical place with a proper name. But I just don’t think most people see it that way anymore,” he added. “For younger people, it’s always been there; it’s like water.”

That's "Thomas Kent, The A.P.'s standards editor"; the capitalization of "The A.P." is per the Times article and "The A.P." is cited mulitiple times in the article, so it wasn't a mistake. I'm sure the Times follows the A.P.'s own guidelines for how to cite "The A.P." in news articles. It's therefore quite funny that both The A.P. and the Times have chosen to de-capitalize the Internet.

If The A.P. is so determined to remind everyone that there is only one Associated Press, why is it so determined to erase the fact that there is only one Internet?

Yes, Virginia, there is only one Internet. There are many internetworks, but there is only one Internet. It's the one based on the standard TCP/IP protocol stack and publicly visible Internet Protocol addresses.

Thomas Kent, though, will have none of that.

“In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”
Thomas Kent is wholly ignorant of what the Internet is. It's not a descriptor for a device or a natural phenomenon. It is a proper noun! It is the name of an entity. He's not a subject-matter expert so I don't fault him for not knowing, but I do fault him for not talking to people who do know.

A.P. — or should I say "a.p." — you and the times have it wrong.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hillary needs street smarts

Hillary Clinton's unfavorables are extraordinarily high for someone who has had the career she has had and who hasn't committed a felony. Why? In part, it's residual resentment of Bill: she's seen as his co-conspirator and enabler. In part, it's her personal style: overtly calculating, legalistic in the way she carefully shows how she never crossed this line or that while often toeing right up to it, frequently disdainful of those who disagree with her. Less substantively but perhaps even more importantly, she has never learned how to convey sincerity and warmth. To be President, she has to have (or has to be able to fake) empathy for everyone.

Clinton's guardedness got her overtaken in 2008 by a guy who is, at heart, also calculating, legalistic, and frequently disdainful of his critics. However, Obama also can convey passion and a sense that he genuinely cares about something. He also has a much better developed sense of humor and is a far better speaker (and writer, I imagine).

2016 brings a different set of challenges for Clinton. The anti-establishment mood alone puts a consummately establishment politician like her at a disadvantage, as her continuing struggle for respect among Democrats shows. Bernie is behind in delegates and has no chance of capturing the nomination without a floor fight, but he's the one actually inspiring Democrats. As a rank-and-file voter, I'll support Clinton in the general election (assuming she's the nominee), but I won't be excited about her. I'm a default Democrat, and have been for a while, entirely because the Republican Party stands for a bunch of things that appall, repel, and/or scare me.

Which brings us to Trump.

I won't recapitulate all the reasons Trump's a terrible human being and an even worse candidate for president, because none of that matters as far as Clinton's concerned. The Republican Party establishment itself tried mightily to make these points, and look what happened: if the effort didn't backfire, it sure as hell didn't help, either. There's no reason to believe the Clinton campaign's efforts will be any more successful. Like many of Trump's primary rivals, she's a traditional politician, with a traditional politician's instincts for how the game is played. Trump clobbered such traditional rivals in Republican primaries, and not just because Republican primary voters are in a savagely anti-establishment mood. He has found ways of appealing to people who have been disaffected by both major parties.

Trump has a track record of making insults that stick to his opponents. He also has a near-magical ability to redirect the national conversation when it isn't favorable to him. Clinton needs a campaign advisor with street smarts who can counter these advantages, or she will be a footnote in the history books — just another failed presidential candidate.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Does Trump think we're all morons?

A quarter-century ago, Donald Trump was in the (insanely self-serving) habit of pretending to be someone else. He would routinely masquerade as the spokesman for Donald J. Trump.

I heard about this on the Rachel Maddow show Friday night. Although the Washington Post broke the story, Maddow addressed Trump's subsequent, flat denial of the Post's story by digging up Trump's admission of his fakery, and his apology for it, out of the pages of People magazine a quarter-century ago.

(Caveat: I believe the MSNBC link is the correct one, but I didn't watch the embedded video because I won't allow Adobe Flash to run on my system.)

First, I must admit that I've gotten so caught up in Trump's response to the Post's story that I nearly lost track of the story itself. (This is undoubtedly part of Trump's strategy and the reason for his bluff denial.) It's worth remembering that the story itself is surpassingly weird. Who pretends to be his own spokesman? Who is so obsessed with controlling his reputation that he tries to pass himself off as a third party to testify to his own character?

The word "narcissist" doesn't come within smelling distance of 1990s-era Trump. And nothing suggests his self-obsession has lessened since then.

But back to Trump's denial. Maddow dismantles it in no uncertain terms, so we can dispense with considering whether he's telling the truth and ask whether he's actively lying.

There are two choices: either Trump's memory is so bad he can't remember his '90s behavior, or he's a bald-faced liar.

I don't think you can manage the grind of a presidential campaign if you're significantly brain-damaged, so I assume Trump isn't. Thus I can only wonder if, with lies he can't be bothered to make even a tiny bit plausible, he thinks the electorate is significantly brain-damaged.

Do you think we're all morons, Donald?

Why are you lying about your embarrassing past when it's so copiously documented?

Trump's acting on the adage, "If you can't dazzle them with science, baffle them with bullshit". Trump's confidence in uttering his nonsense doesn't change what it is. It's bullshit.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The New York Times' misplaced Tr(i)ump(halism)

"Republican Party Unravels Over Trump's Takeover".

"Ryan-Trump Breach May Be Irreparable".

"Clinton Moves to Win Over Anti-Trump Republicans".

Looks bad for Teh Donald, doesn't it?

Yeah, no.

It's the 7th of May. Election Day is the 8th of November. That's six very long months away.

Trump's an emptyheaded bigot, serial liar, and all-around raging asshole who enjoys kicking people when they're down, but he's also a master at getting attention and sliming his opponents. Like a parrot, Teh Donald knows how to repeat his refrains, and six months is long enough for his bullshit to become the accepted wisdom in undecided voters' minds. His strength unfortunately coincides with Hillary Clinton's greatest weakness, her inability to convey honesty.

The Times' misplaced triumphalism, if it's shared by enough dumb Democrats or lazy independents, is going to blow up in its face.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Debasing the concept of anti-Semitism

Can you debase the concept of anti-Semitism? Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked proved you can:
“In the past, we saw European leaders speaking against the Jews. Now, we see them speaking against Israel. It is the same anti-Semitism of blood libels, spreading lies, distorting reality and brainwashing people into hating Israel and the Jews,” Shaked told the Washington Post. “Today, it is not politically correct to be anti-Semitic but being anti-Israeli is acceptable. People who have such anti-Semitic views should not be allowed to hold central leadership positions.”
You brazenly equate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, Minister Shaked. That's despicable.

(I was tempted to add, "You are despicable", but that would have been the same mistake Minister Shaked made, turning a legitimate criticism of a person's action and speech into an ad hominem attack on the person.)

Minister Shaked, you have the crust to call legitimate criticism of Israel's heavyhanded and violent policies anti-Semitic? Your attitude removes the possibility of separating the nation, its leaders and its citizens: you conflate them all. That encourages genuine anti-Semitism! That's so asinine, so fatuously shortsighted, I wonder if your thinking is impaired. Are you high?

Minister, you should be ashamed of yourself for debasing the concept of anti-Semitism.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Have we hit electoral bottom?

By 1984, I was convinced Ronald Reagan was taking this country in as wrong a direction as was possible. I was appalled by Reagan's relentlessly sunny refusal to come to grips with the environmental problems that had made Jimmy Carter, a man who took his responsibility for steering the nation toward a sustainable future very seriously, so concerned for the future. Reagan's cabinet was a slap in the face to thoughtful stewardship of the nation's natural resources. His foreign policy was a series of provocations, what we might today call micro-aggressions, against unfriendly nations. Reagan was the first president I was old enough to feel was a genuine danger to the nation. I didn't file the paperwork to vote in time so I could only look on as Reagan swamped Walter Mondale.

In the 1988 and 1992 elections I wasn't any more thrilled by George H. W. Bush, but even at the time I conceded that he seemed to have more on the ball than Reagan. In the years since, Bush 41 has looked better and better not just as a president (compared to his predecessor and his son, admittedly a very low bar), but as a candidate, too. Bill Clinton had already earned his "Slick Willie" moniker in my mind so my vote was about as much against Bush 41 as for Clinton. In 1996 Bob Dole was such a reactionary and Ross Perot such a loon that Clinton would have to have assaulted a nun to lose my vote.

During Clinton's presidency the far right's authoritarian tendencies broke into the open with the election to the House of Newt Gingrich and his allies. Gingrich's unwillingness to make Congress work if it redounded, even to the smallest degree, to the Democrats' credit was unprecedented in modern times. This is when our modern Congressional atherosclerosis set in.

The year 2000 marked what I assumed would be an all-time low in candidates, the barely coherent George W. Bush and the robotic stuffed-shirt Al Gore. Gore, in addition to coming off as an extraterrestrial inartfully masquerading as a human being, promised to prolong the bad feelings and unending partisan conflict that marked Clinton's last years in office. Yet Dubya was avowedly a religious zealot and self-evidently a moron. It was the first election in which I truly felt I had to hold my nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, Gore (setting aside the hopeless idealist, Ralph Nader).

By 2004 it seemed impossible that Dubya's mismanagement of the economy (his ruinous tax cuts in the face of a military conflict) and his insane swerve away from Afghanistan toward Iraq would permit him a second term. The Democrats, though, managed to find in John Kerry a candidate even less charismatic (if infinitely more cogent) than Dubya. Again, I held my nose and voted for the lesser of two evils in Kerry.

2008 was a relief in that neither major-party presidential candidate was a lost cause. Sarah Palin, though, was a different story. There had been Congressional sideshow freaks for years, but none had come within smelling distance of higher office. Palin was the first genuinely nutty, self-oblivious yet self-absorbed moron on a major-party ticket in my lifetime. (Dan Quayle was an ignoramus but he wasn't exceptionally arrogant. George W. Bush at least sensed he wasn't the brightest bulb.)

By 2008 rank-and-file Republicans had long since demonstrated they would not tolerate any presidential candidate (much less President) who didn't toe the stringent party line. Reagan's emphasis on party unity had fused with Gingrich's uncompromising insistence on doctrinal purity. John McCain's otherwise inexplicable choice of Palin as his running mate made a certain amount of sense when you consider that the party's base didn't trust him. He had to find some way of appealing to it, and he knew he couldn't convincingly make the pitch for himself.

Mitt Romney, who I suspect is personally moderate on some issues, could never have expressed or acted on those moderate beliefs if he had won. No one could. Romney wasn't intrinsically a terrible candidate to my mind, but by 2012 it was obvious that the Republican presidential candidate would not be a truly independent mind and spirit: he would merely be the vessel through which the party would exert its will, and that will was entirely the product of the far right. Romney wasn't selling himself to the electorate, he was selling the damaged GOP brand.

And now, 2016.

Oy, 2016.

That Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner in spite of the deeply negative feelings many people have toward her is something of a miracle. It's just not as big a miracle as Donald Trump being the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in spite of an even more negative reputation than HRC's.

HRC is unlikable, gives off whiffs of corruption, has showed terrible judgment (the vote on the Iraq War, using a personal email server while Secretary of State), is entirely too ready to seek military solutions rather than diplomatic ones (in spite of, again, being Secretary of State) and seems to many inauthentic. Yet this deeply flawed person is a cornucopia of virtues compared to Trump. In addition to being a bully, a misogynist and an anti-Muslim and anti-Latino bigot, Trump's either a pathological liar or too deluded to comprehend reality. What issues forth from his mouth is all but entirely wrong. Indeed, the nation might chart a beneficial course for itself by listening to Trump on any issue and then doing precisely the opposite.

These two, Clinton and Trump, barring unimaginably disruptive accidents, will be our major-party choices come November. That should scare the living crap out of you.

In a different year — or in a different universe — Hillary Clinton would by now have been rendered leprous by her opponents. This year? This year, I'm investing in a gas mask because it will not suffice to hold my nose come polling time. The only thing that stinks worse than voting for Hillary is the possibility that Trump will be elected.

Have we hit rock bottom with our candidates? I thought we'd affirmatively answered this question in 2000. Now I see how much further we could have fallen, and actually have fallen. Now the question is, is there a bottom?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"I feel like" as argument

Prof. Molly Worthen asked that we stop saying "I feel like".
“I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

Worthen blames "growing diversity and political polarization. No one could blame [college students] from wanting to back away from confrontation". True enough, but I think it's just as important that with diversity has come an erosion of recognized authority. "Authority" isn't intrinsically bad. If it arises from expertise and experience, we honor it. When a plumber tells you not to dump grease down your sink, you recognize his authority.

Somewhere along the road to greater diversity, though, we decided that our diverse opinions deserved their own facts, too. Some of those "facts" are genuine facts, and some of them are just opinions we cite with increasing ferocity when challenged. We self-segregated into tribes that talk among themselves and don't know how to talk to others who disagree. Worse, when we do talk to them, we can't figure out whose "facts" are genuine. Today, no matter your opinion, you can find an "authority" to back you up, one whose putative expertise and experience seem unassailable. Whose authority — whose expertise and experience — do we accept?

The obvious answer is, the one whose pronouncements agree with the facts on the ground. Yeah, well, there's the rub. You'd think we could all agree on what the facts on the ground are, but we can't. There's simply too much information flooding us from all directions, and unless we ourselves are experts in a subject we can't tell what, of all that information, is garbage and what's valid. It doesn't help that we now accept that "authorities" are not above lying to us.

So if we can't reason our way to a common opinion using a common base of facts as determined by commonly-accepted authorities, how are we supposed to argue civilly with one another? You can't have a civil argument with someone you think is deluded about reality.

Worthen also observes:

In her 2001 book “Race Experts,” Dr. Lasch-Quinn (who is Christopher Lasch’s daughter) argued that the vogue for therapeutic self-help has steered the American left off course, encouraging well-meaning activists to push for sensitivity training seminars instead of real gains in racial and economic equality. The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane extension of this pattern, a means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.
You don't need to subscribe to (so-called) conservativism to agree. Some on the left have learned the wrong lesson from the civil rights movement. Not every statement that hurts someone's feelings was intended that way. Sometimes the speaker just didn't know what he was talking about. Not allowing for that possibility leads us to respond with anger and contempt, giving up the possibility of successfully opening someone else's eyes to his or her ignorance. The propensity to find insult everywhere raises people's hackles, leading to the fraught atmosphere on college campuses that in turn has given rise to "I feel like ..." as a preemptive disarming move.

I get Worthen's point, but getting out of the habit of saying "I feel like" isn't going to address the reasons we're saying it. Our problems are bigger than that.