Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit's lesson for us

Does Britain's vote to leave the European Union hold a lesson for the U.S.? I think so.

Whether you think the arguments for leaving held water, they convinced a lot of people. Complaining that those people were stupid was guaranteed to piss them off and stiffen their resolve to spite you. Is this what happened? Maybe, maybe not, but this oft-implied attitude on the part of government officials and other members of the elite didn't help.

I think another big factor was a sense that a lot of those in the Leave camp were losing out economically. The elites in London didn't seem to give a damn about people who were being left behind by the roaring economy. That would be the global economy — the same global economy that has left so many behind in the U.S.

The U.S. government hasn't done much to ameliorate the plight of this country's left-behinds, preferring to focus on easing the way for the big corporations that dominate the global economy. In a sense, the federal government has been operating on a supply-side, very conservative economic model: help the companies and they'll "trickle down" jobs. This has been true since 1980 and under Democratic presidents as well as Republican ones.

Unquestionably our economy needs jobs for prosperity. However, the federal government has been blind to all but the stock market for too long. People outside the trendy sectors of the economy have been ignored.

The result? Trump (on the right) and Bernie Sanders (on the left).

Trump also benefits from a backlash against cultural changes. (This, too, was a likely driver of Leave votes in the UK.) To quote Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The urban and cultural elites — and I plead guilty to being both, even if I'm not quite sure what the "cultural elite" is — haven't paid attention to our fellow citizens who don't agree with us on social issues and who were being left behind by the global economy.

It's too late for the U.S.'s urban and cultural elites to do anything about our deafness and blindness that will change the election. But even if Trump doesn't win the presidency, we're going to have to reckon with his supporters. We don't have to agree with (or do anything to encourage) the bigotry and divisiveness he has forced to the surface of the body politic, but we damned sure have to address the legitimate economic grievances that fueled his rise. We need to accord his supporters the respect they're due as our neighbors and fellow citizens. (We can also see about getting them to listen to us, too.)

If we don't come together, the U.S. will follow the UK's example, giving in to hyper-nationalism and isolationism out of a sense of legitimate but misplaced grievance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Sauce for the goose

Rachel Maddow is excited by the "sit-in" being conducted by Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives. The Democrats are breaking regular order and disrupting the routine of House business to demand a vote on gun-control measures.

The sit-in is ongoing and we don't know how or when it will end. However, it's not nearly as exciting for me as it is for Maddow.

When members of Congress throw over the institution's rules and procedures, they set a dangerous precedent. Republicans will remember what Democrats have done and they won't hesitate to pull a similar stunt, or worse, if they think they can derive political benefit. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

Congress is a dysfunctional mess, no question, but turning it into more of a circus isn't going to make it better. If you think that Congress is so broken that we might as well disrupt it any way we can, you're indulging the same irrational, anarchic impulses as Trump's supporters.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mental clutter and creativity

Prof. Moshe Bar penned a brief piece for the New York Times whose thrust is that our brains are overloaded with stray thinking. His recent research finds
... the capacity for original and creative thinking is markedly stymied by stray thoughts, obsessive ruminations and other forms of “mental load.”

...

... our findings suggest that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.

His research has implications for everyone, but I'm particularly interested in what it means for voiceover talents. To be as free and creative as possible, you have to leave the rest of the day behind when you belly up to the mic. Sometimes we even tell ourselves (or at least inexperienced talents do this) that a given script doesn't really need our fullest attention, that we can wing it. 'Tain't so, and it would be helpful to cultivate meditation or some other practice that clears our minds. As Bar puts it:
Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Religion and hatred

I don't hold many absolute beliefs. I'm temperamentally unable to avoid seeing the other person's point of view, most of the time.

I do, though, have one absolute belief that is particularly relevant right now:

No true religion teaches that it's okay to hate whole groups of people.
Looking at the wide swath of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, most of these faiths' adherents would deny that hatred is at the heart of their religion. However, each of these faiths has numerous sects that do make hatred a core principle. Some hate non-adherents, some hate taboo violators, aka "sinners". Such hatred isn't merely accepted, it's considered virtuous. Such hatred can even be a justification for violence.

These sects are an abomination.

Religion is supposed to be a guide to ethical living. How is it ethical to hate whole groups of people you don't know? How is it ethical to classify whole groups of people you don't know as, essentially, sub-human?

The Orlando mass murderer has gotten many commentators tangled up in the confused but toxic stew of his supposed religious beliefs and personal prejudices. One thing is tragically clear, though: he got it into his messed-up head that his religion was eminently okay with his hating gay people.

The Orlando mass murderer was very likely mentally ill. That doesn't let his religion, or religion in general, off the hook, though.

The message "God hates gays" is a depressingly prevalent one, espoused by hundreds if not thousands of religious leaders at the local and national level. It's a trope that transcends the Christian/Muslim divide, and for all I know is present in fundamentalist Jewish and Hindu sects, too. This message of hatred, broadcast by a thousand voices from all sides (including his father's), sank into the Orlando mass murderer's unstable mind. Eventually he acted on it.

The thing is, he wasn't the first and he won't be the last deeply troubled person to glom onto hatred as an organizing principle for his life.

It's long past time for you so-called religious leaders who spew this garbage to own up to your role in creating men like the Orlando mass murderer. You have a moral responsibility for the fallout of your relentless drumbeat of hatred.

A religion that promotes hatred of others as a virtue isn't a religion: it's heresy. People who spread such heresy incite time bombs like the Orlando mass murderer. The incitement, the drumbeat of hatred, has to stop.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Persky's privileged reasoning

Judge Aaron Persky, he of the six-months-jail-for-rape sentence, finally has had his say in the court of public opinion, thanks to the UK's Guardian, which provided a transcript of Persky's remarks at the sentencing hearing.

Color me unconvinced by Persky's reasoning.

He lists a number of considerations that he was legally bound to consider in deciding on a sentence, going through them one by one. What seems to have impressed him most were the numerous character-attestation letters submitted on defendant Brock Turner's behalf. From these, Persky seems to have decided that a lengthy prison stint — or even a moderately lengthy one of six years, which the prosecutor recommended — would be too severe a punishment.

I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the impact statements that have been – or the, really, character letters that have been submitted do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction.
Persky can only be said to have taken a far more positive attitude toward Turner's character and prospects than the rest of us.

Persky's assessment of Turner's character is especially troubling. Persky thinks that Turner's intoxication mitigated the severity of the crime, noting that we'd think even less of Turner if he had raped an unconscious girl while he was sober. While true, the bottom line is that Turner raped an unconscious girl. Persky totally sidesteps that point. It's as if Persky thinks alcohol is a get-out-of-jail-free card in Monopoly.

Judge Persky, do all drunken young men try to rape unconscious women in your world?

As for Turner's prospects post-jail, nobody knows what they'll be, maybe not even Turner himself. But judging from his father's despicable indifference to his son's victim, I don't think Turner has been raised to understand social norms all that well. I think he has been raised in an atmosphere in which the concerns of others are not all that important. If you believe "in vino, veritas", that alcohol can be a useful truth serum of sorts, then Turner revealed a very unappetizing truth about himself. His willingness to rape an unconscious woman apparently was only held in check by sobriety, not by any sense of the grotesque immorality of such an act. His disinhibited crime does not paint a pretty picture of who he is or who he's likely to be later in life.

Having no prior criminal record and being armed with a wheelbarrow of character references made a big impression on Judge Persky. I would guess that Persky also viewed Turner as a sympathetic-looking and -sounding defendant, the boy next door.

Persky was so focused on the possible adverse consequences for the defendant that he forgot who the victim in this case really was. Shame on him.

Friday, June 17, 2016

McCain's bitterness

Obama's responsible for the Orlando massacre. That's what John McCain originally said. Then he said he misspoke.
"I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself."
A distinction without a difference.

Why did McCain drag Obama into the blame game in the first place?

"Because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures."
I had a longer post ready, but it would have been a waste of your time because we all know that McCain's talking out of his ass:
  • We got out of Iraq because the country finally figured out our occupation wasn't ever going to make the country (or the region) better.
  • We got into Iraq because George W. Bush wanted to invade, not because the invasion was in the national interest.
"ISIS is what it is today" because George W. Bush destabilized Iraq. That's the reality that McCain is at pains to repudiate. But denial ain't just a river in Egypt, Senator.

(There's also the not so little matter of our not really knowing if the Orlando mass murderer was genuinely motivated by ISIS, or was just mentally ill. See my previous post. But hey, McCain can't be bothered by little things like uncertainty about the facts.)

Senator, your wanton, ill-considered statements don't constitute serious, insightful criticism. They're petty and bitter and out of touch with reality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Explaining the Orlando mass murderer

Once again, Esquire's Charles Pierce cuts through the noise of opinion-mongering by all and sundry to explain why we may never know what was going through what passed for mass murderer Omar Mateen's mind.
As we learn more about him, he seems to have had a staggering mixture of motives; he was such a tightly wound ball of hate that we never may truly untangle the real cause of why he did what he did. He didn't much like any minorities. He slapped his first wife around. He broke chairs. He threw angry fits at the office. He may have been a self-loathing gay man.
That's a lot of chaos swirling in one head.

Meanwhile, the single best explanation for what ISIS has come to signify was given by The Daily Telegraph's Ruth Sherlock in her piece, "Donald Trump's scaremongering response to Orlando shooting is the opposite of what America needs".

It has become an umbrella term by which psychopaths feel they can justify deranged acts.

...

Isil has become a way for the dangerously mentally ill to find meaning in their madness. They adopt the Isil flag as a cover for their own private motives.

That makes more sense to me than almost anything else written about ISIS/ISIL.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Beware judicial recalls

The light sentence given to convicted rapist Brock Turner has spurred a recall effort. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail. While the news report doesn't explain Persky's reasoning (it doesn't look like Persky explained himself in open court), it does cite both Turner's and his father's statements to the court. Naturally, both men pleaded for leniency. The father "told the court that his son’s life shouldn’t be ruined because of '20 minutes of action'.”

I detect no hint that Turner's father has any concern for the victim, which may go a long way toward explaining why his son raped her. However, what concerns me is the recall effort against the judge.

Persky isn't a notoriously controversial judge: at least, no reports have surfaced of similarly contentious decisions on his part. Persky can't comment while the case is under appeal (as it apparently is). So what we have is an outraged public calling for a judge's job because it disagrees with one of his decisions.

Plenty of us were outraged by the recall effort mounted against justices of Iowa's Supreme Court in 2010, an effort led by opponents of those justices' ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Those justices didn't commit misconduct, they issued an unpopular ruling. The recall was purely and nakedly political.

As far as I can tell, Persky has committed no misconduct on the bench. We may disagree (vehemently) with the sentence he handed down, but we should be careful about doing more than yelling about it. Recalling judges completely ignores the role they play. Legislators and executives (mayors, governors, the President) are supposed to be responsive to public opinion. However, judges often have to ignore public opinion, or they can't safeguard the rights of those not in the majority. Thus recalling or electing judges makes absolutely no sense. (If you want a government that does only what the majority wants, ditch the judiciary, and for that matter, the Bill of Rights: the rights available to the people will be up to the majority. Better hope you're always in the majority under such a government.)

Six months sure sounds like an inappropriately light sentence for rape, and that bothers me. Even so, I won't support the recall effort against Judge Persky. Those who do may think they're crusading for justice, but they're really attacking one of the pillars of our government.

[UPDATE: I was wrong. Judge Persky did explain himself in open court.]

Friday, June 3, 2016

Baby Trump

It's somebody else's fault.

That's practically the Trump mantra. Every time you turn around, there's Teh Donald, calling somebody a "disgrace" or a "sleaze" or, in his especially regressed moments, "a very bad person". These terrible people are the reason things have gone wrong in TrumpWorld.

Here's what he had to say about a judge hearing a case in which former students are suing Trump University:

Trump leveled a series of blows against [federal judge Gonzalo] Curiel. He called him “a hater of Donald Trump” and “very hostile” person who had “railroaded” him. He then taunted the judge, who has scheduled a trial for late November, after the election.

“I’ll be seeing you in November, either as president…” Trump said, trailing off. “I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s doing this.” Trump brought up Curiel’s ethnicity: “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican…I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump.”

It sounds like the case isn't going Trump's way. Who could have predicted that?

Set aside the lawsuit, though, and consider: when has Trump ever taken responsibility for anything?

He ain't perfect. He makes mistakes. Has he ever owned them?

No.

Instead, he whines.

The judge in a case makes rulings adverse to him? Trump whines that the judge is a "hater". Trump brings up the judge's ethnicity as an unconcealed dog whistle to his followers, with the implied whine being, "He's Mexican, I've said things Mexicans don't like, so he's taking it out on me". Oh, wait, I missed a nuance: "... so he's taking it out on poor little me".

Kids say the darnedest things, but they're kids. They're young, they're ignorant of how adults behave. Adults who act like kids are not taken seriously — nor should they be.

Sometimes Trump followers make good points about what's wrong with the world. Those points, though, are easy to ignore when the messenger is so infantile. Rather than making the rest of us reconsider our perspective, he's poisoning the discussion.