Friday, June 09, 2017

Weekend Reading: On Empathy

You should read Katha Pollitt on empathy toward Trump-voters, or rather the lopsided demand that the "lefty elitist" show such empathy, but must not demand any back in return.

Empathy is valuable and even necessary, as I wrote in my earlier post (which also referred to that problem of lopsidedness).  But our empathy should be aimed at the economic troubles of rural towns in some parts of the US, and our understanding should be applied to solving that problem and the associated problem of poverty-driven drug addictions.

It's not empathy toward certain right-wing values* that is needed, but empathy toward all who suffer, even those who might wish us to suffer more, and the best way to demonstrate that empathy is through proper economic policies, good education systems and an adequate safety net, with encouragement for people to be self-reliant and hard-working and so on.

As an aside, two questions about this conversation fascinate me:  First, why is it assumed that if I lean left politically I am not hard-working, self-supporting or resilient?  In other words, why do many assume that the stereotypical left and right values cannot be held by the same person?

Second, note the sleight-of-hand in the way the basic problem is so often defined by first constructing all of the left as "elitist" (and not the party of the poor, say) and then demanding that those "elites" -- because they now are viewed as elites -- must attend to the grievances of the down-trodden Trump-voters (who are actually in power)?


*  Unchanging human hierarchies based on either presumed divine decrees or essentialist biological thinking, patriarchal gods telling all of us what to do, flawed market models as a form of religion and so on.

On Duterte's "Rape Joke"

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of Philippines, has branded himself as the most vicious junkyard dog, the one that would bite ISIS dogs in the butt.  His supporters lap his threats of violence up.  If violence has rained down from the other side, then a violent bully in one's own corner feels good.

That's the background to use for understanding his May "joke" about raping women:

“You can arrest any person, search any house,” Duterte told the soldiers Friday.
“I alone would be responsible” for anything they did under martial law, he said. “I will go to jail for you. If you happen to have raped three women, I will own up to it.”
This last comment — absolving his soldiers for any future rapes — was widely reported as a joke, and if it was, it wouldn't be the ruler's first attempt at the genre.
Before he won the presidency last year, Duterte joked that he “should have been first” in the gang rape of a woman who was held hostage, raped and killed in the 1980s.
Let's make a thought experiment:  What if Duterte had said "If you happen to have throttled three babies, I will own up to it."?  Did anything change?

I believe something did change.  The "rape joke" has an aspect of titillation, of almost-pleasure.  It's not just a way to tell the soldiers that they can violate human rights as much as they wish, that they can use whatever violence they regard necessary.  It's also a promise of the kind of violent sexual release which wars have traditionally promised soldiers:  The "right" to rape the enemy's women*, because those women belong to the enemy in the same way that their goods belong to them.  Thus, rape and pillage are identical "rights."

When Chelsea Clinton tweeted about that "rape joke" she made the mistake of taking it out of context by writing: "Not funny.  Ever."  It wasn't intended to be funny to a woman, after all, ever.

But Duterte's response to her moved the "joke" even further away from its actual meaning.  He said:

"When your father was screwing Lewinsky and the rest of the young girls there in the office of the president, on the table, on the floor, on the sofa, did you raise any" criticism? Duterte said Thursday.
Duterte used the identity sign between philandering or adultery and violent rape by strangers.

And so did in a way the article I quote for that comment, because it describes Dutarte's language as "foul-mouthed" and "profanity-laced."   I could be truly foul-mouthed without advocating any violence at all.  It's the violence-laced language of Dutarte which troubles me, not any profanities. 

The mixture of sex and violence Dutarte uses in his speeches amounts to a primitive kind of rough heterosexual male bonding, with a strong stench of entitlement.  It will be interesting to see if similar speeches become more common in the US now that Trump has opened the door for Bannon and his white male supremacist brethren, or if the "awful" forces of "political correctness" can still manage to rein it in.


Or their sons.  Or anyone who isn't an actual combatant but is viewed as "belonging" to the enemy.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

I Heard Comey

By reading his prepared statement and by listening to some of the hearings themselves.  The prepared statement, covering several meetings between Trump and Comey, contains these sentences which Comey attributes to Trump:

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, "He is a good guy and has been through a lot." He repeated that Flynn hadn't done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President.
He then said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."


On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as "a cloud" that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to "lift the cloud." 

Comey interpreted those statements by quoting Henry II on the topic of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury:

Maine Sen. Angus King was pressing Comey about how he interpreted phrases President Donald Trump used in a one-on-one February dinner, in which Trump urged Comey to drop the probe into just-fired national security adviser Mike Flynn.
King, an independent, asked Comey if he interpreted language like "I hope" as directives from the President.
"Yes. It kind of rings in my ears as, 'Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'" Comey said.
Those words, some historical accounts suggest, were interpreted by Henry's men as him wishing for Becket to be killed.
The next month, four knights loyal to Henry tracked Becket down and killed him.
What a pity we don't have video recordings of those meetings.  For instance, did Trump ask what Comey's people could do to "lift the cloud" while was sighing, staring at the ground and nervously wringing a wet hankie?  Or did he go wink-wink-nudge-nudge while talking about that cloud lifting?  Comey's statement strips all those potential nuances and leaves us with just his interpretations of the words themselves.

But in any case the evidence suggests that Trump wanted various investigations to be terminated.

The hearings themselves were not terribly interesting, though John McCain did appear to argue that perhaps Hillary Clinton used Russian connections to orchestrate her own electoral downfall.

That argument differed from the other Republican arguments only in being more bizarre:  All the Republicans I heard tried to obfuscate the issues by drawing our attention to that heinous criminal,  Hillary Clinton, and her crime of having  used a private e-mail server for classified documents while being the secretary of state.  That Comey had recommended no criminal charges for her and that the investigation has been concluded makes no difference in these political games*.


*  Neither does the fact that previous politicians had committed similar blunders and were not investigated on those.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Political Polarization. Wear Your Seatbelts, For Turbulence Is Predicted.

Political polarization in the United States may be the main reason why we now live in the Turd Reich*.  Enough people think like Mark Levin:

MARK LEVIN (HOST): So, the spectacle goes on. The enemy is on the move, Islamo-Nazis are on the move, the Russians are on the move, the Chinese are on the move, the North Koreans are on the move, the Iranians are on the move, and the Democrats are on the move.
Let me ask you this question: Who threatens our country more? Who threatens our country more? The Iranians, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians, or the Democrats?

There ya go.  If you are a registered Democrat, you are the enemy of Mark Levin, comparable to all sorts of foreign states, some of which, at least, do not dote on the US.

The left, the liberals, the progressives and/or the Democrats are not blameless in the polarization of opinions.  But the left did not start it. 

Indeed, for a long time (and perhaps even now) the Democrats were the mumbling milquetoasts on political debate shows while the Republicans breathed fire and promised hellfire to the opposition.  Still, the Democratic base is now getting to slightly resemble the Republican base in the way the "internal enemy" is dehumanized.

Whether all this began with the right-wing radio shows, Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News can be debated.  But the fertilizer which made political extremism grow in this country has the name of that right-wing media on it**. 

The audiences loved hearing how vile the Democrats are (because who wouldn't like to be told that everything is the fault of someone else, someone truly evil, so there's no need to feel guilty about that anger), and so the shows gave them more what they liked.  Then the shows stepped one step further by giving their audiences not only right-wing opinions but also only those facts or factoids which fit the right-wing worldview.  (I still get e-mails from The Judicial Watch, a right-wing organization which "fights for accountability and integrity in law, politics and government."  They are still all about about Hillary Clinton's e-mails, and their representative was on Fox News yesterday).

I see faint echoes of that when I visit the left Twitter or read the comments on lefty blogs, though the extent of distortion on the two sides is not comparable.  Still, we should avoid copying what happened on the extreme right (which is now most of the right), because it is crucial to know what "facts" or facts people hold and to try to have a conversation, with data and analysis,  aimed at deciding on some shared set of evidence.

Right now Republicans and Democrats live in separate political information bubbles.  Sure, some live in disinformation bubbles, but even those people are human beings and compatriots.

The Internet exacerbates the dehumanization process.  Others do not appear as multi-dimensional people online, but often become condensed into one mistake, one opinion, one aspect of their characteristics.  Empathy seems difficult to maintain toward such one-dimensional invisible strangers who we often only experience as angry ranters on, say, Twitter.  Those angry rants elicit angry rants back, and -- yippee -- another step has been taken toward even greater polarization.***

But that is not where the process began, as I noted above. 

So where is the process heading?

I don't know the answer.  The "elitist" left (which is elitist for some odd reason I can't quite fathom) is asked to stop being so horrible to the heartland folks, assumed to have voted for Trump, though I have never seen appeals for the "elitist" right to stop being so horrible about the bi-coastal Liberal rabble. 

There is contempt on both sides, and both sides should address that contempt.****  There might still be time for something different than a society consisting of two separate cultures which loathe each other, where the paradise of one is the hell of the other. 

But time is running short on that.

A post-script:

Writing this post was like drinking cod-liver oil.  I didn't enjoy the task at all, because the emotional and angry Echidne strongly disagrees with the (more?) rational Echidne who insisted on boring everyone with a Goody Two-Shoes post.    


*  Because some have argued that the vote for Trump may have largely been a fuck-you vote for the Democrats and for eight years of the Obama administration.

**  I'm not giving a politicians an out on that, either.  How many of you get fund-raising emails from politicians which imply that the world is going to end tomorrow because of the evils of the internal enemy, unless you chip in ten dollars?  Triggering a panic response helps with political fund-raising, but it also increases the likelihood of dehumanizing one's neighbors, co-workers and compatriots.

***  Add to that the online information bubbles.  It's a good idea to get out of one's own bubble, occasionally.  I recently saw several rather nasty comments by a woman who loves Trump.  When I checked her Facebook page, I found that her life is centered around dog rescue, something I have also done in the past. 

The point, of course, is that we human beings have many dimensions.  The Internet doesn't show all of them, and it might be a good idea to keep in mind that the other users are also human beings.  Some are pretty deplorable, but none of us are perfect.

****  I'm not sure how to engage those who believe that I might be the enemy, as Mark Levin seems to think, and I have little hope that I could persuade a misogynist or a racist about the value of people who are women and/or people of color.  But a national discussion about basic values could be worthwhile.  Even getting people together in the meat-space could be valuable, to show that the opposition doesn't have horns and red eyeballs.  Unless they do, of course. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

So. Will Your Vote Be Counted in 2018? In 2020?

The leaked NSA hacking report and the woman, Reality Winner, who allegedly leaked it are all over the news.  The whole case reminds me of a large Spanish onion, with many layers, and each of them worth a closer look.

But let's look at the very core of that onion, the part which I find most indispensable to examine: 

Are future US elections safe?  How can you tell if your vote is not going to be altered at some later point in the process?  And what would be so bad about paper ballots and real people counting them?  It would be a lot harder for both foreign powers and either of the domestic parties to meddle with that process.

I have followed the US elections since the Florida debacle in 2000, and have spotted an odd aspect of the elections integrity debate:  Nobody, but nobody, is willing to even entertain* the possibility that the software in the voting machines could be manipulated.  Even the Democrats refuse to entertain that possibility.  Even anonymous people online mostly refuse to entertain it.**

Nobody should assume that the machines have been hacked by the Russians, say, without evidence that it happened.  Rationality requires that.  But neither should almost everybody assume that the machines have never been hacked by anybody, that they cannot be hacked, that even querying the possibility turns one into a member of the tinfoil hat brigade.

I keep reading that the voting infrastructure in this country is safe, but when I ask for the evidence on transparency, on how we can verify and double-check votes, I'm given answers such as the one where voters get a paper receipt of their vote.  To take home.  Which is then not available for verification of the later total machine counts.

Here I lift my tinfoil helmet long enough to look into your eyes, without blinking, while I firmly state that I do not necessarily believe that the voting machines were manipulated in 2016.  But neither do I believe that someone with political motivations would go all out to influence everything about the elections, including hacking the voter registration rolls, and then suddenly face his or her conscience and decide not to affect the votes themselves.

If it can be done, it will be done, by someone, somewhere.  Given that, the systems should be inspected to see if they truly are safe from manipulation, and we should be given thorough reports which prove that nothing comparable can take place in 2018 or 2020, whether it's the hacking of voter rolls or the hacking of the machines themselves or the suppression of the votes of people with African ancestry and/or of students and so on. 


* Even in an intimate dinner party with no leaks to the press.

**  I get some of the reasons for that.  First, some sites commenting on vote fraud in the past have turned out not to have strong evidence, thus sliding into the tinfoil sphere.  Second, if the elections themselves are meaningless in, say, the trigger states, then American democracy is already dead, and most of us don't want to even think that, let alone entertain it in our homes.  Third, it could be (and here I firmly step into the tinfoil territory) that both parties have always gently massaged the results and so nobody really wants to change the system.  Well, nobody in power today.

I don't believe that last sentence, but unless I am clearly shown how transparency in the voting system is guaranteed, in every single district, I have no way of refuting what it says.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Free Skies? On Privatizing Air Traffic Control.

Why do the Republicans want to privatize air control? This article summarizes the reasons, I guess.

But how fascinating that the ultimate way we would measure the productivity and efficiency of an air traffic control system is utterly ignored in that push for privatization in everything, just because the freemarketgods should be getting their sacrifices:

While both sides of the privatization debate may laud the system's clean record, critics point out its "WWII-era radar technology" and process of physically passing paper strips with an individual's aircraft information and flight plan from controller to controller. FAA's NextGen program to introduce digital communications and GPS systems to replace decades old technology in one of the world's most complex airspaces has been slow; too slow for many in Washington, D.C.

What guarantees are there that a privatized system would produce the same clean record?  I think the probabilities work in a different direction.  For instance, what should the optimal distance between airplanes taking off be?  If that decision is not made purely on safety, but also on the basis of the profit motivation of large airlines, the calculations could be different and the outcome could be a dirtier record, with more accidents.*

And the way digital communications might be introduced should be carefully thought out, because we now know how good various groups of hackers can be.

This post doesn't mean that I would necessarily be opposed to privatization of air traffic control (though that's my initial stance, for safety reasons).  But the debate appears not to have enough data to justify Trump pushing it.  Neither did he campaign on it.

*  Partly, because there are jobs where trying to keep salaries low and working hours long is extremely counterproductive.  Private firms have different incentives in how to weigh various risks, and the pressure to suppress earnings is stronger for profit-oriented firms.  But tired and disgruntled air traffic controllers are something I don't want to contemplate before flying.