Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce

29 08 2013

Gotta love the logic which states that you should ask for as much pay as you can possibly get—unless you actually need that money to live a minimally decent life.

Then you’re being unreasonable and will only hurt yourself.

Stupid greedhead.

Don’t want to be a richer man, pt II

29 08 2013

Back to unpacking that hastily stuffed post:

2. Losing status is not an injustice. It’s not fun, and it may feel unfair, but the loss of status in and of itself is not unfair.

Status can be earned or unearned, related to deeds, to relationships, to kinship, something taken or something granted. It almost certainly is culturally dependent—what earns you status in one culture may earn you contempt in another—and, depending upon that culture, may be related to justice or not. In cultures in which people think they deserve their status, they are likely more likely to believe that changes in the culture which lead to changes (loss) in status are unfair.

This could be seen as the aims of the civil rights movement in the US were absorbed into society and instantiated in governmental and corporate policy. As a result, those who had formerly only to compete with one another for position were instead forced to compete with those who had been kept out of the game.

To switch up the metaphor: white men could no longer count on always being first in line for jobs, promotions, college admissions, and sundry other social goods. They lost status.

That they did so, however, was not unjust. American society was formed out of the ungainly mess of egalitarianism, white supremacy, patriarchy, justice, toleration, conformity, segregation, integration, settlement, escapism, hard work, and luck, and as the polity shifted away from over supremacism in terms of both race and sex, the sense of “who was best (for the position, say)” shifted.

The liberationist in me would say Not damned nearly enough, but I do recognize the shift has occurred, and in a direction which has benefitted me and, I would argue, society as a whole: I think it is better to live in a society in which the placement of one’s reproductive organs  does not determine one’s prospects in that society, or where  people”will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

(I know that’s an overused phrase and not even his best one, but on the 50th anniversary of the speech, it seemed apropos.)

Now, I admit that I’m overloading “status” somewhat, leaving “justice” untouched. No, I don’t think justice exists outside of culture, but one of the enduring fictions of American culture is that, supremacism notwithstanding, justice bears some relationship to deeds, and that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent life. The definition of justice didn’t change so much as did the “everyone” who deserved the fair shot: the pool of who were to be considered in matters of justice got a whole lot more crowded.

With the expansion of “everyone” to include almost every citizen, the status which had accrued to white male citizens simply for being white male citizens was necessarily lessened—not because status was taken away in an absolute sense, but, because it was granted to so many other people, meant relatively less.

To bring in yet another analogy: it’s not that white men got kicked out of the pool but that they had to share it. And yeah, if you’re used to having the joint to yourself, having to share it is a loss.

But it is not unjust.

Did you see the frightened ones?

27 08 2013

I don’t know what the hell to do about Syria—which is fine, given that no one is asking and I’m in no position to do anything anyway.

Still, I do like the sound of my own voice, so I need to say: “I don’t know what the hell to do about Syria.”

George Packer’s ambivalence is, rightly, getting lots of links. Bashar al-Assad is a bloody-minded dictator willing to murder his way across his country in order to keep that country his: If the people don’t want him, they don’t deserve him, and thus will be killed.

He is willing, in other words, to do anything to survive.

Given that, Packer’s question goes right to the point: “I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.”

Is the Obama administration or France or NATO willing to go after Assad? If so, what then? Iraq redux?

And if not, why bother?

It’s possible that someone could come up with a decent argument for limited multilateral intervention—that it would, in fact, materially improve the prospects of a decent life for more Syrians than not—but even Fred Kaplan, who offers the most optimistic realistic appraisal of intervention, riddles that appraisal with hedges, questions, and doubts.

I don’t have any difficulty believing that Assad gassed his own people. Some argue that he must have been set up because who would be so stupid to loose sarin on a neighborhood with UN inspectors on the ground, but is it really such a stretch to think a homicidal megalomaniac might have issues with logic and reason? Conversely, that he’s a homicidal megalomaniac doesn’t mean he can’t calculate the odds of any intervention resulting in his ouster sufficiently low to make a terror-inducing gas attack worth his while.

In either case, we’re back to the obvious: he’ll burn his country before he hands it over to the traitors and cowards who would rather live without him.

That’s a horrible, horrible situation for Syrians, and produces the horrible paradox, as well: We want to intervene because it’s horrible, but because it’s so horrible, we can’t intervene.

Not unless we want to burn the country down ourselves.

As they try to change their worlds, pt I

25 08 2013

I may have been a bit brusque in stating “nobody cares about you”.

I did add the qualifier that “nobody” means “those who don’t know you”, but even with that dilution, it was too strong a statement: there are people who do genuinely care about strangers, and that there may exist a widespread (if minimal) sympathy amongst the members of our species suggests that, yes, many of us do care—however minimally—about one another.

The real problem with that statement, however, was that it bundled together too many dynamics, not all of which go together. So, to haul out that nifty word-tool of my grad school years, let’s unpack those bundled dynamics, shall we?

1. Changes are not conspiracies. I’d guessed that “the fear of incipient repression could be found among any group which sees its superior status threatened”—that is, that changes in society which are meant to benefit an out-group can be seen by some in the in-group as primarily an attack on the in-group. Thus, those in favor of queer rights and same-sex marriage are seen as less interested in preserving themselves than in destroying others.

I read the blogs at The American Conservative (Rod Dreher regularly and others semi-regularly) and pop over to Christianity Today a couple of times a week, and it is common for some bloggers and commenters alike to see legal and cultural changes as either harbingers of complete societal collapse and/or portents of a future in which all “true” Christians are targeted for oppression; some see the extension of anti-discrimination laws (e.g., no business may refuse to serve a same-sex couple simply because they are gay) or the enforcement of laws of general applicability (e.g., secular businesses run by religious people are not exempt from the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act) as evidence of anti-Christian oppression today.

Someone like me sees changes in the structure of the law and shifts in cultural perceptions of minorities (of whatever sort) as part of a by-no-means-straightforward amalgam of overt and organized political action, artistic presentations, elite intellectual debates, media representations, everyday experiences, and, of course, material conditions and economic forces. As such, while changes can have intensely personal meanings, they are not personal per se, but are instead changes in the rules which affect everyone.

Consider the 1965 Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a state law prohibiting contraceptive use for married couple. State attacks on contraception went back decades, although by the time the pill was developed (in the 1950s), contraception was not only legal but embraced in many states. Griswold (and later, Eisenstadt v. Baird), simply toppled an opposition which had long since dwindled. Contraceptive use became the norm.

Were Griswold and Eisenstadt an attack on Catholicism? Anti-Catholic sentiment, however much it had dwindled since the 19th century, was still prevalent in this country, and that the Catholic Church was officially against contraception was known; to strike down bans on contraception could be seen as evidence of contempt for Catholicism—as, indeed some have seen and continue to see it today.

The Court rulings, however, depended upon a (still-contested) finding of a right to privacy in the Constitution. There was nothing which required the Church to change its own doctrine; these cases simply took away a series of state-sponsored supports* for that doctrine. The Church would be free to inveigh against barrier and chemical  methods of birth control, but they could no longer rely on state law to help them to enforce their opposition.

(*That a state happened to have anti-contraception laws didn’t mean that they passed them to support Catholicism; regardless of intent, however, they had the effect of doing so.)

Due to these rulings as well as to other cultural changes, the Church clearly lost, not only authority but also status. Catholics were not prevented from believing that artificial birth control was bad nor were they required to use it, but their anti-contraceptive position was taken to apply only to Catholics themselves (and not all of them accepted the official position) and was otherwise accorded no greater weight than any other position on the matter. The ground shifted, and in a way which put Catholics authorities on the same level as any other authority: they no longer had special status.

To those who lose such status, the loss is almost certainly personally felt, but that one feels it personally does not mean it was meant personally. The ground underneath everyone’s feet shifted, not just those officials and members of the Catholic Church. and that the Church was unhappy with the quake does not mean the quake was directed at them.


There’s more than this, of course, but let’s take it slow: haste did me in, last time.

Of flesh and blood I’m made

23 08 2013

I’m a regular reader of The Daily Dish (tho’ I still haven’t gotten out the crowbar to subscribe), and a semi-regular clicker-on-ner of the “Mental Health Break” vids.

I am, as you know, a sucker for critters and, especially, of critters doing awesome things. So, naturally, I clicked on the “Animals are Awesome” MHB vid.

It was not awesome (which is why I’m not linking to it).

I made it almost two minutes before I stopped the vid. It wasn’t a compilation of animals being awesome in their animality, but animals (mostly) imitating humans.

Now, if they had done this on their own, I’d think “Awesome!” and give them a bravo for their perspicacity and/or slyness at mocking we Homo sapiens sapiens. But they weren’t, of course, acting as bears or monkeys, but as trained bears or monkeys, as critters whose behavior had been shaped in ways to please humans.

I’m not a purist: I own cats, and even if felines may only ever be semi-domesticated, they are nonetheless at least somewhat trained in how to live with with humans (tho’, as cats, they at least somewhat train us in return). But watching a walrus or giant seal or whatever the hell sea creature that was doing sit-ups was not amusing; it was sad.

I like critters because they aren’t us, and while I can delight in finding parallels to our behaviors in them, I like the fact that they exist apart from us. They’ve got their own groovy critter-things going on, and some are funny and some are scary and some are weird, they’re their own.

Animals are awesome—just not when they’ve been trained to act like humans.

They call it the streak

21 08 2013

Yes, because the absolute worst thing you can call a man is a “woman”.


They’re not even trying anymore, are they?

Take a drag or two

21 08 2013

Nobody cares about you.

I mean this in the worldly sense, that strangers are spending their time following you and wondering about you and seeking to control you. They don’t care. Really.

There are ways to make them care, of course—social media has given us all kinds of ways of turning strangers into people who care at least half a fig about you—but as a general matter, if you’re an American and you go about living your life and not otherwise flinging your words and pictures into cyberspace, nobody who doesn’t already know you is going to care.

It is a healthy indifference.

Now, there is the little matter of the national-security apparatus blindly scooping up every stray electronic bit, and, more pointedly, there are clearly some individuals and groups, designated as threats and treated as criminals-/terrorist-in-waiting who are right to worry about political surveillance.

But the rest of us? No.

This ought to be a relief—how awful to have to carry the interest of millions!—but some folks seems determined to believe that They Are Out To Get Us. This sentiment is currently most strongly expressed on the right side of the spectrum, especially amongst Christians opposed to the incorporation of gay rights into our political culture and Constitutional understandings, but I’d guess the fear of incipient repression could be found among any group which sees its superior status threatened.

To be merely equal is to be oppressed.

Unsurprisingly, this sentiment is oft paired with the conviction of The End Is Near, Boy, Just You Wait. Changes in the culture are not just changes in the culture, but harbingers of the apocalypse. Thus, the only responsible response is to run away before one is dragged off or everything falls away—either of which one just might secretly hope for if only to be proven right.

People like to be right—that famous xkcd cartoon wouldn’t be reproduced so often if it didn’t hit a nerve in so many of us—and we like to be seen to be right. We like to be seen, and we like to be right.

Which is why the idea that nobody is looking for us, and nobody cares if we’re right, is so hard to take—so much so that some would rather believe themselves targets of a police state or living at the end of everything. At least then they know they matter.

I went through my own personal disillusionment a decade or so ago, and while at first it was devastating—pathological neuroses are a remarkably sturdy structure on which to build a disordered life—it was a crucial part of what ultimately allowed me to live in this world. I had to shrug off my anti-hero status in order to have any chance at living as a human being.

I don’t want to be too hard on those who see danger everywhere—I know the pleasures of that kind of sight, and, yes, there are times when one is treated unjustly—but pity does them no favors. If they want to run away from us, they have that right, but they should know we won’t be running after them.

They can Go Galt or take the Benedict Option or flee under whatever other rubric of withdrawal they choose, and the rest of us won’t care.

We’ll just keep living our lives, and trying to care for those who remain in our lives.

I’m gonna set your flag on fire

19 08 2013

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

I wasn’t clear in defining “punishment”, nor in distinguishing that undefined punishment from a beat-down from one’s political opponents.

The ultimate punishment (for an incumbent) is, of course, to be tossed from office, and is the standard for any other concerns about punishment. For example, falling poll numbers might invite either a primary challenge or a better-quality challenger from the other party, which could result in losing one’s seat. Similarly, a beat-down from a political adversary could lead to softening poll numbers, which, in turn, lead challengers to believe the incumbent is vulnerable.

I also wasn’t clear in distinguishing between fear of losing one’s seat from fear of being hammered for an allegedly weak response. As with the issue of punishment, the fear of hammering is a second-order fear linked to the primary fear of election loss.

The difficulty for the incumbent representative or senator, or for either the incumbent or possible presidential candidate, is discerning whether one will be considered weak if one counsels a less-aggressive stance as well as whether one would be able to fend off any attacks in ways that, if they do not strengthen one’s candidacy, do not appreciably weaken it. In the United States, DO SOMETHING!!! is the default mode in response to provocation, so in the absence of other cues, taking a highly aggressive stance is likely the safest tactic.

There are other factors, of course. Pressure from party leaders and threats to withhold campaign funds or boot a member off a favorable committee can steer a wavering politician toward aggression. A sustained media assault can also erode one’s resistance.

Finally, the politician might truly believe that the most aggressive response is, in fact, the correct one, and as such, acts in accordance with his or her principles in voting for aggression.

Now, as to my hypothesis that the supposed problem with a softer response is actually a problem with an unclear response, well, because elections are rarely about one thing and one thing only, this is tough to test.

Russ Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act and laid out his reasons for doing so, and he lost his re-election; however, he had always had tough races, and lost his bid in the 2010 Tea Party surge. Rep. Ron Paul counseled and Senator Rand Paul counsel non-intervention; the father repeatedly won re-election and the son is popular enough with the base of the Kentucky Republican Party that Mitch McConnell is looking to him in his tough re-election bid. Yet it’s also clear that Rand Paul’s non-interventionism runs into strong opposition within his own party, and while he might be able to ensconce himself in his senate seat for decades to come, it might limit his appeal as a presidential candidate in the Republican primaries.

So, no clear lesson.

Except: to the extent that there is no clear lesson regarding the necessity of the most aggressive response, it is just possible that a sitting politician or a presidential candidate who strongly believes in a less-aggressive/non-interventionist approach could effectively inoculate him or herself against charges of being “soft on terrorism/crime” by crafting a strong and clear alternative and selling it as the most effective way of dealing with the problem.

The sifting cloth is binding

18 08 2013

I’m not much disappointed in the Obama’s administration’s approach to national security.

I hate it, but I never expected anything else.

I’ve said in the past that presidents are so keen to go overboard on national security issues because a) they can and b) because they’ll be punished if they don’t. I think “a” still holds: presidents have far more leeway in foreign policy and national security matters than they do in domestic policy, not least because Congress is (in part due to fear of “b”) almost always willing to go along with the president when he says certain powers are needed to protect the (sigh) “homeland”.

President Bush almost certainly acted outside of the boundaries established by Congress when his administration authorized the torture of prisoners, but everything else by Bush and Obama? Okey-dokey by them. Detention. Rendition. A FISA court which never says no. Restriction of oversight to, well, oversight rather than overseeing. The gulping down of any and all data transmitted electronically. And who do you think authorized the expenditures for that massive data-storage complex in Utah?

This is not confined to the US: Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained by the British security service for the full 9 hours (which almost never happens) allowed under the horrendously loose provision of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000—passed by Parliament a year before the September 11 attacks.

I’ve also argued in the past that we, the people, basically authorize Congress to authorize the president to grope around in our private lives: we want to be safe, are willing to give power to those who promise to do everything possible to keep us safe, and will punish those who are unwilling to do everything possible. We won’t tolerate failure, I’ve asserted, so will tolerate almost everything else.

I’m no longer so sure that’s true, at least the part that we’ll punish leaders if something bad happens. In fact, I think I was badly, grossly, wrong about that in ways that should have been obvious.

What have been obvious failures of security in the past century or so? William Randolph Hearst trumpeted “Remember the Maine!” and pushed McKinley toward war, but was McKinley himself punished for the alleged Spanish perfidy? Pearl Harbor was attacked on FDR’s watch, and, again, the result was war—but not punishment for the president. LBJ trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led, yep, to war, but not to a diminution of his power.

Carter was considered weak in the wake of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but it’s not at all clear that the determination of weakness was due to the takeover itself rather than the long siege or the lousy US economy. The Marine compound was attacked in Beirut under Reagan and the Black Hawk Down incident occurred under Clinton, but because both presidents chose to cut the US’s losses, it’s not clear to what, if any, extent either man was punished: each was re-elected after these events.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing? Again, Clinton wasn’t punished for that, easily winning a second term the following year.

And, of course, there’s the example of President George W. Bush. The worst attack by foreign terrorists on US soil and not only did he not pay a price, his approval ratings went up.

Now, it is common to talk about a rally-round-the-flag effect in response to national crises, but if this effect is real, then the punishment thesis doesn’t really work: they’re mutually exclusive.

This is just so goddamned obvious I have no excuse for having missed it.

I do think it’s possible that politicians are afraid they’ll be punished by constituents, but the real threat is less from constituents than political opponents, and from worrying that they’ll be called “soft” on terrorism or crime or drugs or whatever. If they don’t have any response to that charge, then they might get tagged as weak—but the weakness (if it is really even a weakness) may be due less to the alleged softness than to the lack of response itself.

Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Bush responded with war; presidents Reagan and Clinton responded with cut-and-run, and President Carter, the one considered weak, didn’t seem to have a clear response. In Carter’s case, that lack of clarity was read as lack of competence.

There’s a lot I’m throwing out, here, and much that I likely should be considering and am not. But on that basic point, that politicians act aggressively so as not to punished for [the consequences of alleged] softness, I’m pretty damned sure I was wrong.

I may be wrong on this, too, but I now think the issue isn’t punishment for an attack or even for lack of aggression following that attack, but lack of clarity  in the response.

99 bottles of beer on the wall

17 08 2013

I cannot and do not drink as I did in my younger days.

This is a good thing.

However, every once in a while I forget that my last drink of the night should be a ginger ale instead of yet another beer or gin or whisky, and then, oh. . . oy.