Saturday, July 23, 2016

Untidy Thoughts

Why won't they just speak English?  Why don't they have better control of their kids?  Why won't he pull his pants up?  That's not how you say "ask"....

Hardly anyone is explicitly racist anymore - that takes a lot of guts.  But we all have biases, and it is common to treat groups of people differently by engaging in any number of small slights - not affording them the same respect as they would another group in the same position.

It happens quickly, is often reasonably deniable, and difficult to pinpoint or quantify.  When I treat my mother-in-law a little bit differently, say, bristle a bit more at her foibles, my lack of respect towards her is hard to define.  But it is a result of a bias I have, and comes through in my interactions with her.

These are the kind of untidy thoughts we can all fall prey to with any community who has historically been the target of discrimination.  Disreputable narratives develop about them which, we absorb from the larger culture, and that we are often unaware of.  

...Why should people be required to speak English in America?  Maybe they have good reasons for not learning it yet.  Maybe they just weren't talking to you.

...Maybe they are having a bad day. Maybe plenty of white parents let their kids run all over.

...Maybe that's his style - his way of expressing himself through rebellious fashion?  Why do you pull your pants up over your bellybutton?

...Maybe because that's how she pronounces the word ask.  Do you articulate all of your words perfectly?  Do you never say the word "gonna", or "I'm-unna"?

Maybe in each of these examples you are treating them differently because of their race, by not giving them the benefit of the doubt, by jumping to conclusions, and by not having reflected on your own choices.  Maybe you are behaving in a racist way without even knowing it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Notes from the Fever Machine

I liked the article at first. The attention grabbing Vox lede "Bernie Sanders is right the economy is rigged. He’s dead wrong about why" suggested a dose of reality to the naive succor of a populist rhetoric built on falsehood.  Bernie and the Koch brothers agree on the rigging - Bernie says it's plutocratic electoral influence over elections (the article helpfully offers a video in which Bernie explains it for himself), the Koch's say it's regulatory capture.  Instead, it's something more complex.  I love complexity.  Quick, post to facebook!

Wait a second... instead of debunking both as I would have hoped, the article generally ended up agreeing with the libertarian emphasis.  After debunking the notion that the system is dependent on corruption of money in politics, in which the rich rig the system for themselves (as many rich actually support Democratic policy; evidence of the marginal futility of political contributions can be found in the millions wasted on establishment Republicans - folks the evil Kochs and diabolical Carl Rove personally favored).  Rather, the article laid out a straightforward case in which regulations at all levels are designed by special interests that end up favoring the petite (and grand) bourgeois in their economic dominance.  OK, I'll buy it as far as it goes.  But is campaign finance the Bernie-left has in mind when it complains about the system being rigged?  Is this the extent of the rigging going on?  If we were to get rid of these regulations, would wealth inequality disappear, or at least severely fade, the immoral rigging having been cut?  Uh...

Rats!  Things have gotten confusing.  

Fever swamps annoy me, whether it's right wing talk radio or left wing chai-tea fueled paranoia. They are defined by simple answers to complex questions, which require you to indulge paranoia and ad hominem - the toxic stew that defines the fever swamp.  The real problem with this type of thinking is that it distracts from the *actual* function of what is going on, which could lead to real solutions.  However, that is only a primary effect.

The secondary effect is the response.  Like good participants in political discourse, we bravely meet flawed ideas with demolishing counterattacks.  Go Vox!  But a good argument against a flawed argument doesn't actually get us anywhere, we merely tread water.  If I spend an hour convincing someone that taking the exit that goes off the cliff is a bad idea, I may have saved us from imminent death, but I haven't actually provided any insight into where we should be driving.

OK, so the system isn't dependent on a rigged system of political influence.  But i
s this what is meant by "rigged" to Bernie supporters?  Campaign finance is part of it, but I would argue a far larger interpretation of the term is that the system is "rigged" so that the more capital you have, the easier it is to get and hold on to capital.  This process is incredibly complex and generally baked in to our economic system.  It is much easier to sell people on a simple, paranoid concept of manipulation, rather than a deeper philosophical argument that attacks notions of property rights. 


There is a tension at the foundation of politics in a democracy: what is good policy versus what is politically possible.  You can have the best policy in the world, but it is worthless without the former, which is built on the fact that actual voters need to vote and/or elect representatives who will vote their interest.  This requires good old fashioned compromise and persuasion.  A good democracy is designed to be slow and deliberative, in order to protect this process.  In a small car with only a few passengers, an argument over which exit to take can be accomplished relatively simply and quickly.  However, in a nation of millions, there are a lot of perspectives to consider.  It can't be quick.  It can't be simple.

But, alas, simple is so much easier.  The world is complicated enough.  Simple is also more satisfying.  It fits on a bumpersticker.  It fits in a sentence.  

How much talking is going on?  How much listening?  How much thinking?  What do people discuss?  

Friendships.  Family.  Children.  Sports.  Material items.  God, the material items!  Have you ever found yourself in a conversation which felt as if it was ripped from a commercial?  I personally have no desire to engage in such discussion for more than a minute.  But apparently many people are.  He did this.  She did that.  I just bought this.  Oh, did you do that to?  I'm going to do this.  I just love that.  Are you going to eat this?  I just ate that.

Do I sound like a moral scold?  I don't mean to be.  Morality implies obligation.  I could be mistaking that people are obligated to not engage in such discussion and instead talk about deeper things.  I don't think they are.  It is just that I personally find them dull, and am much more interested in deeper discussions - explorations of metaphysical concepts and meanings that transcend specific times and space and make broader connections.  I like to think critically.  I like to think about why I am thinking.

But so what?  I think this sort of thinking is more useful in some ways.  It is useful in better understanding the world.  It useful in better understanding yourself.  It is also enjoyable to me.  I find its new colors and emotions captivating.  I like the way one idea washes against another, merging and bending, or sometimes crashing into bits.  I value being someone who is wise, whose waters can mix and swirl through the world with integrity and clarity.

But I also have problems.  I can be hot-headed.  I can be selfish or arrogant.  I can focus on the weaknesses of others to the exclusion of their strengths.  I can forget to communicate my appreciation for them.  Yet none of these things are exclusive of an existence that emphasizes the profane, or of one that emphasizes the metaphysical.  I can have all of those problems and refrain from a discussion of simple things.  Likewise, one who discusses little more than simple things, who thinks little more than simple thoughts, can be cool-headed, self-less, humble, compassionate and appreciative.  

And yet, we live in a complicated world, with complicated problems that require complicated solutions.  Deep metaphysical thought is requisite for an adequate response.  What then to do, if you are one who spends 99% of their day thinking of flowers, footballs and foibles, and only 1% pondering the differences between atheism and deism, capitalism and socialism, civil rights, climate change, criminal justice or tax policy?  

And you vote.


But does political engagement require deep, complex metaphysical thought?  When I think of all the simplistic political sloganeering out there, and those repeating it, I think of large numbers of people who are actually incredibly politically engaged.  They are all over the internet, spouting all kinds of ridiculously simplistic political ideas.  They are listening to a lot of talk radio.  They are watching political news programs.  They are attending campaign and protest rallies.  But they are not necessarily thinking deeply about anything.  Rather, they are passionate.  They are convinced of the glory of their cause.  They are morally indignant.  They are righteous and they are enthusiastic.  And they are as likely to be correct as incorrect: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are neck and neck in the polls.  

So to the list of simple things - flowers, food, footballs and foibles, we can add politics.  But this kind of politics is not grand analysis, self-reflective or policy oriented.  It is personal, tribal, reactive, and identity driven.  It is about rooting for your side and booing the other.  It is a sort of high-stakes game in which the consequences aren't merely winning or losing, but about the fabric of life as you know it.  Yet this is a perilous perch from which to root.  Imagine attending a football game in which the winning team got to pick a supreme court justice that would define your basic rights or pass laws that dictated the balance of your bank account  Passions would indeed brighten.  Identity would take on a severity of consequence.  The other team is not merely supporting an arbitrary event, but through their votes become an active force in your life poised to threaten everything you hold dear.  


We can't all be experts.  We can't all be deep thinkers who revel in metaphysical complexity for personal enjoyment.  In fact most of us are not.  Most of us are are simple people with humble interests.  Yet we are asked, again and again, to pretend to not be so.  We are asked to have opinions on a nearly endless list of complicated issues.  Today, more than ever before, we are inundated with controversy staring at us from our morning screen, with comment fields literally asking us to chime in - tweeting, liking, commenting, sharing.  And with every tap and click, we are contributing a bit of ourselves, our identity, to the fever machine.   This is citizen democracy, is it not.  Call your congressman! Write him a letter!  Don't have time.  OK, just click this link.

Because what would happen if we didn't?  What if we didn't click or like or tweet?  The other side will win, of course!  Our identity will have diminished.  There, that devilish picture of Donald Trump goads us into mocking his trickery.  That evil stare of Hillary Clinton plotting another Benghazi, reminds us to loosen our guns.  

Complexity takes too long.  It requires thinking, which can be hard.  It requires ignoring your reactive self, and pausing to listen.  It requires placing bookmarks on your assumptions and indulging hypothetic situations in which what you thought was correct might not have been.  It requires putting your identity to the side and instead of attacking a caricature of your opponent, instead stepping into his shoes and trying to view things from his perspective.  It requires beginning from a place of trust and compassion, not suspicion and anger.  

It isn't as quick.  It doesn't provide immediate gratification.  It might not reinforce a comfortable identity.  It might be scary or leave you feeling silly.  But it will bring peace.  It will create better policy.  It will create a more lasting civil society.  It will allow the time and space for good ideas to bloom and make it into the sunlight of acceptance.  But first the fever must clear.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Finding Humanity

The Black Lives matter movement is sometimes dismissed as unnecessarily focusing on race.  Don't "all lives matter"?  Of course, this misses the point - that the implied refrain is "black lives matter too", pointing out the fact that there is a obvious pattern of blacks being treated with less restraint than whites in similar exchanges.  
It doesn't seem seem like such a stretch to say that because of disproportionate levels of poverty in black communities, and adjunctive criminal behavior, that police would be more sensitive to threat from blacks. I imagine police work in general is toxic to one's ability to treat others with kindness and good-will, when constantly exposed to the worst elements of society. So I can understand that an environment likely develops in which people become dehumanized.
* A personal anecdote (I am white): The one serious run in with police I had was when my car back fired as I tried to fix it on the side of the road. Someone in the neighborhood called the police, reporting gunshots and giving them my description. I found my self surrounded, was thrown to the ground. They ignored my telling them I had neck injury and painfully yanked my hands behind my back. They put me in a squad car and searched my vehicle, all the while explaining nothing, aside from a report of gunshots. After around 20 minutes, they told me with zero sympathy in affect, that I was free to go. Throughout the ordeal I had been extremely cooperative (guns were pointed at my head). I've never forgotten and felt profoundly humiliated.
I agree that overt racism is likely not the issue. However, the "implicit bias" cannot be brushed off. Cultural stereotypes are rampant, and of course must be fuel to any dehumanization already present in routine policework.
I would think the solution is to take this psychological phenomenon seriously, and embed systematic protections into the system. Maybe a certain amount of professional development time is set aside in which each officer is given the chance - maybe at least a day a month to engage in positive community relations activities as a sort of positive stimulus to counterbalance the negative stimuli they encounter routinely.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Directional Bliss

Would it be safe to say that all religious conceptions begin with a premise of cosmic purpose? Some might be more constrained than others. Buddhism, for instance, might be more limited to a narrative of reality that emphasizes personal growth of the individual, and unconcerned with larger questions of time and space and creation (we'll leave aside interpretations dependent upon reincarnation - Mexican readers are welcome to refer to this rhetorical flourish as "reincarne asada"*). However, most other faiths seem to require a basic laying-out of universal purpose beyond the mere individual. One would then assume that a sense of purpose is central to their system.

As far as I know, humans are the only species to believe in God, or at least hold to religious views of reality. This is almost certainly related to our cognitive prowess. It seems intelligence and consciousness are basically the ability of an organism to learn to make connections among different parts of their environment. It happened to be useful for certain primates to do this and we became quite successful at developing this skill-set by applying it with greater and greater complexity. But our biological limitations remain. We occupy a sort of intellectual goldilocks-zone between the muddled musings of an IQ 50 and the blinding brilliance of an IQ 150. The specific brain structures we evolved a couple of million years ago allowed us capacities to make rudimentary connections, which we then developed through increasingly complex social systems to make even greater connections. As a species, we possess a distributed intelligence that far outstrips the abilities of any individual, at least in a certain quantitative sense.
To ascribe purpose, or directionality to this, would seem to be primarily interested in these two developments: the individual capacity for connections, and a social distribution of intelligence. And yet, if we are talking about natural selection, it would seem that the latter, the social intelligence, has actually inhibited the evolution of the individual - more specifically, an increase in the individual's capacity for intelligence (connection making). As a species we are no longer being selected for connection-making prowess. Many species evolved forms that were so well-suited for their niche that they have stopped evolving much over hundreds of millions of years. And yet, our species required evolutionary innovation, so that we didn't remain simple, yet effective and efficient lower organisms. And this process, a few million years a go, largely halted, it seems, given that our selection process has derailed due to cultural developments. I suppose one could still find a directionality towards intelligence, or consciousness to admire in all this. Maybe even a cybernetic development of super-connected brains. But take that to its logical extreme and you seem to rapidly leave behind the organism and species itself and enter a sort of cold, computational sophistry, an all-knowing, all-connection machine. Would that be the ultimate "purpose", some kind of "borg" synthetic hive mind? Rather, it appears the directional romance is for a specific type of humanity, tied to a time and place and form. Which, it seems to me, speaks most strongly to the impulse as having been reinforced by a very specific set of cultural notions - rules you might say - whose adherence provide warm feelings.

*pardon the tonal fragment