Archive for the 'politics' Category

16
Jul
13

Kirsten Gillibrand and Sexual Assault

I first learned about the sexual assault problem in the military from a podcast I listened to while running. I was absolutely appalled by the statistics and had to suspend my run out of outrage.

So, I’m very interested in following the bill proposed by Kirsten Gillibrand (senate D NY) that will take certain military justice cases out of the chain of command. I think this is pretty commonsense, though there is a rival bill to combat sexual assault while leaving the chain of command intact.

If you are concerned about this issue, here are two easy things to do.

1. Track the bill, you can go here and just sign up to get updates about what is happening to Sen. Gillibrand’s bill.

2. Track the senate armed service committee so you can see who is supporting this and who is opposing it. I doubt anyone will outright oppose this bill, though they might vote for its rival bill.

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03
Jul
13

Laws, Bureaucracy, and Enforcement

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and why some people are above the law. I got into this frame of mind because of a podcast I recently heard in which an industry group and an activist group sparred witheach other via their respective spokespeople, and the dialogue was nauseatingly familiar. Basically there are supposed to be laws to prevent company x from doing something, but they are not enforced, and so the company gets to do what it wants, even though the right laws are ostensibly on the books.

This is an outrage, and not because I think that companies should have a lot of regulations on them. In many cases, the regulations are not enforced because they were ridiculous to start with and are in place to be used only when a DA or someone else with some political juice wants to go after someone.

There are two scenarios for non-enforcement, both of them bad.

1. Some stupid laws are passed. Everyone sees that they are stupid and so ignores them. It is understood that the laws should be ignored, UNTIL someone who is a minority or without political power offends against this law. Then, all of a sudden, the law can be revived or brought to bear. This kind of selective enforcement is a kind of oppression, and it can be used against ordinary citizens or companies.

Here’s an example. I walked past my block and there was a sign that said “NO PARKING, TEMPORARY, SUNDAY.” So I plan to not park on that part of the street on sunday. Then sunday rolls around and everyone is parked there. Everyone apparently disregarded that sign and DID NOT get tickets. I checked. Not only did this fake out result in me going out of my way to park somewhere else, but I guarantee that if someone who lived on that block wanted to get someone in trouble, or if someone saw an undesirable from outside the neighborhood parking there, there would be phone calls.

This also happens with red light camera in Los Angeles. People get automated tickets from cameras, but the unspoken rule is that no one has to pay those tickets. This makes sense since they are outrageously high. Nonetheless, I guarantee that IN THE RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES, i.e., if the police want to search someone or get them for something, those tickets get revived. “Look, you didn’t pay this ticket,” even though that rule is ignored by everyone.

In this scenario it is government who oppresses by acting as if certain laws don’t matter and then bringing them to bear capriciously either of its own accord or at the behest of some politically powerful group.

2. The other scenario is when a good law is passed that makes sense. Here, as in my post on CAFOs (previous post) the person or people that the law is supposed to regulate use political protest or legal trickery to dodge the law. This is when private actors can use non-enforcement as a kind of oppression because in these circumstances,  a kind of insulting inequality is put in place. The people with power get exempted. In a way, it’s kind of like feudalism. The people get together and vote, but these democratic procedures mean nothing because some groups (the powerful groups ignoring the law) act like lords in medieval europe or on game of thrones. They can do what they want regardless of what the people say because it is their interest which is served and no one else.

02
May
13

Other People are like Galaxies

I’m reading Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Emile, which is his lengthy text on how to raise someone to be a happy and capable adult. A lot of the advice is interesting. He thinks humans are happiest when their desires are in harmony with their needs so that they can get the things that they want.

Rousseau also thinks that society as we know it is corrupt and invites us to puff up our desires with vanity (Famously, Rousseau, being French, calls vanity “amour propre”) and attention seeking. This distorted form of society makes us get on a treadmill of desire fulfillment that we can never get off of. Permanent unhappiness is the result.

But Rousseau also has the idea that there is something shocking and difficult about “living in society,” i.e., interacting with other people. His proposal is that children should be raised far away from other people so that they have no notion of trying to please others or needing to be pleased by then.

There is something to this idea, though it may not be satisfactory in every dimension. Here is how it might be valuable.

Today I learned the life story of someone I had met before, but only briefly. It was quite incredibly, which is to say, no different than any life story (I find then all incredible). This guy had lived in an extremely violent environment as a young man. He saw his friends shot, random people beat up. Drugs and crimes of every kind. Yet he got out of his neighborhood and became a philosopher. He liked death metal as a boy, and almost couldn’t become a philosopher because of his fear of public speaking and flying. What a life, and so different than mine. And hence the title of this post. Whenever I meet someone new and learn a good deal of their history, I feel the same way that I feel when I look into the night sky. The feeling is one of wonder and awe. When I look at the stars, I think that I am a very small part of a very enormous universe. When I meet someone new, I feel that I am one sliver of the human experience.

This feeling, without the right training, can be daunting. How should one react to others? Tolerance of some type is a virtue, but how are we psychologically prepared for it. It’s not a given that we will be able to appreciate the life of someone else without losing our grip on our life. People who are xenophobic cannot handle the different ways that people things, and so demonize that way of life. This is a common reaction to difference. Others become relativists. After seeing difference, they reach the conclusion that their own way of living is somehow unimportant or not as fully justified as it was before. Others can become jealous (“you did that? How amazing…”) And so we can see that to appreciate difference for its vastness and immensity without losing one’s commitment to “me and my life” requires skill.

Rousseau’s idea is that part of a good upbringing is one that allows a person to remain in touch with his or her own way of life without forcing him or her to simply reject other life paths.

25
Mar
13

I understand the Breakfast Club

I watched John Hughes’ 80s masterpiece The Breakfast Club before. I really liked it and I thought it may even have some artistic merit. I watched it again, and I think I more closely follow its main aesthetic contribution. I am convinced that it is much more than a teen movie and that it is not about childhood, though it appears to be.

It may seem convenient to think about the movie as about social pressure and the pains of growing up, but the key thing to keep in mind is that the movie begins with an existential question. The kids who are in detention are asked, as their overriding goal for the day to write about who they are. It is this question that prompts the introspection and the eventual short answer that is read over the final sequences of the movie by Brian “the brain,” of the group.

In answering this question, I believe that the main contributor is Bender. To me, this is only natural. These students, placed in Illinois somewhere, are asked to think about who they are, and Bender immediately begins the process by pushing. He’s Socratic. He asks questions. He asks Molly Ringwald, who plays Claire, “the princess” whether she’s a virgin. This line of questioning exposes his main philosophical commitment, which is to undermine all the institutions that everyone else takes to be good and normal. His job is to question and undermine all “respectable” society, and within the confines of the movie, I think he succeeds. He is a Nietzschean hero. He questions everything, and accepts nothing. This is fitting with Nietzsche’s conviction that to grant something legitimacy is to grant it a type of tyranny — to give it free reign to become corrupted and controlling. He is a radical individualist. This fits with his role as “the criminal.” He begins the movie as sitting on the wrong side of every societal fence.

His job is to cleverly twist everyone’s goals and commitments. “Why doesn’t he participate in extracurricular activities?” he muses. Because those people are assholes. As we find out later, this answer is elaborated. We find out that the clubs that Brian is in — the physics and math club — are part of a constellation of social pressures that gets him to contemplate suicide, and we find out that the student-councily-things that Claire does is how she comes to be a slave of peer pressure. During an exchange with Claire, he is threatened by Emilio Estevez, playing Andrew, but he protests that he is trying to help Claire. To me this is the beginning of his Nietzschean therapy, whereby he slowly shows the other students that they should not be afraid of the principal, “Dick” or “Richard Vernon.”

He initiates this strategy by refusing to back down when the principal heaps discipline on him. “Do you want another?” the principal threatens, to which Bender replies “sure.” Shortly thereafter, Bender convinces everyone to follow him to the hallway where they break the rules of their detention. Brian briefly asks whether they’re disobedience makes any sense. “We’re going to get caught,” he laments, but then the camera moves to Bender who asks Claire “it feels good to be bad doesn’t it?” The fact that Bender is the hero movie is then cemented as he casually sacrifices himself to the ire of Dick so that the others can escape back to the library unseen by the principal. Bender is then subjected to sadistic and illegal threats from the principal who tries to bait Bender to fight him. The connection between the principal and “respectable” society is cemented as he reminds Bender that he makes a $30,000 and owns a house and that the world will forgot Bender but that he will still be around. That he “means something.” This echoes Andrew’s earlier insult to Bender that he could “disappear and no one would notice.”

Bender then sneaks back into the library and the healing begins, courtesy of a kind of psychoanalysis, introspection, and the critical analysis of the forces arrayed each and every one of them. For instance, Andrew comes to understand that he is controlled by his father, whose desire to have a successful son. “I’m a race horse,” and the implication is: who is made to run. Brian is pressured for grades. Allison is, in her own words, “ignored” by her parents. Bender is physically abused, and Claire is used by her parents as a weapon of emotional manipulation.

These stories may again tempt one to think that this kids stuff. Ringwald asks “Are we going to turn out like our parents,” which focuses the problem as one of parental pressure. This is what drives Brian to contemplate suicide after all, and Bender’s dad clearly beats him.

But to construe the breakfast club as a young person’s movie misses the point. All of these issues are serious adult issues. Domestic abuse, marital strife, they’re all problems for anyone, its just that the people experiencing them happen to be kids. Presumptively, Bender’s mom suffers just as much as Bender as she is depicted by him as being beaten by his father.

In any case, the point in my mind is wider. The Breakfast Club could be said to be just about kids in the way that a mistaken interpretation of Warm Bodies could be said to be about zombies. In the latter film, the metaphor is clearly that we can all be zombies and that we could all use renewed contact with other people. The point in the breakfast club is the same too. From an early age, we find ourselves enmeshed in networks of bullshittery. This is Bender’s target: the networks of social power, pressure, institutional abuse, parental abuse, wealth (when he fires a broadside at Claire for having diamond earrings), sexual repression (a huge theme that I’ve basically ignored in this essay). Everything is fair game and the cure is radical individualism. Bender is outraged that Claire would talk about his friends and shows his commitment to being friends with anyone he damn well chooses. And perhaps a further lesson is that to break down the unseen walls of status, popularity, and political power, one must be a little bit of a criminal. Completely unallied with the forces that fix us into boxes.

At the end, everyone transforms, partially due to Bender’s leadership and intervention, partially due to their own honesty. Notice however that the final catharsis is dancing, which is again very Nietzschean (“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”). When Bender fist pumps at the sky at the iconic end of the movie to the tune of “Don’t Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, he is celebrating a triumph over the creeping forces of “civilization” when that word is taken in its worst way. And insofar as Bender has triumphed, I believe the movie has too.

24
Mar
13

At Home with the Marquis De Sade

I finished At Home with the Marquis De Sade. I started off wanting to read about him because many european philosophers make reference to him and treat him with some reverence in terms of his place in intellectual history.

The book wasn’t an intellectual history though, but a personal biography. That was fine, I was just curious about this man who I had heard inspired the word “sadism.”

In the end, I think I found out why people find him so interesting. He was one of the first true anti-enlightenment writers in the tradition of a marx or a Nietzsche, who rails against everything that is taken for granted and accepted. He thought pain could be good, that humans were by nature bad, that the governments were organized perpetrators calumny and theft. He was voraciously against the death penalty, an egomaniacal aristocrat who pretended to be a revolutionary to stay alive. He was a misogynist and a swindler, but a champion of sexual equality and also just ONE WEIRD DUDE.

Hearing about his sexual exploits was kind of interesting and shocking. He was into weird stuff, smelling people’s farts, anal sex. When he was in his seventies, he tried to have anal sex with a 17 year old girl. He horrified prostitutes with his deranged wishes. He used the mathematical null sign to indicate in his diary when he had had anal sex. He call dildos that he used for masturbation “prestiges.”

I find two progressions particularly revealing abou this life. For one thing, he was almost always in jail. Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally he ended up in a mental hospital, Charenton. He probably visited a total of more than 15 jails, and he survived execution during the Terror by nothing more than a mistaken roll-call (or maybe he bribed someone). His jail sentence I think contributed heavily to his view that life was nothing but a series of wrongs built on a foundation of injustice. What he did to initially land in jail was bad. It was exploitative, traumatizing, and harmful. But he never caused permanent harm to anyone (I don’t believe, it’s hard to keep track of what happened to all the prostitutes he slept with after the fact). But his reputation just grew and grew until he was seen by all sides, royalist and revolutionary as a monster. A fringe maniac who wanted nothing but blood. Of course, his novels didn’t help with that impression as the descriptions that the author of At Home chooses to quote are truly horrifying. Cannibalism, rape, torture, infanticide. All on a large scale. It is kind of frightening, even for a modern reader who has watched Kill Bill and seen horror movies.

The other progression is of Sade’s personal/social life. He is such an irascible person, but it is compensated by his unbelievable charm and charisma. The combination of his insufferability and his magnetism created a pattern through all of his main personal contacts. His wife, Pelagie, loved him ardently, but over a period of decades, his tantrums slowly ground her down, to the point where she could not tolerate him. She utterly and completely cut ties with him. This process repeats in everyone Sade meets. Pelagie’s mother was the same way, but she, the Madame De Montreuil, was smarter, and so her period of infatuation with Sade was shorter. Sooner or later though, everyone grows tired of helping him out. First Madade De Montreuil, then his wife Pelagie, then his best friend from home (forgot her name), then his lawyer and counselor Gaufridy, then his son and finally his best friend Madade De Quisnet all reach their limit with him. He loses all his friends in this way, and it’s quite sad to see how he incapable of properly valuing a relationship.

However, my overarching conclusion about Sade though is that very little of his reputation as a “great” (here just meaning momentous) man is deserved. He’s really what today we would just call a garden variety loser. His dad was deadbeat, and he followed right along. He never made any money in his life, he clung to his aristocratic title like a talisman, and indulged himself in a paralyzing type of egoism, complete with tantrums and delusions. When his lawyer was on the run, trying to stay alive as revolutionary members of the terror were hunting down royalists like himself, Sade complained that he wasn’t finding enough credit to feed the Marquis’ unrepentant gluttony. I don’t know if it has been considered, but there seems to be a strong chance that Sade was bipolar. His kids treated him terribly, but it’s not surprising given that he would hurl abuses at them and their mother when all she did was try to make his incarceration term in the Bastille more comfortable. I mean, if Sade hadn’t decided to write some of the most offensive fiction ever seen until that point in history, he would be a painfully pathetic person.

Last, I can’t resist contrasting and comparing Sade with Robespierre. Robespierre was the ultimate prig. The ultimate prude. A famous quote about him was that he would pay someone to offer him gold just so that he could refuse it. The ultimate in self-righteousness. Sade was the opposite and obese man of desires, he lived only to satisfy whatever desire crossed his mind. Sade was an aristocrat, Robespierre was a petty bourgeoise. The contrasts are extensive, but what they shared was an ability to hold others captive with their words, written (Sade) and spoken (Robespierre). It’s amazing that either of them became anything at all, given how socially flawed they were (Robespierre had his best friends put to death, Sade drove them to misery), and how untalented they were at most things.

To me, there is some kind of wider trend going on, because during the French revolution, it seems like there were so many lunatics running around who were endowed with power and respect. How did that happen? Another example: Jean Paul Marat, a pamphleteer in the French revolution who indiscriminately called for death and massacre in the name of revolution. Du Plessix Gray rightly calls him “one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty vampires.”

 

30
Dec
12

Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled Reality is Broken. Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.

 

22
Aug
12

unemployment numbers as a case study in the contradictions of american politics

I’ve been trying to learn enough about the employment numbers to get beyond the debate as I’ve seen it, which consists of one side showing one chart and then saying “see, no one’s employed,” or throwing out one chart and sneering “Obama has done better than Bush at creating jobs.”

It’s all more complex than anyone wants it to be though, and this post is what helped me open it all up.

One reason comparisons are tricky is that recessions don’t coincide neatly with presidential terms. Obama took office in the depths of a recession, but Bush was in office for a while before 9/11 happened (though the economy was soft before that). Another reason things are tricky is that one needs to distinguish between JOBS and PEOPLE EMPLOYED. The numbers are not the same. As quirk of the data, there are usually about 9M more people who are employed than their are jobs. This is a result of the methodology used in creating these numbers. Last, one needs to consider the category of employment being discussed. Seasonally adjusted or not, private sector or total jobs (private+public).

In short, one should consider:

1. timing

2. statistical methodology

3. statistical category

The post I cited above puts these together nicely.

The most interesting thing I learned is that Bush’s employment numbers were buoyed pretty significantly by public sector employment. For example, Obama created more JOBS than Bush had created by the same time in his presidency, but he has also created MANY MORE private sector JOBS.

I capitalized “jobs” in the preceding paragraph because things are different when one looks at “number of people employed.” Bush increased the NUMBER OF PEOPLE  EMPLOYED much more than Obama by this time in his term.

But again, comparing the same point in Obama and Bush’s first term isn’t that helpful. More instructive is to compare numbers from the same time after the “bottom” of the recession. Bush had created a good deal more JOBS 28 months after the worst of his recession hit. However, again, in keeping with the point about Bush’s reliance on public sector employment, he only created slightly more private sector jobs than Obama.

On the other hand, Obama has created slightly more EMPLOYED PERSONS in the 28 months since the big 2008 recession.

Now for a philosophical point. None of this matters as much as people says it does. People compare Bush and Obama as if it somehow settles an important political point. Obama supporters reason that if they can show that Obama has done better than Bush, than conservatives must “shut up” about the economy. But there is nothing that can be proven by these comparisons. The reason is that political choices are made in terms of comparisons. One might be happy with Bush’s performance due to believing that it’s better than Al Gore’s, and dissatisfied with Obama because of confidence that McCain would have been even better.

Or alternatively, a conservative who voted for Bush might think that Obama is doing better, but nonetheless believe that he’s doing badly in an absolute sense. This is not hypocritical. One’s preferences can change. One might have believed that Bush managing the economy well due to deception or just partisan fervor, but after seeing Obama do slightly better and still realizing that it’s not very good overall, reject both presidents as bad and vote for Mitt Romney.

What is actually important for voting in November is one’s relative confidence in Obama and Romney in the next four years. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of information that no voter has access to, mainly because we don’t really have any idea what either person will do if elected to the 2012-2016 presidential term. I mean, it’s shocking how little information is available to the average voter. Sure, one could look at Romney’s past policies, but how relevant are they to his presidency. And even Obama might try radically different policies depending on what Congress looks like.

The curse of American politics seems to be that voters are thrown irrelevant information because the information that would make a difference basically can’t be had.