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kottke.org posts about politics

Kara Walker reimagines “Washington Crossing the Delaware”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2017

Trump Crossing the Delaware

Not wanting to listen to the news on inauguration day, artist Kara Walker painted. The result is a Trumpian take on Emanuel Leutze’s famous work “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, a copy of which is on display at the Met Museum. I hope I get to see Walker’s version in a museum or gallery someday soon.

We Work Remotely

A reading list on fascism

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.

Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.

Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:

Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.

Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.

Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.

  1. I know, I know. LOL. Trump has been guided by many abilities in his life, but thought and thoughtfulness have never been among them.

America is confused about healthcare coverage

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2017

According to a recent poll, over a third of those polled did not know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were the same thing.

In the survey, 35 percent of respondents said either they thought Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were different policies (17 percent) or didn’t know if they were the same or different (18 percent). This confusion was more pronounced among people 18 to 29 and those who earn less than $50,000 — two groups that could be significantly affected by repeal.

And that’s perhaps not even the worse part:

For instance, only 61 percent of adults knew that many people would lose coverage through Medicaid or subsidies for private health insurance if the A.C.A. were repealed and no replacement enacted. In contrast, approximately one in six Americans, or 16 percent, said that “coverage through Medicaid and subsidies that help people buy private health insurance would not be affected” by repeal, and 23 percent did not know.

I’ve never liked the Obamacare moniker, but clearly that’s only part of the problem.

The Senate stops Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2017

Coretta King Letter Sessions

Last night, during the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III1 for Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter that Coretta Scott King had written to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship (which he did not get).

The first page of the letter appears above and the entire contents may be read here. King pretty plainly states that Sessions abused his position in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters:

Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.

Under Senate Rule XIX and after two votes by the full Senate, Warren was barred from speaking and finishing the letter.

When Warren first spoke against Sessions Tuesday night, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, warned her that she was breaking the rules. When she continued anyway, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by finding her in violation of Senate Rule XIX — which prevents any senator from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator… any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

Warren later read the letter outside of the Senate chambers. How the Senate is supposed to debate the appointment of a Cabinet member without being able to criticize the actions, words, and beliefs of that candidate is left as an exercise to the reader. (Ok, I’ll answer anyway: it’s not supposed to debate. That’s the entire point of the Republicans’ actions w/r/t Trump’s political nominees thus far.)

King’s letter, which Buzzfeed called “a key part of the case against Sessions [in 1986]” was only published earlier this week in part because Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond never officially entered it into the congressional record. Thurmond, you may remember, vehemently opposed the civil rights reforms of the 50s and 60s, even going so far as filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for more than 24 hours and switching political parties because of the Democrats’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And Senate Rule XIX? Cornell Law School professor James Grimmelmann notes the precedent:

Let’s be clear on the precedent here: it’s the 1836-44 gag rule that forbade any consideration of abolition in the House.

Racist southern representatives were so frustrated by abolitionist petitions to Congress, that they adopted a series of rules.

All abolitionist petitions would immediately be tabled, and any attempt to introduce them would be prohibited.

From pro-slavery members of the House to Davis to Beauregard to Thurmond to Trump (and Bannon) to Sessions to McConnell (and the nearly all-white Republican majority). Paraphrasing Stephen Hawking, it’s white supremacy all the way down. Gosh, if you’re a black person in America, you might even think the system is tilted against you!

P.S. I like this part of Senate Rule XIX, right at the bottom:

8. Former Presidents of the United States shall be entitled to address the Senate upon appropriate notice to the Presiding Officer who shall thereupon make the necessary arrangements.

I’m not sure what it would accomplish, but seeing a former President address this Senate, after an appropriate period spent kiteboarding, would be pretty fun to watch.

P.P.S. In silencing Warren, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Not a bad explanation of the feminist movement in America there, Mitch. Folks on Twitter are having fun with the #shepersisted hashtag.

She Persisted

Update: While the precedent for Senate Rule XIX dates back to the abolition debates in the 1830s and 1840s, the actual rule was made after a fight broke out in the Senate in 1902. From a book called The American Senate: An Insider’s Story:

South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman accused his South Carolina colleague, John McLaurin, of selling his vote for federal patronage. McLaurin called Tillman a malicious liar. Tillman lunged at him, striking him above the left eye. McLaurin hit Tillman back with an upper-cut to the nose.

Given the history of this rule and how it was recently applied, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Tillman was an outspoken advocate of lynching, once remarking in a speech:

“[We] agreed on on the policy of terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” (Tillman boasted during the same speech that his pistol had been used to execute seven black men in 1876.)

So we can squeeze Tillman in-between Beauregard and Thurmond in the abbreviated narrative of how it came to be that a white majority Senate silenced a white woman for reading a letter written by a black woman.

  1. Let’s look at his name for a second. Jeff Sessions was named after his father and grandfather, the latter of whom was born in Alabama in mid-April 1861, just a month after P.G.T. Beauregard became the first general of the Confederacy and two months after Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. The name that Jeff Sessions’ great-grandparents gave their son could hardly have been an accident and indeed the family was so proud of this Confederate name that they used it twice more — in 1913, when Jeff’s father was born, and in 1946, when Jeff was born.

The five simple things to remember when considering Trump’s motivations

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2017

Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo urges us that when it comes to figuring out what Donald Trump’s up to, we should keep it simple. The media has covered Trump for more than 30 years, he appeared weekly on television for several years, and the coverage of his campaign over the past two years was unprecedented. That, says Marshall, means that we know Trump and his motivations quite well at this point and offers a list of five things we should keep in mind:

1. Trump is a Damaged Personality
2. Trump is a Great Communicator
3. Trump’s Hold on His Base Is Grievance
4. Trump is Possible Because of Partisan Polarization
5. Trump is Surrounded By Extremists and Desperados

Trump is an impulsive narcissist who is easily bored and driven mainly by the desire to chalk up ‘wins’ which drive the affirmation and praise which are his chief need and drive. He needs to dominate everyone around him and is profoundly susceptible to ego injuries tied to not ‘winning’, not being the best, not being sufficiently praised and acclaimed, etc. All of this drives a confrontational style and high levels of organizational chaos and drama. This need for praise and affirmation and a lack of patience for understanding the basic details of governing are a volatile and dangerous mix. They catalyze and intensify each other. Perhaps most importantly, the drive to be the best and right drives promises, claims and policy pronouncements which may contradict his already existing positions or be impossible to fulfill.

Marshall also calls out something I’ve been thinking about recently, the Make America Great Again branding:

‘Make America Great Again’ may be awful and retrograde in all its various meanings. But it captured in myriad ways almost every demand, fear and grievance that motivated the Americans who eventually became the Trump base. It is almost certainly the case that MAGA is entirely Trump’s invention, not the work of any consultant or media specialist but from Trump himself. The Trump Trucker baseball cap, a physical manifestation of Trumpite branding, is similarly ingenious.

As much as I came to admire Pentagram’s work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign branding and loved the Obama campaign’s branding (complete with beautiful typefaces from Hoefler and Frere-Jones), I think the MAGA design easily beats them both. Marshall nailed it…it was exactly right for who it was designed to appeal to. It’s perhaps unlikely to happen, but the Make America Great Again hat should be added to the permanent collections of design museums as an exemplary example of branding, right alongside Got Milk?, Think Different, and Just Do It. (Also, you know who else came up with an extraordinarily effective design for his fascist authoritarian movement?)

MoMA quickly hangs art from Trump travel ban countries

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2017

MoMA Travel Ban Art

In response to the Trump administration’s monumentally cruel immigrant travel ban, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC has retooled its galleries to hang art by artists from countries affected by the ban, noting that if those artists are currently out of the country, they wouldn’t even be able to come to see their works in one of the world’s best art museums.

In one of the strongest protests yet by a major cultural institution, the museum has reconfigured its fifth-floor permanent-collection galleries — interrupting its narrative of Western Modernism, from Cezanne through World War II — to showcase contemporary art from Iran, Iraq and Sudan, whose citizens are subject to the ban. A Picasso came down. Matisse, down. Ensor, Boccioni, Picabia, Burri: They made way for artists who, if they are alive and abroad, cannot see their work in the museum’s most august galleries. (A work from a Syrian artist has been added to the film program. The other affected countries are Somalia, Yemen and Libya.)

The works will be up for several months, and alongside each painting, sculpture, or photograph is a text that makes no bones about why it has suddenly surfaced: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”

The travel ban is currently not being enforced due to a temporary restraining order…hopefully that will hold up indefinitely.

Fear, American Style

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 03, 2017

Corey Robin is a political scientist whose expertise is the history of conservative movements and the politics of fear. Sounds like the perfect person to predict whether reactionary strongmen are about to swoop in and destroy the democratic institutions we’ve all enjoyed, right?

It’s a little more complicated. We are more complicated.

The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them.

Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, internment camps, crushing unions, mass surveillance, torture, lynching, indefinite detention, extrajudicial murder, and on, and on — Americans have inflicted all of this on other Americans and on the rest of the world, not in the distant past, not as an original sin, but right up to the present day.

Which is not so unusual, for great powers of the world, or even most of the smaller ones. What is exceptional about America, if anything, is we have done all of this without once needing a strongman to do it. As Robin says, it’s been done “through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.”

This is why people like SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch seem almost comforting next to Trump and his inner circle. They seem so familiar.

This is what the “resilience of American institutions” means.

When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie.

The storm is called progress.

The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want—in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for—without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism. That they seem not to know this—that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends—may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.

In my experience with abusers — and the best working explanation I have found for most of Trump’s behavior is not any exotic psychological disorder or espionage-related intrigue, but that he is a self-confessed, well-documented serial abuser — getting what they want is secondary. The abuse itself, the bullying exercise of power, the maintenance of dominance, is the point. Which is the other way in which all of this feels way too familiar.

Woody Guthrie and the Family Trump

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)

The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.

Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.

But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.

As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.

Easy enough to remember.

The angel of history

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

paul-klee-angelus-novus.jpg

This is from Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” but I’m going to use the old translation back when it was called “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and mess with the line breaks a little. If you’ve read this a million times, forgive me; it’s always worth reading again.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.

But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin wrote this in 1940, in Paris; he’d left Germany shortly before the Nazis seized power. After the Nazis invaded France, he fled to Spain, with a precious travel visa to the United States. Spain’s government then cancelled all transit papers. The police told Benjamin and all the other Jewish refugees in his group would be returned to France. He killed himself.

His friend Hannah Arendt later made it across the border safely; she had the manuscript of this essay. Which is why it exists.

Why is this useful?

These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

Global refugees, the stubborn pervasiveness of white supremacy, the arbitrary power of the state, the fragility of national and international institutions — we’ve been here for some time now, haven’t we? One day, you stir, and there you are — right where you’ve always been. With nothing under your feet, and ghosts pausing for breath next to your cheek.

This is not normal — and yet it’s the same as it’s always been. Because there is no normal. Not really. Just a series of accidents, a trick of the light, a collective hallucination we’ve all worked to diligently maintain.

Even now, most of us are working to impose an order on the world, to see a plan at work, to sort the chaos into “distractions” and “reality,” whether it’s “real news,” uncovering the secret aims of an unseen puppet master, or articulating the one true politics that can Fix Everything. We can’t help it; it’s what we do.

Remembering the angel helps ameliorate that impulse. Yes, there are opportunists everywhere, and real losses and victories, but the perfect theory that links events into beautiful chains of causality is elusive enough to be a dream for a fallen people. “Only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” For now, it’s all part of the storm; we’re all going to have to improvise.

For all his pessimism, rooted in a contempt and longing for a safety he couldn’t enjoy, Benjamin (I think) really did believe in the possibility of a Messiah, who would appear at a moment of great danger. It was a Jewish and a Marxist belief for someone who had great difficulty believing in either Judaism or Marxism in any of their existing forms.

There are a lot of people, on the left and the right, who share a version of this idea as a matter of dogma, without anything like the Kierkegaardian leap of faith Benjamin took in order to suspend his disbelief in it. Better to knock everything down, to build something new to replace it; heighten the stakes, so we have no choice but to take drastic steps to build paradise. I’m a lot less sure. I know what it took to build those things, and the emergencies that forced us to build them. It’s not an algebra problem to me, a clever lecture, a witty conjecture. I like those. Those are fun. This is not fun. This is blood and bones and broken things that do not come back. It would be nice to have a political or religious framework in which all those things can be mended or redeemed. It’s not available to me, except in its absence.

But for all that, I think I do believe in something smaller, more limited:

I think James Baldwin is right (Baldwin, like Benjamin, is somehow always right) when he writes in “Stranger in the Village” that while so many “American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black [and brown] men [and women] do not exist,” that

This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will— that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

In short, I believe in the future — not a paradise, not a tranquil place, not a reward, but in all its mundane possibility and broken uncertainty. I choose to believe in the future, simply because we have nowhere else to go.

Personal stories about political objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2017

Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker have collected a group of writers to tell stories about political objects they own.

Batches of POLITICAL OBJECTS stories will appear on HILOBROW before, on, and just after the inauguration, and will continue to roll out through the end of March. The objects include overtly political artifacts both charismatic and absurd, and items whose stealthily political nature will surprise you; the stories range from the uplifting to the poignant to the unexpectedly illuminating. It’s a terrific collection.

Stephen Duncombe wrote about a God Bless Hysteria protest sign and Ben Greenman wrote about a Matchbox car.

Soon enough, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for — a Corvette. This was early May of 2016. Prince had just died. I had just started writing a book about him. I knew that I needed a little red Corvette, somehow, as a talisman. The only problem was that the one from the bin was black. I bought it. I took it home. I went into the closet and found the model paints that my sons no longer use. I painted it red.

Five books to change conservative minds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2017

Back in November, former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein came up with a list of five books that conservatives should read to in order to learn something about contemporary progressivism. On the list is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank:

In Frank’s view, we overstate the role of individual merit and underestimate the massive role of luck in producing individual success or failure — being born into the right family, finding oneself in the right place at the right time, having a good mentor. He makes “there but for the grace of God go I” into a rallying cry.

A month earlier, Sunstein offered a similar list of books liberals should read to learn something about conservatives, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind:

Do conservatives have moral commitments that progressives may not even recognize? Haidt says yes, and he identifies three: authority, loyalty and sanctity. If, for example, someone has betrayed a trust, or treated a boss or a parent disrespectfully, conservatives are far more likely to be outraged than progressives.

Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries. He also shows that the moral commitments that resonate among conservatives have deep roots in human history — and that it is a form of blindness not to acknowledge and respect those commitments.

Why Trump and his staff lie

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

Over at Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen provides an explanation as to why Donald Trump and his staff are lying.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

This is interesting throughout, particularly the bit about “higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths”.

Note that these tactics do not require a strategic masterplan.1 We know Trump acts mostly on instinct, so all the lying is just how he’s found success doing business in the past. I’ve been listening to The Power Broker on audiobook for the past few months and the similarities between how Robert Moses operated (particularly in NYC at the height of his powers) and Trump’s tactics are downright eerie, right down to the outright lies, ignoring outside counsel, and favoring short-term results over deeper long-term consequences.2 Both men had so much power and (especially in Moses’ case) capability that they could have really helped people and made a difference in the lives of millions but instead used it mainly to get their own way.

  1. Deeeep breath. Ok. In a weird way, I feel like I understand this aspect of Trump…and it makes me uncomfortable to identify with him in this way. I don’t really make plans or set goals. My about page states “I don’t have a plan.” I approach life tactically, not strategically. And I think Trump does too. (Part of my discomfort here is the realization that a tactical approach to life may require privilege. Maybe Trump doesn’t have to think long-term because he was born two steps from home plate. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it…another privilege.) Of course, where I use knowledge to spread the power of good ideas around to the widest possible audience (I hope!), Trump uses lies to consolidate and wield his own personal power.

  2. Moses was brilliant and certainly capable of deep strategic thought, but according to Caro, as his responsibilities, power, and self-confidence increased, he relied on what had worked for him previously with little regard for the circumstances of particular situations. It was literally “we’re doing it my way or (no) highway”.

The official org chart of the US government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

The United States Government Manual is the official handbook of the US federal government. Here is the org chart for our government…take notice of what’s right at the top:

US Govt Org Chart

I’m no constitutional scholar, but that particular document starts off:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I realize the current executive administration doesn’t care and the current majority in the legislative branch barely cares, but remembering exactly who our government works for will be helpful over the next few years. (via @monstro)

Honor and Respect: how to address President Obama and Donald Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2017

Robert Hickey is the deputy director of The Protocol School of Washington, which provides etiquette and protocol training. In his book Honor & Respect, he covers the “correct written and oral forms of address for everyone from local officials to foreign heads of state”. For The President of the United States, the proper forms of address are:

Letter salutation: Dear Mr. President:
Complimentary close: Most respectfully,
Announced: The President of the United States
Introduction: Mr. President, may I present …
Conversation: Mr. President

And contrary to how many media outlets refer to former US Presidents, they should not be referred to as “President” (e.g. “President Bush”):

“While it is common practice in the media and elsewhere to address and identify former presidents as ‘President (Name),’ this is a mistake,” said Hickey. “Serving as President of the United States does not grant one the personal rank of ‘President’ for life. The office of President is a one-person-at-a-time role that a specific individual holds and then hands off to the next person.”

“Courtesies, honors, and special forms of address are symbols of the power of the office. They belong to the office and to the citizens, not former office holders.”

Hickey recommends “The Honorable” as an official title (e.g. “The Honorable Jimmy Carter”) and “Mr./Ms.” for conversation or salutation (e.g. “Mr. Clinton”).

While Donald Trump was officially sworn in as the President on Friday, this site will continue to refer to Trump as “Trump” or “Donald Trump”1 and not as “President Trump”. Again and again, almost to a pathological degree, Trump has demonstrated, in word and deed, that he has not earned and does not deserve our respect and the title of his office. It’s a small protest by a small “media outlet”, perhaps petty, but as long as the First Amendment still applies, I will publish what I like on my own damn website.

And since I am all for the “one-person-at-a-time” rule, this site will also continue to refer to Barack Obama as “President Obama”. He’s earned it many times over.

  1. Or even “Fuckface Von Clownstick”. We don’t stand on ceremony here. But I won’t call him just “Donald”…that would be disrespectful to greater Donalds like Sutherland, Glover, and Duck.

“Life is a preexisting condition waiting to happen”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2017

I posted earlier about Atul Gawande’s piece in the New Yorker on the importance of incremental care in medicine. One of the things that the Affordable Care Act1 did was to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to people with “preexisting conditions”, which makes it difficult for those people to receive the type of incremental care Gawande touts. And who has these preexisting conditions? An estimated 27% of US adults under 65, including Gawande’s own son:

In the next few months, the worry is whether Walker and others like him will be able to have health-care coverage of any kind. His heart condition makes him, essentially, uninsurable. Until he’s twenty-six, he can stay on our family policy. But after that? In the work he’s done in his field, he’s had the status of a freelancer. Without the Affordable Care Act’s protections requiring all insurers to provide coverage to people regardless of their health history and at the same price as others their age, he’d be unable to find health insurance. Republican replacement plans threaten to weaken or drop these requirements, and leave no meaningful solution for people like him. And data indicate that twenty-seven per cent of adults under sixty-five are like him, with past health conditions that make them uninsurable without the protections.

That’s 52 million people, potentially ineligible for health insurance. And that’s not counting children. Spurred on by Gawande, people have been sharing their preexisting conditions stories on Twitter with the hashtag #the27Percent.

The 27% figure comes from a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation:

A new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis finds that 52 million adults under 65 — or 27 percent of that population — have pre-existing health conditions that would likely make them uninsurable if they applied for health coverage under medical underwriting practices that existed in most states before insurance regulation changes made by the Affordable Care Act.

In eleven states, at least three in ten non-elderly adults would have a declinable condition, according to the analysis: West Virginia (36%), Mississippi (34%), Kentucky (33%), Alabama (33%), Arkansas (32%), Tennessee (32%), Oklahoma (31%), Louisiana (30%), Missouri (30%), Indiana (30%) and Kansas (30%).

36% uninsurable in West Virginia! You’ll note that all 11 of those states voted for Trump in the recent election and in West Virginia, Trump carried the day with 68.7% of the vote, the highest percentage of any state. The states whose people need the ACA’s protection the most voted most heavily against their own interest.

Update: An earlier version of this post unfairly pinned the entire blame for the lack of coverage of those with preexisting conditions on the insurance companies.2 I removed the last paragraph because it was more or less completely wrong. Except for the part where I said we should be pissed at the Republican dickheads in Congress who want to repeal the ACA without replacing it with something better.3 And the part where we should be outraged. And the part where we regulated cars and cigarettes and food to make them safer, forced companies to build products in ways they didn’t want, and saved millions of lives. We can’t make everyone healthier and raise taxes to do it? Pathetic for what is supposedly the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation. (thx @JPVMan + many others)

  1. I hope, for the love of Pete, that everyone reading this site is aware that the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) is Obamacare. Obamacare is the derogatory name the Republicans gave to the ACA that everyone, including Obama himself, ended up using. Which is unfortunate. President Obama and his administration deserve neither all of the credit nor should shoulder all of the blame for the ACA.

    I would also like to add that I, as a (very) small business owner, rely on the protections afforded by the ACA to get insurance coverage for me and my family. Something to keep in mind if you otherwise don’t know anyone who would be affected by the ACA’s repeal. (Of course, the cushy insurance policy you get through work might be affected as well, you never know.)

  2. At the heart of the ACA is a compromise between the US government and the insurance companies. The insurance companies don’t want to sell people insurance only when people are sick…that would be prohibitively expensive. That’s where the preexisting conditions thing comes in. So, the ACA says, ok, you have to sell insurance to people with preexisting conditions and we’ll make sure that everyone has to buy insurance, whether they’re sick or not. That bargain makes sure more people are covered and gives the insurance companies a larger pool of people to draw premiums from.

    You can see why Republicans don’t like it: it forces people to buy something even if they don’t want to and it forces companies to sell things to people they would rather not sell. And as a bonus, people the Republicans don’t give a shit about — women, the poor, people of color — are disproportionately helped by the ACA. So they’ll repeal it and replace it with magic! And the only cost will be an increase in dead Americans.

  3. I am all for this, BTW. If Paul Ryan and Donald Trump come up with a plan to give better and cheaper healthcare coverage to everyone in America, let’s do it.

Gun control is popular and effective, so why don’t we have it?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

The Upshot recently conducted a survey about 29 gun control ideas and graphed the results based on the popularity of the ideas with the American public and their potential effectiveness according to experts.

Gun Control Matrix

Oh, shit like this makes me SO ANGRY. I didn’t even include the bottom part of the graph because there’s nothing down there. That’s right, the majority of Americans support all sorts of different gun control tactics, especially those likely to be most effective. But a focused and organized minority of gun nuts has somehow made it impossible for any reform to happen, so things like Newtown and Orlando and Charleston and San Bernardino and Aurora and toddlers killing people with guns will just continue to happen all over the nation like it’s completely fucking normal.

Meryl Streep on our current political moment

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

Last night, as she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep made some comments about the current political situation and about Donald Trump in particular (although she never mentioned him by name). The clip above (which may not last long on YouTube) is worth watching.

But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose. OK, go on with it.

And the NY Times — in an effort to “get both sides” of the story, I guess? — ran a story that I’m not going to link to called “Donald Trump Says He’s Not Surprised by Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech”. Is it newsworthy, what he thought of Streep’s remarks? Unless he agrees with her and plans to honestly reevaluate how he treats others when he speaks, I would argue it’s not at all worth printing what’s essentially a Trump press release full of bullshit. And news outlets that actually care about the truth and not just printing spin should stop doing it.

“When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Climate change has shifted from being a scientific issue to a political issue, both because the science is settled1 and because conservatives have embraced climate denialism. As a result, when deep-sea biologist Andrew Thaler talks to people about climate change, he doesn’t talk about science. He talks to people about things like fishing:

Fishermen know that things are changing, that black bass, scup, and butterfish (an important prey species in the tuna fishery) are moving further and further north. Oystermen know that the increasingly high high tides have a negative effect on the recruitment and growth of commercial oysters. More importantly, fishing communities have records and cultural knowledge that go back centuries, and they can see from multi-generational experience that the seasons are less predictable now than in the past and that the changes taking place today are nothing like the more gradual changes of previous generations.

And flooding:

I know fishermen in Guinea living in houses that have stood for hundreds of years. Some of those houses now flood at high tide. Every high tide. They weren’t built at the water’s edge, the water’s edge came to them. I lived in the same house in Beaufort, North Carolina for ten years. When I moved in, we were high and dry. Now our street has a permanent “high water” sign. The farm I just left in coastal Virginia is inundated after heavy rains or strong tidal surges. The front fields, which once held vibrant gardens, now nurture short grass and salty soil.

And other things like farming and faith. People who aren’t scientists and have grown distrustful of them won’t be convinced by science. But they will believe stories that relate to important matters in their lives. (via @EricHolthaus)

  1. Overwhelmingly, science says the Earth’s climate is warming quickly and humans are the cause.

How Do I Explain America to My Black Son?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In November, shortly after the election, Vann Newkirk wrote an article for The Atlantic called This Is Who We Are, a reflection on racism in America.

At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.

After another cussing fit, Vann Newkirk Sr. looked at me and said the thing that’s always stuck with me since. “This is who we are,” he told me. “Don’t forget.” And we went back down the road.

The piece was adapted into the short video above. Both are worth your time.

Rogue One, engineering ethics, and types of resistance

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2016

Scifi Policy reviews Rogue One as an engineering ethics case study (spoilers!).

The film also makes its engineering ethics explicit. Before the opening scene, Galen Erso had escaped the Death Star project because of his moral objections, likely against the Empire as well as the concept of making such a terrifying weapon at all. After Krennic captures him, Galen later tells his daughter Jyn that he had a choice: he could have continued abstaining, and let someone else build the Death Star, or he could dive deep into the project, become indispensable to it, and find a way to stop it. He chooses to dive deep, and succeeds in building a subtle flaw in the Death Star design. Then 15 years later, he sends a messenger to the Rebellion informing them of the weapon’s existence, power and most importantly, its fatal flaw.

Part of the point of the review is that resistance can take many forms. Erso resists by working within the system to help bring about a better outcome. The problem, for the outside observer, is that for such resistance to be effective, it needs to be indistinguishable from collaboration. Something to think about in relation to the incoming Trump administration and how best to work against it, particularly in the area of technology. (via mr)

Political Moneyball: America’s unfair elections and the Republicans’ art of winning them

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

Why does the US have only two main political parties? Is it because that’s what people want? Nope! It’s just an artifact of our system of voting. From C.G.P. Grey, a video explaining the problems with first-past-the-post voting systems (like the one used in US elections). Great simple explanation…well worth watching. Check out the rest of Grey’s videos in this series, particularly the one on gerrymandering.

Nothing in politics gets my blood boiling faster than gerrymandering…it is so grossly and obviously unfair. I bet you don’t even need to guess which of the two US political parties has pushed unfair redistricting in recent years.

More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws. They’ve limited potential conservative third party candidates (like Trump!) by incorporating them and their views into the main party. I would not be surprised if Republican donors strategically support left-of-center third-party candidates as spoilers — it’s a good tactic, underhanded but effective. They increasingly ignore political norms and practices to stymie Democratic efforts, like the general inaction of the Republican-led Congress over the past few years and the Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

None of this is an accident. They are a small but (and this is important) unified team that works for the benefit of the group above all else. In football terms, the Democrats are the stronger team: they gain more yards (look at Clinton’s ever-growing lead in the popular vote), they earn more first downs, and they might even score more points over the course of the season. But the Republicans won the Super Bowl by sticking together and deftly pressing their advantages to change the rules of the game in their favor. It’s a Moneyball strategy, but for politics.1 By almost any measure, the US is more liberal than it was 20 years ago and yet we have an incoming administration which is potentially authoritarian, influenced and advised by extremist white nationalists, and unapologetically corruptible. Somehow, we need to make the game more fair again. Fairness and justice should not be partisan. Americans — all Americans, liberal, centrist, and conservative — deserve a fair political process that reflects as closely as possible the collective needs and desires of the citizenry. Anything less should be unacceptable.

Update: Ross Lincoln makes some similar points about the election and liberal majority in America in a series of tweets about the importance of talking about Clinton’s popular vote totals.

14) Meanwhile, the great lie told by GOPs is that they’re ‘real’ America and that they’re a true majority, not liberals.

15) So when they win, regardless of circumstances, press & even many ostensible liberals fall in line w/demands liberals stop being liberal.

16) That’s happening now bigly. Even the LA Weekly published a horrid little illiterate screed about how liberals suck. LA Weekly!

17) but here’s the thing: Hill’s campaign seriously erred in ignoring key swing states. But she still is getting a historic pop vote margin

18) pushing 3 million more votes than Trump got. Possibly going to have gotten more votes than Obama got in 2012.

19) by any reasonable standard of judgment, clear majority of voters did not want Trump in office and most of those voters wanted Hillary.

20) Trump literally won only thanks to a technicality. And yet everyone is trying to push this idea that liberal votes don’t really count.

21) we’re told *we* live in a bubble. But as other ppl have noted, Los Angeles looks a hell of a lot more like America than Sapulpa, OK.

22) before anyone accuses me of being a snooty coastal elite, I am from Sapulpa, OK.

23) if Dems reacted to winning E.C. but not pop vote by saying OK isn’t a real place and doesn’t count, there’d be riots and impeachment.

24) That’s literally what is happening to liberals. But we didn’t just win the pop vote b/c of a quirk. We won it BIG. There are more of us.

25) if anything, we’re the ignored majority. Not conservatives, who literally cannot win fair and square.

See also Steven Johnson’s piece about how the wealthiest, most liberal, and most urban states pay the most taxes and have the least representation.

  1. I mean, the fake news on Facebook…that is a genius Moneyball tactic. Instead of blowing a lot of cash on expensive national TV ads, they bought a ton of cheap propaganda that Facebook and conservative voters spread around for free (or very cheap).

    And do you recall the subtitle of Michael Lewis’s book? I didn’t until I just looked it up. It’s “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”. I can’t think of a better description of our political system and what the Republicans have achieved over the past decade.

Fighting authoritarianism: 20 lessons from the 20th century

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

Do Not Obey In Advance

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder took to Facebook to share some lessons from 20th century about how to protect our liberal democracy from fascism and authoritarianism. Snyder has given his permission to republish the list, so I’ve reproduced it in its entirety here in case something happens to the original.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by V’aclav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

A great thought-provoking list. “Corporeal politics”…I like that phrase. And I’ve seen many references to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in recent weeks.

See also Five Steps to Tyranny and The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.

Note: Illustration by the awesome Chris Piascik.

Is liberal democracy in trouble? “Warning signs are flashing red.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

Political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have been doing research on the stability of contemporary liberal democracies, looking in particular at the assumption a country becomes a democracy, it will stay that way. Their conclusion? We may be in trouble: “liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline”.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?

Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa developed a three-factor formula to answer that question. Mr. Mounk thinks of it as an early-warning system, and it works something like a medical test: a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms.

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.

Regarding that first factor, public support for democracy, their research indicates a worrying trend: younger people around the world think it’s less “essential” to live in a democracy.

Essential Democracy

Younger people would also be more in favor of military rule:

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

What’s interesting is that Trump, who Mounk believes is a threat to liberal democracy in the US, drew his support from older Americans, which would seem to be a contradiction. It is also unclear if young people have always felt this way (i.e. do people appreciate democracy more as they get older?) or if this is a newly growing sentiment (i.e. people are now less appreciative of democracy, young people particularly so).

Something I think about often is cultural memory and how it shifts, seen most notably on kottke.org in my mild obsession with The Great Span. Back in July, writer John Scalzi tweeted:

Sometimes feels like a strong correlation between WWII passing from living memory, and autocracy seemingly getting more popular.

Scalzi is on to something here, I think. Those who fought in or lived through World War II are either dead or dying. Their children, the Baby Boomers, had a very different experience in hunky dory Leave It to Beaver postwar America.1 Anyone under 50 probably doesn’t remember anything significant about the Vietnam War and anyone under 35 didn’t really experience the Cold War.2 Couple that with an increasingly poor educational experience in many areas of the country and it seems as though Americans have forgotten how bad it was (Stalin, Hitler, the Holocaust, Vietnam, the Cold War) and take for granted the rights and protections that liberal democracy, despite its faults, offers its citizens. Shame on us if we throw all of that hard-fought progress away in exchange for — how did Franklin put it? — “a little temporary safety”.

Update: The graph above showing public support for democracy is misleading and overly dramatic. Looking at the average scores is more instructive for people’s feelings on democracy:

So where does this graph go wrong? It plots the percentage of people who answer 10, and it treats everyone else the same. The graph treats the people who place themselves at 1 as having the same commitment to democracy as those who answer 9. In reality, almost no one (less than 1 percent) said that democracy is “not at all important.”

Here’s a less misleading graph:

Essential Democracy

The kicker?

Vast majorities of younger people in the West still attach great importance to living in a democracy.

  1. Well, white male Baby Boomers did. Everyone else, less so.

  2. I remember the Cold War vividly — it’s why an increasingly autocratic Putin-led Russia scares the shit out of me — that feeling of ominous dread, day after day, that the world could end, actually end. I’ve only felt that way one other time in my life: in the months after 9/11. And that feeling passed after many months…the Cold War dread was constant for years.

Voting under the influence of celebrity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2016

Dave Pell from Nextdraft on the connection between OJ Simpson and Donald Trump and how celebrity warps American minds.

By the time OJ Simpson was arrested after the infamous ride in the White Ford Bronco, it was totally impossible to imagine he’d be found not guilty.

By the time Trump reached election day, he had broken every rule of politics. He committed more campaign-ending gaffes in a week than most losing presidential campaigns during an entire run.

Both men had a fame that completely cut across all American demographics.

I thought I’d mentioned this somewhere at the time — Twitter? kottke.org? Can’t find it… — but when I watched the excellent OJ: Made in America documentary this summer, the parallels between the OJ story and Trump made me feel very uneasy. Two men, both broadly famous, both wealthy, both charming, both outcasts from their respective social groups, both misogynist abusers, both committed crimes, both gamed the American political and legal systems to get away with something that they shouldn’t have. OJ eventually got his but will Trump? Are Americans doomed to keep repeating these mistakes when it comes to celebrity?

President Obama names 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2016

Lost in the shuffle over the past two weeks — with the focus on the incoming presidential administration and the Thanksgiving holiday — was President Obama’s awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 21 worthy recipients.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

Many of the honorees have dedicated their lives to science, technology, and social justice, including:

Margaret H. Hamilton led the team that created the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” was at the forefront of computers and programming development from the 1940s through the 1980s.

Bill and Melinda Gates established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, the foundation focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the National Basketball Association’s all-time leading scorer who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and the Milwaukee Bucks to another.

Ellen DeGeneres is an award-winning comedian who has hosted her popular daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, since 2003 with her trademarked humor, humility, and optimism.

Maya Lin is an artist and designer who is known for her work in sculpture and landscape art. She designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and since then has pursued a celebrated career in both art and architecture.

You can watch the full event here or just catch the highlights:

Obama has made the most awards of the medal by any President since it was established by President Kennedy in 1963. Notable recipients though the years include Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy himself (posthumously), Cesar Chavez, Mother Teresa, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, Maya Angelou, Mies van der Rohe, Lucille Ball, Yo-Yo Ma, Julia Child, and Rosa Parks.

It is important these days to remember the good work, the good deeds, and the good fight being fought by many creative, fierce, dynamic, and rational people who need our help and attention more than ever.

Five Steps to Tyranny

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2016

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:

But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.

Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.

But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.

Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:

For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.

The United Red and Blue States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

United Blue States

The New York Times took a map of the US and split it in two based on areas that voted for Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election. (Clinton’s map is pictured above.)

Mrs. Clinton’s island nation has large atolls and small island chains with liberal cores, like college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities. While the land area is small, the residents here voted for Mrs. Clinton in large enough numbers to make her the winner of the overall popular vote.

That’s fun, but it’s another reminder of how strictly geographical maps distort election results.

P.S. They missed a real opportunity to call the chain of islands in the southern states The Cretaceous Atoll.

The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2016

In 1995, Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books on fascism.1 As part of the article, Eco listed 14 features of what he called Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism. He began the list with this caveat:

These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Here’s an abbreviated version of Eco’s list:

1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”

2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”

3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”

5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”

6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”

7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”

8. The humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”

10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”

11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”

12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”

13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

I found this list via Paul Bausch, Blogger co-inventor and long-time MetaFilter developer, who writes:

You know, we have a strong history of opposing authoritarianism. I’d like to believe that opposition is like an immune system response that kicks in.

It difficult to look at Eco’s list and not see parallels between it and the incoming Trump administration.2 We must resist. Disagree. Be modern. Improve knowledge. Welcome outsiders. Protect the weak. Reject xenophobia. Welcome difference. At the end of his piece, Eco quotes Franklin Roosevelt saying during a radio address on the “need for continuous liberal government”:

I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.

And Eco himself adds: “Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”

  1. You’re probably going to be hearing that word a lot in the coming months, so before we get to Eco’s list, here’s a quick dictionary definition of fascism: “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization”. That’s imprecise as hell, but “authoritarian” and “nationalistic” are components you’ll always see associated with fascism.

  2. As an exercise as you read through the list, think about statements and policies made by Trump and his team that reflect each point. As I said, it is not difficult.

The long fight for a female President

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2016

All 43 US Presidents up to this point have been men, and now our next President will also be a man. Joss Fong looks at the history of women running for President and the difficulty they face in the political arena.

Women running for office faced a double bind. They had to appear tough enough to lead but if they were too tough or too confident, they violated norms about how women were supposed to behave.

Oh, and how about that Ward Cleaver clip from Leave It To Beaver at ~2:25! [appalled emoji] I watched Leave It To Beaver all the time when I was a kid and never consciously noticed the sexism. Glad it didn’t sink in too deeply.

An American Tragedy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2016

David Remnick, writing on the occasion of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States.

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President — a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit — and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet David Remnick — he calls Obama “a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit” because it takes one to know one — and it is remarkable to hear him write like this. At times, he sounds downright unhinged. But he’s not wrong. This is our reality now and looking for upsides right now seems like grasping at straws. Donald Trump has told us, repeatedly and proudly, who he is over the past 16 months, and it seems foolish not to take him at his word.

On a personal note, I am so emotionally overloaded right now I feel empty. It’s difficult to see how to move on from this, where to go from here, even as it relates to my work. Right now, I can’t access the part of me that knows kottke.org, if only in a small way, is a thing that needs doing. At its best, I hope that the site is a source of thoughtful optimism and that it celebrates the best of humanity, the spirit of curiosity, and the necessity of art, writing, photography, science, music, and other pursuits that allow people tell their stories and explore what it means to be human. I hope we’ll be able to explore those things together again soon, but not today.

Today, hug your loved ones. Connect with your friends. Be there for someone else. Yes, look for the helpers, but also take a moment to help someone out. Start small. Build. We’ll get there.