Sunday, May 21, 2017

But Hillary Clinton...

Whenever some new revelation about a bad thing Donald Trump has done comes to light, his supporters practically trip over themselves racing to remind us of something Hillary Clinton (or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or some other hated liberal) did that is supposed to be similar. The idea seems to be that something about one of those Democrats having done the similar thing is more significant than or mitigates what Donald Trump is alleged to have done.

Having tried to engage with a number of Trump supporters who do this, I am convinced that this tactic is utterly disingenuous. Still, I think it's instructive to examine it. What are these folks trying to accomplish when they do this? I think a few things are going on, and I want to talk about why they are all bullshit.


Trying to appear as if they are calling for justice


On the surface, most of these attempts take the form of a call for overdue justice. For example, when it comes out that Donald Trump shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and someone demands that he be held accountable, the inevitable response is "but Hillary Clinton was never held accountable for her private email server!" The implication here is that whatever Donald Trump has done, it is a far greater miscarriage of justice that Hillary's email indiscretions went unpunished. An occasional variant of this goes "We know Hillary did something improper with having the private email server whereas the allegations against Trump haven't been proven, yet you're all concerned with nailing Trump while giving Hillary a free pass."

Why this is bullshit: Someone who is truly concerned with the mishandling of classified information should, of course, be concerned both about what Hillary Clinton did and what Trump is alleged to have done. Since it's not as if there's a finite amount of justice to go around, it's possible to think Hillary should be held accountable and that we should investigate credible allegations of the same behavior involving Trump and hold him accountable if they turn out to be substantiated.

If you want to present yourself as a true and consistent champion of justice, you need to demonstrate that you want to see the underlying principle applied in all cases. But of course the Trump supporter never does this. It's always "but Hillary Clinton..." and then a blank out. No mention of what should be done about Trump's indiscretion, and certainly no suggestion that the same principle should be applied in his case.

Even if the Trump supporter is willing to concede that Trump should be held accountable, the level of concern never rises to Hillary email level (or Bill Clinton doing inappropriate things with a cigar tube level). As I've argued elsewhere, this way of thinking is ridiculous. Regardless of how egregious you think Hillary's actions were in the email case, she is not the current President. In fact, she holds no office whatsoever. If Trump is doing something similarly bad -- or even, I would argue, something considerably less bad -- it's appropriate to be much more concerned about his behavior right now, since he is the current President and is thus in a position to potentially harm the country through his active misdeeds. In fact, by identifying and addressing Trump's misdeeds now, we may be able to prevent damage to our country, rather than having to resort, at best, to retrospective justice (as was our only option in the Clinton email case). It seems to me that someone who was genuinely concerned with the country's well being would be all forr that.


Accusing liberals of hypocrisy


This usually takes the form of "Look at how the media / Democrats / the person I'm talking to is all over Donald Trump but gave a free pass to Hillary / Obama / whoever over the similar thing they did. What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the target of this attack is guilty of hypocrisy, the Trump supporter raising the issue entails two significant admissions that undermine his own position. First, because it asserts that the target should have been concerned with the thing that Hillary or whoever did, it means that we ought to be concerned about the essentially similar thing Trump is doing now. Thus, the Trump supporter is conceding the premise that what Donald Trump is alleged to be doing (if true) is cause for concern. Secondly, because the Trump supporter then doesn't go on to demand that Trump be treated the way he believes Hillary (or whoever) should have been treated (see above), he opens himself up to the same charge of hypocrisy he is trying to level against his target.


To obfuscate and distract


Most of the Trump supporters I talk to aren't dumb, so I think they grasp the incoherence of their approach on some level. However, just bringing up Hillary has the effect of changing the subject to something other than the misdeeds of the person they support. As Trump himself has demonstrated, obfuscation and distraction are effective weapons, and Trump supporters like nothing more than to rail against their favorite liberal targets anyway. This tactic is also especially effective against well-meaning interlocutors who assume the Trump supporter is approaching the conversation with the same good faith as they are and attempt to answer the Trumpy's charges against Hillary point-by-point, allowing the Trump supporter to succeed in changing the subject.

Why this is bullshit: It's senseless to argue with someone who isn't approaching the conversation in good faith, and these tactics are prime examples of bad faith. Once it becomes apparent that the Trump supporter has resorted to them, he exposes himself as a partisan sheep who doesn't bring anything to the table intellectually.

To garner sympathy


The Trump supporters often fall into this mode among themselves, but sometimes it bleeds out into discussion with people who don't share their viewpoint. The refrain goes like this "The media / Democrats / whoever are out to get Donald Trump. They never went after Hillary like this. The deck is totally stacked against him. See, unless you're part of the liberal establishment, you can't get a fair shake. Woe is us!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the media went easy on Hillary, the appropriate response to their going tough on Trump for similar (or worse) misdeeds is thanks (perhaps with a small dose of 'what took you so long?'). But more insidious is the notion that Trump -- and particularly his supporters -- are deserving of sympathy. Trump supporters championed and voted for a man who is, obviously and transparently, the least qualified, most despicable, most pro-authoritarian person ever to hold the office of President. Far from being victimized by those of us who refuse to tolerate this unacceptable state of affairs, Trump's supporters deserve to be held accountable for being complicit in it. A Trump supporter asserting that we, as decent, concerned citizens, are somehow in the wrong for calling the president to task for, e.g., sharing classified material when they themselves participated in enabling him to do so is obscene.

Regardless of the motive, bringing up Hillary Clinton is an attempt by the Trump supporter to switch the topic to one where he believes he holds the moral high ground. But, as noted above, one can only claim to hold such a position if one wants to see the underlying moral principle applied equally and universally. If you don't, it amounts to an admission that you don't believe there is any moral high ground (or principle) at all: just partisanship and allegiance to whatever team you're on. I don't think that's true, and I don't think someone who thinks that deserves to be let off the hook. In the future, my standard response to the 'But Hillary Clinton...' arguments is going to be as follows:

"This isn't about Hillary Clinton. This is about the conduct of the person you put in the White House and continue to support. What he's doing isn't OK, and neither is your supporting someone who does it."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Arbitrariness Candidate


For those struggling for an explanation of what happened, here's the best I can come up with so far:

Obviously, Trump's election represents a rejection of the Establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is, in many ways, the perfect embodiment. But if that's what the voters of this country have rejected, what, exactly, are they *embracing* by selecting President Trump?

Contrary to many of my liberal friends, I don't think the fundamental is racism or sexism or bigotry or even nationalism or authoritarianism. Those are elements of Trump, to be sure, and they are things to be concerned about, but they don't represent the fundamental of what I see people who were enthusiastic about Trump in my own circles embracing. I don't think the Trump supporters among my friends are motivated primarily by hate (though some are far more tolerant of it than I would prefer).

I think the fundamental thing people are embracing is this: the arbitrary. Trump was the Arbitrariness Candidate. He may well be the Arbitrariness President.

The arbitrary is that which is put forth without any evidence. The putting forth and accepting of claims without evidence (or in contradiction of it) defined Trump's campaign and his supporters. He asserted things (e.g. Mexicans are rapists, Ted Cruz's father participated in the JFK assassination, he alone can fix our problems without articulating any realistic or specific solutions, etc.) and a large number of his supporters accepted them even when no evidence was provided, time and time again. Even the racism and sexism that so many liberals fear are based in the belief in the arbitrary: the belief that one race or gender is superior (a belief for which there is no evidence). It is the essence of the Trumpian 'believe me', which is code for 'take my word for it because I'm not going to give you any reason to actually believe me.'

And among his supporters, there is a widespread attitude of 'we know what Hillary represents: the Establishment'. This is true. But then it is quickly followed up by some version of 'Trump may not be perfect, but at least there is a chance that he will be better.' This belief, too, is rooted in accepting the arbitrary. Donald Trump has been in the public eye for many, many years. There is ample evidence to draw conclusions about what he will do as President. The inferences we might reasonably draw based on that evidence aren't guaranteed to be right, but they are at least reasonable, as contrasted with the belief that he will be consistently pro-freedom, conservative or, indeed, consistently anything, which is pure fantasy.

Pure fantasy is not worthy of the same cognitive consideration as a belief for which there is some evidence, however robust or scant. (This is the answer to the emerging group of non-enthusiastic Trump apologists who are starting to say 'Well, you don't know what he'll do as President. Maybe it will be ok." It's true that we don't know for certain, but just imagining that it might be ok without being aware of any specific reasons to think so doesn't count as a refutation of people's legitimate, evidence-based concerns.)

It is a grave, grave error to entertain the arbitrary in your thinking, even for a second. If someone puts something forth without any real claim at supporting it with evidence, there is no reason to even consider it possible. If one entertains every statement that someone puts forth as possible, even with no evidence, that does not constitute thinking. It constitutes engaging in a flight of fancy that one has mistaken for cognition. It is a recipe for the sort of cognitive fuzziness and paralysis that allow one to fall victim to the next charismatic figure who comes along who is capable of conjuring up those fantasies and evoking the emotions they connect with.

I think a good, day one answer to 'what do we do next?' is this: fight the arbitrary. Both in your own mind and in the public square. Demand of your friends, your leaders, your teachers and yourself that views be supported by evidence. Train yourself, and help train others, to identify when things are asserted arbitrarily and to reject them out of hand until and unless some actual reason to believe them is provided -- whether you are disinclined to agree with the assertion or, especially, if you are inclined to agree with it. Do not accept the common belief that because we can't be certain of something, we must entertain all possibilities. That attitude elevates ignorance to the status of cognitive gold standard and is a direct path to the destruction of the intellect.

Contrary to the prevailing cultural attitude, not all opinions are equally valid. If, as a people, we were as adept at detecting the arbitrary as we are at, say, detecting racism, I don't think we would have President Elect Trump, and I certainly don't think we would be as primed for abdicating our collective responsibility to think and judge and embracing an actual dictator as I fear we are.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election 2016 Final Take

Here's the truth: Trump is poison in a way that is unprecedented for a major party nominee. Hillary may not be a steak dinner, but she is some type of food, however unappetizing.

There is no hope for the people who think that Trump is a steak dinner. They'll either figure out that he's poison eventually or they won't. But as amusing and sad as those people are, there just aren't enough of them to swing the election.

If Trump does win, it will be because a bunch of people at the margin are too ignorant, lazy, uncritical or habituated to voting Republican to appreciate the difference between a plate of food (however lousy) and rat poison.

If you still find yourself not knowing who to vote for but considering Trump, or have resigned to vote for him as the lesser of two evils, you are one of these people. You, and the system around you, have failed to prepare you to do your civic duty. If you see Trump and Hillary as basically equivalent, you don't understand what is going on or what is at stake, and those of us who have been trying to help you understand have also failed you. For that I am sorry. I tried my best.

If you are one of these people, my final request of you is this: please recognize that if you actually go and vote, you aren't doing your civic duty. You have already failed to do that (or are simply unable to do so under the circumstances). Casting an actual vote in this condition is like standing in the middle of the town square and firing a gun at anyone who looks vaguely suspicious because you are concerned about a recent rash of burglaries.

This election is a battle for the future of our country against someone who is trying to destroy it. If you see it as something other than that and are considering a vote for Trump, don't take the law into your own hands. On Election Day, please stay at home, shelter in place and let the police handle it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The 2016 Election Tobacco Analogy: Extended Version


Most politicians: a pack a day smoking habit

Hillary Clinton: going from 1 to 1.15 packs per day

What even Hillary's strongest supporters think she is: going from 1 to 1.15 packs per day but also going for a light jog

What Trump's more naive supporters have convinced themselves he is: removing cigarette from mouth and inserting a spoonful of plain old (but definitely vanilla) yogurt

Old version of what Trump actually is: trading in pack a day smoking habit for full blown heroin addiction

Improved version of what Trump actually is: removing cigarette and inserting a lit sick of dynamite while trying to convince others that this is beneficial to one's health

What the more self aware Trump supporters think they're doing: removing cigarette and inserting a lit sick of dynamite while trying to convince others that this is beneficial to one's health 

Bernie Sanders: a humidor full of secondhand Cuban cigars that someone has failed maintain the proper moisture level in

Jill Stein: That which one finds in the ashtray after all the Bernie cigars have been smoked

Obama: A pack of Marlboro Lights that, due to the fact that it is being followed by Trump and Hillary, is mistaken for a green salad.

Gary Johnson: weed

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The three kinds of Trumpies I meet on Facebook




An extremely unscientific survey based on my newsfeed.

The three types of people I see on Facebook who express support for Trump:
  1. Women who are strongly anti-abortion, recognize that Hillary Clinton is an extremely pro-choice candidate and believe that there is at least some chance Donald Trump would do things to reduce or restrict abortions (such as nominating anti-abortion justices).
  2. People who hate Hillary Clinton, the Clintons generally and/or the Democratic Party so much that they would vote for a Dark Lord of the Sith if he were running against her. In fact, some acknowledge that this is what they are doing in voting for Trump. Mix of genders.
  3. Men who believe the Establishment is destroying America. They see a vote for Trump as falling somewhere on the spectrum between registering a protest against this Establishment and an opportunity to actually burn this motherfucker down.
Attributes shared by members of all three groups:
  1. Whiteness;
  2. Sense that something is very wrong with this country (e.g. a great injustice being done to the unborn, economy that doesn't work for the people, danger posed by HRC/Establishment/people who don't look like them and don't share American values);
  3. Skepticism or rejection of mainstream media or any information presented to them if derived from mainstream sources;
  4. Tendency to obtain/post news and opinions from sources that cater exclusively to people who share their ideological viewpoint (e.g. right wing media, Catholic publications, etc.) and being highly credulous when it comes to any information that comes from these sources;
  5. Among the 2nd and 3rd groups (less so the 1st), a tendency to see anyone who disagrees with, questions or challenges them as being hopelessly deluded into towing the Establishment line.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unhappy People and The Orange Man (A Cautionary Conspiracy Theory Fable)

Bad hombre puppets, which do not actually appear in this fable

The country was an absolute disaster and a lot of people were unhappy.

The Unhappy People felt like America was becoming unrecognizable. They thought it had lost its standing in the world. They saw that the economy wasn't working for them. They had lived through terrorist attacks and unnecessary wars. They saw more and more faces they didn't recognize and felt like they belonged to people who didn't share their values: real bad hombres. It wasn't great.

The Unhappy People saw a political Establishment that didn't work for them. It wasn't responsive to their needs -- only to those of big banks and corporate interests and itself. Its policies weren't effective at keeping them safe at home or abroad.

Worse, its leaders weren't doing what they were supposed to: they kept overstepping their bounds under the Constitution, increasing the government's power and reach. You couldn't even trust what you read in the papers because the mainstream media was so biased in favor of the Establishment. And now, it seemed like the country was about to get another Clinton for President (or else some wishy-washy, out of touch Republican elite-type). More of the same.

...

Then along came The Orange Man. He announced he was running for President. The Orange Man was good at business. He built amazing things. Huge things. Things you had heard of like hotels and casinos and steaks. He was a TV star! Not only that, but he spoke the Unhappy People's language! He shared their concerns. He talked about the same issues that they did. And boy could he talk! The Orange Man loved to talk. And not in the fake way that the Establishment guys did. He told it like it is! He got in your face and wasn't afraid to shake things up. Because that's what The Orange Man was here to do: shake things up. Finally! 

And he did. He really did. He steamrolled those weak, low-energy Establishment Republicans in the primaries. He took over their party just like that. And they all fell in line, Establishment types and all. Because The Orange Man was tough. A real leader. And when the system is as broken as it is, that's what you need: a real leader. A man who's strong: a strongman, you might say. Someone who can repair the broken country by himself (because the Establishment sure isn't going to help). Someone who, alone, can fix it.

Sure The Orange Man said some things that seemed extreme and vaguely unamerican to some of the Unhappy People. But drastic times called for drastic measures. Sometimes you need to take the good with the bad.

The Establishment really didn't like any of this. They were afraid of The Orange Man. They said he was the dangerous one. They started using their pawns in the liberal media to try to discredit The Orange Man. Some of what they said about him was true, some of it was lies. But none of it mattered. It was just the Establishment trying to protect itself. Fortunately, The Unhappy People had their own media by now. And that media was the only one willing to tell the truth about things. They were the only ones who seemed to even care about what an awful, dangerous, corrupt, dishonest liar Hillary was. And they thought The Orange Man was great. In fact, The Orange Man even hired some folks who lead this special Unhappy People Media to run his campaign.

...

As the election got closer, things started to go badly for The Orange Man. Bigly badly. He wasn't doing well in the polls. Most people thought Hillary beat him in the debates: even some people who supported The Orange Man. A bunch of stuff came out that was embarrassing for The Orange Man: his returns showing he paid no taxes and maybe wasn't such a great businessman after all. A tape of him saying some very rude things about women (the liberal media claimed he was bragging about sexual assault but of course that was just them being all PC -- it was just words and Hillary's husband did much worse).

Still, all of this stuff seemed to have some effect, because The Orange Man looked like he was losing. But how could that be? The Orange Man might be a lot of things, but he was no loser.

Fortunately, The Orange Man himself explained it. He wasn't really losing: the fix was in. Voter fraud. The liberal media spinning things again. And of course Hillary shouldn't even be running: she should be in jail. The Unhappy People Media agreed.

To the Unhappy People, it made perfect sense. The establishment could never beat The Orange Man fair and square, so they had to cheat. They had to steal the election from him.

...

But what The Unhappy People didn't know was that The Orange Man actually was losing -- and The Orange Man knew it. Or at least the people running his campaign did. They had known all along that he couldn't possibly win. Because even though The Orange Man's supporters really wanted him to win, there just weren't enough of them who would actually go out and vote. That was a little sad for The Orange Man, the people running his campaign and the people who lead the special Unhappy People Media, but fortunately they had a plan. Because they were playing the long game. Team Orange Man had an agenda of it's own.

And what was that agenda? It was to get someone into power who would support all of the most extreme things The Orange Man and his nuttiest supporters wanted. Things like banning all people of a certain religion from entering the country. Jailing political opponents. Some pretty vile, racist stuff. Stuff that can only work if enough Americans were willing to ignore or reject the country's basic principles. Stuff that could only work with a strong, authoritarian figure in charge, rather than a functioning system of checks and balances.

The Extreme Orangists had learned that the country was almost ready for all this, but not quite, so they held a dress rehearsal. It gave them a chance to verify their techniques. See how people would respond. The Establishment did just what they expected: the Republican elite got in line because they were afraid to alienate The Orange Man's voters. Some people in the mainstream media had an inkling of what was going on, but for the most part they focused on the superficial stuff (like the nasty things The Orange Man said) and even helped The Orange Man when it served their interests (like in getting ratings). Whatever The Orange Man's original reasons for running were, the Extreme Orangists had taken over. To them, The Orange Man was a charismatic stooge with just enough of the important features to be useful for a trial run.

See, the Extreme Orangists had studied their history (though not the Orange Man himself: he doesn't read). They knew that to bring their agenda about, they had to get enough people who were willing to go along with it. Enough people who were willing to look the other way at the horrible stuff. There weren't quite enough of these people in 2016 to elect The Orange Man. But they knew the best way to get more of them next time: it was to manipulate the Unhappy People.

...

The Unhappy People were a perfect target. They sensed that things were going wrong in the country. They already felt like the system wasn't working for them. They hated and distrusted the Establishment. The got their news and information almost exclusively from their own Unhappy People Media (which the Extreme Orangists controlled) and were skeptical of any information that came from other sources.

There were just two problems. First, the Unhappy People weren't quite ready to abandon American principles and fully embrace the Extreme Orangist agenda just yet. And second, not all of them were motivated enough to go out and vote (even when it looked like The Orange Man might win).

The Extreme Orangists knew the best way to fix both of these problems: it was to get the Unhappy People to be angry and hopeless. Even more angry and hopeless than they already were. Since The Orange Man was going to lose the election anyway, the Extreme Orangists saw the perfect opportunity to do this: they'd keep telling the Unhappy People that the very system itself was rigged until enough of them really believed it. Knew it in their hearts. Felt it in their bones. Woke up every day of Hillary Clinton's administration, overflowing with rage and despair and feeling, with every fiber of their being, that their America was already lost.

Because if their America is already lost -- if the system is completely and irredeemably rigged against them -- what chance do the Unhappy People have? What hope is there other than to try something completely different, even if it flies in the face of the very values the Unhappy People once claimed to hold dear? Those values didn't work. The system itself has failed. Why not burn it down, either in the streets or, more likely, by electing The Orange Man 2.0 next time around (for the original Orange Man, having outlived his usefulness to the Extreme Orangists, will be long gone). The day will come, and this time, enough of the Unhappy People will finally be ready.

...

Most of the Unhappy People never realized any of this was going on, of course. But a few did. They remembered the Star Wars prequels and realized that while they thought they were trying to save the Galactic Republic from the Separatists, they were being tricked by the Emperor all along. Those who were fortunate enough never to have seen the prequels drew a little bit of smug satisfaction from that fact, but they too realized that while they thought they were fighting to save their country from the Establishment, they were actually being manipulated into working towards its destruction by people who were even worse.

Those that realized this felt like fools. They knew they had been played like a bunch of ninety-nine cent kazoos. They stood on the brink of oblivion, faces red with shame, and wondered is it too late to turn back? 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The nihilism of Trump's fraud allegations

[reposted from Facebook]

The other thing about Trump refusing to state that he will accept the results of the election is that it is an admission that he has abandoned all hope of actually winning.

It is such an obscene statement that it is going to contribute to getting out the vote for Clinton from people who otherwise wouldn't have come out. It also creates a disincentive for his supporters to come out and vote: if the system is rigged against him and he's bound to lose, why waste your time voting for him? Both of those things increase his likelihood of losing.

It's another reason why I think destabilizing the country, rather than becoming President or even making up excuses for his loss, has become his actual goal. If he was just trying to protect his ego, he could have spun his likely impending defeat in a way that actually might improve his chances of winning ("Crooked Hillary and the liberal media are trying to steal the country from us. If you want to stop them, get out and vote for me!")

It's really borderline nihilism. He no longer thinks he can win. He doesn't care about winning anymore. He doesn't care about his supporters (or that they desperately want him to win). He just wants to pour the gasoline, light the match and watch it all burn.