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Afghanistan

 
Another black border post.
 

The US again abandons tens of thousands of allies, workers, helpers to their fate.

(Update, border not so thick as it was, see first comment. The US and other countries seem to be trying to help Afghans leave.)

Update, 25 August Black border removed entirely. The US and other nations involved there are working hard to get people out. It is, I hear, one of the biggest civilian evacuations ever. Much as I was down on Biden before he was elected, biting this bullet of US mistakes in Afghanistan deserves respect.
 

Should the US have stayed in Afghanistan on the plea that insanity forced it to keep doing the same failing thing, over and over, year after year? No.

It should never have been there, if that’s all they were going to do.

Is there anything they could have done that would have actually made a difference?

Yes.

Elect Al Gore.

And even that would have helped only if he’d had the courage to do real nation building.

Since it’s a country that throws away half it’s population right from the start, before even inventing ways to exploit the remainder, the first step for nation building in Afghanistan was always clear.

Help women.

Change the laws so they could have their own money, land, and wealth, and enforce it. Make sure girls received educations all the way through high school. Put women’s health and medical care on a serious and effective footing. Provide millions of scholarships for women to study in the world’s great universities.

After twenty years of that, with women therefore becoming more important than testosterone-poisoned defectives in families, workplaces and government, there’d be a different country now.

Of course, no senator could have boasted about bringing dollars home to his district because Blackhawk helicopters got sold to Afghanis. Nobody could have stood on the deck of a naval ship after a couple of years, declaring victory.

The kind of victory I’m talking about takes much longer.

If nobody was going to do anything real victory required, the US should have stayed home.

Biden is right to correct that part of the error. A deathly shame, though, that he thought he could wait for the paperwork before rescuing the women and men who have been betrayed.



Medicine has been too successful

People have lost their fear of disease. It only took about two generations without major deadly infections. That comes as a surprise to me. I thought people understood cause and effect. But, no. Apparently, if you’re not in immediate and personal danger of dying, it’s Somebody Else’s Problem. And a SEP field, as Douglas Adams astutely pointed out, is the only proven way to make anything invisible.

Years ago, 1990s?, I read an article about attitudes to vaccination. In places like Bangladesh, where they actually had to contend with actual disease, people were overwhelmingly in favor of it. More than 85% of the respondents were incredulous you could have any other attitude. (This was before extremists started spreading paranoia about Western contamination.) It was only in well-to-do parts of the wealthier countries that people had the luxury of fantasizing about what vaccines would do to their precious bodily fluids.

The loss of healthy fear towards something that can kill you has made too many people incapable of understanding where a lethal threat fits into the scheme of things. You see sentences like, “But the extent of the European lurch toward mandatory measures has also prompted unease and questioning over loss of freedom.”

The mind reels. Do they not understand that your freedom ends where your threat to my life begins?

(Rights, unlike people, are not all equal. Some depend on others. Some are a precondition for everything else. There is not one single freedom that can be enjoyed if you’re dead. Of course it’s more complicated than one right always being first. The link goes on about the intricacies.)

 

 

Public health measures to prevent the spread of disease take precedence over people’s convenience every single time.

Mask wearing, social distancing, and temporary lockdowns are all merely inconvenient. There is no, absolutely no, rights-based argument to make against them.

Contact tracing does raise privacy issues. But there again: you can’t enjoy privacy when you’re dead. Privacy is a secondary consideration. It must be respected to the extent possible while the primary public health priorities are achieved. For instance, we’re horrified the government could be using our cell phones for location data to track covid contacts, as they did in South Korea. That is nonsense. Location tracking to save your life is a Good Thing. It should be done from the start to the end of a pandemic. After that the data should be expunged.

What should not be done is using that data to sell us fast food, or to store it forever to target political ads at us, or to deny us jobs based on some AI bullshit model of who we are based on where we’ve been. And yet, we put up calmly with the latter while throwing fits about lifesaving temporary public health tracking. Commercial tracking, which should be illegal, has made us allergic to lifesaving tracking. It’s insane. And I suspect it’s all because we feel powerless against corporations but not the government.

Vaccination is the third major public health measure, and it does intersect with the basic right to control your own body. When two foundational rights conflict — the right not to be harmed and the right to control your own body — then the scale of the harm on each side is important.

Vaccines can cause nanoscale harm. Things like sore arms, a day of lethargy, or even super-rare blood clots which can be effectively dealt with if doctors know they should look for that. Compared to the megascale harm from disease — death, long term disability, sickness for millions — there is no contest at all . The greatest good of the greatest number is the right criterion to apply when the difference is so stark. Vaccine mandates are justified to bring the cost of non-vaccination home to anti-vaxxers. As are mandates that limit them from any place where they could potentially spread the disease they’ve refused to prevent.

There is zero place for any “unease and questioning over the loss of freedom.” [Ed. note: idiots.]



Example 5,459,738

Consider the section of the Texas Constitution of 1836 below, currently doing the rounds as an example of the foundational racism in the Good Old Days.

Sec. 10. All persons (Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted,) who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence, shall be considered citizens of the republic, and entitled to all the privileges of such. All citizens now living in Texas, who have not received their portion of land, in like manner as colonists, shall be entitled to their land in the following proportion and manner : Every head of a family shall be entitled to one league and labor of land;

[definition from somewhere on the web] A league of land equals 4,428 acres and a labor, 177 acres, combined they add up to 4,605 acres [19 km²]. This was the. amount of a headright (first-class) granted to “all persons except Africans and their descendants, and Indians, living in Texas.” (Convertunits.com, however, says one square league is 7628 acres.)

Either way, that’s a nontrivial homestead. And it’ll obviously set you back if it’s not handed to you and you have to scrape up the cash to buy all that by yourself. Racism, indeed.

Notice anyone missing from that list? So excluded they didn’t even need to be mentioned by name? Notice anyone missing from the current discussion about that list? Unlike “Africans and Indians”, those people are still unseen.

At the rate we’re going, it’s going to be centuries before we understand why disasters keep crashing in on us (You’d like an example? Trump.) from the blind side.



Oil majors! Working on global warming!

We’re doomed, aren’t we.

ConocoPhillips’ oil project in Alaska calls for inserting giant “chillers” into the melting permafrost, so the ground is stable enough to drill for oil.

Melting permafrost causing houses to topple in Shishmaref, Alaska
“With the ground melting beneath them from global warming, Alaskan lawmakers are calling for more oil drilling to deal with the problem.” (Vox, 2017)


About touchscreens

This is your future speaking. If you’re lucky, you will grow old. When you get there, your skin will be drier. I’ve had Death-Valley-Desert-dry skin my whole life, and it only gets more so.

Guess how touchscreens react to very dry skin?

They don’t.

It can take me three or four swipes or taps on a phone, after breathing on my fingers to make them moister, before anything happens. By then, because I’m frustrated, it’s usually the wrong thing.

So, what am I saying? That touchscreens don’t work for a whole large part of the population. A part which is getting bigger, not smaller.

Now picture that kind of not-working in a car. You’re driving. The last thing you want to do is study a screen with stupid icons on it. And when it doesn’t turn on the A/C or close the windows, you have to study it again. When you look up, the two tons of metal you’re in are bearing down on a lane closure sign that the car is ignoring because, hey, it’s not moving. (I know. They’ll fix that someday. But then we’ll just move on to the next AI idiocy.)

That doesn’t even get into the topic of tactile feedback and muscle memory and how necessary they are to maintain situational awareness when driving. All those levers and buttons and knobs and steering wheel and pedals allow you to use a different part of your brain for control of the car so that your eyes and ears and frontal cortex are available for the unexpected. It’s called human factors engineering. The electric car makers ought to try it sometime.

Right now I have an old car. So old, you open the windows with one of those little hand cranks. My relationship with my phone is bad enough that I’ve often thought I should give up and get myself a cocktail sausage to use as a stylus. Then I imagine trying to run a car with a cocktail sausage.

Koreans wearing gloves in winter, using sausages on their phones.


Why Bernie’s BS Matters

Bernie Sanders was talked about a while ago, blathering his usual blather about how there is nothing but class struggle. Racism? Caused by poverty. (In which case, why aren’t poor blacks racist against whites?) Trumpism? Caused by poverty. (But, but, but, his fans give him boat parades. Have you priced boats lately?) Crime? Caused by poverty. (Has he never heard of Madoff? Or, for that matter, Trump?)

Now, admittedly, poverty is tough. People tend to react badly to it and bother their neighbors trying to get out of it. But that’s a whole different matter from poverty causing bigotry. Plus it does nothing to explain centuries and millenia of elites sneering at the stupidity and laziness of their underlings. If only poverty could cause that, elites should be the intelligent, highminded people they imagine themselves to be.

What does follow a pattern, though, is that people make sure they think poorly of anyone they hurt. After all, if the piefaced whatnot didn’t deserve it, they are the bad guys for inflicting harm.

The more harm, and the more baked-into-the-society and structural the harm, the greater the contempt for the underclass who are made to suffer.

In other words, Bernie has it backwards. It’s not poverty that causes racism. It’s the need to justify exploitation. Damaging others causes racism. And sexism.

That means the solution is not to make poor whites richer, to take an example at random. Or to make men more confident of their masculinity, to take another. It’s not to increase the status of the group causing harm.

It’s to remove it. It’s to maintain real equality.

Equals have enough social status to inflict a cost when someone tries to get something for nothing out of them. Without the ability to get away with hurting each other, there’s also no need to label others contemptible enough to deserve it. With real equality the need for contempt to justify bad treatment gradually fades.

Bernie’s BS would make the problem worse, and it sends people hoping for the solution down the wrong road. That’s why his BS is not simply silly.



Bwahaha

I don’t subscribe to the Financial Times, so I can’t read the article, but the front page shows this:

US women consider parenting alone after coronavirus. By Patti Waldmeir.

And a couple of days ago I saw that the patriarchal fossils running China are so frantic about similar thoughts they are nabbing women and punishing them (how, I don’t know and hate to think) for having such ideas.

The whole point of stuffing women into the sex caste is to use their bodies. For sex, certainly. But also for producing children.

It’ll be hilarious when, after centuries of pretending having families was a terrible burden foisted on them by women, a “ball and chain,” and so forth and so on, suddenly men find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Everything human beings actually care about is on the other side of that glass. And I’m not sure another smash and grab wreckage will be tolerated a second time around. Been there, done that.



Wrecked but alive: thoughts on Inauguration Day

A few things to remember while we’re boneless with relief that so many of us survived the kakistocracy.

1) This is just back to normal. Remember normal? It’s great compared to being in the grip of a tarantula that thinks we’re food items. It really is. But normal isn’t genius. It’s just okay.

For his whole political career, Biden has just been a white male fossil. He’s graduated to old white male fossil, but he has not, on the whole, shown any particular flashes of brilliance that I can remember.

He may start showing them now, when he’s more concerned about his legacy than his future career in politics. We can hope. It’s a good omen that he’s signed Executive Orders on the first day to turn around some of the Dump’s worst excesses.

The times demand brilliance. Remember climate change? Still there. Inequality? Which corrodes every society it touches? Worse than ever because of the pandemic. Plus the pandemic itself. That’s just a tedious, logistical problem that needs people to follow obvious public health rules. Something that’s totally beyond enough leaders and people to be a disaster.

At least Biden understands government administration. That could count for a lot, given the herculean clean-up job he’s been given.

2) Yes, I’m glad Kamala Harris is in the picture. No, I can’t get over the crushing weight of sexism that gave her the place she’s got.

She should have been President. It’s her slot Biden stepped into.

With a heavy heart, I have to agree with all the millions of people who were pretty sure sexism would have stopped her from winning. We barely squeaked by with the old white male fossil at the top of the ticket, even after four years of the Pile of Garbage trashing the country and the world.

So, yes, her ability to make lemonade out of lemons is a good thing. And it may well set her up to be a future president. But the anger is merely diluted with water. There’s no sugar in it. It’s still very sour.

And that’s especially so because there’s almost no recognition of the gap. Nobody pointing out what’s been taken from her, even if it was necessary when the country is still so drenched in despising women. Almost nobody remembering the idiots who said there’d be no difference between Hillary Clinton and TheDonald. (Just a few differences.) Almost nobody apologizing for the blinding sexism that allows them to let such bullshit pass. Very few pointing out that Clinton was right about everything, and that sexism delivered us into the jaws of the tarantula.

Yes, racism is a huge factor. All the bigotries are limbs of the same monster. It’s the unrecognized limbs that can grab you. You can tell which ones those are by paying attention to which ones are ignored the most. Racism is ignored a lot when it comes to getting rid of it, not just talking about it.

With sexism, we’re barely at the talking stage.

3) Last and most important for fixing the problems in the immediate future: Remember that there would be little to celebrate without the work of Stacey Abrams. We’d still be at the non-existent mercy of Moscow Mitch.

She’s the one who saw the solution was the slogwork of increasing turnout. She’s the one who mucked right in and started working, years ago. She’s the one who inspired hundreds and thousands to take on the work with her. She’s the one who delivered the deciding votes and delivered us from Mitch. She’s the one who made it possible to start walking back from the shitshow of the last four years.

There’s a lot of her influence in the first and vital bill the Democrats plan to present, a voting rights act. It could go a long way to easing the chokehold of minority rule on the USA if it actually gets turned into law.

So the main thing to say on this day is

Thank you, Stacey Abrams!

photo from her web page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stacey_Abrams


The Coup That Was

There’s an easy sense that internet violence is just some fantasy. Just cosplaying. Just nothing.

I’ve long thought that was a mistake when it came to the vicious threats thrown at women. That regularly bleeds over into real life.

But I wrote off the radical right wing yammering about destroying the government as stupid fantasists full of cosplay.

That’s the transformative power of not being the target.

Well, these goonies with their GoPros and gear and internet messages asking for the snacks are obviously cosplayers. The part I missed was that doesn’t stop it from bleeding over into reality.

Just because they’re clowns doesn’t mean they can’t kill real people.

 
 

They believed the stuff about this being the beginning of the real war which would put them on top. (evidence: all over Parler)

They had a President telling them to go to it. Jenn Budd:

 
“Trump ordered his supporters to come to DC on January 6th. They made shirts that said “Civil War January 6, 2021.” Then once there, he spoke in public to them and told them to march on the Capitol.”
 

They had collaborators inside the Capitol Police (and elsewhere no doubt?). The “Pentagon” (i.e. Trump’s very recently installed Acting Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller) put significant restrictions on D.C. Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests.

 
When help finally came, it was VP Pence who sent it, not Trump.
 

The rioters constructed hangmen’s platforms with rope nooses near the Capitol.

 
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP
 

Their fantasy included the execution of the “enemies of the people.” (evidence: all over Parler)

Some of them carried zipties to handcuff people.

 
from Phil Bird
 

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the people, “enemies,” being led off to those newly constructed gallows.

The President who told them to go to it had a tent with video feeds and drinks and food and cronies where they could all watch the progress of the Glorious Victory.

 
Screenshot from video from Samira Edi
 

Their grip on reality was so pathetic they couldn’t see that their Klown Kar Koup was never going anywhere. But that changes nothing.

They were hoping for a coup.

It won’t be enough to laugh and move on. They were hoping for a coup. It has to be treated like one. The whole mentality that led to it has to be rooted out. That has to start with evicting Trump from the Presidency now. Yesterday. Anything less shows stupidity about the scope of the disaster.

Otherwise this is our last warning. Next time the Klowns will have more than cosplayers. They’ll have a planner or two.

 

 

Update Jan10: Something heartening: Igor Bobic filmed a quick thinking Capitol Police officer, by himself, as he eggs on a mob to chase him (toward his backup…) instead of charging in to the Senate room with Senators still inside.



The Abuser Gets Worse When You’re Leaving

So the only thing Trump and McConnell and the gang are doing now is trying to make sure that Social Security and the Post Office and Federal lands and the Arctic and cybersecurity and the economy and all international relations and the pandemic and, well, Absolutely Everything, are as awful as possible so Biden starts out with massive failures everywhere.

Which they’ll then try to blame him for and try to use to worm their way back into power in all of Congress in 2022.

There’s only one thing to say and Jeff Tiedrich said it.

holy fucking shit, the president of the united states is up late at night plotting a military coup to overturn the election and I guess what I want to know is, why do we even have a 25th amendment if we’re not going to use it on this fucking unhinged raving anti-American lunatic



Thoughts About Self-Sacrifice On Remembrance Day

Amidst the well-deserved recognition of war heroism among men, I’ve always had an irritation like a sand grain in my eye. Small in one sense, and yet overwhelming.

Consider, for instance, this headline last week: Virtual schooling has largely forced moms, not dads, to quit work. It will hurt the economy for years.

Why? Why has it forced mothers to quit paying work more than fathers? Yes, there’s more social humiliation for men in not having paying work. But the single biggest reason is women’s unwillingness to see their children suffer. Women pay any price to avoid that, including the destruction of their own futures.

Fathers also self-sacrifice, of course, but the threshold for most men is a higher level of suffering in their kids, judging by the points at which they take action.

The sand grain I contend with is that when men sacrifice they get a great deal of remembrance and recognition and statuary. Women get taken for granted.

It’s uncommon for women to fight their way through Benavidez levels of sudden injury. (It’s exceedingly uncommon for men too.) But just because it’s not the same kind of pain, it’s a mistake to ignore women’s superhuman endurance of harm. (I’m being polite calling it a mistake. Mostly it looks like intentional ignorance.) And many women fight for their children against huge odds and massive pain for more than months or years on a battlefield. They endure for their whole lives, without support or recognition.

It reminds me of the research showing that in hunter-gatherer societies women provide about 65% of the calories [see Results in pdf], including a similar proportion of the protein calories by consistently trapping small game and fish. But when men lay the occasional wildebeest low, it’s a big deal. The societies are even called hunter-gatherer instead of gatherer-hunter. (Yes, there’s recent research showing that women also hunted big game. That’s not my point. The point is the lack of recognition for women’s larger, continual, and consistent supply of food.)

We need remembrance for the selfless service women provide. We need recognition of its scale. I’d bet it’s probably about two thirds of the glue that holds civilization together. To say nothing of the sacrifices required to produce the actual people without whom a human world can’t exist.

women rebuilding Berlin, brick by brick, after enduring bombing for years
Women rebuilding Berlin, brick by brick, after enduring bombing for years


Say a prayer for the hardworking people

Say a prayer for the salt of the earth.

People working for little or no money to make this a real election.

 

old woman pollworker

 

pollworkers-mother-and-daughter

 

 

workers at dropbox

 

pollworkers

 

recruiting-volunteers

 

 

postal worker

 

96 year-old pollworker

 

pollworker

 

pollworker

 

counting-the-votes

 



Public Service Message About Human Rights And Abortion

  • The right to control your own body is the most fundamental of all.
    • No other freedom or right will mean a thing if you can be physically tortured for exercising it.
    • It’s why you can kill in self-defense.
    • Others’ lives are irrelevant to that right. Nobody can tackle you and remove a kidney because somebody else needs it to live and you’re a tissue match.
    • (I know it’s a new concept in some circles, so, to be clear, pregnancy is not magic. It’s complete life support. It’s a dialysis-heart-lung-liver-and-everything-else-system. Forcing that level of contribution is ethically exactly the same as forcing organ donation. The only difference is forced organ donation could affect men.)
  • If a woman is a human being, she has the same right to control her own body as non-female human beings.
    • Therefore she has the right to make any and all decisions about her own pregnancy. Fetal viability is not an issue any more than someone else’s need for your kidney is an issue.*

Think for a moment about what it means if that last point seems kind of … out there. Maybe even shocking, depending on who you are.

It means you’ve somewhere absorbed the feeling that women are not really people. Not completely. Only up to the point where they need to be sacrificed for someone else. At that point, they’re nobody. Their needs, plans, or lives don’t matter compared to what somebody else has decided is more important.

That is not the way real people are treated. Even corpses are treated with more respect. You can’t take organs from a corpse without the deceased’s written permission, even if it will save lives.

The essence of being considered a real human being is that others aren’t allowed to use you like a thing. Slaves are never considered human in slave-owning societies. Farm animals have no choices. What slaves or animals want does not matter when somebody else decides on their actual purpose. Just as a woman’s own thoughts on the subject are irrelevant when people are sure her real purpose is to provide useful organs, not to be a human being.

And that’s really the point of anti-abortion movements everywhere. They’re to force women into second class status. They’re to use biology — all forms of subjugation use biological vulnerabilities to control victims — to control women.

The breadcrumbs of evidence are everywhere. Advances in medical technology have laid bare some of the more obvious ones. Until reliable birth control became available, and when abortion was difficult and uncommon, fear of pregnancy (with all the social garbage larded on to unwanted pregancies) was enough to keep most women in line. Prior to the mid-1960s, religious tracts, all the way back to Exodus, don’t see abortion as some kind of murder. Then, once medical technology gave women some control over pregnancy, then abortion suddenly became all about The Babies.

It’s also been pointed out ad nauseam that the people who say they’re pro-life also seem to be pro-military, pro-death penalty, against life-saving health care for the poors, against birth control even though it reduces the need for abortions, and so on, and so forth, and so on, forever. There’s only one very limited situation where they suddenly care about life: when that life can be used to take decisions away from women.

And then there was that priceless statement from the Congressman too stupid to realize what he’d just said. From Bloomberg:

Alabama’s new blanket ban on abortion “protects the sanctity of unborn life,” with one curious exception: The law deems only fertilized eggs inside a womb worthy of protection, not ones routinely destroyed in the process of fertility treatment.

“The egg in the lab doesn’t apply,” Clyde Chambliss, state senator and sponsor of the abortion bill, said during the Alabama legislative debate. “It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”

So, suddenly, when there’s no woman to control, The Babies don’t matter. Eeeenteresting, as they say in the movies.

And now, of course, we’re having a Handmaid forced onto the Supreme Court to make all this drivel the law of the land. Faced with our own Dred Scott decision, what can we do?

The best short term alternative is probably to use more medical technology to get around the issue. At this point medicines that produce abortion very early in a pregnancy have an excellent record of safety and effectiveness. One has to be careful to order them from places which don’t substitute counterfeits for the real medicine. Aid Access, Women on Web and Plan C Pills have more information. Added 2021-06-11: This useful site lists the dosages needed to use birth control pills as morning after pills, also called emergency contraception.

The best long term alternative is to understand that women are human.

 

*(Yes, once the fetus can survive without medical assistance, the goal is delivery, not abortion. No, no woman is going to almost complete the grueling marathon of pregnancy only to decide three days before term that it’s too much trouble. That is misogynist nonsense invented to feed the stereotype of women being too frilly to know their own minds. It takes someone who’s fully human to make those decisions for them! The point I’m making is that as a matter of principle nobody except the woman carrying the pregnancy has any right to say what to do with it.)



Hate crimes against women are hate crimes

I mean … DUUUUUH. Right?

God, this crap is exhausting.

The UK is currently debating — debating! — whether to call violence against women hate crimes.

(I know, I know. At least the thought has occurred to them. In the US and much of the rest of the world, it seems to be inconceivable.)

Clinton, human rights speech at 1995 UN Conference on Women
Clinton delivering her speech on human rights at 1995 UN Conference on Women. I was floored when I first heard that women’s humanity needed to be officially noted. And then more floored to find out it was a new idea for vast swathes of people.

The objections are always the same and always kind of funny in a hacking, gallows humor way.

Hate crimes? Women don’t have a problem with hate crimes. They lead sheltered, pampered lives and only emerge to persecute people by being “Karens.” (Yes, using “people” as if women aren’t is intentional. Misogynists think that way. You can tell because they speak that way. And you can tell how widespread it is by the fact that I have to point it out if I want to be sure everyone knows I’m doing it on purpose.)

Second stage is acknowledging that stuff happens but, hey, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Wolf whistles are compliments! Jealous stalkers are just showing how much they care! Rape is just guys getting carried away! Or something.

Third stage is saying it’s ridiculous. If we’re going to start jailing every wolf-whistling worker the police won’t have time for anything else.

Oh really? I thought that was a compliment. Apparently you know quite well which category it belongs in and that it’s covered nicely by “hate crime.” (No, it’s not the biggest hate crime in the world. But the daily, constant, cumulative erosion of women’s feeling of belonging in the world adds up to an enormous crime.)

Plus if actual enforcement means police are run off their feet dealing with hate crimes against women, how does that square with the dogma that women don’t have a problem?

That’s why they have to “debate” these crimes. Once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them. And then you lose your ability to comfortably think all the impossible things at once: that women are the pampered victims of rampant crime which doesn’t matter.



May her memory be a revolution

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a marvel. Amanda Litman said it best. May her memory be a revolution.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg when a young woman
Ruth Bader Ginsburg when a young woman. (Photographer unknown)

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, middle years
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, middle years. (Photographer unknown)

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a social event with her husband, Marty Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a social event with her husband, Marty Ginsburg.
(Photographer unknown)

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg being sworn in
Ruth Bader Ginsburg being sworn in. (Photographer unknown)


Cancel Culture and Free Speech

Can we get one thing out of the way first? Just because a rightwinger said something does not make it wrong. Just because a leftwinger says something does not make it right. AND THE OTHER WAY AROUND. (I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write a post these days without shouting at some point.)

It has to be the truth we’re aiming for, no matter who says it, because, as covid-19 has made clear if it wasn’t obvious before, reality matters. You can ignore it, and then it will kill you. Reality does not care.

And another thing to get out of the way: the philosophers may (or may not) be right that The Truth is unknowable. All we actually need is enough truth, just the facts, if you will, to live in reality with the fewest possible problems.

We do have a way of discerning facts. It’s called the scientific method. I’m not saying it’s always easy. That’s why it took a lot of people a lot of time to figure out how to pay attention to the actual facts and to stop themselves from jumping to conclusions. But at this point we do actually know how to do this. That’s why airplanes fly and light switches exist and vaccines work. If you like the benefits of your smartphone and aircon, you don’t get to sneer at science.

Okay. So where was I? Cancel culture.

There are two separate issues involved.

One is that people are tired of fighting the same battles over and over and over again. They’d like arguments that have been settled to stay settled and for people who refuse to accept that to just shut up and go away.

Which means we need a way to settle arguments. For most of human history it was decided by who had the most power. Might makes right. Except that it doesn’t and never did, which is why that method is completely shit at preventing reality from killing us.

The other way to settle arguments is evidence-based logic, of which the scientific method is a subset. That has an excellent track record. It sometimes heads down mistaken paths, but it can self-correct, which, considering human nature, is a near-miracle that needs much more appreciation than it gets.

Might-makes-right has no way to self-correct at all which is why it’s so lethal. But it does have one huge advantage: it lets you insist on whatever you want and if anyone objects, it lets you smash them.

The second issue in cancel culture is that there’s a difference between criticism and mobbing. Criticism attacks the argument with contrary evidence. Mobbing attacks the person, evidence is irrelevant. Criticism is in the tradition of logical argument that presumes a shared framework of acknowledging what constitutes evidence. Mobbing is in the tradition of might makes right.

One underappreciated point about might making right is that nothing can ever be settled. Once you’ve destroyed the opposition, some slight shade of dissension will be discovered in the ranks. Then you have to start over and destroy that. After succeeding, an even slighter shade becomes important, and you have to destroy that. And so on. A good new term for it is purity spirals.

So even if you decided, screw it, evidence-based logic is too boring, “Lizzie, smash!” is way more fun, you’ll never actually reach your goal. You’ll be fighting the heretics forever, until you die. It’s not a solution even when you win.

Let’s look at examples of cancelling versus criticism, just to make the distinction more clear.

If I say all the money in the world should go exclusively to Bill Gates, criticism points out why and how it would lead to social collapse. Criticism might also laugh, even mercilessly, at my inability to see the obvious disasters and point those out. A mob attack calls me names, or threatens violent crimes, or gets me fired. None of those address the argument. They try to frighten me into shutting up.

When JKRowling objects to mob attacks, she’s not talking about criticism of her views on biological sex. She’s talking about rape and death threats. About porn sent to threads where the senders want her child readers (and their parents) to be grossed out by it. Those aren’t arguments or criticisms or evidence showing where she’s wrong. They’re attacks on her. They’re supposed to put her off so much she shuts up. That’s mobbing.

It’s not uncommon for people with no real argument to claim mobbing when they’re merely being criticized. In the following case, Kaus doesn’t want anyone to mention that a politician he supports is corrupt. But, if there’s evidence, it’s criticism, not slander, to point out corruption.

Max Kennerly
A perfect example of the phrase “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” is Kaus’s use of “punish” here. It is not “punishment” to advocate against a candidate to the U.S. Senate by pointing out the candidate’s craven and corrupt conduct.

Mickey Kaus:
The Lincoln Project becomes part of cancel culture — idea isn’t to get rid of Trump but punish anyone who agrees with Trump (and disagrees with Weaver!) on the issues–Hawley, Cotton, etc.?

The champion of insisting words mean the opposite of what the dictionary says is the Current Occupant of the White House. That’s funny when Calvin does it, but you’re supposed to grow out of it in grade school.

Watching Trump do it is a real out-of-mind experience.

Catherine Rampell.
Trump last night denounced totalitarianism (toe-tallie-terrio-tism), accusing left of “shaming dissenters & demanding submission from anyone who disagrees.”

Which is rich coming from the guy who does this:

The president of the United States may not use the laws of the United States to harass the media based on his personal, petty displeasure with what he views as unwarranted criticism.

That, obviously, is an attack against a person. It’s silencing. It’s not any kind of evidence-based argument. It’s more than obviously based on might making right.

The next cases are not criticism. Ioffe’s and Ali’s ideas weren’t addressed, the people were targeted. That’s abuse of power, called mobbing when a mob does it, and silencing when CNN does it.

Julia Ioffe
In my experience, this is how cancel culture works. It’s not the “woke mob” doing the canceling, but powerful institutions who are bowing to pressure from the people in power: the very conservatives who whine about cancel culture and deride liberals as “snowflakes.”

@WajahatAli
How Cancel Culture really works: During my year at CNN, which was a great experience, I was “warned” a total of 3.5 times. Each warning was because some Republicans, who defended Trump’s cruelty & abuses, complained about the most innocuous statements. Here’s the official list…

The only mistake they both make is implying the politics of the perps are relevant. A woke mob or a Brooks Brothers riot will both attack the person to cause enough terror to achieve silence. The essence is the mobbing, not the platform.

Most people try to pretend that their mobbing, unlike the nasty other side, is not a power play. Most people buy into the value of looking reasonable. But cancelling, attacking the person and not the idea, is a power play. When they have to admit to their tactics, the next line of defense is to say it’s not so bad. The targets are snowflakes for not being able to stand it, or they should put their big boy pants on, or whatever. Even if it was true that the attacks are minor, they’re still attacks. They’re still not criticism or argument or evidence-based. They’re still stupid at best.

Most of the time they’re a lot worse than that. They’re threats of ostracism, job loss, ruin, and physical harm, especially to women. People, especially women, have had to go into hiding, and/or hire security, sometimes for years. Most people don’t have that kind of money. That ruins lives. And that shuts people up. Not necessarily the people already targeted, but it definitely has a huge effect on the people who are still safe and would like to stay that way. Look at how many people write privately to support Rowling but are too terrified to speak up with their names attached. That’s not because they’re afraid their spelling will be criticized.

Marina Strinkovsky, @marstrina

David Baddiel
On the Right, this myth of democracy involves ignoring the largely vested-interest right-wing press, and state-sponsored internet interference. On the left, it involves ignoring how terrified people actually are of Twitter mobs, and state-sponsored internet interference.

+ pretending that in *this one single context* things like cultural capital don’t matter, & the fact that academia & the arts overwhelmingly lean left is a phenomenon entirely innocent of any possible dynamics of power.

I hope I’ve made clear enough that mobbing/silencing are categorically different from criticism, and that the former is real harm. Which leaves the problem of how to decide when issues are settled if it’s done by logic, not force. How would we agree?

I think there is a solution, and it does not involve a Google-controlled Ministry of Truth.

(And before you start, let me say I’m perfectly aware the following is utopian. People are having way too much fun feeling righteous and they won’t want to stop merely because it could actually resolve the argument. If resolving arguments was the real goal, a lot more of them would be resolved in a lot less time.)

We could use the methods that have worked to give us our whole modern world. Use scientific evidence. When 95% of peer-reviewed papers agree, or 99% if you want ludicrous-mode stringency, then the issue is settled. Rehashes of settled issues are not published anywhere. Not in social media, or blogs, or news media, or TV. For small sources the offending content is simply removed. But in my world, for repeat offenders with large audiences there’d be steeper punishments the more they persisted. In my world, Sean Hannity would be banned from addressing more than three people at a time.

By the measure of near-unanimous agreement among scientists, there are many settled issues. The law of gravity, the roundness of the earth, evolution, the existence of anthropogenic climate change, the levels of effectiveness of different vaccines, and the existence of two biological sexes in mammals.

So what am I saying that adds to all the many pieces on “The Harper’s Letter“?

That the letter is quite right and that cancel culture has a point. And the point means we do need a way to cancel useless drivel. And that we have a choice of accomplishing it by shouting at each other, or worse. Or by shutting down the drivel (and only the drivel!).

And that means starting to recognize that free speech protects speech, it protects communication, even attempts at communication (like this one, for instance). (And some of my earlier writing on this topic.) It does not protect speech which is simply sound in the service of cheating, bullshitting, manipulating, humiliating, threatening, or destroying someone. Speech is communication, not a weapon. And the kind of “speech” Steve Bannon was talking about when he said, “I have my weapons back” should never have been misconstrued as protected.

Our mission, and we have no choice but to accept it, is to take on the monumental task of defining free, protected speech as that which communicates and excludes that which does not.

We have to accept it because our only way of finding what reality has in store for us is to communicate. (Or to relearn everything all alone, and human life isn’t long enough for that.) That’s why it’s existentially important to solve this problem. Communication is our only route to understanding enough of reality to survive.

Reality always wins. You can work with it to find the most agreeable path, or you can be destroyed by it. Those are the choices, There are no others. And all the mobbing and cancelling and silencing in the world doesn’t change that. It would be smarter to pay enough attention to the facts to be able to use them to have an easier life.

 

Update, because I write too slowly to keep up with the firehose of intelligent commentary out there. Another couple of good articles on cancel culture. Helen Lewis, How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture. Nicholas Grossman, Free Speech Defenders Don’t Understand the Critique Against Them.