Tranquility or Justice?

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

– Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (March 14, 1968)

This week’s featured posts are “The Skittles Analogy” and “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights“.

Some quick thoughts about the quote above: King gave this speech three weeks before his assassination, so it is very close to his last word on the subject. Such radical King quotes have largely been white-washed out of history. Instead, each January MLK Day is largely a celebration of color-blindness, as if the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and sundown towns could just be waved off, and we could best move forward by pretending that none of it ever happened. King himself never held that view, as you will quickly see if you read entire speeches rather than a few carefully selected lines.

This week everybody was talking about Charlotte

Since the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday, Charlotte North Carolina has seen daily demonstrations. The demonstrations appear to have been mostly peaceful, but occasionally turned violent. One person was shot and eventually died, but police claim they didn’t do it and no one seems to know who did. I haven’t seen anything about whether the dead man was a protester.

To me, there seem to be two issues related to police killing blacks. First, the black community has no confidence in the investigative process, and I can understand why. Take the Freddie Gray case, for example. He was apparently healthy when Baltimore Police took him into custody, and then he died of a spinal cord injury. No one seems to be at fault; every charge has resulted in a not-guilty verdict. And in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, the police seemed more interested in doing public relations for Officer Wilson than a neutral investigation.

There’s at least a partial a solution to this part of the problem, and it’s already law in Wisconsin: any police shooting requires an outside investigation; a police department can’t be allowed to investigate its own officer.

Second, American police tactics are senselessly confrontational. Even in shootings that are judged to be justified, I’m often left wondering: “Did you really need to push it to that point?” Standard practice seems to be to start by barking orders, and then to keep escalating until either the orders are followed or the civilian is dead. That’s what I see in the Scott video. In many other cases, people wind up dead because police don’t understand they’re dealing with someone who is deaf or mentally handicapped or otherwise incapable of understanding their demands.

Police in other countries don’t behave that way, as this article about Scottish police tactics makes clear.


While we’re talking about black lives not mattering, conservative columnist Glenn Reynolds tweeted “Run them down” in response to protesters who blocked an interstate in Charlotte. He then defended the tweet on his Instapundit blog. Twitter suspended his account for promoting violence, and USA Today suspended him as a columnist for a month.

If you think this isn’t about race, imagine, say, white Catholics blocking a road leading to an abortion clinic. Would anybody suggest running over them?

and tonight’s presidential debate

Like Frank Bruni, my main worry about the debate is that the bar for Trump has been set so low. If he makes it through the evening without calling Hillary a bitch or talking about his penis again, lots of people will be impressed by his performance. I remember the first 2000 debate, when Gore ran rings around Bush on substance, but the headlines the next morning were that Gore sighed too loudly.

One measure of what Hillary is up against is just how contradictory or constricting all the “expert” advice is: She shouldn’t raise her voice or interrupt Trump. She should keep her answers short, but tell her own story and project a positive vision. Point out when he’s lying but don’t get mired in fact-checking. Show her intelligence and reveal his ignorance without sounding like a know-it-all. Either do or don’t talk about the specifics of her plans for governing. And brush off his attacks as silly.

And then there’s sexism. A woman can’t possibly look “presidential”, because the American people have no image of a woman being president. And I can guarantee that tomorrow morning Trump will not be criticized for shouting, frowning, interrupting, dressing wrong, blustering, not showing proper respect, or any of the things Clinton has to be on guard against. Anna Waters, a Northwestern student who debated in high school, outlines all the built-in disadvantages female debaters have to overcome. Another high school debater complains about the challenge of “trying to both confront stereotypes but at the same time being weirdly beholden to them”.

and you might also be interested in

The National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened this week on the National Mall in Washington, DC.


Hottest summer ever.


John Oliver compares Hillary’s scandals to Trump’s in some detail, and then concludes:

This campaign has been dominated by scandals. But it is dangerous to think that there is an equal number on both sides. And you can be irritated by some of Hillary’s; that is understandable. But you should then be f**king outraged by Trump’s.


If you’ve been thinking that Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson represents the “good” side of conservatism, you might want to think again. When he was running for president as a Republican in the 2012 cycle, he brushed off any concern about global warming, arguing that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” He went on to call for building new coal-fired power plants.

In case the insanity of this remark isn’t already obvious to you, imagine applying the logic to other issues: There’s no point worrying about nuclear war, because the sun is eventually going to burn all our cities anyway. And after the solar catastrophe, who’s going to care what our national debt was?


warren2Elizabeth Warren crossed the border to Nashua Saturday morning to give a pep talk to the door-knockers and phone-bankers gathered at the local Democratic headquarters. I had a chance to snap this picture.

She said she was going to talk about three things that are in danger in this election, but then she added a fourth. A Republican sweep in this election would result in

  • ending the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood
  • rolling back Dodd-Frank and the other Wall Street reforms that were passed after the 2008 collapse.
  • Donald Trump immediately appointing a Supreme Court justice.
  • “Donald Trump and the Republicans are making hate OK.”

Her summary of Democratic values was

  • Every young person is entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt.
  • No one who works full-time should live in poverty.
  • After a lifetime of hard work, people are entitled to retire in dignity.
  • “Let me say something that is deeply controversial in Republican circles: We believe in science, that climate change is real, and we have a moral obligation to pass on a livable Earth.”
  • Equal pay for equal work and a woman’s right to choose.
  • When Wall Street CEOs break the rules, they should go to jail like anyone else.
  • Money should not own our government.

Two sports legends worth remembering today: Golfer Arnold Palmer died yesterday at 87. He was part of that first generation of athletes that TV made into icons.

And Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully called his last game. Scully is 88, and has been announcing Dodger games on radio and TV since 1950, when they played in Brooklyn. The Dodgers gave him a great send-off: The final play he broadcast was a walk-off homer that clinched the division title.

and … and …

no, I just don’t have a closing in me this week. Let’s hope my sense of humor recovers soon.

The Asterisk* in the Bill of Rights

*except when black


The big debate in the Keith Lamont Scott shooting — the one that started the protests that have been going on in Charlotte since Tuesday — is whether or not Scott had a gun, and if so, whether it was in his hand. The police said he did and it was, though for days they refused to release video of the incident. [1]

The Scott shooting came a few days after police in Tulsa shot and killed another black man, Terrence Crutcher. But the Tulsa case was manslaughter, and a police officer has been charged, largely because Crutcher was unarmed. Even there, though, weaponry is an issue. (The officer claims Crutcher was reaching into his vehicle, and she feared he was reaching for a gun. But the video doesn’t corroborate that story.) Apparently she believed that if he might have been armed, shooting him dead would be an appropriate outcome.

Back in July another black man, Philandro Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer there was a gun in the car, which he had a permit to carry. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were also in the car. The girlfriend claims Castile was reaching for his wallet when the officer shot him four times. So far, there have been no charges.

The NRA, an organization that exists to defend the rights of gun-owners, decided not to comment on the Castile shooting “while the investigation is ongoing”. My Google search for “NRA statement on Keith Lamont Scott” turned up nothing relevant, even though for days the only reason police gave for initiating the encounter was their belief that Scott was armed. (More recently, they elaborated that they also observed him rolling a cigarette which they believed to be marijuana.) North Carolina is an open-carry state, so having a firearm is not in itself a violation. [2]

So if you’re an organization working to make sure the government doesn’t hassle gun-owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, the initially available information in the Scott case would seem to be right up your alley.

Except that Scott is black. The NRA doesn’t do black. I mean, they will gladly let you join and accept your membership fees if you’re black, but don’t count on them to defend your Second Amendment rights. Because, well, what Second Amendment rights? There’s an asterisk on the Second Amendment. The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson reviews the facts of the Scott and Castile cases [3] and draws the obvious conclusion: “laws permitting people to carry handguns apparently do not apply to African Americans.”

If all they saw was a man with a gun who got out of a car and back in, what illegal activity did they observe? Why did they “approach the subject” instead of going about their business? Did they have any reason to suspect it was an illegal gun? Are all men carrying guns believed to be carrying guns illegally, or just black men? [4]

Cenk Uygar of The Young Turks noticed something similar, and brings up two other cases: Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the 12-year-old who was killed within seconds of police arriving despite the fact that his “gun” was a toy, and John Crawford III, who police killed in a Walmart near Dayton, because he also was carrying a toy gun which he apparently planned to buy. Like Rice, Crawford was shot within seconds after police arrived. Apparently, blacks with guns are so dangerous that police can’t be bothered to see whether they will drop them, or even to discover whether the guns are real at all.

That police behavior may be questionable, but it’s not obviously racist; maybe they’d be just as trigger-happy towards whites. But Uygar then shows three videos of cops patiently having conversations with uncooperative armed white men, none of whom wind up dead. In the last one, the man verbally abuses three policemen until they back away and leave him with his weapon. Uygar comments:

Yeah, that happens to black guys all the time in this country. Where they laugh at cops in their face and say, “See ya, tough guy. Walk away.” And the cops go, “OK, yes sir. You’re right, sir. You have constitutional rights, sir. Of course I’ll walk away.” … That happens all the time. No one, no one, I don’t care how right-wing you are, you don’t believe that. You know what they would have done if he was black.

Not that those uncooperative armed white men should be dead, but it shows that when white lives are at stake, police can be patient, carefully establish what is going on, and attempt to deescalate the confrontation. In one of Uygar’s examples, a clearly irrational white man goes to his car, gets his gun, and begins waving it in all directions, including pointing it at police. They attempt to talk to him, and when that doesn’t work, they fire one shot into his leg to drop him, rather than the 16 shots fired into Laquan McDonald in 15 seconds. He lives.

That’s why the movement is called Black Lives Matter. That guy’s life mattered to those cops. They didn’t want to end his life. They were careful with it. So we’re asking you to also be careful with black lives just as much.

The Second Amendment isn’t the only one with an asterisk: The Fourth Amendment has one too. [5] Without the asterisk, it reads like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So when they talk about “probable cause” on NCIS, that’s not just some criminal-coddling nonsense made up by an activist liberal judge; it’s right there in the effing Constitution. The Constitution guarantees your right to be secure in your person, unless police have probable cause to believe you are involved in a crime.

Or unless you’re black.

Politico reports:

In a pre-taped interview on Fox News scheduled to air Wednesday night, Trump was asked by an audience member what he would do to address “violence in the black community” and “black-on-black crime.” Trump responded by proposing that “stop-and-frisk” policing, in which an officer is empowered to stop an individual and frisk them for weapons or any other illegal contraband, be adopted nationwide.

If a weapon is found, it is confiscated. The next day Trump clarified, saying that he only meant Chicago.

I think Chicago needs stop-and-frisk,” Trump said. “Now, people can criticize me for that or people can say whatever they want, but they asked me about Chicago, and I think stop-and-frisk, with good, strong, you know, good, strong law and order. But you have to do something. It can’t continue the way it’s going.”

Trump says nothing specific about race, but does anyone really believe that he wants police to stand outside of Water Tower Place and frisk upscale white shoppers for weapons? Will they cruise the Magnificent Mile during lunch hour, stopping white lawyers and bankers at random to see if they have any cocaine? (Sometimes they do.) Of course not. What will substitute for “probable cause” is that you are a young black man [6] wandering around in a poor, majority-black neighborhood.

You still might claim that the bias here is related to class, not race. But seriously, can you picture police cruising the trailer parks of Louisiana, frisking white good old boys and confiscating guns from Duck Dynasty types? Could that ever happen?

Of course not. The NRA would throw a fit.


[1] Saturday they finally did. The New York Times assessment: “It appeared from the two angles that he had nothing in his right hand. It was unclear what, if anything, Mr. Scott, who was right-handed, had in his left hand.” In the video, you can hear police repeatedly telling Scott to drop the gun. But in another video, you can hear Scott’s wife protesting that he didn’t have a weapon.

[2] It turns out that Scott didn’t have a right to carry a firearm, since he had a gun-related prior offense. But it’s almost certain police didn’t know that when they approached him.

[3] As they were known on Thursday, before the marijuana claim about Scott.

[4] Robinson’s conclusion is less compelling if the marijuana claim is true. But even then, we’re left with the question: What public danger required escalating the encounter to the point of death?

[5] If I wanted to expand the scope of this article, we could also talk about the “except when Muslim” asterisk on the First Amendment. Americans have a right to practice their religion, except when they want to build a mosque somewhere and Christians object. And the whole gay-marriage issue revolved around the “except when gay” asterisk on the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[6] In the New York City example Trump cited, Latinos were also disproportionately targeted.

The Skittles Analogy

If endangered people are nothing more than tiny candies, trying to save them just seems stupid.


It’s been a while since I’ve talked about framing. In a nutshell, the idea is that people think in metaphors, so if you can influence the metaphor people use to think about some situation, you can shape their thinking about it, possibly without them even realizing it. For example, someone who thinks in terms of a war on drugs will come up with different proposals than someone who is thinking about addiction as an illness. So if you suggest one metaphor or the other with the phrasing of your question, you can change the odds on getting the answer you want.

Like any other communication tactic, framing can be used for good or ill. If you’re teaching, a good metaphor can stick in students’ heads better than a long explanation. And if a metaphor is apt, it can make obvious some connections that might otherwise be confusing. (One of my favorites when I was teaching math was to encourage students to think of mathematics as a language and equations as sentences in that language. Then it becomes obvious that first step in solving any word problem is to translate the paragraph from sentences-in-English to sentences-in-mathematics.)

One uncontroversial metaphor that just about everyone uses (usually without thinking about it) is to talk about life as a journey: We come to forks in the road, the path can be rocky or smooth, two people have a parting of the ways, and so on. We all do this because (1) we’re used to it, and (2) it’s convenient. It’s actually kind of difficult to talk about long-term life issues without using a journey metaphor somehow.

But metaphors also tilt our thinking. The life-is-a-journey metaphor, for example, tilts us towards belief in an afterlife, because journeys have destinations.

Using the wrong metaphor can make your thinking absurd, even if all the steps you take are logical within the frame. A lot of jokes are based on absurdities created by mis-framing some situation. (A comedian was in line at the supermarket behind somebody who was buying a single roll of toilet paper. “What?” he asked. “Are you trying to quit?” The question would make perfect sense if rolls of toilet paper were like packs of cigarettes.)

Metaphors become sinister when people create them in order to encourage and take advantage of these sorts of mistakes. A sinister metaphor can sneak in assumptions that would be either obviously false or too ugly to defend if they had to be explained explicitly.

And that brings us to Skittles.

Monday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this image with the comment:

This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.

If you stay within the frame, the answer is obvious: Of course you wouldn’t eat a Skittle if there were any chance of getting a poisonous one.

But what assumptions has the Skittles metaphor tried to sneak past you? Implicitly, it says that the refugees themselves are of no consequence: Skittles are inanimate objects that have only momentary significance. The implication is that you might get a brief feeling of sweetness from the thought of rescuing some Syrian from ISIS, but nothing more.

If a few of the refugees become terrorists, though, that’s a huge deal. Because now we’re talking about our lives, not their lives. And because we are Americans, our lives are very, very much more important than theirs. Vox sums up:

The only agenda that will “put America first,” according to Trump, is one that assumes even a tiny risk to Americans outweighs every other consideration. It’s a policy that assumes Americans’ lives are infinitely precious and that Syrians might as well be Skittles, abstract pieces in a calculation of risk.

It’s worth considering how badly this frame clashes with Americans’ self-image as a heroic people. In all our wars (at least since we were “keeping the world safe for democracy” in World War I), we’ve recruited with the idea that our soldiers and sailors risk their lives to save others. The young men and women who have felt that heroic impulse — were they just stupid?

Also, consider the phrase “Syrian refugee problem”. Again, they’re not people, they’re a problem. And this is where you should start noticing that you’ve seen this frame before. Chris Hayes gives you a big hint.

swap in “Jews” for everything Trump and Co says about refugees, Muslims and immigrants it’s immediately clear what they’re doing.

That’s the model for this kind of propaganda: Germany didn’t have Jewish citizens or residents, it had a “Jewish problem“. So the Nazis weren’t abusing people, they were trying to solve a national problem. (No wonder they eventually they came up with a final solution.) They had a poisonous food metaphor too, but it wasn’t candies, it was mushrooms. Nazi writer Julius Streicher (who would be hanged at Nuremberg in 1946) published it in 1938 in a children’s book called The Toadstool.

Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk.

It’s not just liberals who see the connection, American neo-Nazis see it too, and have seen it all the other times when Trump Jr. has retweeted white supremacist and alt-right memes.

When you understand what has been left out of a metaphor or hidden by it, sometimes you can put it back in. That’s what Eli Bosnick did in a Facebook post that (last time I checked) had been shared 47,000 times. He brought back the point of taking in refugees: Quite likely, you are saving their lives. If every Skittle you eat saves a life, then the calculation changes for everybody with even the slightest amount of heroism in their souls.

I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single fucking skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.

That’s what heroic people do. I don’t know if I have that much heroism in me, to gorge with the knowledge that it would probably kill me, but be worth it in the larger scheme of things. Even so, though, I also don’t think I could just pass the bowl to the next person and say “No thanks.” I may not feel as heroic as Bosnick, but I also don’t think I have it in me to be that selfish.

Trump Jr. does, though. And when he looks at the rest of us, those who would eat at least two or three Skittles before passing the bowl along, he thinks we’re being stupid. What kind of idiot, after all, takes even a tiny risk to help others?

The Monday Morning Teaser

There are two featured posts this week. The first examines Donald Trump Jr.’s Skittles analogy in terms of some framing and propaganda notions I’ve discussed here before. Metaphors can make ideas clear, or they can hide assumptions you’d be revolted by if you had to think about them. This one hides revolting assumptions, and it’s related to a mushroom metaphor that comes from a revolting point in history. That article is basically done, so it should be out around 8 EDT.

The second featured post will be “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights”. Rights that white people take for granted often become controversial when blacks try to claim them. It’s as if there were a hidden asterisk in the Bill of Rights that says “except when black”. So whites have a Second Amendment right to bear arms, but if you’re black and a cop sees your gun, he can justify killing you. Whites have a Fourth Amendment right not to be searched without probable cause, but in black neighborhoods police can stop and frisk people at their discretion. One federal judge said this is unconstitutional, but there is no nationwide precedent that stops the practice, and Trump just came out in favor of it. That should be out maybe by 10.

The weekly summary discusses the demonstrations in Charlotte, tonight’s presidential debate, my opportunity to see Elizabeth Warren Saturday morning, and a few other things. Expect it by noon.

The Snow Jobs of Yesteryear

Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forebears hired people to say about them. Yesterday’s snow job becomes today’s sermon.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)

This week’s featured post is “ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

This week everybody was talking about where President Obama was born

Donald Trump’s first foray into national politics was in 2011, when he was the leading voice in the Birther movement, which charged that President Obama was an illegitimate president, because he wasn’t actually born in the United States. Trump often went even further, implying Obama’s whole history was phony.

Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.

As recently as Thursday, Trump still wouldn’t admit that President Obama was born in the United States, but his campaign issued a statement giving him credit for

bring[ing] this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised.

But Friday, Trump embraced that position himself:

President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. … Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it.

In other words, he withdrew his lie about Obama (without apology), and substituted a new lie about Clinton: She started it.

Both Politifact and FactCheck.org looked at the Clinton-was-a-birther claim in 2015 and rated it false. This week ABC and Politico reviewed the evidence and agreed.

Neither Clinton herself or anyone connected with her campaign ever raised the issue in public (unlike Trump who talked about virtually nothing else for six weeks in 2011). Some 2008 Clinton supporters discussed it on the internet, but this was a far more tenuous connection than the current one between Trump and white supremacists like David Duke; you can’t control who supports you or what they say. (Though you don’t have to retweet their racist comments.)

The birther issue is — rightly, I believe — characterized as racist, because there was never any reason to raise it other than a desire to disqualify Obama. This tactic has a long history: As soon as blacks start applying for a position, qualifications that had never before been an issue require documentation that whites have never needed to produce, and whatever documentation blacks produce is always deemed suspicious or unacceptable for some invented reason.

It’s disingenuous of Trump to take credit for the “closure” of Obama producing his birth certificate, when Trump himself continued to raise doubts after that. AP reports:

Trump repeatedly continued to question Obama’s birth in the years after the president released his birth certificate. In August 2012, for example, Trump was pushing the issue on Twitter.

“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” he wrote.

Even in January of this year, Trump sounded skeptical when asked whether he now believed the president was a natural-born citizen.

“Who knows? Who cares right now? We’re talking about something else, OK?” Trump said in a CNN interview. “I mean, I have my own theory on Obama. Someday I’ll write a book.”

This often-repeated lie has had its effect: An August poll showed that 72% of Republicans still either denied that Obama was born in America or refused to take a position. Previous polls had shown that Trump supporters were more likely to be birthers than other Republicans.

and the presidential race seems about even

Recent polls have Trump ahead in Ohio and Florida, and Nate Silver places Clinton’s odds of victory at 60%, as low as that number has been since the conventions.


I wonder how many of you are experiencing the same psychological symptom I’ve noticed in myself. Sometimes when people repress an emotion, they start experiencing themselves as the object of the emotion rather than the subject. So if you’re angry with somebody you don’t want to be angry with, like a boss or spouse, you instead believe that they’re angry with you. Jealous people imagine others are jealous of them, and so on. (The psychologists call this projection.)

The election is causing something similar in me: When I see evidence that large numbers of people are willing to make Trump our president, I feel deeply ashamed of my country and my fellow voters. But I try not to dwell on that, because what’s the point? Later on, though, I’ll notice that I’m feeling an excessive amount of shame for some comparatively trivial mistake of my own.

Anybody else noticing this? What kind of personal effect is the election having on you?


The first debate is just a week away. It will just be Clinton and Trump, since Jill Stein and Gary Johnson didn’t qualify. The moderator will be Lester Holt of NBC. Here’s the full calendar, with moderators.


Bernie:

This is not the time for a protest vote, in terms of a presidential campaign. I ran as a third-party candidate. I’m the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress, okay? And if people want to run as third-party candidates, God bless them! Run for Congress. Run for governor. Run for state legislature. When we’re talking about president of the United States, in my own personal view, this is not time for a protest vote. This is time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.


Vox‘ Dara Lind describes how sexism impacts the Clinton campaign in “Nobody ever tells Donald Trump to smile“.

For most of her career, Hillary Clinton’s been measured in comparison to men. She is less warm and authentic than her husband Bill Clinton or her 2016 opponent Bernie Sanders; she is less eloquent and transcendent than her 2008 opponent Barack Obama.

But in what way, precisely, is Hillary Clinton “less” than Donald Trump?

He frequently looks gruff and mean. He barely laughs at all, and never at himself. His speeches are frequently dark and angry. He shouts. He’s condescending and never uplifting or inspirational. He brags.

If you actually subject Donald Trump to the same scrutiny Clinton receives, you’ll see that he doesn’t show any of the qualities that other politicians — and especially female politicians — are criticized for lacking.

And yet, while the content of his remarks is sometimes criticized, he escapes the constant style-heckling directed at Clinton.


The NYT’s Timothy Egan comments on the vast public under-reaction to Trump’s statement that we should have kept Iraq’s oil, because “to the victor belong the spoils”.

As with everything in Trump’s world, his solution is simple: loot and pilfer. “Take the oil,” said Trump. He was referring to Iraq, post-invasion. And how would he do this? There would be an open-ended occupation, as a sovereign nation’s oil was stolen from it. Of course, “you’d leave a certain group behind,” he said, to protect the petro thieves.

A certain group. Let’s be clear what he’s talking about: Under Trump’s plan, American men and women would die for oil, victims of endless rounds of lethal sabotage and terror strikes. That’s your certain group.

Another detail left out of Trump’s idea: It’s useless to take the oil unless you also control a corridor to the sea, so that you can export it. How big and how vulnerable would that occupation force be?


The story that Melania Trump came to America illegally seems to be based on bad reporting. I’m going to stop repeating it unless somebody comes up with better evidence, and I recommend the rest of you do the same.

but I decided to check in on the Islamic State

The featured post “ISIS is losing but what happens next?” reviews the military situation of the Islamic State, which is looking bad for them. But it also points out the limited goals that a military victory can win for us: As long as a disgruntled population feels alienated from a political solution, some of them are going to try force.

and the upbeat census report on income

For years, the story has been the same: The economy was growing, but wages — and particularly wages for the poor and working class — weren’t budging. But Tuesday, the Census Bureau released its annual report on income and poverty, updating its numbers for 2015. NPR summarizes:

after a brutal economic recession and years of stagnation, real median household incomes rose from $53,718 in 2014 to $56,516 last year. That’s a 5.2 percent rise — the first statistically significant increase since 2007.

That income statistic is still lower than it was in 2007, before the Great Recession, and its peak came in 1999, just before the Internet Bubble popped. But it least it seems headed in the right direction now. Also, poverty is down and more people have health insurance, particularly in the states that have expanded Medicaid the way the Affordable Care Act intended (until the Supreme Court struck that part down and gave states the option not to participate).

Matt Yglesias describes why he thinks the Census Bureau is measuring the wrong things, but thinks the ultimate result is that its report might be too pessimistic.

The ways in which the census’s data sets are flawed suggests the underlying reality might be even better than Tuesday’s rosy report suggested. But the uncertainty here should be acknowledged when we discuss the report.

Two of the flaws: Households are shrinking as more people live alone and there are fewer big families. So even a smaller household income might mean that individuals are doing better. (OTOH, if people want more children but can’t afford them, per capita numbers might make them look more prosperous than they feel.) Also, the Census Bureau focuses on income as cash before taxes. So changes in your non-cash benefits or your taxes don’t show up.

One resulting anomaly has been with us for decades: As the cost of health care rises, employers that provide health insurance see their cost-per-employee rise, but the employees don’t see any comparable increase in income.

and you also might be interested in

Nearly three months after the Brexit vote, what it means is still unclear. The UK still hasn’t invoked Article 50 of the EU charter, which would formally start a divorce process that must be over within two years. Prime Minister Theresa May — remember, she took office after David Cameron staked his career on the Brexit vote and lost — says that won’t happen at least until after the new year.


The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is using its subpoena power to harass scientists whose results the Committee’s Republican majority and Republican chairman don’t like.

[Chairman Lamar] Smith’s subpoena-happy chairmanship hasn’t come out of nowhere. It apparently depends upon a conviction that the scientific community has a liberal agenda and that, if scientific results conflict with right-wing ideas, the scientists must be lying.

The new rules about House committees issuing subpoenas — written by the Republican majority in 2015 — make this kind of harassment easier.


The NRA is celebrating “a great day for freedom in Missouri”: a new gun law, passed over Governor Nixon’s veto, removes even the most common-sense restrictions:

  • Gun owners can carry concealed weapons anywhere that isn’t specifically restricted, like court houses and jails. No permits or training programs will be necessary. Just buy your gun (federal background checks still apply), put it in your pocket, and go on with your day.
  • Local police lose much of their ability to deny gun permits to high-risk individuals, like, say, people with a long history of domestic violence or suicide attempts.
  • A new stand-your-ground provision applies in public places like parking lots. If you feel threatened, you don’t have to retreat or otherwise avoid a confrontation. Just shoot your way out.

Kevin Ahlbrand, legislative director for the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, raises a good question:

Our biggest fear is criminals who have not been convicted of a felony but are engaged in criminal activity will be legally carrying guns, and we’re now going to have to assume everyone is armed. When we show up to a scene and there are five guys with their guns out, what do we do?


An affordable medium-range electric car will be out later this year. It comes from one of those nimble, far-sighted little car companies — General Motors.

“Affordable” in this case is relative, of course. The Chevy Bolt EV (not to be confused with the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that been around since 2011), will sell for $30,000 or so after a federal rebate and go 238 miles on a charge. That’s still a significant chunk of change, but plug-in power is cheaper than gasoline, so the Bolt becomes a more reasonable investment after you factor in operating costs.

Electric-car pioneer Tesla also has a car coming out in the same cost range. It goes almost as far on a charge, but Tesla probably won’t be able to make enough of them to satisfy demand. GM will.

200 miles has long been considered a breakthrough point on electric cars, because that range wouldn’t crimp the style of the average American in day-to-day life. You’re still not going to take a Bolt on a cross-country road trip, but you should be able to commute to work, go out to lunch, and run errands after you get home without worrying about how much charge you have left.


In other car-tech news, Uber is testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh. A NYT reporter tells of his ride.

If driverless vehicles get perfected and accepted, we’ll see a new round of technological unemployment. I added up the employment numbers for the different types of drivers tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and got about 3.8 million. The total number of people employed in the U.S. is around 151 million. So we’re talking about 2.5% or so of all jobs. If you start thinking about people whose jobs depend on human drivers — say they work at truck stops or at motels in the middle of nowhere — the total goes higher.

That prospect got me reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, a 1952 dystopian vision of a low-employment society. That’s where I found this week’s opening quote.

and let’s close with a sharp contrast

Here’s Little Miss Flint’s reaction to meeting President Obama.

And here’s her reaction to meeting Donald Trump.

ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

The Monday Morning Teaser

With all the partisan back-and-forth of the election, it’s easy for Americans to lose track of what’s going on in the world, or to see entire regions of the Earth as little more than footballs for the candidates to kick back and forth. Resisting that trend, this week I look at how the battle against ISIS is going. And the answer is: surprisingly well, but victory probably won’t solve all the problems we think it will. This week’s featured post “ISIS is losing, but what happens next?” should be out by 9 EDT.

In the weekly summary, I can’t stop myself from getting pulled into the journalistic black hole of the election. Trump has continued to gain in the polls, and Nate Silver’s best model still sees Clinton as the favorite, but gives her only a 60% chance of victory. The Birther issue returned this week. Clinton came back from her bout of pneumonia. Trump once again hinted at her assassination. You know, just another week on the campaign trail. We’ve got six more of them to look forward to.

But other stuff is happening too. Electric cars are about to take a significant step forward in terms of both range and affordability. The Census Bureau released the most upbeat report I’ve seen in years: In 2015, the economic recovery actually started to reach the people who need it. Britain is still trying to figure out what Brexit means. And if you want to carry concealed weapons without the hassle of getting any training or filling out a bunch of forms, Missouri just rolled out the red carpet for you. (For some odd reason, Missouri police aren’t thrilled about all the help they’re going to be getting from “good guys with guns”.)

Expect to see the weekly summary before noon.

So Clear

A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.

– David Hilbert

This week’s featured post is “Instead of Dumbing Down“. It’s basically my explanation of how to explain things.

This week everybody was talking about the Commander in Chief Forum

This was supposed to be a preview of the presidential debates, with Clinton and Trump appearing on the same stage, one right after the other, and fielding questions from the same audience (military veterans on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, anchored in New York harbor) and moderator (Matt Lauer). If you missed it, you can watch the full video or read the transcript.

It’s not obvious whether either candidate “won” the Forum, but the clear losers were Matt Lauer and the country. Each of the two interviews was terrible in its own way. Lauer opened Hillary’s interview with a softball: “What is the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess?” But when her answer (steadiness) didn’t give him the segue he wanted, Lauer badgered her into repeating the word judgment, which is the Trump-campaign codeword for a long list of stuff. That gave him his transition into a long discussion of her emails, leaving only a little time to talk about ISIS, and none at all for Russia, China, NATO, and a lot of other important matters.

Trump’s interview consisted almost entirely of softballs, like “What kind of things are you reading as you prepare for the day in two months where you might be elected the next president of the United States?” When Trump repeated his predictable and easily refutable lie about being “totally against the war in Iraq”, Lauer moved on without comment.


Josh Marshall believes that Lauer actually did Trump some damage by not challenging him:

he was a sort of Trump whisperer, nudging Trump on to expand on his ridiculous points. At various points he simply let Trump be Trump. And that turned out to be really bad for Trump.

He drew Trump into gobbledygook about his plan for fighting ISIS (which he either has had all along or is going to ask the generals for or is going to combine the two plans or something), into fawning over Vladimir Putin, into saying that rape in the military comes from putting “men and women together”, into expressing his distrust of our current generals, into saying that we should have taken Iraq’s oil, and so on.


Trump’s valentine to Putin — “he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader”, admiration for his high approval rating (in a country where criticizing him can get you killed), and his “very strong control over a country” — was subsequently echoed by Mike Pence and the Twitter followers of GOP public-opinion expert Frank Luntz.

Slate’s Joshua Keating brings in the disturbing context:

Today’s Russia is a place where government officials are corrupt, life expectancy remains stubbornly low, young soldiers are sent to die in wars their government won’t even acknowledge, opposition politicians and critical journalists are murdered or arrested in alarming numbers, LGBTQ people are subject to state-sanctioned violence, and entire regions are run as the personal fiefdoms of despotic warlords.


Trump’s evidence that he was against the Iraq War from the beginning (March, 2003) was an Esquire interview from August, 2004, as opposed to the interview before the war where he supported an invasion. But even to Esquire, he doesn’t say what he would have done or not done, he just criticizes how the invasion has turned out. As National Review pointed out back in February:

In keeping with his penchant for playing all sides of every game, Donald Trump was silent on Iraq right up to the moment at which it turned nasty. He must not be allowed to pretend otherwise.

It’s important to realize just how bizarre his re-remembering of history has been. In a Republican debate, he spun a wild fantasy about a delegation that came from the White House to “silence” him, because his criticism of the upcoming invasion was getting so much publicity in stories that no one can find now.


Combined with the continued tightening of the polls, the Forum “shocked and horrified” Jonathan Chait, who “had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency” until witnessing this failure of journalism.

John Amato, though, wonders if the ultimate effect will be positive: The moderators of the debates must have been watching, and one hopes they will be trying not to make the same mistakes. This could be part of another turning: The Washington Post finally admits that “The Hillary Clinton Email Story is Out of Control“.

In fact, Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have, and the criminal case against her was so thin that charging her would have been to treat her very differently. Ironically, even as the email issue consumed so much precious airtime, several pieces of news reported Wednesday should have taken some steam out of the story. …

Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

For what it’s worth, the tightening in the polls may already have turned: Nate Silver’s polls-plus model had its tightest spread on September 7, and has eased slightly since then.

and Hillary’s health

Sunday, Clinton left a 9-11 anniversary event and had to be helped into an SUV; she looked like she was about to collapse. Later in the day, she was walking down a sidewalk, waving to people, and answering reporter’s questions, saying she felt “great”. Her doctor reports that she has been suffering from pneumonia, and got dehydrated.

The open question is how much mainstream cover this will give to all the wild conspiracy theories that have been spun about her health, including everything from seizures to brain damage.

and the “basket of deplorables”

At a fund-raiser Friday, Clinton separated Trump supporters into two baskets, which basically are the ones Democrats should be reaching out to and the ones we can’t reach out to.

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of these folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket–and I know this because I see friends from all over America here–I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas–as well as, you know, New York and California–but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Trump’s people are trying to turn this into a gaffe comparable to Mitt Romney’s 47% speech, but I’m not seeing it. The “deplorable” group — the racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes — is she wrong that they’re deplorable? Is she wrong that they’re united behind Trump, and that he is moving their rhetoric into the mainstream?

and the Kaepernick protest spreads

This weekend opened the NFL football regular season, and a number of players demonstrated in one way or another during the national anthem, by kneeling, raising fists, linking arms as a group, and so on. There’s no telling where this goes from here. In the meantime, I’ll yield the floor to the Liberal Redneck.

but there was good news from North Dakota

The Keystone XL Pipeline (rejected by the Obama administration last November) got all the headlines, but it’s far from the only pipeline project. More recently, Native American groups have united to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Friday, it looked like they had lost, when a court rejected the request for an injunction stopping the project. But within hours, the Obama administration stepped in with a temporary halt until the Army Corps of Engineers could reevaluate.

and let’s close with something adorable

Sometimes a lullaby just works.

Instead of Dumbing Down

If you think the way to communicate with less-educated people is to dumb down your ideas, you’ve been misinformed.


The commenters on last week’s post about Trump voters made me proud. They were almost uniformly civil and thoughtful. They fixed some of my mistakes, and added worthwhile points of their own. But that post also sparked a few discussions on social media, and there I ran into one of my least favorite phrases: dumb down.

It’s a simple notion, and I’m sure you’ve come across it before: The ideas in my brain are just too big for yours, so if we’re going to have a conversation about them, I’ll need to dumb them down, i.e., shrink my thoughts to the size of your brain. What I end up saying will sound stupid to me, and probably won’t quite be true, but that’s your fault, not mine. You should be smarter.

I just said it in as offensive a way as I could, because that’s how I hear it. The term only makes sense inside a frame that I find arrogant and disrespectful. Explaining things can be hard, but in my experience the problem is rarely that people are just too stupid to understand.

There are a handful of exceptional circumstances where the term is appropriate. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conversation about quantum mechanics that wasn’t dumbed down to a certain extent, often because I was the one who couldn’t have participated otherwise. And if I had to explain the thesis that got me my math Ph.D., we’d be here a long time. (Given how long ago that was, I’m not sure I could still do it.) But not much that happens in the public arena is quantum mechanics or algebraic geometry. The information that you need to take an informed position on a political issue is just not that complicated.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed — if I did my job perfectly, most of you wouldn’t — but The Weekly Sift is accessible to people at a wide range of educational levels. I know that some kids of my friends read it, probably because they want to understand what their parents are talking about. I don’t quiz them for comprehension, but the questions I get tell me that high school (and sometimes even middle school) students are following the discussion well enough that they keep reading. Maintaining that accessibility hasn’t stopped me from talking about why it’s so hard to see your own privilege, the difference between bigotry and hatred, how the Fed creates money, how liberal reporters can wind up slanting the news in a conservative direction, and a bunch of other fairly complex topics.

Explaining things to people who don’t have the same background you do can be challenging. But if you can’t do it, that’s not entirely your audience’s fault.

My writing style and overall attitude about explaining things was strongly influenced by somebody you probably wouldn’t guess: sports geek Bill James, who is now recognized as the godfather of modern baseball statistics. Back in the 1970s and 80s, he published a book-length Baseball Abstract that would come out every year about the time spring training started. On the surface, the Abstracts were about all the usual spring-training topics: players, teams, and their prospects for the coming year. But woven through that project were all kinds of new ideas about how you figured out who was better than who, and why certain perennial baseball debates actually had objective answers. Along the way, he ended up explaining a lot of statistical and sometimes even epistemological ideas. But most of his readers probably didn’t realize they were getting an education in anything but baseball; they just wanted to know whether a home-run hitter like Mike Schmidt was more or less valuable than a high-batting-average hitter like Pete Rose. (Answer: more.)

But if he needed anything more complicated than a graphing calculator, he’d explain it, sometimes so seamlessly that if you did have the background, you had to take a step back to realize what he’d done. (OMG! He just explained standard deviation, what a mathematical model is, or the difference between uncertainty and risk.) Most of the time, any junior-high student who could read and cared enough about baseball could follow what he was doing. (Mythbusters played a similar role for a more recent generation. Viewers learned that if you have proper scientific technique, you can answer questions rather than just argue about them.)

What James understood is that communicating an idea from one mind to another is more about caring than about IQ or college degrees. The Abstracts worked because James and his readers all cared about baseball. James cared enough to explain things and his readers cared enough to understand them.

When you can’t explain something to somebody, it’s usually not because their brains are too small. More likely, it’s either that

  • you haven’t grounded the conversation in something they care about, so as soon as things get difficult they don’t bother to follow you, or
  • you haven’t won their trust; they don’t believe that you know something valuable and want to communicate it.

Dumbing down doesn’t solve either of those problems. If I don’t know why I should care about, say, systemic racism, then I’m certainly not going to care about a dumbed-down version of systemic racism. And if your dumbed-down explanation comes wrapped in a superior and condescending attitude, then I’m even less likely to trust that you want me to understand something real and true.

Conversely, educational miracles happen when motivation changes. Kids who are flunking Introductory French pick up the language pretty quickly if they get stuck in the French countryside for a few months. During World War II, people with the most unlikely backgrounds acquired all sorts of skills, because the government suddenly needed to teach them and they saw good reasons to learn. (Abstractly, you may not care how diesel engines work, but if your tank breaks down and the enemy is drawing closer, you’re going to want to get it moving again.)

That’s why the first step in explaining is understanding — not just understanding the idea you want to communicate, but understanding the people you want to receive it. Why should they care? Where in their lives does their lack of understanding screw them up, or screw up people they care about? What mysteries that they already wonder about would be solved if they grasped what you want to tell them? How would the knowledge you are offering give them power in situations where they currently feel helpless, or confidence in situations where they feel vulnerable? [An aside: That’s usually the angle to take on racism. A lot of whites believe that not being viewed as racist involves learning an endless list of rules that are constantly changing, so they feel vulnerable whenever they deal with non-whites in any context. If racism is actually simpler than that, and you can explain to them how to navigate those waters safely and confidently, you have something valuable to offer.]

It’s really hard to answer those questions if you can’t make yourself care about the people you’re talking to. If you just think of them as evil or stupid, and you can’t imagine that they have any motives you can empathize with, well, guess what? All your explanations are going to sound like aggressions against them. You want them to understand how evil and stupid they are. News flash: They don’t want to understand that, and you can’t make them. (Remember Sun Tzu: “The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities.”)

Once you have a why you can move on to a how: The idea is probably not going to fit into their worldview the same way it fits into yours. They have different experiences and know different things. They may be ignorant of something that is key to how you think about the idea, but so what? Everybody is ignorant about something. Do they really need to adopt your entire worldview to grasp this single point?

The particular bias of educated people is that we rely too much on our vocabularies, and think that other people can’t grasp an idea until they learn all the words we use when we think about it. (Goethe: “When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place.”) Academic papers usually start by defining a bunch of terms, and only eventually get around to showing what they’re good for. But good popular explanations often turn that around: Through examples, metaphors, and stories, you put an idea in someone’s head, then tell them what it’s called. (Once people see the use of an idea, they’re usually grateful to find out that it has a name.)

In general, it’s a symptom of immature understanding to believe that some bit of knowledge can only be approached via the path I used to learn it. People who fully understand something can approach it from any direction. There are a bunch of Einstein quotes about this, most of them apocryphal. But this one from the great German mathematician David Hilbert (from the generation just before Einstein) is genuine: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.”

As a graduate student, I remember hearing this (possibly also apocryphal) quote from a nameless professor trying to cover a difficult concept: “I explained it to the class, and no one understood it. So I explained it again, and still no one understood it. Finally, I explained it a third time, and this time I understood it.”

So that’s what I suggest as an alternative to dumbing down: See if you can care about your listeners or readers enough to understand why they should want to know this and what direction they can approach it from. Then work on your own understanding of the subject until you grasp it well enough to approach from that direction yourself. In the short term, that may not be as satisfying as ridiculing their stupidity, but in the long term I think it works better.

The Monday Morning Teaser

In some of the social-network conversations sparked by last week’s post on Trump voters, particularly the less-educated Trump voters, one of my least-favorite terms came up: dumb down. Educated people are afraid that if they have to talk to less-educated people, they’ll have to say stupid things, because those are the only sentences people without masters degrees can understand.

This always sets me off for two reasons: (1) I grew up in the working class, so I know first-hand that people who were happy to escape high school with a diploma (or maybe even without) are not stupid. (2) In all my various careers — mathematics, computer software, and now writing about politics and religion — I’ve been a popularizer. So when something complicated needs to be communicated or explained, I see that as a challenge, not a reason to start ranting about how stupid people are. If I can’t explain something to someone, I need to take responsibility for my role in that failure, not just blame it all on them.

So that led to this week’s featured post “Instead of Dumbing Down”. It should be out around 9 EDT.

The weekly summary covers the travesty of the Commander-in-Chief Forum, where Matt Lauer grilled Hillary on her emails and cut short her comments on ISIS, then tossed softball questions to Trump and didn’t follow up when he repeated his predictable lie about opposing the Iraq War. Hillary’s health became a genuine issue rather than a manufactured one, now that she’s been diagnosed with pneumonia. The Kaepernick protest spread. The Dakota Access Pipeline is on hold. And I’m still trying to decide whether I want the cute closing or the NSFW one. That should be out around noon.