Sure Signs

Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

– James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939)

This week’s featured post is “Trump Voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going

This week everybody was talking about the tightening polls … or not

It’s been a weird week to read political horse-race articles. On the one hand, a series of polls painted the presidential race as much closer than it was a few weeks ago, and one — the USC/LA Times poll that has consistently been the poll most favorable to Trump — even had Trump leading.

Simultaneously, I’m still seeing predictions of a Clinton landslide, or of a Republican “wipe-out” in the Senate, or even Democrats retaking the House.

What I think is going on is a confluence of several factors:

  • Clinton made the strategic decision to spend August building up her campaign in ways other than making public appearances. So she raised an incredible $143 million in August and continued to prepare an impressive get-out-the-vote infrastructure, both areas where she has a big advantage over Trump. But her voice all but vanished from the news shows.
  • To the extent that she got news coverage, it was all about nebulous pseudo-scandals (more about that below). None of the stories identified any specific wrong-doing, but they contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion. Meanwhile, what seem to me to be far more serious questions about Trump — did he bribe that state attorney general or not? — go virtually uncovered.
  • Trump managed to have it both ways on a number of issues, appearing to both soften and remain steadfast. I doubt that is sustainable.

I think Clinton continues to have a significant advantage, but the tightening polls makes it more likely that Trump will maneuver his way out of the debates. When he was far behind, the debates looked like his only chance to turn things around. But I find it unlikely that he will do well one-on-one against Clinton, because she knows her stuff and he doesn’t. If he thinks he has a non-debate path to victory, he might find some excuse to skip them.

What Clinton really needs now is a positive turn, one that draws attention to her agenda and how it will help working people. I keep hearing Republicans say that Trump loses if the election is about him, but Clinton loses if the election is about her. I think there’s a third path: Clinton wins if the election is about the country.

and Trump’s Mexico trip

He talked nicely to the Mexicans while he was there, then came back here and gave a hard-line speech.

So far, he’s managed to create a fog around what he would really do about immigration, other than build a fabulously expensive wall that Mexico really will not pay for, and which will not solve the immigration problem.

Sometimes he’s just talking about deporting undocumented criminals, and “working with” the rest at some point in the future — which is not far off from what President Obama is doing now. At other times he throws around numbers like 2 million deportations, which bear no resemblance to the actual number of criminals, unless you think all 11 million are criminals just for being here.


On the cost of the wall, BBC observes:

The 650 miles of fencing already put up has cost the government more than $7 billion, and none of it could be described, even charitably, as impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, or beautiful.

It also doesn’t cover the most difficult or remote terrain, where construction costs would be much higher. Recasting the existing fence as a wall, then adding 1000 miles more of it, would cost much, much more. (An engineer estimated $17 billion just for materials, excluding the cost of design, machinery, labor, or maintenance.)


The Hill makes an interesting point I haven’t heard anywhere else: One reason we haven’t had attacks by terrorists coming over the Mexican border is that Mexican and U.S. intelligence services are working together. If President Trump would alienate the Mexican government, that cooperation might go away.


One of Trump’s regular themes is to highlight examples of violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and talk about the lives would be saved if we got rid of them. As many people have pointed out, the problem with this line of thought is that undocumented immigrants as a group commit fewer violent crimes than the rest of us.

I think pundits have been missing the obvious conclusion to draw from these facts: We should deport everybody, all 325 million residents of the United States. That would reduce crime within our borders to zero. Think of how many lives such a total-deportation policy would save.

and media coverage

A few big issues are interweaving, and I should probably do a long post on them soon. This CNN panel discussion is a good place to start:

A long time ago, Jay Rosen outlined the problems of the media’s habits of campaign coverage, particularly its desire to “balance” stories by making them fit a both-sides-do-it, he-said-she-said narrative.

So you wind up with what Soledad O’Brien describes in this video: Clinton gives a detailed, well-reasoned speech outlining how Trump has invited white supremacists into the mainstream of American politics, and Trump calls Clinton “a bigot” without any supporting evidence whatsoever. The day’s coverage is about how the candidates “traded charges” of racism, as if both statements are of equal merit.

Even worse this week was how hard major news outlets worked to find some sinister new story in the Clinton Foundation (when there just wasn’t one), or in the release of the FBI’s report on Clinton’s email use (which Kevin Drum thinks “almost completely” vindicates her), all the while ignoring much more serious sets of facts about Trump: He gave a $25,000 contribution to the Florida attorney general, who then dropped an investigation of fraud complaints against Trump University. (Worse, the money came from his foundation, which cannot legally make political contributions, which then lied about it in its reports. Trump paid a penalty to the IRS for that violation.) Also, Trump Model Management illegally used foreign models on tourist visas, something Melania Trump has also been accused of.

and still Colin Kaepernick

One point I’ve seen in several places this week: When black protests disrupted neighborhoods in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, and especially when they turned violent, the chorus from the Right was that this was not an appropriate way for activists to make their point. But now that someone has found a completely silent, non-violent way to protest, that’s not appropriate either. So what is the right way to make the point that racism is still with us and something needs to be done about it?

This discussion underlines the point I was making last year in “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“: If you ever find yourself protesting something, and the Powers That Be pat you on the head and say, “Well done, that’s the right way to protest” you can be 100% certain that you are wasting your time. Whatever you’re doing will have no effect. As James Agee wrote nearly 80 years ago:

Every fury on earth has been absorbed, in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.


A few people asked the same question I raised last week: Why do we sing the national anthem at sports events anyway? Mental Floss‘ Matt Soniak did the research:

After America’s entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of game one of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”…

After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

Vox‘ Zack Beauchamp points out that it isn’t Kaepernick who is bringing politics into football; the NFL is already doing that by playing the anthem in the first place.

Inserting the national anthem into sports events can never be “apolitical,” because patriotism isn’t apolitical. Remember, bringing politics into the event was explicitly the point back in World War I and II — they were trying to drum up support for a war effort.

He also comments that honoring America isn’t the point any more, if it ever was; branding the NFL as patriotic is the point. The anthem-singing ritual doesn’t promote patriotism, it exploits patriotism.

and you might also be interested in

Positive trends don’t get as much press as signs of the Apocalypse, but this one should:

There are 42 percent fewer teen births now than just seven years ago. In 2007, 4.2 percent of teenage girls in the United States gave birth. In 2014, the rate was 2.4 percent.

The reason seems to be increased use of contraceptives during a period in which teen sexual activity remained fairly constant. Abortion rates are also down.

This is an area in which liberals and conservatives made diametrically opposed predictions, and the liberal one came true. Liberals have argued that getting teens to use contraceptives would lead to fewer pregnancies and fewer abortions. Conservatives argued we should teach teens to say no to sex, and that teaching them about contraceptives would encourage teen sex and perversely lead to more pregnancies and more abortions.

I have long argued that the real reason social conservatives oppose abortion isn’t because they really believe zygotes have souls, but because they’re against female promiscuity, which God punishes via unwanted pregnancies. As it becomes clearer and clearer that effective contraception prevents abortions, teaching kids about contraception would seem to be a moral imperative for anyone who believes abortion is murder, even if it does circumvent the penalty for the comparatively minor sin of promiscuity. But I have yet to meet a social conservative willing to follow that logic.


Back to signs of the Apocalypse: Hermine is unlike any storm we’ve seen in modern times. Not that it’s the strongest or most destructive, it’s just weird. It’s an ex-hurricane that might soon be a hurricane again, even though in any other year it would be too far north to pick up new strength. In the meantime it’s sort of like a nor’easter, which is supposed to be a different kind of storm. And it’s expected to sit in one spot in the Atlantic for about a week.


The Roger Ailes story got seedier and more sensational: Gretchen Carlson will get an 8-figure settlement because she had been taping her interactions with Ailes for more than a year.


Great report on how ISIS uses the “deep web” for propaganda.


That Stanford swimmer convicted of assault with attempt to rape, the one whose six-month sentence seemed so outrageously light three months ago — he’s free. He got out early for good behavior.

This case is depressing for a lot of reasons. Rape and sexual assault are usually hard charges to prove, because often the physical evidence could be explained by consensual sex and there aren’t any corroborating witnesses. (In cases like this, where the woman was unconscious or nearly unconscious, even she may not be a convincing witness.) But this one time justice got lucky: Two good samaritans interrupted the crime, captured the guy, delivered him to police, and testified at the trial. So unlike the majority of guys who do things like this, he got tried and convicted … and served three months. I’m sure that totally ruined his summer.

When a type of criminal is hard to catch or convict, the law can maintain deterrence by increasing penalties. (“You may think you’ll get away with this, but if you’re wrong …”) That’s why, for example, horse-stealing was a hanging offense in the old West. But if you’re unlikely to get convicted, and even if you do you’ll barely be punished, what kind of deterrence is that?


A training video for dealing with white fragility in the workplace. Do your white employees and co-workers face the trauma of being called racists just because they do something racist? Or the embarrassment of seeing evidence of their white privilege? Some simple understanding and compassion from non-whites could prevent this suffering.

and let’s close with a reminder that spelling is important

Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going

Long-term, is there anything progressives can do to cool them off or win them back?


The most fascinating character of the 2016 election cycle isn’t Donald Trump, it’s the voter who has identified with Trump and stuck with him in defiance of all previous conventional wisdom. Again and again during the Republican primary campaign, Trump said and did things that in any other cycle would have been career-destroying gaffes. And whenever his opponents waited for the resulting wave of voter anger and shame to wash him away, his popularity grew.

That tactic has been less successful in the general-election campaign: Trump’s Judge Curiel and Captain Khan attacks both hurt him, and while the double-digit lead Hillary Clinton built after the conventions has receded, she still seems to be ahead. But even this outcome, if it holds, leaves many progressive bewildered: How can 40-45% of the electorate imagine turning the country over to an inexperienced, unstable, hateful, and — let’s be blunt about it — ignorant man? What can they possibly be thinking?

So the most interesting question of 2016 is not what to do about Trump, because the answer is obvious: beat him. If he loses, he will probably be too old and too disgraced to trouble us again in 2020 or beyond. But the voters he has awakened and given a political identity will still be here. Particularly if they buy into Trump’s ego-saving excuses about skewed polls and voter fraud, or if he starts an alt-right Trump News to continue pandering to their worst fears, they may come out of a 2016 defeat more alienated, more angry, and perhaps more violent than before. (If the country is so far gone that voting no longer works, what’s left but guns?)

Obviously, not everybody in that 40-45% sees themselves as part of a Trump movement. Many are simply Paul Ryan Republicans who can’t face another four years of Democratic rule, with all that would mean for the Supreme Court, taxes, regulations, and other long-term issues. Many voters of all stripes are disgusted with their general-election choices, and will happily line up behind someone completely different in the next cycle.

But what if 10-20% are enthusiastic Trump supporters and will be looking for another Trump-like candidate in 2020? (After all, somebody is showing up at his rallies and cheering wildly. Crowd size and enthusiasm may not be reliable predictors of victory — just ask Bernie Sanders — but they do mean something.) If they are sufficiently alienated and angry, and if they include (and make excuses for) an even smaller violent element, 10% is more than enough to destabilize a democracy.

So who are they? What do they want? Do they have legitimate grievances the rest of us can or should respond to? And if we do respond, is there any hope of soothing their anger and welcoming them back into more orthodox political channels?

Who are they? Non-college whites. A lot of good work has been done on this question, painting their portrait in both statistics and narratives.

In the primaries, the core of Trump’s support came from whites without college degrees. Look at the exit polls from the Ohio Republican Primary, the only one won by John Kasich. Overall, Kasich beat Trump and Ted Cruz 47%-36%-13%. Those results were virtually the same across both genders and all age groups. The Republican electorate was overwhelmingly white (94%), but although Trump did worse among non-whites (28% rather than 36%), the finishing order was still Kasich-Trump-Cruz.

Hidden in that apparent homogeneity, though, were two very different Republican Parties having two very different primaries. Among those who never attended college, Trump beat Kasich 47%-34%. They tied 41%-41% among Republicans who had taken some college courses but not graduated. Those with bachelor’s degrees went for Kasich 52%-31%, and among those with postgraduate degrees it was no contest at all: Kasich beat Trump 60%-25%.

That educational divide preceded Trump, and was already apparent in a Pew Research survey conducted over a year ago. On many issues, college Republicans were split, while non-college Republicans were united. For example: asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country, college Republicans narrowly said strengthen, 44%-42; non-college Republicans decisively said burden 62%-26%. Other questions created night-and-day differences. Was South Carolina right to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds? College Republicans said yes 56%-37%; non-college Republicans said no 57%-36%. College Republicans liked elected officials who make compromises, 52%-46%; non-college Republicans preferred those who stick to their positions, 64%-33%.

If Trump does lose to Clinton, it will probably be because of his inability to hold college-educated whites, who Mitt Romney won by 6% in 2012.

Who are they? Not who you think. The Washington Post published a lengthy summary of an even longer report from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews. The gist was that common stereotypes of Trump voters are false: They’re not poor whites who have lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants or Chinese competition.

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

They also don’t live in neighborhoods that are being overrun by immigrants.

Although Trump voters tend to be the most skeptical about immigration, they are also the least likely to actually encounter an immigrant in their neighborhood. …

[Jonathan] Rothwell [the Gallup economist in charge of the survey] finds that people who live in places with many Hispanic residents or places close to the Mexican border, tend not to favor Trump — relative to otherwise similar Americans and to otherwise similar white Republicans.

Among those who are similar in terms of income, education and other factors, those who view Trump favorably are more likely to be found in white enclaves — racially isolated Zip codes where the amount of diversity is lower than in surrounding areas.

In other words, when they cheer his attacks on immigrants and foreigners, Trump’s supporters are reacting not so much to their own experiences as to the experiences they imagine people like them are having. They are not poor, but worry that their children will be. They are susceptible to absurdly negative stereotypes of immigrants because they don’t know any actual immigrants. They live in communities disproportionately afflicted with health problems related to despair: depression, substance abuse, and suicide — even if they are not depressed, addicted, or suicidal themselves.

Their “deep story”. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports on her five-year study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. (The article gives us a taste of her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land.)

When I asked people what politics meant to them, they often answered by telling me what they believed (“I believe in freedom”) or who they’d vote for (“I was for Ted Cruz, but now I’m voting Trump”). But running beneath such beliefs like an underwater spring was what I’ve come to think of as a deep story. The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes. It was a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need.

To Hochschild, this underlying narrative explains the attraction of otherwise baseless conspiracy theories like Obama’s Muslim faith, government plots to confiscate guns, and so on. People believe such things not because the objective evidence is compelling, but because they are looking for stories that externalize their inner experience. [1]

What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them — an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? [2] As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

Political correctness. To college-educated liberals, one of the most mysterious aspects of right-wing discourse is the rage against political correctness, as if it were a problem on the scale of illegal drugs or the lack of good jobs. To liberals, PC is just a way of talking that shows respect for people and groups that have traditionally been disrespected. So if adult females in the workplace want to be called women rather than girls, or if I have to learn how to use words like cisgender and transgender, it doesn’t seem like that big a sacrifice. I grew up saying that hard bargainers jew people down, but decades ago I learned that Jews don’t like that expression, so I dropped it. It just didn’t seem like that much to ask of me.

So how does this attempt at courtesy become an issue of such portent that it is “ruining our country” (as Ben Carson put it)? Why do white working-class men need a Trump to defend them from this terrible scourge?

Melinda Selmys of the blog Catholic Authenticity proposes an answer.

My tentative hypothesis, which I think is probably true in at least some cases, is that the objection to political correctness is not actually so much a knee-jerk defense of racist or sexist attitudes as it is an inarticulate objection to classism.

Classism is problematic, in that every intelligent person on the left knows that it is bad, bad, very bad – but none the less, leftist discourse is constantly, profoundly classist. Discussions of how to end oppression, including the oppression of poor, marginalized, and less educated people, are routinely carried on in language that can’t even [be] parsed by someone with a high-school reading level. As a theoretical category of social problem, the poor and underprivileged are given great respect. But when an actual person who can’t spell very well, speaks in a regional dialect from a lower-class area, and can’t express himself very articulately tries to argue that he also needs protection from oppression, he’s often dismissed as an “entitled” white man who doesn’t understand the systemic barriers endured by marginalized groups.

Let me illustrate with an analogy: Imagine you’ve recently moved to a foreign country, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get the language right. Your accent is awful, your nouns have the wrong genders (inanimate objects have genders?), your verbs the wrong tenses, and whenever you try to use an idiom, you end up saying something ridiculous. [3] The natives might respond to your mistakes in a variety of ways.

  1. They can ignore your screw-up and respond as if you had correctly expressed what you obviously mean.
  2. They can correct you politely, and then respond to what you mean.
  3. They can correct you sharply, as if you are an idiot child, and refuse to acknowledge your meaning until you can manage to express it properly.
  4. They can ridicule you for saying something so stupid.
  5. They can put the worst possible construction on what you say, and use that interpretation to reinforce their negative stereotype of visiting Americans, i.e., that we’re all assholes who constantly insult them and then try to wriggle out of the situation by lying about our command of their language.

If you experience a lot of 1 and 2, you’re likely to see the natives as patient and kind. If 3 and 4, you’ll be wary of them and inclined to shut up even when you have something worth saying. (Later, you’ll resent feeling muzzled. You’re every bit as smart as these people, and you’d run rings around them if they had to speak English.) If 5, you’ll probably conclude that they are the assholes; they know perfectly well what you mean, but they’re misconstruing you for their own hostile purposes.

Most working-class white Americans are — let’s be clear about this — native speakers of American English, so the analogy isn’t perfect. But serious political discussion in this country is dominated by professional-class people who use language in a college-educated way. The talking heads on TV, the columnists in newspapers, and almost all our politicians are college-educated people who sound like college-educated people. [4] Even the ones who don’t — James Carville comes to mind — often seem to be doing a man-of-the-people shtick rather than just talking.

So when a working-class person talks politics, professional-class people tacitly assume the discussion should happen in their language and be judged by their standards. [5] And the worker’s “mistakes” are often slapped down hard: Either he is an idiot who should shut up and let smarter people talk, or his ignorance of the currently approved vocabulary shows that he is some kind of reprehensible person: a racist, a sexist, a homophobe.

So it should be no surprise that a lot of working-class whites (or even professional-class whites whose degree is in a technical field rather than a liberal art) cheer when Donald Trump bullies and insults the people they feel have bullied and insulted them.

What can we do with this? Understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to give in to them, and often you just can’t. For example, politically correct language was invented for a good reason: Traditional ways of speaking can institutionalize traditional injustices. (Who would you rather have running your department: a man or a girl?)

Also, the way the world feels to a group of people, as compelling as it may seem to them, is not necessarily how the world is. Your deep story might embed assumptions that are unfair or untrue. Hochschild’s line-cutting metaphor, for example, contains an assumption of entitlement: I was in line first. And (as Hochschild explains), a lot of the “advantage” of the line-cutters comes from the self-imposed restrictions of the line-standers: They find it dishonorable to take government hand-outs like food stamps or welfare, even when they qualify. So they face a choice between dishonor and falling behind people who don’t share their scruples. That sucks for them, but it’s really not the fault of blacks or refugees or career-driven women.

If we can’t just agree with Trump voters, we still can do somethings with these insights:

  • Look for legitimate grievances where we can make common cause with them.
  • Frame our proposals and arguments so as not to alienate them unnecessarily.
  • Disrupt right-wing attempts to manipulate them.

So, for example, working-class whites who live in dead-end communities (like factory or mining towns after the factories and mines close) have a real problem we should be able to sympathize with. But since climate change and cheap natural gas are real, we can’t just bring back the coal industry and the mining jobs that it used to provide. And if “making America great again” means recreating the manufacturing economy of the 1950s, we can’t do that either. But we need to recognize that our current low-growth, low-opportunity economy is creating a real sense of hopelessness — and not just for inner-city non-whites.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour. When working people have money, they spend it and create jobs for other working people. But past a certain point, money at the top just stays at the top. The 1% may want you to identify with them, and to think of their taxes as your taxes, but you really have more in common with black and immigrant workers than with the Kochs and Waltons.

The problem isn’t that late-comers are cutting the line, it’s that the people already seated have shut the doors.

When we design government programs, whenever possible those programs should change the landscape, rather than require people to form new relationships with government and ask it for help. When I went to a state university in the 1970s, for example, I benefited tremendously from subsidies that were invisible to me. My parents paid the price the university charged, not noticing or caring that it was artificially low. That’s how we should make college affordable again, rather than by asking “needy” students to prove that they qualify for government help. I freely and guiltlessly use public parks and libraries and highways because they belong to all of us; it would feel completely different if I had to apply for government aid to defray the cost of membership in private systems.

We can focus our attacks on the demagogues and propagandists who create right-wing conspiracy theories, rather than the low-information voters who believe them. The believers need our instruction, not our ridicule.

And finally, we can listen to the Trump voter’s concerns with more forbearance, even the ones we see as misstated, self-serving, or based on misconceptions. To the extent that our verbal or analytic abilities are superior, we could help them refine what is legitimate in their complaint and express it accurately, rather than humiliate or stereotype them.

I realize this forbearance can turn into what is called tone policing — making oppressed groups tiptoe around the too-easily-offended sensibilities of their oppressors, sometimes to the point that they have to apologize for noticing their own oppression. [6] But I suspect that what most annoys a Trump voter isn’t the black or woman or immigrant who asks for better treatment; it’s the fellow white or man or native speaker of English who is holier-than-thou because of his newly discovered PC superiority to the unwashed masses who still use the bigoted old words.

So I close with this modest suggestion: If you are confronting non-PC talk as an ally of traditionally oppressed groups rather than as a victim of oppression, dial down your outrage. Correct the speaker lightly, and give a generous construction to what he probably meant. Explain rather than reprimand. Remember: Even if whiteness or masculinity give them other advantages, people who sound like hicks, have limited vocabularies, and never got the benefit of a liberal education are also a despised class. They need allies too.


[1] If you’ve ever known someone with full-blown paranoia or depression, or experienced it yourself, you’ve seen how outward-projection-of-inner-reality works.

The fundamental fact of a paranoid’s inner life is a feeling of danger. Fleshing out the details of the plot against him is actually a soothing experience, because if the danger is out there somewhere, then it might be managed somehow. So he can’t accept your argument that his delusion is baseless and he is actually safe. Even if you convinced him, he would need to uncover a different threat, because he is in danger. That’s the one sure thing he knows.

Depression follows a similar pattern: The depressed person knows that he sucks and his life is hopeless, and so he constantly generates narratives that elaborate on that knowledge. If you argue down one story, he’ll just have to find another.

Same thing with politics: You mean Obama isn’t a Muslim? Well, he must be a Communist then.

[2] Probably the same way J. D. Vance (the similarly father-abandoned white-working-class author of Hillbilly Elegy) paid for Yale. In his book, Vance discusses how surprised he was to discover that if you can get accepted and qualify for financial aid, a rich school like Yale will probably cost you less than a run-of-the-mill university. One disadvantage of growing up surrounded by non-college-educated people is that quite possibly no one will tell you this, so you won’t bother to apply.

[3] One of my friends tells the story of a Russian, who at the end of a big meal proudly showed off his command of English by announcing that he was “completely fed up”.

[4] Going to college at Michigan State didn’t just teach me things, it changed my accent. The Midwest, where I grew up, has two white accents: an educated one that is the model for TV announcers, and a rural/working-class one that resembles lower-class Southern or Appalachian accents, and shows up in a lot of country-western songs. I suspect that Trent Lott, who grew up as a sharecropper’s son but speaks in the educated Southern accent now, had a similar undergraduate experience at the University of Mississippi.

[5] That’s what classism is: the assumption that the manners and habits of your class define what is right and proper.

[6] The Daria theme song either expresses or satirizes such tip-toeing:

Excuse me. Excuse me.
I’ve got to be direct.
If I’m wrong, please correct.
You’re standing on my neck.
You’re standing on my neck.

The Monday Morning Teaser

You know who the most intriguing character of the 2016 election cycle is? To me, it’s not Donald Trump, it’s the voter who identifies with him and sticks by him no matter what he says or does. Who are these people? What could they possibly be thinking? What do they want? If Trump loses, do his enthusiastic crowds dissipate like smoke, or do they go to somebody else (maybe somebody worse) in 2020?

A lot of interesting work has been done on who they are and what motivates them. Some of it is statistical, locating them demographically and socio-economically, and some is personal, involving years of deep listening (starting before they realized they were Trump voters) to grasp their worldview and the sources of their frustration. The featured post, “Trump Voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going”, collects and summarizes what is known, and ruminates on what progressives should do with this knowledge. That’s just about done and should be out around 8 EDT.

The weekly summary discusses the tightening polls, the media’s strange fascination with “raising questions” about Clinton but not Trump, the continuing debate about Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem, the North Dakota pipeline protests, good trends in teen pregnancies, how odd a storm Hermine is, and some other things, before closing with a lesson in the importance of correct spelling. It should be out around 11.

Outrageous Empathy

What now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged?

– Kat Stoeffel, “Why I Stopped Rolling My Eyes at Trigger Warnings

This week’s featured posts are “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School” about the University of Chicago’s denunciation of trigger warnings and its affirmation of “controversial” speakers;  and “About the Foundation“, which makes the case that the “scandal” of the Clinton Foundation has a lot less substance than you might think.

This week everybody was talking about immigration

Donald Trump appears to have finally found ten seconds to think about his immigration proposals. Wow, deporting 11 million people would be tough to do, wouldn’t it? Who knew? (Well, just about everybody Trump debated in the primaries, to name a dozen or so.) Maybe he’s rethinking it. Or maybe not. Watch this space.

You know who should be paying attention to this? Not just the people who voted for Trump in a primary because they wanted 11 million brown people rounded up and tossed out on their ears, but also the mainstream Republicans who were placated when Trump said he would appoint Supreme Court justices from a list of judges with sound conservative credentials. When it gets to be decision time, that promise won’t mean anything either.


Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie makes an even stronger statement about Trump “outreach” to black voters than I did last week: It’s really a dog whistle to white supremacists.

and trigger warnings

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 70s and early 80s, made the news this week when the Dean of Students sent a somewhat adversarial welcome-letter to the incoming freshman class, warning them not to expect any safe spaces on campus.

This whole notion of academic freedom threatened by over-sensitive students, who want to be educated without ever being challenged, and of brave U of C administrators standing up to them, is bogus. I challenge the Dean’s underlying assumptions and relate some of my own experiences in “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School“.

and the national anthem

49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kind of a complicated racial heritage: He’s a mixed race child (African/European) who was adopted and raised by white parents alongside their white children. In my judgment, he could pass for a white guy with a good tan.

Footballwise, he’s a huge talent whose career has been relatively disappointing so far, kind of like Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton until he broke out last year. Five years from now, he could be in the Super Bowl or he could be selling insurance somewhere.

But none of that is why he made headlines this week. Friday night, before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, he refused to stand for the national anthem. Unlike Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who raised a furor by failing to appear sufficiently focused and respectful while the anthem played during a medal-award ceremony, Kaepernick actually intended to protest, saying afterward:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.

This aroused a bunch of anger against him, like fans burning his jersey. It’s a fundamentally convoluted response: We hate this guy for speaking his mind because Freedom.

I doubt Kaepernick’s disapproval will induce America to change its ways with regard to race, but maybe it will start a much-needed discussion about “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the flag-worshipping rituals at sporting events.

To my mind, beginning a sporting contest with the anthem (or with two anthems if a U.S.-based team plays one from Toronto or Vancouver) is a strange practice we would never start today if it weren’t already traditional. We don’t begin movies or plays or concerts with the national anthem, so why sports? There’s nothing particularly patriotic about playing or watching sports. And if some terrorists or revolutionaries want to take time off from their plotting to root for the Cubs, I don’t see the harm.

Personally, I stand respectfully when the anthem is played before a Nashua Silver Knights baseball game, but I’m doing it to avoid calling attention to myself, and I resent being forced to make a political statement before I can watch the game.

The Kaepernick controversy has also sparked some discussion about the anthem itself, particularly these lines from its third verse

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

which refer to the fact that the British encouraged American slaves to run away during the War of 1812, when the anthem was written. But Francis Scott Key is cheered by the fact that a lot of them died anyway. Go, USA!

Maybe we could just play ball, and skip all this nonsense.

and you might also be interested in

Incredibly, the WSJ could find no living member of any president’s Council of Economic Advisers who supports Trump.


Last week’s discussion of private prisons caused one of the commenters to point out an amazing article “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard“, which appeared a few months ago in Mother Jones. It’s long and horrifying, but well worth the time and discomfort.

The article is a combination of an expose with a personalized Stanford prison experiment. Being a guard really does start to change the writer.

The other thing that comes through is the complete absence of any notion of rehabilitation. Literally no one in the story cares about the prisoners as people, or about returning them to society.


In Newsweek Kurt Eichenwald explores “Donald Trump’s God Problem“. Though more accurately, the problem doesn’t belong to Trump, it belongs to the evangelical leaders — like James Dobson   — who not only support Trump, but who claim that their support is based on their Christianity.

The primary issue here is the credibility of evangelicalism, particularly as it relates to politics. For years, there has been a logic to the evangelists’ support of the Republican Party: Both held similar views on most social issues, and there was more public discussion by conservative candidates about how faith informed their policies. This year, that is not true. Instead, you have a man whose positions on important social issues have changed, whose faith is obviously shallow and who seems to know nothing about even the basics of evangelicalism, Christianity or the Bible. Mr. Dobson, if Donald Trump represents Christian values, those values mean nothing. By endorsing him, evangelists are creating the image that what matters to them is political influence, not the word of God.

Eichenwald could just as validly be addressing Jerry Falwell Jr., who called Trump “God’s man to lead our great nation at this crucial crossroads in our history” and hallucinated “I’ve seen a man who honors his fiduciary responsibilities through his corporations.” Or the lesser known but still influential theologian Wayne Grudem, who promotes Trump not as the lesser of evils, but as “a morally good choice” (setting off Amy Gannett, who I linked to two weeks ago).

I would argue that these power-corrupted leaders are not just “creating the image” that politics drives them, they are exposing the truth about themselves: Conservative politics is now a demonic spirit that possesses the body of evangelical Christianity. It needs to be cast out.


Van Jones explains the incarceration problem very simply and directly:

A lot of times people say, “If you don’t want to do the time, don’t do the crime.” Really? Have you ever committed a crime? You’ve got more people who are doing drugs on college campuses, in yacht clubs, country clubs — we all know that’s going on. But the SWAT team never shows up there. The SWAT team shows up in the housing projects, where you’ve got poorer people doing fewer drugs, and those people go to prison.

But think about it: What if one of the times when you were breaking the law, when you had something illegal in your pocket, in your car, at your party, the police had kicked in those doors. Would you want to be known for the rest of your life based on what happened that night? That is what is happening to millions of people.

If rich folks kids get in trouble, they go to rehab. Poor folks kids get in trouble, they go to prison.

and let’s close with a time trip

Take a flight over Rome during the reign of Constantine.

About the Foundation

Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.


[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]

Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.

But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:

  • pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
  • play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession [1], and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.

None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.

So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.

On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.

Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:

Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized  by Waldman):

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.

Then we get to the AP article.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.

That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.

And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.

Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.

There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.

… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.

So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.

That’s the pay-for-play scandal.


[1] The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.

That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash,  and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s a rare week when my memories of the University of Chicago have anything to do with the news. In a perverse way, U of C revels in its obscurity, like the cool bar that the posers haven’t found yet. Whenever somebody confuses it with the University of Illinois or places it up the lakefront near Northwestern, a real Chicago grad smiles; we know the inside joke and they don’t.

So it was disconcerting to find Chicago at the center of this week’s big culture-war argument: The Dean of Students sent out a letter to “welcome” the new freshmen by telling them the University wasn’t going to coddle them with trigger warnings and safe spaces and canceling “controversial” speakers. The whole campus is an intellectually unsafe space, so you’d better buck up and get used to it, Bubbles.

Basically, this is the Dean posturing for conservative alumni in hopes of getting more money out of them, and (to use the high academic vocabulary I picked up at Chicago), it’s a load of crap. I’ll explain in this week’s first featured post “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School”. Along the way, I’ll reminisce about the only demonstration I participated in at Chicago, when we protested against the University giving a “humanitarian” award to Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara. We protesting students were right, the administration was wrong, and that’s usually how these things go. The biggest corrupting force in a great university is the administration’s lust for contributions and its temptation to cozy up to the powerful, not the over-sensitivity of the student body.

That post just needs some editing and should be out before 9 EDT.

The second featured post is a debunking of the “pay-for-play scandal” at the Clinton Foundation. (Except for the complete absence of either pay or play, the story totally works.) That will be “About the Foundation”, which I think of as a sequel to “About Those Emails“, which I wrote in June. Expect it around 10.

The weekly summary will try (and fail) to make sense of Trump’s new stance on immigration. I’ll be keeping it short because of the length of the featured posts, but I’ll also get around to the 49ers quarterback’s protest, and a few other things. I’ll predict that for noon.

Unexplored Terrain

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain.

Scientific American Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming

This week’s featured post is “What’s a 21st-Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?” It’s an essay question. I don’t have an answer, but I’m hoping you do.

This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

But I don’t think you need me to tell you more about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

Personally, I got frustrated watching NBC’s Olympic coverage, because they always seemed to have something better to do than show us athletic competition.

The women’s 5000 meter finals Friday night summed up my experience: Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana had already won the 10,000 meters in record time, and she moved out to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the 5000. So the announcers got bored and cut away to show us clips from the heartwarming story that happened in one of the qualifying heats, when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and America’s Abbey D’Agostino, helped and encouraged each other to finish after a collision. Then they showed us close-ups of Hamblin running in the finals (she finished 17th and was never near the front of the pack) and D’Agostino watching from the stands with a torn ACL.

By the time the announcers found their way out of the time passages and back to the race they were supposedly covering, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot had erased Ayana’s lead and was whizzing past her. We did get to see the finish, with Cheruiyot far ahead on her way to an Olympic record. But imagine how exciting it must have been, when Cheruiyot began to make her move and everyone suddenly realized this race wasn’t over yet. I had to imagine it, though, because I didn’t see it. Thanks, NBC.


ThinkProgress‘s Lindsey Gibbs tells the fascinating story of South African runner Caster Semenya, whose right to compete as a woman has been challenged because she has unusually high testosterone levels. This isn’t about doping or sex-change surgery or some other artificial method for acquiring an advantage; she was just born that way.

Unlike drug tests, gender tests (or testosterone tests, if you will) are not carried out at random. And Semenya happens to be tall, muscular, flat-chested, and black. This is not a coincidence. According to Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, in the past, IAAF specifically singled out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged its national charters to “actively investigate” any “perceived deviation” in gender.

In practice, gender testing is far more about policing women’s bodies than protecting women’s sports. Testosterone tests tend to target women who don’t fit into the ideal Western standards of what a woman should look like — delicate and overtly feminine, white and lithe.

ESPN’s Kate Fagen agrees with a tweet she saw:

I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.

Semenya is allowed to compete because of a precedent-setting challenge by Indian sprinter Duttee Chand, who said:

I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.

The idea that sport had a level playing field before women like Chand and Semenya arrived is a myth worth challenging. Gibbs concludes that naturally high testosterone is like a lot of other genetic differences that don’t bother us:

Sports are supposed to reward freak-of-nature athletes. … Every elite athlete has some sort of physical advantage they were born with.

538‘s Christie Aschwanden writes a more intellectually challenging account of the nebulous relationship between sex and gender, but comes to the same conclusion:

In the end, the real question to ask is: What is the purpose of sport? Is it more important to provide uncomplicated stories that make us feel uplifted, or to celebrate extraordinary human effort and performance? My vote goes to the latter. Participating in sports taught me to feel powerful in my body, and I’m glad that no one put limits on how strong I could be. When Semenya takes to the line on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for her every step of the way.

For me, this comes back to a point I made when the Caitlyn Jenner controversy was at its peak: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum. It’s simple and in some ways comforting to think in binary terms like male/female, black/white, gay/straight, citizen/foreigner, and so on. But those clean categories are always something we impose on the world, not the way the world is.

Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 meters Saturday night.


As usually happens, women Olympians have had a harder time getting respect from the media than men. Liz Plank compiles the incidents in “The Wide World of Sexism“.

and Trump’s policy speeches

Hillary Clinton has had a full spectrum of policy proposals since early in the campaign, but it’s often been hard to get anything more specific out of Donald Trump than “I’m going to build a wall.” Having criticized him for this, I have a responsibility to pay attention when he does give some specifics.

Law and order. Tuesday, Trump went to West Bend, Wisconsin, a 95% white suburb 40 miles from Milwaukee, which has been torn by riots after yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. [I got the unarmed part wrong, apparently. See the comments.] He gave a law-and-order speech “about how to make our communities safe again from crime and lawlessness.”

Trump’s answer: Stop criticizing police.

The problem in our poorest communities is not that there are too many police, the problem is that there are not enough police. … Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society – a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent – share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country.

They have fostered the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.

Every time we rush to judgment with false facts and narratives – whether in Ferguson or in Baltimore – and foment further unrest, we do a direct disservice to poor African-American residents who are hurt by the high crime in their communities.

In other words, he’s repeating the mistake I described two years ago in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“: He has removed all the context of a community that was already feeling oppressed by the police, all the day-in day-out experience of ordinary citizens being degraded and disrespected. Instead he’s talking about the Milwaukee riot as a one-off event in which unscrupulous liberal politicians sold “false facts and narratives” to gullible black people, who had been perfectly content until somebody told them Sylville Smith was dead.

But riots don’t come out of nowhere, and urban blacks aren’t violent savages looking for an excuse to go on a rampage. The Baltimore riots didn’t happen just because of Freddie Gray, and the Ferguson riots weren’t just about Michael Brown. To describe them that way is like blaming the California wildfires on whichever particular spark happened to set them off, while ignoring the underlying roles of drought and climate change.

In general, I am skeptical of Trump’s expressed concern for African-Americans (where he’s currently polling at 2%). If you want to reach out to a community, you go there. You don’t talk about that community in front of other people. As I see it, the point of Trump’s concern is to reassure the white people of West Bend that he (and by implication, they) are not really racists. He’s selling the idea that he wants more and harsher policing in Milwaukee out of compassion, not out of fear and racial stereotyping.

In front of another nearly all white crowd in Michigan, he again talked “to” blacks.

What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

You mean, other than voting rights and health insurance? Again, this is a white stereotype of black experience. You have to wonder how it sounds to a middle-class black couple who may be struggling to make ends meet, but have jobs, hope for their kids’ education, and a home in a neighborhood they don’t consider a slum.

Terrorism. Last Monday, Trump talked about his approach to terrorism. His speech was a combination of

  • fantasizing about the past. In particular, he continued to lie about opposing the Iraq invasion when in reality he expressed support for it until after it started becoming unpopular. He quotes from an Esquire interview he gave late in 2004, where he sounds critical of the war. But even then, he just said he would have invaded Iraq better than Bush did, not that he wouldn’t have done it. Trump has been a weather vane on this issue; whichever opinion was popular at the time was the one he had supported all along.
  • proposing to do stuff the Obama administration is already doing. President Trump will work together with our allies in the region and with NATO to get rid of ISIS. Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?
  • proposing to do impossible stuff. “We cannot allow the internet to be used as a recruiting tool, and for other purposes, by our enemy – we must shut down their access to this form of communication, and we must do so immediately.” But why stop there? While we’re holding that magic wand, let’s cut off their access to the English language, so they can only recruit Americans in Arabic.
  • proposing to do stuff that is against the American values we’re supposed to be defending. Rather than pull out of Iraq, “we should have kept the oil.” So we would have kept soldiers in Iraq “to guard our assets. In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils.” Clearly his notion of “the old days” doesn’t include the post-World-War-II period, when we didn’t sack Germany for everything we could carry off; we funded the Marshall Plan to rebuild it. He also wants to keep Guantanamo open and send more people there, trying them in military tribunals and torturing them if necessary.

His “extreme vetting” of people who want to come to America is still vague enough that it’s hard to tell whether it falls under stuff we’re already doing or stuff that’s against American values. Probably it’s a mixture. Vox explains.


The Trump campaign had a shake-up, with Paul Manafort out and Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon in. It’s not clear whether Manafort is out because the campaign has been a disaster, or because of what’s come out about him: He funneled pro-Russian Ukrainian money to Washington lobbyists, without registering as a foreign agent. On the surface that looks illegal; it at least deserves an investigation. If anybody connected to Clinton did something similar, I’m sure Congress would be all over it.

Bloomberg‘s Eli Lake now looks like a prophet. When Manafort joined the campaign in April, Lake wrote: “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal“.


Meanwhile naked Donald Trump statues began appearing in cities around the country. New York City defended its decision to remove theirs:

NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.

I’m of two minds about this, and I’m glad to hear that the sculptor is a Gary Johnson supporter, so Democrats have nothing to answer for. Slate‘s Christina Cauterucci sums up the anti-statue position:

Encouraging people to laugh at the statue of Trump because it’s fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked doesn’t tell them Trump is a bad person. It tells them that fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked (or transgender, or intersex) people are funny to look at and should be embarrassed of their naked bodies.

Like many of Trump’s own insults, the statues are “demeaning, gratuitous, and don’t say anything worth saying.”

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, though, because there’s an ongoing debate among anti-Trump people about whether to respond to him with fear, anger, or laughter. The statue clearly comes out on the side of laughter; which is a point worth making. (Though I agree with Cauterucci about the collateral damage to people who share the statue’s supposedly risible features.)

As for the offense to Trump himself, what standards of decency are he and his supporters playing by? If I could identify any, I’d happily grant him the protection of those standards. But it gets tiresome to follow rules and uphold standards when your opponents don’t.


Back in February, a young woman artist painted a nude Trump with a small penis, an image which briefly became a viral sensation. According to Salon, she literally got a black eye for her efforts.


And finally, Chelsea Handler explains sarcasm to Trump. My inner pedant can’t resist pointing out that he should have claimed his “Obama founded ISIS” line was hyperbole, an “obvious and intentional exaggeration”, though Handler’s framing of it as lying also has merit. And she throws in yet another small-penis joke: “Poor Melania. The only way she’ll ever have an orgasm is if she plagiarizes one from Michelle Obama.”

and conspiracy theories

Wouldn’t it be great if our political campaigns revolved around issues that were real? Sadly, this is not the case.

“ransom.” Republicans have been charging that the Obama administration paid a $400 million “ransom” to Iran to get back three Americans. This is another version of the argument I discussed in “If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany” after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Like the money we supposedly “gave” Iran in that deal, it was really their money all along. By withholding it, we got concessions from them in exchange for nothing of ours.

Vox has the long complicated explanation. The short version is that the Shah’s government ordered weapons from us just before it fell, and we neither delivered them nor returned the money to the revolutionary government, which we didn’t recognize. The agreement that President Reagan made in 1981 to resolve the Iran hostage crisis included the establishment of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal to adjudicate a bunch of the remaining issues, including the Shah’s $400 million.

This churned out over decades, until the Obama administration eventually decided it was going to lose the case and settled out of court. There was interest involved, so the $400 million was just a first payment on what we owed. Simultaneously, a prisoner-exchange deal was being negotiated, in which we swapped our prisoners for their prisoners. Suspicious of the Iranians, the administration withheld its cash payment until it was sure Iran was keeping the terms of the prisoner deal. That resulted in the sequence of events that can be made to look like ransom: money goes in one direction at about the same time that people go in other.

Vox says this flap exemplifies everything that’s wrong with our national discussion of Iran. As time goes on, it becomes more and more clear that the Obama’s critics were wrong about the Iran deal: The Iranians are sticking to it, which (at a minimum) should greatly delay the day when they get nuclear weapons.

This creates a major problem for team anti-deal. They need evidence that the deal isn’t working and should be undone, but the facts about the deal’s core provisions don’t support that. The result is an endless deluge of spin. Every new piece of information on Iran or the nuclear deal becomes evidence that Iran is evil or cannot be trusted.

The “ransom” story is another in a list of spun-out-of-nothing stories designed to the Obama administration look hapless in its dealings with Iran, when in fact it has been doing quite well.

Clinton’s “health problem”. The latest Clinton pseudo-scandal is that there’s something seriously wrong with her, which the campaign is covering up. She has seizures or brain damage or something. The “evidence” for this consists of fake documents circulating on the internet, video clips from odd angles replayed endlessly, photos of Clinton being helped up icy steps last winter, and Sean Hannity’s interviews with doctors who have never examined Clinton. New York magazine reviews and debunks.

The problem with this theory is that all those physical and mental disabilities supposedly go back to before she proved herself to be sharp and focused during 11 hours of hostile questioning by the Benghazi Committee.

So this seems like a short-sighted plan of attack for Trump. Next month, a feeble, brain-damaged old woman is going to kick his butt in the debates. How is he going to explain that?


When hearing these stories or similar ones, it’s important to remember “The Fox Cycle“, a six-step process by which nonsense on right-wing blogs becomes mainstream media news.

  1. Right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, and other conservative media outlets start promoting a fringe or false story.
  2. Fox News picks up the story and gives it heavy, one-sided coverage.
  3. Fox News and conservative media attack the “liberal media” for ignoring it.
  4. Mainstream media outlets eventually cover the story, echoing the right-wing distortions.
  5. Fox News receives credit for promoting the story.
  6. The story is later proved to be false or wildly misleading, long after damage is done.

but we should be talking more about the Louisiana floods

If New Hampshire ever has a big natural disaster, I hope it doesn’t happen while the Olympics is interrupting a presidential campaign. The floods in Louisiana are getting so little coverage that when the disaster-relief bill comes up in Congress, a lot of people are going to be asking “What Louisiana flood?”

I grew up next to the Mississippi, so I know that river floods are among the least televisible disasters. There’s no storm surge, no wildfire, no tornado dropping out of the sky. It’s just the inexorable creep of the waterline higher and higher.

Well, OK, sometimes it televises, like when coffins go for a swim.

That’s almost as striking as this video of a burning house floating away in West Virginia earlier this year. That’s become my new standard of misfortune: “It could be worse. I could be watching my burning house float down the river.”

and two unusual political statements

Wired and Scientific American do not usually weigh in on presidential elections. But this time they have. Wired endorses Hillary Clinton

for all of its opinions and enthu­siasms, WIRED has never made a practice of endorsing candidates for president of the United States. Through five election cycles we’ve written about politics and politicians and held them up against our ideals. But we’ve avoided telling you, our readers, who WIRED viewed as the best choice.

Today we will. WIRED sees only one person running for president who can do the job: Hillary Clinton.

… Her vision is bright and forward-looking; Donald Trump’s is dark and atavistic. She’s qualified, she knows the material; Trump is all bluster. We happen to believe that for all the barbs aimed at Hillary Clinton—the whole calculating, tactical, Tracy Flick enchilada—she is the only candidate who can assess the data, consult with the people who need to be heard, and make decisions that she can logically defend. Sure, she’s calculating. She’s tactical. There are worse things you can ask of a person with nuclear codes.

and Scientific American doesn’t tell you who to vote for, but wants you to be aware of Donald Trump’s “alarming” lack of respect for science.

Many politicians are hostile to science, on both sides of the political aisle. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a routine practice of meddling in petty science-funding matters to score political points. Science has not played nearly as prominent a role as it should in informing debates over the labeling of genetically modified foods, end of life care and energy policy, among many issues.

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain. When the major Republican candidate for president has tweeted that global warming is a Chinese plot, threatens to dismantle a climate agreement 20 years in the making and to eliminate an agency that enforces clean air and water regulations, and speaks passionately about a link between vaccines and autism that was utterly discredited years ago, we can only hope that there is nowhere to go but up.

and you might also be interested in

The Justice Department says it is going to phase out its use of private prisons to house federal inmates. Currently about 1 in every 8 federal prisoners is in a privately owned facility rather than a federal prison.

But we’re still far from the end of the private-prison industry, because most of their business comes from states and from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which detains large numbers of undocumented immigrants. But the Justice Department’s decision could mark a turning point. (Still, this is serious: Corrections Corporation of America stock has fallen from over $27 to under $20 since DoJ’s announcement.)

Privatizing prisons was always a bad idea, because it creates a perverse set of incentives.

  • A prison should rehabilitate its inmates and return them to society, but a business wants repeat customers.
  • All prisons are tempted to cut corners on expenses that benefit the prisoners, but only private prisons can immediately transform those savings into bonuses or profit.
  • All industries try to increase their business by lobbying and contributing to political campaigns. But for the prison industry, “increasing business” means depriving more citizens of their freedom.

Politico says:

The Olympics is about the worst thing that could have happened to the Trump train. Here’s a candidate whose message depends entirely on convincing Americans that they’re living in a failing nation overrun by criminal immigrants. And for the past two weeks, tens of millions of Americans have been glued to a multi-ethnic parade of athletes, winning easily. “Make America Great Again” has never felt more out-of-touch than it does against the backdrop of tenacious, over-achieving American athletes driven by their own journeys in pursuit of the American Dream.

According to Voice of America:

nearly 50 of the athletes were born outside the U.S. The range of nations is wide: Sudan, Kenya, China, Albania, Montenegro and Cuba, to name just a few.


In a move described as “fighting absurdity with absurdity”, the #CocksNotGlocks campaign will have University of Texas students hanging dildos from their backpacks when classes start Wednesday. The point is to protest the new Texas law that allows concealed carry of firearms inside campus buildings.

The idea comes from UT alum Jessica Jin, who says:

A lot of our American culture is still so puritanical, and we see that in the continual normalizing of gun culture, while shutting down sex culture, which is pretty harmless and happy. If the guns around you aren’t making you uncomfortable, then maybe this dildo protest will make you think twice about what it is that makes you feel uncomfortable, and why.


Last fall, when Hurricane Joaquin looked like it might threaten Washington, D.C. (it didn’t; it turned south and missed the eastern seaboard entirely), Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council discussed the role of God’s judgment with Jonathan Cahn. Cahn made the case:

God knows that American leaders have “crossed a gigantic line” and “overruled the word of God massively” when they “legalized the killing of the unborn in 1973 and now we have the striking down of marriage.” Cahn said that the White House’s decision to celebrate LGBT pride month with rainbow lights was another “act of desecration” that will “provoke judgment.”

And Perkins underlined it:

All of these things are quite amazing when you look at them collectively. And I’ll just say this Jonathan, because I know that there are those on the Left that like to mock these things. America has a history, our leaders actually, our president, our governors, when these things have happened in Nature, like hurricanes, all of these external events that put our nation at risk; there’s a long line of historical tradition here where we — not so much in recent years — but they had stepped back and said, “Is God trying to send us a message?”

So this week, when “a flood of near Biblical proportions” hit Perkins’ home in Louisiana, he didn’t seem to be taking that step back and asking if his convention speech endorsing Donald Trump had called down God’s judgment.

Turn back, Tony. Forswear your foolish ways.


Amanda Marcotte makes a good point about the American swimmers in Rio, who police say vandalized a gas station and then made up a story about being robbed: “If the swimmers are lying, I doubt it will be used as evidence from here on out that we can’t trust anyone else who says they were robbed.” Women and rape, on the other hand …


Rush Limbaugh and World Net Daily have identified the latest Obama plot to undermine American values: lesbian farmers. Rural areas everywhere should fear for their conservative purity.


Sadly, this is not satire: Yesterday, White Lives Matter protesters with Confederate flags, at least one Trump hat, and at least one semi-automatic rifle protested outside Houston’s NAACP headquarters.


Over the years, there’s been a lot of discussion about how many Walmart employees need food stamps or some other form of public assistance. (So do employees at other low-wage businesses like McDonalds.) The point being that if government aid allows workers to survive on ridiculously low wages, it’s really the employer who’s getting the subsidy. (Many Walmart workers did get a raise in February, but it appears that hours were cut at the same time.)

This week, Bloomberg revealed another way Walmart lives on the public dole: Its stores require far more from local police than comparable retailers like Target.

Police reports from dozens of stores suggest the number of petty crimes committed on Walmart properties nationwide this year will be in the hundreds of thousands. … More than 200 violent crimes, including attempted kidnappings and multiple stabbings, shootings, and murders, have occurred at the nation’s 4,500 Walmarts so far this year, or about one a day. …

“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.” … There’s nothing inevitable about the level of crime at Walmart. It’s the direct, if unintended, result of corporate policy.

Most of the policies in question revolve around keeping labor costs low. There just aren’t enough employees around, or enough security people to back them up. The police are the backup, so the cost shifts to the public.

and let’s close with something futuristic

3D printers do amazing things, and when their potential is fully realized, they’ll replace a lot skilled workers. (But that’s a problem for another day: Quite possibly, America will bring back manufacturing without bringing back manufacturing jobs.) The printer in the picture is special, though: It prints food, and cooks as it goes.

It comes from Columbia University, where they’ve been trying to make more complex 3D printers that can print with many different materials at once, and so construct more elaborate products than the plastic-or-something-like-it objects the early printers made.

While experimenting with making multi-material printers, [Professor Hod] Lipson noticed the students in his lab were beginning to use food as a test material.

“They were using cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, all kinds of food materials you might find around an engineering lab,” he says. “In the beginning, it was sort of a frivolous thing. But when people came to the lab and looked at it, they actually got really excited by the food printing.”

Lipson then brought some New York City chefs into the lab, who extended the experiments to include egg, pesto, cream cheese, flour, and jam. (Cream cheese apparently is particularly easy to work with.)

Lipson sees the printer as having two main uses for consumers. First, it could be a specialty appliance for cooking novel foods difficult to achieve by any other process. You could print, say, a complex pastry designed by someone in Japan, a recipe you’d never have the expertise or equipment to make by hand. Lipson says he could imagine digital recipes going viral, spreading across the globe.

The second use is about health and targeted nutrition. People are already increasingly interested in personal biometrics, tracking their blood pressure, pulse, calorie burn and more using cell phones and computers. In the future, it may be possible to track your own health in much greater detail—your blood sugar, your calcium needs or your current vitamin D level. The printer could then respond to those details with a customized meal, produced from a cartridge of ingredients.

It’s not quite like ordering food from the Star Trek replicator, but it’s getting there.

What’s a 21st Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?

A typical featured article on this blog is supposed to tell my readers something they might not already know, or at least to get them to think about it in a different way. But this time I’m just trying to raise a question, hoping that the combined wisdom and creativity of the readership will come up with stuff I haven’t thought of.

Before I ask the question, some background: One of the most radical things the United States government ever did was pass the Homestead Act (actually the Homestead Acts; there were a series of them). Beginning in 1850, and picking up steam after the Civil War, the government gave away relatively small plots of land — usually 160 acres — to settlers who over a period of five years would build a home on the land, live there, “improve” the land to make it farmable, and then farm it. Wikipedia claims that 10% of the total area of the United States was given away in this manner, to the benefit of 1.6 million families. [1]

I doubt Karl Marx had much influence on the U.S. Congress (though he was writing during this era) and there’s nothing particularly communist about establishing 1.6 million plots of private property. But I like to look at the Homestead Act in the light of the Marxist concept of the means of production. In a nutshell, the means of production is whatever resources are necessary to turn labor into goods and services. So, in a given society at a given state of technology,

Labor + X = Goods and Services

Solve for X, and that’s the means of production. Today, X is complicated: factories and patents and communication systems and whatever. But for most of human history, the means of production had mostly been land. And it still could be, even in the 19th century with its growing industrial economy; if you had fertile land, you could work it and produce sustenance for yourself, plus some extra to trade.

To Marx, the problem of capitalism is that the means of production — land, factories, mines, and so on — wind up privately owned by a fairly small group of people, and everybody else can only get access to the means of production by negotiating with those people. In other words, your productivity is not up to you; you can’t just go work and collect the fruit of your labor, you need an employer to hire you, so that you can have a job and get paid. Your labor only counts if you can get an employer’s permission to use his access to the means of production. Otherwise, you’re like a landless farmer or an auto worker who has been laid off from the factory.

Marx foresaw a vicious cycle: The narrower the ownership of the means of production became, the less bargaining power a worker would have, and the larger the premium an employer could demand in order to grant access. [2] This imbalance in bargaining power would increase the concentration of wealth, making the ownership of the means of production even narrower.

Usually, communists end up talking about state ownership of the means of production, but I want to point out that that’s a method, not a goal. What is really important is universal access to the means of production. State ownership is one way to try to do that, and I’m not sure how many other ways there might be — that’s part of the question here — but the real goal should be access: If all the people who want to work can find a way to turn their effort into goods and services, without needing to make a extortionate deal with some gatekeeper, then we’re on to something.

Now let’s return to the Homestead Act. What it did was vastly increase the number of Americans with access to the means of production. Mind you, it didn’t establish universal access — if you were a freedman sharecropping in Georgia, or were making pennies an hour in some dangerous factory in Connecticut, you had little prospect of assembling a big enough stake to go out West and homestead for five years — but it was vastly expanded access.

So now you’re in a position to understand what I’m asking: What would do that now? What change could we make (where we includes but is not necessarily limited to the federal government) that would vastly increase access to whatever the means of production is today?


[1] Probably most of you have already realized that this was an example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only reason the U.S. government had all this land to give was that they were in the process of stealing it from the Native Americans.

I would argue that at this point the decision to rob Peter had already been made; I doubt any major figure in the government saw much future for the Native Americans other than being pushed back onto reservations or annihilated. However we do the moral calculations today, at the time Congress saw itself with the power (and even the right, though don’t ask me to defend it) to dispose of that land however it wanted.

Given that robbery-in-progress, I think the decision to pay Paul is still remarkable. It certainly wasn’t the only thing Congress could have done. The government could have applied the Spanish model, and created a bunch of large haciendas to be controlled by a wealthy elite. Or it could have applied the English model, and granted the land in huge swathes to public/private companies like the East India Company or the Virginia Company, who could develop it for profit. What it did instead created a middle class of small landowners rather than an aristocracy or a managerial elite.

[2] Workers don’t usually pay an explicit “premium for access to the means of production”, but it’s implicit when a profitable business pays low wages: Money comes in and the owner keeps the lion’s share. If you don’t like it, go get another job.

One way to read the productivity vs. wages graphs I post every few months is that access premiums have been growing since the mid-1970s, and really started to accelerate in the mid-1980s.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There’s a lot to discuss this week, and no single dominating story.

As always, there are 2016 developments: Trump gave a couple of policy speeches, including calling for African-Americans to vote for him because they have “nothing to lose”, an observation that I’m sure came as a huge surprise to the many blacks who have jobs and homes and families, and particularly the ones who will lose their health insurance if Trump succeeds in repealing ObamaCare. The naked Trump statues appeared.

There are conspiracy theories to debunk about paying ransom to Iran, Clinton’s precarious health, and the plot to corrupt rural areas by introducing lesbian farmers. Two major science/technology magazines decided they needed to break their usual policies and comment on the presidential race.

A bunch of interesting stories also came out of the Olympics, including a debate about what it means to be a woman.

The Justice Department is going to stop using private prisons. Texas students are going to start hanging dildos from their backpacks. There’s a new reason to hate Walmart. And meanwhile, what about that flood in Louisiana? (Who’s God judging now, Tony Perkins?) And finally, I have a great closing: an experimental 3D printer that outputs food.

Covering all that didn’t leave much space for a featured article, so I decided to raise a question instead of trying to answer one: In the 19th century, the Homestead Act gave land to 1.6 million families. You don’t usually hear that discussed in Marxist terms, but it ought to be: In a stroke, the government vastly increased the number of people who had direct access to the means of production. It also established a middle class in the frontier territories. Is there anything similar we could do today? What would play the role of land? Who would the beneficiaries be? What effort would be the equivalent of homesteading? Think about it and if you come up with anything, share it.

The Homestead Act article should be out 9ish, with the weekly summary following by 11.