The trouble with talking about gender

Simple messages are easiest to remember. Being easy to remember is often conflated with being true.

Unfortunately, the traditional view of gender is the simplest — it’s a toggle switch, there are two settings, M and F. Anything that deviates from that rubric is… deviant.

We have a more sophisticated view of this nowadays. Gender is not a toggle switch, it’s not even a dimmer, with gradual settings. It’s more of an equalizer board, with many sliders. I’d say it’s a bank of equalizers with unpredictable interactions — a truly chaotic system. So much so, that it becomes a chump’s game even to discuss, it’s just too complicated.

And, actually, why do we need to? I remember when I was a kid in the 1960s, people being very exercised over men’s long hair. Simpler times, I know! The cliché complaint was, You can’t tell the girls from the boys!

Now that I’m in my 60s looking back, I wonder, Why do you need to tell the boys from the girls again? Are you looking to match up your child? Do you need to know whom to underpay, whose ass you can grab without consequence, whom you would invite to the club? Why is it even interesting to know the boys from the girls?

I’d argue it isn’t — who cares? Well, apparently a lot of people. Parents care. Confession — I don’t have biological children of my own, I am a step-parent. I’ve never had a baby. But it seems that parents of babies are obsessed with the physical characteristics of their children. This is sensible and probably a survivalistic trait, selected for by evolution. Even as children grow into adults, I find their parents obsess over how they look, even if they know this is not a healthy focus. Better to reward them for things they’ve chosen, such as kindness, hard work, and generosity, rather than being pretty or being handsome or being tall. But there you are, we are apes and we do ape things.

So parents want to know what their kids are, M or F, and if the kids don’t fall neatly in those categories, parents can get upset. Upset people like to blame others for leading their perfect offspring astray, because the alternative is to either blame themselves (very unpleasant) or just accept that life is more complicated than they thought. That is hard to admit.

I am reminded of the endless fretting about exposure to gay people (my family was in the NYC theater scene; I was brought up around every conceivable permutation of sexuality; for the record, I’m straight… though effete and sometimes taken for gay). It was almost as if being straight was some kind of grim duty and took iron discipline, which, if relaxed for a second, one would tumble into gayness. I think all the people who believe that need to examine their own sexuality, if they feel that being gay is truly where joy, delight and freedom lie, and being straight requires constant work.

A difficulty for the community trying to open us up from the strict binary era is talking about schools to parents. If you say that schools need to change, that parenting needs to change, many parents will feel insulted and attacked. They loved school! The sports, the dances, the surreptitious sex, maybe even the classes. If you’re telling them, no, do it differently, the challenge is how to say that without driving parents right into a defensive crouch. I’m not smart enough to do this, sadly. If I were the character in Ted Chiang’s Understand, maybe I could figure it out.

This is often true; one can “say what one thinks” and feel virtuous, but if, in the process, you make someone else defensive, you’ve lost.

How to Offend a White Republican Man

A good old friend of mine was complaining about cancel culture. He’s an editor, and was given a proofreading job of a galley without the original manuscript. This is called “blind proofreading.” When he used that term, he was criticized for making an ableist comment. Being a witty guy, he said, okay, it’s partially-sighted proofreading.

Funny, right? It was not taken as funny. The individual was offended. I would conclude that, in life, you’re going to run into tedious scolds. If you’re in a university environment, they’ll be left-wing tedious scolds. One could be forgiven (if one didn’t understand statistics) for believing that all tedious scolds are left-wing, which is a logical fallacy (don’t know the name of it). I mean, if my friend were working in an oil company, nobody would have batted an eye at “blind proofreading”, but something else might offend them.

This conversation has me wondering, if I did work in a hard-right environment, what would be the unacceptable joke? Any right-wing environment would be either all-White men and/or very Christian. In a Christian environment, you’re not going to do the “I can see my house from here” joke (not that it’s a good one; I’m sure there are better Christ jokes), and no amount of saying (in that whining plaintive tone), I’m joking, can’t you take a joke? will help.

In an all White male environment, like maybe in an oil-extraction or mining company, or plumbing supplies, you could certainly joke about women, non-whites, the disabled, and nobody would bother you about inadvertently “ableist” comments. As a White man, I could even make some fun of the one Black employee, and if they were offended I could do that “I’m joking, can’t you take a joke” thing.

Any suggestions for jokes that a right-wing White man would be bothered by? 

I was just in Santa Fe and visited the art museum. There’s a mural showing some friar “converting” the Mayans or Incas or Aztecs (can never tell them apart). It’s the one friar, unarmed, just holding up a big cross, facing a redoubtable crowd of Native people. Right behind him, of course, is a heavily armed group of conquistadors, leaning lazily on their swords and pikes. Some on horses.

I think the Toltecs in this situation (Olmecs?) might be more defensive than the conquistadors, given the power dynamics and potential for violence. The conquistadors, not generally known for their sense of humor, might laugh at themselves, but certainly would be willing to laugh at the native people. When the conquistadors were far away, I’d bet the native peoples would laugh at them, and maybe at themselves too. But when they’re all together, laughter and jokes involve a comment on, or playing with, power dynamics that would be way more uncomfortable for one group than for another, given where the matchlocks and spears were pointing.

Because of the whole gun thing, and because our justice system, from cop through judge, knows where its bread is buttered, White men have the least to fear from anyone, in terms of actual physical violence from other citizens or from the state. Or, maybe more importantly, in terms of loss of status.

I think that’s even more worrisome. Those at the top of the social hierarchy are worried more about others catching up to them than anything else.

So maybe that’s how to offend a right-wing White man. JTK*.

* That’s “joke to come” in TV writer’s lingo, I’m told.

Digging for voters

So clearly what’s been happening since Nixon is this:

  • Republicans worry because their base is shrinking
  • They can’t broaden their base to other voters because their reliable base hates those other voters.
  • They have to find people who aren’t yet voters — those people exist! They hate politicians because they keep telling them they’re wrong to be (a) racist, (b) sexist, (c) fearful of anyone different than them, and (d) anti-Semitic. Trump did this with (famously) motorcycle gang club members. (Remember! They’re not a gang if they’re White!)
  • Republicans’ job is clear: be (a), (b), (c), and (d) and capture those voters.
  • Other Republicans aren’t thrilled about this, but they’re team players, so they justify (a), (b), (c), and (d). In the course of doing that, those fusty, old-fashioned “norms” become less normal.
  • Since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when Democrats alienated their Dixiecrat base by extending a hand to Blacks, this strategy has been pretty effective.
  • Now Republicans have to find smaller and smaller numbers of more and more extreme and hateful voters. These are not many people, but every one counts and thanks to modern computational power, they can be unearthed.
  • To accommodate the very small potential group of voters who might be described as Heavily Armed Mass Murderers, Republicans have to normalize these people’s passions in murdering lots of people with powerful weapons. The rest of the party, being team players, will work at justifying this behavior.

The Republican party is well on its way to becoming the Party of Heavily Armed Mass Murderers. Even now, their speechwriters are working on stirring, patriotic defenses of this slim, but crucial, voting bloc.

You can’t say anything anymore!

Oh, sure you can.

Here are the gripes, and here are my responses.

You can’t say anything anymore! It may feel that way because you’re not the only one talking. You can say whatever you want, whenever you want, but a thousand people may respond to you and tell you what a jerk you are. So, the gripe is really, “You can’t say anything anymore without people yelling at you.” That, I’m afraid, may be true. So the complaint about “not being able to say anything” is more a complaint about power structures. Other people are yelling at you, which means you have less power than you might like. No wonder it’s upsetting!

Note of course, that people who say “you can’t say anything anymore” have just said the thing they claim they are forbidden to say. So it’s incoherent. But if they were to tell the whole truth, they’d say, “I can’t say anything anymore and have people like me,” which would sound like the childish whining it is.

They won’t let me talk on that stage, so they don’t believe in free speech! Sure they do. It’s been said ad nauseum, but people still don’t get it. You can’t say whatever you want wherever you want, whenever you want, but you can say it somewhere, and that’s all either the 1st Amendment and our custom of free speech guarantee. You can’t come to my house and tell my family about your anti-vax convictions, or about how the election was rigged. I and my family have something to say about what goes on in our property. If you believe in the sanctity of private property, you would respect that. Even the 1st Amendment has time, place, and manner restrictions. In a mayor’s town hall meeting, you can say whatever you want, but if you yell, take too much time, or use rude language, you will be ejected. As with many things, this seems perfectly reasonable when it applies to other people, but a horrific limitation of Freedom when it applies to you.

Again, this is about power. The griper is objecting to their perceived loss of power when, in fact, it is an increase in the power of others.

The issue of privately owned channels, like Twitter, which can ban people for a variety of reasons, is bothersome, because it seems like a public “town square”, when in fact it is a private enterprise. The illusion of public ownership comes from its being free and ubiquitous; it looks like a commons.

Citizens who advocate for the shrinkage of government now have to contend with the loss of rights that are only guaranteed under the government’s aegis. Hoisted by their own petard.

They refuse to debate me, they must be afraid of my ideas! Well, that’s a very flattering explanation, but there are other possibilities. People might not want to debate you because they don’t like you; maybe you’re unpleasant. Or, you don’t mean “debate” in the sense of a structured, timed event with referees and controls, but an argument, which people may, understandably, prefer to avoid. Or, even if you do mean a formal debate, there might be a sense that you want to use the debate forum as a means to deliver self-serving speeches and gotchas, regardless of what your debate opponent says. Debates that reveal actual ideas and arguments are wonderful things, but ever since the Evolution vs Creation debates, they have evolved (irony!) into simply a platform to confer respectability on ideas that do not otherwise merit it, by putting them on a level field with ideas that have scientific or institutional credibility. And why should anyone grant you that platform? Host your own debate, you want a debate so badly.

So, the uncomfortable conclusion is that you have plenty of freedom, as much as ever, but others do too. Could you move over? You’re taking up the whole bench.

America – Cognitive Dissonance

To believe the following, you need only believe that Cognitive Dissonance is painful and annoying; that we are subject to Social Desirability Bias; and that it is basic human nature to seek a higher position in the social hierarchy. In other words, we are hierarchical apes who live in clans.

Many traditional societies had tiers in their society. There were slaves, free but lowly people, higher-ups, local strongmen or warlords, and a very small number of high aristocrats or kings. Those at the top feel they deserve it via Divine Right or maybe God-Given Talent or maybe a vague notion of betterness. Perfectly normal. It is unusual for successful people to think, Anyone could be in my position, I got here by luck.

Since the Enlightenment, Europe’s gift to the world, we have ideals of Equality, Freedom, and Ruling by Consent of the Governed (EF&RCG). There is a pretty obvious tension between these concepts and the traditional tiered society where the Betters rule over the Lowlies by some flavor of Divine Right. Each traditional tier feels that they have more rights than the one below and fewer than the one above. Is this Human Nature? I think so, but I’m no expert in Human Nature. The Enlightenment values of EF&RCG are a departure from basic human nature, but one that we admire.

Why do we admire these values? Peer-group pressure? Is it because of printing and the dissemination of ideas? You’d think our “peer” group would be within a tier. It could be that the upper tiers have more access to education, hence Philosophy; our Enlightenment ideals were thought up by members of the higher tiers. They could be dubbed tier traitors! But whatever the reason, it takes a brave person to say they’re against Equality, Freedom for all, and Ruling by Consent of the Governed.

It is a truism and not very original to say that America was founded with High Ideals, as expressed in the poetry parts of our founding documents, but not-so-high in the actionable parts. Some good management ideas, such as Checks and Balances, but those aren’t expressions of high ideals. The 3/5 compromise is a great example of how compromised these documents were. No doubt the slave states wanted each slave to count as a full person in the census, but our High Enlightenment Ideals could not stomach that; 3/5 would have to do!

So back to the traditional tiers in early American society — White Men with Property on top, they had freedom and provided consent for government via voting; followed by White Men without property, who had freedom but could not provide consent via voting; followed by White Women, who had whatever freedom they could convince White Men to give them; followed by Indigenous people, whose rights to their lives and property were not respected, but were not enslaved, and had freedom as long as they stayed out of the way (which ultimately proved impossible); and Black people, who had no freedom, no say, nada, nichevo, nothing.

The nation, at its founding, provided various levels of freedom and self-government for 80% of its population, and a totalitarian dictatorship in for-profit work camps for the remaining 20%. It takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics to make that seem okay for a modern person; you’d have to glamorize the work camps (as in Gone With the Wind); you’d have to dehumanize Black people as inferior yet deeply threatening (see The Birth of a Nation and so… many… others); you’d have to claim that there was no controversy at the time and that the institution of slavery and domination was so normal that judging the slavers and their supporters is, absurdly, imposing modern ideas on people long ago. The wrinkle in that is that it was not “completely normal” at the time; it was controversial then and there were many who opposed it; Vermont banned slavery in 1775. Quakers always opposed it. See the Granville Sharp case in 1772. But, of course, if you owned slaves they made you a lot of money (not paying people is still a big money maker today), and if you didn’t, it gave you someone to be better than, no matter how lowly you were in other respects. It is very hard to build a good argument against something that makes you rich (or superior to others). Much easier to simply accept it as what a Just Universe owes you. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

America, it is often said, has been on a path to achieving in its laws and customs the High Ideals expressed in the non-actionable text of its founding documents. So non-property owning Whites got the vote under Jackson, then, at various times, Women, and Black people got to vote. Woman are still fighting for full freedom (even when pregnant!). So if you’re a White Man, your satisfaction at your higher status is under assault. Others are getting rights and freedoms that used to be exclusively yours! As a hierarchical ape, this does not feel good. Seeing others catch up is indistinguishable from falling behind.

But, as a high-minded individual of impeccable morals, the same White Man believes in the Enlightenment ideals of Equality, Freedom, and so on. So you favor Equality, but feel bad when it is being achieved and resist it. This is confusing and upsetting. You have to make excuses for your behavior – they don’t deserve Equality, they’re jumping in line ahead of you, they’re not working hard and playing by the rules.

American impasse and the limits of tribal empathy

So why in America can’t we progress? Because there are about ten to fifteen percent of the country that sees no point to the American experiment if it doesn’t guarantee White superiority.

The good news, I suppose, is that it’s only ten to fifteen percent. But that is not evenly distributed. They are almost all Republicans, so that means 20 to 30 percent of the GOP. That’s too many to ignore, and no Republican presidential candidate has won by ignoring or defying them. Not only that, one Republican candidate has won (barely) by playing to them almost exclusively. Look at McCain: he lost to Obama the moment he said to that person at a town hall, No, you’re wrong, Obama is a good Christian man. That defiance was the end. Romney did not play to that slice of the base, though I donˋt think he opposed them. Bush and Reagan played to them more or less subtly, and catered to them more or less during their terms.

Because of Trump’s victory, however on the margin, the GOP has a new playbook and everyone thinks this is how to win. You play to that tranche, and you win them solidly, and you can win others who do not believe what they believe but feel defensive of them. Then you may also win others who like to see a unified team. You will lose a tranche who opposes these beliefs, but I speculate those are the other end of the bell curve, about ten to fifteen percent of the party. Those are Republicans who are ideologically committed to equality and fairness. They are ideologically very similar to some Democrats, but for tribal and cultural reasons will not flip.

It’s a good question to ask what is going on with this group. What is in their mind that makes them so devoted to this idea that seems to toxic to others. I think it is probably not, for most of them, hate. I think people are driven by positive motivations. When blatant White supremacists say they are driven by love for White people (however defined, and however that definition has changed over the decades), I think we can take them at their word. They want the people they love to do better than others. Nobody really, in their heart of hearts, wants a fair shake for their kids, they want their kids to have unfair advantages. Your kid misbehaves in class? It’s a rare parent who doesn’t want endless second chances for their kid. Of course, that word “second” is funny when it really means nth. Your kid doesn’t work hard or just isn’t that clever? You still want them to do well… of course you do! You love them!

We don’t want the ones we love to get what they deserve, we want them to get more than they deserve. If we consider ourselves fair-minded (and who doesn’t) we want others to get what they deserve, and no less than that. But fairness does not, I don’t think, extend to the ones we love. We love them no matter what. We make excuses — he’s a fine young man, he’s good at heart, she didn’t mean it, she was kidding.

So if your tribal feelings extend only to those who are very, very similar to you, and no further, you can easily, in a very human way, be a supremacist. I speculate (wildly) that only for about ten to fifteen percent of the population, they are unable to empathize with anyone who does not resemble them closely. I’m no neuroscientist, but my mental picture is there is a dial in the brain that allows tribal feelings to extend to those who are more or less similar. For a very few people, it extends to all humanity if not all sentient beings. There may even be difficult religious practices designed to extend and foster that ability. On the other end, there are a few people who can not feel empathy for anyone but themselves; sociopaths or psychopaths (I’ve never been clear on the difference). Those are the ends of the curve. Climb up the wings of the bell curve, and you get a larger group who can empathize with not just themselves, but only people very similar to themselves, at one end, and not all sentient beings but wide swaths of humanity, at the other end.

Note, above, there can be supremacists in every group; humans are human, and if there is a dial in the brain that establishes the boundaries of empathy, that exists for all people, and with a similar range of options. It is only because of the particular makeup of the American population and history and government and structure that White supremacists have the power to threaten and dominate that they have. I suppose that any authoritarian government depends on a supremacist movement — people are clearly willing to surrender personal freedom if they can dominate others, and establish a system in which that dominance is passed on to their offspring.

[there’s more to come, but I can’t do that right now…]

In America, we live better than the Nobles of Europe!

I remember my father saying something like that. I believe it was in reference, hilariously and trivially, to Wonder Bread (which he loved). White bread being an expensive luxury in Europe. He came over from Germany with his parents in 1933.

But there is a more sinister way this is true, in that European nobility were not only unusual in their luxurious tastes, but in their position in a social hierarchy — without peasants or servants or people of some sort over whom you have authority, being a nobleman is pretty meaningless. Also, it’s the passing on of the privilege to one’s offspring, and protecting that position over generations.

I suspect that many Americans cherish their “equality” as long as there is someone below them. In other words, their status as Free Americans depends on their having someone they can push around. If I’m right about that, then maybe if follows that ever since Civil Rights, restrictions on being able to push people around feels like a restriction on liberty. I mean, technically it really is a restriction on liberty. I don’t have a quote, but I believe Benjamin Franklin mocked those Southern slave lords who went around bleating about libertad, when the liberty they craved included the liberty to own humans and have life-or-death power over them. (Of course, Franklin had two household slaves and no farming operation.)

Culturally, there seems to be no middle ground between being able to push around fellow citizens and being pushed around. The idea of “freedom” while not being allowed to be a bully is just cognitively dissonant to so many. This dissonance is coped with by redefining the bullying as being harmless. So it’s not enough to say you won’t wear a mask, you have to also believe that Covid is harmless. The personal cost in lost freedom (however trivial) of Covid being a genuine, deadly illness is just too great.

Anyway, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss people’s attachment to this power structure as simply wicked; it’s worth examining and finding if there is some way the need for status can be addressed (it’s a basic primate need after all; we are hierarchical apes) while also addressing the cost to others.

[This all came from reading Paul Krugman’s newsletter, and the term “dynastic wealth” stood out to me. The reason the Scandinavian countries have the most social mobility and the greatest ability to get rich is that they have (a) taxed dynastic wealth out of (most of its) power and (b) offered free college to all.]

In Europe, there is more suspicion of nobility, and perhaps less desire to emulate their worst aspects. This is a reason I think the French Revolution, for all its failings, did not fight to keep 20% of the population in servitude.

Communities’ acceptance of other communities

That whole topic was brought to mind to me yesterday in a podcast (driving more, so listening more). The topic was trans things, and the speaker said that Facebook and other social media operations were banning trans people’s posts, even when they were in private areas, and how unfair that was and how it harmed the trans community. I immediately thought of far-right communities, and how I want them to be surveilled to within an inch of their life (and an inch beyond). [Yes, sure, “far-left” too, to the extent they exist; that’s dozens of people, DOZENS! I just don’t see “far left” as a violent threat. They are a cultural threat in that they have a LOCK on tiny theater productions.]

I’d like to see someone (I don’t think it can be me) define “right” and “left” in terms of how they see a nation’s or the world’s communities. On the right, there’s a hint in how it is descended from feudalism via royalism, though it likes its “barons” (whatever that may be at any stage in history) to have a lot of leeway to exercise their power independently of a king/president (see the Magna Carta and Federalism). Nobody should interfere with their oppression of their serfs/slaves/employees/subordinates. Unfettered power is the sweetest power, even if it is the power to put fetters on someone.

How does the “left” define its community? Sometimes internationally, as in workers of the world. I think it can also be nationally, but without regard to traditional social hierarchy. So the ideal “liberal” order would be like what we had after WWII for 20 years, with high marginal tax rates and high inheritance taxes to create more financial equality, and good public schools (in English with introductory (i.e., 1 year) help for non-English speaking children; this is the area I would be considered “right-wing”) and free college for all who want it to create a ladder of social ascent. Why is there more social mobility in Scandinavia than in the US or Europe? High taxes + free schools and college. Because of the draft in the pre-Vietnam era, everyone was all White people men were “equal” and the government successfully created a White middle class, which was a shining example to the world.

Except for the racism and the sexism, America was great then! And we should Make America Greater!

***
Okay, so that’s a stab at how the L and the R identify our “communities”. How do they deal with other communities? Ethnic, religious, other. America had a “melting pot,” which has more or less charitable definitions (over a couple of generations, you can be full Americans and we’ll be gentle in the meanwhile, maybe just mocking your accent or facial hair; OR Assimilate quickly, become invisible or we’ll discriminate against you and maybe lynch you).

I remember a trope a few years back about people moving to Bible Belt communities. At the local watering hole, someone would ask, as one does there, Where do you go to church? You’d better have an answer, because if you didn’t go to church, you were considered a threat. How do we know you won’t just KILL people? What’s stopping you, if not our Lord Jesus? You remember, this was a real argument. How can they trust you, if you don’t go to Church, and preferably, their particular Church?

And this is the suspicion of Jews — they’re not part of my community, they’re part of their own community. Who do they answer to? What are they up to? And if you start thinking that, you will notice other small differentiating characteristics: facial features, hair, clothes, accents… Never a shortage of ways to notice differences.

Another community that has suffered a great deal of discrimination are the Roma. Persecuted in Germany, sullenly tolerated elsewhere. Now, I don’t know much about the Roma, but I believe the stereotype is that, unlike Jews, they have historically been suspected of not participating in the overall economy, but rather in the grey or black market. So they have the same suspicions levied against them that Jews have, but Jews participate in the at-large economy so can have a great claim to be “mainstream.”

What about communities that discriminate to the point of violence against those who are really hard to distinguish as “other”? In France, there was (is still? I don’t know!) the community of Cagots. Indistinguishable from other French people except by their names, they had special entrances to Churches, and it is said that priests would give them communion with tongs. But know who was and who was not a Cagot was vital, to the point that when a fire broke out in a government building that had files of Cagot’s names, the community went to rescue the files, just so they could keep track of whom to oppress!

And of course the famous 1950s 60s reaction to men’s long hair: “You can’t tell the boys from the girls!” Why, again, do you need to? To know whom you can harass, what form the harassment should take, whom you should hire or not, whom you can batter or (maybe) flirt with.

The Final Word on American History

To all the fearful bleating about how to teach our history, I offer the following approach. Remember, the favorite tactic of the Right, at this point in history, is to run down the clock with blather, then declare righteous victory (cousin of the Gish Gallop, I believe). So my approach may seem controlling, and it only works if the other party allows it. The way to pressure them to allow it, is for each step to be so obvious that arguing it is idiotic, even from their point of view.

  1. Was there an institution of slavery at the Founding? Well, sure AND WE ARE AGAINST IT.
    • You may get into a Whole Thing about Lincoln here. The point, as I said, is to waste time while shouting “Lincoln!” over and over. You could say, Yes, but the Founders. May work, may not.
  2. Okay, good. What percentage of our population was enslaved? (this is a number question, so answering it righteously is hard) About 20%. In Virginia, in 1790, about 40% of the population was enslaved Black people (see here). About 2% were free Blacks. (NOTE — you’ll find that talking about numbers at any length, say three numbers, throws some sand in the gears of righteousness).
  3. Were slaves granted freedom to worship however they chose? No. Could they pick whichever job they liked? No. Could they speak out or publish? No. Could they freely assemble? No. Could they pick whom they married? No. What do we call this kind of society? It still exists, in North Korea. Soviet Russia even resembled this. We have a name for it: Totalitarian Dictatorship. 20% of the population was being subject to Totalitarian Dictatorship. Not so cute when you put it that way.
    • You could compare slaves lots with Soviet Russians. Worse off? Insufficient data… My Old Friend would try to steer this by comparing. An effective counterargument is, Compared to What? Slaves were badly off… compared to what? Soviets were badly off… compared to what? And he would say that comparing them to each other is somehow Not Fair.
  4. What were the anti-colonialists fighting for? Um… taxes? That’s the usual answer. But also ideals! Lofty ideals. That certainly helps the image of what might otherwise seem kind of mercenary. I mean, colonists had every freedom granted British citizens, except they did not have a vote for Parliament. Arguably, they had more freedom than a British citizen in England, in that the Crown was months away by sea. My non-historian’s impression is that they were fighting for not a whole lot. Look at Canada — they did, and are doing, just fine

So, what we get is that people running, or profiting from others’ running, a Totalitarian Dictatorship were fighting a war to keep from paying taxes (if you were rich) and for High Ideals (if you were not rich; the poor always get the High Ideals while the rich get the money).

So that’s the Story of our Founding™. A whole separate and much more difficult question is how to teach this to children. My Old Friend says, correctly, that a nation’s history is supposed to be a binding story for its citizens, starting in childhood. So the question is, how much lying is OK, how much omission is OK, how much distortion of emphasis is OK? I mean, if we can lie in order to make little patriots, why not tell them that their ancestors battled Sauron in Mordor for the freedom of Middle Earth? As a story, it works.

Let’s agree that’s too far. How about a nice little White Lie? Like the rickety structure of lies that eventually led to Gone With the Wind? That has traditionally been considered an acceptable pack of lies, because it doesn’t deny the existence of the institution, it just makes declarations about things that are hard to check, like intent, attitudes, and moods. Since so little documentary evidence exists about slaves’ feelings, and none at all about the internal mental states of, well, anyone really, you can say whatever you like. And if anyone argues, you can always be indignant!

Note that it took Germany 20 years to start teaching about its shameful history. A whole generation of Nazis had to die off before the paradigm could shift, to use Kuhn-speak. To its national credit, they then did teach it, resulting in much gnashing of teeth and the (I suppose) inevitable push-back, resulting in the Alternativ für Deutschland party, a neo-Nazi party wearing an anti-immigrant fig-leaf.

More to come…

The Power of Hyperbole

I used to listen to Sam Harris’s podcast. I had admired his atheism books, at the time when teaching evolution in schools was a whole thing, and he, along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were the 4 Horsemen of the New Atheism.

His podcast was interesting, until, I speculate, he interviewed Charles Murray. He was then accused of being, if not a White Supremacist himself, at least in league with them or at the very least, one of their Useful Idiots. In any event, after that, whenever he had a woman on, he would, kind of whinily, ask whether she thought he was a White Supremacist… he wasn’t, right? How could anyone think that! It became a whole thing.

Around that time, he became quite alarmed at the rise of what we now call Cancel Culture, and bemoaned that when he tweeted something a lot of people didn’t like, he’d get a lot of very negative responses (Is it being “ratioed”? Not sure about the term…). He called this a Twitter Mob, and said it was like “public defenestration.”

As I was driving to or from work and heard this, my first thought was, no it’s not. It’s nothing like public defenestration. Okay, it’s public, but you survive a Twitter flame war. You walk away. He used other comparisons, too: guillotining, lynching. And… no. It’s not like being guillotined, because that KILLS YOU. Having people call you a douchebag, unpleasant as it certainly must be, doesn’t kill you.

I became disenchanted with him, unsubscribed from the podcast.

He was using a rhetorical technique called hyperbole. Exaggeration for effect. Except, it’s also a lie. If he had said, I was so upset I wanted to die, that might be hyperbolic but still true. But using defenestration is a bit unfair to people who have been publicly defenestrated. What would they say? Wow, that was terrible; just like being the target of mean tweets. Doubt it.

During the pandemic, we have seen similar hyperbole on the part of those who don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated, but still want to visit stores and restaurants. For them, it’s either like slavery or like the holocaust. Like that rather dim lady who sold yellow stars with “vaccinated” on them.

I never meet people like that, here in West LA, but when I read about them, I suppose they have to use hyperbole, because if they didn’t, they’d seem like idiots. If they carried signs that read, I don’t like wearing masks, they’re uncomfortable and make me sweat! Or I don’t want to get vaccinated, because my tribal affiliation makes that a difficult choice! that would be honest, but they wouldn’t seem quite as heroic.

If I ever meet one of these people, and my family is not around, I would go up to them and say, I understand you’re upset, but whatever the thing is like, it’s not like slavery or the holocaust. Rather, it’s like something you don’t want to do for reasons that have more to do with tribalism than anything else. Put that on your sign.