Pedestrian Access to the 110 Freeway?

Wouldn’t you like to take a relaxing stroll along the oldest freeway in the world? It’s not the busiest freeway – that would be the 405 – but it’s still three or four lanes of hurtling steel. Along the east edge of the southbound side of this old freeway is a path for pedestrians, between the junction to the 5E and Amador Street. Every time I drive past, I wonder who it is intended for. I’ve never seen anyone on it.

Is, or was, the City of Los Angeles so concerned for pedestrians that it provided this odd little walkway to get across the LA River? If you need to cross the river on foot, you could always go to North Broadway, and cross there on a handsome, well-maintained, sidewalk.

I grew up a New York pedestrian; I first crossed the street unsupervised in 1960 at the age of 4 — I wandered off while all the adults were arguing about who was late and who was being a nudge. By the time they noticed that I was gone, I had already wandered into traffic on West End Avenue. They all came pouring out onto 72nd Street screaming my name. Someone shouted, “there he is!” and ran after me and scooped me up. It was very gratifying and exciting.

In the 60s and 70s, New York streets were dicey, and I developed street instincts, like 360-degree awareness, crazy-person avoidance, youth-looking-for-a-fight detection, and continual monitoring for escape routes.

This last skill would make me avoid this walkway along the 110, because there’s no way to run if two rival gangs approach each other in a deadly standoff. At least on the Broadway bridge, you could run perpendicularly into traffic, and take your chances with the trucks.

I’ve been commuting from West LA to Pasadena for five months ten years now (and for an additional eleven months about two years ago), and I’ve become obsessed with these strange, ramshackle staircases that go down to the freeway, snaking through the brush. Some of them, like the one on Solano Avenue, seem to serve the purpose of allowing pedestrian traffic to cross the freeway. There’s a school nearby, and it makes sense to let the students who live just 150 feet across the freeway walk across. Google Maps seems to think you can do that, but when I look at the satellite view, I don’t see a path. When I drive past, I get a glimpse of a railed-off walkway… I’ll just have to go there and take a look.

Google maps' directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave
Google maps’ directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave

I see how you can walk to Amador St, which crosses above the northbound side of the 110, and then under the southbound side. But where’s the fun in simply walking along an ordinary street, when you can walk on a barely used, falling apart, dangerous narrow path that is separated from speeding traffic by a chainlink fence? And that’s probably populated by fringe elements of society?

Maybe I could even do it with a nice camera around my neck? Hmmmm… That’s so smart!

As far as I can tell there are four ways to get onto this mysterious walkway (click on thumbnails for full-sized pictures):

  • Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway

    The entrance on Amador Street (see pic) – that one looks the best maintained, and like it might actually be intended for use. The entrance to the ramp is visible in the satellite view; you’d climb the ramp, then switch back, then you’re right on the freeway.

  • Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway
    Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway

    The staircase rising from Solano Avenue (red arrow), near the elementary school, right by a blocked-off on-ramp (green arrow) which went from a city street into the fast lane in the space of about 20 feet; it must have been a bloodbath until they fenced it off.

  • Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway

    The extremely weird staircase (see pic) which goes down to the fast lane of the 110N, just before the tunnel south of the exit to the 5N; why is there a staircase there? Has ANYONE ever used it? There is room for a single car to park out of traffic, so somebody had some kind of plan… Maybe, just maybe, if you broke down right exactly there it would allow you to flee; but if you broke down even 20 feet away, I don’t see how it would help. I would love to know the chain of reasoning that led to its construction; someone had to allot money for this thing.

  • Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway
    Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway

    Finally, the last entrance I can see is if you get on North Figueroa Street, where it crosses the Los Angeles River, walk south along the east side of the road, then turn sharply left along the ramp going from the 110N to the 5N (you have to turn left; your only alternative is to dive into oncoming traffic); keep walking, and then where the ramp meets up with the 110N, there is a spiral staircase climbing up to the walkway along the 110S. NOTE: None of that is true anymore. The old bridge was demolished and the ramp from N Fig to the off-ramp from the 110 is just gone. From what I can see, the only way to get on the spiral staircase is to get to the walkway at Solano or Amador, then walk along the southbound 110 until you get to the top of the staircase. As far as I can tell, the bottom of the staircase goes exactly nowhere now. Well, there is a walkway a few hundred yards along the ramp to the 5, ending in a tiny landing or plaza which, amazingly, is not a homeless encampment.

Please note that all of this can be considered more or less dangerous and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

That said, I can’t wait to try it.

How many genders are there?

Much noise is generated about the number of genders. Let’s look at this closely.

There are no genders

According to this approach, even referring to Man, Woman, trans-Man, trans-Woman, cis-Man, cis-Woman, or anything else, is hurtful and unnecessary. We are just “people with…”, i.e., people with penes, vaginae, ovaries, prostates… and presumably other bits and bobs.

Sidebar: yes, "penes." I've been pitching for this as the correct plural of penis for years, ever since penis has been referred to in the plural in the media. I don't even know exactly when this happened, the naughty aughts, I suppose, but it did suddenly happen. First the taboo against the singular "penis" was breached, and shortly thereafter, the (incorrect, IMO) plural appeared. I mean, Richard Nixon's book, 6 Crises was not titled 6 Criseses, right? The plural of axis is axes, not axises.

I don’t discuss this with people (not appropriate conversation at work, and why get into it at home), but my surmise is that this is expected to protect marginalized people, specifically the trans community. How effective is it? Well, how does it work in other contexts? When people say they “don’t see color”, that is taken to be a kind of low-level racist dog whistle. I don’t see why erasure of gender is supposed to be more protective of non-cis people than erasure of race is to non-White people. Sure, we can argue that these are “social constructs” — an argument I think has a lot of merit — but we can’t seem to get away from them. We live in a society, and social constructs happen. And trying to doesn’t seem to help anyone. So I would argue that the “there are no genders” approach is philosophically interesting, arguably true, but wildly counter-intuitive and politically unhelpful.

As long as people persist in speculating on whether their baby is going to be a boy or a girl, we’re stuck with gender.

There are two genders, Male and Female, period, and shut up.

This is a favorite of college Republicans everywhere, along with bow ties, suspenders, cigars and whiskey (and strong opinions on whiskey vs. whisky). It has the appeal of mainstream tradition and of being simple. Simplicity makes ideas easier to remember, and memorability is often confused with truth.

Once we get away from the “don’t say the word” approach, we are confronted with defining it. You can’t count what you can’t define. And here I am WILDLY out of my depth. Which doesn’t mean I won’t attempt to tackle it. It seems to me that one’s gender is a product of an interaction. I can certainly claim that I am any gender I like, but that ignores the complication that other people may perceive me to be a certain gender, and treat me a certain way as a result. It’s easy to say (while shaking your finger) that they shouldn’t, but there you are; people stubbornly keep doing things one says they shouldn’t. So I would say that gender occurs on the interface between one’s self and others; in the liminal space or membrane that separates our subjective spaces and behavior and other people’s.

Sidebar: I don't buy that we have clearly separate inner and outer lives, a mental life and a physical life. It's all one shifting blob. As my old acting teacher, the late, and truly great, John Stix, used to say, dialog is the ruffle on the edge of the dress of a dancer; i.e., yes, learn the words and they're important, but the action is what is truly preëminent. I'm also not a big believer in the notion of a unitary consciousness. I think we only have intermittent and unreliable consciousness... but that's a whole other thing. Oh, and did you like the word "liminal"? Love it. I'm going to try to sneak in "immanence" somewhere...

It is a fact, sometimes unfortunate, sometimes not, that people out in the world treat us a certain way, and the way they treat us depends on many factors, among them their perception of our gender. Also our other physical and behavioral characteristics. Maybe they can’t see into our minds, but they can see what we look like and how we behave. I can claim I am a certain thing, but how people treat me will usually not take my claims into account. This is the source of all those mean, dumb “jokes” about identifying or transitioning: “transitioning to Black” and so on. I tried this one, and I’m sorry: “I’m transitioning to being very attractive; I would appreciate everyone treating me as if I’m very attractive now — anything else would be hurtful.” Jokes, after all, are generated by incongruities, and this is a clear incongruity. Saying it isn’t is as futile as King Cnut telling the tide not to rise or Nancy Reagan telling us to “just say no.”

Instead of stamping our feet at the cussedness of all people refusing to do as we tell them, let’s grant that we have an inner idea of our gender and people in the world have an idea about our gender; also we have a history of that interaction, from childhood on, and this shapes who we are. I would say that our Gender is a combination of those. So there is such a thing as a Man: a person who grew up as a little boy, both perceived as such and feeling like one, and experiencing continuity in that interaction. And a Woman: grew up as a little girl, both feeling like one and perceived as such, and experiencing continuity. Of course, some people experience discontinuities. They may have grown up perceived as a little boy or girl, but did not have what they felt was that internal experience, and have attempted to change how they are perceived via dress, behavior, legal status, and more. This would be a trans Woman or Man.

Why make the distinction between trans Woman and cis Woman? Because they are different things. We don’t exist as a snapshot, we have histories. And if you grew up perceived by those around you to be a little boy, whatever your internal experience may have been, you will have been treated very differently than if they perceived you to be a little girl. Little boys are, on the whole, encouraged to speak up and be aggressive. Little girls are, on the whole, encouraged to serve and nurture others and be polite. While much of our personalities are formed via our genetic gifts, some of it is formed by training and interaction with families, peers, and society. Here we get into feminism, and the apparently (from what I read) thorny issue of women’s groups that fight for various political and social goals, and whether (a) they should exist and (b) whether they should be castigated for distinguishing between cis and trans.

This brings up the ugly term, TERF. First, I believe this is one of those AstroTurf terms, created by meme-meisters on the Right. I mean, does anyone even refer to themselves as a “Radical Feminist”? Is that even a thing? I guess there must be feminists who, say, don’t want to live around men at all; and I guess that’s considered a “radical” point of view. I would say god bless ’em. Why not? People should live and associate any way they choose… Freedom™, right? And they may even say that they don’t want any trans-Women around, because those people grew up as little boys and were trained and acculturated as little boys, however they perceived their genders internally. Trans-Women might be perceived as never having had to put up with the shit that little girls have to put up with routinely. I mean, I don’t know, they probably had to put up with their own varieties of shit — bullying, marginalization, ostracism — but it would be (and this is key) different shit. And to claim that the shit cis-Women had to put up with either didn’t exist or doesn’t need to be considered, or is interpretable however other people wish, is, understandably, kind of insulting. My shit is my shit, and I get to say what it was.

Of course, nobody likes to be excluded from anything; even more so if one has a history of feeling excluded. But there are things many of us are excluded from, such as amusement park rides if one isn’t tall enough (or too tall); or sitting on certain chairs in restaurants if one is too heavy to feel secure on them; or being a member of Opus Dei if one is Jewish.

If we flip this and look at Men’s groups, it’s a bit different; it’s an asymmetrical situation. Yes, there are “men’s rights” groups who delight in thinking of themselves as perfectly symmetrical with feminist groups. Oh, they’re so put upon, they’re so victimized! Me, I think that’s either disingenuous or idiotic (or both! why not). Like claims of “white genocide” or the “great replacement” business, it’s nothing more than men grabbing something of value from others. The “thing of value” in this case happens to be victimization; this didn’t used to be considered valuable. I suspect this goes back to the Civil Rights movement. I believe (to the extent that I can deduce the thoughts of perfect strangers) that the success (however blunted and curtailed, especially lately) of the Civil Rights movement against heavily-armed White men was a shock. The lesson learned, I believe, was that victimization could be weaponized. White men mainly, and white people and men in general, are always going to copy successful weapons. Claims that White Christian Men are the most discriminated-against people are clownish and idiotic. They are stealing valor, assuming the glamor of victimhood. Yes, it’s beneath contempt, but I think that’s the dynamic.

ALL OF THIS to say that men’s groups have less of a reason to exclude trans-Men. If you are a trans-Man, you are climbing up a step on the ladder of social hierarchy. A men’s “drumming circle” is an interesting example to look at. Perhaps as they share their stories of being a little boy maltreated or ignored by their father, perhaps the notion of such a group is that these stories are specific to cis-Men. Trans-Men, having grown up as children perceived as girls by their parents, would have different stories, and would not be able to relate as viscerally to the cis-Men’s stories.

Well, that’s a fairly tedious amount of rumination. But I think we can dismiss the notion that there are two genders, Male and Female, easily distinguished and nailed to one’s forehead for life. In other words, immanent. Sorry, college Republicans, your vaunted “rationality” is merely prejudice puffed up with hot air and flown about on a string to call attention to yourselves.

There are Four Genders: Male and Female, with cis and trans modifiers, and one can opt out at will.

This is, in my opinion, defensible. I think you can legitimately say that there are cis-Men, cis-Women, trans-Men, and trans-Women. If you like, you can opt out of the whole thing and be Non-binary.

I haven’t even approached the whole athletic team thing. I think it’s an interesting problem. I don’t have children in school, so my feelings on this may not be as strong as parents who do; I think this give me a better perspective, much as a company might hire a consultant to look at their operation with fresh eyes.

There are two angles to the panic on this: locker room and athletic competition. If you’re a boomer, you would remember how the Soviets would feed hormones to their female athletes to increase their chance of winning. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe there were claims of their surreptitiously entering men into women’s competition. So some say it would not be fair for trans-Female athletes to compete with cis-Female. I don’t think that anyone worries about trans-Male athletes competing with cis-Male, the assumption being they would be less competitive, not more.

Sidebar: The locker-room thing. The premise is that it would be horrible for cis-boys to have non-cis-boys in the locker room with them. We've heard this argument since Robin Herman gained access to NHL locker rooms in 1975. I don't know... I thought it was horrible, as a cis-boy, to be in the locker room with other cis-boys. It is also felt that cis-girls would be threatened by having trans-girls in the locker room with them. Again, I don't know — seems iffy to me. I think there are a lot of varying reactions. I just don't think there is a good way to do locker rooms at all. But that's me.

Is this fair? The reason there are women’s athletics at all is to protect women and girls from being stomped all over by, presumably, larger, stronger, faster, heavier boys. Is this archaic? Is it insulting? I am reminded of an argument about the Voting Rights Act made by Chief Justice Roberts, that there is no such thing as racism anymore, so oversight of voting rules is no longer needed. That was perceived, rightly, as disingenuous and contemptible, and proven to be untrue immediately after the decision. So I don’t think we would want to rush to saying girls don’t need protection from boys anymore. At the same time, I don’t think any boys are rushing to be trans-Girls in order to beat them at a footrace.

Of course, there’s a lot of injustice in athletics: some people are bigger, stronger, faster, etc., than others, and they’ll win a lot. Yes, via hard work and training, people can improve; that, I suppose, is one of the great benefits of athletics for young people. The argument is that if boys, however they identify, compete in girls’ athletics, they will so far outstrip the girls that there is no incentive for the girls to improve themselves anymore, they could never win, and the benefits of athletics would be lost. I don’t know if this is true; I imagine there are Physical Education professionals who study this, under a lot of pressure and oversight from people with very passionate (however uninformed) feelings about this, on all sides. I wouldn’t want to be them, I’ll say that.

Note, the other benefit of athletics is to learn teamwork. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I know very little about sports. My wife actually bought me a book about how to watch baseball; I’m still vague about what a ground-rule double is. That said, I am told that women’s basketball and soccer are quite different than men’s basketball and soccer, in terms of team dynamics. Women play more as a team, passing more, and men tend to grandstand more, and the game is more about setting up the stars for showy plays. I don’t know, I’m sure a true aficionado knows more.

I guess I don’t know how to balance the pedagogical goals of school sports with the rights of young people to identify across genders. Is accommodating the rights of a very small number going to spoil or mar the experience of the vast majority? I sort of doubt it, but I’d like to read more on this topic.

Along with this is the issue of medical treatment for young people under 18, as in gender confirmation treatments, either hormonal or surgical. I don’t know much about this; I tend to be suspicious of surgery on children for non-physical-health reasons. So I personally disapprove of the sweet-16 nose job that some Jewish girls I knew in school got so they could appear (identify as?) non-Jewish. When they’re over 18, sure, whatever, who cares; adults make choices all the time. Sometimes they work out well, sometimes not. An old friend of mine (from the 80s) was an actress; beautiful woman, Jewish, she told me she had a nose job. I couldn’t believe it, it was so perfect. I don’t know that her career benefited from this, but she looked good (I never knew her before, so who knows; I suspect she looked fine before, too). On the other hand, I knew a young man — 19, I think — who moved sets in a play I directed. He had literally run away from home to join the circus when he was 13. He got tattoos. When I knew him, he was saving up to get them removed; they were of Snoopy. Not really appropriate for a big, hulking, masculine dude.

Anyway, if a parent asked me whether I thought they should get hormone treatment for their child younger than 18, I would probably suggest they wait. I can’t understand the inner experience of a trans child, that’s true. Some people believe that gender is nailed to your brain at birth, regardless of the rest of your body, and that it can’t change. That it is immanent. I think that belief is motivated less by thinking it’s true than by the hopes of protecting people from the charge that they’re just posing, or from attempts to convert them. But I suspect that is a bit Procrustean. Just as sexual orientation can change over time (even if only a little), I suspect gender identity may too. I don’t know.

There are N Genders; the value of N is unknown, maybe unknowable

Maybe? I do think that the M/F toggle switch idea is wrong, and that the cM/cF/tM/tF/optout is probably close to something like true. But I also think that while gender is not a toggle or a simple dimmer switch, it’s more like an equalizer board, with many sliders, or even a room full of equalizer boards, all interacting in unpredictable chaotic ways. So maybe there are N genders.

On the other hand, we need to live in a world and cooperate. From the trivial consideration of how to design a form to the much more fraught consideration of schooling, people want answers. And one cay say, and I do, be kind to everyone, don’t bully, teach bullies that it’s wrong and how to stop, and teach victims of bullying how to fight back. That goes a long way, but not all the way.

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, handsome, or 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 frightened, confused, and 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.

Another resonance of the strict binary gender code, is the need, it seems, for many trans people to define themselves according to its strictures. In other words, many would say, there is no such thing as a “trans woman” or a “trans man.” There are just women and men. Even though a trans woman did not grow up as a little girl, with all of its expectations and social impacts. A trans man did not grow up as a little boy, perceived to be a natural heir to male privilege and strength. Every person, trans or cis, is entitled to be treated with respect, but, as with Black Lives Matter, to say “every person needs to be treated with respect” insults the additional scorn, strife and violence faced by trans people.

This binary cage seems to be escaped by those who are non-binary. They may appear androgynous and be dealt with, socially, in a whole different way. These individuals may prefer they/them pronouns, may select an ambiguous appearance, and refuse to be slotted one way or the other.

There is such a thing as a man and a woman. They were raised as little boys and girls, grew up into the gender expression and identity they had at birth, both in their own self-identity and the identity agreed on by those around them. In a sense, they have it easy compared to trans people. Nevertheless, they are in the history of their gender identity and in the reaction to them by their surroundings, distinct and different from trans people.

I have no problem referring to a wide variety of genders: men, women, trans men and trans women, and non-binary. I’m sure there are more that I don’t know of, and will be more that haven’t been dreamed of yet. Each one has their own situation with regard to their families and society, and has some of that in common with the gender group they have been assigned and that they have chosen, however that interplay works for them.

It should be possible for associations to form within each group, and it should be possible for members of that group to decide by whatever mode they wish (formal association, unspoken consensus, anything else) the membership criteria of their group. If business is at stake, or advancement in an industry, it should not be exclusive; so men’s clubs where business deals are made should not exist. Men’s clubs, though, why not? Women’s clubs, why not? Trans or non-binary clubs as well. People should have that freedom of association. And since cis-women have a particular history of oppression that is distinct and different from trans-women, they should be able, without argument, blowback, or recrimination, to form groups and associations of cis-women.

Of course, anyone can mix and match however they want. There will be groups of women both cis- and trans-, and men as well. People who menstruate are cis-women. The existence or the naming of “people who menstruate” as “women” does no harm to the trans-woman community, and to say it does is strange. There are, of course, cis-women who do not menstruate, but there are no trans-women who do.

A political organization devoted to any one, any selection, or all, of these groups, is perfectly reasonable, and should be able to exist without recrimination.

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…