Guignol for Good or Evil

When I was working in Lyon in 2017/18, an old love of Guignol was re-awakened. I saw Guignol shows when I was a little child in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. And in the 5th grade, my teacher, the beloved Mme Benzaken, gave me a book about Guignol. It had puppet show scripts and instructions for making the puppets and theaters. I have long since lost that book and still look for it whenever and wherever I can.

In Lyon, I went with my wife to a traditional Guignol theater and saw as old-fashioned a show as I could find. In other words, not a show about how Guignol saves Christmas from a hacker who scrambles Santa’s GPS… yes, they do that. No shade, but not for me. I’ll bet the kids love it, and that’s what matters, after all.

Guignol was born in the French Revolution and I think embodies its spirit as well as anything. He’s a working man — a weaver in the silk mills of Lyon — and a prankster who scorns the aristocrats. Guignol and his gang — his best friend Gnafron, a red-faced, blue-chinned alcoholic with a crushed top hat; his girlfriend Madelon; and the rest of the supporting cast — are beloved characters in France in general and Lyon in particular.

In Lyon, I encountered the below small poster stuck all over the bottle recycling bin.

I took the picture and thought, Fun! I wonder what that website is. Clearly, I didn’t look carefully at his angry expression, and wasn’t familiar with “Lyon le Melhor!” which, it turns out, is the war cry of the city. It translates as “Lyon is the best!” or We’re #1!

It turned out that the website was for a nativist, anti-immigrant group, and the image is a threat. This made me very unhappy. A perhaps ironic (not sure if that’s exactly right, I wasn’t an English major, but it’s nearby) sidenote is that when we went to the Guignol show, there was a mom with her little boy. Not so strange, but the mom was Islamic and wearing a chic black hijab, and looked hilariously like Guignol in his traditional hat.

I much prefer the Guignol below:

The motto, “A tous et pour tous,” means “To all and for all,” and is much more what I expect from a puppet of the people.

I was pleased to just discover now that the website on the mean little anti-immigrant poster is now available… Maybe I’ll buy it?

Current events part 1: Who speaks for a nation?

It’s easy to say that “Israel does this” and “Hamas does that”, “Azerbaijan wants this” or “Armenia wants that.” But of course, countries don’t have wills of their own, only people do. So who are we talking about? Leadership and their supporters, of course. It’s a pyramid of folks, the leaders at the top whose names we might know, their cadre of supporters, the military leaders whose names we wouldn’t know but whose support is crucial, their oligarchs whose funds back them.

In a more authoritarian regime, that pyramid may be short and narrow. Even in an brutal dictatorship or absolute monarchy, it’s never just one person deciding things, though that is a convenient way to think about it. Idi Amin, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Vladimir Putin, they all need support from someone, though if they manage things well, that will be as few people as possible. For instance, Russian oligarchs depend on Putin more than he depends on them. How does he manage this? I don’t know, but I’ll bet it has something to do with Polonium and windows.

However they work it, they only need passive acquiescence from the public at large and don’t have to be too worried about popular discontent… unless it reaches mass riot proportions. And even then, a sufficiently well-paid police and army can quell that.

In a more representative government, that pyramid of folks who determine the personality and will of a nation will be wider and deeper and include more of the population. Certainly not all of it, though, since more than half of the voting public will likely be opposed or indifferent to it. In the USA, we famously can have rule by minority, thanks to the Senate and gerrymandering. In Florida, for instance, I think Democrats could win well over half the vote and still not control the legislature. I don’t know the number… seem to remember 70%.

And of course, there are a lot of people who are just not interested who don’t vote and don’t participate. Used to be, pre-Reagan, that the Christian Evangelical population did not participate much. Reagan’s support team noticed that and figured out how to involve them: tell stories from the Christian Evangelical point of view, use the right signal words, flatter them, and involve them at the highest levels. It worked well. Nixon’s team famously flipped the Dixiecrats over the GOP side the same way: agree with their story of America, blame and harass Blacks, and so on as is well known. Trump followed up by involving the disaffected — famously, people who had never seen politics as serving them (while often, paradoxically, on various forms of government support), by using brutal language and pumping fear and a kind of mean humor. That worked too, but that is a fairly small tranche of the electorate; though enough in a close race, when added to mainstream Republicans.

So that pyramid of people who create the nation’s personality and will to action can be manipulated, and one of the most important tasks of a ruling group is to do so to their own advantage. Sometimes they fail and lose power, sometimes they fail and are forced to submit their own will to that of their supporters. Rival groups (such as parties) work hard to shape that pyramid to benefit themselves.

Either way, there will be citizens who have no input into the country’s actions and others who do, to a greater or lesser degree.

So you can say, legitimately, that (for example) extremists don’t speak for all citizens. Sure, but of course the opposite is true too — sensible centrists don’t speak for all citizens either. Those who wish to find a peaceful accommodation don’t speak for all citizens. There are many citizens, obviously many young men, who prefer action, danger, and risk to peace and prosperity. So much more exciting.

And it’s also true that very busy people generally don’t participate as much in politics. If you’re a farmer with many children, you won’t have the time to show up at town meetings. Those with time on their hands control the levers of power; anyone who’s ever lived in a co-op or a condo knows this. Or been on a school board.

This whole website may change all of a sudden

I have started acting again — classes, pictures, auditions, yadda yadda yadda.

Who knows what happens, but it’s a fun process. I know, strike. Still.

So all this incredibly compelling “content” hahaha may soon end up gone or hidden, and you’ll see things like headshots and videos. Won’t that be fun?

I’m told actors should have a positive attitude.

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. Ignoring them 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…]