Thoughts about nice people who say, “I’m sick of Identity Politics”

So, first we (for centuries) had “identity politics” that favored the white (whatever that was… did it include the Irish? the Italians? Jews? Only with lots of $$$, and then only provisionally; there were always “court Jews”, for instance, allowed to live in gentile neighborhoods and given a coat of arms, at least until a scapegoat was needed), with unchecked brutal police power backing it. Then with Emancipation, some of that police power was removed, but not all, and it was reinforced by  heavily armed posses, who operated with a wink and the government looking the other way (or participating actively, if sometimes disguised with white hoods).

Then, thanks to integration of the armed forces in WWII and the advent of the civil rights movement, the idea of identity politics was mostly disfavored, and the ideal became a color-blind, we’re all just a bunch of individuals with no group affiliation at all. This was accepted as the new bien-pensant (see definition #2), nice liberal well-mannered ideal. But that subtly turned into code for continuing with milder versions of the previous identity politics favoring whites. And the onus continued to weigh on the non-whites to earn toleration and freedom from battery by behaving obsequiously. See the Blue Danube segment of the cartoon, Corny Concerto. It always struck me as unfair that the little black duck had to be heroic to get what the little cygnets got just by being cygnets.

So then, since the 70s or 80s or so, I guess, the inevitability of some kind of identity politics was accepted as part of human nature, but now each group could have their own identity and they could jockey in society with other identity groups. Then Obama was elected. And some people who associated themselves with nice liberal bien-pensant ideals felt betrayed — they had rejected identity politics with the understanding that racism and identity politics were conjoined, and that by rejecting the latter, they could be rid of the former. Since it didn’t, they had the wonderful feeling of rejecting a bad thing, but continuing to benefit (however subtly) from that bad thing’s fruits.

That stings, being told that if you benefit from a bad thing, that you must no longer support a nice, liberal ideal that subtly supports that bad thing, even though it, on the surface, rejects it.

I know. Confusing.

The debate and my stomach…

I’m having a strong emotional response to the upcoming HRC/DJT debate, the kind of emotion that lives in the stomach. The kind of emotion I used to feel in school, when the mean boys would see me coming and size up the room to decide what to do. Should they maybe do that thing where they swing their arm out as if to strike me, but change the gesture at the last second to smooth their hair? And I would flinch, every time, every single time.

Or would they simply say something mocking and mean?

Or, most disconcertingly, would they say nothing at all, or perhaps be perfectly nice? It was the unpredictability that gave them their power.

That’s how I feel when I see DJT.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the mean boys. Maybe it would be the smart girls. I was a little jealous about how they were always on top of their lessons. Always, always, always. They knew everything. There were maybe three or four of them – one of them was brilliant at languages, she took Greek, Latin, and Italian, in addition to the French and English we all took; one was simply top of the class in everything; and another was maybe not quite as brilliant, but certainly better than me.

They were pretty and kind, and I felt no anxiety about them at all, more a kind of wonder at their omnicompetence. If they were in charge of something, it would get done, and done well.

The genius of the mean boys were their ability to read the room in an instant – they knew the hierarchy. They knew when teachers or staff or older kids were present. They had an org chart in their head of their older brothers’ friends, who were the popular kids, who were the teachers who cared, and who were the teachers who were just there to avoid the draft.

They could see weakness and strike perfectly to exploit it. Their heart was corrupt and they reveled in others’ pain and their ability to get away with it, to find an angle. I just wanted to be out of their way – they couldn’t be stopped, they couldn’t be placated, and nothing good ever came out of them… not for anyone else, anyway.

Maybe that’s why DJT fills me with bilious dread and I really like HRC.

NPR Watch — Planet Money’s Oil Series

Dear Planet Money,

I’ve been listening to Planet Money since the beginning, so take these comments as coming from a fan.

The oil series was interesting, more so if you are a high-schooler who loves science museums. I’m a grownup who loves science museums, so it was okay, but not much of a revelation. I did not know that they could send different fractions of oil through the pipeline – that was news to me. And I didn’t know the details of the invention of Bakelite, just the rough outlines, so that was interesting.

Planet Money made one small, but I thought revealing, mistake: when mentioning the price of gasoline, they spoke about the oddness of it being priced down to the 10th of a cent, and gave, as an example, 6/10 of a cent. But, at least in my experience (mostly in SoCal), it’s never 6/10, or 4/10, or 1/10. It’s ALWAYS 9/10 of a cent. That indicates there are forces other than the cost of the supply. Perhaps they could discuss that 9/10 of a cent one day.

It made me think, though — why make that mistake? What story does 6/10 of a cent tell that might be undercut by the price always having 9/10 of a cent tacked on?

Your show has a definite voice – “Business! Ain’t it Grand?” Even when you started out, in the depths of the Great Recession, your show refused to countenance the possibility that there might be villains, or even just people making choices that, outside of a business context, would be considered sociopathic. So it serves the story your show tells that gas is priced strictly according to the price of supply (which seems reasonable) rather than some combination of supply cost and what they can get away with, even if it’s slightly dishonest. (Of course, neighboring gas stations having quite different prices is also a clue that their pricing has an opportunistic element)

Another, perhaps inadvertent, window onto the soul of your show is the segment about the descendants of Baekeland. Their less than perfect enthusiasm for plastic isn’t linked to the serious health effects of plastic, the horrible effects of plastic on the ocean environment (see Great Pacific garbage patch), or indeed anything that Big Business could or even should do anything about… that would undercut your show’s message. Instead, it’s a kind of aesthetic issue, perhaps about littering. Of course, littering was business’s way of diverting the attention of a more environmentally-minded public away from polluters and onto themselves and their neighbors. (another clue – the insistence that the only other material for a toothbrush was sterling; wow! thanks to plastic, we can all have toothbrushes! Grand! But I think there were wooden toothbrushes too, actually)

That would be an interesting show, by the way – anti-littering crusades as a way to greenwash big businesses at the beginning of the environmental era.

Finally, your finale. You could have gone two ways: a “where do we go from here” finale, about how to go into the post-fossil fuel era, or the “where would we be without fossil fuels.” Of course you picked the latter, because even though you mention pollution and global warming, you had to show them as being the necessary (and perhaps not so terrible) cost of our wonderful progress. The “where do we go from here” narrative would be much more about the downsides of fossil fuel use.

Thanks for your podcast, though. It’s often very interesting and covers material I just can’t find elsewhere. But you might listen to the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, specifically #82, the one about Crowds. It might illuminate for you the seeming paradox that business people are perfectly nice when you talk to them face-to-face, but are still capable, in the context of their enterprise, of actions that harm a lot of people in order to enrich their managers (if we’re lucky, their shareholders, too – but more often, I suspect, just their managers).

Pays Civilisés

I told this story at the Moth last night. The theme was Jokers, and it was hosted by the lovely, hilarious Lauren Weedman. I didn’t win, but I got little fragments of adulation from the audience after I was done, including shouts of “10! 10! 10!” Sadly, the judges disagreed and gave me a 9.4 (my total was 28.7 out of a possible 30).

In 1970 I was in what you might call the tenth grade, but we called 3ème, because I went to a Lycée Français.  This is a network of international schools based on the French model. The idea, back in the 1930s, was that diplomats, for whom French was the international language, could be posted anywhere in the world – Rio to San Francisco to Beirut – and they’d have a school system where their kids would have some continuity. The same textbooks and curriculum; even the same notebooks.

It wasn’t only diplomats’ kids, of course. In my Lycée, in New York, we had UN kids and consulate kids, but there were also the kids of French business people, and expats – just regular French people living in New York. Waiters, milkmen, whatever. And, of course, snobs.

My bona fides were my mother who was French Canadian, and my father who was a German refugee. They wanted a school that combined the French language and the German practice of humiliating and terrifying children.

My best friends were Philippe and Eric. Philippe’s dad was a French translator at the UN, and Eric’s mom was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris.

Philippe was the arbiter of who was cool and who wasn’t. He was cute, athletic, easy around girls, and a good student but not too good.

Eric had developed a habit that, when something embarrassing happened to you, like you didn’t stop the ball from going in the goal, or you started talking to a girl and she turned away, or you raised your hand in class and the teacher slapped you down, he would say “snaaaaag!” Which, of course, made it much, much worse. Philippe loved this, and being a sporty kid who had to keep score, he would keep a record of your snags. If he liked, he could use a multiplier, so you didn’t just get a snag, you’d get a decasnag, a hectasnag, a kilosnag. When we learned the prefix mega-, things got really ugly.

I was particularly snag-prone because I was a sensitive kid who cried easily, I was bad at sports, and I was also strangely pompous. I wanted everyone to know how smart I was.

I accumulated 1.5 gigasnags.

There was one kid who had more than me, Tarek Kassem. He was the son of the Egyptian ambassador to the UN, so a rich kid. He was the first to have a calculator – the rich kid’s way to cheat. When Tarek came to the New York Lycee that year, he said his name was “Tony” – he was just trying to fit in. Of course, he was mercilessly punished. When it was discovered that his name was “Tarek,” he got a megasnag, just to start out with. That was his baseline.

Toward the end of a history class, I had raised my hand and was opining that Europeans were becoming Americanized. McDonalds had just opened up in Munich, and I said it wasn’t the fault of the McDonalds, but of the Europeans who went there – they were giving up their culture. Tarek raised his hand and said, “in Africa, we remain true to our culture. We will never become Americanized!”

I said, “Oh, well, I was talking about civilized countries.” [Je parlais des pays civilisés.] It was a dick thing to say, but the room exploded, the teacher laughed, and… the bell rang. That day, all my snags got transferred, in a bloc, to Tarek. He ended up with 4 gigasnags, and I had a clean slate.

That was the meanest thing I had ever done in school, and it was my best day.

Actors Playing Superheroes – Ben Affleck’s Batman

I saw Batman vs. Superman last night (in 3D – I like that, even though it makes my eyes water). Maybe my expectations were low because of the critiques, but I really liked it. My main beef is it could have been just a little funnier. Nobody is grim all the time. Nobody you’d want to spend time with, anyway.

Ben Affleck made a serious, violent Batman. He sold me the character as honest and obsessed, and very smart if not brilliant. But his Bruce Wayne just did not seem to be having as much fun as he should seem to be having. You need a convincingly fun-loving, dissipated Bruce Wayne to round out the Batman.

You’ll never get a fully convincing movie Batman, any more than you’ll get a convincing Wotan in a Ring Cycle. We’re just people, not fit to play gods. But Affleck did a great job.

And kudos to Michael Wilkinson for the Bat-suit! Finally a suit that comes across as not just a stupid rubber suit with molded muscles (not to mention the awful nipples of Batman and Robin!), but actual armor fit for battle. I loved the close range gunshot to the back of his head in a fight.

I feel bad for the bullshit that Ben Affleck has to go through (Sad Affleck, the awful tabloid nonsense, etc.). It’s a really solid performance and I can’t wait to see the Justice League movies.

Actors Playing Superheroes – Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman

Watching Batman Returns (directed by Tim Burton, written by Daniel Waters, with Michael Keaton as Batman). Most interesting thing about this version is the Catwoman. Her origin has always been murky – just a cat-themed jewel thief. Waters/Burton gives her an origin which is visually arresting (because Tim Burton) but meaningless. She survives a drop from a height, and is beset by … alley cats? Why? Did she rub herself with liver?

Completely aside from the silly origin, Michelle Pfeiffer made a great superhero (not really a “hero”… superperson?). Because of her accident (and possibly something to do with those cats? It’s not made clear), she loses all fear, all need for social acceptability, all need for approval.

[I know – Michelle Pfeiffer not getting male approval? Just go with it, don’t think about it too much…]

Her performance is heightened and fabulous. She makes the rather silly script watchable by her intensity and enviable willingness to indulge her appetites.

A superhero makes their own rules and isn’t bound by society’s edicts. They indulge their id and impose their superego on others. They are what we all want to be and only learn we can’t be as we grow up.

Terror attacks on great cities – a rumination

I’ve been struggling with thoughts about the Paris attacks. I have a few old school friends who live there, and I am still getting “safe” message via Facebook.

Standing in solidarity is easy. The next step, what should happen now, is hard. Some responses don’t require any deep understanding of the perpetrators – for example, the police should find them and they should be put in the justice system and tried. From that point of view, they broke laws and should suffer consequences.

Foreign policy responses demand more thought, and that’s painful for a lot of people – even talking about it in a sober way seems like a betrayal, like you’re not angry enough. What, are you on their side or something?!

There’s a good question about whether there should even be a “foreign-policy response”. France has already said it was an act of war, which indicates that retaliation is being planned. This cheers me, but that’s an emotional response, and not very smart.

The right-of-center response is simple – everything we’ve done throughout history is fine, when the West takes over a country by force of arms, we did them a favor, and if they fight back they must be crushed. Basically, the attitude is that we’re better, we know best, and they should be thankful for the paved roads.

The lefty response, which I’ve already heard from some friends, is that we should do nothing (apart, I suppose, from the local police response), the premise being, I think, that we always screw these things up and make them worse. Ironically, this is the flip side of the right-wing notion about government action in the domestic sphere. Someone smarter and more energetic than me should write a long-form about that… (Adam Gopnik? He can write about anything well)

The left-of-center response to this kind of thing is burdened by the idea that nations should not adventure – that’s the colonial urge, and it must be checked. There’s the notion that these peoples/nations that were invaded and colonized by Western powers had their own valuable culture going, and that we stomped all over it, and stole their labor and resources, creating permanent harm. There is some acknowledgement that the mixing of peoples produces valuable and beautiful cultural artifacts, and that mixing of peoples will usually be colored by power struggles, often armed. But central is the idea that no cultures are better than others, and that, therefore, colonization is merely aggression and war and should be regarded negatively as such. Yes, sometimes the attitude is that cultures are not equal, that Western culture is worse than others, but I consider that a distraction and I feel free to ignore that attitude and those that espouse it.

I love my culture of Beethoven, kaffee mit schlag, Gauloises, opera (even the boring ones), lederhosen, cubism, cafés, and all things Europäisch – middle-, west-, or east-. One of my dreams is to get an EU passport (Germany? You listening? Ja, ich kan ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen…).

Yes, I judge certain aspects of American culture harshly, but I’m wary of being on the Mikado’s little list, loving “All centuries but this and every country but his own.” I think I understand where the yen for industrializing all things comes from – this country’s growth was spectacular, and there is a whole generation of folk who did well in good times and think they’re geniuses. That kind of self-righteous confidence is hard to dent, and is the iron core of the GOP. I subscribe to the notion (voiced on the left almost exclusively) that the stupendous growth was based on, basically, mugging Africans and Native Americans and stealing their stuff, and saying, hey look what I built by the sweat of my brow and the clarity of my moral stance. It’s kind of nauseous to think about.

The poles of this are Ta-Nehisi Coats on the side that White American wealth is stolen goods, and on the right by the ridiculous Ann Coulter, with her notion of her people not being immigrants but “settlers.” BTW, I’d love to know details of that – where they the settlers whose way was cleared of pesky natives by the US Army? Whose land was it that they “settled?”

And then there is Israel – colonial settler nation, and therefore not sympathetic? A nation like any other that was created by the international law at the time, and therefore perfectly OK? My feelings were well-expressed by a conversation on Warren Olney’s To the Point, where Dennis Ross faced off against Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The Ambassador said that in the entire Middle East, Israel is the only country that has institutions, democracy, separation of power, etc. Mr. Munayyer reminded him that there are lots of people under Israel’s unelected control who are not protected by those institutions.

[side note: every time I listen to one of those discussions, it seems to come down to two arguments:

  • Did Isreal really offer the Palestinian Authority a good deal, under Ehud Olmert, and was it rejected by the Palestinians, and was that rejection evidence that all the Palestinians want, really, is the elimination of Israel? See here for details.
  • Did the PA accept, formally, Israel’s right to exist as a secure, Jewish state? Palestinians say, how many times do we have to do this? The idea here is that all Israel wants is to cynically move the goalposts until there is rejection, because there are too many powerful Israelis who prefer the status quo to any two-state solution. See here for some details.]

Running out of steam.


Trying to remember a good Moth story…

I’ve had this story bouncing around my head for a few days. I’d think about it and store it away in my mental filing cabinet for future reference. Thing is, that filing cabinet is notoriously unreliable, and I forgot it. Then I’d remember it, and try to tack a label onto it. But the idea is like the bar of soap in the shower – grab it for a second, and the force of your grab is what makes it pop from your grasp.

Stories with clear beginnings, tidy endings, and some sort of point of view or moral to make it bang around in the listeners’ heads for a while are rare. Mostly we have to fake it. I’ll try a story out on people, in a (mercifully) nano form, and listen to their reactions. Mostly, to be painfully honest (the pain is mine), I don’t even get through my story before someone starts talking about something else entirely. Which is itself a useful result, I suppose, if not ego-supporting.

  • There’s the story of my dad and the bogus VCR bargain, which has the lesson that your parents are flawed human beings.
  • There’s the story of Oleg in the bathtub, which I’ve used already. The lesson is what it takes to be an adult.
  • There’s the story of being coerced into typing a letter to my grandmother when I was 12 and had nothing to say, in Hollywood. This is the story of appreciating your parents even at their worst.

But this story, I have such a hard time remembering it. When I do, by the time I get to a spot where I can record it, it’s gone. I know, smartphones… I’ll try again.

Waze vs. Garmin vs. ideal GPS app

  1. I wish my Garmin device would use the Waze software. I like having a dedicated device (i.e., not my phone), but Waze is so much smarter than Garmin…
  2. At least on my Garmin, I can request the fastest route or the shortest route (I don’t think Waze offers me these customizations). But why can’t I request the simplest route (fewest turns), the straightest route (i.e., staying in the same direction; my wife hates feeling that we are deviating from the arrow of our travel), or even the prettiest route? Prettiness should certainly be a characteristic of roads.
  3. Waze, famously, will sometimes ask you to make a left turn at a stop sign onto a busy street, so you’re stuck there, waiting for a gap, peering around giant SUVs and sweating. God forbid you have a passenger asking why the hell you took this crazy route. Saying, “Waze told me to” is generally reacted to with an irritated snort.
  4. When I give Waze a new location, it reacts differently every time… I haven’t figured out the pattern yet. Sometimes it tells me that it has added it to my scheduled list (or something weird like that), sometimes not. Why?

An atheist thinks about… Who Created God?

Or (a better question) how was God created? Better because it may not have been a “person” but a mindless process of some kind…

Why is an atheist even thinking about this issue? Because I like myth and story, and exploring a logical construct that smart people have been fiddling with for thousands of years can only be a good thing. Like learning math.

As to the question, generally the question is answered by simply defining God as that which required no creator. But, come on, that’s lame. That’s just a way to shut people up and stop them asking questions. Bertrand Russel, in Why I Am Not a Christian, put it best when he said that if you assume the universe must have had a creator, why not the same of God? And if you insist God did not need any creation, why not assume the same about the Universe?

There has been some interesting thought in the last few years on the possibility of the universe being a simulation. In that case, who is the creator? The alien programmer? The alien kid who bought the alien TRS80 in the alien Radio Shack, and loaded up the UniverSim program and created us? Or do we have to go back to THAT universe’s creation?

Let’s face it – we are ill equipped to think about deep time and space and large numbers. We survived because we were good at selecting the less-poisonous berries, running away from saber-tooth tigers, and reproducing, not because we could ponder the nature of Time, Space, and Everything.

So our intuition that time is a line, has a Beginning and an End, is probably unreliable.

When I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I got the feeling (again, probably unreliable) that Hawking was claiming that the universe was boundless in the direction 90 degrees from time, and that the beginning and end were like the south and north poles. Asking what’s south of the south pole is merely a badly formed question.

But interesting to think about.