Sunday, June 25, 2017

What is an ad?

I think one of the fascinating aspects of the media transition we're in is the ambiguity around what is and isn't an ad.

This is new territory being explored, with a lot of fudging that would never fly in respected old media institutions… from Michael Arrington arguing that fluffy TechCrunch coverage of companies TC invests in wouldn't be an ad, to secret VC arrangements with journalists that exchange exclusivity for favorable coverage (I know a VC incubator alum who can vouch for this), to a Product Hunt editor who told me he runs product announcements on the front page *only* if he has a personal or professional connection to the company in question.

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The generation of kids growing up under Trump

From an email I sent on Jan 31 of this year:

My daughter asked me last night at bedtime if we would ever have to move "while I'm still, you know, a kid living at home" because of Trump. She's heard snippets of conversation from us and kids at school about the question of moving to Canada etc.

I talked to her about our responsibility to stay and work to help out other people who need our help, and to make the country be the best it can be.

I'm fascinated to look back in 15 years and hear this generation talk about what this political experience was like for them. Carmen and her fellow 2nd graders are totally with it enough to have very intense feelings and to pick up the fear and dismay the adults are feeling.

One child I know, who is half south Asian and half white, asked his mom after the election, "Isn't it better to be white?" She said no, every kind of person can live side by side, etc. He said "I don't know mom… It's better to be white."

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Friday, April 21, 2017

I vote 'No' on referendums

A friend asked my me my opinion of referendums. I'm generally opposed to direct referendum voting. 

Now, all of this is provisional. It matters the health of the legislative and executive systems we're comparing it to. It matters the threshold.

(I'm using the plural referendums because sometimes even I need to give the smug erudition a freaking rest.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Problem one: disconnect between the values/intentions of voters and the outcome of referendums

Sometimes the issue is clear and the politics make sense, eg Massachusetts recently voting to legalize pot (which I support), or various states voting to block gay marriage (the blocking of which I oppose). But much of the time the tradeoffs at play are obscure, the wording doesn't fairly reflect the core questions, and people don't really understand what they're voting on, or how it got here. if one group is doing an end run around a legislative compromise, for example, or trying to get their shoddy hospital funded before a more carefully planned one can be approved.

Part of this problem: not much incentive for deliberation. the typical voter doesn't have much of a reason to study up on the various referendums. At least a legislator is much more likely to cast a crucial vote, whether from the perspective of the odds of the bill passing, or the focus which their vote will receive.

The classic example of problem one is the observation that referendums that propose new government spending generally pass, but referendums that cut taxes also generally pass. (As far as I know, states must all balance their budgets each year, so these are even more contradictory then they are on the federal level.) The same referendums, worded to explicitly reflect the full impact of these proposals, would likely not pass.

Compare this to the federal budgeting system, where (IIRC!) even though Republicans have enjoyed a two House Majority and the presidency for two different periods in the last 20 years, they have passed relatively few unfunded tax cuts. It's just a bit less willy nilly with legislators.

Problem two: the values/intentions of voters being wrong

The first aspect of this is status quo bias. Our federal and state systems have a heavy status quo bias, in that there are lots of ways for legislation to fail and only one or two ways for it to pass and become law. Thus our legislative systems have the value built in that "I'm not sure" becomes "let's not change it". This bias is not without its problems, but I think it's generally a good thing, and the country's founders certainly agreed (though they were wrong on plenty of stuff).

The yes or no format of referendum questions demolishes this. The two options don't seem significantly different in prudence, and if anything, I think psychologically many people have a preference for saying yes if we can't think of a reason to say no. With the current system, why not just keep throwing a referendum like Brexit or  against the wall until it sticks? It only needs to pass once!

Voters should be asking themselves, "Am I SURE that it is a good idea to..." before reading referendum questions, but they generally don't. They're wrong not to.

The counterargument is that often populations seem to be ready for a social change before their legislators are. The public turned against the Vietnam War long before Congress did, for example, and the Massachusetts legislature is only begrudgingly cooperating with the instructions of the marijuana legalization referendum. But I think most of the time, a legislature will slowly come around, and it's very much worthwhile having that slowness for other purposes.

Then there is the fact that most people just generally aren't that smart or knowledgeable about most things, and aren't good at even assessing or acknowledging their own ignorance. Of course, neither are legislators. But at least legislators have had to jump through some hoops of competence and organization to get where they are, and spend part of their days discussing the meaning and impact of legislation. And at least legislators must face budget and procedural constraints that require them to justify their proposals to some degree in a broader context, rather than skipping this context entirely, as referendums do.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I think referendums would be workable with a higher threshold for passing, like 60% of eligible voters ... I'm sympathetic to the need for an end run around pervasively corrupt governments, I just think, for the reasons above, that 50% of those who happen to vote that day is a ridiculous threshold for a permanent change to the law.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Consciousness confused

I recently wrote to a friend, criticizing Daniel Dennett. The friend wrote back:

[I see] “the hard problem” of consciousness as pointless word games. “Sure, you have all these components of mentation, but where is THE THING that is consciousness? That must be magic!” – sounds to me like “Sure, you have these pistons and sparks and a combustion chamber, but where is the THING that makes the engine turn!?” Just because your mind can’t transition from your model of the parts to a simple model of the emergent aggregate doesn’t mean you have to introduce extra magical entities.

Whereas Dennett almost single-handedly changed the field, and has been one of the most clear and lucid thinkers on the topic I’ve ever read. His view is getting commonplace, but was revolutionary when he introduced it. It helped me form my own ideas on computation and consciousness. Anyway, I love him, and feel like I have to come to his defense!

I think that's a pretty good quick description of Dennett's take. I do think, though, that it's significant that he so often turns the conversation towards the question of linear thinking (the thesis of his book Consciousness Explained, IIRC, is that consciousness arose from people talking to themselves) and away from what I think is the much thornier question of awareness and experience itself.

Here's why I think the question is still interesting. if we built a large replica of my brain, with little marbles to represent the various hormones and synaptic chemicals, we could in theory perfectly replicate all of the things that happen in my brain as I laugh while looking into my daughter's eyes. If we did this, according to Dennett's argument, there would be no meaningful difference between the experience of all those marbles being shuffled around in the experience I believe I am feeling when I actually share this laugh with my daughter.

Of course, from the outside, the two are indistinguishable. you can ask the marbles, using some text interface, to describe the feeling of laughter. And you can ask me. if the replica is good enough, the answers should be the same. Dennett is right to wonder why on earth you should trust me in my claim that I'm experiencing an ineffable subjective reality, and dismiss the marbles' identical claim. And that's certainly a rhetorically compelling question!

But turn it around: if awareness is only an illusion that results from emergent complexity, are we really ready to say that to whatever extent it feels like something to be me, it will feel just as much like something to be the system of marbles?

I think Dennett's preference in talking about the most human forms of awareness, such as the ability to think through questions in an almost linguistic way, is partially a reflection of how much less challenging that aspect of consciousness is to explain, given awareness itself. This is a line that I have seen Dennett fudge time and time again. I'm not sure what Dennett thinks it's like to be a mouse, but I would guess that a mouse experiences distress and panic in a way I would recognize, without needing to be able to talk itself out of a bad habit; just as I have at times been able to experience and react to pain even while heavily sedated and unable to form reflective thoughts. It's really the mouse's awareness that's the bigger mystery than human reflective thinking, we just don't have many talking mice to interrogate. (And how I'd love to quiz a bacterium!)

and yet, we are close to being able to produce a robot mouse able to perform the sort of pattern recognition and reflex reactions of an animal mouse. It seems that if awareness is a mere byproduct, animals could have evolved without it. why must it feel like hunger to be flooded with hormones that instruct me to seek food? I don't think it feels uncomfortable for air to be compressed in a tank, or that it feels explosive for the complex chemical eddies within a star to swirl their way with maximal efficiency to the surface.

It might not be fair of me to demand that Dennett answer to all of my different scenarios. but he is declaring, in a way, that no boundary exists that distinguishes human experience from any old complex information processing physical system. that's an affirmative description of the world that implicitly posits a huge range of whispers of experience, and to not address these is to not fully back up that affirmative description.

Whereas the "hard problem of consciousness" camp (which I think I'm in) is not putting forth an affirmative description, but merely articulating a sense of confusion and contradiction.

To make a dangerous analogy, I think it's a bit like the Shakespeare authorship question... the traditionalists/Stratfordians like to think of themselves as realists and describe the skeptics as fantasists who are affirmatively constructing ridiculous theories. But I think our default view should be that we are almost entirely ignorant of the creative processes of people who lived 400+ years ago and left little documentation. "Absolutely no one else collaborated significantly on any of the plays or any of the poems attributed to William Shakespeare!" is not a prudent view, it is an almost religious one; and when you dig into the scholarship that claims most intimate knowledge of the creative process behind Shakespeare's writings, you start to see very circular references that create statements like "Shakespeare wanted to explore theme X" out of whole cloth.

What separates me from Shakespeare authorship traditionalists is that they think this discussion is sickeningly indulgent and tired, while I find it fascinating and unsettling. Perhaps I'm a Shakespeare authorship skeptic because I'm infatuated with an illusion -- that's what traditionalists seem to often think. But I don't think they've given me answers that would justify their certainty.

I'm capable of having entire conversations while in what seems to have been an unconscious or semiconscious state. (I joked around with my surgeon, then told him the exact same joke when I gained full consciousness 10 minutes later.) I'm capable of feeling things when I'm having no thoughts at all (which happened when I was knocked out with sedative gas and then given a shot in my hand.). Why do I have awareness sometimes but not others? couldn't I perform many of my functions as a human without consciousness? What do I have in my brain's complexity that a replica wouldn't? what's it like to be a marble-based simulation of Ben's brain? what is it like to be a mouse or a gnat or a worm or a bacterium?

What separates me from Dennett most is that he finds these questions boring, while I find them unsettling, complex, mysterious and fascinating. Perhaps that's because I am immaturely infatuated with my own illusion. But I don't feel that he has given me answers that would justify his certainty.

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Blogger Shawn on Sun Apr 23, 04:11:00 PM:
Hi Ben. Fun stuff.

I for one am really ready to say that your reported experience would be indistinguishable from your marbles-replica's. The examples you give of experience divorced from awareness are less illustrative than they might appear at a glance. If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No? And how are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

And I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. (I'll speak here for myself, since I am not conversant in the Dennett camp's arguments.) The type of certainty you are objecting to is something more like: "In the absence of evidence for something ineffable/magical above and beyond what may be explained by the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, we are not justified in believing the ineffable/magical thing is real/extant." One need not be 100% certain to find materialists' formulation compelling. The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?
Blogger Ben on Mon Apr 24, 02:19:00 AM:
Thanks for the close read and thoughtful response!

If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No?

Good point. It's certainly hard for me to reconstruct what my mind might have been operating like at the time. The reason I have the hunch that I was not conscious (or not veryconscious) is that that is what general anaesthesia does, generally, and I think the idea that I was communicating complex ideas while without much consciousness squares with what I've also experienced other times I've been on some sort of mental autopilot -- while very drunk, say, or while cooking, where I might find that I've gone very far down the road of some cooking process that doesn't match my intentions, because I'm entirely thinking about something else. A more pure example of this is complex sleepwalking. are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

I don't mean to suggest I can "feel" things without awareness, just that I can do so without the sort of pseudo-verbal consciousness that Dennett centers on. First person solitary experiences don't make for very compelling evidence in a debate, so all I can say is that I think I understand deeply with the difference is between experiences I have recapitulated linguistically so that they are now primarily a verbal reconstruction, vs. experiences that were immediately seared into me in a nonnarrative form, whose place in my mind I have kept intact and been careful not to recolor. There are physical experiences that do not seem to me to originate in my consciousness; they enter my awareness by piercing it, and my consciousness must be roused to process and respond to them.

I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. ... The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?

I almost agree, but I do think there is an epistemological gap between their assertions and mine. I'm certainly not assertively claiming that something magical exists; and I think "ineffable" only applies until you understand a phenomenon. I, too, am a materialist by default.

My difference with the Dennett camp is that I think the evidence available to us is incredibly confusing. I'm open to the possibility that the confusion is entirely the result of illusions, and that there is nothing more to understand that the heart of the question of consciousness than what we already do understand. But I'm also open the possibility that there are aspects of the scienctific phenomenon of consciousness that make being a whale different from being a simulation of a whale.

I admit that it's going out on a thin rhetorical limb to assert the possibility of this with so little idea of what it could be! I guess I have to face up to have similar this is to the very weak defenses of religion put forth by some scientists, that go something like "I have no idea how a scientific explanation of God might work, but I think there might be one someday, because I sense the existence of God in a way that doesn't feel like an illusion".
Blogger Shawn on Tue May 09, 02:15:00 PM:
Thanks for humoring me! And please excuse my laggy response.

First, I understand you are still using the Ben and Alice blog to basically think out loud, so I am not too hung up on rhetorical strengths/weaknesses. I'm trying to engage with the logical content you are kicking around. And it is fun to engage with, so thanks for sharing.

Second, I made at least two untested inferences that may have been mistaken. A) I assumed the hypothetical "marble replica" of your brain would extend to either the entire nervous system or at least include analogues for all the nerve/sensory inputs to your brain. I wonder if that more complex model reduces any of the confusion here. Perhaps not... And B) I thought you were making the very strong argument that no materialist theory of consciousness could capture all the nuances you describe (e.g., genuine "whaleness" as distinct from a whale simulation); but I believe now that you are making the somewhat more limited argument that these confusing bits of experiential information are not captured by the Dennett theory/model. Is that right? If so, you have tentatively persuaded me there is some room for daylight between our experiences of consciousness and current materialist models of consciousness (specifically Dennett's notion of an emergent pseudo-verbal consciousness). And you have certainly persuaded me to catch up on Dennett's writings. Do you have a recommendation for where to start re his theory of consciousness?
Blogger Ben on Tue May 09, 04:54:00 PM:
I think you've summarized my position well. I am a materialist, though I'm open to the possibility that there are aspects of physics, computation or complexity that are part of what's going on in the phenomenon of consciousness, but which we don't yet understand. That is, I'm not the sort of materialist who thinks that materialism means any apparently faithful simulation of a mind will have the same characteristics as an actual animal mind.

Thanks for asking me to get specific about Dennett's work, because it forces me to admit my ignorance of the great majority of what he's written! I'm basically going on the strength of having read Consciousness Explained over a decade ago (though it made me so vividly frustrated, it seems more recent!), having listened to a polite debate with Sam Harris ( ), and having read the New Yorker profile of him. My sense from this limited exposure is that he dodges the full complexity of the most sticky questions by instead answering different, more satisfying ones.

In short, I appreciate Dennett's mocking the mystery-of-consciousness crowd (including me) for our resort to what seems like handwaving and magic to explain our theories. But Dennett thinks if you take a bunch of Legos and sorting machines and program in rules for moving them from place to place, at some point, somehow, you're going to make it feel the same way that an orgasm feels to me. Or rather, Dennett doesn't just think this is true, he is so overwhelmingly certain that he thinks it's laughable for me not to be sure he's right.

We are at the very beginning of understanding systems that are in some ways more complex and powerful than entire galaxies. All I am saying is that I balk at the job of appreciating, let alone understanding, that complexity and power and its sources.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A news product I need, between Reddit and Facebook Groups and Wikipedia and Slack

I was on a conference call last night using Bluejeans, and there was quite a bit of confusion about where all the people on the call could find various shared files and comments. There was the Slack group, which confusingly has multiple channels so if you're looking for something you sort of have to check them all and manually scan; there's no way to emphasize the priority of anything, or to post a static file. There's the bluejeans chat for that particular call itself. There is the Google docs, where you have been given access to various docs but there isn't really a place to go to feel you're seeing everything.

I have a long-term thesis that there is a wide need for a product that would unite long-term information and short-term information in one place, that would essentially have transient chat elements like Slack, twitter, yammer, Facebook, Google and Yahoo groups, medium-term curation elements like Reddit and hacker news, and long-term writing and curation elements like Wikipedia. If Wikipedia is the place you go to find out " what's the eternally true back story of X", and Facebook/Google groups are places you go for "what's everything the X group is saying", and reddit is the place you go for "what are some interesting links and comments related to X" this would be the place you go to find out "what's the current deal with X".  Sort of a crowd sourced, moderator-curated Techmeme for any topic or group.


What's the current deal with our school's PTA: when the heck are the meetings, who is even leading it, what's the upcoming event schedule, where is help needed, where's the contact list, where's that permission form again, how can I find that awesome short documentary film one of the school's dads made about the school last year?

What's the current deal with sci-fi movies and TV: what's out in theaters that's good? what has just come out on streaming? what's been available for a while that's hot and much liked? what's the deal with that fake seeming Star Wars preview… was that good? isn't there like an aliens movie in the works or something?  

What's the current deal with the New York mayoral race: are there any Democrats running against de Blasio, are there any prominent Republicans planning to run, even what year does it take place, what are the top issues voters have reported caring about, what's the status of the city's promise to stand up to Trump? 

What's the current deal with the NBA: what are the team rankings and what direction are the teams going, how has boogie cousins shaped up in New Orleans so far, how bad is Durant's injury and what does it mean for the West, who has emerged as a new superstar this year, what are the Vegas odds on teams winning the championship? Are there any good bball podcasts and episodes? wasn't there like a fight the other night? who has clinched playoff berths?

What's the deal with the workshop I just took? Who was in it, where are the slides, what outside resources were mentioned but not explicitly provided?

What's the current deal with Nintendo Switch: the games that are out and their reviews, the sales versus expectations, the best twitch streamers, the most shared videos so far, the articles about it people have shared the most even if they're a week old? 

Right now, if you wanted to be able to know these things at a glance on one page, at a moment's notice, you would have to hire a full-time employee to curate information for you and assemble live pages of it; the way you would need to do that for background information on significant topics before Wikipedia. And yet we have seen again and again that this sort of summarization, categorization and curation work is in ample supply on the Internet.

Now of course, there would have to be enough attracting people to camp out on a page and work on keeping it current. Since a much wider range of topics would be eligible then Wikipedia covers, you can imagine that there would be a significantly smaller amount of curation energy per page. On the other hand, isn't the page on the current status of iOS or the Trailblazers or space exploration or feminism a way, way bigger deal than their Wikipedia pages?

On the other other hand, since these wouldn't be places for original comments chatter, it's hard to see how they could grow a community the way, say, reddit does.

Say I want to see what's going on with the Trump-Russia stuff. Where do I look? None of these seem to be giving me what I want:

"Hey, Reddit, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

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"Hey, FB, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

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"Hey, Google, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

This is the best result currently, though it's very "latest story"-focused, rather than "what's the current status"-focused. I'd like to see poll numbers here, pullquotes from prominent players, capsule bios, etc. Note that none of the results are static pages devoted to the core topic.

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...Google News is essentially the same as regular Google search, but even more overwhelming. Get me an intern!

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NYTimes results are particularly poor. Don't they have some kind of explainer they could point us to?

…and first result, an op/ed by a not very trustworthy person, with little info made prominent:

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One more topic: the "Sully" miracle on the hudson landing.

Wikipedia example:

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Creative technology in today's classrooms: a panel proposal

From my panel proposal for the 2017 NYC Games For Change festival:


Educational games, edutainment and office tools have formed the bulk of schoolchildren's exposure to computers in the classroom. But what about creative expression? We'll hear from teachers and technologists about the approaches, tools and curricula they're using to unleash broad expression, and share examples of the expressive work students are creating when they are released from digital constraints.


The number one question I get from teachers when discussing my work is, what tools can they use in their classroom today that students will engage with enthusiastically?

Some of the most popular digital classroom tools, such as websites that introduce brief coding problems or digital robot toys, are unquestionably compelling and engaging, but also greatly limit the role of the student as a producer of creative work.

When students are faced with the sort of blank page typical in art class, their creativity flowers broadly, and they explore unexpected areas of their interests and discover new creative passions.

But for teachers, technologists and parents, this sort of green field creative format can be daunting and uncertain, and can require greater preparatory knowledge and research.

Key questions:

How are teachers finding out about these approaches and tools? Are they working in classrooms? What kind of work are students creating? How can that work be assessed? What are the pedagogical theories and evidence that support a creative and expressive approach to exploring technology in the classroom?


We'll share stories from the front, examples of student work, projects and units which succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and ones that crashed and burned in the face of the realities of student engagement and assessment. Attendees, whether educators, technologists, students, parents, or just interested parties, will walk away with a deeper understanding of how student creativity is being engaged and unleashed by expressive digital tools, and how to use that knowledge immediately in their own work.

Presentation experience:

I have taught in numerous capacities over the past decade, both as a college instructor, an elementary subject teacher, and a private teacher of groups of children age 4-12. I was also a conference organizer and host for the presidential administration of the nation of Georgia in 2005-6, and a regular speech giver in an NYC chapter of Toastmasters. I recently conducted a 5-day workshop for New York public school teachers through the NYC DoE's CS4All program.

My panelists would be drawn from seasoned classroom teachers, established educational programs such as ScriptEd, Startup Institute and Code/Interactive, and veterans of the educational software industry with speaking experience.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Android podcast apps reviewed

I'm finally giving up on Pocket Casts (after a good 300+ hours of listening), for reasons I've listed before.

The Android podcasting app landscape is badly lagging behind the iPhone, with its stars like Castro and Overcast (which I have plenty of complaints about). So I downloaded the first dozen or so apps that turn up in a search for "podcast" in the Google Play store.

A winner is you, Player FM:

My full research summary is in a Google Sheet.

As just one example of Player FM's design quality, consider the placement of the episode timeline at the bottom of this screen:

Note how the timeline doesn't go all the way from the left to the right. Why? So that you don't erroneously swipe the entire screen right, meaning to scrobble the episode forward from the start.

This may seem like a meaningless detail, but it was a frequent enough problem for me with PocketCasts that I emailed and tweeted to their team about it. There's no reason why one team can do it and another can't; and it's really a mistake not to have this feature, because overlapping and ambiguous touch regions suck!

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

The despicable William Buckley

I never saw William Buckley's Firing Line, but I just watched a 1969 debate (part 1, part 2) between Buckley and Noam Chomsky.

I've moved away from Chomsky's positions and towards Buckley's a bit over the years, and I'm sympathetic to Buckley's overall argument, but I'm shocked at the patent dishonesty and bad faith he shows throughout this debate, and many others.

Buckley's craven toolbag includes pretending that points are irrelevant:

CHOMSKY: I'm far more opposed... to the imposition of regimes by foreign troops. Now in the case of Germany, let's say, in the case of France, the, uh, the Petain government, the Vichy government, was supported by German troops. Had the German... they weren't throughout the country, necessarily, there certainly was indigenous support, but there's no question that if German military force had been withdrawn to the other side of the Rhine, uh, then there would have been, uh, an overthrow of the Vichy government, and then France would have had some different form of government. Now in that case, our invasion of France, whether one likes it or not, was in reaction to an occupying, external force. It's just pure confusion to identify that with the case of Greece, where we were trying to "liberate", uh, we were trying to select the kind of society that Greece would have, and we were trying to save the rulers we had designated as appropriate from the population. There was no outside force there.

BUCKLEY: But don't you realize that, uh, in your book, uh... that's where, you're not willing to be, to be consistent when carrying out this argument. You, you're constantly talking about our "sattellizing" of places like, uh, uh Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, so on so forth, and yet we never occupied them... ?

CHOMSKY: Oh, but we did...

BUCKLEY: But that is what you talk about...

CHOMSKY: We never occupied the Dominican Republic!? We sent 25,000 troops there in 1965.

BUCKLEY: No no, no, I'm talking about... pre-... I'm, I'm talking about...

CHOMSKY: Well, the American Marines were in there dozens of times, and...

BUCKLEY: No, no, I never...

CHOMSKY: And, and,

BUCKLEY: [Chuckling] Well, look, I think you're being evasive, and [smiling] I... I don't think you want to be!

CHOMSKY: Evasive? No, I...

BUCKLEY: Let me ask you this. Is it possible,

CHOMSKY: I'm not being evasive at all....

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: ...we just simply repeatedly sent troops to Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc., etc.

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: [Gives a resigned nod of defeat]

BUCKLEY: Is it possible... to "satellize" a nation without having an occupying army there?

CHOMSKY: Yes it is.

BUCKLEY: Alright, then there goes your French... your [snickering] tedious French explanation back there.

CHOMSKY: Oh, not at all, because that doesn't happen to be... you see we're talking about a real situation.

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh.

CHOMSKY: We could talk about some ideal situation, and have an academic discussion...

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh, [Scoffing] I know... therefore, it is possible for the real Vietnam, to "sattelize" South Vietnam, presumably, without even--

CHOMSKY: It's, it's logically possible...

BUCKLEY: --uh, occupying it militarily, in any formal sense.

CHOMSKY: Eh, but it didn't happen, though. So there's no point in discussing it.

BUCKLEY: Well, this is an argument considering which which there is, there are... [very slowly shows both sides of his hand] two points of view,

CHOMSKY: Let's discuss it, then.

BUCKLEY: uh, uh, historically... eh,

CHOMSKY: If you're willing to be serious about it, there's more evidence that South Vietnam tried to colonize North Vietnam, than conversely. In fact, South-- [Buckley presumably makes a face] well, look, South Vietnamese commandoes were going... regular military forces were going North, uh, considerably earlier than we even proclaimed that the infiltration began from North to South.

BUCKLEY: They bump into the refugees coming South? [Laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: The refugees were coming south in 19... uh, were going in both directions, in fact, as early as 1954, '55. And, according, at least according to Bernard Fall, the commandoes, uh, began going North as early as '56, '57... [Buckley smiles, as if to say "get a load of this guy"] The first claimed infiltration from the North was in '59, and that was South Vietnamese coming, so... so, you know, if one wants to talk about, again, the real world, the first motion, the first motion--

BUCKLEY: Yep, the, the trouble is, you, you don't, your difficulty, mister Chomsky, is you, in my judgment, you [always] know where neatly to begin your historical, uh, sequence...

CHOMSKY: Well, you, you chose the point of beginning...

BUCKLEY: Well, the point, the point really is that, uh, if you, if you're starting to say 1959 was a provocation, because it was...

CHOMSKY: It wasn't a provocation! I don't claim that's when the provocation began!

BUCKLEY: ...and I say how about the people who were going North to South... who were talking about the misery caused by Ho Chi Minh, and so on and so forth... [chuckles]

CHOMSKY: Which people are you talking about, I don't know!

BUCKLEY: ...[Chuckles] well, I'm talking about the Vietnamese people, North and South... your remark is neatly captured in, in, in, the remark made recently by Czechoslovakia, that Czechoslovakia is obviously the most neutralist country in the world, since it declines to interfere even its own internal affairs... [laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: I'm afraid I don't see the relevance, uh...

BUCKLEY: The relevance is very simply [grins] that you start your line of discussion at a moment that is historically useful to you...

CHOMSKY: That's, that's what I'm saying -- you pick the beginning. You pick the beginning.

BUCKLEY: The grand act of the post-war world....

CHOMSKY: [Nods head in lonely recognition of a point won that Buckley will never concede] ...alright.

BUCKLEY: ... is that the communist, communist imperialists, by the use of terrorism, by the deprivation of freedom, have contributed to the continuing bloodshed... and the saddening thing about it is, not only the bloodshed, but that they seem to disposess you of the power of rational observation! [raises eyebrows and smiles]

CHOMSKY: Yuh... may I say something?


CHOMSKY: I think that's about 5% true, and about, or maybe about 10% true. It certainly is true...

BUCKLEY: Why do you give that?

CHOMSKY: May I complete a sentence?


This excerpt hardly does justice to Buckley's tendency to use shifty language, belligerance, and condescension to avoid addressing Chomsky's points.

Here's why I care: What does it mean, I wonder, that the great conservative intellectual is so obfuscating and intellectually dishonest?

I ask that while admitting that Chomsky is sometimes frustrating to me as a debater as well, such as in his email debate with Sam Harris. For instance, Chomsky often uses the rhetorical device "To take an example at random..." and pulls out, in speaking appearance after speaking appearance, the same one example.

Chomsky is wrong that Nort Vietnam was as benign an instance of socialism as, say, Cuba, Catalonia, or later Nicaragua, Venezuela, or (ever so briefly) Chile; not that most of these didn't have their victims. It's alarming how ready Chomsky is to dismiss Soviet and communist oppression as being some kind of myth. But at least he recognizes that there is a kernel of truth to those claims, and that the Stalin and Mao eras were especially oppressive.

It's more alarming to me what an utter lack of curiosity Buckley has for the US's own imperialist history, which he clearly does not know as well as he pretends (though he chuckles knowingly through Chomsky's historical references as if they were on the tip of his tongue as well). Buckley would rather cut Chomsky off with an insult than allow him to describe the US's own dirty laundry. His refusal to concede a point makes dismiss outright the importance of any possible crimes by US troops or our proxies. Chomsky cries Guatemala; Buckley cries Prague. But it's fair to say that at this point Chomsky had probably gone to pains to learn about Prague and that Buckley had gone to none to learn about Guatemala.

What's also remarkable is that Buckley--like his brethren, an enemy of relativism--has no idea what a perfect demonstration of relativism his own thinking is.

Consider an educated, pro-military Russian, who learned in school about the US's imperialist history in the Caribbean, and not about Soviet crimes in Prague. She could well figure out what was happening in Prague if she had wanted to. But why should she? In her eyes, her government might make mistakes, surely, but it was not the evil one.

Buckley's mindset is no more curious or skeptical or honest than this. He has grown no more than this Soviet has; he has stayed in his provincial place in the relativistic landscape, as she has stayed in hers. If there is an objective truth out there, neither of them has turned their back on their provincialism and pursued it. And why should they? After all, Buckley's stated mission, early on was not to seek out truth; it was to put a stop to the madnesss he saw in America's cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s.

I can appreciate Buckley's desire to pin Chomsky with the label of bad faith, because I want to pin Buckley the same. An accusation of bad faith is marvelously clarifying; it recasts an opponent from a reasoned being whose views must be considered in full, into a charlatan whose basic dishonesty renders all his views moot.

At the same time, I do believe there is a fundamental difference between Buckley and Chomsky. Chomsky is not consistent in all his views, though the worst accusation that I had seen from dedicated Chomsky opponents is that he invested his MIT retirement pension account in those same mutual fund-listed corporations whose influence he condemns. And he doesn't do a good job of admitting his past mistakes, such as an overly lenient view of the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s that he quietly amended to fit the post-1991 consensus on the left that Soviet imperialism really was an awful, oppressive, corrosive thing.

But Chomsky in this speech with Buckley is speaking essentially honestly. He believes what he says; he acquiesces to yes-or-no questions and answers honestly, even when this hurts his case and helps make Buckley's point; he backs up his assertions with facts, at times admits he doesn't know things, and concedes parts of Buckley's arguments.

The two aren't playing the same game; Buckley is clearly smart, and knows he's being shown up at times, but when Chomsky corrects him on the history of the Greek civil war, or on the history of the many invasions borne of the Monroe doctrine, Buckley hastily changes the subject. Buckley also repeatedly demands that Chomsky answer his questions, while refusing to answer Chomsky's biggest ones--including some that Buckley himself set up, not expecting that Chomsky would be willing to back up his statements. An honest discussant would not so frivilously accuse Chomsky of disingenuously cherry-picking his historical dates, only to change the subject when Chomsky invites him to pick them for him.

If Buckley was at all in search of truth here, he might say "I don't have the command of the history off the top of my head as you do, professor, but I think I'll still disagree after consulting my sources." Instead he pretends -- and hopes the audience will too -- that Chomsky hasn't stepped up to the challenge, and uses that classic tactic of obfuscating job interviewees everywhere: the rhetorical bridge. Caught on the defensive? Time to stop playing fair and change the subject.

That Chomsky beats Buckley so handily is ironic since Buckley is so much more right than Chomsky about the essential destructiveness of the North Vietnamese government. Buckley gets mumble-mouthed and allows Chomsky to assert that before hostilities flared up in the late '50s, the South had as many refugees going North than vice versa. I don't know who claimed what numbers at the time, but the Pentagon Papers (released several years after this debate occurred) estimated that one million refugees had fled South, and further scholarship has suggested that many more tried to flee but were stopped by the communist Viet Minh. I will happily admit I don't know the history well at all, but I don't think the intevening decades have been kind to Chomsky's apologist position.

One of the most dangerous people today is the typical middle-class Russian citizen: educated, intelligent, struggling to make ends meet, nationalist, supportive of Vladimir Putin. If Russia wishes to reassert authority over a former client state, and supplies arms and training to kindle a regional conflict in a destabilizing civil war, will this citizen care? Should she care? Should she learn about it, so as to discern whether the government is acting fairly?

The painful truth is that she will learn little about it, she will trust the government to do more or less the right thing, and she will not give it a second thought. Hence Russia has been involved in at least three low-intensity wars in Eastern Europe over the last twenty years, and one high-intensity war in Chechnya, as well as assorted assassinations in foreign countries, some election meddling, and propping up sympathetic dictators like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, all with the consent of this acquiescent and incurious Russian citizen.

Chomsky is saying, again and again: we Americans are not doing a much better job of being citizens than this Russian citizen is. Buckley never addresses this question -- and by his avoidance, proves it true.

And what about the American counterpart to this citizen? If the future of the world depended on Buckley's intellectual leadership directing her to grow in her citizenship and to assert a moral direction for her country, would we have a prayer?

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Climate change denier doth protest too little

Climate change politics isn't a choice between A) "We're 100% certain we know exactly what's happening and going to happen and why and how much humans are contributing" and B) "We don't really know anything and the jury's still out".

There's also C) "We have many separate sets of evidence that independently confirm the same basic thesis, and even though systems this complex are not completely understood and there's some chance the thesis of human causation could be wrong a lot or a little, the balance has long tipped overwhelmingly towards having enough evidence to act."

Irresponsible shills like Scott Pruitt don't want the public to consider C, so they denounce A over and over. Their refusal to even articulate their disagreement with C shows their lack of confidence that C is false, and their lack of confidence that B is true.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Russia's bizarre apologists

Masha Gessen's latest deflection of the Trump-Russia conspiracy charge is mystifying. (Just as her last two pieces making some of the same points were.)

You don't need to scoff that people are imagining something nefarious. We know the basics, from extensive investigative reporting and leaks:

  • the Kremlin and its oligarchy have invested heavily in Trump for at least a decade, both above and below board;
  • Trump, in that time, has constantly inserted himself into presidential politics;
  • Russia meanwhile has been much more imperialistic and militarily aggressive, invading two neighbors outright, but they have been somewhat limited by the McCain and Obama Russia hawk camps, and it's been costing them billions;
  • even before Trump announced, thousands of Russian propaganda Twitter accounts switched over to promoting Trump;
  • Trump lives in the same building as Russian oligarchic criminals' massive headquarters, which he provides to them, and has been accused credibly with helping Russian oligarchs launder hundreds of millions of dollars;
  • Trump's inner campaign team was filled with the US political world's most pro-Russia operatives and officials;
  • on the same day that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, Putin announced, uncharacteristically, that he would not react to Obama's sanctions, but wait for the new administration;
  • Flynn, a disgraced nutcase who was paid $40k by Russians tied to the Kremlin to sit next to Putin at a gala to celebrate propaganda network RT, is made National Security Advisor by Trump, but lies about his contact with the Russian government to Pence, the only inner Trump team member who hasn't been part of the inside all along and has no ties to Russia.

In short, even leaving out so much, we know Trump has been working for the Kremlin and its oligarchs, and that he owes much of his prosperity and political life to them. They also clearly expect his election to serve them well, and not because of any policy positions he holds. They are a joint criminal enterprise whose businesses are mutually dependent and entangled.

How on earth is that not bad enough to matter?

I fear that the New York Review of Books, once again, is proving the spinelessness and imperialist apologism of its deeply outdated defense of Russia, just as it has in pieces over the years that warned against intervening against Milosevic and painted Georgia as an oppressor of Russian citizens.

I wrote a letter of complaint to the NYRB about this problem years ago, but was warned by a colleague that there was zero chance they would print it.

The NYRB has a skepticism of anti-Russian rhetoric that dates to the many decades when anti-communism was used by jingoistic American conservatives to profiteer at public expense. They were never communist, but they have long been aligned with the views of pro Russia outlets like the British Helsinki Group. It's a weird international network, with former USSR supporters (not actually really communists themselves) and far-right nationalists working with the non-existent communist but anti-US-imperialist left. Some of it is funded by Russian natural resource cash, some is just along for the ride out of inertia.

Of course American and British cold warriors are very much to blame for eroding all trust that opposition to Russian imperialism is really about human rights and such.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Honesty, the constitution, and "Show me your papers"

I disagree slightly with Garrett Epps's interpretation of 1991's Supreme Court case, Florida vs. Bostick.

It seems clear that while the Supreme Court didn't identify a specific requirement that officers state that people being questioned may refuse to answer, it did state that their "conduct" must give people "no reason to believe that they would be detained if they answered truthfully or refused to answer".

It seems clear that the conduct in question failed this constitutional test, and was thus unconstitutional per standing court precedent.

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz, CA police department is claiming that Homeland Security misled them about the nature of recent raids, which appear to have been partially intended to identify and capture illegal immigrants not suspected of criminal activity. The Constitutional implications of this are unclear to me; does misleading the government negate jurisdiction in some way? Can California refuse some federal immigration enforcement, on top of the refusal to report some information that some of its sanctuary cities already promise to do?

Luckily for us, not every possible government police or military action is legal or constitutional. For instance, the government may not monitor the content of individual phone calls without a warrant; government officials may not explicitly misrepresent their identities or roles in the course of investigating illegal activity; and government officials may not make people believe they are legally obligated to take some action, such as producing ID or submitting to a search, if they are not actually legally obligated to do so.

When Melania Trump became an illegal immigrant by violating the terms of her visa and performing paid work in the US, as all available evidence suggests, I am glad the laws and constitution were there to provide her some peace of mind that the government would not have carte blanche to use every means at its disposal, such as unwarranted wiretaps, false threats, false impersonation, and illegal demands to pursue and arrest her.

While I wish the Supremes had gone further and established an analog to Miranda rights, they did make it clear that not only are government agents violating your rights if they lie to you about them, they are violating your right even if they imply false information about your rights by their words or actions.

Routine violation of constitutional rights should be a criminal offense punishable by jail time, in my opinion. But I know the Supremes aren't with me there.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Towards the validity of gender expression and perception

Angus Johnson linked to this American Conservative piece by Natasha Vargas-Cooper about Mount Holyoke's cancelling The Vagina Monologues in the face of pressure due to its perceived cisgender bias.

I have no idea of the details of the Mount Holyoke case, or of how accurately Vargas-Cooper is representing it; given my past reading of TAC, I don't trust them to give a fair hearing. And before the halfway point in the article I disagreed plenty with her aggressive traditionalism. But in the first dozen or so paragraphs, I thought she made a lot of sense.

I think there's a strange traditionalism embedded in new PC norms around trans identity. Far from seeing gender as fluid, the new norm demands that we simply shift inclusion in old gender binary systems. Contra, eg., RuPaul, who celebrates expression that transgresses these boundaries freely. (He makes his point cogently in a recent episode of Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham's podcast, Still Processing)

Expressing and feeling maleness or femaleness can be valid always -- whereas there are those who would formally scold me if I responded to the male aspects of Caitlyn Jenner's expression, as if she has merely jumped from one gender straitjacket to another.

The regulation of pronouns is not a problem invented by shrill right-wingers -- it's really happening, and I think it is distinctly wrong. I find criticism of the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy overblown; its guidance focuses on acceptance and inclusion, and not on speech. But the New York City Commission on Human Rights's guidance is specific to speech and pronouns, and could lead to fines for those who don't use a trans person's preferred pronoun.

In practice, these speech violations won't necessarily conform to the stereotypical scene of a troglodyte looking a muscled and bearded lumberjack in the eye and snidely calling him "her". They could instead involve, say, a longtime coworker who mostly expresses as male asking to be called by a recently introduced pronoun, and well-intentioned coworkers repeatedly slipping up to the point that they have to be penalized or fired because of the lawsuit risk this introduces to the company.

The core problem is that gender identification is simply not the only component of gender, any more than author intent is the only component of reader experience. Aspects of cisgender like menstruation, genetalia, and erections are easy to make fun of as insufficient to withhold gender identity from people. But it is not them, in and of themselves, that dictate gender. Rather, they are aspects of complex systems of genetic and epigenetic expression of gender that affect bone structure, voice, hormones, sexual excitement and desire, and possibly more elements of development that we do not understand well. Every aspect of these expressions is malleable and has exceptions, and operates on a continuum; none of us is born wholly one gender or another, and taking hormone supplements really does shift one's gender expression, and therefore really does shift, expand or contract one's gender.

But these aspects are not meaningful only in one direction, valid only when reduced or acted on to bring expression in line with identity. As someone chooses, through identity only or through active alterations, to change their gender expression, aspects of their previous gender expression remain. To perceive these cis aspects is not, in and of itself, a betrayal or an act of denial of a trans person's identity. Expressing that perception may be done aggressively and dismissively, or it may be done unsupportively, or ignorantly, impolitically or merely out of familiarity with a trans person's older cis expression. There is a big difference between these; I care immensely about how I express this perception, and I think others should too. But that doesn't mean that subjectively perceiving these cis aspects is wrong. Neither is speech which reflects that perception wrong.

I certainly go out of my way to embrace and support the gender identification of trans people. I call Chelsea Manning "she", because she's a woman! (She's also a hero, for the record.) But Chelsea Manning is also a man, in ways that are significant. And if I say "he" once in a while, I'm not wrong. I am doing so, in fact, out of perceptiveness and attentiveness to Chelsea's expression, not out of stubbornness and ignorance. Even moreso if I call someone "he" or "she" who has asked to be referred to by a non-gendered pronoun, a word whose role as a shortcut is simply not part of a language I'm fluent in.

It is alarming to me that people are being expected not only to affirmatively try to embrace trans identities, but to shut off that perceptiveness. It really is demanding newspeak to rule that a building block of speech such as pronouns must be adapted to a feigned perception, or be judged hateful.

If you disagree with me, I have some sincere questions I'd like to know your answers to. I'll continue to refer to Chelsea Manning, she being someone we probably have similar information about. Before openly transitioning, but while internally feeling herself to be a woman, would you say that there was any significant way in which Bradley Manning was a man? If so, what are those ways? Cultured experience? Gender privilege? Physical development? Hormones? Did absolutely every aspect on that list cease to exist when she transitioned? If not, is it possible that perceiving Chelsea in some ways to be a man is valid, rather than prejudiced?

If you don't think there was any significant way in which Bradley was a man, why do you think most people who encountered Bradley thought of Bradley as a man? Predjudice?

If someone doesn't yet know that an acquaintance asks others to use a new, recently invented pronoun to refer to them, are they acting merely from prejudice if they use a gender pronoun to refer to them?

Someone made the point to me that a cop perceiving a black man as violent may also be being honest, but that doesn't make his predjudiced perception valid. I agree. I think the distinction is in the accuracy of the basis for the perception. If you look at a South Asian person and perceive them as Muslim, without knowing anything about their religion, your perception is based on false information; there is no evidence, in what you perceive, to indicate that this person is Muslim. But someone born cis female who transitions to male really did have female aspects in his early life, and will, often, retain some. To perceive those is not false prejudice. To fail in speech to override that perception may be unsupportive, and feel deeply hurtful, and that's why I try not to fail at that. But it is not actually incorrect, isn't immoral, and shouldn't be illegal.

Again, I find myself pleading with fellow progressives not to cede ground so easily to conservatives. The core tenets of progressivism are a bedrock that the vast majority of people support; it is foolish, and wrong, to push our principles with scorched earth, without balance and humanism, and thus to alienate and even punish would-be allies.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The jackboot and the concern troll

A contrarian friend, whose contrarianism I have been pushing against since the election, linked approvingly to this essay by Liane Carlson on "moral luck".

I find this piece very much not true for me. I would much rather the madmen not be in power than that I feel heroic. If what she were saying were true, I think I'd hear friends expressing clarity of purpose and appreciating the soldier's role in a righteous war, more than I'd hear them ask for help with managing panic, weeping because their children are hated by the rulers, and asking for mental health recommendations.

Unfortunately, the opposite seems true, at least in my world.

Going further, I read this piece as applying a  lens I have long felt is ignorant and even complicit with oppression. That lens could be described as "what's really interesting about this power struggle is its epistemology".

You see the problem, for example, in reports about studies of bias that appear to lump liberals and conservatives together, without entertaining the question of what if would mean for evaluating the study to consider whose beliefs are, in the objective world, actually true. There is a genteel elitism in the perspective, from above the fray where the actual battles don't matter day to day; the worst perpetrators of this are the David Brookses and David Frums who hand wring about details while the world burns.

Even the Gaugin example trades in this sort of nonsense. The notion that his success as a painter bears on the morality of his family life is cocktail party flatulence.

Honestly, it's offensive to blather about moral luck like this. An autocratic leader and his horrendous cronies have taken power. Who gives a fuck if people are comparing him to Andrew Jackson or Hitler? The preoccupation with this or that nuance of people's epistemology is some bullshit.

Wake the fuck up.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy

The incredible Jeroboam Bozeman of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater visited my daughter Carmen's 2nd grade class today.

I knew the visit would be special; in corresponding with him beforehand, he would sign off with variations of "sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy." I couldn't wait to see that energy in person.

And I'm so, so glad I did. I really think every child in the classroom felt his energy, light and love. Jeroboam engaged the kids right from the start, asking them questions about their lives, dreams and opinions, and getting every single child talking and responding.

He asked them to tell him their names when they spoke, insisted on getting their names right, and then complimented each child on her name. "What's your name?" "Alice." "Alice. What a wonderful name." He did this with child after child.

He spoke about the life-changing experience of seeing the Alvin Ailey dancers perform when he was a child, and seeing men like him performing with phenomenal strength and grace.

His path to the highest and most prestigious dance stage was anything but easy. He told the students about his family's struggles with housing, the bullying he faced for not conforming to expectations as a boy, and about the many times he auditioned for the Ailey company and was rejected.

No question was too small or too obvious: he took each child seriously, whether they were asking his favorite ice cream (Talenti gelato), how he felt when he was not picked as a dancer (disappointed but determined to work so hard they'd say yes the next time), or whether Ailey is only for black people (it was created to embody and reflect the black experience in America, and has a majority black company, but there are dancers, and audience members, of all kinds, and from all over the world).

He closed by having the children repeat a refrain:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

And had them say it again:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

Just imagine a room full of 7 year-olds, from all walks of life, repeating those words! What a crucial message, for any time or any age. In my mind, it was echoing together with the focused blend of joy, strength and determination I saw and felt at the women's marches last weekend.

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is the left closed-minded?

I often scoff at conservatives' whining about the "PC police" and such, since such claims are often overblown and strike me as a cover for a refusal to take responsibility for stopping racism and sexism.

But, mostly privately, I know what they're talking about. Or rather, there's some overlap between my view and theirs, where we would both agree the left has some worrying traits.

I agree that there is a closed minded humorlessness that has become so rigid on the left that it shuts down productive conversation and turns away allies. I see so much "you don't get to say that" on Twitter and to a lesser degree Facebook, perhaps because Twitter operates more as a large continuous echo chamber, and Facebook more like an archipelago of somewhat separate echo chambers.

A reasonable person to engage in dialogue, like the Yale dean who wrote the letter saying there was developmental value in transgressing norms and that she didn't think she should be dictating costume choices to students, gets treated with the sort of absolutist opposition that was once reserved for the cruelly oppressive. Lena Dunham mentions in an interview that because of her looks, she felt Odell Beckham Jr. couldn't even register her as something you'd have sex with, and gets raked over the coals because of the problematic assumptions about black make sexuality her comments bring to mind.

It's not that I always disagree with the progressive analysis--far from it. But the absolute worst is always immediately assumed, and when people chime in with a "yes and, maybe they do have a point too" they are assumed to be an enemy. The Yale dean and Lena Dunham's words and actions are problematic, I agree. But I also think they are well within the realm of reasonableness. You can have disagreements, issues, and questions, without losing sight of the large overlap between their points of view and ours.

Say a friend confided in you, sighing, that she felt worthless when she dressed up and put on makeup and sat near a handsome and fit male celebrity, whose glance seemed to deny her a shred of seductive attraction. Part of you would register how her reaction is different from yours, how much she's assuming about his experience without knowing it, how she's not attuned to the possible historical echoes of a white woman presuming a black man should see her as a potential sex object. But wouldn't much more of you figure that her experience is substantially real, and that your criticisms are only part of the story? Wouldn't you keep in mind that you weren't there, and that her take might describe what happened accurately?

Alice has pointed out, when I have expressed similar concerns, that I sort of bend over backwards to come up with counterfactuals to extend doubt to otherwise solid criticisms levied by progressives. Maybe I do. I like to think that I will bend over backwards to imagine what version of the other would seem familiar; what alien concepts would feel like if they were native to my mind; how I would see an enemy if she were a friend. Am I denying that generosity to the progressive critics I'm denouncing now?

Again, maybe I am. I'll think about it. In the meantime, I do think the problem is asymmetrical. Dunham is saying ill of Beckam Jr., but she's hardly raking him through the mud. She felt that she didn't exist to him because of her looks. That's it. It's a mild drive-by criticism, not a relentless attack.

And there are, indeed, irrationally relentless attacks being made by the left. I got into a Twitter spat recently with a progressive woman whose writing I adore, just because I cautiously defended someone's point that the Clintons operate in a world of the powerful, with a vantage point from which it's hard to realize how bad some of their actions will appear.

I think you can fully support Hillary Clinton and oppose Trump, and still acknowledge that. Not so with this writer, and it took me repeating several times that I supported HRC, had volunteered for the campaign, and had brought both my daughters to another state for 3 days to volunteer, before she stopped insulting me.

I think that's a symptom of a significant vein of impenetrable certainty and scorched earth which is a big problem in progressive thinking and culture.

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