Category Archives: Random Blogging

Behavior Is Fair Game–Identity Isn’t

The horrific attacks on Mosque worshippers in New Zealand are more evidence–as if we needed more–of the global eruption of tribalism and bigotry.

That bigotry has been encouraged, and defended, by Donald Trump and his supporters, who traffic in stereotypes and like to shrug off criticisms of slurs based on race, religion and sexual orientation as “political correctness.” They deliberately ignore the very consequential difference between legitimate criticisms of behavior and illegitimate accusations based upon identity that fuel intergroup enmity.

It’s a crucial distinction, and one with which even well-meaning Americans struggle, as we’ve recently seen in the debate triggered by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

I hadn’t posted about the explosive reactions to Congresswoman Omar’s comments, for a couple of reasons: first, there have been plenty of columns, blog posts and Facebook rants without my adding my two cents; and second, because I know very little about the Congresswoman and thus lack a context within which to evaluate whether her use of a couple of old anti-Semitic tropes was inadvertent or purposeful.

That said, I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt. I have a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t have been subject to such blowback had she not been Muslim. (It took years of overt hate speech before Steve King’s vitriol bothered his fellow Republicans. Islamophobia isn’t any prettier than anti-Semitism.)

Inadvertent or not, the reaction to her remarks makes it important to emphasize that criticism of Israel is not in and of itself anti-Semitic.  Plenty of American Jews are highly critical of Israeli policies and Netanyahu. I am one of them. Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, is another.

As Marshall recently noted,

the Israeli right and its supporters in the US (who are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians) have reaped the whirlwind by making the Netanyahu government’s meddling in US politics so frequent and expected. It is not only wrong on the merits. It is insanely shortsighted for Israel. It also endangers American Jews.

As he concluded,

There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. I agree with many of the main criticisms. There’s nothing about criticizing Israel that is anti-Semitic, though the two things can overlap. And the history of anti-Semitism being what it is, it behooves critics to stay their criticism in ways that doesn’t easily play into anti-Semitic stereotypes. But the Israeli right and its American allies have made all of this more difficult for American Jews, who are overwhelmingly identified with the party the current Israeli government considers itself opposed to.

When critics suggest that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, when they are conspicuously silent when far less democratic countries in the region like Saudi Arabia oppress women or kill journalists, or when they signal that their animus toward Israel extends to American Jews–yes, that’s anti-Semitic, and they should be called out on it.

For that matter, no one should be surprised that people who have a five-thousand-year history of hatred and discrimination would be a bit… sensitive… when old tropes play. But criticism of Israeli actions and/or policies is fair game, and it shouldn’t be deflected by unfair charges of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, sweeping characterizations of Jews–or Muslims, or African-Americans or any other group–is bigotry. Condoning it–let alone tacitly encouraging it, as Trump clearly does– leads to tragedies like the massacre in New Zealand.

 

 

 

Labels Versus Definitions

Yesterday morning, I was on the treadmill listening to “Morning Joe.” Scarborough was interviewing the Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who is one of the thousands of Democrats running for President. (Okay, maybe thousands is an exaggeration…) Hickenlooper was a successful entrepreneur before becoming Mayor of Denver and then Governor, and Scarborough asked him if he considered himself a capitalist.

When Hickenlooper responded that he didn’t like labels–that he focused on solving problems–both Joe and one of his panelists repeatedly pressed Hickenlooper on the issue, since they both said– falling neatly into a semantic trap being set by Republicans–the Democratic Party is split between good old American capitalism and a “socialist” flank.

I wish Hickenlooper had been more artful in his response. He might have pointed out that all western democracies are what we call “mixed” economies. (He did note that Social Security was originally opposed for being “socialist,” which of course it is.) We need capitalism in those areas of the economy where it clearly works well, and state-sponsored systems in areas where markets fail.

He also might have made the point that Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly made: as a capitalist, she wants to rescue capitalism by reinstating the regulatory rules that mandate the level playing field that is essential if markets are to work. (As I have noted in previous posts, America no longer has a genuine market system–capitalism has devolved into corporatism.)

In our highly polarized politics today, words like Socialism, Fascism and Communism are used more as insults than descriptions. So let me offer a few definitions.

Socialism may be the least precise of these terms. It is generally applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden is correspondingly higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

When pundits take to the fainting couch over leftists who call themselves Democratic Socialists, they are (intentionally?) confusing socialism with communism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t analyze and debate proposals to “socialize” added areas of the economy–but that analysis ought to rest on accurate definitions of the terms being used.

What about the other end of the political spectrum?

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” but it differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Three elements commonly identified with Fascism are 1) a national identity fused with racial/ethnic identity and concepts of racial superiority; 2) rejection of civil liberties and democracy in favor of authoritarian government; and 3) aggressive militarism. (Sound familiar?)

If Hickenlooper’s appearance on Morning Joe is any indication, Americans are in for two years of empty posturing over economic terminology bullshit.

Maybe I can just hide under my bed until 2020 is over…..

 

 

Messing With Our Minds

As if the websites peddling conspiracy theories and political propaganda weren’t enough, we now have to contend with “Deepfakes.” Deepfakes, according to the Brookings Institution, are 

videos that have been constructed to make a person appear to say or do something that they never said or did. With artificial intelligence-based methods for creating deepfakes becoming increasingly sophisticated and accessible, deepfakes are raising a set of challenging policy, technology, and legal issues.

Deepfakes can be used in ways that are highly disturbing. Candidates in a political campaign can be targeted by manipulated videos in which they appear to say things that could harm their chances for election. Deepfakes are also being used to place people in pornographic videos that they in fact had no part in filming.

Because they are so realistic, deepfakes can scramble our understanding of truth in multiple ways. By exploiting our inclination to trust the reliability of evidence that we see with our own eyes, they can turn fiction into apparent fact. And, as we become more attuned to the existence of deepfakes, there is also a subsequent, corollary effect: they undermine our trust in all videos, including those that are genuine. Truth itself becomes elusive, because we can no longer be sure of what is real and what is not.

The linked article notes that researchers are trying to devise technologies to detect deep fakes, but until there are apps or other tools that will identify these very sophisticated forgeries, we are left with “legal remedies and increased awareness,” neither of which is very satisfactory.

We already inhabit an information environment that has done more damage to social cohesion than previous efforts to divide and mislead. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and social media (and the demise of media that can genuinely be considered “mass”), we are all free to indulge our confirmation biases–free to engage in what a colleague dubs “motivated reasoning.” It has become harder and harder to separate truth from fiction, moderate spin from outright propaganda.

One result is that thoughtful people–people who want to be factually accurate and intellectually honest–are increasingly unsure of what they can believe.

What makes this new fakery especially dangerous is that, as the linked article notes, most of us do think that “seeing is believing.” We are far more apt to accept visual evidence than other forms of information. There are already plenty of conspiracy sites that offer altered photographic “evidence”–of the aliens who landed at Roswell, of purportedly criminal behavior by public figures, etc. Now people intent on deception have the ability to make those alterations virtually impossible to detect.

Even if technology is developed that can detect fakery, will “motivated” reasoners rely on it?

Will people be more likely to believe a deepfake or a detection algorithm that flags the video as fabricated? And what should people believe when different detection algorithms—or different people—render conflicting verdicts regarding whether a video is genuine?

We are truly entering a new and unsettling “hall of mirrors” version of reality.

Meanwhile…

Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, most of America is transfixed and distracted by the daily Gong Show in Washington.

It’s bad enough that–while the news focuses on the President’s most recent bizarre and misspelled tweet storm– cabinet members are busily rolling back regulations protecting citizens from contaminated air and water, protecting students from predatory “educators,” or protecting irreplaceable national lands from being ravaged and looted by fossil fuel interests.

Worse, we are also being distracted from emerging reports about changes to our planet that should terrify us.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinctionin its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animalsthat are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

We are beginning to see reports of the collapse of insect populations, and the researchers who authored the report say that the phenomenon extends globally–far beyond the specific collapses that have been documented. As the article in the Guardian put it,

The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

The article, published in the academic journal Biological Conservation, attributes the dramatic decline of insect populations to intensive agriculture, especially the heavy use of pesticides, although it also found that urbanization and climate change are significant contributors to the problem.

There have been a number of stories about the mysterious loss of bee colonies-indications are that western states like Oklahoma lost half of their bumblebees between 1949 and 2013. But the problem extends far beyond bees, and the consequences of the predicted insect loss would be staggering.

One of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” he said. Such cascading effects have already been seen in Puerto Rico, where a recent study revealed a 98% fall in ground insects over 35 years.

The new analysis selected the 73 best studies done to date to assess the insect decline. Butterflies and moths are among the worst hit. For example, the number of widespread butterfly species fell by 58% on farmed landin England between 2000 and 2009. The UK has suffered the biggest recorded insect falls overall, though that is probably a result of being more intensely studied than most places.

I strongly advise clicking through and reading the entire, depressing article. At the very least, it will give you something to be depressed about other than the disaster in the White House.

Religion And Sex

Breaking news! It isn’t just the Catholics.

The Houston Chronicle, among other publications, has now publicized revelations about what the Baptists have been doing.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

 They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

The revelations about Catholic priests spawned a number of articles blaming the priests’ sexual misconduct on celibacy–after all, human sexuality is a primal urge. Asking men to forego sex in the service of Godliness…well, that’s asking for trouble.

But Baptists don’t have to be celibate. What’s their excuse?

I’ve always been bemused by the emphasis so many Christian denominations place on morality “below the belt.” When I was growing up, my impression of Christianity was that its practitioners were obsessed with sexual “purity”–and not particularly focused upon other issues of morality/immorality, like cheating, lying, stealing, bullying…..I could never understand the belief, evidently held by many Christians, that concerns about “morality” applied primarily if not exclusively to the genitals.

The impression I got–at least from clergy representing more fundamentalist denominations–was that Christians could engage in all manner of questionable and self-serving behaviors, and God will still love them–so long as they don’t have sex outside of marriage.  Have you been stealing from widows and orphans? Cheating on your taxes? Forwarding racist emails? Those behaviors might elicit a “tut tut,” but they would be likely to elicit far less pastoral opprobrium than sexual misconduct.

Interestingly, that judgmental approach to sexual behavior was absent when it came to their own clergy. Much like the Catholic Church, the Baptists protected their own.

At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

The new revelations about Baptists’ sexual misconduct are particularly ironic in view of the denomination’s thundering disapproval of LGBTQ folks. Labelling gay men as pedophiles looks more and more like projection. In fact, when it comes to Protestants, it seems to be clergy from the most theologically-rigid denominations, the most “fire and brimstone” pastors, who are most likely to prey while they pray.

I haven’t seen any accusations of misconduct against, say, Episcopalians or Unitarians.

I’m not a psychologist, so I am ill-equipped to analyze the appeal of clerical careers to sexual deviants. It may be that working for the church attracts weak men who want to dominate others–or perhaps it’s an easy way to meet potential victims, men and women who come to the church at times when they are most vulnerable.

It really is amazing what you can get away with when you are cloaked in faux piety.

I wonder what denomination is next…..