Category Archives: Random Blogging

Need Cheering Up?

A few days ago, I began a post with an admission that I had always—naively –believed that most people are fundamentally good. Given all the evidence to the contrary coming from cellphone videos and Presidential “briefings,” that belief was beginning to seem touchingly childish–based on hope, not evidence.

But!

I came across a truly uplifting account in a recent issue of the Guardian.

It began by referencing a book that makes the opposite argument, Lord of the Flies.  Most of us have either read the book by William Golding, or seen the movie, or at least heard the conversations it triggered. Lord of the Flies centered on a shipwreck in which young boys were marooned on an island without adult supervision.By the time they are rescued, they’ve turned a lush island into a disaster zone. Three of the boys are dead.

The book’s message is about the “darkness of man’s heart.” The lesson is hard to miss: without external constraints, we’re all animals intent only on our own gratification, capable of immense cruelty.

The author of the Guardian story–a writer– wondered if there had ever been an actual incident that might test Golding’s thesis. It turned out that there was. Six boys had been marooned on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. They were rescued by Peter, an Australian sea captain, after being stranded there for more than a year. The captain had been ready to skirt the island, which had long been uninhabited, when he saw evidence of a fire.

Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”

The boys, once aboard, claimed they were students at a boarding school in Nuku‘alofa, the Tongan capital. Sick of school meals, they had decided to take a fishing boat out one day, only to get caught in a storm. Likely story, Peter thought. Using his two-way radio, he called in to Nuku‘alofa. “I’ve got six kids here,” he told the operator. “Stand by,” came the response. Twenty minutes ticked by…. Finally, a very tearful operator came on the radio, and said: “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!”

What the captain found was the absolute antithesis of what Golding’s book predicted.

The boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination. While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.

The moral of this true story? Humans aren’t “naturally” ignoble and greedy. We really don’t have to spend all our time and energy battling the “evil that lurks in the heart of men,” as the Shadow used to say.

This real-life experiment confirms a favorite parable, attributed to the Cherokee: an elder tells his grandson that there are two wolves in each of us, one good, one evil. The grandson asks which wolf will win. The elder responds “The one you feed.”

The challenge for all of us, but especially for those charged with implementing our social contract, is to construct governments that build on the essential goodness in the human heart–to create systems that nurture rather than divide, and value collaboration and kindness over conflict and tribalism.

We need to build a society that feeds the good wolf.

 

The Politics Of White Male Grievance

I have obviously spent most of my life being naive.

Until very recently, I had faith that the overwhelming majority of my fellow-Americans were really good people. Wrong sometimes, certainly. Confused sometimes. But essentially kind and well-meaning, and –importantly–receptive to reality and able to learn from it.

I accepted that there would always be a small minority of people who are damaged in some way. I still think that “damaged” explains more than “evil,” but I’m less certain that the distinction is helpful (and Mitch McConnell has convinced me that some people really are evil).

During the past few years, I’ve read more American history, and a lot of that history isn’t pretty. The Internet has put more information at our fingertips (some credible, some not), and much of that information has been depressing. And then, of course, came November of 2016. It was like ripping a bandage off a very ugly sore.

If there is one central thread running through my various disillusionments, it is some people’s evident need to divide humanity into “us versus them”–and to dominate “them.”

Paul Krugman recently published a column responding to Stephen Moores’ comparison of the protestors storming state capitols to Rosa Parks. (If you missed that bit of Trump administration idiocy, I assure you I am not making it up.)  I was particularly struck by this observation:

The modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.

Krugman is restating what social science research has confirmed: white male grievance explains most of Trump’s base support. (There is also significant evidence that white male grievance has motivated most mass shootings.)

As Rebecca Solnit has observed, these are white men who feel threatened because they see life in America as a zero-sum game–a game that rightwing media and the Republican party are constantly telling them they are losing. They were born into a culture that told them they were entitled to dominate us “lesser” folks: black and brown people, women, gay men, non-Christians…that they were the “real Americans.” Suddenly (or so it seemed), those “lessers” were demanding a place at the civic table, and they had to defend their superior status.

We saw that resentment in Charlottesville. (It’s important to note that we also saw it in the appalling behavior of now-Supreme-Court Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. White male grievance isn’t the exclusive province of people we can dismiss as “yahoos” and “uneducated yokels.”)

As a column in the Washington Post put it, shortly after Charlottsville,

More than a half-century ago, minorities, women and immigrants began to challenge the economic, political and legal hierarchy that had favored white men for centuries. Their efforts produced a white backlash that burst into the open after Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Donald Trump has tapped into this anger and manipulated it to his political advantage. The bond between President Trump and his white followers is not based on policy but on grievance. They both reject the cultural changes over the past half-century, and Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan signals his intent to unravel them…

Until the 1960s, white men sat unchallenged atop the United States’ cultural and economic pyramid. They did not have to compete against women or African Americans in the workplace, and they benefited from laws and customs that sustained their privileged position. They not only ruled the workplace, they dominated American politics and exercised virtually unchallenged power at home.

That automatic dominance based on skin color is changing. Slowly and unevenly, but it is changing. And a significant number of white men simply can’t deal with the change.

My problem is, I’m having an equal amount of trouble dealing with the realization that these attitudes characterize something like 35% of American voters.

Hypocrisy? Look Who’s Talking

I really didn’t want to revisit this issue. But…

I keep seeing headlines like this one from 538.com–“Believe Women or Back the Nominee?” That is an offensive, intellectually dishonest formulation.

It isn’t just 538.com. Pundits on the Left and Right are accusing liberal women who are skeptical of Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden of hypocritical disloyalty to women. Evidently, if you believe the highly credible accusations against Donald Trump, who has been the target of at least 17 complaints of sexual misconduct, but you find the single charge lodged against Biden to be dubious at best, it constitutes prima facia evidence of hypocrisy.

That–to use an inelegant word–is bullshit.

Along with the other inconsistencies and questionable elements of the Tara Reade accusations, there is the undeniable fact that Joe Biden has been repeatedly vetted; most recently when he was under consideration by Obama for Vice President. No investigation has uncovered the slightest hint–let alone an accusation– of sexually inappropriate behavior. (Yes, he’s “handsy”–he likes to hug and touch, and that has made some women uncomfortable, but that is a very different thing.)

In Washington, where there is gossip about everyone, there has never even been any gossip about Biden engaging in inappropriate behavior with women.

Then there is this observation from a commenter to this blog who spent many years in Washington:

I worked in the U.S. Senate in the 60s, and even then, U.S. Senate office building hallways where the abuse was supposed to have happened, are VERY public, well traveled thoroughfares. They have become ever more public over the years. Numerous Senate offices open onto those hallways which are traveled by Capitol Hill police, Senators and staffers, the media, lobbyists, tourists and tour groups, constituents, mail carriers, vendor deliveries, custodians, facilities maintenance personnel, and more. Any Senator wanting to sexually assault someone would do so in their own office (and lock the doors), or a vacant committee room, a storage closet, or a hideaway office to do the deed. The last place they’d pick would be a Senate hallway. This accusation does not have the ring of truth.

Biden has categorically denied the incident ever occurred and has called for a thorough search of Senate archives for the complaint that Reade says she filed. (Her descriptions of the contents of that purported complaint have now changed, too. In contrast to her earlier descriptions of the complaint, she now says it didn’t include any reference to sexual assault.)To date, reporters have been unable to find any record of any complaint.

Given the timing, the multiple inconsistencies– not just in Reade’s account but in the accounts of friends she presumably told (not contemporaneously but a few years after the supposed incident)–and the absence of any remotely similar accusation, it is hardly unreasonable that many women find Reade’s charges unconvincing.

In her daily Letter, Heather Cox Richardson observes that the Trump campaign is using Reade’s story to regain control of the political narrative.

The attempt to get Biden to jump through hoops Trump ignores is classic gaslighting. It keeps Biden on the defensive and makes sure he is reinforcing Trump’s narrative, thus strengthening Trump even as Biden tries to carve out his own campaign. It is precisely what the Trump campaign, abetted by the media, did in 2016.

The pundits and media outlets that are feeding on what several reporters had previously investigated and concluded was a “non-story” are once again allowing themselves to be used. In 2016, it was “her emails.” In 2020 it’s “all women must be uncritically believed.”

Not simply taken seriously, or given the benefit of the doubt, but believed.

Apparently, in order to be “real” feminists, “real” advocates for women, “real” supporters of #MeToo, we must uncritically accept any and all claims made against politicians we admire or support, no matter how dubious. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites.

If I am to be classified as a hypocrite, let me share some admissions-against-interest: I did believe several of the accusations against Bill Clinton but voted for him anyway, because I agreed with most of his policies–just as all those pious “Christians” continue to support Trump despite the porn stars, pussy-grabbing and very credible allegations of rape, because he is “Christianizing” our courts.

I also was–and remain– absolutely enraged by the hubris of the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing “defenders of women” who hounded Al Franken from the Senate. Franken was a longtime, highly effective advocate for women and the behavior he was accused of fell far short of assault.

Bottom line: I simply do not believe that drawing critical distinctions between boorishness and assault, or coming to a negative conclusion about the merits of a suspicious claim makes feminists hypocrites.

Speaking of pots and kettles, real hypocrisy is handing over control of the narrative to a man who lies constantly, refuses to release his tax returns,  fires Inspectors General in order to thwart oversight, and makes everyone who works for him sign a non-disclosure-agreement.

The Robots Are Coming….

I have noted previously that the biggest threat to American workers by far is not outsourcing–it’s automation.

Those of you in my (advanced) age group can attest to the changes we’ve seen: we fill our own gas tanks, computers have decimated the ranks of secretaries, ATM’s and remote deposits via our phones have made visiting the bank unnecessary–and on and on.

Some of the things we’ve automated have actually created new jobs. Most have not, however, and the guy who used to fill your gas tank may not have the skillset needed to service ATM’s.

I wrote a lot about the likely consequences of automation in my last book, and I was prompted to revisit that research when I came across an article in Time Magazine about a robot invented to help us cope with the current pandemic.

Conor McGinn is a roboticist and professor at Trinity College Dublin. McGinn and his colleagues at Trinity’s Robotics and Innovation Lab focus on figuring out how robots can best assist aging individuals in care homes.

The signature product from the lab and its spinoff company, Akara Robotics, is Stevie, a 4-foot 7-inch tall social robot whose primary function is alleviating loneliness. In trials in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, the robot has been programmed to tell stories, call bingo numbers, lead sing-alongs, and other morale- and community-building exercises in a group care setting.

Its team of engineers have also worked closely with care home staff to understand what additional functions could be added to the robot to boost patient safety. In July 2019, well before the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the team began exploring whether Stevie might be able to ward off infections too.

After a few false starts–viola!

The team began drawing up plans for a new robot that would combine the navigational features they’d designed for Stevie with a UV-C light. The robot wouldn’t have any anthropomorphic features, but would be designed to work alongside humans. They would call this one Violet…

Violet is one of many robots deployed or soon to be deployed on the front lines of the global outbreak, navigating hospitals and assisting health workers and patients with a very low risk of spreading the infection.

According to the article, new generations of robots are being developed to “navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilize all high-touch surfaces.”

Sounds great. But then…..

A study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents. Many also expressed concern over the likely consequences of that quantity of job losses, predicting that displacements will lead to even larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University forecast that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.

Think about this: There are 3.5 million professional truckdrivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are currently being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.

Think skilled workers are immune? The Brookings Institution’s Tech Tank tells us that between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant,”

In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.

It isn’t just the pandemic that is threatening to upend our world–but among its other consequences,  the pandemic may hasten the process.

 

The #MeToo Dilemma

This is a hard post to write, because I want to be clear about what I am–and am not–saying.

When the #MeToo movement emerged, I applauded. Like most women, I’d encountered unwanted “approaches” from men ranging from boorish to significantly worse; like most of the women I know, I get livid when complaints about sexual assaults are dismissed with “well, what was she wearing?” or other responses blaming the victim or suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.”

When #MeToo accountability began, I was saddened to learn about Bill Cosby, but the number of accusations made it plain that he wasn’t the person he portrayed on TV. And while it doesn’t speak well for my surrender to schadenfreude, I was actually thrilled with the verdict against Harvey Weinstein.

Holding predators–not their victims– responsible is long overdue.

But. (You knew there was a “but” coming…)

Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety or assault should be considered a  rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.

In criminal law class in law school, we learn that rape is both the most under-reported and most over-reported crime. Under-reported because victims were reluctant to come forward for all of the reasons that have been highlighted by the #MeToo movement–over-reported because there were also unfair and untrue accusations leveled, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by emotionally unwell persons.

The biggest problem is determining the facts in these situations, because that they are inevitably “he said/she said.”

Lawyers who specialize in prosecuting sexual assault charges must evaluate whether evidence and testimony are consistent with the accuracy of an accusation. And that brings me to a comprehensive review of the complaint lodged against Joe Biden by Tara Reade, a former staffer, recently written by one such prosecutor. 

I really urge you to click through and read the entire column.

The alleged assault occurred in 1993. As the prosecutor notes, the 27-year delay itself is not reason to disbelieve her. But the story she tells has changed significantly since she first came forward.

As a lawyer and victims’ rights advocate, Reade was better equipped than most to appreciate that dramatic changes in sexual assault allegations severely undercut an accuser’s credibility — especially when the change is from an uncomfortable shoulder touch to vaginal penetration.

Reade said she complained at the time to Biden’s executive assistant, and to two top aides– all three adamantly deny that she ever approached them. (They didn’t simply have “no recollection.” They strongly refuted the claim). She also says she filed a written complaint with the Senate personnel office, but reporters could not find any record of such a complaint there, and when the Times asked her for a copy, she said she didn’t have it. Yet she had kept and provided a copy of her 1993 Senate employment records.

She has told wildly inconsistent stories about why she left Biden’s employ, and in the years following her stint on his staff, she has been highly complimentary of him. Evidently, it wasn’t until she had become a fervid Sanders supporter that the accusation of assault changed from “rubbed her shoulders” to digital penetration.

There’s much, much more detail in the linked article, and most of it suggests someone emotionally unstable rather than intentionally vindictive–but none of it enhances her credibility. Quite the contrary.

And as the writer notes, most men who assault women are serial abusers.

Last year, several women claimed that Biden made them uncomfortable with things like a shoulder touch or a hug… The Times and Post found no allegation of sexual assault against Biden except Reade’s.

It is possible that in his 77 years, Biden committed one sexual assault and it was against Reade. But in my experience, men who commit a sexual assault are accused more than once … like Donald Trump, who has had more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault leveled against him and who was recorded bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia.

I particularly agree with the final paragraph.

We can support the #MeToo movement and not support allegations of sexual assault that do not ring true. If these two positions cannot coexist, the movement is no more than a hit squad. That’s not how I see the #MeToo movement. It’s too important, for too many victims of sexual assault and their allies, to be no more than that.

Agreed.

The #MeToo movement was a major step forward for all women, especially but not exclusively those who have been victims of sexual assaults. If it is perceived as an indiscriminate anti-male crusade rather than a pro-justice remedial effort– if it is bullied into becoming a chorus that will automatically defend all accusations irrespective of their credibility– it will lose the hard-won and very important legitimacy that makes it effective.