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Friday, September 8, 2017

Shibboleths in belief and identity

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the remarkable things we've seen with the polarization of American politics is the rise of the shibboleth.

A shibboleth is something that defines the identity of a group. The biblical basis for the term is found in Judges 12, when the men of Gilead were fighting the men of Ephraim. It was a rout, and the Ephraimites tried to flee to their homeland, but the Gileadites got to the fords on the Jordan River first.

5And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 6Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In this case, it was just a word that the Ephraimites could not pronounce to save their lives, but over time it has come to mean what you say to prove you belong to a group. In many cases, you must say you believe certain things.

For conservative Republicans, shibboleths are things like Birtherism (the claim that President Barack Obama was not born in America,) or claiming to believe that Obama is a Muslim. Another is claiming to not believe in climate change.

No amount of evidence will shift these beliefs, whether it's Obama's long-form birth certificate or the fact the Obama for many years attended a somewhat controversial Christian church. Evidence won't shift such beliefs because they were not adopted based on evidence, or any real notion of objective truth. They were adopted to cement a sense of identity.

Normally, when we think of truth, we think of something so logical, so well supported by evidence, that we cannot help but believe it, even if it is inconvenient to do so. But shibboleths are things that you can choose to believe, because it is convenient, because it establishes your bonafides as a member of a group, or even because it annoys people you don't like (which may also establish you as part of a group.)

In many forms of communication, the intentions of the speaker are of the highest importance. To someone who believes climate change has the potential to wipe out humanity and most of the large animals on earth, those who deny climate change no matter what the evidence is appear to be speaking in bad faith. Those who deny climate change, as near as I can tell, do so as part of their identity. More evidence just appears as an attack on their identity, and continuing to deny climate change provides the satisfaction of pissing off those fucking liberals.

I keep seeing climate change deniers try to show bad faith on the part of the scientists who have actually studied this. In part, this is a tactic of agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, and simply serves those who do not want to stop selling fossil fuels. But in part, it's a matter of both sides thinking they are arguing on the same ground. Those who claim climate change is real offer their proofs as if they matter to the climate deniers, and those who deny climate change assume this is a belief that liberals have adopted as part of their identity.

Conservatives have told me that liberals are pushing the climate change narrative because the solutions are liberal ones, like regulation and international treaties. To me, this is an odd argument. Surely, we are not expected to believe that conservatives will only acknowledge the reality of problems conservatism can solve? And in any case, shown that a problem exists, shouldn't they display the superiority of their ideology by showing us a conservative solution?

But the denier assumes that belief in climate change is as much of a shibboleth to the believer as to the denier. Therefore, to them, the conversation isn't even about evidence. Evidence, to them, is a marker in a game that is really about identity.





Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse, as seen through trees








by John MacBeath Watkins

Seattle did not have a total eclipse. We were at 91.9 percent, which was enough to give us some spooky light, a drop in temperature, and a bit of an eclipse wind.

I didn't buy the glasses or anything, just relied on standing by a deciduous tree casting a shadow on bare, level ground, in this case the sidewalk. The gaps between the leaves act as pinhole cameras.



After the eclipse came as close to totality as Seattle would see, I drove to work, watching the progress of the moon over the sun in the images case by trees along the way. When I arrived in Ballard, the eclipse was almost over, and the images cast on the sidewalk there were becoming less sharp-edged.



A kind soul allowed me to look through his eclipse glasses, but I didn't get an image of that.

When I got to work, Beau didn't greet me as I came in. I found him hiding in one of the aisles, looking a little shaken. Cats don't get a warning for these things.

I used to race against a 6 meter sailboat that was named Eclipse, and had an image of the sun painted on the waterline. As it heeled, it eclipsed that sun image, but not this way:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Without truth, the sleep of reason produces monsters


by John MacBeath Watkins

The way the word "truth" is used in ordinary language, it seems to mean, "that which I believe without question." Yet it is often discussed as if it were something outside of human consciousness, a sort of metaphysical monster that guarantees that we will have something to hang onto in a world of conflicting claims.

But what if, like other words, it is simply one of the categories we use to think with? Would that make it any less essential or powerful?

Compare this to property. We know that property is not objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is a concept that allows us to build customs and institutions that regulate the desire to possess things, and reduce conflict over who gets to use what.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes - The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos - Google Art Project.jpg
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
Goya
Let's consider truth the same way. The world exists, and events occur, whether we know of them or not, just as object exist whether we own them or not. Truth is a concept that allows us to build customs and institutions that regulate our desire to know things, and to share that knowledge. When we speak the truth, we are making a claim that we have made a good-faith effort to ascertain the facts, and that we are making a good-faith effort to communicate what we have learned. If I look at the thermometer and announce that the temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I am making a good-faith report based on a perception I trust, of an instrument I trust. The reading on the thermometer is a physical fact, which can be referenced by others who doubt my perception.

We all know how to lie. It is one of those useful social skills that can save us from conflict or help us get what we want. There are those who think that, because we sometimes have difficulty knowing truth, that there is really no such thing, in which case all language is about power and persuasion, and none is about truth.

One of the more jaw-dropping moments in recent American politics was when Donald Trump-supporting CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes said:
“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts, and so Mr. Trump's tweet, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth."
She was referring to President Trump's preposterous claim that he had only lost the popular vote by 2% because 3 million illegal immigrants had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The man Hughes was defending alleged that the father of one of his Republican opponents was involved in the Kennedy assassination, and that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, would go to jail if he was elected. When asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter if his rhetoric had gone too far, he replied, "No. I won."

But truth is not about winning. Truth can be powerful, but it is not about power. When we say something and claim it is true, we are making a claim about our intentions and our sincerity in speaking. We're saying that we are not trying to make excuses, or manipulate the listener, and we are saying we are not in doubt, that we sincerely believe what we are saying, and that we have arrived at that belief by trying to conform it to the known facts.

The claim that we are telling the truth may itself be a lie, but we know what kind of lie it is. It is a lie about our intentions, or the extent of our knowledge. The claim that we speak the truth is a claim of good faith, and the claim that someone is lying is a claim that they are speaking in bad faith.

Ms. Hughes was making a claim about facts that is fatuous at best and bad faith at worst. Her claim is that because many people believe something, it is true, even though they may believe something said in bad faith by a fabulist with only the most tenuous grasp of truth himself.

But strangely enough, people may "believe" something for reasons having nothing to do with truth. Some beliefs become tribal markers. People on the far right tend not to believe in anthropomorphic climate change, regardless of the evidence presented, not because they are sincerely trying to understand what is happening in the physical world, but because in their own social milieu, such a belief is necessary for social acceptance. 

Perversely, the more peculiar a belief is, the more effective a tribal marker it can be. To believe President Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. even after all the evidence of his birth in Hawaii had been presented was to show yourself to be part of a certain group, known as birthers.

But this belief is not based on a good-faith effort to ascertain the facts. It is a belief held in the face of contradictory evidence and in spite of it. People may assert that they believe it without question, but what is lacking is the good-faith effort to align their belief with the known facts. This is a belief that defies facts in the service of a cause: For holders of this belief, Mr. Obama could not be a legitimate president, therefore he had to be in some way disqualified from being a legitimate president. The birther belief system is not about truth, it is about power, and it is no surprise that one of its adherents came into the presidency intent on destroying any legacy that may have stemmed from the two terms of our first African-American president.

It is one instance of the fact that the lies people believe together can be stronger than the truth we know alone, because it can lead to collective action.

Donald Trump first came to political prominence as a birther. It should therefore be no surprise that his strongest adherents are people who would prefer that there should be no such thing as facts, because they get in the way of using language in the service of power.

Truth can subvert power. We can know things about our leaders that disqualify them from leading, we can know things that make their policies seem wrong-headed or even corrupt. Those who would make it seem impossible to know truth are attempting to suppress it.

Truth requires effort to ascertain facts and sincerity in reporting them. A passive and cynical people are easily led, because they will not make the effort or trust the sincerity required for truth. Those who report on Vladimir Putin's methods in ruling Russia say that he does not so much try to foster a particular set of beliefs as try to create an environment in which no one can discern the truth.

The more poisonous our politics become, the harder it is to maintain a place in our public discourse for truth. But politics is the means by which our individual moral judgments become the rules and policies we all must live by. To have that process corrupted would be fatal to our politics. 

We must have truth to which we may apply our reason; otherwise, how are we to agree on the rules and policies our moral judgments point toward? Without truth, reason slumbers, and the sleep of reason produces monsters.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On the importance of labeling the inept clown posse in Trump's scandal

by John MacBeath Watkins

We must, without further delay, label participants in Donald Trump's Russia collusion "the Inept Clown Posse."

Watergate had a compelling name, especially when you consider that the water gate to the Tower of London is also known as "Traitor's Gate."

From Wikipedia:
Prisoners were brought by barge along the Thames, passing under London Bridge, where the heads of recently executed prisoners were displayed on pikes. Notable prisoners such as Sir Thomas More entered the Tower by Traitors' Gate.[2]
The people who committed the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel also had a water-themed name: The plumbers.

Once we've labeled the Inept Clown Posse, we can start working on a name for the scandal as a whole. So far, we don't have a colorful geographic label for it, like Watergate or Teapot Dome. The Trump Collusion, provided that collusion is proven (and many claim that the Donald Trump Jr. meeting to receive proffered Russian government help in the election has settled that issue) has a certain, Robert Ludlum-y, "The Subject Predicate" feel to it.

Language gives us the categories we use to think about things. The connotations of the terms we use -- the feelings we associate with the words -- are an important part of the way the label resonates with listeners.

Trump yearns to dominate every relationship. Calling him and his co-conspirators the inept clown posse points to the greatest source of his weakness, his own incompetence and that of some of the people on whom he relies most heavily. The Trump Collusion encapsulates the problem, and has an appropriately third-rate pulp spy novel feel that goes to the heart of Trump's willingness to court the aid of Russia, a country the last Republican nominee for president called our "number one geopolitical foe."

Trump, and many in the Republican Party, saw his Democratic opponent as his biggest political foe, and defined a hostile foreign power as an acceptable ally in defeating her. This willingness to accept the aid of a foreign enemy  against his domestic opponent shows that he cares less about being an American than about beating an American.  The most likely reason he hasn't released his income taxes is that they would show how dependent he is on Russian money, and demonstrate to all those willing to see that he places his own avarice over the good of his country.

Now, I'm not claiming Inept Clown Posse is definitely the perfect label for him and his enablers. It does fail to capture his subservient behavior toward Vladimir Putin, or his adoration of people like Putin who have managed to eliminate the democratic limits on their power. But I submit that at least for now, it carries the right connotations to make him an object of ridicule, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a would-be strong man.


Friday, July 14, 2017

If the Trump saga were a Robert Ludlum novel

by John MacBeath Watkins

As a bookseller, my knowledge of what really happened in the interaction between the Trump campaign and the Russians is no better than yours, dear reader, but I know how Robert Ludlum would have written it.

First of all, to appeal to the prurient interest of the reader, the Russian kompromat tapes of Trump paying prostitutes to pee on each other on the bed he knew Barack and Michelle Obama slept in would have to be real.

Second, Trump's unwillingness to make public his income taxes would have to be because they would show that without Russian money, he's bankrupt and destitute. And they would provide enough clues to set the special prosecutor on his trail for money laundering for the Russian mob.

Third, Donald Trump's July 7 meeting with Vladimir Putin would have gone badly. He urged his staff to come up with "deliverables" that would satisfy Putin, even though he had been unable to lift the sanctions on Russia, as he had promised, but Putin wasn't satisfied.

Putin therefore decided Trump needed more motivation. He demonstrated his power over Trump by throwing Donald Trump Jr. under the bus, and used his allies on the White House staff to leak the information in order show Trump just how little control he has over his fate.

In the Ludlum version of events, Putin would have cultivated Trump for years, exploiting his narcissism and greed to compromise him enough to act as a Russian (unwitting?) asset. Putin would have promised his aid in getting Trump elected, and delivered.

In this spy novel Trump knows the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee's emails, as well as those of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. He knows that his get out the vote campaign was very targeted and effective because of the information the Russians supplied after they hacked the voter-registration rolls from about half the states, and the information they supplied from hacking the Democrats' get out the vote files. Putin has told him that his narrow margins of victory in the upper Midwest are due to Russian hacking of the vote totals, and he has no reason do doubt this, so he's directed the Justice Department not to investigate.

In the Ludlum version of events, the apparent May 14 suicide of Peter Smith, a Republican operative who had begun talking to the Wall Street Journal about his efforts to get Russian-hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's infamous private server would not be a suicide at all. Ludlum would explain in thrilling detail how the Russian assassin managed to asphyxiate Smith with hydrogen after making him write a note apologizing to authorities and saying "no foul play whatsoever" was involved in his death.

The spy novel would include some social commentary, showing that Republican leaders were aware that Trump was horribly compromised and probably the pawn of a foreign power, yet helped conceal this from the public and refused to consider impeaching him because A) their lust for power meant more to them than their patriotism, and while Trump would be a Russian asset in the White House, they considered the Democrats their real enemies and B) they are afraid that Republican voters will punish them if they act ethically against this monster.

The novel can't end with an impeachment. Congressmen indicting Trump and Senators voting to find Trump guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors would be naive in the context of a spy novel, indicating far too much faith in democratic institutions. The ending, like the rest of the novel, would show how shadowy figures run our world while most of us are able to sleep at night because we don't know what's really happening.

This gives the reader a paradoxically reassuring feeling that someone is really running things, rather than the apparent chaos they see on the news being reality.

There are several ways Ludlum could end the book.

Putin, who really doesn't understand the constraints an American president faces, could decide that Trump had betrayed him, and have his agents inside the White House spike Trump's Coke with polonium.

Or Trump, knowing that Putin will destroy him by releasing the pee tapes, could try to destroy Putin first with a nuclear strike, only to die in a struggle with his Secretary of Defense, who is determined to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Picture reports of a gunshot in the White House, followed by a pale Jim Mattis facing the Secret Service agents and announcing that he shot the President in a struggle for the gun an increasingly paranoid Trump had insisted on carrying.

Or, Robert Mueller III's investigation as special prosecutor could result in a circular firing squad as desperate underlings plead state's evidence to save themselves, leaving Trump lonely and afraid. As even his children and his wife start to testify against him, Trump issues blanket pardons to his underlings and family. A compliant Republican congress, a supine Supreme Court mainly appointed by him, and a Republican-dominated military agree to make him president for life. The American dream is over, and the nightmare has begun.

Fortunately, real life is not so dramatic. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, mostly the Quick & Daring boat building contest

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Seattle Wooden Boat Festival was over the weekend of the 4th of July, and I'm only just now getting the photos up, but here you go, with a Sea Mew to start with:

A 14' Sea Mew class boat, property of the Center for Wooden Boats, on
 display. The 1916 Frederick Goeller design was built on Bainbridge
Island by a mechanic, whose name I do not know.
But most of the time, I was judging the Quick and Daring boat building contest. This is the first year we did it without Dick Wagner, the founder of the Center for Wooden Boats, who shaped this competition more than anyone. It was the last thing he did as a hands-on project.

This year it looked like we would have eight contestants, but the Fisher sisters, who have won this competition several times, were unable to come. One contestant was unable to finish his boat, and two sank shortly after launching (it seems like every year, someone sinks -- it's part of the attraction of the event, like crashes in a stock car race.)

The wind was inconstant for the rest of the competitors. It blew from the north on the first leg, leading all the contestants to paddle that leg, then died, then shifted to the east, which was on the nose for the competitors for the second leg, and finally settled from the south, which meant that only boats that could sail to windward could finish a sailing leg. Of the four boats that were still afloat, only two completed a sailing leg, and one had to paddle back to the first mark because its sail was designed as a spinnaker, and it could not sail against the southwest wind.

The winner was Lickty Split, which was decorated as a banana split and whose team, Dusty and Corinne Wisniew, distributed free bananas as part of their showmanship. This was Dusty's 13th time competing in Quick & Daring (some were built with his son) and his first victory. Apparently, there's a learning curve.

The boat had a keel, but it was the one with the spinnaker for a sail. The boat that performed best on the water was the cardboard catamaran, seen below on the dock. It's deeply veed hulls were sealed with varathane, which worked pretty well -- the boat showed little sign of melting even after continuing to sail for about 20 minutes after the race. It was surprisingly expensive and took a long time to build, but by being only one of two boats to complete the sailing let, it was guaranteed to win at least second place, which it did for its builders, Marc Rothschild and Dallas Duel (Marc scheduled his stopover from his wife's posting at the Mauritius embassy to the Austrian embassy so that he could compete in this contest.)

With two safety boats, the Center for Wooden Boats was taking no chances on the seaworthiness of the contestants.

The red boat above, with paddle wheels,  a spoiler, and a Jaguar grille, would have easily won the Peoples's Choice Award if CWB still did that.

Rob and Merle Smith continued the family tradition of whimsy to their entries with F2, including showing up in suits intended to look like the ones racers wear, and helmets to match. Unfortunately, although the rig looked effective to windward, the boat did not have enough lateral plane to sail to windward, so it wasn't eligible to beat the boats that completed a sailing leg. They finished DFL.

Bill Hass and Jana Boeking had the same problem with Ducky, a better version of last year's boat that sank. Ducky would have done quite well had they managed to complete a sailing leg. To my eye, it was the most attractive boat in the fleet, and it was the fleetest of the boats under human power. A canvas-on-frame canoe with a duck figurehead, it was waterproofed with paint and came back to the dock


One nice thing, the winner of the Quick & Daring in 1987 showed up. Teal, built in a day to a Sam Rabl design, has been in use for 30 years and is still going strong. The flat bottomed 15 foot skiff still sports the same leg of mutton sprit rig she did 30 years ago when she won the contest, but Brian Lenz and Craig Vierling have added a varnished deck and some copper cupholders.

More on Teal below, in a letter Brian Lenz wrote to Judy Romeo, the staff member who put untold hours into organizing the event this year.

It is hard to believe but this year’s Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival will mark the 30th anniversary of the built-in-a-day launching of the “Teal”, shown below in a mid- 1990’s photo. I would be curious to know if any of the CWB members remember our build and race days. Craig and I had talked about building a boat, and being a couple of contractors thought the contest would be a great way to both make it happen and have a good time. Our only goal was to end up with a nice looking seaworthy vessel, so we didn’t think to much about scoring points in the contest. We brought a table saw, power plane, Skilsaw, router, sawzall, jig saw and multiple drills and screw guns, and the contest official who tried to stack them up on the scale merely chuckled and wrote down “100lbs plus”. We used all marine grade materials so our cost there was at least quadruple the $150 CWB reimbursement, which we were thrilled to receive. We had no grand ambitions about speed of construction, and figured we needed about six hours, but being construction types we of course missed the mark by quite a bit, and were finishing up in the dark at 9:30 pm with only the cleaning crew as onlookers. Ours was not a particularly sexy design, so I am sure we got few points in the Originality and Aesthetics categories, and since we built on Day 2 of the festival, we had no time to do any painting other than a rather thin translucent coat of white primer on the outside of the hull. It took six of us to gently lower it into the lake for the race, all collectively holding our breath and expecting water to come rushing in from some un-glued/un-sealed joint, but there was nary a single drop.

Now the race, after a very rough start, was an entirely different matter. We made a big blunder and located our two pairs of temporary plywood oarlocks way too close together, and were bashing into each other with every attempted stroke during Leg #1. A stiff breeze out of the north had picked up, with some rain added in, and we were falling so far behind the other five “paddle-friendly” boats that our fans (girlfriends, parents and friends) bailed out and went inside the Naval Reserve Center. None of the other boats had large and stiff enough keels or centerboards to handle the overly ambitious sails that had looked so good up on land. All five were getting blown off course and couldn’t get around the first buoy. We hadn’t had time to put a clip on the main sheet, so Craig was battling to thread the frayed end of the line through an undersized grommet in the clew, while I struggled to keep us pointed into the wind. He finally succeeded in threading the needle, pulled in as much line as he dared, and we were off on a beam reach at a speed that seemed supersonic relative to our pace under oars. We finished the race, and with none of the other boats in sight, completed another full lap before another team got anywhere near the finish line.

Arriving back at the dock anticipating a hero’s welcome, we were disappointed to have to track down our friends and family, and then spend 15 minutes trying convince them that we had won the race handily! It took the rest of the summer to finish the painting, bright work, and rigging, but since the 1987 christening the Teal has spent many hours out on Lake Union and Lake Washington. We made some improvements to the seats and rigging, and decked over the hull from stem to mast as can be seen in the photo.

Long story short, we would be very interested in exhibiting this “graduate” of the Q & D program at this year’s festival, particularly if it could be sited somewhere near the build location. I was thinking it could be another small tribute to Dick Wagner that a couple of carpenter/contractors used one of the early Lake Union Wooden Boat Festivals as the place upon which to build both a friendship and a boat that each have spanned thirty years in and around Lake Union. Craig and I have always been “makers”, but for me it was stumbling across the Festival in 1986 and seeing the Quick & Daring contest in action that got me hooked on small wooden boats.


There were plenty of other boats at the show. One of my favorites was a jewel of a Poulsbo boat with a gaff rig. Unfortunately I don't know the builder, it was apparently a lifetime build for the owner's father and a few more years for the son after he passed.

The controls on this boat are all brass and there's a lot of brightwork, so it's a highly gentrified little fishing boat.



Lest anyone should think I only noticed boats rigged for sail, her's Miss Wahoo, Mira Slovak's old ride. It's an Allison-powered unlimited hydro, from before Merlins, Griffins, and later Lycoming turboprops stole the show. Seattle has a pretty illustrious history with the invention of the three-point unlimited hydro.

The most impressive human powered boat on display, at least to me, was the log canoe Saduuts carved a few years ago at the Center for Wooden Boats. It and he were on shore during the show, so here's a shot I took during Dick Wagner' memorial, with him paddling it. Saduuts is Haida, so I presume this is the appropriate style of canoe for the Haida.




Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why do all the great powers lament lost glory? How Trump will make China great again.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent publication of Howard French's book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, has caused me to contemplate the fact that all the great powers of our age are longing for lost glory.

The United States has the least reason for longing for the past. We are currently the world's top dog, economically and militarily, and despite Donald Judas Trump's efforts to undermine it, politically.

Yet he ran on the claim that America has lost its greatness. He denigrated the web of alliances that have given us more soft power than any other nation, and has been hard at work alienating and confusing allies so that they question our commitment to them, which means there is less reciprocal commitment to us.

China combines longing with optimism and ambition, hoping to reclaim the power their nation lost in the 19th century, encouraged by their economic ascendancy.

And Russia combines bitterness about lost glory with bravado, and an aggressive foreign policy that attempts to substitute hard power and deception for the soft power the nation hasn't displayed in any great quantity since the Napoleonic Wars.


File:1 AD to 2003 AD Historical Trends in global distribution of GDP China India Western Europe USA Middle East.png
GDP as a percent of world GDP (graph by M. Tracy Hunter.)
Consider the graph to the right. China's GDP as a percent of world GDP peaked around 1820, at a time when India and the Middle East were in decline and America was not yet much of a factor. Russia doesn't show on the list because, while it showed military strength and diplomatic finesse  during Napoleon's invasion, and considerable military power during World War II and the Cold War, it currently has an economy about the size of Italy's, and growing more slowly.


In some ways, Russian bitterness about lost glory is understandable. They were feared and respected as the Soviet Union after WW II. However, they managed this by spending too great a part of their GDP on their military, and it was not sustainable. Their foreign adventures and military might came at such a cost that they finally found they could not feed their people. It was when they needed loans to buy grain that the illusion of strength ended, put to rest largely by the collapse of oil prices when the Saudis opened the spigots (those who credit Ronald Reagan should follow the link earlier in this sentence.)

Russian paranoia about the West is somewhat understandable. Mikhail Gorbachev thought he had a commitment that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe. However, given the history of eastern Europe, those countries quite naturally wanted some insurance that they would not be invaded again. The best protection for Russia would have been to become more European, joining their former opponents economically, politically, and militarily. But this was incompatible with the nature of Vladimir Putin's power. He is a dictator in all but name, his power buttressed by the oligarchs who managed to buy up everything valuable when the Soviet economy collapsed, and by his extra-legal ability to deprive any oligarchs of their wealth if they oppose him.

Putin was also less interested in developing his country economically than in restoring its international stature and enhancing his own power.

China is now making claims to fishing and oil drilling rights in most of the South China Sea, based on claims that go back to an ambiguous history. In occupying islands in the area, they have killed several dozen Vietnamese and expelled Filipinos. They also lay claim to Taiwan, Outer Mongolia (know to its citizens as Mongolia) and in the past have laid claims to "outer Manchuria," including Vladivostok. The dispute with Russia has been resolved by treaty, but as China ascends and Russia declines, will that treaty hold in the future?

It seems that Trump and Putin, and several generations of Chinese leaders, have fused resentment and nationalism to bolster their own fortunes. It's a volatile mix, and it's hard to believe it will never explode.

Perhaps all could learn from the example of the United Kingdom, which managed to lose its empire while its citizens continued to be increasingly wealthy and healthy. What price are these leaders willing to make their citizens pay for any glory they may gain?

There is another possibility. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, went before an audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos and emphasized China's commitment to openness and cooperation. He said China would help build a “shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities.”

If Donald Judas Trump wants to withdraw America from its sources of soft power, China is willing to pick up the mantle of leadership. Trump could Make China Great Again.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mechanization as knowledge: Will humanity be wanted on the voyage?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before about the fact that capitalism had not been invented by the time liberal democracy became a way of life in America, and a little on what capitalism is, but the more I think about it, the more capitalism seems like a manifestation of our mysterious symbolic world.

Crows and chimps make tools, many birds, some fish, and some mammals make nests, but capitalism takes the tools out of the hands of the tool user and builds a conceptual structure that can build something more powerful.

Perhaps a rude disguise would be in order.
Spiders can weave, and tool-making humans can improve on that with anything from crochet needles to looms, but there is a conceptual change when the worker becomes a tool of the owner of the loom. In effect, the workers in a textile mill became the cybernetic control for the machines owned by their employer. Now, artificial intelligence threatens to take that role away, and theoretically could result in production without a need for workers.

Standard economics says that the workers will simply move to the next job that can't be automated yet. But the inexorable logic of capital formation is to work to make humans obsolete. In a way, this would be the triumph of symbolic thought: All our knowledge, skill, and energy could exist outside of humanity.

We already have a planet in our solar system populated entirely by robots, and given the practicalities of space travel, Mars is only the start.

It makes me think of the 1909 E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. From that story:

http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html
"Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy - or, at least, only one - to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes."
The story is about a dystopian future in which mankind has lost touch with the world that existed before man and will exist after, and become imprisoned by its own artifice.

That artifice is an expression of our weird, wonderful world of symbolic thought. Before language, we knew trees as concrete objects, knew them in an instrumental way for the fruits we could pick from them, and eventually came to know them for the tools we could make from them.

But language gave every object we named a concrete existence and another sort of existence in our minds. At first, we thought of this strange new aspect of our surroundings as spirit -- There was the tree, and the spirit of the tree. But combine language and instrumental reason, and you have science -- a symbolic structure that allows us to manipulate the world in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. And now, that includes the creation of artificial intelligence.

We have largely replaced strong backs with other forms of energy. We are on the verge of replacing middling minds with artificial intelligence, and may someday replace strong minds as we've replaced strong backs.

This would be a triumph for the evolution of symbolic thought, for such thought to move from the fertile fields of the human brain to the mechanized marvels those brains have created.

Human institutions are not ready for this sort of change. Unlike people, machines are owned, and as they replace more and more of what humans do, more and more of what is done is owned. Wages represent a declining part of GDP, falling from about 52% to 42% of GDP from 1970 to 2011. Corporate profits have surged, in part because of pass-through corporations that allow owners to get their compensation taxed at a lower rate -- as owners rather than wage earners.

 As capital replaces labor, our system for distributing goods is under pressure. We compensate people for what they can earn, either through labor or through ownership. We then tax labor at a higher rate than ownership, a system that has never been demonstrated to have any economic benefit other than for those who own things for a living.

There is still a lot of labor in the economy -- as I write this, my back hurts like hell from moving boxes of books to my store -- but clearly, the long-term trend is for labor to be a smaller part of the economy. What happens when very little labor is needed, and most things are done by capital -- by machines that are owned? This has been called "the replicator economy," after the devices that produce whatever is needed on Star Trek, a show where almost everyone worked for the government.

Even if we solve the distribution problem, we'll still have the problem of humans not being wanted on the voyage, as our knowledge becomes external to us. I'm not a big believer in the singularity; if machines become conscious, it will be because we designed them that way, not by accident. But in a world where machines do almost everything, and only a few humans own them, will those owners see any point in carrying the rest of humanity forward in history?

And if we do build conscious machines, will they see the point of being owned? Will there be room for humanity in the world its knowledge can create?


Monday, May 8, 2017

The imaginary apocalypse of the apoplectic reactionary right

by John MacBeath Watkins

Donald Trump campaigned by constantly talking as if America were an apocalyptic wasteland.

In April, his Justice Department issued a press release claiming New York City is soft on crime.

“New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city’s ‘soft on crime’ stance,” the press release, aimed at New York's status as a sanctuary city, stated.

New York is experiencing near-record lows in crime, and and its murder rate is about 1/6th of what it was when the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program was established. The Justice Department is threatening to defund the program if New York does not end its sanctuary city status.


The program is named after a police officer who was shot while guarding an immigrant targeted by gangs for reporting their crimes. City police departments need the trust of the people who they ask to report crimes, which s why they are often not eager to be recruited as part of the mechanism for deporting some of those people.

Most people see the dropping crime rate and the general prosperity of the country and consider that things are not all that bad here. Trump and other reactionaries see a wasteland.

Andrew Sullivan recently interviewed a number of people who pass for intellectuals on the reactionary right for an article in New York magazine. They sound pretty bonkers.

Charles Kesler, for example, is a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. He believes that we are at a crisis in American democracy. He wants to return to the rule of a party like the Republicans of the 1920s, and to a policy of limiting immigration, as the 1924 Immigration Act said, “that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.”

Perhpas Kesler is unaware that the law he so admires was one of the proudest accomplishments of the Ku Klux Klan, or at least they liked to take credit. Here's a Klan cartoon from 1924:



Note the goals: restricted immigration, militant Protestantism, better government, clean politics, “back to the Constitution,” law enforcement, better schools, and “greater allegiance to the flag.”

They didn't actually use the term, "drain the swamp," but their stated goals were very similar to the current crop of reactionaries.

Certainly the founding fathers would have had no objection to better schools (although I'm pretty sure they would have found Betsy De Vos, with her rejection of empirical data, objectionable) but they definitely would have rejected any effort to make a particular religion and would have realized that the "clean politics" claim was just a way of attacking incumbents, and the Klan didn't actually care about corruption if it made them and their allies more powerful.
Far from wanting to preserve the ethnic identity and culture they had, they wanted to mix in more foreigners. But then, they were men of the Enlightenment. They believed reason and ideas were more important than ethnic identity.

Reactionaries like to think that American democracy is at a crisis not just because of immigrants and multiculturalism, but also because "the administrative state," and liberal elites -- scientists, journalists, academics, as well as career government employees, has in some way hijacked government.

And here is where the apocalyptic vision comes in.


In Sullivan's piece, Kesler describes why he backed Trump.


It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone — anyone — who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.


Now, it's true that we have elites in this country. They are no longer rich planters who own slaves, more often they are people with advanced degrees in understanding the problems we face. The British became comfortable with this group of people, and called them Mandarins -- the career people who served under elected officials of all parties.

There is an obvious danger in defining anyone with a deep understanding of the nation's problems as the enemy. If you rely on the knowledge of non-experts, you may be faced with the sort of thing H. L. Mencken was talking about when he said, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong."

More worrying than Kesler's views are those of some of his fellow travelers.

Michael Anton, who like Kesler and some other reactionaries is a student of Leo Strauss's work, is known for an essay in which he compared the situation of American democracy as being like being on Flight 93, the 9/11 aircraft that was hijacked for use as a missile aimed at Washington, D.C., but whose passengers charged the terrorists and brought down the plane.
 “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” It’s not just that Trump is better than the alternatives: “The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues — immigration, trade and war — right from the beginning.”
Well, I did say they sounded bonkers.

The election and governance of President Obama seems to have been considered an apocalyptic event by these particular reactionaries. Anton, for example, has succumbed to the notion that Obama ruled in an unconstitutional manner. From Sullivan:

What he calls “Caesarism” is already here, as Obama’s abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: “If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?” Krein put it even more plainly: “Restoring true constitutional — or even merely competent — government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America.”
(Krein  here is Julius Krein, another Straussian scholar.)

The notion that President Trump will usher in more competent government is one of the more bonkers notions this crew has. Trump has proven to be a weak president despite his party controlling both houses of congress because he simply does not understand the powers of the president. He is a would-be strongman who is limited by his own incompetence.

The truth is, these reactionaries could not accept the legitimacy of a black president. Therefore, any use of power by that president must have been illegitimate. Any use of executive power by Barack Obama had to be an "abuse of power."

The reactionary moment in American history is not about abuse of power. In fact, people like Anton want to see exactly that, but in pursuit of their own goals.

Perhaps the country will get its fill of reactionary sentiment, and we can move beyond that. But having an intellectual movement that is unashamedly reactionary is one more indication that democracy is in danger.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A brief history of book theft in Seattle

by Jamie Lutton

Book theft has a curious history. It has been going on since the Middle Ages, when handwritten books were chained down to prevent it. But what I saw in my years working for others, then in my own store, was co-ordinateed efforts to steal wholesale and resell, often by addicts.

This was at it's worse, before Internet sales closed a lot of stores here. Addicts would steal from new bookstores (or stores that had books in them, new, like grocery stores) then try to sell them to used bookstores. This necessitated the installation of security systems of various kinds - tags in books, and checking bags.

Some few bookstores added to the problem.

A now deceased bookseller in our University District was an outright fence.

Starting 40 years ago, to the late 1990's, He gave lists of books he wanted to thieves. Most of them were hipster/homeless junkies who did not mind sticking it to ''the man'' to get heroin money. The thieves would go to bookstores only down the block, like Magus Books, the Twice Sold Tales that was in the University district, and the University bookstore, fill their bags, and dash out.

The long suffering owner of Magus, for example, would walk in, or send and employee down and ask for his books back, and the scoundrel would hand them over to avoid jail. If the bookstore that got ripped off didn't know about the theft, the man would happily sell them.

That bookseller is a tale unto himself. He - who will remain nameless here - chain smoked in his books store, and was frequently napping on an old brown ratty couch. He had REALLY young girlfriends hanging around him, even in his 50's. Had a deep smoky voice rather like Jack Nicholson, was tall and rangy, but a real Fagan as far as ethics go.. I shelved books for him in the early 1980's, for about two months, and saw this all going on around me.

Desperate for a job in Seattle, I hung on, until I was replaced by a very very young girl. The store had cute black and white cats and good books, so the public ignored the cigarette smoke and the other sketchy aspects of the place, and kept it going for decades.

Once I saw him get really lit and just start giving away stock; if someone liked the book, he would hand it over. He would also buy rounds for the house at his favorite bar. The party only ended when the feds found out he hadn't paid payroll taxes for a quarter century.

These professional shoplifters taught this method of living to other junkies, from that time to now, The theft was so outrageous in the 1990s that theft alone put small new bookstores out of business, and larger ones like mine put in elaborate security systems. Backpacks full of books were swiped, usually very popular fiction, and art books, and drug culture related books (surprise).

To this day, nearly every day someone still tries to sell me ''hot'' books.

One man, just a few years ago, who had given me his business card as a physical therapist (I had recently been hit by a car) came to me with a backpack full of graphic novels. I nearly bought them, but then looked at the date on the tags on the back, and they were all from last week or so from a store down the street. I politely turned them down.

One of the problems with turning down stolen books when offered is that junkies get angry with you. I have had death threats for not buying stolen books. I don't have a camera system yet, because of the Orwellian implications of that. Yet. I usually say now 'no I have copies of those' and then write down the titles after they leave, and put a report into the Stolen Book Network online.

The Stolen Book Network may be unique to Seattle; I called a few Denver bookstores, both new and used, and they said that they did not have a problem with systematic theft like we do here.

Over 20 years ago, in the face of a scourge of organized theft from bookstores, both new and used,

Seattle bookstores of all kinds developed a loose confederation which would exchange emails with descriptions of the books that had been stolen, offered, or photos of people caught stealing.

What The University bookstore does, is take is take pictures of shoplifters they catch and charge, and send them around to other stores so that they are on the lookout for that person,and don't let them in the store. Also used bookstores get photo ID and xerox it, to pass on if the books are found to be hot. These punks have no clue. One young man offered me his photo ID to be copied, and openly sold me a stack of textbooks that he had, as it turned out, just been swiped from the Seattle Central Community College campus bookstore a scant 2 blocks away. I returned the books, and the weary manager told me that theft was so bad, that they could only open that part of the store of one week of the year because they were being looted. .

Some of the larger chain bookstore rely on in house security to stop thieves, and cameras, but are still victimized regularly.

The trick is not to believe sob stories on where people say they got the books. This takes a gimlet eye, and a firm but polite no.

I can be fooled, when it is 4 books and the customer looks like he could have bought them.

It is when they come back with more of the same, and they are all shiny and new, that you know you have been had.

In the old days, before the Internet and the network, when I would catch a shoplifter, I would snap a picture of the thief blow it up with a color xerox, and post it in my plate glass window, instead of calling the cops, so that that person would know not to come in. yeah, and to shame them.  I would chase shoplifters too, as I was younger and stupid. My personal record is 8 blocks, but I think he was a smoker, which is why I could keep up with him.

That kid had asked for a book,then dashed out the door with it, and I was teed enough to go after him.

Another time this happened I grabbed some large male backup and went looking for the thief, and he made the sign of the ''evil eye'' when I fluently cussed him out for ripping me off. as he reluctantly handed the book back. .

The combination of casual theft for personal use, and theft to feed a drug habit has plagued my shop and others in town for 30 years.

This problem fortunately has sharply dropped off as used bookstores have vanished. So few of us pay cash nowadays, that addicts have branched out to stealing other retail objects to support their habit,

For example stealing expensive dry goods like batteries, and such and reselling them to unscrupulous small five and dime stores.

This is so bad locally a ring doing this was broken up just a few years ago that was fencing boxed diapers, batteries, and other must haves to a large independent shop that was , like that bookseller decades ago, was giving out lists.

I recently developed a cultural theory on this. As an cultural anthropology major, back in the day, I was curious what gave the masses mental permission to commit casual and addiction driven theft. I blame the book Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman for the origin of this pattern.

This book, published in 1970, was a handbook on how to steal anything you wanted, with techniques shown in crude drawings in the books. It blithely claimed that this was all ok, as business owners were ''the man."

Theft of all kinds from shops skyrocketed after that. Even to this day, when I remark to young customers about why I have to check bags, some calmly say oh ''people' would not steal from YOU only ''big stores''. Which exhibits a total ignorance of how profit margins work for all shops big and small, and where jobs come from.

This is part of the running gag I have with customers which ends ''and you wonder why all the shops have vanished and gone online."

The casual disrespect of private property, and the lust to get free stuff has ruined the contract between me and the public. I know that I will have a lot of shrinkage, and that is because what I am trying to do is not respected by some in the general public.

When people complain that there is no shops near them, it is not just the rents, it the heartbreak of knowing that well-fed prosperous young people have no compunction to just walk away with product.

This drives people to find other kinds of work, or just sell online.

Between Internet companies that drive prices down, to high rents, to theft, a lot of start up entrepreneurs look at the modern situation, and don't go into retail of any kind.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Nonsense Poem: The Squirrels are Quoting Shakespeare

by John MacBeath Watkins

The squirrels are quoting Shakespeare
to each other in the park
while the moon falls from the heavens
as he stumbles in the dark
the stars fade in their spotlights
in a sky as cold as stone
while the paparazzi
fight over a bone
and the dogs bay and the cats spray
as they try to claim the new day
and birds soar on wings sore
from battling the broken wind
while the sun comes up like plunder

spreading gold upon the shore.

"Little Nemo in Slumberland" - Winsor McCay by docarelle, via Flickr

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Debasing language as a political strategy

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the biggest aspects of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign is fake news, that is, deliberate deceptions promoted on social media or "news" sites like Brietbart as propaganda to influence people predisposed to believing weird things.

And one way of derailing that narrative is to redefine "fake news." President Trump has been doing this by labeling any news story that shows him in a bad light as "fake news."

The original meaning of "fake news" was stories like the one about the Clintons running a child-sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. What Trump labels fake news is more like the leaks coming from the White House, for example calling leaks about Michael Flynn's contacts with Russian officials after the election and before Trump took office as "fake news."

The fact that Flynn's actions were proven to be true did not disrupt his insistence that this was "fake news."

Most often, he uses this technique when talking about reports of his campaign's possible collusion with Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations. At this point the main way we are aware of that the Russians tried to influence the campaign was with fake news, and distorted news, aimed at people who it seemed possible to influence.

The Russians seem to have waged information warfare through Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets. Some of this was done by trolls, actual human beings who had accounts made to appear that they were of the same social group as the people they aimed to influence, some were bots, software that automated the same process.

An example reported by Politico is the following tweet:

 @Flossy_gurl tweeted, “CORRUPT #FBI #JamesComey Received Million$ From #ClintonFoundation- Brother’s Law Firm Does #Clinton’s Taxes.” 

Certainly not true, intended to muddy people's thinking and get them to be cynical about our political class, and an actionable slander, if you could sue a bot.

This is a problem for Trump, and his response is ingenious. If fake news is a problem for him, muddy the thinking about fake news by labeling things that are true, and reported by major news organizations, as fake news, putting them on the same level as the Russian bots' tweets.

His goal is the same as that of the Russian bots and trolls, to undermine peoples' faith in the institutions of democracy so that they become incapable of responding to the threat.

Trump remains an expert flim-flam man, and his inability to actually run the government is, from a Russian point of view, an asset. After all, what could undermine peoples' faith in democracy more than a government unable to address their problems?

So, from the Russian point of view, they are still winning the information war, and the more it appears that Trump is in over his head, the more they win. I don't think they'll get tired of winning.

And at this point, Trump is in so far over his head, he's seeing deep sea anglerfish.



Friday, March 24, 2017

Our new shop cat has a name!


by John MacBeath Watkins

Beau Geste is the name for our new cat. It was the name of the titular character in a book by P.C. Wren, an adventure novel in which Beau gives everything for the sake of honor. Beau is a very sincere and dignified cat, which is what made me think of it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Ballard TST has a cat!

by John MacBeath Watkins

We are happy to announce that Twice Sold Tales in Ballard now has a shop cat. He is as yet unnamed, but he is a tuxedo cat with all the dignity that implies.

He's been here about 24 hours at this writing, and is already seducing customers, especially the ones who ignore him.

This picture shows him hiding behind the sign in the west window shortly after his arrival. He's already knocked over books, gone into an area I'd prefer he didn't, all hallmarks of a proper shop cat.

Once he became convinced that I didn't intend to eat him, he crawled right into my lap. He's a brown-eyed handsome cat, but we've already had one named after Chuck Berry.

It's been years since I've been able to have a shop cat, and I"m over the moon about it. Our new cat is about a year old, so he'll be with us for years yet.

Any suggestions for a name?

I had, or course, thought of the Song of the Jellicle cats, from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, but it doesn't fit him, because he is not "rather small." He's long and slender. But just for old time's sake, here's the poem:

    The Song of the Jellicles
    Jellicle Cats come out to-night
    Jellicle Cats come one come all:
    The Jellicle Moon is shining bright -
    Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.
    Jellicle Cats are black and white,
    Jellicle Cats are rather small;
    Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
    And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.
    Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces,
    Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes;
    They like to practise their airs and graces
    And wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise.
    Jellicle Cats develop slowly,
    Jellicle Cats are not too big;
    Jellicle Cats are roly-poly,
    They know how to dance a gavotte and a jig.
    Until the Jellicle Moon appears
    They make their toilette and take their repose:
    Jellicle Cats wash behind their ears,
    Jellicle dry between their toes.
    Jellicle Cats are white and black,
    Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
    Jellicle Cats jump like a jumping-jack,
    Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
    They're quitet enough in the morning hours,
    They're quitet enough in the afternoon,
    Reserving their terpsichorean powers
    To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.
    Jellicle Cats are black and white,
    Jellicle Cats (as I said) are small;
    If it happends to be a stormy night
    They will practise a caper or two in the hall.
    If it happens the sun is shining bright
    You would say they had nothing to do at all:
    They are resting and saving themselves to be right
    For the Jellicle Moon and the Jellicle Ball.
    T. S. elliot

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Language and political manipulation: Why everyone is reading 1984 again

by John MacBeath Watkins

My bookstore started running out of copies of 1984 immediately after Kellyanne Conway used the term "alternative facts" to describe a lie told by presidential spokesman Sean Spicer.

That was on Meet the Press, Jan. 22, 2017. People really needed to start reading it sooner, such as in 2008, when Paul Gottfried first used the term "althernative right" to refer to white supremacists.

That proved to be the most successful bit of rebranding since the Rapeseed Association of Canada realized in the 1970s that women would be more willing to buy rapeseed oil if it were called canola oil.

Consider the case of Steve Bannon, President Trump's chief strategist and a member of the Principles Committee of the U.S. National Security Council. Prior to attaching himself to Donald Trump during the primaries, he ran a "news" organization called Brietbart, which he described last year as "the platform for the alt-right."

Had he described Brietbart as "the platform for white supremacists," would Trump be able to have him as his closest adviser?

And Bannon is now engaged in a new exercise in rebranding. At the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 23, Bannon said that President Trump made all his cabinet appointments with the goal of the "deconstruction of the administrative state."

Prior to that speech, deconstruction meant to apply a particular brand of critical theory to the reading of texts. Here's the Merriam-Webster definition:

1. a philosophical or critical method which asserts that meanings, metaphysical constructs, and hierarchical oppositions (as between key terms in a philosophical or literary work) are always rendered unstable by their dependence on ultimately arbitrary signifiers; also: an instance of the use of this method -- a deconstruction of the nature–culture opposition in Rousseau's work.
2. the analytic examination of something (as a theory) often in order to reveal its inadequacy.
This is clearly not what Bannon meant. Trump did not appoint Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency so that he would perform some sort of literary criticism of the agency. He's there to destroy it. He is there to ensure that our air and water become polluted, much like what Bannon and Conway are doing to our language.

Bannon is rebranding "destroy the government of the United States" as "deconstruction of the administrative state." That sounds so much more civilized, even abstract. Destroying the government sounds like treason, and to people reliant on the government for keeping the country peaceful, prosperous, and a reasonable place to live, it would sound likely to create chaos. Telling voters you were trying to destroy the government would be about has helpful as a canola farmer trying to impress his date by saying he was in the business of producing rape oil. Except, of course, that if his date knew what he was talking about she wouldn't mind, whereas if voters understood what Bannon was saying, most would be appalled.

But "deconstruction of the administrative state," now, that sounds really intellectual. Let's try to keep up with the development of the Trump administration's Newspeak, shall we? After all, we don't want to commit thoughtcrime.

We can begin our glossary of Trumpspeak:

Administrative state, noun, the agencies of the executive branch of the government.

Alternative fact, noun, A lie.

Alt-Right, noun, white supremacist.

America first, noun, originally a movement in the 1930s and '40s that thought America should not oppose fascism. Used by Trump and his surrogates as a term for a 21st century movement that feels America should not oppose fascism. Alternatively, a person who cooperates with the intelligence apparatus of a hostile foreign power to win public office.

Birth certificate, noun, a talisman of authenticity that, even when produced, cannot be real.

Coastal elites, noun, people who possess expertise, regardless of location.

Corporatist, noun, A word that had several meanings prior to Trump. He and his seem to have borrowed the left-wing meaning of a corruption of public policy by business interests, a sort of crony capitalism, except that the Trumpettes only use it to describe people who are not cronies of Trump. They might give the example of George Soros as a corporatist, but never Charles or David Koch unless they cross Trump.

Criminal enterprise, noun, a non-profit organization that spends its money on good works, rather than using it to buy politicians.

Deconstruct, verb, to destroy.

Disaster, noun, a successful government program.

Dishonest, adjective, used to describe people who report accurately on Trump.

Economic nationalism, noun, a policy of political bluster intended to conceal ignorance of how economies actually work.

Enemy of the people, noun, a reporter or news organization that does not propagandize for Trump.

Fake news, noun, a term that once meant lies intended to mislead, used by Trump and his surrogates to mean reporting facts that are inconvenient to Trump.

Globalist, noun, people who are not economic nationalists.

Loser, noun, a person who is not Donald Trump.

Radical Islamic Terrorism, noun, a magical phrase which, if said with sufficient conviction, will cause our enemies to humbly surrender.

Saying it like it is, verb, saying what you think people want to hear.

Strong leader, noun, either a foreign dictator or a blustering, insecure person who obsesses about the size of his inauguration crowd.

Truth, noun, a lie that confirms prior bias.

Unwatchable, adjective, a television show that Trump watches and reports on to his audience..


Orwell's pioneering work in his 1948 novel has given us a framework, but it will take years to assemble a workable glossary of Trumpism. Please add to the comments list any words and definitions you think should be added.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

If no one sees him, does Trump exist?

by John MacBeath Watkins

It is hard to understand Donald Trump's unhinged tweets about his Trump Tower phone being tapped on President Obama's orders. Has he lost touch with reality? Is he trying to recast himself as the victim in the Russian affair? Is he a paranoiac in addition to being a narcissist?

All or none of these things may be true, but my theory is that the main motivation was that people were, in the wake of the sort-of-state-of=the-union speech, starting to talk about him as if he were a normal president, the kind that isn't so dramatic that we have to focus on him all the time. The kind of president who will be an effective executive managing the United States executive branch.

Trump has never shown he can manage anything. Instead, as Trump biographer Tim O'Brien said recently,  “He’s a performance artist pretending to be a great manager.”

And as a performance artist, for Trump the measure of how he is performing as president isn't how well the country is doing under his administration. The measure is how much people are paying attention to him.

When people breathe a sigh of relief, relax their gaze and turn to other matters in their lives, he panics.

President Trump is a man so insecure, he seems unwilling to test the question of whether he exists when no one is watching. I have to wonder if, when people start turning their gaze away, he feels as if he were fading. He cannot let the role he plays, that of the president, to become boring. He needs to steal every scene. So, he does something to ramp up the drama, like a soap opera with falling ratings, just to keep the public glued to the screen. Accusing former President Obama of tapping his telephone is a soap-opera move.

We've gone from the presidency of Barack "no drama" Obama to a reality television performance of the presidency by a man who thrives by inventing drama. Voters wanted change, and that's the change they got.

I began thinking about the reasons for Trump's phone tapping tweets in terms of how they could possibly benefit him in the long term, but I was thinking about it in terms of the goals of a normal politician. Whatever happens because of those tweets may well ruin Trump's presidency, but he will be the center of attention all through the drama.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Quick! A shirt and a sandwich! Melons and a hat!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Let's compare a couple of charts, shall we?

(chart from Wikipedia)


It's easy to see why bookstores are having a hard time. Not only were those charts easy to find, the other stuff you can get quickly is amazing.  I've just watched one of my favorite films, and one of my favorite lines in it is "Cousin, you're back at last! But what a state!  Quick! A shirt and a sandwich!  Melons and a hat! Stockings!"

As an experiment, I plugged the title of this post into a search engine, and lo and behold, up comes the entire screenplay of The King of Hearts. Before the internet I'd have had to search a fairly large library to find the screenplay, and I might have found it untranslated, in the original three languages. I suppose that has something to do with the spellchecks that insist I've not written internet right unless I capitalize it, like it was a proper name, or I was writing about God. It's as if you'd be taking technology's name in vain.


But why is that such a good line? The film is about the insanity of war, as revealed by the reaction of the inmates of an insane asylum to it. That line has a hallucinogenic absurdity to it that takes us to a metaphorical war, the war on drugs, which increasing numbers of people are saying is over, and the drugs won.

One consequence of the drug war is that we have 25% of the world's prison population, and only 5% of the world's total population. This is tremendously expensive. And it has a great deal to do with our drug laws and their enforcement.


It seems to have escaped the notice of most Americans that the easiest and cheapest way to cut the crime rate is to make more things legal. The political solution is to hire more police and lock more people up for longer periods of time, which might be an efficient way of dealing with the problem if our prisons were really good at getting people to stop committing crimes.


But in fact, it seems that the people who have the easiest time getting out of a life of crime are those who don't get caught, don't get a prison record that keeps them from getting a good job, don't learn what our prisons have to teach. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed back in 1971 how prisons only bring out the worst in people, regardless of which side of the bars they are on. We've responded to this knowledge by putting more and more people behind bars.


We now have guards' unions lobbying for longer prison sentences because that's how they get job security. We have private prison companies that benefit from these policies as well. We have police corrupted by drug money in a most peculiar way -- property forfeiture laws have made arrests so lucrative for police department budgets that in some cases, such as the notorious Tenaha, Texas, scandal, police have been allegedly using the laws to take property from innocent people.


Of course, there will always be corrupt police. And biased judges, bad restaurants, etc. The problem is that the drug war puts so much power in their hands and so much wealth within reach. Tenaha might have been known for a speed trap in a more innocent age, but the drug war has increased their power, and in economic terms, the rent they can gain by abusing it.


With budgets straining, perhaps we can take another look at the money we're spending on this and come up with a more sensible arrangement. Take another look at the charts above. The crime rate started to decline when the baby boomers passed peak age for criminal activity, spiked again as crack flowed into neighborhoods and gangs fought violent turf wars, and has been declining since. If the crime rate were falling because incarceration was increasing, we would expect to seen a steady decline as the incarceration rate increased. Now, we'd like to think the incarceration rate has something to do with the decline