Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Trumpergency Speech. Or The National Emergency Which Isn't National.

I watched Trump's speech declaring a state of national emergency.  Now I am very tired, even though the emergency he is declaring is not a national emergency.  It's a Trumpergency, a state of great (the greatest!) Trump-anxiety, caused by his inability to get his way through mere temper tantrums.

But that's not what made me tired.  It was taking notes of the speech while desperately trying to understand what kinds of "facts" his assertions might have been based on. 

So while I listened to his speech, I scribbled down key words and phrases: 

Very talented people, extremely well (negotiations with China went), very good relationship (with a North Korean dictator), couldn't be done before by others (repeated boasting about how he has disarmed North Korea), finally the US is respected, phenomenal (North Korea's location), phenomenal US economy created by Trump, tremendous stock market figures created by Trump, wasn't done before by others (fixing the southern border), economy he created going to the roof (!), never done before (China trade deals), nobody else could do it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Trickster God And The Yearning For A Political Savior in American Politics

The following two stories are intended for the pleasure (?) of those who like to spice their political meals with mythology, fantasy and literature.

First, the recent events in Virginia politics should trouble all of us, but there's extra trouble for those who prefer Democrats to run that state but who also don't want to condone or ignore allegations of sexual violence or the use of racist imagery by their "own" politicians.

Let's start by summarizing (1) those events for anyone who hibernates in the winter or isn't properly obsessed with American politics:

On February 1st, the conservative Web site Big League Politics published a photo from the medical-school yearbook page of Governor Ralph Northam. In the photo, from 1984, one man wears blackface and another wears a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, though he didn’t say which of the two men was him.

The next day, at a press conference, Northam insisted that he wasn’t in the picture, after all—though he confessed that, at some point in 1984, he had worn shoe polish on his face (“I don’t know if anybody’s ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off”), in order to resemble Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

Soon afterward, Big League Politics reported on the existence of a private Facebook post in which a woman appeared to accuse the state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, of sexual assault at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Fairfax, who would become governor if Northam were to resign, denied the allegation; the woman subsequently came forward to reiterate the allegation in her own name. 

Two days after that, the attorney general, Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat, and currently second in the line of succession to be governor of Virginia, admitted to wearing blackface at a party during his college years—he was in costume, he said, as the rap musician Kurtis Blow.

Get it?  If Northam resigns, Fairfax would be the governor, and if Fairfax then resigns, Herring would be the governor.  What happens if all three resign?

The new governor would be the speaker of the Virginia house of delegates, the Republican Kirk Cox!

And there you have the Democrats' dilemma:  Those who want to see all three men resign would then have to accept a Republican Governor for Virginia!  That just might have even worse economic and social consequences for African-American men and for all women in the state of Virginia.

Reading about this made me think of the Trickster, a common mythical archetype in many cultures:

Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a "boundary-crosser".[1] The trickster crosses and often breaks both physical and societal rules. Tricksters "...violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis."[2] 
A Trickster god, the joker that he is (2),  would adore the dilemma I have described above, and might even willingly create it, because the resulting chaos and confusion allows us to learn something important, something which cannot be learned while staying safely inside the boundaries decreed by our particular political conventions.

The joke the Trickster makes in the Virginia case is the bitterly hilarious juxtaposition of the types of behaviors Democratic and Republican politicians, respectively,  are sanctioned for.  What is rewarded among the Republicans (think of the sexist and racist Trump in the White House) is sanctioned among the Democrats.  But in this case sanctioning the latter would directly reward the former!

That outcome is to teach us an important lesson, in a rather painful manner, as is the custom of the Trickster gods and goddesses.

Second,  while following the overall political conversations about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I noticed how she triggers weird responses not only from the political right, but to some extent also from the political left.

The latter are not nasty jabs at her or attempts to find a mote in her eye and then call it a beam (3), but almost the reverse:  They reflect a desire to see her as the lone savior, the new hope for the country,  the heroine who will all alone fix a broken political system.

Some lefties saw Barack Obama in that manner before he was first elected.  Even then I doubted the wisdom of putting all one's political eggs in one basket, especially as that basket was carried by one single human being.  What I feared was the chance that when someone is elevated in such a manner, the first misstep that person makes will cause the pendulum to swing to the other extreme.  And all humans make missteps.

Now, I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  She is smart, media-savvy, and assertive.

But she is also still inexperienced, and she will make mistakes.  We should expect some mistakes, because they are part of how we learn.  Those who elevate some politicians to demigod status will, however, have great difficulty coping with any newbie errors she might make.  The incentives, then, are to deny that the mistakes even happened.

And that's a understandable reaction, given what the political right will do with them.  But still.  It's not a good idea to hand over our political salvation to any one person.

All this reminded me of the late and great fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett.  In several of his Discworld books he has his characters talk about justice.  In Reaper Man, Death (an anthropomorphic death, a skeleton in a black cloak) says this:
There’s no justice. There’s just us.
Many interpretations of that statement are possible, but my own has always been this:

If we want justice we need to create it, Justice is not found in the bricks of the courthouse walls or in some separate god or demigod of justice.  Justice and injustice operate through the acts of us all. 

And so does political salvation.


(1)  These issues are listed here in time order, but they differ in their ultimate consequences.  Fairfax is accused of something criminal, sexual violence, and a second woman has come forward to accuse him of rape during their college years.

(2)  Mostly the Trickster is depicted as male, though there are also female Tricksters, among the Japanese kitsune, for example.

(3)  I plagiarize the Bible there to show how female politicians tend to be treated in the media.  A recent example is The Case Of Kirsten Gillibrand And The Chicken.


Friday, February 08, 2019

On Mean, Mean Political Bosses

The rumor-mill tells us that Senator Amy Klobuchar is a mean, mean boss.  A bitch, in fact.  I remember reading the same about Hillary Clinton in the past. 

On the other hand, we all know that Our Dear Leader, one Donald Trump, appears to be the boss from the hottest hell.  The difference between his case, and that of, say, Klobuchar, is that nobody attributes Trump's meanness to him being a man but just to his character.

This is not quite so true when we talk about possibly* mean female bosses.  Though the media coverage of such cases is currently a bit fairer than it was, not so long ago,  it is still extremely hard to evaluate the meanness of a boss without also taking into account what the underlings' expectations are.  Those expectations are likely to vary depending on whether the boss is a man or a woman.

In general, we still expect women to be kinder, gentler and more democratic bosses than men**. 

This matters.  Suppose that we have two bosses, one male and one female, who are objectively equally nasty.  But because the female boss is expected to be nicer, probably unconsciously, her nastiness looks more glaring, more hurtful and just plain nastier.

Several takes on Amy Klobuchar's possible bitchiness also mention surveys about the meanest bosses in the US Congress.  The variable that measures meanness in those surveys is staff turnover, and we are told that the departure of senior officials is weighted more than the departure of lower-level staff.

While the actual survey findings vary, depending on the time period, female politicians' offices are over-represented (compared to their percentages in the House and the Senate) among those with highest turnover figures over longer time periods.

These surveys have some problematic aspects:

For instance, an office could have a high turnover not only because underlings run away from a mean boss, but also because underlings leave to climb upward in various political organization. 

The former is what the surveys purport to measure, but they can also be measuring the latter.  Without knowing where those who depart are going and why they are leaving, we cannot really tell if a high turnover is due to a boss who is mean or a boss who is supportive of the underlings' career aspirations.  Or for some of the other reasons I discuss here.

Then there are the variations caused by the fact that a politician's staff turnover rate depends on where we are in that politician's term.  Though at least one of the articles I link to reminds us not to draw conclusions about the high last-year staff turnover rates of those politicians who are retiring, given that their staff all need to find new jobs, I also believe that slightly similar considerations might apply to the beginning of a politician's first term.

That's the time when politicians first meet all their new staff and when the staff meets the politicians, and neither side might know yet if the matches are good.  I would expect a greater first-year turnover, and then a much reduced turnover when the working arrangements have settled down and both sides know what to expect.

The surveys would be improved if they controlled for that time factor***. 

Ideally, they should also control for what happens when a politician faces a particularly difficult time, with scandals (real or created) or a fall in support and so on.  Many staff members might then depart, in order to save their own careers (the Trump effect?).  To the extent female politicians are judged along a harsher scale, in general, such difficult times could appear more common for them, and that could explain some part of any sex difference in the mean bosses surveys.

The above comments are examples of the kinds of variables we should control for before we draw any conclusions about whether men or women are worse political bosses.  That's because such comparisons should be between male and female politicians in as identical circumstances as possible.  If those circumstances are not identical, then what we attribute to gender might, in fact, have other causes.

I have no idea how or if those survey results would change with proper standardization.  Neither can I speculate on the possibility that because politics has not been an easy area for women to enter, those who in the past had the tremendous willpower and fighting spirit to have succeeded in it  might not be the least demanding of bosses at this stage of our societal evolution.

My main point is, rather, that unless we can control for the underlying and gendered expectations about how male and female bosses are supposed to behave, the net we use to fish for mean political bosses is also likely to catch not only the truly mean bosses, but also many female bosses who would not be deemed mean if they were male.  


* I use the qualifier "possibly" here not because I wouldn't believe that there are mean female bosses (there are), but because of the way we might use a different scale in measuring what "mean" means when it comes to female and male bosses.

As an aside, I believe that true meanness of the mean-boss type is not a sex-linked characteristic.

**  This comes about because of an interesting problem: 

The traditional gender stereotypes we apply to men do not clash with what is expected from being a leader, but the traditional gender stereotypes we apply to women do clash with what is expected from being a leader.  The latter means that women in leadership positions must walk a tightrope between not being found effective enough leaders and not being found properly feminine.

One way of solving that dilemma, probably unconsciously, is to start expecting that female leaders lead in more feminine ways, in more supportive and more maternal ways than male leaders.  One small-sample study found that women surveyed in the study expected female bosses to be more supportive and empathic than male bosses.

A maternal leadership style can work for some women.   But to expect it from all or most women may be the reason why female leaders who do not follow that style are very easily labeled as abrasive or mean bosses.

*** And if they carried out a few statistical significance tests about the differences between turnover rates. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Trump's State of the Union Speech

The actual state of the union in the US is dire if by "union" we mean a general, if vague, belief in the existence of an implicit contract between the government and its citizens or agreement about the actual contents of such a contract.  The state of the union from that angle is in the divorce courts, because the Republicans and the Democrat desire quite different types of governments.

Yes, I know that this is not what the SOTU speech is all about.  But I baked a delicious lemon-almond tart and had a wedge while watching our Supreme Leader deliver the speech.  The tart was sweet yet tart and it made my worldview too benign for a sharp criticism, especially of a speech which certainly was not written by Trump or the Rasputin behind his throne, Stephen Miller, but by someone capable of writing rousing speeches not intended to directly frame one half of the country as the Real Enemies of Trump.

The transcript of the speech can be found here, and here are the major corrections to Trump's statements.  They are fairly fundamental ones and well worth learning about.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

An Ode To Butternut Squash

Such bliss!  What a rush,
When the hardy sage meets
the sweet butternut squash.

A bad pome in praise of food.  I feel like writing a post in the cookbooks-by-divines series, one which does not include blood sacrifices and other similar god and goddess foods (eyeballs or arms or burnt offerings in general or even manna).

I love butternut squash.  This is a fairly new love in my life, acquired in this promised land of all pumpkin-seeming things (Trump, too).

Butternut squash is cheap, it's pretty, it's delicious yet unassuming,  and it's good for you.  Its only negative is the very hard skin (which would be useful as an armor to be worn surfing online, but a hazard when it faces me and my largest knife, given the lack of a flat bottom on the squash).

I buy several squashes at one go, halve them along the long axis and then roast them in the oven, cut sides down in a pan coated with some olive oil.  When they are done (375 degrees Fahrenheit), I scoop out the innards and freeze most of them.  That way I have many beginnings for luscious butternut squash meals ready for later.

You could go fancy on those meals and make a butternut squash lasagna with sage.  It's delicious.  It's also a lot of work.  I make it sometimes for parties, but usually I turn the squash innards into a spaghetti sauce with garlic, lots of fresh chopped sage* fried in butter, salt, pepper and perhaps a little vegetable broth or milk or something else if the sauce is too thick.

But my favorite is a butternut squash soup, served with dark bread and some cheese.  I use half a squash (innards), half a chopped onion, two cloves of garlic, about eight turns of a nutmeg mill and some black pepper.  The onion and garlic are stewed in butter or olive oil until the onion is limp and transparent.  Add one to two cups of vegetable broth and a teaspoon or so of honey, and then blend it into a lovely orange smoothness.  Makes enough for two people or one very hungry one.  If you prefer it milder, use partly milk, partly vegetable broth for the liquid.

It's excellent, I think, though do be careful if you use a separate standing blender for the blending.  If you fill it with hot soup, it doesn't help to wear oven mittens to keep the top down or to have two tea-towels between the mitts and the blender lid, and it doesn't matter how hard you press down on the lid:

You will experience an explosion in the kitchen, and if the soup is very hot you might also get lots of little demon-freckles all over your face and neck from the burning.

Don't ask me how I know that.  Wiser minds tell me that blending the hot soup in several small portions avoids the explosion.  Or use an immersion blender.  Or just go nuts with a big fork or spoon inside the saucepan, chasing all lumps, if you have nothing better to do with your life.
* Or frozen sage.  Dried is not quite the same, because it's the fresh sage who married the butternut squash.  I buy one potted sage every spring (if the old one didn't overwinter), plant it in a sunny spot in the garden and harvest it all summer long and into the fall. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Backsliding in Women's Rights? Two Examples.

Two recent items about women's rights possibly going backward made me think of the process I go through when grieving after the death of someone who meant a lot to me.

That process is like a circular staircase.  You start at the bottom of it and pretty much go around in a circle, to reach the next level, and then you keep climbing the staircase of, say, grief.   You both climb higher and face the same painful questions again.

I'm not sure what's at the top of that staircase, but during the climb it often feels as if one has come back to the starting point, walked around a circle.  It's not true because the new circle of grief is on a higher level.  We see the loss from a new perspective and we are a little more removed from it.

After that philosophical opening, the actual items which provoked it may seem mundane (which does not mean that they are not important). 

The first is the partial return of a practice restaurants once used as lot: That of either refusing to serve women who entered the establishment on their own (or even in groups as long as the group included no men) or seating them somewhere hidden, such as by the kitchen swing door or next to the toilets.

The reason for that discriminatory practice was that women on their own were assumed to visit restaurants only as sex workers looking for clients, not as customers wanting to have a meal or a drink.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

How To Write About Politics In The Era Of Chaos

I am publishing fewer post on this blog.  The reasons are many and complicated (including does a falling tree in the woods make a sound if nobody is listening?), but one which I'd like to talk about today has to do with the current climate in American politics, the climate in political writings, the resulting online quarrels and the information included or not included in social media, such as tweets.

This Trump era is ruled by the God of Chaos (1), not only in the United States, but globally.  He is having a hell of a time, riding his war chariot through mobs everywhere!  Few notice that he is a) the god of chaos, not of order (he does disguise well (2)), and b) that he has harnessed the horses to his chariot with their butts forward.

And far too many worship at his altar.

He hates nuance so we drop nuance from politics.  He adores anger (causes a lot of chaos and breakage) so we work all day long to get very angry.  He prefers emotions to facts so we learn to think with what we believe are our guts, even if the feeling might be just indigestion from too many hamberders.

He detests facts and is far too impatient to read long articles or research the truth in someone's statements.  And because we are learning that he is the strongest god of this moment, we, too, learn to hate research and reading and the kind of careful thinking which the God of Chaos finds more boring than watching Trump's hair being dyed.

And lest you think that I only talk about the American right-wing here, the God of Chaos is very good at convincing all of us that the best way to serve righteous causes is through the tools he loves:

Anger, accusations, building stronger walls to keep the in-group members in and the out-group members out, public purity examinations and purity policing to make sure that all the in-group members should be allowed to remain inside the walls.

Walls, whether physical conceptual, serve to keep some out and some in (3).  But they also strengthen the smell of civil war in the air:  That various factions regard other factions inside the same country as the real enemies, not as disagreeing compatriots.

Walls become fortifications and ramparts, information becomes propaganda.  Propaganda cannot have nuances, so nuanced treatments go.  No propaganda will include all evidence, unless all evidence supports the arguments of the propagandist's side, so the evidence we will be offered in political debates will be at most partial, at worst false.

Because it is war, we sometimes unquestioningly ally with distasteful causes and beliefs, as long as that alliance hurts our most hated enemies more than it appears to hurt the integrity of our own value hierarchies.


This I cannot do.  Indeed, I cannot play the game the God of Chaos referees, because I know, exactly, what he tries to achieve.  But I also truly cannot play that game.

It's not because I am the last upright, neutral and analytical writer standing (though of course all that goes without saying (4)).  It's because I am bad at the games of chaos, have no talent for the kind of emotional writing that works in chaotic politics, and when it comes to anger, well, you really don't want to make goddesses, even minor snake goddesses, angry.  They tend not to regulate the resulting hurricanes and tornadoes very well.

In short, I am working through this dilemma and hope that it will be resolved soon, one way or another.

(1)  He has to be a guy god because Jordan Peterson, the right-wing prophet worshiped by lots of young conservative men, insists that chaos is female, and that all right-thinking young men should rise up against her.  So it's salutary to correct that belief (wink).

Now why the God of Chaos could become the dominant divine of this era (at least temporarily) probably deserves a separate post which would cover climate change,  globalization and outsourcing and their nasty effects in some countries, the financial markets bubble and its wealth-killing effects for the not-so-rich, increasing global income inequality and the vast human migrations with the social upheavals they cause.

But note that if Almost Absolute Chaos were to rule, there would be strong pressures to replace him with the God of Absolute Control.  That replacement (sometimes in response to just the fear of chaos, not actual chaos)  is how we get fascist states and the kinds of theocratic states where I, for one, would have very few rights.

Chaos and order are not necessarily theoretically linked to right-wing or left-wing political goals or characteristics, though the right has a stronger preference for traditional power hierarchies as a form of order.

But Trump, a right-winger,  happily  sows chaos, and rigid order has certainly been applied, from above, in communist societies.

In practice widespread desire for order is more likely to result in right-wing fascism or extremely conservative theocracies, however.

(2)  The reality might be more complicated.  Just as in politics, the extremes, order and chaos, might be the end-points not of a line but of an almost-completed circle.  It's easy for certain kinds of extremists to jump over that little break in the circle and to end up at the other political extreme.  Likewise, it's possible that extreme chaos is much closer to extreme order than we like to think.  Balance in all things is the proper alternative to both extreme chaos and extreme order.

(3)  Despite Trump's weird border wall fixation, walls are not necessarily bad and have their uses.  Remember this before you go and break down the fence that keeps the neighbor's angry bull in his pasture.

(4)  This is a joke.  Honest.