Saturday, August 26, 2017

The End of Liberal Identity Politics, Take Two

Mark Lilla, the guy who right after the elections argued that "liberal identity politics" must end before liberalism can rise from the grave (presumably as a zombie) has written a book based on his earlier New York Times article:  "The End of Identity Liberalism."

The book is called The Once And Future Liberal.  After Identity Politics.  Beverly Gage reviewed it for the New York TimesShe was not impressed:

Lilla acknowledges that social movements like feminism and civil rights played important roles in American history, raising questions and insisting on changes that could be secured no other way. At the moment, however, he finds such movements to be counterproductive, sucking energy away from the simple and urgent task of getting more Democrats into office. He disparages Black Lives Matter as “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” and dismisses “sex relations, the family, the secretarial pool, schools, the grocery store” (read: women’s issues) as all but irrelevant to serious politics.
It's almost as if Lilla's own identity has blinded him when it comes to certain issues?  Gage finds this a pity, because Lilla could have touched upon some important questions:

How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?
Well, the majority of recent anti-Trump marchers have been women, so they cannot possibly have made any difference, right?

I responded to Lilla's original 2016 article in a long (and popular!) blog post which I believe is still worth reading.  Today I want to return to the question if I can find any shared concerns between Lilla and my divine self.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Short Posts, 8/24/17: Trump as the New Bannon, The Death of Empathy And Other Topics

1.  The firing of Stephen K. Bannon is too little, too late, if the intention was to limit the power and influence of white (male) supremacists inside the Trump administration.  It's like waiting until a cancer has metastasized before removing only the very first tumor found.  But white supremacists need not worry, given that Trump still appears to spout all their basic values.

At this point you might think about the rate at which a certain kind of fascist thinking is becoming normalized at the highest levels of the US government.  So.

2.  A science envoy to the State Department, Daniel Kammen, has resigned, as a protest to Trump's clear penchant for racism and sexism and his clear disgust with the core values of a democracy.  The first letters in the paragraphs of Kammen's resignation letter spell "impeach."

Impeachment is unlikely, as long as the Republicans are firmly determined to let Trump cavort on their shoulders, though the hidden message is fun to find.

I'm not sure if resignation is a good strategy in the fight against the Turd Reich, though I get its appeal.  But if all rational people leave the administration, won't things get even worse?

3.  The New York Times coverage of the death of Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist whose mutilated body was found in Denmark, has been criticized by some readers of that paper:

One point that arose was that some commentators in the Scandinavian press and on social media thought this grisly crime eerily evoked a plot from a well-known Danish TV crime series, “The Bridge.” The show is about the span that connects Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden, the locations in question. (Ms. Wall grew up near Malmo.) In our coverage, we pointed out that comparisons to the series were being made.
Some of our readers called this comparison insulting to Ms. Wall.
Alice Driver, a journalist, wrote on Twitter: “Really poor choice by @nytimes to use the murder of a female journalist to ruminate on Scandinavian thrillers.”
I have read about the case in several European newspapers.  Because I didn't then plan to write on it, I didn't analyze why I felt uncomfortable with the tone of several articles.

A whiff of death porn in the coverage?  A slight tilt toward turning a horrible story where a real person has died into an intellectual puzzle, as if it came from some fictional crime series?  A result of the gradual waning of empathy I seem to spot online whenever people discuss some recent horror, such as a terrorist attack,  where the victims become political chess pawns to be manipulated but not really acknowledged as formerly breathing, living, feeling individuals?

My thoughts are still pretty fuzzy on this.  But sometimes I really dislike my fellow humans' online behavior.

4.  I ate the first cucumber from the two plants in my garden and it was delicious.  To find it under a broad leaf was exciting!  It looked like a real cucumber!  It tasted like one, too.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Most Basic Trouble With President Trump

Far too often I suddenly stop and try to get my head around the fact that sixty-plus million American voters thought this man would be the correct one to give the nuclear keys to.  He was equally incoherent and narcissistic in his pre-election rallies as he is in his post-election rallies (we have never-ending campaigning to celebrate the Dear Leader now).

Let's set aside the many and complicated explanations for Trump's support aside.  Let's instead ask what his election teaches us about the necessary conditions for a functioning democracy (even a limping one). 

What has gone wrong in the last thirty years or so, to allow a clearly incompetent, ignorant and ill-willed man to be elected to run this country?

Consider this parable:

We are passengers in a long-distance bus, going 120 miles per hour in a dark night up a curving mountain lane. The bus is driven by a deranged maniac who only wants to see how fast he can drive and how daringly.  Some passengers are tied to their seats.  Other passengers are free to move,  but nevertheless refuse to disable the driver, perhaps because they savor the idea of the tied-down ones dying when the bus careens into an abyss (never mind that they will be collateral damage), or perhaps because they enjoy the vicious ride or because they believe in their own immortality.*

That was my parable of the power that only the Republicans in the Congress (the passengers who can move in the bus)  have to control Donald Trump (the deranged bus driver).  The rest of us have much more limited power to influence the events.  In particular, we cannot ask to be let off at a safe stop.

I want to stress that this post is not about criticizing the horrible things Trump wishes to achieve, or says that he wishes to achieve.  Those I cover frequently.

It's about something much more limited:  The failure of the electoral system to stop an utterly incompetent man from being elected as the leader of the country, never mind what his policies might be. 

So how can this be fixed?


*  Or because the alternative would have been a bus driven by a lady, and "everybody" knows that women cannot drive.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Terror in Turku, Finland

An eighteen-year-old Moroccan man, Abderrahman Mechkah,  who had entered Finland as an asylum-seeker in 2016 went on a rampage (armed with at least one large knife) in the center of the city of Turku (Åbo in Swedish) last Friday afternoon, hitting a pedestrian street and a busy market square (a bit like a giant farmer's market).  He may have timed his slaughtering to a time when the streets and the square would be full of people coming home from work and/or shopping.

He killed two Finnish women and wounded eight other people, six of them women and two of them men.  The two men had come to the aid of a victim or tried to stop the butcher.  Thus, they were not chosen from random possible victims.

Thus, authorities in Finland argue that he appeared to target women:

Four other Moroccan men detained over possible links to the Turku attack have co-operated with police but their role has yet to be fully established, Granroth added. The main suspect, who had lived in Turku’s immigration centre after arriving in Finland last year, appeared to have targeted women, police said on Saturday.

One of the attacked women was pushing a baby in a stroller.

The police shot the assailant in the leg* and arrested him.  The police operation was swift and efficient as it had been practiced for quite a while.

The Finnish Security Intelligence Office (SUPO) had received a tip about Mechkah as possibly radicalized early this year, but the tip contained no concrete information about plans and seems not to have received priority.  Mechkah was denied asylum in early 2017, because Morocco is not a conflict zone or near one.**

The latter could be the reason why Mechkah (and his possible associates) acted at this time:  He may have faced deportation for not having left the country voluntarily.

Why choose women as the targets?  A Finnish terrorism researcher, Leena Malkin, notes (source in Finnish) that this may have been intended to increase the shock value of the slaughter, may reflect misogyny, may be based on the assumption that women are less likely to fight back,  or on the view that such attacks shame the men in the target population who have been unable to keep "their" women or children safe.  ISIS*** often targets civilians who are deemed particularly vulnerable, as do many other terrorist groups.

We may get more clarity on the so-called reasons for this attempted femicide later.  But an additional possibility is that Mechkah's extreme Islamist ideology doesn't believe that women should be out and about without male guardians and unveiled.  He might have wanted to create a specific terror in women which would keep them at home, because that is one step toward the kind of world ISIS desires.

*  According to one eye-witness (source in Finnish)  a young Afghani asylum-seeker who tried to apprehend the assailant, the police had to shoot him as he was just preparing to cut the throat of yet another female victim.

**  The asylum application system has a severe problem in that there's no quick initial examination to decide on which cases are obviously without merit, based on the international agreements on the causes which justify getting asylum.  Note that dire economic need or the search for a better life is not one of those causes.

Individuals from countries which are not conflict zones or known to oppress certain demographic or religious groups can still apply for asylum and stay in the new host country for a longish period of time, even though everyone knows that they will not ultimately qualify for asylum.  Processing those cases,  financially supporting the applicants (and even paying for their return flights in some cases) takes resources away from other needier cases and endangers the compassion local people feel for refugees.   

***  ISIS appears to have added Finland to the list of the crusader countries, though I'm not sure exactly what Finland has done to justify such a placement.  Finland has never had colonies, but was a colony itself and has not sent troops or weapons to the Middle East.  Rather, it has taken in roughly 30,000 asylum-seekers in 2015 alone. 

But it does have a cross on the flag.  And of course the way ISIS reads the Quran justifies the killing of all infidels wherever they are caught, not just in war against Muslims.


The Metaphor Of Our Times: Trump Viewing The Solar Eclipse

The metaphor is this picture of our dear Leader watching the solar eclipse:

We are not supposed to look directly at the sun, but our Dear Leader does.  Thus, either he has never bothered to learn that rule or he believes that it is Fake News or he knows the rule, but decided that looking manly and daring and foolhardy is more important than preserving his retinas.

Those three possibilities are the ones journalists frequently use to try to explain Trump's behavior: willful ignorance, defining what he does not like as fake and produced by his enemies, and running on the emotional gases of manly stereotypes while giving his finger to the Democrats and the world at large (never mind the costs).

This is the person who decides when the nuclear button should be pressed.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Economics Jobs Rumors. And Rumors About Sexism.

Justin Wolfers writes about an economics senior thesis in the New York Times.  Most senior theses, even award winning ones, don't get covered in the national media, but Linda Wu's was.

Her research is about the talk at, an online site intended to help young economists find jobs, and her goal is to study gender stereotyping in the academia.  The site is what Wolfers calls an online water cooler, the forums (fora?) are not very strictly moderated, and the users are anonymous.

Wu mined (some of?) the forums for data on how economists there talk about men and women:

Ms. Wu set up her computer to identify whether the subject of each post is a man or a woman. The simplest version involves looking for references to “she,” “her,” “herself” or “he,” “him,” “his” or “himself.”
She then adapted machine-learning techniques to ferret out the terms most uniquely associated with posts about men and about women.
The 30 words most uniquely associated with discussions of women make for uncomfortable reading.
In order, that list is: hotter, lesbian, bb (internet speak for “baby”), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute.
The parallel list of words associated with discussions about men reveals no similarly singular or hostile theme. It includes words that are relevant to economics, such as adviser, Austrian (a school of thought in economics) mathematician, pricing, textbook and Wharton (the University of Pennsylvania business school that is President Trump’s alma mater). More of the words associated with discussions about men have a positive tone, including terms like goals, greatest and Nobel. And to the extent that there is a clearly gendered theme, it is a schoolyard battle for status: The list includes words like bully, burning and fought.
Wu also analyzed the contexts in which men and women were discussed:

This part of her analysis reveals that discussions about men are more likely to be confined to topics like economics itself and professional advice (with terms including career, interview or placement).
Discussions of women are much more likely to involve topics related to personal information (with words like family, married or relationship), physical attributes (words like beautiful, body or fat) or gender-related terms (like gender, sexist or sexual).

Wu's research is interesting, even though results from one anonymous online site cannot be extended to the whole economics profession and even though it's impossible to know whether the sexist commentary comes from a small but productive minority who might not even be economists.

Because I am not well versed with Wu's methods a closer analysis of her paper would not have been productive.  Instead,  I decided to visit the site to see how its members chose to respond to the news that the New York Times had made it (in)famous.(1)