Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Expectations

Commenting on tonight’s Republican presidential debate, RNC chair Reince Priebus

declined to go into the “details” on Trump’s preparation, but emphasized that Clinton would be held to higher standards because she’s spent over 30 years in the political sphere.

Is that how it works? Do people show up for a job interview and say, “I realise I wasn’t as good as the other candidate in the interview, but I really think you should hire me, because I have a lot less experience in this field”?

When real Americans protest

Republicans are shocked by what they see as the self-destructive fury of “Black Lives Matter” protestors. These people are driven by pure hatred of white people, they say. The land is descending into unprecedented chaos, they say, from which only Donald Trump can rescue us.

I was just reading Rick Perlstein’s history of the US in the 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, and came across this report about events immediately surrounding the 1974 election:

In West Virginia the Thursday before Election Day someone exploded fifteen sticks of dynamite under the gas meter at the school board building just minutes after the superintendent left… Dozens of white men patrolled Campbell Creek with shotguns, following rumors over citizens’ band radio that carloads of blacks were on their way to burn churches. The next day school buses were shot at, and a car owned by parents who insisted on sending their kids back to school was blown up. A police cruiser escorting a school bus was punctured by a rifle shot.

This was all because of disagreements about the choice of school textbooks. When things became more serious — a stabbing incident in a high school in South Boston — it led to this incident:

A mob of white parents formed a blockade around the school to trap the black students and made ready to storm the building. Shattering glass; police horses charging. “Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers!” “Niggers eat shit! Niggers eat shit!” A chorus of mothers led that cheer. President Ford put the 82nd Airborne on alert.

Like fascists everywhere, the Trumpsters work hard to gin up the disorder that they claim alone to be able to master.

Consipiracy theories tend to be long on motive, short on coherence. The Elders of Zion may be hard to pin down, but it’s not hard to understand what they stand to gain by manipulating international commerce and news media. But Birtherism — the theory, mostly associated with Donald Trump, that Barack Obama was not born in the US, hence is no more an American than Ted Cruz — has always struck me as particularly lacking in motivation. Why would the Democrats take the risk of putting their fates in the hands of a non-citizen who could be unmasked at any time?

One theory is that this is a kind of unfair competition, like doping in sport: The rule requiring the president to be a natural-born US citizen is not a way of ensuring proper loyalty, but rather a guard against unfair competition. Of course, the thinking goes, Americans have little chance in a political competition against the inherent advantages of a Kenyan usurper. (Women, similarly, famously have such a structural advantage in politics that all manner of laws and customs have been required to level the playing field. Trump has pointed out the uphill struggle he faces, running for president as a wealthy white male, but garnered remarkably little sympathy.)

Another theory is that Obama is just another illegal immigrant, undercutting American workers on wages. The presidency pays only $400,000 a year. You can’t expect a qualified American man to work for that. That’s why only Trump, with his original proposals for monetising the presidency (derived from post-Soviet and Latin American models — who says he’s insular!) can be the great white male presidential hope.

Last year I wrote a post about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy (what the Germans call Stammtischgerede), that reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about a children’s show “How to do it“, which explains to the audience in one two-minute episode

How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.

When expressed by the male working classes the simple HTDI solutions that no one is willing to put into practice typically involves violence, stringing the appropriate people up, or use of nuclear weapons. I wrote in this post about the version of HTDI that tends to belch forth from mostly right-wing veterans of the business-lawyer-finance trenches, who like to think that their experience holding meetings and berating subordinates has been far more meaningful than actually doing anything

is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.”

I didn’t have a particular example to cite at the time, but of course Donald Trump has followed the script exactly. Speaking yesterday at a “National Security Forum”, Trump was pressed on his claim to have a secret plan for defeating ISIS. Despite having previously stated that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do”, in a speech on Tuesday he said

We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.

It’s no wonder some Republicans think President Obama is intentionally betraying the country. If he couldn’t even be bothered to instruct his top generals to come up with a plan. And the 30-day deadline is pure genius…

I was reading this article by John Cassidy of the New Yorker about the current state of the US presidential election campaign, according to the polls, and was surprised by this sentence:

Of course, polls aren’t infallible—we relearned that lesson in the recent Brexit referendum.

It hardly requires any major evidence to argue against the straw man that the polls are infallible, but I didn’t recall any notable poll failure related to Brexit; on the contrary, I was following this pretty closely, and it seemed that political commentators were desperately trying to discount the polls in the weeks leading up to the referendum, arguing that the public would ultimately break for the status quo, no matter what they were telling the pollsters. I looked it up on Wikipedia:

UK referendum polls

So it looks like the consensus of the polls was that Leave and Remain were about equal, with a short-term trend toward leave, and about 10% still undecided. Hardly a major case against the polls being infallible when Leave won by a few percent…

Social science in action

IntersectionalityWhile watching Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech last week, I found it hilarious to see people in the crowd holding up (protest?) signs saying “INTERSECTIONALITY MATTERS”. Since when does abstract sociology jargon get onto political signs?

What’s next? “INHIBIT HEGEMONIC TOTALISING DISCOURSE”? Perhaps a call-and-response chant:

What do we want?
Analytically robust amelioration of social conventions!
When do we want it?
Diachronically.

Trump is now predicting massive voter fraud, usually something you do after you’ve lost. There’s a theory that people tend to accuse others of what they are ashamed of planning or having done themselves. I don’t think he has any shame, or that he’s strategic enough to be planning anything so complicated himself. But his backers? How hard would it really be for a top-notch state hacking operation in, say, Russia, to crack the locally organised election computer systems?

There is a Rand-ian trope (or Mises-macherei) that attempts to reverse the Marxian notion that labour is the unit of economic contribution, that working people are the creators of our world, and capitalists mere parasites. The opposing view — pushed by Ayn Rand, and advocated in increasingly stark terms by right-wing politicians, is that the capitalists and managers are “job-creators”, that everything exists because of their contributions. From Adam Smith’s idea that capitalism enables the private greed to be channeled into promoting the public good, we have come to the notion that private greed is itself almost a form of charity.

The reductio ad absurdum has been provided (of course) by Donald Trump, in the less commented upon portion of his bizarre attack on the family of killed-in-action Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan. Responding to Khizr Khan’s attack “You have sacrificed nothing — and no one,” Trump said

I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

For Trump, a rich man’s “tremendous success” is itself a sacrifice, to be matched against an ordinary man losing his child.

Brecht’s take on this question is below. I cited it in the last US presidential election as well.

Read the rest of this entry »

No more fun and games

2016-07-28 09.26.08I’ve been in Britain long enough to know most of the peculiar verbal overlaps between this country and my native USA, but I still tend to overlay the British words with their American meanings. So it was several years ago when I was told by my daughter’s Hebrew teacher “Today we’re going to be revising the alphabet”…

Of course, this sort of linguistic alienation can happen even within a country, in the intersection between different language registers. Thus, a number of years ago UC Berkeley put the legend “REFUSE ONLY” on its outdoor trash bins. When I saw this text, my immediate reaction was to read it as an absurdly formal version of the slogan “JUST SAY NO”.

Soft bones

From political journalist Simon Maloy in Salon

People often note that public opinion of Hillary tends to be ossified after more than two decades spent continuously in the national political spotlight, but Trump’s unique and unrelenting awfulness as a candidate represents a timely opportunity to get voters to start thinking more positively about Hillary Clinton.

It amazes me that people can make claims like this, in light of the fact that her net favourability in Gallup polls has shifted by almost 50 points in three years. (She was at +31 in April 2015.)

Tag Cloud