Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for October, 2016

Political correctness gone mad

Alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is having his free speech rights trampled upon

They’re always trying to claim that if I talk about the world government and corruption, I’m anti-Semitic.

Stranger than fiction

Over the many decades when a female president had become conceivable but not yet real, fictional representations purveyed all kinds of notions — some silly, some serious, some sexist — of the first female president. (Jokes about the closet space in the White House were, as I recall, a staple.) But I can’t recall that anyone supposed that the first presidential campaign to feature a woman candidate would have her up against an opponent who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, or that we would have the following exchange between her opponent and the sitting vice president:

Biden said of Trump on Saturday: “The press always asks me, don’t I wish I was debating him? No, I wish we were in high school and I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”

Casting scorn on Biden’s physical strength, Trump said, “Mr Tough Guy, you know he’s Mr Tough Guy, you know when he’s Mr Tough Guy? When he’s standing behind a microphone by himself.” Trump added: “He wants to bring me to the back of the barn? Oooooooooh. Some things in life you could really love doing.”

A fiction writer would hardly have dared to imagine the campaign to feature such a running parody of male pathology. It would have been ridiculed as insular feminist propaganda.

Maybe it will come out next that Trump has been scrawling Clinton’s telephone number on bathroom walls.

Trumping the Tories

One of the great innovations of the Donald Trump presidential campaign has been its exaltation of the element of surprise. My interpretation is that it started as a clever bluff for any detailed questions about plans for his presidency, of which he has none, in the sense that we would ordinarily understand that concept, but evolved into an ideology. It’s not just his war plans that he’s playing close to the chest. His immigration plans, his economic plans, even his decision to contest the election or not, are supposed to be “surprises”, and he mocks those so foolish as to reveal their secret plans.

(The idea that you might have allies who ought to coordinate their actions with yours, or other governing bodies that have a constitutional right to be consulted and informed, is beyond his worldview.)

This is all in keeping with Trump’s world-view, in which statesmanship is just a real estate swindle negotiation writ large. What is more surprising is that the generally more sensible British Tories have adopted a similar approach to Brexit negotiations:

The international development secretary, who was a prominent leave campaigner and is said to be among the ministers on Theresa May’s Brexit committee, said a debate in the House of Commons over the terms of UK’s departure would give the game away to Brussels.

“If I were to sit down and play poker with you this morning, I’m not going to show you my cards before we even start playing the game,” she told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

Her comments came in the wake of an attempt by a powerful cross-party group of MPs to force a parliamentary vote on whether the government should reveal its plans for the UK’s future outside the EU before negotiations begin…

 

Of course, you might be inclined to say that the UK’s exit from the EU is a serious constitutional matter, not a poker game. But then, that would just mean you don’t understand the mentality of British politics.

Joking around

One of the bizarre features of US politics is that, among the many roles that presidents are required to take on — commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the federal bureaucracy, regal head of state — they are also expected to act as stand-up comedians on certain ritual occasions. So naturally candidates are expected to do so as well, to prove they have what it takes. The occasion is the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an event in honour of the first Catholic major party presidential candidate (in 1928), former NY governor Alfred Smith.

Donald Trump has suffered from the inability of large parts of the public to appreciate — or indeed, to recognise — his idiosyncratic humour, whether he’s been joshing about Barack Obama being the founder of ISIS or not accepting an election loss or encouraging Russian hackers to break into his opponent’s email accounts. So it is hardly surprising that his appearance at the dinner was not well received:

Donald Trump was loudly booed at the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York on Thursday—an evening typically reserved for good-natured humor and a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to demonstrate a capacity for self-deprecation—when he attacked Hillary Clinton with the aggressive language frequently used at his campaign rallies.

What interests me about this is what it says about the nature of humour in general, and political humour in particular. Barbed jokes are naturally easier to enjoy when the target is someone you dislike, though that is somewhat balanced, at least for mature and responsible people, by a discomfort at “punching down”: It is uncomfortable to see the weak being trampled on, even if they are contemptible for other reasons.

I do have the impression that there is an asymmetry between left and right in this respect,  at least in the US. No one likes seeing their sacred cows being gored, but it seems to me that US liberals really enjoy seeing their champions taken down a peg, and are able to find deeper humour in their opponents through greater willingness to imagine their worldview. I think this is why successful political satire in the US has come to be almost exclusively a province of the left. (more…)

Political doping

Who would have imagined that elections could be swayed by political-performance-enhancing drugs?

Trump, in full “unshackled” mode, told a crowd of supporters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that Clinton, who has won both presidential debates according to most polls, seemed “pumped up” at the beginning of the second debate last Sunday, but that he thought her energy then waned as the debate went on. So, in Donald Trump’s reality, it of course stands to reason that she was thus “pumped up” on some kind of performance-enhancing drugs, and they should both take drug tests before the third debate.

I dispute the claim that this is fully unshackled. If Trump were fully unshackled, he would demand that Clinton be subjected to a medical gender test, like South African runner Caster Semenya. After all, as Trump has so eloquently put it in the past

Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.

(“Frankly” is great. He’s giving us the straight dope now, as opposed to the politically correct pabulum that he is otherwise forced to espouse.) She should have to prove, then, that she’s not a man. It clearly wouldn’t be fair to allow Hillary Clinton to run for president as a woman, with all the advantages that women are known to enjoy in presidential campaigns, while actually benefitting from a higher testosterone level than her male opponent.

Imagine if it didn’t come out until after the election that Hillary was doping. What would we do then? Would her victory be annulled? Would she be banned from political competition for four years? If her testosterone levels are too high, would she be forced to take suppressing hormones? Would she be required campaign as a man? Perhaps she’d have to sexually assault a campaign worker, to even things out? The mind boggles.

Misinformed

After viewing Casablanca with friends recently, we were inspired to try variants on Rick’s famous line about why he had come to Casablanca:

A: And what in heaven’s name brought you to England?

B: I came to England for the tolerant open liberal democracy.

A: The tolerant welcoming liberal society? What tolerant welcoming liberal society? We’re in the middle of a xenophobic backlash.

B: I was misinformed.

Existence and greatness

I commented before on the home secretary’s announcement of a plan to require companies to report on the number of foreign employees they have. Just to keep an eye on things, of course. Information is a good thing, natch. I missed this quote:

She justified that policy on the following grounds: “The state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who, as members of the nation, are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness, and those who are domiciled in the state, simply as earners of their livelihood there.”

Far be it from me to boast that I am supporting Britain’s greatness, but surely I am somehow contributing to its existence? They don’t seem to mind taking my taxes, anyway, and they’re awfully keen to get their children into Oxford in order to be taught by domiciled livelihood-earners like me.

Not helping

Donald Trump Jr. says

I’ve had conversations like that with plenty of people where people use language off color. They’re talking, two guys, amongst themselves. I’ve seen it time and time again. I think it makes him a human. I think it makes him a normal person not a political robot. He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency.

I wonder if he realises that he is the worst possible messenger for this defense. The fact that Trump’s son believes that his misogynist speech and sexual harassment is perfectly normal really does not support the campaign’s other defense, that “this is not who he is.”

4 digits of separation

Conspiracy theorists are working overtime to discredit all the women who report having been molested by Donald Trump. (Trump’s near-legendary non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses in all contracts, which pretty much exclude reports from any woman who ever worked for him — and even campaign volunteers — are the only thing keeping the numbers reasonably manageable.) The “pussy” video that kicked this all off was released as part of a joint plot by international Zionists and the gnomes of Zurich. And the woman who was groped while sitting next to Trump on a plane was lying (because supposedly first-class armrests in 1980s planes didn’t go up) and was an agent of the Clinton Foundation, since her telephone number (a convenient excuse for exposing her private information) is identical to one for a staff member at the foundation. Except,

While the article Delauzon’s tweet linked to claims that Leeds shared a phone number with the Clinton Foundation, the two phone numbers differed by several digits.

But obviously the story doesn’t end there. Granted, she was not actually working for the Clinton Foundation. You have to ask yourself, what are the odds that someone who was supposedly not connected at all with that organisation would happen to have a telephone number that was so similar. The question answers itself.

Dylan’s Nobel

I was just reading this article by Stephen Metcalf about why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was surprised at how vehemently I disagreed. Metcalf writes: genius, sure, but not literature.

The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.

Ryu Spaeth at The New Republic writes

If the Nobel Prize in Literature wants to recognize a musician, then it should create an award for music.

I’m not sure if the Nobel Prize in Literature has enough of an independent existence that it can create a new award, but I understand the point. I just disagree.

It’s kind of weird the way the Nobel prizes have taken on this aura of pre-eminence, but the Nobel committees havethem have responded to this cultural role by expanding their remit. People win Nobel prizes in medicine for studying worms, in chemistry for things like DNA repair, in physics for solving equations, and in peace for stirring up trouble over human rights (or global warming). If literature is about what people do with words, then it must be about those who have done traditional things exceptionally well (and Winston Churchill must be included in that group) but also those who have expanded the possibilities of literary forms. Jean-Paul Sartre won the prize. So did Elfriede Jelinek and Samuel Beckett.

People complain that he shouldn’t win the prize because his texts aren’t exactly poetry. But maybe that’s the point. He opened up a new way for people to express themselves in language. The fact that the texts work their magic in alliance with music is not a detriment. No one ever said that Harold Pinter didn’t deserve the prize because his texts depend on actors to bring them to life.

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