Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…) Continue reading “Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity”

‘Euphemism’ as euphemism

Journalist Yoni Applebaum of The Atlantic describes asking delegates at the Republican Convention whether they really wanted a victorious President Trump to “lock up” his opponent. Some gave variants of “hell yes!” One, slightly abashed, said

the chant was “a euphemism for ‘hold her accountable,’” and was frustrated that the media insisted on taking it literally. 

Of course, this is the opposite of a “euphemism”, which is a polite form of words for something unpleasant. In the brave new world of Trump, “euphemism” is a euphemism for “vile and threatening exaggeration”.

It has become common for left-leaning Americans to joke about “moving to Canada” if the hated Republican wins the next presidential election. This time, in case of a Trump victory, I fear the first one across the border will need to be Hillary Clinton herself.

Likely probabilities

The BBC comments on Trump’s latest outrage:

The day after a video tape emerged in which he suggested he could have any woman he wants because he’s a star and so could just “grab them by the pussy”, Mr Trump is in a whole ocean of hot political water.

Enough, quite possibly, to sink any chance he had of winning the White House.

What does it mean to have “quite possibly” no chance? How does it differ from having quite likely a small chance? Or definitely a modest chance?

I suppose this could be describing a combination of an unknown state of facts that determine the probabilities for a random outcome. Imagine a bag of red and blue marbles, from which the election will be determined by picking a random one. (Red for Trump.) She is saying, “Quite possibly there are no red marbles left in the bag.” I’m don’t think that’s a good description of the situation, though. To the extent that Trump has a better chance of winning than you might think by looking at the polls or the near universal opprobrium he is exposed to, it doesn’t seem to me it’s on the basis of facts that are already determined but unknown.

Encouraging discrimination

A pretty universal anti-discrimination principle in the West has long been that companies should not discriminate against workers on the basis of their national origin. Everyone with a right to live and work in the country should compete on the same basis. But now the Conservatives are pushing the opposite view, proposing to force companies to publish the number of international staff, obviously in an effort to embarrass them into not hiring foreigners in the first place. (It is up to the government to decide how many foreigners get work permits; this is about putting pressure on companies not to employ those who the government has granted the right to be here.) Myself, my partner, my children — even the younger one who was born and has lived all her life in this country — should all be discriminated against in employment.

At least they are following their own advice. According to a new report

Leading foreign academics from the LSE acting as expert advisers to the UK government were told they would not be asked to contribute to government work and analysis on Brexit because they are not British nationals….

One of the group is understood to be a dual national, with citizenship of both the UK and another EU member state.

Obviously you can’t expect simple British civil servants to judge the value of advice from wily foreigners. British Beliefs are Best!

When I moved to Britain nine years ago I was immediately shocked by the xenophobic tone in the press, emanating from both major parties. Unlike other countries I have lived in, where universal problems of racism and xenophobia are balanced by a near-universal sense that it is the job of responsible politicians (and responsible journalists) to oppose these dark impulses, the major parties in Britain seem to compete with each other to show that they hate immigrants the most. Occasional platitudes about racial harmony are swamped by the need to publicly bash foreigners, supposedly because it would be irresponsible to let the foreigner-bashing be taken over by dangerous demagogues. I wrote then

I can’t figure out whether the UK is the most xenophobic country I’ve ever lived in, or whether it just acts like it. On the one hand, the UK has a well-deserved reputation as a sanctuary for the persecuted and would-be persecutors temporarily out of office. On the other hand, UK politicians, who (one presumes) know better, seem to cheer themselves up when they’re feeling blue by attacking immigrants, either directly or (more commonly) by insinuation. The same is true for pillars of society like the BBC.

It’s getting worse…

Less than zero

All this discussion of Donald Trump’s nearly-billion-dollar losses and multiple bankruptcies reminded me of my own intellectual debt to Mr Trump. I remember reading about his bankruptcies back in the 1990s, and being genuinely confused and shocked. A mathematician inclines to think of wealth as a number, in a well-ordered place on a number-line. Positive numbers represent assets and negative numbers debts, and total wealth is the sum of all of them. A person with a million dollars has a lot more than a person with nothing, but the person with nothing — I thought — has much more than the million-dollar debtor.

That was wrong, and the Trump bankruptcy first made me realise this.

Wealth isn’t a line, it is a circle, with the large positive and large negative numbers much closer to each other than they are to zero. The person with nothing cannot get to a million or minus a million (except by fluke chances, like winning a lottery). The mogul is used to talking in units of millions, and everyone around him takes it for granted. When Trump found himself unable to meet his obligations in 1990, the banks didn’t just seize his assets. They loaned him more money, on the condition that the banks name someone to actually run his business, and he constrain his personal spending to a $450,000 a month allowance.

Imagine that: A formerly rich man finds himself with less than nothing, and the banks give him the money with which to keep paying them their interest, and himself a monthly stipend of $450,000. The condition is that he stop doing any work. And then he managed to flee his creditors into bankruptcy five years later anyway, while cheating a load of equity investors.

It’s like Napoleon being allowed to take a retinue with him to become ruler of Elba. Just because he had been a sort-of king, you couldn’t leave him with nothing. It would be too cruel, even though there are millions of people who never had anything, and didn’t have the guilt of having plunged the Continent into chaos.

And you can’t expect a rich man to suddenly get a cashier job at the supermarket. Even while you recognise that his contribution to his companies and the wider world has been purely negative. It would be too cruel. He’s one of “us”.

I suppose, as with Napoleon, they worry about the danger of a scorched-earth defense if they try to take what is owed to them in a frontal assault. The person with millions in debts (or better, hundreds of millions) can move his assets and debts around so that the positive never collides with the larger negative. And the creditors, afraid that they’ll end up with nothing, will be eager to make a deal that lets most of the negative disappear.

Forward thinking

Politicians generally like to present themselves as “looking forward”, and their opponents and critics as obsessed with the past, particularly when their past is a parade of blunders and/or crimes. But Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence has taken this to a new level:

When pressed again about why we won’t disavow a total ban on Muslim immigration, Pence said it’s because there’s nothing there to disavow.

“Well, because it’s not Donald Trump’s position now,” Pence said.

“I’m proud to stand with him when he says that we need—we need to suspend immigration from countries and territories that have been compromised by terrorism,” Pence added. “I understand why you want to play the oldies, you want to talk about the where the campaign began or what statements were made but the American people are focused on—are focused on the policies that Donald Trump is articulating every day across this country.”

So it’s not just rehashing old events that counts as too backward-looking: Also discussing your previous statements about future plans — which are still posted on your campaign websites — and asking how they contradict your current statements is “playing the oldies”, something that hip young broad-shouldered toughs like Trump and Pence will not countenance.

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(Free parking)

A proposal for a partial unified theory of Trump scandals.

There has been considerable speculation about whether Donald Trump’s $916 million loss from 1995 may be something other than unadulterated “economic genius” (as Rudolf Giuliani called it, because that’s what you usually call it when someone manages to lose nearly a billion dollars in a single year). In particular, some commentators have suggested that these were not real losses, but an example of  “debt parking”: Instead of allowing the losses in his bankruptcy to be written off (in which case, the debt write-down would count as income, cancelling the tax benefit of the loss) it got transferred to an offshore entity controlled by Trump

But here’s another possibility: What if the offshore entity is not controlled by Trump, but by Vladimir Putin and/or the Russian state. Since he hasn’t gone through personal bankruptcy, the debt remains valid, and the creditor can choose to demand repayment at any time. They would essentially own him. That would explain a lot.

Donald Trump’s prodigious prostate

Let us accept for a moment the claim that Donald Trump’s medical condition is uniformly excellent. You might still expect that random medical test results should be about average for a healthy man. (Not meaning BP or heart rate or god-forbid testosterone, which you would expect to reflect his hyperpowerful masculinity.) I was looking at this report, released a few weeks ago, which included Trump’s test result for PSA (prostate-specific antigen). High levels can be signs of an enlarged prostate, or prostate cancer. But Trump’s doctor reports his level at 0.15. According to this study men over 70 with normal prostate have a median level of 1.9 (it doesn’t seem to depend much on age above 70). If we make the very conservative assumption that the distribution falls off linearly from 1.9 down to 0, we would estimate that less than 1% of men have PSA scores below 0.2.

Maybe Trump has no prostate.

Alternatively, he should really be compared with a younger reference group, because his pact with Mephistopheles and/or regular consumption of the blood of virgins keeps him youthful.