Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Election hacking, part 2

Given that the official US government response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been essentially nothing, and the unofficial response from Trump and his minions has been to welcome future assistance, I’ve been assuming that 2020 will be open season for any other intelligence agencies with a good cyberwar division to have a go. Why should the Russians have all the fun?

And number one on my list would be the Israeli Mossad. Is this so obvious that no one thinks it worth mentioning, or so wrong-headed that even crazy people don’t think of it? They’re technologically sophisticated, have excellent contacts to the US political establishment, and they have already demonstrated the absence of any compunction at interfering in US internal affairs. They are also highly motivated: Having bet the entire US-Israel relationship on the premise that Trumpism will rule in the US forever, Israel’s security essentially requires the destruction of US democracy. At least, that’s how they’ll rationalise it to themselves.

Something to think about, one week before Israel’s parliamentary election.

De Gaulle’s final vindication

De Gaulle famously opposed British entry into the European Common Market, in part because of fear that the UK would serve as a stalking horse for the US. Now the UK is withdrawing from the EU to chase after its unrequited transatlantic crush. And this photo from Le Monde shows the penultimate stage of the drama. The body language is telling. Trump is relaxed, Johnson the overeager schoolboy trying to suck up to the teacher.

I know that public figures are often caught in awkward postures by photographers, but I can’t imagine any person with a shred of self-respect — not to mention any respect for the country he is supposed to be representing — mugging like this in public.

AFP Nicholas Kamm

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.

GBS, AOC, and the concentration-camp apologists

I’ve been thinking lately about what must be one of George Bernard Shaw’s final literary productions, the preface to his play Geneva. The news is full of reports of degrading, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at concentration camps for Central American migrants in the southwestern US. Apologists attack those like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have reported on the suffering in the camps, for using terms that for many with limited historical perspective will evoke inappropriate analogies to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, rather than appropriate analogies to Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s like Sachsenhausen, or the US concentration camps for Filipinos in the early 20th century. Some reports have her being rude camp guards — which, I am willing to bet, history will not record as one of the more significant atrocities of this era.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken what is a brave stance for a historical museum, in denying any possible relevance of history to anything else:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,

I think we can all agree that if the slogan “Never Again” has any meaning it can only be that we should oppose any attempts to compare anything at all to the Holocaust, unless they explicitly involve mass gassing of civilians in underground chambers. (And even then, you have to be sure that they are innocent civilians.)

The president (and many of his partisans) have defended the camps as an imperfect response to an overwhelming logistic challenge, brought on by the actions of the migrants themselves. (Trump also wrote “Many of these illegals (sic) aliens are living far better now than where they … came from, and in far safer conditions.”) And this reminded me of Shaw’s defense of the actual Nazi death camps, in similar terms.

The play itself, written in 1936-1938, is a thinly dramatised political polemic, wherein three dictators — Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (similarity to any real persons living or dead being purely a consequence of the mind’s tendency to impose order) — are summoned to appear before an international tribunal, charged with various crimes of oppression and political violence. They all appear — voluntarily, as they emphasise — to defend themselves. Successfully. They get the better of every argument. For example, there is this exchange between Battler and his Jewish accuser (designated only as THE JEW):

BATTLER. Do I stand accused? Of what, pray?

THE JEW [springing up] Of murder. Of an attempt to exterminate the flower of the human race.

BATTLER. What do you mean?

THE JEW. I am a Jew.

BATTLER. Then what right have you in my country? I exclude you as the British exclude the Chinese in Australia, as the Americans exclude the Japanese in California.

JEW. Why do the British exclude the Chinese? Because the Chinaman is so industrious, so frugal, so trustworthy, that nobody will employ a white British workman or caretaker if there is a yellow one within reach. Why do you exclude the Jew? Because you cannot compete with his intelligence, his persistence, his foresight, his grasp of finance. It is our talents, our virtues, that you fear, not our vices.

BATTLER. And am I not excluded for my virtues? I may not set foot in England until I declare that I will do no work there and that I will return to my own country in a few weeks. In every country the foreigner is a trespasser. On every coast he is confronted by officers who say you shall not land without your passport, your visa. If you are of a certain race or color you shall not land at all. Sooner than let German soldiers march through Belgium England plunged Europe into war. Every State chooses its population and selects its blood. We say that ours shall be Nordic, not Hittite: that is all.

JEW. A Jew is a human being. Has he not a right of way and settlement everywhere upon the earth?

BATTLER. Nowhere without a passport. That is the law of nations.

JEW. I have been beaten and robbed. Is that the law of nations?

BATTLER. I am sorry. I cannot be everywhere; and all my agents are not angels.

[Purely as an aside, I find ironically relevant to today this exchange, between Bombardone and a British participant in the trial, described as an obstinate-looking middle-aged man of respectable but not aristocratic appearance, speaking English like a shopkeeper from the provinces, or perhaps, by emigration, the dominions, and who is referred to throughout as The Newcomer. (The descriptor [who has no sense of humor] is appended to his name at one point.)

BBDE. When there is no leader, no king, no priest, nor any body of law established by dead kings and priests, you have mob law, lynching law, gangster law: in short, American democracy. Thank your stars you have never known democracy in England. I have rescued my country from all that by my leadership. I am a democratic institution.

NEWCOMER. Gosh. You democratic! Youve abolished democracy, you have.

BBDE. Put my leadership to the vote. Take a plebiscite. If I poll less than 95 per cent of the adult nation I will resign. If that is not democracy what is democracy?

NEWCOMER. It isnt British democracy.

BATTLER. British democracy is a lie. I have said it.

NEWCOMER. Oh, dont talk nonsense, you ignorant foreigner. Plebiscites are unEnglish, thoroughly unEnglish.

A decade later, after the war had ended, and the Nazi atrocities laid bare, the 90-year-old Shaw wrote a new preface to the play. Confronting the horror of the death camps a less doughty intellect might have trimmed his support or tergiversated. Not Shaw. Continuing the line on which Battler concluded the defense of the violent attacks on Jews, as unintended excesses and failure of political control, Shaw defended the death camps as unfortunate logistical breakdowns. Under the rubric “Incompetent governments are the cruellest” Shaw writes:

The need for confining authority to the instructed and capable has been demonstrated by terrible lessons daily for years past. As I write, dockfulls of German prisoners of war, male and female, are being tried on charges of hideous cruelties perpetrated by them at concentration camps. The witnesses describe the horrors of life and death in them; and the newspapers class the accused as fiends and monsters. But they also publish photographs of them in which they appear as ordinary human beings who could be paralleled from any crowd or army.

These Germans had to live in the camps with their prisoners. It must have been very uncomfortable and dangerous for them. But they had been placed in authority and management, and had to organize the feeding, lodging, and sanitation of more and more thousands of prisoners and refugees thrust upon them by the central government. And as they were responsible for the custody of their prisoners they had to be armed to the teeth and their prisoners completely disarmed. Only eminent leadership, experience, and organizing talent could deal with such a situation.

Well, they simply lacked these qualities. They were not fiends in human form; but they did not know what to do with the thousands thrown on their care. There was some food; but they could not distribute it except as rations among themselves. They could do nothing with their prisoners but overcrowd them within any four walls that were left standing, lock them in, and leave them almost starving to die of typhus. When further overcrowding became physically impossible they could do nothing with their unwalled prisoners but kill them and burn the corpses they could not bury. And even this they could not organize frankly and competently: they had to make their victims die of illusage instead of by military law. Under such circumstances any miscellaneous collection of irresistibly armed men would be demoralized; and the natural percentage of callous toughs among them would wallow in cruelty and in the exercise of irresponsible authority for its own sake. Man beating is better sport than bear baiting or cock fighting or even child beating, of which some sensational English cases were in the papers at home at the time. Had there been efficient handling of the situation by the authorities (assuming this to have been possible) none of these atrocities would have occurred. They occur in every war when the troops get out of hand.

Yeoman Trump: Saul Steinberg and the fascist politics of outer-borough resentment

Reading  How Fascism Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley — which is interesting, though not quite the general theory of fascism that the title promises, but something more like a Prolegomenon to a Theory of Trumpism — I was interested by his discussion of the valorisation of rural life as a fundamental feature of fascism, and of Trumpism.

Fascist politics feeds the insulting myth that hardworking rural residents pay to support lazy urban dwellers, so it is not a surprise that the base of its success is found in a country’s rural areas… Anticity rhetoric had a central role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections… Fascist politics targets financial elites, “cosmopolitans”, liberals, and religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. In many countries, these are characteristically urban populations. Cities therefore usefully serve as a proxy target for the classic enemies of fascist politics.

Among the many peculiarities of Trump’s appeal — the lifelong sybarite as hero of self-identified Christian conservatives, the draft-dodger as champion of the military, the man who built an empire off cheating ordinary workers as tribune of the (white) working class — is the profound support that a Manhattan real-estate developer, with an almost comically New York accent, found among anti-cosmopolitan small-town and rural voters.

This is where I think Saul Steinberg’s classic representation of New York psychology can help us. Objectively you might think that the scion of an ultra-wealthy New York real-estate empire is an urban insider. But they were from Queens. Seen from 9th Avenue, Donald Trump was just another outer borough yokel. He might as well have been digging potatoes out on Long Island. McKay Coppins described this well in The Atlantic at the start of Trump’s presidency

Though he was born into a wealthy family, partaking of the various perks and privileges afforded to millionaires’ offspring, Trump grew up in Queens—a pleasant but unfashionable borough whose residents were sometimes dismissed by snooty Manhattanites as “bridge-and-tunnel people.” From a young age, he was acutely aware of the cultural, and physical, chasm that separated himself from the city’s aristocracy. In several interviews and speeches over the years, he has recalled gazing anxiously across the East River toward Manhattan, desperate to make a name for himself among the New York elite.

The most successful politicians have a howling vortex of resentment at their core, that resonates somehow with the resentments of a large fraction of the populace. If there’s anything genuine about Trump’s political persona it is this: He genuinely shares the feeling of the average American that educated elites are looking down at them. And no amount of money or cheering crowds can fill that void.

The real antisemites

Donald Trump is concerned about a political movement that he believes harbors antisemitic views:

The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel. There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them. But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.

But wait, you might be saying, aren’t the Democrats the favoured party of the vast majority of American Jews?


Everyone knows that antisemitism is a great evil troubling the world. And who are the pernicious globalists responsible for all the evil in the world?*

QED. So obvious it took an outside-the-box thinker like Trump to recognise it.

* Hint: Their name rhymes with the Enemy of the People.

The executive-time branch

We have all learned many things about the world that we might have preferred not to know, since the election of Donald Trump. One of the more bizarre little facts is that there is a rubric “executive time”, used by Trump’s minions to fill in the gaps in his schedule, when he is watching television or shooting the shit with random people. I assume that this is a term he picked up from his wealthy friends, even if few others are likely to be as assiduous as Trump in maintaining executive functions: it was recently revealed that 60% of the president’s schedule is devoted to “executive time”.

Is there any better expression than “executive time” of the way plutocrats assure each other — and pay their underlings to assure them — that they deserve to be wealthy, that they earn it by being both smarter and harder working than the lazy stiffs sitting around just cleaning toilets all day, who stay poor because they “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies” (as US Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently put it, in explaining why he thought there should be no estate tax at all). The poors deserve their fate because they waste their time watching TV; the CEO earns his million dollars a week with executive time, assimilating complex multimedia information. The same way bankers insist that their stratospheric salaries are recompense for risk, and then get bailed out from the public purse when their risky schemes collapse.

The Labour MP Jess Philips summarised the hegemonic self-deception that goes into the government definition of “skilled workers” — those who would be entitled to immigrate to the UK after Brexit — as those earning over £30,000 (thus excluding most nurses and teachers, for instance) in her wonderful recent speech in the Commons, saying

I have met lots of people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one. I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar.

This is the sort of self-deceptive confusion between real skills and “high-level” or “managerial” skills that I have elsewhere called “how to do it“.

Credibility gap

So, this is weird, on a purely linguistic level: Donald Trump, commenting on yesterday’s Senate testimony about the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations, allowed that Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser, was a “very credible witness”, and that Brett Kavanaugh was “incredible”. I know, words acquire nonliteral meanings. But still…

Kavanaugh’s evil twin and the Hitler diaries

I was in high school when the Hitler diaries flashed across the media firmament, and I was fascinated by the eagerness with which so many responsible people accepted as plausible what were quickly unmasked as transparent frauds. An important selling point was the observation that the diaries never mentioned the extermination of the Jews, and I remember very specifically an article in Time magazine that teased the possibility that Hitler himself may not have known of the extent of the Holocaust, with speculation by historians that underlings may have acted on their own. I had an insight then about what would motivate people to seek out evidence that someone they “know” — even if knowing them only by their reputation as a famous monster — was innocent of an important crime. Just by learning about a historical figure we inevitably develop some psychological identification with him, he becomes one of our acquaintances, and then to mitigate the cognitive dissonance we are attracted to exculpatory evidence, even better if it is such as tends to diffuse responsibility rather than creating other specific monsters.

The writer Richard Marius once told me that after he had written his biography of Thomas More, where he had to come to some resolution on the purported crimes of Richard III, and decided that Richard was guilty of everything, he got harassed by people calling themselves Ricardians. They insisted that the criminals were Henry VII, or Edward Tyrell, or some anonymous unknowable others. Again, Richard III is a famous villain, but since he is famous, people identify him, and want to believe him not such a villain.

The French aphorism tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner goes deep. Bare familiarity is enough to create a motivation to pardon everything.

I see a connection to the way conservatives jumped at the theory that Christine Blasey Ford had indeed been sexually assaulted, but that she had mis-identified Brett Kavanaugh as the perpetrator. This doesn’t change anything about the number of evil people in the world, but it renders them anonymous. (Ed Whelan crossed a line when he went full Ricardian and accused a specific classmate of Kavanaugh’s. In principle, this serves all relevant purposes of the free-floating accusation, but by libelling a specific private citizen it created too many other complications and even, dare I suggest, moral qualms.) Continue reading “Kavanaugh’s evil twin and the Hitler diaries”