Archive for October, 2018

Tinkerbell Effect

Monday, October 15th, 2018

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This is a term which describes things that are thought to exist only because people believe in them. One of the areas where is it used fairly widely is with money. Money has no intrinsic value. It only works because everyone using it believes that it will continue to work for the foreseeable future.

Populism at its core is built on the Tinkerbell Effect. Populists believe that “crowds” are self-validating. Whatever the crowd believes must be fact because everyone in the crowd shares the same belief.

Science, while it studies the “wisdom of crowds”, has never accepted the claim that belief should replace proof regardless of how popular any particular belief might be.

The modern era began with the introduction of the scientific method in the 17th century. That method requires all assumptions to pass a series of rigorous tests in order to gain credibility. The scientific method created the concept of objective truth. It freed reality from being narrowly defined by popes or potentates. Instead it handed the responsibility of understanding the world to a select group of highly decentralized critical thinkers around the world – experts in their particular fields. These groups are self-selecting based on their areas of interest. Anyone can join, regardless of race, color, creed, or nationality. They simply have to prove through their publications that they have sufficient understanding of the subject matter to be taken seriously by their peers.

When Galileo improved the Lippershey telescope to provide ultimately 30x magnification, he was able to confirm the Copernican helio-centric theory of the solar system. This was a direct challenge to the Biblical claim supported by the Catholic Church that the universe revolved around the earth.

Galileo championed the idea that all of the laws of nature are mathematical. That meant that natural outcomes should not only be predictable, but also repeatable by anyone with a comparable understanding of the underlying mathematics. In other words, you didn’t have to be Galileo to see the moons of Jupiter transit across the face of the planet. You only had to have the same telescope that Galileo had and understand what those dots moving across the image of Jupiter actually represented.

This ushered in a new age where scientists could reliably explain all natural phenomena. Reality was no longer dependent on opinion or dogma. Instead there was (and is) an unbiased group of experts who could not only separate fact from fiction, but were eager to test new ideas even if they questioned accepted theories. This group almost by definition is constantly pushing the boundaries of understanding while simultaneously strengthening those theories that survive rigorous testing.

This group earns the right to test all theories about reality through the professional credentials they acquire, the reputation they have with their peers, and their own success in producing original work that can be duplicated by other experts in the field.

By definition, these experts also know more about their subject than any random crowd regardless of its size.

Therein lies the rub.

Populist movements, including the one in this country, strive to take back the right to determine what is fact and what is fiction. They reject any and all outside groups who suggest that any but their own trusted group can dictate their beliefs.

Here’s why all of this is important.

Trump’s lying is not a character flaw or pathology. It is not a “salesman” characteristic. It IS a deliberate strategy to weaken our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Steve Bannon summarized this strategy when he said, “The way to deal with [the media] is to flood the zone with s**t.”

Trump’s singular success as a politician has been his ability to create an alternate reality in which he and his supporters live. He has been successful because he is exploiting a weakness in our democracy. That weakness is the power that we invest in the chief executive. An untrustworthy chief executive in our system can acquire a lot of power very quickly. The only checks to that power are congress, the courts, and voters. A free and independent press is supposed to inform the voters so that their choices are fact based.

Trump’s strategy is to delegitimize the press, create an alternate reality where he is the only arbiter of truth, and demonize all those who oppose him. Because he is the President, he has the power to accomplish that. Facts are no longer relevant in this discussion because Trump’s supporters reject experts as biased elites and the press as “the enemy of the people”. Democrats are “traitors” and “evil people”. All those who oppose Trump, in the minds of his supporters, should be “locked up”. The Republican Party has long since abdicated any role in checking the President’s power. Those who might provide leadership have either died or been drummed out of the party. The courts are slowly being bent to Trump’s will too as his appointments flood positions that a Republican Senate majority had kept open during the Obama administration.

The only reliable check that remains is voters. That fact isn’t lost on Trump and Republican either. Trump has already built the narrative that any vote that doesn’t go his way must be the result of a rigged system or voter fraud. Republicans have stepped up their efforts at every level of government to suppress the vote from those who generally vote for Democrats.

This brings us to the current crossroad.

Our country appears to be split.

We have conservatives who vote based on a set of ideological beliefs that they share regarding government, taxes, the free market, and personal responsibility. Whether smaller government actually increases human freedom is never questioned. If tax cuts and deregulation don’t result in faster economic growth, at least they are giving individuals more control over their own property – which seems to be good enough. Conservatives believe that people choose to be poor and that any attempt to mitigate the circumstances surrounding poverty discourages people from putting in the work that would improve their condition. There is no data to support this view either, but put that hasn’t stopped Trump from blaming the poor, immigrants, and people of color for the country’s problems.

Republicans were concerned about debt and deficits when a Democrat was in the White House. Now that Republicans control all branches of government, they are running up deficits and increasing the debt at an historic rate.

Liberals on the other hand are focused these days on achieving a pragmatic balance between the market and the state. They view government as tool to constrain corporate excess. Decisions on each specific issue of government involvement are the result of extensive evidence-based study and a good faith attempt to produce outcomes which benefit the most people. If liberals have a religion it is the belief that science will always produce the best answer. One of the potential outcome of this philosophy is a technocracy where all power as well decision-making is concentrated in a small group of supposed experts. China claims that this is their form of government, but it looks a lot more like an oligopoly because the Chinese “experts” who have the power are also personally benefiting from their decisions. While that isn’t the case in this country, there is a deep suspicion among conservatives that those who are making decisions based on their academic credentials MUST somehow also be benefiting personally from the positions that they are taking. There is no proof to support that claim, but conservatives still insist that “experts” can’t be trusted. This leaves conservatives free to insist that their beliefs are more credible because they are based in “common sense”.

From an ideological perspective, however, modern liberalism in this country may not be well equipped to deal with the anti-state anti-intellectual radicalism that has become the Republican Party. The pragmatic Clintonian Democrats come off as passionless technocrats rather than true believers. This more than anything else explains the rise of the Bernie Socialists. Democratic Socialism is on the rise because it brings a new vision of the expanded role of the state that can match the populist fervor that swept Trump into office. Both the Democratic Socialists and the populists share a deep distrust of what they view as the establishment. They both want to tear it down and build something new.

The populist challenge is they have failed to dislodge the Republican establishment. Instead the Republican establishment has figured out how to ride this populist wave. The result is that the power of establishment has increased. The only difference is that this establishment is speaking in populist terms rather than traditional conservatism. The policies, however, are the same as they have always been.

All indications are that the Democrats will regain control of the House and make significant gains at the state level.

What will that mean for the next two years?

If past is prologue, the path forward is pretty obvious.

Regardless of the election outcome, Trump will double down on his authoritarian tactics. He will try to end the Mueller investigation. He will increase attempts to suppress the 2020 vote. He will refuse to comply with court orders limiting his power. He will refuse to cooperate with congressional investigations. The resulting constitutional crisis will have to be resolved in a Supreme Court where Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote. Whatever the Supreme Court decides will only increase divisions between those who believe in their own views and those who seek the objective reality.

He will crack down on protests and try to further weaken the influence of the press. He may cause an international crisis in an effort to boost his status as a “war” president. He will almost certainly continue his misguided trade war.

Finally, the recession that we have all been waiting for will arrive. Trump will fumble the response and deepen the crisis rather than resolve it. Trump will use the crisis to impose even more draconian immigration enforcement in an effort to blame the failure on Muslims, Hispanics, and the poor. Violence against all of those groups will increase.

Next up a different take on this whole picture.

Flopping

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

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Flopping is a technique in a number of sports. It is an intentional fall by a player after little or no contact from an opposing player. The intent is to fool the official into believing that a foul actually occurred when in fact nothing happened. It is widely practiced in soccer and basketball. To a lesser extent, you see it also in football on almost every incomplete pass. The defender jumps up celebrating his success and the receiver jumps up looking around in dismay for a flag to confirm the fact that his failure to catch the ball was because of interference from the defender.

Flopping has found its way into the politics of victimization. It even has its own acronym – DARVO. That stands for Deny Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender.

DARVO is President Trump’s favorite tactic.

Here is a recent example.

Trump mocked Dr. Ford at a rally and lied about her testimony. He went on to suggest that Kavanaugh and his family are the real victims and blames the Democrats. He then called Democrats “evil people”.  He said their aim is to “destroy people” and create a culture in which people are “guilty until proven innocent”. The ultimate irony, probably lost on those in the crowd, occurred when the crowd began to chant “lock her up”.

The press then held Trump accountable for both his tone and his lies regarding Dr. Ford. His press secretary denied that he was mocking Dr. Ford and said that he was only stating the facts of the case. That was also a lie since the facts of the case include many of the details where Dr. Ford’s memory was clear.

Sprinkling facts with lies is also a common Trump tactic.  Lies, however, taint any claim of stating the facts.  Telling only the half of the story is also misrepresentation.

Dr. Ford, for example, provided solid scientific reasons why she did not remember some details and did remember others.  That science of trauma has been widely corroborated by other psychologists.  Ignoring this important part of Dr. Ford’s testimony was just additional evidence that Trump had no interest in the facts.

Then Sanders repeated the Trump’s claims that the real victim here is Kavanaugh and the real villains are the Democrats who single-handedly turned the confirmation process into “a complete and total disgrace”.

Sanders and Trump also claimed that the FBI had free reign in their investigation.  Later statements from the FBI confirmed that it was in fact “limited in scope”.

Trump later justified his attacks on Dr. Ford as an attempt to “even the playing field” and that Kavanaugh’s ultimate successful confirmation was the direct result of his attacks.  The common statement is “level the playing field”.  Characterizing this as an “uneven” playing field may have been a subconscious admission that Dr. Ford had strong public support.

Political flopping and DARVO are all different versions of a flawed philosophy – the end justifies the means.

Flopping and DARVO are both cheating.

They are attempts to twist the truth in order to gain an advantage.

At this point, partisans are going to be hearing a lot of “yah but” arguments in their head. That’s fine. But just because someone else “flops” does not make it any more ethical for you to flop.

Also just to be clear, Trump earned the right to nominate SCOTUS judges as a result of winning the election. He just happened to pick someone who, like many of his past nominations for other offices, was poorly vetted. Just because Republicans had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, doesn’t mean that they should have.

The philosophical conclusion of accepting the “end justifies the means” rationale is that ANYTHING is acceptable behavior as long as you can justify whatever is accomplished.

IMHO, that is what has been exposed in the Republican Party by the Trump presidency.

This President can lie (well documented) with no recourse because those lies advance the agenda (ends) that the Republican party feels cannot be advanced in any other way. Or in fact to be more precise, Republican leaders ignore Trump’s lies because they don’t want to confront him and his supporters. The problem is that Trump has demanded the leaders in his party to declare that they are either with him or against him. He won’t, in fact, even tolerate their silence. Most chose the path of least resistance, actively defend Trump, and regularly praise his good works. Meanwhile the march to autocracy continues.

Trump and his supporters seem to live in an alternate reality where angry protesters are characterized as a mob. Worse yet, they can’t seem to accept that those people who are exercising their first amendment rights to protest are doing so voluntarily. Instead, even Republican Senators circulate the conspiracy theory that the protesters are paid by George Soros, but fail to produce any evidence to support their claim. They seem to forget that the current Republican majorities were won by angry protests by the Tea Party that started in 2010. Instead this protest must be motivated by paid provocateurs or revenge-seeking Clinton supporters.

Another flawed right wing meme is that young men are now somehow at risk from the #MeToo movement. This makes a false equivalence between women who are concerned about their physical security and long term psychological health and men who fear that a false accusation would damage their future employment prospects.

Blaming the victim, particularly when they are women, is a damnable defense that our current president has legitimized. The #MeToo movement started with powerful men in the entertainment industry. It has spread to those in all walks of life. Those who attack women should be held accountable.  Those who employ the DARVO technique are reprehensible cowards.

(rant starting) When multiple women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of abusive behavior, Republicans including Kavanaugh suggested that this was evidence of “an organized political hit”.  Why are three women who chose to come forward LESS convincing for Republicans than one woman?  Bias is the only reasonable answer.

When Kavanaugh lied about the meaning of entries in his yearbook, everyone paying attention knew this was a lie – but Republicans gave him a pass on the basis of youthful exuberance.  But putting your hand over the mouth of a screaming woman IS NOT youthful exuberance.  It is abuse regardless of the age of the abuser.

It also isn’t that times have changed.  Rape and sexual assault have always been wrong.  I graduated from an all boy’s Jesuit High School.  While there may have been a culture of privilege at Kavanaugh’s school, I can guarantee that he was taught that with privilege comes responsibility.  The core of all Jesuit schools is to teach boys to become “men for others”.  He knew that abusing alcohol was wrong and he knew that attacking women was wrong too.

So please tell me why Kavanaugh couldn’t just admit that he had a drinking problem in his youth?  He could have admitted that he did drink to the point where he was not able to remember everything that happened.  He could have said, whether it was true or not, that he has no memory of the events that these three women described.  At that point, a man for others would have apologized for any harm that he may have caused and promised that his life since that time has been dedicated to seeking justice and protecting the powerless.

Instead he turned it all into a partisan rant and as a result became the LEAST trusted justice in recent history to hold a lifetime appointment. (rant ending)

The conspiracy theorists are also weighing in, but now they happen to be Senators. Tom Cotton for example believes that this is all a Democratic plot orchestrated by Chuck Schumer. Specifically, Cotton claims that a friend of Dr. Ford had worked at one time for Attorney Preet Bharara who had at one time been Schumer’s chief counsel. The problem is that the friend never did work for Bharara and there is no evidence suggesting that Schumer knew about Dr. Ford’s claim any earlier than anyone else. This theory is based on the same magic thinking that suggests that people are incapable of coming to the same conclusion (i.e. trusting Dr. Ford’s testimony) on their own. That the only way to explain such a broad and deep emotional response as we’ve seen from the public is that it had been carefully planned months before. If that was the case, Schumer clearly fumbled the ball because all they got out of it was a week’s delay and a shallow FBI investigation. If they had brought these allegations to the committee earlier, it is likely that there would have been sufficient time to do a more thorough FBI investigation which may have led to a different outcome.

What we can take from this is another turn of the autocratic wheel.

Trump supporters, which include most of the Republican Party now, don’t just have contempt for the truth, but now rush to demonize any and all criticism. In the past this tendency was limited to Trump and a small group of his vocal defenders. Now senior Republicans freely embrace crazy conspiracy theories about what motivated opposition to Kavanaugh and NO ONE in the party is questioning them.

When conspiracy theories move from the delusional fringe to mainstream politics, it becomes a deliberate strategy to delegitimize opposition. This creates excuses for punishing anyone who dares to oppose those in power, because that opposition in and of itself is regarded as treason. Even the high ideal of protecting women from being abused quickly fell by the wayside when the accused abuser was a powerful Republican.  Rather than take these accusations seriously and conduct a thorough and detailed investigation into all claims, those claims were dismissed as being politically motivated and a majority of senators who represent a minority of voters imposed their will on the rest of the country.

The question remains, how is democracy going to respond? It clearly isn’t the Republican Party. If there was any previous question, it is clear now that they are all-in. The Supreme Court is no longer going to be a reliable check on presidential power either. The highly politicized appointment process disregarded any damage that might be done to the credibility of the court in the minds of a large majority US citizens in return for potential short term political gain in the upcoming midterms.

The only thing that stands between Trump and his march toward authoritarianism are the voters. Regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, Trump will dare both the voters and the courts to try to stop him. It will take more than a defeat in the upcoming midterms.  If Republicans retain their Senate majority, which seems a likely outcome at this point, it is likely that Trump will take action to shut down the Mueller investigation by whatever means available to him.  The only thing that will stop him are Democratic wins in every election between now and the next time we can vote directly on Trump’s political future.  Hopefully, voters and the courts will be up to the task when they are called to make a choice.