The Teacher and the Troll-King: James Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos in the Age of Social Media and Liberal Decline

James Baldwin (Postal Stamp)
Copyright: konstantin32 / 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve had a peculiar confluence of two names that have re-arisen in popular consciousness: Milo Yiannopoulos and James Baldwin. Yiannopoulos, the disgraced now-former Breitbart Editor, for his outlandish and self-aggrandizing remarks, and Baldwin, for his popular rediscovery in the Oscar-nominated documentary currently in Cinemas entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Below is a video of a famous encounter between the late James Baldwin, known then as a famous author and essayist, and the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and one of the last in a long line of conservative intellectuals that appear to have, in the main, stayed quiet recently, or perhaps abandoned the Republican Party to its curious fate altogether, in the age of you-know-who.

To have read Baldwin is to have been captivated: his voice displays the unique, seething intelligence that often comes from people who have been forced to live outside multiple boundaries and spheres of protection, which he did as a gay black man in mid-20th century America. One suspects he must have been compelled, as he writes and speaks about frequently, to confront and digest the outlandish and contradictory hypocrisies that so obviously prove the fuel for much of his writing and speaking.

Curious too, that Yiannopolous also makes similar claims of his own race,  ethnicity, and orientation, that of a gay Jewish man (or half-Jewish, if these distinctions are critical.) And yet, in Baldwin’s case, this outsider’s perspective seemed to fuel his test of spirit, in which he has come out victorious, immortal, a voice for the ages.  In Yiannopoulos’ case, we see that the ingredients were insufficient, the product half-baked.  (Indeed, any comparison is indecent and unmerited, and so I will not tarry long, here.  Yiannopoulos is no Baldwin. He’s not even a Mailer.)

There is no more obvious trait of Baldwin’s, in his writing and speaking, than something that can only be called a spiritual maturity, a shockingly gentle yet strident reckoning with the past and implied future that so clearly preoccupies him. He appears wiser, more complete and self-reflective than any of his antagonists, serene but immovable, willing to reckon with their blind spots like a patient teacher. In Milo’s case it’s the reverse: despite his most deft turns of phrase, his cleverest slip of the cuffs, the one impression you aren’t left with is a sense of his sincerity. This goes beyond the uncanny feeling that he simply doesn’t believe what he says. We intuit, on some layer just beneath the veneer of insouciance and bad posture, that he dislikes who he is, has not yet earned comfort in his own skin.

The first time I saw it, the Baldwin/Buckley debate video exploded a new world for me: a vigorous sustained debate between intellectually matched (or perhaps outmatched) opponents.  Though Baldwin did not have what you might call a “home field advantage” at the Cambridge Union, he does claim clearly to some degree going in, and then finally and fully by the force of his arguments, the support and adulation of the crowd.  I’m not going to give it the play-by-play, I will simply ask you to watch it.  There is a remarkable feeling that descends on the proceedings around the 38:00 mark, where the entire crowd spontaneously rises to their feet and offers Baldwin sustained applause, the television announcer breathlessly relaying that “this is the first time this has been recorded in the history of the Cambridge Union,” and Baldwin, clearly surprised and very suddenly the only one still seated, breaks into an unscripted, victorious grin.  This moment is as invigorating as any in the history of cinema.

This was the force of his ideas.  This is the force of ideas.

So hearing that Yiannopoulos, seen by many as the new direction, if not the new face, of the Trumpist movement, has been invited onto Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO weekly program with a weekly viewership in the millions (in which I include myself) I see a challenge and an opportunity.

A moment to reflect on what Yiannopoulos is: Though he self-styles as a kind of conservative gadfly who targets liberal cultural pieties like modern third-wave feminism, #BlackLivesMatter, gender identity, campus activists/so-called ‘social justice warriors (SJW’s)’ and other familiar cultural flashpoints and somewhat-easy targets, he is mainly famous for embodying a kind of grimy, take-no-prisoners approach to argumentation with his adversaries that encourages below-the-belt tactics such as ‘doxxing’ (publishing personal information about his enemies), tweetstorming, brigading and encouraging his legions of very loyal followers (so-called “trolls”) to personally harass and attack the targets he names online. This was most recently done to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones for the crime of being what Milo found unattractive.  Jones reportedly has since withdrawn from Twitter, but his style of attacks certainly have not been limited to her.  The list of victims is long, and the list of tactics is shameful and absurd.

Another point I find it important to make: this person is an editor at Breitbart, a website with visitor numbers in the dozens-of-millions per month, and was kicked off of Twitter having had 300k followers, surely by now he would have more.  You can choose to ignore him, but his stature is, unfortunately real.  Our task is to help it remain brief.

Because Milo interweaves legitimate and hard-hitting criticism of fair-game topics, this provides him with enough cover to perform his shtick as a presentable and sincere opponent.  He volleys specific and cited claims in-between ad-hominem remarks and stabbing insults, so the switches in register and content can be difficult to follow, the fact-checking delayed.  Many close examinations of his claims simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Accordingly, the media hasn’t really known how to handle him, and this is where he has been at his most deft and manipulative.  He understands the way technology and new communications platforms work.  Social media doesn’t lase, it ricochets.  It’s functionally impossible to hold any kind of serious debate in 140 characters or less, you can only trade jabs and generate attention, ricochet from one platform to another, a 5-minute media appearance here, 140 more characters there, article here, YouTube video here, a Podcast appearance there, a college tour here, with riots, and a Hannity appearance there, this time with video of the riots in hand to make the point about his radical and uncontrolled opposition, the true antagonists to free speech. Repeat sequence.

Given the tools, the trained fracturing of attention, the inability to hold conversations – this is simply the best moment in history to generate attention through controversy.  I submit that Milo is one of a new kind of media creation, what I call a “Troll King,” supported by a pyramid of followers, covered by the wreckage of his guerrilla-style podcast and YouTube appearances and remarks, surprisingly bereft of substance and easily confronted and revealed head-on.  A reality TV star with no reality show.  A smoke monster.  Famous, but mostly just on the internet.

A word on classification: it also seems clear that Milo depends, to a great deal, on the response of his opponents as the engine of his fortunes, and having been (mistakenly, in my view) grouped in with the hard Alt-Right movement as a fascist has done more for his fortunes than anything he has personally said or written.  In a recent Chapo Trap House interview, writer and scholar of the Alt-Right Angela Nagle points out that although his entire shtick is about lashing out at SJWs, he depends on liberals, he loves liberals, and he would be nowhere without them. Like a Satanist without the Christian Church. He isn’t actually a Fascist or even a member of the so-called Alt-Right.  (“Those people have me on a hit list,” Milo has observed out loud.)  “They all love Trump,” says Nagle, “that’s one thing that unites them completely, but they are bitchy and sectarian… Spencer and Yiannopolous hate each other a lot.”    “He’s not Alt-Right, he’s [what some call] “Alt-Light.”  “Basically they don’t have a program that concentrates on race, whereas the hard Alt-Right includes segregationists and really stresses race.” Milo has no platform.  Richard Spencer and his group’s interests are by contrast political and long-term.  “The Alt-Right is identity politics for white people,” Yiannopoulos says, and I’m against any kind of identity politics, so you should drop them.”  Clearly, Milo is as confused as anyone that he is grouped as a member of an ideology that he claims to reject and whose members clearly reject him.  The Chapos point out that the Alt-Light: the Gavin McInnes-es, the Milo Yiannopouloses are basically a reaction to modern liberal sanctimony, a punk-Howard Stern reaction they call a “transgressive lifestyle brand.”  On Maher, Milo casually referred to himself as “just a pop star.”

So liberals do Milo favors by making him into a Fascist Lex Luthor figure that is fully unearned.  He has laid some addressable arguments at the feet of liberals and progressives, and a fact that we ignore at our peril is that for many, these punches have landed.  You don’t just gather up millions of followers by targeting feminists with doxxing attacks.  Some of what you say has to make recognizable sense, if the message is to take. The one thing I will credit Milo with, in fact, is that he is remarkably clear on his positions, disarmingly honest about what he perceives as what his weak points are. He does liberals the very good turn and on many an occasion, of explaining exactly what charges they would need to answer in order to prove him wrong. And millions apparently agree with him, beyond just finding him entertaining. This is something liberals need to contend with, beyond just de-platforming and protesting, which merely defers the same ideas to the next, more cleanly presented avatar of conservative rage:  diseases aren’t cured by quarantine, only delayed. This is where I return to Baldwin’s example of substantive intellectual demolition. Will there be another Milo, after Milo is gone? Yes. But notice no one is debating the question “Is the American Dream Presented at the Expense of the American Negro” anymore. That one’s been answered. It is indeed possible to close a conversation, it is possible to win.

So Yiannopolous’ willingness to appear on Real Time sounded to me like the basis for a debate, of at least a confrontation constrained by the norms of conversation, the opportunity for a takedown of his ideas.  Corner him, leave no room to fire a tweet and leave. Here’s that appearance:

Now: I know this sounds old-fashioned,  the equivalent of “I’ll-have-my-seconds-call-for-you-at-dawn” in the social media era, and perhaps even wishful thinking that the Troll King should play by the rules of conversation. Practically speaking, outside of PBS and YouTube, we don’t have long-form discussions that anyone on the left or right watch with any frequency. But Bill Maher’s is an hour long panel show (which I’ve made mention of in this column before) augmented with a YouTube-only segment called Overtime. With the right presentation, this could provide a stage for such a conversation, and it would inevitably be excerpted (and re-excerpted with the word ‘DESTROYS’ in the title) on YouTube. The salient bits would be available to be searched in perpetuity, in the same place and same way that made Milo famous in the first place, and allowed me to share the Baldwin/Buckley debate with anyone reading this.

Debates can be lost in real time and won over the longer term. The truth will always come out. Once the fact-checking is done, someone is right. People love a jab, a joke, a good set-up. But in the end, most (but certainly not all) follow who has the facts, over time. This may not be in time for an election, by the way.

At first, it appeared this confrontation wasn’t going to happen.   One of the scheduled panelists, leftist author and conflict reporter Jeremy Scahill retracted his attendance, offering a hangdog letter that explained why he could not share the stage with a person like Milo. While I agree that Scahill has every right to manage his career, brand and frankly, ethical commitments, the only way I’d see this as useful was if Scahill knew the person who would replace him was at the rhetorical level of a Baldwin or a Hitchens. In my humble opinion, the left isn’t producing a lot of these right now, for precisely these reasons: we have shied away from the intellectual battles that would have sharpened us. So as Bill pointed out in his response, this was Scahill’s loss. Ceding the territory doesn’t put you above the fray. We have a word for this, and the word is ‘forfeit.’

Maher responded to Scahill’s charges insisting that the truth would come out, and that there could be no better response than to have Milo ‘exposed.’  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he would later say.

That said, almost everyone agrees that Bill went too light on Milo that night.  The Washington Post even called it a “Bromance.”  I’m going to give Bill a slight pass on this one: he needs to have guests on his show who are willing to come on without anticipating an ambush or unfair treatment. The smart move for Bill is to outsource the actual combat to his panel. To the extent that he can ringmaster it, he should have guests on that are going to challenge each other while he maintains his ability to keep the conversation moving.  But yes: Bill seemed unprepared, without specific arguments of Milo’s that he wanted to tackle or controversies he wanted an answer about.

If one were to take that appearance as the basis for criticism, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about: for the most part, Bill failed to illuminate Milo’s controversies, and Milo himself was, for the most part, on his very best behavior.  Bill pushed Milo on going after individuals (the aforementioned Ms. Jones, who Milo called “barely literate,” saying she “looks like a man”) and agreed that if it’s warranted to make a point, he’ll go there, but he gave Milo only small grief here.  Milo also deliberately pushed boundaries while talking about an unnamed transsexual woman he had publicly collided with as “a confused man,” and taking a conservative hard line on gendered bathrooms. The most abusive he became during the live broadcast was when he made an off-note pair of jokes that he hires neither women nor gays.  Certainly, anyone new to Milo might have been caught thinking, “He sounds like most Trump voters.  Was that all?”  Nothing to set fire to a university over.  Certainly not as bad as some of the things Buckley says during the course of the Baldwin debate, and Buckley was seen as respectable.  Milo, while popular, is not.

And this is where, I suspect, most TV critics failed to do their homework.  It was after the show stopped broadcasting, but the cameras continued rolling, in the “Overtime” segment posted to YouTube the following day, that the promised fireworks finally emerged.  Guests Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance were left to challenge Milo, as overseen by Maher.  In the Q&A format, Milo was able to really let loose, and become provoked into far more specific baiting and leading.  When the conversation once again veered towards where transsexuals should use the bathroom, Milo was only too happy to take it further, going after Caitlyn Jenner, calling trans people victims of a “psychosexual disorder,” and finally levelling the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes (true, but only if you mean as victims).  When Wilmore pointed out that these were the same unfounded charges generically made against homosexuals (like Yiannopoulos himself) years before, that they were perverts and that homosexuality was a disorder, Milo replied, “Maybe it is.”

This is where Maher did seem to lighten up on Milo, and perhaps give him too much of a break. However, it did seem that he was trying to pull him back from the precipice when he said, “You remind me of a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens, but you gotta lose that shit.”  “People are just beginning to hate you,” he continued.

Again, the defining, remaining image was not that Milo was particularly incisive, or hard-hitting, or really leveling anything like a real challenge to anything but the well-worn excesses of zeal on the left; beating on a tired strawman.  By virtue of the protests, the editorials and controversy, he had been made to seem bigger than he was.  Laid bare in conversation with B- and C-level celebrities, he seemed to reach no greater classification than “classic prick.”  If anything, it was so obvious, that one wonders how he got on the show on the first place.  And that’s the point.  It’s one thing to suspect that the dark emperor has no clothes, it’s another to lay it out.

And yet, consider all of the heat that Maher took, before and after, for having the temerity to have this person on the show. Liberals and progressives were winding themselves into knots to confess how they never liked Maher, have been suspicious of him and his lunatic crusades, that he was too easy on Milo, that in having Milo on, Maher “mainstreams hate,” he’s no longer liberal, that he’s failed to change with the times, and on, and on.

What happened?  We used to be the party of debate.  Maher scanned the crowd of liberals for a champion and unfortunately, came up short.  Our response, once again, was to respond to the invitation with calls for intellectual quarantine.

Liberals used to see an opportunity like this and glove up for the fight, not for the fight that prevents the fight from happening.  Am I the only one who sees an opportunity like this and doesn’t think “stop mainstreaming hate,” but rather “I can take that guy.”  Who from the liberal side should have, could have, would have been the knight on the progressive side to meet Yiannopolous, jab for jab, in the field of open discussion?  Jon Stewart?  Is there anyone we would have tolerated attending in the first place?  Or are we just above it now?  Why do we shy away from, de-platform, contest, protest and simply avoid that which we should run to assert: an opportunity to declare, finally, and forthrightly, what our values are, assertively, dominantly, conclusively?  Or are we just out of practice?

Watch the Baldwin debate. This is who we were. This is who we need to be, again.

We have ceded the territory.  There are no more Baldwins.  Only Yiannopouli.





The Way Forward 1: The Rust Belt

I. Context

For a period of time in the mid to late 80’s we lived in Northern Virginia, an area called Fairfax county, just south of Washington, D.C.

Coming from a five-college liberal stronghold in the northeast, Virginia appeared, to our eyes, to be inexplicably conservative and  WASPish, festering with poorly-concealed racism and class separation.  The Fairfax of today is of course, quite different.  By the standards of America at large, however, Fairfax county of the 80’s was politically centrist, essentially the suburban bedroom communities of the government apparatus, both Democratic and Republican.

Many years later, my brother returned from a visit there with a tale from this early-warning system.

“Obama’s going to win,” he claimed.  “The number of lawn signs, on the homes of people we thought were Republicans, shows it.”  Ten years ago we’d never have believed it, but the world had turned.  A black man could indeed be president.  Of course, Obama won, for the first time.

Likewise, I have my own early-detection systems.  I spent a few years traveling back and forth to Detroit, Michigan, where I became friendly with many people with a different political orientation than my own.  I’d listen to union radio shows in my rental car, and politely decline invitations from my Republican colleagues to go to the shooting range at lunch.  Michigan is officially purple, but was taken by Trump in ’16, so I called some up recently to get the read of the man on the street.  I was convinced that in my northeast echo chamber, the analyses I was hearing were incomplete, lacking in layers or nuance.  Some of the rationales I heard seemed overheated, more a case of shock and awe, wish-fulfillment and a statement of intent to factionalize.  “Whitelash.”  Another: “in a word: sexism.”  So I asked, literally, “What’s the word of the man on the street in the Detroit area?”

“Most people are either happy to have a job or are looking for one.  There isn’t so much ‘on the street talk’ as I think you guys get at your marches.

But I can tell you, I know a lot of people voted for Trump.  When he came here and he said to Ford, ‘If you move any factories to Mexico, I’m gonna tax your ass,’ well, that was exactly what people around here wanted to hear. Immigration is a big concern.”

I asked about the allegations of racism, sexism, what he said about immigrants.

“Let me tell you something.  When I was eighteen, I made $18/hour laying bricks.  A bricklayer makes half that now.  You can drive around and take a look at who’s manning the construction crews now and see the reason.  Sure, some people’s jobs went overseas, got automated, you name it.  But that’s not what people see.  Some guys I know have been out of work, literally, for years.

“So when you hear people chant ‘build a wall,’ are there racists in the crowd? Sure, I mean I think there have to be.  But when we hear you guys just say us wanting to build the wall is just racist, we think, ‘these guys aren’t listening to us at all.'”

And the sexism?  The ‘locker room’ remarks seemed to be a big line-drawer for some people.

“The things he was caught saying made me think less about him and more about how everything we say in public and private conversations is recorded now.   It was hard to take seriously– it just made me realize no one I know could ever be president, given all the raw shit we say.  I mean, I’ve been offensive to everybody.

“My daughter– she’s in college, after that, she just kind of tuned him out, just said to me ‘Dad, please, let’s just not talk about him anymore.’  My wife said ‘I don’t want to hear about that disgusting man in this house.'”  But neither of them marched, I don’t think they even voted for Clinton.  I think they just didn’t vote at all.”

II. Strategy

Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan
Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez.  Distributable with attribution.

Candidate Clinton lost for specific tactical reasons that I believe can be repaired in the fewest moves by concentrating on the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ states: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20).  She won Illinois, which brought 20 electoral votes, for a total of 75 additional electoral votes, well more than were needed to augment her final count of 232.  (Please note that in this analysis I’m omitting traditional rust belt regions such as Baltimore (Maryland) and Buffalo (NY) as both are geographically disparate or attached to solid-blue states that would have gone Democrat in most contests.)

So sure, had she only won another five states, she would have won. An easy thing to say, of course– if only if she had won, she would have won.  But I concentrate on these states because this is a very specific corridor of America with easily-identified and broadly shared economic concerns, not culturally southern, many are historically Democrat in presidential elections, most have vital union presences, and most are very possibly inclined to vote more on economic lines than cultural ones.  Hillary didn’t fail to win them.  She lost them.

This means in that region Democrats can address economic concerns without moving from their key positions, especially given that there are no cultural concessions open to Democrats, no going back on hard-won victories.  Although it would unlock desirable southern states, we can’t offer up gay marriage or women’s choice, and no one is saying or would say anything like that– but that would be the only way to win those states, to suddenly become another party.  By contrast, the rust belt could have been won with messaging we were already using and positions democrats already held.  It probably goes without saying that yes, it is my belief that Bernie Sanders would have won here.

Let’s take a look at how Hilary/Trump polled in the Rust Belt prior to the election and how they performed thereafter. (Source:

State Electoral Votes Pre-Election Polling (%-pt lead) Final Election Results (%-pt lead) Johnson, final Stein, final
IL 20 +11.5, C +16.0 C 3.8 1.4
IN 11 +10.7 T +19.0 T 4.9 N/A
MI 16 +3.6, C +0.3 T 3.1 1.1
OH 18 +3.5 T +8.1 T 3.2 0.8
PA 20 +2.1 C +0.7 T 2.4 0.8
WI 10 +6.5 C +0.7 T 3.1 1.0

Please note, that’s a total of 95 electoral votes on the table.  At the close of the election, Clinton had only accumulated 232 of the required 270, meaning she needed at least another 38 to win.

What is the fastest way to accumulate an additional 38 electoral votes in the fewest possible moves?

March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950.
March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950. Corey J. Shupp:

The most efficient combination is done in two moves: take PA + OH for 38 votes exactly.  In OH, however, Trump held a 3.5 point advantage going in and an 8.1 point advantage coming out. That situation does not improve if we swap OH for IN, where, with Trump having a 10.7 point lead in November which later converted to 19 points on election day, Clinton had no shot whatsoever.

The most achievable combination is PA + MI + WI.  All three showed Clinton winning handily, according to polls. And all three went for Trump, albeit none with more than a 1 percentage point lead.  I find this achievable in that 1% may have been reclaimed with a single well-placed media buy, had anyone known in time.  This literally came down to hours.

A few other points about the data leap out immediately:

  1. She didn’t lose by a lot in this region.  In fact, in most cases in these states, she lost by vanishingly small margins.
  2. That said, we are talking about states that used to be blue in almost every case. Wisconsin last voted red for Reagan.
  3. Assuming Stein votes would have otherwise been absorbed by Clinton, (which seems plausible as Stein is considered left of Clinton, so they wouldn’t have gone to Trump, though they may have stayed home) Stein was indeed a spoiler in WI, MI, PA, and those combined 46 electoral votes would have ensured a decisive Clinton win nationally. Note that Gary Johnson’s votes would have been absorbed by both Clinton and Trump and are thus harder to predict; the key takeaway is that the Democratic party can afford (and should encourage) a Gary Johnson but could not, in this contest, afford a Jill Stein.
  4. Something happened between the polling date and the election date in which all of these states (besides Indiana) switched sides.  I’m partial to Michael Durkheimer’s analysis in Forbes that yes, the non-announcement by the FBI over the weekend played a small part (and these are very small lead numbers), but he also claims that there were also simply more Trump voters than were accounted for. Durkheimer’s thesis is that they just stayed quiet, having seen the social penalty for self-identifying as a Trump voter.  Naturally, this blind spot did not help Democrats.
  5. There is no Democrat winning combination without Pennsylvania’s 20 votes.  Pennsylvania must be won.  I would prioritize this right after Florida (which could be won, as pointed out by Van Jones, by Democrats gaining a legislative win that allows felons to vote.)
  6. Likewise, Michigan’s 16 votes are critical, and usually reliable with less effort than Ohio’s 18.
  7. Illinois is approximately as solid blue as Indiana is solid red.  That means IL can probably be relied on with the current script, likewise essentially no energy or resources need to be spent on Indiana until more of a Democratic beachhead is established.  We just can’t win there, at the moment.
  8. I feel like the case for sexism as the sole driving rationale for Clinton’s loss is undermined by the scores immediately pre-election: many of the pre-election scores showed Clinton winning from data collected as late as Friday.  Something happened over the weekend to dent her polling, and it wasn’t everyone suddenly realizing the candidate was female.  To the contrary, there really is a strong argument to be made that the FBI’s disclosure tipped the scales.
Sugarman, Detroit.
Sugarman, Detroit. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez. Distributable with attribution.

III. Forward

So what now for Democrats in these states?

Focus on the unions.  Here’s something that needs to be one of the top-three talking points for all go-forward Democratic communications: this is our plan for the blue-collar worker.  In Democrat terms, this has always been done by partnering with the unions.  This plan needs to be put forward as an economic issue, a jobs issue, and a cultural issue.  Meaning: strategic communications and creative briefs all must have imagery and iconography that speak to how the blue collar worker can expect to see a transformation and a vision for the next two decades.

UAW leadership endorsed Clinton.  UAW members went off script, and an internal poll showed 28% planned to back Trump.  That kind of defection was expected at other unions as well. Given the narrow margins of victory shown, that was more than enough to get us a 1% creep.

Now, here’s a fact.  I’ve worked in technology for twenty years.  I’ve never been in a union.  I’ve never needed one, no one I know in the industry has ever wanted one.  We work at the edge of the future, and the startup world’s tech and culture (offshoring, onshoring, automation, telecommuting) is usually followed by other industries, in their own time.

So it may be that the role of the unions themselves and their value proposition itself needs to change.  I’ll write about those specific prescriptions later, for now, the core message is simply that this is a conversation that Democrats and Progressives need to be involved in, need to guide.

We need to have everyone who has heard the message be able to answer this question for themselves: “What will you do to get me a job, and to protect it?”

Trump addressed this.  His solution wasn’t the right solution, but it answered the question: “I’m going to take your job back from the Mexicans that took it, and I’m going to tax your bosses who try to send it anywhere else.”  Take issue with the answer if you like (and I have an issue, here and there), but it’s an answer.

Sanders also had an answer to this question. “I’m going to take the investment from the rich people who are robbing you blind and pour it back into this country to create jobs for people like you.”  Also an answer.  Also has its own issues and presuppositions.

What was Clinton’s answer, again?



Gun Control, Part II

Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton.

Another week, another shooting, another month, another mass shooting, another quarter, another particularly startling mass shooting.  I’m actually writing this at the end of a week where we managed TWO mass shootings. [Edit: actually, there was another one the day I published this.

So, let’s take an updated look at some spurious claims:

Gun-Free Zones Endanger Civilians
Gun free zones aren’t intended to provide a force-field against rage shooters. Where they are most effective is when they protect the rest of us from legal gun owners that lack common sense, safety precautions, and decency, like open-carry groups at Target.  There are simply enough examples to show that loaded guns in public are unsafe, whether you are shooting yourself in gun safety class, shooting yourself in the movies, or the gun accidentally goes off.  It’s just a boneheaded thing to be doing.

Gun-Free Zones also mean the public doesn’t need to be qualified to do on-the-spot security assessments if we or professional Law-Enforcement Officers (LEOs)  see someone open carrying in the mall.  We can all safely know to run away and call the cops.

Other famous no-weapon zones: Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Ancient Athens, ancient Rome. In Athens, the belief was that it was disrespectful to the democratic project to open carry in the city area, and that the intimidation created by open-carrying “inherently undermined civic equality.”  Frankly, this seems both obviously true and obviously why most people open-carry: to confer an unearned advantage in any conflict.  Imperial Rome allowed citizens to own weaponry in the suburbs and rural areas, but they were forbidden inside of the urban center.  It’s also worth pointing out that these weapons had very little chance of being mishandled in a way that injured someone nearby.  A gladius doesn’t just ‘go off’, stabbing bystanders accidentally.  Further, a stabbing rampage is both a) identified and moved away from and b) dispatched quickly by any equally- or partially-armed group of larger size.  We see again and again that stabbers have limited body count because people run away.  In the most deadly cases the victims are confined or children.  A mass-stabbing is actually pretty difficult to pull off, unless you’re in an elevator.

Regulations Don’t Deter Criminals (e.g. Chicago)
Chicago has that many shootings despite stern gun regulations because as we now know, most of the guns are purchased outside of Chicago. The regulations are working and pushing that illegal commerce to the margins.

The unfortunate truism here is that the security fence is as strong as its weakest link.  Given this context, if you absolutely must purchase your gun in Chicago, this will have nontrivial cost implications on the black market (if you can find it, which may be more difficult for a maladjusted 16-year old wannabe-school shooter to do).

I don’t think this makes Chicago’s laws useless, but it does imply that they would work best if everyone else had them.   This brings us to an important bias we need to correct for in this discussion: we don’t need everyone to do it to see an improvement.

A common tactic on the pro-gun side is to point out weaknesses in any gun law in order to demonstrate them as totally ineffective, needlessly restricting legal gun owners’ rights.  But they don’t need to be totally effective: we aren’t trying to cheat death or stop all crime, any more than vehicle safety regulations ended all vehicle accidents.  Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved by these regulations.

This brings me to my last point on this issue.  We need to stop underestimating the effect of small, incremental and meaningful changes.  If you believe in broken windows policing, lean startup methodology, or ‘Moneyball,’ you already know that small meaningful improvements aren’t part of the game– they’re the whole thing.  We now have research to back this up, as far as crime is concerned.  So sayeth The New Yorker:

“the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.”

Committed actors will always find a way.  But the spur-of-the-moment shooting can become (almost) a thing of the past.

Gun Controls Are Spurious Over-Regulation (or, the cars-and-pools-are-more-dangerous and spoons-make-you-fat-so-why-bother Defense)
If a poorly handled spoon could explode, making someone else fat, you better believe society would and should make you eat your soup with a straw. I’m beginning to feel debased by having to respond to such nonsensical fallacies, but someone always wants to make them. Let’s please not talk about cars or swimming pools after this, but one last time:

Most gun control activists would be delighted with an outcome on firearms comparable to that of cars.  Imagine what fantastic data we would have on our firearms if, like cars:
1. We had to register each weapon and re-register it annually, whether we intended to fire it or not.
2. We had to subject any weapon to yearly inspection to verify its suitability for use, and it was a misdemeanor to otherwise operate it.
3. We needed liability insurance for each weapon.
4. We needed to take a course and be licensed by a specialist instructor before firing a weapon.
5. We had a state registry of every extant weapon, and each carried three to five distinct ID marks, with two known only to manufacturers and law enforcement, and a set of easy procedures for interstate identification
6. Improper storage or display could get you a ticket.
7. Sale or transfer of a weapon involved an exchange of title.
8. We kept our weapons stored and locked.
9. There were additional taxes on bullets.

While many firearm libertarians will no doubt see any regulation as an unjustifiable intrusion,  I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the gun industry, even though many of these apply in certain states already.  If the car market is any indicator, there are tremendous business possibilities baked into the system here, in the regulations, the market and aftermarket, and more opportunities for customer touch-points. You can only lead a horse to water, I guess.

So, yeah– the car comparison is apt– and my side would be happy if it applied. It doesn’t.

First off: pools are indeed more statistically dangerous to their owners than guns.  That is very clearly true.

What seems less obvious  is that pools are statistically only dangerous to their owners and their families.  If you could bring a pool to the mall, or sneak it into the movies in your jacket, we’d be having a very different conversation about externalizing risk.  A pool also can be secured many simple ways that dramatically reduce the exposure to danger. It IS dangerous. But it’s statistically dangerous to you, the owner.

Finally, as Adam Gopnik points out, at this moment in history the proverbial pool of gun violence is overflowing with the bodies of neighborhood kids. Sometimes having a pool is nice, but with this many dead kids floating in it, we’d have to be monstrous not to have it filled.

Spoons Make You Fat
The pro-gun movement often advances the argument that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t cause mayhem any more than spoons make you fat.  This appears to be an attempt to create a reducto ad absurdiam, I hope.

It’s just a stupid thing to say, and you are stupid for saying it.

Guns Don’t Kill, People Do (and Mental Illness is the Culprit)
Actually, people mainly just injure, unless there’s a gun in the picture. It’s really hard to reliably kill someone without a gun in the same amount of time as you can do with a gun.  They’ll always find a way to do it, it’s just that guns remain the BEST way.  Or as David Frum put it: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”

Mental illness is indeed a culprit.  Also, sometimes carelessness, temporary depression, poor judgment due to alcohol and drugs and just generally being the kind of dipshit that points a loaded weapon at someone is the culprit.  Crazy happens. Stupid also happens– ask how many people in prison are there for something they did while drunk or high (spoiler: most).

There is no reason that a solution that addresses mental illness can’t work alongside a solution that reduces access to weapons in the first place, and that kind of cross-disciplinary solution is the only approach that is going to work with an issue of this complexity. That said, too often in this debate, mental illness is brought out as a tactic to distract from the core issue.

Here’s a statistic we never talk about because we can’t talk about it: the amount of killing/suicide that was averted because the household didn’t own guns.  This seems impossible to reliably prove, and yet our intuitions can readily extrapolate that given how many guns deaths we already have given x gun supply in y houses, how much of a spike are we looking at, given a gun in all houses? Certain countries (e.g. Switzerland) endure this already, and have extremely strong controls around the legal usage and transport of the gun.  The ammunition supply is audited.  The gun is kept locked in storage.  The weapon is envisioned for use in defense of the nation, not to protect the household.  This is a non-trivial distinction and constrains the likelihood of accidents.

Growing up, I knew kids whose parents had guns. Every one of them thought of themselves as responsible gun owners (one who I will not name was an executive in the NRA). And every time, EVERY TIME, that gun eventually came out, and about half the time, was fired, usually behind the parents’ back. So, I’m not surprised we see this kind of shooting. I’m surprised we see it so little. (Incidentally, the NRA kid actually defended his house from a home invasion. That ended with him cutting the robber, who was probably looking for a TV but would have found the mother lode of guns, quite badly with a samurai sword. The man of course, was trying desperately to escape when he was cut, so my friend didn’t need the gun in two different ways).

Sadly, this conversation continues.

What Would I Have to Believe?

[Originally written August 2014]

Having spent more that 15 minutes on the internet, you’ve been danger-close to stupid opinions. We’ve all had the uncanny experience of watching a close friend, whose experiences and judgment we thought we respected, say something flabbergasting or outright boneheaded publicly on social media, and felt the disorientation and reevaluation that follows that.

Sometimes this can feel like an outright betrayal.  At others, it’s just embarassing, but still draws a line in the sand. Recently I had to block an acquaintance whose preoccupation with contrails was so distressing that I was unable to manage the shame I felt not calling him out on it.  I don’t have any explicitly racist friends (as an example) that I’m aware of, but I’d probably have to block them too, it would just be too exhausting– I can’t keep fighting the last war.  We all have to draw our lines, have our unique thresholds of disgust.  That inverse feeling, the surprise discovery of like-minded travelers and new so-called friends is the upside of this devil’s bargain. You’re gonna get both.

At bottom, I consider myself, if not a progressive, someone who comes from the left, but with a flexibility and openness to all points of view. Sure, I find liberalism challenging in many regards (and especially at this moment in history), but the current state of tea party-dominated conservatism is just an abyss, and unworthy of intellectual energy or attention.  That said, I prefer to talk to classic conservatives on a host of ideas, because it’s reliably stimulating to have your ideas worked on, and to understand the rationales of opposing points of view, especially now as we are increasingly insulated from points of view we find challenging or distasteful.  A principled opposition is almost always interesting.  Conversations with people I agree with, by contrast, tend to end in head-nods, and on to the next thing.

So a game I like to play in the spirit of testing my ideas is a game called “what would I have to believe?” This is basically a role-playing exercise where I need to migrate my opinion to a place where I discover what would need to change for me to hold an opposite opinion.   I’m so very sorry to say, I know far, far too many people who apparently never play this game.  It’s really simple, and works like this:

  1. Encounter an idea you find challenging or intriguing, or are opposed to at a gut-reaction level.  It’s especially interesting if you find it mildly threatening.
  2. Construct your own opposition. What’s the basis of your objection? What legs do you have to stand on?  What’s your gut reaction?  “That’s racist.”  Et cetera.  Warm up in your typical, shoot from the hip reaction.
  3. Assuming you understand the opposing argument, do the reverse. What would it take for you to believe the opposite argument were true? What scaffolding would need to be erected? What assumptions would need to hold?  This is best expressed as an act of either addition or subtraction: what propositions might you need to believe that you don’t believe now, or conversely, what beliefs that you hold now would have to be jettisoned to hold the proposition?  Ideally, this should be done with the least number of ‘moves’.
  4. (Remember, you are not yourself here, and so you have no recourse to your personal history or ego. Just, ‘what would you have to believe’ for the argument you dislike to work for you? What transformation is needed?)
  5. Now the hard part: Without any change in your core values, could you be migrated to the opposing position?

Basically, this is what the reactionaries of the left and right would call “flirting with” bad ideas, which I don’t accept. I don’t actually want to flirt with them, I want to make out with them, with tongue, and then be free to choose my mind a few minutes later and try another idea. We are talking about real intellectual promiscuity, here.

Transformation is the key. Because the good part is, you aren’t obligated to accept your new explanation. But it does open up a moment of compassion where insights are gleaned. And frankly, it will help you to understand the foundations of your own objection.  This ability seems increasingly rare.

This roleplay is a variant on what Daniel Dennet calls an “intuition pump”, a mental lever that allows you to grasp at bigger ideas. An example would be the concept of “percentage,” incredibly useful, and, speaking as the parent of a seven year old, actually conceptually difficult to grasp. But once you’ve got it, you can move quantities.

So, let’s play: As an example, Marriage equality.

My opposition is this. Generally speaking, I’m for it, or am indifferent enough to it that I find the idea of preventing anyone from having a marriage to be cruel and immoral. This comes from my sense of justice, of public law and of personal experience.

Additionally, my opposition is based on the fact that I know enough gay people to believe that the idea of choice in their sexuality wasn’t an option for all of them. Meaning, if someone is just born that way, withholding their access to happiness is immoral.

However, I’d probably still feel that way if I knew very few gay people. My basic stance would be “why prevent what brings someone joy and is basically without cost to deliver?”

Conversely, role-playing the opposite becomes “why allow it?”

What would I need to believe? Were I a religious person and believed the permission for marriage came down from divine authority, I could see the loss-aversion that would be raised by letting just ‘anyone’ have access to this sacrament of marriage, although in that case atheists would probably also need to get so-called ‘civil unions’. Letting people who lived in clear opposition to Church doctrine have it would indeed be galling– although atheists having it would probably be worse, so as a side-note, I’d probably be opposed to atheist marriage as well but feel that horse was well out of the barn.

This is, at base, the same argument for why a Priest may not perform the marriage of someone outside their own religion.

In that world, I would feel the dilution of my traditions to be something akin to a very slow emergency, and indeed, marriage equality, or gay marriage wouldn’t be the worst of it, but possibly the most symbolic of that slide, at this moment in history. So, there’s the first pillar: I would probably need to be religious. I don’t know any other basis for opposition that comes quite so well pre-packaged.

There seems to be a lot of latent loss-aversion baked into this, so that’s another pillar. I’d need to feel not that someone was gaining something, which I don’t think I’d care about, but that my team was losing something. My team, in this case, being the custodians of a fragile moral code being trampled on by the excesses of the day. What are we losing? The definition of something that matters. I’d have to see marriage as something sacred by definition, that not just anyone can have.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that I thought in many cases being Gay is not a choice like putting on pants, but an orientation. If I thought it was a choice, would that matter? Probably not too much by itself, but coupled with these other two notions, it does produce a position that I can see people defending, i.e. given that you can choose not to live this so-called lifestyle, why don’t you choose not to live that way when you know the prerequisites of your religion?

A few ideas are emerging, here. A big one is, it’s apparently pretty hard to hold these kind of beliefs without the underlying support of some kind of religious doctrine. Definitely possible, but religion is providing my most powerful (and predictable) lever. I only feel the loss aversion if I feel this ritual or sacrament ‘belongs’ to my tradition. This seems significant. It’s frankly hard to get worked-up over otherwise. I could say “it’s gross”, or “it was always done this way,” but it doesn’t seem like there’s much in the way of strong comeback to the assertion “well, we’re doing it this new way from now on.”  (It’s probably worth re-stating these are beliefs I don’t actually hold– that’s the point– but I can imagine someone holding them).  Another example: I have been told in certain countries like Russia and parts of Africa there is no distinction in common usage between ‘pedophile’ and ‘homosexual’.  This would also be a powerful lever to make someone against something, but this brings me to an exception: this is a total factual misapprehension.  The purpose here is to try to find entrance points into contrary arguments, not take on others’ factual inaccuracies, so while I understand how that would work to make me against the topic, it also ends the game right away– sure, I would be against this, if I were wrong and closed to correction.  Where would that end?  Again, it’s a lot more interesting based on principles as opposed to simple misunderstandings.

It seems the lesson here is not that Gay marriage is wrong, but certain religious beliefs carry some extra baggage that emerges in unexpected places. I could just drop them, or, drop the less useful parts.  On the other hand, making an argument to a religious person that does not address these misgivings would be to miss what they see as the point. Another important lesson.

That’s the game. If it feels Socratic, that’s because it basically is.

Radical compassion is possible, even in the face of ideas that you are hostile to. But one must remain open to change. I prefer to deliberately seek out ideas opposed to my own because, as the saying goes, “steel sharpens steel.” We are now in the 21st century. Good ideas, and bad ones, can come from anywhere. We have no license to be intellectually lazy, or to not pay attention. We are bombarded by information everyday. Choose wisely.